An impressive 2011 NFL rookie class sent five players to the Pro Bowl.
Those five players—Carolina Panthers quarterback Cameron Newton, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green, Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller and Arizona Cardinals cornerback/kick returner Patrick Peterson—all have the potential to be NFL stars for many years to come.
Five rookie Pro Bowlers is an unusually high number, and is unlikely to be matched in this year’s edition of the game, which will be played Jan. 27, 2013 in Honolulu, Hawaii.
With that in mind, the following five NFL rookies have the best chance of following in the footsteps of Newton, Dalton, Green, Miller and Peterson this season.
If I were to project the entire rosters for the 2013 Pro Bowls, there is only one rookie who would actually make my projection.
That rookie is Minnesota Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil, the No. 4 overall pick of the 2012 NFL draft. He has the potential to be one of the NFL’s best at his position right away.
Kalil is a complete all-around left tackle, who has both tremendous feet as a pass blocker and can be a dominant lead blocker in the rushing offense.
Kalil has as much natural ability as any left tackle in the NFL. He will compete right away with the best offensive linemen in the NFC for a Pro Bowl spot, including: Joe Staley of the San Francisco 49ers, Jermon Bushrod of the New Orleans Saints and Doug Free of the Dallas Cowboys.
Kalil has the potential to be a top-five NFL tackle as a rookie, and has a good chance to finish his first season in Hawaii.
More than any other position, running backs are expected to contribute right away as rookies for two reasons.
First, their position enables for an easier transition than other positions from college to the NFL, and second, running backs typically have shorter career spans than other positions.
One rookie running back who will be an immediate impact player next season is Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson—the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
Richardson is a tremendously talented running back with the combination of size, power, and speed to become one of the NFL’s most dynamic runners.
Even with all the hits he took, Richardson was a very durable back at Alabama. If that continues to be the case over the course of his rookie season, he could run for upwards of 1,200 yards.
Richardson will have stiff competition among AFC running backs, including Arian Foster of the Houston Texans, Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens and Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs.
He has the talent, however, to come in as a rookie and make enough impact to be a Pro Bowl player.
Matt Kalil is not the only NFL-ready offensive lineman who could make a run at the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Another potential Pro Bowler is Pittsburgh Steelers guard David DeCastro, the No. 24 overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft. He is a polished player who should be ready to step in and be an immediate upgrade at right guard.
While Alan Faneca played on the left side of the line, DeCastro has the talent to emulate the level of greatness that Faneca once had for the Steelers, which took him to nine consecutive Pro Bowls from 2001-2009.
For DeCastro to be the next Steelers’ Pro Bowl guard in his rookie season could be a stretch, but it is a legitimate possibility.
As a complete guard with dominant run-blocking power, he should be one of the NFL’s top guards within his first few seasons, and will provide competition for the AFC’s top guards including Logan Mankins of the New England Patriots and Marshal Yanda of the Baltimore Ravens.
If Patrick Peterson could make the Pro Bowl as a rookie, then so could his former teammate and fellow LSU starting cornerback, Morris Claiborne.
Peterson made the Pro Bowl as a kick returner, not as a cornerback, but Claiborne, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft by the Dallas Cowboys, has the talent to make the Pro Bowl at his defensive position.
Claiborne is also capable of being a Pro Bowl kick returner, but according to Todd Archer of ESPNDallas.com, the Cowboys’ kick returners this season will be Dez Bryant and Felix Jones.
As a cornerback, however, Claiborne is a polished man-to-man cover corner with the ability to man up against and shut down No. 1 receivers even in his rookie season.
Claiborne is an instinctive playmaker with natural ball skills, and he will draw Pro Bowl attention for his ability to make big defensive stops and also turn big plays.
Claiborne will need to have a tremendous rookie campaign to earn a Pro Bowl spot in a conference full of star cornerbacks, including Nnamdi Asomugha of the Philadelphia Eagles, Carlos Rogers of the San Francisco 49ers, Charles Woodson of the Green Bay Packers, and Charles Tillman of the Chicago Bears.
Given his all-around ability, however, he has a chance.
It is very rare for a rookie selected outside the first round to make the Pro Bowl in his first NFL season.
Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, the No. 37 overall selection in the 2012 NFL draft, is a real long shot to be a rookie Pro Bowler, but as a sleeper pick among rookies to go to Hawaii, he makes sense.
Baltimore’s star outside linebacker and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Terrell Suggs, is likely to be out most, if not all of the 2012 NFL season due to a torn Achilles.
Additionally, the Ravens’ second starting outside linebacker from last season, Jarret Johnson, left for the San Diego Chargers via free agency.
That means Upshaw, as a rookie, will immediately come in as the Ravens’ top outside linebacker.
While this puts a lot of pressure on his shoulders, it also opens the window for him to immediately become the team’s top pass-rusher in their 3-4 defense.
Upshaw is a polished player, ready to step in and contribute, and has the overall skill set to emerge as a Pro Bowler himself.
Upshaw does not have an explosive burst by NFL standards, but he is a well-rounded player who will be equally effective against the run as he is bringing pressure against the quarterback.
In a conference that includes many other talented outside linebackers including Von Miller of the Denver Broncos, Cameron Wake of the Miami Dolphins, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tamba Hali of the Kansas City Chiefs, Upshaw will really have to be tremendous from the beginning to make the Pro Bowl, but he has an outside shot.
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Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.