The suspensions of 2011 starters Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, along with the contract dispute between Drew Brees and management, has the New Orleans Saints already facing a rocky start to the 2012 NFL season.
To combat the loss of their key players, the Saints are going to need significant contributions and assurance from their rookie class. Among the Saints talented rookie crop, five players specifically have an opportunity to play important roles for New Orleans in the upcoming season.
1. Akiem Hicks - University of Regina - Defensive Tackle
Originally, Hicks attended Sacramento City College, then transferred to a more competitive college football program, LSU. Hicks then suffered from ineligibility, due to recruiting violations at LSU, and landed in Canada at the University of Regina. In his final season at University of Regina, Hicks posted an impressive 42 tackles and 6.5 sacks at the defensive tackle position. The Saints used their first pick of the 2012 NFL Draft to get Hicks in the third round. Hicks is not expected to start this year, due to the veteran presence of Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis at the starting position. Expect to see Hicks slowly fill into the defensive tackle rotation throughout the year.
2. Nick Toon - University of Wisconsin - Wide Receiver
The Badgers product may be the son of the three-time Pro-Bowl wide receiver Al Toon, but he has certainly made a name for himself. Toon reeled in 10 touchdown passes his senior in Madison, while racking up over 900 receiving yards. At 6-foot-3 and nearly 220 pounds, Toon is a physical receiver, but lacks the raw speed to burn defenders off of the line. The rookie wide-out also has great hands that allow him to make spectacular catches over smaller cornerbacks. At the moment, Toon is competing for the fourth spot at wide receiver behind Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, and Lance Moore.
3. Marcel Jones - University of Nebraska - Offensive Tackle
Jones was picked up by New Orleans in the last round of the 2012 Draft after a great senior season, in which he started all 12 games for Nebraska. The reason he fell to the seventh round is not due to his lack of talent, but rather his history of injuries. Jones missed almost his entire junior season with Nebraska because of back problems. Injuries aside, the 320-pound offensive tackle is a great run blocker and has excellent footwork for his size. Jones still has more to learn in order to become a consistent NFL starter, and will serve as a capable backup to the current offensive tackle starter, Jermon Bushrod.
4. Andrew Tiller - Syracuse - Offensive Guard
Another promising offensive lineman that the Saints picked up late in the draft, Tiller made the All-Big East first team and started every game for the Orange in 2011. Tiller comes in as an experienced and successful college player that blocked for a 1000-yard rusher in both seasons that he started. Statistics demonstrate that Tiller is a great run-blocker, but he still needs to improve upon his pass-blocking. The Syracuse product is expected to play behind starting offensive guard Jahri Evans this upcoming season.
5. Corey White - Samford - Cornerback
Despite coming from a lesser known college, White still managed to make noise in the NCAA by recording seven interceptions and four forced fumbles in his two years starting for Samford. White gained even more notoriety for his exceptional NFL Combine performance before this year's draft. The former Bulldog posted a 37.5 inch vertical jump and a broad jump that measured 10.5 feet. White also has great size for an NFL cornerback, with a height of 6-foot-1 and weighing in at a solid 205 pounds. The rookie defensive back can certainly compete for playing time in the Saints secondary.