Unheralded rookies who could make big impacts in 2012
Until we see this year’s crop of rookies in any sort of game action, it is tricky to predict how big of an impact each guy can make (unless you’re talking, say, Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III — rookies who will start barring stunning developments).
Despite that reality there are, as always, quite a few rookies with shots to break into their teams’ lineups come the regular season. The fight for that playing time begins in earnest in training camp, then continues to an even higher degree during the preseason. And many of those rookies will be names that were called after the draft’s first two days.
Let’s take a quick glance at 10 lesser-known first-year players who could be on the field plenty come Week 1 and beyond:
• Nick Toon, WR, Saints (4th round, No. 122 overall): Peter King kind of let the cat out of the bag on Toon last week when he stopped by Saints camp and then wrote: “Are you kidding? Another weapon for Brees?” Toon has good size at 6-foot-3 and really goes up well to get the football. With Robert Meachem departing, there’s some space at the back end of the Saints’ receiver depth chart — and since they’ll easily use four or five guys a game there, Toon could see lots of time out of the gate.
• Brandon Boykin, CB, Eagles (4th, 123): Boykin looked like a steal in April and nothing has happened to change that since. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha have Philly’s top two corner spots locked down, but Boykin has a shot to inherit the nickel spot. He also figures to return kicks, something he did with great success at Georgia.
• Jared Crick, DE, Texans (4th, 126): I was a big fan of this pick when Houston made it, even if Crick will have to earn every snap he gets on the field. Even if Houston only uses him situationally as a part-time pass-rusher, Crick has the motor and aggressiveness to make an impact. He looks like a great fit for Wade Phillips’ attacking defense. The Texans also landed wide receiver Keshawn Martin in Round 4, and he could wind up No. 3 on the depth chart at that position.
• Jerron McMillian, S, Packers (4th, 133): If the season started today, Green Bay probably would line up Charles Woodson at strong safety and Morgan Burnett at free safety, with 2011 undrafted free agent M.D. Jennings rolling onto the field in passing situations. But Charlie Peprah’s recent release and the realistic possibility that Green Bay will eventually want Woodson back at cornerback full-time could open the door for the University of Maine product. The Packers’ safety spots are very much in flux, so McMillian at least has a shot.
• Josh Norman, CB, Panthers (5, 143): Norman came out flying at OTAs earlier this offseason, but a recent hamstring pull has cost him some time and might hamper his ability to make an impact early in the season. Still, the Panthers’ coaching staff loves Norman, and considering the competition in front of him (Darius Butler, Brandon Hogan, Captain Munnerlyn) is not exactly Pro Bowl material, Norman could regain the inside track to playing time quickly.
• Tank Carder, LB, Bills (5, 147): Put aside the fact that Carder might have the best name of this year’s rookie class — he’s a classic overachiever who is way better on the field than he is on paper. And he’s already caught the eye of Bills coach Chan Gailey. “It would be hard not to notice him on the field,” Gailey said last week. At the very least, Carder will contribute on special teams. But he also could be first up if Kelvin Sheppard stumbles in the middle of Buffalo’s defense.
• Juron Criner, WR, Raiders (5, 168): Criner was so good in OTAs that the hype surrounding him in Oakland is probably much too high at the moment. That said, he had 157 combined catches over the past two years for Arizona and slides into a Raiders’ receiving corps that could use another reliable pass-catcher or two. Making things happen in early July is a lot different from doing it in late August or September, so Criner still has work to do. The upside is there, though.
• Keith Tandy, CB, Buccaneers (6, 174): The Bucs used Tandy in just about every way possible in the defensive backfield during early workouts — proof of the versatility that’s so intriguing about the ex-West Virginia star. E.J. Biggers, who was in line to be Tampa Bay’s No. 3 corner, broke a bone in his foot last week, meaning more reps for Tandy in August.
• Billy Winn, DT, Browns (6, 205): Another spot where injuries could make all the difference. The Browns will be without Phil Taylor for a huge chunk of the season, and Ahtyba Rubin recently underwent surgery for a pelvic tear … so that’s both of Cleveland’s starting defensive tackles on the shelf. Scott Paxson is the odds-on favorite to fill Taylor’s role, but Winn could overtake 2012 third-rounder John Hughes for work at the other spot.
• Brandon Bolden, RB, Patriots (Undrafted): This isn’t the first time Bolden’s name has been mentioned here on Audibles, and even though Stevan Ridley has the inside track to start at running back for the Patriots, Bolden has made a name for himself early. The fantasy sports site Rotoworld recently described him as “a speedier version of BenJarvus Green-Ellis” — good news for the Patriots, since Green-Ellis, another undrafted find, led last year’s AFC title team in rushing. Bolden can run, catch passes out of the backfield or return kicks. It will be hard to keep him off the field if he makes the final roster.