The rookie class of 2009 was one of the most productive draft classes in the history of the NFL, and it was recognized as such with six first-year players named to the 2010 Pro Bowl.
As good as the '09 class was, there's as much potential within this year's rookie crop. Sam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy have become household names. As the season unfolds, their peers will begin to be just as visible.
After months of film study and speaking with a number of NFL players and personnel, we've outlined the rookies who are "Most Likely To" stand out in several areas.
Most likely to ...
… Start all 16 games: Rodger Saffold, OT, St. Louis Rams
|Rodger Saffold's NFL debut should be as a starter in Week 1. (US Presswire)|
Smith on Saffold: "He's going to help me a lot. Rodger is a great kid, and anything that he puts his mind to he can accomplish."
... Rush for 1,000 yards: Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers
With legendary running back LaDainian Tomlinson now in New York and no longer receiving carries in San Diego, the Chargers will turn to first-round pick (No. 12 overall) Mathews to be the team's featured back. In his only year as a starter with Fresno State, Mathews rushed for 1,808 yards on 276 carries and 18 touchdowns. It's unlikely Mathews will duplicate that output as a rookie, but it's possible he could come close to the numbers Tomlinson posted during his rookie campaign in 2001 -- 339 carries for 1,236 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Chargers coach Norv Turner, who always seems to have a 1,000-yard rusher in his offenses, from Emmitt Smith to Stephen Davis to L.T., has set these expectations for Mathews: "I expect Ryan to have an extremely productive season. He will be a big part of our running game. We felt he was the most complete back in the draft, and we're going to give him an opportunity to be a factor right away."
... Catch 60 or more passes: Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys
It will be interesting to see how the Cowboys employ their top three wide receivers this year: Miles Austin, Roy Williams and rookie Dez Bryant. Austin is coming off a Pro Bowl season, Williams has the size to go along with tremendous talent, but continues to be a disappointment, and Bryant, like Williams, is blessed athletically, but comes with baggage. Bryant played in only three games in 2009 after he was ruled ineligible for violating an NCAA bylaw. That incident and his lackluster showing at his Pro Day caused him to fall in the first round. Bryant has some maturity issues and needs to improve his work ethic, but he's an amazing talent on the field and will immediately become one of Tony Romo's favorite targets.
Williams immediately noticed Bryant's pass-catching ability: "The dude is scary. He's good, and he doesn't even know it yet. He's a man among boys. He's got big hands -- real big hands. When he shakes my hand, his fingers come up to my elbows."
... Score 10 offensive touchdowns: C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills
|C.J. Spiller scored 16 TDs on offense for Clemson last season. (US Presswire)|
Said Bills GM Buddy Nix, on Spiller's ability to get in the end zone: "He's a playmaker. He's a guy that creates field position and scores points. He's exciting. We need some excitement, somebody that can make a big play and create some things on their own."
... Record 10 sacks or more: Brandon Graham, DE, Philadelphia Eagles
The consensus entering the April draft was Brandon Graham was a perfect fit for a 3-4 defense as an outside rush linebacker. But, the Philadelphia Eagles, who run a 4-3 scheme, thought otherwise and decided the undersized pass rusher would be the ideal complement to All-Pro Trent Cole. The Eagles run an aggressive 4-3 that features multiple looks, including some 3-4. That's a positive for Graham, who was a starter at Michigan for two years and averaged 10 sacks per season during that period. The aggressiveness the Eagles have shown over the years on defense could transition into them being creative with Graham -- using him not only at end, but in the "joker" position where he can unleash havoc.
Coach Andy Reid: "Brandon is a relentless player, and I put a lot of value in guys who play relentless football. I also like defensive linemen that do a good job of playing and making plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage, and there weren't a lot of them better in college football than this kid."
... Lead the league in tackles: Sean Weatherspoon, LB, Atlanta Falcons
The enthusiasm and energy Weatherspoon brings to the field is contagious, and the impact will be felt immediately. A three-year starter at Missouri, Weatherspoon was a tackling machine and registered 100 or more tackles in each of his last three years. He's a tremendous athlete who has the speed and strength to play inside or outside, and with his instincts, it's likely he will lead all rookies in tackles and could finish in the top 10 of the league.
Falcons FS William Moore, who was a teammate of Weatherspoon's at Missouri and is currently in Atlanta, had this to say about Weatherspoon's chances to lead the league in tackles: "He's a high-motor guy that fits into our defensive scheme very well. Our defense is designed for a fast, sideline-to-sideline linebacker like 'Spoon,' and a player of his caliber will be able to put up those kinds of numbers."
... Lead the league in interceptions: Eric Berry, FS, Kansas City Chiefs
|Chiefs GM Scott Pioli says Eric Berry's 'maturity level is pretty special.' (US Presswire)|
Chiefs CB Brandon Flowers said of Berry's playmaking skills: "He had success at the college level. We're just excited to see what he can do for us in the secondary. When you add a playmaker to the team, I think the whole team steps up, and they want to rise to the occasion."
... Unfairly get bench splinters: Jimmy Clausen, QB, Carolina Panthers
Clausen is set to erupt, but it's unlikely he will get his chance to start from Day One with Matt Moore positioned to take over for jettisoned starter Jake Delhomme. The Panthers stole the former Notre Dame signal-caller in the second round, after the other 31 teams decided his presumed arrogant, me-first attitude was too abrasive to accept. As brash as Clausen might be, the Panthers weren't concerned and are confident they found the future of their franchise. The key word there is future, because even if Clausen has a strong preseason, it won't be enough to supplant Moore as the starter.
Panthers CB Chris Gamble on Clausen: "He's still young and has a way to go, but he's looked good in the pocket. He gets the ball out quickly. He looks you off; I didn't see him throw one interception (during minicamp)."
... Be considered a steal in five years: Tim Tebow, QB, Denver Broncos
There were many analysts and fans who didn't agree with Tebow being a first-round pick, but it's hard to ignore that over the past three years, he proved to be arguably the best college football player of all time. Tebow achieved countless accolades during his time at Florida, which included two BCS titles and a Heisman Trophy. But, through all of his achievements, it's hard to ignore he has some major mechanical flaws that must be corrected. Being drafted by the Denver Broncos was the best thing that could have happened to Tebow. He has time to learn an offense that fits his skill set, he can learn the ropes from two veteran signal-callers, Kyle Orton and Brady Quinn, who have had their own ups and downs, and has a coach in Josh McDaniels who has had success developing a project at the quarterback position in Matt Cassel. It's going to take time, but in five years, everyone will wonder why the selection of Tebow was ever questioned.
Coach Josh McDaniels said of Tebow's future: "Tim's intelligence gives him an advantage -- an opportunity to play earlier than other people have played. Everybody keeps talking about it will be two, three years before he can play, and I think they don't know this guy. It's all going to be about his production and performance. There are a lot of rookies who can't run plays because they can't figure it out yet. That's not going to be the case with Tim."
... Leave football for professional wrestling: Bruce Campbell, OT, Oakland Raiders
|With his physical gifts, Bruce Campbell has the potential to become a dominant tackle. (US Presswire)|
A scout with the Raiders had this to say about Campbell's imposing figure: "We were at Maryland's junior day when Bruce was a sophomore. When we left the field and went inside of the facility, I remember seeing this huge kid that was built like a truck sitting on a bench. I asked the trainer, 'Who is that?' And the trainer said, 'Bruce Campbell; he's our big-time offensive tackle -- you will know who he is next year.' There were five of us just nodding our heads. When we walked away, we thought he's either going to be a dominant football player or the next star in professional wrestling."
... Fade into obscurity: Carlos Dunlap, DE, Cincinnati Bengals
Dunlap has the measureables and ability to be a force at the next level. But, there's a reason why a guy with top-15 talent falls to the second round. The knock on Dunlap is that while he can dominate a game, he tends to play lethargic and disappears from the action. Not only that, but his stock dipped further when he was charged with a DUI before the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. He has always been a streaky defender and has accumulated sacks in bunches. And, in a league where making adjustments is pivotal, Dunlap will have to study tendencies and figure out a way to beat the opposition week after week. That could be a challenge for a player who has dealt with questions about his motivation and drive to live up to his potential.
An AFC scout had this to say about Dunlap's character issues: "I scouted Dunlap, and I didn't recommend him. There's no question that he has everything you look for in an end. And, while his measurables are impressive, he lacks two elements that are important to being a successful pro: intelligence and motivation."
... Be the 2010 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year: C.J. Spiller, RB, Buffalo Bills
Since 1969, the Offensive Rookie of the Year award has been handed to a running back 29 times. But, over the past seven years, a running back has won the award twice; Falcons QB Matt Ryan (2008) and Vikings WR Percy Harvin (2009) were the most recent honorees. If you believe in trends, note that the running back position has never been shut out from the award in three consecutive years. The last running back to win the award was Vikings RB Adrian Peterson in 2007. There are scouts who believe Spiller will have the kind of impact Peterson had during his rookie season when he rushed for 1,341 yards and 12 touchdowns.
... Be 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year: Rolando McClain, MLB, Oakland Raiders
Since 2000, nine linebackers have been awarded the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, and a linebacker has won the award the past seven years. This year's draft class offered plenty of hybrid defenders, and there are multiple players who could compete for the award. McClain, who brings the complete package to the field and can stuff a stat sheet with the best of them, has the edge. The Oakland Raiders went against the grain in the draft and selected a talented player who fits a need, rather than drafting a player on measureables and upside alone. McClain will be the starter at middle linebacker this season, and with the Raiders' improved defensive line, he will be able to use his athleticism and natural instincts to produce numbers similar to what he recorded at Alabama last year -- 105 tackles, 14½ for a loss, 4½ sacks and two interceptions.