The Brandt Report

Top rookie-veteran duos: Calvin Ridley, Julio Jones dazzle

It's a classic pairing: the brash, young hotshot ready to make his mark and the savvy, wise veteran at the peak of his abilities.

With most teams having played a quarter of their season, I thought I'd take a look at the NFL's rookie-veteran duos to identify the youth-experience combos making the biggest impact this season. Below are my top seven rookie-veteran duos through Week 4:

1) Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons receivers: Ridley did not begin his career with a bang, logging zero catches (on just two targets) in Week 1. But while he has yet to start a game, the first-round pick has ramped up the pace considerably, collecting an astonishing six touchdown receptions in three games since -- the most in the league, and an NFL record for a rookie in his team's first four games. His reception and yardage totals (15 and 264, for a healthy 17.6 average) are nothing to sneeze at, either. Ridley is an excellent route-runner who also brings loads of speed and outstanding hands to the table. He's undoubtedly helping to open things up for Jones -- who, oddly, does not have a touchdown catch yet, though he leads the NFL with 502 receiving yards -- and the rest of the Falcons' offense. I think Ridley will continue to cede starts to veteran No. 2 receiver Mohamed Sanu, but Ridley is a more potent big-play threat than Sanu, having outgained Sanu by 80 yards despite playing 51 fewer snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. Right now, Ridley looks like a strong candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year. 

2) Denzel Ward (CB) and Damarious Randall (S), Cleveland Browns defensive backs: Some doubted the wisdom of picking a cornerback fourth overall, especially with Bradley Chubb (more on him later) still sitting out there. But Ward has exceeded expectations, collecting two picks, three passes defensed and a forced fumble to place himself at the forefront of the Defensive Rookie of the Year discussion. He's an excellent cover man who is also strong in press coverage. In fact, he reminds me of last year's DROY, Saints CB Marshon Lattimore -- although Ward is a little bit shorter. Randall brings a strong veteran presence, contributing two picks of his own (and a team-high six passes defensed) after collecting 10 interceptions in his first three pro seasons with the Packers. With Ward and Randall in the secondary, the Browns have a league-high 13 takeaways, which has helped the team post an NFL-best turnover-differential of plus-7.

3) Bradley Chubb and Von Miller, Denver Broncos linebackers: Miller hasn't had a pass-rushing partner-in-crime of Chubb's caliber since DeMarcus Ware. Chubb is definitely living up to his pedigree as the fifth overall pick in the draft, leading the Broncos in pressures (15) and hurries (11), according to Pro Football Focus. The rookie is a playmaker (1.5 sacks) who will force opponents to honor him, thus freeing Miller to do his thing (4.0 sacks, two forced fumbles). Chubb is everything you want in a pass-rusher; he has speed, competitiveness and length, and he has strong recognition skills for someone adjusting to a role where he drops into coverage rather than rushing the passer with his hand on the ground all the time. In the years to come, Chubb will develop into the kind of guy who can take the elite-pass-rushing mantle from Miller.

4) Roquan Smith and Khalil Mack, Chicago Bears linebackers: Smith's task as a rookie got a lot easier when the Bearstraded for Mack, a relentless pass rusher who can also make plays in space. Mack's been dominant thus far this season. As for Smith, in four games (three starts), he has 18 tackles, second-most on the Bears -- it's impressive for a rookie to play such a big role for a defense that is performing as well as Chicago's (ranked fourth overall and third in points allowed). It's also encouraging that, with Smith manning the inside linebacker spot, the Bears have mounted the league's second-best run defense. If he can avoid injury, Smith should continue to grow into the next great Bears middle linebacker -- just what he was expected to be when Chicago took him eighth overall.

5) Antonio Callaway and Jarvis Landry, Cleveland Browns receivers: Callaway has elevated himself from fourth-round pick to starter, showing flashes of being special. Think of the 59-yard catch that helped the Browns take a fourth-quarter lead in Oakland -- the longest pass play of the Hue Jackson era thus far. Callaway has speed to spare, though I think he needs to improve on his route-running ability. I'm not sure he'll become a perennial Pro Bowler, but I do see him developing into a solid, upper-echelon contributor. Landry is a superb route-runner with outstanding hands, someone who serves as a reliable offensive centerpiece even though he's not exactly the fastest guy on the field. Callaway would do well to follow the example of Landry, who is just the fifth player in Browns history to notch 20-plus catches and 300-plus yards in the first four games of a season -- and the first since Jordan Cameron did it in 2013.

6) Harold Landry and Derrick Morgan/Brian Orakpo, Tennessee Titans linebackers:Landry's strip-sack in Week 4 against the Eagles was a delight to watch, amplified by its importance in the Titans' upset win over the defending Super Bowl champions. He's an undersized pass-rusher with great first-step quickness, though I'm not sure how good he is against the run. That said, I think he has a chance to replace either Morgan or Orakpo by the end of the season. Despite missing the season opener and recording zero starts thus far, Landry ranks second on the team in hurries with 10, according to Pro Football Focus. (Orakpo is right behind him with nine and Morgan has seven.)

7) Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount, Detroit Lions running backs: Based on what he did at Auburn, you knew Johnson could run. So it wasn't that shocking to see him become the Lions' first 100-yard rusher since 2013 in Detroit's Week 3 win over the Patriots. What has surprised me is Johnson's ability to catch the football. In college, he never caught more than 24 balls in one season; through four games as a pro, Johnson has 11 catches already. He's also contributed two 20-plus-yard runs, which is a promising sign. Johnson looks like he'll be a perennial 1,000-yard runner who can help you in pass protection, as a receiver and with the ball in his hands. He shows some vision as a runner -- I saw him make a play the other day where, with the hole jammed up, he bounced it outside and made a nine-yard gain out of a run that was going nowhere. To be perfectly frank, Johnson is why this tandem is listed here. But while Blount obviously has plenty of miles on his legs, is on the wrong side of 30 and hasn't produced much of note on the field this season, he's a good locker-room person who can help show Johnson the way.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter _@GilBrandt_.

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