Here is a recap of the top rookie performers that played in the AFC North division during the 2009-2010 season.
In order, they are the Ravens' Michael Oher, the Bengals' Rey Maualuga, the Browns' Mohamed Massaquoi, and the Steelers' Mike Wallace.
These players made the most impact for their teams amongst their fellow draftees. And along with a look at their careers in the NFL so far is a preview of what's expected of them and their team's situation relating to their positions going into 2010.
Last April of 2009, a young talented offensive lineman from the University of Mississippi by the name of Michael Oher was selected 23rd overall in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens. 6'4" 310 pounds. Michael Oher was selected by trading up from the 26th pick to the 23rd and giving up their fifth-round selection to the New England Patriots. He was drafted as a RT but played and excelled at LT in college.
2009 Regular Season & Post Season Highlights:
Oher's tenacity was shown early on in the Ravens first pre-season game when he suffered a bloody face from fighting off a Redskins defender.
He went on to start all 16 games and was able to play his natural position at LT when Jared Gaither was injured in Week 4. Oher would go on to start the next two games at LT and finished the season playing five games at the position and 11 games at RT.
He filled in for Gaither admirably and helped the Ravens rush for 2,200 yards (second-highest total in franchise history) which paved the way for second-year RB Ray Rice to finish second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, thus becoming the second player since Jamal Lewis to gain 2,000 combined yards.
Against Detroit, he also helped the offense put up the second most rushing yards in franchise history with 308 yards, as well as franchise record's of five rushing touchdowns and 548 total yards.
In his post-season debut at RT he allowed the Ravens to rush for a post-season record 234 yards and four touchdowns while RB Ray Rice was able to gain another post-season franchise record 83-yard TD, making it the second-longest rush in NFL post-season history. In addition, he only allowed one sack among the Ravens' two playoff games.
Oher proved to be a very talented find when he was able to successfully play both ends of the tackle position. Even making his veteran teammate Gaither now seem tradeable since Oher is very capable of playing LT despite Jared's ability to also be versatile.
With his aid and a young but talented offensive line, the Ravens were able to soar their passing offense from 28th in 2008 to 18th this past season. The most well-known exception to the young line is veteran center Matt Birk. He's going into his 13th season and will continue to help young players such as Oher develop and further solidify their play in the trenches. There's still the question of whether Gaither will return but if he doesn't, three-year player Oniel Cousins has proven he's ready to take his spot at RT having gained experience from Gaither's injuries last season.
With the selection of Oher, once again Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome sticks with his "best player available" motto, and since becoming the Ravens GM in 2002 he has hardly missed a beat.
As a Ravens VP of player personnel in 1996, Ozzie selected future Hall of Fame first-rounders Jonathan Ogden and Ray Lewis. Now with Oher, he could have another potential member of the Hall to hang his hat on.
6'2" 255 pound Rey Maualuga was drafted by the Bengals with their sixth pick in the second round. Rey came into the NFL along side three other very talented linebackers from USC named Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, and Kaluka Maiava.
Brian and Clay were both selected in the first round, while Kaluka was picked fourth in the fourth round. Kaluka was the 2009 Rose Bowl MVP.
Clay and Brian earned the honor of being selected to the Pro Bowl and Cushing took home the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Maualuga left USC as a senior in 2008 among the most talented linebacking group in college football.
These four linebackers were invited to the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine, and their presence there was particularly impressive considering that top Division 1 schools might only send one to three senior players annually.
Even before joining the NFL, Rey was compared by scouts to Samoan greats Junior Seau and Troy Polamalu because of his "sideline-to-sideline" aggressive style of play.
Besides hitting hard, Rey and Troy really got that cool warrior-style hair going for them as well.
2009 Season Highlights:
Rey suffered a left ankle fracture in Week 16 vs. Kansas City and was placed on IR for the remainder of the season.
He finished with 80 tackles which were fifth on the team, led his defense with three forced fumbles, with two on defense and one on special teams.He had one sack and two passes defended, and made three tackles on special teams.
Forced a key fumble in the third quarter vs. Green Bay which led to a 62-yard winning drive that would seal the game.
He tied the team lead in tackles twice vs. Baltimore (10 TOT) in Week 5 and Oakland (7 TOT) in Week 11, while tying for second vs. Cleveland in Week 12 with six tackles.
He was a key contributor to only allowing the Steelers 226 total yards with seven tackles in Week 10, and in Week 12 helped his defense only allow the Browns 169 total yards, which was the fewest allowed by the Bengals since 1983.
In Week 14 he set his season high 11 tackles vs. Minnesota, and recorded four tackles within just eight snaps vs. Kansas City before suffering his season ending injury.
The 2009 Cincinnati Bengals defense finished fourth overall, sixth in passing, seventh in rushing, sixth in scoring, and 16th in sacks; a very noticeable improvement from 2008 after finishing 12th, 15th, 21st, 19th, and 30th in those categories.
The acquisition of RE Antwan Odom in 2008 continues to prove worthy as he generated 26 tackles, which was cut short to 23 in 2009 due to injury but certainly turned heads through his first five games as he was able to sack Aaron Rodgers five times in Week 2, setting a Bengals single game record. And his two sacks the week before allowed him to become the first player to have seven sacks after the season's first two games.
Odom finished his season early with eight sacks in Week 6, but only DT Jonathan Fanene was able to come close to that total by finishing the season with six sacks of his own. With LE Robert Geathers totaling 3.5 sacks and always reliable veteran and tackle leader LB Dhani Jones finishing with four sacks, the Bengals pass rush should only continue to improve.
Rey is surrounded by a strong core of linebackers in fellow USC teamate and former 2008 first-rounder Keith Rivers and seasoned veteran Jones. His solid secondary backfield consists of corners Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall along with FS Chris Crocker.
Drafted Defensive Players:
In the second, third, and fourth rounds of the 2010 Draft the Bengals selected DE Carlos Dunlap, CB Brandon Ghee, DT Geno Atkins, and LB Roddirck Muckleroy.
Notable Quote from Rey Maualuga on hitting:
“It’s hitting a guy and having him get up slowly, looking at who hit him. For a guy you hit and he gets right back up, that’s not a hit. That’s just a regular arm tackle. When a guy gets up slowly, looks at you and says, ‘I don’t want to get hit like that again,’ that’s a hit.”
6'2" 207 pound Mohamed Massaquoi was drafted in the 2009 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns 50th overall in the second round.
At Georgia University, he came on very strong in his senior season with career-highs in catches (58), yards (920), and touchdowns (8).
His 2,282 receiving yards at Georgia ranks fourth best in school history.
2009 Season Highlights:
Played in 16 games and started 11 of them.
He finished with 34 receptions, 624 yards, and three TDs. He tied for the team's receptions lead with RB James Harrison, and led all other receiver's in their respective categories.
He was fourth to lead Browns in reception yards in a season since Keven Johnson in 1999.
He set a Browns average per reception record of 18.4 which passed Paul Warfield's 17.7 back in 1964.
Accounted for two 100-yard games in a season which was the first time a Browns rookie had done so since Kevin Johnson in 1999.
First Browns rookie since Braylon Edward's 107 yards against Green Bay in 2005 to have a 100-yard game.
Among mostly unproven talent, Massaquoi, along with Joshua Cribbs and Chansi Stuckey, are now the go-to receivers and will be expected to do more. If worked with, Cribbs could be a standout receiver, but the dilemma lies in balancing his return responsibilites for the Browns. A dynamic play-maker like him, who should see more of the Wild Cat in 2010, shouldn't have a problem adjusting if they choose to use him as a receiver as long as someone else can sufficiently fill their return position.
Hopefuls are still counting on third-year player Brian Robiskie to emerge and have a breakout season. Rookie sixth-round pick Carilton Mitchell also seems like an intriguing prospect who has shifty speed and can pose as a deep threat. Knocks on him have been his short to intermediate route running and using his body to catch the ball at times.
The Browns released UFA Mike Furrey and now seem like they're confident in their current group of receviers. I understand their confidence in veteran QB Jake Delhomme to improve the squad's play, but I still find it a little puzzling that Mike Holmgren hasn't tried to either make a move in free agency for a reciever or put together a trade for one. My previous thoughts about the subject are here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/330028-parcells-to-holmgren-a-guide-for-building-the-browns.
Holmgren has started from scratch with his QBs, counting on Delhomme to lead the way with not too exceptional quarterback play behind him in Seneca Wallace, Brett Ratliff, and unproven rookie Colt McCoy. In the Browns' favor, an improving offensive line should provide some padding for the quarterbacks.
Along with Delhomme, another proven veteran the Browns have signed is TE Benjamin Watson. Although he hasn't had the most stellar career and maybe isn't athletic as Kellen Winslow, the Browns must be hopeful his experience and still worthy play-making can bolster a very mediocre tight end group.
Even if the Browns pass catchers have only potential at this point, you can certainly count on Massaquoi to only get better. Unless the Browns take further action this off-season, they'll continue to rely on the current core of receivers too provide at least a spark for a very uncertain but somewhat promising pass attack.
Cleveland Browns Offensive 2010 Draft:
Round 2 Pick 27: Montario Hardesty RB, Round 3 Pick 21: Colt McCoy QB, Round 6 Pick 8: Carilton Mitchell WR
6' 199 pound Mike Wallace from the University of Missippi was drafted by the Steelers in the 2009 NFL Draft with their 84th overall selection in the third round.
His 4.33 40-yard dash was the 2009 NFL Combine's second-fastest time for a wide receiver.
At Ole Miss, his versatility was shown when he finished his 2008 season with 10 carries and 92 yards on the ground. A year before, he ranked first in the SEC in yards per catch with 18.8.
Wallace notably holds Ole Miss records for single game, season, and career kickoff return yards while placing second all-time in all-purpose yards, third all-time in TD receptions, and fifth in receiving yards. Perhaps more telling of his knack for speed though is ranking third in the SEC in kickoff return average (24.6) in 2008.
At the end of Wallace's rookie season in the NFL, he earned the Joe Greene Great Performance Award for most outstanding Steelers' rookie, and was a three time Pepsi Rookie of the Week nominee for Weeks 9, 15, and 17.
2009 Season Highlights:
Mike Wallace finished fourth among Steeler wide receivers with 39 REC, 756 YDS, a 19.4 AVG, and six TDs.
Being a a third option in the air for the Steelers he may have not accounted for many receptions, but certainly made the most of it when he could and made his mark in Week 3 against Cincinnati when he caught seven passes for 102 YDS.
In Week 15 at Green Bay, Wallace hauled in a game-winning TD pass from Ben Roethlisberger while falling out of bounds as time expired.
Looking Ahead to 2010:
The Pittsburgh Steelers finished seventh in offense overall and ninth in passing.
With three of the five wide receivers who made up the Steelers depth chart in 2009 now gone, Wallace will be the No. 2 wideout behind Heinz Ward.
The receivers who left the team or won't be playing in 2010 are Santonio Holmes (traded to the Jets), Shaun Mcdonald (waived on Nov. 28, 2009), and Limas Sweed (placed on IR).
Returning to his old stomping grounds will be third wideout Antwaan Randel El. Competing for spots behind him are free agent signee Arnaz Battle and rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.
Sanders slender build poses as a weakness but he's proven to be gutsy enough to go across the middle of the field, and his big play ability could also provide a dangerous return game this upcoming season.
Brown could also serve as a nice returner with his combination of agility and quickness, but concerns are about his size when fighting press coverage and battling for jump balls as well as catching balls in traffic.
Former 49ers wide receiver capitain in 2007 Arnaz Battle can provide a veteran safety net at the No. 4 wideout spot as well as in the return game. RB Stefan Logan is penciled in as returner for now and his shiftiness has shown to be dangerous.
Wallace won't be catching passes from Ben Roethlisberger until Week 7, but his recently signed and very capable backup Byron Leftwich should fill in admirably after doing so through five games for the Steelers back in 2008.
Despite Byron's capability of leading them, the question of whether he can help them win the first six games in a starting role still remains to be seen.
One thing for sure is that Wallace has earned his No. 2 role among the Steeler wideout's and is primed for an exceptional season. Byron or whoever is the quarterback when Ben comes back will definitely have a rising weapon in Mike Wallace.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2010 Offensive Draft:
Round 3(82) Emmanuel Sanders WR, Round 5(151) Chris Scott OT, Round 6(195) Antonio Brown WR