|Kirby Lee / US Presswire|
|Andy Dalton has the Bengals tied for first place in the AFC North, but he isnt' the only rookie to surprise this season.|
When talking about rookies that have had an immediate impact this season, the first two names that come to mind are Cam Newton and Andy Dalton. I think those two quarterbacks have received plenty of attention, so it's time to shine the spotlight on some other first-year players.
Before the 2011 season is over, I think we'll have more starts by this year's rookies than the record-setting group from 2010, which had 763 combined starts.
While this is a strong rookie class, there are also a few draft picks off to disappointing starts. Still, I don't think any player taken in the first two rounds will be classified as a bust or be waived in his second year as we've seen in recent drafts.
With that, here are five rookie standouts and disappointments from the season's first half -- listed in alphabetical order.
Five rookie standouts
A.J. Green, WR, Bengals (first-round pick, fourth overall): He's the leading rookie receiver with 40 catches for 599 yards and five touchdowns. Receivers have the second-hardest adjustment as rookies to come in and make an impact behind only quarterbacks. One of the reasons Dalton has succeeded is because of Green. He's a security blanked for this quarterback and will be a Pro Bowl player in the future.
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons (first-rounder, sixth overall): He missed two games due to injury, but he returned in a big way last week to score twice. Atlanta paid a lot to get to him, but it appears he was worth the price. Jones also blocks well, which helps in that offense. He'll be a Pro Bowler down the line.
DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys (third-rounder, 71st overall): He came to training camp with a hamstring injury and took awhile to get going. Once he has, he hasn't stopped. Over the past three games, Murray has run, blocked and caught the ball. He looks a little like Adrian Peterson. Murray has the same speed and is a better receiver, but isn't as strong as Peterson. Murray will get to Hawaii some day.
Aldon Smith, LB, 49ers (first-rounder, seventh overall): People thought he was picked 10 spots too high. Not because of ability but due to inconsistency in college. I think it came from immaturity since he only played two years at Missouri. Even though he hasn't started this season, he has 6.5 sacks and makes plays all over the field. I think this guy has All-Pro potential and could break Jevon Kearse's rookie record of 14.5 sacks.
Stefen Wisniewski, G, Raiders (second-rounder, 48th overall): A starter from Day 1, he relies on his power to succeed. He's also played center for the Raiders and was a big reason why Oakland led the league in rushing when Darren McFadden was healthy. He's a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
Five rookie disappointments
Cam Heyward, DE, Steelers (first-rounder, 31st overall): He's played in all nine games but hasn't stood out in any way. While he's a good hold-the-point defender, he doesn't seem to be involved in big plays. It surprises me, because from what I saw at Ohio State, I thought Heyward would do more.
Mark Ingram, RB, Saints (first-rounder, 28th overall): He's averaging under 4.0 yards per carry in a crowded backfield. Ingram's missed time because of injury, and his longest play is 20 yards. He'll pass protect but doesn't look like he has the quickness you want in a back. He'll be a good player, but not special. If the Saints traded up again, they would have gone in a different direction.
Corey Liuget, DL, Chargers (first-rounder, 18th overall): He's started six games which matches his tackle total and no sacks. After I watched him at his pro day, I expected more out of him than I've seen. Right now, he's not doing anything special.
Robert Quinn, DE, Rams (first-rounder, 14th overall): He has yet to start a game and made a minimal impact. Quinn's played better of late, with a sack in consecutive games to go with a blocked kick. However, because of his physical skills, speed and quickness we expected more. He didn't play football in 2010 so maybe it's taking time to get back in the flow. He'll eventually be a good pass rusher.
Derek Sherrod, OT, Packers (first-rounder, 32nd overall): He's been inactive six times, and the fact that Marshall Newhouse stepped in when Chad Clifton went down shows you Sherrod isn't quite ready to play. As he gets stronger, Sherrod will fulfill expectations.
» Green Bay has scored 28 or more points in the first half three times this season. The rest of the league has achieved the feat a combined total of three times.
» Over the past 10 years, teams that open the season 6-3 make the playoffs 75 percent of the time.
Ryan Tannehill struggled against Oklahoma in tough conditions for a quarterback to play well. He threw three picks in a swirling wind, two of which came on tipped balls at the line of scrimmage. The third came on a bad decision on his part.
Still, when you take the whole spectrum into account, you can see why Tannehill's stock is rising despite Saturday's poor showing. He has everything needed to be a good NFL QB. I think he'll be a first-round pick because he's athletic, has a good arm and is smart.
Prior to the Week 5 loss, the Bears had beaten the Lions six straight times. But we've seen, Detroit is a different squad this year, and sits a game head of Chicago in the standings heading into this important matchup.
Both Lovie Smith and Jim Schwartz have a defensive background. The Bears need to keep Detroit's receiver from making big plays, and the pass rush must get to Matthew Stafford. Meanwhile, the Lions have to stop the run and force the Bears into passing situations. Their pass rush caused Jay Cutler trouble in the first meeting.
Chicago corner Charles Tillman will most likely stay with Calvin Johnson throughout the game. The winner of this battle will likely come out victorious Sunday. Johnson had five catches for 130 yards and a touchdown last month. Repeating that performance could mean Detroit sweeps the series.
The winner of this game will have the best chance to make the playoffs as a wild-card team from the NFC North. It's going to be tight, but I see the Lions by a field goal.