Predicting the Top NFL Rookies at Every Position in 2013

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterMay 7, 2013

Predicting the Top NFL Rookies at Every Position in 2013

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    Success in the National Football League never comes easily. Success for a rookie in the league is even more of an anomaly.

    Predicting rookie success in the NFL isn’t an easy task either. Some names stick out as obvious choices, like Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers did last season. Other rookies burst onto the scene out of almost complete anonymity, like Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris.

    It would be far safer to wait until December to tell you who the 2013 impact rookies are, but who wants to wait eight months for that?

    Here are predictions for the top NFL rookies at every position in 2013. And this wasn’t just an abstract guessing game, as upside, team needs, potential playing time and, oh yeah, past performance and skill were all taken into account.

Quarterback

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    1. EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills

    The impact a rookie quarterback will have on his team has as much to do with his opportunity for playing time as it does with skill.

    Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel has both—skill and the likelihood of much playing time in 2013.

    Buffalo didn’t use its first-round pick on Manuel for clipboard-holding duties, mostly because there is no mentor for Manuel to learn from on the Bills roster.   

    Manuel only has to beat Kevin Kolb—who hasn’t been truly relevant since 2010—to earn the starting job in Week 1.

     

    2. Tyler Wilson, Oakland Raiders

    Tyler Wilson doesn’t have much of a shot at a Week 1 start in Oakland, but that doesn’t mean his possibility of playing time is bleak.

    The Raiders brought in Matt Flynn, who had a contract-grabbing fantastic game for the Green Bay Packers in 2011 before losing the Seahawks job to Russell Wilson.

    Flynn doesn’t have much of a track record as a starter in the NFL. That means Flynn could lose the job early (possibly even in training camp) to Wilson, or he may hold Wilson off for a while before ultimately handing over the signal-calling.

    Either way, Wilson should be under center full time in 2013 at some point.

     

    3. Geno Smith, New York Jets

    The New York Jets are an absolute train wreck at quarterback, and not just in regard to the current depth chart. Tim Tebow is gone, but the bad taste of that signing will linger for some time.

    Mark Sanchez doesn’t appear to be the answer for the Jets, and since David Garrard wasn’t the answer for the Jaguars last season, he’s unlikely to rekindle his NFL career in New York.

    That leaves Geno Smith, who has tasted nothing but success at West Virginia the past two seasons. The Jets held off on a quarterback in the first round and landed Smith early in the second. How early he starts in 2013 will determine how much of an impact he has.

    Odds are, he’ll start at some point, maybe even by midseason.

Running Back

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    1. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

    The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell to be their starting running back, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The team is so sure of this that they “offered [Jonathan] Dwyer to other teams as trade bait" during the draft after Bell's selection.

    Dwyer was Pittsburgh’s leading rusher last year with 623 yards.

    Bell is a big, bruising runner, akin to the retired and beloved Jerome Bettis. But Dwyer also received that comparison (at least as body type and running style were concerned) and now he’s likely going to be pushed aside for Bell.

    If Bell can ignite a running game where Dwyer couldn’t, he’ll quickly become a fan favorite in Pittsburgh.

     

    2. Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals

    The 37th overall selection in the draft, Giovani Bernard will enter the offseason workouts second on the depth chart behind BenJarvus Green-Ellis, but will likely leapfrog Green-Ellis before the regular season begins.

    Cincinnati Enquirer beat writer Joe Reedy believes Green-Ellis will get more carries than Bernard, but it might not be a huge difference. If Bernard just shares the load in the Bengals backfield, he’ll put up some very good numbers.

     

    3a. Johnathan Franklin, Green Bay Packers

    The Green Bay Packers might have struck gold twice in April with running back selections.

    To fix an anemic rushing attack, Green Bay used its second-round pick on Alabama’s Eddie Lacy and one of its fourth-round picks on UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin. Both rushers could see considerable playing time, and there is no certainty that Lacy will get the majority of the carries just because he was the higher selection.

    Franklin may even quietly win the starting job in Green Bay. He’s that good.

     

    3b. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers

    If Eddie Lacy wins the starting job outright over Franklin, he too could flourish next sesaon. With the way Aaron Rodgers moves this team through the air, how could Lacy (or Franklin) not take advantage?

Wide Receiver

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    1. Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams

    Who should become quarterback Sam Bradford’s best buddy next season? If the young wide receiver knows what’s good for him, Tavon Austin should sit down with Bradford and make sure he knows everything about the way Bradford works.

    The St. Louis Rams moved up to grab Austin and will surely find many ways to utilize him. Austin might have been the most explosive player in the draft, and his speedy route-running should cause mismatch problems.

     

    2. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans

    DeAndre Hopkins not only has the speed and explosiveness to thrive in the NFL, but he’s also a unique competitor who turns it up a notch when it matters. Those attributes aside, the best thing Hopkins has going for him is the fact that he’ll be playing opposite Andre Johnson.

    Not only can Johnson teach Hopkins valuable lessons, but Johnson will take up most of the attention and coverage from opposing defenses. Hopkins could have fun facing the weaker corner on every team.

     

    3. Robert Woods, Buffalo Bills

    Robert Woods brings an almost-NFL-ready skill set to the table in Buffalo that the Bills hope to make good use of for years to come.

    Woods is a great route-runner and averaged 1,042 receiving yards and 10.5 touchdowns per season over his two years at Southern California. The increased output in his second season (15 of his 21 touchdown and 1,292 of his 2,084 yards) is what has Bills fans clamoring.

    Buffalo will position Woods opposite Stevie Johnson and hope that one of the two new quarterbacks in town can get the ball to both with regularity.

Tight End

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    1. Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals

    Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the NFL is certainly a “monkey see, monkey do” league. When something like the two-tight end system works for an always-powerful team like the New England Patriots, everyone seems to want to try it out to see if they can replicate the success.

    The Cincinnati Bengals took Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert with the 21st overall selection in the draft and will pair him with tight end Jermaine Gresham to get two pass-catching tight ends on the field together.

    Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton should be very happy, and wide receiver A.J. Green won’t argue either.

     

    2. Zach Ertz, Philadelphia Eagles

    Just a few months prior, new Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly was facing off against Stanford and tight end Zach Ertz. He told The Inquirer that he’s going to sleep better with Ertz on his side.

    You could never isolate him into one spot, and whenever they got the mismatch he created, he made plays. I didn't relish coaching against him, and I'm very, very happy that he is on our side now.

    Ertz piled on receiving yards during his senior season and was a red-zone target for the Cardinal, catching six touchdown passes in 2012. The Eagles should use him similarly during his rookie campaign.

     

    3. Vance McDonald, San Francisco 49ers

    The great thing about new tight end Vance McDonald is that he played all over the field during his time at Rice.

    During the 2011 season, McDonald played solely in the slot. But last year he moved between the slot as a tight end and outside as a receiver, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

    Being able to move McDonald around will benefit the 49ers on offense as they work to get him and Vernon Davis enough touches to make the two-tight end set work in San Francisco. 

Offensive Tackle

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    1. Eric Fisher, Kansas City Chiefs

    If Eric Fisher is going to be called a success as the first pick in the 2013 NFL draft, he’s going to have to be on the field from Week 1 and be an upgrade at tackle.

    The Kansas City Chiefs are easing Fisher into his new role and lightening the expectations on him a bit. According to NFL Network, head coach Andy Reid told SiriusXM Radio on May 2 that he would play Fisher at right tackle to start and use Branden Albert would protect Alex Smith’s blind side.

    Fisher must produce from Day 1 and quickly work his way over to the vital role of left tackle. But starting on the right side gives him more of an opportunity to learn instead of being thrown to the wolves.

     

    2. Luke Joeckel, Jacksonville Jaguars

    The Jacksonville Jaguars are doing the same thing with the second overall pick in the draft, Luke Joeckel, moving him temporarily to right tackle to learn the speed and intricacies of the NFL slowly.

    According to USA Today, Joeckel is going through some growing pains, but he has still been dominant at rookie minicamp.

     

    3. Terron Armstead, New Orleans Saints

    The New Orleans Saints have a unique record of success at left tackle, according to The Times-Picayune.

    In all but three seasons dating back to 1994, the Saints have had a “Pro Bowl-caliber player at left tackle every season.” And New Orleans has a history of sending young offensive linemen on to the field very early on.

    The Saints have shown they aren't afraid of the baptism-by-fire ritual. In 2006 they thrust an unknown fourth-round pick from Division II Bloomsburg into the starting lineup. Since then, Jahri Evans has started 112 consecutive games and played in four Pro Bowls.

    Don’t be surprised to see third-round pick Terron Armstead win the left tackle job prior to Week 1 and flourish. Quarterback Drew Brees will expect nothing short of brilliance from the rookie, and Brees’ quick release will be a boon for Armstead as he grows into the role.

Offensive Guard

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    1. Chance Warmack, Tennessee Titans

    In an odd string of events that saw five offensive linemen taken in the first 10 picks of the 2013 NFL draft, including the top two picks overall and two offensive guards, Alabama guard Chance Warmack rounded out the top 10 by being selected by the Tennessee Titans.

    Warmack will instantly upgrade the Titans offensive line, and he has certainly made running back Chris Johnson happy. Johnson tweeted his support of the Warmack selection shortly after it happened.

    THANK GOD

    — Chris Johnson (@ChrisJohnson28) April 26, 2013

    Johnson's message to the world was simple yet effective. The same sentiment won’t be shared by defensive linemen or opposing linebackers who get in Warmack’s way.

     

    2. Larry Warford, Detroit Lions

    According to MLive.com, had St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead not landed Alec Ogletree in the first round, he would have drafted offensive guard Larry Warford.

    Instead, the Kentucky guard lasted all the way into the third round to become an extreme value pick for the Detroit Lions. A team isn’t often able to get an instant starter in the third round, but Warford will slide right in at right guard and open holes for the newly signed Reggie Bush.

     

    3. Jonathan Cooper, Arizona Cardinals

    Just as Chance Warmack’s pick at No. 10 was a great call by the Tennessee Titans, Jonathan Cooper being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals at No. 7 overall will also be a huge success.

    Quarterback Carson Palmer is going to bolster the passing attack in 2013 for the Cardinals, while Cooper will be able to open extra holes for the running game that weren’t there last season.

Center

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    1. Travis Frederick, Dallas Cowboys

    Travis Frederick told the The Dallas Morning News that he wasn’t surprised that the Dallas Cowboys selected him in the first round.

    I did have quite an extensive amount of time with Coach Callahan in the pre draft process. Coach Callahan came up to Madison and had a chance to work me out up here. He worked me out for quite some time and then got a chance to sit down in the meeting rooms. I know that football IQ and board work is very important to him, so we got a chance to sit down do some of that stuff and then when I took a visit down to Dallas we also got quite a bit of time to spend together.

    Frederick also shouldn’t be surprised by the loads of pressure being placed upon him by the Dallas Cowboys faithful because of his first-round status. Playing center has so much to do with being smart and being able to read defenses. Frederick will get his chance to show off that big brain of his early on in 2013.

     

    2. Brian Schwenke, Tennessee Titans

    Fourth-round pick Brian Schwenke has the opportunity to shine with the Tennessee Titans. They drafted him as a center, but he has experience at guard too. That versatility may come into play.

    Schwenke isn’t a massive cement block of a center, but he has quick feet and a mean streak. He told the media on his conference call after being drafted (TitansOnline.com) that he could play any of three positions and would be happy to play anywhere.

Defensive Tackle

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    1. Sharrif Floyd, Minnesota Vikings

    Sharrif Floyd was a massive steal as the No. 23 pick in the draft. Many draft experts had Floyd as a top-five pick and the best defensive tackle in the draft.

    Three years from now, there will be numerous teams looking back at 2013, wishing they had taken Floyd. He’s a game-changer who, by being drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, got a gift in the fact that he’ll learn from All-Pro Kevin Williams.

     

    2. John Jenkins, New Orleans Saints

    The New Orleans Saints are switching to a 3-4 defensive scheme in 2013. One of the cornerstones of playing the 3-4 well is a team having a mammoth defensive tackle to occupy blockers and use his strength to clog the middle of the field.

    At 6'4", 346 pounds, John Jenkins from Georgia might have been the best possible choice for the Saints in any round. As a third-rounder, Jenkins will turn out to be a steal.

     

    3. Star Lotulelei, Carolina Panthers

    The Carolina Panthers had to shore up the middle of their defensive line, and they did so by taking Star Lotulelei with their first pick in the draft.

    Lotulelei will offer resistance in the middle of the line, aiding defensive ends Kevin Hardy and Charles Johnson. But more importantly, he will help slow down opposing runners before they get to the second wave of Carolina’s defense—that massive linebacker corps the Panthers have assembled.

    Lotulelei will make Carolina’s linebackers even better in 2013, if that’s even possible.

Defensive End

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    1. Ezekiel Ansah, Detroit Lions

    The Detroit Lions used their first pick in the draft—No. 5 overall—to take BYU's Ezekiel Ansah, a pass-rusher with as much upside as anyone in the draft.

    Even though Ansah has very little football experience, according to 97.1 The Ticket, Ansah was third on the Lions’ draft board. Ansah will come in and instantly upgrade the Lions’ pass rush. He should use his superb athleticism to learn quickly on the job.

     

    2. Datone Jones, Green Bay Packers

    UCLA defensive end Datone Jones had one of the better quotes of anyone drafted in the first round. After the Green Bay Packers called his name at No. 26, Jones gave Packer Nation a small taste of his always-on motor.

    He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

    All I know is Reggie White played one way, and that was with maniacal effort and just complete hunger. No matter who he lined up against, he wanted to dominate. And that's the type of player I want to carry myself after, just a player that wants to dominate at whatever he does and wants to win.

    Jones should be able to move at ease in Green Bay’s 3-4 and attack the quarterback. His size and strength will keep him on the field, and his acceleration will please the coaching staff.

     

    3. Cornellius Carradine, San Francisco 49ers

    Back in November, Florida State defensive end Cornellius Carradine tore his ACL. Just 135 days after knee surgery, Carradine posted a 4.75 40-yard dash (via Joe Reedy, Cincinnati Enquirer, on Twitter) at his pro day, showing NFL teams he was past the injury.

    No one took a chance on Carradine in the first round, but the San Francisco 49ers pulled the trigger in the second. He should absolutely flourish in his role with the team.

Outside Linebacker

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    1. Jarvis Jones, Pittsburgh Steelers

    The Pittsburgh Steelers should be absolutely ecstatic that linebacker Jarvis Jones fell to them at pick No. 17. And Jones, other than losing out on an insane amount of money, should be glad he landed in Pittsburgh in a familiar 3-4 defensive scheme.

    Jones will be used to come off the edge and attack the quarterback, but he’ll also drop back into coverage. His skills in both the pass rush and covering passing routes will keep him on the field for all three downs and allow him to produce dramatically.

     

    2. Barkevious Mingo, Cleveland Browns

    The Cleveland Browns passed up on bolstering their secondary and selected linebacker Barkevious Mingo from LSU with the No. 6 pick. At least, he’ll switch to outside linebacker after playing defensive end in college, according to The Plain Dealer.

    Mingo utilized size, strength and freakish athleticism to lay waste to the SEC with 12.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss over his final two seasons with the Tigers.

    He’ll take just a short amount of time adjusting to a new position, but Mingo’s acceleration and ability will quickly kick in. He’ll be a terror for Cleveland.

     

    3. Bjoern Werner, Indianapolis Colts

    The Indianapolis Colts grabbed Bjoern Werner in the first round with the No. 24 pick. They plan to move him to outside linebacker in their 3-4 defensive scheme, according to ESPN.

    But Werner may have to sit or share time with strong-side linebacker Erik Walden in the beginning, at least until he gets up to speed with the position change and gains some NFL (and football) experience.

    Werner specializes at getting to the quarterback, and that’s a great area of need for the Colts. It’s going to be hard to keep him off the field, even if Walden is superior right now in certain aspects of the game.

    Look for Werner to slowly cut into Walden’s playing time. It won’t take long for this smart kid to learn the ways of the Colts and the league.

Inside Linebacker

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    1. Alec Ogletree, St. Louis Rams

    Off-field issues kept the amazingly athletic and talented Alec Ogletree from being a top-15 draft pick in the 2013 NFL draft. It’s likely he’ll make some teams wish they hadn’t passed on him until he fell to the St. Louis Rams at No. 30.

    Ogletree told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that no one was faster than him “between the lines,” and the University of Georgia linebacker plans to use that speed to chase down everything he can.

    Ogletree used to play safety before he became too big for the position. His defensive back skills are apparent when he’s in coverage, and with some added size and NFL experience, his run defense could catch up to his coverage skills.

    Ogletree played as an inside linebacker for two seasons at Georgia but may be best suited as a go-everywhere outside linebacker, especially since the Rams chose not to re-sign their strong-side linebacker Rocky McIntosh. But it's the skills he learned as a safety that may allow St. Louis to keep him in the middle of the defense at the pro level, opines Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated.

    The fact of the matter is, no one is sure where Ogletree will line up in 2013 for the Rams, but he will definitely be on the field. The Rams just have to find the best spot to get the most out of Ogletree's many talents and versatility.

     

    2. Arthur Brown, Baltimore Ravens

    Sports Illustrated NFL analyst Peter King wrote that the Baltimore Ravens knew they had to move up into the second round at pick No. 56 to grab linebacker Arthur Brown from Kansas State. Both the Denver Broncos and the Houston Texas were fans of Brown, according to Baltimore mock-draft research.

    Brown fills a huge need for the Ravens and has the versatility to play inside or outside and handle playing in coverage too. This is why the Ravens couldn’t wait around for Denver or Houston to pick in front of them in the second round; Brown wouldn’t have made it to them.

     

    3. Kiko Alonso, Buffalo Bills

    The Buffalo Bills needed help all over the field, but they made their best selection according to need by taking linebacker Kiko Alonso with the 46th overall pick in the draft.

    Alonso has superb athleticism and made big plays while in college with the Oregon Ducks. But more important for him is the fact that Buffalo needs a player just like him in the middle of its defense. Playing time could come early for Alonso.

Safety

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    1. Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints

    One of the reasons the New Orleans Saints are moving to a 3-4 defense is to hide where blitzers are coming from in hopes of getting more open lanes to the quarterback. When the Saints drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro with the 15th pick in the draft, new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan started drooling because he now has two athletic safeties to move around his scheme.

    Vaccaro will join Malcolm Jenkins in making pre-snap life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. If things go right, New Orleans will see some post-snap success at getting to the quarterback too. Vaccaro makes these blitzing ideas work either as a rusher or by staying back and making sure the offense doesn’t get anything out quickly.

     

    2. Eric Reid, San Francisco 49ers

    The San Francisco 49ers lost safety Dashon Goldson via free agency but quickly replaced him in the draft with LSU safety Eric Reid.

    Reid has a serious shot at making it into the 49ers' Week 1 lineup as a starter because he’s a playmaker with the size and agility to be anywhere, and hopefully everywhere, the 49ers need him to be.

     

    3. Matt Elam, Baltimore Ravens

    Apparently Matt Elam has already taken to his new home with the Baltimore Ravens.

    According to The Baltimore Sun, Elam made a huge impression Sunday at rookie minicamp when he lined up at free safety and was a very vocal and confident player. He even picked off multiple passes.

    Elam won’t likely replace Ed Reed—who could?—but he has the skill set to make losing Reed less of an issue.

Cornerback

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    1. Dee Milliner, New York Jets

    Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner might miss the start of training camp, according to CBS Sports, but once he finally does arrive—expect him to be in the starting lineup by Week 1—he’ll produce just as advertised.

    The New York Jets had a glaring need at corner, but general manager John Idzik doesn’t want to put undue pressure on Milliner to feel like he has to come in and replace Darrelle Revis (ESPN).

    I think it's unfair to Dee. We drafted Dee because of his talent. We drafted Dee because we felt he was the best player on our board at the time. It was not position specific. If you insinuate that, I think it devalues Dee a bit. It's pure and simple. He was the best player. He was one of the best players on our board period. When we had the chance to get him at nine, the room was pretty excited.

    The only thing that can devalue Milliner is him missing time because of his shoulder injury. But according to NFL Network, Milliner’s Alabama team doctor thinks he’ll be ready.

     

    2. Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons

    The Atlanta Falcons lost two cornerbacks, Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes, during the offseason. To be ready to face the pass-happy NFC South, something had to be done in the draft to fix the problem in Atlanta’s secondary.

    Desmond Trufant was the player on top of Atlanta’s need-based draft board, said general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and head coach Mike Smith penciled Trufant in as the likely starting cornerback opposite Asante Samuel shortly after the Falcons moved up to No. 22 in the first round to make the selection.

    Trufant brings a mix of athleticism and intelligence to Atlanta with him and should solidify a defensive backfield that was in need a month ago.

     

    3. Johnthan Banks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Even before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded for cornerback Darrelle Revis, the general idea was that the Bucs needed to add two starting-caliber cornerbacks to their roster after giving up more yards in 2012 through the air than any other NFL secondary.

    Revis was the first addition, and general manager Mark Dominik tabbed Mississippi State corner Johnthan Banks as the second with his selection in the second round.

    Banks is going to have to grow up quickly in the NFL since opposing offenses are going to throw everything away from Revis and towards him. But Banks has the size and strong intelligence to learn and grow quickly. He won’t become good enough in Year 1 to make quarterbacks throw toward Revis, but they may consider the middle of the field more often.

Kickers

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    1. Caleb Sturgis, Miami Dolphins

    Anytime you draft a kicker, there’s a good chance you're very unhappy with your current situation on special teams.

    Dan Carpenter missed five of his 27 field-goal attempts last season, and the Miami Dolphins lost three games by three points or fewer in 2012, and five more in 2011. With that track record and the fact that Miami drafted a kicker, Carpenter should be very worried about making it out of training camp.

     

    2. Dustin Hopkins, Buffalo Bills

    Not only did Dustin Hopkins set the NCAA scoring record for kickers by hitting 88 field goals and 290 point-after attempts, but he was also the country’s top high school kicker prior to entering college after missing just three kicks his entire high school career, according to BuffaloBills.com.

    Hopkins has succeeded at every level and will continue to do so in the NFL.