Julio Jones Atlanta Falcons WR
"I know what I'm doing, but I'm still thinking," proclaimed Julio Jones after his second NFL preseason game. "I want to be able to go out there and not think at all and just play fast."
The Atlanta Falcons need Jones to be a fast learner and an immediate contributor to their explosive offense. The Falcons made a major splash at the NFL Draft, trading up 21 spots to secure the sixth overall pick, which they used to select the playmaker from the University of Alabama.
Jones shredded opposing defenses in college football's elite conference, and he was neck and-neck with fellow SEC wideout A.J. Green as the top wide-receiving prospect in the 2011 draft class. He stole the show at the NFL Combine, blazing a 4.39 in the 40-Yard Dash, launching himself 11'3" in the Broad Jump and solidifying his status as a top-10 pick.
A big, strong and physical route runner, Jones gives the Falcons another downfield home run threat, opposite All-Pro wideout Roddy White. After back-to-back 100- yard receiving games in Weeks 3 and 4, Jones inspires complete confidence among Falcons fans in their newest weapon.
As for his goals in his rookie season, Jones knows that consistency is key. "Get better every game, week in and week out," he says. "I want to have success, but at the end of the day, I want to win."
Von Miller Denver Broncos LB
Linebacker is not generally regarded as a high-value position in the NFL Draft, mainly because it's not a playmaking position. Since 2000, only 10 linebackers have been selected among the top-10 picks, and few have lived up to the lofty expectations associated with being chosen at the top of the board.
Every so often, though, we see a gold standard "three-down linebacker"—one who excels at stopping the run, dropping into coverage and rushing the QB.
Such a player is Von Miller, the prototypical edge rusher, but he does more than pressure the passer. Miller is a bonafide playmaker who piles up sacks, forces fumbles and pressures QBs into making bad decisions with the football.
Considered one of the elite prospects in this year's draft, Miller was picked by the Denver Broncos number two overall, making him the highest selected linebacker since 2000.
Miller possesses a special blend of speed, size and athleticism, and he knows how to use it. In his first four NFL games, he recorded 16 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles, totally validating the Broncos' bold draft decision.
"I don't want to put too much pressure on myself, just take it one play at a time and one game at a time," says Miller. "I know we're going to be the team we want to be at the end of the year."
Jake Locker Tennessee Titans QB
Jake Locker showed up as first-round talent during his junior year at the University of Washington. Many draft experts pegged him as a top-10 pick, but he elected to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL Draft.
Pro scouts praised his athleticism and leadership qualities: Locker was a hard-nosed QB who would hang in the pocket and take a crushing hit in order to deliver the ball on time. But concerns lingered about his pocket awareness and throwing accuracy.
Nevertheless, his natural ability and competitiveness were evident throughout the draft process, and the Tennessee Titans used its first-round pick (eighth overall) to select Locker as their quarterback of the future.
As Locker sees it, his past development is the best indicator of his NFL potential. "I've always understood that it takes hard work at the level you're at to get to the next level," he says. His objective always has been to "focus on your goals and what your task is at that level, and all the other stuff will take care of itself. That's how I went about it at high school and in college, and that's how I'll continue to go about it at the pro level."
Locker is waiting in the wings to become the Titans' next franchise QB, while serving as a backup to Pro Bowler Matt Hasselbeck, who is mentoring the rookie signal-caller.
Ryan Kerrigan Washington Redskins LB
NFL teams draft players who fit their scheme, especially on the defensive side of the ball. But it doesn't matter whether Ryan Kerrigan lines up as a 4-3 defensive end or a 3-4 pass rusher. At 6'4", 270 pounds, the former Purdue Boilermaker is a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen. His résumé speaks volumes about his work ethic and unrelenting style of play. He was the Big Ten's all-time leader in forced fumbles (14), which also tied the all time Football Bowl Subdivision mark. In 2010, he was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Lineman of the Year.
Leading up to the NFL Draft, Kerrigan was in the dark about his future position. "I prepared for it all, working on a number of different things, from linebacker drills to defensive line drills," he says. "I wanted to be ready for any obstacle thrown at me."
After selecting Kerrigan with the 16th overall pick in the NFL Draft, the Washington Redskins inserted him into the outside linebacker spot in its 3-4 defense.
In Week 1 against the New York Giants, Kerrigan proved that he's more than a bullish pass rusher when he tipped an Eli Manning pass, intercepted the ball and returned it for a gamewinning touchdown. His 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks, forced fumble and interception earned him NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors for September.
Says Kerrigan: "It's a highly emotional time to see all the work you've done for the past eight years of your life just all culminate in one moment. I'm really excited and really looking forward to it."
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