Cream of the 2010 rookie crop

Posted March 09, 2011 @ 9:28 a.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

While it's far from a given at the moment that there will even be an NFL season in 2011, we can still count on there definitely being a pro draft to at least keep us sufficiently entertained.

It's a topic that always takes center stage in the world of football this time of year, as pro days start to heat up at college campuses around the country and NFL personnel departments start to set up cots at team headquarters with a lot of long nights looming.

A lot of PFW readers are probably already caught up in the upcoming draft more than the Average Joe. But just in case you're just starting to really catch that early-March draft fire, I offer you an assessment of the best rookie crops from this past season, which I thought might serve as an attractive table-setter for the draft action ahead.

What follows are the Top 10 2010 draft classes in this 24/7 league observer's humble opinion:

(1) Tampa Bay Buccaneers - No team in the league was served better by youth this past season than the Bucs, who became the first team since the 1970 merger to start 10 rookies and finish the season with a winning record.

A stellar rookie crop was spearheaded by fourth-round WR Mike Williams, who led rookie pass catchers in receptions (65), yards receiving (964) and touchdowns (11), and undrafted rookie RB LeGarrette Blount, who burst out of the woodwork to lead all rookie rushers with 201 carries for 1,007 yards (5.0 ypc) and six TDs.

Three other rookies - first-round DT Gerald McCoy, second-round WR Arrelious Benn and seventh-round S Cody Grimm - were each starting to come on strong when injuries took their toll. In addition, Ted Larsen, who was released after getting drafted by the Patriots and picked up by the Bucs, settled in surprisingly well as the starting left guard.

"It was a very conscious decision that we wanted to become a younger football team and rebuild the Bucs, and so we got after it right away," said Bucs GM Mark Dominik at this year's NFL Scouting Combine. "And when you look at where the Packers are now - at not only their age, but what they accomplished this year - it tells you you're going in the right direction."

If Tampa Bay's 2010 rookies can follow in the footsteps of former first-round QB Josh Freeman, who made major strides in his second season, the team's direction in the standings could be heading straight upward.

"One of the real interesting stats from last year is that Mike Williams led all rookie receivers in receiving yardage and catches and LeGarrette Blount led all rookies in rushing, and yet Josh Freeman is still younger than both of them," Dominik said in Indianapolis. "He's just touching what he can become in our opinion."

(2) New England Patriots - The Pats' personnel department deserves a huge pat on the back for a rookie crop featuring three Pro Football Weekly/PFWA All-Rookie selections - first-round CB Devin McCourty, second-round TE Rob Gronkowski and fifth-round P Zoltan Mesko.

In addition, fourth-round TE Aaron Hernandez, who combined with Gronkowski for 16 TDs; and second-round LBs Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes made significant contributions.

McCourty quickly proved worthy of covering top-of-the-line receivers, earning Pro Bowl honors while leading all NFL rookies with seven interceptions and helping the Pats become one of the league's most opportunistic teams with a league-leading 38 takeaways and plus-28 turnover differential.

Gronkowski was a red zone revelation whose numbers (42-546-10) would have been really scary if he had not so effectively shared the load at tight end with Hernandez.

Although the Pats didn't punt much relatively speaking, Mesko improved the team's net punting ranking from dead last in 2009 to 10th last season - a hefty jump worth noting.

Did we mention that the rich could easily get a lot richer, with the Pats possessing six picks in the first three rounds in late April?

(3) Green Bay Packers - GM Ted Thompson received a well-deserved contract extension five days after the Super Bowl, having assembled another high-quality draft class. The Packers got noteworthy contributions from six of their seven 2010 draftees, with fifth-round OG Marshall Newhouse being the lone exception.

First-round OT Bryan Bulaga looks like he could be the team's starting right tackle for the next decade, second-round DE Mike Neal was just starting to come on strong when he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in practice in late October, third-round S Morgan Burnett won the starting SS job coming out of training camp and sixth-round RB James Starks could be giving Ryan Grant a run for his money as the team's featured back before too long.

Undrafted rookies Sam Shields and Frank Zombo also more than held their own as the nickel corner and starting right outside linebacker, respectively. Suffice it to say the Packers got considerable punch from their first-year players. 

(4) Kansas City Chiefs - The Chiefs would not have leaped to the top of the AFC West and landed in the playoffs if not for a terrific rookie crop, headlined by first-round S Eric Berry, who made a strong initial impression both in coverage and defending the run.

Other youngsters who made their presence immediately felt included second-round WR Dexter McCluster, a do-it-all big-play weapon who quickly gave K.C.'s offense a special dimension; third-round TE Tony Moeaki, a top-caliber tight end in the making who was overshadowed by the Gronkowski-Hernandez duo in New England; and second-round CB Javier Arenas, who filled the team's need for a kick returner while also making his share of big plays on defense.

(5) Oakland Raiders - The Raiders had one of their best rookie crops in some time, producing three PFW/PFWA All-Rookie picks - first-round MLB Rolando McClain, second-round DE Lamarr Houston and fourth-round WR-RS Jacoby Ford, who earned the honor as a kickoff returner.

McClain did a solid job stuffing the run (85 tackles), Houston had a knack for always being around the ball and Ford was a legitimate home-run threat on a number of levels, providing seven TDs as a returner/receiver/rusher.

(6) St. Louis Rams - First-round pick Sam Bradford alone makes the Rams' 2010 draft crop a smashing success after setting league rookie records for completions (354) and attempts (590), displaying the poise of a seasoned veteran from the get-go and taking every snap under center.

But second-round OT Rodger Saffold, who also earned PFW/PFWA All-Rookie honors for stepping in as the starting left tackle and never missing a beat, doubled the Rams' drafting pleasure.

And keep a close eye on fifth-round TE Michael Hoomanawanui, who could become a very tantalizing red-zone target for Bradford - if his ankles can hold up.

(7) Seattle Seahawks - Led by first-round picks OLT Russell Okung and FS Earl Thomas, four of the Seahawks' first six picks in '10 look like solid building blocks, with third-round CB Walter Thurmond and fifth-round S Kam Chancellor quite possibly joining Thomas in Seattle's starting secondary in 2011.

Despite never being fully healthy the entire season due to injuries to both ankles, Okung was the Seahawks' best offensive lineman by a wide margin. Thomas, meanwhile, displayed big-time flashes, registering five interceptions while being groomed on the fly by veteran SS Lawyer Milloy.

If the light goes on for second-round WR Golden Tate, a raw talent who didn't do much as a rookie, a strong 2010 class will take on added muscle.

(8) Detroit Lions - After running away with PFW/PFWA Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and quickly establishing himself as one of the league's most dominant defensive tackles, first-round pick Ndamukong Suh gets the Lions into the top 10 by himself.

But fellow-first-round RB Jahvid Best, who scored four TDs in the first two games and looks like a big-time weapon in the making if he can overcome turf-toe problems, makes the Lions' 2010 rookie class look even better. 

(9) Cincinnati Bengals - The Bengals appear to have hit the jackpot with their top two 2010 picks. First-round TE Jermaine Gresham caught 52 passes and became a solid intermediate-range target, while second-round DE Carlos Dunlap quickly put himself on the map with 9.5 sacks.

In addition, undrafted rookie Clint Stitser earned PFW/PFWA All-Rookie honors after taking over the team's placekicking duties and connecting on seven of his eight FG attempts.

(10) Cleveland Browns - First-round CB Joe Haden and second-round FS T.J. Ward were both starters in the PFW/PFWA All-Rookie secondary. Haden was second in rookie interceptions with six, while the physical Ward was excellent in run-support, leading rookies with 123 tackles.

On the other side of the ball, third-round pick Colt McCoy provided more ups than downs when pressed into service as the starting QB, and second-round RB Montario Hardesty will be a player to watch after showing some exciting skills before suffering a season-ending knee injury at the end of the preseason.