Ryan Mathews and the NFL's 12 Most Important Rookies in 2010

Charles ConradContributor ISeptember 9, 2010

Ryan Mathews and the NFL's 12 Most Important Rookies in 2010

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    Rookies battling during training campDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Ideally, NFL teams would like to work their rookie players slowly into the lineup, perhaps waiting a year or two to thrust them into full-time action. In many instances, patience is plausible and indeed the best choice.

    However, in today's pro football, rookies are under more pressure to produce quickly due to big money contracts and an impatient media and fanbase.

    Sometimes success can't wait for long. There are certain rookies who need to come through for their teams in the 2010 season. Not next year, not 2012, but now.

    As the summer breeze travels south and the autumn winds begin to whistle, here is a list of the top dozen newcomers whose contributions are sorely needed.

No. 12: Jacksonville DT Tyson Alualu

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars snagged Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick in the 2010 draft. Considered by many draft gurus to be a reach, Alualu needs to perform well enough to justify being selected a round higher than expected.

    Blessed with quickness and an aggressive style of play, Alualu will attempt to fill a position that has hindered the Jaguars defense since the heyday of the intimidating DT duo of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, both of whom are long gone.

    Teaming with run-stuffer Terrance Knighton, Alualu needs to penetrate the gaps and be a disruptive presence in the backfield while putting pressure on the quarterback. Defensive-minded coach Jack Del Rio needs this high first round choice to come through for added job security in this must-win season.

No. 11: New England CB Devin McCourty

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    The New England Patriots have been getting by with a rather ragtag bunch at the cornerback position the last several years.

    Ever since Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs flew the coop and headed south to join the Philadelphia Eagles, the Patriots have lacked a feared defender at the vital position.

    McCourty, the first round pick from Rutgers, has the natural athleticism and instincts to develop into a superior starting CB in the NFL. He possesses quick feet and the speed to recover if beaten in man coverage.

    With the season-ending injury to starter Leigh Bodden, a veteran who had six interceptions in 2009, McCourty's transition is now all the more vital. The Patriots defense needs McCourty to create some turnovers and handle man-to-man coverage in order to assist an already suspect pass rush.

No. 10: Buffalo HB C.J. Spiller

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    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    The Buffalo Bills have had their share of great halfbacks. Names such as O.J. Simpson, Joe Cribbs, Thurman Thomas, and Willis McGahee have all run to stardom on the shore of Lake Erie.

    Although running back was not a primary need heading into the 2010 draft, the Bills and new general manager Buddy Nix could not resist when Spiller was still available at pick No. 9.

    Even with Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch on the roster, Spiller provides an all-purpose scoring threat the Bills have been lacking recently.

    Aside from instant offense, Buffalo needs Spiller to work his magic in a market that has been hit hard economically. Bills fans are some of the most loyal in the country. But economic factors have led the team to play several games in Canada and further expand their brand into the Toronto area.

    In short order, Spiller is needed to provide a spark into a rather dull offense in a great town that needs a boost.

No. 9: Arizona ILB Daryl Washington

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    The huge crater you might see on a satellite image of Glendale, Arizona may very well be the void left behind by the retirement of future Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. No team will miss a single player this year as much as the Cardinals will miss Warner.

    What, you might ask, does Warner's retirement have to do with rookie linebacker Daryl Washington? Not much, actually. However, the defense as a whole will need to step up and hold opponents to even lower point averages.

    Arizona was respectable in many defensive categories last season, but they didn't need to be great with Warner's high-scoring offense.

    The loss of leading tackler Karlos Dansby, who signed with Miami, will be especially felt in the run defense. That is why Arizona needs Washington, a second-round pick from TCU, to transition quickly. He is not as stout as Dansby but is a good tackler with a nose for the ball. Washington can rush the passer but will need to learn to consistently shed blocks. Gerald Hayes is currently injured, so Washington will work inside with Paris Lenon.

No. 8: Miami OLB Koa Misi

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    The history of the Miami Dolphins is not all about Dan Marino. As a matter of fact, the Dolphins won Super Bowls VII and VIII based largely on their defensive play.

    The famed "No Name Defense" propelled Miami to the only undefeated season in the NFL's modern era. The "Killer Bees" defense of the 1980s carried them to the Super Bowl in 1982 and 1984, both losses.

    Miami must replace the combined 18 sacks they lose from 2009 by letting go of outside linebackers Joey Porter and Jason Taylor. Granted, both players were aging and expensive, but their veteran leadership and production will be missed for now.

    Misi is a second-round pick from Utah who is making the transition from defensive end. He is a hard worker who has pass rush skills despite only registering 10.5 sacks in college. Misi will line up at strong-side outside linebacker opposite Cameron Wake. The Dolphins need both Wake and Misi to provide the pass rush needed to compete in the competitive AFC East.

No. 7: Minnesota CB Chris Cook

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    The Minnesota Vikings have lived with a sour taste in their mouths during the offseason, having fallen just one turnover shy of going to the Super Bowl.

    Now that the iconic Brett Favre has emerged from Hattiesburg, Mississippi to apply his wares in the Great Northern country, the Vikings hope to take the next step toward the elusive Lombardi Trophy.

    Although the Vikings defense ranked second in the NFC in yards allowed per game, the secondary was an obvious weakness. The cornerback position was crippled by injuries to starters Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin. It is not yet clear when Griffin will be ready to play full-time again after an ACL injury.

    In order to compete with the high-octane offenses of the Saints and Packers in the NFC, the Vikings need consistency in the secondary. Veteran Lito Sheppard was signed, but he is on the downside of his career. Cook, a big corner from Virginia, needs to step in fill the void left by Griffin's injury and give the Vikings added confidence to turn their blitzing packages loose.

No. 6: Houston CB Kareem Jackson

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    This is the year the Houston Texans are supposed to be contenders. This is the season they are supposed to beat the Colts, at least once, and make the AFC playoffs.

    The Texans are expected to give Houston their first playoff team since the 1993 Oilers, who lost to Joe Montana's Kansas City Chiefs by a score of 28-20.

    In order to get past the Colts roadblock, Houston needs to ensure that it can defend against the wiles of Peyton Manning and his receiving corps. Losing free agent CB Dunta Robinson does not help matters. Losing Defensive Rookie of the Year linebacker Brian Cushing for the first four games due to suspension doesn't help either.

    Jackson was an important member of Alabama's championship defense in 2009. He has a good size and speed combination and will be inserted into the starting lineup quickly. The Texans need Jackson to effectively replace Robinson and plug the hole at corner lest it become a glaring wound.

No. 5: Philadelphia FS Nate Allen

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    The times, they are a-changing in Philadelphia.

    Gone are the core players of the past decade that led them to five NFC Championships and one Super Bowl appearance. Donovan McNabb, gone. Jon Runyan, gone. Tra Thomas, gone. Brian Westbrook, gone. Brian Dawkins, gone.

    But what is not gone in Philly is coach Andy Reid and plenty of hope for the future. The Eagles have drafted well during the Reid era and have now become one of the youngest teams in the league. New starting QB Kevin Kolb has been groomed as McNabb's replacement. Now is his time.

    While the media focus has been on the loss of McNabb, the problem for last year's Eagles team was the loss of defensive leader Brian Dawkins to Denver. It was very clear that the 2009 Eagles lacked a veteran, physical presence in the secondary.

    Allen, who was chosen with the second-round pick received for McNabb, will start at free safety. The Eagles need Allen to cover ground and make some big plays if they want to contend in the NFC East.

No. 4: Seattle OT Russell Okung

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    New coach Pete Carroll said the Seattle job was the perfect opportunity for him to come back to the NFL.

    He will be leading a team that fell from grace quickly after playing in the Super Bowl only a few years ago. There has already been a Northwestern logger's truckload of turnover on the Seahawks roster for the 2010 season.

    Heading into the 2010 draft, the most glaring need was the vital left tackle position. Longtime Pro Bowler Walter Jones retired in the offseason after struggling with injuries for several years. Seattle's offensive line struggled with injuries and poor play for much of the 2009 season.

    Okung, the last first rounder to sign a contract, will not be ready to play in the season opener because of an ankle injury. The Seahawks need him to protect the blind side of veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who has also been plagued with injuries the last two years. The shoes of Walter Jones are big ones to fill, but Seattle needs Okung to step right in and lace them up.

No. 3: Washington OT Trent Williams

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    They say that things never truly change in our nation's capital. However, the Washington Redskins hope their newest changes will bring different results for the football team.

    Coming off a dismal 4-12 season, the 'Skins made many significant changes. Spendthrift owner Daniel Snyder needs his big money to come through for him for a change.

    General manager Bruce Allen, coach Mike Shanahan, quarterback Donovan McNabb, and the installation of a 3-4 defense led by new coordinator Jim Haslett have brought a spark of optimism to the Redskins faithful in Hog Heaven. McNabb left behind a good situation in Philadelphia, who traded him in favor of a younger Kevin Kolb.

    McNabb sorely needs rookie left tackle Trent Williams to provide much-needed pass protection for him. The position was an albatross for the Redskins during the entire 2009 season. The career-ending spinal condition of Chris Samuels was a deficit-sized loss for Washington. Williams was an All-American at Oklahoma who needs to continue the trend in the NFL and keep McNabb's new uniform clean.

No. 2: San Diego HB Ryan Mathews

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    The 2000s decade's version of L.T. is gone from San Diego. LaDainian Tomlinson has left sunny Southern California and landed within view of the Big Apple with the Jets.

    Declining production and high salary made him expendable, as is usually the case in the salary cap era of professional football. There is no salary cap in 2010, but there may be again in 2011.

    Aside from Tomlinson, the Chargers face the possibility of playing 2010 without leading receiver Vincent Jackson and left tackle Marcus McNeill. Both are embroiled in contract disputes that threaten their seasons.

    Jackson is also suspended by the league for the first three games for two DUI charges. He is being shopped in trade talks with other clubs.

    Mathews will be vital to the success, or lack thereof, of San Diego's offense. With Philip Rivers under center, the Chargers still have their best in charge since Dan Fouts. In order to take the pressure off Rivers, who may be without Jackson, the Chargers need Mathews to live up to his talent and justify trading up to the No. 12 pick to select him.

No. 1: St. Louis OT Rodger Saffold

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    If a St. Louis Rams rookie is rated as the most important draft choice, you might be wondering, why not Sam Bradford? After all, the quarterback is usually the face of the franchise.

    Having accumulated a combined six victories in the last three seasons, heaven knows the Rams could use a little face-saving from a young, talented Heisman Trophy winner.

    Every major financial investment needs an insurance policy for protection. The Rams, under new ownership, have signed Bradford to a six-year, $78 million contract with $50 million guaranteed. This is the highest guaranteed deal in NFL history. That means if Bradford blows out his shoulder again being sacked, he still has all that cash coming to him.

    This is the reason rookie tackle Rodger Saffold, a second-round pick from Indiana, is the most important rookie in 2010. Saffold has won the starting left tackle job and will be responsible for keeping pass rushers such as Joey Porter, Kyle Vanden Bosch, and Shawne Merriman out of Bradford's face. The big money investment needs big time protection.