Even with the best playmaker of this rookie class on a bye (Cam Newton), Week Nine was the week of big-time plays by this year's NFL freshmen.
Falcons WR Julio Jones was outstanding in his first game back from injury. He made a ridiculous catch for a 50-yard touchdown and added an 80-yard score, as well. Jones finished with three catches for 131 yards. Think Matt Ryan is happy to have Jones back?
In the Rams' defense, maybe they expected Patrick Peterson to let their punt in overtime go into the endzone for a touchback. The Cardinals' corner instead put together a highlight-reel 99-yard punt return for a touchdown, again showing off his unique speed and athleticism as a return man. With all the Cardinals' struggles on offense, maybe Arizona should get him some snaps at wide receiver, or in the "Wildcat."
On a Sunday where rookies stood out, it was fitting that the day concluded with a game-winning catch by a first-year player. It is apparent how much confidence the Ravens and QB Joe Flacco have in rookie WR Torrey Smith. The speedster out of Maryland dropped a potential go-ahead score with 35 seconds left. Four plays later, on third down, Smith caught the game-winner, a 26-yard touchdown with eight seconds left — in hostile Heinz Field, no less — against the Ravens' bitter rival.
Several rookies have shown little or no effect from not having a rookie minicamp. Newton remains atop the list, and there is no change in the top four, but more rookies are making names for themselves this season.
1. Panthers QB Cam Newton (first round, first overall pick)
Last week's ranking: 1
Newton's first bye week in the NFL probably felt good and allowed the signalcaller time for rest and self-scouting, which will be key as defenses do different things to slow down the league's top offensive rookie.
2. Broncos OLB Von Miller (1, 2)
Last week's ranking: 2
Miller had another game in which he camped out in the opponent's backfield. In the Broncos' upset win over Oakland, Miller had five tackles, one-half sack, a tackle for loss and three QB hits.
3. Bengals WR A.J. Green (1, 4)
Last week's ranking: 3
Green's clutch 20-yard catch on 3rd-and-18 in the fourth quarter set up the Bengals' go-ahead touchdown. He finished the game with seven catches for 83 yards, catching all seven balls targeted his way.
4. 49ers OLB Aldon Smith (1, 7)
Last week's ranking: 4
Smith had a quiet game in the 49ers' 19-11 win over the Redskins, recording one quarterback hit. He should have some chances against the Giants next week in a crucial game for San Francisco.
5. Bengals QB Andy Dalton (2, 35)
Last week's ranking: 6
Dalton continues to impress and, if it weren't for Newton, would likely be the top candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He completed 22-of-39 passes for 217 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, good for a 97.9 QB rating. Dalton hit Andre Caldwell on 3rd-and-goal from the Titans' five-yard line in the fourth quarter for the go-ahead touchdown. He will get a big test this weekend, a reality check against the Steelers.
6. Bills DL Marcell Dareus (1, 3)
Last week's ranking: 5
Dareus got his own taste of reality on Sunday after a monster game in Week Eight. Facing Jets All-Pro C Nick Mangold, Dareus struggled to get penetration. He ended the game with five tackles and a fumble recovery. With NT Kyle Williams on injured reserve, the pressure will be on Dareus going forward.
7. Redskins OLB Ryan Kerrigan (1, 16)
Last week's ranking: 7
The Redskins continue to struggle, but Kerrigan had a solid game against the 49ers, recording six tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and a pair of quarterback hits. While he has benefited from playing opposite Brian Orakpo, Kerrigan again has impressed with his ability to play outside 'backer after playing D-end in college.
8. Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray (3, 71)
Last week's ranking: NR
We have found the top rookie running back, but it's unclear how long Murray can keep this up. After 22 carries for 139 yards (6.3-yard average) and four catches for 47 yards, Murray is head and shoulders above the other rookie backs in terms of production. For his spot on the meter to keep rising, he will need to be a weapon even when Felix Jones returns from injury.
9. Texans DE J.J. Watt (1, 11)
Last week's ranking: 8
Watt hangs on to a spot on the meter, but WR Julio Jones came close to knocking him off. Watt had three tackles, one for a loss, and the recovery of a Browns fumble in Sunday's win over the Browns. As good as Watt has been this season, he will need to keep putting up numbers to keep his spot on the meter.
10. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson (1, 5)
Last week's ranking: NR
Peterson isn't here for his play at corner. Even though he leads all rookie defensive backs with two interceptions and 10 passes defensed, Peterson has had his fair share of struggles covering NFL receivers. But his outstanding return play cannot be ignored. Of all players with at least six punt returns, Peterson has the highest average (21.8 yards) and leads the league with three punt-return scores.
On the cusp (listed alphabetically)
Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin (undrafted)
Buccaneers MLB Mason Foster (3, 84)
Falcons WR Julio Jones (1, 6)
Titans DT Karl Klug (5, 142)
Browns WR Greg Little (2, 59)
Dolphins C Mike Pouncey (1, 15)
Browns DE Jabaal Sheard (2, 37)
Ravens WR Torrey Smith (2, 58)
Browns DT Phil Taylor (1, 21)
Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson (1, 30)