New Orleans Saints @ Seattle Seahawks
Pros : Pete Carroll has to be a viable candidate for Coach of the Year. Sure, winning the NFC West was no great feat in 2010, but no one expected Seattle to win many games even with a pretty weak schedule.
With his left tackle struggling with ankle injuries all year, his veteran quarterback again missing time with injuries, and a team near the bottom of the league on both sides of the ball, it is amazing that a team that is thought to be years away from completing a rebuilding job could host a playoff game.
New Orleans did very well for a team holding the banner of defending champions despite having several key injuries most of the year. They lost running backs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush for large chunks of year, as well as tight end Jeremy Shockey. Rookies Chris Ivory and Jimmy Graham played so well that the Saints ship kept sailing smoothly.
While the defense wasn't as opportunistic as last year, they were stellar. New Orleans ranked fourth in yards allowed this season. While they intercepted just nine balls this year, they did force 23 fumbles. That is just two less than in 2009.
Cons : Seattle does nothing well. The quarterbacks have tossed six more interceptions than touchdowns, and their leading rusher has just 573 yards in the second worst running game in the league. Though rookie Earl Thomas and the unexpected return of Mike Williams were very nice stories, there aren't many areas of the football field to get excited about for Seahawks fans.
New Orleans also does not have a good running game, ranked 28th this year. Thomas and Ivory are now gone because of injury, leaving it up to a bunch of unknown entities. Some might expect Bush, but he has never been an effective running back. His game is catching passes and kicks. Quarterback Drew Brees has chucked 22 interceptions this year, which is twice as much as last year.
What To Watch For : Seattle needs the special teams to win this, something the unit has done before for the team. This won't be a smash mouth game, because neither team is worth much on the ground. Expect them both to go to the air often.
The defense will have to win this one, because the pass rush and secondary will be tested often. These two teams met at New Orleans just before Thanksgiving, and the Saints walked away with a 15 point victory behind Brees four touchdown passes and 99 yards from Ivory. Seattle managed just 58 yards on the ground in 18 attempts.
Expect similar results on the scoreboard.
Saints 34 Seahawks 17
New York Jets @ Indianapolis Colts
Pros : The Jets can run the ball pretty good at times. They will feed LaDanian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene often, passing only when there are too many defenders in the box. Though the Jets are far from great passing the ball, Mark Sanchez showed some improvement in 2010.
The defense is stifling, giving up the third least yards in the league and sixth least amount of points. While they only picked off 12 passes in 2010, New York did have 40 sacks and force 23 fumbles.
The Colts being here speaks of quarterback Peyton Manning's greatness. As his team crumbled around him from injuries, Manning played catch with anyone who could suit up. He had one rough patch in 2010 where he tossed 15 interceptions in about a month, but he was mostly solid the rest of the season and just added to his legacy.
Cons : Tomlinson hasn't had an effective running game since the fifth week of the year, and Greene hasn't had a 100-yard rushing game since the fourth week. When the pair is ineffective, the Jets get in trouble trying to rely on Sanchez. Sanchez is a system quarterback who needs a good ground game to simplify things. Factor in his injured arm, New York will be in very big trouble if the Colts stop the run.
Stopping the run has been an issue for the Colts this year. They are the 25th worst team on yards allowed on the ground. They also struggle mightily to run the ball, where they rank 29th. The recent return of two veterans hurt much of the year return just in time for this game.
What To Watch For : The Jets need to ground and pound the Colts. Not only does this keep Manning off the field, but the Jets offensive line is much bigger than the Colts smallish defensive line. A good running game will especially help New York in the fourth quarter.
Indianapolis goes as Manning goes, but the return of halfback Joseph Addai could be vital. Addai is not only the best running back the Colts have, but he is also able to catch the ball. Though the Jets have four good cornerbacks, the safeties are questionable. Manning will try to exploit this weakness by throwing to the tight ends and backs.
Many expect this game to go to the wire. It is a rematch of the 2009 AFC Championship, and these teams haven't seen each other since then. Both have a lot to prove here, especially the Jets. Head coach Rex Ryan has talked Super Bowl all season to the media or anyone who would listen.
While there may not be many turnovers in this game, any made could end up being the difference between winning and losing this game.
Jets 27 Colts 24
Baltimore Ravens @ Kansas City Chiefs
Pros : While Ray Rice carries the offense, the defense continues to carry the entire Baltimore franchise. Though the pass defense isn't as solid as it has been in the past, the run defense is the fifth best in the NFL. Baltimore has also allowed the third least amount of points. Quarterback Joe Flacco has been inconsistent with his accuracy, but he has more weapons to throw to and threw only 10 interceptions.
Kansas City loves to run the ball, and they do it well. They have the top rated running game in the NFL and have been near that spot all season. Though the passing attack is underrated in the shadow of the running game, Kansas City typically goes as far as halfbacks Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones take them.
The Chiefs defense is also underrated. Their pair of Brandon's at cornerback, Flowers and Carr, have defended an impressive 37 balls combined. Rookie safeties Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis appear to have very bright futures.
Cons : The Ravens secondary was having issues until Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed returned. He covers a lot of mistakes made. If Rice isn't going good, his reserves have not stepped up and performed like they have in years past. This forced Flacco to try to force things, and that has generally not caused a positive result.
Kansas City shocked the NFL world not only by winning the AFC West, but by winning it so early. They have the 30th ranked passing attack, yet they did throw a minuscule eight interceptions in 2010. They have won with good balance on defense while a good offensive line has led the way on offense. They have just one good receiver threat in Dwayne Bowe, so rookie tight end Tony Moeaki will need to be big Sunday because Bowe will face a double-team all day.
What To Watch For : Kansas City has to run the ball. Baltimore would like to as well, but they have four good receivers and a top-notch tight end if forced to throw. The Chiefs have a good run defense, but it isn't on the level of Baltimore's. Yet against top runners like Frank Gore, Maurice Jone-Drew, Chris Johnson, and Steven Jackson, they have up 43, 47, 58, and 67 yards respectively. Yet they are vulnerable, as the 161 and 106-yard efforts by Denver's Knowshon Moreno showed this year.
If Rice is stopped, Willis McGahee or Le'Ron McClain must pick up the slack. There is a question if the Chiefs have enough defensive backs for the Ravens as well. Rookies like Javier Arenas should get tested.
Baltimore is a veteran team that knows how to win a playoff game. That might make the difference here.
Ravens 23 Chiefs 20
Green Bay Packers @ Philadelphia Eagles
Pros : While tossing for nearly 4,000 yards and 28 scores, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has only 11 interceptions. He has done this with such an anemic ground attack that he is second on the team in rushing.
The Packers were absolutely devastated by injuries this season, but that did not prevent them from giving up the second fewest points in the NFL with the tenth highest scoring offense. The defense was fifth best in yards allowed, whole the offense was ninth best in yards gained.
Philadelphia's season started scary. They traded legendary quarterback Donovan McNabb so Kevin Kolb could start. Kolb was knocked out in the first game of the year, which happened to be against Green Bay. Michael Vick, a year removed from the disgrace on imprisonment, came to the rescue by playing the best football of his life.
Vick tossed just six interceptions while tossing 21 scores, over 3000 yards passing, over 600 yards rushing, and scoring nine more times. He is a front runner for Comeback Player of the Year, and he probably will get several MVP votes as well. He has three excellent weapons to throw to, and Philadelphia has a 1,000-yard running back to lean on.
The coaches on both sidelines have starred all year. While Mike McCarthy and Andy Reid deserve major kudos, the assistant coaches have also been stellar. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg might be the best at what they do in the NFL today. Vick's progress and the defensive excellence of Green Bay can be attributed to these men.
Cons : Green Bay struggles to run the ball, relying very heavily on Rodgers. Though the young quarterback has carried the load, he did suffer two concussions because he takes so many hits from handling the ball so often. Halfback Brandon Jackson needs to step up in the playoffs.
Philadelphia can score, they are the third highest scoring offense in the NFL in 2010. Defense is their issue. This inconsistent unit is ranked 21st in points allowed as well as 15th in both rushing and passing yards allowed. They haven given up 24 or more points in 11 games this year.
What To Watch For : The quarterbacks are in the spotlight here, but the running game could hold the key. If Jackson or Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy get 100 yards, their team should win. If neither do anything, expect Rodgers and Vick to gun it out.
The best defense should prevail here.
Packers 30 Eagles 24
Your 2010 NFL All-Rookie Team :
Quarterback : Sam Bradford, Saint Louis Rams
He gets this spot easily, yet almost by default.
Jimmy Clausen, of the Carolina Panthers, was second amongst rookies with 299 passing attempts in a mostly horrid season for the youngster. Cleveland's Colt McCoy could have had this slot, but he was unable to stay healthy when called upon.
Bradford threw for 3,512 yards and 18 scores against 15 interceptions. He accomplished this on a team that was hit hard by injuries to their wide receiver corps. The Rams won three games total in the previous two seasons combined, but Bradford led them to seven victories this year while taking every snap.
Yet he came up real small when Saint Louis needed him most.
In their regular season finale against Seattle, where the winner would grab the AFC West title and get into the playoffs, Bradford couldn't get his team into the end zone against a very bad Seahawks defense. While throwing an interception on 36 attempts, he gained just 155 yards on 19 completions.
Next season will be one to watch for Bradford. Not only should all of his receivers be healthy, the Rams may draft him a few more weapons for the sake of depth at the least. His future is looking decent so far, ask Saint Louis fans who never expected to see their team get so close to a playoff berth in 2010.
Running Back : LeGerrette Blount, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
While having a long, strange trip on the gridiron, Blount has excelled on the field on every level. After two 1,000-yard seasons in junior college, he went to Oregon University and promptly gained over 1,000 yards in 2008. He missed the 2009 season after punching an opponent in the first game of the year.
The NFL was skeptical of Blount's ability to control his anger, so no one drafted him for the 2010 season. The Tennessee Titans signed him as a free agent, but cut him on the last day of preseason after signing a veteran linebacker to add depth on defense. His highlight was a training camp fight, which is an extremely common occurrence, after having his helmet ripped off in a drill.
Tampa Bay signed him right away, but didn't actually play Blount until the third game of the season. After 10 carries for 30 yards in his first two games, the Buccaneers began to give him the ball more in week seven.
He had four games of over 100 yards, but never carried the ball more than 26 times and had just three games of 20 or more carries. His biggest game may have come against Seattle, where he ran for a career-best 164 yards that was the most rushing yards in a single game by a rookie in 2010.
Blount is the only rookie in the 2010 season to rush for over 1,000 yards, getting 1,007 total. He wasn't used much in the passing game, catching just five balls all year. His six rushing touchdowns were the second most by an NFL rookie, and he averaged five yards per carry.
Blount was not only a big reason why the surprising Bucs won 10 games this year, but he can maybe be viewed as a savior to the young team. Tampa Bay had issues at the halfback position before he took over. Cadillac Williams is a veteran best used in the pass game, and the rest of the group is unproven. Injuries hit the position hard, and fullback Earnest Graham's 20 carries this season was the third most on the team.
Though the quarterback crazy media might push Bradford as Offensive Rookie of the Year, Blount is the most deserving of this award in 2010. Unfortunately his past might be held against him when the votes are tallied.
Running Back : Chris Ivory, New Orleans Saints
The defending champion Saints came into 2010 expecting to use Pierre Thomas, Lynell Hamilton and Reggie Bush as their ball carriers. In training camp, the undrafted Ivory impressed the coaches and made the squad after Hamilton suffered a season-ending injury in a preseason game.
Then Thomas and Bush got hurt with the type of injuries that let them contribute little to the team this season. Ivory was called up in the third game of 2010 and became the primary carrier in a backfield where he split carries with veteran Ladell Betts and others.
His career-best total of 23 carries was the only time this season where he had more than 15 carries, but the lack of touches did not prevent him from rushing for 100 yards twice. One was a 158-yard explosion against the Buccaneers.
Ivory missed two games and had just 14 carries in the last month of the season. Part of the reason was a foot injury, yet Thomas and Bush had also returned to start touching the ball more often.
Despite all of this, the 716 yards Ivory rushed for are the second most by a rookie this year. Yet he caught just one ball all year. As the Saints go in the playoffs, Ivory might get used in short yardage situations even though he led the team in rushing yards and scores at a 5.2 yards per carry average.
He bailed a Saints team out of trouble by coming out of virtually nowhere this year, and his impact could be a big reason the Saints get to defend their championship.
Wide Receiver : Mike Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The NFL has had three guys named Mike Williams play wide receiver, and there are three players in the league now with the name. But no other Mike Williams had a bigger year than the rookie in Tampa Bay.
Despite a promising start to his career in college, Williams was suspended in 2008 and quit football after seven games in 2009. This caused him to drop to the fourth round of the draft before the Buccaneers snagged him.
He scored in his first NFL game and kept going. Catching a ball in every game this year from a second-year quarterback learning the game himself, Williams led all rookies with 65 receptions for 964 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He accomplished this by being a good route runner with the ability to get deep. With a long of 58 yards, Williams averaged 14.8 yards per catch on the season on a young receivers corps. He also outperformed second round pick Arrelious Benn, who had 25 catches himself this season.
The future looks very bright for the young Buccaneers. As the kids get older and learn the game better, they have a good chance of winning more than the 10 games they won this year. Mike Williams should be right in the middle of this surge.
Wide Receiver : Jordan Shipley, Cincinnati Bengals
When Cincinnati drafted Shipley in the third round, there was a question of how much playing time he would get. The Bengals starting receivers, Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, demand the ball often and create chaos when they feel slighted. Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell are a pair of third-year players the team is excited about, and Jermaine Gresham is a tight end drafted in the first round.
Shipley still found a significant niche on the team. His 52 receptions were the second most by all rookie wide receivers, and 30 catches were good for first downs. Though he missed one game due to a concussion, he had two receptions of over 40 yards. Only three rookies had one more.
Dez Bryant of the Cowboys deserves mention, but he didn't have to fight for passes to get thrown at him like Shipley did. Bryant still had less receptions and first downs, but did score three more times than Shipley did.
Owens is as good as gone, and Ochocinco may follow now that Simpson and Caldwell showed what they could do after the geriatric loudmouths decided not to play the last two games of the year. Shipley will probably stay in his third down slot role, but he certainly was much more productive this year than many expected.
Tight End : Ron Gronkowski, New England Patriots
Though Gronkowski shared snaps with fellow rookie Aaron Hernandez and veteran Alge Crumpler, his 10 touchdown receptions are the most by any rookie tight end and the second most by any rookie. His 11 receptions of 20 yards or more was also the second most by any rookie in 2010, and his 30 first down catches is also second amongst all rookie tight ends.
The 13 yards per catch he got in 2010 leads all rookie tight ends with 14 or more receptions. His 42 receptions are the fourth most by rookie tight ends in a season where many excelled. Hernandez had 45 himself while Kansas City's Tony Moeaki had 47 and Cincinnati's Jermaine Gresham led the way with 52 this year.
Gronkowski's 546 receiving yards were just 10 less than Moeaki, the leader amongst rookie tight ends this year. Besides Gresham, Moeaki and Hernandez, several other rookie tight ends had excellent seasons. Jimmy Graham of the Saints, Andrew Quarless of the Packers and Michael Hoomanawanui of the Rams all were important members of their teams.
Gronkowski's brothers, Dan and Chris, also play in the NFL. While there are several to pick from at this position, none that can be called the wrong selection, I chose him because of the total impact of his catches.
Though he split time, Gronkowski made the most of every opportunity. Whether it was stretching the seam, moving the chains or putting points up on the board. It has to make Patriots happy knowing they have two excellent youngsters at this position for the next several seasons.
Offensive Tackle : Rodger Saffold, Saint Louis Rams
Exciting things are happening in Saint Louis, and maybe the offensive tackle slots are the most fun to watch.
The Rams drafted Jason Smith with the first overall draft pick in 2009, then moved him to the right side so Saffold could man left tackle. Both players are 6'5" and 306 lbs and athletic. Saffold has played so well that NFL general managers have said they regretted passing on him in the draft.
Though the Rams dumped a bunch of money into their rookie quarterback Sam Bradford, it will be up to Smith and Saffold, who protect Bradford's blind side, to keep him upright and injury-free to earn his keep.
Offensive Tackle : Trent Williams, Washington Redskins
With a nod to San Francisco's Anthony Davis and Green Bay's Brian Bulaga, Williams has fought through a difficult year of nagging injuries and poor blocking by his teammates.
Though he missed just two games, he was dinged up most of the year. The Redskins were in huge trouble when perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Chris Samuels suffered a career-ending injury last season.
Williams stepped in right away and quickly proved he has Pro Bowl ability, hopefully manning the position for many years to come.
Guard : Mike Iupati, San Francisco 49ers
Iupati showed 49er fans right away why he was a first round pick. He started every game and showed tremendous ability at left guard. He also has the ability to play offensive tackle.
Though the Niners struggled on offense in 2010, Iupati was not the reason. He generally wins his blocks, especially while run blocking.
He and Anthony Davis were drafted in the first round this year to help the offensive line. They started every game and have given San Francisco no reason to regret drafting either one.
Guard : John Jerry, Miami Dolphins
This third round draft pick earned a starting job in the beginning of the season for two games until he was replaced for four games. He was reinserted into the lineup in week eight and stayed there the rest of the season.
At 6'5" 328 lbs., Jerry is a mammoth guard who the Dolphins hope can help them for many seasons to come. He has gotten off to a pretty good start thus far.
Center : Maurkice Pouncey, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh drafted Pouncey to start, and he has done so all 16 games. The Steelers brass loves him so much that they are even mentioning him in the same breath as Hall of Famer, and Steelers legendary center, Mike Webster.
High praise indeed, and nothing more can be added in superlatives after that.
Defensive Tackle : Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions
The runaway winner of the 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Suh led all rookie linemen with 66 tackles and 10 sacks. He also found time to intercept a ball and return it 20 yards, defend four passes and score a touchdown off of a fumble recovery.
Suh is a huge reason why the Lions, who on two total games in the previous two years, won six games this year and lost seven by 27 total points. Detroit finished 2010 strong with four straight wins, giving hope that the playoffs are not far away for a franchise that hasn't reached that level since 1999.
When they do, Suh will most likely be leading the way.
Defensive Tackle : Tyson Aluala, Jacksonville Jaguars
Alualu was second amongst all rookie defensive tackles with 38 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He was one the few consistent Jaguars on an otherwise anemic Jacksonville defense.
He was also durable, playing in all 16 games. Jacksonville now has young defensive tackle duo in Alualu and Terrance Knighton that they hope can one day be at least as effective as John Henderson and Marcus Stroud were earlier this decade when the pair went to multiple Pro Bowls.
Defensive End : Lamarr Houston, Oakland Raiders
Not only did Houston lead all rookie defensive ends with 39 tackles, but he led all rookies with two fumble recoveries. He also chipped in five sacks and forced a fumble.
The youngster has the ability to line up anywhere along the line of scrimmage for Oakland. He earned the starting job at left defensive end immediately and was only shut out without a stat in one game all year.
He gives the Raiders a reason to be excited for their future.
Defensive End : Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati Bengals
No one has ever questioned the talent Dunlap possesses. Yet, after a disappointing college career that also had issues off of the field, most questioned his work ethic. He dropped to the second round of the draft over this before the Bengals tabbed him.
He was brought along slowly at first, not playing in four of the first five Bengals games, then eventually spotted in certain situations before earning more snaps. He turned it on in the 12th week, getting 8.5 of his 9.5 sacks in the final six games.
His 9.5 sacks led all rookie defensive ends and was the second most by any rookie. If he can keep up his current pace, the Bengals have a future superstar. The only question is if he can keep his head and heart into the game.
Outside Linebacker : Koa Misi, Miami Dolphins
Misi might not get a lot of notice because his bookend, Cameron Wake, had a great year that put him in the Pro Bowl, but the second round draft pick has done well himself.
He leads all rookie outside linebackers in sacks with five, and his 41 tackles are the third most amongst rookie OLBs. He has also forced two fumbles and pounced on a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.
At 6'3" 251 lbs., Misi is a excellent physical specimen for the strong side linebacker slot. He hits with tremendous force, yet has the athleticism to run down opponents.
Wake, though 28 years old, is in his second NFL season after an amazing journey that led him through the CFL at one point. He and Misi could be quite a force for several years to come.
Middle Linebacker : Rolando McClain, Oakland Raiders
McClain has shown why he was a first round draft pick this year. His 85 tackles are the second most by any rookie middle linebacker, just three behind the leader. He also has half a sack, an interception, and seven defended passes.
The Raiders defense wasn't great this year, especially against the run. McClain, along with safeties Tyvon Branch and Michael Huff, were extremely busy all year. Too often having to tackle opponents that had already gained several yards.
This is an area Oakland needs to fix for 2011, but they can depend on McClain being there to stop the run regardless.
Pat Angerer of the Colts deserves mention because he led all rookie middle linebackers in tackles, and Darryl Washington of Arizona also deserves mention.
Outside Linebacker : Kavell Conner, Indianapolis Colts
Many NFL fans may not realize that Conner leads all rookie outside linebackers in tackles. His 57 tackles are 15 more than the next rookie OLB.
He was almost an afterthought when drafted in the seventh round. After sitting out the first game, he had five tackles in the second week before doing nothing until week 10.
Since then, he has been on a tear, getting 52 tackles in the last eight weeks. It was a huge help to a Colts team that has defensive linemen who cannot stop the run, as well as the fact the linebacker corps was besieged by injuries as the season progressed.
Conner is not asked to blitz or even defend against the pass, but he has been a much-needed tackling machine for the Colts when opponents run the ball.
Strong Safety : T.J. Ward, Cleveland Browns
The Kansas City Chiefs Eric Berry, with his 92 tackles, two sacks, four interceptions, 13 defended passes, and a touchdown, will certainly get some Rookie of the Year votes.
Ward, however, led all NFL rookies with 123 tackles. He also picked off two balls and defended 12 passes. Cleveland struggled this season, and part of the reason was their mediocre offense.
The defense was decent, ranking 13th in points allowed. Ward and fellow rookie Joe Haden give the team hopes for the future after excellent rookie years. Haden led the team with six picks and his 24 defended passes was tied as the most by all rookies.
Ward was the run stopper the team needed this year, and Cleveland will look to bolster their front seven in the off season to help him. If this is accomplished, Ward can help out on the pass more.
The Browns expect great things from their young secondary, and Ward is an important piece to that equation.
Free Safety : Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
It really is no surprise Thomas gets this slot, most expected he would before he was even drafted. Not only did his five interceptions lead all rookie safeties, but his 75 tackles led all rookie free safeties.
While his 12 defended passes show the ability has Thomas against the pass, his 64 solo tackles also show how sound a hitter he is in technique.
Philadelphia's Nate Allen, Tampa Bay's Cody Grimm and the Chiefs Kendrick Lewis all showed their excellent abilities this season, but Thomas was head and shoulders above all rookies at free safety.
He is a huge reason the Seahawks made the playoffs, and Seattle fans can get ready to see Thomas do more as his career goes along.
Cornerback : Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
The Patriots knew coming into this year that they had a young secondary with a bright future, and their 2010 first round pick quickly led the way.
McCourty, whose brother Jason plays cornerback in Tennessee, started immediately and soon was the star of the secondary.
His seven interceptions and 24 defended passes led all rookies, and his 82 tackles was the second most by all rookie cornerbacks. With the other cornerback slot on the Patriots struggling all season, McCourty stepping up was a big boost that helped New England procure the best record in the 2010 season.
If Darius Butler ever plays to his potential, he and the rest of the secondary in New England (McCourty, Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather) could star for years ahead. Even so, the future of McCourty alone is very bright by itself.
Cornerback : Alterraun Verner, Tennessee Titans
It can't be easy to try to bookend a Pro Bowler, but Verner did a fine job teaming up with Cortland Finnegan.
After sitting on the bench the first two games this year, Verner was called upon due to starter Jason McCourty's injury. He posted five games of double-digit tackles, including a streak of four games to close the season.
His 101 tackles led all rookie cornerbacks, and he showed he was much more than a sound tackler by picking off three passes and defending 14 passes. He also forced a fumble and led all rookies with two fumble recoveries.
When McCourty got healthy, he could not regain his starting job because of the job Verner did.
It has to make Titans head coach Jeff Fisher happy knowing he has three good cornerbacks on his roster, especially with a rookie like Verner so readily available in run support while performing so well against the pass.
Kicker : Clint Stitser, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have employed the only two rookie kickers this year. Aaron Pettrey was the other, and he lasted two games. Stitser replaced him for the last five games of 2010. He missed one field goal in eight attempts, including a career long of 47 yards, but missed two of 10 extra point attempts.
Punter : Zoltan Mesko, New England Patriots
Though his 58 punts are the second most by a rookie this year, 14 less that Matt Dodge of the Giants, his 14 forced fair catches led all rookies and his 19 punts inside the 20-yard line was just one less than Dodge. Dodge has 35 punts returned for 535 yards and two scores, as opposed to the 179 yards allowed on 25 returns by Mesko.
While the 44.8 yards per punt average by Dodge led all rookies, Mesko averaged 43.2 and his 38.4 net average was the best by all rookies that outdistanced Dodge and Robert Malone of the Buccaneers by several yards.
Kick Returner : Marc Mariani, Tennessee Titans
Oakland's Jacoby Ford, who returned three kicks for touchdowns, surely deserves mention here, but Mariani was selected to the Pro Bowl and averaged over a yard more per return on seven more attempts.
He led the NFL in combined kickoff and punt return yards, and was second in the NFL in kick return yards. Mariani's 1,859 yards off kickoff and punt returns are the 18th most in NFL history. He led the NFL in kick returns, and was second in combined kickoff and punt returns.
Not only did his 60 returns for 1,530 yard and 42 returns of 20 or more yards lead all rookies, but his four returns of 40 or more yards tied Ford as the most amongst rookies. His 25.5 yards per return average was also the most by any rookie with 22 or more returns.
Besides Mariani and Ford, rookies like the Redskins Brandon Banks, Buffalo's C.J. Spiller, Jacksonville's Deji Karim and Baltimore's David Reed also stood out as kick returners this season.
Yet it was Mariani who led the way of this excellent class, as his Pro Bowl nod certainly indicates. He scored once on both a kickoff and punt return this year as well.
Punt Returner : Brandon Banks, Washington Redskins
Mariani might be able to claim this slot too, considering he averaged 12.2 yards on 27 returns.
Banks, however, averaged 11.3 on 38 attempts and led all rookies with six returns of 20 yards or more. He also fair caught seven less balls than Mariani, despite being five inches shorter and 41 pounds lighter.
The diminutive Banks also averaged 25.1 yards on 46 kick returns, including a 96 yards return for a score. The undrafted rookie was third in the NFL with 431 punt return yards, which led all rookies.
Though he had a few punt returns for touchdowns called back by penalties, the 271 return yards he got in week eight set a Redskins record. He also found time to block a field goal attempt by Adam Vinatieri, even though he stands 5'7" and weighs 149 lbs.
One word to describe Banks is fearless, but exciting also works. He gives Washington a special teams weapon they have lacked since the legendary Brian Mitchell left the team after 1999.