While one rookie cornerback was having the best game of his career in Week 14, another was getting benched. Again.
The New York Jets benched Dee Milliner, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, as he continued to struggle. His rookie year has been a nightmare. Sixteen picks after the Jets took Milliner, the Minnesota Vikings selected Xavier Rhodes out of Florida State. He was a bit raw, some thought. Physically gifted, sure, but Rhodes would take some time to develop.
That much was true, but he's had a quicker learning curve than Milliner. On Sunday, both Rhodes and Darius Slay, who was taken in the second round by the Detroit Lions, were much better than Milliner. Was it a sign of things to come?
Xavier Rhodes, Cornerback, Minnesota Vikings: As mentioned above, Rhodes had one of the best games of his career against the Bears. He was far from perfect, and the Bears certainly picked up plenty of yards through the air, but Rhodes had a physical edge to his game that the Vikings have been waiting to see. He also looked comfortable playing the ball in the air, collecting three passes defended.
Ace Sanders, Wide Receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars: Ace Sanders was drafted to be the juice the Jaguars' offense was desperately lacking in 2012. Early on, Sanders looked like just another guy. He had trouble getting open and didn't make a ton happen after the catch. Low and behold, Sanders has gotten more comfortable, and the Jaguars are starting to find ways to create space for him. He was targeted 11 times and caught eight passes for 67 yards. The most telling stat was that Sanders picked up 40 yards after the catch.
Darius Slay, Cornerback, Detroit Lions: Darius Slay was another cornerback prospect in the 2013 NFL Draft that was supposed to take time to develop. His long arms and speed were enough to entice the Lions in the second round, but he was too rough around the edges for the first round, apparently. While he allowed three completions against the Packers in Week 13, he showed confidence and a willingness to attack the football. He's maturing right on schedule.
Alec Ogletree, Linebacker, St. Louis Rams: The San Francisco 49ers found the weak link in the Rams' defense on Sunday and attacked it again and again. That weak link was linebacker Alec Ogletree. He was targeted nine times in coverage, allowed eight catches, 106 yards and a touchdown. Coverage is about more than size and speed, and the 49ers' victimizing of Ogletree was a prime example.
Marcus Cooper, Cornerback, Kansas City Chiefs: Early in the season, Marcus Cooper was the one who got away. A seventh round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Cooper was exceeding expectations and playing a key role in the Chiefs' secondary. Needless to say, when Peyton Manning threw for 400 yards and five touchdowns in Kansas City on Sunday, Cooper looked more like a seventh round pick than he has all season. Even though he picked off Manning, Cooper was also responsible for 180 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
J.J. Wilcox, Safety, Dallas Cowboys: Sometimes the NFL game moves too fast for young safeties. That appears to be the case with Cowboys rookie J.J. Wilcox. He's been solid against the run, but in recent weeks he's been beat for big plays in the passing game. Coming from a small school probably hasn't made the adjustment any easier for Wilcox, but he has the talent to turn things around. It will just take time.
Rookie of the Year
Offense: Keenan Allen, Wide Receiver, San Diego Chargers: The top two candidates for Offensive Rookie of the Year went head-to-head on Sunday when the Cincinnati Bengals beat the San Diego Chargers. While the Chargers lost, San Diego wide receiver Keenan Allen out-performed Bengals running back Gio Bernard by enough to hold onto the top spot in the race. Allen caught eight passes for 106 yards, giving him 58 catches for 843 yards and three touchdowns this season.
Defense: Sheldon Richardson, Defensive End, New York Jets: It's going to take quite a bit to convince me to pick anyone other than Sheldon Richardson for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Rookies aren't supposed to as dominant as disruptive as Richardson has been on a weekly basis. He's still developing as a pass rusher, so the flashy statistics aren't there, but few defensive linemen in the NFL have been as solid against the run as he has.