At this time last year, everyone was eagerly anticipating the debuts of game-changing players like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III -- while fellow game-changer-to-be Russell Wilson went largely ignored. That being said, who in this year's notoriously star-free draft class promises to have the biggest impact as a rookie in 2013?
Rams' new speedster should thrive when paired with BradfordThis is an easy one: Tavon Austin with the St. Louis Rams.
The Rams' offense ranked 25th in points scored last season. That unit should improve, even after the Rams let receivers Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson walk out the door, if only because of the weapons they added -- with Austin being the most explosive. Look at what Amendola did -- when he was healthy -- with quarterback Sam Bradford, who needs to get the ball out quickly.
Austin will feast with that kind of play, and production should follow. In addition, simply having someone with Austin's wheels on the field will create opportunities for others in the Rams' attack.
Given a chance, Lattimore will shine in San FranciscoWhen I visited with Marcus Lattimore during his rehabilitation from knee surgery in Pensacola, Fla., he said something that has resonated since. "I feel like I'm destined for this," Lattimore said. "I'm not worried about anything. I know I'm going to come back and be great."
I've maintained that Lattimore doesn't simply sound confident about his recovery; he sounds convinced. If healthy -- and, based on the portions of his rehabilitation that I witnessed, it's not hard to believe he will be -- Lattimore has the potential to be a star. Yes, he will have to sit behind Frank Gore with the San Francisco 49ers -- but this will allow for a nice, slow recovery. Yes, other rookies will probably get a chance to make an impact sooner. But I get the sense that, should the opportunity arise for Lattimore to seize a major moment, he's going to do exactly that.
Lacy gives Packers offense a new lookThe Green Bay Packers had a one-dimensional offense last season, thanks to a number of issues, including a running back carousel in the backfield. When Aaron Rodgers is your second-leading rusher, it's time to be concerned.
Second-round pick Eddie Lacy will bring some toughness to the ground game; his ability to break arm tackles will become a weapon when coach Mike McCarthy spreads out defenses.
Don't be surprised if Lacy starts out as a situational back, coming in for short-yardage or goal-line plays, possibly even to close out a victory or two. He just needs to remember that ball security will determine his playing time (see: New York Giants running back David Wilson's rookie year).
Rams' Austin, Vikings' Patterson will be electric return menI see two players regularly making the Sunday highlights: Tavon Austin and Cordarrelle Patterson. Both are dynamic return men, and that is where they will make an impact.
When it comes to seeing the field as a receiver, Patterson will be brought along slowly by the Minnesota Vikings, though Austin should make an impact out of the slot for the St. Louis Rams. The Rams also could use Austin out of the backfield as a runner.
Chargers' Allen will have shot at catching 100 ballsKeenan Allen will be your rookie of the year. The San Diego Chargers did exceptionally well when it came to meeting their needs through the 2013 NFL Draft. D.J. Fluker and Manti Te'o could turn out to be outstanding players, but Allen is the Chargers rookie who will be the talk of Southern California.
He immediately will become one of Philip Rivers' top receivers and go on to have a monster season. I'm thinking of Anquan Boldin's rookie campaign with the Arizona Cardinals, during which he had 101 catches for 1,377 yards and eight touchdowns. Expect Allen to come close to matching those numbers.
In Woods, Buffalo might have snagged the steal of the draftThe Buffalo Bills are going to wind up with a superstar receiver in second-round choice Robert Woods, who was considered a top-five pick before an ankle injury slowed him and allowed for the emergence of fellow USC receiver Marqise Lee last season. I've seen a lot of Woods, and he's got it all. He can dominate one-on-one, and he has the kind of toughness that reminds me of Keyshawn Johnson -- and maybe a little bit of Brandon Marshall. And while he's not a speed demon, Woods is fast enough to be a deep threat.
Plus, look at the situation in Buffalo. The Bills have a terrific running game that will take the pressure off whoever winds up playing quarterback. Stevie Johnson is going to play more slot receiver this season, which will open things up for Woods on the outside. True, he could wind up drawing the opponent's best defensive back, but that's not that big a deal for someone with is talent. He'll have instant chemistry with EJ Manuel (or Kevin Kolb), because he's a terrific route runner. He'll wind up being the offensive steal of the draft. In a few months, we'll all be wondering, "How the heck did this guy fall to 41st overall?"