Week 9 was something of a coming out party for rookie players, a true sign that some major first-year talent has arrived. In addition to the by-now-standard excellent play from the crop of rookie quarterbacks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin had one of the best individual games of the season, becoming the first player in NFL history to score three rushing touchdowns of 45 yards or more.
With roughly half the season behind us, I thought I'd take a look at the top rookies so far, ranking them according to the ability they've shown so far this season. I didn't discriminate according to the relative importance of their individual positions; I just tried to evaluate each player on his individual merits.
I've grouped the rookies according to two categories. The first 12 (in honor of the 2012 season) are the cream of the crop, guys who have really made their mark. But there were, of course, several other standout rookies who didn't quite make the cut, so for good measure, I've listed the next eight in a second group: the rest of the best.
(To add some context, I've also listed where each player was ranked in the last Hot 100 ranking I compiled before April's draft.)
CREAM OF THE CROP
1) Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Eight games into Luck's NFL career, the Colts have five wins and a good shot at a playoff berth. That tells you all you need to know about this record-setting franchise quarterback. What really stood out to me on Sunday: He helped the Colts convert 68 percent of third-down opportunities (13 of 19) against a Miami Dolphins defense that had been the league's stingiest on third downs. In 1940, Stanford's football team was known as "The Wow Boys;" it's fitting that, 72 years later, "wow" is the one word that the former Cardinal's performance most frequently inspires. Hot 100 rank: 1.
2) Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Boy, does Martin have running ability. Not only did he run for 251 yards and four touchdowns against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, he did it on grass, which is a slower surface than artificial turf. Martin's performance featured explosive plays, broken tackles and lots of yards after contact, which happens to be a Martin specialty (111 of his yards in that game came after first contact, bringing his total for the season up to 427, second-best in the league behind only Adrian Peterson). Martin has great vision, quickness and excellent skills. Hot 100 rank: 50.
3) Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins
RG3 is an exciting player who does everything, from passing (he's completed 65.6 percent of his passes and thrown eight touchdowns against just three picks) to running for big plays (529 rushing yards and six scores on the ground). He just needs to forget some of the fancy stuff the Redskins have had him doing (like lining up as a wide receiver) and concentrate on throwing the ball. He'll be a very good quarterback for years to come, as long as he gets stronger. Hot 100 rank: 2.
4) Ryan Tannehill, QB, Miami Dolphins
Tannehill gets better every week in all phases of the game. He's very athletic, a smart signal-caller with a strong arm who has surprised everyone with how well he's played. As I wrote in October, the Dolphins' 13-year-long search for a franchise quarterback to replace Dan Marino finally seems to be over. Hot 100 rank: 4.
5) Matt Kalil, LT, Minnesota Vikings
The highly skilled Kalil has been a boon for the Vikings' run game; if you notice, about 90 percent of Adrian Peterson's runs go left, to Kalil's side of the line. The long-armed Kalil does an above-average job getting his hands on defenders and hasn't incurred a single holding call or false-start penalty all season. He needs to improve in pass protection (he's given up 4.5 sacks), but Kalil is going to play at a high level for a very long time. Hot 100 rank: 3.
6) Trent Richardson, RB, Cleveland Browns
The very steady Richardson has been playing hurt and playing well. The Browns' leading rusher (575 yards) and receiver (31 catches, 240 yards) is hard to bring down; he can run inside or outside, and has a very good base and balance when he runs. He also provides above-average blitz protection, and has shown a knack for picking up blocks. Hot 100 rank: 5.
7) Chandler Jones, DE, New England Patriots
When I put together a list of the best linemen in the NFL so far this season, Jones slotted in at No. 3 in the "up-and-coming" category on the defensive side of the ball. He's gotten stronger since his days at Syracuse; a starter from Day 1, he has six sacks, 19 pressures and three forced fumbles in eight games. Hot 100 rank: 42.
8) Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
I listed Kuechly as one of my thriving rookies back in September, and he's continued to dazzle since. An excellent player in space, he's all over the field; if he's not making the defensive play for the Panthers, he's always near it. Kuechly has recorded double-digits in tackles in five of eight games this season; he had 15 against the Washington Redskins on Sunday. Hot 100 rank: 11.
9) Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks
Wagner has really come on strong, starting eight of nine games for a very good Seattle defense. He's got 72 tackles and two sacks, including a great takedown of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder on Sunday. Wagner is a very good blitzer who plays hard every down; his motor is always going. Wagner's success has been a big surprise, as he wasn't highly thought of coming out of Utah State. Hot 100 rank: 63.
10) Stephon Gilmore, CB, Buffalo Bills
Gilmore might be overlooked in Buffalo, but he's been a standout defender for the Bills. He's been targeted by opposing offenses 39 times, but has allowed just 18 catches, a 46.1 percent success rate. He also has 11 passes defensed, 34 tackles and one forced fumble. Hot 100 rank: 20.
11) Morris Claiborne, CB, Dallas Cowboys
The sixth-overall draft pick has quickly adapted to life as an everyday starter. Claiborne has long arms and good ball skills, and learns from his mistakes. You might be able to fool him once, but you won't be able to do it twice. For example, Chicago Bears receiver Devin Hester might have beaten him on a double move in Week 4 to score one of the three touchdowns he's given up, but you can be sure that Claiborne won't fall for another double move this season. Hot 100 rank: 6.
12) Bruce Irvin, DE, Seattle Seahawks
Irvin, the 15th overall pick in April, isn't a starter yet, but he's made an impact, collecting five sacks and one forced fumble so far. Irvin, who's got a great first step, completed the three-cone drill in 6.68 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine, which tells you he's got amazing quickness and the ability to change directions. He lacks strength against the run, but he's a good pass rusher; Irvin wreaked havoc in the Seahawks' Week 3 victory over the Green Bay Packers, collecting two sacks. Hot 100 rank: 58.
THE REST OF THE BEST
13) Fletcher Cox, DT, Philadelphia Eagles: Very athletic, Cox has started two straight games and has one sack and four hurries. Heading into last Monday night's game against the New Orleans Saints, he'd collected four tipped balls and four impact tackles (defined as taking place in the backfield or within 2 yards of the line of scrimmage). Hot 100 rank: 10.
15) Alfred Morris, RB, Washington Redskins: Slowing down a bit after a hot start, Morris had the sixth-most quality plays in the NFL heading into Week 9 (a quality play is one that goes for 4 yards or more and counts for a first down or touchdown). Hot 100 rank: N/A.
16) Casey Hayward, CB, Green Bay Packers: Hayward, who's started two games and has nine passes defensed and four interceptions, knows how to find the ball; once he finds it, he picks it off. Hot 100 rank: 82.
17) Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: David's production has been off-the-charts: he has 67 tackles, including 16 against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. He will take on blockers and has amazing toughness for a guy his size (6-foot-1, 233 pounds). Hot 100 rank: 61.
18) Kendall Wright, WR, Tennessee Titans: With 42 catches for 381 yards and three touchdowns, Wright has become the Titans' leading receiver; he's got small hands (8 1/2 inches) but has made some great catches this year. Hot 100 rank: 33.
19) Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks: He's thrown for 1,639 yards and 13 touchdowns on a team that doesn't have very good receivers; capable of making plays with his feet, Wilson's helped Seattle come up with some big wins against good teams like the Packers and Patriots. Hot 100 rank: (112).
20) Dont'a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots: He's missed two games due to injury, but he's collected 25 tackles and two sacks in six games; when he's healthy, he looks like he's going to be a dominant outside linebacker. Hot 100 rank: 32.
Larry Webster, DL, Bloomsburg (Pa.): The 6-7, 240-pound basketball player switched to the gridiron for his fifth year as a senior and has thrived, collecting 10.5 sacks this season for Bloomsburg. People have already started to talk about Webster, whose father, Larry, played in the NFL, but they'll talk about him even more once word gets out.
» Scene of the Week: The parents of rookie Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin, Gus Martin and Jane Howard-Martin, were seen in the Indianapolis airport after this weekend's Colts-Dolphins showdown wearing replica Miami jerseys with their son's name and number on it. Jerseys aren't typically the garb of choice for Harvard educated attorneys, but that didn't stop Martin's parents from showing their pride.
» I noticed two unsung heroes in Week 9. On the defensive side, Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman force four fumbles against the Tennessee Titans, leading to 28 first-quarter points for the Bears and contributing greatly to Chicago's rout. On the offensive side, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Isaac Redman, an undrafted player from Bowie State, ran for a career-high 147 yards against the New York Giants on Sunday, adding a touchdown and helping the Steelers hold the ball for more than 35 minutes in their win.
» Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten reached 754 receptions Sunday, making him the franchise's all-time leading receiver. It's worth noting that Witten, who had his heart set on playing defensive end coming out of high school, played tight end reluctantly as a fill-in during his freshman year at Tennessee. I find it ironic that someone who didn't even want to play the position would go on to become the all-time leading receiver for one of football's most iconic teams.
» One last stat about rookies for the week: Four of the rookie quarterbacks (Luck, Wilson, Tannehill and RG3) combined to attempt 149 passes without giving up a single interception. All four of them played well enough to win, even if only two of them did.