Top picks making huge difference in NFL

By Barry Wilner

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 24 2010 6:00 p.m. MST

Get in there kid, and make a difference.

Few NFL drafts work out better at the top than this year's grab bag. Look no further for reasons the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions have become competitive than No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford and No. 2 Ndamukong Suh.

While it no longer is strange for a quarterback to step directly from college into an NFL starting job — Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Josh Freeman and Mark Sanchez did so recently — seeing a rookie lift a team from the worst record in football to playoff contention is notable. That Bradford has done it with a cast of obscure receivers makes his early impact remarkable.

Suh has been the dominant player on a Lions team that has broken a pair of ignominious skids in the past two weeks (19 consecutive division defeats and 26 straight road losses). The defensive tackle has eight sacks, the most at his position in the league — rookies or veterans. He's also a solid run-stopper and the kind of player opponents must scheme to stop from the outset.

"Both of those players have had a big role for their teams and they look like the type of players their teams can build around," says NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt.

Bradford, who has taken every snap for St. Louis and has the Rams (6-8) in position to take the NFC West — wins in the final two games will do it after they went 1-15 in 2009 — is, by far, the most impressive quarterback in the rookie crop. Jimmy Clausen, Max Hall, John Skelton, Rusty Smith, Tony Pike, Joe Webb, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy have played, with only McCoy having moderate success.

"Sam is poised, he's calm, he's assertive," Rams center Jason Brown says.

"He's a great player and he's going to continue to play great," adds St. Louis receiver Danny Amendola.

Other impressive rookies on offense range from receivers Jordan Shipley of Cincinnati, Mike Williams of Tampa Bay, Jacoby Ford of Oakland and Dez Bryant of Dallas, to tight ends Jermaine Gresham of Cincinnati, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski of New England, and Tony Moeaki of Kansas City, to running backs LeGarrette Blount of Tampa Bay, Ryan Mathews of San Diego, Chris Ivory of New Orleans and Jahvid Best of Detroit. Linemen Mike Iupati of San Francisco, Maurkice Pouncey of Pittsburgh, Rodger Saffold of St. Louis, Zane Beadles of Denver and Jared Veldheer of Oakland have been key regulars.

But Bradford has stood out, particularly with running back Steven Jackson as the only proven commodity on offense. The rookie from Oklahoma has struggled recently, with five interceptions and no touchdowns, and St. Louis just as easily can finish 6-10 as 8-8 and in the playoffs.

Still, Bradford's skills and decision making have been solid for such a difficult position and on a rebuilding team.

"He's a very focused individual," coach Steve Spagnuolo says. "He takes care of his body and he realizes the length of this whole thing. You're talking about the rookie walls, but he played at Oklahoma, where they're still practicing now."

Should Bradford win The Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award to be announced after the season, he would become the fourth quarterback voted top rookie in seven years. Before that, no QB had won it.

And if Suh takes the top defensive award, it would mark only the second time the top two choices have swept the rookie honors: running back George Rogers and linebacker Lawrence Taylor did it in 1981.

Suh, from Nebraska, was the most disruptive defensive player in college a year ago. He's barely missed a step in the pros, and the Lions' vast improvement on defense — they allowed a league-worst 494 points in 2009 and are on track to yield 376 — can be directly attributed to his impact.

Suh, who needs three sacks to set a rookie mark for his position, also has an interception and a fumble return for a touchdown.

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