2013 NFL Rookies: The Prospect Most Likely to Succeed at Each Position

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2013 NFL Rookie Class: Most Likely to Succeed

Brian Spurlock - USA Today Sports

With another NFL Draft in the books, it's time to look at who will bust and who will breakout. These are the rookies most likely to succeed their in first year in the Big Show.

While rookie success only has to do in part with draft order, it is more likely that the following players who were drafted early will start at their respective positions and, consequently, make immediate impressions. What will make those impressions memorable and long-lasting is the versatility, adaptability and physicality exhibited by each player. Their statistics in college do tell a large part of the story, but too many rookies before them have disproved a direct link (see Mark Sanchez). But, those statistics do provide a foundation of technical skills.

Body frame is a significant incoming plus, another foundation upon which NFL conditioning can build on and mold into elite specimens. It is rare a collegiate competitor will size up (literally) to their NFL counterpart, so those incoming players who already have a natural physique to build upon have a head start.

Performances in March's combine will also speak to the separation between these players and their peers. Top performers will be highlighted, but their performances in drills related specifically to their position and their drafting teams needs will speak louder.

As in athletes in any league, rookie or otherwise, what separates these players from the others are their intangibles. Their statistics are undoubtedly impressive and will help them gain an edge over other rookies, but the intangibles will give them a chance measuring up to the veterans they will soon face on the gridiron.

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EJ Manuel - QB Buffalo Bills

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Once things got rolling in Round 1 and the clock started ticking, it seemed doubtful that a QB was going to be drafted on the first night. But the Buffalo Bills saw the potential for a turnaround under center and grabbed Manuel.

To be clear, Manuel’s success in the NFL has nothing to do with draft order. His statistics, especially under the bright lights of national importance, speak for themselves. Despite all the hype behind Geno Smith, Manuel’s collegiate career has been much more consistent at the elite level. The only QBs that can compete effectively and long-term in the pros, the Big Time, are those that have shown the ability to “show up” under pressure. The others will bust, choke, or simply fade away. Of all the top QB prospects in this year’s draft, Manuel’s name is the best example of the former.

Yes, the bowl games are not always an accurate summary of a team’s season — Notre Dame is a good example of this. However, the complete annihilation of the team did have implications of some serious flaws. Both Everett Golson and A.J. McCarron will stay on another year with the NCAAF. If you examine bowl games alone, the two big winners (in score differential) are Ryan Nassib, who led Syracuse to a 38-14 victory over West Virginia (and Smith) and Manuel, who led Florida State past Northern Illinois 31-10. Overall, the Orangemen finished with an 8-5 record while Manuel, who started all 14 games last season, led his team to a 12-2 season, completing 263 of 387 passes for 3,397 yards and 23 touchdowns. And speaking of pressure, he had 310 rushing yards and four TDs of his own during his mother’s cancer treatment in the latter part of the season.

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Tavon Austin - WR St. Louis Rams

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At 5-foot-8, Austin looked small just standing next to Roger Goodell holding his new St. Louis Rams’ jersey for the photo op. But his job requires working ends and his size can only help in that capacity.

Austin’s prowess amidst his fellow rookie WRs is neatly measured by his honorable Heisman candidacy which, unlike some other honors such as All-Conference and the like, is narrowed to an uber-elite group. The combination of top performances in the shuttle and the 40-yard dash (4.01 and 4.34 respectively) will make him both quick and elusive to more worn defensive veterans. His adaptability and work ethic will also play a big role in his transition. During his senior year at West Virginia, Austin went from slot man and returner to full-time WR and even took a number of handoffs.

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Sharrif Floyd - DT Minnesota Vikings

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It took some by surprise Floyd lasted as long on the board as he did last Friday night. Floyd was the 23rd overall pick in the draft, the third DT picked in the first round, trailing Missouri’s Sheldon Richardson (drafted 13th overall to the New York Jets) and Utah’s Star Lotulelei (drafted 14th overall by the Carolina Panthers). Among those three, Floyd is superior in the skills he brings to the table as well as the ease with which the Minnesota Vikings will have in molding him to their specific needs.

Floyd is a multiple-technique prospect with a good jump after the snap. Unlike Richardson, he has a defined physicality. Richardson also had surgery on his shoulder during the offseason, and coming back from injury is something teams should concern themselves with in the free agency market. Lotulelei anchors himself better one the line, but he lacks depth perception and often loses sight of movement in the backfield.

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Tyler Eifert - TE Cincinnati Bengals

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Top drafted tight ends have historically lived up to their rank. Last year’s rookies Coby Fleener and third-round pick Dwayne Allen combined for 111 targets, 66 receptions and five touchdowns, the obvious favorites of Bruce Arians’ offensive strategy. Kyle Rudolph, the first TE drafted in the 2012 draft, caught half of the Viking’s total TD receptions last year and is considered by ESPN to be one of the potential breakout players in the NFC North in 2013. The exception — be it a major one — was in the 2010 draft when Jermaine Gresham was drafted 21 slots ahead of Rob Gronkowski, a decision that I’m sure will haunt the Cincinnati Bengals for years to come.

Eifert’s potential in the pros is poised to be more on a par of the trend rather than the exception, and is perhaps Cincinnati’s saving grace in that respect. The main reason for this is Eifert’s style of play, which matches up with the successful current NFL players in his position. Eifert has strong hands in contested catches and at a 22-rep bench press has the physical presence to win most of those battles. In fact, Eifert was the top performer in all the TE competitions in the combine so if any rookie in this position is going to succeed, the writing is on the wall.

Eifert leaves Notre Dame with nearly every school record in tow, including the most significant for his position, 140 catches and 1,840 receiving yards.

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Jarvis Jones - OLB Pittsburgh Steelers

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Jones had a lot of hype behind him going into the draft, but his first-round ticket was no surprise and his selection by the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise is a testament to his defensive prowess. His on-field reputation clearly precedes him.

The main argument for Jones’ pro-level readiness is his versatility, having shown the ability to dominate at both inside and outside line positions. Watching him jump the line at the speed he does, it’s apparent he almost plays both OLB and ILB simultaneously.

Jones also possesses instincts that will make his learning curve in the pros practically horizontal. He instinctively has a strong first step and possesses the ability to wrap up agile ball carriers, making his efficiency at the line of scrimmage close to 100 percent. QBs that linger in the pocket, of which there are a significant amount going into the 2013-14 season, are in for a rude awakening if they don’t pick up the pace. As a redshirt Junior in 2012, he led the nation in sacks (14.5), tackles for loss (24.5) and forced fumbles (7).

Some scouts questioned his consistency, playing as a full-season starter in only one of his college years. But under the tutelage of Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who typically runs the 3-4 that Jones ran in college, his proficiency should be apparent and immediate.

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Ezekiel Ansah - DE Detroit Lions

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Nearly all defensive ends drafted in the first round are considerably lean for the NFL. While No. 3 pick Dion Jordan outperformed his competition in speed at the combine, he’s 23 pounds lighter than Ansah and only an inch taller. Barkevious Mingo, drafted sixth overall, is an inch shorter and 30 pounds lighter. This solves the mystery of why the two outmatched Ansah’s speed, but it also makes it easy to predict Ansah’s potential to outplay them in the pros.

No matter what anyone else says, size does matter. Ansah is a fine physical specimen at 6-foot-5, 271 pounds, and one category he did trump Jordan and Mingo was the 20-yard shuttle, which he clocked at 4.26 seconds and speaks to the supremacy he holds for his particular position.

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Luke Joeckel - OT Jacksonville Jaguars

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The battle for the No. 1 draftee was close all the way up to the moment the Kansas City Chiefs went on the clock. In the end, Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher’s impressive build and Senior Bowl performance were enough to edge out Joeckel, though he didn’t have to wait long — he went No. 2.

Of course the physical presence of a rookie OT is going to be highly sought after. But aside from some upper body bulk, the difference in body frame between the two players is negligible — both weigh in at 306, Fisher is an inch taller, his hands are 3/8” bigger, his wingspan is 3/4” longer. What truly divides them in potential is versatility and technical knowledge and in those areas, Joeckel is the obvious victor.

Another good word to use as a trump card in favor of the Aggie is “adaptability.” Each incoming rookie will need to adapt to the particulars of the team that signs him. Joeckel already has a strong foundation to lower his learning curve coming into the pros, but his continued success and consistent effectiveness on the line under the guise of both Kevin Sumlin and Mike Sherman shows an ability to catch on quickly and elevate to new expectations.

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Kenny Vaccaro - SS New Orleans Saints

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Despite his thick build, Vaccaro is lean in the hips, allowing him to change direction with a necessary fluidity. He is also able to move what some may consider a large build for a SS with elite speed when attacking the straight game. Because of Vaccaro’s agility and speed, he was often slotted as a nickel back. His thickness, however, will not seem so out of place among his colleagues.

Vaccaro’s agility also gives him a great amount of diversity, allowing him a plethora of opportunities to succeed on the field. He’s been proven as strong on a blitz and on open-field tackles. But his biggest strength is literal strength and the momentum he picks up down the line. His speed and strength could end badly for long-ball receivers, even with the strong gunners in the pros.

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Eric Reid - FS San Francisco 49ers

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Reid is long and strong, making him a true threat for downfield pass. Not only will QBs have to be wary of Reid’s vertical, they will have to put up with what some scouts consider one of his liabilities: over-aggressiveness. Reid exhibits rapid closing speed and brutal and efficient takedowns. In his final season with the Tigers, he wrapped up 91 receivers on the run.

Reid also has that unique football instinct, the intangible that will ultimately make up for the “overaggressive” approach, which, at times, causes him to jump (literally) the gun, leaving an open backfield. Although instincts will not always prevail and the NFL is chalk full of the football-equivalent of a basketball head-fake, his intuition will allow him read a telegraphed play and execute his all-too easy stretch to an interception. Unfortunately for most of the QBs he will encounter, many of them, be it their youth or bad habits, many of them telegraph as often as they bluff.

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Eddie Lacy - RB Green Bay Packers

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Lacy will follow the near-flawless rookie years of the Tide’s drafted RBs of years past. He even follows the trend in physicality, sporting a 5-foot-10, 214-pound build that's just an inch higher and 13 pounds lighter than the current stature of the Cleveland Browns' premier RB and Alabama grad Trent Richardson.

Lacy, compared to Montee Ball, works a variety of gears and is much more elusive. His initial burst and natural athleticism will push him past other rookie RBs in the league.

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Dee Milliner - CB New York Jets

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Milliner has what a lot of the 2013 class are lacking: a pro-level physique that will make him an immediate presence on the field. With Darrell Revis traded to Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 6-foot, 210-pounder has the upper-body strength to defend pro receivers and, with the top dash time among the cornerbacks who participated in the Scouting Combine, he has the ability to launch that strength from behind in a rundown.

Milliner has efficient downfield perception and quickness, having stunted top-drafted TE Eifert during ‘Bama’s routing of Notre Dame in last season’s BCS Championship Game. Milliner collected two interceptions and recorded 22 passes defensed in his junior year with the Tide. It will be the combination of his ability to maintain in stop-start and cut-off routes and technical knowledge of zone defense that will keep him on an even plane with the more veteran playmakers.

It is not often a rookie enters the league already possessing the size and agility to compete. With the fundamentals already up to snuff, all that’s left is for Milliner to grasp the particulars of the Jets’ defense.

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Travis Frederick - C Dallas Cowboys

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For a team that traded so far down the ladder, the Dallas Cowboys — although their positional choice in a recruit is still suspicious but not out of character — are fortunate to have picked up Frederick as a center.

Frederick comes from a long line of successful o-line players out of Wisconsin. He already has the build of a lineman and the mobility of a guard, a position he also spent some time at with the Badgers. Unlike many of the linemen drafted in the first two rounds of the draft, Frederick has a naturally grounded anchor and withstands a blitz rush with ease.

Frederick will give Dallas another option at guard but the fluidity with which his hands move from an accurate snap to a full body block ensures a definite efficiency for leadoff ball movement.

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Chance Warmack - G Tennessee Titans

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Warmack’s proficiency at guard is best exemplified by those who succeeded thanks to his protection. During his tenure at Alabama, Warmack paved the way for Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and this year’s top-drafted RB Lacy. Ingram and Richardson obviously have independent NFL-level abilities, but Warmack’s physical presence should elevate him to the status of elite in his position in the pros as well.

Warmack is stacked at 6-foot-2 weighing in at 314 pounds. His pop off the line may seem too vertical to hold an anchored stance to defensive line punches but his size makes this easy to overcome. He also measures 34.75 inches in wingspan, making him a natural pass protector.

Compared some rookie guards, Warmack may seem slow on his feet. Jon Gruden probably said it best on draft night after Warmack was selected: "If you don’t like your guard’s 40-yard dash, don’t time your guards."

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Alec Ogletree - ILB St. Louis Rams

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Some may continue to scratch their heads when looking at the distance between Ogletree and Manti Te’o in the draft order, but if you look at Ogletree’s efficiency at ILB combined with the Rams’ pre-draft needs, the picture becomes much clearer.

St. Louis recently signed Jake Long at left tackle and noticed a lack of a compliment on the opposite side. This leaves plenty of opportunities to grind and grow Ogletree as a four-down starter. Growing under fire is something Ogletree has done with flying colors in the past. As a freshman at Georgia, Ogletree had 34 tackles, one for loss. In his senior year, he tallied 111 tackles, 11.5 for a loss, and had three sacks.

There is also a precedential measuring stick when looking at the potential of Ogletree versus Te’o. Both defended Alabama in crucial matchups, Ogletree in the SEC Championship, Te’o in the BCS Championship. Both would ultimately fall victim to the supremacy of the Tide’s 2012-13 team. Georgia lost by four, Notre Dame by 28. If you look at the anchors of those defenses, Ogletree blocked a FG attempt for a TD. Te’o does has the aforementioned Heisman contender, his talents were obviously lacking on the big stage: He recorded a mere three solo tackles compared to Ogletree’s nine versus ‘Bama.