Cam Newton enjoyed a historic rookie performance.
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.
Curry is a high-motor, playmaking defensive end.
Vinny Curry, DE; Marshall University, 6'3", 265 lbs; Redshirt Senior, DOB: 6/30/1988
Curry is one of my favorite defensive prospects in this year's entire class. He has enjoyed a fairly substantial rise in his draft stock, beginning the college football season as a mid-round guy from a mid-major program who had to combat the "tweener" label.
He now carries a unanimous Day 2 grade and slides into the early part of Round 2 in many projections.
Despite lacking ideal height and length (32" arms), Curry will likely remain a 4-3 defensive end projection and not a 3-4 outside linebacker due to questions about his lower-half flexibility and overall athleticism.
These concerns were somewhat supported by his results last weekend at the combine. Curry ran a 4.85 in the 40, a 4.4 short shuttle and broad-jumped 9'2" with a 32" vertical. He did run one of the fastest three-cone drills among defensive linemen, in under seven seconds, which speaks to short-area quickness and change-of-direction skill.
I actually favor Curry as a 4-3 defensive end, which is my preferred base scheme, in part because it keeps him on the line of scrimmage and closer to the ball without having to worry about coverage responsibility as a linebacker.
One of his distinguishing characteristics, and something that most elite defensive ends possess at the next level, is a non-stop motor and a will to win on each snap. This perseverance and tenacity allows him to make more plays against both the run and the pass than his strict physical talent might otherwise indicate.
Over his final two years at Marshall, he totaled 40 tackles for loss, 23 sacks and nine forced fumbles.
David is a missile that gets underrated due to his size.
Lavonte David, 4-3 OLB; University of Nebraska, 6'.5", 235 lbs; Senior, DOB: 1/23/1990
David is a very appealing weak-side linebacker prospect in a 4-3 defense.
Because he is barely over six feet tall and played under 230 lbs in college, there was talk of him converting to strong safety in the NFL—he plays with the speed (4.56 at the combine) desired of a defensive back.
Hopefully, David put those considerations to rest when he weighed in at the combine almost 10 pounds heavier than a month earlier at the Senior Bowl, closing in on 235 lbs.
It makes more sense to keep David at linebacker in order to have him closer to the line of scrimmage, where his activity will allow him to make more plays.
Along with his quickness at the point of attack and in coverage, David plays stronger than his size and uses above-average instincts, aggressiveness and tackling to be a quality run defender. During his two seasons at Nebraska following a transfer from Fort Scott Community College, he posted 285 total tackles with 28 behind the line of scrimmage.
DeCastro has the talent and technique to flourish right away.
David DeCastro, OG; Stanford University, 6'5", 315 lbs; Redshirt Junior, DOB: 1/11/1990
The highest-rated offensive guard prospect in years will start and do very well from the outset of his career, barring injury.
He combines experience (39 career starts) with balanced capability in both pass- and run-blocking. The combination should allow him to be above average in both dimensions right away.
The best rookie guard a year ago was Stefen Wisniewski for the Oakland Raiders—a level of impact that DeCastro should surpass. He may even rate on par with recent standout rookie centers Maurkice Pouncey (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2010) and Nick Mangold (New York Jets, 2006) in terms of value from an interior offensive lineman.
Griffin will smile if he lands with an already-solid team.
Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor University; 6'2.5", 225 lbs; Redshirt Junior, DOB: 2/12/1990
How can Griffin be on this list and not Luck, if Griffin is the consensus No. 2 pick behind the Stanford quarterback? And (referring to the photo caption) how could Griffin land with a team that is already solid in some aspects?
To the first question regarding Luck, Griffin's name comes before Luck's in alphabetical order on this slideshow. But I will also give away the fact that I do not include Luck on this list.
Without diverging too far into how productive and efficient Luck will be in 2012—perhaps on a historic level, given his accepted profile—I am indicting him on the fact that he will likely helm an Indianapolis Colts team that will be very young. The team will be inexperienced but talented in some regards.
Similar to how Cam Newton and Andy Dalton ended up as rookie starting quarterbacks on teams that had some surrounding quality, if the Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins or Seattle Seahawks trade up for Griffin, he could find himself in a similar breeding ground for rookie success. All three teams have varying degrees of quality or emerging defenses, offensive lines and running games—all close friends of a rookie signal-caller.
Although Newton and Griffin are very different prospects at the same position—drastically so from a physical standpoint—if Griffin stays healthy and lands on a solid club, he could be the next 4,000-yard passer and 500-yard rusher in his debut under center.
Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt University; 5'11.5",195 lbs; Senior, DOB: 9/9/1989
Projecting rookie defensive back performance and production is tricky because there is so much adjustment to be made at the NFL level. Coverage schemes are more complex and the calls change more often before the play. The wide receiver talent is also a lot better, and so much of a successful cornerback's career is on the mental and psychological side, which are tougher aspects to measure than size, length and speed.
Patrick Peterson, one of the most physically talented cornerback prospects in the last decade, struggled immensely in the first half of the 2011 season as a rookie for the Arizona Cardinals. Most people saw the scintillating punt return highlights, but it was not until the latter stages of the schedule that he began to improve in coverage.
Conversely, Richard Sherman, an unheralded fifth-rounder out of Stanford University, was arguably the most consistent rookie corner in the NFL last season for the Seattle Seahawks. He had a lot of success using his size, length (6'2.5", 195 lbs, 32" arms, 38" vertical) and strength to jam and re-route receivers off the line before making plays on the ball.
Hayward only possesses average size, but his ball skills are arguably the best in the class at cornerback (13 interceptions and 21 pass breakups the last two seasons). He combines very good agility with his anticipation and route-reading skills to be in the right spot at the right time.
I think his smarts and ball skills will help him see a lot of the field as a rookie.
Hilton can impact from the slot and in return game.
T.Y. Hilton, WR-RS, Florida International University; 5'10", 185 lbs; Senior, DOB: 11/14/1989
Hilton makes this list because he is my highest-ranked dual (kickoffs and punts) return man in the class. He also has advanced enough receiving skills to work out of the slot right away as a rookie.
He possesses legit 4.4 speed that may even be a tick better into the 4.3s when he runs at his pro day on March 9, assuming the quad injury that kept him out of the Senior Bowl and the combine has healed.
As a wide receiver, he uses his speed and extremely quick feet to get outstanding separation running routes, giving his quarterback a lot of space at which to throw.
After the catch, Hilton displays great wiggle with these same traits and breakaway speed to turn a thin seam or missed tackle into a big play.
Similarly, as a return specialist, Hilton's slight frame and knack for keeping his legs and feet moving make him extremely slippery. However, he does need to improve on his concentration and overall strength as it applies to ball security, as he fumbled once every 38 touches in college.
Hilton's statistical highlights (video here) include a 24.7-yard average per reception in 2008 as a freshman and 23.2 and 30.7 punt- and kickoff-return averages, respectively, as a 2011 senior. He also had a 90-plus yard return touchdown in each of his four collegiate seasons.
Jones has his eyes forward on the draft.
Marvin Jones, WR, University of California; 6'2" 200 lbs; Senior, DOB: 3/12/1990
There are so many wide receivers in this class that, depending on where they are drafted and what team/sub-package tendencies they fall into, could approach 50 catches.
The reason I am going with Marvin Jones in this slideshow is due to his very translatable skill set to a No. 2 receiver role. He has the kind of advanced polish to avoid typical rookie receiver pitfalls, characteristics that would endear him to most coaches and veteran quarterbacks.
Jones is also someone to be aware of because he has a "sleeper" profile. He put up only modest numbers during his career with the Cal Bears (156 receptions, below 15 yards per catch and 13 touchdowns), but he has good size and average speed (a projected 4.5 guy who timed 4.47 at the combine).
His skills that could lead to significant playing time and production are superb body control, which he uses both in crisp route-running to separate and adjusting to the ball in the air, sound footwork and a set of some of the best hands in the class.
Martin will be a pleasing addition to an NFL backfield.
Doug Martin, RB, Boise State University; 5'9" 225 lbs; Redshirt Senior, DOB: unknown
Trent Richardson (not included in this slideshow) is another 2012 rookie running back who could be included on a list like this. But similar to Richardson in terms of size, speed and skill set is Doug Martin.
Martin is viewed as one of the few complete backs in this class. He is probably the only other high-round guy besides Richardson to boast above-average running, receiving and blocking ability.
He has shown good enough ball security during his college career, fumbling once about every 90 touches, to be trusted in a feature back role.
I am placing him on this list with the expectation that he will be drafted later in the first round by a stronger playoff-caliber team (I mocked him to the Cincinnati Bengals at No. 21 here) and to earn the bell-cow role in camp.
If he gets between 200 and 250 touches as part of a well-balanced offense, look for him to gain 1,500 yards or more from scrimmage.
Upshaw is eager to make his mark in the NFL.
Courtney Upshaw, OLB, University of Alabama; 6'1.5", 275 lbs; Senior, DOB: 12/13/1989
With almost two months to go before the first round of the NFL draft on April 26, predicting 2012 NFL rookie awards is premature at best and more fairly an exercise of blind futility. But in contemplating the players deserving of a spot in this slideshow, the mind is left to wander on the topic.
I do believe that Upshaw is a reasonable—albeit still unlikely—2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
He should go fairly high (mid-first round) to a 3-4 team, and he projects neatly as a strong-side outside linebacker that does everything pretty well.
As part of one of the best defenses in the country over the last two years, primarily from a defensive end alignment, he boasts 104 total tackles (52 apiece in each season), 32.5 tackles for loss and 16.5 sacks.
Loyal readers of my work may be tired of me trumpeting Upshaw's strong hands and awareness at the point of attack, so check out his change-of-direction skills on this play (45-second mark) at 275 lbs.
If he lands on a team that has an incumbent primary pass-rusher (a consistent double-digit sack guy), look for Upshaw to approach 75 total tackles, five to 10 sacks along with some ball plays in pass defense (deflections, break-ups and interceptions) and fumbles.
Greg Zuerlein, K, Missouri Western State University; 6'0" 190 lbs; 6th-Year Senior, DOB: 12/27/87
Zuerlein's arrival to the top of the 2012 draft's kicker board, in my opinion (shared by at least one other), has taken an unlikely and circuitous route. It includes two redshirt seasons and three campaigns competing for Division II's now-defunct University of Nebraska-Omaha program before his final year with Missouri Western State University, also a D-II school.
But talent is talent, regardless of its origin or discovery site.
How does a kicker make it into a slideshow predicting huge rookie campaigns, and a small-schooler at that?
Although their skill set—along with punters—is something most of us associate the least with the sport of football, it does bear the game's namesake. More importantly, consider the impact that kickers have on the seasonal fortunes of so many teams, based on the high-leverage value of the few plays in which they participate.
There is also a fairly notable lineage of impact rookie kickers, the most recent of which is 2011 undrafted free agent Dan Bailey with the Dallas Cowboys. Before him there was Kevin Butler from the Chicago Bears' 1985 championship team (side note: Butler's son Drew is a highly ranked punting prospect in this class from the University of Georgia) and Ali-Haji Sheikh of the 1983 New York Giants.
The Division II ranks should also not be forgotten on this roll call, as it produced another great name in Adam Vinatieri (South Dakota State University).
I use a proprietary weighted formula that accounts for every field goal attempt in a place-kicking prospect's college career to produce a score. For the 2012 class, Zuerlein's 1.63 mark placed him third, only .11 off the leader. But his unmatched ledger of hitting 10 of 11 attempts beyond 50 yards and him being the best kickoff specialist in the class (65.1-yard average with touchbacks on 42.3 percent), make him the easy choice for the top overall kicking option.
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