Underestimating '08 Draft Would Be Rookie Mistake
Nobody, though, could have predicted what little time these youngsters would need to show it.
It's rare to find a rookie quarterback who has started from the season-opener on a winning team. This year, there are two of them in Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco.
Wide receivers are supposed to spend their first season on the bench or as role players while making the difficult transition to facing tougher coverage. Instead, rookies like Denver's Eddie Royal, Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson, and St. Louis' Donnie Avery are the ones schooling opposing secondaries.
Running backs usually have early success but not as many as this season. Tennessee's Chris Johnson, Chicago's Matt Forte and Houston's Steve Slaton all should reach the 1,000-yard mark. Four others—Arizona's Tim Hightower, Carolina's Jonathan Stewart and Detroit's Kevin Smith and New England's BenJavrus Green-Ellis — have scored at least four touchdowns.
The offensive linemen are equally impressive. Seven of the eight tackles selected in the first round already are starters. Two guards chosen in the later rounds—Tampa Bay's Jeremy Zuttah (third) and New Orleans' Carl Nicks (fifth)—also have fared well.
NFL.com draft analyst and scouting guru Gil Brandt said such early productivity for so many offensive rookies is unusual but may become the norm in future years.
"The players we are getting now come out of college much more prepared to play in the NFL," said Brandt, Dallas' vice president of player personnel from 1960 to 1989. "We used to get wishbone and option guys. Now, you see college teams throwing 45 times a game. Everybody also has better weight programs so guys come in much stronger."
No offense to the rookie defensive players, but here's a position-by-position look at the emerging stars on the other side of the football:
Quarterbacks: If the draft were held again today, Ryan wouldn't have lasted until the third overall pick and Flacco would be long gone by the 18th selection.
Ryan is so far advanced that Atlanta (6-3) can run offensive schemes like the no-huddle without worrying about him being overwhelmed. Ryan's decision-making—he hasn't thrown an interception in four home games—also is advanced beyond his years.
Flacco wasn't nearly as polished when the season began, relying on his strong arm to compensate for the extra time he needed to read defenses. But Flacco is becoming more decisive with his throws and has now posted four consecutive interception-free games—all of which were Ravens victories.
"It seems like there was such negativity out there surrounding early picks on quarterbacks," Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "It was almost a naysayer approach like 'We've seen all the percentages. This is not going to work.' This speaks well of the personnel people and coaches that you can quickly develop a quarterback acquired early in the draft."
Running backs: Of every offensive position, this is the one where rookies usually make the biggest splash. But many of them also are removed in passing situations because of suspect ability in pass blocking and blitz pick-ups. That hasn't been the case with Johnson and Forte, both of whom are every-down backs.
Running back also remains a value pick. Of the seven rookies who have rushed for at least 89 yards the past two weeks, only Johnson (No. 24 overall), Forte (No. 44) and Baltimore's Ray Rice (No. 55) were first-day selections.
Wide receivers: The Broncos immediately knew they had something special in Royal when he caught nine passes for 146 yards in his NFL debut against Oakland. Jackson also made a quick impact for the Eagles, while Avery took advantage of his chance when promoted to the starting lineup in Week Four.
Dimitroff believes all three players share common threads.
"They all can fly and are good start-stop types," Dimotroff said. "That's huge in the NFL—the ability to separate from defenders."
Offensive line:The lack of shutdown left tackles in free agency led to six being picked in the first round. Five of them are starting led by Denver's Ryan Clady, who Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has already touted as a future Pro Bowl selection.
"Left tackle is a really tough position to play because you're usually playing against the best pass-rusher a defense has to offer," Brandt said. "Everybody probably reaches at that position a little in the draft. There was a feeling that Houston reached on [first-round pick] Duane Brown, but the guy has come in and started since Week One and is not a bad left tackle."
The Class of 2008 should shine even brighter in years to come if players like Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall, Chicago left tackle Chris Williams and Washington wideout Devin Thomas shake the injury bugs that have plagued their rookie campaigns.
Two more running backs—Oakland's Darren McFadden and Dallas' Felix Jones—flashed standout play-making skills before getting hurt. Plus, some players like Miami quarterback Chad Henne generated preseason excitement about their potential.
Brandt said he doesn't expect three rookies to get selected for the Pro Bowl like in 2007. But he also believes the Class of 2008 has better overall depth beyond the first round.
"The player you got [later] in this year's draft is better than the one last year," Brandt said.
A new wave of quality offensive players backs Brandt's point.
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