NFL Predictions 2011: 20 Biggest Rookie Surprises
Every year there's an NFL rookie who makes a mark seemingly from out of the blue, with little or no warning.
It could be 2010's Marc Mariani, Aaron Hernandez, Emmanuel Sanders or Tony Moeaki.
Or it could be 2009's Arian Foster, Brian Hoyer, Johnny Knox or Mike Wallace.
Of course, I could throw up a list of the 20 rookies most likely to have a big 2011 season, but that would be picking and choosing from the first- and second-round draft picks, basically seeing who the starters are as of Week 1 and going from there.
Instead, this is about the unexpected guys, the genuine surprises.
Undrafted free agents.
Guys who caught my eye with strong preseason games or glowing reports in practices.
That inherently makes it a lot more hit or miss, but hopefully one or two or five of these guys will shine and prove me correct.
New England Patriots Running Back Stevan Ridley
Stevan Ridley happens to be a third-round draft pick, so you'd expect him to be pretty good.
But he also happens to be entering a backfield with a guy fresh off a 1,000-yard, 13-touchdown season (BenJarvus Green-Ellis), and a guy who had 900 combined yards in 14 games with the team (Danny Woodhead).
Further, he enters the Patriots as the second running back drafted in 2011 after second-round draft pick Shane Vereen.
Why such optimism, then?
Green-Ellis is very, very good at what he does well, which is not falling down on first contact, grinding out 4.3 yards per carry, every carry. He's not a big-play threat, he's not much of a receiver and he's not a great pass protector.
Woodhead is a third-down scatback, good in pass protection, an excellent receiver and useful on draw plays. Running between the tackles? Not his bag.
Vereen? Injured in preseason, and as a 2011 rookie with no training camp, he's way behind the eight ball.
That opened the door for Ridley to spell both Green-Ellis and Woodhead in preseason, and he responded with aplomb, leading all the league in preseason rushing attempts (30) and having a very healthy 4.9 YPC average to go with his two touchdowns.
Further, he showed a previously unexpected talent for catching the ball, racking up 10 receptions (third among rookies) for 74 yards and a touchdown.
One thing to remember with Bill Belichick is that draft position means nothing; it's production on the field that matters. Expect Ridley to get touches for as long as he's productive.
Indianapolis Colts Defensive Tackle Drake Nevis
Drake Nevis looks a little like the Predator had a few too many long lunches.
What he's shown in the preseason to optimistic Colts fans is he can play a little like the Predator too.
The numbers aren't staggering (seven tackles and half a sack), but the quality of play was high, probably higher than any rookie defensive tackle has the right to expect with no training camp.
When the Colts cut Tommy Harris and installed Nevis as the second tackle on their depth chart, it was clearly a vote of confidence in the young player.
Considering his preseason, he could clearly elevate himself to the starting roster with clean play and strong performances.
Irrespective, he's only one injury of an undersized Colts defensive tackle away from a potentially productive starting sport.
That alone means he's worth keeping an eye on.
New York Jets Defensive Tackle Kenrick Ellis
Kenrick Ellis is a guy a lot of Jets fans are buzzing about.
He's unmistakable on the field, at 6'4" and a bit and a massive 346 pounds.
The reason he's a surprise is that it was unclear whether he'd be drafted at all, as his eligibility to stay in the country is up in the air. As a Jamaican-born non-citizen, there's a specter of deportation looming over his career.
Despite this, he'll likely spell Sione Pouha at nose tackle in the Jets' 3-4, which means that while he's unlikely to rack up massive statistics, he will likely cause hell for some of the smaller centers in the league.
I'd look to him to give New England Patriots center Dan Koppen in particular some strife, as Koppen struggles with big, strong defensive tackles, and the Jets seem to fire up particularly well against the Patriots.
That matchup alone is a reason to watch Ellis this season.
Indianapolis Colts Running Back Delone Carter
Delone Carter has immediately made his impact upon hitting the Colts roster, usurping Donald Brown and claiming the No. 2 spot on the running back depth chart for his very own.
If you hadn't heard of him, Carter's a solid unit at 5'9" and a hefty 225 pounds.
That makes him hard to bring down, let alone see, and that's aided him behind the occasionally frail Colts offensive line.
Despite the issues in the trenches in Indianapolis, Carter has responded well to a steady dose of touches in preseason, amassing 92 yards at 4.2 yards per carry with three double-digit rushes in his first three games.
If there's any truth to the concerns about Peyton Manning, then the Colts run game just became even more important, and Carter will be a beneficiary of more touches being given to the running backs.
If he can carry his preseason form into the regular season and accept his load of those increased touches, he could well outproduce some seasoned National Football League running backs in a short time.
New York Giants Safety Tyler Sash
Tyler Sash had a phenomenal preseason after being drafted in the sixth round, 198th overall.
In his first game against Carolina, he had four tackles (all solo), defensed a pass and forced a fumble.
Against Chicago, he notched up another three tackles.
In the third matchup against the Jets, he elevated and pulled out a six-tackle performance, all of them solo tackles.
In the final preseason game against the Patriots, he surpassed himself, racking up seven tackles (all solo), two sacks and a forced fumble.
With starters Antrel Rolle and Kenny Phillips fairly entrenched, it may look like Sash would have a hard time getting on the field, but the buzz saw that injuries took to the Giants cornerback corps might be a blessing in disguise for Sash.
He may well find himself getting reps, maybe even a lot of reps, at nickelback, especially if he keeps up his ability to blitz from the slot.
New York Giants Running Back Da'Rel Scott
Da'Rel Scott's addition to this list is solely about a guy who took advantage of limited opportunities in preseason.
In particular, he had precisely one carry in each of his first two games.
Against Carolina, he took his first National Football League carry for a sum of two yards.
In his second game, he took his second carry for a 97-yard touchdown.
I repeat: Second carry. Ninety-seven-yard touchdown.
Surely that's a one-hit wonder, right?
He effectively sat for game three, but in game four against the New England Patriots, he scorched for a 67-yard touchdown on a trick play.
He finished that game with 114 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries and two receptions for another 20 yards.
The fact that the Giants saw fit to put the guy on the field for a trick play fake punt—and better yet, that he carried it off perfectly—suggests to me that the Giants coaching staff will find excuses from now on to get the guy on the field, despite the fact Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs are on the depth chart ahead of him.
That kind of confidence is very hard to get, so for him to have it this early means he has a golden opportunity to surprise people despite his seventh-round, 221st-pick draft status.
San Francisco 49ers Running Back Kendall Hunter
Kendall Hunter is deceptively small at 5'7" and 199 pounds.
But when he played this preseason, he played much bigger, racking up 231 yards off 35 carries, a staggering 6.6 yards per carry average.
Even if you remove the game where he scored a 53-yard touchdown run, his stats are impressive.
In his first game against New Orleans, he ran seven times for 29 yards, 4.1 yards a pop, and with a long of 13. So far, so consistent.
Then he had his outstanding game against Oakland, gaining 105 yards on nine carries at 11.7 yards per carry, including his 53-yard touchdown scamper.
However, I believe his real value is shown in the final two games.
Against the Texans he gained a solid 40 yards off eight carries at five yards per carry. That's healthy by anyone's standards, but he did it without any significant gains, a long of 13 being the above-average carry. That would suggest he's very, very consistent.
That carried through in his fourth game, gaining 57 yards off 11 carries at 5.2 yards a rush and chipping in with one reception for five yards.
He seems to be very consistent yet have an ability to make a big play, and he is slowly adding new skills to the repertoire. He's already elevated himself to second on the depth chart, so behind Frank Gore he may get quite a few valuable reps.
Keep your eyes open.
Cleveland Browns Running Back Armond Smith
Armond Smith fell into the right place at the right time.
After slipping through the draft completely, he was snapped up by the Browns as an undrafted free agent.
He now sits third on the depth chart at running back behind starter Peyton Hillis and third-down back Montario Hardesty.
Perhaps more to the point, between Hillis' hard-charging, vertical running style and Hardesty's injury concerns, there's a fair chance that Smith would get significant reps this season.
If he does get touches, it'll be very interesting to see what he'll do with them.
In his four preseason matchups, he was fairly productive, taking his 31 carries and four receptions for 192 yards and two touchdowns and 28 yards respectively.
That's a healthy 6.2 yards per carry average, in case you missed it, although that's significantly expanded by the 81-yard touchdown he scuttled in for against the Lions.
Then again, considering the quality of the Lions defensive line, perhaps you shouldn't exclude the long run as an outlier.
The caveat on Smith's success is his fumbling, as he put the ball on the deck three times and lost two of them. If he can fix that, he'll become a productive player very quickly.
St. Louis Rams Tight End Lance Kendricks
At 6'3" and 243 pounds, at a quick glance it would be understandable if someone mistook Lance Kendricks for his St. Louis teammate, Steven Jackson.
Like Jackson, Kendricks has quickly proved himself to be a reliable target for Sam Bradford, as he led all rookies in receptions in the preseason with 11.
He was quite productive within that 11, too, having accumulated 155 yards at a healthy 14.1 yards per reception, as well as notching three touchdowns, of which the highlight was a 44-yard scoring catch.
He's a shoo-in for production if he can stay healthy, as the unheralded second-round draft pick has been named a starter in the Josh McDaniels-penned offense.
It wouldn't be any surprise to see Kendricks become this year's Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez or Tony Moeaki, even if he doesn't seem to have a household name at this point in time.
Chicago Bears Wide Receiver Dane Sanzenbacher
Part of the problem with the 2010 Chicago Bears was that Jay Cutler was left to stand in the pocket and scan downfield for his deep receivers to come open.
When they didn't, his frail offensive line was parted like the Red Sea more often than not, and that got Cutler plastered.
A lot of it is the sheer refusal of Mike Martz to use tight ends as outlet receivers. That means if none of the receivers come open, well...good luck, quarterback.
Enter Dane Sanzenbacher.
He's an undersized slot receiver with a quick first step in the Wes Welker mold, or perhaps more accurately, like Austin Collie or Julian Edelman.
He'll run the underneath routes, finding the holes and seams in zones, and get open from man coverage with shiftiness and guile.
In short, he'll be the guy who Cutler throws to on the occasions where none of his deep guys are open.
That alone will keep Cutler upright and throwing (probably good for a wide receiver's production, in general) and secondly make Sanzenbacher himself quite a productive player.
It might be no surprise, then, that he was rather productive as is in his three preseason games, gaining 10 receptions for 107 yards.
San Francisco 49ers Defensive End Aldon Smith
You might raise an eyebrow at this one.
How could seventh overall draft pick Aldon Smith possibly surprise anyone? He was an early first-round draft pick!
But so were, say, Vernon Gholston and Aaron Maybin, in exactly the same position.
Further, Aldon Smith was picked seventh overall when almost nobody saw that as likely, especially considering the other names on the board at defensive end at that point in time (Robert Quinn, J.J. Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, Adrian Clayborn, Cameron Jordan).
Then there's the cruel step upwards for defensive ends to the National Football League.
Remember only a couple of years ago, when people were hypothesizing about whether Mario Williams was a bust?
Thankfully that only lasted one year.
What about Chris Long?
There was a good two years of debate about that.
Then you have the Gholstons and Maybins of the world, who are almost irredeemable by now.
So when you examine Smith, you're not just examining him in terms of what he produces, but also in comparison to every guy who was on the board when he was drafted.
Given his barnstorming preseason (19 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one fumble forced), I'd be tempted to lean towards Smith.
Philadelphia Eagles Linebacker Brian Rolle
Brian Rolle is another guy who fell into the right place at the right time.
He's a small linebacker, being a mere 5'10" and 227 pounds, but in the right franchise he'll find a way to make a contribution.
One such place seems to have been Philadelphia, as the young man turned up for work in the preseason to the tune of 10 tackles, 2.5 sacks and one start.
At the moment he's somewhat buried in the depth chart at a No. 3 OLB position behind Moise Fokou and Keenan Clayton.
However, if he can get on the field and produce as he did in his last two preseason games in particular, he'll find his way into sub packages as a pass-rusher at worst, a full-time starter at best.
Don't count him out, even though he's down the depth chart.
Green Bay Packers Outside Linebacker Vic So'oto
Vic So'oto left his imprints all over the Packers preseason, and in a good way.
Despite his presence on the field meaning that Clay Matthews was necessarily elsewhere, So'oto did the near impossible and almost made Packers fans forget about the 2010 pass-rushing hero.
So'oto's preseason stats were phenomenal.
From four games and zero starts, So'oto accrued 13 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one pass defensed, two fumbles forced, one interception, 33 yards on the interception return and one touchdown.
He was one of the most effective players on the field every time he was out there, and it showed when the Packers did everything they could to keep the undrafted free agent on their active roster.
Although he's buried at third on the Packers outside linebacker depth chart, that sheer weight of production in limited game time with limited practice beforehand is hard to deny, and I could definitely envision So'oto getting meaningful snaps in sub-packages or on replacement downs for Matthews.
Indianapolis Colts Safety Joe Lefeged
Joe Lefeged is another Bill Polian undrafted free agent steal.
While the Colts have one of the better safety tandems in the league in Melvin Bullitt and Antoine Bethea, there's still an available spot for a third safety in the rotation, particularly on run-stopping downs.
That's where Lefeged comes in.
Colts fans in particular are excited about the youngster, seeing shades of Bob Sanders in the way he tackles and comes down into the box to stop the run.
He seems to have caught on quickly and improved even more quickly.
He had a handful of tackles in his first three games and then made a statement against the Bengals in the fourth preseason game by racking up eight tackles.
Lefeged has also found himself named the primary punt returner and may take over the kick return role from an injured (and apparently released) Chad Spann.
Tennessee Titans Cornerback Tommie Campbell
Tommie Campbell's enough of a surprise that there doesn't seem to be an image available for me to attach to this slide.
Yet I'd keep an eye on this guy, no pun intended.
Firstly, he's an intriguing physical specimen.
He's a cornerback who happens to stand 6'3" and weigh 205 pounds, which is a fair beast of a cornerback.
It's also apparent from his preseason that he can play a little.
In four games as a backup, he chalked up eight tackles, batted down four passes and intercepted another two, including a 90-yard return for a touchdown.
He's clearly not a sheep in wolf's clothing; the kid can play.
With his frame and obvious talent on the ball, he may skyrocket from his fifth cornerback slot into a lot of game time very quickly. Watch this space.
Seattle Seahawks Kick Returner/Wide Receiver Doug Baldwin
You know how the NFL tried to stamp out kick returns?
Someone forgot to send undrafted free agent Doug Baldwin the memo.
On his six kick returns, he jetted downfield for 241 yards and a touchdown, that being a 105-yard return for six points.
Five of his six kick returns were over 20 yards, and two of them were longer than 40 yards.
Oh, and he also happened to take one of his two punt returns longer than 20 yards too.
And as if to remind the league that he's a receiver too, he just so happened to have caught nine receptions for 69 yards and rushed once for eight yards.
That's the kind of production that will get a guy noticed and give the coaching staff a reason to feed him opportunities.
San Francisco 49ers Cornerback Chris Culliver
Chris Culliver has risen to the second-string left cornerback role for the 49ers off the back of a strong preseason.
Specifically, he racked up 19 tackles (16 solo), defensed three passes, intercepted another and generally impressed with his ability to stick to a tackle and tend to be around the ball.
He's a fairly solid cornerback at 6'0" and a sandwich short of 200 pounds and already appears to have superior hands to No. 1 left cornerback Carlos Rogers.
While I don't quite imagine he'll supplant Rogers in the short term, he may well get reps in nickel packages, and given how well he responded to split time in preseason, he may show up pretty well for the 49ers.
Green Bay Packers Defensive Back M.D. Jennings
M.D. Jennings is another gem the Packers have uncovered in undrafted free agency.
That could, considering his position (defensive back), be both a blessing and a curse for Jennings.
If he gets on the field, there is no doubt that Dom Capers will find a way to utilize his skill set, which includes playing the pass as well as pass-rushing.
However, he has to find the field first, and that could be difficult with gifted defensive backs Charles Woodson, Sam Shields, Nick Collins, Morgan Burnett and Tramon Williams littering the defensive backfield.
If he does, though, he will acquit himself well if his preseason is any indication.
He showed a touch of ability stopping the pass (one interception and one pass defensed), as well as an ability to pass-rush (half a sack).
He also showed the solid tackling of a Green Bay defensive back with 16 tackles to his credit.
Tennessee Titans Linebacker Colin McCarthy
Colin McCarthy finds himself the second-string middle linebacker for the Titans, after being drafted in the fourth round, 109th overall.
He responded with a productive preseason, ratcheting up 20 tackles (12 solo, including six solo in the final game), as well as contributing a sack against St. Louis and a pass defensed and a fumble forced against the Saints.
His ability to flow towards the ball and ever-improving ability to seek out passing lanes means he's a worthy replacement if anything should happen to Barrett Ruud.
Philadelphia Eagles Kicker Alex Henery
One of the most easily forgotten positions in football, and conversely, often one of the most important come game day.
Alex Henery has earned the nod as the kicker for the "Dream Team" 2011 Philadelphia Eagles, which means that he'll be responsible for kicking the field goals and extra points and restarting the game after kickoffs.
It will also mean it's likely that, at some point, the ability of the Eagles to win a game may well come down to the rookie's boot.
In the preseason he had a mixed bag, slotting four of his five field goal attempts (including a 49-yarder), and kicking 17 kickoffs, 11 of which were returned for an average of 25.5 yards per return.
Not overwhelming numbers, but Henery should have opportunity to score through sheer repetition, especially off the back of an Eagles offense that at the very least ought to be able to move the ball downfield.
That alone will allow the fourth-round draft pick Henery an opportunity to surprise, one way or the other.