As the college football season winds down, we're going to hear plenty of talk about a metaphorical barricade in the NFL known as "the rookie wall."
At this time of year, most college football programs have concluded their regular-season schedules, and their players are afforded some much-needed physical and mental rest before they begin preparing for bowl games or offseason workout programs. However, there is no such downtime for NFL rookies.
First-year quarterbacks Andrew Luck (Indianapolis Colts), Ryan Tannehill (Miami Dolphins), Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks) and Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins) all enjoyed a minimum of 26 days between their final regular-season college contests and their respective bowl games last year. Instead of getting another break this year, all four must continue to perform in high-pressure situations as their teams fight for playoff spots.
Those quarterbacks aren't the only rookies who will play crucial roles for teams in the midst of making a postseason push. Here are seven key rookies who must keep playing at a high level and avoid hitting that rookie wall:
1) Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Martin has been a workhorse for the Bucs. He's already rushed for more than 1,000 yards, and his play has provided a huge boost for quarterback Josh Freeman and the revived passing attack in Tampa. Despite Sunday's tough loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the Bucs are in the mix for a wild-card spot.
2) Alfred Morris, RB, Washington Redskins
RG3 has captivated the football world with his weekly highlights, but Morris, who is closing in on 1,000 rushing yards, has been crucial to the Redskins' offensive explosion, as well. His powerful running style is a perfect complement to RG3's sleek agility. Led by these two rookies, the Redskins have clawed their way back into playoff contention following a rough three-game skid in the middle of the season.
*3) Chandler Jones, DE, New England Patriots *The Patriots hit a home run when they selected Jones in the first round of April's draft. He's produced six sacks and forced three fumbles this season while also playing very stout run defense. Jones is the top pass-rushing threat along the Patriots' defensive front.
5) T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck is the headliner in Indianapolis, but Hilton, who leads the team with five receiving touchdowns, was the steal of the draft for the Colts. The third-round pick has provided an explosive presence down the field, and complements veteran receiver Reggie Wayne quite nicely. Against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Hilton also returned a punt for a touchdown.
6) Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks
Wagner has already established himself as one of the NFL's most athletic and explosive linebackers, racking up 90 tackles, two sacks and one interception so far. With some potential defensive suspensions looming, the Seahawks must continue to get big plays from Wagner.
7) Vontaze Burfict, LB, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals are currently one of the hottest teams in the NFL, and they're right back in the playoff mix. Burfict's issues off the field have often been cited as the reason he went undrafted, but his performance on the field during his final year at Arizona State couldn't have helped much, either. However, Burfict seems to have successfully put the past behind him; he's playing very well for the Bengals, racking up 76 tackles, second-most on the team.
Didn't see this coming
While making my preseason predictions, I struggled to call a winner in the AFC West, going back and forth between the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs before eventually hitching my wagon to Peyton Manning's new squad. However, I didn't completely bail on Kansas City, picking the Chiefs to nail down one of the AFC's two wild-card spots.
Safe to say, I didn't see this train wreck coming. The Chiefs have the NFL's worst record (1-10) and, after Sunday's loss to the Broncos, have dropped eight straight contests. The majority of their issues are on the offensive side of the ball; they have gone two straight games without producing a touchdown, and they are averaging a league-worst 14.6 points per game this season.
The Chiefs' quarterback issues have been well documented, but this offense isn't devoid of talent. Jamaal Charles is one of the NFL's most explosive running backs, and, when focused, Dwayne Bowe can be a top-10 receiver. Second-year wideout Jon Baldwin brings a nice blend of size and speed to the table, while fellow receiver Dexter McCluster has the quickness to create separation out of the slot. The offensive line isn't stellar, but it's far from the worst in the league.
The offense currently ranks 20th in total yards, but the unit's futile efforts to protect the football have destroyed any chance of success; the Chiefs have thrown a league-high 16 interceptions and lost 10 fumbles. Their turnover ratio of minus-21 is also the NFL's worst. Poor quarterback play and a tendency to turn the ball over will always get in the way, regardless of how much offensive talent a team has. The Chiefs are a perfect example of that principle.
Three startling statistics
1) Arian Foster has more rushing touchdowns (12) than the Packers, Rams, Raiders and Jaguars combined (11).I'm not surprised by Foster's production with the Houston Texans, but I am definitely surprised by the poor output from Green Bay, St. Louis, Oakland and Jacksonville. The Packers are at the bottom of the basement with a paltry two rushing touchdowns.
2) On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers turned the ball over as many times (eight) as the New England Patriots have all season. The Steelers were playing their third-string quarterback in the loss to the Cleveland Browns, but there is still no excuse for committing that many turnovers. The Patriots, on the other hand, have long held a reputation for not beating themselves. They refuse to give other teams extra possessions and advantageous field position.
3) The Houston Texans' J.J. Watt leads all defensive linemen in both tackles (54) and sacks (14.5). Since 2001, just one player has topped NFL defensive linemen in both categories during the same season: Green Bay Packers defensive end Aaron Kampman, who did it in 2006 with 89 tackles and 15.5 sacks.
Déjà vu in the AFC?
The two wild-card spots in the AFC are up for grabs, but the four division winners are just about etched in stone. The Denver Broncos (8-3) have a commanding four-game lead in the AFC West, while the Texans (10-1), Ravens (9-2) and the Patriots (8-3) have solid three-game advantages in the South, North and East, respectively.
It's tough to imagine any of these teams falling off. All four won their respective divisions last season, and they are a combined 15-0 in divisional play this season.