Football, finally, is just around the corner, and that means it’s time to fire up the grill, update your DirectstarTV package, set up your fantasy team, and get excited for some NFL action! With the recent lockout having threatened the schedule and endangered games, this season actually almost feels like some sort of bonus. With that in mind, there is a lot to be excited about heading forward, not the least of which is watching the progress of some of the top rookies drafted in the 2011 NFL Draft.

As usual, the first pick was one of the most intriguing, with the Carolina Panthers (the league’s worst team last season) selecting Auburn quarterback Cam Newton. It was widely acknowledged that the Panthers wanted Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, but Luck decided to go back to school for another season, leaving the Panthers with Newton… by all accounts, Newton, a former Heisman Trophy winner and national champion, has an absurdly high talent level, and could potentially be a star; yet it is also believed that he will have quite a learning curve, and may not adjust quickly or successfully to the NFL. We may see pretty quickly whether the Panthers struck gold or struck out.

With the second pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Denver Broncos, who had a miserable season last year and who struggled mightily at keeping opposing teams out of the end zone, looked to improve their defense by bringing in Von Miller, the accomplished linebacker from Texas A&M. The Broncos’ defense will need more help than this, but it’s a start.

Another very exciting draft pick to watch should be Julio Jones, the Alabama wide receiver who went to the Atlanta Falcons with the sixth pick. The Falcons traded up in the draft to be able to select Jones, and will add him to a receiving unit that includes star receiver Roddy White. With Matt Ryan throwing to White, the Falcons already had a strong passing game last season; if Jones comes out of the gate effectively, the passing game could become very, very deadly.

These are just a few of the past draft’s more interesting picks to keep an eye on as the new season starts up. Of course, it is always fun to keep an eye on just about all of the top rookies as they adjust to the professional game. Will 8th pick Jake Locker from Washington get a chance to start at quarterback for the Titans at some point this year? Will 12th pick Christian Ponder emerge as the Vikings’ quarterback of the future? Will 13th pick DT Nick Fairley put the Lions’ rapidly rebuilding defense over the edge toward becoming an elite unit? All of these should be very interesting things to watch this season.