Projecting the Best Rookie vs. Rookie Matchups of the 2013 NFL Season

Tyson LanglandNFC West Lead WriterMay 3, 2013

Projecting the Best Rookie vs. Rookie Matchups of the 2013 NFL Season

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    Whether it was Russell Wilson against Robert Griffin III, or Andrew Luck against Ryan Tannehill, 2012 provided plenty of great one-on-one matchups all season long. Quarterbacks were obviously highlighted the most as they proved to have the most success.

    But don't kid yourself, there were plenty of good non-quarterback matchups as well. How about Chris Givens and Casey Hayward Week 7? Or Shea McClellin and Matt Kalil in Week's 12 and 14? Sure, big-name faceoffs always garner the most attention, but under-the-radar matchups can be just as exciting. 

    Let's take an early look at 10 of the best rookie versus rookie matchups in 2013.

Eric Fisher vs. Lane Johnson

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    Even though this Week 3 matchup doesn’t consist of two skill-position players, it should still provide plenty of excitement. Both Philadelphia and Kansas City have strong pass-rushers coming off the edge with the likes of Connor Barwin, Trent Cole, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston. 

    Of the four names mentioned above, Hali and Houston pose the biggest problems. Which means the No. 4 overall pick Lane Johnson will have his work cut out for him. According to Pro Football Focus, the Chiefs pass-rushing duo combined for 90 quarterback pressures last season.

    Eric Fisher, on the other hand, may fare a tad bit better. Eagles right outside linebacker Trent Cole is trying to convert from defensive end, and Connor Barwin is coming over from the Houston Texans after turning in a less-than-impressive pass-rushing performance in 2012.

    Regardless of your fandom, this game should be on your radar as a Thursday Night Football matchup. Fisher and Johnson both have the potential to become future Pro Bowlers for the next decade. It will be interesting to see how two of the draft's most hyped players handle an early season nationally televised event.

DeAndre Hopkins vs. D.J. Hayden

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    On paper, the Houston Texans and Oakland Raiders won’t excite too many people. The Texans are a far more talented team, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Yet, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a couple of key matchups that can’t be found when you analyze both teams at a deeper level.

    Aside from Arian Foster and Darren McFadden going head-to-head, a pair of first-round rookies will also be going head-to-head. In Oakland, D.J. Hayden will be manning the left half of the field, while DeAndre Hopkins will be running routes for Houston at right wide receiver.

    Depending on how the Raiders use Hayden, we could see him shadowing Hopkins for a majority of the game on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013.  This matchup will be one of the few opportunities where we will see a Day 1 wide receiver matched up against a Day 1 cornerback.

    Some would argue that Hopkins has a distinct advantage because of his size, but don’t sleep on Hayden. The 5’11’’ 191-pound corner held up quite nicely at the collegiate level against top-notch receivers. Just ask Quinton Patton.

    For the sake of a good battle, let’s hope both players come into this game free of injuries.

EJ Manuel vs. Geno Smith

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    Before April’s draft, there were few who believed Florida State’s EJ Manuel would be the first quarterback off the board. Fans and media members alike were convinced Geno Smith would be classes’ top signal-caller.

    Shoot, some analysts even believed Smith was primed to go inside the top five. As we all know, West Virginia’s finest fell to the second round, and Manuel was selected by Doug Marrone and the Buffalo Bills at No. 16 overall. 

    Based on the state of both franchises and their quarterback positions, there’s no question we will see Manuel and Smith square off against each other Week 11. To be honest, both players should have a handful of starts under their belts 11 weeks in.

    One has to think the Bills will be favored in this game. The game is in Buffalo; Manuel has more established playmakers around him and a better offensive line in front of him. Not to mention it could be argued that Mike Pettine’s defense is more talented than Rex Ryan’s.

    No matter what, the AFC East always seems to give us a tightly contested game late in the year.

Ziggy Ansah vs. Jarvis Jones

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    This Week 11 matchup between the Detroit Lions and the Pittsburgh Steelers will showcase two rookie first-round pass-rushers. Ziggy Ansah and Jarvis Jones both ended up being top-20 picks on Day 1 of the 2013 NFL draft, but for different reasons.

    Ansah was solely drafted on his athleticism and upside. While at BYU, he made nine starts in three years, he played just about every pass-rushing position in the 3-4, and he amassed 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 quarterback sacks. Not exactly eye-opening numbers by any stretch of the imagination. 

    On the other hand, Jones is viewed as a more complete player who is very close to reaching his potential. This makes sense based on the fact he had such a productive collegiate career. During his junior and senior seasons at Georgia he registered 45.5 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks and forced seven fumbles.

    The Steelers don’t shy away from the fact that they like to draft productive college players.

    When Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, rolls around, who will walk away as the more productive pass-rusher? Will it be the productive 3-4 outside linebacker, or will it be the 4-3 defensive end who possesses monster upside?

Eric Reid vs. Kenny Vaccaro

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    Leading up to the draft it was all but a forgone conclusion that the San Francisco 49ers would draft safety help. No one really believed that the starters going into next season would be Donte Whitner and Craig Dahl.

    Dahl is a nice addition from a knowledge and special teams standpoint, but beyond that he's a liability when he's on the field. Which is exactly why the 49ers gave up an additional third-rounder to swap draft positions with the Cowboys in the first round.

    After Kenny Vaccaro went off the board at No. 14, San Francisco didn't want to miss out on the second-best safety in the class. Eric Reid plays a similar style of football to former 49ers safety Dashon Goldson, so the pick was an absolute no-brainer. 

    Reid and Vaccaro will square off against each other Week 11 at the Superdome. Based on the overall talent of both defenses, one could easily predict that Reid will have a better game come November. That doesn't mean he is a better player at this point, it just means he has a better supporting cast. 

    Not to mention the fact Vic Fangio is one of the best defensive coaches around. More often than not Fangio does a great job of putting his players into a position to succeed. 

Dion Jordan vs. Barkevious Mingo

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    It's hard to argue the fact that Dion Jordan and Barkevious Mingo were the two best pass-rushers in this year's draft. Both players had ultra-productive collegiate careers, and both players were drafted inside the top 10. 

    Over the course of his three-year stay at LSU, Mingo notched 119 total tackles, 29 tackles for loss and 15 quarterback sacks. Jordan, on the other hand, garnered 121 total tackles, 29 tackles for loss and 14.5 quarterback sacks in four years at Oregon.

    As you can see, Mingo and Jordan turned in near-identical numbers, making it impossible to figure out who will have the better rookie season based on past production alone. However, we can try to speculate as to who will have a better season if we break down each individual matchup. 

    In this particular matchup, Jordan will be primarily squaring off against Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, and Mingo will be taking on rookie left tackle Dallas Thomas. Even though Thomas may not remain the starter in Miami, we have to assume that he will be the one trying to shut Mingo down.

    If things don't change from now until September, the former LSU standout will walk away as the more productive player at the end Week 1.

Datone Jones vs. Kyle Long

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    Even though offensive guard Kyle Long and defensive end Datone Jones both played in the Pac-12 last season, Oregon and UCLA never took the field at the same time. The Ducks were a part of the Pac-12 North, and the Bruins were apart of the Pac-12 South. 

    So, Long and Jones will square off against each other for the first time on Monday Night Football, Week 9. The four-year player from UCLA is slotted to start at right defensive end, while the one-year player from Oregon is set to start the season out at left guard for the Chicago Bears.

    Based on Green Bay's 3-4 alignment, Jones will spend most of the day working against Long. Sure, both players were first-round selections, but both players were drafted on two totally different sets of underlying factors. 

    Much like Ziggy Ansah, Long was drafted because of his tremendous upside. On the other hand, Jones was drafted because of his strong production numbers as a four-year player out of UCLA. As it stands right now, it's hard to say who has the leg up. But based on NFL readiness alone, it's hard not to favor Jones. 

    Through nine games of their rookie season, Jones will be the more polished player. Long will still be growing into the position and adapting to the NFL game.

    Who knows, Howie Long's son could easily end up becoming the better player when it's all said and done. It may just take some time.

Jonathan Cooper vs. Star Lotulelei

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    From one interior line-of-scrimmage battle to the next—this time the matchup offers up two top-15 picks instead of two top-30 picks. When Week 5 rolls around, Arizona Cardinals right guard Jonathan Cooper will be looking to bring his A-game as he tries to contain Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei.

    Neither player squared off against each other one-on-one at the collegiate level, so this experience will be brand new to both players. In college, Cooper was viewed as a great pass-protector, while Lotulelei was viewed as a tremendous run defender.  

    Which ultimately makes this faceoff pose some intriguing questions. Will Cooper be able to handle Lotulelei at the point of attack, or will Lotulelei's explosion off the snap catch Cooper off guard?

    The latter seems to be the most appropriate response.  

    The 6'3", 311-pound interior defensive linemen from Utah proved unblockable for most of the 2012 season. Moreover, one could argue that Cooper never had the opportunity to contain a player of Lotulelei's magnitude at North Carolina.

    Which is why you should expect Lotulelei to be the more dominant player Week 5.

Tavon Austin vs. Robert Alford

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    Despite the fact Southeastern Louisiana cornerback Robert Alford was a second-round pick, many analysts felt he had the skill to be a Day 1 selection. Alford's versatility, blazing 40-time and incredible ball skills helped shoot him up draft boards in a crowded corner class.

    Those attributes should help him when the St. Louis Rams roll into town Week 2. As a slot corner, Alford will be asked to put the clamps down on the ever-so-dangerous Tavon Austin. It's no fluke Austin was a top-10 pick. He shows elite speed, he puts stress on a defense down the field and is a threat to score whenever he touches the ball. 

    Alford will have to do his best by getting physical with Austin at the line of scrimmage.

    The West Virginia product has durability concerns because of his small frame, so Alford will have to use his superb upper-body strength to garner the upper hand. 

    However, it will all come down to the Falcons' deep coverage schemes. If Atlanta keeps safety help over the top, the odds of Alford winning the matchup greatly increase. But if they don't provide safety help over the top, Austin will look to torch Mike Nolan's secondary. 

    Right now it's split 50-50; this matchup could truly go either way.

D.J. Fluker vs. Luke Joeckel

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    Even though the Eric Fisher-Lane Johnson battle may steal the spotlight early on in the season, the D.J. Fluker-Luke Joeckel matchup may prove to be just as intriguing on Oct. 20. As of right now, both Joeckel and Fluker are slated to start at right tackle for their respective teams.

    There has been some chatter about moving Fluker to guard because of his size and heavy feet, yet I won't believe it until I see it. San Diego's edge protection was awful last year, so at this point in time it doesn't make sense to slide one of its offensive linemen inside. 

    In terms of Joeckel, he will start on the right side of the line as long as Eugene Monroe is manning the left side. According to Pro Football Focus, Monroe was a top-15 tackle in 2012. He earned high marks as a run-blocker and pass-protector. 

    When it comes to Joeckel, one of the biggest things to watch is how he handles the right side of the offensive line. At Texas A&M he only played left tackle, which means his adjustment to right tackle may take longer than expected. 

    The Chargers will send Jarret Johnson after the No. 2 overall pick. Last season Johnson was a below-average pass-rusher and an above-average run defender. This could ultimately make the one-on-one matchup a wash considering Joeckel is a much better pass-protector. 

    Fluker won't have it as easy. He will be taking on former Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Babin most of the game. Babin is a relentless pass-rusher who uses a plethora of moves to get to the quarterback. 

    As an early season prediction, Joeckel will be the better performer at the end of Week 7.