As successful as the rookies of the 2011 NFL draft class were last year, without the benefit of a full training camp, imagine what the level of expectations will be for the current crop of new rookies. The 2012 NFL draft class are quickly being signed to deals, so they will all benefit from the maximum amount of possible coaching that is allowed under the new CBA deal.
But to put things in perspective, we thought it would be an interesting exercise to go back and take a look at 25 of the current top players in the NFL to see how they fared in their very first NFL start. Expect to see some varied results. As for the 25 players selected, we tried to mix it up with some younger and some older players, as well as a handful of defensive players to give a reasonable cross-section look.
On to the presentation.
It may surprise some football fans to learn that Tony Gonzalez never started a single game in his rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs waited until his second year with the team, 1998, to give his NFL starting debut. That was Week 1 at home against the Oakland Raiders.
Gonzalez made three catches for 47 yards and no touchdowns. His longest catch went for 31 yards. He averaged 15.7 yards per catch.
It was clear that Gonzalez still had some things to learn. Out of three catches, he wound up fumbling the ball twice. Luckily for the Chiefs and for Gonzalez's career, they wound up recovering both fumbles. The Chiefs beat Oakland 28-8, and Gonzalez learned some valuable lessons that day.
Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed was thrown into the fire right away as a rookie. His first NFL start was his first NFL game, which was Week 1 of the 2002 season. The Ravens were on the road at the Carolina Panthers, and Reed was inserted in the starting lineup.
For the day, his stat line was pretty empty. Three solo tackles and nothing else. No passes defended, no assists on tackles, no sacks and no interceptions. His head was probably swimming at all of the responsibilities he had, in addition to witnessing the speed of the NFL game first hand.
Things would start to slow down for Reed as the games came and went. But for the green rookie, that first start can be a real eye opener.
Pittsburgh Steelers Ben Roethlisberger is another example of an NFL quarterback that didn't have to wait very long for his first NFL start. Big Ben began his rookie year in 2004 as the No. 3 quarterback on the depth chart behind Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox, but injuries to both quarterbacks moved Roethlisberger up the depth charts very quickly.
As of Week 3, Roethlisberger was the starting quarterback for Pittsburgh. His first start came on the road at Miami. Roethlisberger completed 12-of-22 passes for 163 yards and one touchdown. He completed 54.5 percent of his passes and had an average of 7.4 yards per attempt. There was also one interception, one sack and one rush for two yards. The QB passer rating was 74.6, which is acceptable under the circumstances.
The most important factor is that the Steelers won 13-3, and as long as the Steelers kept winning, Roethlisberger was going to keep starting. That formula has been working for a long time.
For Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson, it has always been about perseverance, patience and respect. Waiting for his opportunity and doing his best to take advantage of those chances, however few and far between they were.
Jackson didn't get any starts in his rookie year of 2006. In his second year, he was stuck behind first-round draft pick Marshawn Lynch, but finally got his NFL debut start in Week 13 of the 2007 season. The Bills were playing the Washington Redskins on the road. Jackson gained 82 yards on 16 rushes for an average of 5.1 yards per rush. His longest run was 22 yards. He also caught four passes for 69 yards, which included a 54-yard reception. Jackson averaged 17.3 yards per reception.
The Bills won the game 17-16, thanks to Jackson's heroics. Incredibly, Jackson would have to wait one more full year, until Week 13 of the 2008 season before he would get his second NFL start. Some guys just don't get the respect they deserve. Coming from Division III school Coe College, that has always been the case for Fred Jackson.
While some of the best NFL quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, brother Eli Manning, and Drew Brees had to wait weeks or even years to get their first NFL start, Peyton Manning was thrown into the fire from Week 1 of his rookie season.
Manning's first NFL start was his rookie year of 1998, at home against the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins swarmed Manning, sacking him four times that day. Manning completed 21-of-37 passes for 302 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. His completion percentage of 56.8 percent, combined with an average of 8.2 yards per pass, the sacks and interceptions, led to the ugly QB passer rating of 58.6.
The Colts lost that game 24-15. Manning had a sharp learning curve ahead of him, and clearly many better days were going to be ahead of him. But when that first NFL game was over, Manning was probably wondering what had he just signed up for?
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu never received a start in his rookie season, as he had to wait for his sophomore season to gain that NFL starting debut. The first start was in the opening week of the 2004 season against the Oakland Raiders.
Polamalu made seven tackles in the game, four of them were of the solo variety. The rest of his stat line was empty that day, as he had no passes defended, interceptions, fumble recoveries or sacks.
The Steelers beat Oakland 24-21 and Polamalu began to settle in as the starting safety for the Steelers. He would be making his impact in the weeks that followed.
Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings didn't have to wait terribly long for his first NFL career start. It happened in Week 2 of his rookie season in 2006. The Packers were playing the New Orleans Saints.
Jennings caught six passes from Brett Favre for 67 yards and one touchdown. Jennings averaged 11.2 yards per catch, and his longest reception on the day went for 23 yards.
Unfortunately the Packers lost to the Saints 34-27 in the game, which was the big blemish on a memorable NFL starting debut.
When Jared Allen was a rookie defensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2004, he was asked to watch from the sidelines in the beginning. His first NFL start didn't come around until Week 8, when the Chiefs hosted the Indianapolis Colts.
While the game was probably one that he will never forget, the results for Allen were quite forgettable. One tackle for the game, no sacks, no passes defended, no fumbles forced or recovered. The good news is that the Chiefs won the game 45-35, and better days were still ahead for Allen.
To think that Allen was a fourth-round pick as a rookie, and he signed a one-year rookie deal for just $100,000. My how times have changed in the Allen household.
Good things happen to those who wait. The Jacksonville Jaguars made Maurice Jones-Drew wait until Week 16 of his rookie year in 2006, before he was awarded with his first NFL start. The game was on Christmas Eve of 2006, at home against the New England Patriots.
Jones-Drew had a very solid showing in the game. He rushed the ball 19 times for 131 yards, including a 74-yard run. Jones-Drew scored on two runs, and also caught six passes for 41 yards. He didn't turn the ball over once in the game.
Unfortunately, the Jaguars dropped the game, 24-21. But for the Jaguars, it was clear that they had found the successor to Fred Taylor, for many years to come.
LeSean McCoy's first NFL start didn't occur until the Week 3 game against the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2009 season. McCoy got the start because Brian Westbrook was hurt.
McCoy made a solid impression, as he opened the scoring in the game with a five-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. All told, McCoy gained 84 yards on 20 carries, good for a 4.2 average yards per rush. His longest run on the day was 15 yards.
In his NFL debut, McCoy wound up being the leading rusher in the game. He also caught one pass for nine yards. The Eagles won 34-14, making the memory even sweeter.
When you are the No. 1 overall draft pick, there are some very lofty expectations placed on you. It also means you were probably drafted by a team that wasn't very good the year before. That was the scenario when Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams took the field for his 2006 NFL debut, at home against the Philadelphia Eagles.
It was Week 1 of the 2006 season, and Texans fans wanted to see who and what Williams was all about, especially since the team had passed over Reggie Bush to draft Williams. Williams and the Texans crowd wasn't overly impressed, according to the comments made in this ESPN story after the game.
Williams made three tackles, two of which were solo tackles. He didn't have a sack on Donovan McNabb and the Eagles blew Houston out, 24-10. Williams expressed frustration at being double teamed, even though he was moved to different positions on the defensive line to try to find a weakness to exploit.
Things would eventually get better, but not so much as far as the NFL debut went.
For New York Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, his first NFL start didn't come until his second NFL season. That start came in the opening week of 2011 against the Washington Redskins.
Pierre-Paul wound up with six tackles for the game, five solo tackles. He had two quarterback sacks and forced one fumble. Right away, he demonstrated that he would be a force to be reckoned with.
Despite the best efforts of Pierre-Paul to wreck havoc on the Redskins offense, Washington still beat New York 28-14. New York would wind up with the last laugh however, as is the right for the Super Bowl champions.
Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson made his first NFL start in the Week 1 contest of the 2003 season at the Miami Dolphins.
In that game, Johnson wound up leading the Texans with six receptions, which went for 76 yards. He averaged 12.7 yards per catch in his NFL debut, with his longest catch going for 28 yards.
The Texans upset the Dolphins 21-20, and Johnson was already on his way as establishing himself as a talented receiver that would make an impact on the Texans team.
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson made his NFL debut in the Week 1 contest in 2007 against the Atlanta Falcons.
Peterson carried the ball 19 times for 103 yards, and also caught a 60-yard touchdown pass to show that he was more than just a running back. Peterson leaped up into the stands to share the moment with the Vikings fans. That was the only pass he caught in the first game.
The Vikings won that game 24-3. You could say that Peterson was just getting warmed up. In the Vikings game against the Chicago Bears in Week 6, Peterson rushed 20 times for 224 yards, which set a new Vikings franchise record.
Matt Forte's first game in the NFL was Week 1 of his rookie season in 2008, when the Chicago Bears opened up the season at the Indianapolis Colts.
The Bears seemed intent to pound the ball with Forte early and often. By the end of the first quarter, Forte had already had one touchdown run for 50 yards, and in the first quarter alone, had gained 79 yards on just seven rushes.
In total, Forte gained 123 yards on 23 carries and the one touchdown. In addition, he caught three passes for 18 yards. The Bears wound up winning that game, 29-13, and Forte would go on to have a 1,000-plus yard rushing season.
The 123 yards that Forte gained, set a Bears record for most yards gained by a running back in his NFL debut.
September 1, 1996. That was the date for the first regular season game in Baltimore Ravens history, as well as the debut for linebacker Ray Lewis. Little did everyone know in attendance that Lewis would still be playing for them 16 years later.
The Ravens won their first game 19-14 over the Oakland Raiders. Defensive statistics for this game don't seem to be available but we can tell you from this link to Pro Football Reference that Lewis came up with an interception in the game. The stats from Lewis game log at NFL.com are blank as well, except for the interception.
First game in front of the home crowd and Lewis makes a big play. Sounds like a typical Lewis moment.
On the very first play from scrimmage of his 2004 debut in the NFL, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught a 37-yard pass from quarterback Josh McCown.
For the game, Fitzgerald wound up with four receptions for 70 yards. His 70 yards led the team and his 37-yard catch was the Cardinals longest play that day.
The Cardinals lost to the St. Louis Rams 17-10 in the season opener. Unfortunately Fitzgerald didn't score a touchdown in his debut, but he would wind up with eight touchdown receptions in his rookie campaign.
When Rob Gronkowski was a rookie tight end in 2010 with the New England Patriots, he played in all 16 games that season and started in 11 of them.
Gronkowski began as a starter in the 2010 season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. Tom Brady completed only one pass to Gronkowski in that game, but it went for a one-yard touchdown, and just like that, Gronkowski notched his first career touchdown. The Patriots won that game, 38-24.
That first game seems quite tame to what Gronkowski normally produces, but you have to start somewhere. Gronkowski wound up with 10 touchdown receptions in his rookie campaign, as he was already proving that he would be a difficult player to defend against in the red zone.
Eli Manning spent the first 10 weeks of his 2004 rookie season on the sidelines, watching starter Kurt Warner. Manning was given the green light for his first start against Michael Vick and the hot Atlanta Falcons, who were 7-2 coming into the game.
It turned out to be a fairly rough debut for Manning, as he only completed 17-of-37 passes for 162 yards. He had one touchdown pass, two interceptions and an average of only 4.4 yards per pass. Despite the interceptions, the game was still close, as the Falcons edged the Giants 14-10.
Tiki Barber and Vick both rushed for over 100 yards in the game, but in spite of having a good running game that day, Manning had trouble hitting his receivers, which led to the loss.
Despite a holdout that kept cornerback Darrelle Revis out for most of the New York Jets summer training camp, Jets head coach Eric Mangini named Revis as a starter for Week 1 against AFC East rival New England Patriots.
Revis only played in the final preseason game in 2007, before getting the nod to try to contain Wes Welker and Tom Brady. For the contest, Revis held Welker to seven catches for 61 yards and no touchdowns. Revis had seven tackles in the game.
Welker did score a touchdown in the game, which New England won 38-14, but it was against a different cornerback. Welker was targeted nine times in the game by Brady, according to the stats provided by Pro Football Reference.com.
When wide receiver Calvin Johnson began his NFL career with the Detroit Lions in 2007, for some odd reason the Vikings decided to start Roy Williams and Shaun McDonald instead of Johnson. In Week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings, Johnson got his first NFL start. He wound up starting in 10 of the 15 games that he played in as a rookie.
Against the Vikings, Johnson caught four passes for 61 yards, and scored one touchdown, averaging 15.3 yards per catch. His longest reception on the day went for 20 yards. Johnson also ran the ball one time for seven yards.
The Lions won the contest 20-17. We are still trying to figure out how you start Roy Williams and Shaun McDonald for the other five games over Megatron.
San Diego Chargers quarterback Drew Brees sat behind Doug Flutie as a rookie in 2001, so his debut as a starter didn't happen until Week 1 of the 2002 season. That contest was on the road against the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Chargers rolled to an easy 34-6 victory.
Brees had a solid day, as he completed 15-of-19 passes for 160 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Chargers pounded the Bengals for 240 rushing yards on the day and were up 20-0 at halftime, and then cruised the rest of the way.
The touchdown passes went to Curtis Conway and Josh Norman. For the game stats and play-by-play, here is the link from Pro Football Reference.com.
DeMarcus Ware had his debut against the San Diego Chargers in 2005. In that game Ware was credited for three tackles and also had one quarterback pressure. One of his tackles went for a loss but he didn't record a sack against Chargers quarterback Drew Brees that day.
The Cowboys won the contest 28-24, so Ware made a positive contribution.
Ware's first sack didn't happen until Week 3 when he nailed Tim Rattay of the San Francisco 49ers. Some things need a little bit of time to make an impact, and that was the case for Ware.
Tom Brady's first start in the NFL didn't occur in the NFL until Week 3 of his second year in the league. That was against the Indianapolis Colts and Peyton Manning. Brady led the Patriots to a 44-13 win over the Colts, which was their first victory of the year after an 0-2 start behind Drew Bledsoe.
Brady completed 13-of-23 passes for 168 yards. His longest pass completion went for 38 yards. Brady did not have either an interception or a touchdown pass in the game. He wound up with a QB passer rating of 79.6. Brady completed passes to seven different receivers. His leading receiver on the day was running back Antowain Smith.
For what it is worth, Manning completed 20 of 34 passes for 196 yards, one touchdown pass and one rushing touchdown. Manning threw three picks in the game. Mark Rypien also saw action in the game.
The Patriots took advantage of the three interceptions and one fumble to cruise to the easy win. For Brady, this would be the first of many wins to follow in his career.
Full breakdown of stats including play-by-play of the game can be found at this link, via Pro Football Reference.com
After patiently waiting in the wings for years to get his chance to start at quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers finally got his chance when Brett Favre announced he was going to retire for the 2008 season. Favre obviously had a change of heart later on, and wound up playing that year for the New York Jets.
Rodgers first start came in Week 1 at home against the Minnesota Vikings. As if replacing Brett Favre wasn't enough pressure, Rodgers was making his debut as a starter in front of a national audience on Monday Night Football. The Packers won 24-19 behind Rodgers, who went up against Tarvaris Jackson.
It appeared that the years of sitting and watching Favre really helped out Rodgers tremendously as his performance was almost flawless. Rodgers completed 18-of-22 passes for 178 yards, one touchdown pass and no interceptions. Rodgers also rushed eight times for 35 yards and one touchdown. His quarterback sneak touchdown gave him the perfect opportunity to execute a Lambeau Leap and endear him to the Packers faithful.
The Packers offense didn't turn the ball over once all day, and Rodgers was able to use his mobility to avoid any sacks for the entire game.
Considering the big shoes that Rodgers had to fill, this was a huge accomplishment. When you think about how long Favre's consecutive streak for starts at quarterback had been going, this was a significant game in Packers history, and Rodgers proved that he was equal to the task.
Stats and play-by-play link available here via Pro Football Reference.com.