The halfway point of a crazy NFL season is fast approaching.
There have been great plays, great upsets, a lot of key injuries and some interesting developments (i.e. Ezekiel Elliott’s “suspension”).
A look up and down the standings doesn’t really give us the impression yet that there is any one team ready to hold on to the “sure fire champion” mantle either.
But back to great plays and key injuries. With first stringers and second stringers down for the count, younger guys (rookies) are getting a chance to shine.
We know about the Deshaun Watsons, Kareem Hunts and Leonard Fournettes of the NFL, but what about unsung lads who weren’t necessarily first round draft picks who are lighting it up?
We’ve identified 15 freshmen who have piqued our interest and with a little more seasoning may become — if they haven’t already — productive everyday NFLers.
15. K Harrison Butker – Kansas City Chiefs
When Cairo Santos tweaked a lingering groin injury in Week 3, things in the Chiefs kicking department could have gone right off the rails. The most accurate kicker in Chiefs’ history, Santos was put on injured reserve. Desperate, the Chiefs snagged Georgia Tech grad Harrison Butker off the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad. Drafted 233rd overall by the Panthers in this year’s draft, Butker couldn’t beat Graham Gano out for the Carolina kicking job. However, the kid from Decatur, GA has been the most pleasant of surprises since replacing Santos. At Georgia Tech, Butker finished with a 71.7 percent effective rate in field goals (43 for 60) but so far with K.C. he has been good on 13 of 14 attempts (92.9 percent). He was at his best against Houston in Week 5, going 5-for-5 as Kansas City won 42-34.
14. DE Deatrich Wise Jr. – New England Patriots
While the exploits of no. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett and that other Watt, T.J. have had a lot of ink spilled about them, there are several lesser knowns playing outstanding defence as NFL rookies. One is former Arkansas DE Deatrich Wise Jr. of the New England Patriots. Drafted 131st overall by the defending champions, it wasn’t expected that he would do more than be third string practice squad fodder. With injuries to injured defensive ends Lawrence Guy, Harvey Langi (out) and Cassius March, Wise will get a lot more work in coming weeks. In limited action thus far, he has nearly matched his sack total from his last year with the Razorbacks (3.5), recording three so far with the Pats, along with 11 tackles and a pass defence in seven games.
13. TE O.J. Howard – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Rarely do rookie tight ends make an impact at the pro level, but you would never know Buccaneers freshman O.J. Howard was in his first season. A back-up to third-year man Cameron Brate, Howard broke out in a big way this past weekend in a loss to Buffalo. In one of the best rookie performances by a tight end in nearly two decades, Howard caught six passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns. Only one rookie tight end since 1999 has had a more productive game (stats are sketchy, pre-1999), he being Owen Daniels in 2006 with nine catches, 99 yards and two TDs. So far this season, the 19th overall pick out of Alabama has 11 catches for 205 yards and three TDs.
12. RB Alvin Kamara – New Orleans Saints
Now that Adrian Peterson is in Arizona, rookie running back Alvin Kamara will get further opportunities to strut his stuff behind starter Mark Ingram in New Orleans. Drafted in the third round, 67th overall out of Tennessee, Kamara made it easy for the Saints to part ways with Peterson, utilizing his speed and skill to become quite a dual threat six games into his NFL career. Already, the Atlanta native has 215 yards rushing and a touchdown, as well as 28 catches for another 209 yards and another score. He has improved week over week, to the point that in a 26-17 win over Green Bay last Sunday, Kamara rumbled for a season high 107 total yards (57 rushing, 50 receiving). One definitely to watch for the remainder of this campaign.
11. QB C.J. Beathard – San Francisco 49ers
It’s been a tough old year in San Francisco, as the Niners have gone 0-7 and won’t, barring a nine-game winning streak, have a shot at the post-season. After incumbent starting QB Brian Hoyer stumbled out of the gate, the Niners benched him and inserted former Iowa pivot C.J. Beathard. With little more to play for than pride, the third round (104th overall) selection in this year’s draft has done fairly well. In two starts since replacing journeyman Hoyer, Beathard has completed 41 of 74 pass attempts for 480 yards and a touchdown. He has also shown good mobility, running for 44 yards on six carries so far. While his numbers won’t leave anyone speechless, Beathard will have a lot of opportunity to prove himself and mature during a tough season.
10. FS Eddie Jackson – Chicago Bears
Even if he doesn’t do anything else all year — not likely — Bears starting free safety and rookie Eddie Jackson had one of the virtuoso defensive performances of the year in a 17-3 upset victory over Carolina last weekend. The first year defensive back out of Alabama (picked 112th overall) returned a fumble recovery 75 yards for one touchdown, then picked off a Cam Newton pass for a wild 76-yard TD. He easily won NFC defensive player of the week honors, based on the fact he became the first NFL player in history with two defensive return touchdowns of at least 75 yards in a single game. Jackson won the starting job out of training camp and in seven games he also has 27 tackles and four pass defences.
9. CB Brendan Langley – Denver Broncos
Langley doesn’t make this list due to his defensive prowess, as the second string defensive back has yet to record a tackle, sack or interception so far this season. However, it won’t be long before the third round (101st overall) selection out of little Lamar busts a kickoff return for a TD. The special team’s kick return specialist has reeled off the longest kick return by any rookie at 61 yards is second is first in average return yards for anyone with more than five total at 33.6 yards per return. Langley, who originally played with powerhouse Georgia for part of two seasons, transfered to Southland Conference Lamar in Beaumont, TX and he now ranks as the highest draft pick in that school’s history.
8. CB Tre’Davious White – Buffalo Bills
Key & Peele couldn’t have come up with a better first name for Buffalo Bills first year CB Tre’Davious White. The Bills swapped picks with Kansas City in the first round, dealing their 10th for Kansas City’s 27th and 91st picks in this draft, as well as the Chiefs first rounder in 2018. With that 27th pick they astutely selected White out of LSU. He earned one of the starting corner jobs out of training camp and has since been a monster in the backfield. As of Friday, he led all rookie DBs in successful pass defences with 12, along with 23 tackles an interception and a forced fumble, which he ran back for a 52-yard touchdown against Atlanta.
7. TE Evan Engram – New York Giants
As of Friday, Giants rookie TE Engram was leading all rookies in receiving yards with 342 and was tied with several others in most touchdowns with three. It’s not been a great year for the Giants, but it’s been an impressive debut for New York’s first round (23rd overall) pick after a stellar college career at Ole Miss. In the Giants lone victory of the season, a 23-10 shocker over Denver on Oct. 15, Engram had the best day of his fledgling career. He caught five passes for 82 yards and one of his three scores. In only one game so far has he failed to snare a pass and overall he has 30 receptions and is averaging 11.4 yards a catch.
6. LB Carl Lawson – Cincinnati Bengals
Other than defensive ends Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt, both first round picks, fourth round selection (116th overall) Carl Lawson has the most sacks among NFL freshmen. The Auburn star has translated a great junior season with the Tigers (9.5 sacks, 30 tackles) into a pretty good role as a back-up linebacker with the 2-4 Bengals. In limited action, he has added six tackles to his 3.5 sacks. His best performance came in a 27-24 OT loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 24. Lawson registered 2.5 of Cincinnati’s six total sacks on Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers, as well as making three solo tackles and assisting on another.
5. LB Kendell Beckwith – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
For all intents and purposes, the Bucs have far under-performed this season, sporting a dismal 2-4 record heading into play in week 8. However, they have been pleasantly surprised with the play of rookie linebacker Beckwith, who was taken way down at no. 107 in the draft. The New York Jets might be kicking themselves, since they traded this pick to acquire later ones. Beckwith, a star at LSU for four years, leads the Buccaneers in tackles with 45 and currently sits tied for 33rd overall. He doesn’t have a sack yet (he had 7.5 in college), but he has been very active in Tampa’s backfield. His best outing to date was a monster effort in a tight 19-14 loss to New England on Oct. 5 when he recorded 14 tackles (12 solo).
4. CB Jamal Agnew – Detroit Lions
Elite special teams players are often overlooked as catalysts in the NFL, given that the players occupying those roles are typically second and third stringers looking to make an impression. One who has, in a big way, is Detroit Lions first-year cornerback Agnew, who the Lions took 165th overall out of the Pioneer League’s University of San Diego. While he bides his time as Detroit’s fourth string corner, Agnew is flashing upper level speed and savvy as a kick and punt returner. He leads all freshmen punt returners in return yards with 261 (on just 11 attempts) and has already ran two back for touchdowns (the only two kick or punt return TDs by a rookie in the whole league). One of them was an astounding 88-yarder that sealed the deal in the fourth quarter of a 24-10 victory over the New York Giants in week 2.
3. WR Cooper Kupp – Los Angeles Rams
It still makes us shake our head with the knowledge that NFL teams passed on FCS all-time leading receiving yards leader Cooper Kupp 68 times before the Rams took him at no. 69. Kupp was a superstar at Eastern Washington, surpassing Hall of Famer Jerry Rice in career yards with an astounding 6,464 (Rice had 4,693 with Mississippi Valley State). Now a rookie NFLer, Kupp has a burgeoning resume that gets better, week over week, with the surprising 5-2 Rams. As understudy to Sammy Watkins, Kupp has caught 23 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns. Those yards put him third overall among freshman pass-catchers (first among all rookie wide receivers, six who were taken ahead of him) and the way he is going, he could lead them all by the end of the season.
2. FS Marcus Maye – New York Jets
The Jets, continually looking for the secret defensive sauce, may have found a defensive backfield cornerstone at no. 39 in the draft. The rookie safety out of Florida, taken at 39th overall, is second among first year players in tackles with 36 and tied for second in interceptions behind Malik Hooker with two. Thus far, he has out-performed teammate and first round pick Jamal Adams (6th overall), but we’re sure he won’t say it publicly. Maye had his best game of the year in a tight 31-28 loss to Miami on Oct. 22, where he had seven tackles, an interception he ran back 32 yards and one of his two pass defences on the season.
1. RB Aaron Jones – Green Bay Packers
With all that has gone on in Green Bay — Aaron Rodgers injury comes to mind — the Packers are going to need guys like Aaron Jones to step up. QB Brett Hundley, who is still learning the ropes, will have to lean on first-year running back Aaron Jones, who has been very good. Drafted way down in the fifth round at 182nd overall from UTEP, Jones is 20th overall in rushing with 346 yards and more interestingly, he has the third best yards per carry in the NFL at 5.6. The stocky running back has also been good before and after Rodgers’ injury. He ran for 125 yards and a TD in a 35-31 win over Dallas on Oct. 8, then had an even better performance in a 26-17 defeat to New Orleans last Sunday. He ripped off 131 yards and scored the third of three TDs on the season.