The NFL officially returns on Thursday, and Shutdown Corner is rolling out the red carpet, previewing what’s to come for the 2013 season. We’ll finish it off by picking our individual awards and the Super Bowl winner on Thursday before the Ravens and Broncos kick off the season.
A great rookie class can push a team to the next level. A rebuilding club can become relevant with special rookie impetus — witness the Colts with Andrew Luck, Dwayne Allen and so on, or the Redskins with Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris and others last season.
Teams are now more prone than ever to start rookies, or feature them in prominent roles. Occasionally, it’s out of need, but many times the kids are just too good to keep off the field.
Here are the 10 teams this season that are poised to get the most from their draft classes as a whole in Year One:
Jets: The preseason hype has followed the ups and downs of quarterback Geno Smith very closely so far, and the only thing we know is that he probably will start at some point. But don’t forget that good-looking defensive players Sheldon Richardson and Dee Milliner figure to start right away, and fullback Tommy Bohanon figures to anchor the lead blocking.
Bears: Interestingly, critics panned GM Phil Emery’s second draft class as being too filled with too many reaches, but it appears that at least three draft picks will be featured prominently from Jump Street. First-round right guard Kyle Long has been a masher so far, and his right-hand man, tackle Jordan Mills, has been a pleasant surprise. And second-round linebacker Jon Bostic has not been shy about taking Brian Urlacher’s vaunted role.
Saints: It was only a five-man draft class, but three of their picks could be big performers instantly. Free safety Kenny Vaccaro was expected to start right away, adding his unique blend of toughness and athleticism to a rebuilding defense. But it was been the play of fifth-round receiver Kenny Stills that has surprised the most; don’t be shocked if he’s one of Drew Brees’ favorite deep targets. Third-round nose tackle John Jenkins must help anchor up front.
Bills: First-round pick EJ Manuel will be the quarterback to start the season, and undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel was ready to start if Manuel wasn't ready. Don’t forget about middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, a defensive rookie of the year candidate, and two impressive rookie receivers: Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. Kicker Dustin Hopkins rounds out the group.
Vikings: With three first-round picks, you’d hope they’d have a big impact from their draft class. Once figuring to rotate in, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd might see his snap count increase if Kevin Williams’ knee is troublesome. Corner Xavier Rhodes adds tough press-man coverage outside. Do-it-all receiver/returner Cordarrelle Patterson adds flash to the offense and special teams. And punter Jeff Locke looks like he belongs.
Steelers: Eventually, they’ll get running back Le’Veon Bell back into the mix, and when they do this could be a special class. Linebacker Jarvis Jones adds youth and excitement to the defense, as will Shamarko Thomas, as a reserve safety and special teamer. The sleeper pick of the bunch should be receiver Markus Wheaton, whose work to date suggests he can help people forget about Mike Wallace, also once a third-round pick.
Lions: Assuming Ziggy Ansah is healthy — he’s rumored to have suffered a concussion — he should be among the two or three best rookie pass rushers. Throw in second-round corner Darius Slay and third-round offensive guard Larry Warford, both of whom could nudge their way into the starting lineup, and the Lions appears to have fresh blood worth keeping an eye on. Punter Sam Martin also has been impressive, as was seventh-round tight end Michael Williams before he suffered a broken hand.
Rams: It’s not just the Tavon Austin Show, although it’s hard to ignore what the speedster could add on offense and special teams. Linebacker Alec Ogletree actually could be the biggest first-year addition, with his rare speed and playmaking ability for the position. T.J. McDonald figures in heavily at safety, and their other four picks — receiver Stedman Bailey, offensive lineman Barrett Jones, corner Brandon McGee and running back Zac Stacy — will be contributors.
Jaguars: Perhaps no team will start as many rookies as the Jags, who likely will turn to each of their first five picks — right tackle Luke Joeckel, safety John Cyprien, corner Dwayne Gratz, receiver-returner Ace Sanders and “offensive weapon” Denard Robinson — heavily in the rotation. The team is rebooting once again, but these kids can play, adding much-needed toughness and speed, even if there’s may not be a superstar in the group.
Packers: There might be no bigger Big Three among rookies than defensive end Datone Jones, running back Eddie Lacy and offensive tackle David Bakhtiari, with all three expected to start right out of the chute. And all three will help address long-time problem areas. Another Packers rookie to keep a close watch on: fifth-round corner Micah Hyde, who has impressed the coaches with his ability to shake off a mistake. Figure fourth-round running back Johnathan Franklin to shake off early rust and contribute at some point.