NFCN MVP Rookies

NFCN MVP Rookies

The Bears, Lions, Packers and Vikings will all rely on at least one rookie to deliver vital play this season. Who are these NFCN MVP rookies and why? Aldo Gandia offers up an opinion on each team’s rookie MVP and a runner up.

The pads are on in training camp. The hitting has begun. Players out of college are getting a real life physics class. Speed and mass equal kinetic energy. That energy then equates to pain. Every rookie has talked about that eye popping (literally and figuratively) experience. The first hits are unlike any they’ve experience in college. Making things tougher for the young is the knowledge the veterans bring to the field. It adds to their quickness, making their reactions faster.

It’s quite the challenge. Some rookies are expected to take time to acclimate to this new, faster, stronger and smarter brand of football. But some rookies are needed to acclimate faster than most. Each of the four NFC North teams have rookies who must begin performing at a high level by game one to improve the team’s playoff chances. Let’s look at each team’s most valuable rookie and a runner up.

NFCN MVP Rookies – Chicago Bears, OL, Cody Whitehair

The Chicago Bears selected Georgia edge rusher Leonard Floyd early in the 2016 NFL Draft. Expectations are high, but the Bears have depth at the Edge position (especially if Pernell McPhee fully requires from offseason surgery) and Floyd’s snap count is likely be below that of veterans at the position. Cody Whitehair, the 6-foot-4, 305 pound offensive lineman, chosen in the second round out of Kansas State, is needed virtually every down the offense is on the field.

The Bears sent that message to Whitehair when they released veteran guard Matt Slauson 72 hours after they selected him. Slauson started 37 games over the last three seasons. All but a couple were at left guard (he filled in admirably at center for an injured Hroniss Grasu). Whitehair is likely to be the starting left guard. If he’s not, the Bears plans have gone awry and the domino effect to the line could seriously hurt the offense.

The Bears have vowed to be a running team first in 2016. Whitehair, Grasu and right guard Kyle Long are the keys.

RUNNER UP: Jonathan Bullard, DL

One of the offseason goals for the Bears was to acquire players better fit for Vic Fangio’s 3-4 defense, especially in the front seven. When Jonathan Bullard fell to the third round, it’s as if the 3-4 defensive Gods were smiling down on the Bears. Bullard has a great shot at starting at defensive end. If he doesn’t, he is still being counted on to be a part of the defensive line rotation. Coaches love Bullard’s athleticism and smarts. “One good thing about Jonathan is he’s really bright,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said during mini-camps. “He’s going to understand the playbook really soon.” If Bullard does and can provide a pass rush from the defensive end position and set the edge against the run, Fangio’s defense becomes closer to achieving monster status.

NFCN MVP Rookies – Detroit Lions, OL, Taylor Decker

No surprise here. There are great expectations for the Lions first round draft pick out of Ohio St. The 6-foot-7, 315 tackle could become a transformative player for the Lions. That’s really not a hyperbole. Decker could provide three things the Lions offensive line desperately needs:

  1. Stability at left tackle
  2. Better pass protection
  3. Toughness

Riley Reiff has played left tackle for the last three seasons in Detroit. God bless him, but even his mother knows he’s better suited to play on the right side. If Decker lives up to his promise, he should be the team’s left tackle for the next 10 years.

Reiff’s strong suit is his run blocking and that’s where right tackles belong. According to Pro Football Focus, his pass blocking grade for 2015 was 49.5, while his run blocking was 85.1. The expectations are that Decker’s pass blocking grades will be substantially better than Reiff’s.

Decker has a nasty streak that coaches and fans like to see in their players. When it comes from a left tackle, the guy most responsible for protecting the franchise quarterback, that’s a good thing.

Decker is facing the stiffest challenge of any of the rookies on this list. Defensive coordinators drool when they see a rookie protecting the quarterback’s blind side. They will throw every trick in the book against Decker to exploit his inexperience. Decker knows this and has a plan on how to prepare during camp. “Six inches at a time,” Decker said. “It’s not all going to come together in one day, so you just got to take baby steps.”

RUNNER UP: A’Shawn Robinson, DL

Ask Lions coaches and players for a reaction on second round draft pick A’Shawn Robinson and you will get eyes wide open and comments about the size and strength of the 6-foot-4, 323 pound lineman from Alabama. Again, no hyperbole here, but Robinson has a chance to become a transformative player for the Lions defensive line. He has the physical skill set to play at an All-Pro level. Why did he fall to the second round? Asked to do limited things at Alabama and surrounded by tremendous athletes, Robinson was caged in and unable to use his full skills. The Lions coaching staff says he’s learning to do things he’s never been asked to do before. If he learns fast, Robinson will make a lot of teams regret bypassing him in the draft, including the Bears, Packers and Vikings.

NFCN MVP Rookies – Green Bay Packers, Kenny Clark, DL

When BJ Raji decided to unexpectedly retire during the offseason, the Packers were left with a hole in the middle of their defensive line. It’s one that Latroy Guion can not adequately fill by himself. Enter 6-foot-3 No. 1 draft pick Kenny Clark from UCLA.

The nose tackle was expected to fall to the second round by most draft prognosticators. But Ted Thompson liked what he saw in Clark and snatched the smart, athletic lineman. Coach Mike McCarthy endorsed the selection, “Let’s face it, this game is about big men and the big men have to control the balance of what (happens) on the field. So, the consistency of our young D-linemen will be critical to how the group grows.”

The Packers best defensive lineman Mike Daniels said of Clark (and fourth round draft pick, DL Dean Lowry), “I’m not going to lie to you, we need them really like yesterday.”

Clark says he’s ready to get after it and tells fans to expect him to deliver a pass rush, too. “I think I can pass rush and I’m getting better at it every day,” Clark told reporters this week. Six of Clark’s seven career collegiate sacks came last season. If Clark can fill the role Raji had last season for the Packers, it’s a huge step for a defense facing multiple questions in their front seven.

RUNNER UP – Blake Martinez, LB

There’s a love affair growing in Packers’ camp. The Packers coaching staff is giddy over fourth round draft pick Blake Martinez. His study habits and ability to translate what he’s learned in the classroom to the football field is filling a huge need. It’s no secret that the Packers inside linebacking crew comes with questions and doubts. Reportedly, Martinez has a long way to go with becoming a reliable run-stopper, but could see plenty of action in pass coverage. Keep an eye on the studious Martinez. His value is high.

NFCN MVP Rookies – Minnesota Vikings, Laquon Treadwell, WR

It wasn’t long ago that NFL wide receivers were not expected to deliver much in their rookies seasons. That’s changed. Rule changes and pass happy play-calling have made it possible for receivers to rack up yards and TDs well before they’ve ripened as route runners.

If Treadwell develops quickly, it could be the biggest NFCN story of the year. If the rookie can deliver any kind of the results we saw in 2014 when newcomers Odell Beckham (1,305 yards in 12 games), Mike Evans (1,051), and Kelvin Benjamin (1,008) all went over 1,000 yards, the Vikings passing game could be Super Bowl ready. That, too, is no hyperbole. The Vikings have a Super Bowl ready defense. They need the passing game to catch up. I’m not talking about a record-breaking offense, I’m talking about an offense that can control the ball and deliver big pass plays.

The Vikings have done a good job addressing the biggest issue in their passing game, protecting the quarterback. If Alex Boone can help improve the pass protection from bad to average and Treadwell can do his part, the Vikings take a quantum leap forward.

Treadwell is a 6-foot-3 wide receiver with, at best, average speed. He uses his body to create separation. Head Coach Mike Zimmer knows Treadwell’s value to the team, which is why he’s given the rookie his special kind of attention. “He says he’s going to make me hate him,” Treadwell said recently after practice. “He said I’m going to hate him at the end of the day but love him at the end of my career.” Treadwell was smiling when he shared the conversation, so maybe he already loves the pressure he’s under.

RUNNER UP – Mackensie Alexander, CB

Cornerback Mackensie Alexander joins a team already overflowing with talent at cornerback. He isn’t needed to bloom as quickly as any of the players on this list. It’s a testament to the great job general manager Rick Spielman has done. The Vikings defense could go from really good to great if Alexander can step into the nickel cover role. But he has to beat out a formidable Captain Munnerlyn. If he does, it means Zimmer will have seen Alexander deny opposing receivers access to the ball. It was Alexander’s strength in college (see here). Actually, his greatest strength is his confidence. It borders on being an annoying cockiness, but when you get to know Alexander you love his brash ways.

Alexander is going to be another great character for a defense that’s developing into one rich with talent and personalities.

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Aldo Gandia

Aldo Gandia

Among my career highlights I have produced two films while in high school that received nationwide attention; leaned out of a helicopter over the Gulf of Suez at the age of 20 to shoot movies of oil rigs; won an Emmy award for a sports special and another for a kid's fitness show; and led a team of very talented creative professionals to produce break-through corporate communications.

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