NFL Nation: rookie hot seat 09

 
  Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
  Hakeem Nicks isn't bothered by comparisons to former Giants WR Plaxico Burress.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Even though the New York Giants finally cut ties with wide receiver Plaxico Burress, he still casts a pretty large shadow. His accidental shooting and subsequent suspension coincided with the team's late-season slide, which bordered on an all-out collapse.

And that's why we spent a large part of our offseason tracking every report/rumor that had the Giants acquiring either Anquan Boldin or Braylon Edwards in a trade. At one point, the Edwards trade seemed like a foregone conclusion. But in the end, general manager Jerry Reese and coach Tom Coughlin refused to let Burress' absence hold them hostage. The Cardinals and Browns were asking too much, and that's why the Giants kept their draft picks and selected North Carolina's Hakeem Nicks late in the first round.

 Nicks
 Burress

Nicks was a superstar at Charlotte (N.C.) Independent High School before becoming the Tar Heels' all-time leading receiver. He always seemed to save his best performances for the biggest games, which sort of reminded the Giants of a receiver who'd made the game-winning catch in Super Bowl XLII.

And no matter how much you hear from the Giants about their talented -- if not raw -- group of receivers, Nicks is supposed to eventually replace Burress as the team's big-play receiver. Don't get distracted by all those Ramses Barden features you're reading. He may be built more like Burress, but it's not fair to mention them in the same sentence.

Nicks, though, drew comparisons to Cowboys Hall of Famer Michael Irvin while playing for one of Irvin's old coaches at North Carolina. Butch Davis was on Jimmy Johnson's University of Miami staff in the late '80s and then followed him to the Cowboys, where Irvin was waiting. Davis told Nicks that his fearless style reminded him of Irvin.

Several scouts have told me, though, that Nicks reminds them most of Boldin, a player the Giants have coveted for years. You would think all the expectations might wear on Nicks, but he doesn't seem fazed.

"I really don't feel any pressure," Nicks told me via phone Tuesday. "I just have to keep doing what I did all through college. Actually, it's a lot of the same stuff. We had the same style of offense at North Carolina, so it doesn't feel like a big leap."

Rookies, Vets on the Hot Seat
ROOKIES ON THE HOT SEAT
• AFC: N | S | E | W
• NFC: N | S | E | W

VETS ON THE HOT SEAT
• AFC: N | S | E | W
• NFC: N | S | E | W

And that's where the Giants think Nicks has a built-in advantage. In addition to having excellent speed and freakishly large hands (4XL gloves), Nicks spent hours watching film of Eli Manning and his receivers during college. Apparently offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach John Shoop was a big fan of the Giants' offense, which might explain why everything seemed easy for Nicks at the Giants' rookie minicamp last weekend.

As we discussed earlier, Davis knows a thing or two about explosive receivers. In 2000, he had future NFL stars Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and Santana Moss on the same team at Miami. He felt like the combination of Nicks, Brandon Tate and Brooks Foster at North Carolina was at least in the same neighborhood as his Hurricanes' group. And he agrees that Nicks may have a head start on other rookie receivers in the league.

"We run what everybody in the NFL runs," Davis told Dallas Morning News draft expert Rick Gosselin in March. "So every kid here has run every route, every route adjustment you can run. Every kid here knows how to move a defender and change the leverage of the corner or safety because of his release. They're going to come out of here and be a lot more polished than most college receivers."

Publicly, the Giants will talk about how Domenik Hixon and Steve Smith are projected to start in '09. But in reality, they're hoping Nicks forces his way into the starting lineup during training camp. Everyone always talks about how it takes awhile for receivers to make an impact in this league. Well, the Giants watched Eagles rookie DeSean Jackson make a large impact in '08 and they remember what Boldin did his first couple of seasons with the Cardinals. At some positions, the Giants can afford to have three-year plans. Receiver is not one of those.

For his part, Nicks doesn't run from the Burress comparison. He lists his favorite receivers in the league as the Panthers' Steve Smith and Burress -- in that order. Growing up in Charlotte, Nicks had a bird's-eye-view of Smith's prolific career.

"He used to come up to my high school," Nicks said of Smith. "But we didn't meet until I was playing in a bowl game my last year at UNC. He called me about two weeks after that game, and said he'd been watching me and that he wanted me to keep working hard. That meant the world to me."

But what does he think about Burress?

"He was the rare athlete," Nicks said. "His height. His eyes. The speed. He was just a really interesting guy to watch, and that's the biggest reason I always watched Giants games. I loved watching Eli throw him the deep post down the middle and the speed routes were great to watch. He'll always make something happen, and that's sort of my approach."

The Giants will continue to insist that Nicks doesn't need to become Plaxico Burress. At least not until December.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Wells
If there's such a thing as a rookie hot seat -- and I could argue either side -- Cardinals running back Chris Wells would seem to qualify. Arizona is counting on him to replace Edgerrin James and help the Cardinals develop a more consistent ground game.

Every high-profile rookie faces some level of pressure and expectation. Wells faces more than usual for the 31st player chosen in a draft class. He'll play and possibly start from the beginning. His numbers will be compared to what James and Tim Hightower managed last season.

NFL rules governing rookies and when they can report to camp will cost Wells nearly one month of on-site preparation time. The setback should be only a temporary one. He's a running back, after all, not a quarterback. The bigger challenge for Wells could be proving he can avoid the injuries that slowed him during an otherwise impressive career at Ohio State.

Rookies, Vets on the Hot Seat
ROOKIES ON THE HOT SEAT
• AFC: N | S | E | W
• NFC: N | S | E | W

VETS ON THE HOT SEAT
• AFC: N | S | E | W
• NFC: N | S | E | W

Wells isn't the only NFC West rookie facing high expectations in 2009, but the nature of his position will make his contributions easy to evaluate. Teams use multiple receivers most of the time. They generally use only one halfback at a time. That puts halfbacks in the spotlight every time they're on the field.

Honorable mention: James Laurinaitis, LB, Rams. The Rams released Pisa Tinoisamoa, leaving them thin at the position. Laurinaitis will presumably have to play right away.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

Pettigrew
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford has signed a record-setting contract. But if all goes well, Stafford won't step on the field in 2009. One prominent rookie who will, however, is tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

Lions coach Jim Schwartz noted last month that Pettigrew is an "NFL-ready blocker right now." That praise, combined with the relative rarity of drafting a tight end in the first round, puts Pettigrew at the top of the NFC North's list of rookies on the hot seat.

Teams don't often draft tight ends in the first round unless they are expected to be dynamic playmakers in the passing game. Pettigrew is said to have soft hands, but his receiving skills are not projected to match those of say, San Diego's Antonio Gates or Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez. Instead, the Lions are hoping Pettigrew's blocking skills can make a significant impact on their power running game.

That impact is going to be difficult for the average fan and media member to recognize and measure. A blocking tight end is a relatively anonymous and complementary role. To use a first-round pick on Pettigrew, the Lions must believe he can be a dominant blocker on the point of attack who can single-handedly add yards to running plays. (After all, at this point, the Lions will return the same pair of tackles -- Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus -- that contributed to last season's 30th-ranked running game.)

But unless Pettigrew makes some plays in the passing game as well, he's going to be an easy target for fans and media members to question.

Honorable mention: Percy Harvin. The Vikings receiver is as well known for off-field distractions as he is for his playmaking skills. And while it was by all accounts an unfortunate coincidence, Harvin already has missed the Vikings' rookie minicamp after collapsing in an airport with extreme dehydration.

Harvin will get no benefit of the doubt and little, if any, breathing room as he embarks on his NFL career. The Vikings have taken great care to publicize their willingness to avoid drafting players with character issues, and Harvin could embarrass them with one wrong move.

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

History forever will show Everette Brown was a second-round draft pick.

 Brown

History doesn't matter, in this case, because Brown is coming to the Carolina Panthers with first-round expectations. That's coming from the team, from Brown himself and from every fan who sees the San Francisco 49ers sitting there with Carolina's first-round pick in 2010.

That's what the Panthers gave up in a draft-day trade to get Brown in the second round (No. 42 overall) and that price tag is going to put more than second-round expectations on Brown. In other words, the defensive end out of Florida State had better be good right from the start.

Unlike Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman, who draws honorable mention for the NFC South's rookie on the hot seat, Brown doesn't have the luxury of possibly sitting for a season or half a season.

He was drafted to be the replacement for Julius Peppers and that transition is going to happen either this year or next. But no matter if the disgruntled Peppers leaves Carolina before or after this season, Brown will be expected to produce right away.

Coach John Fox always has built his entire team around his defensive line. But over time that defensive line has disintegrated into a collection of nothing more than role players aside from Peppers. Brown's the first big piece in the rebuilding of that line.

But the cost was steep. The cost was a first-round pick. Now Brown has to play like one.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

There's no question which AFC East rookie heads into 2009 most squarely on the hot seat.

New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez already is being promoted as the face of the franchise. He hasn't thrown an NFL pass. He hasn't even broken a practice huddle with the veterans.

 Sanchez

Yet he's one of New York's biggest celebrities, already drawing comparisons to Joe Namath as a leading man. Sanchez has been all over the back pages of the New York newspapers. He threw out the first pitch at a New York Mets game. He elicits applause when he walks down the street.

That's what happens when a team trades two draft picks and three players, moves up 12 spots and selects a star college quarterback who looks like he reported straight from central casting.

Add to that the fact the Jets drafted only two other players the whole weekend.

No other AFC East rookie has such expectations. The next-highest draft pick was Buffalo Bills defensive end Aaron Maybin, who will be given some leeway because he started only one season at Penn State and left early.

The Miami Dolphins took cornerback Vontae Davis with their first selection, but rookies rarely are projected to produce at that position. Pat White, the multitasking quarterback Miami took in the second round, has created significant buzz, but nobody's counting on a substantial impact.

Sanchez, meanwhile, is trying to box out veteran Kellen Clemens and assume control of a team with playoff aspirations.

Jets head coach Rex Ryan made it to the AFC Championship Game last season as Baltimore's defensive coordinator, and rookie Joe Flacco was the quarterback. That precedent would seem to eliminate NFL inexperience as an excuse if things go poorly.

Circumstances could give Sanchez more responsibilities than Flacco had.

The Jets don't have a true No. 1 receiver and didn't replace Laveranues Coles. Both of their running backs, Pro Bowlers Thomas Jones and Leon Washington, are involved in contract disputes.

Sanchez will have to find a way to make it work.

The media crucible that is New York will label Sanchez a demigod or a bum on a weekly basis.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

We have, can and will argue about whether a highly drafted 300-plus pound defensive tackle is going to change things for the Colts defense and whether he marks the start of any philosophical change for a unit operating under a new coach and coordinator.

Moala
But no matter where we come out on it, there is no doubt that Indianapolis thinks it's upgraded at defensive tackle and that second-round tackle Fili Moala may just be the AFC South's rookie on the hot seat.

If he can garner the attention of multiple blockers and make running up the middle against the Colts tougher, his trickle-down effect could be as big as any first-year player in the division even if it's not as apparent as Donald Brown's rushing yards or the catches for Kenny Britt in Tennessee.

The Colts haven't revamped at linebacker, but if Moala and fourth-round interior lineman Terrance Taylor upgrade the Colts' interior defense, life could get a lot easier for players like Philip Wheeler, Gary Brackett and Clint Session, smaller linebackers whose paths to success will be built around being freed up and using their quickness.

Indy did fine last season with what it had. But Moala can help make things easier for a lot of people. And he warranted the 56th pick in the draft by Bill Polian, who's hardly made a habit of drafting interior linemen, better yet with his most valuable picks.

I acknowledge this is an easy category to plug virtually any draft pick into, especially a first-rounder. They all come into the league with expectations they will alter a position group. We could make the case for 14 or 15 different guys.

In my thinking, Houston linebacker Brian Cushing qualifies as the first runner-up. He should start from the outset and is expected to help fortify a front seven that's been an issue as the Texans have been unable to get over the 8-8 hump. If he doesn't upgrade the linebacking corps from opening day, we'll be asking a lot of questions about why not.

For the Jaguars, I expect good things quickly from Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, but if the veteran offensive linemen are healthy and free-gent addition Tra Thomas' transition is smooth, the top two picks don't have to be big factors right from the start. The hot seat guys are third-rounder Terrance Knighton, a defensive tackle the team needs to make a strong showing to help re-establish its defensive personality, and Derek Cox, the third-round defensive back the team traded next year's second-rounder to acquire when many other teams had him rated much lower.

For the Titans, who had no overwhelming draft class need, it's first-round receiver Britt. The Titans are deep and lost only two starters, and have veterans who should be able to help fill the Albert Haynesworth void. In tandem with free-agent addition Nate Washington, Britt is expected to help make the Titans a more explosive team that can find a big pass plays to go with a solid run game. But he doesn't have to be effective immediately for the Titans to be successful.

Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson

Fair or not, there is not a rookie in the AFC West who will have more pressure on him in 2009 than Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. Perhaps other than Matthew Stafford in Detroit or Mark Sanchez in New York, Heyward-Bey is facing the most pressure of any player entering the league.

 Heyward-Bey

Heyward-Bey seems like a good guy and he certainly didn't ask to be put in this pressure situation. Had he been drafted later in the first round (where he was projected to be taken), by a team such as Philadelphia and Minnesota, there wouldn't be much immediate pressure on the speedy Heyward-Bey.

But because he went at No. 7 and, especially because he was drafted higher than Michael Crabtree (the consensus top receiver available in the draft), Heyward-Bey is going to have a lot to prove right away as he begins his career.

Also, Oakland needs him to come through as a rookie. The Raiders are unproven at receiver and they need an impact player. Quarterback JaMarcus Russell hasn't had a reliable receiver to thrown to in his short Oakland stay. Oakland believes Heyward-Bey will be a star. With Crabtree across the Bay Area in San Francisco, Heyward-Bey will be watched closely every week.

He had a shaky start to his Oakland career during the weekend minicamp. He dropped three passes on three straight plays on Saturday after having a decent session Friday.

The honorable mention pressured rookie is Oakland second-round pick Mike Mitchell. The hard-hitting Mitchell was taken at No. 47 out of Ohio University. Mitchell, who wasn't invited to the NFL combine in February, wasn't on the draft board of four teams I spoke to. But the Raiders love him. He has to prove them right.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

A case can be made that no NFL rookie has had more bad publicity the past several months than Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Andre Smith.

 Smith

It started with the suspension for Alabama's bowl game. It continued when Smith unexpectedly left February's NFL combine. Then his private workout was considered average at best by scouts and onlookers. Smith also fired his agent once and reportedly is in the middle of more agent drama.

But through all the recent turmoil and bad choices, Smith's talent on the field made him the sixth overall pick by Cincinnati. Drafting that high, the Bengals will invest approximately $50 million in Smith, whose main job is to protect franchise quarterback Carson Palmer from another season-ending injury.

Is Smith worth the risk? The Bengals think so. They recently cut starting left tackle Levi Jones, which all but assures Smith will start right away.

If Smith plays well this year, people will quickly forget the recent missteps. But if Smith struggles or doesn't pan out, many will wonder why the Bengals ignored some of the early red flags during the draft process.

Honorable mention: The Cleveland Browns held the fifth overall pick, and instead of making a big splash, they traded down three times to take University of California center Alex Mack. By most accounts, Mack was the best center in the draft. But the fact that Cleveland could've taken more highly touted players at the top of the draft board certainly puts pressure on Mack to perform. The New York Jets traded places with the Browns and took USC quarterback Mark Sanchez. If Sanchez proves to be a quality franchise quarterback, something Cleveland hasn't had since Bernie Kosar, the Browns could hear about this deal down the road.

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