The big-play guys among NFL rookies this year are getting themselves noticed more on defense than offense. How odd, considering the way the league is so skewed toward piling up points.
Here's a pick-6 of the top freshmen halfway through the NFL schedule, listed alphabetically:
KIKO ALONSO, LB, BUFFALO — Selected in the second round because of some questions about his size for playing pro linebacker, Alonso has been a revelation on the improved Bills. Yes, they are only 3-6, but they are competitive, and Alonso never stops coming.
He's been among the league leaders in tackles and has four interceptions and two sacks. His frenetic pace is contagious.
"They got a great one in him," says Eagles coach Chip Kelly, who had Alonso at Oregon. "He's simply a tremendous football player."
GIOVANI BERNARD, RB, CINCINNATI — The only offensive player on our list, Bernard is a breakaway threat every time he handles the ball. His cross-country romp against Miami will be on highlight films for the rest of the year — or at least until he does it again.
And he probably will. Bernard is especially dangerous as a pass receiver with his elusiveness and field sense. He also doesn't have to carry the load with Benjarvus Green-Ellis the starter and inside runner.
Bernard is dealing with injured ribs from the loss to Miami, but is expected back on Sunday for Baltimore.
TYRANN MATHIEU, S, ARIZONA — There was a sour aura around the "Honey Badger" after he was dismissed from the LSU squad and had some run-ins with the law. He slipped to 69th overall in the draft, and was projected mostly as a kick returner.
Instead, he's been a reliable regular at safety and rarely runs back any kicks.
The defensive rookie of the month for October, he is second on the Cardinals with 47 tackles.
"He deserved the chance to prove himself," coach Bruce Arians says, "and he's proving himself."
ERIC REID, S, SAN FRANCISCO — A typical LSU defensive back, Reid has size, speed, football smarts and a passion for the game. He was brought in to replace All-Pro Dashon Goldson, who left for Tampa Bay, and there has been little, if any, drop-off.
Reid perfectly fits the ball-hawking style of the Niners. He has three picks.
"You love seeing your defense generate turnovers, be opportunistic," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "And the safety play, when they're getting involved in the turnovers, that's been something in the past that has been very good for us. The evidence the amount of times Donte Whitner, Dashon Goldson were involved in turnovers, stripping, causing, recovering, intercepting the football, and I think it's very encouraging that Eric Reid is getting in on that, recovering, causing or intercepting. Something that's been very good for our defense."
SHELDON RICHARDSON, DT, NEW YORK JETS — Coach Rex Ryan loves the "big dudes" in the trenches, and this first-round selection has made Ryan smile as the Jets have been a major surprise. Richardson doesn't just eat up space inside, he penetrates, has nice lateral movement and strength.
Just the kind of player Ryan covets for his aggressive defense, the strong point of the team.
"Yeah, a high motor, rare to have a guy with that kind of athleticism," Ryan says. "I mean, he's never off his feet unless he's making a tackle. The only time he's ever on the ground is when he's making a tackle."
KENNY VACCARO, S, NEW ORLEANS — A key to the Saints' improved defense, Vaccaro plays all over the field. He comes down in the box and levels ball carriers. He plays some nickel back. He handles receivers in the slot or tight ends.
And his energetic approach rubs off.
"He's one of those guys who go do so much, like he's playing a bunch of positions," fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins says. "And he loves to play football."
Honorable Mentions — These guys have had some impact and could easily have more as they get comfortable with their teams and schemes:
Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay; D.J. Fluker, T, San Diego; Kyle Long, G, Chicago; Star Lotulelei, DT, Carolina; Andre Ellington, RB, Arizona; Keenan Allen, WR, San Diego; Geno Smith, QB, New York Jets; EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
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