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Every year, we seem to spend more and more time talking about the NFL draft. Even aside from the actual draft — which now spans four days instead of two — it feels like conversations about prospects begin the minute the season ends. Why, then, does it also seem like those conversations end the minute the draft takes place?
We’ll never stop hearing about RG3’s knee or what Russell Wilson has done in Seattle, but for players like Matt Kalil, Fletcher Cox, or David DeCastro, much of the intrigue from fans disappears the moment these players hold up a jersey and bear-hug Roger Goodell. As part of our countdown to the NFL season, I decided to run down last year’s rookie class team by team — mostly looking at whether they contributed last season and what they’re likely to do this season. Because first- and second-round picks are typically considered the players capable of starting right away, those players are listed under each team. Other rookies who played significant time, or are slated to this season, are mentioned when it’s applicable. In doing this, we know that many players don't fully develop until their third or fourth season. This isn't an attempt at draft grades. It's more an effort to catch up with what some of the bigger prospects did in their first season. But no matter what happens in the next few years, we do already know this: Seattle won.
Round 1: Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford, no. 1
Round 2: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford, no. 34
Somehow the best quarterback prospect in 15 years was the third-best rookie quarterback in his class, and no one is disappointed. Both Robert Griffin and Russell Wilson were better in their first seasons, but Luck (who didn’t have anything close to the running games the other two leaned on) was everything the Colts could’ve hoped. He finished with 4,374 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions while showing he was susceptible to both rookie pitfalls and flashes of greatness. With the help the Colts brought in on the offensive line (Luck was knocked down more than any quarterback last season, 29 more times than Aaron Rodgers, who was second), he should be even better this year.
The Colts also found the star tight end they were hoping for, but it wasn’t in Fleener, who caught just 26 passes in 12 games. The real find was in the third round, when Indianapolis took Dwayne Allen from Clemson. As a rookie, Allen was already one of the most complete tight ends in the league, and with former Stanford offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton now with the Colts, there should be plenty of two–tight end sets this year.
T.Y. Hilton (third round) and Vick Ballard (fifth round) both contributed last year and are expected to play a major role this year, and although he wasn’t drafted, Jerrell Freeman, signed from the CFL before last season, was another rookie starter who will be back.
Round 1: Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor, no. 2
Washington gambled its future (to the tune of two extra first-round picks and a second-round pick) for Griffin, and I’d say it panned out just fine.
RG3 will be Washington’s most important pick from this draft, but finding Alfred Morris in the sixth round may have been its best. Two rookie running backs in NFL history have had more rushing yards than the 1,613 Morris had last season.
Round 1: Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama, no. 3
Round 1: Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma St., no. 22
Round 2: Mitchell Schwartz, OT, Cal, no. 37
With the right amount of help, Richardson looks like he could be a star, but the questions that arose when Cleveland took Weeden late in the first round haven’t gone away. He’s already a 29-year-old quarterback who finished 29th in DVOA last season. With a new general manager and a new coach, this year may be Weeden’s last chance.
Schwartz was a 16-game starter at right tackle as a rookie, and he played well. With Joe Thomas on the other side, the Browns’ tackle position is probably their strongest position on offense.
Round 1: Matt Kalil, OT, USC, no. 4
Round 1: Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame, no. 29
Kalil was considered by most to be the best non-quarterback available in the draft, and that’s about what he was in his rookie season. He was the Vikings’ left tackle when the season began, and barring any surprises, he should be for a long time. Kalil is already one of the league’s best pass blockers, and with some more time (and a little more bulk), he should develop in the run game as well.
The Vikings traded up to taken Harrison Smith at 29, but in doing so, they got another Day 1 starter who looks like he’ll contribute at a high level for a long time. Smith had three interceptions as a rookie, and his cover skills are already among the best in the league. Third-round cornerback Josh Robinson from Central Florida started six games opposite Antoine Winfield as a rookie, and he’s slated as one of the starters to start this season. Robinson struggled last season, and we’ll see how long it takes Xavier Rhodes, one of Minnesota’s three first-round picks from this year, to make his way into the starting lineup.
Round 1: Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma St., no. 5
Round 2: Andre Branch, DE, Clemson, no. 38
It’s already been a trying year in Jacksonville for Blackmon, who’s suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Aside from his problems away from the field, it already seems like the expectations for Blackmon aren’t what you’d expect for a top-five pick. With the quarterback situation in Jacksonville, it seems unfair to pass judgment already, but as a marginal athlete who’s just 6-foot-1, Blackmon looks like a merely good NFL receiver.
Branch had just one sack last season, and he remains a nominal backup with 2012 waiver pickup Jason Babin lining up as the Jaguars’ starting “Leo.” Branch should get more chances as a rusher in nickel situations this year, as new coach Gus Bradley has shown a propensity for using more than two defensive ends at a time.
Round 1: Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU, no. 6
The Cowboys’ draft came down to little else but Claiborne when Dallas traded up to take the LSU cornerback with the sixth pick. Claiborne started for the Cowboys but was erratic as a rookie — even by rookie cornerback standards. Still, with his talent and physical skill set, there’s reason to think he’ll see a lot of improvement in Monte Kiffin’s defense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Round 1: Mark Barron, S, Alabama, no. 7
Round 1: Doug Martin, RB, Boise St., no. 31
Round 2: Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska, no. 58
Excluding the teams that found franchise quarterbacks, none had a better draft than Tampa Bay last season. Like his SEC counterpart Claiborne, Barron was prone to the typical inconsistency seen from rookie defensive backs, but Tampa Bay’s other two rookie starters were among the best players in the league at their positions. We know about Martin’s 1,400-yard, double-digit touchdown season, but David played a large part in Tampa Bay’s historically good run defense. David started all 16 games at outside linebacker, and only seven players in the NFL had more tackles. By the end of this season, there’s a good chance he’s a star.
Round 1: Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M, no. 8
Round 2: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford, no. 42
It’s not Tannehill’s fault that he happened to be part of a class with Luck, Griffin, and Wilson, but alas, here we are. Tannehill had a fine rookie year, and Miami spent its time and money this offseason bringing in some new weapons to help get the most of its second-year quarterback. This season will be a pivotal one for Tannehill, who needs to show that he belongs closer to the members of his class than the 2011 crop of quarterbacks.
Martin started all 16 games last season — five at left tackle and 11 at right — and played poorly no matter where he lined up. With his full-time move to left tackle this season (replacing the departed Jake Long), Miami is betting on him making a significant jump from Year 1 to Year 2.
Two other Miami picks — Olivier Vernon (third round) and Lamar Miller (fourth round) — are penciled in as starters to begin this season. Miller was good in limited work last season, and despite the talk of competition with Daniel Thomas, Miami is hoping he’ll develop into a star at running back. Vernon had 3.5 sacks as a rookie, and with Dion Jordan’s role unclear, he’ll start at defensive end across from Cameron Wake.
Round 1: Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College, no. 9
Round 2: Amini Silatolu, G, Midwestern State, no. 40
Kuechly alone is enough for Carolina to be in consideration for “best draft without a QB” status. Excluding those quarterbacks (and maybe including them), Kuechly may end up as the best player from this class. The Defensive Rookie of the Year led the league in tackles, and he’s poised to become an absolute superstar this season.
Silatolu started 15 games at left guard, and although his overall performance was disappointing (Football Outsiders had him with 24.5 blown blocks, the most among any guard in the league), he showed steady improvement over the second half of the season.
Round 1: Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina, no. 10
Round 2: Cordy Glenn, OT, Georgia, no. 41
It’s worth saying again, but rookie cornerbacks tend to struggle. Gilmore had his issues as a rookie, but his improvement in the second half of the year was enough for many to consider him a possible breakout player in his sophomore season. A broken bone in his wrist will delay that by at least six to eight weeks, though, and Buffalo’s secondary will take a major hit as a result.
Glenn, who came into the league at 345 pounds and was projected by many as a right tackle or even a guard, was the Bills’ man on the left side from the start. Second-round left tackles have a very spotty track record, but Glenn was adequate as a rookie. It’s likely the Bills will ask him to slim down if he’s going to remain at left tackle.
Fourth-round linebacker Nigel Bradham saw limited playing time as a rookie, but with both Nick Barnett and Kelvin Sheppard gone, he’ll move into a starting role alongside rookie Kiko Alonso this year. Third-round pick T.J. Graham is listed as a starter at wide receiver, but the no. 2 role opposite Stevie Johnson should belong to 2013 second-round pick Robert Woods sooner rather than later.
Kansas City Chiefs
Round 1: Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis, no. 11
Round 2: Jeff Allen, G, Illinois, no. 44
Poe was a starter his entire rookie season, and everything out of Chiefs camp — including from Andy Reid — indicates that they expect a lot from their second-year nose tackle. What’s most impressive about Poe is that he seems willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to make both him and his team better. Giving up BBQ when you live in Kansas City should make someone eligible for sainthood.
Allen started 13 games at left guard and teamed with Jon Asamoah to make up what I can only assume is the first pair of starting guards from the University of Illinois. He had problems as a run blocker as a rookie, but Allen did enough to keep his starting job heading into 2013.
Round 1: Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi St., no. 12
Round 2: Mychal Kendricks, ILB, Cal, no. 46
Round 2: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall, no. 59
Fletcher Cox was one of the few bright spots on a bad Eagles defense a year ago, tallying five sacks and making a handful of other plays as an interior defensive lineman. With the Eagles’ move to a 3-4, Cox will transition to defensive end. The change has a chance to limit a lot of the pass-rushing skills Cox showed off as a rookie, but it’s likely that defensive coordinator Bill Davis will try to find ways to use the talents of one of his better players.
The move to a 3-4 may actually be a welcome one for Mychal Kendricks, who started but struggled as a rookie. Kendricks played inside in a 3-4 in college, and Chip Kelly has already called Kendricks, who has sub 4.5 speed, the team’s best cover linebacker. A jump for players like Kendricks and defensive end Vinny Curry — who was inactive for much of last season and has bulked up to 280 pounds in order to fit into the new scheme — could go a long way in the Eagles being much better on defense.
Round 1: Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame, no. 13
We’ll reserve judgment on Michael Floyd for right now. He caught 45 combined passes as a rookie from the terrible trio of quarterbacks the Cardinals employed last season. He’s a big target who could see a considerable jump with Carson Palmer now in Arizona. Playing across from (and learning from) Larry Fitzgerald doesn’t hurt.
The only other Cardinals rookie to get significant playing time was fourth-round tackle Bobbie Massie, who was forced into the starting lineup because of injury. Massie was nothing short of a disaster for the first half of the season. According to Football Outsiders, 23.5 of his 27 blown blocks (second most among right tackles) came before the team’s bye. The good news there is that Massie improved dramatically in the second half of the season, but it still wasn’t enough for the Cardinals to enter 2013 with Massie as the starter. Arizona signed former Texans and Chiefs right tackle Eric Winston in July.
St. Louis Rams
Round 1: Michael Brockers, DT, LSU, no. 14
Round 2: Brian Quick, WR, Appalachian St., no. 33
Round 2: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama, no. 39
Round 2: Isaiah Pead, RB, Cincinnati, no. 50
It will take another few years to judge whether the Robert Griffin III trade was worth it for St. Louis, but the Rams’ first draft of the Jeff Fisher era did bring at least two long-term starters. Janoris Jenkins added his share of spectacular plays as a rookie, and so far, the Rams’ gamble on a player with a series of red flags seems to have paid off. Brockers started immediately and should be a significant part of St. Louis’s strong defensive line for a while.
So far, the Rams haven’t gotten much from their other two second-round picks — wide receiver Brian Quick and running back Isaiah Pead — but they managed to find two starters at those same positions further down the draft. Fourth-round pick Chris Givens and his nearly 700 receiving yards were one of the better surprises of the season last year, and seventh-round pick Daryl Richardson enters this year as the starting running back after seeing some playing time last season.
Round 1: Bruce Irvin, DE, West Virginia, no. 15
Round 2: Bobby Wagner, ILB, Utah St., no. 47
The Seahawks could’ve drafted me in the first round, and they still would’ve had the best 2012 draft of anyone. Finding Russell Wilson, and his $500,000 contract, in the third round has changed the entire structure of the Seahawks’ organization, but he wasn’t Seattle’s only find. Second-round pick Bobby Wagner was one of the better linebackers in all of football last season, and he should be around for a very long time.
Bruce Irvin, who’s suspended for the first four games of this season, was considered a reach by most, but even if he never progresses beyond being a pass-rush specialist (he had eight sacks last season), he’ll still be a useful player for Seattle. Irvin is expected to move to linebacker after the Seahawks brought in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, but his main role will likely be getting after the quarterback in passing situations.
New York Jets
Round 1: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina, no. 16
Round 2: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech, no. 43
Coples managed 5.5 sacks last season in a sub role, and he’ll move to outside linebacker when the Jets line up in a 3-4 this season. His size (280 pounds) and history of success as a down lineman mean he might be more successful as an end when the Jets use four linemen. And considering how raw he was coming into the league, and how awful the Jets quarterback situation has been (and still is), we probably won’t know much about Stephen Hill even after this season.
Two other 2012 draftees saw some time last season and will likely be full-time starters coming into this year — inside linebacker Demario Davis and free safety Antonio Allen.
Round 1: Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama, no. 17
Round 1: Kevin Zeitler, G, Wisconsin, no. 27
Round 2: Devon Still, DT, Penn State, no. 53
Kirkpatrick was nonexistent as a rookie for the Bengals defense, and one reason for that is that Cincinnati didn’t actually need him. The Bengals had a top-10 pass defense last season while relying on castoffs Adam Jones and Terrence Newman. Kirkpatrick still doesn't figure to break into the starting lineup this season.
Like most first-round guards, Zeitler started from day one and was very good as a rookie. He and fellow Bengals draftee Andre Smith should make up one of the best right sides of any offensive line in the league this season.
On the other side of the ball, fifth-round pick George Iloka will enter this season as the team’s starting strong safety.
San Diego Chargers
Round 1: Melvin Ingram, OLB, South Carolina, no. 18
Round 2: Kendall Reyes, DT, UConn, no. 49
Ingram was supposed to be a drastically improved pass-rush option coming into his second season — a versatile defender who could line up all over the formation, and, with one more year of experience, be ready to wreak havoc. That plan was derailed when he tore his ACL in May.
If the end of last season is any indication, Reyes is on his way to being a major factor for San Diego in his second year. According to Pro Football Focus, Reyes recorded at least one quarterback hurry in all but one game from Week 10 on, including a three-sack performance against the Jets in Week 16. Reyes and Corey Liuget make up one of the more promising defensive line pairings in the league.
Round 1: Shea McClellin, DE, Boise St., no. 19
Round 2: Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina, no. 45
Limited to a role as a situation pass rusher as a rookie, McClellin managed just 2.5 sacks. He’s listed as a co-starter for the Bears, alongside Corey Wooton, but his main role will again be as a rusher in passing situations.
Jeffery’s rookie season included several nagging injuries and a propensity for drawing offensive pass interference penalties, but with another year working alongside Brandon Marshall — and Marc Trestman’s new offense — there’s a chance he sees a major jump in 2013.
Round 1: Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor, no. 20
Round 2: Zach Brown, LB, North Carolina, no. 52
I’m not sure how much of Kendall Wright’s check he should be sending to RG3 every week, but it’s probably a good chunk. Wright shot up the draft the same way Griffin did last spring, but like Floyd or Hill, it’s hard to gauge Wright’s performance so far because of the Titans’ issues at quarterback.
Brown was a day one starter who showed flashes of what made him a second-round pick. With great athleticism, he’s an able coverage linebacker, but as a rookie, he struggled with some of the more physical elements of the professional game.
New England Patriots
Round 1: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse, no. 21
Round 1: Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama, no. 25
Round 2: Tavon Wilson, S, Illinois, no. 48
For all the Patriots’ successes in the Brady-Belichick era, drafting defensive backs hasn’t been one of them. New England cut 2011 second-round pick Ras-I Dowling this summer, and Tavon Wilson remains a backup headed into this year. (Although Alfonzo Dennard, drafted in the seventh round last year, will be a starter at cornerback, pending the result of his probation hearing Friday.)
Elsewhere on the defense, New England found two promising starters in Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower. Jones finished the year with just 6.5 sacks, but he’ll be counted on as the main source of pressure for the Pats defense this year. Hightower will help some in that area — he was an excellent pass-rushing linebacker at Alabama — and others as he enters 2013 as a starter at OLB.
Round 1: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa, no. 23
Round 2: Ryan Broyles, WR, Oklahoma, no. 54
With Jeff Backus on one side and Gosder Cherilus on the other, Detroit didn’t need Reiff last year. This year is a different story. With Backus (retirement) and Cherilus (free agency) both gone, Reiff will slide in as the starting left tackle.
Broyles is another player who has suddenly become more important due to unforeseen circumstances. With Titus Young gone, Broyles — who missed a majority of last season with a torn ACL — should be the Lions’ no. 2 receiver by season’s end.
Round 1: David DeCastro, G, Stanford, no. 24
Round 2: Mike Adams, OT, Ohio St., no. 56
Both DeCastro and Adams were among the many Steelers to miss time a year ago, but they will each be in the starting lineup when the season begins Sunday. Adams, who had a solid if unspectacular year in 10 starts at right tackle last season, will move to the left side this year. Even after returning, DeCastro was restricted in his three starts by the after-effects of a gruesome knee injury he suffered in last year’s preseason. Considered one of the 10 best players in last year’s draft, he should be ready to break out as one of the better guards in the league after getting a full offseason to recuperate.
Round 1: Whitney Mercilus, OLB, Illinois, no. 26
With Connor Barwin now in Philadelphia, Mercilus, who saw limited action as a rookie following an injury to Brooks Reed, becomes a full-time starter at outside linebacker.
The only other Texans rookie to have significant playing time last year was fourth-round right guard Ben Jones. Jones was bad enough in his nine starts that he’ll actually be replaced this year with 2012 third-round pick Brandon Brooks, who saw limited time in the last five games of last season.
Neither DeVier Posey nor Keshawn Martin showed enough last season for Houston to feel like its wide receiver problems were quite fixed. The Texans took Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins in the first round this spring.
Green Bay Packers
Round 1: Nick Perry, OLB, USC, no. 28
Round 2: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan St., no. 51
Round 2: Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt, no. 62
In some ways, 2013 will be Nick Perry’s second chance at a rookie season. He played just 200 snaps last year before a wrist injury ended his season, and he’ll line up opposite Clay Matthews at outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4 defense. Perry was seen as an excellent pass-rushing prospect coming out of USC, and his return should make the Packers defense — and especially Matthews — a much improved unit.
The pain from losing Perry was at least somewhat alleviated with the discovery of Casey Hayward. The Vanderbilt cornerback stepped into the slot corner role in Green Bay’s defense following an injury to Charles Woodson and was maybe the best slot cornerback in the league. Quarterbacks had a 31.1 rating when throwing at Hayward, according to Pro Football Focus — the best mark in the league. Sam Shields and Tramon Williams are again the starters on the outside, with Hayward expected to play the slot role (a package Green Bay uses on a majority of its defensive snaps).
San Francisco 49ers
Round 1: A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois, no. 30
Round 2: LaMichael James, RB, Oregon, no. 61
The 2012 49ers draft should be cause for fans of any other team to celebrate. San Francisco GM Trent Baalke does screw up like the rest of us. By shipping Jenkins to the Chiefs this summer, the 49ers made the wide receiver the only first-round pick since 1996 to not last until his second season with the team that drafted him (this doesn't count Vikings defensive tackle Dimitrius Underwood, who quit due to religious reasons and was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder).
James may have value as a injection of energy into the offense, but it looks as if Kendall Hunter will still be Frank Gore’s backup coming into this season.
New York Giants
Round 1: David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech, no. 32
Round 2: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU, no. 63
This will be the season we find out just how good David Wilson actually is. Wilson made his share of spectacular plays in 2012, but with Andre Brown set to miss the first six to eight weeks of the season with a broken leg, almost all of the Giants’ running load will now fall on Wilson.
Round 2: Courtney Upshaw, OLB, Alabama, no. 35
Round 2: Kelechi Osemele, G, Iowa St., no. 60
Second-round pick Kelechi Osemele started the entire regular season at right tackle before moving to left guard during the playoffs. Osemele had a very nice Super Bowl, and he’ll enter the season as the Ravens starter at left guard. Next to him will be 2012 fourth-round pick Gino Gradkowski. Gradkowski saw a little time last season, but more importantly, his becoming the starting center means an all-important Blue Hen–to–Blue Hen center-quarterback exchange for the Ravens.
The Ravens’ signing of Elvis Dumervil means that Upshaw, who also admitted that he showed up to training camp out of shape, won’t be a starter in 2013, and third-round running back Bernard Pierce is expected to see an increased role in the Ravens offense.
Round 2: Derek Wolfe, DE, Cincinnati, no. 36
Round 2: Brock Osweiler, QB, Arizona St., no 57
Denver traded down twice, and eventually out of the first round all together, and ended up with Wolfe and Osweiler in Round 2. Wolfe struggled as a pass-rusher while starting as a rookie, but considering the rest of the Denver defense, his role in the run game was still valuable. Osweiler will spend at least the next couple years learning from one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.
Two more 2012 draft picks will start for Denver in Week 1, but each will probably be returning to a backup role by season’s end. Third-round pick Ronnie Hillman is the Broncos' nominal starter at running back, but 2013 second-round pick Montee Ball will get plenty of chances to prove he’s the one fit for the job. Sixth-round pick Danny Trevathan will start for Von Miller until the latter returns from his six-game suspension.
Round 2: Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin, no. 55
The price for Julio Jones meant the Falcons 2012 draft was a bit light, but both their second-round pick (center Peter Konz) and third-round pick (right tackle Lamar Holmes) will be starters for an offensive line that remains Atlanta’s biggest question mark.