Defining the phrase “biggest role” when it comes to rookies in the NFL isn’t an easy task. At least, it’s not as cut and dried as one would think.
By the most common definition, “biggest role” would be the person who touched the football the most or did the most with it. That would be a quarterback. Last year it would have been very easy to include quarterbacks on this list. The Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck was a shoo-in to be an impact rookie, as was Robert Griffin III for the Washington Redskins.
But this is 2013—and even though Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel might get a lot of touches during his first season, he’s not going to play the role Luck and Griffin did in 2012.
See the conundrum I’m dealing with here?
Predicting guys for the “biggest role” isn’t easy, especially this season. I found 10 guys I believe will shine, and not one is a quarterback. Only one was drafted in the first round, one wasn't picked until Day 3 of the NFL draft and one wasn’t even drafted at all.
The Pittsburgh Steelers used to strike fear into opponents with their punishing ground attack. Remember Jerome Bettis? Franco Harris?
But Pittsburgh hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Rashard Mendenhall in 2010, and its four-player committee last season of Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Chris Rainey and Mendenhall barely surpassed 1,000 yards as a group (1,317 to be exact).
Mendenhall is gone, Dwyer and Redman aren’t the answer as every-down running backs and LaRod Stephens-Howling hasn’t been relevant in his four professional years.
That means second-round pick Le’Veon Bell could emerge as the starting running back very early this season, if not from Week 1. He’s got the power and finesse to remind Steelers fans of the glory days when Bettis and Harris were churning yards for Pittsburgh.
Arizona Cardinals rookie linebacker Kevin Minter very quietly produced 130 tackles last season for the LSU Tigers.
It shouldn’t be possible for a guy to be that much of an impact player without being the biggest name on his team, but guys like defensive end Barkevious Mingo and free safety Eric Reid overshadowed Minter.
Don’t take being overshadowed as a sign that Minter wasn’t talented. He just flew under the radar. He might not get a chance to go unnoticed with the Cardinals this season.
Minter is apparently quickly picking up the Arizona playbook, according to Adam Green of ArizonaSports.com. And since starting inside linebacker Daryl Washington will serve a four-game suspension to start the season, Minter may get tapped to produce from Week 1.
Once Minter gets on the field in a starting role, it may be difficult to take away his snaps after Washington returns. The Cardinals will likely be forced to find a way to keep Minter out on the field tracking down ball-carriers—something he does extremely well.
On the same day rookie running back Montee Ball signed his first professional contract, the Denver Broncos terminated the contract of their starting running back Willis McGahee.
Ball, from Day 1, will be the Broncos' No. 1 running back.
Denver still has Ronnie Hillman, Knowshon Moreno and Lance Ball on the running backs depth chart with Ball, but carrying the rock as Denver’s main option will be Ball’s gig in 2013.
Ball rushed for a combined 3,753 yards over his last two college seasons and had more than 1,800 yards in each as he rushed the football 307 times and 356 times, respectively. Ball’s a workhorse with a proven track record at Wisconsin.
He won’t get that many touches in Denver this season (or ever with Peyton Manning under center), but if he’s the starting running back from Week 1, there’s no way Ball doesn’t surpass McGahee’s 731 rushing yards from last season in Denver.
As soon as the Atlanta Falcons used their first-round pick in 2013 on cornerback Desmond Trufant, head coach Mike Smith announced to the assembled media and fans on Atlanta’s official website that Trufant was drafted to come in and win the starting job as a rookie.
Even though Atlanta drafted cornerback Robert Alford in the second round, outside of some drastic turn of events, Trufant will start from Week 1 opposite cornerback Asante Samuel in the Falcons' defensive backfield.
Because Trufant is a rookie and Samuel has big-play ability on the other side of Atlanta’s defense, opposing quarterbacks will test Trufant frequently in 2013.
Before Trufant goes through his rookie, trial-by-fire season, he’s going to maneuver through training camp covering two of the best wide receivers in the game: Roddy White and Julio Jones. After being bombarded with passes from Matt Ryan to White and Jones through camp, Trufant should be more than ready to face the trials of the regular season.
It’s hard to remember the last time the Green Bay Packers weren’t flush with talent at the quarterback position. Aaron Rodgers mans the post arguably better than any in the NFL, and he learned from Brett Favre, whose name is synonymous with winning.
The same can’t be said for Green Bay’s rushing attack, which has been feeble for quite some time.
The Packers addressed the need to bolster their rushing game by taking running backs Eddie Lacy in the second round and Johnathan Franklin in the fourth.
Both Lacy and Franklin could play a huge role this season, but Lacy should be given first crack at carrying the ball as the team’s starting rusher.
With Rodgers under center captaining a very potent passing attack, Lacy could see a lot of open holes and soft middles of opposing defenses as teams work hard to shut Rodgers down. Lacy should flourish in that situation.
New Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso has been turning heads almost from the first day he arrived in town.
The Bills needed help all over the field entering the NFL draft in April, and they addressed the need for a fixture in the middle of the defense by taking Alonso with their second pick in the second round.
Bills defensive end Mario Williams praised Alonso on The John Murphy Show on May 29, per the Bills’ official website, comparing Alonso to linebacker Brian Cushing:
I’m not saying he is because he’s a lot smaller, but he reminds me of Brian Cushing. The kid has instincts like him. He sees it and goes. He’s looking very good. I said in the meeting the other day that this kid is pretty good.
Now Cush is different. He’s just a different animal, but with Kiko coming in he resembles some of the things that Cushing does.
The Buffalo News reports that Alonso has taken all the snaps with the starters in OTAs and minicamp, and he “shows non-stop pursuit in coverage.”
Most running backs selected in the fifth round of the NFL draft don’t prove to be much help during their rookie season. Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris turned that rule of thumb on its head last season by rushing for 1,613 yards as a rookie drafted in the sixth round.
Gillislee likely won’t have that same kind of impact because he’s buried on the depth chart right now behind Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas. Miller is the real deal and the rightful starting back in Miami. But Gillislee should have no trouble jumping into the No. 2 role over Thomas.
Even as the backup running back, Gillislee should have an impact. He does everything well, rushing for 1,152 yards as a senior at Florida and finding his receiver hands with 16 catches. He also blazed a 4.55 40-yard dash at the combine, showing some explosiveness.
But let’s not forget that Miller, a rookie last season, only carried the ball 51 times in 2012. He’s the guy with the starting job in front of Gillislee, but even Miller isn’t completely proven.
After seemingly not doing anything right, from Notre Dame’s national championship loss to Alabama to the girlfriend hoax to a poor showing at the combine, Manti Te’o’s final collegiate season ended with a thud.
However, according to Michael Gehlken of U-T San Diego, Te’o is doing just about everything right after his first few weeks as a professional football player with the Chargers.
One Chargers staffer called Te’o an “absolute stud,” praising the rookie for his work ethic and knowing when to ask questions and when to look quietly and listen. Coach Mike McCoy praised Te'o's football IQ and awareness and said his transition to the pros has been easy.
If you forget about the tumultuous months from the national championship through the combine and focus on what Te’o did prior to that at Notre Dame and since in San Diego, it seems like Te’o may be a steal for the Chargers, who took him in the second round.
Off-field issues forced wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers to transfer from the University of Tennessee to Tennessee Tech to finish out his college career. Those same issues were the reason NFL teams shied away from Rogers in the draft and let an obviously talented receiver go undrafted.
The Buffalo Bills took a shot on Rogers, signing him as an undrafted free agent on April 27. Bills scout Tom Roth told Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com that Rogers was more polished than fellow Volunteer wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter, who were taken in the first and second rounds of the NFL draft, respectively:
He’s the most polished of those three Tennessee receivers in my opinion in terms of route running and all that. He reminds me physically of Eric Moulds, that body type. That’s what I thought when I saw him. A big, physical, muscular guy. Explosive. He had a 39-inch vertical. He ran a 4.48 at the Combine. He’s got all the physical stuff.
I caught up with Buffalo nose tackle Marcell Dareus at a youth football camp in Atlanta on June 26, and he raved about Rogers.
“He’s a lottery pick this year,” said Dareus, who thinks Rogers is playing in camp like he was a first-rounder. “He’s got a load of talent and has taken the mentality ‘nobody in the NFL drafted me, but you all are fixing to know about me.' He’s going to show the world how good he is, and he’s real.”
The Detroit Lions took a gamble on cornerback Darius Slay, who immediately needed knee surgery after the draft, according to ESPN. However, without the injury he could have been a first-round talent, and since the Lions took Slay in the second round, the gamble seems like a minimal-risk move.
Slay recovered in time for minicamp, according to MLive.com, and head coach Jim Schwartz said that he’s playing smart already and making plays on the football:
He made some plays on the ball. Some of those would have been negated on penalties. Our offense was taking some shots when the defense was offsides.
The thing that was encouraging about it is to have enough awareness to know the defense was offsides and that the offense has free rein to take a shot down the field. The thing that was also good was his ability to put his body in position, leap, time it and find the football.
Slay ran an impressive 4.36 second 40-yard dash at the combine and picked off five passes last season for the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
It looks as if Slay’s knee has passed all the tests post-surgery. If he continues through training camp without complications, Slay should nail down the starting cornerback job and show the NFL why he shouldn’t have been passed up in the first round.