2012 NFL Draft Projections: Who Are the Front-Runners for Rookie of the Year?

Charles ConradContributor IApril 10, 2012

Robert Griffin III
Robert Griffin IIIBrett Deering/Getty Images

Looking at the list of historical winners of the NFL Rookie of the Year award, it is sad—but true—that an offensive lineman or tight end has never been a recipient. It is about time the young big-uglies get some respect in this league. 

The value of the offensive tackle position, left tackle in particular, has increased to the point that it is one of the most coveted positions in the first round. Teams will often reach for a left tackle because, similar to the quarterbacks they protect, the plug-and-play franchise caliber prospects are hard to find. Jake Long and Orlando Pace were drafted first overall in their respective draft classes.  

The tight end position has also evolved, from one of an in-line blocker and mid-range safety blanket for the QB, into what is essentially an extra slot receiver. Legends such as John Mackey and Kellen Winslow began the transformation of the position by their athleticism and versatility. Modern players such as Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski are in high demand, but are also hard to find.

Nevertheless, banging the drum for these two important positions will undoubtedly mean nothing. The guys who put up the stats and cause the camera lights to flash will get the votes. Below are my top three candidates on both sides of the ball.


Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidates

1. Robert Griffin III - QB - Baylor

Fans of the Washington Redskins will be hoping Griffin can come close to duplicating Cam Newton's performance in 2011, which resulted in him being named the NFL's top rookie on offense. Assuming the Indianapolis Colts select Andrew Luck, the Redskins offer more immediate talent for Griffin to utilize.

The emergence of rookie running backs Roy Helu and Evan Royster, along with tight end Fred Davis and new acquisition Pierre Garcon at wideout, should help ease Griffin's adjustment. His ability to make big plays in the running game will also look good on the stat sheet.

Luck could be the better player long-term, but Griffin is starting in an apparently better situation out of the gate.


2. Trent Richardson - RB - Alabama

Recently on the NFL Network, columnist Pete Fiutek made the statement that running backs don't matter in this league anymore. With no disrespect to Mr. Fiutek, who has his own opinion, I could not disagree more.

Granted, the league rules have steered the NFL toward a CFL style of play. However, the running game is still very important for clock control, keeping the defense guessing, and keeping the signal caller upright.

Richardson is a workhorse who will bring a sense of intimidation and physicality to an offense. Wherever he is drafted, he is versatile enough to be a three-down back who is a capable receiver and blocker and who scored 24 total touchdowns for the national champions in 2011. 


3. Coby Fleener - TE - Stanford

Yes I know, I picked the tight end over stud receivers Justin Blackmon or Michael Floyd. Accuse me of a sentimental vote or pat me on the back for thinking out of the box, it's your choice.

In my opinion, Fleener is worth the hype. He is a playmaker with great hands and the speed to make plays over the top of the secondary. He is even strong enough to stay in and block. Playing in the run-oriented Stanford power offense deflated his stats a bit, having only 34 receptions in 2011. But, a closer look reveals a 19.62 yards-per-catch average along with 10 touchdowns.

If Fleener catches on with an offense that will highlight him in the game plan, he has the skill to be in the running for the rookie award. 


Defensive Rookie of the Year Candidates

1. Luke Kuechly - ILB - Boston College

Coby Fleener
Coby FleenerMike Ehrmann/Getty Images

To utilize the old dictionary definition cliche, if there were a picture of a football player in the dictionary, Luke Kuechly's picture would be there, at least among this year's draft class.

What else can you say about a middle linebacker who has collected an astounding 532 total tackles and seven interceptions in three seasons?

Kuechly may not be a classic thumper in the mold of Ray Nitschke or Dick Butkus. Nevertheless, he subsidizes with the grip of a lobster from Boston Harbor, rarely missing a tackle.

Kuechly is projected to be drafted in the top half of Round 1. With his intelligence, football instincts, lunch pail work ethic and leadership qualities, he will be a welcome addition to any team's defense. 


2. Morris Claiborne - CB - LSU

The news has recently been leaked regarding Claiborne's supposedly poor score on the Wonderlic Test at the NFL Combine. Well, to quote Granny Hawkins in The Outlaw Josey Wales, that "ain't worth doodly-squat."

Academics and the ability to learn is to be taken seriously, of course. However, a low Wonderlic score will not likely affect his ability to play the bump-and-run.

Claiborne is a prototype cornerback with good size, the speed to blanket a receiver down the field and the ability to recover if initially beaten. He could improve somewhat as a pure tackler, but he has the potential to be a lock-down corner in the league.

Claiborne doubled as a kick returner in 2011, taking over that role from last year's first-round LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson. 


3. Mark Barron - SS - Alabama 

Barron is coming off double hernia surgery, which could potentially cause him to slip in Round 1. If healthy, he could be drafted as high as No. 14 by the Dallas Cowboys.

Barron's size and style of play are similar to that of former Denver Broncos Pro Bowl safety Steve Atwater. He plays extremely well near the line of scrimmage and is a run-stuffing tackler, a classic big hitter who will intimidate receivers coming across the middle.

Barron will likely struggle a bit against quick receivers in deep coverage, but he has the skill to cover tight ends and enough range to make plays in the pass defense. He compiled 12 career interceptions at Alabama, including seven in 2009. 



Although there is a chance a tight end could finally emerge as a strong Rookie of the Year contender, the offensive linemen will most likely be left out in the cold once again. USC tackle Matt Kalil and Stanford guard David DeCastro are two of the better football players in the draft, but only a walking-on-water miracle could persuade voters to give the offensive rookie award to anyone battling in the trenches.