Here at Pro Football Focus, we look at every player on every play of every game … in the NFL. Since our gaze is so rarely cast toward the college ranks, we’ll steer clear of commenting on the skills and shortcomings of the incoming class. We do know, however, that just because one player is picked ahead of another doesn’t necessarily mean they are better. Last year’s 27th pick was the Patriots’ Devin McCourty who we thought played like one of the best cornerbacks in the league while the fourth overall pick, Trent Williams of the Redskins, had a rough run in his rookie campaign.
That all said, expectations are high for all first round picks. It’s rare for a recently drafted player to be given a starting job on Day 1, but there are some we would like to see get a shot sooner than later because they could immediately fill a need. Other picks were clearly the result of a “best player available” decision and some of those will be the most interesting situations to watch.
So where do I think your favorite team’s new rookie stands? Read on.
1. Carolina Panthers – QB – Cam Newton (Auburn)
While we might not see Newton start right away, it’s clearly not a good sign for Matt Moore or last year’s second round pick, Jimmy Clausen. Our grades agreed that neither player is the answer with Moore having an overall rating of -2.5 and Clausen at just +0.6. This also probably means 2010 6th round pick Tony Pike will be fighting for a roster spot and 2009 6th round pick Keith Null will depart.
2. Denver Broncos – OLB – Von Miller (Texas A&M)
He should be starting right away opposite Elvis Dumervil on the outside of Joe Mays and DJ Williams at linebacker. The Broncos only real strengths on defense last year were Williams and Champ Bailey. Bringing Dumervil back from injury and adding Miller to the lineup should be a huge boost to the pass rush. This likely means that Mario Haggan will be head to the bench, and Wesley Woodyard, who was penciled in to start, will also be a backup.
3. Buffalo Bills – DL – Marcell Dareus (Alabama)
Dareus should also start right away. The Bills plan on using a 3-4 defense in 2011, and he and Kyle Williams will make an incredible duo on the defensive line. Now the only question is who will be the third starting lineman. The Bills have cut Marcus Stroud, Chris Kelsay will likely play outside linebacker. This leaves Spencer Johnson or Alex Carrington as the top candidates to complete the front.
4. Cincinnati Bengals – WR – A.J. Green (Georgia)
Assuming that Terrell Owens doesn’t return and Chad Ochocinco is let go or traded, Green will lead a young and solid receiving group. 2010 3rd round pick Jordan Shipley played well in his time, as did 2008 2nd round pick, Jerome Simpson. 2008 3rd round pick Andre Caldwell ended with a slightly negative rating. These four players will fight for the two starting spots and throw in 2010’s first round pick, tight end Jermaine Gresham, and you have a group with a lot of potential.
5. Arizona Cardinals – CB – Patrick Peterson (LSU)
The Cardinals had many areas of need and this helped fill one of them. The man who was supposed to be their top cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, played very poorly in 2010. 2009 4th round pick Greg Toler was the other starter and also put forth a sub-par year. The three of them will man the top three corner spots on the roster with Peterson quicky climbing to the No. 1 role. Their nickel back from last year, Michael Adams, should challenge for continued duty against multi-receiver sets and could bump Rodgers-Cromartie or Toler down a notch.
6. Atlanta Falcons – WR – Julio Jones (Alabama)
The Falcons made the big trade and gave up a lot to get Jones. Last year, Harry Douglas (in his third year) did not get much done as the team’s third wide receiver and just lost most if not all of his snaps because of this pick. Jones will join Roddy White and Michael Jenkins in what was already one of the best passing attacks in the league. The Falcons have to be expecting Jones to push them to the next level. This probably confirms Brian Finneran won’t be resigned.
7. San Francisco 49ers – DE – Aldon Smith (Missouri)
The 49ers had an excellent pass rush before this pick. Defensive End Justin Smith and Linebackers Patrick Willis, Parys Haralson, Manny Lawson and Travis LaBoy all had pass rush ratings above 10 last year. While it could make sense for him to replace Isaac Sopoaga as he had the worst rating in the 49ers front seven, Smith is projected as an outside linebacker in the 3-4. It will be interesting to see what the 49ers do with him, as he doesn’t really fit a need but could still improve the front seven.
8. Tennessee Titans – QB – Jake Locker (Tennessee)
Whenever a team picks a quarterback this early that man get tagged as the “quarterback of the future.” The question now becomes does he start on opening day? With Vince Young likely gone and Kerry Collins and Chris Simms as free agents, the Titans could be tempted to start Locker from the outset. The other quarterbacks on the roster include 2010 6th round pick Rusty Smith and Brett Ratliff; Locker likely passed both of them on the depth chart as soon as his name was called.
9. Dallas Cowboys – OT – Tyron Smith (USC)
The Cowboys had a solid offensive line in 2010 with one exception: Marc Colombo, who was graded as one of the worst tackles in the league. It’s unclear which of Doug Free or Smith will play on the left, but they are expected to be locked in as the two starters. Include Andre Gurode, Leonard Davis and either Kyle Kosier or Montrae Holland and Dallas has to be happy with their starting big men.
10. Jacksonville Jaguars – QB Blaine Gabbert (Missouri)
At the age of 33, David Garrard likely doesn’t have much time left as a starter. The Jaguars knew this and traded up to get their next signal-caller. I don’t expect Gabbert to take the job in 2011, and it does create a fight for the backup quarterback jobs. In February, the Jaguars resigned Luke McCown, and Trent Edwards is also on the roster, though likely leaving town.
11. Houston Texans – DE – J.J. Watt (Wisconsin)
It will be interesting to see where Watt fits into the Texans’ defense. With Wade Philips as the defensive coordinator, the team is switching to a 3-4. At one end spot is Mario Williams and the other Antonio Smith – who are both strong pass rushers – and Amobi Okoye and Shaun Cody hold down the nose tackle job. The younger members of the bunch, Williams, Okoye and Watt, have to be viewed as the future of this line and the three could be great together if they live up to their combined potential.
12. Minnesota Vikings – QB – Christian Ponder (Florida State)
Again, this is a team that needed a quarterback and again the main question is does he get the starting job to begin 2011. Joe Webb and Tarvaris Jackson are both relatively young but neither looked good in 2010 and Jackson isn’t expected back. This is very much like the Panthers’ situation in that there are at least a couple of starting options at the moment, but the new guy will get every chance to run with it. He’ll have some nice offensive weapons around him, so that will certainly help.
13. Detroit Lions – DT – Nick Fairley (Auburn)
The “best player available” pick of the first round, Fairley lands in an already strong Detroit defensive line. Does he immediately slot next to Ndamukong Suh? Corey Williams and Sammie Lee Hill, like Suh are both over 300 pounds and they’ll remain in the defensive tackle rotation, and all three played very well last year. At defensive end, Kyle Vanden Bosch didn’t play particularly inspiring football, but Cliff Avril was an amazing pass rusher and Lawrence Jackson came on late to show himself as a value as well. No matter what four defensive linemen the Lions line up with, the opposing quarterback has to worry.
14. St. Louis Rams – DE – Robert Quinn (North Carolina)
In 2010, the Rams had a very good defensive line with Chris Long and James Hall at end and Fred Robbins at tackle with all three having overall ratings above 10. There are other positions that are much more of a need, but Robbins and Hall are 33 and 34 respectively. While Quinn might not from the get-go, he will of course get playing time, and will likely take over full time for Hall at some point. If the Rams can find a way to get Long, Hall, Robbins and Quinn on the field at the same time, you would have a very scary pass rush.
15. Miami Dolphins – C – Mike Pouncey (Florida)
You can expect Pouncey to be a starter when football is played again. At left tackle, Jake Long is obviously cemented and Vernon Carey will be the right tackle. It is very likely that Pouncey will slide right into the center spot with Richie Incognito staying at guard where he spent most of the 2010 season. The other players to get most of the starts last year included Joe Berger, Pat McQuistan and John Jerry. Of those, Berger played the best and is who I’d like to see stay in the line-up. He was the Dolphins’ center, but he might have to bump over to make room.
16. Washington Redskins – OLB – Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue)
The Redskins had a lot of linebacking holes in their 3-4 defense last year with Rocky McIntosh and Lorenzo Alexander both having ratings below -10.0. You can pencil in Kerrigan to take over Alexander’s spot opposite Brian Orakpo and they should be the two outside linebackers for years to come. There wasn’t much depth at the position either, so Kerrigan is a clear fit. Trading back to get him and adding a pick in the process was a nice move.
17. New England Patriots – OT – Nate Solder (Colorado)
It’s unclear if Solder will come in and start right away. At right tackle, Sebastian Vollmer played well, especially at the end of the season with a +13.6 rating over the last six games. At left tackle, Matt Light played had his ups against the run and downs against the pass, is a free agent, and is 32. Las year’s right tackle, Nick Kaczur, is penciled on the left now. He had a back injury which kept him out for the 2010 season, but he played well in 2009. Solder may end up being groomed for a while, but could help form a Vollmer-Solder tackle tandem in the near future.
18. San Diego Chargers – DL – Corey Liuget (Illinois)
The Chargers were thin at nose tackle in 2010, but Antonio Garay played amazing football. He just didn’t have much help around him. Last year’s ends were Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire, both of whom earned negative grades in run and pass D, and Cesaire is a free agent. Liuget could very well win a starting spot next to Garay, and if anything, he adds some much needed depth.
19. New York Giants – CB – Prince Amukamara (Nebraska)
This helped fill a need for the Giants. While Terrell Thomas and Corey Webster had okay overall ratings in 2010, their coverage grades left something to be desired. New York’s nickel corner was Aaron Ross who also had a poor (-4.6) coverage rating. I would expect Prince to be able to work his way up the depth chart quickly and see significant playing time in 2011. This could mean the end of the line for Ross after four years of him not living up to his first round draft status.
20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DE – Adrian Clayborn (Iowa)
In 2010, the Buccaneers’ line was an absolute wreck as player after player went down to injury. Eleven different players saw over 100 snaps on the defensive line with only Gerald McCoy and Stylez White finishing with positive ratings. Adding Clayborn will help solidify the unit and he could be starting right away. They have pieces in the place at linebacker and at defensive back as well, so this defense is on the verge and the addition of Clayborn could go a long way toward helping the Bucs reach the playoffs.
21. Cleveland Browns – DT – Phil Taylor (Baylor)
The Browns are transitioning to a 4-3 defense and need a lot of help on the defensive line. They cut Shaun Rogers and Kenyon Coleman and really like Ahtyba Rubin (at least a lot more than we do) so he will take one defensive tackle spot. Taylor will likely take the other. At defensive end, Marcus Benard will make the transition from outside linebacker and the other spot should be either Matt Roth (if he comes back) or Brian Schaefering. More defensive linemen may be selected, but this was their biggest need and they began to fill it.
22. Indianapolis Colts – OT – Anthony Castonzo (Boston College)
The Colts offensive line has been a mess in recent years, so the Castonzo pick makes a ton of sense. The only Colts starting O-lineman with a positive rating was Jeff Saturday who is now 35 years old. The worst of the group in 2010 was right tackle Ryan Diem with a -25.1 rating and he has also seen his 30th birthday come and go. It makes most sense to target his position as a home for Castonzo to help keep Peyton Manning protected.
23. Philadelphia Eagles – OL – Danny Watkins (Baylor)
While the Eagles have a few more needs on defense, Watkins should be able to come in and fight for a starting job. He played left tackle in college, but the Eagles are set there with Jason Peters who had a +13.8 rating in 2010. Watkins has been projected to be an NFL guard and that’s where he should see action, specifically at right guard, challenging Max Jean-Gilles for the gig. MJG didn’t stand out in 2010 but didn’t play terribly either. Watkins is already 26 years old, so the Eagles expect an impact right away.
24. New Orleans Saints – DE – Cameron Jordan (California)
The Saints had two veteran ends who played well in specific situations last year. At one spot, Alex Brown played well against the run but struggled as a pass rusher. At the other spot Will Smith was just the opposite and was by far the best pass rusher on the team. Jordan is listed as an end, but could also play tackle where the Saints were not as strong with Sedrick Ellis struggling and Remi Ayodele not playing well against the pass. I can see Cameron Jordan coming in on passing downs to begin with.
25. Seattle Seahawks – OL – James Carpenter (Alabama)
Last year, the Seahawks selected Russell Okung with their first round pick to be their franchise left tackle, and now James Carpenter has been brought in to take another offensive line spot. If Sean Locklear (a free agent) returns to the team, you would assume that Carpenter would start on the inside of the line. Stacy Andrews and Tyler Polumbus didn’t fare well as the guards and Chris Spencer, who wasn’t all that great at center, is a free agent too. There will be a spot for Carpenter somewhere on the line.
26. Kansas City Chiefs – WR – Jonathan Baldwin (Pittsburgh)
While the Chiefs have one of the better wide receivers in the league in Dwayne Bowe, their depth beyond that has been weak. They have two other young players in Dexter McCluster and Verran Tucker who were both rookies last year. They also have Chris Chambers, but at his age and with how he played in 2010, he is likely the odd man out. Terrance Cooper also saw some time last year but is a free agent and doesn’t hold much value at this point. It’s clear that Baldwin should get some playing time in 2011, and the opportunity is there for him to step right in to the line-up.
27. Baltimore Ravens – CB – Jimmy Smith (Colorado)
The Ravens are set at the top of the depth chart, with Josh Wilson playing very well, and Lardarius Webb doing a fine job as the nickel corner. Chris Carr is a free agent, and if he’s back, should remain a starter. This likely means that Fabian Washington, who struggled early on and is a free agent, will not return to the team. The easiest way for Smith to see significant time in 2011 is if Carr doesn’t return, but the Ravens will give him the chance to earn a prominent role.
28. New Orleans Saints – RB – Mark Ingram (Alabama)
The Saints crowded backfield just got even more crowded. One of our favorite running backs last year was Chris Ivory. Pierre Thomas is an above average rusher and is very good in the passing game. Most interesting is what this means for Reggie Bush; his time in New Orleans could be over. Both Julius Jones and Ladell Betts saw some time with the Saints last year and both are free agents – now there’s no way they return. There just won’t be enough carries to go around.
29. Chicago Bears – OT – Gabe Carimi (Wisconsin)
Bears fans must be happy to see Carimi fall to them; Chicago clearly needed help on the offensive line. Their two offensive tackles together combined for a -72.3 rating (including the playoffs), so the only question now is if he will play on the left or right side. At left tackle, Omiyale is older, but right tackle Webb had a worse season. Carimi was a left tackle in college if that is any indication to where he will play in the pros. It’s also a possibility that he could play guard, but the need at tackle is much larger.
30. New York Jets – DT – Muhammad Wilkerson (Temple)
The Jets have two outstanding defensive linemen with Sione Pouha and Mike Devito. Throwing Wilkerson into the mix could be the finishing touch for a very strong defensive line. Defensive end Shaun Ellis is a free agent and is 33, so it’s unclear if he will return. If Ellis does, then Wilkerson will likely be the top backup and be groomed to be a starter in the near future. If Ellis leaves, Wilkerson could be the man there immediately. 35-year-old Trevor Pryce is a free agent, and Jason Taylor, Kris Jenkins and Vernon Gholston were cut, so the depth at defensive line is thin. Selecting Wilkerson helped.
31. Pittsburgh Steelers – DE – Cameron Heyward (The Ohio State University)
The Steelers are getting very old on the defensive line, so Heyward is a pick to help the team in the near future. The current projected starters are Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel, 34, 33 and 32 respectively. Ziggy Hood and Nick Eason saw a lot of playing time last year but graded poorly and Eason is a free agent. The Steelers will hope for an improvement out of former first-rounder Ziggy Hood, and now Cameron Hayward provides another option.
32. Green Bay Packers – OT – Derek Sherrod (Mississippi State)
The Packers selected Sherrod to take Chad Clifton’s spot once he retires. Last year’s first round pick Bryan Bulaga is currently at right tackle, and it’s unclear if Bulaga or Sherrod will play left tackle once Clifton gets injured. The Packers have Mark Tauscher who could very well retire, so this pick also gives them some needed depth. TJ Lang can now focus on being a left guard instead of tackle so if Daryn Colledge leaves for free agency, he can take over as the starter.