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Thursday, November 20, 2008
NFC North: Impact rookies down the stretch


Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

This is the time of year when coaches like to say that rookies are no longer rookies. They've been involved in at least 14 "game weeks," including the preseason, and thus made it through the duration of a typical college season.

 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 The Bears have leaned heavily on rookie Matt Forte so far this season and they aren't going to stop now.

This hasn't been a huge year for impact rookies in the NFC North, in part because three-fourths of the teams in essence are playing without a first-round draft pick. Minnesota and Green Bay didn't have a first-round pick, while Chicago offensive tackle Chris Williams (No. 14 overall) had back surgery in August.

We'll take a more in-depth look at each team's rookie class after the season, but for now let's consider five rookies who could impact their teams during the final six games of the season. Here's the drill: I'll name my top four. You give me your suggestions for the fifth (the mailbag would be fine) and we'll all meet back here on Friday.

1. Chicago tailback Matt Forte: It would be hard for the Bears to rely on Forte any more than they already do. He has accounted for nearly 75 percent of their rushing yards, and his 43 receptions are 10 more than his closest teammate. From a conditioning standpoint, you would think the Bears will give him relief at some point. But there's no indication that they trust Kevin Jones, Adrian Peterson or Garrett Wolfe enough to take Forte off the field.

2. Detroit tailback Kevin Smith: It appears the Lions have finally committed to using Smith as their primary runner rather than splitting his carries with veteran Rudi Johnson. Smith has produced 208 yards over the past two games, his best stretch of the season, and should get a long look over the final six games.

3. Green Bay receiver Jordy Nelson: This is a notoriously difficult position for rookies. Playing as the No. 4 receiver this season, Nelson has 21 receptions. But that total ranks as the fourth most for rookie receivers in the NFL. His playing time might depend on the condition of teammate James Jones' knee, but Nelson should get his share of opportunities.

4. Detroit defensive end Cliff Avril: He only has one sack this season, but there are some who believe Avril could develop into a significant outside pass-rusher. All he needs is playing time, and the Lions should give him plenty of it. Starters Dewayne White and Jared DeVries have been dinged up, and their injuries provide the Lions a perfect reason to get Avril a prominent role.

5. ????? Again, your nominations are accepted here.