Breakthrough rookies: Will Dwight Freeney deliver sacks for the Colts?

Updated: July 22, 2002, 10:29 AM ET
By By Ryan Early
Last week, ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli wrote about five rookies most likely to make a big impact on their teams this season. While I agree wholeheartedly with his choices of Texans WR Jabar Gaffney, Giants TE Jeremy Shockey, Browns RB William Green, Cowboys S Roy Williams and Bengals S Lamont Thompson, here at ESPN Insider we aim to give you more information, more depth, and, in this case, more names to consider. Predicting which rookies are headed for big seasons depends more on just evaluating their talent but on their opportunity to play and their surrounding cast. Many high draft picks fail to make immediate waves in the NFL because they land on subpar teams. Neither of last year's offensive and defensive rookies of the year, Anthony Thomas of the Bears and Kendrell Bell of the Steelers, were first-round picks. Instead, they were both on playoff teams loaded with talent, giving them a chance to shine.

So, to expand on our colleague's article, here are another dozen rookies who figure to shine in their first NFL season:

Robert Thomas, LB, Rams - Last season, Rams rookie linebacker Tommy Polley looked like a future star as he finished the year as the team's starting weak side linebacker. Just a few months later, Polley has been switched to the opposite side of the field with the weak side spot Thomas' to lose. In Lovie Smith's cover-2 defense, the same defense that made Derrick Brooks one of the best linebackers in the league, the weak side position is the star spot, getting more tackle and sack opportunities than the strong side or middle linebacker positions. Thomas won the job by having speed to burn and Smith is hoping that improving the speed at all three positions will make the defense even better than last season's third-ranked unit.

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