For the next entry in our Great Starts series, we turn our attention to those draft picks who impressed the most in 2011 despite their status as third-day picks -- those players taken from the fourth through seventh rounds. New York Giants general manager Jerry Reese (who would know) once said that the late rounds are where personnel guys make their money. Here, based on Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value metric, are the most impressive third-day picks from the 2011 season. Based on these players, the front offices of the Eagles and Seahawks should be in for a nice little bonus.
K.J. Wright, Jason Kelce, and Sam Acho were among 2011's surprise rookies. (Getty Images)
1. K.J. Wright, LB, Seattle Seahawks (4th round, 99th pick) -- Wright, who tested off the map at the scouting combine out of Mississippi State, started his NFL career by replacing former fourth-overall pick Aaron Curry in the Seahawks' starting defense. His ability to pick up the defensive playbook allowed him to perform at a preternatural level, and Pete Carroll sees him as a potential inside linebacker in the future. Wright could develop into that rarest of linebackers -- capable of playing inside and outside in multiple fronts, and doing so at a very high level all around.
2. Jason Kelce, C, Philadelphia Eagles (6th round, 191st pick) -- A former walk-on linebacker at Cincinnati. Kelce turned himself into a draftable offensive lineman with pure tenacity. He beat incumbent Jamaal Jackson for the starting job in Eagles camp, and impressed legendary line coach Howard Mudd enough to become the Eagles' first center to start his first NFL game since 1968. Kelce played very well through injuries, and Mudd may have his next Jeff Saturday if Kelce can stay healthy.
3. Brian Rolle, LB, Philadelphia Eagles (6th round, 193rd pick) -- Not a bad sixth round for the Eagles, no? We included Rolle in our "Hidden Pro Bowlers" column, mentioning that he put up a higher Stop rate (one of Football Outsiders' defensive efficiency metrics) than a lot of major stars at the outside linebacker position. Rolle rose through the ranks quickly in his first NFL season, going from special teams to the nickel package to replacing benched fellow rookie Casey Matthews. With DeMeco Ryans now on board, Philly's linebacker corps -- one the weakness of the team -- is now a real positive, and Rolle could benefit from Ryans' mentorship as Brian Cushing did in Houston.
4. Sam Acho, LB, Arizona Cardinals (4th round, 103rd pick) -- Acho got a chance to show what he could do as Joey Porter fell victim to injuries, and by the time his rookie campaign was through, he picked up seven sacks -- the most for a Cardinals rookie since Simeon Rice had 12.5 in 1996. As with many young Cardinals defenders, Acho thrived in the aggressive schemes put up by underrated defensive coordinator Ray Horton, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt was impressed as well. "It doesn't take very long to figure out when you're around Sam how smart he is," Whisenhunt said last November. "He's got athletic ability, but he makes plays because he understands where he needs to be and what he needs to do. What a good young man and a good young player."
5. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks (5th round, 154th pick) -- Sherman came to Stanford as a receiver, but former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio saw him as a cornerback, and that's where he spent his 2009 and 2010 seasons. Sherman fit the Seahawks' profile when it comes to defensive backs -- big, physical, and aggressive -- but few expected the rookie season he had. Replacing injured cornerback Walter Thurmond, Sherman showed early flashes when he did a fine job against Cincinnati's A.J. Green in late October, and he finished his initial campaign with four interceptions - including three in his last six games.
6. Roy Helu, RB, Washington Redskins (4th round, 105th pick) -- Mike Shanahan is every fantasy GM's nightmare because he alternates running backs so frequently, but in Helu, Shanny's got a guy he may want to see more often. Helu started just five games in 2011 -- the second-lowest total on our list -- but he still managed to gain 100 yards or more in three straight games late in the season against the Seahawks, Jets, and Patriots. He also grabbed 14 passes for 105 yards against a pretty darned good San Francisco defense, proving his versatility. One wonders what he could do in a more expansive, RGIII-led offense.
7. Jason Pinkston, OG, Cleveland Browns (5th round, 150th pick) -- The former Pitt tackle moved inside when he came to the NFL, and started all 16 games for an offensive line trying to get all the pieces right around Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. Early on, he hit a few rough spots filling in for Eric Steinbach at left guard, but by the end of the season, Thomas believed that the Browns had a good one for that position. "Jason has played well," Thomas said in late November. "He hasn't made any more mistakes than any of the rest of us. He works hard in practice. He's smart. He's getting better every week."
8. Denarius Moore, WR, Oakland Raiders (5th round, 148th pick) -- Moore was the latest on a long line of speed receivers for the Raiders, but the former Tennessee standout proved that there was more to his game than vertical velocity. Despite recovering from a sprained foot during the season, Moore popped up with some really nice performances -- especially against the San Diego Chargers, who Moore torched for more than 100 receiving yards in two different games.
9. Colin McCarthy, LB, Tennessee Titans (4th round, 109th pick) -- McCarthy was a beast against the run in his rookie year, finishing sixth among all inside linebackers in Stop Rate against enemy ballcarriers. When veteran Barrett Ruud was lost halfway through the season to injury, McCarthy really stepped up. He was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his play against the Buffalo Bills, and had a game-saving interception against Tampa Bay.
10. Kendall Hunter, RB, San Francisco 49ers (4th round, 115th pick) -- Hunter started just one game in his rookie season, the lowest total on our list. But he showed all the attributes seen when he starred for Oklahoma State. Hunter impressed as a rusher and receiver in limited duty, and many believe the best is ahead for him -- as long as 2012 rookie speedster LaMichael James doesn't handcuff him too often.
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