When all was said and done last April, 256 NFL hopefuls were selected in the league’s draft.
The quarterbacks, especially the five who were selected in the first round, fueled much of the discussion. But as the season unfolded, the best defenders in the draft showed just how much impact they could have on a team’s fortunes.
Toss in the undrafted revelations such as Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay or a fifth-round pick like Bears defensive tackle Bilal Nichols or a seventh-round pick on a kicker like Jason Sanders for the Dolphins, and it was quite the season for the league’s new guard.
And after a season’s worth of game analysis and several hours’ worth of discussions with personnel evaluators and players, here are our rookies of the years and 2018 all-rookie team.
This group is mostly position-specific, but offensive guard and tackle include both spots. Also, there is a “flex” position on both offense and defense to give a nod to some situational multitasking that is a part of the way the game is played.
The Baltimore Ravens, who finished the regular season No. 1 in total defense and No. 2 in scoring defense this season, surrendered 300 yards passing just three times in 2018. Once was to the likely league MVP, Patrick Mahomes, who threw for 377 yards in Week 14. The other two were to Mayfield, including 342 yards with a touchdown in his second NFL start. Mayfield simply did the most with the highest degree of difficulty at the position for a team that won one game in the previous two seasons combined.
Leonard edges a highly productive group of first-year defenders who each have an argument for the title of the league’s best rookie this season, including Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James, Denver Broncos linebacker Bradley Chubb and Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. Leonard did an array of things for a young team that fought back into the playoffs. He was the only player in the league, rookie or otherwise, with at least 100 tackles, seven sacks, 12 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles. That constitutes a guy who made plays behind the line of scrimmage, at the point of attack and in coverage.
Six of Ridley’s 10 receiving touchdowns this season came over the course of the season’s first month, but the guy put the ball in the end zone more than any other rookie wideout.
Moore’s game video consistently showed a player who made the most of every catch because of his ability to make defenders miss or break tackles.
The Giants’ offense had more than its share of struggles this season, but Barkley wasn’t one of them. He finished second in the league in rushing, reached the threshold of 5.0 yards per carry and was one of 13 NFL players with at least 91 receptions this season. He also was one of just two players — Ezekiel Elliott was the other — with at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage, as Barkley led the league (2,028).
QB: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
The guy lifted a franchise that had gone 1-31 the previous two seasons and did it even after the team changed offensive coordinators and fired its head coach. Mayfield went 4-2 in his last six starts of the year, and he threw 19 touchdown passes over the final eight games.
Flex: Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos
If not for Barkley, the undrafted Lindsay would have been the league’s best rookie back. The versatile athlete certainly wins best-rookie-not-invited-to-the-combine trophy this time around. He missed the season finale with a wrist injury but was still ninth in the league in rushing (1,037 yards) and second in the league in yards per carry (5.4).
Honorable mention: Robert Foster, Buffalo Bills; DJ Moore, Carolina Panthers.
McGlinchey plays with efficiency and power, as he was penalized just three times all season, and two of those were false starts; he was not flagged for holding.
T: Braden Smith, Indianapolis Colts
Smith, primarily a right guard in his career at Auburn, was rock solid at right tackle for the Colts, as he was part of a line that did not surrender a sack in six games in the regular season and had 11 games when Andrew Luck was sacked one or fewer times.
• One high school, two Super Bowl MVPs
• When Rivers played through torn ACL
• The unappreciated humor of Jared Goff
• Luck’s masterpiece: Comeback vs. Chiefs
• Division MVP, rookies, award winners
• Playoffs schedule, Super Bowl LIII coverage
G: Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts
Nelson, while sometimes showing a rough edge or two in his technique, was every bit the walk-in starter the Colts had hoped for when they selected him No. 6 overall. Nelson simply is a front-line finisher in the run game whose work in pass protection showed plenty of savvy.
Daniels started his last 23 games at Iowa at center, but he moved inside with top-notch play at guard for the playoff Bears.
C: Mason Cole, Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals struggled in most facets of the offense, but this job comes with a high degree of difficulty for a rookie, and few first-year players got heaved into the deep end the way Cole did. A 51-game starter at Michigan, he showed the ability to adjust, fix mistakes on the fly and improve with each passing week.
TE: Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens
The rookie tight ends played in plenty of games across the league but were not really a significant part of anyone’s passing game. However, Andrews was steady and had three of his best outings over the last six games of the season.
DE/Edge: Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos
After a slow start and some of the usual rookie hang-ups, Chubb became a force in the second half of the season. Chubb led all rookies with 12 sacks on the season.
DE/Edge: Genard Avery, Cleveland Browns
Avery is a versatile player who was asked to fill several roles in the Browns’ defense.
DT: Da’Shawn Hand, Detroit Lions
Hand was the most dominant interior rookie defensive linemen overall — three sacks, two forced fumbles and four tackles for loss — until he went to injured reserve in mid-December with a sprained MCL in his right knee.
DT: Bilal Nichols, Chicago Bears
Nichols did plenty of the unglamorous but necessary work for a unit that finished No. 1 in scoring defense and No. 1 in takeaways (three sacks, two forced fumbles, five tackles for loss).
LB: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
He played all 56 of the defensive snaps in the regular season opener and was off and running on what was one of the best first-year efforts in recent memory. Leonard registered a league-leading 163 tackles, including a double take-worthy 111 solo tackles. The Colts asked him to do plenty, and he was repeatedly up to the challenge, as he consistently worked through the rough spots to make plays all over the field.
LB: Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
It says plenty about Smith that he played alongside a high-quality player such as Danny Trevathan on the inside of the Bears’ defense and there were times when Smith was the best inside linebacker on the field. Smith missed 29 days of training camp in a contract squabble, but he made up ground quickly and was the starter by Week 2. He finished with 121 tackles, five sacks and eight tackles for loss.
LB: Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys
Vander Esch entered the starting lineup in Week 4 after Sean Lee was injured and played so well that the Cowboys couldn’t take him out once Lee was healthy enough to return to the field. Vander Esch set a team record for rookies with 19 tackles — from the team’s defensive coaches video review — against the Eagles, and he was the first rookie to lead the team in tackles since the Cowboys began officially tracking tackles in 1977.
CB: Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
Ward missed three of the team’s final four games of the season with concussion issues, but it didn’t diminish the fact he was tossed into the deep end of the football pool immediately. He had two interceptions in his first NFL start and responded with confidence after being tested over and over by opposing signal-callers.
CB: Donte Jackson, Carolina Panthers
Jackson finished with four interceptions, the most by any rookie, and started every game for the Panthers. He also showed the bounce-back ability that is a necessity for a young player at one of the game’s most difficult positions. Jackson had some bumps on the learning curve, but he routinely lined up and played with sound technique following the mistakes.
S: Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers
James showed remarkable versatility as a run-stopper — see the playoff win over the Ravens — and a pass-rusher and in coverage. He is athletic and smart, and he did some of his best work in the biggest moments. James had 105 tackles, knocked down 13 passes and tallied six quarterback hits and 3.5 sacks.
Reid’s teammate Johnathan Joseph summed up the rookie’s year the best: “He had a hell of a season.” Reid started the last 13 games, including the wild-card playoff game, for the league’s No. 4 scoring defense. Reid led the team with three interceptions and was the first player in team history to post the do-it-all stat line of least nine tackles, a special-teams tackle and a fumble recovery in the same game.
Honorable mention: Jessie Bates, Cincinnati Bengals; Terrell Edmunds, Pittsburgh Steelers; Minkah Fitzpatrick, Miami Dolphins; Jordan Whitehead, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; D.J. Reed Jr., San Francisco 49ers.
None other than Bill Belichick said Alexander will be “one of the top corners in the game for quite a while.” Alexander knocked down 11 passes and was credited with 61 solo tackles.
P: Michael Dickson, Seattle Seahawks
Only Dickson and Arizona’s Andy Lee — a 15-year veteran — finished the season with a gross punt average of at least 48 yards, a net average of at least 42 yards and having pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line at least 28 times.
Honorable mention: Trevor Daniel, Houston Texans.
K: Jason Sanders, Miami Dolphins
He made 18 of 20 field goals, with no misses on kicks of fewer than 40 yards. He also was one of the league’s most consistent on kickoffs, frequently limiting what opponents could do in the return game.
Honorable mention: Daniel Carlson, Oakland Raiders.
Return specialist: Richie James, San Francisco 49ers
The Chiefs’ Tremon Smith had a high-quality debut as a kickoff returner, but James’ versatility proved the difference. James returned both punts and kickoffs, and he had one of four kickoff returns for touchdowns of more than 90 yards this season.
Honorable mention: Tremon Smith, Kansas City Chiefs.