One sure way to make head coaches cringe

May, 3, 2011
5/03/11
4:44
PM ET
Teams have yet to see their 2011 draft choices on the field. They have yet to sign players in free agency. Depth charts remain largely imaginary.

Those factors complicate efforts to predict which 2011 draft choices will start as rookies. The head coaches for NFC West teams would surely cringe at making projections this far out. The San Francisco 49ers' Jim Harbaugh repeatedly used the word "anointed" during his draft-related media appearances -- as in, none of these rookies will be anointed starters.

With that in mind, I'll anoint myself as armchair general manager with an eye toward projecting which 2011 draft choices will start as rookies.

First, a little history.

Fourteen 2010 NFL draft choices started every game last season.

Five of the 14 -- Sam Bradford, Anthony Davis, Earl Thomas, Mike Iupati and Rodger Saffold -- played for NFC West teams. Two more NFC West rookie draft choices, Daryl Washington and Russell Okung, started at least 10 games. Six others started between one and six games.

As the chart shows, players starting the most games tended to have higher draft statuses. Those making at least 10 starts were selected about 18th overall on average.

Now, on to the non-anointing ...

Projected starters

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson, the No. 5 overall pick in this year's class, is expected to beat out Greg Toler for a starting job.
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesPatrick Peterson, the No. 5 overall pick in this year's class, is expected to beat out Greg Toler for a starting job.
Patrick Peterson, CB, Cardinals: The fifth overall choice should have little trouble locking down a starting job even though coach Ken Whisenhunt makes rookies in particular earn their jobs. Peterson should beat out incumbent Greg Toler. Landing a corrnerback in free agency became less of a priority once the Cardinals drafted Peterson.

James Carpenter, RT, Seahawks: The Seahawks want to upgrade the talent and change the demeanor of their offensive line. Carpenter is a big part of those plans. He has the versatility to start at guard or tackle. Right tackle is where the Seahawks envision him starting right away. Sean Locklear is not signed. Stacy Andrews likely will not be back at his current price.

John Moffitt, G, Seahawks. Guard was one of the most acute needs for Seattle this offseason. I expect the team to make a clean break from some of the older players who manned the position last season (Ben Hamilton, Chester Pitts, etc.). They were stopgap solutions. Moffitt projects as the starting right guard. The team could add a free agent to start at left guard. Robert Gallery's connections to line coach Tom Cable make him a logical candidate.

Lance Kendricks, TE, Rams. I'll assume the Rams will use two tight ends more frequently under new coordinator Josh McDaniels. If that is the case, Kendricks projects as one of the top two tight ends and a player the Rams will feature.

Rob Housler, TE, Cardinals. Arizona's options at the position make Housler the early favorite. Seventh-round rookie Jim Dray made three starts at tight end last season. Housler should figure much more prominently into the mix as a third-round selection (69th overall).

Projected situational roles

Aldon Smith, DL/OLB, 49ers. Smith and other college defensive linemen face transition periods converting to pass-rush roles in 3-4 defenses. The 49ers like Smith's versatility. They'll probably use him on the line and as a situational pass-rusher. The goal would be for Smith to work his way into the starting lineup, but not necessarily right away.

Robert Quinn, DE, Rams. James Hall projects as the starter on the right side. Quinn projects as Hall's eventual replacement. The Rams plan to make Quinn a prominent part of their rotation on the defensive line right away. Quinn faces a transition after sitting out the 2010 season. The faster he develops, the faster he'll join the starting lineup. How well he plays the run is one key variable.

Ryan Williams, RB, Cardinals. I wouldn't rule out Williams as a candidate to start in 2011, but most rookies require time to learn the ins and outs of pass protection. The Cardinals have a crowded backfield at the moment. The competition should be fierce.

Chris Culliver, CB, 49ers. Culliver has played safety and cornerback. That could make him suited to play in nickel and dime packages as a rookie. He should be part of the rotation.

Austin Pettis or Greg Salas, WR, Rams. I'm listing these two together because the Rams selected both within a 29-pick range spanning the third and fourth rounds. Rookie receivers can have a hard time adjusting to the pro game. At least one of these two figures to emerge as part of the rotation.

Other considerations

Other rookie draft choices will surely emerge as immediate contributors.

Some will start games. Some will have an easier time than others based on the competition they'll face in training camp.

For example, Cardinals fifth-round choice Anthony Sherman might have a better shot at starting than players drafted earlier because Arizona doesn't have depth at fullback. Bruce Miller, the linebacker San Francisco plans to convert into a fullback, could also have a chance (Tampa Bay's Erik Lorig, who played defensive line for Harbaugh at Stanford, has played fullback for the Bucs and started one game last season).

Arizona could use a young outside pass-rusher to emerge. Will fourth-rounder Sam Acho be the one?

In Seattle, coach Pete Carroll said seventh-round linebacker Malcolm Smith has the ability to contribute on third down right away. The Seahawks could have quite a few rookies playing given an organizational emphasis on getting younger.

Linebackers and defensive backs sometimes work their way into various situational packages. The Rams have plans along those lines for Jermale Hines, among others.

I could go on, but there's no sense in listing each of the 35 players NFC West teams selected. I'd be interested in your thoughts on which ones you expect to emerge, and why.

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