It once was easy to see the wisdom in the philosophy, made famous by George Allen, that rookies had no place in the starting lineup of an NFL team.
Allen, a Pro Football Hall of Fame coach, was fond of saying, "The future is now." He'd back up those words by trading away draft picks and loading his roster with veteran players; his Washington Redskins earned the nickname "The Over-the-Hall Gang."
Marv Levy, an Allen disciple and another coach whose bronze bust sits in Canton, Ohio, would tell anyone willing to listen that "the best rookies are last year's rookies."
That still might be the case, but the approach no longer is practical.
The forces of the salary cap and unrestricted free agency don't allow teams to retain players long enough to delay their contribution. With so much roster turnover, clubs -- especially those that have struggled -- must rely on rookies to start and/or make a significant impact. This underscores the importance of the work they've done through offseason workouts (the last of which are this week) and the work they'll do in training camp and the preseason.
Some teams are going to be more reliant on first-year players than others.
Here's a top five list of clubs whose seasons could very well hinge on the performance of their choices in this year's draft:
1. Buffalo Bills: You can talk all you want about Terrell Owens (and the conversation is endless), but he's not the make-or-break factor in the Bills' 2009 season. The make-or-break factor is the performance of the Bills' offensive line. And the line's success is largely going to depend on the play of rookie guards Eric Wood (a first-round pick) and Andy Levitre (a second-rounder). Wood and Levitre draw high praise for being exceptionally tough and intelligent, qualities the Bills expect to help offset their inexperience.
Buffalo's defense desperately needs to improve its pass rush, and is counting on first-round choice Aaron Maybin to make a major difference as an end who primarily enters games in obvious passing situations. The 6-foot-4 Maybin is exceptionally quick, but his smallish frame (he's listed at 250 pounds, but looks lighter) raises questions about whether he can hold his own against the behemoth offensive tackles he will consistently face in the NFL.
2. Denver Broncos: Josh McDaniels' arrival and Jay Cutler's departure have consumed all of the discussion about the Broncos' fortunes this season. Yet so much of what this team does or doesn't do is likely to be influenced by the production it gets from a pair of first-round draft picks, running back Knowshon Moreno and end/outside linebacker Robert Ayers.
The Broncos have a crowded backfield, but they are expecting Moreno to be the primary ball-carrier. He has more game-changing ability than the other backs, and will need to display it on a team undergoing an offensive overhaul with new quarterback Kyle Orton. Ayers looks to have the ability to be a significant force in the Broncos' conversion from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense. His athleticism should provide the versatility that new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan needs to implement his scheme successfully.
3. Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks have defensive-minded Jim Mora running the show in place of Mike Holmgren, an offensive mastermind. They hope Mora's defensive background will go a long way toward helping improve the NFL's 30th-ranked unit. That improvement is unlikely to happen without a big season from first-round draft pick Aaron Curry. He not only needs to fill the void at linebacker created by the trade of Julian Peterson to Detroit, but he must live up to his billing as arguably the most talented overall player in the draft. Curry figures to be strong at the point of attack in Seattle's 4-3 scheme. He has superb pass-coverage skills and his considerable athleticism should allow him to quickly develop into an effective pass-rusher.
4. Cincinnati Bengals: Like the Bills, the Bengals have a certain wide receiver who commands a great deal of attention and is presumed to hold the key to the team's fortunes. But Chad Ochocinco is a smaller part of the equation than the Bengals' offensive line. And the line absolutely needs first-round choice Andre Smith to be ready to step in at offensive tackle. Carson Palmer has to have have sufficient time to make the most of Ochocinco, newcomer Laveranues Coles and other receivers.
Smith is dogged by questions about his immaturity and there is speculation that he might not be under contract soon enough to participate fully in training camp, which figures to be an absolute must given the steep learning curve for an NFL offensive tackle. The Bengals' defense needs a big year from second-rounder Rey Maualuga, a big-hitting linebacker who should help against the run.
5. San Francisco 49ers: First, they have to find a quarterback. But regardless of whether Alex Smith or Shaun Hill fills the spot, the 49ers absolutely have to find a go-to target, and given the other possibilities -- Josh Morgan and Isaac Bruce -- it is hard to imagine anyone besides first-rounder Michael Crabtree in that role.
Although coach Mike Singletary would love to have a power-oriented scheme that leans heavily on the running of Frank Gore (with relief from third-round pick Glen Coffee), the Niners made Crabtree the 10th overall pick because they saw him as the game-changer their offense didn't have. They also are counting on him to help their unaccomplished candidates to start at quarterback deliver more than they could without him.