Last year’s crop of NFL-ready talent excelled during their rookie seasons and proved that tying the record of draft picks (12) was no fluke. While none of the rookies made it past the divisional round in the playoffs, several walked away from the season with player of the year and other honors — not to mention more than a few new franchise and/or league records.
Eli Apple (Giants)
Drafted by the New York Giants in Round 1, overall pick No. 10
Sidelined twice this season, Apple had a productive rookie year with playing time in 14 games, including 11 starts. He finished the regular season with 51 total tackles (41 solo), 7 passes defended, 4 TFLs for 5 yards, a forced fumble and an interception (against Pittsburgh).
One his toughest tests came in the postseason against the Green Bay Packers. With quarterback Aaron Rodgers being the king of deep passes and Hail Mary tries, opposing secondaries face a tough task. Despite being beaten a few times, Apple has learned to cover much more effectively and rely less on his hands to make the play -- and then draw a flag for pass interference.
Great job playing through the hands!!!! Eli Apple! pic.twitter.com/zeZzzgTxZK— WeAreDBnation (@WeAreDBNation1) January 8, 2017
Vonn Bell (Saints)
Drafted by the New Orleans Saints in Round 2, overall pick No. 30
Quickly earning a spot in the Saints starting lineup, Bell was named the starter in 13 of the 16 he played his rookie year. He finished his inaugural season with 87 total tackles (61 solo), 4 passes defended, two 0.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Bell is one of three-safeties the Saints boast on defense, including Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro. His versatility is one of the biggest assets he brings to the team, and with another offseason under his belt, is primed for a more consistent second year.
“I think he’s (Bell) done a really good job for a rookie,” defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said, according to ESPN. “He came in, he was a free safety. Then he’s played strong safety. He’s moved out to the nickel position. He’s played a lot of different spots for us, and for a rookie to be able to handle that volume of information, that volume of different job descriptions of the things we’ve asked him to do, I think is actually somewhat amazing.”
Bell played the most snaps out of any other Saints rookie, averaging 54 per game.
Joey Bosa (Chargers)
Drafted by the San Diego Chargers in Round 1, overall pick No. 3
Despite a tough preseason with the front office, Joey Bosa and the Chargers finally agreed to the terms of his rookie contract and neither has ever looked back. Fans were initially tough on the Buckeye, who went on to miss the first four games of the season due to injury and getting up to speed, with many wondering if Bosa was even worth the first round pick.
Those questions have now long since been settled. It didn’t take more than one game of action for everyone from fans to teammates to coaches to know what kind of star they had in the defensive end. He spent the better part of his rookie year taking down quarterbacks, week-after-week driving them deeper into the dirt.
His rookie campaign finished with 41 total tackles (29 solo), 7 TFLs for 17 yards, one forced fumble and 10.5 sacks (!).
He led the Chargers and all rookies throughout the league in sacks this season, and earned the NFL Rookie of the Month honor twice times — October and December. Bosa was also named PFWA Defensive Rookie of the Year, in addition to being named to the All-Rookie team.
Taylor Decker (Lions)
Drafted by the Detroit Lions in Round 1, overall pick No. 16
Decker was expected to contribute right away for the Lions, and that’s in spite of them moving him to the left side of the line. The rookie was one of only 17 players in the entire league to play 100% of snaps during the 2016 season. His ability to protect quarterback Matthew Stafford did not go unnoticed, with the tackle being named to the Pro Football Writers Association’s All-Rookie team.
Ezekiel Elliott (Cowboys)
Drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in Round 1, overall pick No. 4
The running back phenom has taken over the NFL. It’s safe to say things will never be the same now that Zeke is in the league. Whether it’s jumping into a Salvation Army bin after scoring a touchdown, or breaking almost every imaginable rookie rushing record for the Cowboys (and the league), Elliott brings a flare that is almost impossible to miss.
His success can also be attributed to the close relationship he’s built with (now-roommate) quarterback Dak Prescott. Together they took the Cowboys to first round bye in the playoffs and to a divisional round matchup against the Packers.
The rookie finished the regular season with 322 rushes for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns — not to mention the 363 yards on 32 receptions for an additional score. Elliott’s momentum hit a lull early in his first-ever NFL postseason game, before a second-half burst resulted in 125 rushing yards. Before Zeke took even one snap this season, some analysts were scoffed at when they’d predict a 2,000-plus season for the running back, and although he came just 6 yards short after Week 17, his postseason play put him over the top with 2,117 total offensive yards.
With all that on-field success, the rookie is in for a bevy of post season honors. He was the No. 1 voted player by fans to the 2017 NFL Pro Bowl — the only Buckeye — and was named PFWA Rookie of the Year, PFWA Offensive Rookie of the Year as well as to the All-Rookie team. He was also named the NFL’s Rookie of the Month in October.
The Cowboys, along with the NFL, will need to make some big changes to the history books this offseason to make room for the myriad of new records set by the running back. Some of those include:
- Became the 5th rookie since 1970 to lead the NFL in rushing yards (1,631).
- With 1,631 rushing yards, he had the third-highest single-season total by a rookie in NFL history, bested only by Eric Dickerson (1,808 in 1983) and George Rogers (1,674 in 1981).
- Had five games with at least 125 rushing yards, 2nd most ever by a rookie.
- Became the first rookie running back to have a 60+ yard touchdown run and an 80+ yard touchdown catch in a season since 1965.
- Rushed for 130+ yards in four consecutive games (Weeks 3-6), the only rookie in NFL history to do so.
Cardale Jones (Bills)
Drafted by the Buffalo Bills in Round 4, overall pick No. 139
After spending most his rookie season on the sideline as the No. 3 option behind quarterbacks Tyrod Taylor and E.J. Manuel, Jones finally suited up in Week 17. Once the Bills fired head coach Rex Ryan, interim coach Anthony Lynn benched Taylor and let Jones see some snaps in the final game of the year.
He finished his one game with 6 completions on 11 attempts for 96 yards and one interception. Proving why his nickname is 12-gauge, Jones had a 64-yard deep pass to Justin Hunter against the Jets.
Darron Lee (Jets)
Drafted by the New York Jets in Round 1, overall pick No. 20
The rookie linebacker missed three games due to an ankle injury — at one point requiring a walking boot — but suited up for 13 matchups and earned the start in nine. He finished his first year in the league with 73 total tackles (40 solo), 3 TFLs for 11 yards and claimed two 0.5 sacks.
Lee got plenty of on-the-job training as the team’s every-down linebacker for the second half of the season. While the year as a whole was up and down, the Jets have invested a lot into their first round draft pick and consistent reps is one of best ways to learn.
"Sometimes he gets a little bit too hyper, and when he gets hyper he blows an assignment here and there," Jets’ head coach Todd Bowles said, according to ESPN.
With more experience, Lee has the talent and speed to become a vocal leader for the defense, and is the heir apparent for team vet David Harris.
Braxton Miller (Texans)
Drafted by the Houston Texans in Round 3, overall pick No. 85
The wideout got off to a slow start his rookie year, especially with first-year teammate Will Fuller seeing a majority of “extra” targets. He made appearances in 10 games during the regular season, hauling in 15-of-28 targets for 99 yards and one score. Miller also saw playing time on special teams, returning one punt and several kicks. He was knocked out of the game against the Packers in early December with a shoulder injury that eventually left the rookie on IR to finish the year.
Joshua Perry (Chargers)
Drafted by the San Diego Chargers in Round 4, overall pick No. 102
The Buckeye favorite wasted no time with his new team, getting out in the community almost as soon as he touched down in San Diego. Only a year removed from the draft process, and Perry is now headed to Los Angeles — the Chargers new home.
Perry saw regular action on special teams and defense his rookie season, earning one start in his 15 games played. He finished the year with 22 total tackles (on defense and special teams) and 2 forced fumbles, with a career-best 6 tackles in Week 17.
Michael Thomas (Saints)
Drafted by the New Orleans Saints in Round 2, overall pick No. 47
The rookie wideout couldn’t stay under the radar for long, quickly becoming a favorite target of quarterback Drew Brees. Throughout the preseason, it became quite clear that Thomas would earn the start immediately and make his mark at WR3.
His first season included incredible efficiency and consistency, dropping only four of his 96 (catchable) passes this season, and breaking 20 tackles after the catch. He also continued to prove you really can’t guard Mike, setting franchise rookie records — while leading all NFL rookies — with 92 receptions, 1,137 receiving yards and nine touchdown catches.
Nick Vannett (Seahawks)
Drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in Round 3, overall pick No. 94
The tight end drew praise from head coach Pete Carroll throughout mini camps and into the preseason. There was some expectation that Vannett would see some playing time with the Seahawks frequently running 3-TE packages, but with a healthy Jimmy Graham, the Buckeye didn’t see too many snaps.
Despite being inactive here and there throughout the season, Vannett saw playing time in eight games his rookie year — though was only targeted offensively in three -- and earned the starting job twice. As was his role at Ohio State, the tight end is a skilled blocker and is predominantly being used as such. He did make three catches on four targets for 32 yards.
Adolphus Washington (Bills)
Drafted by the Buffalo Bills in Round 3, overall pick No. 80
The defensive tackle had a productive first year in the league, starting 11 of the 15 games he suited up for before being benched in Week 17 after a change at head coach left players with an elevated set of expectations. Players were growing increasingly lazy under the tutelage of Rex Ryan — despite Washington contributing 21 tackles and 2.5 sacks his rookie season — and were taught a lesson about effort just before the offseason.
Jalin Marshall (Jets)
Signed with the New Yorks Jets as an Undrafted Free Agent
Marshall didn’t end up getting drafted last spring, but he wasn’t sidelined long before signing with the New York Jets. He earned additional playing time early in the season with his return skills, but as Buckeye Nation knows all too well, he’s not the most reliable or consistent guy on the end of a kick.
Benched just weeks before the end of the season, Marshall has a good chance to improve this offseason and continue with the team into next year. The Jets have little cap space heading into the offseason with so many veteran players, and have finally embraced transitioning and developing young talent. The wideout/special teamer finished his rookie campaign with 14 receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown.
Signed with the Seattle Seahawks as an Undrafted Free Agent
Shortly after he unexpectedly fell out of the NFL Draft, Powell was faced with a bevy of suitors, but ultimately wanted to join the Legion of Boom on the west coast. He was active for eight games his rookie season and made three special team tackles. The team waived Powell in early January in order to make room for return specialist Devin Hester heading into the postseason.