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Odell Beckham, Aaron Donald lead NFL’s top 12 rookies of 2014

Odell Beckham Jr. has electrified the league with his play as a rookie. (Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports)

Front Office Focus

Each Wednesday, national NFL writer Mark Maske will assess the league through the lens of the front office and roster construction, breaking down rookies, draft targets, trades, recent signings, upcoming free agents and more.

It has been a season filled with disappointments for the two highest-profile players chosen in the NFL draft in May.

Houston Texans linebacker Jadeveon Clowney, the draft’s top overall selection, was plagued by knee troubles and had his rookie season ended early without a single sack.

Johnny Manziel, the highly celebrated and closely scrutinized quarterback whose drop through the first-round order was perhaps the biggest storyline on draft night, did not make his first NFL start for the Cleveland Browns until last Sunday and struggled mightily in it, with only 10 completions and 13 rushing yards in a shutout loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Even so, there are plenty of rookies immediately establishing themselves this season as standout NFL performers. The 2014 class of rookie wide receivers has been memorably superb.

Here is a look at a dozen rookies who have had a significant impact in their first season in the league:

Odell Beckham Jr., WR, Giants

Yes, the catch was unreal. But Beckham’s rookie season is about so much more than a single leaping, one-handed grab, no matter how remarkable it was. He has developed into a consistently productive and reliable receiver and a centerpiece of the Giants’ offense. Beckham’s 972 receiving yards lead NFL rookies, and he has nine touchdown catches among his 71 receptions. He had a dozen catches for 143 yards and three touchdowns in last Sunday’s triumph over the Washington Redskins, and he has topped 100 receiving yards in two straight and five of the last seven games. In those two outings in which he didn’t record 100 yards, he still topped 90 yards. He is becoming as steady and dependable as he is spectacular, and he deserves to be the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year.

Mike Evans, WR, Buccaneers

Evans, the second wide receiver drafted in May following Sammy Watkins, hasn’t received the attention Beckham has generated, but he has been very good. Evans leads rookies with his 11 touchdown catches. He has 59 catches for 948 yards, and he has managed to do that while playing with two Buccaneers quarterbacks, Mike Glennon and Josh McCown, who aren’t exactly jockeying for positions among the NFL’s elite. Glennon is the league’s 24th-rated passer and McCown is 32nd.

Aaron Donald, DT, Rams

Donald isn’t part of the Rams’ draft haul from the Robert Griffin III trade with the Redskins. But he is a building block for the future and he should be the front-runner to be named the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year. He has been very difficult to block and he leads all rookies league-wide with eight sacks, a formidable number indeed for a defensive tackle.

Zack Martin, G, Cowboys

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has spoken about how tempting it was when his team had its chance to select Manziel in the opening round as a potential successor-in-waiting to Tony Romo. But Jones and the Cowboys resisted the Manziel temptation and chose Martin, and they have been rewarded greatly. Martin has settled in at right guard and has made an already solid Dallas offensive line even better. That line has helped tailback DeMarco Murray to be the league’s leading rusher and has kept Romo mostly upright and intact following his offseason back surgery. Martin showed his toughness last Sunday night when he suffered an ankle injury during the first half of the Cowboys’ triumph at Philadelphia but remained on the field to play every offensive snap. The Cowboys hope he’ll remain in the lineup for this Sunday’s game at home against the Indianapolis Colts.

Jeremy Hill, RB, Bengals

Running backs generally aren’t regarded as particularly high-priority draft picks in this pass-happy era of the NFL, and Hill lasted until the second round and the 55thoverall selection in May. But he has provided a significant boost to the Cincinnati offense. Hill has averaged five yards per carry and leads rookies with 877 rushing yards. He is the NFL’s 11th-leading rusher, and he also has run for eight touchdowns. In a season in which Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, the league’s 25th-rated passer, has been inconsistent and wide receiver A.J. Green and incumbent running back Giovani Bernard have had injury issues, Hill has been a steadying influence.

C.J. Mosley, LB, Ravens

Mosley has done a little bit of everything, and a lot of tackling, for the Baltimore defense. He leads rookies with 120 tackles, putting him in a tie for sixth in the league overall. He also has three sacks and two interceptions and has been credited with eight passes defended. That puts him in the mix with Donald for defensive rookie of the year, and his contributions are a major reason why the Ravens rank third in the NFL in run defense and sixth in scoring defense.

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers

His 952 receiving yards put him just ahead of Evans and just behind Beckham. His nine touchdown catches are tied with Beckham, two behind Evans. Benjamin has stepped right in and immediately has been the Panthers’ top wideout, filling a major void for the team after it released Steve Smith in the offseason.

Sammy Watkins, WR, Bills

The expectations were immense for Watkins after the Bills traded up to select him fourth overall in the draft, surrendering a first-round pick next spring as part of the deal with the Browns. And while Watkins has had to share the rookie-receiver spotlight with Beckham, Benjamin, Evans and others, he mostly has come through. He ranks fourth among rookies with his 850 receiving yards. He has 59 catches and five touchdown receptions.

Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Vikings

The rookie quarterback class has not been overwhelmingly successful. Bridgewater is the NFL’s 26th-rated passer, putting him four spots ahead of Oakland’s Derek Carr and seven spots in front of Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles. Bridgewater has 11 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 82.7. That’s not great. But he also has done some good things, and the Vikings are a respectable 5-5 in his 10 starts (compared to 1-3 in their other games). He seems to be on his way to finishing strong. Bridgewater has had consecutive 300-yard passing games. He has had a passer rating above 115 in two of his last three games. If he and the Vikings can end the season on a positive note, and perhaps even achieve a .500 record for the season, there is every reason to believe he can be a productive and winning quarterback going forward.

Chris Borland, LB, 49ers

The 49ers have been eliminated from playoff contention and have had a turbulent season that appears likely to result in the departure of Coach Jim Harbaugh. But Borland’s play on a shorthanded defense was a bright spot. The 49ers were without NaVorro Bowman all season as he failed to return from the knee injury he suffered during last season’s NFC title game. They were without fellow linebackers Patrick Willis, who suffered a toe injury, and Aldon Smith, who served a nine-game suspension by the NFL, for much of the season. Borland took up the slack, currently ranking second among rookies with 107 tackles and adding two interceptions. He might not play again this season, however, because of an ankle injury.

Derek Carr, QB, Raiders

Carr was the only rookie quarterback league-wide to open the season as a starter. He has held on to that starting job all season. And while there certainly have been issues and growing pains, with the Raiders at 2-11, Carr has demonstrated enough promise to potentially make working with him a drawing card in the team’s expected search for a new head coach. He has thrown for 2,898 yards and 18 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. If certainly appears the Raiders’ focus should be putting a better team around him, not finding a replacement for him.

Khalil Mack, LB, Raiders

Mack, the fifth overall pick in the draft in May, hasn’t had eye-catching numbers. He ranks only 10th among rookies in tackles with 68. But he has had three sacks, and some within the league say he has played consistently well.

Also Worth Mentioning: Jordan Matthews, WR, Eagles; Preston Brown, LB, Bills; Tre Mason, RB, Rams; Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars; Kyle Fuller, CB, Bears

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