A lot of rookies will make an immediate impact in 2012. Here are six to watch in the NFC South.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina: Kuechly will be many experts’ choice for the 2012 defensive rookie of the year. I get that and really can’t argue that selection. The No. 9 pick should start from day one at middle linebacker or on the weak side.
James Anderson should be pretty safe as the Panthers’ starting strongside linebacker, but Jon Beason and Thomas Davis are returning from season-ending injuries. Considering Davis' extensive injury history, it doesn’t seem wise to count on him -- although he’s a heck of a player when healthy. Beason is a team leader and when right, one of the better linebackers in the league. Like Kuechly, Beason is able to line up in the middle or on the weak side -- maybe even at strongside linebacker considering the Panthers’ great overall skills at the position.
But I am confident Kuechly will quickly find a starting spot -- and probably won’t relinquish it for years to come. He is an every-down linebacker who excels in coverage. Kuechly is always around football, takes excellent angles to the ball carrier and is a very sound tackler. This is a very productive player. My biggest worry about Kuechly is the group playing in front of him. The Panthers are quite weak at defensive tackle and the overall ability of this defensive line to protect Carolina’s linebackers gives me some pause.
Amini Silatolu, OL, Carolina: The Panthers’ second-round pick arrives to the NFL from a tiny college football program, Midwestern State, where he was the left tackle. So why do I expect Silatolu to make an instant impact? Because he is a big-time prospect who is ideally suited for guard at this level. Carolina will be getting Jeff Otah back at right tackle, a massive powerful run-blocker.
Silatolu is in the same mold as Otah with an abundance of size, physicality and utter nastiness. Silatolu should open the season as the starting left guard between Jordan Gross at left tackle and Ryan Kalil at center. The vastly underrated Geoff Hangartner will start at right guard, giving the Panthers what should be one of the very best offensive lines in the NFL. Silatolu will have some growing pains and the preseason might not always be pretty, as the jump in competition is greater for him than most NFL rookies, but I expect him to solidify a great line and get better and better as the season progresses. It might not be long before Silatolu is among the better guards in the entire league.
Peter Konz, G, Atlanta: Konz was a steal for the Falcons with the 55th pick. He should be an instant starter and upgrade at right guard, a position that was a massive problem for Atlanta in 2011. Konz is best at center but should do quite well at guard, assuming he can stay healthy. Injuries have been a problem for Konz and are the main reason he fell so far in the draft.
Over time, I am sure Atlanta expects Konz to take over as the leader of its offensive line and inherit the starting center job from Todd McClure, who is now 35 years old. Konz has excellent size and long arms, especially for a center. He isn’t overpowering, but he uses his bulk well and should continue to get stronger. Konz moves well too, but isn’t exceptional in this area. He could stand to use his hands better, but that is coachable. Overall, Konz is a very NFL-ready prospect who should help to shore up one of the weakest areas of the Falcons’ roster.
Mark Barron, S, Tampa Bay: Tampa Bay moved back at the top of the draft and ended up grabbing Barron with the No. 7 selection. Many thought that was too early for Barron. That is understandable. He is not a rare athletic safety specimen like Eric Berry, Earl Thomas or Sean Taylor -- other early selections at the position. But Barron is very NFL-ready, versatile, a big-time leader and a great fit in today’s NFL that is loaded with freak-of-nature tight ends such as the Saints’ Jimmy Graham, who obviously resides in the division.
The Bucs were very light at safety before this draft and there were few elite prospects from which to pick. Tampa Bay will ask Barron to do a lot of different things in terms of his alignment, coverage responsibilities, blitzing and run support. Barron can handle a deep-half assignment as well as doing battle with wide receivers, tight ends and running backs in man coverage. Barron also will spend plenty of time near the line of scrimmage and is an excellent run-support defender and tackler. Barron’s leadership, intellect and feel for the game might be his best qualities. The Bucs’ defense desperately needs a major infusion of all those traits.
Doug Martin, RB, Tampa Bay: As I noted earlier in my blog post about the NFC South running backs, I fully expect Martin to take over the lead back spot in Tampa Bay before very long. Martin is exactly what Greg Schiano is looking for at the position.
The Buccaneers will be a run-first team and have invested quite a bit in their offensive line to pave the way. A great interior runner who also is very effective outside the tackles and as a receiver, Martin is in line for a lot of touches. The Buccaneers did not trade back into the first round to select a running back to not use him. And because LeGarrette Blount is a liability in the passing game, the door is wide open for Martin to thrive.
Schiano believes in bludgeoning his opponents with a powerful running game and a back who can do a lot of things well. The Bucs will then surely take shots deep downfield, most likely to newly acquired receiver Vincent Jackson, off play-action to utilize Josh Freeman’s great arm strength. In the passing game, Martin should be very friendly to Freeman as both a dump-off option when the quarterback is in trouble and as a schemed option to get Martin matched up against opposing linebackers.
Lavonte David, LB Tampa Bay: David could be every bit as impactful as the two teammates drafted ahead of him. At No. 58 overall, David is the lowest-drafted player on this list. Without much competition on the Buccaneers’ roster, David should grab the starting weakside linebacker job by the throat. He is perfectly suited for this role in Tampa Bay’s scheme, and he is extremely well-equipped to immediately handle all the coverage responsibilities of an every-down linebacker at this level.
Undersized but very fast, David is a missile to the ball carrier. Like Kuechly, David is extremely active and productive. He isn’t 49 draft picks worse than Kuechly and might even be in a better situation to make an instant impact. Keep an eye on David -- he might just surpass Kuechly and every other defensive rookie to claim that defensive rookie of the year honor. Tampa Bay paid a heavy price to trade up to land David, but I think it will pay off nicely.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.