Aldon Smith's 14 sacks fell one-half shy of Jevon Kearse's 1998 rookie record.
For draftniks and fans that hold a special place in their hearts for the NFL draft, the ensuing preseason and National Football League campaign is always an exhibition of sorts. It can be humbling and educational as the reality of a favorite college player or prospect is riddled with the adversity that often comes in the first year.
The opposite can also materialize when a guy that you followed closely in college or believed in strongly during the evaluation process makes good on his potential, either forcing his way into a significant role or capitalizing on an early opportunity that arises. Either way, those readers, fans and analysts who make rookies and the draft their business always bring a keen interest to each succeeding NFL season.
Some recent rookies that have amazed us with their first-year production include Aldon Smith who, after going seventh overall in 2011 out of the University of Missouri, nearly eclipsed Jevon Kearse's fairly long-standing rookie sack record. Staying in 2011, Cam Newton's performance has to be considered a coup despite the fact that he went No. 1 overall.
All he did was prove doubters wrong, yours truly included, about his passing aptitude whilst breaking the rookie marks for passing yards in a game and a season along with the all-time standard for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback.
It was only a year earlier too in 2010 when we witnessed Sam Bradford establish rookie bests for passing attempts, completions and consecutive passes without an interception. Indeed, I think that most people in the industry, both on the football operations and media sides of the aisle, would agree that we are in the midst of an era of rookie prowess.
There are simply more players each year that are arriving to the National Football League armed with higher readiness levels physically, mentally and professionally; the latter point speaking to work ethic, commitment to preparedness and consistency.
This slideshow highlights 10 rookies in 2012 that I believe will make a heavy mark with their playing time and productivity. Some are relative household names but a few predictions may surprise some readers.
Mark Barron, strong safety, University of Alabama, 1st round—7th overall, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Barron walks directly into a starting role opposite the newly relocated Ronde Barber and becomes part of a defensive unit that could be one of the most improved in the league this year. Along with the perceived upgrades at both safety spots, Aqib Talib somehow pulled a Houdini act and was cleared of the criminal charges that were dogging him the past year (h/t Michael David Smith, ProFootballTalk).
These projections combine with another rookie stud, about whom you will reading more in the next slide, at weak-side linebacker and another year of experience and/or a return to health for Mason Foster at middle linebacker and Adrian Clayborn, Brian Price and Gerald McCoy upfront.
Given Barron's skill set as a tackler, coverage player and his overall aggressiveness, look for him to post in the neighborhood of 75 to 80 tackles accompanied by crooked numbers in forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, interceptions and pass deflections.
Lavonte David, weak-side linebacker, University of Nebraska, 2nd round—58th overall, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
David is another component, unnamed in the previous slide that featured Mark Barron, to the 2012 Tampa Bay defense that should key its resurgence. And with apologies to Barron, David is on my preseason short list for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Please note this is less a conviction of Barron and meant more as a compliment to David. The last defensive back to win DROY was Charles Woodson in 1998 and he represents the only one in 20 years since Dale Carter got the nod in 1992. No safety has taken home the honor since Erik McMillan (1988) and Mark Carrier (1990) did so when I was still wearing sweat pants to school every day.
Faithful readers of my work know that David was one of the prospects I felt most positively strong about throughout the draft process. I expect him to become a local fan favorite here in Tampa (where I also happen to reside) within a few games (possibly even during the preseason) before going on to national notoriety later in the year for NFL fans that do not follow college and/or the draft closely.
Based on David's expected role in the Bucs defense and his strengths for flying to the ball, beating blocks in space and being a sure tackler, reaching and surpassing triple digits in combined stops is not out of the question. He is also one of the better coverage linebackers from this class and is a candidate to provide crooked numbers in both fumble categories, picks, pass deflections, as well as sacks based on some blitz results along with his range and proximity to the line of scrimmage.
Coby Fleener, tight end, Stanford University, 2nd round—34th overall, Indianapolis Colts
Fleener is blessed with extraordinary measureables for the position as a receiving threat: 6'6", 250 lbs., 4.51 40-yard dash time and a 37-inch vertical leap at his pro day back on March 22 (h/t nfldraftscout.com). All of this and he is also extremely athletic with quality receiving skills and a good feel for getting open in space.
There should not be a particularly long learning curve for Fleener in the Colts passing game, enabling him to make good early and often on what could be close to 100 targets as a rookie. He offers the ability to get open and make plays deep down the field, turn short receptions into big plays with his threat after the catch and be a trusted outlet underneath due to his catch radius and rapport with the quarterback.
Rookie tight-end receiving records include: 81 receptions (Keith Jackson, 1988), 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns (Mike Ditka, 1961). All three are lofty marks, but the intersection of Fleener's talent and the situational factors with the Colts' 2012 offense make any one of them potentially attainable.
Robert Griffin III, quarterback, Baylor University, 1st round—2nd overall, Washington Redskins
Even though Griffin measured in taller, heavier and stronger than some pessimists predicted based on his body type and how he looks on film, it cannot be disputed that he is on the smaller side for an NFL quarterback. And what may be of greater relevance is that he is not broad and appears to lack bulk. His strength is almost sinewy. Can he hold up for 16 games, or even 12 or 14, of NFL punishment and maintain a high level of efficiency and big plays?
Of course his sleek build and lack of bulk are also partly what allow him to be so nimble, quick and explosive, both in the pocket before unleashing a missile from his right arm or making a gain downfield with his legs. And expect Mike Shanahan to be gearing the onus of the 2012 playbook around Griffin's ability to both throw, move around the pocket, throw deep and run for yardage. As Griffin gains comfort with the playbook and system overall of his new boss, the sky seems to be virtually the limit.
Like any of these predictions that assume relatively good or excellent health for the majority of the season, look for Griffin to be the top fantasy rookie quarterback and possibly a top-12 or -15 guy overall. While predicting statistics at the level of Cam Newton a year ago is irresponsible, it seems the Redskins will be aggressive right away with their new biggest weapon.
There will be games where he throws for 300-plus yards with three to five touchdowns and multiple interceptions in contrast to others that will see him rush for upward of 50 or 75 yards and a score and probably several in between where the numbers are more modest but the performances are tidier.
Andrew Luck, quarterback, Stanford University, 1st round—1st overall, Indianapolis Colts
The other quarterback included in this slideshow, following the just previous Robert Griffin III, Luck is also going to surprise a lot of people, in general, with how well he plays and the quality of production he will provide as a rookie.
He simply plays the position, the actual craft and art of quarterbacking, already at such a high level, the best I have ever seen from a player entering his rookie year. Likewise he is beginning his NFL career more prepared than any other quarterback in the last generation; and that includes Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Sam Bradford, Matt Ryan, etc.
Where does this come from? There is no singular answer. He is the son of a former NFL quarterback (Oliver Luck) and was around the game earlier and afforded more insights than most during his formative development. The junior Luck also benefits from outstanding footwork and mechanics that he is able to repeat almost robotically. This allows him to throw a more consistently accurate and catchable ball more of the time than all of his collegiate peers and many of his new professional ones.
But something that should not be overlooked or ever underplayed when assessing Luck is that he is also extremely talented and physically gifted. He just happens to combine that natural ability with the drive, work ethic, intangibles and cerebral play akin to a nerdy Boy Scout that was always picked last for kickball. No, he does not possess elite arm strength but he has ideal size, strength and movement skills for the position.
Luck is going to be a lot more effective in 2012, in terms of passer rating, completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdowns:interceptions than a lot of people think. He may not have the supporting cast to challenge Big Ben's rookie passer rating record (98.1, 2004) but the Colts will trail a lot and be throwing plenty. Four thousand yards and 25 touchdowns does not seem unreasonable and he will provide a significant contribution on the ground with a few hundred rushing yards and some scores.
Doug Martin, running back, Boise State University, 1st round—31st overall, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Martin is the third Buc to make this list, and there are only 10 slides, so if I turn out to be somewhat correct, either right away about their success in 2012 or at least early in their careers, readers will understand why Tampa Bay's 2012 draft was so positively reviewed.
By an evaluation consensus, Martin was just a shade or a tick behind the other rookie running back that everyone is anticipating so much in 2012 in terms of a complete skill set and projected NFL-readiness from the get-go. Beyond rush productivity, this refers to his reliability, feel and hands out of the backfield and technique, willingness and toughness as a blocker in pass protection.
New head coach Greg Schiano has been somewhat coy to this point about simply giving the keys to Tampa Bay's backfield to the rookie Martin (h/t pewterreport.com). The ultimate outcome notwithstanding, this may be the right approach in terms of managing expectations and egos for both the rookie and incumbent feature back LeGarrette Blount.
But Martin was drafted in the late first round with his superior skill set to Blount in mind, as the latter does not offer much beyond good quality running ability. He provides almost nothing on obvious passing downs and has struggled with fumbles too during his two-year NFL career. It is also not difficult to imagine that Schiano wants to re-create his version of Ray Rice, over whom he presided at the college level at Rutgers University, a comparison to whom Martin has carried for some time now.
With this in mind, if Martin is able to stay healthy and avoid any rookie doghouse banishments, he is certainly a candidate to challenge 1,500 yards from scrimmage, double-digit touchdowns and routinely see 25 touches per game.
Nick Perry, outside linebacker, University of Southern California, 1st round—28th overall, Green Bay Packers
Full disclosure: I was higher on Whitney Mercilus throughout the pre-draft process and am still very excited about his long-term fit and chances for success as part of Wade Phillips' defensive juggernaut in Houston. But Perry landed in an ideal and less-cluttered situation up in Lambeau.
While Mercilus' development will occur behind Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed, while he transitions to NFL 3-4 outside linebacker, Perry—who played more in space than Mercilus as a collegian and has arguably better movement skills in space—will just pin his ears back and go after the quarterback while learning the other finer points of linebacking.
Trusted Twitter draftnik mate, and a member of Draft-Hub, Jeremy Hyde offered this assessment of Perry during the draft process and likes him to lead all NFL rookies in sacks in 2012 en route to garnering Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Further to the point about Perry's chances for rookie success, and relevant to my inclusion of him on this slideshow, is that it certainly will not hurt that his bracket partner in pass rush is Clay Matthews, Jr. It will be difficult, and probably very rare, for opposing schemes to double-team both perimeter rushers on the same play.
If Perry can consistently win his individual matchups, especially early in the season, he could indeed enjoy a big year of pressure productivity.
Trent Richardson, running back, University of Alabama, 1st round—3rd overall, Cleveland Browns
The most highly regarded running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, Richardson can be compared to one of those flawless diamonds in the jewelry business. He had no perceived weakness in his game despite less-than-elite top-end speed and understandable relative inexperience in pass blocking.
Richardson is ideally built with a low, powerful structure and center of gravity, elite ball skills, along with quality vision and instincts that allow him to succeed between the tackles and bouncing runs to the outside.
He projects to continue to be difficult for the first man to bring down by himself, is viable already in the passing game and, thanks to Mark Ingram before him, enters the NFL with less wear and tear than would be expected of an otherwise elite prospect at his position.
In going to a vapid offensive situation in Cleveland, one that may get worse before it improves if rookie Brandon Weeden is the starter in Week 1 as currently expected, Richardson will enjoy opportunity and obstacle in his quest for rookie statistical success.
On the one hand, if the Browns can sustain drives, stay on the field and compete in games consistently into the third and fourth quarters, Richardson is a candidate to break the rookie standards for rushing attempts and touches. This is based on me figuring between 25 and 30 totes a game, sometimes more if Cleveland is actually protecting a late lead.
Conversely, if Cleveland is constantly falling behind and having to press the field vertically with more regularity, even though Richardson will likely remain in the game, his touches would naturally decline. The other threat to Richardson's aggregate success in 2012 is if teams decide to constantly stack the box and force whichever Browns quarterback to beat them through the air.
Either way, look for Richardson to soar past 1,000 rushing yards this year along with 40 to 50 catches. If Cleveland's line play and/or quarterback can succeed more than it fails too, his final regular-season totals could be some of the most impressive ever from a rookie running back.
Courtney Upshaw, outside linebacker, University of Alabama, 2nd round—35th overall, Baltimore Ravens
I have been fairly outspoken over the past eight months about how much I think of Upshaw as a football player and his projection to the NFL. I watched with relative horror and disdain as the NFL scouting community, and to a degree some of the draftniks, marginalized his stock out of the first round.
The ammunition, err fodder, were references to his weight, timed explosion and how he performed in shorts during drills at the combine.
Cases like this occur every single year in the industry despite the fact that they occur every year in the industry. When specialized elements of the game and scouting pillars, such as rushing the quarterback and speed, get misconstrued into a football player like Bruce Irvin being taken higher than one like Courtney Upshaw, the reaction can understandably be one of simultaneous tears and laughter.
The game of football, particularly along the defensive front seven, is still about elements like power, physicality, assignment consistency and football intelligence. Upshaw is an A-student in these areas and also brings the versatility to be an outstanding defender in multiple schemes and versus so many types of plays.
There certainly are not 34 football players from the 2012 draft class that are superior to Courtney Upshaw and I wonder if, 10 years from now, there will even be 10 or 12. Back in March I predicted a 10-year career for Upshaw with outstanding career production.
He may have started over Paul Kruger had the injury to Terrell Suggs not occurred, but now with the full expectation of playing every snap from the start, Upshaw has a great chance to be a DROY finalist. I think he can register between 75 and 100 tackles, five and eight sacks and make half a dozen plays on the ball between deflections, interceptions and in the two fumble categories.
Kendall Wright, wide receiver, Baylor University, 1st round—20th overall, Tennessee Titans
Even before the recent arrest and pending suspension of Titans' nominal No. 1 WR, Kenny Britt (h/t Will Brinson, CSBSports.com), Wright would have been an arguable candidate for this list; recent news within the Tennessee receiving corps simply assured him of inclusion.
Wright went from an upstart possibility to usurp more traditional favorites Justin Blackmon and Michael Floyd as the first receiver drafted to an undeserved potential faller. Ultimately he was selected 20th overall by the Titans, which I have no qualms with based on what I think is a fair overall understanding of his prospects.
From a personal philosophical standpoint, I am not a proponent of taking offensive skill like backs and receivers in the first round. This proclivity does not preclude certain players however, Wright being one of them in 2012, from deserving this grade and ultimate place in draft history.
Detractors of Wright pointed out his below-average size (5'10", 195 lbs.) and then came a flap of a high body-fat percentage (16 percent) on the heels of him turning in a 4.61 40-time at the combine (h/t Michael David Smith, ProFootballTalk). The body-fat figure turned out to be inaccurate, about twice his actual percentage, and the slow 40-time was a case of poor form when Wright dropped his thrust hand as his first movement.
Wright later shaved two-tenths of a second of his time at his pro day trials, which is much more in line with how fast he looks and plays on film. Wright's movement skills also play up on a football field because he is extremely quick, agile and runs great routes, which facilitates outstanding separation from coverage.
He should see some additional early targets with Britt's expected suspension, but he might actually become a more dangerous player upon the oft-troubled talent's return because it will force opposing teams to deal with both of them.