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Projecting how rookie QBs will fare in 2011 season

The success of recent rookie quarterbacks Mark Sanchez, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Sam Bradford, Josh Freeman, and the promise of Matthew Stafford and Colt McCoy has put pressure -- maybe unfairly -- on this season's sizeable rookie crop.

This group, led by No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers didn't have the offseason to prepare because of the lockout, which puts them and their teams at an immediate disadvantage. Even so, Newton has been named Carolina's starter, and second-round selection Andy Dalton of the Cincinnati Bengals could play right away. It's always a risk but from what we've seen in the past few years, gaining experience right away might be the proper baptism.

Let's look at this year's rookie class and project how things will pan out.

Cam Newton (Carolina): Newton will be the opening-day starter, as he should be. He will be inconsistent early, but he has the work ethic to get better. The Panthers have to get their running game on track to set up the vertical play-action passing game. That is where Newton will thrive. That's also been the right formula for Ryan, Sanchez and Flacco. There will be mistakes along the way, but Newton also will make some spectacular plays.

Jake Locker (Tennessee): Locker has looked pretty competent in the preseason, but Matt Hasselbeck will start. By sitting, Locker can learn from one of the most professional guys in the business, the same way Hasselbeck learned from Brett Favre. At some point, Locker will be on the field, especially based on Hasselbeck's durability history. Once Locker takes over, it will be his team. He's done a good job this offseason ingratiating himself, and the early returns look good.

Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville): Gabbert better be ready early. Veteran David Garrard will most likely start the season, but his leash is short. Gabbert will start the season as the third-stringer, but coach Jack Del Rio is in a make-or-break season, and he has to win to keep his job. In these scenarios, coaches tend to roll with veterans as long as they can but if the returns are negative, they'll make a switch. I see Gabbert being inserted as the starter by midseason and keeping the Jaguars competitive.

Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco): Kaepernick will sit behind Alex Smith all season unless there is an injury, or Smith simply proves that he's not the answer. In that case, it's not a reach to predict that Kaepernick could be starting the final four games of the season. Since the NFC West likely will be up for grabs until the final weekend, Smith could still be under center, but he's done very little in the past to instill faith. That's why the 49ers drafted Kaepernick early in the second round.

Andy Dalton (Cincinnati): Dalton figures to start the season, but he has looked overwhelmed at times in the preseason. It might not be a bad idea for the Bengals to start veteran Bruce Gradkowski, although that's not going to happen. The rift with former starter Carson Palmer has the Bengals in the mode of moving on with Dalton, their hopeful long-term answer. The franchise can't put too much pressure on him, and they have to protect him or they could have a shell-shocked player -- like former Detroit Lions QB Joey Harrington -- down the road. By drafting wideout A.J. Green and providing a nice stable of receivers, they've given Dalton a chance to succeed.

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Christian Ponder (Minnesota): I don't see Ponder playing much, unless the Vikings' season gets really sideways and they fall out of the playoff hunt. If/once that happens, this team will begin the full transition that's been put on hold for a year or so. Coach Leslie Frazier thinks they have a playoff-caliber team. So much so that Joe Webb could be used as Donovan McNabb's backup before Ponder. It wouldn't hurt Ponder either for the team to fortify the offensive line and receiving corps before putting him on the field.

Ryan Mallett (New England): Mallett is going to do a great job holding the clipboard and running the scout team in practice each week. The talented third-rounder is behind Tom Brady and Brian Hoyer and will remain that way. Being in the meeting room with those two will be a good thing for Mallett, who already has shown he has the acumen by succeeding under a demanding college coach in Bobby Petrino. But Mallett still needs to mature. He could end up being Brady's successor in two or three seasons, or he could play himself into trade bait in preseason games, a la Charlie Whitehurst.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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