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Brace for impact: NFL rookies with an early chance to shine in 2009


The NFL Draft has been over for almost 72 hours, which is more than enough time to discern who'll be the impact rookies of the 2009 season. What? You expected us to wait all the way until training camps opened and actual football started being played? Get real.

Mark Sanchez, Jets

What a familiar choice we have at the game's most impactful position: Sanchez or the Lions' Matthew Stafford? We've only been wrestling with that comparison for three months now. They're really the only two of the 12 drafted quarterbacks (four first-day, eight on the second day) who can be expected to see any significant playing time this season, and I continue to believe Sanchez enters the league with a more pro-ready game than the No. 1 overall pick. Plus, the way I see it, Stafford will have a tougher time beating out Daunte Culpepper in Detroit than Sanchez will Kellen Clemens in New York.

Donald Brown, Colts

As Matt Forte and Steve Slaton proved last year, you don't have to be a first-round running back to be an impact running back as a rookie. Without a doubt there will be a mid-round rusher -- the 49ers' Glen Coffee or the Jets' Shonn Greene? -- who overachieves this fall based on late-April projections. But we're bestowing the mantle of expectations on Brown, the second running back taken, who went 27th overall to Indianapolis. Not only will he be helped by landing with one of the most proficient offenses in the NFL, but also we forsee the Colts getting him the ball plenty in the rushing and passing games because Brown is the most versatile talent in this year's running back class.

Ramses Barden, Giants

Every year the crop of rookie receivers looks like instant offense, and every year the majority of them fade into the woodwork and disappear (see 2008's Devin Thomas, Malcolm Kelly, James Hardy, Limas Sweed, Dexter Jackson and Early Doucet). Impact can come from anywhere in the receiver class, as seventh-rounder Marques Colston reminded us in 2006.

But while I think Cleveland second-round pick Brian Robiskie is going to walk into a major role in the Browns' receiver-thin offense, on a hunch I'm giving my top billing to Barden, the 6-foot-6 Cal Poly product who is slated to inherit Plaxico Burress's job of out-skying opposing cornerbacks and safeties in the red zone. Barden caught 50 touchdowns in college, so it's a key role the third-round pick appears up for.

Travis Beckum, Giants

The no-brainer picks would be Detroit's Brandon Pettigrew or Tennessee's Jared Cook because the Lions and Titans feature offenses tailored to use their tight ends early and often. But New York doesn't mind throwing rookies into the fire and it wouldn't surprise us if Beckum, a third-round choice, emerged as one of Eli Manning's more reliable targets this season. Hamstring and fibula injuries ruined Beckum's senior season at Wisconsin, but in the previous two seasons he abused defenses with 136 receptions for 1,885 yards and 11 touchdowns. With only solid but unspectacular veteran Kevin Boss ahead of Beckum on the depth chart, a window of opportunity appears to be wide open in New York.

Eben Britton, Jaguars

C'mon, how can we not go with the smack-talking second-rounder who entered the league over the weekend vowing to make every NFL team that passed on him regret it? The question now is whether he'll be able to fit his pads over that chip on his shoulder.

We know that Britton, for now, will compete to start either at right guard or right tackle for the Jaguars, and that first-round tackles such as St. Louis's Jason Smith, Jacksonville's Eugene Monroe, and Cincinnati's Andre Smith will likely walk into their team's starting lineups this season. But no matter. Give me the motivated player every time in the NFL, where the talent level is so close to being equal that the slightest margins often decide things.

Eric Wood, Bills

It was puzzling when Buffalo didn't draft to fill the vacancy created at offensive tackle by the Jason Peters trade, but in Wood they got a tough and tenacious player who is slated to start at guard this season after being a standout center at Louisville. Wood, the Bills' second first-round selection, at No. 28, played in a pro-style offense with the Cardinals, which should aid his quick transition to the NFL.

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Alex Mack, Browns

After Cleveland went to all the trouble to trade down three times in the first round -- from No. 5 to No. 21 -- and finally select Mack, he darn well better show up as a rookie this season. Mack is an intelligent and physical player who should be a cornerstone of the Cleveland offensive line for years to come. He worked out some at guard at the Senior Bowl, but he'll likely get every opportunity to replace Hank Fraley in the middle and hold down the Browns' center position for the next decade or so.

Paul Kruger, Ravens

The high-motor Kruger will fit somewhere into Baltimore's defensive front rotation and instantly provide some of the situational pass-rush impact he's known for. He plays with a relentless intensity and he's the kind of find-the-ball type of defender the Ravens always seem to uncover in the draft.

In the long run, Kruger may emerge as the obvious replacement for veteran Trevor Pryce at left end, but initially he might be asked to bring some heat opposite Terrell Suggs at 3-4 linebacker. Whatever the role, it won't take Baltimore long to creatively find ways to get the second-round pick on the field this season.

B.J. Raji, Packers

No apologies for going with the chalk pick here. At No. 9, Raji went higher than any nose tackle in 23 years (Tony Casillas, No. 2 in 1986 to Atlanta) for good reason. He's a multi-dimensional talent who's big and stout enough at 6-2, 337 pounds to eat up space in the middle of Green Bay's 3-4 defense, but athletic and explosive enough to create rare amounts of pass rush and penetration from the nose. As a rookie, he's expected to either quickly beat out Ryan Pickett for the starting nose tackle job, or be a force inside in passing situations as part of Green Bay's defensive line rotation.

Larry English, Chargers

When you think of impact at outside linebacker, you think of pass rush, and that's exactly what the Chargers were after when they surprisingly selected the Northern Illinois defensive end 16th overall. English played a 4-3 end in college, but he's a nice fit for what San Diego looks for in a 3-4 linebacker.

He won't start with Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips entrenched on the outside, but he'll play plenty because more than half of San Diego's defensive snaps last season came against three or four-receiver sets. The Chargers were thrown against 605 times last season, second most in the league.

San Diego might have taken English with an eye on losing Merriman in two years, but it also envisions all three outside linebackers playing at the same time in some packages, with Merriman and English rushing from the edges and Phillips being moved around inside.

James Laurinaitis, Rams

First-year impact obviously has plenty to do with opportunity, and no inside linebacker has a better chance to be in the starting lineup on kickoff weekend than the ex-Buckeye. The Rams took Laurinaitis 35th overall with an eye on replacing Chris Draft in the middle, and that's why we give him the nod over Bengals second-round middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (38th overall), who likely will have to play behind the still-productive Dhani Jones for at least a year. Rams fans are going to love Laurinaitis, who craves contact and will quickly emerge as a leader for a team desperate for some.

D.J. Moore, Bears

I'm going with a bit of a hunch here, but Chicago rookie cornerbacks have been pretty strong this decade (Charles Tillman in 2003 and Nathan Vasher in 2004). In Moore, the Bears got a player who most draft-niks projected to go in the second round, maybe the top of the third. Instead he lasted until the fourth round (119th overall), once 17 other cornerbacks had been selected.

The junior from Vanderbilt doesn't lack for confidence, telling one paper, "I think the Bears are getting one of the best players in the draft -- they're getting a steal.'' We agree. The knock on Moore is that he's a tad under 5-9, but he plays much taller. He has superb athletic skills, seems to find the ball with regularity, and can make up for his lack of height with strong vertical leaping ability.

Louis Delmas, Lions

In grabbing Delmas with the first pick of the second round, Detroit landed an aggressive, hard-hitting safety in the mold of Bob Sanders and Troy Polamalu. Delmas goes only 5-11, 202 pounds, but Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said he wants athletes at safety who can play "the vacuum cleaner'' role and "vacuum up all those runs that break the line of scrimmage.''

Delmas is quick enough to cover a team's third receiver and he fits the recent NFL trend of safeties who are really just cornerbacks that don't mind having to tackle someone. Delmas should be a starter from day one in Detroit.

Pat White, Dolphins

Taken in the second round, White might just turn out to be the ultimate specialist coming out of the 2009 draft, rather than just your run-of-the-mill return man or kicker/punter variety. Miami says it will give White the opportunity to prove himself at quarterback in the long term, but you can bet the Fish will use the former West Virginia QB as a passer, runner and maybe receiver in their vaunted Wildcat formation for the time being, with maybe some punt or kickoff return duties thrown in for good measure. In Miami this season, White is the new Brown. Ronnie Brown, that is.