1. Stephon Gilmore, cornerback, Buffalo Bills
Before the Bills squared off against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 6, Gilmore sent a text message to the coaching staff letting them know he wanted Larry Fitzgerald in shadow coverage. Gilmore promptly held Fitzgerald to one catch for 11 yards. From there on out, the No. 10 pick in last year's draft flirted with shut-down status against opponents' No. 1 receivers.
2. Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Carolina Panthers
The No. 9 overall pick in last year's draft became the first rookie since Patrick Willis in 2007 to lead the NFL in tackles. Kuechly was promptly rewarded with the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell noted that Kuechly played as well as any middle linebacker in the league after moving from the weak side in Week 5.
3. Lavonte David, linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Kuechly took home the hardware, but no player had more of an impact on his team's defense than David. The Bucs made the unprecedented turnaround from last in the league in run defense in 2011 to first in 2012 behind David's 20 tackles for loss -- the second-most by a rookie since the NFL began tracking the statistic in 2000. In fact, only J.J. Watt (39) and Von Miller (28) finished with more tackles for loss among all defensive players.
David also finished first among all 4-3 outside linebackers in stops (70) and tackles (122) and second to Miller in quarterback hurries (14), according to Pro Football Focus' metrics. He and three-technique tackle Gerald McCoy are the backbone of the defense going forward.
4. Dwayne Allen, tight end, Indianapolis Colts
When you go back and watch film of the Colts' 2012 season, Allen jumps off the screen as a more athletic version of Heath Miller. Big and fast with great hands and the ability to shield defenders with his body in traffic, the 64th overall pick in last year's draft outplayed the more hyped Coby Fleener as a reliable target for Andrew Luck.
After breaking Ken Dilger's franchise record for receptions by a rookie tight end, Allen should have garnered serious Pro Bowl consideration last season. "If you just look at the versatility of Dwayne Allen and his ability to line up in the backfield and lead block, or detach and line up in the slot and win the one-on-one matchup," new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton recently said, "that's a tremendous weapon that you want to have in any offense."
5. Trent Richardson, running back, Cleveland Browns
Don't make the mistake of overstating Richardson's disappointing per-play stats. The No. 3 pick in last year's draft started the season behind the eight ball following a second knee scope. By Week 6, he was playing through two to three broken ribs painful enough that he was forced to sleep standing up. All things considered, the team had to be pleased that their bell cow was able to grind out over 1,300 yards and a dozen touchdowns.
When you turn on the tape from Week 5 versus the Giants, Richardson is the most explosive player on the field. The new Browns regime expects to see that version of a healthy Richardson in 2013, already making it clear they're going to "run the shoes off" their tailback. "They're gonna pass me the ball more," Richardson told ESPN Cleveland. "And they want me to be a leader for this team. ... They want me to be that stallion that's gonna take this program to another level."