Wide receiver and defensive line are two of the positions at which young players take the longest to adjust to playing in the NFL, but after three-fourths of this season, the 2011 classes at those positions have bucked the trend.
I still contend that it takes three seasons in the league to fully evaluate individual prospects and overall classes. However, this year's crop of rookie receivers and defensive linemen have been unusually productive in their debuts, so let's take a look at how some of the biggest names are faring as the season enters the homestretch.
Below are the rookie wideouts and D-linemen who fit into three categories based on my assessment of their impact: early payoff, value picks and slow starts. Each player is listed with his overall pick in the 2011 draft, the grade (by round) he received from Scouts Inc. heading into the draft and his overall rank on our 2011 board.
Early payoffs (first three rounds)
Player | Round (overall) | Grade (by round) | Overall Rank
A.J. Green, Bengals | 1 (4) | First | 3
Green is second among rookies with 44 receptions but is the leader by a wide margin with 745 yards. He's given fellow rookie QB Andy Dalton a go-to receiver, and it was a big play from Dalton to Green that set up the winning field goal in the Bengals' Week 12 win over Cleveland. If Green can stay healthy -- he has missed some time with a knee injury -- he will be part of a solid offensive core for years to come.
Julio Jones, Falcons | 1 (6) | First | 7
The Falcons traded five draft picks (first-, second- and fourth-rounders in 2011; first- and fourth-rounders in 2012) to move up from No. 27 to No. 6 and select Jones. It will be a few years before we can fully assess the return on investment, but despite a nagging hamstring injury that has kept him off the field at times, Jones appears to be a perfect fit in Atlanta. He ranks fourth among rookies with 498 receiving yards, and he's averaging 16.6 yards on 30 catches with two touchdowns. In addition to his production, Jones helps take attention away from Falcons No. 1 receiver Roddy White and gives QB Matt Ryan another much-needed weapon on the perimeter.
Torrey Smith, Ravens | 2 (58) | Second | 53