2011 NFL Rookie Rankings: Chris Steuber's Top 20 Rookies

Chris SteuberContributor ISeptember 3, 2011

2011 NFL Rookie Rankings: Chris Steuber's Top 20 Rookies

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    It’s finally here, the start of the NFL regular season. The business side of football is behind us and the action on the field is about to get serious next week.

    One of the most fascinating parts of this abbreviated offseason and preseason, other than the whirlwind free agency period, was how the rookies would adapt to their new surroundings and grasp all that is the NFL.

    The preseason gave everyone a taste of what this year’s draft class brings to the table and how they fit with their respective teams. Some rookies impressed, others have been depressing, but whether it’s been good or bad, we all have our opinions on who’s been the best.

    So, as we approach Week 1, I’ve ranked my top 20 NFL rookies. My rankings are not based solely on a player’s preseason performance. There are a lot of variables factored into the rankings including: playing time, potential impact, surrounding cast, team environment, etc…

    I will update the rankings at various points during the season, but here is my initial view of the top 20 rookies heading into the 2011 season.

1. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos (1st Round, 2nd Overall)

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    Miller is the early favorite for the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, and of all the rookies, he’s expected to have the greatest impact during the regular season. That’s tough to argue with after he recorded three sacks during the preseason.

    Despite being undersized and not a natural fit as a 4-3 outside linebacker, Miller is extremely explosive and will be a nightmare for opposing offensive coordinators.

    The Broncos will get creative with how they use Miller and look for every opportunity to take advantage of a mismatch. Expect double-digit sacks from No. 58.

2. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons (1st Round, 7th Overall)

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    The Falcons mortgaged plenty to move up in the draft to select Jones. It was a move that received mixed reviews, due to its substantial nature, but after his performance during the preseason (10 receptions for 157 yards), it’s obvious that Jones’ explosiveness was a missing ingredient.

    Jones makes an already dangerous Atlanta offense flat out scary; he, Roddy White and Harry Douglas could be the best wide receiver trio in the NFL.

3. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals (1st Round, 4th Overall)

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    Green is as polished as any receiver to enter the NFL ranks in recent memory, and he was as advertised during the preseason hauling in nine passes for 96 yards and a touchdown.

    But, moving forward, the pressure of being the go-to-guy in his first season and having to depend on a fellow rookie, quarterback Andy Dalton, to deliver him the ball with comfort and timing is a lot to ask.

    However, Green is a tremendous route-runner and can exploit the opposition in the intermediate game, which will allow Dalton to get rid of the ball quicker and (hopefully) more accurately.

4. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers (1st Round, 1st Overall)

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    It’s early in the progression stage for Newton, and he struggled with his accuracy in the preseason, completing just 42.1 percent of his passes. But he also showed glimpses of greatness and a knack for making plays on the run.

    This is a transition year for Newton and the Panthers, and that’s why anointing him the starter and placing him in a leadership role immediately isn’t as detrimental as it may have been a year ago.

5. Marcell Dareus, DL, Buffalo Bills (1st Round, 3rd Overall)

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    Dareus has only played in a few games, but the sense is that he will live up to the expectations of being the third overall pick. He’s exactly what the Bills needed on their defensive line, and during the preseason he generated two sacks.

    Dareus and Kyle Williams should apply pressure on the opposition regularly and create opportunities for others, as well as themselves.

    Last year, the Bills defense finished last in the league against the run, but with the addition of Dareus they should be improved in that area.

6. Mark Ingram, RB, New Orleans Saints (1st Round, 28th Overall)

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    It’s still hard to believe that Ingram lasted until the end of the first round in April. There were concerns surrounding his knee, but he was given a clean bill of health by renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews, and the Saints will benefit from the selection.

    Ingram showcased his tough running style and ability to put points on the board during the preseason, but his rushing numbers (19 carries for 55 yards) are below average.

    As he receives more carries and gets comfortable with the offense, expect Ingram to break out and be in contention for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

7. Ryan Kerrigan, OLB, Washington Redskins (1st Round, 16th Overall)

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    When the Redskins drafted Kerrigan in the first round, it raised a few eyebrows.

    Nobody doubted Kerrigan’s ability or if he was worthy of the high selection, but many believed, including myself, that he would be best suited as a 4-3 defensive end and that the transition to a 3-4 outside linebacker, where he would have to drop in pass coverage, would be challenging.

    Kerrigan still has a lot to learn from a coverage standpoint, but he’s adjusted well as an edge rusher, which is no surprise. During the preseason, Kerrigan recorded 10 tackles and two sacks.

8. Jimmy Smith, CB, Baltimore Ravens (1st Round, 27th Overall)

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    Going into April’s draft, Smith was a top 15 talent and the best press cornerback available, but due to off-field concerns, he fell to the end of the first round. And there wasn’t a better situation for him to enter than in Baltimore.

    Surrounded by Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on defense, Smith will learn the ropes from two future Hall of Fame players that will motivate Smith to get the most out of his ability.

    Smith will likely open the season as a starter after he demonstrated his promise during the preseason.

9. Nick Fairley, DT, Detroit Lions (1st Round, 13th Overall)

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    Rated as one of the premier talents in the draft, Fairley fell to the Lions after concerns surrounding his commitment. But, Fairley has the ability to be a dominant interior force, and being paired with Ndamukong Suh, he could become one of the league’s best.

    Unfortunately, Fairley missed training camp after he had surgery to an unspecified foot injury that could keep him out of the lineup until Week 3.

    Rating Fairley this high isn’t based on what he’s done thus far, it’s all about what he will do when he returns to the field.

10. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals (1st Round, 5th Overall)

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    It’s been a slow go for Peterson with the Cardinals in the early going. Hyped as one of the safest picks in the 2011 draft class, Peterson, like most rookies, has been affected by the lockout.

    He showed his upside during the preseason as a defender and punt returner, but hasn’t been able to separate himself from second-year corner A.J. Jefferson.

    The Cardinals have a lot invested in Peterson and will eventually put him in the starting lineup, but it could take a few weeks into the regular season.

11. Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis Rams (1st Round, 14th Overall)

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    After being slowed by a knee injury at the beginning of camp, Quinn has been making progress and should make an impact as a situational pass-rusher to start the season.

    Quinn flashed his upside during the preseason and contributed four tackles and a sack. Veteran James Hall is likely to be the starter opposite Chris Long at the beginning of the season, but it won’t be long until Quinn takes over full time.

    The sky is the limit for Quinn; he can be special.

12. J.J. Watt, DL, Houston Texans (1st Round, 11th Overall)

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    Watt is exactly the type of high motor, maximum effort defender the Texans needed on their defensive line; the addition of Watt allowed the Texans to get creative with Mario Williams, who now stars at outside linebacker in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 scheme.

    The versatility that Watt possesses gives Phillips the flexibility of moving him inside or outside to create mismatches in the trenches.

    Statistically, Watt wasn’t a major player during the preseason (three tackles), but his progress is evident.

13. Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers (1st Round, 7th Overall)

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    Selected higher in the draft than most thought he would be, Smith, who has tremendous athleticism and upside, has had an up-and-down preseason.

    The raw pass-rushing skills that Smith possesses are off the charts, and it will take time for him to learn the nuances of playing the outside linebacker position in a 3-4 defense.

    He’s struggled in pass defense and has to get more depth on his drops, but it’s his ability to rush the passer that makes him so special. In the Niners preseason finale, Smith recorded seven tackles and 2.5 sacks, giving him a preseason total of 3.5 sacks.

    It’s likely that Smith is a situational pass-rusher to begin the season, but he will eventually be a starter.

14. Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals (2nd Round, 35th Overall)

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    With Carson Palmer out of the picture, Dalton—who, during the draft process, was discussed as being an NFLready prospect—will get an opportunity to lead the Bengals offense from Day 1.

    Praised for his intelligence and leadership qualities, Dalton, for the most part, looked good during the preseason. He didn’t do much that stood out, but he completed 60 percent of his passes for 328 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.

    With a few mechanical adjustments and more patience, Dalton could impress with the talented arsenal around him.

15. Mike Pouncey, C, Miami Dolphins (1st Round, 15th Overall)

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    He is not as refined as his brother Maurkice at the center position, but Mike Pouncey is a solid lineman, who will only get better as he gets more reps at center.

    He had trouble with botched snaps early on in the preseason, which is something he also struggled with during his senior year at Florida as he made the transition from guard.

    The Dolphins are counting on Pouncey and Jake Long to be the leaders of the offensive line for many years to come.

16. Adrian Clayborn, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1st Round, 20th Overall)

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    Clayborn is an underrated player. Even though he was the Buccaneers' first-round pick, he gets overshadowed by second round selection Da’Quan Bowers.

    But, Clayborn, who had a down-year as a senior at Iowa, has the ability to be the best defensive end from the 2011 draft class.

    He has great size, a quick burst and a solid repertoire to beat the opposition off the snap. He didn’t collect a sack during the preseason, but he will be in the starting lineup from Day 1.

17. Gabe Carimi, OT, Chicago Bears (1st Round, 29th Overall)

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    The fall of Carimi on draft day was surprising. He had the talent to be a top 20 draft pick, but fell in the lap of the Bears towards the end of the opening frame.

    He’s been penciled in as the starter at right tackle from the beginning and has played well. However, like most mauling-type linemen, Carimi excels as a run blocker, but has to work on his technique in pass protection.

    That doesn’t seem to be a concern for the Bears, given Carimi’s work ethic and passion for the game. 

18. Muhammad Wilkerson, DL, New York Jets (1st Round, 30th Overall)

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    Wilkerson was entrenched in the starting lineup from the first day he arrived in New York. Overall, he’s been solid and the Jets are hoping that the talented Temple product can help their pass rush.

    Unfortunately, Wilkerson’s most-talked about moment during the preseason was the scuffle he got into with Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, which resulted in ejections for both.

    While that behavior isn’t something the NFL wants to see, that’s the type of fight Rex Ryan likes to see from his players.

19. Danny Watkins, OG, Philadelphia Eagles (1st Round, 23rd Overall)

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    The selection of the 26-year-old Watkins wasn’t a popular move in Philadelphia, mainly because nobody knew who he was and a more recognizable name in Gabe Carimi was still available.

    And despite his struggles in the preseason, Watkins is a player; it will just take time for him to adjust to the Eagles' new offensive line philosophy.

    Watkins has been solid as a run blocker, but has struggled in pass protection. That’s normal for a young lineman and that will improve with NFL coaching. But, unlike most rookies, Watkins isn’t that young and the pressure for him to perform right away is high.

20. Akeem Ayers, OLB, Tennessee Titans (2nd Round, 39th Overall)

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    Ayers didn’t test well during the draft process and fell to the second round to the Titans, who desperately needed a linebacker with his ability.

    A lot was made of Ayers’ lack of speed and explosiveness, but if you watch him on tape, all he did was make plays.

    During his final two years at UCLA, Ayers amassed 24.5 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks; that’s the kind of production the Titans are hoping for when they begin the season with Ayers as their starting SAM linebacker.