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Top 10 rookies who should have an impact in 2009

Moments after the Washington Redskins made Brian Orakpo their first-round pick last Saturday, Jim Zorn was asked if the highly touted defensive end would play this season.

"He's going to play," Zorn said without hesitation.

Several NFL player-personnel people share that expectation about Orakpo and others selected in the early rounds of the draft. They see immediate contributions from rookies on both sides of the ball, but are especially confident that the defensive choices will provide the greatest impact because they generally can rely more on raw athletic skill while learning the ropes of the pro game.

How large a contribution any of the rookies make is debatable. This year's college crop was widely viewed as being shy of exceptional talent, thus prompting so many downward trades.

Nevertheless, there will be rookies who make their presence felt during the 2009 season.

"I feel like I'm ready to play wherever they ask me to play," defensive end Robert Ayers said shortly after the Denver Broncos made him the second of their two first-round picks.

Here's a list of the top 10 draftees most likely to have an impact as rookies:

1. Robert Ayers, DE, Denver Broncos

Pick: First round/18th overall
He can play end or outside linebacker, making him particularly valuable this season as the Broncos convert from a 4-3 to 3-4 scheme. Most talent evaluators considered him the best outside linebacker prospect in the draft, even though he was only a one-year starter and had only nine career sacks at Tennessee. But Ayers is a remarkably talented and versatile athlete who can rush the passer, play the run, and drop into coverage. New Broncos defensive coordinator Mike Nolan figures to make the most of all that Ayers has to offer.

2. Jason Smith, OT, St. Louis Rams

Pick: First round/Second overall
Smith steps off the Baylor campus and into a gaping hole created by the release of Orlando Pace. Coming anywhere near what Pace accomplished in a career that has assured him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame won't be easy, but Smith has the rare combination of size (6-foot-6, 309 pounds) and quickness to be highly effective blocking for the run as well as protecting the passer. He played left and right tackle in college, and, given Alex Barron's impressive work on the left side during minicamp earlier this month, Smith could open his rookie season on the right side.

3. Brian Orakpo, DE, Washington Redskins

Pick: First round/13th overall
The surprise fall out of the top 10 of the former Texas standout figures to provide an instant upgrade to a defense that ranked near the bottom of the league with only 24 sacks in 2008. Orakpo's impressive combination of strength and speed should allow defensive coordinator Greg Blache to use him as a strong-side linebacker to stop the run on early downs and as a pass-rushing end. Orakpo should also benefit greatly from having the game's most dominant tackle, Albert Haynesworth, drawing blockers inside.

4. B.J. Raji, DT, Green Bay Packers

Pick: First round/Ninth overall
As yet another club shifting from a 4-3 to a 3-4, the Packers had to have an anchor in the middle. Raji should give them a good one right away. At the very most, he'll have a chance to unseat Ryan Pickett as a starter. At the very least, the former Boston College star should see considerable playing time alternating with Pickett and will likely have a regular spot as an inside rusher on passing downs.

5. Knowshon Moreno, RB, Denver Broncos

Pick: First round/12th overall
He looks to be an ideal fit for the scheme being installed by new coach Josh McDaniels. Although McDaniels runs a spread offense that utilizes short passes as an extension of the running game, he does seek balance from a strong ground attack. And he wants runners who are well versed in all aspects of the scheme. At Georgia, Moreno displayed excellent instincts when it came to picking the best openings created by the zone blocking the Bulldogs employed. Moreno also did a nice job of running routes and in pass protection, two other qualities that should help ensure he'll have a significant role as a rookie.

6. Percy Harvin, WR, Minnesota Vikings

Pick: First round/22nd overall
Provided the off-field character issues that caused him to plummet to a spot where his enormous skills say he shouldn't have been available don't resurface, Harvin should make a huge impact. The former Florida standout is a dynamic playmaker, and he should go a long way toward allowing the Vikings to stretch opposing defenses. That assumes, of course, that Sage Rosenfels or Tarvaris Jackson can consistently get the ball in his hands.

7. Michael Crabtree, WR, San Francisco 49ers

Pick: First round/10th overall
Thanks largely to his amazingly productive final two seasons at Texas Tech, Crabtree was universally seen as the best receiver in the draft. And maybe he is. He certainly has the size (6-1 and 214 pounds) and athleticism to be an immediate difference-maker, presuming he makes a full recovery from foot surgery. Despite questions about his lack of speed, he routinely got good separation on his routes. The question is, do the quarterback-challenged 49ers have someone who can take advantage of all of his talent?

8. Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants

Pick: First round/29th overall
There might not be a more NFL-ready receiver in the draft than Nicks. At 6-1 and 212 pounds, he has the frame and the skills to fill the game-breaking vacancy created by the release of Plaxico Burress, even though that wasn't a role Nicks filled at North Carolina. Nicks' 12 touchdown catches and 1,222 receiving yards as a junior last season certainly seemed Burress-like. And he apparently showed enough savvy to convince the Giants not to follow through on a trade for someone with more experience, such as Cleveland's Braylon Edwards.

9. Rey Maualuga, LB, Cincinnati Bengals

Pick: Second round/38th overall
The former USC Trojan figures to be an immediate difference-maker in the middle of the Bengals' defense and could prove to be a steal in the second round. He hits hard, plays the run exceptionally well, and has enough speed and athleticism to be an asset in pass coverage. Working next to former USC teammate Keith Rivers, Maualuga should do plenty to help improve the NFL's 12th-ranked defense last year.

10. Pat White, QB, Miami Dolphins

Pick: Second round/44th overall
He's an ideal fit for the offense that gave us the "Wildcat" last season. With his tremendous versatility and explosiveness, the former West Virginia standout provides the Dolphins' strategists with all sorts of possibilities as a passer, runner, and receiver. He should have plenty of opportunities to make an impact as a rookie, either on his own or as a complement to other playmakers.

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