There's a lot of football left to be played in 2018, but as the halfway point of the NFL season draws near, it's not hard to identify some of the league's top up-and-coming talent, especially considering four of this year's five first-round quarterbacks are already on the field as starters.
Which rookies stand out above all, however?
Glad you asked. Nonspecific to awards like Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year, we ranked the top 15 first-year players right here, categorizing them as front-runners, contenders, sleepers and deep sleepers with roughly half of 2018 in the books.
Two notable omissions: QBs Josh Allen and Josh Rosen, a pair of signal-callers from the first round of this year's draft. Allen has flashed elite athleticism amid ugly numbers and is now sidelined with an injury, and Rosen, though weighed down by Arizona's incompetence, has struggled to do much of anything in three starts.
Outside of the ailing Joshes, there's plenty of other rookie talent to admire:
RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Season stats: 6 games, 438 rushing yards (5.2 per carry), 40 catches, 373 receiving yards, 6 TDs
The Giants aren't doing anything very well, especially on offense, but they'd be downright atrocious without Barkley. This guy is the only reason New York is watchable right now, and he is a joy to watch -- a physical specimen that defines the "size and speed" cliche and gives the G-Men a big-play fighting chance whenever he touches the ball.
LB Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Season stats: 5 games, 63 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 2 pass deflections, 2 forced fumbles
The Colts' record might not be pretty, but Leonard's stat sheet sure is. And the man looks the part, too. If you want a modern-day linebacker capable of taking over a game by himself, you don't have to look much further than him. He leads the NFL in tackles with just five starts so far, and it's so rare when he's not around the ball.
CB Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
Season stats: 6 games, 28 tackles, 6 pass deflections, 3 INTs, 1 forced fumble
You wonder if Ward gets a boost because so many people thought he was a reach as the fourth overall pick, but then you see his numbers and the impact he's had on Cleveland's often-stingy defense, and he's got all the makings of a Grade-A building block.
FS Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers
Season stats: 6 games, 36 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 6 pass deflections, 1 INT
He doesn't have crazy turnover numbers, but James has done a little bit of everything in L.A. He's not only filled the Chargers' need for safety help but done it well and at a historic pace. He's a reason the team is 4-2 and trending upward.
QB Sam Darnold, New York Jets
Season stats: 6 games, 1,346 yards (59.8 completion percentage), 9 TDs, 7 INTs, 83.7 rating
QBs are a dicey debate because their value is so much higher than any other position, and yet guys like Ward and James clearly have better numbers at their respective positions than Darnold does under center. Still, Sam has poise, and that counts for a lot in New York, where he's on pace to throw for something like 25 touchdowns and keep the Jets in Wild Card contention.
WR Calvin Ridley, Atlanta Falcons
Season stats: 6 games, 22 catches, 349 yards (15.9 per catch), 6 TDs
So much for his late draft-stock slide suggesting he doesn't have what it takes. Ridley got off to a quiet start, but if his season ended halfway through the year, he'd still have respectable numbers because of that awesome touchdown total.
LB Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo Bills
Season stats: 6 games, 47 tackles, 1.0 sack, 5 pass deflections, 2 forced fumbles
If he keeps it up, he'll rise on this list, and the way the Bills defense has flashed of late, there seems to be a good chance for that. The 20-year-old is fresh off a nine-tackle performance and simply has all the tools to roam sideline to sideline.
RB Sony Michel, New England Patriots
Season stats: 5 games, 400 rushing yards (4.4 per carry), 3 catches, 18 receiving yards, 4 TDs
His last three games: 316 yards and four scores. All of a sudden, the Georgia product is a featured part of New England's offense, and his ability to find space has opened up all kinds of possibilities for Tom Brady and the rest of the team.
CB Donte Jackson, Carolina Panthers
Season stats: 5 games, 28 tackles, 5 pass deflections, 3 INTs, 1 forced fumble
He's been a bright spot in an otherwise porous Carolina pass defense, especially because of the takeaways. In fact, his numbers align almost exactly with those of Denzel Ward. Keep an eye on him when the Panthers hit the home stretch.
RB Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos
Season stats: 6 games, 346 rushing yards (5.7 per carry), 14 catches, 113 receiving yards, 2 TDs
He's stuck in a bit of a timeshare with fellow rookie Royce Freeman, but there's no denying that when the undrafted Colorado kid is on the field with the ball in his hands, there's a play to be made. He's got lots of multi-purpose potential.
QB Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
Season stats: 4 games, 1,076 yards (55.6 completion percentage), 4 TDs, 5 INTs, 72.8 rating
The stats aren't very nice-looking, but consider that his worst game (2 INTs vs. Chargers on Sunday) may have at least partially resulted from injury. He has to be smarter, but his zip and pocket movement opens up so much for Cleveland's offense.
FS Jessie Bates, Cincinnati Bengals
Season stats: 6 games, 41 tackles, 2 pass deflections, 2 INTs
The Bengals defense has given up lots and lots of yards, but Bates seems to be comfortable in the "center field" role, staying around the ball and ranking as one of Pro Football Focus's top safeties. Cincy hopes he's not too banged up.
OLB Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos
Season stats: 6 games, 17 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 pass deflection
Three of his 4.5 sacks came in one game, so it's hard to project his pass-rushing prowess over a full season, but if anything, the first-rounder has a chance to surge up the rankings by the end of the year, especially if Denver prioritizes playing its youth.
RB Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions
Season stats: 5 games, 286 rushing yards (5.7 per carry), 13 catches, 68 receiving yards, 1 TD
He's nowhere near Saquon Barkley production, and part of the reason is the Lions' committee approach to the backfield. But when he gets the touches, he puts in the work. His yards-per-carry average proves he's capable of the big play.
RB Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts
Season stats: 6 games, 113 rushing yards (3.1 per carry), 31 catches, 185 yards, 3 TDs
Those are some boring yardage totals, huh? Welcome to the Colts offense. But you can't deny those catches -- he's on pace for more than 80! That's called establishing yourself as Andrew Luck's safety valve. With more help around him, he can be a change-of-pace weapon.
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