Members of New England’s 2010 draft class aren’t hitting the rookie wall.
They’re scaling it.
No NFL team is enjoying a bigger boost from its youth movement than the Patriots, tied with Atlanta for the league’s best record at 10-2. Such talent was on display in last Monday night’s 45-3 rout of the visiting New York Jets.
Tight end Aaron Hernandez scored a touchdown as part of his three-catch, 51-yard effort. Two more rookies — cornerback Devin McCourty and linebacker Brandon Spikes — intercepted Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. Outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham had five tackles and a quarterback hurry. Zoltan Mesko had impressive gross (46.7) and net (38.0) punting averages. Plus, tight end Rob Gronkowski had one reception for 12 yards, adding to a season in which he already has set the franchise rookie tight end record with six touchdown catches.
With 39 catches, Hernandez has broken the team record for receptions by a rookie tight end. And with six interceptions, McCourty is just two shy of tying the rookie mark Mike Haynes set in 1976.
At this time last year, most NFL rookies were busy preparing for bowl games or resting after a rigorous college season. But there are no signs of fatigue in New England, where veteran players have given the newbies tips on how to maintain through the longer NFL campaign.
“I’m just taking care of my body, getting treatment and doing the little things,” said Cunningham, a second-round pick from the University of Florida. “I put in extra time to keep in shape.”
Gronkowski was so peppy after the Jets win that he seemed ready to immediately play another game.
“There ain’t no extra wear and tear this year,” said Gronkowski, another second-round selection. “We’re all motivated. We’re all happy being here. Everyone comes in smiling and it’s a lot of fun.”
Other clubs like Kansas City and Tampa Bay are making surprising playoff runs thanks to rookie contributions. Conversely, only one of San Diego’s six draft picks (running back Ryan Mathews) has started a game this season.
Here is a team-by-team look at the impact being made by the 2010 draft class:
Denver: Recently fired head coach Josh McDaniels won’t get to enjoy whatever fruits — if any — come from his controversial 2010 draft class. The fact McDaniels refused to play Tim Tebow outside of special situations, even during blowouts, doesn’t bode well for how ready the heralded college quarterback is for full-time NFL action. Denver’s other first-round pick, wide receiver/kick returner Demaryius Thomas, continues to struggle with leg injuries dating back to his days at Georgia Tech. At least Denver’s second- and third-round picks — left guard Zane Beadles and center J.D. Walton — are in the starting lineup.
Kansas City: General manager Scott Pioli is starting to enjoy some of the same draft prosperity he experienced with Bill Belichick in New England. Two safeties — Eric Berry (first) and Kendrick Lewis (fifth) — are already in the starting lineup. With 36 catches, Tony Moeaki (third) already has broken Tony Gonzalez’s rookie receiving record for a Chiefs tight end. Running back Dexter McCluster (second) and cornerback Javier Arenas (second) are key contributors on their respective units and special teams. Plus, guard/center Jon Asamoah is the team’s top backup interior offensive lineman.
Oakland: After years of poor decisions, the Raiders finally hit pay dirt once again. Middle linebacker Rolando McClain (first) is fourth among all rookies in tackles with 67. Defensive end Lamarr Houston (second) and left tackle Jared Veldheer (third) are other starters, while kick returner/wide receiver Jacoby Ford (fourth) has emerged as a big-play threat on offense and special teams. Five other 2010 draft picks are on the 53-man roster.
San Diego: The Chargers had such a gaping predraft hole at running back that general manager A.J. Smith traded up 16 spots with Miami to select Fresno State’s Ryan Mathews. But injuries and slow development have kept Mathews from shouldering the heavy load that San Diego expected. The rest of this year’s draft class was a washout, too. Linebacker Donald Butler (third) is on injured reserve, linebacker Darrell Stuckey (fourth) and defensive tackle Cam Thomas (fifth) are weekly inactives, and quarterback Jonathan Crompton (fifth) and tight end Dedrick Epps (seventh) aren’t even on the practice squad.
Houston: First-round pick Kareem Jackson hasn’t been able to fill the void created when cornerback Dunta Robinson left to Atlanta via free agency during the offseason. The unexpected emergence of NFL rushing leader Arian Foster has compensated for the loss of second-round pick Ben Tate to an ankle injury in the preseason opener. Injuries at linebacker opened the door for Darryl Sharpton (fourth), who has started the past three games.
Indianapolis: Colts general manager Bill Polian dropped a bombshell on his radio show earlier this week when admitting he erred by using a late first-round pick on defensive end Jerry Hughes rather than left tackle Rodger Saffold, who is excelling in St. Louis as a second-rounder. Such a statement says just as much about Indianapolis’ offensive line woes as it does about Hughes’ slow development (which was expected). Pat Angerer (second) has 68 tackles — the NFL’s third-highest rookie total — playing at both strongside and middle linebacker when Gary Brackett was injured. Cornerback Kevin Thomas (third) set the tone for the Colts’ injury-marred season when wrecking his knee during an offseason practice. Having to fill so many roster spots has forced Indianapolis to carry a staggering 15 rookies on their 53-man roster.
Jacksonville: With the Jaguars leading the AFC South at 7-5, nobody should be questioning the decision-making of Jaguars general manager Gene Smith. The then-controversial selection of defensive tackle Tyson Alualu with the 10th overall pick has worked out well. He is credited with 61 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks and 15 quarterback pressures. That’s better production than the defensive tackle (Gerald McCoy) taken seven spots earlier by Tampa Bay. Defensive end Austen Lane, a fifth-rounder from Murray State, became a starter five games ago ahead of underachieving 2008 first-rounder Derrick Harvey. Defensive tackle D’Anthony Smith (third) was placed on injured reserve during the preseason. Running back Deji Karim (sixth) is handling kickoff returns.
Tennessee: The best impression made by a Titans rookie has come on special teams. Wide receiver Marc Mariani (sixth) has an NFL-best 16.0-yard punt return average. Cornerback Alterraun Verner (fourth) moved into the starting lineup in Week 4. Defensive end Derrick Morgan (first) had his rookie season end after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in early October. Injuries forced Tennessee to prematurely thrust quarterback Rusty Smith (sixth) into making his first and only NFL start in last month’s 20-0 loss at Houston.
Baltimore: The Ravens sent third- and fourth-round picks to Arizona for a fifth-rounder and wide receiver Anquan Boldin. This was a steal by Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome. Boldin has 56 catches for 770 yards and seven touchdowns. The Ravens gave quarterback Joe Flacco more offensive weapons for the future in tight ends Ed Dickson (third) and Dennis Pitta (fourth). The Ravens hope second-round outside linebacker Sergio Kindle, their top pick, can recover from serious head injuries suffered in a home accident. Massive defensive tackle Terrence Cody (second) gets snaps in running situations.
Cincinnati: Wide receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco have overshadowed a productive debut season by Jermaine Gresham. Cincinnati’s first-round pick leads all rookie tight ends with 47 catches for 409 yards and three touchdowns. Jordan Shipley (third) also has become Cincinnati’s best slot receiver since the late Chris Henry. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap (second) has 3.5 sacks in the past two games. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins (fourth) plays in the defensive line rotation.
Cleveland: General manager Tom Heckert Jr. has brought his keen eye for talent from Philadelphia to Cleveland. Heckert’s first Browns draft fortified the secondary led by star-in-the-making Joe Haden. The No. 7 overall pick quickly dispelled predraft concerns about his speed and is a bona fide NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. No NFL rookie has come close to posting the 92 tackles being credited to second-round strong safety T.J. Ward. And perhaps the most encouraging find of all: Colt McCoy (third) could be the franchise quarterback Cleveland has long lacked. The projected 2011 return of running back Montario Hardesty (second) from a preseason knee injury should give Cleveland a formidable one-two rushing punch with Peyton Hillis.
Pittsburgh: Maurkice Pouncey isn’t just Pittsburgh’s best offensive lineman as a rookie. The first-rounder also is drawing positive comparisons to legendary Steelers centers Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson. Rookie linebackers usually don’t play much — just ask Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley — but the Steelers hope Jason Worilds and Thaddeus Gibson can follow in their footsteps. Competition for playing time has brought out the best in wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders (fourth) and Antonio Brown (sixth).
Buffalo: No top-10 pick has disappointed more than running back C.J. Spiller. Expected to immediately provide offensive punch, Spiller has generated only 281 yards as a rusher and receiver. Slowed by a hamstring injury earlier this season, Spiller does have one kickoff return for a touchdown. Linebacker Arthur Moats (sixth) delivered the hit that knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of last Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury. Defensive end Alex Carrington has earned playing time in the defensive line rotation. Undrafted wide receivers David Nelson and Donald Jones were nice finds.
Miami: As part of a trade with San Diego, Miami dropped 16 spots in the first round and selected Penn State’s Jared Odrick at No. 28. This became a wasted season as Odrick — who is trying to convert from 4-3 college defensive tackle to a 3-4 end — played in just one game before landing on injured reserve. Linebacker A.J. Edds, a fourth-rounder expected to play in passing situations, suffered a season-ending knee injury in August. The season’s been kinder to second-rounder Koa Misi, who already is forming a formidable outside linebacker tandem with NFL sack leader Cameron Wake. Right guard John Jerry recently lost his starting spot to career backup Pat McQuistan. Cornerback Nolan Carroll has provided secondary depth — he plays in nickel packages — and averaged 25.3 yards as Miami’s kickoff returner. A fun fact on Carroll: His mother Jennifer has become Florida’s lieutenant state governor under newly elected Rick Scott. Embattled head coach Tony Sparano and general manager Jeff Ireland should hope for a pardon after a disappointing 6-6 season.
New England: This group has deservedly earned praise as one of the best rookie classes in the Bill Belichick era. Devin McCourty (first round) is becoming the impact cornerback New England has lacked since Asante Samuel left to Philadelphia in 2008. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski (second) and Aaron Hernandez (fourth) are causing matchup nightmares. Linebackers Jermaine Cunningham and Brandon Spikes, both second-round picks from the University of Florida, are defensive contributors. The Patriots even found a punter in fifth-rounder Zoltan Mesko, who ranks 10th in the NFL with a 39.0-yard net average.
New York Jets: After trades that netted quality veterans like wide receivers Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, the Jets had fewer picks (four) than any other team. Cornerback Kyle Wilson (first) is trying to rebound from his early-season struggles. Running back Joe McKnight (fourth) has flopped, making the in-season release of running back Danny Woodhead even more painful now that he’s excelling for New England. Offensive lineman Vlad Ducasse (second) is a future starter but not ready for extensive playing time on a deep offensive line.