Which rookies will be the NFL’s impact players this season? After the tremendous success of last years 2008 rookie class, can we expect to see another Matt Ryan, Chris Johnson or Eddie Royal? Do large signing bonuses ensure that great players will become stars or do great players take opportunities and turn them into legends? These are only some of the many questions that remain unanswered by such 2009 Top Ten draft choices as Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, and Darrius Heyward-Bey. To say that the years are littered with some of college footballs finest who failed miserably in the NFL is an understatement. While many a late or undrafted player has gone on to enjoy long successful careers. Who will emerge a star?
Last season, Matt Ryan was asked to fill some big shoes in a city that had seen their dreams smashed. With some veteran help at running back and wide receiver, Ryan did the impossible with a brilliant rookie season that resurrected a fallen franchise. This year another number one draft pick, Matthew Stafford will be asked to do what no other quarterback has ever had to do in the history of modern football, lead a winless team to victory. Taking control of the Detroit train wreck does have its upside, and only an upside since that is the only direction they can go. The other rookie quarterback sensation from last season, Joe Flacco wasn’t asked to do anything except make the team. He ascended to the starting quarterback position by attrition. He was the only one left standing at the end of preseason. Flacco was fortunate to be on a veteran team with a solid defense and all he had to do was not lose. It seems Mark Sanchez is in a similar situation with the New York Jets. He will compete to fill some very big quarterback shoes with a guy who had opportunities in the past, Kellen Clemens. The Jets have a veteran club who've been a couple of key people short of success in the past few seasons. New coach Rex Ryan and Sanchez just may be the answers.
It has always been difficult to make an immediate impact at wide receiver as a rookie. Most of the top receivers are veterans for two simple reasons. It takes time to learn to read pro defenses and then run accurate routes. It’s not about speed and hands, it’s about smarts. Two of last years rookies who not only made an impact at wide receiver, but also returning kicks and punts were the Broncos Eddie Royal and the Eagles DeSean Jackson. Opportunities for playing time and even starting roles are available on several teams with weak receiving corps this year. The Oakland Raiders are one such team and picked big, speedy Darrius Heyward-Bey to be the answer to an anemic pass attack. This was a questionable pick, but only time will tell. Another team in the Bay Area has similar needs at wide receiver. Like the Raiders, the San Francisco 49ers have a pretty good running game, but don’t threaten anyone in the air. Drafting Michael Crabtree will give them that threat, provided his off-season surgery was a success.
The largest turnover in the NFL is at running back. Not a big surprise considering the injury rate due to the pounding they have to take. It seems as though running backs have an easier time transitioning from the collegiate ranks to pro football. I think it may be because unlike receivers who have to do a whole lot before they get the ball, backs get the ball relatively quickly and then do what they do best, run fast around, over and/or through the defense. It is a bit more instinctual and reactive. That being said, to become a successful running back in the NFL is no easy task. Matt Forte and Chris Johnson made the most of their opportunities last year, becoming two of the best running backs of 2008. Now that the Denver Broncos have a new coaching staff, will they continue to run the ball with the effectiveness they have in the past? Perhaps with Knowshon Moreno as their first pick, new head coach Josh McDaniels is answering that question. Another first year coach Jim Caldwell had to address the poor rushing results of the Colts from last year. He did so by drafting the NCAA rushing leader Donald Brown. Not many people got to watch this dynamic back play in the Big East, however they will this season. Expect Brown to share reps with Joseph Adiai and who knows; maybe become the number one ball carrier.
Being drafted in the first round is no guarantee that a player will make it in the NFL. Sometimes the size of someone’s heart cannot be judged by the size of their school. Combines can only measure speed, strength, and agility, not desire. Keep your eyes on these next rookies, they are on teams with needs and that spells opportunity. Tampa Bay will be a different team now that new head coach Raheem Morris has taken over. If Byron Leftwich stumbles, don’t be surprised if Josh Freeman becomes the starter. Miami’s retro Wildcat offense has a new weapon in Pat White. He may never be an NFL quarterback, but he will become a star. Wide receivers to watch are Philly’s Jeremy Maclin, Tennessee’s Kenny Britt, Minnesota’s Percy Harvin, Jauquin Inglesias in Chicago, and Jacksonville’s Tiquan Underwood. In Cleveland, two rookies Brian Robiske and Mohamed Massaquoi will get looks for playing time by new head coach Eric Mangini. The New York Giants lost Derrick Ward to free agency, but gained a worthy replacement when they drafted running back Andre Brown. Watch for age and injury to give these next running backs their shots. LeSean McCoy of the Eagle’s will see action with Cornell Buckhalter moving on and Brian Westbrooks yearly injuries. The Jets have two excellent running backs in Thomas Jones and Leon Washington, but rookie Shone Greene may get a chance to soar.
The questions are out there. Who will have the answers? Will everyone be talking about someone from this list or will it be an unknown long shot? The fun is just beginning.