Call it necessity, desperation or even the necessity of desperation, but the Kansas City Chiefs just might have had an infusion of youth at just the right time on defense.
A team that doesn’t play any rookies in its pedal-to-the-metal offense had five rookies play -- two started: nose tackle Derrick Nnadi and linebacker Breeland Speaks -- on defense in Sunday night’s 45-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
The win moved the Chiefs to 6-1 on the season and was a welcome sight for a group that had surrendered at least 500 yards three times this season and more than 400 yards five times. On Sunday, the Chiefs face the Denver Broncos, who have four rookies either starting or in a regular rotation on offense.
From game analysis and discussions with personnel evaluators, here’s a look at the top 10 rookies so far this season:
Top 10 (stats are Weeks 1-7 combined)
Stats: 44 tackles, 4 TFL, 3.5 sacks
Previous rank: 1
Chargers' coach Anthony Lynn summed up James’ high-end play that sometimes mixes with a rookie’s learning curve when he said earlier this month, “when he knows, he’s very decisive.” It’s James’ versatility in a defense missing one of its best pass-rushers (the injured Joey Bosa) that keeps him in the top spot.
2. CB Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
Stats: 32 tackles, 8 PD, 3 INTs
Previous ranking: 2
The Browns have played without cornerback Terrance Mitchell (wrist surgery) the past three games, and cornerback E.J. Gaines missed Sunday’s loss to the Buccaneers because of a concussion, so Ward has had to do plenty of the heavy lifting in coverage. He has played cleanly enough that he has not been penalized this season.
3. LB Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Stats: 79 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 FR, 2 FF
Previous ranking: 7
Leonard was credited with 17 tackles in 52 snaps on defense in the Colts’ Week 7 win -- he has four games this season on which he has had at least 13 -- and though tackles might not be the best metric of success on defense, the game video shows how active Leonard has been and how often his eyes are in the right place in run fits. He still has a bobble from time to time in coverage, but his ability to line up with confidence snap to snap shows in his play.
4. RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Stats: 481 yards rushing, 424 yards receiving, 6 total TDs
Previous ranking: 3
The Giants’ woes on the offensive line do impact his play from time to time, as he occasionally tries to do too much in the run game, but on the next play, he suddenly makes three defenders miss for a big play. He is second in the league in yards from scrimmage, behind only Todd Gurley.
5. QB Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
Stats: 1,291 yards passing (258.2 per game), 6 TDs, 5 INTs
Previous ranking: 9
The Browns’ offense is limping along. They’ve scored six points on offense in the first quarter all season (two field goals), the receivers drop plenty of passes, and Sunday was another example, as the Browns had 74 yards of offense at halftime. But Mayfield continues to show composure in the face of a difficult situation, even as he was sacked five times in the overtime loss to the Buccaneers.
6. DL Da'Shawn Hand, Detroit Lions
Stats: 20 tackles, 2 sacks
Previous ranking: NR
He has been a mainstay on the Lions’ defensive line since Ziggy Ansah suffered a shoulder injury in the season opener, and Hand even has a strip sack of Aaron Rodgers on his résumé this season. He has consistently been one of the league’s best interior rushers this season, and he has played more snaps than any of the team’s other defensive linemen.
7. RB Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos
Stats: 436 yards rushing, 119 yards receiving, 3 total TDs
Previous ranking: NR
Lindsay was close to cracking the top 10 earlier this season but was then ejected early in the Broncos’ Week 3 loss to Baltimore, and he carried the ball just four times in the loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Week 6. But his 5.8 yards per carry average leads all players in the league who have had at least 70 carries, and his 741 all-purpose yards are 11th in the league.
8. S Jessie Bates, Cincinnati Bengals
Stats: 54 tackles, 2 PD, 2 INTs
Previous ranking: 4
Bates made the kind of highlight Sunday night that no defender wants, when he became the guy Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt hurdled on the way to the viral video circuit. But despite the Bengals’ defensive meltdown against the Chiefs on Sunday, Bates has been active, instinctive and productive in all seven of his starts.
9. LB Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos
Stats: 20 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 FF
Previous ranking: NR
Chubb has had some growing pains setting the edge in the run game at times, and the Broncos have asked him to drop into coverage in some personnel groupings. But this is a high-motor player with five sacks in the past two games, including three against the Rams’ Jared Goff, who has been sacked just 13 times in seven games.
10. WR Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons
Stats: 27 receptions, 392 yards, 6 TDs
Previous ranking: 6
Ridley left the Falcons’ Week 6 win over the Buccaneers with an ankle injury and didn’t look as explosive as he has for much of the season in the team’s Week 7 win over the Giants on Monday night. But he continues to turn targets into receptions, first downs and touchdowns. He has been targeted just eight more times than he has receptions this season, so he catches what comes his way.
Close but not quite (totals are for seven games)
Lions RB Kerryon Johnson (444 yards rushing, 6.4 yards per carry); Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds (54 tackles, 6 PD, 2 FF); 49ers LB Fred Warner (58 tackles, 3 TFL); Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch (left Week 7 with thigh injury, 53 tackles); 49ers RT Mike McGlinchey (seven starts for No. 2 rushing team); Colts G Quenton Nelson (Colts surrendered no sacks in past two games); Browns LB Genard Avery (12 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 FF); Redskins NT Daron Payne (21 tackles, 2 sacks); Packers WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling (209 yards in past three games); Raiders DT Maurice Hurst (12 tackles, 3 PD, 2 sacks).
Kickers need love too
Seattle’s Michael Dickson has already had a game this season in which he averaged 59 yards per punt (the opener in Denver), and he had a game in which he attempted two dropkicks (against Chicago in Week 2). He is now tied for fifth in net average, and in Week 6 he dropped both of his punts against the Raiders inside the 20.