Last year's rookie class was special. Quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson quickly established themselves as the faces of their respective franchises while guiding their teams to the playoffs. This year's rookie QB crop doesn't appear to have the same star power, but several other positions are loaded with first-year players who should excel this fall. With the NFL Rookie Symposium taking place this week in Aurora, Ohio, I've singled out seven newbies who are positioned to make a splash in Year 1:
1) Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams: The Rams finally made a significant effort to provide Sam Bradford with an explosive weapon in the passing attack. Austin put up video game numbers at West Virginia (logging 215 catches and 20 receiving touchdowns over the past two seasons) and he is polished enough to start from Day 1 in St. Louis. His ability to create separation underneath will be a huge asset to Bradford on third downs. Austin won't record the same numbers he posted for the Mountaineers, but he easily could surpass 70 catches in his rookie campaign.
2) Chance Warmack, OG, Tennessee Titans: Warmack joins free-agent addition Andy Levitre, giving the Titans an outstanding set of offensive guards. Young offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains will lean heavily on Chris Johnson and the rushing attack to alleviate the pressure on young signal-caller Jake Locker. Warmack's ability to maul defenders at the point of attack should provide Johnson with the necessary runway to reel off several explosive runs this season.
3) DeAndre Hopkins, WR, Houston Texans: For the past 10 seasons, Andre Johnson has been as productive as just about any wide receiver in the NFL. He's caught more than 800 balls and eclipsed 11,000 receiving yards. That's quite impressive, considering he's never had a legitimate No. 2 wideout to keep opposing defenses honest. Enter Hopkins. The former Clemson receiver broke the ACC's single-season record for receiving touchdowns with 18 last fall and his combination of short-area quickness and ball skills will be a welcome addition to the Texans' passing attack. He should start right away and post 60-plus catches during his rookie campaign.
4) Darius Slay, CB, Detroit Lions: The Lions selected defensive end Ziggy Ansah with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but I believe another rookie defender will have a bigger impact in Detroit. Slay is incredibly explosive (4.36-second time in the 40-yard dash) and has impressive ball skills, as evidenced by his five interceptions last fall. He should nail down a starting position during training camp, and I expect him to improve throughout his rookie season. I won't be surprised if Slay matches the five picks he recorded during his final college campaign.
5) Manti Te'o, LB, San Diego Chargers: Te'o was one of the most scrutinized non-quarterback draft prospects I can ever remember. With a poor showing against Alabama in the BCS title game, the off-field drama of the girlfriend hoax and an uninspiring 40 time at the NFL Scouting Combine, Te'o drew constant criticism from early January to late April. However, he ultimately landed in the perfect situation with the Chargers. Te'o will line up behind an underrated defensive line, and his fellow inside backer, Donald Butler, will complement his style of play. Te'o was durable (49 starts) and productive (437 career tackles) during his college career, and I expect nothing less during his rookie year.
6) Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers are desperate to improve their rushing attack after ranking 26th in 2012, and Bell is just the man for the job. He led the Big Ten with 1,793 rushing yards last fall and showcased the ability to carry a heavy load by toting the ball 382 times. He doesn't possess home-run speed, but I love his vision, balance and power. He is also very effective in the passing game as both a blocker and receiver. Bell is clearly the most talented runner on Pittsburgh's roster and he should emerge as the primary ball carrier very early in the upcoming season.
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7) Vance McDonald, TE, San Francisco 49ers: McDonald was drafted to fill the void created by Delanie Walker's departure in the offseason. However, after the unfortunate injury to Michael Crabtree, McDonald's role could be much larger in the upcoming season. Vernon Davis has spent time practicing as a wide receiver to help offset the loss of Crabtree; this could lead to more snaps for McDonald. His college production wasn't eye-popping (36 catches and two touchdowns in 2012), but the rookie's physical tools are tough to ignore. He has the size (6-foot-4, 267 pounds) and explosiveness (4.69 40 time) to develop into a complete tight end. This is a case of talent meeting opportunity and it could result in surprising rookie production from this second-rounder.