- Adam Schefter, NFL
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One of the most startling aspects of the 2011 season is how big an impact the rookies at the top of the 2011 draft have made. There might never have been another season in which the draft's top seven picks contributed so much so early.
What these rookies have done is not surprising; what is surprising is that it's happened so soon, especially after a lockout.
Take a look at the top seven picks and their midseason résumés. It already is bidding to become one of the great draft classes in NFL history.
1. Cam Newton, Panthers: Facing questions and pressure, Newton has breathed hope into what was a moribund franchise. Newton has thrown for 11 touchdowns and run for seven. His 18 touchdowns are two more than the 16 offensive touchdowns the Panthers had all last season.
3. Marcell Dareus, Bills: A force at tackle or end for the Bills, Dareus will be a building block for a long time.
6. Julio Jones, Falcons: At Indianapolis last Sunday, Jones became the first rookie since at least the 1970 NFL/AFL merger to have TD catches of 80-plus yards and 50-plus yards in a game.
7. Aldon Smith, 49ers: Like Miller, Smith also has 6.5 sacks, even while playing a fewer number of plays.
Michigan had its Fab Five, and the NFL has its Super Seven. It's a seven that, in quantity and quality, rivals the top seven in any draft.
But each of the top seven picks in this past draft has been a hit. Each one. No other draft has done that. There's still a long time for any of these top seven picks to prove he is a Hall of Fame talent. But there's no denying that no other rookies have impacted the first half of their first season the way these super seven have.
On to this week's 10 Spot:
1. Culpepper's lasting legacy: Even though Daunte Culpepper has not played in the NFL in two years, his mark on the game is still being felt. Culpepper affected the fate of the franchises in Minnesota, Miami, New Orleans and Green Bay as much as almost any player who has worn those teams' uniforms.
Were it not for the success Culpepper enjoyed in 2004, Minnesota would have been more inclined to use one of its two first-round picks in the 2005 draft on a quarterback. But Culpepper was coming off a 2004 season in which he threw for 4,717 yards and 39 touchdowns. Minnesota thought it was set at quarterback. So it used the seventh overall pick in 2005 on South Carolina wide receiver Troy Williamson. It used the 18th overall pick on Wisconsin defensive end Erasmus James. And then, with the 24th overall pick, the Green Bay Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers.
The very next offseason, after Culpepper struggled at the start of the 2005 season and then tore up his knee on Oct. 30, the Dolphins traded a second-round pick to Minnesota for the then-disgruntled Culpepper rather than signing free-agent quarterback Drew Brees, who wanted to land in Miami. And so, with Culpepper landing in Miami, Brees had no choice but to go to New Orleans.
Rodgers and Brees, the men whose fates are tied to Culpepper's, have combined to win the past two Super Bowls. Their success is an ongoing story, a reminder of how timing really is everything and why teams are wise to draft the proverbial best player available. Now Rodgers has the Packers unbeaten. Their march to perfection -- going strong enough to make Mercury Morris and the 1972 Dolphins uneasy -- is under way. And Rodgers is leading the Packers into Monday night's game against a Minnesota organization that bypassed him twice in the draft.
Brees has the Saints in first place in the NFC South. He is leading the Saints into Sunday's NFC South showdown against the second-place Atlanta Falcons. And Culpepper, who worked out for the San Francisco 49ers in August, is out of football while Minnesota and Miami still are trying to make up for multiple mistakes. It is a different form of fantasy football, detailing NFL hypotheticals that could have but didn't happen. But it also is a glimpse of how much one quarterback helped change the way the league is viewed today.
2. Don't forget about Dalton: And here's what makes the Class of 2011 even better: As good as Newton has been this season, an argument can be made that Bengals second-round pick Andy Dalton has been more valuable. For starters, Newton and the Panthers are 2-6, whereas Dalton and the Bengals are 6-2 -- with a big game at home Sunday versus the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Dalton's completion percentage is 61.5, slightly higher than Newton's 60.6. Dalton has thrown 12 touchdown passes and seven interceptions, whereas Newton has thrown for 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Newton has emerged as a superstar from the get-go, accomplishing feats few thought he could. But Dalton has been nearly his equal and, some around the league have argued, every bit as impressive. The Panthers clearly hit paydirt with Newton. But it's starting to look as if the Bengals got the steal of the 2011 draft, picking a player who has led them to five straight wins and their longest win streak since 1988, the same season Cincinnati advanced to Super Bowl XXIII.
3. One rare returner: With Arizona overlooked and often forgotten, it's worth providing some context as to what rookie cornerback/punt returner Patrick Peterson has accomplished this season. He is averaging 21.8 yards on his 19 punt returns. At that pace, he could challenge the NFL's season record for punt return average set by Herb Rich with Baltimore in 1950, when he averaged 23 yards on his 12 punt returns.
But Peterson already is the first player in NFL history with three punt-return touchdowns in his first eight games. One more would tie Peterson with Jack Christiansen, Devin Hester and Rick Upchurch for most punt returns for a touchdown in a season.
With Peterson, it's in the genes. He recently uncovered that he is distant cousins with Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss. There are few players who can field punts as cleanly and effortlessly as Moss. Peterson is one.
4. Ponder shining on third down: Yet another rookie quarterback who has shined is Minnesota's Christian Ponder, who kept the Vikings competitive against Green Bay and then helped them beat Newton's Panthers. Where Ponder has made the biggest difference -- and what he'll have to continue Monday night to give Minnesota a chance against Green Bay -- is converting on third down.
With Donovan McNabb in the lineup, the Vikings converted only four of 17 third-down opportunities in six games. Under Ponder, Minnesota's offense has converted 10 of 16 third-down opportunities. So far, Ponder has been sustaining and extending drives. Minnesota needs more of the same Monday night.
5. Giant vindication: Not long ago, Giants general manager Jerry Reese and coach Tom Coughlin were being roundly criticized for letting wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss leave during free agency. Now, not so much.
Smith left for Philadelphia, where he has caught five passes for 63 yards and no touchdowns this season. One of his replacements, Victor Cruz, has caught 34 passes for 588 yards and four touchdowns and become one of the Giants' top playmakers.
Boss left for Oakland, where he has caught eight passes for 160 yards and one touchdown. His replacement, Jake Ballard, has caught 23 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns, including a game-saving and perhaps season-turning catch against the Patriots in Week 9. Ballard is averaging 17.2 yards per reception, the highest in the NFL among tight ends who have at least 20 receptions.
The moral is, teams usually know the talent at the back end of their rosters. While fans want name recognition, sometimes teams already have recognized there is capable talent ready to step in. Reese and Coughlin knew.
6. Niners rolling: If the 49ers' commanding position in the NFC West feels familiar, it should. They are the first team to have a five-game division lead through nine weeks of the season since the 1990 49ers, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Now, the back half of the 49ers' schedule is a bit like a Dickens novel -- it's the tale of two types of cities. San Francisco plays three non-divisional opponents that each have six wins -- the 6-2 Giants on Sunday, the 6-2 Ravens and the 6-3 Steelers. But the 49ers' other five games are against NFC West opponents that have a combined five wins. In other words, the 49ers will win the NFC West and the drama is whether they can lock up one of the first-round playoff byes.
7. Texans endure: Houston has taken a 1½-game lead in the AFC South and is threatening to win its first division title. It's hard to see how it won't do it now. But what this Houston teams has proved so far is that it can lose some key players and still keep winning. It lost linebacker Mario Williams to a season-ending injury in October, only to see rookie second-round pick Brooks Reed register sacks in each of Houston's past three games, including two against Cleveland. It lost running back Arian Foster for three games, only to see backup Ben Tate rack up so many yards that he is fourth in the AFC in rushing yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.
The Texans also have been without wide receiver Andre Johnson for the past five games and have won the last three of them. Once Johnson returns, probably after the Nov. 20 bye for the Nov. 27 game at Jacksonville, the Texans will be well positioned to make their postseason push -- and procure a first-round bye.
8. Colts on the clock: It's almost time for the words we could be hearing from Jan. 1 through April 26, 2012: The Indianapolis Colts are on the clock. Indianapolis has been outscored this season by a preposterous 155 points; the next closest team is the Rams, who have been outscored by 111 points. The Colts have lost nine straight games, their longest losing streak since losing 11 in a row in 1996-97.
If the Colts cannot beat the Jaguars at home Sunday, it's difficult to find a game on their schedule they will win. After Sunday, the Colts have their bye before returning to host Carolina, play at New England and at Baltimore, come home to play Tennessee and Houston, and then finish the season at Jacksonville. So if the Colts can't beat the Jaguars at home Sunday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could be closer to saying that phrase we might be hearing for the next four months.
9. Here we go again: From the moment Peyton Hillis suffered his first training camp injury, Twitter exploded with references to the Madden Curse. As Hillis' problems have mounted, so have the references to the supposed curse. Now Hillis' season is sunk, his value has taken a hit, and the notion of the curse has been reinforced. "If you want to blame Madden Football, blame Madden Football," said Sandy Sandoval, EA Sports' senior director of athlete relations. "It is what it is." What it is, is glaring.
Now, the Browns would like to bring back Hillis at some point this season, but nobody expects him to return to Cleveland after this season. So what would be a logical landing spot for Hillis? How about Dallas, where Cowboys owner Jerry Jones likes Arkansas players. Jones could match Hillis with his former Arkansas teammate Felix Jones and, with DeMarco Murray, give the Cowboys one of the deepest and most talented backfields in the league. Hillis won't be returning to Cleveland or joining his former Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels in St. Louis. Aside from those places, Dallas makes as much sense as any other potential landing spot.
10. Costly injury: As Raiders running back Darren McFadden tries to return from a sprained foot, his injury potentially has cost him millions. McFadden has a $1.5 million escalator in his contract if he rushes for 1,400 yards this season and a $4 million escalator if he rushes for 1,600 yards, according to a league source.
But after missing Thursday night's game against San Diego, McFadden now has missed two straight and the better part of three games with this injury, which has been a major setback in trying to earn that extra money. With 614 rushing yards, McFadden is on pace to finish this season with just under 1,100 rushing yards, which is under the threshold that he needs for his bonuses. So at a time when our economy is struggling, McFadden has financial pressures of a different kind.
The Schef's specialties
• Game of the week: Giants at 49ers: A matchup between two of football's hottest teams that harkens to some of the great matchups in the 1980s and 1990s.
• Player of the week: Bills running back Fred Jackson -- Cowboys Stadium was built over the area where Jackson grew up; Jackson will be primed to perform not in his hometown, but on his hometown.
• Upset of the week: Buccaneers over Texans -- Houston might be the most balanced team in the AFC. But Tampa Bay is playing for its playoff life.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.
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