Commentary

Which offensive rookies will soar?

Mailbag: Wideouts appear to have the early edge; don't bank on Bills' Manuel

Originally Published: April 29, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The best question I heard after last week's NFL draft was this: "So who has a chance to be the offensive rookie of the year?"

We all know the draft lacked sizzle at the skill positions. It was an off year for quarterbacks. Only three went in the first three rounds and only one in the first. No running back went in the first round, while only three receivers and one tight end were picked.

I'd put my early money on Tavon Austin, wide receiver of the St. Louis Rams. He could add a Percy Harvin-type impact to the Rams' offense. Even though Austin is 5-foot-8, Sam Bradford is a tall enough quarterback to spot him as he hits his routes.

My second vote goes to Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The Texans were desperate to find a receiver they could put on the other side of Andre Johnson. Robert Woods of the Buffalo Bills could be third. The Bills have Steve Johnson and little else at receiver. That should allow Woods to be on the field a lot.

[+] EnlargeRobert Woods
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIRobert Woods should have a chance to make an immediate impact in Buffalo.

I'm not trying to diminish the impact of two former University of Tennessee wide receivers -- Cordarrelle Patterson of the Minnesota Vikings and Justin Hunter of the Tennessee Titans -- but it's important to understand their roles. Patterson will need a little time to learn the West Coast offense. Hunter will enter camp as the Titans' third or fourth receiver.

Expect very little from the quarterbacks. The Bills' EJ Manuel is a project. The Jets' Geno Smith could press for playing time, but if he starts, there might not be enough good offensive players alongside for him to succeed.

How the halfbacks will work out is anyone's guess. Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers has a clear path to the starting job, so he might have the best chance. Eddie Lacy of the Packers might be productive if he's healthy. I also like the prospects of Montee Ball of the Denver Broncos.

One of the weird parts of the draft was what happened at tight end. The top four tight ends selected have to play behind Jermaine Gresham, Brent Celek, Jason Witten and Vernon Davis. Tyler Eifert went in the first round to the Bengals, but he's only a fifth option at best. The next three tight ends were Zach Ertz (Philadelphia), Gavin Escobar (Dallas) and Vance McDonald (San Francisco)

From the inbox

Q: Do you think part of the reason the quarterbacks in this year's draft fell is because they aren't ready to start day one and teams aren't as patient in this era to let players sit a year or two and develop?

Mike in San Diego

A: It's a combination of two things. The quarterbacks probably aren't ready to start as rookies. The other reason is they may not be that good. The San Francisco 49ers knew Colin Kaepernick wasn't going to be ready as a rookie. Still, they took him in the second round with the idea they could develop him in a reasonably quick fashion. To your point, the cycle for developing quarterbacks is difficult. Jim Harbaugh had the luxury of developing Kaepernick because Harabaugh had enough leverage coming out of Stanford to get a five-year contact. Most first-time head coaches don't have that kind of leverage. They all are on four-year contracts. If you invest a first- or second-round choice in a quarterback and that quarterback isn't a proven starter by the second year, the coach on the four-year contract is on the hot seat in Year 3.

Q: How long will the Steelers be trapped in salary-cap purgatory? I'm growing tired of the strategy of extending key players and pushing cap charges into the future.

Sam in Seattle

A: The Steelers are on the verge of getting out of cap hell. They will probably end the 2013 season $10-12 million over the cap instead of the $20-30 million they have endured the past several years. One adjustment on Ben Roethlisberger's contract will eat up almost $10 million of that overage. It might be a little tight in 2014, but after that, they should be fine. The worst is over.

Q: It was obviously a solid draft for my Vikings, but I am curious. Why would the Vikings be interested in a middle linebacker like Manti Te'o? He's slow and would lag on Cover 2 drop-backs.

Steve in Richfield, Minn.

A: The Vikings like what Te'o brings as a middle linebacker, but they had other priorities in the first round. First, they needed a defensive tackle. When Sharrif Floyd fell to them, they had to take him. The cornerbacks fell right for them, so they took Xavier Rhodes. The Cordarrelle Patterson trade was dumb luck. General manager Rick Spielman was fulfilling media obligations when someone got ahold of him and said the Patriots were willing to give up their first-round pick. The Vikings wanted an explosive receiver, so Spielman scrambled to make the trade. That left them without a chance to take Te'o. In fact, I would venture to say the Vikings might have been the hottest on him.

Q: The last time the Cowboys played the AFC West, they had the Chiefs on the road and the Raiders at home. Why are they playing the Chiefs on the road and the Raiders at home again this year? Shouldn't they have alternated sites?

Darin in Nashville, Tenn.

A: Great question. The rotation of that part of the schedule was determined a couple of years ago. I don't have the full answer to this, but my guess is this particular rotation was done before the optimal scheduling program was put in place. That system tries to fix problems like that. That might be a priority for the next set of rotations. Let's see if they get that fixed.

Q: Why do the West Coast teams EVER have to play in the 10:00 a.m. PST start time? None of the NFL's other teams have to start before 1 p.m. on their body clocks. It seems that when a West Coast team travels east, that game should be in the 4:30 p.m. slot.

Josh in Tacoma, Wash.

A: I brought up that topic last week. I think it is an issue. It would be unfair for all East Coast teams to be mandated to have 4:30 p.m. starts when they host West Coast teams. The home crowd likes the 1 p.m. starts, so the league should work to strike a balance here.

Q: I have yet to read a national beat writer who doesn't think the Denver Broncos are a good candidate to represent the AFC in the next Super Bowl. As a fan from before the Orange Crush days, I was raised to expect the worst and be wary of the best. What do you think?

Brad in Westminster, Colo.

A: The Broncos have a good defense, Peyton Manning, a great coach in John Fox and John Elway as the boss. Think Super Bowl and pray they don't let Jacoby Jones get behind the safety.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer