If running and stopping the run are the keys to winning in the NFL, then our 2013 All-Rookie Team is a playoff-caliber team.
Of course, if running and stopping the run are keys to winning in the NFL, then this is 1977, and most of these guys won't be born for another 15 years or so. This all-rookie team is weak at quarterback and lacks a superior pass rush. Despite a tackle-heavy draft in April, our all-rookie team is better at run blocking than pass protection. Unlike last year, there's no three-way battle at kicker.
But these kids can run the ball and stuff the run. The receivers can go up and fight for footballs to help their quarterback. The secondary is wise beyond its years, and the returners are best kicked away from. This is a fine team, and while it lacks 2012's superstar wattage, it does the dirty work, providing a handful of teams with a build-around nucleus in the trenches.
Quarterback: Mike Glennon, Buccaneers
Glennon earned his starting job under contentious circumstances, inheriting a bad offense with worse karma and a slew of tough opponents on the schedule. Once he settled into his role, he led the woeful Buccaneers to a 4-1 stretch despite losing a running back per week to injury.
A lean, lanky fastballer, Glennon's most impressive attribute is his poise. He has faced Greg Schiano's dictatorship and vicious Seahawks, 49ers and Panthers defenses without wilting, and he has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns just twice all year. Glennon will never be mistaken for a 2012 rookie, but he ensured that this Buccaneers season was not a lost cause.
Running Back: Eddie Lacy, Packers
Our Offensive Rookie of the Year. Imagine the Packers trying to get through this season with no true workhorse running back, the way they did past seasons. When Aaron Rodgers got injured, their best bet would have been to switch from football to curling. Lacy gave the injury-plagued Packers a bruiser capable of slamming productively off tackle 20 times per game. In the Cowboys win and Vikings tie, he provided enough offense to keep the Packers in the game while Matt Flynn found the laces on the football.
Lacy and Rodgers were healthy together for only a few games this year, when Lacy was still getting used to reading NFL blocks. Next year, he could prove to be the puzzle piece Rodgers never knew was missing.
Running Back: Giovani Bernard, Bengals
Bernard has not produced flashy stats: no 100-yard rushing games, no games with more than 15 carries. He has produced some flashy runs, though for every two steps forward -- like his mini-Marcus Allen scamper in the Thursday nighter against the Dolphins -- he has taken a step back, like his big loss on fourth down in overtime against the Ravens.
The numbers aren't fantastic and the pictures are inconsistent, but Bernard has had a major impact. Unlike most change-up backs, Bernard is consistent at picking up productive yardage between the tackles. His receiving ability has been an important component to the Bengals offense all season. The next step for Bernard is to eliminate the little situational errors that crop up at the worst possible times. The same thing can be said about his team.
Fullback: Tommy Bohanon, Jets
If the Jets couldn't run between the tackles, they would lose 7-3 every week. And if Bohanon were not a reliable thumper as a run blocker, the Jets would have a hard time running between the tackles. If you don't like it when fullbacks receive end-of-year honors by near-default, insert thumping Rams running back Zac Stacy here and claim he's a fullback.
Wide Receiver: Keenan Allen, Chargers
The Chargers became a Philip Rivers-Antonio Gates-LaDanian Tomlinson team in 2005 and essentially quit developing exciting new offensive players for the rest of the decade. Keenan Allen is the team's first breakout star in years: an Anquan Boldin lookalike who combines the acrobatic ability and over-the-middle daring of young Boldin with the steadiness and dedicated blocking of old Boldin. The Chargers' Thursday night win over the Broncos in early December was Allen's coming out party. He's dangerous, he's tough and he will enter 2014 as Rivers' go-to receiver.
Wide Receiver: DeAndre Hopkins, Texans
Hopkins did everything the Texans asked of him this year; the franchise let him down, not vice versa. Hopkins was as good as advertised as a sideline deep threat who could out-jump defenders and take pressure off Andre Johnson. Hopkins caught 12 passes of 20 or more yards through 15 games, which is exactly what the Texans were looking for when they drafted him to diversity their offense. They had no way of knowing that by December Hopkins and Johnson would be their only offensive players with anything to brag about.
Tight End: Timothy Wright, Buccaneers
Jordan Reed of the Redskins had this slot locked up before getting hurt in November. Reed was an exceptional target for Robert Griffin on third and fourth downs, but he was healthy for only nine games. Wright caught 19 passes on 24 targets from Week 11 through Week 14, a remarkable 79 percent success rate that gave Mike Glennon a much-needed safety valve against tough opponents like the Lions and 49ers. "Timmy Wright is quickly becoming a really tough tight end to cover in this league,'' coach Greg Schiano said in November. "He and Mike Glennon have a really good feel for each other." Schiano then cautioned that Wright's blocking needs a lot of work. What did you expect from Schiano: unqualified praise?
Tackle: Jordan Mills, Bears
David Bakhtiari of the Packers was the favorite for this slot until Thanksgiving, when Ziggy Ansah pushed him aside like a plate of cauliflower casserole. Bakhtiari started the season strong and rebounded a bit from his major slump in the Cowboys game; since two right tackles made our all-rookie team, he can stick around as the left tackle.
Mills started the season shakily but has solidified. He is a tenacious snap-to-whistle blocker who goes months without incurring a penalty. Bears quarterbacks were sacked just 29 times through 15 games after getting dumped 149 times the previous three seasons. Coach Marc Trestman and free-agent left tackle Jermon Bushrod have a lot to do with the turnaround, but so do a pair of rookie linemen who provided immediate professionalism, toughness and stability. We'll get to the other one in a moment.
Tackle: Justin Pugh, Giants
This was supposed to be the Year of the Rookie Tackle, but top prospects Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel, Lane Johnson and D.J. Fluker all had very lukewarm debuts, playing just well enough to hold on to their starting jobs. Pugh, the final tackle taken in the first round of the draft, also started the season slowly: The transition from left to right tackle is more challenging than it sounds, and Pugh looked lost when he was forced to replace Dave Diehl in the lineup. But Pugh has steadily grown into one of the most reliable players on the rapidly deteriorating Giants offense, a steady run blocker who improves each week as a pass protector.
"I think it's very important that he's played, he's grown, he's learned week in and week out," Tom Coughlin said of Pugh in November. "He's a very smart young guy. He's very competitive. He wants it very badly. It's going to be a huge plus going forward.''
Guard: Larry Warford, Lions
Warford has been so good for a banged-up Lions offensive line that some folks are stumping to give him the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Why not? He had not allowed a sack through Week 15, and the Lions have suddenly become a solid between-the-tackles and short-yardage rushing team (with Reggie Bush at running back!) on Warford's watch. Lacy has been too good in crucial circumstances under difficult conditions to be denied, but Warford's stellar play is good enough to earn Runner-up Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Not bad for a guard.
Guard: Kyle Long, Bears
The only time Long gained national attention this year was when he sparred with Rams players after a rough hit on quarterback Josh McCown, prompting Rams defender/big brother Chris Long to enter the fray and calm his sibling down. When a rookie guard gets noticed only because he got slightly carried away protecting his quarterback, not for jumping offside three times or allowing four sacks, that's a good thing. Long and Mills should anchor the Bears offensive line for the rest of the decade. It took years of experimentation, but the Bears have finally found some stability up front.
Center: Travis Frederick, Cowboys
We laughed at the Cowboys for drafting Frederick in the first round, and it really was a silly move: The team had other needs, like an entire defense. But Frederick has had a rock-solid season under difficult circumstances, including a rotating cast of guards to his right. As in most seasons, the Cowboys' top draft pick is not really the problem; it's their inability to develop anyone other than their top draft pick.
Defensive Line: Sheldon Richardson, Jets
Rex Ryan recently gave the Jets 2013 draft class an A-plus grade. The remark raised some eyebrows; after all, Geno Smith has not reminded anyone of Ben Roethlisberger. But when you think like Ryan -- the defensive front seven rules, everyone else drools -- the grade makes sense. Richardson is an incredibly disruptive interior presence who can take over some games: He recorded a sack and four tackles for a loss against the Ravens, for example, but the Jets offense could do nothing to capitalize on his performance. Richardson is the kind of player who can elevate an entire defense, as well as persuade a head coach to grade on a curve.
Defensive Line: Chris Jones, Patriots
Jones recorded five sacks during one critical midseason stretch when Vince Wilfork first got injured and the Patriots appeared to be severely understaffed in the middle of their defense. Unfortunately, all most of us remember of Jones from that portion of the season was his overtime penalty against the Jets. Jones' sack totals have stalled, but he has still been productive: He produced nine tackles (one for a loss) in Brady Manning XIV while stabilizing the post-Wilfork defensive tackle rotation. Linemate Chandler Jones remains the most famous (and best) "C. Jones" on the Patriots defense, but Jones is one of many rookies keeping the Patriots competitive through a trying season.
Defensive Line: Star Lotulelei, Panthers
If Luke Kuechly earns Defensive Player of the Year honors, he owes Lotulelei a pizza with the works. Lotulelei has been one of the biggest difference makers on the Panthers this year, but his performance shows up in Kuechly and Thomas Davis' statistics, not his own. Lotulelei eats double teams so Kuechly and Davis can make tackles while Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy record sacks. Single-block Lotulelei, as the Rams tried to do, and he will eat your running back in the backfield. Fellow rookie Kawann Short has also performed well at defensive tackle for the Panthers; throw in Kuechly, and the Panthers may have the best interior defense in the NFL for the rest of the decade.
Defensive Line: Ziggy Ansah, Lions
If our all-rookie defense took the field, Lotulelei would play the nose, with Richardson and Jones as a pair of three-technique penetrators. That's a lot of interior beef in need of an edge rusher, which is where Ansah comes in: He's a size-speed threat off the corner to threaten pass protectors who are already terrified of the defensive tackles. Ansah plays the same role for our team that he plays for the Lions.
Ansah's sacks come in bunches. He dominated the Packers offensive line on Thanksgiving and beat up the Redskins and Buccaneers lines for a pair of sacks each, but was quiet for long stretches between games. Ansah is still very raw technically and can be shut down by a prepared offensive tackle. Technique can develop with experience, but size, strength, speed and tenacity cannot really be taught, and Ansah has all four.
Linebacker: Kiko Alonso, Bills
The Defensive Rookie of the Year, hands down. Alonso is among the league leaders in tackles, has made an impact in pass coverage and off the blitz and has impressed coach Doug Marrone with his maturity. "He's probably, as a rookie, more in-tuned with his body and getting it ready to play than, really, anyone I've been around," Marrone told the Buffalo News early in the month. "And I'm not exaggerating with that."
Linebacker: Alec Ogletree, Rams
Ogletree's 98-yard interception return against the Texans was his signature highlight for the year, but he has made many other big plays: two forced fumbles in two 49ers games, two pass breakups in the Colts upset and gobs of tackles. Ogletree has been most impressive in pass coverage, and he appears to be adjusting on run defense after getting bulldozed in some early games. "Each week he does something that surprises you," Jeff Fisher said of Ogletree. "You say 'wow' on a positive side." Ogletree is poised to have a breakout 2014 campaign in the same way that Kuechly and Tampa's Lavonte David emerged as All-Pros in their second seasons: All of them showed early promise in pass coverage, which can be the toughest thing for a young linebacker to master.
Linebacker: Paul Worrilow, Falcons
The Falcons were forced to start multiple rookies on defense all season, and it showed. Their defense was terrible, and Worrilow, an undrafted rookie from Delaware, racked up a bunch of tackles in 33-10 losses, mopping up the middle of the field as opponents handed off to kill the clock. But there's "a bunch of tackles," and then there's A BUNCH OF TACKLES, and Worrilow gobbled up 54 of them in one three-game stretch, including a Falcons-record 19 each in back-to-back games. You don't do that by flopping on the fullback in the fourth quarter, and while Worrilow has a long way to go in pass coverage and as an all-around defender, he has proven that he belongs.
Linebacker: Barkevious Mingo, Browns
Our all-rookie defense, technically a 4-3, is a little short on pass rushers, so let's bring Mingo off the bench on third-and-long. Mingo started the season hot, with three sacks in his first four games, then went silent for weeks as he struggled to learn his outside linebacker role and Ray Horton dialed back his blitzes to keep the Browns secondary from getting gouged. Mingo sacked Tom Brady to end his drought, and he has both the skill and temperament of an outstanding pass rusher. "You're going to see Mingo make amazing plays and Jabaal make amazing plays," teammate Paul Kruger said of Mingo and defensive end Jabaal Sheard. "Then there's going to be some quiet games, too. But if you understand the game and you watch the tape, they're doing their job, they're doing what they're coached to do."
Cornerback: Marcus Cooper, Chiefs
The 49ers cut Cooper, their seventh-round pick, at the end of training camp. The Chiefs acquired him as a depth chart afterthought. With free agents Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith joining Brandon Flowers, they were stacked at cornerback. Within a few weeks, Robinson was the one buried on the depth chart, and Cooper was having huge games -- two interceptions and eight passes defensed in back-to-back weeks against the Raiders and Titans -- as a nickel corner who is essentially a de facto starter in Bob Sutton's scheme.
Cooper often locks up in man coverage against the opponent's No. 2 receiver, allowing Flowers to blitz from the slot. Cooper got picked on a little by Peyton Manning but answered the challenge with an interception in the second Chiefs-Broncos meeting. He followed that with three passes defensed in the Abominable Redskins Snow Game. Cooper is a future starter and an important component in one of the most intriguing defenses you will see in the postseason, making him our Runner-up Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Cornerback: Jonthan Banks, Buccaneers
When a defense starts a perennial All-Pro cornerback on one side of the formation and a rookie on the other side, you would expect opponents to target their No. 2 receivers over and over again in an effort to attack the new kid. Even if the coach, like Greg Schiano, does not believe in moving the All-Pro around the formation to match the opponent's top receiver, you would expect some kind of disparity as teams avoid the superstar and test the rookie.
Football Outsiders keeps track of how each opposing receiver does against each defense; it's an objective way to tell if opponents are purposely playing keepaway from Darrelle Revis or exploiting a specific weakness in the secondary. Entering Week 14, the Buccaneers were 11th in the NFL at shutting down No. 1 receivers but fifth in the league at stopping No. 2 receivers. In other words, Banks has more than held his own against opponents trying to navigate around Revis Island.
Safety: Eric Reid, 49ers
Reid has impressed the Niners not just with his coverage talents, but his maturity. He was not penalized once through 14 games, and given a chance to turn an interception into a pick-six late in the Buccaneers game, he prudently flopped on the ball so the Niners could safely eat the clock instead.
Reid has suffered two concussions this season but is a smart hitter who won't needlessly endanger himself and others, and he's a natural in deep zone coverage. "He handles everything the way a veteran would," 49ers cornerback Eric Wright said. "And it shows in the way he's playing. ... I can't applaud him enough."
Safety: Tyrann Matheiu, Cardinals
If Reid is the cool tactician at free safety, Matheiu is the not-totally-guided missile at strong safety. Before suffering a knee injury in December, Matheiu gave the Cardinals the full Honey Badger experience, sliding all over the defensive formation, making noisy open-field tackles, flashing danger as a pass rusher and sometimes making a dumb mistake. The mistakes were starting to fade before the injury, and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles knows he has a Swiss army knife in Matheiu, who can line up as a weakside linebacker in some packages and a slot corner in others or deep safety in others, forcing the quarterback to find and account for him on every play.
Punter: Ryan Allen, Patriots
Allen booted 24 punts inside the 20-yard line through 14 games. Every yard of field position has counted for the Patriots this season.
Kicker: Caleb Sturgis, Dolphins
The only rookie kicker in the NFL wins this slot by default, but Sturgis has been solid on kickoffs and is 23-of-27 within 50 yards.
Kickoff Returner: Cordarrelle Patterson, Vikings
Our Special Teams Rookie of the Year. Through Week 15, eight of Patterson's 36 kickoff returns were longer than 40 yards, and opponents were starting to give him the Devin Hester treatment, squibbing short kicks instead of giving Patterson the opportunity to take the ball past midfield.
Punt Returner: Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams
Patterson and Austin also give the all-rookie offense a dangerous four-receiver look: Austin is nasty on screens and reverses from the slot, while Patterson is more of a tall possession target with long speed.
Kick Gunner: Don Jones, Dolphins
Jones has nine special teams tackles on the year, the biggest being a crushing hit that forced a game-changing fumble against the Falcons. "The bottom line is, big hits excite the team, excite the crowd," Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi explained the week after Jones' big hit. "They can be big momentum swings, whether it's a block on offense, a tackle on defense or a big hit on special teams. I think they kind of recharge your sideline."
They can also make things easy for a football writer with Christmas stuff to do who does not have time to watch hours of special teams film!