Last season was an incredible year for the rookies.
At quarterback, you had the Panthers’ Cam Newton and the Bengals’ Andy Dalton, the record-breaker and the playoff-maker.
Need a pass rusher? Try Aldon Smith, Von Miller or Ryan Kerrigan. Thirteen rookies had at least five sacks; that’s more than there had been among rookies the previous four seasons combined.
You had ready-made stars in Bengals WR A.J. Green and Cowboys OT Tyron Smith. There were plug-and-play stalwarts in Texans DE J.J. Watt, Bills DT Marcell Dareus and Browns NT Phil Taylor.
Cardinals KR Patrick Peterson set the all-time punt-return TD mark with four, and he was coming around as a corner, too.
And this pert group was fantastic without the benefit of an offseason. The 2011 class will have to go down as one of the all-time best first-year crops to ever join the league.
But what made it more special was the contributions of the lesser-known players. The guys we mentioned above … all were first-rounders except for Dalton, who was the third pick of the second round. But you can’t overlook some stunning standouts from down the line, such as Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray (third round), Buccaneers LB Mason Foster (third), Seahawks LB K.J. Wright (fourth), Titans LB Colin McCarthy (fourth), Seahawks CB Richard Sherman (fifth), Eagles C Jason Kelce (sixth round) and Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin (undrafted).
Now this year’s group, personnel folks have said, is probably not as strong. But every season we see rookies outside the top two rounds come in and contribute readily from the get-go.
Because the rookies — all 253 draft picks from April — are meeting this week in Cleveland for the league-mandated Rookie Symposium, I thought we should take a look at the third-rounders (and below) who could be the surprise performers in their first year in the league.
Clearly, the kids paid attention to the Symposium speakers last year, even though it was a hastily arranged event following the lockout. The kids this year have a tough act to follow — and learning a thing or two this week certainly will help.
This might now and forever be the Andrew Luck-RG3 draft, but here are the top 10 rookies from outside the first two rounds to keep an eye on:
Colts TE Dwayne Allen
Third round (64th overall pick)
It was Allen, and not second-rounder Coby Fleener, out there with the first team in the Colts’ June minicamp, and though both will play a lot early, you can’t overlook what Allen will bring. He has a sturdier NFL frame now and is the better blocker of the two, the Rob Gronkowski to Fleener’s Aaron Hernandez, if you are into making those kinds of comparisons. The Colts’ duo is not ready for that kind of stardom, but don’t be shocked to see Allen doing a lot his first season.
Seahawks QB Russell Wilson
Third round (75th pick)
Something tells me people are wildly underrating his chances to win the starting job, if not in camp then perhaps shortly thereafter if Matt Flynn doesn’t blow some minds (I already have eliminated Tarvaris Jackson from this race, as you can see). Wilson is a different kind of animal, and you can read some more of my love for him in this week’s issue of PFW. He’s a tremendous leader and thrower, and I could not care less about his height. I think head coach Pete Carroll agrees with me, and is struggling mightily to keep a poker face about how much he likes the kid. Coordinator Darrell Bevell will find ways to work Wilson outside the pocket, and the return of WR Sidney Rice makes this a very strong group of receivers, with Baldwin finding a home in the slot. Watch out for Wilson — I think he’ll be one of this summer’s biggest surprises.
Patriots DE Jake Bequette
Third round (90th pick)
Scouts either loved him or hated him. The Patriots took two front-seven players, first-rounders DE Chandler Jones and LB Dont’a Hightower, ahead of Bequette. And it’s not as if the team has produced a bevy of instant contributors on that side of the ball in recent years. So what gives? Bequette is confident, some say borderline cocky, and that will help him surge in what appears to be a part-time role awaiting him as a rookie. The Patriots worked almost exclusively in their sub defenses in the recent minicamp, and Bequette stood out as a rusher in drills. He could be an 8-10-sack player and send someone like 2010 second-round DE Jermaine Cunningham packing for a roster spot.
Cardinals ORT Bobby Massie
Fourth round (112th pick)
He’ll have to beat out Jeremy Bridges, but Massie has the goods to start as a rookie on a line that must show improvement. Massie’s athleticism is his calling card, and his strength and arm length are both plusses. But what Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Mike Miller have to like best about their rookie tackle is that he is a tested run blocker who thrived in the proving-ground SEC on a weekly basis on an Ole Miss team that routinely was outmanned in terms of talent. RB Beanie Wells was far more effective last season running to his left (117-592-5 rushing, 5.1-yard average) than his right (72-278-1, 3.9-yard average), to the point where they almost stopped trying to go that way late last season, and the Cardinals want to be more balanced. Massie will have a chance to help them do that.
Saints WR Nick Toon
Round Four (122nd pick)
Nineteen receivers were drafted before Toon, including a slew in Round Four, but he has a chance to be the Saints’ No. 4 receiver right away and could see plenty of passes in the Saints’ juiced-up attack. Toon is built like a slightly smaller version of Marques Colston, and Colston recently was impressed with the rookie, calling him “very intelligent and smooth” and that Toon “just gets it.” Having a father (Al, who was a Jet from 1985-1992) who is 133rd all-time in receiving yards might have something to do with that. In this offense, Toon has a chance to be a big factor right away.
Panthers CB Josh Norman
Round Five (143rd pick)
The brash rookie is already talking up how he matched up with new teammate, WR Steve Smith, and frustrated the All-Pro wideout. That prompted Smith to praise the rookie but also remind him of reality. “Once late July, August comes, he’s going to learn very quickly this isn’t Coastal Carolina,” Smith told the Charlotte Observer. “I look forward to camp. I hope he looks forward to camp, just like all the other DBs because the first week is never a good day for them when we’ve got this offense with Chud (offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski). It’s going to be early and often and real quick.” Still, we hear that Norman is zooming up the depth chart and could end up starting, pushing Captain Munnerlyn inside to nickel duty. Norman has more than just hollow bravado: He can press cover, has some ballhawking ability and a strong frame. Plus, he’s a little older (24, turning 25 in December) than your typical rookie.
Steelers RB Chris Rainey
Round Five (159th overall)
In Arizona, Todd Haley had LaRod Stephens-Howling. In Kansas City, he had Dexter McCluster. Now, as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, Haley has another pint-sized multitasker. Rainey has caught the eye of Haley and team observers alike for his speed and soft hands, and he could be used as a sub-package wonder. “You’ll see him do a little bit of everything,” Haley has said. Rainey wasn’t used a ton on returns at Florida — where he played the Percy (Harvin) position without much production dropoff — but could see work there, too, in Pittsburgh. The Steelers haven’t had this kind of burst in the backfield since Willie Parker was in his prime.
Raiders WR Juron Criner
Fifth round (168th pick)
You knew that Al Davis was gone and that a new regime was in place when the Raiders drafted Criner, a receiver whose main deficiency was his lack of speed. His school-record 32 touchdowns at Arizona, however, show that Criner can produce, and his recent minicamp and OTA performances have created some real buzz. The Raiders have had May and June standouts previously who failed to carry that into the regular season, but Criner could be an exception. QB Carson Palmer had T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Cincinnati, and Criner reminds some of a slightly slower, slightly bigger version of him. Criner could be the team’s primary red-zone receiving target with no tight ends of note, although fellow (undrafted) rookie Rod Streater also has opened eyes. Keep track of both guys on a rebuilding Raiders club.
Jets S Antonio Allen
Round Seven (242nd pick)
Jets DB coach Dennis Thurman said that Allen is adjusting to playing in space, something he didn’t do a lot of at South Carolina, but added that “with continued progress, we may have found something in the seventh round.” Allen plays a position that has been a problem for the Jets for parts of the past two seasons, especially in 2011, and he has the playmaking DNA (20 tackles for loss, 10 turnovers forced, three touchdowns in his final two college seasons) to get on the field early. With LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell, the two would-be starters, carrying injury histories with them, Allen might slide into a role by default.
Bengals LB Emmanuel Lamur
Head coach Marvin Lewis recently gushed about the undrafted rookies the Bengals have brought in. “I’ve been as impressed with this group of undrafted players as I think I have ever been in my 22 years in the NFL, or 21 years — whatever it’s been,” Lewis said. “I think it’s going to be a group that really has an opportunity where guys have legitimate shots to make the football team.” That group includes former Arizona State star LB Vontaze Burfict, but the undrafted linebacker who has shown up repeatedly has been Lamur. He has shown great range in coverage and could earn a sub-package role as a red-zone defender, where Lamur did his best work in the June minicamp, if he makes the team. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer couldn’t come up with Lamur’s last name in early June, but offered high praise, which if you know Zimmer is a rare thing: “He looks good. He’s got a chance to be a player.”