The Best Rookie Leaders in the NFL

Jake SilverCorrespondent IDecember 31, 2011

The Best Rookie Leaders in the NFL

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    Every generation of NFL players has guys who contribute to their teams in different ways. Some, like Torrey Smith, contribute with eye-popping stats but not much else. 

    Then there are the special players whose true contribution is counted not in their sacks or yards, but with the way they affect their teammates. The arrival of an inspirational, fiery rookie can totally alter the identity of the team that drafts him. 

    This year in the NFL, we have seen several rookies who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, changing the faces of their respective franchises with their words as well as their play. 

    Here are five such exceptional individuals. 

5. Ryan Kerrigan

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    Ryan Kerrigan's arrival on the Washington Redskins has been the final piece of a total overhaul for their defense. 

    The rookie out of Perdue established himself immediately this season as a powerful voice on a new-look Redskins team, and his attitude has appeared infectious for his teammates during the 2011 season. 

    He will continue to learn from London Fletcher during the waning years of the veteran's career, and eventually you will see Kerrigan step up to become the face of the Redskins' defense along with teammate Brian Orakpo for years to come. 

4. Christian Ponder

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    Christian Ponder has shown us some decent flashes of his game during his starter appearances this season. 

    More than that, though, he has given hope for the future to the Minnesota Vikings by proving he can lead the team on his own.

    After looking listless starting the season under Donovan McNabb, the Vikings came to life when Ponder stepped out onto the field. 

    He hasn't quite led them to victory yet, but he has at least led them to more competitive games, and as his game improves, so will his confidence and leadership.

    Ponder can rally a team around him for years to come. 

3. Von Miller

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    Von Miller has not only emerged as a defensive force in his very first year, but he has also proven himself to be a capable leader both on and off the field. 

    The leading candidate for defensive rookie of the year has helped completely change the culture of the Denver Broncos' defense overnight with his incredible playmaking, which helps him command respect. 

    His teammates respect him both as a player and a leader, and that gives him as much power in the huddle as any crafty veteran.

2. Cam Newton

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    Even before No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton shocked the world with his historical, record-shattering rookie campaign, we all knew he would make a good leader. 

    While we had bashed his accuracy and ability to translate to the pros, nobody had ever questioned his monster intangibles, which helped him lead Auburn to a national title. 

    He has become the new face of the Carolina Panthers in a flash, and his Superman-esque heroics command instant respect. 

    A likable personality and tremendous work ethic round out Newton's leadership qualities. He holds himself accountable for the Panthers' record, even though their numerous losses have almost nothing to do with him. 

    Newton's teammates and coaches love him, and everyone respects him. He can command a huddle like nobody's business. 

1. Andy Dalton

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    Cam Newton may be the offensive rookie of the year, but Andy Dalton is hands down the rookie leader of the year. 

    The second-round pick stepped up to the helm of the Cincinnati Bengals this year with absolutely no expectations riding on him or his teammates. 

    Under those circumstances, he has stepped up and led the Bengals to a 9-6 record. They are now one win away from a playoff berth and have already secured the franchise's third winning record in decades. 

    He doesn't have flashy stats, but his teammates clearly are buying into whatever he has to say. He can command the huddle with his will and tenacity and is not afraid to lay into a teammate when they screw up. He also is the first one to congratulate his teammates for a job well done. 

    Dalton is a field and sideline general, and he will only improve as he continues to lead the Bengals to a brighter future.