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Don Banks:10 rookies that can make immediate impact
Ten players who will impress in their rookie years
Posted: Wednesday April 27, 2005 12:12PM; Updated: Wednesday April 27, 2005 6:22PM
With those 15 consecutive wins to open his NFL career in 2004, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger defined what instant impact means for rookies. And you can count on surprising production from first-year players again this season.
Here's 10 players -- not including obvious high draft picks such as Miami RB Ronnie Brown, Chicago RB Cedric Benson and Tennessee CB Adam Jones -- who we expect to make a few things happen immediately in 2005:
1. Darren Sproles, running back/returner, San Diego: Kansas State's career rushing leader, the 5-6, 181-pound Sproles is expected to handle both punt and kickoff returns in San Diego. And the Chargers want the fourth-round pick on the field as a third-down situational back for about 10 offensive snaps per game, where his excellent speed will help draw some of the swarming defensive attention that Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson constantly receives. Look for Sproles to be used in various formations, as the Chargers employ him as an X-factor who gives defenses different looks and headaches.
2. Chris Canty, defensive end, Dallas: While the headline names in the Cowboys' draft belonged to first-round defensive ends Demarcus Ware and Marcus Spears, don't make the mistake of overlooking Canty, the third defensive end taken by Dallas over the weekend. Canty is still recovering from reconstructive knee surgery in October and a detached retina in January, but Dallas believes he'll be ready to play by training camp. When he does play, the Cowboys think he'll give them excellent depth in their defensive-line rotation, allowing them to match up better with the beast of the NFC East, the Eagles, who are known for their deep D-line. With Canty around, undersized right end Greg Ellis won't have to play more than 60-65 percent of the snaps, which should make him more effective against the run and in the pass rush.
3. Mike Nugent, kicker, New York Jets: No kicker in the NFL will likely have as many sets of eyes on him in Week 1, given that the Jets drafted the former Ohio State star in the second round with their first overall pick. Why so high? Because New York's veteran kicker, Doug Brien, was just 2-of-5 on kicks 30 yards or longer in the playoffs last season -- a stat that kept the Jets from playing at New England in the AFC title game. With a strong right leg that converted a nation's-best five field goals of 50 yards or more last season, and 34 touchbacks on 55 kickoffs, Nugent might be the difference in two or three close games in 2005, and that could put the Jets into position to topple New England from atop the AFC East.
4. Ryan Moats, running back, Philadelphia: In many ways, Moats is a virtual clone of Eagles starting running back Brian Westbrook, and that is no mere coincidence. With the fourth-year veteran Westbrook unhappy with his contract situation and making noise about wanting a huge deal next year, Philly just gained the upper hand in any potential stand-off. With Moats, the Eagles have a potential replacement if they deem Westbrook's demands unreasonable. Like Westbrook, Moats is quick and elusive, and is the kind of multiple-threat back the Eagles prefer in their version of the West Coast offense. Look for the Eagles to have Westbrook and Moats in the game simultaneously at times, with one of them lined up in the backfield and one of them split out, trying to create mismatches for the defense.
5. Derrick Johnson, linebacker, Kansas City: Johnson has side-to-side play-making ability, and is there any defense in the NFL more in need of playmakers than the 32nd-ranked Chiefs? Johnson already is being hailed as the next Derrick Thomas in Kansas City, and that's a little rich for any rookie. But he does play the same position, share the same first name and have the speed to run down ballcarriers all over the field. Critics say Johnson will struggle in the NFL, because he doesn't fight off blocks very well. But with his speed, how much experience does he have with that skill?
6. J.J. Arrington, running back, Arizona: Head coach Dennis Green was raving about Arrington after his impressive Combine showing, and is a staunch believer in players who have produced at every level. In the Cal running back, Green has a player who rung up 2,018 yards rushing in 2004. There are concerns about Arrington, who stands only 5-9, 214, but folks once said vaguely the same thing about the guy who Arrington will replace -- Emmitt Smith -- and that seemed to work out fine. Arrington will to get plenty of work in Arizona. Smith is retired and Green has little faith in Marcel Shipp.
7. Mark Clayton, receiver, Baltimore: Baltimore's anemic passing game has two new additions -- Clayton and veteran free-agent signing Derrick Mason -- who add quickness and the ability to make yards after the catch. Clayton's detractors point to his less than prototypical size (5-10, 193), but he's a well-rounded receiver who can block, catch balls in traffic or in open spaces, and many considered him the most polished prospect available at his position. If teams double Mason to negate the impact of Baltimore's new No. 1 receiver, Ravens quarterback Kyle Boller just might quickly develop an affinity for Clayton. Clayton also figures to benefit from the presence of Ravens tight end Todd Heap, who is expected to return to form as a pass-catching threat after losing almost all of 2004 to an ankle injury.
8. Troy Williamson, receiver, Minnesota: Replacing Randy Moss is not possible. But in Williamson, the South Carolina standout who went No. 7, the Vikings drafted a weapon who can provide some of the same things No. 84 did. Minnesota is confident that Williamson's blazing 4.3 speed will provide the vertical threat that it surrendered when it gave up Moss, with Nate Burleson, Kelly Campbell, Travis Taylor, Marcus Robinson and tight end Jermaine Wiggins combining to make up for much of what Moss contributed underneath. On paper, it looks good. Vikings offensive rookies have a solid recent track record of contributing quickly. In an offense that's going to throw, throw, and throw some more in 2005, Williamson appears a solid bet to become that trend's latest example.
9. Adrian McPherson, quarterback, New Orleans: In going to New Orleans in the fifth round, the former Florida State and Arena Football League talent might have gone to one of the few teams where his raw, but obvious potential could be tapped at least on a limited basis in 2005. It all depends on which Aaron Brooks shows up from week to week, but if McPherson can handle the playbook and show head coach Jim Haslett the ability to handle the mental aspects of the job, it's not a stretch to say he could leapfrog backup Todd Bouman and challenge for starting reps at some point. If McPherson flashes some of his eye-opening athleticism in the preseason, giving the Saints a taste of his talent for making plays, the quarterback decision could be more difficult than anyone imagines in the Big Easy.
10. Larry Brackins, receiver, Tampa Bay: The Bucs acknowledge that Brackins, a fifth-round pick out of tiny Pearl River (Miss.) Community College, is a project. But in Tampa Bay, where the current receiving depth chart includes only two veterans (Michael Clayton and Joey Galloway) he might end up being a short-term one. Brackins has a rare blend of size (6-5, 205), speed and athleticism, and his ability to go up and get the ball reminds some of a less polished Randy Moss. His lack of experience in a big-time college program might hurt him early, but if Tampa Bay gives him only a handful of routes to learn -- maybe using him primarily on fades and go routes to start -- he could find a productive niche in the Bucs offense this season.