Predicting the NFL's Top 18 Rookies Based on Early OTA Showings
While a lot can change between now and the start of the season, OTAs serve as great tool for evaluating rookies. For the first time, these guys are matching up against NFL veterans, and it is always intriguing to see how a player reacts to their first test.
Expectations are higher for NFL rookies than ever before, as coaches obviously want to see their first-year players make an impact as early as possible so they can insert them into the starting lineup sooner than later.
Here is a list of the top 18 rookies of 2012 based on their performances in OTAs.
18. Nick Perry, Green Bay Packers
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To no surprise, Nick Perry is already getting first-team reps in OTAs. He will not face tough competition for the starting spot, as just about every player outside of Clay Matthews seemed to be replaceable after the Packers' defense slipped to the bottom of the NFL.
It is also encouraging that Perry, who had his hand in the dirt as a 4-3 defensive end at USC, is already picking up the nuances that come along with making the adjustment to outside linebacker.
Perry will be in a great situation to pile up the sacks. Playing opposite fellow USC product Clay Matthews, he will see a lot of one-on-one matchups. The addition of Jerel Worthy should also help free up blockers for the entire linebacking corps to make more plays.
17. Stephen Hill, New York Jets
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The Jets were in desperate need of a vertical threat at wide receiver coming into the draft. Luckily for them, Stephen Hill took a slide into the middle Round 2 and the Jets made a move up to get him.
According to ESPN New York's Rich Cimini, he has been working with the first team and looking good in the process. He burned Kyle Wilson on a deep route and made the catch in stride from a great pass from Mark Sanchez.
The faster Hill can learn the position, the faster he can help rescue the erratic Jets passing attack.
16. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers
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While there has not been much news as to exactly how Luke Keuchly is performing in OTAs, the good news is that he has already cracked the starting lineup as the weak-side linebacker.
With Jon Beason in the middle and James Anderson playing the strong side, Kuechly is in an excellent position to rack up huge tackle numbers.
The former BC Eagles star is not a thumper like Beason. Instead, he is better at using his eyes and instincts to fight through garbage and make tackles. As a weak-side linebacker, he is in the perfect spot with plenty of talent around him to have a big rookie season.
15. Dontari Poe, Kansas City Chiefs
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When Scott Pioli pulled the trigger on Dontari Poe in the first round, it made a lot of Chiefs fans very nervous, and for good reason. Loaded with natural ability, Poe did not produce at a high level, despite playing against inferior competition at Memphis.
However, Poe is starting to make Pioli look smart in OTAs. He has leaped in front of Amon Gordon on the depth chart and earned a role on the first team, according to KCChiefs.com.
Usually, a player like Poe, who has had a tough time translating his ability into production, would take a while to develop.
The fact that the coaches trust him enough to start this early in the process is a good sign for the big D-lineman, even if beating out the likes of Gordon is hardly an incredible achievement.
14. Courtney Upshaw, Baltimore Ravens
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Few teams are more reliant on a second-round pick to produce immediately than the Ravens are with Courtney Upshaw.
He’s a very smart player—very football-knowledgeable guy. He has been very well-coached down there (Alabama). He understands the game, he works hard. He has been everything that we anticipated he’d be so far.
Upshaw is never going to replicate what Suggs brings to the defense, at least in his rookie year. But the Alabama product will see plenty of playing time and have a ton of opportunities to make an impact on the defense.
At the same time, the Ravens must be counting their lucky stars that they had drafted Upshaw before Suggs' unfortunate injury.
13. Rueben Randle, New York Giants
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The Super Bowl champs struck gold in the second round of the draft, landing a first-round talent in Rueben Randle just one pick shy of the third round.
With Hakeem Nicks out for a good two months after breaking his foot, Randle will get some training as the "X" receiver.
If Nicks is back in time for the start of the season as anticipated, Randle will fill whatever role is not being filled by Nicks or Victor Cruz. If Nicks is still recovering, however, the rookie will be the favorite to be a starter on opening day.
With Eli Manning calling the shots, Randle will get plenty of opportunities to post big numbers in the coming season for the Super Bowl champs.
12. Riley Reiff, Detroit Lions
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So far, Riley Reiff has been everything the Lions hoped he would be at the start of OTAs.
According to the Detroit News, he is being worked in as the second-team left tackle. The Lions probably don't want to push him into the stating lineup too early, but all indications point to him taking a run at Gosder Cherlius' job at RT.
In due time, Reiff should eventually be the team's franchise left tackle, but he will have to earn it. Perhaps with more time in training camp and preseason games to prove his worth, he will crack the starting lineup by season's start.
11. Janoris Jenkins, St. Louis Rams
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Despite taking a tumble down draft boards because of character issues, Janoris Jenkins is a supremely talented player and he is showing off his skill at OTAs.
Jeff Fisher has been impressed with what Jenkins has shown on the field so far:
He’s very talented—obviously we knew that, and that has shown just in the last couple days. He’s got excellent football intelligence and he carries things from the classroom to the field. He’s going to be a really good player really soon for us.
The question will be whether or not Jenkins runs into trouble off-field or becomes some kind of cancer in the locker room. If he can avoid running into trouble, he should be one of the top defensive rookies this year.
10. Quinton Coples, New York Jets
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Rex Ryan is not always trusting of rookies to start on his defense. In 2010, he benched first-round pick Kyle Wilson in favor of Drew Coleman in the middle of the season.
However, based on his performance in OTAs and minicamp, he has no qualms about inserting Coples into the starting lineup right away. When asked whether or not Coples will start, he quickly responded with "yes, how's that one? Yes I do."
It still remains to be seen how exactly Coples will be used. While he is listed as a defensive end in the Jets' base 3-4 defense, Coples was seen getting some work at outside linebacker.
The bottom line is, the Jets need to find a way to fit all of their best pass-rushers on the field. The fact that Coples is one of those players is a good sign for Jets fans.
9. Tahir Whitehead, Detroit Lions
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Despite being a fifth-round pick, Whitehead looks like he will have a big role in the Detroit defense this year.
Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham has been particularly impressed with what he has seen out of the Temple product:
That's by far the biggest surprise I've had in quite a while as a coach. I think (linebacker coach) Matt Burke and the scouts did a great job with him. He's much better than a fifth-round draft pick. He is something.
That is some high praise for a guy working out in shorts. Cunningham has been in the league for quite some time, so for him to throw around that kind of praise is eye-popping.
The Lions will probably ask the athletic Whitehead to play more in space, so he might not rack up the kind of sacks and tackles to grab the casual fan's attention.
For a Lions defense that gave up a lot of big plays last year, his presence as a coverage linebacker could make a huge difference in 2012.
8. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles
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When Cox began to take a slide in the draft, the Eagles pounced on the opportunity by moving up to draft him.
So far, Cox has not disappointed the Eagles. He is already taking first-team reps at practice, which is nothing to sniff at given the amount of talent the Eagles have on the defensive line.
His teammate Cullen Jenkins has been impressed with what he has seen from the rookie out of Mississippi State:
I’ve watched Fletcher, and he’s got a lot of ability. He’s a good kid, listens to the coaches well and I had a chance to talk to him about footwork, but Fletcher’s already really quick.
Once he learns how to anticipate the offensive lineman’s movement at this level, he’s going to be a really good player.
If Cox can be everything the Eagles think he is, Andy Reid could have the best defensive line rotation in football.
7. Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo Bills
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After releasing Drayton Florence, the Bills have high hopes for Stephon Gilmore to perform at a high level early on.
So far, the young DB has looked the part. He did not give up many completions and looked very confident in himself, according to Chan Gailey:
Confidence is something that’s vital, especially at the cornerback position. It’s vital at some other spots, but it’s really vital at the cornerback position. He played well and did well in this camp.
This is all very good news for the Bills, who have put so much stake in getting early contributions from the 10th overall selection. If he continues this trend, he should have a big rookie season for Buffalo.
6. Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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If the Bucs want to revert to the run-first approach that won them their only Super Bowl, it is, naturally, all going to start at the running back position.
Because of his ability to do everything from pass protection to receiving (which is just about everything LaGarrette Blount cannot do), Doug Martin is going to be the key to the Bucs offense. Head coach Greg Schiano raved about Martin's first few practices:
He’s only done it two days (Monday and Tuesday), but he’s done some nice things. 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.
If Martin can carry his showing in OTAs into the regular season, he should give Tampa Bay exactly what they need from his spot.
5. Kendall Wright, Tennessee Titans
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Coming into this season, Kendall Wright was supposed to be an "X" receiver. However, Wright has been so quick to pick up the offense that he is being worked into other positions as well.
It is very rare for a rookie receiver to be able to pick up an NFL playbook so quickly to the point that they are taking on extra work. And it's still OTAs.
If Wright turns out to be the "X" receiver, it will be interesting to see how they work him into the lineup, as Kenny Britt is currently occupying the position.
The fact that Wright is being trained in Britt's spot could be an indicator of how they feel about Britt's chances of returning from his injury on time.
At least Wright is being worked in at other positions, affording the Titans the versatility whenever Britt does come back.
4. Bruce Irvin, Seattle Seahawks
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The Seahawks certainly sparked a lot of debate when they selected Bruce Irvin in the first round. So far, they are looking pretty smart for "reaching" for Irvin.
Irvin has been impressive in minicamp and OTAs. He had a countermove in one session against right tackle Breno Giacomini that left spectators with their mouths agape.
Irvin still has a way to go in terms of learning an NFL defense, but so far, Seattle is starting to make their critics eat their words for taking Irvin so high in the draft.
3. Andre Branch, Jacksonville Jaguars
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While there were many defensive ends taken before Andre Branch, Branch is quickly rewarding the Jaguars for spending a second-round pick on him.
Said defensive line coach Joe Cullen of his impressions on Branch thus far:
He’s better than I thought...he’s working harder and getting better every day. Just a little bit, but he is better than I thought.
Perhaps Branch's performance in OTAs was enough for the Jaguars to cut their ties with the oft-injured Aaron Kampman. Now that Kampman is officially out of the picture, Branch will get every opportunity to make a big impact in his rookie season.
2. Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins
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Particularly at the quarterback position, it is difficult for rookies to earn respect from their veteran teammates early on.
So far, according to the Washington Times, RGIII seems to have already earned the trust and respect of his peers, including tight end Chris Cooley:
He may not have felt it, but the way he’s addressed the guys in the huddle, the way he’s called his cadence at the line, the way he’s moving through his progressions.
He might feel like it’s happening slow and he might have felt like he had an ‘ah-ha’ day, but he’s consistently getting better, and I think a lot of people around him can see that.
Of course, Griffin will have to produce on the field to truly cement himself as "the guy" in Washington, but he has taken an important step in becoming the de facto leader of the Redskins offense.
1. Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns
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Based on what Trent Richardson did at Alabama, it would hardly be a surprise to anyone if he became one of the top runners in the NFL sooner than later.
According to Tony Grossi of ESPN Cleveland, Pat Shurmur thinks Richardson looks the part at OTAs:
Wow! He’s a very powerful man. He’s powerfully built. Don’t let the 5'9" fool you. He’s almost 230 pounds. That’s a lot of muscle packed into that body. I just think he’s got a very powerful build, much like we thought, and it shows up on the field.
This is nothing short of what the Browns expected when they moved into the third spot to take Richardson. If you are going to take a running back that high, he had better be exceptional and one of the best players in the NFL within a year.
Based on his OTA performance, Richardson has to be a favorite to win Rookie of the Year.