One Rookie That Will Be Surprisingly Productive for Each NFL Team
Every year the National Football League provides surprise intrigue and drama in the form of upstart rookie performance. This eventuality is simply the byproduct of high-level competition, the variance in health and productivity of veteran players, as well as the chaotic nature of prospect projection.
On the side of the individual rookie players, there is certainly credit due also. I do not intend to make it sound like all rookie overachievement is a happy coincidence guaranteed by the cosmos or universal law. In many cases, these men are more physically gifted, headier to their new team's playbook or overall scheme, or were simply underestimated by the industry in terms of their readiness.
The 2012 draft and rookie class will be no different, in that we should expect to see a similar phenomenon of rookie contributors around the league. And it begins in Week 1. This has been a well-covered theme this offseason and I encourage you to check out my earlier work about rookies already moving up depth charts, future record-breaking rookies from 2012, and a group of undrafted free agents likely to make an impact.
Baldwin was arguably the most productive undrafted free agent rookie a year ago in his slot role for the 'Hawks. And while Patrick Peterson was garnering much of the headlines for his electrifying punt returns and improving play throughout the year, Sherman was the most consistently well-performing rookie corner in 2011.
This slideshow takes a look at each of the eight NFL divisions and identifies one 2012 first-year player from each club that will surprise most of us with his production. I go into further detail on one guy in each division.
Baltimore Ravens: Kelechi Osemele, OG-OT, Iowa State University
Cincinnati Bengals: Marvin Jones, WR, University of California; 6'2", 200 lbs. and ran a 4.46 in the 40.
Similar to his fit on this list, Jones simply does everything a little better than he appears at first blush. All of his combine measurements, including size and strength, can be regarded as above average, but no single one really jumps off the page.
Jones also had some inconsistencies catching the football, but he is a master at two of the other nuanced aspects of the wide receiver position: route-running and body control.
Specifically with his pattern footwork, he is highly adept at manipulating the stem to create more separation than the coverage player immediately realizes. The body control also aids in this execution, but more visibly presents itself when adjusting to inaccurate or poorly thrown passes or when contorting his body in the air to best make a play on the ball.
Jones' production in college (career highs of 62 receptions and 846 yards as a 2011 senior) was also very modest. Objectively, a lot of this can be attributed to the system in which he played and also some suspect quarterbacking. But the entire sleepy package led to Jones falling to the Bengals in the fifth round.
After A.J. Green's undisputed position as the No. 1 in Cincinnati, there appear to be a lot of snaps at WR2 and WR3 available for the taking on this receiving corps.
Jones will have to battle and/or split time with fellow rookie and third-round selection Mohamed Sanu, along with a slew of unproven veterans. But his profile, overall ability and the situational factors could result in surprising production from him this year.
Cleveland Browns: Brad Smelley, H-Back, University of Alabama
Pittsburgh Steelers: Marquis Maze, return specialist, University of Alabama
Buffalo Bills: T.J. Graham, WR-RS, North Carolina State University
Miami Dolphins: Rishard Matthews, WR, University of Nevada
New England Patriots: Jake Bequette, OLB-DE, University of Arkansas
New York Jets: Antonio Allen, SS, University of South Carolina; 6'1.5", 210 lbs. and ran a 4.67 in the 40.
When Allen fell to the Jets in the seventh round, he became one of the biggest potential steals in this class. I still have yet to read or hear even a moderately convincing explanation as to why he fell below a near-unanimous mid-round grade in the industry.
It can be argued that Allen is unproven in coverage because of how he was used in the Gamecocks defense—almost exclusively lining up and playing inside the box. But his above-average movement skills, solid speed and overall athleticism lend a reasonable projection that he will be at least solid average in this department.
He may not be a matchup-busting answer to the oversized slot receivers and athletic space tight ends, but if he combines solid coverage ability with his excellent acumen in the run game, we are likely looking at a future starting strong safety.
With a fellow rookie (sixth-rounder Josh Bush) and journeyman Yeremiah Bell as all that stand in his way, I expect Allen to assert himself as the unequivocal starter by the second half of 2012, if not before. This playing time and his natural nose for the football and aggressiveness should lead to surprising rookie production from a player at his draft slot.
Houston Texans: Jared Crick, DE, University of Nebraska
Indianapolis Colts: LaVon Brazill, WR, Ohio University
Jacksonville Jaguars: Ryan Davis, OLB, Bethune-Cookman University
Tennessee Titans: Taylor Thompson, TE, Southern Methodist University; 6'6", 260 lbs and ran a 4.55 in the 40.
Check out the profile I did earlier in the draft season about Thompson as one of the top position-conversion prospects in this class.
After being originally recruited to the college ranks as a tight end, Thompson became an all-conference performer and fringe NFL prospect across the line of scrimmage at defensive end. But a higher ceiling, and much bigger payday, awaits him after the switch.
While there will likely be some learning curve for Thompson as he adjusts to his new position at the highest level, and endures the typical rookie growing pains, his ceiling is lofty due to his natural receiving skills and tremendous physical traits for the spot.
His production could surprise this fall if the Titans want to attack with two receiving tight ends (Jared Cook as the other) in certain sets and game matchup situations. The other veteran, Craig Stevens, is more of a blocking type.
The prospect of Cook and Thompson threatening the seam and/or middle of the field at the same time could be daunting for opposing secondaries.
Denver Broncos: Derek Wolfe, DT, University of Cincinnati; 6'5" and 295 lbs., 33 reps of 225 lbs. on bench press.
Wolfe may seem like a strange inclusion on this list because of how high he was drafted (36th overall). But I get a sense that the mainstream media and casual NFL fan do not fully grasp how productive this guy can be—and right away.
Check out this highlight video (2:07, No. 95) to see just how violent and disruptive Wolfe can be along the interior. He is long, strong, quick and operates with outstanding awareness that allows him to make as many plays as his ability and the scheme will produce.
Due to his height and a more streamlined frame, as opposed to a lot of bulk, Wolfe will have to be wary of his pad level in not getting blown off the ball in the run game and stoned when pass rushing. If interior offensive linemen consistently get into his chest, this could be a problem.
Ultimately, Wolfe may provide this year exactly what the Broncos expect after making him their early second-round choice. I think he is going to quietly be a force along a fast-improving front seven in Denver, along the lines of J.J. Watt in Houston last year.
Kansas City Chiefs: DeQuan Menzie, DB, University of Alabama
Oakland Raiders: Jack Crawford, DE, Penn State University
San Diego Chargers: Ladarius Green, TE, University of Louisiana-Lafayette
Chicago Bears: Evan Rodriguez, H-Back, Temple University
Detroit Lions: Dwight Bentley, CB, University of Louisiana-Lafayette; 5'10", 185 lbs. and ran a 4.43 in the 40.
Bentley was the last of the eight cornerbacks in the 2012 draft class that I feel have a strong chance to become quality starters in the NFL.
His draft stock and likely adjustment curve have related trajectories because he performed against suspect competition (Sun Belt Conference) during his collegiate career, and he is very slightly built.
Contrarily, he was very impressive during the Senior Bowl workouts against quality competition and possesses some of the best man-to-man skills in the class. Naturally, there is some concern about him being muscled out by bigger NFL wideouts in iso matchups.
I think Bentley will get a little bigger and a lot stronger during his first few years with Detroit. If that occurs, along with his natural coverage aptitude, look for him to make good on the projection of developing into a quality starter.
Regardless of his ceiling on the perimeter, Bentley is a strong candidate to see substantial playing time this year in nickel and other defensive-back-heavy sub packages. As a rookie on the inside, look for him to be tested early and often, especially in that pass-happy division. He will surely lose some battles, but look for him to win the war with a lot of playing time and his overall production.
Green Bay Packers: Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt University
Minnesota Vikings: Greg Childs, WR, University of Arkansas
Dallas Cowboys: James Hanna, TE, University of Oklahoma; 6'4" 255 lbs. and ran a 4.49 40-yard dash as part of a ridiculous overall combine showing.
Unfortunately, Hanna's college production (52 career receptions) and ultimate draft slot (6-186) are indicative of inconsistency issues and doubts about his aptitude.
I like Hanna more than my understanding of the field's opinion on him, but still think the Cowboys nabbed him in the proper range of the draft. He showed well for me on film with obvious athleticism, catching the ball on different routes and even blocking well enough to project as a legitimate No. 1 or 2 dual-skilled NFL tight end.
But, he was plagued by drops and sometimes concentration issues that betrayed him in both phases of the game and served to undermine his overall success and projection. I am betting on him to get those ironed out and be a useful secondary (to Jason Witten) and red zone receiving threat, including right away as a rookie.
Similar to the Titans (with the trifecta of Jared Cook, rookie Taylor Thompson and blocker Craig Stevens), Hanna will hopefully be utilized as more of a receiving threat right off the bat than incumbent blocking specialist John Phillips.
There is also a thought morsel that Witten may not hold up for a full 16-game schedule, a byproduct of which could be increased every-down duty for Hanna because of his skill set.
New York Giants: Adrien Robinson, TE, University of Cincinnati
Philadelphia Eagles: Mychal Kendricks, OLB, University of California
Washington Redskins: Josh LeRibeus, OG, Southern Methodist University
Atlanta Falcons: Jonathan Massaquoi, DE, Troy University
Carolina Panthers: Josh Norman, CB, Coastal Carolina University
New Orleans Saints: Nick Toon, WR, University of Wisconsin; 6'1.5", 215 lbs. and ran a 4.43 in the 40 at his pro day.
He plays taller than any wide receiver under 6'2" that I have ever evaluated because of great arm length (32.5 inches), explosion and vertical leap (10'10" broad jump and 39" vertical).
He will never be confused with a burner in the NFL, despite his timed speed—he simply does not play that fast. But Toon was my favorite of the mid-round big receivers because I saw a player on film that excels at what he is.
He runs good, crisp intermediate routes, has a feel for coverage-reading on crossing routes, displays quality receiving skills (including how to use his thick frame to shield) and rarely wastes time getting upfield with the ball in his hands.
When he moves into his prime and it is all said and done, I think he is going to be a guy that converts a lot of third-down and five-to-nine yards into firsts. I saw a really good rapport on the field with his Wisconsin quarterback, now-Seattle Seahawk, Russell Wilson. I expect that he will develop similarly with Brees early in his pro career.
Something that will aid Toon in getting on the field and posting surprising numbers as a rookie, in my opinion, is the ability to work from all alignments in the receiving corps. He possesses the size, route-running and explosion to succeed outside.
And from the slot, he will present a matchup issue because of his size, but is also tough and reliable enough to produce in those confined spaces.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lavonte David, OLB, University of Nebraska
Arizona Cardinals: Jamell Fleming, CB, University of Oklahoma
St. Louis Rams: Trumaine Johnson, DB, University of Montana
San Francisco 49ers: LaMichael James, RB, University of Oregon; 5'8", 195 lbs. and ran a 4.41 in the 40.
James may also be somewhat of an upset name on this list due to his limited role projection and the very crowded 49er backfield that includes veteran feature Frank Gore, emerging second-year man Kendall Hunter and free-agent signee Brandon Jacobs.
Most evaluators have James pegged as simply too small to ever be a consistent 15- to 20-touch back in the NFL, and this may be a prudent assessment. I have him on this list because I think head coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke took this guy in the draft with a specific, committed plan in mind.
The knock on San Francisco throughout, and following, a tour-de-force 2011 return to NFL prominence was that it lacked an explosive element on offense other than Vernon Davis.
While Gore, Hunter and Jacobs split carries depending on the trio's health, game situation and the proverbial hot hand, I think James will average 10 planned offensive touches a week plus contributions in the return game. The idea being that he has the traits, including the conviction and sneaky power inside, to be the next Darren Sproles.
Seattle Seahawks: Russell Wilson, QB, University of Wisconsin