By Steve Silverman
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Nothing against Major League Baseball, the NBA or the NHL, but the largest majority of American sports fans are now waiting with bated breath for the start of the football season.

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The idea of college football providing the appetizer on Saturday, followed by the main course of Sunday football, still puts a smile on the faces of most sports fans. Throw in a beautiful Monday night game and a fairly ordinary Thursday game, and football fans are satisfied once September rolls around.

That’s when there are four satisfying months of full-time football. But as we are just about to tear another month off the calendar, football is no longer in hibernation. Training camp is just a few weeks away, and that’s when coaches start to get a pretty good idea of what their teams are going to look like and which players are going to step up and become game-changers.

Some coaches may already have an idea because teams have had minicamps and other training activities. Rookies have had their chance to make first impressions, and coaches may have a fairly strong idea of whether the team’s scouting department is sharp and effective or is filled with dreamers who just can’t get it right.

In this piece, we look at five rookies who are as close to sure things as we have seen in several years.

We haven’t said this in a long time, but the Oakland Raiders did not fool themselves when they drafted Amari Cooper with their first-round draft choice.

Cooper has looked positively un-Raider-like during his short stint since being drafted. Cooper has a firm grasp of the Oakland playbook and the expectations of the coaching staff, and he looked as dynamic in the Raiders’ practice sessions as he did at Alabama last year when he caught 124 passes for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns.

The Raiders were fairly happy with Derek Carr’s progress at the quarterback spot last year, but he has a chance to improve dramatically if Cooper truly is the real deal.

Look for Cooper to help turn the Raiders around in 2015.

Further down the left coast, the San Diego Chargers appear ready to give Philip Rivers quite a bit of help with offensive diversity as a result of the play of rookie running back Melvin Gordon. The Chargers have been lacking consistency on the ground since LaDainian Tomlinson was in his prime, and they went against the current NFL grain by drafting Gordon in the first round.

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You know the arguments against drafting running backs early and paying too much for their services. They simply don’t last long enough to warrant the high draft pick, and if one gets away from you after a few good years, you can simply replace him with someone else.

Those arguments don’t always hold water when you get a superstar. Or, more precisely, when you lose one. The best running backs in the game are not easy to replace, and no team knows this better than the Chargers. That’s why they are hoping they have struck gold with Gordon.

Gordon is not a huge man at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, but he has an overpowering burst of speed that he couples with off-the-charts agility. Gordon ran for 2,587 yards and 29 touchdowns last year at Wisconsin, and there’s no reason why he won’t be able to exceed the 1,200-yard mark in the NFL.

Those who have followed the Atlanta Falcons for the last five seasons have seen a team that often looks great on paper – particularly on offense – but can’t get the job done consistently. The Dirty Birds had many problems under former head coach Mike Smith, but they had no bigger problem than a lack of size and strength on defense.

That problem will not get solved overnight, but rookie defensive end Vic Beasley looks like a player who can not only turn the corner when he rushes the passer, but can punish opponents with his power and girth. At 6-foot-3 and 249 pounds, Beasley has the kind of strength that the Falcons have been missing from their edge rushers.

Beasley was an outstanding pass rusher at Clemson, where he had 33 sacks during his career. The Falcons struggled badly in that area, and he appears to be just what the team needed.

The Cleveland Browns also needed more size and strength after their run defense gave up more yards than any other team in the league. They went after those assets by drafting Danny Shelton out of Washington. The 6-foot-2, 337-pound Shelton had a monster year with the Huskies. He registered 93 tackles from the middle of the defensive line, and that included 16.5 tackles for loss and 9.0 sacks.

Shelton plays with a mean streak and is the kind of player who will turn it on the instant he senses he has an edge on his opponent. The Browns’ insiders believe they have a player who can turn their run defense around quickly.

While Beasley and Shelton appear to be notable defensive rookies, don’t be shocked if middle linebacker Eric Kendricks of the Minnesota Vikings earns the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

Head coach Mike Zimmer is probably the best defensive mind in the league, and it was clear that he wanted an upgrade at the middle linebacker position. Zimmer’s philosophy is that if he is given a player with nonstop energy who loves the game, he can do the rest.

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Kendricks qualifies in both of those areas. The former UCLA star is also shockingly fast for a middle linebacker, and is an excellent tackler already. Zimmer is going to put a lot on his plate, and don’t be surprised if Kendricks does for the Vikings’ defense what Bobby Wagner did for the Seahawks’ defense.