The 2011 NFL football season was a tremendous one for rookies. We saw one quarterback light it up like never before, while another led a previously downtrodden team to a rare postseason appearance.
A wide array of rookie receivers also stood out, making what is often considered a tough transition from college to the NFL look much easier. The running back class wasn't extremely strong, but we did see some huge performances here and there from that position as well.
The defensive side of the ball is where some of the best rookie performances were. Pass-rushers dominated opposing offensive lines, corners played well against seasoned receivers and linebackers stood strong in coverage.
This article is going to focus on the top candidates for the 2012 Rookie of the Year award (winners will be announced Saturday night at the NFL Honors award show, 9 EST, NBC). You will see a mix of offensive and defensive players on this list. The odds for each player are their chances to win either the Offensive Rookie of the Year or the Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Jabaal Sheard, DL, Cleveland Browns: 55 tackles, 8.5 sacks and five forced fumbles
A second-round pick from Pittsburgh, Sheard was an absolute find for the Cleveland Browns this season. He ended the season extremely strong, recording six sacks in the final seven games. You can expect Sheard to inch upwards to double-digit sacks in 2012.
Doug Baldwin, WR, Seattle Seahawks: 51 receptions, 788 yards and four touchdowns
Despite finishing the season relatively quiet, the former Stanford wide receiver exceeded all expectations that the Seahawks had after signing him as an undrafted rookie back in August. He ended the season as their leading receiver, and it wasn't even close: over 300 yards more than Sidney Rice.
Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle Seahawks: 55 tackles, four interceptions and 17 passes defended
Another Stanford product, Richard Sherman led all NFL rookie defenders in passes defended, outpacing Patrick Peterson by four in that category. It didn't take Sherman long to become a starting corner for Seattle. In all he started 10 games for the Seahawks and projects to be a really good cover guy moving forward.
Kendall Hunter, RB, San Francisco 49ers: 668 total yards and two touchdowns
The 49ers had been looking for a complementary back to Frank Gore over the course of the last five seasons with no luck. This wait came to a crashing end in April when they selected Kendall Hunter in the fourth round. He was a really good change-of-pace guy, nearly gaining 700 yards of total offense on just 128 touches. He definitely projects to be San Francisco's running back of the future.
Adrian Clayborn, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 42 tackles, 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles
The 2011 first-round pick was one of the few bright spots on the league's worst scoring defense. Clayborn continually played with a nonstop motor, leading Tampa Bay in sacks with 7.5, nearly one-third of its total sack output.
2011 regular season statistics: 63 tackles, 7.5 sacks, one interception, four passes defended, four forced fumbles and one touchdown
The 2011 first-round pick from Purdue saw his career get off to a booming start in the Redskins' season opener against the New York Giants. Ryan Kerrigan intercepted an Eli Manning pass and returned it six yards for a touchdown, breaking a 14-14 tie and giving Washington a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
This was just a sign of things to come for Kerrigan. He recorded sacks in half of Washington's games and gave them another solid pass-rushing outside linebacker opposite of Brian Orakpo. He ended the regular season fourth among all rookies in sacks.
2011 regular season statistics: 54 receptions, 959 yards and eight touchdowns
The Atlanta Falcons gave up a bounty to trade up for the former Alabama receiver in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft. While it remains to be seen whether this was the right trade for a franchise that has continued to struggle in the playoffs, he performed at an extremely high level as a rookie.
Julio Jones gained at least 100 receiving yards in five games and finished the season with six touchdowns in the Falcons' final four regular-season games.
He proved to be a major downfield threat for Matt Ryan, averaging nearly 18 yards a reception and making numerous big plays while tying A.J. Green for the most receptions of 40 yards among all rookies with seven.
Expect Julio Jones to break into the 1,000-yard company next season and not look back. He is going to be a dynamic, playmaking wide receiver moving forward, which should lessen the blow of Atlanta not having a first-round pick this season.
2011 regular season statistics: 56 tackles, 5.5 sacks, four passes defended and two fumble recoveries
J.J. Watt reminds me a great deal of All-Pro defensive end from the San Francisco 49ers, Justin Smith. While this might be wide praise for a rookie, he played extraordinarily well for the Houston Texans and was one of the primary reasons their defense took a step among the best in the entire league.
The former Wisconsin star played with a non-stop motor, wreaked havoc in the opposition's backfield and dominated with a tremendous bull rush from the outside.
His 5.5 sacks don't tell the entire story either. J.J. Watt was really stout against the run, moved inside in rush situations and held his own against elite interior linemen in the AFC.
He is going to be one of those unheralded but great defensive players that we don't hear much about. However, you can expect this 290-pound stud to make multiple Pro Bowl appearances before his career is over.
2011 regular season statistics: 897 rushing yards, 5.5 average, 26 receptions, 183 receiving yards and two touchdowns
If DeMarco Murray hadn't seen his rookie season come to an end due to a devastating ankle injury, he might have been in the conversation as a top Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate. This is a running back who stepped up big time when injuries hit the Cowboys backfield and never looked back.
After carrying the ball just 14 times in the first four games of the season, Murray started to get a much greater look from Jason Garrett and Co. following an injury to Felix Jones.
In his first career start, Murray broke the Dallas Cowboys single-game rushing record with 253 yards against the St. Louis Rams. This record was previously held by Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith. This just shows how the former Oklahoma star performed in 2011 when healthy.
Overall, he averaged 5.5 yards per rush and racked up three 100-yard rushing games. Murray broke his ankle in the first half of the Cowboys' Week 14 loss to the New York Giants. He will be their featured back in 2012 and should continue the success that we saw this season.
2011 regular season statistics: 64 tackles, two interceptions, one sack and 13 passes defended (four special teams returns for touchdowns)
Patrick Peterson did struggle a great deal in coverage early on this season but improved a great deal as the year progressed. He started to get comfortable with the game speed at this level and became much better in terms of man coverage. It isn't that Peterson was bad early in the season; it was more about the fact that he needed to get familiar with the nuances of playing corner in the NFL.
It isn't a coincidence that once Arizona started to trust Peterson in man coverage towards the latter part of the season, they got much better on defense. The Cardinals yielded just 170.6 passing yards per game over the course of the final month of the season. This was a direct result of Peterson's improvement on the outside.
That said, he isn't this high on the list solely due to his defensive performance. Patrick Peterson was electrifying in the return game all season long. He returned a total of four kicks for touchdowns, torching the St. Louis Rams two separate times. The first occasion came in overtime when Peterson returned a Josh Brown kickoff 99 yards for a walk-off touchdown.
Just three weeks later Peterson was at it again, this time returning a punt 80 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter against the very same St. Louis Rams. This ended up being the difference in the game.
Peterson is a dynamic playmaker who is going to be a consistent Pro Bowl performer, both on defense and on special teams.
2011 regular season statistics: 58.1 completion percentage, 3,398 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions
Andy Dalton's stats may not be eye-popping, but what he did for the Cincinnati Bengals franchise as a rookie quarterback is nothing short of extraordinary. Asked to replace Carson Palmer with an unproven combination of veteran castoffs and unheralded rookies, Dalton came through and led the Bengals to just their second postseason appearance since 1990.
The 2011 second-round pick continually made veteran-like decisions on the football field, read defenses extremely well and limited his mistakes a great deal. He became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to acquire a triple-digit rating in each of his first two career starts.
It didn't end there. Dalton finished the regular season by throwing just one interception in his final 193 pass attempts, which is utterly amazing for a rookie signal-caller.
Moving forward, expect Dalton to continue to improve as he gains more seasoning in the NFL and in the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive system. His connection with fellow 2011 rookie A.J. Green also promises to be one of the best over the course of the next decade. It goes without saying that the future in Cincinnati is much brighter than it was this time last year.
2011 regular season statistics: 65 receptions, 1,057 yards and seven touchdowns
Wide receivers don't go in the top five too often, but when they do it means that they posses a "once in a generation" type of talent. This is what many draft pundits, including myself, indicated was the case with A.J. Green heading into the draft last season.
Well, he didn't disappoint.
Green wasn't terribly consistent as a rookie, acquiring three receptions or less five different times. A lot of this had to do with the rather conservative offense that Jay Gruden ran and the fact that they had a rookie quarterback.
As the season progressed, Green became more comfortable with Andy Dalton, with results aplenty. He had more than 80 yards receiving in seven different games and quickly became Dalton's No. 1 target on the outside.
Experts say that wide receivers don't hit their stride until their third season in the NFL. If this is the case, AFC North defenses are going to have to worry about playing one of the best receivers in the NFL twice a season. This is how good I project A.J. Green to be moving forward.
2011 regular season statistics: 37 tackles, 14 sacks, four passes defended, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery
Aldon Smith was nothing short of sensational as a rookie for the San Francisco 49ers. He broke the franchise rookie sack record previously held by Charles Haley. Not only this, Smith completely dominated some of the best offensive lines in the league on a continual basis.
He showed flashes of brilliance early, but the progression toward elite status took some time. Smith barely played in the 49ers' first three games with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio believing that he still had a lot to learn about the position. During that span, Smith didn't accumulate a sack or even a tackle.
In the 13 games that followed, Aldon Smith was one of the most dominating pass rushers in the NFL, right up there with Jared Allen and DeMarcus Ware. You are talking about a rookie outside linebacker who tallied 14 sacks in 13 games, including a coming-out party against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night where he acquired 2.5 sacks and another seven quarterback pressures.
Once the postseason started, Smith was up to his old tricks (as evidenced by the inserted picture). He had two sacks in two games, putting consistent pressure on both Drew Brees and Eli Manning.
It is somewhat of a travesty that Aldon Smith did not make the Pro Bowl, but don't worry—he has many of those left in what promises to be an All-Pro career.
Note: A recent arrest on a DUI in Miami over the weekend has hindered what was an amazing rookie season.
2011 regular season statistics: 64 tackles, 11.5 sacks, four passes defended and two forced fumbles
Not only was Von Miller absolutely amazing in the pass rush aspect of the game, he was a great all-around linebacker for a much-improved Denver Broncos defense. Unlike Aldon Smith, who I have rated below Miller on this list, the former Texas A&M linebacker didn't just come in on obvious pass plays. Instead, he was equally as stout against the run and did a great job in pass coverage.
Miller tallied six sacks in his first six games as a pro but was more a specialist at that point. It took a little bit of time for him to become an every down backer for the Broncos, but once he did, it was a thing of beauty. Miller consistently blew up opposing blockers, took on double teams, ran sideline-to-sideline in pursuit and actually racked up 64 total tackles as a rookie.
This performance has led me to believe that Von Miller deserves to be Defensive Rookie of the Year over Aldon Smith. No one questioned the fact that he could get to the quarterback, which was consistently evident throughout the entire season. However, some "skeptics" concluded that he would be a "one-trick pony," which he obviously proved wasn't the point.
This might be high praise, but Miller reminds me a great deal of Lawrence Taylor.
* My prediction for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
2011 regular season statistics: 60.0 completion percentage, 4,051 passing yards, 706 rushing yards, 35 total touchdowns, 17 interceptions and a 84.5 quarterback rating
Damn that crow tastes really gross right about now. I had indicated that Cam Newton would struggle more than any other rookie this season when I made preseason predictions in August:
He looks to be way too erratic at this point and struggles putting the ball on the mark. Those are things that really cannot be learned; instead it seems this will be a continual struggle for the Heisman Trophy winner.
I wasn't alone in believing that Cam Newton would struggle as a rookie; most "skeptics" concluded that his rookie season would be extremely difficult on the young signal-caller.
By all accounts, everyone was shocked by Cam Newton's rookie performance. He broke the rookie record for passing yards, destroyed the quarterback rushing touchdown mark and gave hope to a Carolina Panthers franchise that had lacked any sort of hope just a season ago.
Newton still made his rookie mistakes, which are evidenced by the 17 interceptions he threw. However, he was much more accurate in the pocket than I expected him to be. Newton also showed incredible poise in the face of pressure, stepping up in the pocket and finding open receivers.
Look for Newton's mistakes to go down as he gains more seasoning and becomes more comfortable playing against elite competition. If this happens, you can fully expect him to be a top-five quarterback sooner rather than later.
Odds: Lock to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.