With rookies contributing to their NFL teams faster than ever, NFL fans quickly fall in love with players from the first games they play in the league.
Many 2011 NFL draft picks have already become fan favorites, including Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller and Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt.
Top quarterbacks are almost guaranteed to become fan favorites if they are successful, so Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III are excluded from these rankings.
Instead, I project the 10 other players from the 2012 NFL draft who are the most likely to become nationwide fan favorites.
Overall Prospect Rank: No. 75
At only 5’10’’ and 176 pounds, Jarius Wright lacks the size to be a top wide receiver prospect, but his speed and lateral agility gives him the ability to be an impact slot receiver and a dangerous kick and punt returner.
Top returners such as Devin Hester and Josh Cribbs have become very popular among NFL fans in recent years, and Wright has the ability to be among the top return specialists out of this draft class.
While fellow draft prospect Joe Adams handled the returning duties for the Razorbacks over Wright, Wright has better speed and was more productive offensively than Adams, making him the better prospect both as a receiver and returner at the next level.
Wright has the potential to be a real big-play threat at the next level, and once he makes a few big plays in the NFL, he could become a real fan favorite.
Overall Prospect Rank: No. 13
Pass-rushers often became the headliners of defenses. North Carolina’s Quinton Coples has the talent to be a difference-making pass-rushing defensive end for whichever team he goes to at the next level.
Coples has concerns of inconsistent play, but from what I have seen of his personality, he does not show the character issues that many often have pointed to when discussing his draft stock. If Coples takes advantage of his ability and plays hard at the next level, he could be a terrific defensive end in a 4-3 scheme.
If Coples continues to struggle with the inconsistency he had in college, he could end up as a favorite punchline for fans instead of a player whose jersey fans will be buying up. That said, Coples is a big, strong and athletic defensive end who could be an impact player.
Overall Prospect Rank: No. 39
Brandon Boykin is undersized, and may not be an outside cornerback at the next level, but when it comes to becoming a fan favorite, the key is coming up with big plays that those watching the game will remember.
Few defensive players in this draft class have more big-play ability to impact the game in many different ways than Boykin.
While Boykin’s lack of size will present a challenge to him against bigger wide receivers, he is a very fluid athlete who is not afraid to use his body and be physical in coverage despite his size difference. Boykin could be a terrific nickel cornerback to cover slot receivers.
The biggest asset of Boykin’s game, however, is his playmaking ability.
Boykin has very good ball skills to deflect passes and make interceptions. He also returned kicks and punts and occasionally played offense at Georgia, and should be successful as a returner at the next level.
As a nickel cornerback, return specialist and special teams contributor, a team could be getting a very valuable contributor if they can get the opportunity to draft Boykin in the second round and—could end up bringing in a quick fan favorite.
Overall Prospect Rank: No. 9
As the top wide receiver in the 2012 draft class, Justin Blackmon has already caught the attention of football fans across the nation. If Blackmon is able to step into an NFL offense and immediately become a go-to receiver, which he has the ability to do, fans will fall in love with him quickly.
Blackmon may not be an elite athlete, but he is a big downfield playmaker. He has good size, great strength, is a terrific route runner, has consistent hands and does a great job of using his acceleration and physicality to separate downfield.
Blackmon may not run away from top NFL cornerbacks, but he has shown his ability to beat defensive backs by using his complete set of skills, and has been very productive at Oklahoma State. He should be productive right away at the next level, and become a major asset in a passing offense.
Overall Prospect Rank: No. 30
In recent seasons, running backs with breakaway sprinter speed including Chris Johnson and Jamaal Charles have captivated NFL fans with their ability to turn any run into a big gain.
The 2012 NFL draft has its own big-hitting speed back, and that player is Miami’s Lamar Miller.
At 5’11’’ and 212 pounds, Miller has terrific size for a running back, but also has tremendous speed, running his combine 40-yard dash in a very fast time of 4.40 seconds. Miller has the size and power to run between the tackles, and can also run away from defenders in the open field.
Miller has the skill set to be a big-play running back at the next level, and should be able to make an immediate impact in an NFL offense. He should be expected to bring NFL audiences to their feet early and often by breaking runs for big gains with his combination of strength and athleticism.
Overall Prospect Rank: No. 25
From Troy Polamalu to Rodney Harrison and from Brandon Meriweather to Sean Taylor, hard-hitting safeties are always a fan favorite. Alabama’s Mark Barron, who stands out as the top safety in the 2012 draft class, should be no exception.
Barron plays the safety position with ferocity; big hits are a part of his game. Barron’s strength is in run support, for he is a very physical defensive back who tackles very well.
That said, he is also very effective in coverage and has great ball skills and athleticism. He has the ability to make big plays to force turnovers.
The combination of Barron’s traditional hard-nosed style of play as a safety along with his ability to cover in the middle of the field should make him a very solid strong safety at the next level, and result in him becoming a popular defensive player for his team.
Overall Prospect Rank: No. 8
As mentioned earlier, pass rushers tend to become fan favorites on the defensive side of the ball. South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram is the best pass-rusher in the draft class, and should be an impact player whether he ends up as a defensive end in a 4-3 defense or an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Ingram is an explosive athlete for his size and has a great burst off the line of scrimmage, which gives him the ability to quickly wreak havoc in an opposing backfield.
Ingram is best known for his pass-rushing ability, but is also a solid player against the run, so he should be a three-down player at the next level and become a leader of his team’s defensive front seven.
Ingram proved his ability to be a big playmaker in his senior season with the Gamecocks, coming up with 10 sacks and also scoring three unconventional touchdowns. Ingram should continue to make big plays at the next level and become a very well-known name within the league.
Overall Prospect Rank: No. 4
One player who NFL fans have already fallen in love with from the 2011 NFL draft is Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, who came out of LSU and immediately had an impact as not only a starting cornerback but as one of the best punt returners in the National Football League.
Claiborne should follow his footsteps in a quick rise to fame, for he is an even better prospect than his former teammate.
Claiborne is a long, athletic cornerback who can really shut down opposing wideouts, and has the skill set that should translate to the next level. Claiborne is big, physical, tackles well and has great ball skills.
Claiborne is also a big-play threat. Claiborne does a terrific job of breaking on the football to make interceptions, and has the speed to turn those turnovers into big plays for his team.
Additionally, Claiborne had great success as a kick returner at LSU, and could present added value to his new team as a kick or punt returner should they choose to utilize him in that capacity.
By making big plays early in his career, Claiborne should establish himself as a fan favorite for the team that should draft him somewhere within the top 10 picks of the 2012 NFL draft.
Overall Prospect Rank: No. 5
Courtney Upshaw is not the household name he should be in the 2012 draft, but he could easily become the defensive star of this draft class.
During his four seasons at Alabama, Upshaw became a fan favorite in the SEC for the big plays he consistently made for the Crimson Tide defense in big games. He should continue to do the same at the next level.
Upshaw is not an elite athlete, but he has terrific instincts, does very well in pursuit and does a great job of getting himself in the right place at the right time when his team needs them most. Upshaw is a hard hitter, a very sound tackler and has the versatility to play a multitude of spots in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defense.
Upshaw is best suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme. This scheme would best utilize his ability to edge-rush into the backfield to make things uncomfortable for quarterbacks and running backs. That said, Upshaw has excelled in every position that he has been placed into, and that versatility really helps his draft stock.
Upshaw could end up being a steal in the middle to late first round, but the team that drafts him will be glad to acquire a smart and instinctive linebacker who should make an immediate impact and become a headliner of an NFL defense.
For that, he has the potential to truly emerge as a fan favorite out of the 2012 draft class.
Current Prospect Rank: No. 7
Aside from franchise quarterbacks, there may not be a position that gets fans to their feet more often than the exploits of a game-changing impact player at the running back position.
Alabama’s Trent Richardson can be that player, and if he lives up to his potential, he should have a major fan following for many years to come.
Richardson has an ideal combination of size, power, speed and quickness. Richardson’s biggest concern is that he runs too upright, leaving himself susceptible to too many hits, but his ability to find and run hard through a hole, and run both through and around defenders, make him a player that NFL fans will fall in love with.
Richardson emerged at Alabama as the offensive star of the Southeastern Conference, and should have a quick ascent to stardom in the NFL.
Running backs are usually reaches as first-round picks, but he is a special talent who is worthy of being a top-10 draft choice, and should have fans keeping an eye on him from the first games he plays.
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