The National Football League Draft is one of the most highly anticipated events on the sporting calendar as the 32 NFL franchises select the best young American Football players from the collegiate leagues to replenish their ranks. Predictably, a large portion of players who go on to become stars in the NFL are selected in the first round, where selections can make or break teams for years to come.
Names such as Ryan Leaf, Tony Mandarich and JaMarcus Russell should serve as cautionary tales to NFL General Managers, but the sheer amount of quality available in the Draft arguably makes it easier to hit, rather than miss, on a player in the first round.
On the flip side, for every Leaf or Russell, there is a Tom Brady or Kurt Warner, players who fall to the later rounds of the Draft or even fail to get drafted at all, but who go on to have stellar careers within the NFL.
With that in mind, we have examined which current NFL rookies (non-first and second rounders) have the potential to stand in the lofty heights created by the likes of Brady and Warner.
1) Russell Wilson, QB, Seattle Seahawks.
Wilson was selected in the third round by the Seahawks, presumably to learn from the duo vying for the starting jersey, Matt Flynn and Tavaris Jackson. Not even the most optimistic of Seahawks′ fans would have predicted that their young rookie would oust the highly paid acquisition that was Flynn, but he did just that.
Wilson has thrown for 2,051 yards and 17 touchdowns so far this season, despite playing behind an inexperienced offensive line and without an elite receiving corps. With a few decent additions to Seattle over the coming years, Wilson could, and perhaps should, develop into an elite quarterback.
2) Alfred Morris, RB, Washington Redskins.
Understandably, headlines were focused on another Redskins pick at the start of the season, a certain Robert Griffin III but fast forward a few months and, well, they′re still focused on RG3, but running back Morris is also earning some time in the spotlight.
Selected in the sixth round, Morris has perhaps offered more value for money than any other rookie currently in the NFL. Morris has 982 rushing yards (fifth in the NFL), with an average of 4.7 yards-per-carry, further proving that excellent running back prospects can be found towards the end of the draft (honorable mentions also to Daryl Richardson and Bryce Brown).
3) Vontaze Burfict, LB, Cincinnati Bengals.
The former Arizona State University player went undrafted this year, despite entering the 2011 NCAA season as one of the most highly rated prospects in the country. A poor combine workout, personality concerns and testing positive for marijuana all ensured that Burfict slipped off of most teams′ radars.
He has already collected 76 combined tackles this season and would perhaps have more if he had not been moved from inside to outside linebacker. More importantly, Burfict is repaying the faith shown in him by Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis by training hard, playing well and avoiding any off-field controversies. Providing he can continue in this vein, we could well be witnessing the first few steps of the next Ray Lewis.
4) Alfonzo Dennard, CB, New England Patriots.
There was little fanfare in New England when Dennard was selected in the seventh round. Fans were far more focused on defensive counterparts Chandler Jones and Don′t′a Hightower, both of whom were selected in the first round, whilst the secondary was also strengthened in the second and sixth rounds with the acquisitions of Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner. Although it was safe to say Dennard flew in under the radar, there is nothing under the radar about his play since.
Dennard has three interceptions — one of which was returned for an 87-yard touchdown — in just seven games and already looks at home in the Patriot′s defense. His form has also allowed for Devin McCourty to move back to safety, with a potentially dominant secondary forming among the young defensive backs for New England.
5) Justin Tucker, K, Baltimore Ravens.
The Ravens were faced with a conundrum at the beginning of the season: stick with veteran kicker Billy Cundiff or roll the dice on the undrafted Justin Tucker? Tucker eventually won the battle in preseason and neither Tucker nor the Ravens have looked back since.
The kicker has missed just two of his field goal attempts, has 100 percent success rate on extra point attempts and has broken the franchise record with a 56-yard field goal. Although Baltimore was criticized by some for going with the rookie at the start of the season, they have proved their critics wrong as Tucker has arguably outshone all the kickers drafted above him, with perhaps the exception of Greg Zuerlein.
Image Courtesy : Seattle Seahawks