News & Analysis

Top 10 NFL rookies this season

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2016 in FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. (Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images)

The 2016 NFL season is in the books, and with it ends one of the most top-heavy rookie classes in recent memory. Four guys came into the league and already established themselves among the best at their position, while a handful of others look destined for stardom as well. Maybe the most disappointing thing, though, is that neither of those groups includes either the first- or second-overall pick. Rams QB Jared Goff was a disaster from start to finish, while Eagles QB Carson Wentz went from the top spot on this list early in the season to nowhere close by Week 17.

With all that being said, here are the 10 rookies that stood out above the rest this past season.

1. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

Even with a light workload in Week 16 and taking Week 17 completely off, Elliott still finished first among all running backs in yards (1,621) and yards after contact (936). He ends up as PFF’s third-highest-graded back on the season by a very small margin, behind only Jay Ajayi and Le’Veon Bell. Elliott lived up to all the lofty expectations placed on him as the fourth-overall pick—something that is rarely said about other recent backs drafted highly.

2. Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys

Dak Prescott's rise has easily been the biggest story of the entire 2016 season. How the entire league—and also nearly every single draft evaluator—could not foresee Prescott breaking out the way he did is remarkable. Who, though, would guess that a quarterback’s stats would improve from college to the NFL? Prescott finished the season with only 13 turnover-worthy throws after recording 23 in his final year at Mississippi State. This was an unbelievable rookie year for PFF’s 11th-highest-graded NFL quarterback.

3. Jack Conklin, RT, Tennessee Titans

After two years of dominant grades at left tackle for Michigan State, Conklin picked up where he left off at right tackle for the Titans. He finishes the season as PFF’s highest-graded right tackle and helped transform Tennessee's offensive line into one of the league’s best units. For the year, he surrendered only four combined sacks and hits, the second-fewest of any starting offensive tackle.

4. Joey Bosa, DE, San Diego Chargers

One of the most contentious prospects in the lead up to the 2016 draft, Bosa collected more pressures through his first 12 games than any player in the last 11 years. From the moment Bosa stepped onto the field, the Chargers defensive end has been electric. Bosa’s 13.8 pass-rushing productivity mark was fifth among all edge players, and he finished as the fifth-highest-graded edge defender in the NFL.

5. Jordan Howard, RB, Chicago Bears

In nearly any other season, former Indiana running back Jordan Howard would be a shoe-in for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Howard averaged 109.5 yards from scrimmage per game for the Bears, and that’s with multiple games as a backup. In the 13 games where Howard was the lead back, he averaged 122.2 yards from scrimmage. That’s outstanding production for a fifth-round pick who ended the 2016 season as PFF’s seventh-highest graded running back. Among players with at least 200 touches on the year, Howard finished with the fifth-best elusive rating.

6. Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

Far and away the most productive rookie receiver, Thomas hit the ground running. His sure-handedness and dynamic ability after the catch will make him quarterback Drew Brees’ go-to guy for years to come. Thomas dropped only four of his 96 catchable passes on the season and broke 20 tackles after the catch, fourth-most in the league. The former Buckeye finishes the season as PFF’s sixth-highest-graded WR.

7. Chris Jones, DT, Kansas City Chiefs

No player came on stronger over the second half of the season than the Chiefs' second-rounder. From Week 9 and on, only Rams DT Aaron Donald earned a higher pass-rushing grade than Jones among interior players. For the season, his 9.4 pass-rushing productivity mark was fifth-best among starters on the interior. Jones is also the poster boy for why stats don’t tell the whole story—he only had two sacks and 22 tackles all season long, but his down-to-down disruption is already superb.

8. Tyreek Hill, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

No one on this list played fewer snaps than Tyreek Hill’s 413 (a starting receiver usually plays around 900 for a full season), but no one else impacted games more on a snap-for-snap basis. The Chiefs receiver scored nine times on 85 combined carries and receptions, then added three more scores on 53 combined kick and punt returns. He’s been a nightmare for opposing coaches and adds an element to the Chiefs' offense they haven’t had in quite some time.

9. Cody Whitehair, C, Chicago Bears

Yet another player who is already one of the best at his position for the Bears, Whitehair finished 2016 as PFF’s sixth-highest graded-center. What’s most encouraging is the fact that this was his first experience at the position; he didn’t even practice in the middle during training camp this year. Whitehair graded well above average in pass protection, run blocking, and screen blocking.

10. Jalen Ramsey, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars

There were some struggles early on, but by the end of the season, Ramsey looked like the player worthy of his top-five draft selection. From Week 13 and on, Ramsey was the highest-graded cornerback in the entire NFL, allowing a passer rating of 37.8 when targeted. For the season he allowed only 54 of his 102 targets to be completed for the sixth-best completion percentage against (52.9 percent) of any starting cornerback.

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