Rookies primed to make instant impacts in 2012, by Chris Wesseling
Fletcher Cox, Eagles
The draft's most explosive interior lineman, Cox offers rare natural athleticism and versatility as an upfield pass rusher ideally suited for Jim Washburn's scheme. Cox is a true penetrating three-technique with a relentless motor and elite first-step quickness, already moving all around Washburn's front line. Throw in rangy second-round linebacker Mychal Kendricks, and the Eagles now rival the Super Bowl champs for the deepest front-seven in the league.
Luke Kuechly, Panthers
Linebacker prospects don't come any productive than Kuechly, who led the nation in tackles in each of his last two seasons at Boston College. A more dynamic athlete than originally thought, Kuechly also boasts superior instincts thanks to hours of devoted film study. The No. 9 overall pick brings a much needed playmaking ability and nose for the ball to Carolina's defense.
Stephon Gilmore, Bills
A big, long corner with above-average speed, Gilmore is Buffalo's answer to the Patriots' lethal tight-end tandem of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Several NFL analysts believe Gilmore has better ball skills and more shutdown potential than No. 6 overall pick Morris Claiborne. One of the most impressive rookies in offseason and training-camp practices, Gilmore has already emerged as the Bills' top cornerback.
Robert Griffin III, Redskins
Exceptionally athletic with rare charisma, easy gas, a lightning-quick release, and uncanny downfield accuracy, RGIII is a particularly good fit for the Shanahans' system that values movement in and out of the pocket. Although Griffin isn't quite as dynamic as Michael Vick or as physically imposing as Cam Newton, he's viewed as a more natural passer than both. Look for Griffin to galvanize the Redskins fan base while rivaling Luck for top NFL rookie.
Bruce Irvin, Seahawks
The NFL is trending toward smaller, quicker linebackers to combat the current pass-heavy slant of the league. Seattle plucked Utah State star Bobby Wagner in the second round after landing the draft's speediest pass rusher in Irvin a round earlier. Both players will be on the field for the increasingly important nickel package. Already the favorite to call defensive plays as a rookie, Wagner has impressed enough that the Seahawks shipped veteran insurance policy Barrett Ruud to New Orleans.
Chandler Jones, Patriots
Already drawing comparisons to Giants All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre Paul for his freakish athleticism, long arms and high motor, Jones is expected to step into Andre Carter's end/linebacker "elephant" role as the Patriots' top pass rusher. Jones was declared the best defensive player in the draft by NFL Network's Mike Mayock and Michael Lombardi. He and fellow first-rounder Dont'a Hightower will finally give Bill Belichick the versatile weapons he needs to succeed with hybrid looks up front.
Andrew Luck, Colts
Arguably the most NFL-ready quarterback prospect in history, Luck appears to be more advanced at the line of scrimmage and in the pocket than Peyton Manning was. He's also a better athlete with a stronger arm. Through two preseason games, Luck has produced 38 points 11 possession; on 23 possessions, the entire Jets offense has produced nine points.
Doug Martin, Bucs
The Bucs traded up to snag the three-down Boise State star who draws comparisons to Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice. New coach Greg Schiano surely has an appreciation for Martin's complete package after coaching Rice at Rutgers. Schiano intends to emphasize the ground attack by relying heavily on Martin, especially on passing downs. Superior to LeGarrette Blount in instincts, burst, cut-back ability, blocking and receiving, Martin should challenge Trent Richardson for top rookie back.
Trent Richardson, Browns
While the two minor knee surgeries in six months raise a red flag, the draft's most explosive and complete back is expected to be in pads by the season opener. Widely considered the most talented runner to enter the league since Adrian Peterson in 2007, Richardson earns kudos for size/speed ratio, tackle-breaking ability, receiving skills, pass protection chops and toughness. The total package as a prospect, Richardson will be Cleveland's best offensive player as a rookie.
Kendall Wright, Titans
With vertical playmaking skills and physicality in traffic, Wright joins Percy Harvin as the model for the souped-up, new-age slot receiver. Quick off the line and versatile enough to play outside while separating easily from defenders, Wright is expected to step in the "X" position in Tennessee's new Run `N Shoot variation while Kenny Britt serves an early-season suspension. Comparing Wright to former pupils Andre Johnson and Terry Glenn, coordinator Chris Palmer believes the rookie has "stardom written all over him."