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best 20 draft picks of 2006
kirwan breaks down why rookies this past season were such big contributors and looks in retrospect who the top 20 picks would be today (ignoring specific teams needs, of course)
Rookie Class of 2006 produced, and here's why
By Pat Kirwan
NFL.com Senior Analyst
(Jan. 4, 2007) -- There is no doubt that the NFL Rookies of the Year have had outstanding seasons. DeMeco Ryans, the Houston Texans linebacker taken in the second round, had 155 tackles, 3? sacks, five passes defended, one interception and one forced fumble. He was all over the field and should be a force for years to come.
But Ryans is not alone in delivering an excellent rookie season on defense. When it came to sacks, the Bears' Mark Anderson (12) and Browns' Kamerion Wimbley (11) were the top rookies. Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk and Lions linebacker Ernie Sims both had well over 100 tackles, and I could pinpoint about 10 defensive efforts by rookies worthy of high praise from this past season.
Marques Colston (No. 12) and Reggie Bush were major parts of the Saints' explosive offense.
The Offensive Rookie of the Year, Titans quarterback Vince Young, was as exciting a player as we have seen in years. Fellow rookie quarterbacks Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler and Bruce Gradkowski combined with Young to start 40 games and throw 41 touchdowns to 39 interceptions. The 2006 rookie QB production puts the great Class of 1983 rookie production to shame. As for yardage producers, rookies Maurice Jones-Drew, Reggie Bush, Leon Washington, Santonio Holmes, Joseph Addai, Laurence Maroney, Devin Hester, Marques Colston and Jerious Norwood all generated over 1,000 yards of offense and returns.
All this production begs the question: Why have so many rookies made big impacts? In my opinion, it is a combination of factors that have made so many rookies play well in their first year:
1. Colleges are playing a version of football that is much closer to pro football than ever before. It wasn't too long ago that option principles were a big part of the college game. If you consider all the practice time that was dedicated to running the option and defending it, which took away from the passing game and the pro running game, it's easy to see that players just didn't get the work they do today on aspects that relate to the pro game.
2. The salary cap and the escalation of rookie salaries have forced rookies on the field sooner. With the readiness up because of the style of play many of them are coming from in school, they respond with good techniques.
3. NFL coaches are more open to playing rookies than ever before and that trend will continue for years to come. When coaches around the league see the Saints sitting in the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed while getting close to 2,600 yards with 17 touchdowns out of Bush and Colston and starting rookies on the offensive line, we will see more of it in 2007.
4. The rookies are bigger, stronger and faster when they show up. The effects of serious strength and speed training programs down at the high school level puts more freshmen on the field in the college game, and there is no doubt rookies are coming to the NFL with the physical tools to compete right away. It wasn't too long ago the NFL strength and conditioning coaches felt they needed two years to get a player ready for the physical demands of the pro game. Jones-Drew, Nick Mangold and Marcus McNeill were ready from Day 1 to use power to win.
5. Situation substitution, which drives the NFL, has helped some rookies play to their strengths while developing the other skills required. A good example is in Chicago where Anderson grabbed 12 sacks as a situational pass rusher.
With all this talk about great rookies, there's no mention of the first overall pick, Mario Williams. It's unfortunate he seems left out because his 4? sacks, 47 tackles and three passes defended appear pedestrian compared to other rookie performances. First, let me point out that the great Michael Strahan had one sack his rookie season and followed that up with 4? his second season.
Mario Williams faces unfair comparisons but still has a bright future.
Second, the Texans struggled this season as a team and opponents often had early leads and ran the ball, more providing fewer opportunities to sack the QB. For example, the Bears had close to 80 more pass attempts against them than the Texans had this season. Many times the Bears defense was in a pass situation, while a team like the Texans was defending the run.
Third, Williams would really benefit from an outstanding rusher on the opposite side. For example, when Julius Peppers was a rookie he had 12 sacks, but over on the opposite side, Mike Rucker had 10 sacks and that meant Peppers had some single block situations.
Fourth, Williams will forever be compared to Bush and Young because the Texans passed on both to take the defensive end. Bush and Young will always have flashier stats than Williams, who will probably be viewed as a guy with the question, "What happened to the No. 1 pick?"
Now that the rookie Class of 2006 has one season down, what would the first 20 picks look like in a redraft with no teams considered? Here's a list based on the opinion of two personnel people along with my opinion.
1. Vince Young
2. Matt Leinart
3. Jay Cutler
4. DeMeco Ryans
5. Reggie Bush
6. Maurice Jones-Drew
7. Mark Anderson
8. Marques Colston
9. A.J. Hawk
10. Devin Hester
11. Kamerion Wimbley
12. Mario Williams
13. Nick Mangold
14. D'Brickashaw Ferguson
15. Santonio Holmes
16. Laurence Maroney
17. Joseph Addai
18. Marcus McNeill
19. Johnathan Joseph
20. Dawan Landry
It is interesting that seven of these 20 were not even first-round selections last spring. But like the saying goes, "The reason a rearview mirror is smaller than a windshield is because we should look forward more than we look back."