A year ago, when the NFL was slogging through its labor meltdown, there was plenty of hand-wringing that rookies wouldn't be as prepared to play as in seasons past. It was a reasonable assumption they would be shortchanged by a compressed off-season and frantically rushed training camps.
Instead, the 2011 rookie class produced several spectacular players, among them Carolina's Cam Newton, Denver's Von Miller, Cincinnati's A.J. Green and Andy Dalton, Arizona's Patrick Peterson, San Francisco's Aldon Smith and many more.
"I think what NFL coaches did last year at every position is to simplify things for the rookies, because there was no time to learn," said Mike Mayock, draft expert for NFL Network. "The lesson we've learned as football people is maybe we should keep things more simple for these rookies, make them feel more comfortable, and put them in positions to succeed."
The first step toward that begins with the NFL draft this week, starting Thursday night at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
How the opening round could go:
1. COLTS — QB Andrew Luck, Stanford: Let's hope Luck doesn't telegraph passes the way the Colts have in this draft. They've already informed him that he's their top choice.
2. REDSKINS — QB Robert Griffin III, Baylor: Just about every time quarterbacks are taken 1-2 in the draft, one player pans out and the other doesn't. Maybe that trend will be bucked this year.
3. VIKINGS — T Matt Kalil, USC: The sturdy Kalil is a solid choice in a draft light on talented tackles. If the Vikings go another direction — and they don't trade down — look for them to take Louisiana State corner Morris Claiborne.
4. BROWNS — RB Trent Richardson, Alabama: The Browns need to be able to pound the ball in the AFC North. They also need a quarterback, and Mike Holmgren really likes Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill.
5. BUCCANEERS — CB Morris Claiborne, LSU: The Buccaneers badly need help at corner in a division featuring quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Newton. But if Richardson slips past Cleveland, Tampa Bay might take a running back.
6. RAMS — WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State: Putting Sam Bradford in position to succeed means getting him some quality receiving targets. The Rams scored a league-worst 193 points last season. By comparison, Green Bay scored an NFL-high 560.
7. JAGUARS — DE/OLB Melvin Ingram, South Carolina: The Jaguars need to ramp up their pass pressure, and Ingram can help achieve that. He's a safer bet than North Carolina's Quinton Coples. But if Blackmon's still on the board, Jacksonville will take him.
8. DOLPHINS — QB Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M: If Tannehill gets past the Browns, and another team doesn't trade up to take him, he could well wind up in South Florida. With Brandon Marshall gone, a No. 1 receiver would be nice too, but Blackmon isn't likely to be there.
9. PANTHERS — DL Fletcher Cox, Mississippi State: Cox can rush the passer from the edge and play inside. That could be a big boost for a team that last season ranked 24th against the run and 25th against the pass.
10. BILLS — S Mark Barron, Alabama: Here's where things could get very interesting. A lot of teams want Barron, who some evaluators have compared to Ronnie Lott. Will the Bills trade down with San Diego or Detroit, both of whom would love to land Barron?
11. CHIEFS — CB Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina: The Chiefs need help on the defensive line, too, but in a division that already has Philip Rivers and just added Peyton Manning, they want a corner who has the potential to be elite.
12. SEAHAWKS — LB Luke Kuechly, Boston College: The Seahawks didn't re-sign their middle linebacker, and Kuechly could step right in and be a Day 1 starter. Don't count them out of the Barron derby, either, even though they're not desperate for help in the secondary.
13. CARDINALS — G David DeCastro, Stanford: DeCastro might not be ideal physically, but scouts have fallen in love with his toughness and determination. He could set the attitude of an entire offensive line.
14. COWBOYS — DT Michael Brockers, LSU: Like Cox, Brockers can play inside or outside on the line, a big plus for a defense that needs to ratchet up its pass pressure. Dallas would love it if Barron were still on the board.
15. EAGLES — DE Quinton Coples, North Carolina: Coples is a physical specimen who doesn't play hard all the time. He's what scouts call a boom/bust prospect. With the best defensive tackles off the board, Philadelphia could look edge rusher.
16. JETS — DT Dontari Poe, Memphis: Despite his spectacular combine, Poe hasn't wowed teams with his game tapes. Maybe Rex Ryan can bring out this man-mountain's inner Ndamukong. This pick could also be Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd.