Welcome to Around The NFL's "Rookie Watch" series, a week-by-week journey ranking this year's promising collection of first-year players.
Between now and the end of the regular season, we'll chart the 2014 rookie class in an effort to predict which young players have the best chance at long careers in our nation's finest sport.
In recent weeks, we've unveiled our early picks for Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year, examined this year's top undrafted players, dropped the boom on a batch of first-year disappointments and made our list of late-round draft gems.
Now it's time to grade this year's first-round picks. After handing out marks last week on offense, let's move on to defense.
First-round grades: Defense
Jadeveon Clowney, Texans:(1st overall pick) His debut has been an utter disappointment. Derailed by a laundry list of injuries, Clowney played just 143 snaps and now faces a challenging comeback from microfracture surgery. Texans fans can cling to hopes of one day seeing this physical freak paired with J.J. Watt on a weekly basis, but the future is a mystery for May's top overall pick. Grade: Incomplete
Khalil Mack, Raiders:(5th overall pick) General manager Reggie McKenzie has seen the Raiders organization crumble around him, but count Mack among the few bright spots in Oakland. Only Rob Ninkovich and Justin Houston have played more snaps at outside linebacker, with Mack grading second in the league behind only Houston at the position, per Pro Football Focus. An outstanding run-stuffer from the start -- he leads the NFL in tackles for loss -- Mack has improved his pass coverage and grown as a pass rusher down the stretch. His three sacks since Week 11 look promising when packaged with his 35 hurries, a figure tied with Dwight Freeney for third most in the league. Grade: A
Justin Gilbert, Browns:(8th overall pick) His weekly snap counts have been all over the place. Gilbert bounced back from an early-season benching to improve his play over the second half of the campaign. Still, the Browns have seen more promise from undrafted cover man K'Waun Williams. Mike Pettine's scheme asks much of its cornerbacks, putting pressure on Gilbert to grow up in a hurry in 2015. Grade: D
Anthony Barr, Vikings:(9th overall pick) Before missing the past two games with a knee injury, Barr was among Minnesota's most productive defenders. We've seen the rookie miss too many tackles over the second half of the season -- he leads all 4-3 outside linebackers in that category -- but Mike Zimmer detects great promise in the young pass rusher. "I can see Teddy (Bridgewater) and Anthony Barr being the cornerstones of this franchise in three years," the Vikings coach told reporters. Used also in subpackages as a defensive end, Barr has impressed Zimmer as young player who has "learned a lot of things in a short amount of time," leaving him as strong candidate for Around The NFL's upcoming "Making the Leap" list. Grade: A-
Aaron Donald, Rams:(13th overall pick) He's my pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Grading higher than All-Pro Gerald McCoy and every other defensive tackle, per PFF, the Rams' rookie has been a run-stopping, headache-generating force since Week 1. His eight sacks -- third among all players at his position -- are more than fellow first-rounders Mack and C.J. Mosley combined. "I said that in the spring when I saw him on the practice field. I went on the record to say he has a chance to be Defensive Rookie of the Year," said Rams coach Jeff Fisher. "I haven't changed since." Grade: A+
Kyle Fuller, Bears:(14th overall pick) Fuller was a whirlwind out of the gate, directly impacting Chicago's first two wins with game-changing interceptions. After openly struggling in Week 4 against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, the rookie cornerback has been picked on in pass coverage. He currently ranks dead last among the 36 rookies at his position, which has to do with his inconsistent pass coverage and a Bears defense that can't rush the passer. Showing flashes of big-play ability, another year in the system should help Fuller develop. Grade: C+
Ryan Shazier, Steelers:(15th overall pick) Shazier was a Rookie of the Year candidate in September, but injuries have sideswiped his promising campaign. Playing just four snaps since Week 9, the Steelers inside linebacker has been tasked with earning his starting spot back ahead of Vince Williams and Sean Spence. The future is bright, though, considering the freaky speed and instincts Shazier displayed earlier this autumn. Grade: Incomplete
C.J. Mosley, Ravens:(17th overall pick) If not for Donald, Mosley would be my choice for DROY. Leading an outstanding Ravens run defense, the rookie has been a fixture at inside linebacker since training camp. Sitting just below fellow rookie Chris Borland in PFF's run-stuffing rankings, Mosley is arguably this season's most complete first-year defender. There's been no hint of a rookie wall, with all three of his sacks coming since Week 12. Greatly respected inside team walls, Mosley is already drawing comparisons from teammates to Ray Lewis. Grade: A
Calvin Pryor, Jets:(18th overall pick) Stuck in a disastrous secondary, Pryor has been forced to play out of position at free safety for much of the year. Billed as a run-stopping hammer, the rookie was benched midway through the season for Jaiquawn Jarrett after struggling with his tackling and showing up late for meetings. Coming off one of his best games of the year against the Titans on Sunday, Pryor deserves another long look in 2015. Grade: C-
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Packers:(21st overall pick) Mike McCarthy's Packers have cycled through safeties in recent years, with 17 players at the position since 2006. We've seen Clinton-Dix grow weekly, though, shifting from nickel duties into a starting role alongside Morgan Burnett. He's given up a handful of big plays and struggled in spots with open-field tackling, but he's earned a reputation for big hits. "He's a really smart guy, very athletic. He's picking everything up really fast," Burnett told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Some of those lessons have been learned the hard way ... Grade: B-
Rest of the class
Dee Ford, Chiefs:(23rd overall pick) Grade: D
Darqueze Dennard, Bengals:(24th overall pick) Grade: D
Jason Verrett, Chargers:(25th overall pick) Grade: B+
Marcus Smith, Eagles:(26th overall pick) Grade: F
Ford has barely played. Seeing his most extensive action against the Raiders on Sunday, the pass rusher dialed up one sack and a hurry against quarterback Derek Carr, perhaps a sign that Ford isn't a lost cause. Forced to switch from playing defensive end in a 4-3 alignment at Auburn to outside linebacker in a 3-4 base, Ford was honest about that challenge, saying: "Physically, I can go out and do it. Mentally, that's the block." ... After Marvin Lewis in August called Dennard "the best rookie corner I've seen," the Bengals' coach has used the cover man on just 58 snaps all season. With aging starters Terence Newman, Adam Jones and Leon Hall ahead of him, Dennard might earn a first-string spot as soon as next September. ... Verrett was in the running for DROY honors before landing on injured reserve with a torn labrum in November. Good against the run and showing tantalizing coverage skills, he gives the Chargers a future anchor in the secondary. ... General manager Howie Roseman insists Smith was the top player on his board when the Eagles drafted him in May, but the linebacker has been nothing short of an enigma. With coach Chip Kelly hinting that the rookie needs to show more in practice, Smith has played just 74 snaps all season and none since Week 12.
Deone Bucannon, Cardinals:(27th overall pick) Grade: C
Dominique Easley, Patriots:(29th overall pick) Grade: C-
Jimmie Ward, 49ers:(30th overall pick) Grade: C-
Bradley Roby, Broncos:(31st overall pick) Grade: B
Bucannon has impressed coaches as Arizona's "dollar linebacker," essentially a hybrid safety-linebacker role that relies on the rookie's hammer-dropping hits. "He's doing a great job for us filling in at that position," safety Rashad Johnson told ArizonaSports.com. "He's going to be a really, really special player for the Cardinals for years to come." ... With Easley battling a knee injury, there are whispers he might finish the year on injured reserve. Seeing work primarily as an interior sub rusher, the rookie has played 20 snaps since Week 11 and just 270 all season. With only one sack on the year, Easley has yet to make a major impact. ... Ward went on IR with a foot injury after Week 10. Playing 270 snaps as San Francisco's nickel cornerback, he's primed for a larger role in 2015. ... Roby caught our eye early in the year with his physical play at cornerback. His size, speed and athleticism are enticing, but he's also been picked on more than once. "It hasn't been perfect, but it never is," said Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. "... I'm sure glad we have him."
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