For two members of the NFC South the 2011 NFL season came to a close last week. In Tampa Bay it was a year that raised more questions than it answered; a ten win team a year ago regressed in every area and cost coach Raheem Morris his job. Meanwhile in Carolina it was a season of answered questions as the Panthers finally found the franchise QB they've been waiting for. Finally, Atlanta and New Orleans continue their journey, both in the quest for Lombardi glory.
Today we're not talking about the teams though, we're focusing on their first round rookies. Make no mistake, this is a very carefully ordered list ranking the rooks from best, to worst based purely on their 1st season in the NFL.
NFC South Rookie of the Year: Cam Newton, QB- Panthers
Newton will almost certainly win the league's ROY award, so it seems foolish to not give him the divisional award too. In 2011 the numbers Cam Newton put up are eye boggling, and when you keep in mind he was a 1st year player they become legendary: 4,051 passing yards, 706 rushing yards, 35 total touchdowns and 17 total turnovers.
For a player who many thought would be the next bust he's turned their arguments on their head by being a poised passer in the pocket, and a nightmare out of it. He possesses a rare ability to stretch defenses, and this will make him a nightmare for years to come.
Julio Jones, WR- Falcons
Unfortunately the rookie WR was hampered for a lot of 2011 with a hamstring injury which slowed him greatly. Had Jones been able to play the full season there's no telling what his year could have looked like.
Despite playing in just 13 games he finished with 959 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns. For a player who was originally seen as the 'missing piece' he's proven he will likely be the future at WR for Atlanta. Jones makes playing in the NFL look effortless, possessing a stride, strength and swagger that all great WRs need. Couple with this with much better than advertised hands, and fantasting athletic ability and you have a player who is getting unfairly ignored while the football world swoons over A.J. Green.
Adrian Clayborn, DE- Buccaneers
If a rookie can perservere under the circumstances Clayborn walked into while in Tampa Bay, then he'll be able to thrive with some normalcy. Defensive ends rely heavily on their DTs, and Clayborn had no help at the position for much of 2011. Despite the cards stacked against him he finished with 42 tackles, 7.5 sacks and 3 FF- not a bad haul for a 'reach' as some typified the Iowa DE.
All signs point to Tampa looking for an experienced heach coach to take over now, and whoever gets the Bucs job will fall in love with Clayborn's motor, effort, and desire. He's a player who has a knack for finding the QB, and an excellent first step. The future is bright indeed for this defensive standout.
Mark Ingram, RB- Saints
It's hard to say what Ingram's rookie season really was. Like Julio Jones he missed time with injury (playing in just 10 games), but unlike Julio Jones he didn't make the most of the opportunities given him. Ingram rushed for just 474 yards on 122 carries, a YPC of 3.9, but it was more than the numbers. We didn't see any flashes of a Jerome Bettis heir apparant, rather he looked slow, unable to find his running lanes and lackadaisical.
While Saints' HC Sean Payton still has faith in Ingram, the reality is that RBs should come out of the gate faster than other positions. There's a relatively small learning curve, yet the Saints' RB still didn't get it. Time will tell if he's really the next bus, or like Reggie Bush will just be on the next bus out of town.
Cameron Jordan, DE- Saints
The second of two 1st round picks Cameron Jordan was comparably mediocre to his fellow rookie teammate. Finishing the year with just 31 tackles and 0.5 sacks is embarrassing for a player taken just four picks after the Bucs Clayborne. On the football field Jordan looks lost, it's clear he has a quick step, but he has very little ability to recognize and dissect a play post snap which often puts him out of position.
It's impossible to truly judge a rookie from one season, but the Saints better hope than Ingram and Jordan can turn it around in year two, otherwise their considerable gamble wont have paid off.