The 2010 NFL season is fast approaching and we're wondering how this year's rookie crop will fare. Have a look at who'll shine, and who'll stink.
Rookies who'll shine
Jahvid Best, RB, Lions
The bar is set unreasonably high when a head coach admits that he watches his high-profile draft pick’s highlights the way other people get aroused by adult videos. Since that eye-raising post-draft confessional, though, Jim Schwartz has continued to heap praise on Best for his versatility, playmaking ability, and knowledge of the team's playbook.
Echoing Brad Childress’ intentions to get Percy Harvin involved early and often last season, Schwartz insisted that he won’t “spoon-feed” his rookie. With Kevin Smith returning from a late-season ACL injury, Best is expected to see 15-20 touches per week as the feature back for the league's most improved offense. The draft’s fastest back will be a difference-maker in space, taking advantage of Ford Field’s artificial surface as well as coordinator Scott Linehan’s tailor-made screen calls. He’s the best bet to capture the league’s fancy as an explosive home-run hitter in the vein of Harvin and Chris Johnson.
Ryan Mathews, RB, Chargers
Mathews became the odds-on favorite for Rookie of the Year honors the moment that GM A.J. Smith traded up to draft him at 12th overall. After rushing for 1,808 yards at 6.6 per clip and 19 touchdowns at Fresno State last year, Mathews will step right into the Chargers’ starting lineup as the early-down back.
In addition to dubbing Mathews “the most complete back in the draft,” coach Norv Turner has also prescribed a heavy workload of 250 carries and 40 receptions for the rookie. Even with All-Pro caliber receiver Vincent Jackson set to miss a good portion of the season, Philip Rivers’ down-field marksmanship will open up the running lanes for Mathews’ fresh legs to succeed where a fading LaDainian Tomlinson failed in 2009.
Montario Hardesty, RB, Browns
As Football Outsiders point out in their 2010 Almanac, Jerome Harrison "only got his chance to play seemingly at gunpoint" late last season. Although his furious finish went a long toward saving Eric Mangini's job, he was clearly never a favorite of the Browns coach. Also skeptical of Harrison's ability to handle the feature back role, team president Mike Holmgren and GM Tom Heckert traded up to grab Hardesty in the second round.
The big back made an immediate impression on Browns coaches during offseason practices with his pass blocking, receiving, maturity, and mistake-free play. The Browns’ run-blocking is better than advertised, and Hardesty may well have the upper hand on Harrison entering training camp. Expect him to see the ball early and often this year.
Dez Bryant, WR/PR, Cowboys
This top-five talent tumbled in the draft due to rumors of tardiness at Oklahoma State. When the rest of the NFL passed on the draft’s best offensive player, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones pounced. Bryant immediately turned heads in post-draft practices,
Mike Williams, WR, Buccaneers
Considered a first-rounder on talent, Williams slid all the way to the fourth due to legitimate character concerns. He was suspended for the entire 2008 season at Syracuse, only to quit the team and his classes halfway through 2009 with another suspension looming. If he keeps his nose clean, though, the Bucs have a gem. Only Dez Bryant can claim to be a better NFL prospect among this receiver class.
A big, physical receiver providing breakaway speed, deep-ball skills, and a presence in the red zone, Williams’ circus catches appeared to vault him past second-rounder Arrelious Benn in offseason practices. The Bucs will open up the two starting receiver spots to competition next month, and it’s possible both rookies will win out. With a better grasp of the offense and more natural ability, Williams is a better than Benn to emerge as the No. 1 receiver.
Rolando McClain, MLB, Raiders
Far and away the draft’s best middle linebacker, McClain filled a major defensive need while finally earning the Raiders a grudging praise from draftniks. He’ll step in as the immediate starter and a potential leader, shoring up an Oakland run defense that ranked 29th in the league last season.
The “standout from the beginning” among Raiders rookies, McClain has reportedly been a “beast” in the middle during offseason practices. With a reputation as a film junkie who controlled the entire defense at Alabama, McClain also brings a high football IQ. He’s the heavy favorite to lead all rookie defenders in tackles.
Eric Berry, SS, Chiefs
Kansas City’s safeties were painfully overmatched last season, rolling over for 327 yards to a then-maligned Kevin Kolb, 250 yards to spot-starter Miles Austin and 298 yards to relative unknown Jerome Harrison.
Enter the magic elixir at No. 5 overall. Drawing comparisons to All-Pros Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, Berry was a consensus top-five talent in the draft. A sure tackler with elite athleticism, Berry will open the season as the starting strong safety, signaling an immediate upgrade in both pass and run defense. The Jim Thorpe Award winner is the total package as a can’t-miss safety.
Earl Thomas, FS, Seahawks
Considered by NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock to be the most instinctive safety he’s ever seen on tape, Thomas ranked second nationally in interceptions last season, returning two for scores to earn first-team All-American honors. Though he has the speed and coverage ability to play corner at this level, the Seahawks will keep him at free safety, opposite Jordan Babineaux.
The new coaching staff is expected to play more Cover 3 (single safety) and rely on Thomas to cover ground in the back end while corners apply press coverage on the perimeter. His ball skills and anticipation are the perfect antidote for a defense that ranked among the NFL's worst in forcing turnovers.
Nate Allen, FS, Eagles
Safety was a major problem area for the Eagles last season after turning the page on iconic leader Brian Dawkins. One year later they traded traded franchise quarterback Donovan McNabb, hoping to acquire Dawkins’ successor with the 37th overall pick.
Allen was shoved into the spotlight in early June when veteran free agent signee Marlin Jackson tore his Achilles’ tendon. Rather than revisit last year’s follies at free safety, the Eagles immediately installed their second-round pick as the starter opposite Quintin Mikell. Allen will make his fair share of rookie mistakes, but he has the instincts and ballhawking ability to succeed as a first-year starter.
Kareem Jackson, CB, Texans
While the majority of the NFL operates under the philosophy that rookies must earn their way to a starting role by outplaying veteran competition, the Texans prefer a "baptism by fire" philosophy for their first-round picks. Last year's top pick Brian Cushing was installed as the strong-side linebacker in the team's first post-draft practice, and Jackson followed suit this year as Dunta Robinson's replacement.
Rookie who'll stink
Sam Bradford, QB, Rams
The first overall pick is hardly being set up for success. The Rams are dealing with injuries to three starting linemen while breaking in a fourth starter. Offensive focal point Steven Jackson is a major question mark as well after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc in April.
Whereas Matthew Stafford was signed on draft night last season, Bradford still has to clear the training camp contract hurdle for a legit shot to enter the season as the starter. His long-term outlook remains strong due to uncanny accuracy and an ability to make all of the throws. Just don’t expect any miracles on a team widely considered to be the league’s doormat.
Tim Tebow, QB, Broncos
Tebow has a lot going for him, not the least of which are an impeccable college career, an unquestioned work ethic, and one of the game's best teachers in Josh McDaniels. On the flip side, he also entered the league lacking in several basic NFL quarterback skills.
Tebow will play. Similar to his freshman season at Florida, Tebow will offer the Broncos a different look on goal-line packages. The rest of his rookie season will be spent watching Kyle Orton learning how to read defenses, adjust his mechanics and develop arm strength. Whether or not Tebow becomes a star at this level, we’re at least a year from finding out.
Jimmy Clausen, QB, Panthers
The second-rounder’s leadership skills were in question leading up to the draft, and he reportedly didn’t win many fans among his veteran teammates in the Panthers’ first mini-camp. Steve Smith, the offense’s de facto leader, is clearly in Matt Moore’s camp.
Clausen doesn’t have a puncher’s chance of unseating Moore for the Week 1 starting job. Worse, he failed to overtake strong-armed Hunter Cantwell as the second-stringer heading into training camp. While it certainly won’t be surprising to see Clausen finally bypass Cantwell by the end of August, he’ll need Moore to stumble out of the gates to see the field before Halloween.
Toby Gerhart, RB, Vikings
The Heisman Trophy runner-up is a prototypical volume runner, growing stronger and punishing defenses as the game goes along. Unfortunately, there’s no chance of volume in the Vikings offense with Adrian Peterson entrenched as the every-down back.
Chester Taylor at least had the third-down skillset and veteran savvy to keep Peterson on the bench for a well-timed breather. It’s hard to see Gerhart contributing in a similar role when Peterson is superior as both a receiver and a pass blocker. The second-rounder is more of a pure backup as opposed to a backfield complement.
Dexter McCluster, WR/RB/KR, Chiefs
Jamaal Charles was arguably the most effective per-touch running back in the league from November through early January last year, and physical veteran Thomas Jones was signed as a between-the-tackles the complement. That leaves McCluster to handle the Percy Harvin slot/Wildcat/returner role that the Chiefs envision.
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Demaryius Thomas, WR, Broncos
His route running is extremely raw coming out of Georgia Tech's flexbone offense. Thomas ran only the most basic routes, rarely cutting or changing direction. Missing out on offseason practices, therefore, was more injurious to Thomas than it would have been for most first-round receivers.
“Bay-Bay” does offer a tremendous size/speed package as a situational deep threat and red-zone weapon for the Broncos. Realistically, though, it’s going to take at least a year or two before he can consistently beat NFL corners to the point where he can be considered a viable No. 1 receiver.
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
The Pats drafted Gronk two rounds ahead of Aaron Hernandez, but the latter appears to be in line for a bigger role as a rookie. Gronkowski appeared to be “a little behind” the other tight ends in spring practices, and he’s expected to enter the season as a backup to Alge Crumpler.
Gronkowski does have three-down potential as a Todd Heap clone, but he’s still just 21 years old at a position that often takes a couple of years to master at the NFL level. Patriots fans will have to delay their gratification on the 42nd overall pick.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
GM Jerry Reese admitted that drafting JPP was a big risk, and the 15th overall pick comes with questions about his maturity and college production after playing just one season at USF. Although freakishly athletic, he was considered by many to be a workout warrior.
If nothing else, Pierre-Paul figures to get caught in a numbers game as a rookie. The team’s best defensive player, Justin Tuck, holds down once defensive end spot while Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka figure to split snaps on the other side. Consider this a redshirt year for Pierre-Paul.
Derrick Morgan, DE, Titans
Originally considered a steal when he fell to No. 16 overall, Morgan has had an inauspicious start to his Titans career. While sitting out spring practices with hamstring and calf injuries, Morgan was arrested for speeding and driving with a suspended license.
There is a vacancy in Kyle Vanden Busch’s old spot, but Morgan is fighting an uphill battle after missing so much practice time in May and June. With veteran pass rushers Jacob Ford, Dave Ball, and Jason Babin also in the mix, the Titans can afford to bring Morgan along slowly.
Taylor Mays, SS, 49ers
Mays was perhaps the most controversial prospect in this year’s draft. Although freakishly talented at 6-foot-3, 230 with 4.3 speed, he managed just two interceptions in his final three years at USC and made two career tackles for loss as a four-year starter.
Mays spent the majority of the offseason running with the third team. Although the coaching staff is impressed with his progress entering training camp, his coverage skills remain a major question mark. Reggie Smith still looks like the favorite to enter the season as the No. 3 safety, with Mays starting out as a special teams dynamo.
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