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Rookie Watch: Chris Borland tops late-round steals list

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Welcome to Around The NFL's "Rookie Watch" series, a week-by-week journey ranking this year's promising collection of first-year players.

Rookies bring hope to all 32 teams. In recent years, we've seen Russell Wilson and Andrew Luck immediately shake up the landscape on offense, while draft picks spent on J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn turned vanilla defenses into trouble for opponents.

Between now and the end of the regular season, we'll chart this year's rookie class in an effort to predict which first-year players have the best chance at long careers in our nation's finest sport. 

After ranking the rookie running backs and quarterbacks, unveiling our early picks for Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year, examining this year's top undrafted players and dropping the boom on a batch of first-year disappointments, it's time to look at this year's late-round draft gems.

Here's our list of the most promising and productive players taken from the third round and beyond:

Chris Borland & Aaron Lynch, LBs, San Francisco 49ers: It's not crazy to call Borland a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year. The third-rounder has shown outstanding instincts in place of the injured Patrick Willis, piling up 53 tackles over the past four games. Borland has the look of a special player on Game Rewind, highlighting a rock-solid 49ers draft class that saw general manager Trent Baalke also add a tantalizing fifth-round pass rusher in Lynch. Coaches have already thrust Lynch into a rotation with Ahmad Brooks, something the veteran didn't appreciate.

John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals: One of the few offseason hype-bunnies who lived up to the billing, Brown has emerged as a highlight machine for the NFC West-leading Cardinals. The third-rounder is already tied for the most game-winning touchdown receptions in a single season with three scores -- joining Reggie Wayne, Greg Jennings, Randy Moss and Sterling Sharpe -- while giving coach Bruce Arians a true deep threat to pair with Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd.

Corey Linsley, OL, Green Bay Packers: After a rocky start, Linsley has developed into one of the NFC's better centers, grading third among all players at his position, per Pro Football Focus. A pair of NFC executives told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Linsley already ranks in the top half of the NFL's 32 starters. "I like him better than any center Green Bay has had in recent years," one scout said. "There's a lot of trash in this league. I would think he's top 10, maybe 10 or 12." Per STATS, Linsley is the NFL's only center with seven-plus starts and no sacks allowed.

Martavis Bryant, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers: One scout noted before the draft that Clemson officials insisted Bryant played faster than No. 4 overall pick and former teammate Sammy Watkins. Touted by Steelers coaches in July as a red-zone threat, Bryant is one of our favorite late-bloomers: After playing zero snaps through Week 6, the fourth-round size-speed freak emerged in Week 7 to notch six touchdowns over his first four games.

Terrance West, RB, Cleveland Browns: Coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer thought enough of West and fellow rookie Isaiah Crowell to toss veteran Ben Tate to the street. While Crowell headlined our list of undrafted gems, only two rookies average more carries per game than West. We've long seen Crowell as the better runner, but West has churned out more yards than all but one of the five backs drafted before him in May. Both young backs have fit well in Kyle Shanahan's attack.

Alfred Blue, RB, Houston Texans: Stepping in for an injured Arian Foster, Blue flashed moves and ran with power en route to a career-best 156 yards against the Browns in Week 11. His 120 carries on the year -- just 41 fewer than Foster's -- rank third among all rookie runners. We prefer fellow LSU product Jeremy Hill to Blue, but Houston has seen a surprising amount of production from the 15th back taken off the board in May.

E.J. Gaines, CB, St. Louis Rams: Only three Rams defenders have played more snaps than Gaines. Plugged in as an immediate contributor, the sixth-round corner out of Missouri has seen action in the slot and outside for a St. Louis defense that runs plenty of nickel. Playing more snaps and boasting a higher Pro Football Focus grade at corner than first-rounders Jimmie Ward, Bradley Roby, Kyle Fuller and Justin Gilbert, Gaines has delivered.

Telvin Smith, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars: We first noticed Smith in Jacksonville's lone win over the Browns. An active pass-rusher, the fifth-rounder has shown a knack for the ball, most recently recovering a pair of fumbles in Sunday's loss to the Colts. The AFC Defensive Player of Week 7 has been a bright spot for an otherwise lost team.

Preston Brown, LB, Buffalo Bills: After a training camp that coach Doug Marrone put on par with Kiko Alonso's rookie summer, Brown has played both outside and in the middle and played more snaps than anyone on Jim Schwartz's defense. He's been used heavily on passing downs and leads the team in tackles. 

Avery Williamson, LB, Tennessee Titans: The Titans have gotten plenty of production from May's draft class, especially from Williamson. With four sacks -- including three takedowns of Ben Roethlisberger last Monday night -- the fifth-rounder out of Kentucky has brought energy to an otherwise milquetoast roster. "I want every NFL team to know who I am," Williamson said, "no matter what the circumstances are."

The latest Around The NFL Podcast recaps every Sunday game from Week 12 and discusses Ryan Tannehill's progression. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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