NFL Divisional Playoffs: Rookie Rankings

When you draft a player, it's an investment; you hope there is great return in the future. But this has been a special season for rookies and the way they've contributed to their teams. With just eight teams remaining in the playoffs, Scout.com's Chris Steuber ranks the top eight rookies (one per team) still standing.

The 2008 NFL Draft class has been one of the most productive and exciting classes in recent memory. The importance many of the players have had on their teams this season is remarkable and in some respects unexpected. With so many rookies having an impact, Scout.com’s Chris Steuber ranks eight rookies – one from each team – on the final eight playoff teams as the Divisional Playoffs kickoff this weekend.

The only rookie from the 2008 draft class to make the Pro Bowl, Chris Johnson has been a major reason for the rise of the Titans. Johnson, who was the 24th overall selection in the ’08 draft, finished his first year in the NFL with 1,228 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, and caught 43 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown. He played in every game except the season finale against the Colts, not because of injury, but to ensure his health for the playoffs. The Titans had a bye week last week and are well rested as they prepare to host Baltimore on Saturday. The Ravens present a tough challenge for Johnson, as they finished third in the league against the run (81.4 YPG). During a Week 4 showdown against Baltimore, which the Titans escaped with a 13 – 10 win, Johnson rushed for just 44 yards on 18 carries (2.4 YPC); his second worst offensive performance of the season. With the Ravens defense playing lights out, Johnson looks to seek revenge and be the explosive weapon he’s been most of the year.

Joe Flacco has been one of the biggest surprises of the season, and he’s handled every situation with poise beyond his years. It’s amazing to think that a year ago he was starring in the Football Championship Subdivision (Division I-AA) Championship game against Appalachian State and is now two games away from leading the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl. Blessed with prototypical measurables and an elite arm, Flacco completed 60-percent of his passes for 2,971 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. After a slow 2 - 3 start in his first five games – where he threw one touchdown pass to seven interceptions – Flacco showed his mental toughness and rebounded by leading the Ravens to a 9  - 2 record over an 11 game span; finishing the season at 11 – 5. In his first playoff start last week against the Dolphins, Flacco didn’t have his best game, completing just 39.1-percent of his passes for 135 yards. But the Ravens defense backed him up and led the way to clinch a spot in the Divisional round against the Tennessee Titans on Saturday. It doesn’t get any easier for Flacco this weekend against the Titans. Tennessee has a solid defense and a very athletic secondary full of ballhawks who captured 20 INTs and allowed 199.8 YPG through the air. This will be a tough test for Flacco as he faces a relentless and rested Titans defense. For the Ravens to be victorious, Flacco has to manage the game well with no turnovers and hope the Ravens defense continues its aggressive path.

Almost as if he were an action figure sculpted by the likes of Todd McFarlane, it’s hard to imagine that you could design a better image of a running back than Panthers first round pick Jonathan Stewart. The chiseled rookie made the most of being in the shadow of another former first round pick, DeAngelo Williams, and emerged as one of the brightest young runners in the league. In situational play this season, Stewart had 184 carries for 836 yards and 10 touchdowns. Stewart and Williams formed the third most potent rushing attack in the NFL, amassing 152.3 YPG. That rushing attack will be on display this Saturday against Arizona. After being rewarded with a bye week for their 12 – 4 record, the Panthers are well rested and will face a Cardinals defense that allowed 110.3 YPG on the ground this season. With that said, in a Week 8 battle with the Cardinals, Stewart had his worst performance of his young career, rushing for 10 yards on eight carries. On paper, this appears to be a lop-sided affair that favors the Panthers, and if they are to advance to the NFC Championship game, Williams and Stewart will have to continue to be “Smash and Dash".

Draped with the distinction of being too small and an overrated player with a massive ego, DeSean Jackson silenced the critics this season and unexpectedly ascended as the Philadelphia Eagles No. 1 wide receiver and primary punt returner. From the beginning it was obvious the Eagles had stolen a star in the second round, as Jackson quickly picked up the West Coast offense and turned his studiousness into 62 receptions for 912 yards and two touchdowns. In addition to his highlight reel ability as a receiver, the multi-dimensional Jackson offers excitement on special teams, as he returned 50 punts for 444 yards and scored one touchdown. Starting in his first playoff game last week against Minnesota, Jackson didn’t have a big impact on offense (1 catch for 34 yards), but his play on special teams was pivotal for the Eagles field position. The Eagles travel to New York to face their division rival, the Giants, on Sunday, and Jackson’s play on offense and special teams will be crucial if Philadelphia is to advance to the next round.

An unknown commodity at the beginning of the draft process last year, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie made a name for himself at the 2008 Senior Bowl and Scouting Combine and elevated his status from a third round prospect to a mid-first round pick. It’s hard to expect a player from the Division I-AA level to have an immediate impact, and at first Rodgers-Cromartie got off to a slow start. But as the season continued and he got more comfortable with the defense, the promise and playmaking ability surfaced, and Rodgers-Cromartie turned doubters into believers with his 43-tackle, four interception (one he returned for a touchdown) rookie campaign. In the Cardinals first playoff victory in 61 years, Rodgers-Cromartie played a huge role, as he recorded nine tackles and an interception. The Cardinals now face the Carolina Panthers, who possess a potent rushing attack, but Rodgers-Cromartie will have to keep the explosive Steve Smith in check.

You never think that a rookie can step in and play to the level of a veteran, but San Diego Chargers first round pick, CB Antoine Cason, proved that a rookie can have a veteran impact. A big time playmaker at Arizona, Cason fit perfectly with the Chargers defensive scheme and instantly displayed his aggressive style of play. Cason’s instincts and ballhawk mentality led him to record 74 tackles and two interceptions; one of the interceptions being returned for a touchdown. In the Chargers thrilling 23 – 17 OT Wild Card playoff win against the Indianapolis Colts, Cason led the team with seven tackles and was outstanding in coverage. Cason and the Chargers face a tough challenge this weekend in the Divisional round, as they travel to Pittsburgh on Sunday. Pittsburgh is coming off a bye week and the Chargers are riding a five-game winning streak; defense will determine this contest.

The next best safety from Miami, Kenny Phillips has been exceptional this season for the Giants in a reserve role. Despite only starting three games this season, Phillips finished second on the team in solo tackles (55) and fifth in total tackles (67). He also had an interception and played consistently all year. The Giants will host the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, and Phillips will see a lot of playing time. In two games this season against the Eagles, Phillips totaled 12 tackles.

The Steelers haven’t had much of an impact from any of their rookies this season. Their best rookie has been second round WR Limas Sweed. Sweed has been unable to get on the field on a consistent basis and contribute. He played in just 11 games this season and had just six receptions for 64 yards. With the Steelers hosting San Diego Chargers this weekend for the right to advance to the AFC Championship game, don’t expect Sweed to see much of the field.

 

A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: csteuber@scout.com.


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