NFL Rookie Rankings: 25 First-Year Players Who Look Like Stars

Vincent FrankCorrespondent ISeptember 16, 2011

NFL Rookie Rankings: 25 First-Year Players Who Look Like Stars

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    It isn't rare for rookies to get off to a strong start in their first season. In fact, it happens every season. What makes these debuts so interesting is to look at players that weren't highly regarded come up big time early on.

    This season a multitude of those players performed at a high level in the first week of the NFL season. Chris Neild of the Washington Redskins and Randall Cobb of the Green Bay Packers come to mind first.

    That said, there is a reason why some players went before others: They are just more talented with a larger amount of upside.

    While the 2011 draft class wasn't the most talented in recent history, there were still a lot of players that I had high expectations of after watching college football last season and working on scouting reports heading into the draft.

    Today I am going to focus on 25 players that already look like stars in the making. 

25. LB K.J. Wright, Seattle Seahawks

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    I was extremely high on K.J. Wright coming out of Mississippi State, where he put up gaudy numbers. He had 93 tackles and three sacks for the Bulldogs as a senior. 

    Wright fell to the fourth round in April's draft where the Seattle Seahawks were happy to pick him up. The rookie linebacker got a chance to start in his first NFL game last week when David Hawthorne was injured and missed the game against San Francisco.

    All Wright did was step right up and help Seattle hold Frank Gore in check. He recorded five tackles and was all over the field. 

    Moving forward, Wright may not be the starter when Hawthorne returns but he is going to have a major impact in the near future. I really like his speed and ability to get to the ball-carrier. One thing he will have to work on is pass coverage but that goes for most rookie linebackers in the NFL. 

24. OT Nate Solder, New England Patriots

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    Insert Nate Solder of the New England Patriots, who probably should be higher on this list. He played well against the Miami Dolphins as the revamped right side of the Patriots line took care of business.

    Some people were shocked that New England selected Solder ahead of the likes of Anthony Castonzo, Danny Watkins and Gabe Carimi. But it looks like Solder has a much better future ahead of him.

    This is one of the reasons why New England continues to dominate the AFC East year in and year out.  

23. DE Pernell McPhee, Baltimore Ravens

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    There was absolutely no reason why McPhee fell to the final pick of the fifth round in April's draft. He was a stud up front for Mississippi State in college, while not putting up flashy numbers (seven sacks in two seasons). That doesn't tell the entire story. 

    He was entrenched along the defensive line in college to stop the run, which will be his role with the Baltimore Ravens. At 280 pounds, he fits what Baltimore likes to do in their front three. 

    McPhee only had one tackle in his debut with Baltimore but their coaches are extremely high on him moving forward. You can expect the rookie defensive end to see more action as the season progresses. 

22. LB Greg Jones, New York Giants

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    Greg Jones, an ultra-productive linebacker from Michigan State, fell to the sixth round because a wide array of injury concerns. That said, his stats in college speak for themselves.

    He had three consecutive 100-tackle seasons for the Spartans and was a tackling machine in the Big Ten. Besides injury concerns there were issues in regards to Jones' ability in pass defense.

    Those issues didn't suddenly go away when he was drafted by the New York Giants but it is apparent that he is working on them.

    Right now, Jones is the starting middle linebacker in New York's 4-3 scheme. He recorded five tackles against Washington last week and looked like one of the only Giants defenders to have a clue on defense.

    The simple fact that New York entrusted him with the starting job should tell us enough about Greg Jones and his upside. 

21. WR Greg Salas, St. Louis Rams

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    College stats can be deceiving, especially when you are a wide receiver in Hawaii's pass-happy offense. However, Greg Salas looked great in postseason workouts and seems to have all the necessary techniques to be a starting wide receiver in the NFL.

    He runs really good routes, gets separation from defensive backs and has a nice amount of field speed—which we can all agree is different from track speed.

    The Rams attempted to get younger and faster in the draft; they did that with Salas.

    In his debut against the Philadelphia Eagles, the rookie had only one reception for 21 yards but that was going up against three of the best corners in the entire league.

    Look for Sam Bradford to target Salas early and often against a weak New York Giants secondary on Monday. He will be asked to step up because of the injury to Danny Amendola.

20. RB Kendall Hunter, San Francisco 49ers

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    I call Kendall Hunter "the little engine that could." At well under six feet, Hunter's low center of gravity when running the ball disables opposing defenses' ability to bring him to the ground quick.

    The former Oklahoma State running back joined the likes of Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas in the programs history of 4,000-yard backs. In fact, Hunter was one of the most productive collegiate backs in recent history.

    Despite all this, Hunter fell to the fourth round of April's draft and I have absolutely no understanding of why he fell that far. I had given Hunter a second-round grade.

    All Hunter did once joining the San Francisco 49ers was lead the entire NFL in rushing yards during the preseason. Normally those statistics mean absolutely nothing. However, considering the fact that Hunter played against other teams' No. 1 defenses throughout, it has to mean a little more.

    The rookie running back couldn't get it going against Seattle in his debut and only ran the ball a couple times. That said, he was brought in on obvious passing situations and blew up a couple Seattle defenders in pass protection.

    There is no reason to question Hunter's ability to run the ball but if he can protect like that, it means you can expect him to be a starting running back for San Francisco once Gore calls it quits.

    Look for Hunter to be one of the great steals of the 2011 NFL draft.  

19. WR Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks

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    Okay, now this is impressive. Doug Baldwin, an undrafted rookie from Stanford, was going up against his former coach in San Francisco last week. And boy did he have a great game.

    Baldwin had four receptions for 83 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown that brought Seattle within striking distance against the 49ers.

    I watched a whole lot of Stanford football over the last few seasons and was surprised to see that no one took a chance on Baldwin towards the end of the draft.

    In fact, he may end up being the best Baldwin of the 2011 rookies—sorry Jon.  

18. RB Jacquizz Rodgers, Atlanta Falcons

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    I guess the inclusion of Rodgers on this list indicates that I believe both Jahvid Best and Darren Sproles are impact players in the league. The reason I say this is because Jacquizz Rodgers reminds me a lot of both of them.

    He will never be an every-down back in the NFL, per say. However, when Rodgers gets the ball he will be an electrifying performer that has an opportunity to take it to the house on every play. Rodgers showed this at Oregon State and, despite falling to the fifth round, has the athletic ability to be a Sproles- or Best-type player.

    In his debut against the Chicago Bears, Rodgers did nothing on the ground (two rushes, zero yards) but he did pick up 33 yards on three receptions. This is indicative of what Rodgers can do, only on a smaller scale.

    Expect the Falcons to utilize him a lot more as the season progresses and don't be surprised if he breaks off three or four huge touchdown scores. The reason why I don't have Rodgers higher on this list is because he will never be an every-down back in the NFL.

17. S Rahim Moore, Denver Broncos

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    Surprisingly, Rahim Moore was the first safety taken in this year's draft and didn't go until the second round. This doesn't mean that the former UCLA star lacks the necessary components to be a star in the NFL. Rather, he is everything that you look for in a strong safety.

    In 2009, Moore led the entire nation with 10 interceptions for the Bruins and was a dominating force in the secondary. Coverage issues caused him to fall to the second round in April's draft.

    That said, Moore looked really good in playing opposite Brian Dawkins against the Oakland Raiders on Monday night. He compiled four tackles and a fumble recovery. Moore has all the necessary tools to be a top-echelon safety in the NFL. It looks as if Denver got two really good defensive players in Von Miller and Rahim Moore in April.

16. DE Jabaal Sheard, Cleveland Browns

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    Jabaal Sheard was one of my favorite defensive players heading into April's draft. There were certain games at Pittsburgh where I noticed him completely dominating opposing offensive lines; sometimes it wasn't even fair. 

    Needless to say, I was surprised to see Sheard fall to the second round but his loss is the Browns' gain. Sheard fits Cleveland's new 4-3 defense perfectly. He is bulky up front in terms of muscle but has the speed to get into the offensive backfield.

    This was evident in his performance against the Cincinnati Bengals last weekend. Although Sheard only recorded two tackles (both for loss) and didn't acquire a sack, he was able to put pressure on Cincinnati's quarterbacks. 

    Moving forward, there is no doubt in my mind that Sheard will be a dominating factor along the outside of Cleveland's defensive line for years to come. It is just going to take him a little bit of time to get used to the speed of the game in the NFL and hone his pass-rushing technique a little bit.  

15. RB Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints

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    I would normally have Mark Ingram higher on this list but as I indicated in this article, his yards-per-rush average in the preseason and against Green Bay worries me a little bit. 

    Ingram averaged fewer than three yards in the preseason and was barely over that average against Green Bay last Thursday. Still, there is absolutely no reason to question the abilities that Ingram has. He is an extremely tough runner, finds holes relatively quickly and is hard to bring down. 

    But what makes Ingram stand out from the rest of the 2011 running back class is the fact that he is strong in pass protection and finds a way into the end zone towards the goal line—two extremely important factors you look for in finding an every-down back.

    Ingram's rush total will climb as he gets used to the NFL and moving forward, you can expect some gaudy numbers from the rookie. 

    I believe he has a chance to be an All-Pro caliber running back in this league. 

14. DT Phil Taylor, Cleveland Browns

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    To say that I questioned the Browns selection of Phil Taylor in the first round would be an understatement. I just didn't think he had what it took to be a difference-maker in the league.

    Well, if his Week 1 performance is any indication, I couldn't have been more wrong. He dominated the middle against Cincinnati, recording six tackles, five solo and two for losses. Those are extremely impressive numbers for a player that sits in the interior of the Browns defensive line. Cincinnati did rush for nearly 140 yards and over four per rush but Taylor was in the middle clogging it up. 

    When Cleveland switched to the 4-3, I completely understood what they were doing on defense. Ahtyba Rubin should have been selected to the Pro Bowl last season after a breakout performance. Lining Taylor up opposite Rubin and placing Jabaal Sheard on the outside has the makings of one of the best young 4-3 defensive lines in the NFL. 

13. DL Chris Neild, Washington Redskins

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    Now, this is where it gets interesting. Chris Neild was the second-to-last pick in April's draft—yes, he was nearly "Mr. Irrelevant."

    So, how do I put him at No. 13 on this list? Easy. He recorded four tackles, two for loss, had two sacks and another QB hit. I can actually go on record and say that he had a pretty dominating performance against the New York Giants last week.

    Still, why do I believe he can be a "star?"

    Sometimes, players who don't have the greatest athletic ability are just able to get it done because of heart and motor. This seems to be the case with the former West Virginia standout. 

12. LB Akeem Ayers, Tennessee Titans

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    It's hard to imagine how UCLA struggled so much last season with Akeem Ayers and Rahim Moore on the defensive side of the ball but they did nonetheless.

    Ayers has a chance to be one of the best defensive players in the 2011 NFL draft class. He is extremely fast, finds lanes in opposing offenses and has great field vision. This was evident in Tennessee's Week 1 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    The rookie linebacker recorded seven tackles and was around the ball throughout the entire game. This is the type of player that I know the Titans have been looking for on defense since they lost Keith Bullock. 

    You can fully expect Ayers to contend for a Pro Bowl spot in the not-so-distant future. 

11. G Stefen Wisniewski, Oakland Raiders

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    Stefen Wisniewski was a first-team All-American center last season for Penn State but the Oakland Raiders decided to move him to left guard in his rookie season. Interestingly, this was the same position that his uncle, Steve, played for the Raiders from 1989-2001, earning eight trips to the Pro Bowl.

    It seems that Oakland's decision to move Wisniewski to left guard couldn't have been a better idea. He was really strong there during the preseason and had a breakout performance in his debut against Denver on Monday. Oakland ran roughshod over Denver's defensive line for over 190 yards. And, the rookie was a big reason for that. 

    Oakland has a recent history of going for the "glamour" pick but the selection of Wisniewski may represent a return to old form for this up-and-coming franchise. 

    Look for him to be a multiple-time Pro Bowl selection before it is all said and done. 

10. LB Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers

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    Simply said, Aldon Smith is an absolute physical specimen at the outside linebacker position for the San Francisco 49ers. While many people were questioning their selection of Smith over the likes of Robert Quinn (who was inactive for St. Louis last week), I was praising the selection.

    San Francisco is switching to the Pittsburgh Steelers' and Green Bay Packers' type of 3-4 defense, therefore, they need to have a dominant pass-rusher at the outside linebacker position.

    Throughout the preseason, Smith showed he could be that guy. He has great athletic ability and a surprisingly pro-ready pass-rushing move. The former Missouri star ranked among the league leaders in preseason sacks.

    Stats may not indicate that Smith played a good game against Seattle but they are not everything. Smith, who only recorded one tackle, broke up a key pass on 3rd down and put pressure on Jackson a couple different times.

    Moving forward you can expect these pressures to turn into sacks and Smith to have a major impact for San Francisco. 

9. WR Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers

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    Last Thursday, Randall Cobb became the first person born in the 1990s to play in the NFL. If that makes you feel old you are not alone.

    Most people that followed college football knew one thing about Randall Cobb's days at Kentucky: He was an electrifying player in nearly every aspect of the game. But he could also be a nice possession receiver as evidenced by his 84-catch performance at Kentucky last season.

    Cobb runs tight routes, has soft hands and gets great separation downfield. To some, it seemed like overkill for Green Bay to draft a receiver, especially with the talent they have at that position. However, it seems Cobb is a great fit for the Packers offense.

    He caught two passes for 34 yards and scored a touchdown last Thursday against New Orleans and returned a punt back from 108 yards for another score.

    It was a great debut for the former Wildcat star and there is no reason to believe he won't continue it this season.  

8. DE J.J. Watt, Houston Texans

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    J.J. Watt had one heck of a performance against a mediocre Indianapolis Colts offensive line last week. He compiled five tackles and put a nice amount of pressure on Kerry Collins. This continues what had been an extremely strong preseason performance for the former Wisconsin Badger defensive end.

    I, for one, was surprised that Houston passed up on Prince Amukamara in order to take another defensive lineman but it seems to have paid off.

    He fits perfectly into Wade Phillips' new 3-4 defensive scheme and can play the run as well as the pass. Look for Watt to have a tremendous impact this season and to build that into a Pro Bowl appearance in the near future.  

7. DL Marcell Dareus, Buffalo Bills

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    Buffalo's run defense last week against Kansas City did not indicate that Dareus had a major presence along the defensive line but that is just on the exterior. Dareus was all over the place against Kansas City; he was able to play the technique extremely well and caused some dramatic matchup problems for both the interior and exterior of the Chiefs offensive line.

    This is nothing new. Dareus was a dominating force for Alabama in a tough SEC conference throughout his college career. You will notice him in a big way as the season progresses.

    I am looking forward to Buffalo switching the linemen around a little bit more as 2011 moves along. He can play both on the outside and inside. This will cause matchup concerns for offensive tackles because Dareus has pretty nice speed for such a big man. 

    Not only will Dareus be able to rack up some sacks, he will remain a solid contributor against the run. He is one of the better all-around defensive players in the 2011 draft. 

6. DE Corey Liuget, San Diego Chargers

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    To be honest with you, I had not heard much about the Illini star before draft season. That said, Liuget is an absolute monster and this is hard to deny.

    I love his motor and ability to play along both sides of the defensive line: outside and inside. He isn't what you normally look for in a 3-4 defensive end because of his pass-rushing skills. Yet, San Diego made a great decision to draft the former Illinois stud.

    He only made two tackles and one for a loss but keep Liuget on your mind when looking at future defensive stars from the 2011 draft.  

5. WR A.J. Green, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Now we get to the top five on this list. We already know the talent that A.J. Green possesses. He is one of the most pro-ready receivers to come into the NFL in a long time, probably up there with Michael Crabtree, who has struggled with injuries.

    Green runs crisp routes, gets great separation and is a valuable safety valve because of his ability to cut off from routes when the quarterback is in trouble. This is an overlooked but important skill for a receiver to have. 

    Last week in his debut against the Cleveland Browns, A.J. Green was relatively quite until the fourth quarter. Up until that point the first-round pick had been targeted just three times without a reception. This all changed with the Bengals down by four points and less than five minutes remaining on the clock. Green would beat Joe Haden and get his first NFL reception. As it turned out, it would also be his first NFL touchdown, which gave the Bengals a lead they would never relinquish.

    Talk about coming up big at a vital time, this is exactly what Green did. 

    Look for more of the same from the stud receiver in 2011. Moving forward, he promises to be Andy Dalton's No. 1 target for the young Bengals team. 

4. DE Ryan Kerrigan, Washington Redskins

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    Talk about making a statement in your NFL debut, this is exactly what Ryan Kerrigan did for the Washington Redskins.

    Some defensive linemen goes their entire careers without recording an interception, let alone returning one for a touchdown. Well, it took Ryan Kerrigan just over a half in his very first NFL game. 

    This is the type of playmaker that the defensive end was with the Purdue Boilermakers in college. As a Notre Dame fan I know this all too well. He has an extremely strong initial move at the point of contact and runs with a great motor. 

    I fully expect the Redskins to have great bookends along their defensive front for years to come with Kerrigan and Brian Orakpo.

    You can no longer say that Washington has no idea what they are doing in the draft following their performance in the annual meeting in April. 

3. WR Julio Jones, Atlanta Falcons

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    Julio Jones couldn't have been more productive in his NFL debut last weekend. He was targeted six times and came away with five receptions and 71 yards. Not too shabby for your first NFL game.

    Anyone who had watched Jones in college wasn't surprised by this performance. He was an ultra-productive receiver at Alabama and produced every single season he was with the Tide. This will not change with the Atlanta Falcons and Matt Ryan.

    I look for Jones to have the same impact that Dez Bryant had with Dallas last season, minus the injuries. If he does, you can expect Ryan to continue looking his way more as the season progresses.

    When it is all said and done, Jones will be the best receiver in the 2011 draft class.  

2. QB Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

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    Well, here we have it. How many of us actually expected Cam Newton to break the rookie passing record in his first NFL start? Not me. In fact, I had come to the conclusion that he was going to struggle a great deal from the outset this season.

    It didn't happen. 

    Instead, Newton looked poised in the pocket, threw the ball on target and almost led his team to victory. In all, Newton completed 65 percent of his passes for over 400 yards and four touchdowns. What? None of those stats are indicative of how Newton performed during the preseason. Rather, they are indicative of his national title days with the Auburn Tigers. 

    The primary difference is that Newton was playing against an NFL-caliber, if you want to call it that, Arizona Cardinals secondary. 

    Moving forward, you cannot expect Newton to duplicate this success for the remainder of the season but it sets a starting point for the ultra-talented signal-caller. More than anything, Newton has instilled some electricity into a vanilla Carolina Panthers offense. 

    My earlier conclusion that Newton will end up being a bust could still happen but the possibility of that happening after this confidence-gaining performance just dropped a great deal. Newton's stock continues to rise. 

1. CB Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals and LB Von Miller, Denver Broncos

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    Patrick Peterson lived up to the Deion comparisons last week—at least, on special teams. His 89-yard punt return for a touchdown was nothing short of amazing. This showed Peterson's athletic ability and pure physical talent.

    However, there was something lost in Peterson's debut. He didn't perform particularly well at corner. Many scouts stated, and I tend to agree, that Peterson will have some learning curve at the corner position from college. 

    This is exactly what happened against the Carolina Panthers last week. That said, make no mistake about it: Patrick Peterson will be one of the better all-around football players in the league in the near future. He has extraordinary footwork and coverage technique for such a young player. 

    Deion Sanders 2.0 might be a stretch but Peterson is going to be a superstar in the NFL. 

    Von Miler would dominate anyone possible, a little like Lawrence Taylor. He did not do that against the Oakland Raiders. Instead, the Denver Broncos defender forced a fumble and pressured Campbell more than once.