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All Hail the Freshmen

The current class of NFL rookies are making an unprecedented impact in the league

Rookies don’t get much respect in the NFL. Veterans cut them down to size to avoid the “Big Man on Campus” syndrome that occasionally afflicts those few college players with the ability to play at the pro level, but the real reason they don’t get much respect is because they rarely produce anything of note. The vast majority of the league’s best players were either on the bench or actively detracting from their teams during their freshman seasons in the big leagues. Tom Brady was in the weight room. Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions. Darrelle Revis was toast. Nnamdi Asomugha was playing safety. The NFL is simply too fast for players who were the best guys on the field eight months earlier. Players adjust, but it takes a year or two of lumps.

The 2011 NFL draft class, though, is trying to throw that logic out the window. We may be looking at the most productive crop of rookie stars in the recent history of the NFL draft. We’ve gone back through history and tried to place these performances in context with the rookies of the past, and the results shocked us. Whether it’s the newfound complexity of college schemes or the improvements in strength training and development producing better athletes, we’re experiencing a stunning season from a group of players who deserve everybody’s respect. And, naturally, that starts with the first overall pick.

Cameron Crazy

Although he just produced his worst game of the season, first-overall pick Cam Newton has been a rousing success as Carolina’s starting quarterback. Everyone knew that Newton had a freakish level of raw talent and athletic ability, but very few observers expected him to do anything as a rookie. Incredibly, less than two years after Newton was playing for the Blinn Buccaneers, he’s become an above-average NFL quarterback. And even that might be selling him short.

Comparing quarterbacks of today to rookies from the past can be tricky because passing statistics have changed so dramatically. So instead of using the raw figures here, we’re going to use rankings and the Index statistics produced by All the index stats compare a player’s performance as measured by a particular metric to a league average in that same stat, and then scale that statistic relative to 100. So, as an example, Newton’s completion percentage this year is at 60.2 percent; the league average is just barely above that, so Cam’s completion percentage index figure is 99. If his completion percentage were slightly above the league average, it would be 101.

Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, 67 quarterbacks under the age of 261 have lined up under center and thrown 200 passes or more during their rookie season. Cam Newton is the 68th (and Andy Dalton is 69th). By virtually every passing metric available to us, relative to the offensive levels of his debut season, Newton has been one of the best rookie quarterbacks in league history. The table below notes where he stands in several of the notable measures of quarterback play.

In each of the four key metrics at his position, Newton rates out as no worse than the 19th-best quarterback out of the 69 rookies to see significant time since the merger. Newton’s been more accurate as a rookie, relative to the other quarterbacks in the NFL, than Troy Aikman, Drew Bledsoe, John Elway, and Phil Simms were in their rookie seasons. He’s avoided interceptions more effectively than Terry Bradshaw and Peyton Manning. And that’s the weakest point of his game!

Most impressive, Newton’s been able to get the ball downfield reliably and effectively. By averaging 7.2 yards per attempt during his rookie season, Newton’s in remarkable company. The only quarterbacks to put up a YPA index better than 117 as a rookie are Marc Bulger, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and ’70s Bills favorite Dennis Shaw. Bulger and Ryan are the only two quarterbacks who were better across the board as rookies than Newton has been so far.

And none of them are in Newton’s universe as a running quarterback. During his first nine games as a pro, Newton has rushed 70 times for 374 yards with seven rushing touchdowns. That’s nearly twice as much as the figure put up by second-place Tim Couch (201 yards) over his first nine games. Those seven rushing scores are tied with Vince Young for the post-merger rookie record, and he’s on pace to beat the single-season record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback of any vintage. You’re guessing that the record in question is held by John Elway or Steve McNair or Michael Vick, right? Nope. It’s held by famed sprinting quarterback … Steve Grogan? Indeed, Grogan had 12 rushing touchdowns (in 14 games!) during the 1976 season, and then he proceeded to score 12 more over the next six campaigns.

Line of DeMarcoation

Few running backs are as aesthetically pleasing toting the rock as Cowboys rookie DeMarco Murray. Like a young, motivated Marion Barber III, Murray seems to hit the hole like he’s being shot through a pneumatic tube.

In the four games since Felix Jones went down with a high ankle sprain, Murray has received the bulk of the workload in Dallas. What he’s done with it is downright remarkable. Murray has carried the ball 75 times for 601 yards, an average of better than eight yards per carry. Of course, the bulk of his production came in Murray’s memorable 253-yard performance against the Rams, but he’s even averaged 116 rushing yards per game in each of the other three contests.

If 601 yards in four games sounds like a lot, it’s because 601 yards in four games is a lot. In fact, since the merger, just two rookie running backs under the age of 262 have run for more than Murray’s 601 yards during a four-game stretch, and those backs provide pretty good company. Eric Dickerson once held the record by running for 608 yards on 100 attempts during a four-game stretch in his rookie season of 1983, but the current record-holder for rushing yards over a four-game stretch as a rookie is Adrian Peterson. AP picked up 653 yards and seven touchdowns on just 82 attempts during his best stretch as a rookie.

Just below Murray’s four-game total were Jerome Bettis (584 yards in four games) and former Saints running back Rueben Mayes, who had 562 yards on 106 carries during a stretch in 1986.

Off the Line and to the Record Books

The two best catches from this past weekend’s games both came from rookie wideouts. Chiefs wideout Jonathan Baldwin made an incredible catch around Brian Dawkins’ back that seemed to defy the laws of physics and immediately made the entire team think that Thomas Jones was wrong to punch him in training camp. Unfortunately, it was called back for holding. Fortunately, A.J. Green of the Bengals had his catch — a leaping 36-yard grab against triple coverage — actually count for a touchdown.

While fellow first-round pick Julio Jones has shown flashes of brilliance in between hamstring injuries, Green is currently carrying an entire offense on his back and making it look easy. Even if the injury Green suffered on the catch costs him his shot at playing this week against the Ravens, he’s playing at a level few rookie receivers even approach. His statistics through nine games would have been an acceptable set of totals for his entire season. With 41 catches, 635 yards, and six touchdowns, he’s been about as productive as veteran stars such as Dwayne Bowe and Jeremy Maclin.

Only six rookies in NFL history have had more receiving yards through their first nine games than Green. Want a short list of recent Hall of Fame-caliber receivers who did not match what Green’s done so far as rookies? Start with Randy Moss. Add Andre Johnson. Then throw in Larry Fitzgerald, James Lofton, Steve Largent, Art Monk, Keyshawn Johnson, and prepare to get a sore wrist from writing.

The only weird thing is that the guys ahead of and surrounding Green aren’t exactly the best receivers in the history of the league, either. Sure, the 869 yards put up in the first nine games of record-holder Marques Colston’s career was a good omen, and Anquan Boldin (790 yards) hasn’t done too poorly for himself. But after that? Charlie Brown, Michael Clayton, Darnay Scott, and Sammy White. Those four players combined to make a total of two Pro Bowls after their rookie season. And below him are players who have disappointed since their rookie season, Mike Williams (missing Tampa Bay version) and Eddie Royal.

Green’s also eighth among post-merger rookies in receptions through nine games (just behind Dez Bryant from last season) and tied for third among the same group with his six receiving touchdowns. And he’s just at the forefront of a group of difference-makers that includes Jones, Jonathan Baldwin, Doug Baldwin, Torrey Smith, and Denarius Moore. If they can stay healthy, those seven guys are going to catch a lot of touchdown passes in this league, and they’re not going to need to wait for some mythical third-year breakout, either.

The Von Trap

Von Miller could be a great name for so many different occupations or characters. Die Hard villain. Under Siege villain. James Bond villain. Lethal Weapon villain. OK, you get the idea, it’s a good name for a bad guy. And Von Miller is certainly a villain in the eyes of quarterbacks and offensive tackles these days. He’s going to be haunting Wayne Hunter’s dreams after Miller ragdolled him last night. Miller picked up a sack and a half Thursday night to go along with his three other knockdowns of Mark Sanchez, three tackles for loss, a pass deflection, and a forced fumble. That’s Travis Dane territory. While Tim Tebow has energized the Denver offense, Miller has become the wrecking ball that sets Tebow up with superb field position. Of the rookies we’ve mentioned, Miller is the one who actually deserves to make the Pro Bowl this year as one of the best players at his position of any vintage.

But where does he stand in comparison to the rookies of the past? Again, we’ll employ the same simple methodology we’ve been using for the DeMarco Murray and A.J. Green comparisons. With that sack and a half last night, Miller now has 9.5 sacks in his first 10 games as a pro. How good is that? Well, has sack data going back only through 1982, when the sack was made an official statistic, but it’s not a very long list.

Only one player accrued more than 9.5 sacks during his first 10 games as a pro, and it’s superstar Bears end Julius Peppers, who picked up 11 in 10 games and finished his rookie year with 12 sacks. And only one player matched that 9.5-sack figure in his first 10 games. That defender is late Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, who Miller has patterned himself after as a player. Miller even wears Thomas’ no. 58 in the Hall of Famer’s honor. It’s impossible to predict what a player will do in his career after 10 games, but so far Miller’s been living up to the example Thomas set as a player.


We’ll finish up our look at what stands out as an incredible rookie class by focusing on the remarkable work being done by Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. The fifth overall pick started off the season erratically on defense before settling down, but he’s made his real impact on the Arizona season as the Cardinals’ punt returner. Through their first nine games, Peterson’s already returned three punts for touchdowns, including the game-winning scores against Carolina in Week 1 and St. Louis in Week 9. Peterson’s ability to tiptoe through gunners is quickly becoming the stuff of legend in Arizona, and unlike all of our other comparisons, this one requires no rookie caveat.

Let’s try to put Peterson’s incredible start as a return man into context by starting with this: There are only 33 players in NFL history who have run back more than three punts for touchdowns during their entire career. Peterson’s tied for 34th on the all-time list after nine games. That’s just freakish. Devin Hester and Rick Upchurch are tied for the single-season post-merger record with four punt-return touchdowns in one season, and there have been only 10 other instances of a player scoring on three punt returns in a given season. Peterson’s already accomplished that and he still has seven games left to go. Hester is having a monster season and is building a Hall of Fame résumé as a return man, but if we were looking for someone to compete with him over the next few years, we found that man in Patrick Peterson.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Bill Barnwell:

Ease Up Tampa Haters, Their Schedule Has Been Historically Tough
Vegas & the Packers’ Quest to Go 16-0
Vegas Sportsbook Review: The Wynn
Ultimate Fighting Is Ready for Its Close-Up
Vegas & the Packers’ Quest to Go 16-0

Vegas Sportsbook Review: Caesars Palace

The Hedge, the Tease, and the Life of the NFL Bettor

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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