The players of the 2012 NFL draft class have received their playbooks and gone through their crash courses of OTAs, minicamp and the NFL Rookie Symposium. They now get a slight break before NFL training camps start up for good in the next several weeks.
Then these rookies go from looking great in T-shirts and shorts to seeing what they are made of in pads, going up against the wily veterans and practicing in heat that will leave some of them passing out from dehydration.
We are looking to project who will make the NFL All-Rookie Team in 2012. No matter who we predict, you know full well that there will wind up being a few surprises. One of the high draft picks will invariably get hurt, and his rookie season will be a wash. Another late-round draft pick will suddenly have an opportunity to play due to an injury to a veteran and will seize his opportunity and run with it.
We will predict all 11 offensive starters and the 11 defensive starters to make up the 2012 All-Rookie Team. If you think you are aware of somebody that deserves to be on this list, by all means, make your case and share your opinion in the comments section.
Top Candidates: Andrew Luck (Indianapolis), Robert Griffin III (Washington), Ryan Tannehill (Miami), Brandon Weeden (Cleveland) and Russell Wilson (Seattle)
You have to play in enough games or see enough action to truly be considered for the All-Rookie team. That right away should eliminate Tannehill from consideration, as the Dolphins want him to do more watching than playing as a rookie.
Of the four remaining candidates, any one of them has the chance to come in and make some degree of an impact with his team.
For me, this decision comes down to the talent and skill set of each quarterback, combined with the assets of the offense that he will be asked to lead.
Cleveland and Seattle have not been able to mount a serious passing offense, and we have no way to know for sure that Wilson will truly see enough snaps as a rookie to be considered.
The Browns might have just upgraded their passing attack with the supplemental draft pick of Josh Gordon, but since we are talking about a receiver that last played in a game roughly 18 months ago, there is a certain rust factor there.
That brings us down to Luck and Griffin. I could easily make a case for either one, but in looking at the supporting cast of talent around each quarterback, I would have to go with Griffin over Luck.
My Prediction for All-Rookie Quarterback: Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins)
Doug Martin should get a steady diet of carries this year.
Top Candidates: Trent Richardson (Cleveland), Doug Martin (Tampa Bay), David Wilson (New York Giants), Isaiah Pead (St. Louis), LaMichael James (San Francisco), Ronnie Hillman (Denver), Chris Rainey (Pittsburgh) and Lamar Miller (Miami)
First of all, my dark-horse candidate here is Chris Rainey. If Isaac Redman gets hurt in training camp, then Rainey could be the player that gets a great chance to shine until Rashard Mendenhall gets medical clearance to play. Rainey could explode just like DeMarco Murray did in Dallas last season.
We all know that the Cleveland Browns will be feeding the ball regularly to Trent Richardson, and based on his skills and power, it would be an upset if he doesn't qualify for one of the All-Rookie slots at RB.
That leaves the rest of the draft class at RB for the second slot. It will be a very crowded backfield in San Francisco, so limited touches for James rule him out. Doug Martin figures to be the featured back in Tampa Bay, so I like his chances to shine. David Wilson will be sitting behind Ahmad Bradshaw in New York. Similar deal for Pead, as he sits behind Steven Jackson. Finally, Hillman has Willis McGahee ahead of him.
It looks like the top two picks, Richardson and Martin, have the best chance to get regular carries, and the more rushes, the greater the odds that they will produce with the strong opportunities being provided to them.
Don't forget my dark-horse pick of Rainey, though.
My Prediction for All-Rookie Running Backs (two total): Trent Richardson (Cleveland Browns) and Doug Martin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Kendall Wright has looked very good so far.
Top Candidates: Justin Blackmon (Jacksonville), Michael Floyd (Arizona), Kendall Wright (Tennessee), A.J. Jenkins (San Francisco), Brian Quick (St. Louis), Stephen Hill (New York Jets), Alshon Jeffery (Chicago), T.J. Graham (Buffalo) and Josh Gordon (Cleveland)
He just burst onto the scene in the past week, but the Cleveland Browns' second-round supplemental pick of Josh Gordon is worth examining. He will have plenty of opportunity to shine in Cleveland, as there isn't much there for him to beat out.
The timing of his joining the team will almost be like what the rookies from the draft class of 2011 experienced with the lockout, but not that bad. Gordon will have a serious chance to shine this year, but as we cited earlier, he has 18 months of rust to fight off.
This group has had some shaky moments already, and we haven't even started training camp yet. Blackmon had his DUI arrest, Jenkins has been a disappointment so far in minicamp and Floyd missed three straight workouts, so Larry Fitzgerald had to call him out on it:
Regarding Jenkins, this story from Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.com suggests that Jenkins will be showing up a bunch on the 49ers' inactive list in 2012. Not a good sign for the rookie at all.
I considered Blackmon strongly, but then I thought about Blaine Gabbert trying to throw him the ball, so I passed on that option. Chicago and Buffalo have a number of options now to throw the ball to, so that eliminates Jeffery and Graham, respectively.
My picks are coming down to Kendall Wright, Brian Quick and Stephen Hill.
Wright has been impressive so far in minicamp, and he was a big producer in college. I know the Jets will go to ground and pound, but I think when they decide to throw the ball, Hill will come up with a very high yards-per-catch average. He displayed very strong skills at the combine.
I could have easily gone with Quick as well, but as Bryan Burwell points out, Quick has some issues with his playbook.
My Prediction for All-Rookie Wide Receivers (two total): Kendall Wright (Tennessee Titans) and Stephen Hill (New York Jets)
Top Candidates: Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen (Indianapolis) and Michael Egnew (Miami)
The 2012 NFL draft class wasn't supposed to be loaded with tight ends, and that was reflected in how few came off the big board during the first three rounds of the draft.
The Indianapolis Colts have a stranglehold on the All-Rookie tight end selection. You have to figure that with a depleted wide receiver corps in Indianapolis, Andrew Luck will be looking for solid options to throw the ball to, and that means that both Fleener and Allen will be getting plenty of targets in 2012.
Whichever one can demonstrate that he knows when to sit down in zone coverages and become a better target, as well as show that he has the best hands, will probably evolve to be Luck's favorite target.
With their prior history and previous established chemistry at Stanford, I would have to select Fleener as the choice for All-Rookie tight end. I don't really think it will be very close, as the two of them just know each other so well. It is inevitable that the ball comes to Fleener more often in 2012.
My Prediction for All-Rookie Tight End: Coby Fleener (Indianapolis Colts)
Matt Kalil should become an All-Rookie tackle in 2012.
Top Candidates: Matt Kalil (Minnesota), Riley Reiff (Detroit), Mitchell Schwartz (Cleveland), Cordy Glenn (Buffalo) and Jonathan Martin (Miami)
Given the high-draft-pick status, the high grades from scouts and the fact that you know the Minnesota Vikings are going to let Kalil grow into the job by playing him every game, he will have to be a shoo-in for one of the two tackle slots for the 2012 All-Rookie team.
As for the second slot, this is a tougher call. Of the remaining top four candidates listed above, we can probably eliminate Riley Reiff.
For now, it appears that the Lions are looking to break in Reiff as a swing tackle, as he was taking reps in practice with the second team. That will give Reiff exposure to both positions and will probably help Lions coaches determine his best fit. But for our purposes here, it means fewer snaps, which will probably wind up costing him a slot on the All-Rookie team.
Jake Long starts for the Miami Dolphins at left tackle, so that means Martin will have to flip over to the right side. He has to learn that position, and learn it fast, as he will be up against defensive ends like Mario Williams. We can chart his progress thanks to the future episodes of Hard Knocks.
The choice appears to either be Schwartz or Glenn. Both of them are projected to start, as they took all the snaps for the Browns and Bills respectively. This decision could go to either player, but I will opt for the player from the better conference (Glenn was SEC, while Schwartz was Pac-12), as Glenn went up against better competition.
My Prediction for All-Rookie Tackles (two total): Matt Kalil (Minnesota Vikings) and Cordy Glenn (Buffalo Bills)
We expect David DeCastro to be on the All-Rookie team.
Top Candidates: David DeCastro (Pittsburgh), Kevin Zeitler (Cincinnati), Amini Silatolu (Carolina), Josh LeRibeus (Washington), Brandon Brooks (Houston), Peter Konz (Atlanta), Gino Gradkowski (Baltimore) and Joe Looney (San Francisco)
Konz would probably have been a shoo-in at center, but Atlanta has decided he will be a guard this year. He is going to be learning a new job, and even though he will be very good, I don't see him as being on the All-Rookie team.
As for the 2012 NFL draft class, the guards boil down to three top prospects in DeCastro, Zeitler and Silatolu. All three should be considered upgrades for their teams and will be positive additions for the offenses in question.
The draft experts were going on and on about how good Silatolu was and how he was moving up the big board. Well, it turns out that he has impressed the Carolina Panthers and will become a starter from day one.
Starter from day one is also the case for Zeitler and DeCastro. The three players are basically interchangeable right now, so until they get the pads on and start banging people at training camp, it is hard to know which two will prove to be the better players.
My Prediction for All-Rookie Guards (two total): David DeCastro (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Amini Silatolu (Carolina Panthers)
Top Candidates: Peter Konz (Atlanta), Ben Jones (Houston) and Philip Blake (Denver)
The center position in this year's draft wasn't considered very deep, as evidenced by the fact that Peter Konz (Atlanta Falcons, Round 2) was the only one drafted in the first two days of the draft. Jones and Blake both went in Round 4 (picks No. 99 and 108 respectively).
Konz, the best center in the draft class, won't even be playing center this year. While the Falcons expect him to eventually take over the center job, he will be playing as a guard in his rookie season. That eliminates him from consideration for our All-Rookie center slide, so suddenly our fourth-round options are looking much better to us.
To further complicate things, the Broncos have moved Blake to a swing guard role, so he will not be playing center in the NFL in 2012 either.
So, after much careful analysis, we nominate Ben Jones as the All-Rookie center.
My Prediction for All-Rookie Center: Ben Jones (Houston Texans).
Photo from the Associated Press via KTRK-TV
Melvin Ingram looks to make an impact for San Diego.
Top Candidates: Bruce Irvin (Seattle), Quinton Coples (New York Jets), Melvin Ingram (San Diego), Shea McClellin (Chicago), Chandler Jones (New England) and Whitney Mercilus (Houston)
This story by Dan Pompei of the National Football Post regarding Seattle Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin goes into detail about how he will be a strong pass-rusher, but the rest of his game will need further work and development. As such, he is probably not well-rounded enough to make the All-Rookie team.
We won't know how questionable that motor of Quinton Coples is until we see him in some game action. He could be exactly who we thought he was, or he could possibly surprise all of us.
Ingram, McClellin, Jones and Mercilus seem more like the natural athlete types. The Chargers will be moving Ingram around on defense to exploit potential pass-rushing scenarios, so that bodes well for his ability to make an impact as a rookie.
As of now, McClellin is trying to overtake Israel Idonije at defensive end, so he might not be starting as a rookie. Chandler Jones looks to be in the right spot at the right time, as he could have a big year with the Patriots.
Mercilus won't be seeing many snaps with the defense, as he appears to be headed for more special teams play as a rookie and will be gradually integrated into the defense from there.
My Prediction for All-Rookie Defensive Ends (two total): Melvin Ingram (San Diego Chargers) and Chandler Jones (New England Patriots)
Can Michael Brockers make an impact as a rookie?
Top Candidates: Dontari Poe (Kansas City), Fletcher Cox (Philadelphia), Michael Brockers (St. Louis), Derek Wolfe (Denver), Kendall Reyes (San Diego), Devon Still (Cincinnati) and Mike Martin (Tennessee)
From the various reports we are receiving on the top defensive tackle prospect rookies, the vast majority appear to be headed for situational snap appearances in 2012 and being rotated into the action, as opposed to nailing down a starting job as a rookie like Marcell Dareus did in 2011.
Out of this group, Dontari Poe projects to probably see the most snaps, provided that his performance warrants keeping him in the lineup.
Brockers seems to have some good upside, so if he can turn his raw skills into some meaningful development, he will have a decent chance to be a standout tackle from this group.
My Prediction for All-Rookie Defensive Tackles (two total): Dontari Poe (Kansas City Chiefs) and Michael Brockers (St. Louis Rams)
Courtney Upshaw has big shoes to fill in 2012.
Top Candidates: Luke Kuechly (Carolina), Dont'a Hightower (New England), Courtney Upshaw (Baltimore), Mychal Kendricks (Philadelphia), Bobby Wagner (Seattle), Zach Brown (Tennessee), Lavonte David (Tampa Bay), Demario Davis (New York Jets) and Sean Spence (Pittsburgh)
There were a sufficient number of picks dedicated to improving some weak 2011 defensive teams in the first couple rounds of the 2012 NFL draft. Regarding the linebackers, there were a number of players with high upside who seem to be in the right place at the right time.
With all of the linebacker injuries that have been a major thorn to the Carolina Panthers defense, it has to be a welcome sight to get some new talent in there like Luke Kuechly. I expect him to shine in Carolina.
Dont'a Hightower is joining a Patriots defense that could use an infusion of new talent. He can rush the passer, play a physical game and stuff the run. He should see plenty of action and has a chance to make an impact this year.
Finally, with the injury to Terrell Suggs and the departure of Jarret Johnson, the timing was perfect for Courtney Upshaw to join the Baltimore Ravens. If he plays anywhere near what he demonstrated for years at Alabama, he should help the Ravens defense out and make it very hard to keep him off the All-Rookie team.
My Predictions for All-Rookie Linebackers (three total): Luke Kuechly (Carolina Panthers), Dont'a Hightower (New England Patriots) and Courtney Upshaw (Baltimore Ravens)
Stephon Gilmore should be starting in Buffalo in 2012.
Top Candidates: Morris Claiborne (Dallas), Stephon Gilmore (Buffalo), Dre Kirkpatrick (Cincinnati), Janoris Jenkins (St. Louis), Casey Hayward (Green Bay) and Trumaine Johnson (St. Louis)
This is a position where we could have some upsets on the All-Rookie team, as Kirkpatrick, Jenkins and Hayward all have the chance to open some eyes this year.
The start of Claiborne's rookie campaign has been anything but smooth: wrist surgery and no signed contract prior to the start of training camp. He hasn't had any reps, and the other corners in his class have jumped way ahead of him on the learning curve. Of course, if he gets medical clearance, signs his contract and shows that he is ready to roll, I reserve the right to slide him back in as my pick over Jenkins.
Gilmore appears to be everything as advertised and should be a starter as a rookie. He hopes the improved Bills pass rush will be as strong as it looks on paper, which will make his job that much easier.
We were surprised to learn that Kirkpatrick never learned how to backpedal at Alabama, where they are so good at getting players ready to play in the NFL.
The biggest gamble in this group involved Jenkins with the St. Louis Rams. They appear to be prepared to monitor Jenkins and keep him on the straight and narrow path. If that happens and he is allowed to focus on football, he could leap up and be one of the best corners of this draft class.
My Predictions for All-Rookie Cornerbacks (two total): Stephon Gilmore (Buffalo Bills) and Janoris Jenkins (St. Louis Rams)
Mark Barron will elevate the Bucs' secondary in 2012.
Top Candidates: Mark Barron (Tampa Bay), Harrison Smith (Minnesota), Tavon Wilson (New England), Brandon Taylor (San Diego), Brandon Hardin (Chicago) and Christian Thompson (Baltimore)
From this group, Barron and Smith look like the best bets for getting plenty of playing time and letting their natural talents and skills allow them to make some plays for the Bucs and Vikings respectively.
My dark-horse candidate from this group is Brandon Taylor, a player I have been impressed with ever since I watched him prepare for the draft at the combine and after observing his play at LSU.
My Prediction for All-Rookie Safeties (two total): Mark Barron (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Harrison Smith (Minnesota Vikings)
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