The NFL season has reached the halfway point and it’s all downhill from here. Unless you’re a team that is struggling, it will continue to be an uphill battle. As Patrick Peterson returned a punt 99 yards for the game-winning score in overtime to beat the Rams, I thought it would be a good time to do a piece on the top rookie performers that have impressed me.

In this process of analysis I will begin by evaluating the top Rookie performers that have caught my eye in the first eight games. Along with each player’s current status is a copy of my draft notes (which can be found on

Cam Newton, 6-5 248: The most impressive offensive rookie at the half way point; barring injury he will claim the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He has demonstrated leadership qualities, playmaking ability with production and is extremely competitive. Eight games played/started; 174 completions/297 attempts, 2,393 yards, 60.6 completion percentage, 11 touchdowns, 9 interceptions with a passer rating 87.0. Currently ranked 12th among passing leaders, ahead of Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez to name a few.

Softli Draft Notes: Rare athlete with exceptional size, speed and excellent arm strength. Operated out of horizontal spread offense with run-first option. Field vision is spotty; inconsistent in finding the open receiver on second and third reads. Can stand in the pocket and make throws with good awareness and ability to slide and avoid with feet to escape and extend plays outside the pocket … Very good strength to throw with defenders hanging on. His foot placement and delivery will need development; tends to over-stride and lean back, which effects accuracy. Anticipation and timing is good, but not great to stick the ball on receiver, then throwing to an area. Will need to develop comfort under center with continuous work on three-, five- and seven-step drops. Very good run skills. Having won a national championship at the junior-college level and leading Auburn to a national championship; he is the ultimate competitor. Despite his immaturity and questions about his ability to lead 53 men; sources at Auburn say he is a big-time leader. High ceiling and possible top-five pick.

Andy Dalton, 6-2 219: This signal-caller has picked up where he left off at TCU, and has not missed a beat. Dalton has command of the offense, shown leadership skills and playmaking ability in and out of the pocket. Eight games played/started; 158 completions, 257 attempts, 1,696 yards, 61.5 completion percentage, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions, with a passer rating 85.0. Currently ranked 15th among passing leaders.

Softli Draft Notes: Good overall athletic skill-set … Strong leadership qualities … Is cerebral when it comes to football intelligence and playbook memorization … A four-year starter (49/50) games that improved his completion percentage every year, finishing with 61.7 percent for his career … Has smooth stroke to spin tight spiral with velocity; good, not great overall arm strength with effortless motion … Good feet in drops and short set in gun; transfers weight on delivery with over shoulder release point … Can slide and avoid escaping to open space … Very good accuracy on short and intermediate passes; balls tail off on consistent deep-ball placement … Displayed good clock management … A quarterback that has a sandlot mentality and is competitive with good toughness … Has very good composure and strong ability to perform under pressure … A West-Coast style quarterback that will need some development, but is ahead of the game in many aspects than those quarterbacks ranked 1-4 … First-round talent; would be a steal in the second round.

A.J. Green, 6-2 215: Developing into a young go-to receiver and is currently the Bengals No. 1 receiver. He has been targeted 65 times with 40 receptions, 61.5 catch percentage, 599 yards, average yards per reception 14.98, long of 58 yards and five touchdowns.

Softli Draft Notes: Great combination of size and speed … Has the frame to add bulk; linear build with slightly narrow shoulders … A freakish athlete with natural body balance and control … Extremely athletic with cat quickness to create separation, shake and elude off line of scrimmage to avoid jam and press technique … Good route-tree experience, smooth strider, and big target that is fearless across the middle … Tall receiver to track and attack balls at highest point, climbs the ladder and plays above the defender … Will make acrobatic catches and one-handed snags outside his frame … Very good red-zone production … Willing blocker needs more consistency and willingness to attack and finish in space … A competitive playmaker with elite skill-set for the next level … Reported low test score won’t hurt this player’s draft stock … Top three slots.

Mark Ingram, 5 9-215: A starter from day one, drafted by New Orleans, he has missed the last few weeks with a heel injury. Before that he was extremely effective and productive as an inside, downhill runner with 85 rushes, 329 yards, 3.87 yards per carry, three touchdowns. He has a huge upside and will continue to develop.

Softli Draft Notes: Heisman Trophy winner has ideal size for the position; thick muscled-up compact frame and a well-balanced running style for the next level … Has flashes of Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith; same height, weight and speed but is a more violent finisher … A runner that excels between the tackles, with good pad level, leg drive and finish. He has great feet to skip and skate with backside vision … Explosive runner with good yards after contact, along with lower-body strength to drag several defenders, fires feet and fights for positive yards after contact … Willing blocker with good attitude, temperament and strikes with three-point contact. Will need further development in technique and recognizing blitz pick-up; instincts, competitive edge and toughness are in place … Very good ball control both in and out of traffic, carries ball high and tight with good tuck and squeeze; had just three fumbles in his career … Despite adequate top-end speed that coaches and personnel men look for in this position, turn on the national championship game or the 2011 bowl game and watch him run with burst and acceleration while carrying the ball with a purpose; a true showcase for the next level … Strong and violent stiff arm … Soft hands, natural receiving skills, despite some drops … The best running back in the draft with versatility and production; a play-maker and difference-maker.

Anthony Castonzo, 6-7 311: A five-game starter for the Indianapolis Colts, is developing on a team that is struggling in every sense of the word. He is building character and leadership qualities which is evident on film with his desire, determination and competitiveness.

Softli Draft Notes: Good athlete and technician with great feet and change of direction, along with balance and body control, rarely off his feet … Plays with ankle flex and knee bend and is always in good position … Pass blocker with good kick slide to cut off edge rusher, has good reaction quickness to mirror and cut off counter and underneath movement … Good use of hands with punch and recoil … Strong hands to grab and steer defenders … Anchor development will come through weight-room training to strengthen base … Height is a slight negative in run blocking because pad level rises on movement, but he is athletic enough to gather and drive hips … His competitiveness, aggressiveness and toughness are all in place … Good football instincts and plays with passion … Can play either left or right tackle at next level. First-round talent.

Mike Pouncey, 6 5 303: An extremely versatile and talented interior offensive linemen. Has started all eight games for the Miami Dolphins and is anchoring the middle like a veteran.

Softli Draft Notes: Good athlete with nice feet, balance and change of direction. Good size and length … Smart young man … Is versatile to play both center and guard position, even though I feel guard is the best position for him at the next level … Has the size and natural girth, with the frame to add more bulk … Is competitive, aggressive and tough; physical play fell off when aligned at the center position in 2010 … Inline blocker (based off 2009 film) was dominating with wide base and knee bend, leads with head butt and collision finish … Strong use of hands to grab and control … Pass blocker with feet to slide laterally and aggressive to finish, good base and anchor with hands to punch and recoil, will get straight-legged and waste bend to chase at times … Good football instincts along with read reaction quickness vs. stunts and blitz … Plays well in space when pulling and redirecting on screens and locates well … First-round talent.

There are a few other rookies that were drafted outside the first round, like DeMarco Murray, running back for the Dallas Cowboys, that is setting records and is now the starter. It will be fun to see how these players finish and who will emerge before the season ends. The true judge of talent from a draft class is the body of work over a three-year period.

Look for the top rookie performers on defense and special teams tomorrow.