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The NFL’s top 10 rookies of 2015

Jameis Winston is off to a strong start to his NFL career. (Alex Brandon/AP Photo)

While it’s fair to argue over whether it takes three or four or five years to truly evaluate an NFL draft class, I think we can all agree that seven weeks into their season is too soon.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t track how well rookies have played to this point in the season, which is what we’re doing this week with our ranking of the top 10 impact rookies of 2015. To create the list, we factored in not just a player’s performance in our PFF grades and stats, but also the impact each has had for his team.

Here are the top 10 impact rookies in the NFL so far this season:

1. Jameis Winston, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

There seems to be a perception that Winston, the No. 1 overall pick out of Florida State, has been bad this season, and for two of his six games that has been true. He had the second-worst performance of any QB in a game this year in his NFL debut against Tennessee, which looked even worse in comparison to the perfect passer rating posted by the No. 2 overall pick of the Titans, Marcus Mariota. He also had a terrible performance in Week 4 against Carolina.

But if you take those two games away – his first game ever and a game against one of the NFL’s elite defenses – he has been excellent. He’s shown a great ability to make difficult throws. His specialty so far has been go routes. He’s attempted them on 10 percent of his passes, completing 8 of 16 for three touchdowns and zero interceptions, with an NFL passer rating 51 points higher than the NFL average on that pass pattern.

[PFF: Dolphins acing grades under Campbell]

Now, is the No. 26 quarterback in our rankings, with a 61.4 grade, really worthy of the No. 1 spot on this list? It’s a fair question. But consider that Winston has already provided the Bucs with an upgrade over last year’s starter, Josh McCown (No. 30 in PFF grades last year), even with his periodic bad games, and the upside he provides with his good games is so much higher.

2. Amari Cooper, WR, Oakland Raiders

This year’s No. 4-overall pick out of Alabama got off to a slow start, but had a breakout game against the Chargers and now ranks 27th among receivers with a 79.8 grade.

This might seem a little high for him on this list, but there are reasons to bet on his upside. For starters, his grade has been held back a bit due to four drops (his drop rate of 10.8 is 14th-worst in the league), which is uncharacteristic of him based on his college stats. The Raiders also haven’t targeted him much in the deep passing game, with only three targets on throws of 20-plus yards. He’s caught all three of those, however, for 138 yards and two touchdowns. It might be time to get him more downfield targets, Oakland. The Raiders have gone from the NFL’s No. 31 passing offense in our grades last year to No. 11 this year. That isn’t all Cooper, obviously, but he deserves a fair share of the credit.

3. Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans

The No. 2 overall pick out of Oregon missed last week’s game due to an MCL sprain and is still uncertain for this week, which has limited his impact a little bit. But he’s off to a solid start, grading positively in two games, negatively in two and right around average in another. He is currently PFF’s No. 28 quarterback with a 58.6 grade.

Where he has struggled is on downfield throws, completing just three of his 21 attempts of 20 or more yards, with zero touchdowns and three interceptions on those throws. But his numbers against pressure have been promising, and his passer rating against the blitz increases by 26 points. Most importantly, he has upgraded the Titans’ passing attack, even though it does still have a ways to go.

4. Ronald Darby, CB, Buffalo Bills

The second-rounder out of Florida State currently ranks No. 3 among all cornerbacks, with an elite 90.6 grade. That would be remarkable at any position, but is especially so at corner, which is traditionally one of the harder transitions to make for college players. Not only that, but Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme asks a lot of its corners, frequently requiring them to hold up on the outside in one-on-one coverage (Darby and teammate Stephon Gilmore have been targeted the third- and second-most, respectively, among CBs this season).

[Week 8 Watch: Steelers hope for Big Ben bounce]

But even though Darby has been picked on, he’s fared remarkably well, allowing the ninth-lowest catch percentage in the league and zero touchdowns, while intercepting two passes and knocking away eight more. He’s also been good in run defense, missing just one tackle all season. He’d be No. 1 on this list if it were about pure production.

5. Todd Gurley, RB, St. Louis Rams

He tore his ACL last November while playing for Georgia, and the injury kept him out of the first two games of his rookie season. However, it hasn’t taken him long to establish himself as one of the league’s best backs, including an outstanding performance against Cleveland that saw him earn the third-highest grade we’ve seen from any running back this year.

He is currently PFF’s No. 13 running back, with a 78.0 grade. He’s held up pretty well in pass protection, which can be difficult for rookie backs, but where he really stands out is as a runner. He ranks No. 4 in elusive rating and No. 3 in yards after contact per attempt – two stats that prove just how good he is at generating yards on his own.

6. Leonard Williams, DE, New York Jets

The USC star was considered a steal when he fell all the way to the Jets with the No. 6 pick, as many ranked him as the draft’s best defensive player. He has backed up that hype so far, currently ranking No. 17 among interior defenders with an 84.8 PFF grade. He’s been good against the run but even better as a pass-rusher. His 26 total pressures (he only has one sack, but has hit QBs 10 times and hurried them another 15) ranks third at his position. One word of caution: He has padded his numbers with big games against the vulnerable offensive lines of Philadelphia and Washington, and Miami. So keep an eye on how he does against the top competition left on the Jets’ schedule.

7. Henry Anderson, DE, Indianapolis Colts

If you did a side-by-side statistical comparison of Anderson and the aforementioned Leonard Williams, you wouldn’t see much of a difference. That’s how we felt about the two coming out of the Pac-12 last year, but Williams carried with him far more draft hype than Anderson, who dropped to the Colts in the third round. Indianapolis is lucky to have him, as he has been the team’s most productive defensive player this season. He ranks No. 18 among interior defenders with an 84.2 grade, just one spot behind Williams. He’s a good pass-rusher, with 20 QB disruptions on the year, but he’s better against the run. His 18 run-stops rank third among 3-4 defensive ends, and he’s only missed one tackle this season.

[Present tense for NFL’s interim coaches]

8. Damarious Randall, CB, Green Bay Packers

As we mentioned in Darby’s section, it isn’t easy transitioning to the NFL as a cornerback. Randall is even more impressive, having primarily played safety at Arizona State before the Packers chose him in the first round. He currently ranks No. 23 with a PFF grade of 79.5, and he is allowing the lowest catch percentage in the league right now at 41.9.

9. Stefon Diggs, WR, Minnesota Vikings

He has only played in three games this season, which is why he ranks this low on the list, but his impact has already been significant. He ranks No. 11 in PFF wide receiver rankings, with a grade of 85.7. He likely would have been drafted higher than the fifth round were it not for injury concerns, as he was considered a big-time talent at Maryland. He’s already established himself as a deep threat in the NFL, coming down with all five of the catchable passes thrown his way of 20 yards or more.

10. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

The second-round pick out of Alabama ranks an impressive No. 7 in PFF’s running back rankings, with a grade of 81.7. Whether he’ll still be on the short list of impact players from this class as the season goes along and in future seasons is a fair question, as he doesn’t measure quite as highly in stats intended to track his success independent of his blocking, but he’s been very productive nonetheless. He’s been a key component to an improved Jaguars rushing attack.

Jeff Dooley is the Editor in Chief of Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.