NFL Draft 2011: The 10 Players Most Likely to Start from Day 1
What makes a rookie an immediate starter in the NFL draft?
There are several factors actually, but none provide a singular, definitive answer.
If an NFL team doesn't have a reliable existing starter at a position, then certainly a rookie is more likely to be pressed into a starting role.
If the rookie exhibits tremendous initial skills, he is also extremely likely to crack the starting lineup.
Prior to the lockout and collective-bargaining mess, rookie contracts would also unfortunately have a bearing on which players start and which didn't. For example, you weren't going to pay Matthew Stafford or Sam Bradford $40-50 million dollars in guaranteed money and have him sit on the bench for very long.
However, since a rookie wage scale seems to be a virtual certainty with any new collective-bargaining agreement, teams should feel less pressure to start early draft picks.
Obviously, not all positions on a football team are weighted equally and it takes a lot more for a rookie quarterback (especially one not drafted early) to start immediately than it does a running back because more learning must occur before the player is ready for the NFL.
The uncertainty of the NFL labor situation further complicates the learning process for rookies and if no agreement is reached anytime in the next few months there just won't be many first-year players capable of stepping in and contributing anything significant.
Regardless, here are a list of 10 rookie prospects that I believe are the most likely to start from day one of the NFL season.
1. Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama
Dareus, barring injury, is a mortal lock to start on Day One for a number of reasons.
First, consider that he is unlikely to fall past the top three picks in the draft held by Carolina, Denver, and Buffalo, respectively. Each of those teams are ridiculously thin on the defensive line and would immediately be improved by suiting Dareus up.
Second, consider that Dareus is equally suited to play a 5-technique (outside shade on the offensive tackle) as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme or as 3-technique (outside shade on the guard) as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme.
He has a rare combination of agility and strength and can play both on obvious running or passing downs.
Finally, he doesn't take plays off and even though NFL teams typically rotate defensive lineman, Dareus won't need many plays off.
2. Leonard Hankerson, WR, Miami
This might seem like an illogical choice to some people as Hankerson seems most likely to be drafted late in the first round or early in the second round, but the lanky wideout has several things going in his favor.
Hankerson runs very good routes and has an innate understanding of where the ball is in flight. He may not outrun too many defenders but he has the necessary size, hands, and durability to be a starting outside receiver in the NFL.
Hankerson had his best year by far in 2010 (72 catches for 1,156 yards and 13 touchdowns) despite poor quarterback play and would blossom catching passes from one of the elite quarterbacks in the game that typically play for the teams drafting in the bottom of the first round. For example, the Green Bay Packers have a pretty good guy named Rodgers throwing the ball for them.
Green Bay needs a bigger receiver, as Donald Driver is breaking down at 36 years old and Jordy Nelson is probably not the answer across from Greg Jennings.
Might Tom Brady want a big target back to replace Randy Moss? The Patriots have the first pick of the second round and Hankerson might be a good fit.
If Hankerson slips by those teams, but goes early in the second round, I have little doubt that he would step in and be the first, second or best receiver in Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Tennessee, Washington, St. Louis, etc.
3. Mark Ingram, RB, Alabama
I know that I put Ingram on my most overrated list and that this might seem to be a contradiction to some people.
However, I never said that Ingram wasn't a good player or a logical starter. I just wouldn't select him in the first round for a variety of reasons that have been discussed previously.
Running backs, while they have diminished value in today's NFL, also have one of the smallest learning curves of any player.
Other than learning blocking schemes, which can be problematic for some players, running backs make immediate impacts on their teams frequently.
Ingram is a complete back who will work hard enough to learn the offense, who is durable enough to be the primary runner, and is capable and tough enough to sacrifice himself in pass protection in order to keep the quarterback upright.
4. Cameron Jordan, DE, California
I go back and forth on how highly I value Cal's Cameron Jordan. One thing I don't waver on is whether he is ready to start in the NFL.
He is a strong player with an NFL-ready frame at 6'4", 285 pounds. He is a good run defender, and has long arms to knock down passes and drag down running backs and quarterbacks.
Jordan is not going to put up double-digit sacks, but if he is drafted to play a 3-4 end, and I think he will be, there isn't any reason for him not to start at least from a physical standpoint.
Put another way, Jordan may not have a ton of upside but you know what he brings and it's enough for him to be a solid starter.
Jordan's father, Steve, was a six-time Pro Bowl tight end during 13 seasons with the Minnesota Vikings so I would surmise that Cameron understands the mental tenacity to play at the highest level too.
5. Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU
If you read my columns, you probably know by now that I think Patrick Peterson is the best player in the draft, or at least figures prominently in the discussion.
Yet, the reason he makes this list because at 6'1", 222 pounds, even if he was selected by a team that had adequate cornerbacks, Peterson would get the starting nod or just line up as the team's free safety.
I know that Peterson's reportedly low Wonderlic score has some people questioning his learning capacity, but his physical attributes will bail him out while he gets "on the job" training.
6. Julio Jones, WR, Alabama
Julio Jones will likely be a tremendous receiving threat at the NFL level.
There are two even better reasons why he will emerge as a day one starter in the NFL.
One, he has been a playmaker since his freshman year at Alabama showing that he won't be intimidated by the spotlight.
Two, he is the best blocking receiver in this draft and it's not particularly close either. As such, an NFL team will likely put up with some early drops because of Jones' elite physical presence and other measurables.
Teams that prefer a run-first attack are going to absolutely salivate over the last of this Alabama trio of studs because he'll be looking for defenders to pick off 10-20 yards downfield and then he'll do just that.
7. D.J. Williams, TE, Arkansas
The temptation will be to dismiss Arkansas' D.J. Williams, because he's barely 6-2, 236 pounds, as an H-back unable to start fulltime, but you have to think about how tightends are evolving in the NFL.
The days of a tightend being an in-line blocker are becoming less and less predominant as the passing game becomes more important.
The Patriots' Aaron Hernandez was labeled as a pure H-back before last season, yet he started seven games as a rookie and more impressively caught 45 passes for 563 yards and six touchdowns.
I think Williams might be as good as Hernandez as a receiver and a better blocker.
The one thing that might prevent Williams from being selected in the drafts' first two rounds is a lack of vertical speed.
What Williams offers to a quarterback in sure hands and comfortability (remember he caught laser beams from Ryan Mallet) more than makes up for the occasional downfield big play he won't produce and that's while he'll quickly find his way into one of 32 starting lineups.
8. Mike Pouncey, C/G, Florida
Mike Pouncey isn't necessarily the best offensive lineman in this draft. He might not even be close, but his ability to play center or guard makes him an almost certainty to start on opening day.
Critics have suggested that Pouncey is not the same player as his twin, Maurkice, a 16-game starter and standout for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He's not, but there is no shame in that given Maurkice's Pro Bowl skills and reputation already as one of the game's best interior players.
Mike Pouncey is strong, tough and physical enough to match-up with some of the big nose tackles in the NFL.
He has some trouble with snapping out of the shotgun, so some draft experts suggest that he will make a better guard.
Given the dearth of quality centers in the NFL, I think that he'll play the pivot position in week one.
9. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin
There is a school of thought that selecting an offensive lineman from the University of Wisconsin is an actual NFL draft strategy, perhaps only second in priority to taking an offensive lineman from Boston College.
Joe Thomas, Mark Tauscher, Casey Rabach, and Corey Raymer come to mind almost immediately as former Badgers who have been successful in the NFL.
I don't necessarily subscribe to that school of thought, but I'm willing to bet that Gabe Carimi is ready for the professional ranks.
Carimi will be an immediate starter at right tackle or at guard because he is a downright nasty offensive lineman who will improve his team's running game by pushing defenders to the ground right up to the whistle blows and sometimes beyond.
I see Carimi as a more athletic Jon Runyan, the former tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles, Tennesee Titans/Houston Oilers and San Diego Chargers.
Runyan didn't start in his rookie year, but he didn't miss a start in 11 years after that.
Carimi is a four-year starter who may not have the elite movement skills to draw attention as a potential blindside protector but he has played against top competition and the NFL will not come as a shock to his system.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said of some of his highly rated peers in this year's draft.
10. Greg Jones, ILB, Michigan State
So, let's get this straight. Yours truly has a guy ranked as the 90th player overall by nfldraftscout.com and is projected as a third or fourth round pick at best as a surefire starter and the last player on this list?
Look, I know that Jones is short and not exceptionally strong. I also know that he has to go a 4-3 system where the defensive tackles will keep offensive linemen off of him.
But, I also know that Jones is a four-year starter, an outstanding tackler, with exceptional extincts.
Most importantly, he is a natural leader who won't be overwhelmed by an NFL atmosphere.
I have seen a natural comparison to Panthers linebacker Jon Beason, but I think a better match might be a poor man's Zach Thomas or Derrick Brooks.
By the way, Brooks started 13 games of 16 games during his first year in 1995 and started every other game in his storied 14-year career.