With training camps opened across the NFL this week, teams can finally start working on a clean slate for the upcoming season. No matter how last year finished, each team can start anew with a sense of optimism for 2012.
Of course, the 2012 class of rookies will enter the NFL with a clean slate from the start and will be looking to prove themselves early in team drills. Some will try to back up their lofty draft status; even more will want to prove that 31 other teams missed out when they passed them up.
Rookies especially create a lot of buzz around this time of year, with debates raging on who will succeed and who will flop. Even with this level of scrutiny, every year brings a number of rookies that shock the league in their inaugural campaign. Cam Newton may have been the No. 1 pick overall last year, but very few foresaw the record-breaking season he had right out of the gates.
Here, we'll look at seven rookies from this year's class that could surprise with their performances in 2012.
(Note: Any stats used in this article were derived from ESPN.com)
Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has faced a much more uncertain status as compared to his fellow first round quarterbacks. According to Sporting News, Tannehill will likely start the season as the third QB on the depth chart, behind veterans Matt Moore and David Garrard.
I honestly believe that the Dolphins are cautious not to rush Tannehill, who was considered a relatively raw prospect coming out of Texas A&M. After all, the eighth overall pick spent more than half of his college career as a wide receiver, starting only 20 games at quarterback over two seasons.
Also, incumbent starter Matt Moore actually turned in a fairly good season last year after a slow start, finishing with 16 touchdowns against only nine interceptions. The Dolphins also went 6-3 down the stretch last season with Moore at the helm, which should earn him the first chance at the starting job.
If Moore continues to play well, there would be no reason to throw Tannehill into the fire. With the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets fairly uncertain this season after rough ends to 2011, the Dolphins may not be out of it early enough to throw in the towel either. Don't expect the Dolphins to win the division in 2012, but don't consider them pushovers either.
Overall, Tannehill has a lot of potential but is also very inexperienced and facing an uphill battle to win the starting job. If the Dolphins are smart, they will save their quarterback of the future for exactly that: the future.
It has been widely assumed that Andrew Luck (Colts), Robert Griffin III (Redskins) and Brandon Weeden (Browns) will be the Week 1 starters for their respective franchises. So, if Tannehill does not see the field in 2012, which other rookie quarterbacks could get chances to start?
The most likely candidate is Seattle's Russell Wilson, who was a third-round selection. Wilson will be competing with underachieving Tarvaris Jackson and unproven Matt Flynn to win the starting job.
It would be a major upset if Wilson wins the job out of training camp, but if Seattle struggles early or is looking for an offensive spark down the stretch, Wilson could certainly get a chance to prove his worth.
Other dark-horse candidates would require a significant injury to occur. In Philadelphia, Michael Vick's injury history is well documented, and neither Trent Edwards nor Mike Kafka inspire much faith to take over. Should the worst occur, third-round pick Nick Foles could get a late-season chance.
In Denver, Peyton Manning's neck still presents a concern as well, and Caleb Hanie was run out of Chicago for his performance when Jay Cutler went down last season. Second-round pick Brock Osweiler could see some action in this scenario.
Injury concerns are obviously high on speculation, but I'd give Wilson a legitimate chance to start. If Matt Flynn isn't getting it done and the Seahawks are still in it, they may just have to pull out all the stops.
Terrell Suggs is still optimistic that he will be able to play this season, but a torn Achilles needs significant time to heal. This leaves a big void for the Baltimore Ravens' pass rush, considering that Suggs led the team with 14 sacks last season.
Enter second-round pick Courtney Upshaw, a linebacker from Alabama. Early reports from training camp put Upshaw on the non-football Injury list, but Upshaw has since clarified those reports. According to The Baltimore Sun, Upshaw failed the team's conditioning test his first time through but proceeded to go out and pass it later that same day.
By the time camp ends, Upshaw should be back in prime physical condition. He will have to compete for reps with veteran LB Paul Kruger, but I expect Upshaw to play with a chip on his shoulder this season.
After posting 9.5 sacks and leading Alabama to the national championship last season, Upshaw surprised many by slipping to the second round in April's draft. Presented with a prime opportunity in Suggs' absence, Upshaw also has plenty of pieces in place around him in Baltimore's defense.
Should his conditioning issues be as minor as they seem on the surface, Upshaw could prove a lot of teams wrong by putting up a big season while filling in for an All-Pro.
I don't think the Cleveland Browns' struggles last season were because of Colt McCoy's play at quarterback. But I do believe that Brandon Weeden will prove himself worthy of his selection as the 22nd overall pick.
Despite their 4-12 record last year, the Browns finished 10th in the NFL in total defense. The team also lost six games by only seven points or fewer, including all of their final three games. This is not to say that the team will turn around overnight, but it does show they may not be as far away as many people think.
While the receiving core is not much improved, Weeden will get a big boost from fellow first-round pick Trent Richardson, the running back out of Alabama. The Browns finished 30th in the NFL in rushing last year, a number that Richardson should definitely help improve upon.
Much was made of Weeden's age in the lead up to the draft, and at 28 years old, he was the oldest first-round pick in history. However, Weeden's age could play to his advantage in his rookie year. His leadership and professionalism should help his case with a fairly young offense, and especially with his wideouts.
Given the team around him and the tough AFC North, Weeden most likely will not post a Rookie of the Year season. But I do think the Browns will improve with Weeden under center, and that will quell the criticism around his age, at least while the Browns continue to build the rest of their offense.
Though nine wide receivers were selected in the first two rounds, the Indianapolis Colts were the only team to draft a tight end in that span, choosing Coby Fleener with the second choice of Round 2. This also reunited the former Stanford star with quarterback Andrew Luck, the No. 1 overall pick.
In his last year at Stanford, 10 of Fleener's 34 receptions went for touchdowns, all with Luck as his quarterback. Keeping the duo together could pay dividends for Fleener, as Luck will need a security blanket early in his career.
Though Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie still provide viable options at receiver, Pierre Garçon left for Washington in free agency.
This leaves the rest of the receiving core with plenty of unproven depth, with Fleener most likely to start at tight end. Luck's familiarity with Fleener should make him his top target as he establishes a better connection with Wayne and Collie.
Although, even as Luck gets more comfortable with his other options, it's safe to say that the 6'6" Fleener will still get his fair share of opportunities in the red zone. On a team that will probably be playing from behind a good amount, this should translate to big numbers in 2012.
There is no denying that Steven Jackson is the main man in St. Louis, but age and injuries have started to wear on him. If the Rams hope to get the most out of Jackson for the remainder of his career, they should begin looking into ways to lower the 29-year-old's workload.
It's also reasonable to believe that they understand this line of thought, or they would not have drafted running back Isaiah Pead in the second round. The former Cincinnati standout should be able to contribute right away, if used in the proper role.
New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer utilized multiple running backs in his last stop with the New York Jets, and Pead allows a lot of flexibility. His NFL.com combine player profile cites his overall speed and ability to catch out of the backfield, which could help give Jackson a breather in multiple areas.
As long as Jackson is healthy, he will command the lion's share of the carries, but don't be surprised if any nagging injury creates an opportunity for Pead to shine. The Rams' offense will need a good season from Jackson to improve on last year's 2-14 record, and the best way to do that is to keep him fresh throughout the season.
Pead may not get the type of split in touches that LaDainian Tomlinson did the past few years in New York, but he will get enough touches to make some noise. Of course, should Jackson miss any action with a significant injury, Pead will be a name to watch for in 2012.
The NFC East has been notoriously tough in recent years, and last year saw yet another close finish. The Super Bowl Champion New York Giants won the division at 9-7, with the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles falling just short in at 8-8.
The Washington Redskins, however, finished last with a 5-11 record, leading them to trade up to select Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III with the second overall pick. The Heisman winner turned heads in college with a spectacularly athletic dual-threat style, and he will need that playmaking ability to turn the Redskins around.
The 'Skins had a pretty good defense last year overall and added a few weapons on offense with wide receivers Pierre Garçon and Josh Morgan. If Griffin can adjust quickly, there is enough talent to be relatively competitive this year.
The defending Super Bowl champions will get the benefit of the doubt in this article, and the Eagles also seemed to put it together by the end of the season, winning their last four games. The Eagles could always be undone by an injury to quarterback Michael Vick, but I think the most vulnerable team in the division is the Dallas Cowboys.
If Dez Bryant's offseason issues cause any distractions, the team would be fairly thin at receiver.
In addition, the team came up short once again last season with a chance to go to the playoffs. You have to wonder if that was a sign of things to come. The Cowboys are obviously talented, but sometimes the pieces don't come together quite the way they should.
I think Griffin's unique style of play will translate well in Mike Shanahan's offense, and I do believe the Redskins will make a big jump this year. But no matter which team they end up jumping over, look for the Redskins to escape the NFC East cellar this season behind a great effort from their new face of the franchise.