Greatest Rookie Season in Every NFL Team's History

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2012

Greatest Rookie Season in Every NFL Team's History

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    It often helps to make a good first impression, but initial appearances can be deceiving. NFL teams have learned both sides of that lesson over the years.

    Some phenomenal rookie seasons have heralded a new superstar, certain to enjoy a magnificent career and bring major success to a city. Yet other record-setting debut campaigns have proved to be nothing more than false dawns, offering cruel hope to downtrodden franchises.

    The Carolina Panthers and Cincinnati Bengals were lifted by star rookie turns in 2011. They will be hoping that quarterbacks Cam Newton and Andy Dalton are not merely the starlets of today, but will also mature into the elite performers of tomorrow.

    Here is a list of the most spectacular rookie seasons in each NFL team's history.

Criteria for Selection

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    The most important thing to note is that selections have been made based on current franchise destinations only. This means that although the Cardinals have played in multiple cities, it will only be an Arizona Cardinal rookie who makes this list.

    Similarly, the Tennessee Titans will be represented only by a player who donned the uniform after the Houston Oilers moved to Nashville and reinvented the franchise. The only Rams' rookies considered are the ones who shined in St. Louis and so on.

    Finally, a few of the rookie seasons listed here may not be statistically the greatest in a particular team's history. However, they are based more on how that first-season performance helped transform the fate of a franchise.

Arizona Cardinals: Anquan Boldin, WR, 2003

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    Anquan Boldin took the NFL by storm after the Arizona Cardinals selected him in the second round of the 2003 draft. Even as recently as 2003, it was rare to see a wide receiver with Boldin's combination of elite size and speed.

    It was also just as rare for the Arizona Cardinals to boast such a prolific offensive weapon. Boldin caught opposing defenses so off guard that he ended his first year in the league with 101 receptions for 1,377 yards and eight touchdowns.

    He exploded on the scene in a Week 1 trip to take on the Detroit Lions. He linked up with retread quarterback Jeff Blake to haul in 10 catches for an eye-popping 217 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That's the definition of a great first impression.

    Boldin may have had his problems in Arizona in later years, but he helped start the Cardinals' journey back to respectability and, eventually, Super Bowl contention.

Atlanta Falcons: Deion Sanders, CB, 1989

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    Deion Sanders only needed one punt return to announce himself to the NFL. The fifth overall pick in the 1989 draft, Sanders showcased his uncanny knack for the big play when he took his first pro punt return 68 yards for the score on the road against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 1.

    From that moment on, the entire league would not be able to avoid hearing about "Prime Time" and "Neon Deion." Sanders finished his rookie season with 1,032 combined return yards.

    He also made five interceptions and provided a tantalizing glimpse of what was to come from the greatest cornerback to ever play the game. The Falcons weren't hugely successful with Sanders around, but they were always entertaining.

Baltimore Ravens: Ray Lewis, ILB, 1996

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    There was a time when Ray Lewis wasn't surrounded by a who's who of top-notch defensive talent. During his early years with the Baltimore Ravens, Lewis often had to carry the defense, and carry them he did, beginning with a stellar rookie season in 1996.

    Lewis registered 110 combined tackles as a rookie, according to Honestly, at the time it looked like more, as the fired-up first-year linebacker always seemed to be around the ball.

    Lewis instantly became an impact player and not much has changed since '96. No matter how the defense has evolved, Lewis has remained its leader.

    He is easily the most important player in Ravens franchise history and was one of the very best at his position from Day 1.

Buffalo Bills: Jairus Byrd, FS, 2009

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    Jairus Byrd stole the show as a rookie in 2009. Immediately establishing himself as a natural center fielder at free safety, Byrd broke up 11 passes and grabbed nine interceptions in a spectacular first season with the Buffalo Bills.

    Byrd has quickly become a true star for the Bills and is one of the NFL's most feared ball-hawks. He is never afraid to deliver a hit, and his knack for producing turnovers and big plays remains intact, although he has understandably struggled to match the lofty heights of his rookie campaign.

Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton, QB, 2011

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    Even those who expected big things from Cam Newton as a rookie still had to be amazed by his phenomenal performances in 2011. He rewrote the record books and forever raised the standards and expectations for rookie quarterbacks.

    Newton turned the offensively challenged Carolina Panthers into a scoring powerhouse, with a series of dazzling multi-purpose displays. He threw for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns, posting a rating of 84.5.

    As if those numbers weren't special enough on their own, Newton added 706 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. Good luck topping that Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.

Chicago Bears: Gale Sayers, RB, 1965

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    Gale Sayers possessed an amazing talent that shone brightly, but all too briefly. He began his spectacular NFL career in 1965 as the top draft choice of the Chicago Bears.

    Defenses in the 1960s simply weren't ready for a player of Sayers' skills and versatility. He scored 22 touchdowns in 1965 and was an exciting triple threat as runner, receiver and return man.

    His speed, grace and elusiveness proved too much for the league during his rookie season. It took a series of knee injuries to derail Sayers, just six short years later. The rookie scoring record is the lasting achievement from his legacy.

Cincinnati Bengals: Elbert "Ickey" Woods, RB, 1988

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    Elbert "Ickey" Woods is proof that not all great rookie seasons lead to a stellar pro career. All of the hype Woods generated as a rookie with the Cincinnati Bengals in 1988 faded just as fast is started, as injuries ravaged the talented and powerful runner.

    However, the regrettable "Ickey Shuffle" aside, Woods actually posted outstanding numbers during his first season in the NFL. He managed a league-best 5.3 yards per rush average and finished with 1,066 yards on the ground.

    More importantly, Woods scored 18 touchdowns and was the catalyst that propelled an explosive Cincinnati Bengals offense all the way to the Super Bowl.

Cleveland Browns: Jim Brown, RB, 1957

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    A total of 942 rushing yards probably doesn't seem that impressive by modern standards. However, when you consider that the season was only 12 games in 1957, it puts Jim Brown's rookie year with the Cleveland Browns in perspective.

    Brown's numbers were good enough to lead the league in rushing and mark a spectacular beginning for the man many still consider the finest running back to play the game. Brown needed only his rookie season to kick-start a magnificent career, defined by consistently elite production.

Dallas Cowboys: Tony Dorsett, RB, 1977

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    In 1977, Dallas Cowboys rookie running back Tony Dorsett ran for more than 1,000 yards and provided the big-play capability that sparked a defensively strong team to a Super Bowl victory.

    In a 14-game season, Dorsett ran for 1,077 yards and scored 13 rushing touchdowns. He also chipped in with 273 yards receiving and a touchdown catch.

    His quick feet, shifty style and game-breaking speed instantly made Dorsett feared and the Cowboys' offense a force to be reckoned with.

Denver Broncos: Terrell Davis, RB, 1995

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    Terrell Davis emerged from obscurity to become the player who turned the Denver Broncos into two-time Super Bowl winners.

    A sixth-round pick in the 1995 draft, Davis broke in as a running back after impressive work on special teams during the preseason. It quickly became clear that the Broncos had a star, as Davis piled up 1,117 yards and seven rushing touchdowns as a rookie.

    He eventually helped quarterback John Elway get the Lombardi trophies he had always craved. Davis also became the symbol of then-head coach Mike Shanahan's famed zone-running scheme.

    A succession of 1,000-yard runners followed Davis after injuries cut his brilliant career short. Mike Anderson and Clinton Portis may have gained more yards as rookies, but Davis was the Broncos' first great zone-runner.

    His decisive role in finally bringing the Super Bowl to Denver after four failed attempts puts Davis on this list.

Detroit Lions: Barry Sanders, RB, 1989

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    The 1989 season marked the debut of perhaps the most entertaining, pure runner in NFL history, as the Detroit Lions unleashed Barry Sanders.

    No other runner could match Sanders' moves, coordination and control, and no defense could counter his innate ability to improvise. Sanders danced, shuffled and glided his way to 1,470 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.

    Thankfully, it was only the beginning of a rare career, packed full of true excitement and artistry.

Green Bay Packers: Clay Matthews, OLB, 2009

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    Clay Matthews dominated offenses in 2009 and helped make the Green Bay Packers' transition to a 3-4 front an instant success. Matthews quickly redefined the athletic expectations for 3-4 outside linebackers, offering a range and versatility that few others at the position are able to match.

    In 2009, the explosive rookie notched 10 sacks, posted 51 total tackles, defensed seven passes and recovered three fumbles. Matthews quickly made it clear that he is the speedy, edge-rusher every 3-4 defense needs.

Houston Texans: Steve Slaton, RB, 2008

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    He may have since tumbled from grace, but back in 2008, running back Steve Slaton was a rookie sensation for the Houston Texans.

    Taking advantage of the famous zone-running system taken to the Texans by head coach Gary Kubiak, Slaton set about tearing through defenses. He finished the year with 1,282 rushing yards, averaging an  4.8 yards a carry. Slaton also scored 10 touchdowns for good measure.

    Chronic fumbling problems and some niggling injuries have stunted Slaton's career since, but he managed to provide plenty of highlights as a rookie.

Indianapolis Colts: Edgerrin James, RB, 1999

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    In 1999, rookie running back Edgerrin James wasted no time providing the perfect foil for young quarterback Peyton Manning. The exciting and prolific partnership took the Indianapolis Colts from 3-13 in 1998 to 13-3 in a single season.

    James posted spectacular numbers, leading the NFL in both rushing attempts, with 369, and rushing yards, with 1,553. He also added 586 receiving yards and scored 21 touchdowns.

    Many may think of Manning as a quarterback content to ignore the run. However, James had more than r 300 carries in five of his seven season in Indianapolis, a true testament to his quality.

    As strange as it sounds, the Colts may have won a Super Bowl without him, but their offense was never quite the same once James left for the Arizona Cardinals in 2006.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Fred Taylor, RB, 1998

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    If only Fred Taylor could have stayed healthy, he would be remembered as of the game's best backs. A rare combination of brute force and graceful agility, Taylor at his best could combine elements of Jerome Bettis and Barry Sanders.

    In 1998, the Jacksonville Jaguars turned Taylor loose and he used a mere 12 games to score 17 touchdowns and post 1,644 total yards. Of those yards, 1,223 came on the ground in the first of seven 1,000-yard rushing seasons in a 13-year career.

Kansas City Chiefs: Derrick Thomas, OLB, 1989

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    It's a shame that the late Derrick Thomas isn't more keenly remembered as one of the game's all-time greats. He belongs near the top of any list of the best pass-rushers who ever played.

    Only LT in his prime could match Thomas's speed off the edge. Few sights in football were as exciting as watching him burst off the corner and deliver a blindside hit. Thomas made the perfect start to his pro career after the Kansas City Chiefs took him fourth overall in the 1989 draft.

    He collected 10 sacks and established his niche as the master of the strip-sack by forcing three fumbles. So began 11 seasons of constant pressure on quarterbacks and numerous highlight-worthy plays.

Miami Dolphins: Zach Thomas, MLB, 1996

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    Dan Marino may have been the obvious choice here, but despite an impressive 20 touchdowns to six interceptions ratio in 1983, 2,210 passing yards simply wasn't enough to qualify.

    That meant the nod went to pint-sized tackling machine Zach Thomas. The diminutive mike linebacker began his Miami Dolphins tenure as a fifth-round draft choice in 1996.

    Thomas wasted no time elevating himself ahead of veteran Jack Del Rio into a starting role on then-head coach Jimmy Johnson's defense. He proved to be of great value with a highly productive first season in the AFC East.

    Thomas posted 120 solo tackles, intercepted three passes notched two sacks, forced and recovered two fumbles and scored a touchdown. That's true top-level production from Day 1, and it was just the beginning of a 12-season stretch as the leader of a perennially tough Dolphins' defense.

Minnesota Vikings: Randy Moss, WR, 1998

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    Randy Moss was sensational during his rookie season in 1998. He instantly became the most dangerous and prolific deep threat in the league. In the process, he transformed the Minnesota Vikings into the class of the NFC.

    Displaying awesome initial quickness, a long and loping stride and tremendous leaping ability, Moss dominated defensive backs in a way few rookie receivers have. By season's end, Moss had 69 receptions for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns.

    More than anything else, Moss simply had that "wow factor" that made him stand out from the rest of the pack. Anyone watching Moss in 1998 would instantly recognize a once-in-a-generation talent.

New England Patriots: Mike Haynes, CB, 1976

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    Before he became a Super Bowl winner with the Los Angeles Raiders in 1983, Mike Haynes was a standout rookie for the New England Patriots.

    In 1976, Haynes was named AP Defensive Rookie of the Year after grabbing eight interceptions. He also added two punt returns for scores.

    He quickly established a reputation as a quality coverage ace and prolific return man that he would live up to for the rest of his Hall of Fame career.

New Orleans Saints: George Rogers, RB, 1981

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    George Rogers enjoyed a phenomenal rookie season with the New Orleans Saints in 1981. After being taken first overall in the draft, one place ahead of Lawrence Taylor, Rogers was under enormous pressure to perform.

    He responded by rushing for 1,674 yards, at an average of 4.4 per carry and found the end zone 13 times. Although he would have three more 1,000-yard seasons and win a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins in 1987-88, Rogers would never again match his spectacular rookie campaign.

New York Giants: Lawrence Taylor, OLB, 1981

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    Lawrence Taylor is the only rookie in NFL history to be named Defensive Player of the Year. He also collected the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

    Taylor transformed the New York Giants' defense as soon as he arrived in the league. He enabled Big Blue to make an instantly successful transition to a 3-4 front under first-year coordinator Bill Parcells.

    Taylor's speed and tenacity off the edge revolutionized the outside linebacker position and the way offenses combated the 3-4. He notched 9.5 sacks during his debut campaign and propelled the Giants to a wild-card berth and a playoff road win against the arch-rival Philadelphia Eagles.

New York Jets: Mark Sanchez, QB, 2009

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    Perhaps the most controversial selection on this list, Mark Sanchez has divided opinion ever since the New York Jets traded up to draft him fifth overall in 2009.

    Before his struggles this season,Sanchez looked like an inspired selection. He led the Jets to a 9-7 finish and engineered back-to-back road playoff wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and San Diego Chargers, respectively.

    Although he hurled 20 interceptions, Sanchez stayed strong and finished the year with 2,444 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Jets eventually lost to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game.

    However, taking a team to one game away from a Super Bowl in your first season, has to be considered an outstanding rookie campaign for any quarterback. Joe Namath had more touchdowns and fewer interceptions in 1965, but his play didn't have the the same immediate impact.

Oakland Raiders: Charles Woodson, DB, 1998

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    Charles Woodson's greatness was established early after the Oakland Raiders used the fourth-overall pick to select him in the 1998 draft.

    Immediately justifying the high pick, Woodson recorded five interceptions, returning one for a score, forced two fumbles and posted 64 combined tackles. He was named Defensive Rookie of the Year and enjoyed the perfect beginning to what has turned into an outstanding career.

Philadelphia Eagles: DeSean Jackson, WR, 2008

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    DeSean Jackson became an instant star, thanks to a 2008 rookie season full of big plays. The second-round draft choice quickly emerged as the most dangerous weapon in the Philadelphia Eagles' offense.

    A multi-purpose threat, Jackson hauled in 62 receptions for 912 yards and a pair of scores. He also added 96 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

    As a return man, Jackson offered an even greater threat. He amassed 440 yards and a touchdown on 50 punt returns. Jackson helped the Eagles to the NFC Championship game and became the prolific, big-play threat he is today.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Franco Harris, FB, 1972

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    Franco Harris was a star from Day 1 for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 1972, the bruising fullback entered the NFL and wasted no time punishing defenses.

    He battered his way for 1,055 yards, despite making only nine starts. Harris also scored 11 touchdowns and took home the Rookie of the Year award. 

San Diego Chargers: Leslie O'Neal, DE, 1986

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    Rush end Leslie O'Neal was one of the best pure pass-rushers in NFL history. A skilled and savvy technician, O'Neal finished a stellar career with 132.5 sacks.

    He registered the first 12.5 of those quarterback takedowns during a superb rookie season in 1986. O'Neal quickly became the most feared player on the San Diego Chargers' defense. His consistent pressure eventually helped the team to a Super Bowl in 1994.

San Francisco 49ers: Ronnie Lott, DB, 1981

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    Ronnie Lott helped inspire a remarkable defensive turnaround for the San Francisco 49ers as a rookie cornerback in 1981. The 49ers jumped from 27th to second in total defense, thanks largely to the play of a dynamic, young secondary led by Lott.

    He picked off seven passes and scored three touchdowns as a key part of the league's third-ranked pass defense. In so doing, Lott helped inspire San Francisco to the first of its five Super Bowl titles.

Seattle Seahawks: Joey Galloway, WR, 1995

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    Curt Warner came close, but Joey Galloway just edged him out, thanks to the triple threat he provided as a receiver, returner and runner for the Seattle Seahawks in 1995.

    Galloway accumulated 1,483 all-purpose yards and scored touchdowns in all three phases. The rookie wideout provided plenty of highlight-worthy plays and brought some genuine excitement to a struggling franchise.

St. Louis Rams: Sam Bradford, QB, 2010

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    The St. Louis Rams may have just missed the playoffs in 2010, but Sam Bradford lived up to his billing as the first-overall pick in the draft. The first-year quarterback took the Rams from 1-15 to 7-9 and to the brink of the NFC West title.

    Bradford threw for 3,512 yards despite lacking an elite-level target in the passing game. He registered 18 touchdowns compared to 15 interceptions and gave Rams' fans their first reason for real optimism since the days of the "Greatest Show on Turf."

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Warrick Dunn, RB, 1997

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    Warrick Dunn helped spur the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the 1997 playoffs following 14-straight losing seasons. Dunn contributed 1,440 combined rushing and receiving yards and scored seven touchdowns.

    The diminutive back was quick, shifty and capable of taking any play the distance. Dunn revitalized the Bucs' offense and gave them an exciting multi-purpose threat.

Tennessee Titans: Jevon Kearse, DE, 1999

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    Jevon Kearse was a rookie sensation for the Tennessee Titans in 1999. The self-styled "Freak" took the league by storm as a cat-quick rush end who no offensive tackle could block.

    Kearse destroyed blocking schemes all season, thanks to incredible off-the-snap quickness and reach. He tallied 14.5 sacks, a rookie record that remains intact.

    His pressure and big plays off the edge helped inspire the Titans to a place in the Super Bowl. Niggling injuries eventually robbed Kearse off his initial quickness, but he was truly a dominant force back in 1999.

Washington Redskins: Gary Clark, WR, 1985

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    In 1985, rookie wide receiver Gary Clark provided the Washington Redskins with a complementary bookend to the great Art Monk. The prolific tandem made the Redskins' passing game one of the most explosive in the NFL for more than a decade.

    Clark snared 72 receptions for 926 yards in '85. He also scored five touchdowns and showcased the big-play skills that would define a superb career in D.C.