Ranking the NFL’s Top Rookies of 2012

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<p> Ranking the NFL’s Top Rookies of 2012</p>

On Saturday the Associated Press will reveal the winners for its Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards for the 2012 NFL season. Unlike, last year when Cam Newton and Von Miller took home the offensive and defensive awards by sizeable margins, this year’s rookie class is rather deep on both sides of the ball.

The AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honor looks to be at least a three-man race between quarterbacks Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson, and that doesn’t include running backs Doug Martin or Alfred Morris. Defensively, the two main contenders appear to be linebackers Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, but that doesn’t mean someone else, like a Casey Hayward or Lavonte David perhaps, won’t get their fair share of votes either. Who knows? Kicker Blair Walsh could even possibly get a vote or two, especially considering the fact he’s already received one honor from the AP – first-team All-Pro.

Whoever ends up picking up the AP’s hardware one thing is clear: This year’s rookie class did not lack for productive, impact players. Here are Athlon Sports' top rookies of the 2012 NFL season.

1. Russell Wilson, QB
2012 Draft: Third Round (No. 75 overall) by Seattle
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 252-of-393, 3,118 yards passing, 26 TDs, 10 INTs, 100.0 passer rating, 94 att., 489 yards rushing, 4 TDs, 3 lost fumbles

While the gap between first and second on this list is fairly small, Wilson gets the nod because he went from a questionable third-round pick who was not expected to start to a record-breaking quarterback who got better as the season went on. Matt Flynn, who Seattle signed as a free agent before they took Wilson in the third round, was projected to be the team’s starter but a preseason elbow injury opened the door for Wilson, and he promptly took full advantage of the opportunity.

Although he did have the support of one of the league’s best defenses, Wilson more than did his job on offense. Besides tying Peyton Manning’s single-season record for touchdown passes by a rookie, Wilson finished fourth in the NFL in passer rating. Not a prolific passer (tied for 25th in attempts), Wilson made the most of the chances he got, as his 26 touchdown passes tied him for 9th and he was eighth in completion percentage at 64.1 percent.

The most important statistic, however, is wins and not only did Wilson help lead the Seahawks to four more wins (11) in 2012 compared to 2011, he also won his first career playoff start on the road against Washington. He nearly pulled it off again the following week in Atlanta when he set a franchise postseason record for passing yards (385) in leading a furious second-half comeback that came up just short in the Divisional loss to the Falcons. Over his last 10 games of the season, including the two playoff games, Wilson accounted for 24 total touchdowns (19 pass, 5 rush) and only four turnovers (3 INTs, 1 fumble).

2. Robert Griffin III, QB
2012 Draft:
First Round (No. 2 overall) by Washington
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 258-of-393, 3,200 yards passing, 20 TDs, 5 INTs, 102.4 passer rating, 120 att., 815 yards rushing, 7 TDs, 2 lost fumbles (15 games)

If the early returns are any indication, there’s little doubt that Washington made the right decision in trading with St. Louis for the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft. In fact, after helping orchestrate a five-win turnaround that resulted in the Redskins’ first division title since 1999, the only question surrounding Griffin is will he be able to stay healthy enough to take them even farther in the future?

How quickly Griffin will be able to bounce back from the ACL and LCL damage he sustained in the Redskins’ Wild Card loss to Seattle remains to be seen. What we already know, however, is what he is capable of doing when he is on the field and healthy. The first NFL starting quarterback born in the 1990s, Griffin set the rookie record for passer rating at 102.4, while also finishing 20th in the league in rushing.

Griffin showed plenty of poise in the pocket, as he threw the fewest interceptions (five) among quarterbacks with more than 350 attempts. He was fourth in completion percentage (65.6), while also averaging nearly seven yards a carry. Griffin still has a lot to learn when it comes to protecting himself once he gets out of the pocket, but there’s no questioning his athleticism, playmaking ability or toughness for that matter.

Just a week after sustaining a concussion, Griffin ran for a season-high 138 yards in a win against Minnesota. His work on the ground that game included a 76-yard touchdown run, the longest by a quarterback since 1996. A little more than a month later Griffin posted a perfect 158.3 passer rating in a win over the Eagles, making him the youngest player in NFL history (22 years, 284 days old) to do so. With production like this, it’s little surprise that Griffin was the only rookie position player (not special teams) named to the initial Pro Bowl roster.

3. Andrew Luck, QB
2012 Draft:
First Round (No. 1 overall) by Indianapolis
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 339-of-627, 4,374 yards passing, 23 TDs, 18 INTs, 76.5 passer rating, 62 att., 255 yards rushing, 5 TDs, 5 lost fumbles

Even though he ends up third on this list, Indianapolis fans have to be thrilled about what they saw in Year One of the Andrew Luck era. Whether or not Luck will be able to replicate the sort of success Peyton Manning had remains to be seen, but he certainly got things started on the right foot. Even with all of the roster turnover the Colts went through prior to the season, Luck was the biggest and most important on-field factor behind the team’s nine-win improvement and playoff appearance in 2012.

Luck broke Cam Newton’s single-season record for passing yards by a rookie quarterback (4,374) as he posted six 300-yard games, including a season-high 433 against Miami. Luck also proved he was capable of carrying a team on his back, as he engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives.

The downside to all of the passes he threw (fifth in the NFL in attempts) were the interceptions (18, tied for third) and the accuracy. His 54.1 completion percentage was second-lowest in the league among quarterbacks with 300 attempts. But it doesn’t mean he won’t get better in those two areas either. Luck didn’t throw a single pick in his final three regular-season games.

4. Alfred Morris, RB
2012 Draft:
Sixth Round (No. 173 overall) by Washington
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 335 att., 1,613 yards rushing, 13 TDs, 11 rec., 77 yards receiving, 3 lost fumbles

If not for Russell Wilson’s performance, Morris would win the award for most surprising 2012 rookie campaign. An unheralded sixth-round pick out of Florida Atlantic, Morris came out of nowhere to not only earn the Redskins' starting running back job, which is no small feat in and of itself considering Mike Shanahan is his head coach, but to thrive in it.

Morris finished second only to Adrian Peterson in rushing yards, setting a new Redskins’ franchise single-season record in the process. Together he and Griffin helped this team set a new franchise single-season mark for rushing yards (2,709) as well. Morris also was second in the NFL in both rushing touchdowns and first downs, and proved himself to be a durable and reliable back. He was third in the league in attempts and turned all those carries into seven 100-yard games, including a season-high 200 against Dallas in the final game of the regular season, a win that also earned Washington the NFC East title.

Although he wasn’t selected for the Pro Bowl, Morris was named second team All-Pro by the Associated Press. He was only one of three rookies (Blair Walsh first team, David Wilson second) to receive this honor.

5. Doug Martin, RB
2012 Draft:
First Round (No. 31 overall) by Tampa Bay
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 319 att., 1,454 yards rushing, 11 TDs, 49 rec., 472 yards receiving, 1 TD, 1 lost fumble

Tampa Bay traded back into the first round to draft Martin, and the Buccaneers were rewarded handsomely for their faith in the diminutive running back out of Boise State. The man known as the “Muscle Hamster” did some mighty fine work with his legs, finishing fifth in the NFL in rushing, third in yards from scrimmage and tied for sixth in total touchdowns. His 1,926 yards from scrimmage placed him second all-time in Tampa Bay franchise history, while he set a new single-season rushing mark for Buccaneer rookies.

Besides re-writing the Tampa Bay record books, Martin also carved out some space for him in the NFL history books when he piled up 251 yards rushing and scored four touchdowns against Oakland in Week 9. The third-most rushing yards by a rookie in a game, Martin joined Mike Anderson as the only backs in NFL history with at least 250 rushing yards and four touchdowns in a single contest. Martin’s four touchdowns came on runs of 70 yards, 67, 45 and 1, making him the first back since 1940 to score on three runs of at least 45 yards in one game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Martin capped off his fine rookie campaign by being named to the Pro Bowl as Frank Gore’s replacement. In Hawaii, Martin picked up eight yards rushing on three carries and also caught three passes for 40 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown pass from fellow rookie Russell Wilson.

6. Trent Richardson, RB
2012 Draft:
First Round (No. 3 overall) by Cleveland
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 267 att., 950 yards rushing, 11 TDs, 51 rec., 367 yards receiving, 1 TD, 0 lost fumbles (15 games)

While his statistical production may not have matched the likes of Alfred Morris or Doug Martin, Richardson gave Cleveland fans plenty of reasons to be excited about the future. Showing the power, vision and toughness that made him a star at Alabama, Richardson finished just 50 yards shy of the 1,000-yard rushing mark, as a rib injury caused him to miss one game and limited him in a few others.

Still, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft was top 20 in the league in rushing, tied for fifth with 11 rushing touchdowns and finished second on the Browns and seventh among all NFL running backs with 51 receptions. It also should be pointed out that for the season Richardson averaged less than 18 carries per game. He only got 20 or more attempts five times, and in those games he averaged nearly 96 yards rushing per game. Don’t be surprised if new Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski leans on Richardson a lot this coming season.

7. Matt Kalil, OL
2012 Draft:
First Round (No. 4 overall) by Minnesota
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 16 starts at left tackle, 2 sacks allowed, 2 QB hits allowed, 2 QB hurries allowed, six penalties called on (stats courtesy of ProFootballFocus.com)

Although it’s somewhat difficult to quantify the production of an offensive lineman, there is no mistaking the impact Kalil had for Minnesota in his first season. The first offensive lineman taken and the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, the Vikings plugged Kalil in at the critical left tackle position and never looked back.

The starter at left tackle the entire season, Kalil played a big role in Adrian Peterson’s 2,097-yard season, while also getting the job done in pass protection. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s position rankings, Kalil finished the season tied at No. 22 overall among offensive tackles and 15th among left tackles. Kalil allowed just two sacks during the regular season and was rewarded for his efforts with a trip to Hawaii when he was named as a Pro Bowl injury replacement for Washington’s Trent Williams.

8. Luke Kuechly, LB
2012 Draft:
First Round (No. 9 overall) by Carolina
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 164 total tackles (103 solo), 1 sack, 8 passes defended, 2 INTs, 22 yards, 3 fumble recoveries

Kuechly, a tackling machine at Boston College, was the first linebacker selected in the 2012 NFL Draft and he wasted no time in making an impression in the NFL. Plugged into the middle of Carolina’s linebacking corps from Week 1, Kuechly finished his rookie campaign with an NFL-leading 164 total tackles, 103 of them being solo stops. He posted 10 or more total tackles in 10 games, while also holding his own in pass coverage, collecting two interceptions along with his three fumble recoveries.

9. Bobby Wagner, LB
2012 Draft:
Second Round (No. 47 overall) by Seattle
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 140 total tackles (86 solo), 2 sacks, 4 passes defended, 3 INTs, 55 yards

Right behind Kuechly on this list is Wagner, whom Seattle drafted a round later out of Utah State and ended up being a fixture of a talented, athletic Seahawks linebacking corps. Wagner started all but one game at middle linebacker, leading the team and ranking seventh in the NFL in total tackles with 140 (86 solo). His three interceptions were tied for the second-most on the team and he had six games with 10 or more tackles. Wagner continued his strong play in the postseason, picking up 17 more tackles (12 solo) and an interception in the Seahawks’ two playoff contests.

10. Blair Walsh, K
2012 Draft:
Sixth Round (No. 175 overall) by Minnesota
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 35-of-38 FGs, 36-of-36 PATs, 141 points

Say what you want about kickers, but when a rookie gets voted to the Pro Bowl and is named first-team All-Pro, you have to give credit where credit is due. Especially when the rookie in question led the league in field goals made, including 10-of-10 from 50 yards and beyond.

Walsh, who tied the NFL single-season record for field goals made a by a rookie kicker, finished fourth in the league in points and field goal accuracy (92.1 percent). He had seven games with three or more made field goals, including one where he kicked five, three of which were longer than 50 yards. Walsh’s part in Minnesota’s turnaround from 3-13 in 2011 to 10-6 and a Wild Card berth this season can’t be overlooked.

11. Casey Hayward, CB
2012 Draft:
Second Round (No. 62 overall) by Green Bay
2012 Regular-Season Draft: 53 total tackles (40 solo), 21 passes defended, 6 INTs, 81 yards, 1 forced fumble

Although he was a second-round pick, I’m not even sure Green Bay expected this type of season out of the former Vanderbilt cornerback. Hayward excelled in pass coverage, tying for fifth in the league in interceptions with six and tied for third with 21 passes defended. A contributor all season long, Hayward worked his way into the starting lineup and figures to remain there for the long haul as ProFootballFocus.com rated him as the third-best cornerback in the entire NFL for the 2012 season.

12. David Wilson, KR/RB
2012 Draft:
First Round (No. 32 overall) by New York Giants
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 71 att., 358 yards rushing, 4 TDs, 4 rec., 34 yards receiving, TD, 57 kickoff returns, 1,533 return yards, TD, 1 lost fumble

If not for a fumble in the season opener and the coaching staff’s decision to “ground” him for an extended period following that, there’s no telling where Wilson could have finished on this list. There is no doubting his production, as the last pick of the first round out of Virginia Tech averaged 14.6 yards per touch. All he needed was more opportunities.

Still, Wilson more than made an impact when he did get his hands on the ball, as evidenced by his league-leading kickoff return yards and fifth-place finish in all-purpose yards. His biggest game of the season by far came in Week 14 against New Orleans when he set a new Giants’ franchise record for all-purpose yards. Wilson piled up 327 yards against the Saints, 100 of them rushing on just 13 carries, including a 52-yard touchdown run, and the rest coming on four kickoff returns for 227 yards, highlighted by a 97-yard return for a touchdown.

Wilson was named to the AP’s All-Pro second team as the kick returner, joining fellow rookies Blair Walsh (first) and Alfred Morris (second) in this distinction.

13. Lavonte David, LB
2012 Draft:
Second Round (No. 58 overall) by Tampa Bay
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 139 total tackles (112 solo), 2 sacks, 5 passes defended, 1 INT, 27 yards

Although he lasted until late in the second round, David played like the first-round talent many thought he could be coming out of Nebraska. A starter from Week 1 for Tampa Bay, David tied for eighth in the NFL in total tackles (139) and was second in solo stops with 112. David proved his worth in both stopping the run and pass coverage, as he rarely left the field and finished his rookie season rated No. 5 among 4-3 outside linebackers by ProFootballFocus.com.

14. Harrison Smith, S
2012 Draft:
First Round (No. 29 overall) by Minnesota
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 103 total tackles (73 solo), 11 passes defended, 3 INTs, 87 yards, 2 TDs, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery

Some draft analysts were surprised when Minnesota traded back into the first round to select the former Notre Dame safety, but Smith provided an instant upgrade to the Vikings’ secondary. Excelling in pass coverage, Smith turned two of his three interceptions into touchdowns and finished as a top-20 safety, according to ProFootballFocus.com’s ratings. Between Smith and left tackle Matt Kalil (No. 7), Minnesota picked up two, solid building blocks for its future in the first round of the 2012 draft.

15. T.Y. Hilton, WR
2012 Draft:
Third Round (No. 92 overall) by Indianapolis
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 50 rec., 861 yards receiving, 7 TDs, 5 att., 29 yards rushing, 7 kickoff returns, 118 kickoff return yards, 26 punt returns, 300 return yards, TD, 0 fumbles lost

Even though Indianapolis’ 2012 draft haul included the likes of Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen and Vick Ballard, it could be argued that other than Luck no selection was more valuable than Hilton. A slight, but electric playmaker at FIU, Hilton was much more than just a return specialist in his first season with the Colts. A favorite deep target for Luck in the passing game, Hilton led all rookies with seven touchdown catches, was second in receiving yards and third in receptions. Hilton’s versatility and ability to make a difference on offense and special teams is why he gets the nod over his fellow rookie wide receivers.

Best of the rest:
(In alphabetical order)

Vick Ballard, RB
2012 Draft:
Fifth Round (No. 170 overall) by Indianapolis
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 211 att., 814 yards rushing, 2 TDs, 17 rec., 152 yards receiving, TD, 0 lost fumbles

Justin Blackmon, WR
2012 Draft:
First Round (No. 5 overall) by Jacksonville
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 64 rec., 865 yards receiving, 5 TDs, 2 att., 23 yards rushing, 0 lost fumbles

Vontaze Burfict, LB
2012 Draft:
Signed with Cincinnati as undrafted free agent
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 127 total tackles (73 solo), 1 sack, 2 passes defended, 2 fumble recoveries

Josh Gordon, WR
2012 Draft:
Taken by Cleveland in the Second Round of the Supplemental Draft (Browns will forfeit their pick in the Second Round of 2013 NFL Draft as a result)
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 50 rec., 805 yards receiving, 5 TDs, 1 lost fumble

Janoris Jenkins, CB
2012 Draft:
Second Round (No. 39 overall) by St. Louis
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 73 total tackles (64 solo), 14 passes defended, 4 INTs, 150 yards, 3 TDs, 1 fumble recovery, 1 TD, 1 blocked kick

Bernard Pierce, RB
2012 Draft:
Third Round (No. 84 overall) by Baltimore
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 108 att., 532 yards rushing, 3 TDs, 7 rec., 47 yards receiving

Kendall Wright, WR
2012 Draft:
First Round (No. 20 overall) by Tennessee
2012 Regular-Season Stats: 64 rec., 626 yards receiving, 4 TDs, 1 att., 4 yards rushing, 1 lost fumble

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