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Examining rookies who'll be instant starters

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
Executive editor

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By Dan Arkush

Plenty of fresh blood will be flourishing a few short months from now when another NFL regular season emerges front and center on the national sports scene.

While the numbers are subject to change, youth will be served in starting lineups to the tune of 37 rookies (counting punters and return specialists), according to the updated second edition of the Pro Football Weekly and Yahoo! Sports Preview 2010 magazine, which will be available on newsstands across the country July 20.

Interestingly, while newcomers will no doubt make instant impacts on every NFL team, there are nine teams that will be starting the season with starting lineups devoid of any rookies, according to our calculations — Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Carolina, Chicago, Green Bay, Miami, Minnesota and New Orleans.

But that's not to say there couldn't be some adjustments on both sides of the ball, with highly regarded youngsters such as Bills first-round RB C.J. Spiller and Packers third-round SS Morgan Burnett possibly replacing the likes of Fred Jackson and Atari Bigby, respectively, as starters, just to name a couple.

What follows is a rundown of the 37 projected starters, presented in order of their selection in the 2010 draft. Included in each rundown is the preseason grade assigned to the team's position group, including that player, by the PFW and Yahoo! editors.    

1. QB Sam Bradford / Rams (1st round / Oklahoma; 1st overall pick; Rams' QB grade: C-minus)

Skinny: Currently behind veteran free-agent addition A.J. Feeley, who is familiar with a West Coast system that is patterned after that of the Eagles, Bradford is expected to be named the starting QB by most team observers before the end of the preseason. He had an outstanding pro day at the end of March in which he completed 49-of-50 passes, showing no signs of being hindered by the AC joint that was surgically repaired in late October. Bradford has a rapid-fire release, outstanding accuracy, better-than-average arm strength, excellent intelligence and tremendous intangibles. There are some, though, who worry about his durability, pointing out that he hurt his shoulder in his final year in college after what amounted to a pair of routine tackles. Another valid concern is that he performed primarily in a simplified spread offense at Oklahoma and has seldom played under center and made pro-style reads.

2. DT Ndamukong Suh / Lions (1st round / Nebraska; 2nd overall; DL grade: B)

Skinny: Considered by many to be the most destructive defensive player in the draft, Suh relied on raw, brute strength to rush the passer at Nebraska and likely enters the pros as a better run defender. He can anchor, pursue from the backside and split double-teams but needs to add technique to make an immediate impact as a sacker. Head coach Jim Schwartz figures to use him creatively, moving him around in different techniques to take advantage of his raw power and run-stopping ability.

3. DT Gerald McCoy / Buccaneers (1st round / Oklahoma; 3rd overall; DL grade: D)

Skinny: McCoy shapes up as an ideal fit as a three-technique in the Tampa-2 defense. He has superb leadership skills and rare talent and was extremely productive at Oklahoma. He's a powerful, relentless penetrator who plays all out all the time.

4. OLT Trent Williams / Redskins (1st round / Oklahoma; 4th overall; OL grade: C-minus)

Skinny: Replacing the retired Chris Samuels, Williams has the feet for the position and the Redskins' scheme, as well as exceptional athleticism, but is considered somewhat laid-back and might never be a real mauler.

5. FS Eric Berry / Chiefs (1st round / Tennessee; 5th overall, DB grade: C-plus)

Skinny: An active playmaker with instincts, awareness and ball skills to cover like a cornerback, Berry is also a physical player and forceful tackler, which should enable him to make a difference against the run. He is always around the ball.

6. OLT Russell Okung / Seahawks (1st round / Oklahoma State; 6th overall; OL grade: C-plus)

Skinny: Immediately anointed the replacement for retired nine-time Pro Bowler Walter Jones, Okung has rare size, outstanding balance, long arms and a 24/7 commitment to football that immediately impressed new Seahawks O-line coach/zone-blocking guru Alex Gibbs. Okung gets valuable guidance on the field from veteran newcomer Ben Hamilton at left guard.

7. LCB Joe Haden / Browns (1st round / Florida; 7th overall; DB grade: C-minus)

Skinny: Haden has the athleticism, explosiveness, ball skills and confidence to make an instant impact. He did not time well at the Combine, but he plays fast.

8. MLB Rolando McClain / Raiders (1st round / Alabama; 8th overall; LB grade: C-plus)

Skinny: McClain is an instinctive playmaker with size, speed and smarts who does not appear to be the typical first-round reach that owner Al Davis has made in recent years. Oakland traded productive Kirk Morrison to open up the MLB spot for McClain, who is not considered a thumper but is strong and physical.

9. DRT Tyson Alualu / Jaguars (1st round / California; 10th overall; DL grade: C-plus)

Skinny: Alualu's lofty selection raised eyebrows on Draft Day, but the Jaguars obviously believe he's the real deal. Tough and durable with a nonstop motor, he will team inside with Terrance Knighton, who was dominant against the run as a rookie.

10. ORT Anthony Davis / 49ers (1st round / 11th overall; OL grade: C-plus)

Skinny: A powerful, long-armed blocker with excellent athleticism, Davis could be challenged early on by versatile but athletically limited sixth-year vet Adam Snyder, the starter at the end of last season. Davis' effort has been questioned in the past, but it's a very good bet that Niners head coach Mike Singletary will have no problem keeping him very motivated.

11. RB Ryan Matthews / Chargers (1st round / Fresno State; 12th overall; RB grade: B)

Skinny: The departure of LaDainian Tomlinson opened the door for Mathews, the 2009 FBS leader in rushing yards. He is a compact, physical back who absorbs contact and always keeps moving his feet downhill. Matthews does not have elite speed but does have excellent vision and a good feel for the game. Expected to handle early-down and goal-line work, he should get plenty of opportunities in San Diego's high-powered offense.

12. FS Earl Thomas / Seahawks (1st round / Texas; 14th overall; DB grade: C)

Skinny: Thomas is a ball-hawking safety with exceptional instincts, range and athleticism who also figures to be used creatively in nickel packages as a sub-package defender in the slot. As is the case with Okung, who will have Hamilton as a mentor, Thomas will receive valuable guidance on the field from 15th-year SS Lawyer Milloy.

13. DRE Derrick Morgan / Titans (1st round / Georgia Tech; 16th overall; DL grade: B-minus)

Skinny: Strong and athletic, Morgan plays especially hard. He should flourish working with respected DL coach Jim Washburn.

14. OLG Mike Iupati / 49ers (1st round / Idaho; 17th overall; OL grade: C-plus)

Skinny: Regarded by most experts as the best guard available in the draft, Iupati made an instantly strong impression in early OTAs. He is very mellow off the field but is an extremely physical beast on the field.

15. ORG Maurkice Pouncey / Steelers (1st round / Florida; 18th overall; OL grade: C-minus)

Skinny: Pouncey will probably start at right guard as a rookie and eventually projects as the starter at center over nine-year vet Justin Hartwig. He has excellent size and strength.

16. RCB Kareem Jackson / Texans (1st round / Alabama; 20th overall; DB grade: C)

Skinny: Jackson replaces Dunta Robinson, who was signed by Atlanta. Tough, instinctive, and quick, Jackson moves very smoothly. He will line up opposite Glover Quin, who surprised as a rookie last year.

17. TE Jermaine Gresham / Bengals (1st round / Oklahoma; 21st overall; REC grade: B-minus)

Skinny: Gresham has seam-stretching speed and offers a new dimension to the Bengals' attack. He's athletic with great hands, but the Bengals must hope there are no lingering effects from the knee injury that kept him off the field as a senior at Oklahoma.

18. WR Demaryius Thomas / Broncos (1st round / Georgia Tech; 22nd overall; REC grade: C-plus)

Skinny: Thomas was drafted to fill the role Brandon Marshall filled before hightailing it to Miami. Like Marshall, he has great size and length and is strong enough to break arm tackles. There are some who think he'll never be more than a No. 2 receiver because he has a tendency to drop catchable passes and lacks consistent speed.

19. PR Dez Bryant / Cowboys (1st round / Oklahoma State; 24th overall; ST grade: B-minus)

Skinny: While PFW/Yahoo initially sees Bryant making an impact primarily as a return specialist, he also could very quickly push WR Roy Williams, who has been a disappointment in Dallas. Bryant has No. 1-WR skills if he can mature, improve his work ethic and polish his route running.

20. NT Dan Williams / Cardinals (1st round / Tennessee; 26th overall; DL grade: B-plus)

Skinny: A tenacious widebody with good stamina, Williams will be groomed by veteran Bryan Robinson, who started last year and will still share time on the field. It's not common in the Ken Whisenhunt regime for Cardinals rookies to make an instant impact, but Williams looks like he will break the mold.

21. ORT Rodger Saffold / Rams (2nd round / Indiana; 33rd overall; OL grade: B-minus)

Skinny: Saffold is the front-runner to replace Alex Barron, who was traded to Dallas. Saffold has quick feet and is considered an effective blocker against both the run and the pass. It's worth noting that he was slowed by a knee injury early in the offseason.

22. DT Brian Price / Buccaneers (2nd round / UCLA; 35th overall; DL grade: D)

Skinny: Price will team with McCoy inside, presumably as the No. 1 in the NT rotation. Price can shoot gaps quickly and play with power, but there are doubts about his maturity level and consistency as a pass rusher.

23. FS Nate Allen / Eagles (2nd round / South Florida; 37th overall; DB grade: B-minus)

Skinny: Allen gets a shot at starting due to Marlin Jackson's season-ending Achilles injury. Allen will compete with third-year vet Quintin Demps and second-year player Macho Harris. Allen is a great athlete but must show better recognition.

24. FS T.J. Ward / Browns (2nd round / Oregon; 38th overall; DB grade: C-minus)

Skinny: Ward has the tools to be a physical tone-setter but is not an exceptional athlete and battled injuries in college.

25. PR-KR Javier Arenas / Chiefs (2nd round / Alabama; 50th overall; ST grade: B-minus)

Skinny: One of the more accomplished returners in the country, Arenas brought back seven career kicks for TDs. He will also compete for the nickel corner job with Maurice Leggett.

26. WR Golden Tate / Seahawks (2nd round / Notre Dame; 60th overall; REC grade: C-plus)

Skinny: Tate is the front-runner to start at split end and complement first-rate possession receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Tate will compete with ninth-year veteran Deion Branch, second-year player Deon Butler and fourth-year vet and former first-round pick Mike Williams, among others. Tate provides an excellent run-after-catch dimension.

27. OLG Vladimir Ducasse / Jets (2nd round / Massachusetts; 61st overall; OL grade: B-plus)

Skinny: A mauler with a wide frame, Ducasse is expected to replace Alan Faneca, who signed with the Cardinals. Ducasse has the skill set to play right tackle, too. Assistant head coach/O-line coach Bill Callahan is a proven developer of talent who should accelerate Ducasse's development. Speed and counter moves have given Ducasse trouble in the past.

28. KR-PR Damian Williams/ Titans (3rd round / USC; 77th overall; ST grade: B-minus)

Skinny: Williams will also compete for the No. 3 or No. 4 WR job. Slightly built but quick and sure-handed, he is creative after the catch.

29. PR Andre Roberts / Cardinals (3rd round / The Citadel; 88th overall; ST grade: B-plus)

Skinny: Roberts is the front-runner to replace Steve Breaston, who will give up his punt-return role to concentrate on his duties as Arizona's No. 2 receiver, replacing the departed Anquan Boldin. Roberts is also is a candidate for the No. 4 WR role along with Onrea Jones.

30. SS Darrell Stuckey / Chargers (4th round / Kansas; 110th overall; DB grade: B-minus)

Skinny: Stuckey figures as a starter following the departure of Kevin Ellison, who was up and down as a rookie and was arrested for drug possession in May before being released by the Chargers and picked up by the Seahawks. Stuckey has good speed and plays hard.

31. MLB Phillip Dillard / Giants (4th round / Nebraska; 115th overall; LB grade: C-plus)

Skinny: Dillard would be replacing Antonio Pierce, who has moved on to TV land. Dillard will be challenged by third-year vet Jonathan Goff, sixth-year man Chase Blackburn and perhaps fifth-year vet Gerris Wilkinson. Dillard is stout and can move well but lacks Pierce's instincts.

32. P Zoltan Mesko / Patriots (5th round / Michigan; 150th overall; ST grade: B-plus)

Skinny: Mesko is a lefty with a big leg who can pin the ball deep. He also will serve as New England's holder.

33. P Brent Bowden / Buccaneers (6th round / Virginia Tech; 172nd overall; ST grade: C-plus)

Skinny: Bowden also figures as a holder. Has good leg strength and did not have a punt blocked in three years at Virginia Tech.

34. P Matt Dodge / Giants (7th round / East Carolina; 221st overall; ST grade: C)

Skinny: The front-runner to replace the retired Jeff Feagles, Dodge will compete with Aussie import Jy Bond. Dodge has a big leg and a good football temperament.

35. KR Ray Fisher / Colts (7th round / Indiana; 246th overall; ST grade: C)

Skinny: Fisher has breakaway speed to die for. A likely fan favorite considering he came from Indiana University, Fisher also will play a key reserve CB role with fellow rookie third-round CB Kevin Thomas likely out for the season with a knee injury.

36. PR Brandon James / Colts (undrafted / Florida; ST grade: C)

Skinny: James can go the distance every time he touches the ball, and he racked up huge return numbers at Florida.

37. FB Manase Tonga / Raiders (undrafted / Brigham Young; RB grade: C)

Skinny: Tonga figures to start only until fifth-year veteran Luke Lawton completes his four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs during the first two games of the 2010 season. He could share the load with fellow undrafted rookie Chane Moline until Lawton returns.

 

For authoritative coverage and analysis of NFL news, free agency and fantasy football, visit ProFootballWeekly.com.

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