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2011 NFL Draft Predictions: Rookies That Can Make the Biggest Impact Next Season

Chris EggemeyerCorrespondent IJanuary 18, 2011

2011 NFL Draft Predictions: Rookies That Can Make the Biggest Impact Next Season

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The 2011 NFL Draft is just around the corner.

    Can't you just smell it in the air?

    Players like Nick Fairley, Patrick Peterson and A.J. Green are all undoubtedly starting to prepare for the NFL Combine, while the draft board dust starts to settle from the Andrew Luck fallout.

    I'm sure you've all been flooded with mock drafts, team needs analysis, free agency articles and all other kinds of offseason team modification breakdowns and predictions, so I'm not going to bother you with that.

    Instead, how about we look into the future of these players?

    You're all excited about the 2011 NFL Draft class entering the league. I can feel it, so let's talk about that magical future in front of them.

    It's hard to figure out who is going to dominate and who isn't, but hey, we can try, so here are 15 players entering the league this coming season who can make the biggest impact.

A.J. Green, WR, Georgia

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    For those of you who haven't read any of my draft articles, let me let you in on a little secret: I think A.J. Green is the man.

    That having been said, though, the evidence is all there. Just watch the video. The first time I saw this video, I knew that Green was something special.

    At 6'4", 208 pounds, Green has the perfect build for a receiver and he shows all of the essentials to succeed at the next level: great hands, excellent body control, physicality and speed.

    Green is the kind of player that a quarterback can trust enough to throw the ball in his direction and know that he will come down with it.

    Green is also a very hard worker, a mature player, a huge competitor and is well-respected by the coaches and players at Georgia. He's exactly the kind of player any coach would want on his team.

    There's no way that a guy this talented won't make a huge impact in his first year, especially considering that he'll certainly be going to a team that needs a star wide receiver.

Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas

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    As far as I'm concerned, the quarterbacks that are poised to make the most immediate impact in the NFL are the ones that come from pro-style offenses, which narrows the list of top quarterbacks in the 2011 NFL Draft to two players: Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett.

    Both could easily end up on this list, but to me, Ryan Mallett just seems like more of a sure thing.

    Mallett has a huge arm and couples that with great accuracy, which will make him a threatening quarterback at the next level.

    Mallett is likely going to end up as a top pick to a team like Arizona, San Francisco or Tennessee, which all need new starting quarterbacks, putting him in prime position for a quick transition and quick return on investment for his new team.

Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois

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    There are going to be about six or seven teams potentially searching for a new starting running back in the NFL Draft this year.

    That bodes well for Mikel Leshoure.

    When I first heard that Leshoure had declared for the draft, I was apprehensive. The guy only has three college seasons under his belt, and only in one of those seasons did he carry the full load (last season).

    The more I watch this guy, though, the more I like him. At 6'1", 230 pounds, Leshoure is a big back and that comes through in his playing style. He breaks arm tackles well and plays with a lot of strength.

    The drawback of that, though, is that he lacks great top end speed, which is going to keep him from scoring on some long touchdown runs in the NFL.

    To compensate for that, though, Leshoure has a wicked burst of speed that can propel him quickly through holes, around defenders and down sidelines.

    He is also surprisingly nimble. He doesn't have a great jump-cut or some of the other moves you see in smaller backs, but he changes direction well, a skill that gets him around a good number of defenders.

    Leshoure will have the chance to step into a starting lineup from the first day and, should he condition well in training camp, could end up being somewhere between LeGarrette Blount and Michael Turner as far as style and impact go.

Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    Practically all of the offensive tackles in the draft this year will have the potential to make a huge impact on their respective teams, but Gabe Carimi finds himself in a unique position.

    As one of the middle guys in a group of talented tackles, Carimi has a high likelihood of landing with either the Chicago Bears or the Green Bay Packers.

    For those of you who may have been living in a hole this past year, the Bears and the Packers need offensive linemen. Badly.

    Chicago fans will recall the day Jay Cutler was sacked nine times by the New York Giants, and Green Bay fans will remember the concussions Aaron Rodgers continues to suffer on account of bad protection.

    As a big, physical player, Carimi will fit in better than most people think, and he has the potential to make a huge difference on any team he ends up with (but especially the Bears or the Packers).

Stephen Paea, DT, Oregon State

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    Show of hands: How many of you have seen this video before?

    Well, for those of you who haven't, here's a one sentence summary: This is Stephen Paea, defensive tackle for Oregon State, bench pressing 225 pounds 44 times after a workout.

    This video was taken during the 2009 season.

    Oh yeah, and did I forget to mention that the NFL Combine bench press record is 45 repetitions?

    Well, now you know.

    Paea is a physical monster who has the strength to push practically any offensive lineman backwards, collapse the pocket or split the double team.

    I have no doubt that there will be a team running a 4-3 that will pick him up and start him, and he is sure to have a big impact. He won't be putting up Ndamukong Suh-like numbers, but he'll do good things for the team that drafts him, that's for sure.

Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU

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    The first time I saw Patrick Peterson play, I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

    This guy is a freak athlete with legendary body control who has a penchant for making the highlight reel with some spectacular plays.

    To me, Peterson is the kind of player that coaches can build a defense around. He's just that good.

    One of the things that sticks out to me most about him, and you can see this in the video, is that he does everything at a professional level, not just a college level. Just watch his interceptions and you'll see that he makes a conscious effort to get two feet down in bounds.

    In addition to his prowess as a coverage guy, Peterson is also a great kick returner, so he provides in two aspects of the game for the lucky team that picks him.

    If there is one guy that I would tab for a way-too-premature Defensive Rookie of the Year, it would be Peterson.

Akeem Ayers, OLB, UCLA

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Akeem Ayers is going to make some team very happy, but not because of his ability to generate pass rushes.

    Don't get me wrong, Ayers is a good pass rusher. As a 4-3 outside linebacker, Ayers has recorded 11 sacks in his three years, which is pretty impressive.

    That's not the important part of his game, though.

    Ayers is the kind of linebacker that teams can feel comfortable trusting in coverage. He has great size and speed and his numbers reflect good coverage (six interceptions in two years), good tackling (69 tackles in 2009, 68 tackles in 2010) and an ability to strip the ball (two career forced fumbles).

    Ayers won't be making headlines often in his first year in the NFL, but the team that takes him is going to get a lot of quiet achievement from Ayers as a coverage man.

Cameron Heyward, DE/DT, Ohio State

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    In the course of looking into what the San Diego Chargers need for the draft, I naturally ran down the list of possible defensive ends relatively thoroughly, and I'm not sure any of them surprised me as much as Cameron Heyward did.

    Heyward played both inside and outside on the defensive line at Ohio State, which gives him the proper experience to make the switch to the 3-4, and his production improved steadily until this year (people started to take notice, go figure).

    Somehow, though, his stock has fallen to the point where he finds himself looking up at guys like J.J. Watt and Cameron Jordan.

    While Watt and Jordan are certainly great players, they just don't seem to have the same potential that Heyward has.

    Heyward is everywhere on the football field. He's in the backfield attacking the quarterback or the running back, he's controlling the line of scrimmage and sometimes he's even backing off the line.

    He manages all this while carrying a massive frame (6'5", 290 lbs).

    Heyward can be a true difference maker for a lot of teams, either in a 4-3 or a 3-4 front. Expect him to live up to the hype.

Rahim Moore, S, UCLA

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    Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    Rahim Moore has a lot of obvious things going for him.

    He's the top-rated safety in the draft this year.

    He's had 14 interceptions in his three years at UCLA (10 of which came in one season).

    He has proven that he has the intelligence and ability to dominate the free safety position.

    There's something that separates him from everyone, though, and that's his personality.

    Moore is known as a good student, a hard worker, a dedicated athlete and a guy who cares about his physical condition. He is a real student of the game and models himself after the great Ed Reed, which is always a good sign.

    Moore is the kind of safety who can make a huge difference as a centerfield-type player, which gives him a lot of potential to shine next year, since there are plenty of teams that could use a guy like that (I'm looking at you Houston).

Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska

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    Eric Francis/Getty Images

    I suppose that while we're on the subject of difference makers in the backfield, we have to retrace our steps a bit to players that are expected to go in the top half of the draft. Now back to Prince Amukamara, a cornerback who many hail as the next true shutdown corner.

    While I do have my doubts about him after his performance against Oklahoma State, there is still way too much evidence to prove that he will end up coming close to the accolades that have been thrown his way.

    Amukamara had no interceptions and no fumble recoveries this year, but that shouldn't scare you. It's mostly because no one really wanted to throw his way.

    Amukamara is a physical player who uses his hands well and his ability to get in the faces of receivers and to elevate are going to translate well to the professional level.

    Amukamara is likely going to end up with a team that really needs him, which means that he will more than likely be afforded the spotlight he needs to really shine.

Casey Matthews, ILB, Oregon

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    I've been talking about Casey Matthews for a long time now and he could be one of the big steals of this draft class.

    As an inside linebacker for the Oregon Ducks, Matthews was integral to the success of the Oregon defense, and the steady increase in his numbers shows how he developed into that role.

    In his four years at Oregon, Matthews has improved in every category (except for his number of sacks in 2009 and 2010, which were equal at three).

    Aside from all of that, though, Matthews is a player that goes 100 percent for the entire game, who plays with a lot of intelligence and who uses his size effectively.

    Good pre-draft workouts should shoot him up the board a bit, but there are still going to be people with reservations, and that's fair. In spite of all that, though, Matthews could very well enter a team as a backup and quickly work his way to the top.

    He just has that kind of potential.

Mike Pouncey, C, Florida

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    Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images

    There is no position on the field, in my opinion, that deserves more respect than centers.

    Skill position players get plenty of recognition and tackles often enter that conversation as well, but no one ever hears about the center and it really is a pity.

    A great center can be the biggest difference maker in the performance of an offensive line as a unit, because he's the guy who not only anchors the middle, but who calls the blocks at the line of scrimmage.

    Thus credit has to go to Mike Pouncey who, as the best center in the draft this year, is, in my opinion, the most likely to make a huge impact as a rookie offensive lineman.

    You may not see it in all the plays he makes, but you'll see it in the overall better play of the offensive line that he becomes a part of. You'll see.

Justin Houston, OLB, Georgia

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    I know I bring it up all the time, but the most important thing you can see in a prospect is consistent improvement, and Justin Houston is a perfect example of this.

    As his role in the defense in Georgia has improved, so have his abilities and so have his numbers.

    Houston is a sure tackler with a great speed rush, a combination that not only allows him to get to the quarterback, but that makes him a potent sideline-to-sideline threat in covering both the run and short passing routes.

    Judging by the fact that he does his best work against the best competition, I'd say Houston has a pretty good shot at making a good deal of noise in his first year in the NFL.

John Clay, RB, Wisconsin

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    As a person with a lot of Big Ten fans for friends, I found myself hearing a lot about guys like Terrelle Pryor and Denard Robinson, with the power running game in Wisconsin making it into conversations only occasionally.

    That's why I was so surprised when I watched my first Wisconsin game.

    While Montee Ball certainly stole the spotlight, redshirt junior John Clay got onto the field a couple of times and made running the football look easy, so I decided to investigate him.

    The first thing that caught my eye in my searches: 6'1", 255. That would be his approximate height and weight.

    Yeah, he's a monster.

    Clay may not have burning speed or quick moves, but he carries his bulk extremely well and has the potential to fit perfectly into the fullback/running back hybrid position that more and more teams are falling in love with (just look at San Diego's Mike Tolbert; he's like a carbon copy).

    Clay isn't going to be a marquee rookie. He's not going to win Rookie of the Year or anything like that.

    I can say, though, that Clay will do good things for some team, which is more than you can ask from a guy whose draft stock is sitting in the mid rounds at best.

Sam Acho, DE, Texas

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    Bob Levey/Getty Images

    If I had to put a name to it, Sam Acho is my "sleeper pick."

    This is a guy who has put up great numbers with extreme consistency in spite of all the struggles Texas has been through, and yet he finds himself buried on the draft boards.

    Somehow, a guy who gets eight sacks and two forced fumbles two years in a row gets no recognition.

    Acho has the ability to come into the league as either a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 outside linebacker and something tells me that he's going to make a name for himself.

    Maybe it's the film I've watched. Maybe it's his prototype size and speed. Heck, maybe he just has an NFL name.

    Either way, keep your eyes on Acho. He could very well end up being a "big splash" guy.

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