With the NFL season set to kick off this week, we're taking a look at the 2011 draft picks who are likely to make a big impact this season.
We begin today with 10 under-the-radar prospects who were not selected in the first round but have the skills to become significant contributors as rookies. The list features some talented skill players as well as a pair of solid linebackers and a trio of impressive interior linemen.
An inconsistent senior season dropped Ayers into the second round (No. 39 overall), but when fully healthy, he was a dominant player. Ayers has drawn rave reviews in nearly every area from coaches and teammates this preseason, and he earned a starting spot alongside MLB Barrett Ruud and ROLB Will Witherspoon.
A second-round pick (47th overall) out of Wisconsin, Kendricks has adjusted well and has proved to be an impact player in the passing game. He led the Rams in receiving during the preseason (11 receptions, 155 yards, 3 TDs) and gives second-year QB Sam Bradford a solid, versatile weapon.
Little did not play in 2010 after being suspended due to NCAA violations, so he dropped to the second round (59th overall) and got off to a slow start in training camp as he shook off the rust. However, he got better each week and is now the Browns' No. 3 receiver behind Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi. He's still developing as a route-runner, but Little has the size (6-foot-2.5 , 231) and run-after-catch ability to emerge as a starter at some point this season.
At Scouts Inc. we gave Cobb a late-first-round grade, and I was surprised when he fell to the Packers late in Round 2 (No. 64 overall). He isn't the fastest player on the field, but Cobb is a slippery runner with great open-field vision. He has been limited recently by a bruised knee, but he did enough early in the preseason to gain the confidence of the Packers' coaching staff. He is healthy now and has been penciled in as the No. 1 kickoff and punt returner heading into Thursday night's season opener versus the Saints. Cobb should also get more reps as a slot receiver as the season progresses.
A third-round pick (No. 76 overall), Rackley played left tackle in college but has moved inside to guard in the NFL. He is physically talented with quick feet and great balance, and has made a smooth transition from the FCS level and earned a starting job despite a contract holdout.
The Bucs got a steal when Foster fell to them at No. 84 overall (third round). We had him graded in the second round thanks to his instincts and ability to make plays in pursuit, and Foster has been outstanding versus the run thus far in Tampa. He's still improving in coverage, but he plays faster than his 40 time indicates and will start in the middle for one of the best young defenses in the league.
Boling was a tough player with plenty of experience in the best conference in college football, and while he played a lot at tackle for the Bulldogs, he fits better at guard in the NFL. We gave him a mid-second-round grade and rated Boling as the 50th-best player in the 2011 class, so the Bengals got tremendous value when they picked him up in the fourth round at No. 101 overall.
A record-setting return man and highly productive slot receiver who was QB Andy Dalton's go-to target at TCU, Kerley lasted until the fifth round (No. 153 overall) because he lacks size and blazing top-end speed. However, he's very quick with good vision and toughness, and he has already become the Jets' top kick and punt returner. He has also taken snaps in Wildcat packages and should see more time as a slot receiver if he can stay healthy.
A sixth-round pick (191st overall), Kelce began his college career as a walk-on linebacker at Cincinnati. He improved each year at center, though he entered the NFL very much undersized at just 280 pounds. However, Kelce is a great athlete (best at his position in the 40-yard dash, three-cone drill, short shuttle and broad jump at NFL combine) and has proven feisty and tough enough to overcome his lack of bulk. He's picked up the offense quickly and is slated to start next to a fellow rookie, G Danny Watkins, in Week 1.
Nagy is arguably the biggest surprise rookie of the preseason. He was the third-to-last pick of the 2011 draft (252nd overall) after being injured in a mo-ped accident during his junior season at Wisconsin and playing only a few games as a senior. Nagy played a lot of tight end in "jumbo" sets in college. He has immediately picked up the offense, though, and shows the versatility to take reps at center and guard. Nagy has outplayed fourth-round pick David Arkin, and injuries along the interior give Nagy a chance to start right away. He has responded well to Hudson Houck, one of the best line coaches in the NFL, and at the very least Nagy will be the Cowboys' top interior backup.