In the NFL more than just about any other sport, the draft can make or break a franchise. Rookies in the league are required to learn on the job and, right from the beginning, are expected to contribute.
The draft is about talent and thinking toward the future, but with more and more money riding on draft picks, there's pressure right away to perform. As has been seen again and again, sometimes that pressure gets to young players.
In a meritocracy like the NFL, few players get a free ride. Even though the top drafted players are already collecting a king's ransom, many have already begun earning their keep with stellar performances this year.
With that, let's look at the ten rookies making the most of their rookie campaigns and how important they have been to their teams.
Percy Harvin, WR/KR, Minnesota Vikings
Harvin has been as good as advertised in his first year in Minnesota. The kid just makes plays for his team.
He likely already has the rookie of the year award sewn up, barring a stunning final month from some of the other candidates, but it's worth going into what he's done so far.
Through 11 games he already has 693 yards from scrimmage, third among rookies. You can also add to that his 924 return yards, giving him the most aggregate yards of any rookie.
But more than just racking up real estate, he's already managed seven touchdowns (five receiving, two on returns) with nearly 30 yards per return on average, tops in the league, also giving him the league lead for yards per touch.
All told, Harvin is just an offensive machine. He's a big play waiting to happen. He's not the best receiver or the best kick returner in the league, but his combination of talent and penchant for making a big play whenever needed makes him the no-question answer for rookie of the year, currently.
Brian Orakpo, OLB/DE, Washington Redskins
The way Harvin makes big plays on offense, Orakpo does on defense. He broke the rookie franchise sack record in Washington by the second week of November and keeps getting better.
He's already got seven sacks on the year to go along with six QB hits and eight pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.com. (They also credit him with nine sacks, but he officially has seven.)
He's managed that despite only rushing the passer on 212 snaps.
Sure, playing next to Albert Haynesworth and Andre Carter will get you some pretty sweet matchups when you're rushing the passer, but Orakpo is not a dog off his leash.
He's a much more versatile player and his coverage skills, while still developing, have allowed the Redskins to use him in pass coverage on another 132 snaps.
You win as a rookie by being versatile and stepping in to help your team wherever possible. Orakpo has done that and has a bright future ahead of him because of it.
Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo Bills
There are easy ways to get noticed as a rookie in the NFL. One of them is to tie for the league lead in interceptions in your first year.
Byrd's done that, tying with New Orleans' Darren Sharper with eight picks. Even more impressive? He's done that in just 519 snaps, 132 less than Sharper.
He doesn't provide the all-around safety skills that Sharper does, as he's used mostly in a coverage role, but he's not asked to do those things in Buffalo's defense.
Byrd's got a bright, bright future ahead of him. He plays with a lot of talent in the Bills secondary, but he's carved himself out a nice niche despite that.
Not bad for the 42nd pick in the draft.
As I said before he'll have to develop some of the more all-around skills a safety needs beyond ball hawking, but if there's any rookie that can lay claim to being "the next Ed Reed" it's Byrd.
Michael Oher, T, Baltimore Ravens
While Oher has gotten plenty of publicity for his tortuous life path that has led him to the NFL, it's the work he's put in during his first year that has impressed me the most.
Oher has started every game in his rookie year for the Ravens, helping man the edge of one of the best run-blocking units in the league. He's a big, bruising, nasty player and is a pleasure to watch.
Simply put, he's one of the best right tackles in the league already. His sheer athleticism and raw technique make him a perfect fit for the position.
He was drafted as high as he was because of his possible future as a franchise left tackle, but with Jared Gaither still in Baltimore he has some time to wait.
Still, he's already filled in admirably guarding the blind side in the two games Gaither was injured against Cincinnatti and Minnesota as the Ravens gave up just five sacks in those two games.
Clearly, he's got a big future ahead of him.
Sebastian Vollmer, LT, New England Patriots
When Matt Light went down with a knee injury in the fourth quarter of what would eventually be a loss to Denver, New England's season seemed to be going down the toilet.
It's not often that a team already having protection issues can lose its Pro Bowl left tackle and find an immediate replacement in the form of a late second rounder who didn't even start playing football until he was 14.
Yet from the time Vollmer stepped into the limelight, he's been a revelation, to the point that many in New England are questioning whether Matt Light, who has at times looked lost against the best pass rushers in the league, should even get his starting job back.
Vollmer was lucky enough to be eased into the league with early starts against the Buccaneers and Titans but when faced with Joey Porter of the Dolphins and the Colts' Dwight Freeney, he stepped up to the challenge, holding both sackless.
He's been given help in the form of tight ends and chip blocks from New England running backs, as Michael Oher has in Baltimore, but even when left on his own, he's been as good as one could possibly hope.
With left tackle one of the premier positions in the sport, it's a miracle he slipped as far as he did. That New England traded out of the No. 23 spot with Michael Oher still on the board is somewhat less unforgivable because of Vollmer's performance.
Brian Cushing, OLB, Houston Texans
Pick a USC linebacker, any linebacker was the mantra going into this year's draft and with Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews, and Cushing all looking like first-round picks, it was clear why.
Maualuga had perhaps the most hype despite his injury, Matthews would ultimately beat him off the board, but it's Cushing who has had the best rookie year of the trio.
He's been outstanding this year, winning AFC defensive player of the week twice. He's a leading candidate for defensive rookie of the year and has done everything the Texans have asked of him.
Like some of the other names on this list, he plays among a talented group that has allowed him to shine by taking some pressure off him, but he's performed very, very well in nearly every game.
He's second on the team in tackles, sacks, and stops according to Pro Football Focus. With all the talent around him, even on a team that doesn't play great team defense, that's amazing.
He's a workhorse, too, playing in 687 defensive snaps, second on the team behind only DeMeco Ryans.
He was the second linebacker taken in the draft but with all he's done for the Texans this year and how bright his future looks, he's earned every penny of his rookie money.
So that's the list. There are others, of course. Knowshon Moreno and LeSean McCoy certainly deserve an honorable mention (though they're lagging behind last year's rookie runners), but this group has distinguished itself as some of the best rookie players this year.
One of the common themes, as I touched on briefly above, is the fact that these guys have had considerable help and play on, for the most part, very talented teams. It's part of the curse of being drafted high; when you go to a bad team, opposing teams can gameplan to stop you.
I think that, for the most part, there are more talented rookies who, for one reason or another, haven't stepped up to the level of these players yet. Part of it's opportunity, part of it is the natural development that being a rookie requires, but for 2009, these guys deserve the notice they've gotten.
Got a favorite or think I missed someone? Feel free to shout it out in the comments or shoot me a message here .
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