The best 2012 first round picks not named Andrew Luck or RG3

The season may be winding down, but the hyperbole is just getting started. The much-lauded 2012 rookie class has featured the likes of such playmakers as Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, and Doug Martin, all of whom have been fixtures in league headlines for the last 16 weeks. But what about the rest of the gang?

I’m not talking about the likes of Alfred Morris or Josh Gordon, going from draft day afterthoughts to key players in their teams’ seasons. I’m talking about the other big guns, the best of the rest who stood in the spotlight on the Radio City Music Hall stage with the commish, but have somehow ended up in the shadows during the 2012 season. Well, their relative obscurity ends today. Here are five of the best rookies from the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft you may have forgotten about:

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Matt Kalil – 4th overall, Minnesota Vikings

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Being the number four overall draft pick, it’s strange to think that Matt Kalil has been underappreciated this season. Yet, that’s what will happen when the running back you block for has a chance at rewriting the record books. All Kalil has done in his rookie season is help solidify the Minnesota Vikings offensive line by paving the way for Adrian Peterson’s monster season, and reducing the Vikings’ sack total from 49 in 2011 to 31, with one game left to play.

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Luke Kuechly – 9th overall, Carolina Panthers

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I’ve already given Carolina Panthers standout Luke Kuechly some love in this blog before, but the first rounder out of Boston College certainly deserves the attention. Once he replaced Jon Beason at middle linebacker, Kuechly’s abilities and instincts began to show week after week as he made his physical presence known against every opponent. His production speaks for itself, as Kuechly currently leads the NFL with 151 tackles.

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Chandler Jones – 21st overall, New England Patriots

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Badly needing to revamp their defense after an abysmal statistical season in 2011, the New England Patriots selected Chandler Jones in the first round, and the rookie responded. Jones injured his ankle in week 11, slowing his production, but prior to that he lead the Patriots with six sacks, and three forced fumbles. His injury quieted his Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign, but regardless, Jones has been worthy of his high draft pick.

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Harrison Smith – 22nd overall, Minnesota Vikings

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The Minnesota Vikings certainly made the most of their two first round picks after wheeling and dealing with Cleveland and Baltimore on draft day. Harrison Smith has the look of a perennial playmaker in the Vikings secondary, one they will desperately need in a division where they play the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, and Matthew Stafford twice a year.  He has gained more awareness and confidence as the season has worn on, racking up almost 100 tackles, and taking two of his three interceptions back for touchdowns.

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Kevin Zeitler – 27th overall, Cincinnati Bengals

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Playing guard already limits Kevin Zeitler‘s spotlight attention, yet the Cincinnati Bengals first rounder has performed well enough to merit his share of time in the spotlight. Zeitler has provided some toughness to an offensive line in need of a little punch. The unit is still giving up too many sacks as a whole (many of them are still Andy Dalton’s fault), but Zeitler has helped create big holes for BenJarvus Green-Ellis to run through on his way to over 1,000 yards, as evidenced in the clip above. Zeitler is number 68, and you can see his impact once he handily moves his defensive lineman out of the play.

Follow Alex on Twitter @AlexGelhar

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