Players like Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, DeMarco Murray, A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Tyron Smith, J.J. Watt, Von Miller and Aldon Smith were among the 2011 rookies that made big impacts.
Newton won almost all of the hardware. Dalton led his team to the playoffs. Murray led all rookie backs in yards from scrimmage and yards per rushing attempt. Green and Jones both established themselves as potential future elites. Tyron Smith was arguably the best right tackle in all of football. Watt may have been the most complete and consistent first-year defender. Miller pulled down Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Aldon Smith fell half a sack shy of tying Jevon Kearse's rookie sack record.
All of these individual rookie performances—and there were others that are worth mentioning—seemed to captivate us from both an entertainment and analytical standpoint, mostly because our expectations were so low following the shortened 2011 offseason. Due to the delay caused by the collective bargaining negotiations and subsequent lockout, the 2011 rookie class was not able to benefit from full preseason preparation.
I see two encompassing reasons to largely explain the volume of rookie success in 2011, one ironic and the other evolutionary. The former being that in a direct tactical response to the shortened preseason, many coaching staffs smartly simplified playbooks, schemes, roles and responsibilities for their respective plebes.
Another good example is NFL Coach of the Year Jim Harbaugh using Aldon Smith primarily as a rusher in obvious passing situations. This kept truer run-defense personnel on the field for most early downs while allowing Smith to better ease into his overall positional conversion to outside linebacker.
The latter explanation for the rookie success is one that should remain a factor again this year and on into the future.
Modern players graduating from college football are more advanced physically and more prepared mentally to compete and succeed right away. The residual effects of better nutrition and physical training, occurring at both the prep and collegiate levels, continue to show up in gaudier measureables from a wider swath of recent classes. In addition, advanced technology is granting players better access to information they can use to prepare on the mental side and boost their comfort level with the entire transitional process.
This slideshow examines 10 future NFL rookies from the 2012 draft crop that I think could make a huge splash this fall.
Before actually being drafted onto a particular team, where depth chart and schematic fits give us a better idea, these projections are based on my opinion of the player being generally advanced and why it could lead to immediate success.
They are listed in alphabetical order.