Friday, October 31, 2008

The Class of 2007


With Week 8 in the rearview mirror, some teams have reached the halfway point of their season and others are on the cusp. I thought we might take a look back at the five biggest offensive acquisitions from the 2008 NFL Draft and how each player has impacted their respective teams.


It’s an absolutely remarkable achievement when an argument can be made for a rookie quarterback as the most valuable player on his team. And that’s been the case in Atlanta from the first snap in week 1. On literally the third snap from scrimmage, his first NFL pass went for a 62-yard touchdown and the unbelievable renaissance of the Atlanta franchise has continued as the Falcons find themselves at 4-3 after a tough loss in Philadelphia on Sunday. Against a tough Eagle defense that limited the Steelers to just 6 points and 179 total yards earlier this season, Ryan threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns in the 27-14 defeat. Ryan is on track for a 3,000-yard season, an achievement that few, if any, pundits thought possible when the season began. More impressively, he has become the face of the franchise just a little more than a year after Michael Vick, the previous franchise quarterback, was sentenced to prison time for his role in a dog-fighting ring.


In what could be looked back upon one day as one of the best drafts for running backs in recent history, Chris Johnson was the fifth running back taken behind Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, and Rashard Mendenhall as the 24th overall pick to the Titans. His speed was unquestioned but some draft experts wondered whether he had the size to stand up to the physical pounding of the NFL. Seven games into the season in the Titans ball-control offensive system, Johnson has been the game-breaker Tennessee has long lacked in the backfield. He is averaging nearly 90 yards per game, has scored four times, and has two runs of 40 or more yards for the undefeated Titans. Not even halfway into his first season in the NFL, defenses are being forced to game plan for him, a compliment that few rookie running backs receive.


With their second round pick, the Bears selected Matt Forte out of Tulane. With former first round pick Cedric Benson officially a bust, the Bears found themselves once again searching for a running back in the 2008 Draft. Although lacking the breakaway speed of Johnson, Forte won the starting job in Chicago during training camp and proved he deserved it in week one, rushing for 123 yards and a touchdown in a surprising road win over the Colts. Forte is on pace for a 1,000-yard season and his productivity has forced defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage, allowing QB Kyle Orton to find success down the field with play-action passes. Forte is a major reason the Bears are averaging 28 points per game, third in the NFL and seven points per game more than in 2007.


Other than the season and a half when the Eagles had Terrell Owens, Philadelphia has long searched for a receiver who could stretch the field and create big plays for Donovan McNabb and the offense. Jackson, a second round pick out of California, is averaging almost 16 yards per reception, leads the team in receiving yards, and appears likely to crack the 1,000-yard receiving barrier. McNabb is on pace for a career high in passing yards, a stat that can be directly traced to Jackson’s ability to make plays down the field. He also has added an element on special teams where he has had two returns of over 40 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown against Washington in Week 5.


Though his numbers pale in comparison to fellow rookie Matt Ryan, Flacco has also been impressive in the young season, earning the starting job for the rest of the year with his performance in the season’s first half. With Troy Smith and Kyle Boller felled by an illness and shoulder injury respectively, Baltimore turned to the rookie out of Delaware to start the season. He has managed the game admirably and avoided crucial mistakes in leading Baltimore to a 4-3 record, good enough for second in the AFC North. He is completing over 60% of his passes and has shown incredible arm strength, most recently against Oakland Sunday when he hit Demetrius Williams for a 70-yard touchdown. Flacco may not take Baltimore to the postseason in his first season, but Jon Harbaugh and the Raven coaching staff can rest easy knowing their rookie quarterback has a bright future in the NFL.

Photo Credit: Collegiate Images, College Press Box (Boston College)