Commentary

Watch these five rookies

Talented Cowboys wideout Bryant among first-year players poised to break out

Originally Published: June 2, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Jimmy Clausen/Dez BryantUS PresswirePanthers QB Jimmy Clausen, left, and Cowboys WR Dez Bryant would have preferred to go higher in the draft, but each finds himself in a favorable situation.

Sometimes personal disappointments on draft day can be the best thing that can happen to players.

Dan Marino was disappointed he fell to the 27th pick in the 1983 draft, but the drop enabled him to land with a good Miami Dolphins team, work with Don Shula and become an icon in South Florida. Randy Moss is still making the teams that passed on him in 1998 pay, but he landed with the right coach (Dennis Green) and the right team (Minnesota Vikings) as the 21st pick that year. Despite his current difficulties, Ben Roethlisberger was a gift to the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 11th pick in 2004 who added two more Lombardi Trophies to the team's trophy case.

A player who falls takes a financial hit early, but he can make it up in future contracts. A great player falling to a good team or good organization is a winning formula, which shouldn't be overlooked when it comes to evaluating this year's breakout rookies.

Since 2004, the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year has come from teams that averaged 10.8 wins. Three examples are Percy Harvin (Minnesota, 2009), Adrian Peterson (Minnesota, 2007) and Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh, 2004).

Since 2003, the Defensive Rookie of the Year was selected from teams that averaged 8.6 wins. Three examples are linebacker Brian Cushing of the Texans (nine wins in 2009), Jerod Mayo of the Patriots (11 wins in 2008) and Terrell Suggs of the Ravens (10 wins in 2003).

Here are five breakout rookie candidates in 2010.

1. Dez Bryant, WR, Dallas Cowboys: Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was one of the owners who passed on Moss in 1998 because of character questions. Jones couldn't let history repeat itself, so he grabbed Bryant with the 24th pick in the first round.

Bryant is a monster in practice. Like Hakeem Nicks of the Giants, Bryant has massive hands. When he wears gloves in practice, they almost look like boxing gloves because his hands are so big. Plus, he catches everything. One NFL observer at a Cowboys practice came out shaking his head. He said by the end of the season, Bryant will be the Cowboys' best wide receiver. The observer said Bryant will end up being better than Michael Crabtree, who should have a breakout season for the 49ers. Bryant is faster than Crabtree. Both receivers have great hands.

Putting Bryant on an 11-win Cowboys team is almost the same as what we saw last year with Harvin going to a playoff-bound Vikings team. Harvin caught 60 passes and scored eight touchdowns. Bryant may not get 60 catches in an overloaded Cowboys receiving corps, but he could get 10 touchdowns and loads of highlights.

2. Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers: Mathews might not have been the 12th-best player in the 2010 draft, but he should easily rank in the top five for impact. General manager A.J. Smith traded up to get him to prove a point. LaDainian Tomlinson, a future Hall of Famer, was cut after averaging 3.3 yards a carry and rushing for a disappointing 730 yards last season. Tomlinson said after the season that coach Norv Turner's scheme and the offensive line were to blame for his off season.

Mathews comes from Fresno State with fresh legs and a lot of talent. The plan is for him to get 240 carries and run behind that same line. The Chargers will monitor the numbers between Mathews and Tomlinson each week. If Mathews averages 4.5 yards a carry, he should get 1,080 yards. If Tomlinson averages less than 3.5 yards a carry with the Jets, he'll have 840.

3. Jimmy Clausen, QB, Carolina Panthers: The former Notre Dame quarterback may not be the opening day starter, but it shouldn't take long before he gets his chance. He's too talented to sit behind Matt Moore.

Even though Moore is 6-2 as a starter on a running team, Clausen gives the Panthers the ability to do more things with their passing game. In OTAs, the Panthers are trying more three- and four-receiver sets, fitting Clausen's style. In the past two seasons, three rookie quarterbacks ended up on playoff teams (Matt Ryan of the Falcons and Joe Flacco of the Ravens in 2008, and Mark Sanchez of the Jets last year). The Panthers have a young roster and might fall short of the playoffs, but the addition of Clausen -- combined with the Panthers' ability to run the ball more than 30 times a game -- could end up being a winning combination.

4. Rolando McClain, LB, Oakland Raiders: Linebackers are the safest bet in trying to pick a defensive rookie of the year. A linebacker has been DROY every year since 2003. The only non-linebacker to win the award since 2000 was Julius Peppers of the Panthers in 2002.

With only two true linebackers taken in the first round, it's pretty easy to give McClain the best chance to win rookie defensive honors this year. Linebackers put up big tackling numbers. The only way a top linebacker could lose out in DROY voting is if a defensive end gets 12 or more sacks or a defensive back gets close to 10 interceptions. Sean Weatherspoon of the Falcons was the other linebacker taken in the first round, but McClain, the eighth pick, should top him for tackles, giving him the best chance for DROY.

5. Derrick Morgan, DE, Tennessee Titans: This was a close call. I almost went with Brandon Graham of the Philadelphia Eagles, but Graham steps into an Eagles defense as potentially the second-best pass-rusher. (Trent Cole is coming off a 12½ sack season.)

Morgan replaces Kyle Vanden Bosch and has the chance to be the Titans' best pass-rusher. Morgan gets the benefit of having Jim Washburn as his defensive line coach. Washburn has turned average defensive linemen into big-money players in free agency or stars in Tennessee. The scheme also suits a pass-rusher because the end lines up well outside of the tackle, giving him a great angle to get to the quarterback. Like Brian Orakpo of the Redskins last season, Morgan has the best chance to lead rookie defensive ends in sacks.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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