It has only been one season, but the 2011 draft class might rank as the best crop of talent in NFL history.
That's quite a statement considering it typically takes three years to evaluate player performance in scouting circles, but the remarkable play of this year's rookie class is unlike anything I've witnessed during my time (17-plus years) in the NFL.
Unlike their predecessors who were able to assimilate to the pro game with the assistance of minicamps, organized team activities and other offseason workouts, this year's group was thrown directly into the fire with limited preparation due to the lockout.
While the loss of extensive offseason training wouldn't appear to be a major issue, with more players turning to private trainers and skill development coaches to hone their respective games, the lack of access to their teams' coaching staffs forced this rookie class to take the field without a thorough understanding of their position or the playbook.
That's why the exceptional performances of Cam Newton, Aldon Smith, Von Miller, Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Patrick Peterson should be viewed in a different context due to these unique circumstances. No other class in recent memory has been able to produce as many playmakers on the verge of shattering some of the hallowed records in this league without an extensive introduction to the game. Miller, Green and Peterson are the three rookies to earn Pro Bowl honors in 2011, but all these players are special.
That is a testament to their sheer talent, work ethic and independent preparation. It also suggests that their potential for career achievement is through the roof and we should be prepared to see several players from this class rank as perennial Pro Bowlers for the majority of their respective careers.
With that in mind, let's take a look at my 10 best rookie performers of 2011:
1. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers: Newton is on the verge of revolutionizing the quarterback position as we know it. His combination of arm and athleticism is breathtaking, and his remarkable production as a first-year starter has been off the charts. Newton established new marks for passing yards by a rookie and rushing touchdowns by any quarterback while transforming the Panthers' pedestrian offense into one of the most explosive in the league.
2. Aldon Smith, OLB, San Francisco 49ers: Smith is quietly on the cusp of shattering Jevon Kearse's rookie sack record despite playing as a situational rusher for the 49ers. He has already emerged as one of the league's best pure pass rushers, and he has the potential to become one of the most disruptive defensive playmakers we've seen in the NFL.
3. A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: Green's numbers will fall well short of Randy Moss' phenomenal first season, but his impact is eerily similar. He has quickly teamed with Andy Dalton to give the Bengals a formidable passing combination, and the rest of the NFL is finding out how difficult it is to defend a talented playmaker with remarkable athleticism.
4. Von Miller, OLB, Denver Broncos: The comparisons to the late Derrick Thomas are certainly warranted after watching Miller terrorize opponents off the edge. He has routinely blown past blockers with his extraordinary first-step quickness, and quickly developed a series of counter moves that has made him nearly impossible to block in isolated matchups.
5. Andy Dalton, QB, Cincinnati Bengals: Many were surprised when the Bengals hitched their hopes to Dalton, but the rookie signal caller has been a phenomenal playmaker from the pocket. His leadership, poise and awareness have not only exceeded expectations, but have been a catalyst for the Bengals' surprising playoff push.
6. DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys: The Cowboys' ascension to the top of the NFC East coincided with Murray's breakout performance as the team's feature back. He added balance to the offense with his explosive running skills, and alleviated the pressure on Tony Romo to carry the offense on the strength of his right arm. An unfortunate season-ending injury prevented Murray from ranking higher on the list, while also putting the Cowboys' playoff aspirations in peril.
7. Julio Jones, WR, Atlanta Falcons: Thomas Dimitroff gave up a king's ransom to secure Jones in the draft, but the reward has been well worth the risk based on his exceptional rookie season. Jones has become the Falcons' most dynamic weapon in the passing game and given Matt Ryan another viable option to lean on in the clutch.
8. Marcell Dareus, DT, Buffalo Bills: Part of the Bills' early-season success can be attributed to Dareus' ability to control the middle with his size and strength. He demolishes single blocks with his power and remains an immovable force when facing double teams. While his numbers will never fully justify his overall impact, coaches and players around the league certainly understand his value to the Bills' defense.
9. J.J. Watt, DT, Houston Texans: Watt has been an instrumental part of Wade Phillips' transformation of the Texans defense with his stellar play on the interior. He has worn down opponents with his relentless motor and his strength at the point of attack has freed Brian Cushing and Co. to make plays between the tackles.
10. Nate Solder, OT, New England Patriots: There have been other rookies who logged more starts along the line, but few have shown the promise of Solder. He has displayed the athleticism and agility that coaches covet in franchise-caliber offensive tackles, and his ability to thrive on both sides of the line has made him an invaluable swing player for the Patriots.