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Friday, May 20, 2011
Surprise rookies who could play early

By James Walker

Every season there are several rookies who surprisingly make an immediate impact. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers come to mind as such players last season in the AFC North.

So who are some middle- or late-round picks who could surprise and make an immediate impact in 2011? Here is an early preview:

Owen Marecic, FB, Cleveland Browns

Round: Fourth

Analysis: With Lawrence Vickers unlikely to return in free agency, you can already pencil in Marecic as the starting fullback in Cleveland. Early playing time means Marecic will have a golden opportunity to make an immediate impact. The Browns feel Marecic is a good fit for the West Coast offense. He has soft hands and also runs hard in short-yardage situations.

Jason Pinkston, OL, Browns

Round: Fifth

Analysis: Pinkston played offensive tackle at the University of Pittsburgh but could fit better as a guard in the pros. Either way, he will get plenty of opportunity considering the struggling right side of Cleveland's offensive line. Browns general manager Tom Heckert traded up to get Pinkston in the fifth round, which shows how much Cleveland was interested. Also keep an eye on 2010 third-round pick Shawn Lauvao, who showed a few flashes last year in limited playing time.

Dontay Moch, LB, Cincinnati Bengals

Round: Third

Analysis: Moch brings two things to the front seven of the Bengals' defense that the team definitely needs: Speed and the ability to rush the passer. Moch is strong in both areas and that could land him some early playing time, especially with Rey Maualuga expected to move inside this year. Moch is raw in other areas, but I could see Cincinnati's coaching staff using him early on obvious passing downs. If Moch works hard to learn the other nuances of being an NFL linebacker, such as dropping into pass coverage, he could eventually earn a starting job.

Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen, CBs, Steelers

Round: Third and fourth

Analysis: I didn't want to separate these two because they are competing for the same job. At the very least, Brown and Allen will be vying for an important role in Pittsburgh's sub packages. It's also possible a starting role could be open if unrestricted free agent Ike Taylor doesn't return. Based on Taylor's comments this week, it didn't sound like a slam dunk that he was returning to Pittsburgh. So Brown or Allen need to be ready to play early, just in case.

Jah Reid, OT, Baltimore Ravens

Round: Third

Analysis: Right tackle was perhaps Baltimore's biggest weakness during the second half of last season, and Baltimore addressed the need in the third round by taking Reid of Central Florida. The status of Baltimore offensive tackle Jared Gaither remains in flux without a new collective bargaining agreement. The Ravens say they're open to re-signing Gaither. But I believe both sides are heading for a mutual parting. If Gaither doesn't return, that leaves the right tackle spot wide open for Reid. The Ravens also could bring in a veteran to compete for the starting job.