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Position rankings: Rookie of the Year candidates

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Not all rookie classes are created equal. Some years, Sam Bradford wins by default as a league-average quarterback on a 7-9 Rams outfit. Other years, Robert Griffin III's spectacular NFL debut edges out equally deserving young quarterbacks such as Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson.

This year's class is loaded, featuring a pair of MVP candidates in Dallas, a franchise-changing pass rusher and a dynamic all-purpose threat accomplishing feats the league hasn't seen since Gale Sayers was tearing up Wrigley Field in 1965. Let's examine the top 10 rookies of 2016:

1) Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys running back: The beating heart of the most balanced offense in the league, Elliott is already challenging Le'Veon Bell and David Johnson as the most complete player at his position. Name a trait, and Elliott has it mastered: vision, patience, burst, power, elusiveness, long speed, pass protection, soft hands, run-after-catch ability. After gashing the Buccaneers' swarming defense for a season-high 159 rushing yards last week, Elliott needs to average a manageable 129 over the final two weeks to break Eric Dickerson's 1983 rookie record of 1,808 yards. He needs just 98 more yards from scrimmage to join Dickerson and Edgerrin James (1999) as the only rookies to reach the 2,000-yard mark.

Why does Elliott get the edge over Prescott? He has a chance to establish a new benchmark for rookie running backs in a league that goes back nearly 100 years. If he catches Dickerson, he will be at least two years younger than the Rams Hall of Famer and the other 16 established veterans to reach the 1,800-yard rushing club. If he stays healthy -- a Brobdingnagian "if" in this unforgiving sport -- he's going to be a top-10 mainstay on NFL Network's "Top 100 Players" lists.

2) Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys quarterback: By any measure, Prescott is enjoying one of the finest seasons by a first-year quarterback in modern NFL history. Drafted behind 134 other players, Dallas' new offensive leader is on pace to break rookie records for completion percentage (67.7), TD-to-INT ratio (20:4) and passer rating (103.2). While it's fair to point out that he's had the luxury of incubating in an experienced, talent-rich offense with the highest run-pass ratio in the league, it must also be conceded that Prescott has guided his team to a 12-2 record with savvy decision-making, surprising accuracy and the uncanny ability to make plays with the game on the line. Prescott flirted with a staggering fourth-quarter completion percentage near 80.0 and a passer rating near 130.0 during the franchise-record 11-game winning streak.

3) Joey Bosa, San Diego Chargers pass rusher: "Around The NFL Podcast" host Dan Hanzus has compared Bosa to former Jets game-wrecking defensive end Mark Gastineau. For those of you born after 1990, Gastineau terrorized opposing quarterbacks for 19 and 22 sacks (a long-standing record until Michael Strahan broke it in 2001) as the leader of the vaunted "New York Sack Exchange" in 1983 and 1984. A franchise-altering talent along the lines of Raiders Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack, Bosa has more QB pressures through 10 games than any rookie in the past decade, per Pro Football Focus.

There are already games in which the draft's No. 3 overall pick is quite clearly the best player on the field. Even factoring in his lost September, Bosa is the obvious pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Suggesting that any other player should win the award is like taking the position that J.J. Watt hasn't been the NFL's premier defensive star of the past half-decade -- it's a dead giveaway that you're not watching the games.

4) Tyreek Hill, Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver: The electric all-purpose threat has a chance to score every time he touches the ball, outracing defenses for 10 touchdowns combined on catches, runs, kickoff and punt returns. More than just the league's most dangerous returner, the NFL's fastest player has emerged as the antidote to Kansas City's playmaking problems on offense, stressing opposing defenses as the game-breaking complement to No. 1 receiver Jeremy Maclin and All-Pro candidate Travis Kelce. This year's rookie field is one of the toughest in recent memory. There are plenty of seasons in which Hill would have run away with the award.

5) Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback: It's rare for even the most promising cornerback prospects to hold their own as rookies, but Ramsey is doing just that for a Jacksonville defense that ranks third in yards per game since Week 9. Billed as the "best player in the draft," the hyper-competitive Ramsey has flashed All Pro-level talent while covering No. 1 receivers. He was draped all over DeAndre Hopkins in Week 15, recording five pass deflections, a forced fumble and an interception while robbing the Pro Bowl wideout of a pair of touchdowns. He has all of the tools to develop into the NFL's next great lockdown cornerback.

6) Jack Conklin, Tennessee Titans tackle: Credit new general manager Jon Robinson for executing an offseason vision of power football, stealing DeMarco Murray from the Eagles, trading up for Conklin and drafting power back Derrick Henry. The Titans were criticized for bypassing the allegedly more talented Laremy Tunsil, but the early returns suggest they knew exactly what they were doing. Conklin has been as dominant as any right tackle in football, teaming with blindside tackle Taylor Lewan to lead an offensive line that rivals the dominant units in Dallas and Oakland.

Tennessee's stirring Week 15 comeback in Kansas City was a showcase for Robinson's debut draft class. Conklin stonewalled All-Pro pass rusher Justin Houston, Henry scored a pair of touchdowns, nose tackle Austin Johnson was key in short-yardage defense, safety Kevin Byard was active at all three levels of the defense and fifth-round cornerback LeShaun Sims has proven to be an upgrade on Perrish Cox. Just wait until next year, when Robinson has his own draft picks as well as the Rams' first-rounder -- likely to be a top-10 selection.

7) Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints wide receiver: Billed as the next Marques Colston in Drew Brees' offense, Thomas is already better outside the numbers as a sideline acrobat. The former Ohio State star leads all rookie receivers in targets (99), receptions (76), receiving yards (883) and touchdowns (eight). With two games remaining, Thomas has a fighting chance to join John Jefferson, Randy Moss, Odell Beckham and Mike Evans as the only rookies of the Super Bowl era with at least 1,000 yards and 10 receiving touchdowns.

8) Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears running back: The key to stopping the monstrous power back is to test his lateral agility by moving him east-to-west instead of north-to-south. As NFL defenses have learned, that's easier said than done. Since Week 8, only Le'Veon Bell and Ezekiel Elliott have surpassed Howard's 101 rushing yards per game. Over that span, the former Indiana star ranks sixth with 124 yards from scrimmage per game. No matter who the Bears find at quarterback in 2017, he will be handing off to three-down workhorse Howard next season.

9) Leonard Floyd, Chicago Bears pass rusher: Floyd drew preseason comparisons to Aldon Smith for his explosive first step and condor-like wingspan. He won't match Smith's 14 rookie-season sacks, but he does lead all rookies this year with seven QB takedowns for a Chicago defense that ranks a surprising fourth (37) in the category. It will be interesting to see if the Bears keep head coach John Fox around for another season. Floyd's emergence as a nucleus player is a strong argument in favor of staying the course with Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense.

10) Deion Jones, Atlanta Falcons linebacker, and Noah Spence, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end: Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Dan Quinn are building a speedy, physical defense one draft at a time. After hitting home runs with Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett in 2015, they identified a pair of impact defenders in Jones and strong safety Keanu Neal this year. Much like Pittsburgh's Ryan Shazier, Jones is the exceptionally rangy centerpiece of Atlanta's defense, making plays in all facets of the game.

Tampa Bay's defense was a trainwreck in October, with Spence and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy held back by major injuries. Since the two rounded into form in early November, though, the Bucs' defense ranks second in points per game (15.0), takeaways (15) and third-down percentage (31.3). While McCoy is the driving force on the interior, Spence and Robert Ayers have been wreaking havoc off the edge. Spence captured NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors in November after recording 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and 11 tackles.

Also considered: Chris Jones, DE, Kansas City Chiefs; Keanu Neal, S, Atlanta Falcons; Yannick Ngakoue, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars; Taylor Decker, T, Detroit Lions; Cody Whitehair, C, Chicago Bears; Joe Thuney, G, New England Patriots; Rob Kelley, RB, Washington Redskins; Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Karl Joseph, S, Oakland Raiders; Hunter Henry, TE, San Diego Chargers.

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