David Syvertsen takes a look at one rookie from every team in the NFC and breaks down their play during the year.
Washington Redskins: Brian Orakpo – DE – Texas (13th overall)
After missing the first day of Redskins training camp, Brian Orakpo signed his name on the dotted line and has been familiarizing himself with the SAM linebacker position at a rapid rate. The announcement of him moving to a hybrid SAM/Defensive End position was dispersed following the NFL Draft but it looks like the former Texas pass rusher will be standing up over the tight end for the majority of his rookie season snaps. He looked comfortable and fluid in space during the team’s minicamp and has been receiving high praise from teammates and coaches. The names Leonard Little and DeMarcus Ware have been thrown around in the comparison ring by those that have been in the league for years. His freakish physical tools and top notch attitude have given Washington reason to believe his impact will be immediate and strong.
Dallas Cowboys: Jason Williams – LB – Western Illinois (69th overall)
Without a single pick throughout the first two round, the Cowboys were not exactly in position to grab an immediate impact player with their first selection. Therefore the selection of Jason Williams, one of the draft’s elite linebackers from a physical standpoint, was a typical high ceiling-low floor acquisition. Coming from a lower level of college football, Williams has been taking baby steps since minicamp and his position coach Reggie Herring has admitted he is still a ways away from being ready for the complexities of an NFL scheme.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jeremy Maclin – WR – Missouri (19th overall)
The Eagles are stacked with wide receivers that are not capable of being number one targets, but are more than serviceable enough to get the job done with the underrated Donovan McNabb. Maclin is thrown into a situation that will make it difficult for him to make an immediate impact in the passing game but his physical tools were been put on display in front of the coaching staff and teammates at the team’s spring minicamp. Head Coach Andy Reid raved about his quick decision making skills and ability to grasp the west coast offense right away. The initial training camp was expected to be crucial for Maclin, but he missed the first nine days because of a contract holdout. Now that he is in full pads with the team, the expected holes in his game are being exposed. He is an outstanding athlete that can get behind defensive backs, but he has not showed the fluidity with the ball in his hands. He is thinking too much, rather than reacting to what is in front of him. His progression will not be a quick process.
New York Giants: Hakeem Nicks – WR – North Carolina (29th overall)
Nicks started off the preseason process with a bang. At the team’s minicamp inside Giants Stadium and the new practice facility, Hakeem did not drop a single pass. Not one. The assurances his hands bring to the offense have been the topic of conversation by quarterbacks and coaches. The opportunity for him to win a starting job is certainly there because the loss of Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress, the starting X and Z receivers, have opened up two holes in the offense that need to be filled. The fact that Nicks was signed before the start of camp was a huge step in the process and considering the combination of his skill set with his familiarity of the Giants offense, the chances of him starting in between the sidelines week one are a realistic possibility.
Minnesota Vikings: Percy Harvin – WR – Florida (22nd overall)
Harvin was the wildcard prospect in the 2009 draft class. Coming from the wide open Urban Meyer spread attack on top of an unattractive off the field rap sheet, teams were wary when it came to putting his name on the sheet that Roger Goodell reads on draft day. He started off on a low note due to catching the flu during both the rookie symposium and Vikings’ minicamp. While those are not character-related issues, they are certainly situations in which Harvin would have rather avoided. On the field, Harvin is being thrown into the deep end right away. He is seeing plenty of snaps with the first team offense as a slot receiver and wildcat quarterback. He is going to be on the field right away for the Vikings, therefore head coach Brad Childress is putting a lot on his plate to absorb. His mental progression is coming along and he should be ready to go all out by week one.
Chicago Bears: Jarron Gilbert – DT – San Jose State (68th overall)
Another team that did not have a selection on day one, the Bears grabbed a player that should have an early impact despite being the 68th overall player taken. Gilbert is going to learn the ways of the NFL trenches from one of the best defensive line coaches in the NFL, Rod Marinelli. Marinelli is not the kind of coach that praises a player just because he wears the right uniform. However he was ecstatic with Gilbert following the team’s minicamp and is confident he will be able to mold the 6’5” Gilbert into a healthy knee bender that can use his hip power to push his way into the backfield. His pass rush moves have been refined early in the training camp process and the staff is confident Gilbert is going to be a starting caliber contributor sooner rather than later.
Green Bay Packers – BJ Raji – NT – Boston College (9th overall)
A defensive lineman like Raji is vital to the Packers transition to the 3-4 scheme. While his main role will be over center, he bounced back and forth between nose tackle and left defensive end in June at the team’s minicamp. He has the physical tools to be a versatile difference maker within a unit that really lacked quality defensive line play in 2008. The problem now, on August 9th, is the lack of presence Raji has on the Packers training camp. Because of the holdout right behind him with Michael Crabtree, Raji was forced to break his promise and skip the opening practices. While a nose tackle’s learning curve is not as steep as other positions, missed workouts as a rookie are never a good thing. He may be the best defensive lineman on the team right away, but that does not mean he can get away with spending the majority of camp on the couch.
Detroit Lions – Matthew Stafford – QB – Georgia (1st overall)
Monster contract aside, the 2009 NFL Draft’s poster boy is up against some serious competition when it comes to the Lions’ starting quarterback position. His arm strength has been put on display and has received the “Wow” factor from everyone that has watched. However the newly thinned out Daunte Culpepper is more than putting up a fight for the starting job and it is a race that will go for another few weeks. While Stafford’s physical tools are impossible to question, he has proven to have it up top as well. He has a firm grasp of the team’s playbook and his demeanor in the huddle has caught the eyes of veteran teammates already. His gunslinger style has been displayed with plays that include his ball that rips through the wind with ease, followed by a throw in to heavy traffic. While his starting spot may not exist until the Lions are a few weeks into their season, Stafford will be given a chance to make a rookie impact at some point.
Carolina Panthers: Everette Brown – DE – Florida State (43rd overall)
Brown had top notch physical ability in comparison to the draft’s defensive ends he was competing against, but his lack of size really hurt him in the end. That lack of size has not been an issue yet as Jeff Otah, the team’s starting right tackle, has been surprised at just how powerful the 256 pound speed rusher is. Brown has brought a fantastic work ethic and attitude to his rookie season which has really aided the learning curve process. While he learns and refines some pass rush moves, which will be vital to his progression, Brown is going to be used as an edge rusher. His name has been thrown around in the same ring as the Colts’ Robert Mathis already.
Atlanta Falcons: Peria Jerry – DT – Ole Miss (24th overall)
The biggest scare a team can get from offseason workouts breached its way into the Atlanta practice facilities during rookie workouts following April’s draft. Jerry suffered a mild knee sprain and rumors that he could miss part of training camp quickly surfaced. Fortunately for both the Falcons and Jerry, he was able to participate in the team’s OTA’s as well as training camp. Jerry has been receiving the praise of the Falcons top defensive player John Abraham. He thinks the two of them could quickly form one of the top pass rushing duos from the inside out in the league. One of the reasons Matt Ryan has been struggling to get the ball downfield thus far has been the collapsing ability Jerry has shown up the middle. He is well on his way to a starting position.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Josh Freeman – QB – Kansas State (17th overall)
Perhaps the most crucial signing of all first round picks was Freeman. He has all of the physical tools to be a top tier passer in this league but there are several other factors that need to be smoothed over before he is ready for the NFL game. He was obviously overwhelmed on the mental side at times in college and considering the complex schemes he will be up against, he needs all the work he can get both on the field and in the film room. On the practice field, Freeman has struggled with going through progression and reading pass defenders. He has been throwing way too many interceptions and the decision to keep him on the bench for the start of the season has been all but made. While judging a quarterback this early is foolish, Freeman has not hit his stride yet and does not spell the kind of confidence that other first round quarterbacks have this preseason.
New Orleans Saints: Malcolm Jenkins – DB – Ohio State (14th overall)
The ten day holdout did not help Jenkins’ cause when it came to the possibility of winning a starting job prior to the start of the season. Although he has maturity and confidence beyond his years, it is going to be an uphill climb from the get go as he will be playing catch up with his defensive teammates. Throughout the team’s organized team activities in late June, Jenkins received a healthy dose of the team’s new defense as he paved his way into the nickel and dime units. He had a natural feel for the NFL speed and was consistently putting himself in the proper positions to make plays, something the New Orleans defense has struggled to do for years. With the instability in the Saints’ defensive backfield, Jenkins could win that starting job with a strong four week preseason performance.
St. Louis Rams: Jason Smith – OT – Baylor (2nd overall)
Smith’s progression has not been one that consists of throwing him in to the fire. Ten days in to August, the majority of Smith’s snaps are with the second team. He has seen plenty of action against Leonard Little, whom has been schooling him repeatedly. The consistent part of Smith’s situation however has been his yearn to learn. He has been a steady contributor with the playbook in his hand in the film room as his mental side of the NFL game is really coming along. His tool set is there and it has been on full display since the beginning. The only hurdle that separates Smith from a starting job is the consistency with his footwork and it is expected that he will have the job by mid season.
Seattle Seahawks: Aaron Curry – LB – Wake Forest (4th overall)
Following the post-draft interviews and coast-to-coast flights, Curry dove in to Seattle’s defensive playbook right away. He was struggling to pick up on the lingo and adjustments, but by the time he got on the field with the veterans, he was flying around making plays. His natural feel for the game has been put on display right away, especially in pass coverage. He is already past the overthinking stage every rookie goes through, which was the only obstacle that stood between him and a starting job. Curry has not looked the part of a rookie early in training camp and all signs point to the highest paid non quarterback rookie in NFL history to winning a starting job.
San Francisco 49ers: Michael Crabtree – WR – Texas Tech (10th overall)
The opening months of Michael Crabtree’s career have been a train wreck. On top of a holdout that has kept him out of training camp, reports have surfaced that he is ready to sit out the entire 2009 season so that he can re-enter the 2010 draft. He entered the post-draft process with an injured foot, therefore his workouts with the team were either non-existent or minimal. The Niners have not been able to gauge how NFL ready the highly touted wide receiver is and his preseason work was going to be crucial because of the spread offense he was coming from. His exposure to an NFL scheme has been miniscule over his tenure at Texas Tech, thus these missed workouts are really hurting the chances of him being an immediate impact player.
Arizona Cardinals: Beanie Wells – RB – Ohio State (31st overall)
Prior to the team’s training camp, Wells partook in minimal preseason workouts with the Cardinals. There were not character concerns or physical limitations though, just the simple reason that his classes were still going on and they collided with his NFL schedule. He was signed early in training camp and showed up with a sense of urgency and hustle as he, over and over, stated he wanted that number one job and was not interested in sharing carries. He has lost twenty pounds since being drafted and appears ready to be the go to guy in the Cardinals quest to improve the league’s worst rushing attack in 2008. Wells suffered a sprained ankle on day one of his first NFL training camp and while it does not appear to be a serious injury, his presence on the field has been all but non-existent to this point. That does not bode well for a back that had the reputation of being dinged up too often in college.