NFL Predictions: The 21 Rookies with the Most 1st-Year Potential
This year's NFL rookie class is going to have a greater impact than last year's, which featured the likes of Cam Newton and Von Miller.
The 2012 class has two quarterbacks in Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III who could outperform the record-setting year by Newton. They might not equal some of Newton's stats, but more wins and better efficiency isn't out of the question.
The 2012 running back class might be one of the better groups in years. Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and David Wilson all could top the 1,000-yard mark. Later-round backs like Isaiah Pead and Ronnie Hillman could also provide good production.
Here are the 21 rookies who will make the greatest immediate impact.
Mohamed Sanu, Cincinnati Bengals
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Mohamed Sanu is locked in a battle to earn the starting wide receiver job opposite A.J. Green. So far, he's having an extremely impressive summer. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had this to say about Sanu:
He just has a natural instinct to be a big, friendly target; he knows what he has to do to get open. A lot of guys when faced with a route adjustment round it off and it allows the route to get jumped for an interception. But he's got the ability to stick his foot in the ground, make the right shade or angle and get that 12-yard completion.
Sanu could have a very productive rookie season if he's able to crack the starting lineup. Opposing defenses will focus on shutting down Green, which would roll coverage away from Sanu's side of the field. His versatility should also help him make an immediate impact. Sanu is capable of lining up on the outside or in the slot.
Finding a role for Sanu won't be difficult for Jay Gruden, especially if Sanu already caught the coaches' attention.
Rueben Randle, New York Giants
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Rotoworld captured comments from ESPN's Chris Mortensen on NFL 32, who said that Rueben Randle has set himself up to start the season as the New York Giants' No. 3 receiver. He'll be asked to fill the role vacated by Mario Manningham, who caught 39 passes for 523 yards in only 12 games last season.
With Eli Manning throwing the ball and Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz demanding attention, it wouldn't be a shock if Randle had more than 40 receptions and topped the 600-yard mark. Opposing defenses will dare Randle to beat them, and he has the ability to make defenses pay.
The injury to Nicks also plays a major role in the potential impact of Randle. With Nicks unable to practice, Randle is in line to receive a ton of reps. This would give him and Manning the time needed to develop a relationship.
Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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I've been very vocal about how impressed I am with the skills of Lavonte David. He's one of the top candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year. His career is already off to a good start: He has been promoted to first-team linebacker, according to Stephen Holder of the Tampa Bay Times.
David doesn't have ideal size for the position, but he more than makes up for it with his explosiveness. He combines that quickness with great recognition skills. David is capable of making plays all over the field, especially behind the line of scrimmage.
He's also a four-down player because of his ability to drop into coverage and play special teams. Overall, David is just a player who'll make a ton of impact plays.
Jerel Worthy, Green Bay Packers
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Jerel Worthy's addition will have a major impact on an improved Green Bay Packers defense. His combination of size and quickness will allow him to quickly become a disruptive force along the defensive line. Look for him to quickly take snaps away from Ryan Pickett and Jarius Wynn.
Because of his strong anchor, it'll be difficult for opposing offenses to drive Worthy off the ball. Running the football against the Packers with Worthy in place won't be easy. His ability to stack, shed and make plays away from his frame is impressive.
As a pass-rusher, Worthy fires off the ball and quickly attacks the line. He can either shoot the inside gap or utilize a powerful bull rush.
Concerns about stamina and effort are what caused him to fall out of the first round, but there's no doubting his overall talent and potential.
Mychal Kendricks, Philadelphia Eagles
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Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer is reporting that Mychal Kendricks is getting work with the first team in summer workouts. This isn't much of a surprise because the Philadelphia Eagles linebacker unit needed a major talent upgrade. Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans were brought in this offseason and figure to make a major impact.
Explosiveness, tenacity and the ability to quickly decipher information allow Kendricks to make plays sideline to sideline. However, it might be his sound tackling that is most appreciated by the Eagles. Kendricks won't just be in position to make a play; he'll also deliver powerful hits.
His athleticism makes him a four-down player who's capable of dropping into coverage and playing on special teams. The Eagles will find plenty of ways to utilize such a talented player.
Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears
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Plenty of players other than Jay Cutler will benefit from the addition of Brandon Marshall, but the biggest beneficiary will be Alshon Jeffery. Marshall is rarely handled by one-on-one coverage, meaning defenses must commit extra defenders to his side of the field. This will provide Jeffery with plenty of one-on-one situations.
Jeffery's size, leaping ability and strong hands make it tough for defensive backs to handle him in man situations. He's been criticized for his lack of explosiveness and conditioning, but Jeffery appears committed to putting those concerns to rest. Showing up at OTAs in shape and ready to work increases the likelihood that he will produce as a rookie.
With Matt Forte and Michael Bush in place, the Bears should be a strong running team, which should open things in the passing game. Marshall and the running game will allow Jeffery to have an excellent rookie season.
Don't be surprised to see Jeffery haul in as many as eight touchdown passes this season.
Stephen Hill, New York Jets
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It might be early in the offseason, but Stephen Hill has impressed enough to get work with the first team. He's lining up opposite Santonio Holmes and will be expected to fill the spot left vacant by Plaxico Burress. Hill isn't only capable of filling the role but is also talented enough to provide a better downfield option.
At 6'4" and 215 pounds, Hill ran a mind-blowing 4.36 40-yard dash at the combine. That combination of size and speed is rare and something the New York Jets will look to utilize. His ability to stretch the field fits perfectly in the Jets offense.
New York is going to feature a ground attack and utilize play-action to attack through the air. The threat of the running game will draw defenders in the box and open things up for Hill, and Hill's deep threat will keep defenses on their heels.
Jonathan Martin, Miami Dolphins
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It won't take Jonathan Martin long to seize the starting right tackle position for the Miami Dolphins. This has only been delayed because of Stanford's academic year ending later than most schools.
I was shocked to see Martin drop to the second round. He's an extremely talented player with the ability to develop into an All-Pro tackle.
Martin's athleticism and fluid movements allow him to do an excellent job protecting the quarterback. He quickly goes from stance to set, working his shuffle with balance and speed. Reaching the edge and reacting to counter moves isn't a problem for Martin.
In the running game, Martin uses inside hands to stick to the defender and seal him from the play. He isn't a road-grader type but gets enough push to be effective.
The Miami Dolphins have put together a nice-looking offensive line—with Martin, Jake Long and Mike Pouncey—capable of playing well-above-average football.
Cordy Glenn, Buffalo Bills
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It appears that only an injury could keep Cordy Glenn from becoming the Buffalo Bills' starting left tackle. General manager Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey are convinced Glenn has the skills to hold up on the left side of the line.
I completely agree, as Glenn showed throughout his college career that he can get the job done.
For his size, he has quick and fluid movements that allow him to protect the edge. That quickness and Glenn's long arms help him prevent speed-rushers from turning the corner. Glenn also has surprising change-of-direction skills that let him react to counter moves.
In the running game, he uses his size and strength to generate a push off the line. Glenn is committed to gaining inside hands and works to obtain leverage.
This is a well-rounded player who will be able to quickly adjust to the NFL game. Buffalo has a nice young tackle tandem with Glenn and Chris Hairston in place.
Courtney Upshaw, Baltimore Ravens
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The Baltimore Ravens' loss of Jarret Johnson via free agency and Terrell Suggs to injury has opened the door for Courtney Upshaw to make an immediate impact. Baltimore was lucky to add such a talented and NFL-ready player in the second round. There will be some growing pains, but for the most part Upshaw will provide disciplined and solid play.
Upshaw is a mix of Johnson and Suggs in that he can both rush the passer and hold up against the run. His powerful upper body and anchor helps him do a great job stacking and shedding versus the run. It'll be tough for opposing offenses to find success running the ball to his side of the field.
As a pass-rusher, Upshaw employs a solid power and speed move. His inside hand placement and leg drive help him collapse the pocket. He uses the threat of that bull rush to set up his speed rush around the edge.
While he'll generate pressure on the quarterback, he isn't quite explosive enough to consistently gain the edge. Overall, Upshaw's contribution will be as a well-rounded player who contributes equally against the run and pass.
Coby Fleener, Indianapolis Colts
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Coach Chuck Pagano already plans to make Coby Fleener a major part of the offensive game plan, stating that the team will run a lot of two-tight end sets.
Out of this formation, Fleener will be able to utilize his size and quickness to create mismatches. It also gives the Indianapolis Colts the ability to keep defenses off balance and unable to sub run- or pass-heavy personnel.
Fleener's familiarity with Andrew Luck will also help him make an immediate impact. Most quarterbacks have a tendency to target the receivers with whom they have a relationship. Over the past two seasons at Stanford, Luck connected with Fleener for a total of 62 receptions, 1,101 yards and 17 touchdowns.
There's little doubt Luck will look for Fleener early and often during his rookie season.
David Wilson, New York Giants
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David Wilson has offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride very intrigued:
He looks very fast, which we knew going in, but to actually see it on the field, it was—I’m trying to think of the right word—encouraging, exciting. ... He looks like if he has a hole, he’ll hit it and has a chance to do some damage.
As it stands, Wilson is backing up Ahmad Bradshaw, but it might not be long before he earns the majority of snaps. Bradshaw has been productive, but injuries have made him a durability concern. If Bradshaw is forced to miss time this season, he may struggle to regain the carries he lost to Wilson.
Wilson isn't only an explosive runner; he also runs with authority and is rarely brought down by first contact. The Giants offense would welcome a return to the days when they had a dominant running attack. This wasn't the case last year, as they averaged a league-low 3.5 yards per rushing attempt.
Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Greg Schiano is not making his love for Doug Martin a secret:
You can see he has good vision. That’s one of the things you can’t teach. You can teach a lot of things, but for me to see daylight over here when I’m looking over there, that’s a gift.
It shouldn't be a surprise to anybody when Martin begins the season as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting tailback. Also, don't be shocked when his name is in the discussion for Offensive Rookie of the Year. The Buccaneers will feature a run-heavy offensive attack and use Martin as their featured runner.
Martin has all the skills necessary to succeed in the NFL. He's quick, balanced and instinctual enough to consistently gain positive yardage. The fact that he's a willing and capable pass-protector means he can remain on the field in passing situations.
Tampa Bay will make sure Martin touches the field enough to tally a large stat total.
Chandler Jones, New England Patriots
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We played both odd and even fronts last year, I think we’ll continue to be multiple that way, but he’s more of an end-of-the-line player. ... He’s a perimeter player, a guy that lines up on the end of the line, whether you want to call him a linebacker or defensive end, but he’s an end-of-the-line player.
New England's lack of pass-rush talent means it is counting on Jones to produce. He'll use his quick first step and nonstop motor to work his way to the football. Belichick will move him all over the field in order to confuse the offense and create mismatches.
Jones' work ethic and athletic ability are enough to ensure he will have at least five sacks during his rookie season, but don't be surprised if he tops the double-digit mark.
Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles
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Jeff McLane and Jonathan Tamari of the Philadelphia Inquirer came away impressed with Fletcher Cox during OTAs:
Top pick Fletcher Cox impressed with this quickness off the snap. The defensive tackle doesn't look like your typical NFL defensive tackle. He's 6-foot-4, 298 pounds of all muscle and could easily be mistaken for a defensive end. He, in fact, played a little end during 11 on 11s when [Jim] Washburn slid the Mississippi State product outside. Cox played both positions in college.
This is exactly what the Philadelphia Eagles decision-makers saw when they decided to make Cox their first-round selection. He's a pressure player capable of making an impact from multiple positions. Look for the Eagles to feature Cox, Trent Cole, Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins in passing situations. This foursome will create a lot of havoc.
Of that group, Cox is the least likely to command a double-team. These one-on-one opportunities will be enough for him to make a ton of impact plays.
Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
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During his three-year career at Boston College, Luke Kuechly made nearly 300 solo tackles. This impressive stat was accomplished because of hard work, instincts and athleticism. Kuechly has a nose for the football and is able to quickly diagnosis post-snap information.
Basically, he registers so many tackles because he's always in proper position and around the football.
Prior to his excellent showing at the combine, many felt that Kuechly didn't have the athleticism to excel at the next level. However, those were uninformed opinions. Anyone who watched him play was able to quickly see his explosiveness.
Landing with the Carolina Panthers gives Kuechly a great opportunity to make an immediate impact. He'll be playing for the defensive-minded Ron Rivera and alongside Jon Beason. The combination of Beason and Kuechly will be tough for opposing teams to stop.
Mark Barron, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Greg Schiano plans to play Mark Barron at strong safety, a position that appears to be a perfect fit for his skill set. While Barron can hold his own in coverage, he's best suited to play in the box and support the run. Sticking him in deep coverage will only limit the number of plays he's able to make.
Expect to see Barron in the box, in blitz packages and playing man coverage on tight ends. Ultimately, he'll be placed in a position to make a play on the football and will rarely disappoint. His hard-nosed style of play will drive the entire team. He's the type of player who makes those around him better.
A 100-tackle and three-interception season is not out of the question for Barron.
Morris Claiborne, Dallas Cowboys
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An injury has tempered early reports, but Morris Claiborne will receive plenty of praise during the regular season. Claiborne's addition, along with that of Brandon Carr, immediately improves the Dallas Cowboys' pass defense. His combination of quickness, size, strength and fluidity gives him the chance to quickly develop into a shutdown corner.
Look for opposing offenses to test Claiborne early in the season but quickly realize that many opportunities won't be found on his side of the field. His ability to lock up in man coverage means that Rob Ryan can continue to run a very aggressive defense. Expect to see a blitz-heavy attack that finds success because of the coverage on the outside.
Claiborne won't just provide excellent coverage—he'll also produce turnovers because of his excellent ball skills. He's able to quickly identify the developing routes, close on the football and attack the ball at its highest point.
Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns
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Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal feels that Trent Richardson is a "lock" to be the focal point of the Cleveland Browns running attack. I tend to agree, as the Browns wouldn't have invested such a high draft pick on a player they planned on using in a part-time role.
Richardson is already the most explosive playmaker on the Browns roster. He needs to touch the ball more than 25 times a game if this team hopes to be competitive. The likely presence of Brandon Weeden in the starting lineup will only increase Richardson's workload.
These won't be empty carries, as Richardson is talented enough to gain positive yards on each touch. He'll fight for those tough yards, break off long runs and contribute in the passing game. If you're a fantasy football player, Richardson should be one of your top targets.
Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
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Mike Shanahan believes he has a rare talent in Robert Griffin III:
I really believe he can make any throw on the field. He does a great job in the pocket looking downfield, not looking at the rush. No. 2, he fits into our system perfectly because we like to run play-action, quarterback keeps, bootlegs. With his speed, he can get on the edge and do things most quarterbacks can’t do.
This statement is completely correct. Griffin will be an instant playmaker for the Washington Redskins. I expect Shanahan to show more creativity and inspiration now that he has such a talented quarterback. This team is going to feature a lot of deep attacks and plays that utilize Griffin's athletic ability.
Free-agent additions like Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan will help Griffin compete for Rookie of the Year honors. We will see plenty of eye-popping performances from Griffin, so make sure to have your TV tuned in to Redskins games.
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
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Poise and maturity are two of the reasons Andrew Luck will find success during his rookie season. Those skills have quickly become apparent to coach Chuck Pagano:
He's unflappable, mature beyond his years. You listen to some of those play calls and you know why he's an architectural engineer. He's going to have a great career in that in about 15 years.
A lot of the adjustments rookie quarterbacks are forced to make shouldn't be an issue for Luck. He already knows how to use complicated terminology, make adjustments at the line and read a defense. Don't forget about his sound technique that won't require any tweaking.
Luck's time during the offseason will be spent learning the playbook and working on timing with his teammates. Don't be surprised if the Indianapolis Colts approach the eight-win mark and finish second in their division.