With the 2010 NFL Draft firmly in the rear view mirror, the only rational thing left to do is to look ahead to 2011.
Summer workouts are in full swing, the inevitable rookie holdouts have begun, and preseason exhibitions are right around the corner. Football is most definitely back, so let's look at some of the young stars who may be joining the elite next April.
Over to you, Roger!
A.J. Green, Wide Receiver, Georgia
Don't get me wrong, the Rams greatly improved themselves from 2009 to 2010. Rookie quarterback Sam Bradford is ushering in a new era for St. Louis, and this offseason has helped the Rams to improve across the board.
However, Bradford does not have a legitimate number one target to throw to. Donny Avery, rookie Mardy Gilyard, and Laurent Robinson cannot be counted on to produce No. 1 receiver statistics, and none of them would be called an “intimidating threat” by opposing defenses.
The fact of the matter is the Rams have $78 million dollars invested in Sam Bradford, so providing him the tools necessary to succeed will be paramount.
A.J. Green has drawn comparisons to Randy Moss, as both share 6’4” frames as well as similar playing styles. Green is coming off an All-SEC season in which he caught 47 passes for 751 yards and six touchdowns, and many see him as a perennial All-Pro down the road.
Jake Locker, Quarterback, Washington
The Bills are in the midst of a quarterback competition for their starting job, with Trent Edwards, Brian Brohm, and Ryan Fitzpatrick all in contention.
Edwards is coming off an injury-ridden 2009 campaign in which Fitzpatrick took over midseason, and Brian Brohm is getting his first real shot at a starting job after flopping in Green Bay. To be honest, I don't think any of those guys are fit to lead an NFL franchise.
Chan Gailey is looking for a specific type of quarterback to run his offense, and if Edwards, Fitzpatrick, or Brohm can't step up and play, I would expect Buffalo to look for a young signal-caller via the draft.
Jake Locker had a real shot of going first overall in 2010 after an astoundingly good year at Washington. A true dual-threat quarterback, Locker is a dangerous runner as well as a strong passer, and he appears to be a good fit for the new coach.
Barring some sort of injury or poor performance, Locker should be off the board quickly come April.
Andrew Luck, Quarterback, Stanford
It is too early to deem the Matt Cassel trade a failure, but last season was further indication that Cassel needs to improve—and quickly.
The Chiefs and former Patriots VP Scott Pioli spent $63 million on Cassel, hoping he would duplicate the surprisingly good performance he showed filling in for the injured Tom Brady in 2008. Last season, however, Cassel's inexperience was more evident than ever. With a touchdown-interception ratio of 16-16, a pass completion percentage of 55 percent (27th in the NFL), and a YPP of 5.93 (30th), Cassel had the exact opposite season the Chiefs were hoping for.
Granted, Cassel's offensive line was not what anyone would call "stellar," and he had little to no receiving help with the exception of Chris Chambers and Dwayne Bowe, but this season he should have less room for excuses. If the Chiefs find themselves picking in the top five for the fourth consecutive season, extreme changes will be made.
Matt Cassel could realistically be cut to save the $7.5 million dollar option he will be owed, which would leave Kansas City without a true quarterback. Andrew Luck is young but already pro-ready, and he is primed for a big jump in production this season.
Even if Kansas City hangs on to Cassel, the idea of taking a quarterback to challenge him must be at the very least considered.
Marcell Dareus, Defensive Tackle, Alabama
The Browns addressed some of their chief offensive needs in the 2010 draft, taking running back Monterio Hardesty and quarterback Colt McCoy. However, some large defensive holes still remain.
Defensive tackle Shaun Rogers is 31 years old, and on top of that, he had an incident in which he carried a loaded gun on to a plane in his luggage. I don’t know about Mike Holmgren’s player conduct policy, but if I’m a team president, I don’t want those kind of problems coming into my locker room.
The nose tackle position (which Rogers plays) cannot afford to be ignored, and Rogers’ replacement needs to be waiting in the wings.
Marcell Dareus is perhaps the top defensive player in college going into the 2011 season, and he shined as a mere sophomore at Alabama. Dareus has great size, and he is precisely the kind of player Holmgren would target to be his nose tackle of the future.
Holmgren isn’t flashy when it comes to drafting, so I wouldn’t expect the Browns to take a quarterback this high, even if Jake Delhomme struggles.
Ryan Mallett, Quarterback, Arkansas
If Pete Carroll’s plans for Charlie Whitehurst don’t pan out, I’ll bet the Seahawks will be looking for a franchise quarterback in the draft.
Luckily, as I said before, this quarterback class may be the best in recent memory, so drafting in the top five will allow Seattle to have a chance at one of the three best, and Ryan Mallett would be, by default, the best quarterback available.
Matt Hasselbeck is over the hill, and this season may be one of his last in the NFL. Mallett is a raw prospect with a huge arm to go along with a lofty 6’7” frame, but it will take him a season or two of tutelage before he can be a star. The Seahawks passed on Jimmy Clausen in 2010, a guy that many thought would be snatched up by Seattle to be Matt Hasselbeck’s eventual replacement. But that was not the case, and right now, a training camp battle is brewing to see who will win the starting spot.
The NFC West is a very winnable division right now, and Seattle knows it. They have secured a franchise bookend in Russell Okung, and a talented, face-of-the-franchise quarterback could have them seriously competing in the playoffs.
Robert Quinn, Defensive End, North Carolina
The Buccaneers made a great pick in Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, and I think he will be an anchor of the Tampa defensive line for years. But while the Bucs secured two very talented DTs (McCoy and Brian Price), their pass rush is still lacking.
The late Gaines Adams, God rest him, was meant to be the solution to that problem when the team drafted him in 2007, but he ended up being traded to Chicago after two disappointing seasons in Tampa.
Robert Quinn from UNC would be the perfect candidate for a starting defensive end job in Tampa Bay with his superb NCAA pedigree. Quinn is coming off of a stellar 2009 season in which he had a staggering 19 tackles for losses, as well as an astounding 11 sacks.
At 6’5” and 270 pounds, Quinn has exemplary size for the position, and he would add yet another dangerous element to what is becoming one of the best young defensive lines in the NFL.
If Tampa ever wants to compete in the NFC South, pressuring Drew Brees and Matt Ryan will be crucial, and building upon an already improving defensive line would be a great step toward meeting that goal.
Julio Jones, Wide Receiver, Alabama
In my opinion, the Jaguars made a terrible pick in the first round of the 2010 draft in deciding to take California defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, a guy who many had going in the second or third round. Now I’m not saying Alualu can’t be a good player, I just don’t think he will be first-round good. In my opinion, Dez Bryant would have made more sense, as David Garrard really has nobody to throw to. The fact of the matter is, Mike Sims-Walker is not a number one receiver, and if Jacksonville wants Garrard to take them places, building him a talented arsenal of wideouts wouldn’t be a bad place to start. The Jaguars made some good picks to strengthen their offensive line in the 2009 draft (Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton), so all they need now is some offensive production. Julio Jones would be the next best option if A.J. Green is gone, and the Alabama receiver just oozes talent. At 6’4” and 218 pounds, Jones is built like Terrell Owens, and although he has had some issues with dropped balls and lapses in concentration, there is no doubting his vast upside.
Cameron Heyward, Defensive End/Tackle, Ohio State
Denver's current starting defensive ends Justin Bannan and Jarvis Green are both 31 years old, and neither has much left in the tank. Needless to say, the Broncos will be without a legitimate starting defensive end in a couple of years when those two retire, unless they look for young talent in the draft. Cameron Heyward is a talented and versatile defender from Ohio State, and he would be the likely target of Josh McDaniels if fellow end Robert Quinn is off the board. Heyward stands 6’6” and weighs in at a stout 288 pounds, and he would complement linebacker and sack technician Elvis Dumervil quite nicely. Fast enough to play end and strong enough to play tackle, Heyward is the quintessential 3-4 lineman, and he is a guy who an entire offensive line has to prepare for. There aren’t really a great deal of offensive needs for Denver at this point, as they spent both of their 2010 first-round picks on offensive players (WR Demaryius Thomas and QB Tim Tebow), as last year's first-round pick, used on running back Knowshon Moreno.