We're almost to the end of the regular season, with multiple teams jockeying for playoff position. Many of those teams will rely on rookies in major roles. That includes the Los Angeles Chargers and top rookie Derwin James.
From game analysis and discussions with personnel evaluators, here’s a look at the top 10 rookies so far this season.
Top 10 (stats are Weeks 1-15 combined)
Stats: 93 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 INTs
Previous ranking: 1
As the Chargers make a push for home-field advantage in the AFC -- the team has won 10 of its past 11 games -- James continues to be the most versatile option defensive coordinator Gus Bradley can move anywhere in the formation. Some opposing offensive coaches have tracked him at five different positions as they prepared to play the Chargers.
2. LB Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Stats: 146 tackles, 7 sacks, 1 INT
Previous ranking: 2
He was credited with 11 tackles, including one for loss, and knocked down passes in the Colts’ 23-0 win over the Dallas Cowboys -- the first time the Cowboys had been shut out since 2003. The guy has sacked the quarterback once in every four times he has rushed, and he added a recovery of a blocked field goal to his résumé in the win over the Cowboys.
3. LB Bradley Chubb, Denver Broncos
Stats: 51 tackles, 12 sacks, 2 FF
Previous ranking: 3
The Broncos have asked Chubb to hold the edge in the run game, and he has dropped into coverage from time to time as well. He has usually been assignment-sound in all he has been told to do, and he continues to impact things in the rush. He needs 2.5 sacks in the final two games to tie Jevon Kearse’s rookie record set in 1999.
4. QB Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns
Stats: 3,065 yards passing, 21 TDs, 11 INTs
Previous ranking: 4
The Browns are clinging to wafer-thin playoff chances with four wins in the past five games, including Saturday night, when the Broncos held Mayfield to 18-of-31 passing. But Mayfield went 4-of-4 for 39 yards and a touchdown on what turned out to be the game-winning drive early in the fourth quarter.
5. RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
Stats: 1,155 yards rushing, 13 total TDs
Previous ranking: 5
Barkley was held to 31 yards rushing by the Titans this past Sunday -- his second-lowest rushing total of the season -- but his 170 yards rushing on just 14 carries in Week 14 were a season best.
6. LB Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears
Stats: 108 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT
Previous ranking: 9
Rare athleticism and savvy have been consistently on display in a Bears defense that locked down the Rams in Week 14 and is now among the league’s top four in scoring defense, total defense, sacks, forced fumbles and interceptions. Khalil Mack gets much of the attention, but Smith has had a huge role in Chicago’s run to the divisional title.
7. LB Leighton Vander Esch, Dallas Cowboys
Stats: 117 tackles, 7 PD, 2 INTs
Previous ranking: 7
Vander Esch has already set the team’s record for tackles by a rookie, and the Cowboys will now try to work Sean Lee back into the lineup (Lee’s hamstring injury forced Vander Esch into a starting role). Lee played seven snaps against the Colts on Sunday -- his first game since Nov. 5 -- but Vander Esch has been key in the Cowboys' push to win the NFC East.
8. RB Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos
Stats: 991 yards rushing, 10 total TDs
Previous ranking: 6
In back-to-back Broncos losses, Lindsay was held to 30 and 24 yards rushing, but the body of work remains top-shelf this season. He’s fifth in the league in rushing, and his 5.4 yards per carry average is second in the league among qualifying backs.
9. G Quenton Nelson, Indianapolis Colts
Stats: No sacks allowed in six games
Previous ranking: 10
Nelson continues to draw raves from personnel executives around the league for his ability to finish. He has had some flags -- nine penalties this season -- but his awareness in and out of double-teams to go with his power at the point of attack is a rare combination.
10. CB Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
Stats: 48 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 INTs
Previous ranking: 8
Ward missed the past two games and most of a third with a concussion. Browns interim coach Gregg Williams said Monday that Ward remains in the league’s concussion protocol.
Close but not quite (totals are for 15 weeks)
49ers RT Mike McGlinchey (no holding penalties in 14 starts); Bengals S Jessie Bates (98 tackles, 3 INTs); Browns RB Nick Chubb (860 yards rushing, 5.2 yards per carry, 10 total TDs); Panthers CB Donte Jackson (62 tackles, 4 INTs, 1 sack); Texans S Justin Reid (75 tackles, 3 INTs, 1 TD); Packers CB Jaire Alexander (62 tackles, 1 INT, 11 PD); Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds (98 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 FF); 49ers LB Fred Warner (105 tackles, 1 FF); Falcons WR Calvin Ridley (56 catches, 699 yards, 8 TDs); Steelers S Terrell Edmunds (68 tackles, 4 PD); Giants DT B.J. Hill (45 tackles, 5 sacks); Titans LB Rashaan Evans (44 tackles, 2 TFL); Dolphins S Minkah Fitzpatrick (73 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 TD); Ravens T Orlando Brown Jr. (just three penalties); Titans LB Harold Landry (37 tackles, 3 TFL, 2.5 sacks).
Kickers need love, too
Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson, who was waived by the Vikings after missing three kicks in Week 2, continues to make the most of his second act. Carlson missed his second field goal attempt with the Raiders -- a 45-yard attempt that hit the right upright in a Week 9 loss to the San Francisco 49ers -- but he hasn’t missed since. He was 3-of-3 this past Sunday.