If you're an NFL rookie looking to make a splash, nothing beats playing as well as anyone at your position.
Ten weeks into the 2014 season, several rookies have distinguished themselves as top-notch talents, laughing in the face of the widely accepted three-year learning curve and producing with the best of the best. So with fan voting on the 2015 Pro Bowl now open, I thought this would be a good time to weigh in on the rookies -- 10, to be exact -- who I think are having Pro Bowl-caliber debut campaigns.
Note: Obviously, not all of these rookies will actually make the Pro Bowl, due to the established veteran talent at the various position groups around the NFL. The first three rookies listed have a good chance to be on the Pro Bowl roster; the bottom seven are playing like Pro Bowlers, even if the odds are against them being honored.
It takes exceptional instincts to thrive at inside linebacker. This was true in the days of Lee Roy Jordan, it was true when Ray Lewis was ruling the field and it's true now. Mosley does indeed have exceptional instincts. He's more of a narrow-bodied guy, but this actually makes it easier for him to drop into coverage. Mosley's an excellent tackler who plays with tons of energy and had a very good first half of the season. He leads NFL rookies with 90 total tackles and ranks fourth league-wide. Mosley has exceeded my expectations for him.
You can tell Martin was well-coached at Notre Dame -- where he spent five years (four as a starter) -- based on his top-notch hand placement. Most rookies enter the league needing to improve on this crucial element of offensive line play; even Joe Thomas had to work on it at first. But it's already a high-point of Martin's game. He's very athletic and smart, and passes off his stunts very well. Martin's a huge force behind the Cowboys' success this season, playing as well as Chicago Bears lineman Kyle Long did during his Pro Bowl campaign as a rookie last year.
Barr has 58 tackles, four sacks and three passes defensed -- and he's still just learning the position, having converted from running back to linebacker just two years ago at UCLA. He makes plays without straining; thanks to his speed, it never looks like he's running out of control. Just think of how he single-handedly beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 8: In overtime, Barr helped strip the ball out of Austin Seferian-Jenkins' hands, scooped it up and dashed to the end zone for the winning score, earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Barr has been a big part of the Vikings' success rushing the passer (Minnesota's ranked third in the NFL with 30 sacks) and will continue to flourish under Mike Zimmer, one of the best defensive coaches in the NFL.
Evans, who seems to get better every game, is faster than his 40-yard dash (4.53 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine). He's still not an accomplished route runner, but he's improving and learning, rather than simply running out there and trying to be the guy. His play might be flying a bit below the radar, thanks to the struggles of the 1-8 Buccaneers, but he's shown that his game is about more than size. As would be expected of a guy with his dimensions (6-foot-5, 231 pounds), Evans does, of course, catch slants and use his body to position himself, but he can also go deep. He tracks the ball very well for someone who hasn't played the position at a high competition level for very long.
The quick Watkins excels at extending for the catch, and he can run after he hauls it in. Entering the NFL, his route-running ability was considered something of a question mark, given that he didn't really have to run routes at Clemson, but he's shown he can do that at the pro level. The Bills' decision to replace EJ Manuel with Kyle Orton -- who has more experience and is better at reading defenses -- was a boon for Watkins. My only worry about Watkins has to do with his health. If I knew he was an automatic lock to run out there 16 times a year, I'd probably rank him ahead of Evans.
If Cooks were playing anywhere but in New Orleans, where he has to share targets with Jimmy Graham, he'd have a lot more than 48 catches -- although it must be said that it seems Drew Brees has been going Cooks' way more frequently lately. Cooks' shuttle time at the combine (3.81 seconds, best among receivers) indicated an amazing level of quickness, and that's shown through on the field: it's cat-like, reminiscent of T.Y. Hilton. Cooks has good route-running ability, but because he's more of a slot guy, I don't think I can put him up with the guys who operate on the outside. Still, Cooks is pretty good.
After playing tackle at Nevada, Bitonio moved to guard for the Browns, becoming part of an offensive line that has more or less held its own, despite the loss of center Alex Mack; consider that Cleveland is on pace to allow 26 fewer sacks than it did last year while rushing for 501 more yards. The very competitive Bitonio, who has a real mean streak, has learned to play better with regard to his hand placement.
As the best defensive player on a poor team, Mack is accounted for on every play, targeted and blocked by the opposition -- and still, he has the fourth-most tackles among rookies (51), which should tell you something. He's athletic, tough and speedy. If he were part of a defense that forced opponents to worry about other players, Mack's production would be much better.
Donald has started five of nine games this season, collecting three sacks and one forced fumble. He looks very quick off the ball. Consider this impressive statistical comparison: Donald has 10 pressures, seven quarterback knockdowns and 12 stuffs. The Detroit Lions' Ndamukong Suh, who is considered to be as good as any defensive tackle in the NFL right now, has 13 pressures, seven knockdowns and eight stuffs. When those three important categories are totaled up, Donald is actually better than Suh by one (29 to 28).
Matthews had a huge night against the Panthers on Monday, racking up 138 yards and two scores on seven catches. On the season, Matthews has five touchdowns on 39 receptions. When you watch the Eagles play, you can see they trust Matthews; just think of how they went to him in the end zone on the last play of their close loss to the Cardinalsin Week 8.
Just missed the cut:Odell Beckham, WR, New York Giants; Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers; Blake Bortles, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars; John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals; Preston Brown, ILB, Buffalo Bills; Martavis Bryant, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers; Kyle Fuller, CB, Chicago Bears; Gabe Jackson, OG, Oakland Raiders; Jarvis Landry, WR, Miami Dolphins.