By Steve Silverman
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The NFL season is starting to take shape, and by the time this weekend concludes, all but two teams will have reached the quarter-pole.
After each team has played four games, we know what we are dealing with. While injuries, slumps, hot streaks and simple execution will impact overall season records from that point forward, we should know what we have on our hands in terms of ability and talent.
One area that will continue to develop is the play of this year’s rookies. It takes a lot longer than four weeks for a rookie to write his story. Some rookies come into camp in remarkable shape, acclimate well and start the season productively before hitting a wall shortly after midseason.
Others have problems in training camp, as they learn their plays and responsibilities slowly and appear overwhelmed at the start. However, some of these players pick it up as the season advances and start to play much better at midseason.
With three weeks gone in the season, we have some impressions on five of the best rookies this year.
5. Jameis Winston (QB, Buccaneers) – There was every reason to be skeptical about Tampa Bay’s selection of Winston with the No. 1 pick in the draft because he had an inconsistent 2014 season at Florida State and appeared to take a step backwards from his Heisman Trophy performance the year before. His consistent off-the-field problems indicated a lack of maturity, and that issue could still raise its head at any point.
But here’s what Winston has done throughout training camp and in the first three games of the season: He has kept his focus on the job of being a professional quarterback and he has taken his responsibility seriously. He has made some mistakes, but he has not looked overwhelmed at the burden of running the offense for a team that is desperate to show offensive responsibility.
Winston faced some significant adversity after his team’s Week 1 game against the Tennessee Titans, because he fell short in his individual battle with No. 2 pick Marcus Mariota and his team lost badly. But Winston bounced back and led his team to a road win at New Orleans the following week, and that’s a good sign. Winston has completed 47 of 90 passes for 678 yards with a 4-3 TD-interception ratio and his arrow is pointing up.
4. Vic Beasley (OLB, Falcons) – The rise of the Falcons in the NFC South is a rather shocking development, considering that they are coming off back-to-back losing seasons and head coach Dan Quinn is a rookie.
Atlanta drafted Beasley with the eighth overall pick in the first round with the idea that he was going to improve its pass rush due to his speed and skill. He has done just that, and has 10 tackles and two sacks in his first three games.
Beasley’s ability to get around the corner has made him a consistent threat so far this season. There’s no reason to think he will slow down in the foreseeable future.
3. Karlos Williams (RB, Bills) – It may be hard for Rex Ryan to take Williams out of the lineup, because this 6-foot-1, 230-pound power back has had an impact in each of Buffalo’s first three games.
He has scored a touchdown in each game and he ran for 110 yards on just 12 carries against the Dolphins in Week 3. While LeSean McCoy is the Bills’ best running back, he has not been at full strength early in the season. Even when he is at his best, he is not the power runner that Williams should prove to be over the course of the season.
Ryan likes big, strong running backs who aren’t going down after the first hit, and that’s why Williams is likely to be a consistent factor in the Bills’ gameplan from this point forward.
He may not always get big yards and have double-digit carries, but he is a powerful runner and blocker who can help set a physical tone for the Bills’ offense.
2. Marcus Mariota (QB, Titans) – We already touched on Mariota’s opening act against the Bucs in Week 1, and it was a clear victory over Winston.
Mariota is going to go through the same learning curve that all young quarterbacks have to travel in the NFL, but he is almost certainly on the path to success. He is smart and hard working, and he learns from his mistakes.
Mariota’s athleticism gives him a chance to run away from trouble and buy time before throwing the ball. He is not surrounded by top-notch offensive players and he’s not likely to win many games by himself, but Mariota has already completed 61 of 97 passes for 833 yards with an 8-2 TD-interception ratio. His 109.2 passer rating is shocking for a rookie and we don’t expect that to last.
However, Mariota will get tougher and stronger as the season progresses and he will make the Titans the kind of team that nobody wants to play later in the year.
1. Amari Cooper (WR, Raiders) – Here’s the player who is emerging as the superstar of this year’s draft class, and his presence may help turn Oakland around.
While they have already surprised with their 2-1 start, the Raiders have a legitimate chance to become a winning team this year. They have lost 10 or more games in 10 of the last 12 seasons, and one of the reasons for their turnaround has been the play of their young triplets. Quarterback Derek Carr and running back Latavius Murray have performed well and have given head coach Jack Del Rio options.
Cooper is the best of Oakland’s triumvirate. He already has 20 receptions for 290 yards and a TD, and he has been targeted 31 times. He made veteran Cleveland defensive back Joe Haden look foolish by catching eight passes for 134 yards in Week 3, and he appears to have a great chance in Week 4 against the struggling Chicago Bears.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy