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Rookie starters for 2012? Bengals, Bucs, Jags, Browns will have a few

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Count on Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden starting for Cleveland vs. Philadelphia on Sept. 9. (US Presswire)  
Count on Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden starting for Cleveland vs. Philadelphia on Sept. 9. (US Presswire)  

The draft and all the hype surrounding the selection process is finally over. The reality is about to set in for well over 300 rookies. Gone are the limos pulling up on 6th Avenue, the red carpet at Radio City has been rolled up, and now the locker room awaits the young hopefuls.

As Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers told his team the other day, "Things are about to get really real." How much impact will rookies have in 2012?

In a good year, there will be 30-35 rookie starters in Week 1. Considering the fact that there are 704 starters in the NFL -- excluding kickers and punters -- that means the Class of 2012, if all goes well, will produce 4 percent of the opening day starters. If it's a typical year, 3 percent, and a bad year, 2 percent. What if your favorite team could actually have three opening day rookie starters? That would be a heck of a draft.

After looking over the depth charts of all the teams and discussing this matter with a few coaches, I can forecast 35 rookie starters, barring preseason injuries. That's close to 5 percent, which is a very good year. And with Terrell Suggs injuring his Achilles tendon Thursday, Courtney Upshaw is on the launch pad to start now.

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Right now, there are probably seven or eight teams that won't even have one rookie starter from the Class of 2012 on opening day. Those tend to be solid playoff contenders like Detroit, Houston, New Orleans, Denver or the Giants. Teams like Oakland and Tennessee also might not find the need to start a rookie in Week 1.

Are there teams that realistically could have three rookie starters? The answer is yes. If a team is already good and three rookies can crack the lineup, that makes it an extraordinary draft. One team fits that bill and three other teams are building up their rosters, and I project them to have three rookie starters, making all four drafts excellent.

I don't give draft grades out after the selection process, but I do want to recognize the teams that really helped themselves the most last weekend.

 The Browns will have Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden and Mitchell Schwartz on the field to start the season, and they will be the foundation for a turnaround in Cleveland. Considering their circumstances, it was an excellent draft and Cleveland fans should be excited.

 The Tampa Bay Bucs had a setback in 2011 and I believe they were better than their 4-12 record, but nonetheless they need to improve. Their draft will produce three Week 1 starters: Mark Barron, Doug Martin and LaVonte David. Mark Dominic did a masterful job of selecting players with the 2012 season in mind. Half of the Tampa Bay starters will come from the past three drafts.

 Jacksonville finished 5-11 last year and came into this draft with lots of needs. They came away with three rookie starters. Justin Blackmon, Andre Branch and Brian Anger will all change the face of the 2012 Jaguars. Granted, Anger is a punter and not of the regular 22 starters, but he will have an impact on the season.

That leads me to the Cincinnati Bengals, who had the best draft in 2012 -- if the criteria is a playoff team that also drafted three 2012 opening day starters in a league where a team is lucky to find one. Playoff teams from the previous year -- minus the team I am about to mention -- will average under one rookie starter on opening day. That's what makes the Bengals' draft after a 9-7 season and a playoff spot last year the best in the league.

Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin Zeitler and Mohammed Sanu should all crack the starting lineup. When you look back at 2011 with AJ Green and Andy Dalton, as well as 2010 with Jermaine Gresham, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, it's obvious the Bengals are putting back-to-back-to-back good drafts together. The Bengals' run on good drafts is starting to remind me just a little of the 1980s, when the Buffalo Bills drafted Bruce Smith and Andre Reed in 1985, then Jim Kelly came in 1986 followed by Cornelius Bennett in '87 and Thurman Thomas in '88.

An old mentor of mine, Ron Ney, who scouted for us at the Jets after being a personnel director for the Chargers, always said, "Put three good drafts together and you will build a championship team, but most teams just can't do it with all the changes in coaching and front office."

The Bengals don't change much at the top of the organization, and Marvin Lewis is entering his 10th season as the head coach. It sure looks like a third good draft in a row, and maybe Ron Ney was right about the formula for a championship team.


Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.
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