Two weeks before the draft, almost everyone looks like a potential impact player. But history tells us that the reality will be far different come fall. Few rookies will truly help turn their teams' fortunes in 2006. For every Shawne Merriman, Lofa Tatupu, Carnell Williams or Kyle Orton, there will be a bevy of disappointments like Cedric Benson, Braylon Edwards, Troy Williamson and J.J. Arrington.
Who are the collegiate prospects best positioned to make their presence felt right away? We talked to league personnel men, coaches and even last year's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, the Chargers' Merriman, to try to identify this year's Shawne Merriman. Here are the elite eight:
Vernon Davis, tight end, Maryland: It's no surprise that the first name out of Merriman's mouth was that of Davis, his former Terrapins teammate and the talk of this year's NFL Scouting Combine thanks to his freakish workout.
"I know his work ethic, and that's going to help him separate himself in the NFL,'' Merriman told SI.com this week. "In this league as a rookie, everything gets thrown at you very fast, but it's how much time you're willing to put in and learn that gets you ahead of the curve. Vernon will do what it takes to be a difference maker.''
Size, speed and athleticism are Davis' calling cards, and his skills conjure up comparisons to Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez. But at least one club personnel man I talked to sounded a cautionary tone regarding Davis, who likely won't make it past No. 6 (San Francisco).
"He'll be productive in the passing game right away,'' the personnel man said, "because he's so athletically gifted. But he's a bit one-dimensional. He's going to be a train wreck if anyone has to rely on him as a blocker. He's not good at it and has no interest in it. If he has to stay in as a blocker, he's going to be a problem.''
Then again, if Davis finds the end zone enough times, chances are his new team will forgive deficiencies in his blocking.