Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Flashback: 2008 Unsung Rookies


In what has been a sensational year for rookies, I thought I would take a look at some unsung first-year players who have quietly put together solid seasons for their respective teams.

Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers

Perhaps you’re wondering why Jonathan Stewart, a fairly well-known first round pick, is on this list. You clearly haven’t noticed Stewart’s incredible improvement since the beginning of the season. The 13th overall pick in the draft averaged just 3.14 yards per carry his first nine games. In his last four games, the former Oregon Duck is averaging over eight yards per rush and has three rushing touchdowns. Stewart has helped the Panthers improve their success in short-yardage situations, scoring eight rushing touchdowns this season. Paired with DeAngelo Williams, who is having a breakout season of his own, Stewart has brought a much-needed grind-it-out attitude to the Carolina offense. The Panthers are now fourth in the league in rushing after their 299-yard effort against the Bucs on Monday night and have an outside shot at the number one seed in the NFC.

Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens

When talking about reasons for Baltimore’s surprisingly stellar season, one must look at the sterling performances of rookie QB Joe Flacco and the vaunted Ravens defense…but the play of Ray Rice should not go unnoticed. Willis McGahee, robbed of any big-play ability by a slew of injuries, has averaged just 3.4 yards per carry this season. Filling in that void has been the rookie second-round pick out of Rutgers. Rice has been a spark plug for Baltimore, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. His 454 rush yards are just 67 yards less than McGahee in almost 50 less attempts. Against Cleveland in Week 9, Rice carried the ball 21 times for 154 yards, including a 60-yard burst that set up Matt Stover’s go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter. On Sunday night, Rice carried the ball just three times, but his one of his attempts was a 21-yard run on 3rd and 10 that set up Baltimore’s first touchdown just 2:56 into the game. Rice has added a big play element to Baltimore’s ground attack, taking pressure off Joe Flacco and giving Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron greater flexibility in his play-calling.

Chris Horton, SS, Washington Redskins

The rookie seventh-round pick out of UCLA emerged early on in the preseason as a play-maker in the Redskins’ secondary and quickly became Washington’s first choice to man the other safety position beside LaRon Landry. He was named rookie of the month in September when he played especially well, especially in Washington victory against the Saints, a game in which he picked off Drew Brees twice. Horton’s strong play has continued throughout the season as he’s registered 65 tackles--third best among defensive rookies--including 11 (eight solo) in a loss to New York in Week 13. The seventh round steal has helped fill the void in the Redskins secondary left in the wake of the tragic death of Sean Taylor just over a year ago.

Steve Slaton, RB, Houston Texans

While many pundits have lauded the solid season put together by Tennessee’s rookie RB Chris Johnson, even more sportswriters have overlooked the equally impressive season West Virginia product Steve Slaton is having in Houston. Both runners have put the ball in the end zone nine times (eight each on the ground), but Slaton has averaged 5.0 yards per carry to Johnson’s 4.9. Through 13 games, Slaton has put up over 1,300 yards from scrimmage including 1,022 on the ground, just eight yards shy of a franchise rookie rushing record. The third-round pick seized the starter’s job from Ahman Green in Week 3, running for 116 yards and a score against a stout Tennessee defense. With Green put on IR prior to Week 13, Slaton has averaged 125 yards per game the past two weeks and is a major reason for the Texans late-season surge.

Photo Credit: College Press Box (Rutgers)