AFC NEWS AND NOTES
AFC ROOKIES: REACHING NEW HEIGHTS
Making the transition from college to pro can be challenging, but year after year, rookies across the NFL emerge as key contributors.
Last year, Colts quarterback ANDREW LUCK passed for 4,374 yards, topping CAM NEWTON's rookie record of 4,051 in 2011, becoming the first rookie in NFL history with 4,000 passing yards and 10 wins.
Despite his early success, Luck has a full year's experience under his belt and is ahead of where he was last season as a rookie.
"I think it's a natural progression," says Luck. "As you get older, no matter what position you are, you're going to maybe tackle a little more or have a little more of a presence."
This year's rookies are still a long way from finishing their first professional season, but many have already become vital contributions for their respective teams. These players will look to build on their success, and in some cases, continue to help their teams in the push to the playoffs.
A look at a few notable 2013 AFC rookies:
WR KEENAN ALLEN, San Diego (Round 3, No. 76 overall, California): *Allen, who has served as a reliable receiving option for Chargers quarterback *PHILIP RIVERS, leads NFL rookies in receiving yards (568) and is tied for an AFC-rookie best in receptions (38).
"He is a young player that is getting better every week," says Chargers head coach MIKE MC COY. "The timing between him and Philip is getting better. He just keeps working hard. The great thing about him is he wants to be challenged day in and day out. You can say whatever you want. It's not going to faze him. He's just going to keep playing."
Allen can challenge JOHN JEFFERSON (1,001 receiving yards in 1978) for the most receiving yards by a rookie in franchise history. Allen also needs 22 receptions to surpass LA DAINIAN TOMLINSON (59 in 2001) for the most receptions by a Chargers rookie.
*LB KIKO ALONSO, Buffalo (Round 2, No. 46 overall, Oregon): *Alonso has started all 10 games for the Bills, totaling a team-high and NFL rookie-best 99 tackles with one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, four interceptions and four passes defensed.
"I'll go back to what we saw in college," says Bills head coach DOUG MARRONE. "He was a player that made tackles all over the field and stayed on the field for three downs. That's one of the things that we liked about him, knowing that he could play three downs, knowing that he could run, knowing that he was physical. We're excited about him. He's actually getting better and better each week."
Alonso earned NFL Rookie Defensive of the Month honors in September and is the only player in the NFL this season with at least four interceptions and two sacks. Through Week 10, Alonso's four interceptions are tied for the second-most in the AFC. The former Oregon product needs two interceptions to tie MIKE STRATTON (six in 1962) for the most interceptions in a season by a Bills rookie linebacker
*RB LE'VEON BELL, Pittsburgh (Round 2, No. 48 overall, Michigan State): *A physical runner who can shed defenders, Bell has started six contests since missing the Steelers' first three games due to a foot injury. The 6-1, 244-pound running back is tied for an NFL-rookie best with four rushing touchdowns.
"He has patience," says Steelers quarterback BEN ROETHLISBERGER of Bell's running style. "Sometimes when I hand it off and I carry out my fake I turn around, it's almost like he is standing still in the hole. It's not because he doesn't know what he's doing or where he is going. He's a good runner and he knows his surroundings and what is going on. He is doing a great job."
Bell aims to challenge Pro Football Hall of Famer FRANCO HARRIS (10 in 1972) for the most rushing touchdowns by a rookie in Steeler annals.
*RB GIOVANI BERNARD, Cincinnati (Round 2, No. 37 overall, North Carolina): *Bernard has been a steady contributor for the first-place Bengals this season. Bernard has played in all 10 games and leads AFC rookies with 723 scrimmage yards.
"He's almost like a punt returner that's playing running back," says Ravens defensive lineman CHRIS CANTY. "He's a jitterbug. He gets in and out of cuts very quickly. He can accelerate very quickly. He gets into those small holes."
Bernard is on pace (1,157) to become the first Bengals rookie running back to reach 1,000 scrimmage yards since COREY DILLON in 1997 (1,388).
WR DE ANDRE HOPKINS, Houston (Round 1, No. 27 overall, Clemson): *Hopkins has been a bright spot alongside veteran wide receiver *ANDRE JOHNSON in Houston. Hopkins ranks second among NFL rookies in receiving yards (539) and has the third-most catches (37) among all rookies.
"He's very talented," says Johnson. "We knew that when he first got here. He's just working to become better. His hard work is paying off. When he gets opportunities, he makes plays. He's great at attacking the ball when he's up in the air and he's making big plays so far."
Hopkins, who was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month in September, can challenge the Texans' rookie records for receptions (66) and receiving yards (976) set by Johnson in 2003.
"He's off to one heck of a start for a young guy," says Texans head coach GARY KUBIAK. "That's what we brought him here for. The thing I'm really impressed with is how hard he practices, how hard he works at what he does and he really likes to play."
DT SHELDON RICHARDSON, New York Jets (Round 1, No. 13 overall, Missouri):Richardson has been a major factor for the Jets' defense which is allowing an NFL-low 73.8 rush yards per game. The 6-3, 294-pound defensive tackle is effective in defending the run and providing an interior pass rush.
Richardson has played in all nine games with eight starts, registering 41 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one pass defensed.
"This young man can almost do anything you can ask a D-lineman to do," says Jets head coach REX RYAN. "We take advantage of a guy's movement skills, we take advantage of the athleticism of our guys, so to me he certainly fits us. It is rare to have a guy with that kind of athleticism. I mean, he's never off his feet unless he's making a tackle."
*QB GENO SMITH, New York Jets (Round 2, No. 39 overall, West Virginia): *Smith, who has started all nine games, has shown that he can will his team to victory. The strong-armed quarterback has led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime in four of the Jets' five wins. Earlier this season, Smith became the only quarterback since the 1970 merger with four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in his first seven career games.
"I think Geno is a tough guy," says Ryan. "He's focused. He just wants to win. I think it's just not about stats, it's not about anything else, it's about let's find a way to win. I do love his mentality. He can bounce back. If he makes a poor play, he's going to bounce back and try to do better, and that's what he does."
The West Virginia product (1,997) needs 448 passing yards for the most passing yards by a rookie in franchise history (MARK SANCHEZ, 2,444 in 2009).
NFC NEWS AND NOTES
NFC ROOKIES MAKING THEIR MARK
The NFL has entered the second half of the season and rookies around the league continue to make an impact.
Running backs EDDIE LACY of Green Bay and ZAC STACY of St. Louis have been two of the most productive running backs in the NFL over the past month while ANDRE ELLINGTON of Arizona has given his team a spark.
Wide receivers TERRANCE WILLIAMS of Dallas and KENNY STILLS of New Orleans have scored touchdowns in bunches while CORDARRELLE PATTERSON of Minnesota and TAVON AUSTIN of St. Louis have shown playmaking ability with dynamic performances on special teams.
Washington tight end JORDAN REED has put up numbers comparable to some of the best in the league at the position.
And a trio of safeties – Arizona's TYRANN MATHIEU, San Francisco's ERIC REID and New Orleans' KENNY VACCARO – have earned starting spots and made significant contributions to their clubs.
A closer look at some of the outstanding NFC rookies in 2013:
RB EDDIE LACY, Green Bay (Round 2, No. 61 overall, Alabama): Lacy, who was the Offensive MVP of the 2012 BCS National Championship Game at Alabama, leads all rookies with 669 rushing yards and 758 scrimmage yards. Since October 1, Lacy has rushed for 618 yards (103 yards per game), the most in the NFL by any player. Lacy was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for October and is on pace to surpass JOHN BROCKINGTON (1,105 in 1971) for the most rushing yards by a rookie in franchise history.
"He's a stud," says Packers quarterback AARON RODGERS about Lacy. "He's a big-time player. He's a winner and he knows how to play the game. He finishes his runs, he's a tough kid, he's smart, he cares about it and he has a great attitude around the locker room. He has great upside and we expect Eddie to continue to get better."
RB ZAC STACY, St. Louis (Round 5, No. 160 overall, Vanderbilt): Since becoming the starter in Week 5, Stacy has rushed for 533 yards, the third-most in the NFL over that span. He recorded back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, becoming the first Rams rookie to accomplish the feat since STEVEN JACKSON in 2004.
"From the moment that Zac took over the starting spot, he's been a great weapon for us," says Rams quarterback KELLEN CLEMENS. "He's a great runner. And he's also very good catching the ball out of the backfield. We're lucky to have him. He's stepped up in a big way."
RB ANDRE ELLINGTON, Arizona (Round 6, No. 187 overall, Clemson): Ellington has averaged 7.2 yards per carry, the highest in the NFL this season by a running back (minimum 50 attempts). He has rushed for 388 yards with two touchdowns and added 24 catches for 216 yards and a touchdown. Ellington and GIOVANI BERNARD are the only rookies with at least 300 rushing yards, a rushing touchdown, 200 receiving yards and a touchdown reception this season.
"He's a very unique player," says Cardinals head coach BRUCE ARIANS. "You want a lot of his touches to be out in space because he is so dynamic."
WR TERRANCE WILLIAMS, Dallas (Round 3, No. 74 overall, Baylor): Williams has a touchdown catch in five of the past six games and is averaging 21.6 yards per catch over that stretch. He is the only rookie in franchise history to record a touchdown catch in four consecutive games.
"Terrance has done a really nice job," says Cowboys head coach JASON GARRETT. "He's a very good athlete. He's a big guy. He's got speed and quickness and good natural route-running ability. But as much as anything else, it's just his work ethic. It's really important to him. He works very hard at it. He learns from the experience he has – both good and bad – and he really grows. It's a real tribute to the approach he takes each week."
WR KENNY STILLS, New Orleans (Round 5, No. 144 overall, Oklahoma): Stills has 19 catches for 437 yards with four touchdowns and his 23.0 yards-per-catch average leads the NFL. All four of his touchdowns have been at least 34 yards and he is averaging 49.3 yards per touchdown catch.
"He's very mature beyond his years," says Saints quarterback DREW BREES. "He has lived up to the challenge. Wherever we put him, whatever we've asked of him, he's lived up to the challenge."
WR-KR CORDARRELLE PATTERSON, Minnesota (Round 1, No. 29 overall, Tennessee): Patterson leads the NFL averaging 35.2 yards per kickoff return and has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, the most in the league. In Week 8, he had a 109-yard kickoff-return touchdown, tied for the longest play in NFL history. He was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for that performance and was also honored as the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September.
"Cordarrelle's done a terrific job all season long on kickoff returns," says Vikings head coach LESLIE FRAZIER. "He was the Special Teams Player of the Month for the first month of the season and he's continued that play. He's been terrific. He's a major threat."
WR-PR TAVON AUSTIN, St. Louis (Round 1, No. 8 overall, West Virginia): Austin became the first player in NFL history with a 95 yard punt-return touchdown (98) and two 55 yard receiving touchdowns (81 and 57) in the same game in Week 10. He joined Pro Football Hall of Famer GALE SAYERS (1965) and RANDY MOSS (1998) as the only rookies to score three 50 yard touchdowns in the same game. Austin's average of 78.7 yards per touchdown is the highest in NFL history for a player with at least three touchdowns in a single game.
"He has a chance to change games," says Rams head coach JEFF FISHER. "We're going to continue working to get him the football. When he gets his hands on the football, you see what he can do."
TE JORDAN REED, Washington (Round 3, No. 85 overall, Florida): Reed leads all rookies with 44 receptions and is first among rookie tight ends with 487 receiving yards. His 44 receptions rank fourth among NFC tight ends, trailing only JIMMY GRAHAM (54), TONY GONZALEZ (47) and JASON WITTEN (47).
"Jordan enjoys football," says Redskins offensive coordinator KYLE SHANAHAN. "It's not just his job. He gets excited about it. It's obvious how good he is in the passing game, but he's good in every aspect. He does everything we ask of him and he enjoys doing it."
S TYRANN MATHIEU, Arizona (Round 3, No. 69 overall, Louisiana State): Mathieu, who has started seven of nine games, has recorded 56 tackles, two interceptions, one sack, a forced fumble and six passes defensed. He is one of only two safeties (ANTREL ROLLE) – and the lone rookie at the position – with at least 50 tackles, two interceptions, one sack and a forced fumble this season. Mathieu was named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for October.
"We play him in a lot of different spots," says Cardinals cornerback PATRICK PETERSON. "He brings energy to this defense. He plays with so much energy and passion, and that's what we love about him. He always comes to play on Sundays. He never seems to amaze us because we know what type of player we have here."
S ERIC REID, San Francisco (Round 1, No. 18 overall, Louisiana State): Reid has started nine games and has recorded 37 tackles, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and six passes defensed. He is one of only two players (ALTERRAUN VERNER) – and the lone rookie – with at least three interceptions and two fumble recoveries this season.
"He's blessed with a lot of ability," says 49ers head coach JIM HARBAUGH. "He's very sharp. He learns well. He doesn't repeat mistakes. If he does something wrong, he gets coached on it and you don't see that same mistake again. Eric's done a real good job of continuing to know that he's got to work hard, improve and just keep coming."
S KENNY VACCARO, New Orleans (Round 1, No. 15 overall, Texas): Vaccaro has started nine games and has recorded 45 tackles, one interception, one sack and five passes defensed. He is the only rookie safety to start nine games and register at least 45 tackles, an interception and a sack.
"We drafted a special guy in Kenny," says Saints defensive coordinator ROB RYAN. "One thing that jumps out to me is how much he loves football. You can do so many different things with him. We're just scratching the surface with him. He's got a lot of talent. There are a lot of great things about this guy, and probably the best is how much he loves football."