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With excitement growing over the upcoming NFL draft following the annual Combine, the opportunity arises to evaluate whether or not this draft can live up to the lofty expectations placed upon the class’ offensive players by their predecessors. The exceptional performances of Cam Newton and co. have surprised nearly everyone, coaches and fans alike, and have set the bar high for Andrew Luck and his colleagues.
Although he was drafted first overall by the Carolina Panthers, Newton had his critics before the start of the season, much of which was due to a poor preseason, and was not expected to make the kind of impact that you would expect from a number one pick. In addition to this, the fact Newton is a quarterback, arguably the most difficult position to successfully transition from College Football to the NFL, had many people writing him off before he had even begun.
An exhilarating start against the Arizona Cardinals, with Newton passing for over 400 yards, and people were regretting their decision to judge the quarterback prematurely. Fast forward another few weeks and a string of similarly impressive performances had erased almost all doubts and even had some foolhardy, most likely Carolina fans, labelling him as an ‘Elite Quarterback’.
This heaps pressure onto fellow Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and projected No. 1 pick Andrew Luck considerably. Both will be coming into the NFL with more expectation on them than Newton had and will be required to perform to a similar level now that Newton has set the bar for rookie quarterbacks.
In a year that saw the rise to prominence of the tight end, it was rookie wide receivers that were making a name for themselves. First round wide receivers A. J. Green and Julio Jones both made big contributions to their respective teams, whilst second round pick Torrey Smith had a good season for the Baltimore Ravens, giving their offence a much needed deep threat.
Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State is clearly the best wide receiver coming into the NFL this year, but his ability to make an impact on the level of Green and Jones depends much on which team, and their respective quarterback, drafts him. Georgia Tech product Stephen Hill also excelled at the combine and could find himself drafted late in the first round where many of the elite quarterbacks will be waiting to link up with him.
The offensive line may be one area in which the upcoming set of rookies have the edge on their predecessors, lead by the powerful Matt Kalil. Kalil, the younger brother of Panthers center Ryan Kalil, heads a group of young offensive linemen that include Wisconsin’s Peter Konz and Iowa’s Riley Reiff to name but a few.
It often takes a season or two before a young offensive linesman is ready for a starting role in the NFL, but this group of players seem as ready as any group that has preceded them. The Dallas Cowboys’ Tyron Smith was arguably the pick of the 2011 class and has been tipped to make the daunting move to left tackle this coming season, a position which Kalil has been tipped to be ready for in his rookie season.
With the increase in passing yards per game and the relatively short careers of running backs, many experts are saying the days of running backs being drafted in the first round are numbered, with the class of this year tending to agree with this prediction. Trent Richardson of Alabama is an incredible prospect and has been tipped by most to go with the third or fourth pick in the first round, but beyond Richardson there are no real standout prospects and there is a good chance no other running back will be drafted in the first round.
It is hard to predict the effectiveness of running backs in their debut NFL season due to the nature of frequent injuries in the position affecting how many touches a player is going to get. Richardson will have to outperform DeMarco Murray who was the best rookie running back in the NFL last season, but with the diminishing role of running backs in the professional game, it remains to be seen whether or not this will come to pass.
The extra pressure placed on Luck and Griffin because of Newton’s outstanding season could well be their downfall, with both also unlikely to have a wide receiver of Steve Smith’s quality to pass to. That being said, the fact the top four prospected picks are all offensive players speaks volumes about how talented these players are, and providing they have the right pieces around them, the offensive rookies in the upcoming draft may even be able to outshine a great group in the class of 2011.