A year ago, when the NFL was slogging through its labor meltdown, there was plenty of hand-wringing that rookies wouldn’t be as prepared to play as in seasons past. It was a reasonable assumption they would be shortchanged by a compressed off-season and frantically rushed training camps.
Instead, the 2011 rookie class produced several spectacular players, among them Carolina’s Cam Newton, Denver’s Von Miller, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, San Francisco’s Aldon Smith and many more.
“I think what NFL coaches did last year at every position is to simplify things for the rookies, because there was no time to learn,” said Mike Mayock, draft expert for NFL Network. “The lesson we’ve learned as football people is maybe we should keep things more simple for these rookies, make them feel more comfortable, and put them in positions to succeed.”
The first step toward that begins with the NFL draft this week, starting Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
How the opening round could go:
1. COLTS — QB Andrew Luck, Stanford: Let’s hope Luck doesn’t telegraph passes the way the Colts have in this draft. They’ve already informed him that he’s their top choice.
2. REDSKINS — QB Robert Griffin III, Baylor: Just about every time quarterbacks are taken 1-2 in the draft, one player pans out and the other doesn’t. Maybe that trend will be bucked this year.
3. VIKINGS — T Matt Kalil, USC: The sturdy Kalil is a solid choice in a draft light on talented tackles. If the Vikings go another direction — and they don’t trade down — look for them to take Louisiana State corner Morris Claiborne.
4. BROWNS — RB Trent Richardson, Alabama: The Browns need to be able to pound the ball in the AFC North. They also need a quarterback, and Mike Holmgren really likes Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill.
5. BUCCANEERS — CB Morris Claiborne, LSU: The Buccaneers badly need help at corner in a division featuring quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Newton. But if Richardson slips past Cleveland, Tampa Bay might take a running back.
6. RAMS — WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State: Putting Sam Bradford in position to succeed means getting him some quality receiving targets. The Rams scored a league-worst 193 points last season. By comparison, Green Bay scored an NFL-high 560.
7. JAGUARS — DE/OLB Melvin Ingram, South Carolina: The Jaguars need to ramp up their pass pressure, and Ingram can help achieve that. He’s a safer bet than North Carolina’s Quinton Coples. But if Blackmon’s still on the board, Jacksonville will take him.
8. DOLPHINS — QB Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M: If Tannehill gets past the Browns, and another team doesn’t trade up to take him, he could well wind up in South Florida. With Brandon Marshall gone, a No. 1 receiver would be nice too, but Blackmon isn’t likely to be there.
9. PANTHERS — DL Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State: Cox can rush the passer from the edge and play inside. That could be a big boost for a team that last season ranked 24th against the run and 25th against the pass.
10. BILLS — S Mark Barron, Alabama: Here’s where things could get very interesting. A lot of teams want Barron, who some evaluators have compared to Ronnie Lott. Will the Bills trade down with San Diego or Detroit, both of whom would love to land Barron?
11. CHIEFS — CB Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina: The Chiefs need help on the defensive line, too, but in a division that already has Philip Rivers and just added Peyton Manning, they want a corner who has the potential to be elite.
12. SEAHAWKS — LB Luke Kuechly, Boston College: The Seahawks didn’t re-sign their middle linebacker, and Kuechly could step right in and be a Day 1 starter. Don’t count them out of the Barron derby, either, even though they’re not desperate for help in the secondary.
13. CARDINALS — G David DeCastro, Stanford: DeCastro might not be ideal physically, but scouts have fallen in love with his toughness and determination. He could set the attitude of an entire offensive line.
14. COWBOYS — DT Michael Brockers, LSU: Like Cox, Brockers can play inside or outside on the line, a big plus for a defense that needs to ratchet up its pass pressure. Dallas would love it if Barron were still on the board.
15. EAGLES — DE Quinton Coples, North Carolina: Coples is a physical specimen who doesn’t play hard all the time. He’s what scouts call a boom/bust prospect. With the best defensive tackles off the board, Philadelphia could look edge rusher.
16. JETS — DT Dontari Poe, Memphis: Despite his spectacular combine, Poe hasn’t wowed teams with his game tapes. Maybe Rex Ryan can bring out this man-mountain’s inner Ndamukong. This pick could also be Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd.
17. BENGALS — G Cordy Glenn, Georgia: Cincinnati is in need of interior offensive linemen, and Glenn is the best one if DeCastro is off the board. The Bengals, who pick again at No. 21, could also go cornerback or running back.
18. CHARGERS — CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama: The Chargers might make a bold move to trade up and get Barron. If not, they could hang back and fortify their secondary with Kirkpatrick, or pick up a pass rusher.
19. BEARS — DE Nick Perry, USC: Rod Marinelli, the Bears defensive coordinator, made a special trip to USC to work out Perry and that could be a good sign for the Trojans standout, who had 91/2 sacks last season.
20. TITANS — WR Michael Floyd, Notre Dame: Kenny Britt has only played in 15 games over the last two seasons with the Titans, and Nate Washington isn’t a No. 1 receiver. Floyd is a big target who could step in and make an immediate impact.
21. BENGALS — RB David Wilson, Virginia Tech: Wilson is compact, ultra-quick and elusive. He would be a strong complement to free-agent acquisition BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Boise State’s Doug Martin is another option. However, both Wilson and Martin could be around in the second.
22. BROWNS — QB Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State: Depending on how things shake out at the top, Weeden could go as early as No. 4, or fall out of the first round completely. GM Tom Heckert really likes him.
23. LIONS — T Riley Reiff, Iowa: If the Lions can’t move up high enough to get Barron, Reiff would be good value here. He’ll likely go earlier because teams covet tackles, but he’s more of a right tackle playing on the left side.
24. STEELERS — LB Dont’a Hightower, Alabama: Hightower is big (6-3, 266) and extremely physical. He’s not great in coverage, but a lot of teams like what they see in him. He could be a fit for the Ravens, too.
25. BRONCOS — DT Jerel Worthy, Michigan State: The Broncos hit the jackpot by taking Von Miller last year, but passed on Marcel Dareus to do so. They still have a pressing need for interior defensive linemen, and Worthy fits the bill.
26. TEXANS — DE Whitney Mercilus, Illinois: With Mario Williams gone, the Texans need more players who can put heat on quarterbacks. Mercilus had 16 sacks last season, his only year as a starter. Is he a one-season wonder?
27. PATRIOTS — DT Kendall Reyes, Connecticut: Reyes might not be an elite athlete but he’s what scouts call a high-effort player who won’t disappoint the Patriots with his attitude and work ethic.
28. PACKERS — DE/OLB Shea McClellin, Boise State: It’s a lofty comparison but some scouts have likened McClellin to Clay Matthews. The Packers finished with 29 sacks last season, tying them for 27th in the league. McClellin had a combined 26 over the last two seasons.
29. RAVENS — G Kevin Zeitler, Wisconsin: With left guard Ben Grubbs signing with New Orleans, the Ravens need someone to fill his shoes. Zeitler would be a good fit. If the Steelers don’t take Hightower, the Ravens might.
30. 49ERS — WR Stephen Hill, Georgia Tech: The 49ers say they’ve already picked their player for this spot, possibly meaning this could be a surprise selection. The 6-foot-5 Hill has great size but is a gamble coming from a run-first option offense.
31. PATRIOTS — C Peter Konz, Wisconsin: Konz is the best center in this draft, and his career would flourish under offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. The Wisconsin standout has been slowed by ankle problems, however.
32. GIANTS — TE Coby Fleener, Stanford: The Giants have plenty of needs along the offensive line, but Fleener would be a good fit. Imagine that: a first round that starts with Luck, ends with his top touchdown-scoring pass catcher.