With the NFL draft all wrapped up, here’s a look at my top 12 impact rookies from the Pac-12 Conference in this upcoming NFL year.
12: EAGLES RB Chris Polk (Washington): There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Polk was the steal of the draft, without even being drafted. Somehow Polk slipped and then fell from a suspected first or second round selection all the way out of the draft. The second best back in the Pac-12 was shockingly dismissed because of some medical concerns about his hips and shoulders, but I’m here to tell you that Chris Polk will be a force of nature within the Eagle offense. A scorned man is a dangerous one and when they realize the talent that they’ve aquired, Philly will give Polk the ball more and more as the season goes on. With Polk shouldering some of the load, Shady McCoy is going to be fresher than ever heading down the stretch and Philly will be all the more dangerous for it.
11: RAIDERS WR Juron Criner (Arizona): The opposite of Marvin Jones, Criner brings great size and pass catching skills to an already speedy receiving corps in Oakland. While on the outside, he should be counted on as a possession receiver of sorts, with the ability to break off a big one after he makes the catch. His domination in college may not carry over completely because he is a bit of a slower receiver, but his frame is one that can keep plenty of defenders away while securing the ball in the redzone. Honestly, he came to the Raiders at a superior value in the late 5th round and is completely capable of a breakout rookie season.
10: BENGALS WR Marvin Jones (Cal): Cincinnati had a surprising breakout year in 2011 and that was without a second real deep threat across from emerging superstar AJ Green on the outside for efficient QB Andy Dalton. Jones isn’t a pure burner that can completely separate with his speed, but he is explosive in a short space and can run by a corner with his burst. Just the type of guy that Dalton needs to complete his immensely diverse set of receivers. With Green, draft pick Mohammad Sanu and Vidal Hazelton on the outside teamed with Jordan Shipley in the slot, Jones will have a chance at being a deep threat with some 1-on-1 opportunities across the way.
9: STEELERS DT Alemeda Ta’amu (Washington): Pittsburgh runs a 3-4 scheme that fits Ta’amu’s size and skill as a Nose Tackle to a tee. The NFL North has always been a run first conference and the Steelers are the best in the business at stopping it. Ta’amu really doesn’t fit into any other defense because of his slow moving nature at 348 lbs, but he sure will be a force in the Steel City. He won’t get the accolades or a lot of numbers, but his big frame will eat up space and offensive linemen, leaving those Steeler linebackers and Troy Polomalu free to cause their usual disruption.
8: EAGLES LB Mychal Kendricks (Cal): The Eagles got themselves serious production from any linebacker spot with Kendricks. He was one of the main reasons that Cal ranked 1st in the Pac in total defense in 2011. While he is viewed as a bit undersized, he is a rock, he is explosive at the point of attack and he rarely makes mistakes when approaching ball carriers. In a run-heavy division, Kendricks fits the bill for what the Eagles have been lacking, which is the ability to tackle in space and in the box. Immediate impact player for Andy Reid’s defense.
7: DOLPHINS OT Jonathon Martin (Stanford): Miami swung for the fences with QB Ryan Tannehill at #8, and then somehow the highly touted Martin fell all the way to them in the 2nd round at 10. Martin is a huge guy with incredible feet and knows how to protect the qb, so Tannehill can rest a little easier while getting thrown into the fire. He’s the kind of lineman that you won’t hardly see or hear on the field because he’s so smooth and technically sound, but with Miami taking some other home run threat playmakers in the draft, Martin is going to be a key piece in the Miami resurgence effort.
6: PACKERS DE/OLB Nick Perry (Usc): This kid comes from a premier defense in college and heads straight to a premier defense in the NFL. Not that the Packers have the dominant defensive team they used to have, but they are definitely premier in the sense of exposure and star power. Green Bay always has some good prime-time matchups and Perry will fit right in as an explosive player. He has the skills to be similar to Clay Matthews with his disruptive style of play, but he has to bring more passion to the table on an every down basis if he’s going to be great. At USC Perry was the big play name on defense that you didn’t always hear from for the Trojans. As a first round pick, you can’t be that guy in the League.
5: 49ERS RB LaMichael James (Oregon): LaMichael brings a true “Lightning” bolt to the San Fran offense and he’s going to shine in his role because he is teaming up with a true “Thunder” back in Frank Gore. In fact the only reason James isn’t higher on my list is because Gore will still get his carries and there are a ton of playmakers in the passing game. Regardless, LaMichael is in the absolute perfect situation for his talents. His speed and incredible quickness with the ball will be on display more than a few times in the open field in Harbaugh’s offense. Alex Smith now has weapons in every quadrant of the field and with the defense they have, the fans will accept no excuses for why the 49ers don’t finally return to the Super Bowl!
4: COLTS TE Coby Fleener (Stanford): Speaking of feeling like he never left home, could Coby Fleener have hand-picked a more perfect scenario than to be taken by the Colts in the 2nd round with his star signal caller already headed there? I don’t even know how to describe the world he must be living in right now. He’s a celebrity because his old partner at QB is a celebrity, not to mention a great thrower to his tight ends. The Colts didn’t stop there either this draft, they added another premier receiving TE and a speedster WR in the draft with their next 2 picks, which means Fleener will get an abundance of prime 1-on-1 matchups in the redzone. What Dallas Clark was to Manning, Coby Fleener will be to Luck.
3: STEELERS OG David DeCastro (Stanford): DeCastro is the perfect fit for Steeler Nation. A nasty, physical, run first mentality from both player and team (especially with his talent) is always a good marriage for the NFL. And with an even bigger version of his college QB running the show in the backfield, David will feel like he never left Cali, except for the weather come November.
2: VIKINGS OT Matt Khalil (Usc): At pick #4, Khalil is a total road grater for Adrian Peterson. That’s it, period, end of story, right? Well yeah, kinda but this pick is more to protect Christian Ponder than AP. As Peterson gets wear and tear during his pounding career, Ponder will be called on more often and he got hit a lot in 2011. Khalil is just what the doctor ordered and is as good as any tackle in recent memory at keeping the back side of a pocket clean and free of opposing danger. We’ll actually be seeing Ponder excel in his passing game, but it’ll be because of Matt Khalil. I promise you Christian Ponder slept well over the weekend!
1: COLTS QB Andrew Luck (Stanford): There’s no debate here, Mr Luck has been on call for the Colts ever since Peyton got hurt 2 years ago. Indy surrounded him in the draft with legitimate and familiar weapons in the first 3 rounds that fit directly into his style of offense. Even before that, they did Luck a solid by re-signing Reggie Wayne as the playmaker that Luck needs to be immediately successful. The Colts went from first to worst and now they should be back in contention at the top of their division with Luck at the wheel.