The 2012 NFL season was dominated by rookies. The quarterback class -- headlined by Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, who all led their respective teams to the playoffs -- was one for the ages. And thanks in large part to RGIII, Alfred Morris' excellence for the Washington Redskins flew under the radar. On the other side of the ball, you could've safely argued for six different guys to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. My choice, Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, ended up with the hardware.
While this year's draft class seems comparatively weak, don't be fooled -- we'll experience another influx of difference-making rookies flying all over the field in 2013.
With real football (finally) upon us, here's my list of the nine most intriguing rookies across the NFL:
1) Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams
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Frankly, I'm borderline-obsessed with this guy. It's man-crush territory. I loved him at West Virginia. I think Rams general manager Les Snead absolutely nailed it when he traded up for the electric playmaker. Austin is going to hit a lot of home runs in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense; he's the perfect deep threat for quarterback Sam Bradford.
Usually, I curb my enthusiasm for rookie receivers. It typically takes them awhile to adjust. Not Austin. I think he will be a big-play and touchdown machine from the get-go. I can't wait to watch him work. Austin is my pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He is going to help St. Louis compete in the difficult NFC West.
2) Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Miami Dolphins
I never quite understood the criticism the Dolphins received when they traded up to grab the Oregon pass rusher. I've felt all along that Jordan was the elite defensive prospect in this draft class. Don't be scared off by the offseason shoulder surgery that limited his preseason involvement. With opposing offensive lines putting an emphasis on stopping Cameron Wake, Jordan will have an added advantage in doing what he was born to do: disrupt and sack the quarterback.
I foresee a monster season -- double-digit sacks and pressures aplenty -- which is why I picked Jordan as my Defensive Rookie of the Year.
3) Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals
A few weeks ago, I penned a column on the amazing turnaround of the man they call "Honey Badger." And in the piece, Cardinals general manager Steve Keim gushed about the rookie's attitude and play. I think Mathieu has straightened out his priorities and, consequently, his life. All offseason, the Cardinals raved about this third-round steal. He's going to make splash plays in the defensive backfield, change the game on special teams and finish as the runner-up for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
4) EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills
The Bills quarterback is healthy and ready to rock as the team's Week 1 starter. Sure, I'm always concerned when a rookie doesn't get the requisite preseason reps, but I love Manuel's skill set. He has the smarts, the arm and the athleticism to succeed right away. Not to mention the fact that he's in very good hands with the Bills' new coaching staff, namely head man Doug Marrone and play caller Nathaniel Hackett.
With C.J. Spiller's brilliance in the backfield, Manuel won't be asked to do too much too soon. Add in an underrated receiving corps, and it's clear Buffalo's offense will make more plays than you think. I'm a big believer in Manuel.
5) Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers
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Mike McCarthy, a superb play caller, always preaches balance on offense -- but the coach doesn't always practice it. And frankly, why would he when he has the best quarterback in the game and a shaky stable of running backs?
6) Chance Warmack, G, Tennessee Titans
Warmack is a true road-grader. Before the draft, I wrote that he would be the single safest pick. Chris Johnson could return to form in 2013 because Warmack greatly upgrades the guard position for the Titans. He destroyed opponents while playing for Nick Saban in college. He will do the same in the NFL -- instantly.
7) Alec Ogletree, LB, St. Louis Rams
Yep -- two Rams make this list. This looks like a sensational draft by Jeff Fisher and Snead. Ogletree is a natural athlete who has already drawn plenty of praise from his head coach. Fisher thinks Ogletree will be a tackling machine for St. Louis and a dark-horse candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
8) Kyle Long, G, Chicago Bears
You try hard not to overreact to the preseason, but Long displayed eye-opening dominance. He's a physical breath of fresh air for the previously maligned offensive line in Chicago. Jay Cutler can't achieve if he's lying on his back. Long will maul opposing defensive linemen -- though his very first test (Cincinnati BengalsPro Bowler Geno Atkins, quite possibly the best defensive tackle in the game) won't be easy. Don't panic if the rookie experiences some growing pains on Sunday.
Bears GM Phil Emery made a savvy pick that caught several draft gurus off-guard. Long, who has quickly quieted the critics, will make an immediate impact this season.
9) Mike Glennon, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Yes, you read that correctly: Mike Glennon. And yes, I know he's not the Bucs' starter. However, consider that Greg Schiano and Mark Dominik have built a team that's ready to dance at every position but one: quarterback. There's a reason they have yet to give Josh Freeman an extension: They aren't convinced and need to see more.
If the offensive line is healthy and Freeman struggles, Glennon will play. And he should. He has a rocket for an arm and a ton of confidence. With Doug Martin in the backfield, Tampa's going to run it 25 times per game anyway. The Bucs need someone to stretch the field and make better decisions.
In his Rutgers coaching days, Schiano liked to say that it's better to put in the young quarterback "a day late rather than a day early." But he had no problem reshuffling the depth chart when trouble hit.
I just don't see the coach allowing the season to slip away with Freeman. Plus, I like Glennon in the system put together by Schiano and offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan.