Two months ago, Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese stood at the NFL's scouting combine and rattled off several names: Mike Williams, Ronnie Brown, Braylon Edwards, Aaron Rodgers.
Reese's voice was monotone and his shoulders in a perpetual shrug. Best offensive player in the draft? Someone who's ready to step in and be an instant star?
"It's difficult to know right now," Reese said.
Not a whole lot has changed since. The freight train of debate has so much momentum it's likely it will last months beyond the draft – and into next season. Only then will the argument be settled, the same way we discovered the Detroit Lions were dead-on in last season's draft evaluations of wide receiver Roy Williams and running back Kevin Jones. And the same way we discovered that the Jacksonville Jaguars were at least a little off with their immediate expectations of wide receiver Reggie Williams.
In truth, the Jaguars will have plenty of time to save face with Williams – plenty of time to mold him into a dominant receiver and justify his high selection. Rarely do offensive prospects erupt in their first seasons in the NFL, which might make Detroit's 2004 duo of Williams and Jones (not to mention Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger) all the more special.
Only about a dozen offensive players made significant first-season impacts last year, and 2005 isn't likely to be any different. With this draft's girth in running backs and wide receivers, it's likely that somewhere in this current crop of draftees is another Kevin Jones, or perhaps a receiver who can light up secondaries as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Michael Clayton did last season. That's the personnel man's dream: finding talent that steps in and pays instant dividends.
Below are the offensive positions expected to produce at least one impact player in the NFL next season, along with the likeliest rookie to shine.
- Aaron Rodgers, California
Out of the top-two quarterbacks, Rodgers is most ready to start from day one. Most scouts think he has the release and accuracy to play right away. What he lacks are the decision-making adjustments and nuances of a pro quarterback – intangibles that typically take a few years to mature. While Rodgers doesn't have the potential to make the rookie impact of Peyton Manning, playing in the right offense (such as the San Francisco 49ers' scheme) would suit his transition and help him put up solid rookie numbers like David Carr or Joey Harrington. That should translate into something like 2,200 to 2,500 passing yards, 10 to 15 touchdowns and 10 to 15 interceptions.
As for Utah's Alex Smith, his lack of polish makes him a likely candidate to spend his first season watching from the bench, a la Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer. Others, like Auburn's Jason Campbell, Georgia's David Greene and Akron's Charlie Frye, will also spend a year or two getting groomed for the future.
- Ronnie Brown, Auburn
It's much easier for highly touted running backs to have an instant impact for two reasons: It's a more instinctual position than any other on offense, and marquee running backs are likely to get plenty of touches on offense.
Brown has all the skills to produce, both as a runner and catching the ball out of the backfield. In fact, he should rival USC receiver Mike Williams as the early favorite for Rookie of the Year. With his speed, size and a steady diet of carries, there's no reason to think he can't put up a rookie performance comparable to what Jones did for Detroit in 2004 – somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 rushing yards and six to 10 total touchdowns.
The other running backs – Texas' Cedric Benson and Auburn's Carnell Williams – shouldn't be far behind. Both should get a plenty of work and post nice rookie returns. And don't neglect Cal's J.J. Arrington. He has the talent to produce a surprising performance as a likely second-round pick.
- Mike Williams, Southern California
Realistically, rookie receivers shouldn't be counted on to be impact players, particularly highly drafted ones who aren't likely to have an overly talented offense surrounding them. Like quarterbacks and cornerbacks, they have to make major adjustments to the speed and complexity of NFL games.
But there are rare occasions when a player is so talented, it's difficult to imagine them not inflicting damage. Guys like Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans and Detroit's Roy Williams fell into that category, and so does Williams. He has a superb combination of size and aggression, and enough speed to get the job done. His first year promise would be fulfilled with 800 to 1,000 receiving yards and six to eight touchdowns.
Michigan's Braylon Edwards will likely have a slightly tougher time because his frame isn't quite that of Williams', yet Edwards has every bit the skill and ability to make a dent in defenses right away. But beware. This is still a position filled with rookie duds. For every Michael Clayton and Roy Williams, there is a Reggie Williams. And injuries can turn a ready-made rookie star into fodder for injured reserve, much like Detroit's Charles Rogers and Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow.
- Alex Barron, Florida State
It's nearly impossible for a rookie to step into the offensive line – and especially offensive tackle – and not struggle at some point during his first season. Nothing in football compares to the consistent brutality in the battles between linemen, and most rookies get hammered early on.
Barron should be no different. He's not going to produce anywhere near the rookie performances of Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden or Tony Boselli. He might not even be the anchor of his line during his debut campaign. But what Barron should be able to do is plug a hole at right tackle for a team in need – and not get embarrassed in the process.
Offensive line is a little tougher to gauge than other positions because, other than sacks surrendered, there aren't any telltale statistics. In the end, coaches and scouts review the film and see exactly how well an offensive lineman graded out in his blocking. Barron has all the size and enough skill to be a very good tackle in the NFL. While he might not be what the Oakland Raiders' Robert Gallery amounted to as a rookie last season, he could be close.