Nickel Package: Moving into the spotlight

Rookie Sio Moore gives the Raiders a little muscle at linebacker. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

With the NFL season kicking off on Thursday when the Baltimore Ravens visit the Denver Broncos, it's time to take a look at how some players from the 2013 draft class could fare this year.

While the Eric Fishers, Luke Joeckels and Ziggy Ansahs occupied the first-round spotlight, a number of rookies not drafted in the first or second rounds are primed for big contributions. Here are five who could make a difference this season.

Sio Moore, OLB, Oakland Raiders -- third round, No. 66 overall

We gave Moore a mid-second-round grade as the third outside linebacker in the 2013 class behind Dion Jordan, who was taken third overall by the Miami Dolphins, and Jarvis Jones, who went at No. 17 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Moore earned the highest possible grade for "third-down capabilities" because of his versatile skill set and playmaking instincts. He's instinctive, fluid and fast in coverage. He's also an explosive edge rusher with an impressive combination of first-step quickness, torso flexibility and closing burst.

At UConn, Moore had 18 passes defended, 4 interceptions, 44 tackles for a loss and 16 sacks. Moore's skills are evident at the next level; he's already earned a starting job in Oakland and has been all over the field during training camp.

Tyrann Mathieu, CB, Arizona Cardinals -- third round, No. 69

We gave Mathieu a third-round grade (75). He's undersized at 5-foot-8¾ and 186 pounds, and he lacks ideal top-end speed, but he’s an absolute ball hawk. After having off-field issues at LSU, he’s been a model citizen with the Cardinals. As long as he can stay out of trouble off the field and keep his focus on football, Mathieu should have a highly productive career.

From the looks of it this preseason, he is set to make an immediate contribution on defense and special teams.

Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers -- third round, No. 79

Wheaton also earned a third-round grade (79) from us. He hauled in 218 passes for 2,890 yards and 16 scores during his final three seasons at Oregon State. Wheaton has average size (5-11, 182) and small hands, but he’s a burner. He's not your typical "track guy." He’s a competitive, tough receiver who is willing to work the middle of the field and will secure the ball in traffic.

He was a team captain for the Beavers in 2012 and is known for his high character. Wheaton also has impressive football intelligence and work ethic, both of which are helping him make a seamless transition to the NFL. He fits well in the Steelers' offense because of his ability to stretch the field vertically. Expect him to quickly become a favorite target of Ben Roethlisberger.

David Bakhtiari, OT, Green Bay Packers -- fourth round, No. 109

Bakhtiari received a fourth-round grade from us after being a three-year starter at Colorado. He has average to above-average awareness, and at 300 pounds he's a bit on the lighter side, but Bakhtiari has good quickness and mobility. He fits well in the Packers’ zone-blocking scheme.

He has powerful upper-body and good overall strength for his size, and he plays with an edge. Forced into action because of Bryan Bulaga's ACL tear, Bakhtiari now faces the monumental challenge of trying to protect star QB Aaron Rodgers’ blind side.

Kenbrell Thompkins, WR, New England Patriots -- undrafted free agent

I remember not having much information on Thompkins at the time, but he jumped out on tape when I was studying Cincinnati TE Travis Kelce versus Virginia Tech. I added Thompkins to my list of players to watch for March and wound up giving him a sixth-round grade (42).

Thompkins has adequate to good height and is a fluid athlete. He shows some craftiness as a route-runner and can drop his weight quickly, which helps him separate from man-to-man coverage. When studying his tape, his ball skills were his top attribute.

He had a tough upbringing in Liberty City, which is considered one of Miami’s most violent areas, and was arrested seven times between the ages of 15 and 18. Thompkins started out at El Camino (Calif.) Community College. From there, he went to Tennessee before transferring to Cincinnati in 2010 and sat out that season because of NCAA rules. At Cincinnati, he matured as a person and a football player during those two years.

It appears likely that Thompkins will open the season as the No. 2 WR opposite free agent addition Danny Amendola. It's a remarkable feat for an undrafted rookie free agent, especially in a complex Patriots system that has been mostly unfriendly to young wide receivers.