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Teams mining gems from rookie class

For a number of NFL teams, youth was served in 2006.

Of the 255 players drafted, 193 made NFL rosters, eight more than the year before. Fifty of them became primary starters in 2006, up from 45 in 2005.

League-wide, the Class of 2006 combined to start a record 821 games.

"You can't be afraid to play young people," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who suited up 18 rookies, including nine of a league-high 12 draft picks. "Because of the salary cap and free agency, this league is all about youth."

The Packers certainly deserve high marks for their draft, but several others also earned passing grades. Here's a team-by-team review of the 2006 draft, ranked one through 32 based on rookie productivity:

1. New Orleans (A)

First-round RB Reggie Bush lived up to the hype, rushing for 565 yards and setting a rookie record with 88 receptions. The steal of the draft was seventh-round WR Marques Colston, who caught 70 passes for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns. Fourth-round OG Jahri Evans, who started every regular-season and playoff game, was a great find. Second-round FS Roman Harper was a starter until a knee injury in Week Five. Seventh-round OT Zach Strief played well in spot duty.

2. Green Bay (A)

LB A.J. Hawk proved to be worthy of the fifth overall pick, starting 16 games and leading the team with 119 tackles. Three offensive linemen -- second-round G Daryn Colledge, third-round C/G Jason Spitz and fifth-round G Tony Moll -- had 38 combined starts on the NFL's ninth-ranked offense. Second-round WR Greg Jennings was the Packers' second leading receiver.

3. Buffalo (A)

Seven of the eight picks started 58 games. Only Green Bay had more. SS Donte Whitner justified being the eighth overall pick with 104 tackles, fifth among NFL defensive backs. Fourth-round FS Ko Simpson (15 starts) was a second-day steal. Fifth-round DT Kyle Williams (11 starts) and sixth-round OLB Keith Ellison (seven starts) were solid additions. Seventh-round RT Terrance Pennington started the last nine games. A foot injury limited first-round DT John McCargo to five games and third-round CB Ashton Youboty missed too much practice time to be a factor.

4. Houston (A)

The star of the Texans' draft was second-round MLB DeMeco Ryans, the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year who led the team with 155 tackles. Texans are still taking heat for passing up Reggie Bush and Vince Young to take DE Mario Williams with the first overall pick. Williams started every game, but was slowed by a foot injury and had only 4 1/2 sacks (none in the last eight games). Third-round OTs Charles Spencer and Eric Winston, fourth-round TE Owen Daniels and sixth-round RB Wali Lundy combined for 29 starts. Grade: A

5. Baltimore

Run-stuffing first-round DT Haloti Ngata and surprising fifth-round SS Dawan Landry (NFL rookie-high five interceptions) were starters on NFL's top-ranked defense. Second-round C/G Chris Chester showed promise. Fourth-round WR Demetrius Williams emerged as a big-play threat. Grade: B

6. Chicago

Second-round KR/PR Devin Hester earned Pro Bowl berth by setting an NFL record with six return touchdowns in the regular season. He added another TD on the opening kickoff in the Super Bowl. Second-round FS Danieal Manning accounted for 13 of the 15 starts by rookies. Fifth-round DE Mark Anderson led Bears and NFL rookies with 12 sacks off the bench. Grade: B

7. N.Y. Jets

The Jets became the first team since the Los Angeles Rams in 1975 to use two first-round draft picks on offensive linemen when they selected LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson and C Nick Mangold. Both started every game. Fourth-round RB Leon Washington led the team in rushing. Grade: B

8. Oakland

First-round SS Michael Huff and second-round OLB Thomas Howard were immediate fixtures on third-ranked defense, while third-round G Paul McQuistan and sixth-round G Kevin Boothe became starters. Grade: B

9. Jacksonville

Second-round RB Maurice Jones-Drew was incredibly productive with 941 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, 46 receptions for 436 yards and two scores and a 93-yard kickoff TD return. His 16 touchdowns were the most by a rookie since 1990. First-round TE Marcedes Lewis was slowed by early ankle problems, but showed positive signs late. Third-round OLB Clint Ingram was the team's second-leading tackler in just 11 starts. Grade: B

10. Arizona

Outgoing coach Dennis Green added three solid pieces to the Cardinals' offense in first-round QB Matt Leinart, second-round G Deuce Lutui and third-round TE Leonard Pope. Leinart, who threw for 2,547 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 starts, has a chance to be special. Grade: B

11. Cleveland

First round OLB Kamerion Wimbley (11 sacks) was a pass-rushing force. ILBs D'Qwell Jackson (93 tackles) and Leon Williams were solid picks in second and fourth rounds. Grade: B

12. St. Louis

Second-round TE Joe Klopfenstein opened the season as a starter. First-round CB Tye Hill, fourth-round DE Victor Adeyanju and seventh-round G Mark Setterstrom joined the starting lineup by midseason. Grade: B

13. San Francisco

First-round TE Vernon Davis flashed game-breaking talent once he overcame early injuries. First-round OLB Manny Lawson and sixth-round DE Melvin Oliver were key members on improving defense. Grade: B-

14. Tampa Bay

First-round G Davin Joseph and second-round T Jeremy Trueblood anchored right side of O-line, starting 12 and 13 games, respectively. Third-round WR Maurice Stovall showed potential in limited time. Sixth-round QB Bruce Gradkowski was an 11-game starter after Chris Simms got hurt. Grade: B-

15. New England

First-round RB Laurence Maroney becomes the featured back after impressive first year. Second-round WR Chad Jackson wasn't a factor because of injuries. Fourth-round K Stephen Gostkowski thrived as Adam Vinatieri's successor. Third-round TE David Thomas and fifth-round OT Ryan O'Callaghan earned significant playing time. Grade: C

16. San Diego

Second-round LT Marcus McNeill performed at a Pro Bowl level on an O-line that allowed just 28 sacks and helped LaDainian Tomlinson win the NFL rushing title and league MVP. First-round CB Antonio Cromartie is a great athlete who saw a lot of action as the nickel back. Rest of class didn't bring much to the table. Grade: C

17. Tennessee

Vince Young was only impact draft pick, but what an impact he made. The NFL Rookie of the Year won eight of his 13 starts to lead one of the NFL's youngest teams into playoff contention. Fourth-round MLB Stephen Tulloch and seventh-round CB Cortland Finnegan look promising. Grade: C

18. Carolina

First-round RB DeAngelo Williams flashed big-play talent as a rusher, receiver and kick returner, but injuries held him back. Second-round CB Richard Marshall outshined veteran starters on the NFL's fourth-rated pass defense. Third-round LB James Anderson, fourth-round SS Nate Salley and sixth-round G Will Montgomery stepped up. Grade: C

19. Indianapolis

First-round RB Joseph Addai didn't start a game, but led the Super Bowl champs and all rookie rushers with 1,081 yards -- including a 171-yard, four-TD game against Philadelphia -- and added 40 catches. Sixth-round FS Antoine Bethea, who started 14 games, was the only other rookie of note. Grade: C

20. Cincinnati

First-round CB Jonathan Joseph and second-round OT Andrew Whitworth finished the season as starters. Fourth-round DT Domata Peko also played well. Grade: C

21. Kansas City

First-round DE Tamba Hali led the Chiefs in sacks (eight) and forced fumbles (five). Second-rounder Bernard Pollard and seventh-rounder Jarrad Page are safeties of the future. Third-round QB Brodie Croyle being groomed as future starter. Grade: C-

22. Seattle

First-round CB Kelly Jennings stood out as a nickel back, while second-round DE Darryl Tapp and fourth-round G Rob Sims showed flashes. P Ryan Plackemeier (25 punts inside the 20) was a good seventh-round choice. Grade: C-

23. Denver

First-round QB Jay Cutler and second-round TE Tony Scheffler weren't utilized until late in the season. Fourth-round DE Elvis Dumervil is undersized rusher who had 8 1/2 sacks in part-time duty. Most productive rookie was undrafted RB Mike Bell, who ran for 677 yards and eight touchdowns. Grade: C-

24. Detroit

First-round OLB Ernie Sims (123 tackles) displayed great playmaking skills and second-round FS Daniel Bullocks (70 tackles in seven starts) improved steadily. But rest of class had little impact. Grade: D

25. Dallas

First-round LB Bobby Carpenter was a non-factor before getting a start in season finale. Second-round TE Anthony Fasano was more blocker than receiver. Fifth-round FS Pat Watkins (nine starts) showed a nose for the ball, but gave up big plays. Grade: D

26. N.Y. Giants

First-round DE Mathias Kiwanuka showed promise as a pass rusher and fourth-round DT Barry Cofield was a pleasant surprise, starting every game. But second-round WR Sinorice Moss and rest of rookie class offered very little. Grade: D

27. Pittsburgh

First-round WR Santonio Holmes didn't start until the last four games, but averaged 20 yards per catch. Second-round FS Anthony Smith also became a late-season starter. Rest of draft was disappointing. Grade: D

28. Minnesota

Losing first-round LB Chad Greenway in training camp to a knee injury was a huge blow. Second-round CB Cedric Griffin (seven starts) played well on a top-10 defense. Second-round QB Tarvaris Jackson needs more polish. Grade: D-

29. Atlanta

Second-round CB Jimmy Williams did not offer much, but third-round RB Jerious Norwood (633 yards rushing) was a great find. Rest of class doesn't hold much promise. Grade: D-

30. Philadelphia

Sixth-round OLB Omar Gaither (five starts) was only impact rookie. Top three picks -- DT Brodrick Bunkley, OT Winston Justice and OLB Chris Gocong -- offered little or nothing. Grade: F

31. Washington

Redskins prefer free agents. They had only one first-day pick last year and the only significant contributor was sixth-round DT Kedric Golston, who started 13 games. Grade: F

32. Miami

The only notable draft pick was first-round FS/CB Jason Allen, who never earned meaningful playing time after training camp holdout. The Dolphins were the only team that didn't start a rookie in 2006. Grade: F.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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