Top Rookie Seasons
- Published: May 15, 2012 at 03:12 p.m.
- Updated: May 15, 2012 at 03:32 p.m.
A great rookie season in the NFL is like found money -- or extended adult swim at the pool. So much is put into first round picks, and while teams hope most of them will live up to their contracts for the next four years, once in a while a team catches an end-of-Point-Break-sized wave in a player who outperforms all expectations. So let's take a look at the best rookie season in each NFL teams' history. And for some teams we'll look all the way back ... to last season. Get in the Wayback Machine.
Buffalo Bills - Marshawn Lynch, RB.
Before he traded in Orchard Park for the Pacific Northwest and Skittles, The Beast burst onto the scene in 2007 with 1,115 yards rushing and seven TDs in just 13 games. Every year since then it got a little worse (just like the economy) until his big rebound season in 2011.
Miami Dolphins - Dan Marino, QB.
I actually remember the game where Miami decided to bench David Woodley and go with Marino. (And thus as a Jets fan, I sent up my white flag for approximately 15 years.) He started just nine games in 1983 but still managed to put up 20 touchdowns and over 2,200 yards passing.
New England Patriots - Mike Haynes, DB.
Back when New England was where you played until you could land someplace better (like the Raiders have been for the last decade), Haynes had a phenomenal rookie campaign in 1976, with eight interceptions and two punt returns for touchdowns. Finally in 1982, he hit greener pastures ... signing with Oakland, who back then were the Patriots of the '70s. Ah, the Circle of Life.
New York Jets - Joe Namath, QB.
The list of impact rookie New York Jets is long (no) and distinguished (not really). But was there anyone more ballyhooed (I think people still use that word) than Namath? With a bull's-eye bigger than the world's largest Target logo on his back, he threw for 18 touchdowns and 2,220 yards in 1965 in 13 AFL games -- just nine of them starts.
Baltimore Ravens - Jamal Lewis, RB.
I know, Ray Lewis is going to fly to Los Angeles and make me explain to him, face to face, why it's the other Lewis guy. I would tell Ray very calmly that as a rookie, to run for 1,364 yards (and another 100 in the Super Bowl) when the other team knows you're not going to throw the ball is pretty impressive. And then I would tell Ray the only Super Bowl he won was with Jamal. Then I'd yell out "Look, behind you, it's Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff" and then run away when he turned around.
Cincinnati Bengals - A. J. Green, WR.
Maybe this says something about the state of the Bengals since, well, their inception, but it's so rare for a receiver to come in and have a 1,000-yard season like Green did anywhere, much less Cincinnati -- who was breaking in a rookie QB, too. Throw in the fact that Cris Collinsworth started 10 games opposite Green and his season becomes more impressive.
Cleveland Browns - Jim Brown, RB.
Consider that 1957 was Brown's worst statistically as a pro makes you realize just how good he was in the other seasons. He led the league in rushing with 942 yards and nine touchdowns in 12 games and was voted first-team All-NFL. And here's how bad Browns running backs have been since Brown ran the football: Trent Richardson has the chance to be the second-best running back in team history as long as his legs don't fall off.
Pittsburgh Steelers - Ben Roethlisberger, QB.
Nowadays teams draft rookie quarterback and just plug them in and expect results. But until Roethlisberger in 2004 teams didn't do it at all. But throwing for 17 touchdowns and getting his team to the AFC title game by completing over 66 percent of his passes was pretty special. Before you ask how Terry Bradshaw did, I'll tell you -- his rookie season saw him throw six TDs and 24 INTs. That sounds like half a season for Mark Sanchez.
Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans - Earl Campbell, RB.
You want the greatest 10 minutes you can spend on YouTube? Look at the compilation of Campbell's greatest runs. You thought Michael Turner had big thighs? Forget it. Campbell ran for 1,450 yards and 13 TDs in 1978. And I think he had his jersey ripped off him on half of those runs.
Houston Texans - Brian Cushing, LB.
So what if he was voted Rookie of the Year in 2009, then because of a performance-enhancing issue had to win it again in a re-vote? I think of it like this: He won the award twice! And for a team whose first-ever pick was a top-overall pick, and it was David Carr, it's OK to still celebrate Cushing.
Indianapolis Colts - Peyton Manning, QB.
I know Edgerrin James had a huge rookie campaign, but Manning's 3,739 yards and 26 touchdowns was the gold standard for rookie QBs until Cam Newton came along. I know, those pesky28 picks have you being a wet blanket on Peyton, but back then, when the exchange rate was better, those 28 INTs were more like 14.
Jacksonville Jaguars - Fred Taylor, RB.
Despite the fact he started just 12 games, Taylor ran for 1,223 yards and 14 touchdowns in 1998, then proceeded to get hurt and not return to action until 2004. OK, it just seemed like that. He first got the job on a rainy Sunday that included a 50-yard touchdown run after James Stewart got hurt and the job became Taylor's. I remember this because I had him in fantasy that year.
Kansas City Chiefs - Derrick Thomas, LB.
A Pro Bowler as a rookie, the late Thomas racked up 10 sacks as a rookie in 1989. If he had played in a bigger media market, they'd talk about him like Lawrence Taylor or Dick Butkus.
Denver Broncos - Clinton Portis, RB.
For everyone who says Mike Anderson, you're wrong. Anderson was a terrific story and unheralded. But Portis was a monster: 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2002, he averaged 5.5 yards per carry. And get this, he only started 12 games. The fact he was traded after his second season only tells me what I already knew: Mike Shanahan hates running backs, and can't tolerate really successful ones.
Oakland Raiders - Marcus Allen, RB.
In the strike year of 1982, Allen led the NFL with 11 touchdowns in just nine games. He also racked up 697 yards rushing and 401 more receiving. Parcel that out over a full season? You're talking about 20 TDs, 1,300 yards rushing and over 700 yards receiving.
San Diego Chargers - John Jefferson, WR.
There wasn't a player I was more afraid of as a kid than Jefferson. Every game I thought he was going to score nine touchdowns because he was so fast. In 1978, he topped 1,000 yards receiving and his 13 TDs led the NFL. He averaged a ridiculous 17.9 yards per catch, and was the player who made Air Coryell go.
Dallas Cowboys - Everson Walls, DB.
Undrafted in 1981, all he did was lead the NFL with 11 interceptions and make the Pro Bowl as a rookie despite playing with other, bigger names on defense. Sadly, when you sum up his rookie season (and career), he's the guy who stood on the ground while Dwight Clark jumped for The Catch.
New York Giants - Lawrence Taylor, LB.
Boy, you talk about the Oklahoma City Thunder being happy Durant was sitting there at number two overall, how about the Giants, who got L.T. in 1981 and watched him become the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year as a rookie. And he was absolutely unstoppable in Tecmo Bowl. He would block every extra point you'd try.
Philadelphia Eagles - Steve Van Buren, RB.
I remember Fran Tarkenton telling a story once about a game he used to play with his football cards and Van Buren was his biggest star player. After hearing that story, the seven-year-old in me wanted more. I wound up learning a lot about him, and I think I even wrote a book report on him in school. In his rookie year of 1944, he was an All-Pro, with 444 yards rushing in nine games. He also led the league in punt returns. What, you were expecting Brian Dawkins or Bobby Taylor?
Washington Redskins - Darrell Green, DB.
He made his name by running down Tony Dorsett from behind on Monday Night Football in his first NFL game. I remember seeing it live and thinking "Wow, who is this guy?" It was 1983, and I was 12 and from then on always thought he was the fastest man in the history of the world. He was runner-up for the Defensive Rookie of the Year, but that season set the stage for his Hall of Fame career.
Chicago Bears - Devin Hester, DB.
Gale Sayers was phenomenal, but Hester did things we've never seen anyone do as a rookie. In 2006, he had six returns for touchdowns, and then had one to open the Super Bowl against Indianapolis. He was the most feared kick returner in the history of the game -- in his first season. And plus, one of his TD's was to beat the Arizona Cardinals, which gave birth to Dennis Green's now famous "The-Bears-are-who-we-thought-they-were!" rant, which should cinch it for Hester over Sayers, just for that.
Detroit Lions - Barry Sanders, RB.
The year was 1989 and I was in college, so my recollection of it is fuzzy at best, but Sanders couldn't be stopped. No one was ready for his combination of speed and stop-on-a-dime moves. More than 1,400 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns later, it was safe to say we were witnessing the beginning of the best running back we've seen since Jim Brown.
Green Bay Packers - James Lofton, WR.
The sixth-overall pick in 1978, Lofton averaged nearly 18 yards per catch as part of his 818-yard, six-touchdown campaign. Remember, it was in Green Bay, which I don't think even had their games televised at this point in time. I could have gone with Clay Matthews here, but he joined a team that was already pretty good. Not so much in '78, where unless your name was Robin Yount, the greater Milwaukee area didn't know who you were.
Minnesota Vikings - Randy Moss, WR.
It seemed like every week he would be taking revenge on a team that didn't draft him, out-jumping two and three defensive backs for touchdowns twice a game. A staggering 17 TDs to go along with 1,313 yards receiving in 1998 -- in 11 starts -- just had me glad the Jets weren't one of the teams who passed him up.
Atlanta Falcons - William Andrews, FB.
Kudos to Matt Ryan, but his 16-touchdown year pales in comparison to Andrews' 1979 season: over 1,000 yards rushing as a fullback and running back in addition to 309 receiving yards. Seriously, playing some fullback and reaching those numbers is like getting 20 sacks as a safety. And this from a guy who mainly blocked in college. Hey, Rex Ryan! Give the ball to John Conner more!
Carolina Panthers - Cam Newton, QB.
Um, kind of hard to go with anyone else: twenty-one passing touchdowns and 14 more rushing. 14! The only people who can say 'no' to this are fantasy owners who didn't think he was the real thing and neglected to pick him up after his Week 1 breakthrough. Well, and DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who got like zero goal-line carries because Newton always ran it in himself.
New Orleans Saints - George Rogers, RB.
For a season, drafting George Rogers over Lawrence Taylor looked smart for New Orleans. In 1981, Rogers, the first-overall pick got loose for 1,674 yards on the ground and 13 scores. It was also his best year as a pro, hence the one-year thing I mentioned. Seriously, the first two picks that year were from South and then North Carolina -- like that would ever happen again.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Cadillac Williams, RB.
In a narrow margin over Warrick Dunn's 1,440 yards from scrimmage in 1997. But I remember Cadillac-insanity in 2005. He wound up with 1,178 yards rushing because he got hurt and missed some time, but his first four weeks he was THE topic of conversation in the league. I was wondering if he could be inducted into the Hall of Fame after just a month of playing.
St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals - Ottis Anderson, RB.
It's Ottis, he loves us! And in 1979, it was hard to not love him: 1,605 yards rushing and eight touchdowns. That's over 100 yards-per-game average. (I'm good at math, aren't I?) He went by both Ottis and O.J., so as an eight-year old I naturally thought they were two completely different people. If that were reality, then the Cardinals may have made the playoffs a little more often back then.
St. Louis Rams - Eric Dickerson, RB.
I don't know what was more impressive -- his 1,808 yards rushing in 1983, or the fact he carried the ball 390 times. The first time I saw him run, he looked like a horse that galloped past you effortlessly. Dickerson and Deion Sanders had the rare ability to make everyone look like they're standing still even though they don't look like they're running that fast. But only Dickerson was so good he had the Rams cheerleaders wearing goggles.
San Francisco 49ers - Aldon Smith, LB.
I know, all these great players in a rich history, and I'm going back to last season. Smith wins in a narrow victory over Ronnie Lott, because 14 sacks as a rookie in 2011 is still 14 sacks. Ricky Watters was in the mix, too, with his 1,418 yards from scrimmage in 1992, but, come on, 14 sacks!
Seattle Seahawks - Curt Warner, RB.
Try as I might, I can't make the argument for Kenny Easley's 1981 rookie season over Curt Warner's in 1983. Easley was the defensive rookie of the year, but Warner amassed 1,449 rush yards and 13 touchdowns. He had a pretty good career, with four 1,000-yard seasons, but he goes down as the guy everyone mistakenly called for interviews trying to reach the other Kurt Warner.