By Steve Silverman
(CBS) Finding rookie talent is more essential in the NFL than it is in any of the other major pro sports.
You don’t have to hit every year, but it is advisable. If you go more than two years without adding solid contribution from rookie players, your team may start aging, getting hurt and going downhill.
Veteran teams that are led by over-30 players can win consistently in baseball, and hockey teams need the leadership of players who have been around the league for five years or more to get through tough opponents.
NBA teams need young legs to keep from slowing down, but it comes down to talent and skill and if an older players still has it, that’s usually good enough.
But football teams need the energy of young players to stay competitive. Younger players can shake off the hits and get back to playing at full speed more readily than the majority of veterans.
This year’s rookie class is one of the most intriguing in years because of the presence of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. These two quarterbacks were selected with the first two picks and much is expected from both rookies. However, they are not the only rookies who will have a big impact this season.
Here’s a look at eight rookies who will be heard from throughout the season.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins – Griffin has an excellent chance to do for the Redskins what Cam Newton did for the Carolina Panthers last season. Griffin has all the measurables that you want from a quarterback as his arm strength, accuracy and quick release are all superior. However, his intelligence and maturity are also working in his favor. If the Redskins receivers Pierre Garcon and Leonard Hankerson don’t let him down, Griffin has a chance to become an upper-level quarterback quickly.
Quarterback Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts – Luck may be even further ahead of the curve than RGIII when it comes to understanding the nuances of an NFL gameplan and reading defenses. He also may be nearly the athletic equal of Griffin, despite public perceptions that Luck falls short in that area. He doesn’t, and it’s a good thing because the Colts will not be able to give him the protection that a less mobile quarterback would need to survive.
Wide receiver Michael Floyd, Arizona Cardinals – While the quarterback situation in Arizona is questionable with Kevin Kolb behind center, the talented Floyd walks into an excellent position as he should be starting opposite Larry Fitzgerald. That means that Floyd should not have to face double coverage for at least half the season. Floyd is a remarkable athletic talent and he should excel at beating press coverage from the moment he steps on to the field.
DE Bruce Irvin, Seattle Seahawks – The 6-3, 245-pound rookie from West Virginia does not figure to be an every-down player as a rookie, but don’t think for a minute that he’s not going to make a big contribution. The Seahawks drafted Irvin because of his explosive speed coming around the corner. He will be the team’s designated pass rusher and if he is effective right from the start – and that’s what the Seahawks are expecting – the Seahawks have a chance to improve in the NFC West.
LB Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers – The Panthers were miserable on defense last season, giving up more points and passing yards than they had in any of their previous 17 seasons. That obviously doesn’t sit well with a defensive-minded coach like Ron Rivera, who was embarrassed by the team’s performance. The Panthers struggled at the fundamentals and Kuechly should be a big help in that area. He’s an excellent tackler who moves instinctively. He knows where to go and he doesn’t waste effort to make the play.
OT Matt Kalil, Minnesota Vikings – One of the best left tackle prospects in the last three seasons. He should make Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder feel much more secure. Kalil is a big man – 6-7 – with very long arms. He probably will need to put more weight on his 295-pound frame, but he is quite strong for his size. He has superior quickness at the position and he knows how to pass block.
CB Morris Claiborne, Dallas Cowboys – He was the best cover man in the draft, and he played in plenty of big games for Louisiana State. Claiborne does not get overwhelmed with tough assignments and he excels at man coverage. If he can get a couple of interceptions early in the season, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan will fall in love with him and give him the opportunity to be an every-down player.
RB Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns – While most scouts believe Richardson was the best running back in this year’s draft because of his combination of speed and power, he is about to learn how tough the NFL can be because he has to play the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens twice a year. The Browns expect Richardson to give them a credible running game and take pressure off the passing game, but his hammering style may not work as well against the nasty defenses in the AFC North.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.