Rookies To Watch In The NFL

 


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Like so many millions of young sports-crazed boys, in my formative years I was a baseball card fanatic. But one thing that I never understood about baseball cards is why rookie cards were always worth more money than any other cards. I bring this up, because I'm equally confused when it comes to rookie contracts in the NFL.

Why is it that rookies - players who haven't accomplished anything in the league are paid exorbitant sums of money and put in positions to hurt their teams by holding out? Case in point: two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady signed a contract extension that included $32 million guaranteed, perennial All-Pro and future Hall of Famer Orlando Pace signed an extension with $18 million guaranteed, and rookie quarterback Alex Smith - who was a one-year wonder at the football factory that is Utah, and who hasn't taken a single snap in a regular season game - signed a contract that guarantees him $24 million. Curious.

This year featured more first-round holdouts and more acrimony in NFL rookie negotiations than any in recent memory. At one point, players like David Pollack, Adam Jones, Roddy White and Cedric Benson were projected starters for their respective teams. However, due in part to their extended holdouts, as of right now none of those players figure to crack the starting lineup come Week One.

The irony here is that these players are squabbling over a slight increase in money now - and by slight I mean in percentages, not in actual figures - and by doing so jeopardizing their long-term earning potential. By holding out, these rookies are missing valuable acclimation time in training camp, they're alienating themselves from their coaches, teammates and fans, and earning reputations as people who are difficult to work with. Furthermore, the track record for rookies that hold out more than 10 days is a train wreck.

The NFL is in the middle of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement. I wouldn't be surprised (and am actually hoping for) a change that institutes a rookie pay scale, similar to what the NBA has in place. In the NBA system the contracts’ length and worth are figured on a graduated scale and preset based on when players are picked. Starting this in the league would effectively end NFL rookie holdouts, and help ensure that more money is invested in accomplished NFL players as opposed to the potential-laden first-round picks that have a hit-or-miss history in the league. I don't see where the NFLPA would have a problem with this, given that about 80 percent of the players in the league weren't No. 1 picks and a pay scale would mean more money for them.

Here's a list of 10 rookies that I expect to have a definite, tangible impact on their team's fortunes this season, for good or ill. I would wager that of the 10 teams that these players represent, the ones that get the most production from their first-year players will be the ones still alive in January.

J. J. Arrington, RB, Arizona

The Cardinals are the trendy sleeper pick this season in the weak NFC West. Arrington follows in the footsteps of the NFL's leading rusher, Emmitt Smith, who retired after the 2004 season. That sounds more dramatic than it really is, since it's not like Smith actually did anything in Arizona. Arrington topped the 2,000-yard mark at Cal last fall, and has the speed and shake to be a productive scat back. However, he is small (5'9'’ 214 lbs. ), he has fumbled twice in two preseason games, and it remains to be seen whether he can take an NFL pounding.

Derrick Johnson, LB, Kansas City

So far I've heard from several sources that this kid is just an animal. He was by far and away the best defensive player in the draft, but he slipped to No. 15 and fell into the Chiefs’ lap. Johnson will join Sammy Knight, Patrick Surtain and Kendrell Bell in a retooled K. C.defense. If you can find anyone dumb enough to take your wager, bet your mortgage on Johnson as the Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Heath Miller, TE, Pittsburgh

The Steelers have never really utilized the tight end in the passing game (average of 18 catches a year since 1998). In fact, they'd rather have a sixth lineman than a pass catcher in the TE slot. Miller could change all of that. With sure hands and outstanding speed, Miller could slice up some seams in the defense this fall. Plexico Burress is gone so Pittsburgh is going to need other playmakers to step up. Also his size (6'5'’ 256) will make him an inviting red zone target.

Mike Nugent, K, New York Jets

Doug Brien converted 83 percent of his kicks in 2004, but was exposed the after a pair of missed game winning field goals missed against Pittsburgh last January. Tough crowd. Enter the kid. Nugent won the Lou Groza Award last fall and was prolific at Ohio State. He was deemed worthy of a second round pick by New York, the third highest a kicker has ever been drafted. New York's style lends itself to a lot of close games. That means Nugent will face plenty of clutch kicks this season.

Matt Jones, WR, Jacksonville

The Jags pick of Jones 21st overall may have been the shocker of the first round in April. He is a converted quarterback out of Arkansas, and will be expected to step right in and contribute. Last year's No. 1 pick Reggie Williams had an awful rookie season, and besides 36-year-old Jimmy Smith the Jags don't have much of a receiving corps. Byron Leftwich could be ready for a breakout year, but if that's going to happen than Jones is going to have to take advantage of the mismatches (he's 6'6'', 242) he'll most likely face.

David Pollack, LB, Cincinnati

When Pollack was at Georgia, the coaches used to have to take him off the practice field because the offense just couldn't get anything done when he was out there. He was that dominant. The Bengals are hoping that he can make the adjustment to linebacker in their 3-4 alignment. Pollack held out for 20 days, which could stunt his growth in the early part of this season. However, he will have the benefit of playing alongside college teammate Odell Thurman. Thurman was picked up in the second round by Cincinnati and is also projected as a starting linebacker for the league's 26th-rated run defense.

Alex Barron, OT, St. Louis

What a spot for Barron, college football's Outland Trophy winner last fall, to be in. He gets to apprentice next to Adam Timmerman and on the same line as Orlando Pace. Barron not only held out, which pissed off head coach Mike Martz, but he missed his first practice after he signed with the team - unexcused. You don't want to get in Martz's doghouse. Just ask Kyle Turley.

Cedric Benson, RB, Chicago

As a Bears fan I'm disgusted with this whole situation. As if it wasn't bad enough that we had to stare in horror at his freak out on draft day (you know, when he started panting, sweating, babbling and sobbing during his interview with Suzy Kolber after he was selected fourth by the Bears) now we have to wait for him to put his avarice aside and become a team player. He can make it up to me with 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Roddy White, WR, Atlanta

White held out for the first two weeks of camp and, wouldn't you know it, he got injured (ankle) in his first preseason game after his return. I'm not saying that his injury had any physical link to his hold out I'm just saying it's bad karma. Some in Falcons camp insist that Peerless Price is still the No. 1 receiver in Atlanta, but still others surmise that he's going to get cut to free up cap space. The jury is still out. But it's clear that big things are expected from White, the second wideout Atlanta has taken in the first round in two years (Michael Jenkins in 2004).

Fred Gibson, WR, Philadelphia

OK, so T. O.being back in camp takes the onus off Gibson. However, who knows how long that whine ass will hold up this season. Regardless, the Eagles lack a No. 2 option, and rumor has it that Gibson has looked really good this August in camp. He was labeled as soft during his time at Georgia, but he could blossom under the guidance of a team player like Owens (just kidding).

Honorable mention: Cadillac Williams, RB, Tampa Bay; Erasmus James, DE, Minnesota; Jammal Brown, OG, New Orleans; Daryl Blackstock, LB, Arizona; Roscoe Parrish, WR, Buffalo, Chris Henry, WR, Cincinnati.

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