The 2011 NFL Draft was loaded with upper-echelon talent. Several members of the draft class put up big numbers in their rookie year and four of them were rewarded with a spot in "The Top 100: Players of 2012" on the NFL Network: Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton came in at No. 40, Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller landed at No. 52, Arizona Cardinals cornerback/kick returner Patrick Peterson was close behind at No. 55 and Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green rounded out the group at 77.
While those were the only four members of the 2011 draft class to crack this year's list, I expect several more to break through and earn a spot on next year's "Top 100."
Here are my top four candidates:
The Falcons were very aggressive to trade up and select Jones in the 2011 draft. So far, they have to be very pleased with the results. He finished his rookie season with 54 catches for 959 yards and eight touchdowns. He did that damage despite missing three games due to injury. Jones is an extremely explosive and physical wideout and I expect his numbers to jump significantly in his second NFL season. He should be a lock to crack the "Top 100" in 2013.
Smith was thrown right into the fire after the Cowboys scooped him up in the first round of the 2011 draft. He started all 16 games at right tackle and although he did have a few rough outings (Jason Babin gave him fits), there was never a reason to doubt his physical skills. He has freakish length, quickness and agility. He is moving to the left side in 2012 and has all the tools to emerge as one of the NFC's premier pass protectors.
Smith proved right away that he could be a difference maker at the NFL level. Despite not starting a single game for the 49ers, he collected 14 sacks in his rookie campaign. He has excellent size, quickness and polish as a pass rusher. Smith should be a full-time starter in 2012 and I expect him to contend for the NFL sack crown.
Dalton played outstanding football during his rookie season. He started all 16 games for the Bengals and passed for 3,398 yards, 20 touchdowns and only 13 interceptions. He helped lead Cincinnati to the playoffs and even earned a Pro Bowl invitation. Dalton is an excellent decision maker and throws with great anticipation and accuracy. I expect him to be even better in 2012 and will be surprised if he doesn't crack the "Top 100" next summer.
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