Sadly, for NFL fans, the draft does not even signify the midway point between the Super Bowl and the start of the next regular season. Two days packed with incessant speculation and unmatched optimism provide every football fan a fix.
And for fans of every team, hope springs for the next year, that maybe these few new players can make the difference. Then, we wait for four months until kickoff.
At WhatIfSports, it’s a little different. Draft day signifies the beginning of one of our busiest times of the year, as we work on our comprehensive, full-season preview.
For the preview, we project stats for every single player and team in the league by simulating each game on the schedule 61 times. That is relatively easy for veteran players, as most tend to play to a predictable performance trend as they age and take on different roles. Then it is just a matter of sticking with their expected statistical inputs and then simulating games against the actual upcoming schedule.
Rookies present the biggest challenge. To come up with statistical inputs for rookies, we run a very complex set of algorithms that factor collegiate performance, utilization throughout college, strength of collegiate competition, “measurables,” likely role, previous performance of a similar player in that role for this coaching staff, and previous performance of similar rookies.
This gives us both the player’s projected ratio stats, such as yards per carry, percentage of tackles made while on the field, and completion percentage, as well as his forecasted usage for the upcoming season. From there, we can compare all rookies based on who we think will make the biggest positive impact for his NFL team in his first year. The top 100 from this ranking—with highlights of the top ten—are listed below.
We have done pretty well with this approach. Leading into the 2007 season, not only did this methodology correctly rank first-round draft choices like Adrian Peterson, Joe Thomas, Patrick Willis, Reggie Nelson, LaRon Landry, and Dwayne Bowe among the top ten, it helped to point out some steals like Kolby Smith, Lorenzo Booker, Eric Weddle, Eric Wright, Brian Robison, and Mason Crosby.
Clearly, it is easier for some players at some positions to come in and make a positive impact in the first year. Typically, these positions include running back and linebacker, where the stats rack up with playing time. There has never been a season as evident of this as there should be in 2008.
Thirteen different rookie running-backs are projected to gain over 400 yards from scrimmage; while ten linebackers should notch 45 tackles or more. With this year’s crop, both quarterbacks and cornerbacks are on the opposite end of the spectrum of RBs and LBs. Most of the cornerbacks drafted are great athletes, but not NFL ready.
With quarterbacks, there is always a developmental curve that takes a few seasons. Plus, not as many are needed going into the year as usual. Matt Ryan will probably get some decent playing time for Atlanta, yet he is vastly overrated and may never blossom into an above average starter.
Joe Flacco (Baltimore) and Chad Henne (Miami) may play the latter third of the year, but not quite well enough to make the top ten here. Brian Brohm from Green Bay is blocked by another player who is yet to start an NFL game in Aaron Rodgers, who will likely get at least the season to prove his mettle.
By the overall rankings, Kansas City, Carolina, and Miami will get the most positive impact from their rookies in 2008. San Diego, Seattle, and Jacksonville had the least productive drafts.
Without further ado, here are the top 10, with commentary, followed by No. 100-11:
10) Kevin Smith, RB, Detroit
He has great vision, adequate size, and should thrive under Rod Marinelli’s dedication to the running game after Mike Martz’s departure to San Francisco. The interesting thing about the third-round pick out of UCF, who rushed for over 2,500 yards last season, is that his rookie season may be one of the best seasons he has in a brief career. After 905 carries in three seasons of college, and a couple workhorse years in the NFL, Smith may be staring at the same fate recently endured by Shaun Alexander and Larry Johnson well before his 30th birthday.
9) Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland
McFadden is not the top running back on this list because, with a similar back in Justin Fargas and a complement to both of them in Michael Bush on the roster, he likely will not be utilized as much as others. In terms of big-play potential and yards-per-touch, McFadden should still produce well in year one.
8) James Hardy, WR, Buffalo
Is this guy who only catches touchdowns the next Cris Carter? Probably not. But, at 6’5”, and with great hands and decent speed, Hardy is exactly the type of player that Buffalo needs opposite Lee Evans.
7) Malcolm Kelly, WR, Washington
Devin Thomas may have been taken by Washington before Kelly, but his greatest asset in year one will probably be more as a return man, while Kelly should get an opportunity to start. This is with slight reservation though, as a slow 40-yard dash time hurt his draft status, but no one can question his productivity in three years at Oklahoma. Kelly’s head and his attitude will determine whether he’s the next Dwayne Jarrett or James Jones.
6) Sedrick Ellis, DT, New Orleans
Ellis, the ridiculously productive All-American from USC, is the biggest piece to New Orleans’ improving defense. Amobi Okoye-like numbers should be expected.
5) Jake Long, OL, Miami
He may have been the first-overall player drafted, but Long’s impact for the Dolphins will fall just below last year’s third-overall choice and second-ranked rookie, Joe Thomas.
4) Glenn Dorsey, DT, Kansas City
Rarely can any defensive tackle make an instant impact as a rookie in the NFL, let alone two. Ellis’ team is closer to contention, yet Dorsey pretty much is the Chiefs’ defense right now.
3) Keith Rivers, LB, Cincinnati
Anyone who watched the Bengals last year knows they need help at linebacker. Then, the team let its top tackler, Landon Johnson, go in free agency. Whether the previously injured Ahmad Brooks and Rashad Jeanty return to form or not, Rivers will be given every opportunity to help this defense this season—and he will.
2) Jerod Mayo, LB, New England
Insert obligatory comment about the “rich getting richer” here. Mayo, the 242-pound linebacker with 4.54 speed and 140 tackles in the SEC last season, is the perfect player for the Patriots. As any of the linebacker spots in the 3-4, he may be NFL-ready now. If he is not, he will have a slew of experienced veterans alongside him to show him the ropes. Obviously, improving on 16-0 will not be possible, but the biggest question mark, the age of their defense, gets a resounding answer with this pick (and potentially with Shawn Crable and Bo Ruud).
1) Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina
Durability was a concern, until Carolina, whose team doctor performed Stewart’s latest surgery, made him its first choice. Alongside DeAngelo Williams, the Panthers should finally have the ideal dual-running back situation that they have been pursuing for many years. Stewart is the most likely rookie back to top 1,000 yards. There are no Adrian Peterson’s or Patrick Willis’ in this draft, but the rookie class is very deep, and Stewart and Mayo are the best of the bunch.
100. Larry Grant, LB, San Francisco
99. Chad Rinehart, OL, Washington
98. Oniel Cousins, OL, Baltimore
97. Marcus Henry, WR, New York Jets
96. Kory Lichtensteiger, C, Denver
95. Antwaun Molden, CB, Houston
94. Chevis Jackson, CB, Atlanta
93. DaJuan Morgan, S, Kansas City
92. Mike Jenkins, CB, Dallas
91. Corey Lynch, S, Cincinnati
90. Bruce Davis, LB, Pittsburgh
89. Geno Hayes, LB, Tampa Bay
88. Stanford Keglar, LB, Tennessee
87. Alvin Bowen, LB, Buffalo
86. Brian Johnston, DE, Kansas City
85. Paul Hubbard, WR, Cleveland
84. Chris Ellis, DE, Buffalo
83. Steve Slaton, RB, Houston
82. Thomas DeCoud, S, Atlanta
81. Jalen Parmele, RB, Miami
80. Carlton Powell, DT, Denver
79. Cliff Avril, DE, Detroit
78. Jonathan Goff, LB, New York Giants
77. Justin King, CB, St. Louis
76. William Franklin, WR, Kansas City
75. Duane Brown, OL, Houston
74. Eddie Royal, WR, Denver
73. Leodis McKelvin, CB, Buffalo
72. Angelo Craig, LB, Cincinnati
71. Dustin Keller, TE, New York Jets
70. Tom Zbikowski, S, Baltimore
69. Frank Okam, DT, Houston
68. Cody Wallace, OL, San Francisco
67. Josh Johnson, QB/ATH, Tampa Bay
66. Lawrence Jackson, DE, Seattle
65. Mike Pollak, OL, Indianapolis
64. Jerome Simpson, WR, Cincinnati
63. Tyvon Branch, CB, Oakland
62. Jamaal Charles, RB, Kansas City
61. Gary Barnidge, TE, Carolina
60. Bryan Kehl, LB, New York Giants
59. Gosder Cherilus, OL, Detroit
58. Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore
57. Taylor Mehlhaff, PK, New Orleans
56. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee
55. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Arizona
54. Xavier Adibi, LB, Houston
53. Kendall Langford, DE, Miami
52. Chilo Rachal, OL, San Francisco
51. Early Doucet, WR, Arizona
50. Brian Brohm, QB, Green Bay
49. Marcus Howard, LB, Indianapolis
48. Trevor Scott, DE, Oakland
47. Donnie Avery, WR, St. Louis
46. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago
45. Brandon Flowers, CB, Kansas City
44. Dre Moore, DT, Tampa Bay
43. Jordon Dizon, LB, Detroit
42. Philip Wheeler, LB, Indianapolis
41. Kenny Phillips, S, New York Giants
40. Jeremy Zuttah, OL, Tampa Bay
39. Charles Godfrey, CB, Carolina
38. Limas Sweed, WR, Pittsburgh
37. Sam Baker, OL, Atlanta
36. Aqib Talib, CB, Tampa Bay
35. Calais Campbell, DE, Arizona
34. John David Booty, QB, Minnesota
33. Devin Thomas, WR, Washington
32. Phillip Merling, DE, Miami
31. Craig Steltz, S, Chicago
30. Ryan Clady, OL, Denver
29. Quintin Demps, S, Philadelphia
28. Rashard Mendenhall, RB, Pittsburgh
27. Antoine Cason, CB, San Diego
26. Beau Bell, LB, Cleveland
25. Tyrell Johnson, S, Minnesota
24. Chad Henne, QB, Miami
23. Derrick Harvey, DE, Jacksonville
22. Trevor Laws, DT, Philadelphia
21. Felix Jones, RB, Dallas
20. Vernon Gholston, DE/OLB, New York Jets
19. Branden Albert, OL, Kansas City
18. Dan Connor, LB, Carolina
17. Jeff Otah, OL, Carolina
16. Curtis Lofton, LB, Atlanta
15. Chris Williams, OL, Chicago
14. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta
13. Chris Long, DE, St. Louis
12. Tracy Porter, CB, New Orleans
11. Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore
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