Forecasting top-five picks’ NFL careers

The new CBA, including its rookie wage scale, has definitely decreased the price tag for top-five picks, but the repercussions for missing are still huge. Before you have even played a down, before you have even had your first jersey stitched, draft analysts and fans are asking whether you are a star or a bust.

After three preseason games, their cleats have at least touched the turf, but these first few steps into the NFL are just the opening arguments in a case as to whether these five will eventually thrive or fail to meet expectations.

Here is our early — really early — forecast for the first five picks in the 2011 NFL Draft based on our study of preseason coaching tape:

1. Cam Newton

Newton certainly has the arm of a No. 1 overall pick. Unfortunately, it takes more than an arm to make throws.

While the Auburn product has worked with Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon on his mechanics, Newton still has a bad habit of being a “fade-away jump shooter,” not transferring weight from his plant foot forward to drive the ball. This degrades his accuracy and — believe it or not — he’s cheating his velocity.

If anything, Newton has dispelled any notion he is a run-first quarterback. He has made an effort to keep his head downfield and waits on receivers to come open, bypassing opportunities to take open green. Newton does have a tendency to revert to using his legs sometimes, though, which might just be an old habit dying hard.

Moreover, we are impressed by Newton’s ability to get the ball out. He isn’t always right in his choice; oftentimes he will predetermine throws, a byproduct of a rookie quarterback in a pro offense. But when he’s right, the ball is on time and he has the ability to make every throw.

2. Von Miller

The first thing you notice with Miller — his strength.

In a matchup with Cowboys first-round pick Tyron Smith, Miller consistently controlled the 300-pound tackle, lifting him off his feet at one point. Not that this is anything new to Miller — he was a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end in the Big 12 only months ago. His pass-rushing skills could become elite for a linebacker in the NFL, displaying an excellent speed rush to set up his bull rush and “inside veer” moves.

The real test for an edge rusher converting to strongside linebacker in a 4-3 is defending the pass, where dropping back and recognizing receiver spacing and route combinations will be new. We don’t foresee a lot of situations where he will have to cover, but he needs to become accustomed to it.

But Miller appears to be a quick learner and reads his keys well versus the run. No longer pigeonholed to the edge of the defense but pushed back to linebacker depth, he still takes on fullbacks well. The Broncos have also lined Miller up at 4-3 defensive end and he set the edge with force.

When he pursues a run away from his side, though, we would like to see him come across the line with a little more urgency. But we are sure that’s a minor point and will be improved in time.

3. Marcell Dareus

At 6-foot-3 and 343 pounds, Dareus is a “round mound of push you around.”

All of the violent hands and sheer strength we saw from him at Alabama has transferred over to the NFL, and opposing linemen are paying the price. He commands attention comparable to Pro Bowler and fellow defensive tackle Kyle Williams.

There is much Dareus has yet to learn, though. When an offensive lineman pulls, he does not alter his up-the-field rush to adjust to the likelihood of a down block to his side. On a couple occasions this preseason, he has been caught off guard by a down block. Dareus also has a tendency to play high and without his hands, exposing his chest.

But when Dareus puts it all together — which he’s shown flashes of doing — he will definitely be a significant contributor along the line, as a pass rusher and run stuffer. That’s a rare — and valuable — commodity in the NFL.

4. A.J. Green

A wide receiver, rookie or not, does not have much in his control. He’s told what route to run. The quarterback dictates when the ball comes. And with fellow rookie Andy Dalton, things aren’t clearly defined yet.

So, after three preseason games, it’s hard to fully evaluate Green. His stats have progressed each game, but we have yet to see his combination of size and speed fully put to use. From observing him on film, you can see Green understands the finer points of his position, such as route running, field spacing and body positioning. He has to adjust, however, to the talent level.

Against the New York Jets in preseason Week 2, he had minimal opportunities in press coverage. On two slant passes versus Darelle Revis, Green succeeded in getting off the line and creating clear separation. One wasn’t thrown in his direction, and another resulted in a drop by Green.

Putting down catchable balls on in-breaking routes has been a recurrence for Green — and we know the middle can be a scary place in the NFL.

5. Patrick Peterson

Peterson is the only rookie picked in the top five who has yet to start — but the Cardinals CB definitely will play.

With Greg Toler out for the year, an outside corner position is available and Peterson will be expected to fill it with his size, speed and instincts. At the same time, he is the toughest to gauge due to the way he has been used.

In defensive coordinator Ray Horton‘s system, Peterson plays with a lot of space between himself and the wide receiver — in zone or man — which allows him to keep everything in front of him and use his athleticism to break on the ball.

He hasn’t been given a chance yet to show lock-down corner abilities. But Peterson has shown the ability, on occasion, to play tight, man coverage. That doesn’t seem to be his greatest strength, however.

On the other hand, the Cardinals limit the amount of time his back is turned away from plays, giving him opportunities to be instinctive.

Overall, this preseason has been a positive one for the top five; a lot of potential, as always.

It will take a few regular-season games, however, to gauge whether these findings were the first signs of stardom or aberrations and fond moments for a short-lived career.

Jon Blau, “Playbook” video editor/researcher

“Playbook”, the ultimate football Xs and Os show, airs Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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