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Which NFL rookie will make the biggest contribution this season? [Updated]

August 23, 2011 | 11:05 am

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is one of several NFL rookies who are expected to have productive seasons.
Writers from around the Tribune Co. look at which first-year players will have the most productive NFL season in 2011. Weigh in with your comment.

[Updated at 12:56 p.m.: Sam Farmer, Los Angeles Times

As much as I like Atlanta’s Julio Jones, I think another rookie from the NFC South will make a bigger impact. New Orleans running back Mark Ingram gives the Saints everything Reggie Bush didn’t -- an underrated workhorse back who can run with power, blast through holes instead of dancing behind them, and do it all with more force than flash. Ingram, who will probably split carries with Pierre Thomas, has already been impressive. He had a smooth 14-yard touchdown run against San Francisco (with a nifty spin move) and scored on the goal line against Houston on consecutive plays (the first over-the-top plunge was nullified by a timeout). Ingram was the only running back taken in the first round. This season we’ll find out why.

Mike Berardino, Orlando Sun Sentinel

Cam Newton might have a great future in the NFL, but having watched the No. 1 overall draft pick in person over the weekend, I assure you that future is not now.

Julio Jones (Falcons), Mike Pouncey (Dolphins), Nick Fairley (Lions) and Tyron Smith (Cowboys) should all make an instant splash.

However, if it’s high-end rookie impact you’re looking for, fix your gaze on the desert, where the revamped Cardinals have handed a starting job to former LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson.

If not for the odd draft bias against corners, Peterson might have gone first overall instead of fifth. He’s that freakishly talented as an athlete, and he’ll get a chance to return punts as well.

Green Bay’s Greg Jennings burned Peterson for a back-shoulder touchdown in the second preseason game, but there won’t be many of those moments against him this year.]

Matt Vensel, Baltimore Sun

Without valuable offseason workouts and training camp two-a-days, NFL rookies on both sides of the ball are scrambling to play catch-up. Some will be rushed into roles they might not be ready for (think Cam Newton in Carolina and A.J. Green in Cincinnati). But the more polished, pro-ready prospects from April’s draft will have the biggest impact as rookies in 2011.

Von Miller will play a role in Denver’s revamped defense. Julio Jones gives Matt Ryan another weapon in Atlanta. And Anthony Castonzo will probably be called on to protect Peyton Manning’s blind side in Indianapolis, an extra critical task considering the 35-year-old quarterback’s health status.

But if the first half of the preseason is any indication, Buffalo’s Marcell Dareus is a front-runner for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He has racked up two sacks in two preseason games and he has already drawn comparisons to Bills great Bruce Smith. Smith had 6.5 sacks in 1985, his rookie season. Dareus should be in that neighborhood in his first NFL season.

Dan Pompei, Chicago Tribune

It can be difficult for rookie receivers to make contributions quickly, but Julio Jones isn’t the typical rookie receiver. He stepped in the Falcons’ starting lineup on the first snap of camp and has looked comfortable and at ease ever since. Part of it is Jones’ unusual physical skills. Part of it is Jones’ blue-collar approach. Part of it is the Falcons’ coaching and how they are using him. Part of it is that Jones has an elite quarterback throwing to him in Matt Ryan. Part of it is that the Falcons have effective weapons around Jones who will help free him, weapons like Roddy White, Michael Turner and Tony Gonzalez.

When you add everything together, Jones is positioned to have a productive rookie year and add a dimension to what already was one of the NFL’s finest offenses.

Photo: Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is one of several NFL rookies who are expected to have productive seasons. Credit: Joe Skipper / Reuters