Every year there are rookies that step up and make an impact on their teams come the regular season. Last season it was guys like Panthers QB Cam Newton, Bengals QB Andy Dalton, Bengals WR A.J. Green and Falcons WR Julio Jones. Keep in mind that those rookie contributors did what they did without an offseason because of the lockout. This season we have the top two picks in Colts QB Andrew Luck and Redskins QB Robert Griffin III, but there are plenty of other guys that could be key contributors this season. I will just provide a small sample size of rookies to watch.
– QB Andrew Luck – Indianapolis Colts
You knew this was coming. Luck was this April’s top draft pick and for good reason. He has widely been considered the best QB prospect since former Colt, Peyton Manning, and he showed well during the preseason. As with any rookie, he will have struggles, but he is pro-ready enough to lead Indianapolis to some surprising wins over better teams. Personally, I see Luck having a season where he puts up some great numbers, but will probably throw his fair share of picks (15-18?). It is nearly impossible to expect a season like Cam Newton had last year, but Luck will be one to watch.
– QB Robert Griffin III – Washington Redskins
Luck and RG3 will forever be tied at the hip after going 1 and 2 in the draft. Griffin has tremendous athletic ability and has a great arm. He is smart and is in the perfect situation in Washington. Head coach, Mike Shanahan, utilizes an effective run game that sets up the play-action pass. Using RG3 on roll outs will make Griffin very effective throughout his career. Griffin has the ability to be very good this year, but after a career where he played in the spread offense, I think Washington will try to limit his passing attempts, much like they did this preseason. I see Griffin playing well, but not putting up jaw-dropping stats like many project. I’d also pay attention to how much he runs the ball. Griffin isn’t nearly as durable as Newton and I don’t think Washington can afford to have Griffin scrambling too much because of that.
– QB Ryan Tannehill – Miami Dolphins
Tannehill is a solid QB who has athleticism and has the pure physical ability to be the QB of the future in Miami. The problem is that he is a bit of a project. He did manage to beat out Matt Moore as the starter, but that should be taken with a grain of salt. Moore isn’t, physically, on the same level as Tannehill and in a season where Miami may not accomplish much, they might as well try to keep fans looking to the future. Tannehill should have “wow” moments that make Dolphin fans excited for what he brings, but Tannehill, more than the previous two, will have plenty of rookie moments. I still expect some nice numbers from him though, assuming Miami gets some receivers who can catch the ball.
– QB Russell Wilson – Seattle Seahawks
Wilson is very intriguing. He was drafted in the 3rd round with the biggest knock being his size. He is just under 6 foot. The problem teams have with short QBs is they lack the height to see over the offensive line. When your line averages 6’4″ or taller across the board, a short QB can’t really see where he is throwing. Where Wilson may thrive? He finds passing lanes. He moves around and has the athleticism to get to a spot where he can make the throw. After all, Wilson played his last college season at Wisconsin where the offensive line had an NFL build. He’s used to it. Also, keep in mind that Saints QB, Drew Brees, is also on the short side only measuring in an inch taller. I personally love Wilson and could see him putting up great numbers this season. Of the 4 QBs here, Wilson appears to be in the best situation with Seattle’s strong defense (that should be very good) and enough offensive pieces to take pressure off of him.
– RB Trent Richardson – Cleveland Browns
Richardson has yet to really play for Cleveland. He pretty much showed up for Training Camp and then had to go get work done on his knee. When Richardson is healthy, and some reports say he will be for week 1, Richardson is an incredible talent. He has such a combination of size, power and speed that some have compared him to Vikings RB Adrian Peterson. While I certainly agree that Richardson is the best RB prospect since Peterson, I think Richardson has a more power-based running style where his balance and speed are more compliments to his power whereas Peterson is just the total package of breakaway speed and brute force. Richardson’s knee is something that has to be worrying Browns fans, but if it was just a quick, one-time procedure like we heard, Richardson should put up great numbers this season. I’d expect a top-15 RB performance as the offense centers around him.
– RB Isaiah Pead – St. Louis Rams
Pead is a nice sized back who has tremendous speed and vision. He is fully capable of doing everything needed of him. In fact, he has drawn many comparisons to the likes of Titans RB Chris Johnson and Eagles RB LeSean McCoy. I put Pead on this list because he is the number 2 RB in St. Louis behind Steven Jackson. Jackson has been phenomenal for the Rams during his career, but being the workhorse back and doing it for years has finally caught up with Jackson and I can’t see him getting through the full season healthy. To me, that means Pead will either split significant time with Jackson to take some of the load off, or Pead will take over if Jackson goes down to injury. Pead has the ability to be explosive if he gets the opportunity.
– RB Robert Turbin – Seattle Seahawks
Turbin could be in a similar situation as Pead in that he needs the starter to miss time. Seahawks RB, Marshawn Lynch is the starter and a very good one at that. Turbin is the backup who has tremendous power and deceptive speed for his size. From a physical standpoint, Turbin may be the only RB who is on the same level as Richardson. Lynch could still be facing suspension steaming from an offseason arrest (suspected DUI). If Lynch misses time Turbin will have to take on a huge portion of the load. He has the ability to do so. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a fair share of carries to compliment Lynch. They have very similar bruising running styles.
– WR Justin Blackmon – Jacksonville Jaguars
I really like Blackmon. I think he could have a fine season. He doesn’t have the exceptional attributes like Julio Jones and A.J. Green last season, but I think Blackmon could put up a solid 800 yard receiving performance this season. A lot rides on QB Blaine Gabbert’s development, but I think Gabbert will be good enough to get the ball to Blackmon. Blackmon has a simliar skill set to Ravens WR Anquan Boldin. I think Blackmon has a higher ceiling, but expect a similar physical playing style out of the rookie.
– WR Alshon Jeffery – Chicago Bears
Jeffery has the ability to be great. He has the size and leaping ability that made many project him a 1st-round pick heading into his final season at South Carolina. Then Jeffery gained weight and his play suffered. He still showed flashes of his incredible talent, but his value dropped to the 2nd-round. Jeffery now is in a situation where he has WR Brandon Marshall drawing coverage, RB Matt Forte keeping defenses honest, and QB Jay Cutler on the cusp of a breakout season. If Jeffery stays focused on the work at hand, he could easily put up great numbers as the number 2 receiver. He is one to watch.
– WR Marvin Jones – Cincinnati Bengals
Jones is a 5th-round pick out of California who is technically the 4th receiver on the depth chart. The favorite of Cincy’s draft class to make a contribution this season was actually 3rd-rounder, Mohamed Sanu, but this preseason Jones made a run at the job. Jones led the team in receiving while looking explosive, big and reliable. In fact, many of Jones physical traits may remind Bengals fans of former Bengal WR, Chad Johnson. Cincinnati has made it clear that Brandon Tate and Armon Binns are the two WRs who will interchange at the second WR spot, but they also have said that it may turn into a WR by committee. In that case, Jones will most certainly get his shots. His combination of size, speed and leaping ability may be just what Cincy needs on the other side, opposite of A.J. Green.
– OLB Quinton Coples – New York Jets
Coples has the pure physical ability to have been a top-5 pick, but he dropped when the tape showed him taking plays off. After his effort was called into question, he dropped to the middle of the first to the pass-rush hungry New York Jets. The Jets used Coples as a 2nd string player during most of the preseason, but Coples showed flashes that will get him significant playing time this season. There were countless times when Coples simply made blockers look foolish. Coples has the athleticism that has reminded some of current Bears DE, Julius Peppers. With that, Coples should be able to make a difference this season. I wouldn’t expect an Aldon Smith sort of season (14 sacks), but Coples could be a difference maker.
– DE/OLB Whitney Mercilus – Houston Texans
Mercilus is a guy who has all of the physical attributes and college statistics to warrant a very high selection, but he was labeled as a “one-year wonder”. He led the NCAA in sacks in his final year at Illinois, but prior to that season, he was a nobody in draft circles. His response to his critics was that he suddenly sort of figured out how to play. He had a weightlifting accident and after that moment, football sort of… clicked with him. I honestly believe it. There are athletes all the time that suddenly “figure it out”. Combine that with growing confidence and you can have a heck of a player. I see Mercilus putting to rest those draft questions this season.
– CB Janoris Jenkins – St. Louis Rams
There are a lot of great rookie CBs out there to watch this season, but I really want to see Jenkins. Jenkins was arguably the best pure cover corner in the draft last April, but a litany of off-field issues dropped this talent to the 2nd-round. Jenkins has the speed and instincts to be a major contributor to a Rams team that needs playmakers, especially in the secondary. He needs to stay out of trouble though and stay focused. If he does that, I expect him to be a very dangerous corner by the end of the season.