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For some promising 2011 rookies, the best is yet to come

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Three rookies -- Denver's Von Miller, Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Cincinnati's A.J. Green -- were named to the Pro Bowl. As my NFL.com colleague Bucky Brooks pointed out Tuesday, they are just part of a draft class that could be the best the NFL has ever seen.

That is true. And while there were other high-profile rookies who were worthy of Pro Bowl honors -- Cam Newton and Aldon Smith come to mind -- there are even more rookies who may be a notch below that level now, but have shown enough talent to believe they will be capable of blossoming into Pro Bowl players down the road.

When it comes to first-round picks that have a chance to make the Pro Bowl in due time, a few come quickly to mind:

Adrian Clayborn, LB, Buccaneers
Marcell Dareus, DT, Bills
Julio Jones, WR, Falcons
Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Redskins
Mike Pouncey, C, Dolphins
Nate Solder, OT, Patriots
Tyron Smith, OT, Cowboys
J.J. Watt, DE, Texans

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, taken in the second round, also qualifies as a high-profile rookie with a bright future, and there are many other promising rookies who were taken after the first round. These are not only key players for years to come, but also they help their respective teams in another way: scouting. All teams should look at the draft picks that performed at a higher level than expected and study them carefully: What are the characteristics of these players that made them perform better than expected? Figure that out, and teams can continue to find these draft gems down the road.

In the meantime, here are some under-the-radar rookies who could find their names on Pro Bowl rosters in the future:

Sam Acho, LB, Cardinals: A fourth-round pick who played defensive end in college and has been playing lights out at linebacker for Arizona.

Randall Cobb, WR/KR, Packers: He's made his mark as a rookie in the return game, but he reminds me a great deal of Pro Bowl teammate Greg Jennings. I do think, down the line, he'll be an excellent replacement for Green Bay's veteran wideouts.

Orlando Franklin, RT, Broncos: A second-rounder who has played beyond expectations, helping Denver's powerful ground attack.

Marcus Gilbert, RT, Steelers: The second-round pick has been pressed into service due to Pittsburgh's offensive line injuries, and he's looked good.

Roy Helu, RB, Redskins: Part of his success might be due to Washington's offensive system, but the fourth-round choice has played well.

Jason Kelce, C, Eagles: A sixth-round pick from Cincinnati, Kelce was pressed into action due to injuries and he's really played well.

Colin McCarthy, LB, Titans: This fourth-round pick has shown a knack for taking on blockers and making plays.

DeMarco Murray, RB, Cowboys: If he stays healthy, he's shown he has a chance to be a top-notch NFL running back.

Brooks Reed, LB, Texans: The second-round pick has blossomed into a really good pass rusher.

Jabaal Sheard, DE, Browns: Second-round pick has been a good 4-3 end from the strong side.

Torrey Smith, WR, Ravens: He'll be a star in this league. He just needs to learn how to catch the ball better, which is why he dropped into the second round in the first place.

Stefen Wisniewski, G, Raiders: Though he was drafted in the second round, Wisniewski was Oakland's first pick last April. I thought he played well enough to be a Pro Bowler this season.

Titus Young, WR, Lions: The second-rounder has come on like gangbusters. He has the speed and quickness desired in a top receiver.

NFL odysseys

» Congratulations to Chargers TE Antonio Gates on becoming San Diego's all-time leader in receptions (587). It was appropriate that he reached this milestone playing against the Lions in Detroit, where Gates was a high school football and basketball star.

» Rams RB Steven Jackson became the seventh player in NFL history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in seven straight seasons. He joins an impressive list -- Eric Dickerson, Curtis Martin, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Thurman Thomas, LaDainian Tomlinson -- and it's even more impressive when you consider the Rams have won just 29 games over those seven seasons.

» For a team that has already set a franchise record with 14 wins and has a chance to finish the season 15-1 and possibly repeat as Super Bowl champs, here's an amazing stat: The Packers have allowed more yards from scrimmage this season than they've gained.

» With no interconference games this weekend, the NFC has clinched the season series vs. AFC teams (33-31). It's the first time the NFC has come out on top vs. the AFC since 1995.

» For the eighth consecutive season, at least one team has gone from last to first. The Texans have already done it, and the Broncos can join them with a win Sunday.

» The Saints need 219 yards of offense Sunday vs. Carolina to set a new NFL record for most yards in a season. The 2000 St. Louis Rams currently hold the mark with 7,075 yards.

Game of the week:
Cowboys at Giants

Winner's in the playoffs and loser goes home. It doesn't get much bigger than that in Week 17. This will be the 100th game between these NFC East rivals, and it's not the first time they are meeting in the regular-season finale with playoffs on the line. Dallas has 16-game edge in the regular season, while the Giants won the only playoff game between these two.

The Cowboys and Giants look pretty similar statistically. Dallas has a slight edge on defense -- the Giants rank 28th in yards allowed and have actually been outscored by 23 points for the season. They average 381 yards per game on offense, but they also allow381 yards per game on defense. The numbers favor Dallas, but of course you throw out the numbers in a game like this.

Matchup to watch: Tony Romo vs. Eli Manning. Two very good QBs who are both highly criticized despite their solid performances. In my evaluation of NFL quarterbacks this season, both ranked among my top eight. Romo, who injured throwing hand last week vs. Philly, should be fine. Nothing broken, just swelllng. Romo is very athletic, able to get away from rushers to complete passes. He's prone to making bad plays, but that's due to his effort and great competitiveness. He has very good arm strength to handle the winds of MetLife Stadium… Manning completed just 9 of 27 passes last week, but one went for 99 yards on third-and-10. His 14 TD passes in the fourth quarter are tied for most ever in a season. Manning isn't as athletic as Romo, but he's more athletic than he looks, a very smart player who recognizes blitzes and is hard to fool. The winds at MetLife do seem to bother him from time to time.

Matchup to watch: DeMarcus Ware vs. Jason Pierre-Paul. Ware has been playing hurt (stinger) but still has 18 sacks. He lines up mostly on the left side but will move around a lot trying to create matchup problems. He has a quick first move and never slows down. Poses a major challenge for David Diehl, an experienced player who will be responsible for Ware… Pierre-Paul has been a dominating player for the last 20 games. He's very athletic and competes hard on every play. His blocked field goal preserved the win over the Cowboys two weeks ago. Dallas LT Doug Free will most likely get help from a running back or tight end some of the time, but Pierre-Paul will be his responsibility.

Prediciton: Giants 27, Cowboys 24

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