As we head into Championship Sunday, with the spotlight shining ever stronger on established NFL stars like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, it's worth remembering the rookies who will be taking the field this weekend. These comparatively anonymous newbies managed, in their first year on the job, to reach the conference championship round of the playoffs, a level of competition that many players never even sniff.
Guys like San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid and New England Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins will be fighting for a chance to make a name for themselves on the game's ultimate stage. Before they do, though, I'd like to take a moment to consider the efforts of all rookies in the 2013 season. Though the crop of fresh talent lacked a marquee quarterback, it contained plenty of rising stars. In an attempt to point out the NFL's best and brightest young players, I present my All-Rookie Team for 2013.
Before we get to the players, a few quick notes:
1) This team is based on how the players performed over the course of the entire season, which is why you'll find Reid's name listed below -- but not Collins'.
2) The running back position was strong enough -- with three top rookies making their presence felt -- to merit adding an extra roster slot to the offensive side.
3) At the bottom of each subsection (Offense and Defense), I've provide my picks for the two Rookie of the Year awards.
4) And for the sake of providing some historical perspective, I've listed some of the most notable rookies from years past.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, third-round pick (No. 73 overall)
Thrust into the top job after the Bucs stumbled to an 0-3 start, Glennon took his lumps -- then began to come on a bit, piloting Tampa Bay to a 4-4 second-half record, buoyed by a stretch in which he won four out of five games. He also faced off against three imposing defenses in the 49ers, Panthers and Seahawks -- and though he didn't beat any of them, he at least held his own.
Green Bay Packers, second round (No. 61)
When Aaron Rodgers was lost midseason with a broken collarbone, Lacy was asked to shoulder the load -- and shoulder it he did, racking up a single-season franchise rookie record 1,178 rushing yards and tacking on 11 touchdowns and 35 catches. I don't think a lot of people saw ahead of time the wiggle that Lacy ended up having. The Alabama product is also a true competitor who never stops running; he just tries to bull through people.
Pittsburgh Steelers, second round (No. 48)
Bell is an old-fashioned Pittsburgh Steelers running back, a guy who can help them pound the ball and control the clock. Injury issues kept him off the field until Week 4, and he didn't really get rolling until later in the season -- when he helped power Pittsburgh's end-of-year playoff push. The Steelers were 8-3 when Bell had 16 or more carries.
Cincinnati Bengals, second round (No. 37)
Bernard was the first running back drafted last April -- and now you can see why. Though he didn't officially make a single start, he left his mark on the field, collecting 1,209 yards from scrimmage (695 rushing and 514 receiving) and scoring eight times. I'm not sure he'll ever be a Pro Bowl running back, but he's got a definite future at least as a change-of-pace guy who excels at catching the ball and executing screens and draws.
San Diego Chargers, third round (No. 76).
Allen was one of the biggest surprises of the 2013 season. We all knew he had talent as a prospect, but we didn't know he'd come across the middle like he did. Allen is a really good route-runner who catches the ball really well and works hard to get open. This mix of abilities resulted in a 1,000-yard, eight-touchdown season -- and an appearance in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Houston Texans, first round (No. 27)
Hopkins was a big-play machine, recording 12 receptions of 20 yards or more -- tied for second among rookies with Cowboys receiver Terrance Williams, behind only Allen (who had 16). That's a good mark for a first-year pro. Hopkins, who helped complement veteran Andre Johnson, is a potential future Pro Bowl player in his own right, what with his top-notch speed and excellent hands.
Cincinnati Bengals, first round (No. 21)
I thought Eifert would be one of those tight ends who mostly stayed away from the line of scrimmage, but he ended up being a better blocker than I anticipated. Of course, he didn't disappoint as a receiver, hauling in 39 passes for 445 yards despite splitting time with Jermaine Gresham.
San Diego Chargers, first round (No. 11)
Fluker is huge -- truly a mountain of man at 6-foot-5, 339 pounds -- but he also has good feet. He has a future as a Pro Bowl-caliber right tackle, though he performed admirably while filling in on the left side for a handful of games this season. He has to be careful to keep his weight in check.
Kansas City Chiefs, first round (No. 1)
Fisher, who was hampered by health issues in training camp, started slowly, then got better and better as the season went along, edging out fellow top-five draft pick Lane Johnson for this spot. Though he spent 2013 at right tackle, he projects as a top talent on the left side, possessing good athleticism for the position.
Detroit Lions, third round (No. 65)
Warford is not the fleetest of foot, but he's strong, has plenty of short-area quickness, and is a much better pass blocker than I envisioned. Warford might not be a Pro Bowl player, but he'll be a presence in the NFL for a long time as a good complementary piece.
Chicago Bears, first round (No. 20)
Though he had just a few years of football experience before entering the league, Long proved to be a very good player, a pass protector who can get to the second level. He has a great deal of upside in front of him. Personally, I think he'll be a perennial Pro Bowl selection. He's tough, tough, tough -- you want to be sure he's on your side if you're in a fight.
Dallas Cowboys, first round (No. 31)
Many laughed at the Cowboys for drafting a center in the first round, but the guy they ended up with is a top talent who showed he can give them everything they need at the position. Frederick has good lower-body strength and can get out and block the linebacker. Plus, he's very smart. He has the potential to be Dallas' center for the next 10 to 12 years.
Minnesota Vikings, first round (No. 29)
The relatively inexperienced Patterson (he spent just one season at Tennessee after starting out in junior college) improved as a receiver every day of the year, getting a better handle on route-running and the passing game. Meanwhile, he dazzled as a kick returner, averaging 32.4 yards per return and scoring two touchdowns, on runs of 109 and 105 yards. He's the next Devin Hester in the return game.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Lacy and Allen. It's too close to call between these two, who both helped lift their teams to unlikely playoff appearances.
Past rookie standouts: Ben Roethlisberger, QB (2004, Round 1, No. 11 overall); Eric Dickerson, RB (1983, Round 1, No. 2); Bob Hayes, WR (1964, Round 7, No. 88); Randy Moss, WR (1998, Round 1, No. 21); Mike Ditka, TE (1961, Round 1, No. 5); Joe Thomas, OT (2007, Round 1, No. 3).
Detroit Lions, first round (No. 5)
The long-armed Ansah has a great initial get-off that helped him bag eight sacks in his debut season. He's also clean and mean. That is to say, while he won't get penalties for dirty play, he will try until the whistle stops whistling -- and he won't stop a second earlier.
Carolina Panthers, first round (No. 14)
Lotulelei provided a big boost to Carolina's run defense, turning a relative weak spot (the Panthers had the 14th-ranked run defense in 2012) into a definite strength (they finished 2013 at No. 2). He's a playmaker who will wow you. In fact, he even sacks the quarterback every once in a while, reaching the passer with reckless abandon.
New York Jets, first round (No. 13)
The Missouri product has superb quickness, playing with a level of athleticism that reminds me of Warren Sapp. Richardson has a bright future in the NFL. I think he'll be a Pro Bowl mainstay.
Cleveland Browns, first round (No. 6)
We haven't seen enough of Mingo, who started strong and then tailed off a bit as the season wore on. With his long arms and great athletic ability, Mingo has the potential to net 10 to 12 sacks per year. Sometimes he'll line up with his hand on the ground, other times, he'll drop into space -- and in time, he'll be very good at both.
Atlanta Falcons, undrafted
Worrilow amassed 127 tackles in 2013, including 79 solo stops -- both marks were the most by far among Falcons defenders. He's another one of those complementary players who will be a fixture in the league for a number of years. What Worrilow lacks in height (he'd be 5-11 3/4 if you stretched him out) he makes up for in motor.
St. Louis Rams, first round (No. 30)
An up-and-coming playmaker, Ogletree has amazing recognition skills and excels at finding the ball. The Georgia product is a good competitor who can play in space or take on blockers. He's another with Pro Bowl potential.
Buffalo Bills, second round (No. 46)
Alonso loves football, to say the least. He might not be as skilled as Ogletree, but his competitiveness is off the charts. The Bills' team leader in tackles (159) added two sacks and four interceptions.
San Francisco 49ers, first round (No. 18)
Reid replaced Dashon Goldson (who departed for Tampa) and performed very well, notching four picks and 11 passes defensed in 16 games. Candlestick has been a tough place to play through the years with its swirling winds, but Reid adapted quickly. It was obvious that he really knew the defense. He can be an asset both up on the line and leaning back and making plays.
New Orleans Saints, first round (No. 15)
Vaccaro is a unique individual. He doesn't have great speed, but he does have top-notch instincts and unbelievable competitiveness. The only things on his mind are football and family. The Saints took a big hit when Vaccaro was lost for the season with an ankle injury in late December.
Atlanta Falcons, first round (No. 22)
Trufant is a solid football player who will make tackles and can handle the league's speedy receivers. Though he might not be a Pro Bowl player, he is the kind of guy who can help a team win.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, second round (No. 43).
Banks is a quality person who makes a lot of plays with his length. He's another player who might not make the Pro Bowl, but he'll definitely be there for his team for a long time.
Detroit Lions, fifth round (No. 165)
That Martin averaged 47.2 yards per punt was a surprise to me. That he had just one kick blocked was something of an accomplishment, as first-year guys don't always understand where opposing players are coming from on the field or how quickly they'll get where they're going.
Miami Dolphins, fifth round (No. 166)
Sturgis made 26 of his 34 field-goal attempts, which is pretty good for a rookie. Kickers have a tendency to get more accurate as their careers unfold (with the possible exception of Justin Tucker, who started kicking at a high level as a rookie with the Ravens last season and never looked back).
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Richardson.
Past rookie standouts: Lawrence Taylor, LB (1981, Round 1, No. 2); Jevon Kearse, DE (1999, Round 1, No. 16).
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.