Just because a rookie has the most impressive skillset, the highest intangibles or the most potential to become a special player, it does not mean that he will be ready or have the opportunity to contribute to his team during his rookie campaign. There are a variety of reasons, including roster depth, exposure to pro-style concepts in college, physical development and ability to grasp the nuances of a more complex system than he is accustomed to. Five players have a large window to hit the ground running in their first NFL season.
1. Robert Griffin III
Washington Redskins QB
Of course, he is one of the two obvious picks to be a high contributor in his rookie season, but RGIII has the added pressure of arriving in a situation where yet another legendary coach, Mike Shannahan, is failing to live up to expectations after coming out of retirement to take the helm of the Redskins.
Unfortunately, Shanahan does not have the benefit that Joe Gibbs had of being a Redskins legend. Griffin is of the mental make up that can handle that pressure, as evidenced by the press’s collective RGIII swooning at the combine media day and at the draft. He's the most charming man in DC since Bill Clinton.
Washington’s offensive line is still a work in progress, although the renewed commitment
of the highly talented Trent Williams, a walking prototype of the zone blocking tackle that Shanahan covets, this offseason should help immensely if he follows through. Griffin’s documented Olympic-caliber speed, combined with his exceptional accuracy and velocity on the run, should fit in very well in the Shannahans' (Mike and his offensive coordinator son Kyle) system that requires a mobile quarterback that runs an inordinate amount of bootlegs. A great cure for a sub-standard offensive line.
Despite what Donovan McNabb claims, the Shanahans have always excelled at getting the best out of their quarterbacks. Donovan, if everyone else is wrong and you are right, perhaps you should consider the option that you might be wrong.
2. Andrew Luck
Indianapolis Colts Quarterback
This is the other obvious and essential inclusion in the list of rookies who will contribute heavily in 2012. The advantage that Luck has is that with the house cleaning after last year’s Peyton-less disaster, expectations are much lower. Like Manning, he is a quick decision maker with the height to stand tall in the pocket and a very quick release. What he lacks in experience, he makes up for in athleticism.
You could consider numbers such as 4.59 40 time at the combine, which is identical to Cam Newton’s, or you could consider Luck’s circus-style one-handed catch
while streaking down the sideline last season against USC. He is perhaps the most highly anticipated rookie in recent memory, as evidenced by all the "suck for Luck" campaign rumors.
Also to his benefit is Reggie Wayne’s decision to remain in Indianapolis and teach they young student what can only be volumes of knowledge that he gleaned during years of having such a great rapport with Manning, one of the all-time greats. Although Wayne may have lost a couple steps over the years, he has become an impeccable route runner and anticipator, something invaluable to a young quarterback’s development.
Luck's arm strength has been questioned by a few, and although this is ludicrous, his cerebral approach to the game more than makes up for a deficiency that was overblown. Many quarterbacks, like Drew Brees and his predecessor in Manning, faced the same criticism as they entered the league. Another reason for optimism is new coach Chuck Pagano, the former defensive coordinator, talking up Donald Brown’s potential as a three down all-around running back, something he knows all about from his time with Ray Rice in Baltimore. Also joining the party is Luck’s favorite target at USC, mega-athletic tight end Coby Fleener, and new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who helped develop Ben Roethlisberger into a star quarterback in Pittsburgh.
3. Stephon Gilmore
Buffalo Bills CB
The inclusion of Gilmore is specifically based on a combination of Gilmore's particular skillset, size and speed combination, and the division rivals that Buffalo has to face twice annually. Gilmore is a stout 6’0” and 190 pounds, which might seem like a compact frame until you consider his 31” wingspan that allows him to play taller than his height. He plays very physically, ran a 4.4 40 at the combine, and makes impact plays. He is a former quarterback who changed positions in college, but his quarterback’s intelligence will aid him through his transition to the pro game.
Buffalo plays a home and home series with the Patriots, Jets and Miami each year. His size, speed and physicality will perhaps be utilized to help stop the Patriots’ dynamic duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who combine size, athleticism, soft hands and New England’s complex and effective offensive scheme to separate from linebackers and overpower cornerbacks.
The Jets have a dynamic tight end in Dustin Keller, themselves, along with whatever role they will have Tim Tebow play. The hilarity of his throwing mechanics aside, he is a dynamic playmaker and must be accounted for.
Finally, the Dolphins are installing the West Coast offense as ran by Joe Philbin and Mike Sherman in Green Bay. They drafted Lamar Miller to be the one cut, between the tackles back, so Reggie Bush’s role might be reduced to that of a third downs and as a slot receiver, similar to what it was in New Orleans.
To combat all of the bubble screens that Bush performs so well, lateral quickness and physicality at the line is essential. Gilmore posses a similar skill set at Cortland Finnegan, but with superior size and pop, and will immediately improve an underperforming Bills secondary.
4. Luke Kuechly
Carolina Panthers LB
The Panthers struggled in rush defense last year as well as the intermediate passing game. Their weak defense could not keep pace with Cam Newton's record-setting rookie season, although Carolina's wealth of offensive weapons allowed them to keep games closer than was anticipated. With the loss of John Beason to a torn Achilles and Thomas Davis tearing the same ACL tendon for the third time, the linebacking core was decimated.
Keuchly’s versatility, intelligence, and three down ability allow him to fill in wherever needed if either Beason or Davis struggle to return to form. Since no football player has ever returned from three torn ACLs, that could be a strong possibility for Davis. Kuechly's instincts and refined abilities ensure that he has an opening day starting lineup spot etched in stone.
Keuchly excels in all facets of the game and is a great fit for Ron Rivera’s defense, which the Bears ran in Brian Urlacher’s prime. Keuchly can shed blocks well, and considering Carolina’s deficiency in the interior defensive line, he will have to combat blockers frequently reaching the second level. He can cover well and displays the mix of agility, anticipation and strength required to be an elite Tampa 2 linebacker. His intelligence will allow him to become the leader of the the defensive, similar to Urlacher's ascension to be the starter of the Bears’ defense while Rivera was his coordinator.
5. Matt Kalil
Minnesota Vikings OT
Matt Kalil possesses the strength, technique, nimble feet and tenacity that will make him an elite left tackle for years to come. Vikings fans and management alike dream the dream of Kalil growing into greatness with Christian Ponder. The reality is that Adrian Peterson will likely begin the season in a very reduced role, if even on the field at all.
Toby Gerhart will shoulder the load, but he will obviously not command the respect from defenses that Peterson does. This means that pass rushers will pin back their ears and get after Ponder full bore, while spending six contests facing Jared Allen, Cliff Avril and Julius Peppers can cause any tackle to appear sub-par.
Kalil does have the potential to eventually become the league’s premier left tackle, and Ponder was lauded for his intelligence and maturity coming out of Florida State. Ponder was, however, downgraded due to his durability issues. In order to keep him upright and allow him to fully develop, Kalil is going to be forced to mature quickly and make full use of his unreal agility for a big man of his size. His brother, Ryan, is the well respected center for the Carolina Panthers, but Matt has been widely regarded as the superior talent.
In order to combat Kalil's NFC North handicap of inexperience, using Percy Harvin's ability to make huge plays in the flats would not only help Ponder get the ball out faster, but help mend fences with a rightfully neglected-feeling Harvin. Ponder's ever-growing chemistry with tight end Kyle Rudolph, himself a fellow rookie last season, will give Ponder another quick outlet to take some of the pressure off Kalil. This may not be the easiest division for an up and coming offensive tackle, but Kalil has enough tools to fill up a shed and will become an outstanding blind-side bodyguard.