While sitting with New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin at the NFL Annual Meeting last week, I asked him about his young receivers' emergence last season and, based on what he has seen of them, if he believes they'll continue to improve. For the most part, Coughlin gave the stock answer of, "There's a long way to go; they're not as refined as they should be," but they'll get better.
But as Coughlin proceeded, he dropped some perspective on 2009 third-round draft pick Ramses Barden, a 6-foot-6 wideout selected to fill the Plaxico Burress void.
"We've got some guys that are right there," Coughlin started. "Ramses Barden. It's not feel-your-way-rookie-kind-of-stuff anymore. ... I think he's headed in the right direction, and I think he's aware of the impact that he could have on our offensive team by virtue of what he brings to the table. Let's face it: That's why he was drafted."
Barden didn't latch on to special teams well, which is why he didn't see much action, and he made only one catch for 16 yards in three games. In one of the best coachspeak lines I've heard in a long time, Coughlin summed up Barden's role in 2010 this way: "Get yourself a suit (uniform). You get a uniform, you've got a better chance of contributing on Sunday. If you're standing there in sweats, it's kind of tough to put you in a game."
That got me thinking about players who didn't add much as rookies in 2009 but need to step up next season. If they do, they could make a big difference.
OT Andre Smith, Cincinnati Bengals: Once he overcame a lengthy contract holdout and a broken foot, Smith didn't make much of an impact as a rotational right tackle, playing in just six games with one start. He needs to show his ability to justify the team drafting him sixth overall. If Smith does finally get it, the offensive line could be better in pass protection, which is vital for the Bengals to improve after last season's AFC North title and first-round playoff exit.
WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, Oakland Raiders: Heyward-Bey did nothing to quiet the doubts that immediately popped up when he was drafted a surprising seventh overall. He caught nine passes for 129 yards and one touchdown -- in 11 starts. That's a strong game for a lot of players. Regardless of which quarterback he's catching balls from, Heyward-Bey must show he's an NFL player or he could quickly be out of the league.
QB Tom Brandstater, Denver Broncos: This sixth-round pick was the Broncos' No. 3 quarterback last season, but at 6-5 and 223 pounds with a big arm, he has the skill set to develop into a good NFL player. If Broncos coach Josh McDaniels can work his magic, the Kyle Orton-Brady Quinn situation could become a lot more interesting because Brandstater might have more ability than either passer.
QB Pat White, Miami Dolphins: The questions that preceded White's NFL entry remain. Is he a legitimate quarterback? Can he be more than just a Wildcat novelty? White, a second-round pick, must refine his game to gain more as a quarterback and establish confidence. Otherwise, he could fall out of a deep Dolphins depth chart that includes Chad Henne, Tyler Thigpen and Chad Pennington. If White shows well during the offseason, Miami might be open to moving Thigpen. The Buffalo Bills could be an option, reuniting Thigpen with Chan Gailey, his offensive coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs.
DE Everette Brown, Carolina Panthers: For now, he's the guy who will replace Julius Peppers. Although the Panthers don't know what they'll get from a player who's primarily a pass rusher, Brown will be expected to be strong in run support. Brown, a first-round talent who slipped to the second round, started one of 15 games as a rookie and had 22 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
WR Brian Robiskie, Cleveland Browns: It was difficult for any receiver to look good in the Browns' anemic passing game, but Robiskie, the 36th overall pick, had a tough time getting on the field. He was inactive for five games and finished the season with just seven catches for 106 yards. Having gone through such a disappointing first season, the notorious hard worker has a chance to make himself a factor in a quasi-new offense with new quarterbacks.
DT/DE Jarron Gilbert, Chicago Bears: The YouTube sensation was drafted in the third round but didn't do much last season. He was inactive for much of the campaign and played in just four games with one tackle, that coming in the season finale. With Peppers on board to garner much of the attention, Gilbert could have a chance to make plays -- if he gets himself into the rotation.
WR Juaquin Iglesias, Chicago Bears: Iglesias' inability to see the field much as a rookie shows how much the third-round pick struggled. In fact, he didn't register a stat last season. The Bears are desperate for help at receiver, so a huge opportunity is there for the former Oklahoma product. However, only so much patience will be exercised.
TE Jared Cook, Tennessee Titans: Cook, a third-round pick, was the buzz last season in all the summer camps, when the players weren't wearing pads. He could outrun defensive backs and was hyper-athletic. Then, when things got real, Cook fell behind and finished with nine catches for 74 yards. With Alge Crumpler gone to New England, Cook and starting tight end Bo Scaife could form a dangerous Tennessee tandem and give Vince Young additional weapons to use.
S William Moore, Atlanta Falcons: The second-rounder was expected to push for a starting role, but he was hit by the injury bug early. He eventually was placed on injured reserve because of a hamstring issue. Moore is said to have had some weight issues while he was hurt, but he's now getting back on track. He'll have an opportunity to replace Erik Coleman and pair with rising star Thomas DeCoud. Still, Moore must stay healthy or he could quickly be out of the mix because Coleman is no slouch.