2012 NFL Rookies: 7 Questions About This Year's First-Round Draft Class
With the the 2012 NFL draft in our collective rear-view mirror, the attention has quickly turned to minicamps and OTAs.
Several teams—Dallas, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Miami, Minnesota, New York Jets, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Washington—kicked off rookie minicamps this past weekend, with all but Houston (June 12-14) waiting until this weekend to do so.
And while rookie minicamps allow the clubs to begin working with their newest additions and prepping them for the season ahead, they also serve as an opportunity for undrafted free agents to potentially find an NFL job as well.
With that said, I've posed seven questions about some of the first-round picks in this year's draft class and how they will fare this season. Not next season or over the course of their careers.
How big of an impact can they make? Which rookie may be the missing piece to their team's puzzle? Who shouldn't have been drafted in the first round?
Those questions and more, ahead.
Does Andrew Luck Have Enough Weapons to Keep the Colts Respectable?
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Andrew Luck is no stranger to the big stage.
In his three seasons as the starting quarterback at Stanford, Luck not only changed the national perception of the Cardinal, but he also elevated the entire program with the strong performances he turned in on a seemingly weekly basis. In fact, during his three-year stint at the helm, the Cardinal won 31 of their 38 contests.
All of which leads us to this: With the Colts cleaning house and starting anew, does Luck have enough of a supporting cast to keep the Colts respectable this season?
Receivers Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie, along with fellow rookie—and Stanford teammate tight end—Coby Fleener give Luck a few outlets, but will it be enough to overcome the uncertainty along the line and in the backfield?
Conventional wisdom would suggest Luck—like most rookie quarterbacks—will have a steep, uphill climb this season. But it shouldn't be lost on anyone, even the most cynical in the bunch, that Luck is arguably the most-polished rookie signal-caller the NFL has seen in over a decade.
After all, you don't get to play quarterback (and succeed) at Stanford by being a bonehead. Furthermore, most analysts are quick to point out that Luck wasn't exactly surrounded by NFL-caliber talent at receiver last season, yet, he still managed to throw for 3,500 yards and 37 touchdowns.
Will the Colts struggle this season? Yes. But can Luck utilize the limited number of offensive weapons to prevent Indianapolis from being bottom-feeders? If Luck's past has shown us anything, it's that you shouldn't bet against him.
Verdict: The Colts won't win the division, but I don't think they'll wind up with the first overall pick next year either. A 4-12 or 5-11 record, with a few of those losses being close games sounds about right.
Does RGIII Make the Redskins Playoff Contenders?
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Yes, it's early and there are many things that can happen between now and Week 1 that can affect the entire season, but is it really premature to at least ponder the question?
Does Robert Griffin III make the Redskins playoff contenders?
I know, I know. The 'Skins were 5-11 last season and haven't sniffed the postseason since 2007, so perhaps Jim Mora sums it up best by saying, "Playoffs, don't talk about playoffs. Are you kidding me?"
But allow me to play devil's advocate for just a moment.
Of those 11 losses last season, six were by eight or fewer points. Furthermore, five times last season the 'Skins failed to score 14 or more points. All five were losses. And that is where the play-making abilities of RGIII has the potential to make the biggest impact.
Griffin III has Vick-like elusiveness and speed, but isn't nearly as erratic and unreliable throwing the ball. All of which stands to benefit a Washington offense that converted only 37 percent of its third-down attempts last season.
And let's not forget, the 'Skins spent a lot of money this offseason by signing Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan in hopes of upgrading their receiving corps.
So while it may be too early to make a bold proclamation in May, it's not too early to suggest to 'Skins fans that they at least have a fighting chance this year.
Which is more than they could say in years past.
Verdict: Playoffs next season. An 8-8, maybe 9-7 record this season.
Do the Additions of Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden Get the Browns to .500?
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The AFC North is not for the faintest of hearts.
The defenses are rugged and nasty. The weather is cold and uninviting. And the bruises endured seem to take a day longer to wear off than most others.
That is the environment the Cleveland Browns must operate in.
And with that fresh in their minds, the Browns went out and drafted running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden in the first round this year. But how much should the Browns and their fans realistically expect from their still young and unproven team?
Moreover, is .500 out of the question?
For starters, last season the Browns' offense was nothing short of atrocious. They mustered just 13.6 points and 288.8 yards per game. Their scoring defense on the other hand, was actually their strong suit, allowing just 19.2 points per game—fifth best in the NFL.
In short, Richardson and Weeden can't hurt the Browns offensively, as it's hard to imagine them getting any worse than what 2011 demonstrated.
So who knows? If the first-round duo are able to fix a few things here and there, maybe .500 isn't all that far-fetched.
Just as long as their defense doesn't regress.
Verdict: Asking too much, too soon to expect .500 this season. Richardson will shoulder the load early and should play well, but I am not sold on Weeden yet, which could make for another long season in northern Ohio.
Which Defensive Back Will Make the Biggest Impact?
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With the continued evolution and prevalence of the passing game, the need for a quality, reliable defensive secondary is without question.
But of the five defensive backs selected in the first round this year—Morris Claiborne (6), Mark Barron (7), Stephon Gilmore (10), Dre Kirkpatrick (17) and Harrison Smith (29)—who is most likely to make the biggest impact right away?
Claiborne was taken by the Cowboys, who finished 23rd against the pass last season. He was widely considered the premier cover-corner of this year's class and the 'Boys are banking on it, having traded up (and giving up their second-round pick to do so) to acquire his services, mindful of the fact that they will face Eli Manning, Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III twice every season.
Barron finds himself in perhaps the worst defensive secondary of the entire NFL last season. In short, the Bucs were bad. No, make that really bad. Better yet, they were historically bad. They blew coverages, missed tackles and allowed more points than any defensive unit in team history. And that's saying something if you remember the old "Yucs" teams of the '80s and early '90s.
Gilmore lands with Buffalo, who spent a bundle of money to acquire free agent defensive end Mario Williams this offseason. There were some analysts who suggested Gilmore, not Claiborne, was the best defensive back available in this year's class, but only time will tell how accurate that assessment is.
With that said, Gilmore appears to have the best situation because of the quality of the Bills' defensive front and the expected pressure they should cause on opposing quarterbacks. And unlike Claiborne who has three quality quarterbacks in the division to fret over, Gilmore really only has to worry about one: Tom Brady.
Kirkpatrick was drafted by the Bengals, who finished ninth in passing defense last season. However, Kirkpatrick does not appear to be in the same breathe as Claiborne and Gilmore in his coverage ability, but more than makes up for it in his run-stopping ability, which is sure to be tested in the rough and tumble AFC North.
Smith's stock rose exponentially as the draft crept closer, a direct byproduct of solid pro day and combine performances. A three-year starter at Notre Dame, Smith is a force in the run game which should translate well with Matt Forte on the schedule twice a year.
The seemingly obvious answer to the question is Barron, who will be called upon to restore the once-proud Tampa Bay defense to respectability. The Bucs allowed the third-most yards (394.4) and the most points (30.9) per game last year, so it's nearly unfathomable to think they could do any worse than last season. Therefore, the Bucs are the team that stand to show the most improvement year-over-year.
That said, I am a big fan of Gilmore and wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he wound up with six or more interceptions this season due to the pass-rushing ability of Buffalo's defensive front.
Verdict: Barron because statistically the Bucs have the most room for improvement. However, team defensive statistics aside, my gut tells me Gilmore will have the best individual season of the first-round picks mentioned above.
Which Receiver Will Have the Best Rookie Campaign?
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The NFL equivalent of the chicken-and-egg quandary is, Does the quarterback make the receiver look good or is it the other way around?
It depends on who you ask really, but nevertheless you can't have one without the other. Naturally, the first round saw four quarterbacks and four receivers drafted, so the debate rages on.
But of the receivers drafted in the opening round—Justin Blackmon (5), Michael Floyd (13), Kendall Wright (20) and A.J. Jenkins (30)—who will have the best rookie season?
Blackmon will step right into the Jaguars' offense as the No. 1 option for second-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who struggled at times last season but still managed to throw for 2,200 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Floyd joins the Cardinals' receiving corps and will line up opposite of Larry Fitzgerald, who is hopeful that Floyd is able to alleviate some of the double-coverages opposing defenses play against him.
Wright, selected by the Titans, will have plenty of competition for playing time with Nate Washington, Kenny Britt and Damian Williams all vying for the football.
Like Wright, Jenkins finds himself surrounded by a receiver-heavy roster including the likes of Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, Ted Ginn and tight end Vernon Davis. Similarly, Jenkins could be hard-pressed to see playing time early in the season.
Blackmon and Floyd appear to be the early favorites, which makes sense given where they were drafted. Teams toward the top of the draft tend to have the more glaring need at whatever position they select early on, in this case receiver. That said, the play of their respective quarterbacks—Gabbert and Kevin Kolb—may make all the difference in this "battle" for best rookie season.
Verdict: Blackmon, but almost by default because of the lack of weapons on the Jacksonville offense not named Maurice Jones-Drew. Not to say it will be a landslide because remember, defenses will continue to shade towards Fitzgerald until Floyd demonstrates that he is worthy of an extra look. For what it's worth, I love Floyd's size (6'3", 220 lbs) over Blackmon's (6'1", 208 lbs), but I don't think he'll rack up nearly as many catches, yards and scores as Blackmon—at least not this season.
Bigger First Round Stretch: Tannehill or Irvin?
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It's hard (and unfair) to grade a draft pick before he's ever played a snap in the league, so that is not what I am attempting to do with this question.
However, what I am doing is asking the simple (and fair) question: Who shouldn't have been drafted as high as he was?
Keep in mind, Ryan Tannehill was drafted as a potential franchise quarterback, so if he pans out and has a long, productive career, selecting him eighth overall won't seem all that bad. Especially given what Washington traded away for the player they thought was a franchise-type quarterback.
That said, if he falls on his face and continues Miami's quarterback drought, it is a decision that will set the Dolphins back several more seasons, as there were several players available at the No. 8 pick that could have made a more-immediate impact. The "knock" on Tannehill was how relatively new to the position he is, meaning he is considered more of a project than either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, who were taken just a few picks ahead of him.
Coincidentally, most analysts and observers seemed to agree that Seattle probably pulled the trigger on Bruce Irvin—drafted 15th overall—much earlier than he was expected to be taken. In fact, ESPN's Scouts Inc. rated Irvin as the 56th-best player of the draft, although he was ranked as the third-best linebacker available.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of all is Irvin's checkered past, which include academic issues and legal run-ins. While I am all for giving people the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity to succeed, investing the 15th overall pick on someone who may have been available with their second-round selection is questionable at best.
Verdict: Irvin, while super-talented in certain situations at West Virginia, was by far the bigger stretch of the two. Yes, Tannehill has a lot to prove and a ways to go before he is a finished product, but a potential franchise quarterback selected eighth overall isn't nearly as much of a stretch as a pass-rush specialist with a questionable past at 15th overall.
Better Back This Season: Martin or Wilson?
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The Cleveland Browns drafted Trent Richardson third overall, giving up three additional picks for the right to select the former Alabama tailback.
But it wasn't until the last two picks of the first round before the next two running backs were chosen, with that honor belonging to Boise State's Doug Martin by the Buccaneers (31st) and Virginia Tech's David Wilson by the Giants (32nd).
First-year Bucs head coach Greg Schiano has made it no secret that Tampa Bay will be a run-oriented offense, which bodes well for Martin's chances of putting up big numbers. Coupled with the offseason addition of free agent guard Carl Nicks, the Buccaneers are poised to turn around their 30th-ranked rushing attack from a year ago.
Conversely, the Giants are the defending champions and, when compared to the Buccaneers, are likely to be a more-competitive team than Tampa Bay, which would suggest Wilson is better positioned to potentially run the ball later in games. Yes, the Giants had the worst rushing offense last season, but Wilson should impact that immediately.
All told, both are equally dynamic backs who are expected to factor heavily in their teams' game plans.
Verdict: Martin. Conventional wisdom would suggest the back on the better team is more likely to put up more consistent numbers, being as though they wouldn't abandon the run after falling behind early in games—much like Tampa Bay last season.
However, Schiano was abundantly clear about the importance of ball security (via ESPN) and sent a clear signal to incumbent running back LeGarrette Blount by drafting Martin, who many have compared to Schiano's former back at Rutgers, Ray Rice.
I believe Martin will see quite a bit of playing time this season—especially in passing situations, which is one area where Wilson stands to improve his game. For that reason and that reason alone, I give Martin the edge, albeit slight, over Wilson.