Dallas: Wide receiver Dez Bryant was living up to his billing as the first round’s biggest steal until suffering a broken ankle in last Sunday’s win against Indianapolis. Inside linebacker Sean Lee’s improvement in pass coverage was evident against the Colts. The second-rounder intercepted two Peyton Manning passes, including one Lee returned for a touchdown. Safety Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (fourth) was a core special teams player until landing on injured reserve.
New York Giants: Considered more of a long-term project by some draft analysts, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is ending his rookie season strong. The first-rounder has two sacks in each of the past two games. Defensive tackle Linval Joseph (second round) was inactive for five of New York’s past six games. Chad Jones’ NFL future is in question after the third-rounder suffering serious injuries in a post-draft car accident. Following a rough start, Matt Dodge is doing a better job filling the large shoes left behind by the retired Jeff Feagles. The seventh-rounder has placed three of his past 10 punts inside the 20-yard line without a touchback while also posting a 45.8-yard gross average.
Philadelphia: It took a season, but the Eagles finally found a long-term replacement for Brian Dawkins in second-rounder Nate Allen. First-round defensive end Brandon Graham is slower to blossom with 13 tackles and three sacks in 12 games. Wide receiver Riley Cooper shows earmarks of being a fifth-round steal. Wisely sensing value in the middle rounds, 11 of Philadelphia’s 13 picks are on the 53-man roster.
Washington: The Redskins hit on a cornerstone left tackle in Trent Williams with the No. 4 overall pick. The jury remains out on whether quarterback Donovan McNabb was worth acquiring from Philadelphia for a second-round pick. Defensive tackle Adam Carriker, a 12-game starter, was a solid pickup from St. Louis for a fifth-round pick. Besides Williams and reserve linebacker Perry Riley, only three of Washington’s other six picks are on the 53-man roster. Two college free agents — wide receiver/kick returner Brandon Banks and running back Keiland Williams — have made a nice splash.
Chicago: The Bears were without their first- and second-round picks because of earlier trades. Right tackle J’Marcus Webb is raw from having played against small-school competition at West Texas A&M, but the 6-foot-8, 335-pound seventh-rounder has shown enough progress to start eight games. Third-round pick Major Harris has worked his way into the safety rotation after missing five games with a hamstring injury. Considering Chicago’s shaky backup quarterback situation, sixth-rounder Dan LeFevour’s inability to make the roster was disappointing.
Detroit: Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh wasted little time before becoming the most dominant interior force on Detroit’s line since Shaun Rogers. He and Cleveland cornerback Joe Haden are the frontrunners for NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. Suh has already set the team rookie record with eight sacks. Another first-round pick, Jahvid Best, is tied for third among NFL running backs in receptions with 50 for 407 yards and one touchdown. Best scored Detroit’s first five touchdowns this season, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished by an NFL rookie since 1920. Third-rounder Amari Spievey, a converted college cornerback, may become an answer to Detroit’s long-standing safety problems.
Green Bay: General manager Ted Thompson has worked his magic once again. First-round right tackle Bryan Bulaga entered the starting lineup when Mark Tauscher suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Tight end Andrew Quarless (fifth) is taking advantage of the opportunity created when starter Jermichael Finley was placed on injured reserve. And after starting the season on the PUP list, running back James Starks (sixth) enjoyed the second-best rushing debut for a Packers rookie in 62 years with a 73-yard effort in last Sunday’s win over San Francisco. The riches don’t end there, either. Although on injured reserve, strong safety Morgan Burnett (third) and defensive end Mike Neal (second) are considered future starters.
Minnesota: The Vikings traded down from the bottom of the first round into the second and still landed the player they desired. Cornerback Chris Cook should be a long-term starter but his rookie season was marred by surgeries on both knees. Second-round running back Toby Gerhart is steadily improving as Adrian Peterson’s backup. Defensive nd Everson Griffen (third) is showing enough promise in practice that he may get the chance to start in 2011 if Ray Edwards leaves via free agency.
Atlanta: Defensive tackle Corey Peters is Atlanta’s top rookie. The third-rounder has started 11 of 12 games. Strongside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (first) is trying to fully recover from a knee injury that knocked him from the starting lineup. Guard Michael Johnson (third) will compete to start in 2011 if Harvey Dahl leaves via free agency.
Carolina: Inexperience on offense has greatly contributed to Carolina’s NFL-worst 1-11 record, but wide receivers David Gettis (sixth) and Brandon LaFell (third) have shown promise. The two have combined to catch 52 passes for 750 yards and four touchdowns. Jimmy Clausen (second) knows his performance in the final five games will influence whether the Panthers pursue a quarterback with what will be a high 2011 first-round pick. Sixth-rounder Greg Hardy, who is only 22 years old, has the potential to become a strong pass-rusher. Nine rookies are on Carolina’s 53-man roster in what is obviously a rebuilding season.
New Orleans: The rookie who has made the biggest impact wasn’t drafted. In the absence of the injured Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas, running back Chris Ivory has carried the Saints’ ground game. He leads all rookie rushers with 636 yards and five touchdowns on 123 attempts. Third-round tight end Jimmy Graham, a converted basketball player who spent only one season on the University of Miami’s football team, is becoming yet another weapon for quarterback Drew Brees. Cornerback Patrick Robinson (first) gained some valuable experience when injuries pushed him into the starting lineup for four games.
Tampa Bay: The Bucs’ 7-5 record is a surprise considering how many youngsters Tampa Bay has played. The Bucs became the NFL’s first team in eight years to start seven rookies and win during an October game against Carolina. Gerald McCoy isn’t generating the same headlines as Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh, the defensive tackle selected one spot ahead of him with the No. 2 overall pick. McCoy has three sacks compared to Suh’s eight and was held without a tackle in last Sunday’s loss to Atlanta. The Bucs, though, are still bullish about their most celebrated defensive tackle since Warren Sapp. Wide receiver Mike Williams, who fell to the fourth round because of off-field character issues, leads all NFL rookies in receiving with 51 catches for 769 yards and seven touchdowns. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn (second) is slower to develop. The Bucs also have struck gold with late-round picks like safety Cody Grimm and college free agent running back LeGarrette Blount. After failing to stick in Tennessee, the bruising Blount has averaged 5.2 yards with five touchdowns on his 123 carries in Tampa.
St. Louis: After passing on such quarterbacks as Matt Ryan and Mark Sanchez early in the past two drafts, the Rams finally got it right with Sam Bradford. He’s a lock for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Bradford set an NFL rookie record earlier this season by throwing 169 passes without an interception. Bradford, though, isn’t the only gem in this draft class. Left tackle Rodger Saffold (second round) will be protecting Bradford’s blindside for years to come. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (fourth) had 12 catches for 136 yards and three touchdowns in a six-game stretch before being sidelined with a high ankle sprain.
Seattle: Although left tackle Russell Okung has struggled with ankle problems throughout the season, strong safety Earl Thomas already has proven worthy of his first-round selection. Thomas has tied Michael Boulware’s team rookie record with five interceptions. Thomas and Okung are Seattle’s only rookie starters. The Seahawks are lucky Mike Williams is enjoying a career resurgence with wide receiver Golden Tate (second) only catching 14 passes.
San Francisco: The 49ers have gotten immediate yield from first-round picks Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. The duo has started every game at right tackle and left guard, respectively. Strong safety Taylor Mays (second round) moved into the starting lineup in early October. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman (third) is the heir apparent to Takeo Spikes. Running back Anthony Dixon (sixth) is getting more snaps with Frank Gore now on injured reserve. All eight of San Francisco’s picks played in late September against Kansas City, marking the first time an entire 49ers draft class appeared in the same game as rookies since 1997.
Arizona: Defensive tackle Dan Williams has lost weight to work his way out of Ken Whisenhunt’s doghouse, but the first-rounder still isn’t a starter. Injuries and horrible personnel assessments on Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson have forced Arizona to rush quarterbacks Max Hall (undrafted) and John Skelton (fifth) onto the field well before they were ready. Outside linebacker Daryl Washington (second) has seven starts but is now back in a second-string role.