Greatest Rookie Season in Every NFL Team's History

Adam B. WeinbergerCorrespondent IINovember 16, 2012

Greatest Rookie Season in Every NFL Team's History

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    There have been several impressive rookies in the 2012 NFL season thus far, but how does their production compare with that of the greatest rookies in NFL history?

    Looking at the quality of a rookie season retroactively is difficult to do.

    For one it can be tempting to say, “Well, X-player had good numbers, but look at how bad his team did. If he was so great, his team would have won more than four games.” That’s not really fair for players selected at the top of the draft because a mid-round selection has, generally speaking, a better supporting cast and, therefore, an increased likelihood of advancing to the playoffs. Weaker teams should draft better players.

    It can be also tempting to base the quality of a rookie campaign on what a player went on to do for the rest of his career. This is a list of “greatest rookie seasons,” not greatest future players

    And then there’s the unavoidable “comparing of eras”—something that really cannot be done, especially since players are thrown into the fire earlier and earlier each year. It also hurts that many of today’s valued statistics, like sacks, tackles and of course QBR, were not officially and uniformly recorded for many years. 

    With that spiel, here is my humble effort at identifying the best rookie season for every NFL team.

    Note: A team’s history only goes back to the current name and location (i.e. players from the Los Angeles Rams and Houston Oilers are not considered).  

Arizona Cardinals: Anquan Boldin, WR (2003)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    Anquan Boldin produced one of the greatest rookie years ever for a wide receiver—and he did it with Jeff Blake and Josh McCown throwing him the ball.  

    Boldin’s first season was representative of the player he would go on to be. The physical receiver out of Florida State caught 101 balls for 1,377 yards (both rookie records) and eight touchdowns. 

Atlanta Falcons: Matt Ryan, QB (2008)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    When the Atlanta Falcons used the No. 3 overall pick on Matt Ryan, they were hoping for a lot. Ryan was expected to lead Atlanta to the postseason and make the city forget about Michael Vick.

    He did that in year one.

    Ryan threw for 3,440 yards and 16 touchdowns for a QBR of 74.09 (the highest of his career heading into 2012).

    Matty Ice’s 2008 effort made the “watch a year” strategy for young quarterbacks all but extinct.

Baltimore Ravens: Peter Boulware, OLB (1997)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    The Ravens brought in Peter Boulware the year after drafting Ray Lewis—not a bad one-two. (Although when was the last time Baltimore drafted a defensive player who did not perform?)

    Boulware brought down opposing quarterbacks 11.5 times in 1997. 

Buffalo Bills: Jairus Byrd, FS (2009)

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    Rookie of the Year? No

    The Bills have been around since 1960, but they've never had a rookie campaign like the one from Jairus Byrd in 2009.

    Byrd led the AFC with nine interceptions, which earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, he has picked off only eight passes since then. 

Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton, QB (2011)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.  

    Julius Peppers’ rookie season was tremendous (12 sacks, five forced fumbles), but Cam Newton’s production last year was better.

    Even if you completely ignore Newton’s passing statistics, his ground efforts may have been good enough to take the top spot. He rushed for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns.

    But he did throw it. Newton’s 4,051 yards are the most ever for a rookie.

Chicago Bears: Gale Sayers, RB/KR/PR (1965)

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    Rookie of the Year? Not yet awarded.

    Gale Sayers scored 22 total touchdowns in 1965. The justification could stop there—I’ll keep going.

    Sayers accumulated 1374 yards from scrimmage with a 14-game schedule.

    He averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Even more impressive, Sayers was good for 17.5 yards per reception (take that Vincent Jackson).

    Two of Sayers’ touchdowns came in the return game. He averaged 14.9 yards on punt returns and 31.4 on kick returns. 

Cincinnati Bengals: A.J. Green, WR (2011)

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    Rookie of the Year? No.

    This was a tough one.

    Two Cincinnati Bengals receivers have been named the Rookie of the Year.

    Eddie Brown did it in 1985 with 53 catches, 942 yards and eight touchdowns.

    Carl Pickens won the award seven years later when he had 326 receiving yards and 229 in the return game.

    A.J. Green had 65 receptions for 1057 yards and seven scores over 15 games, and was a reliable option for rookie quarterback Andy Dalton. 

    Tip of the hat to running back Elbert Woods. 

Cleveland Browns: Jim Brown, RB (1957)

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    Rookie of the Year? Not yet awarded.

    When someone has to name the best anybody in Cleveland Browns' history, there’s a very good chance Jim Brown will be the answer.

    Jim Brown averaged 78.5 yards rushing per game and scored 10 touchdowns.

    Just for comparison, Trent Richardson, who is having a "good" rookie season, has run for just 64 yards per game and at his current pace would have been good for just 8 touchdowns in a 12-game season.

Dallas Cowboys: Bob Hayes, WR/KR/PR (1965)

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    Rookie of the Year? Not yet awarded.

    Even with all of the medical and health advances that have come about since the mid-60s, there is nobody in the NFL today faster than Bob Hayes. He won Olympic gold in the 100-meter dash in 1964.

    Bullet Bob had 1,003 receiving yards and 603 return yards a year later. He also led the league with 12 receiving touchdowns. 

Denver Broncos: Clinton Portis, RB (2002)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    Terrell Davis had 1,484 all-purpose yards, eight touchdowns and a yards-per-carry average of 4.7 his rookie year in Denver (1995).

    Mike Anderson had 1,656 all-purpose yards, 15 touchdowns and a yards-per-carry average of 5.0 his rookie year in Denver (2000).

    Clinton Portis had a ridiculous 1,872 all-purpose yards, 17 touchdowns and a yards-per-carry average of 5.5 his rookie year in Denver (2002). 

Detroit Lions: Billy Sims, RB (1980)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    Barry Sanders is the greatest Lions running back, but Billy Sims turned in the greatest rookie season in franchise history.

    Billy Sims was a great downhill runner who, as you can see in the video, looks a whole lot like Arian Foster (big cut, straight to the end zone).

    Sims gained 1,924 total yards and scored 16 touchdowns his first year in the league.

Green Bay Packers: John Brockington, RB (1971)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    John Brockington, an outstanding power back, rumbled for 1,105 yards his rookie year in a 14-game season. Brockington averaged 5.1 yards per carry.

    Apparently, “the man that made the air whistle through the air hole of his helmet”—or so it says in the included video.

Houston Texans: DeMeco Ryans, MLB (2006)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    Houston shocked many when it selected Mario Williams rather than Reggie Bush with the No. 1 pick of the 2006 NFL draft. Williams gave the Texans a handful of productive years, although it was the team’s second selection, DeMeco Ryans, who was the true star of the 2006-07 season.

    Ryans was the anchor of the defense and accumulated 156 total tackles, 3.5 sacks, one pick and a forced fumble.

Indianapolis Colts: Edgerrin James, RB (1999)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    After the departure of Marshall Faulk, the Colts needed Edgerrin James to be the man, and even with a young quarterback named Peyton Manning grabbing headlines, the rookie running back was the star of the 1999 team.

    In one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history, James rushed for a league-leading 1,553 rushing yards on 369 carries. He received all but 13 of Indianapolis’ handoffs to running backs.

    All together, Edge had 2,139 total yards and 17 touchdowns. 

Jacksonville Jaguars: Fred Taylor, RB (1998)

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    Rookie of the Year? No.

    The Jacksonville Jaguars are one of three teams without a player who has won a Rookie of the Year award, which is fitting considering it took Fred Taylor 10 seasons to make a Pro Bowl.

    Taylor finished the year with 1,644 combined rushing and receiving yards and 17 scores. 

Kansas City Chiefs: Dale Carter, CB/PR (1992)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    Dale Carter was an amazing playmaker early in his career before a series off-field issues brought about an early retirement (Not before signing a four-year, $22.8 million dollar contract that was the highest for a defensive back).

    In his first year, Carter intercepted seven passes, returning one for a touchdown, and recovered two fumbles. He scored two more times on punt returns. 

Miami Dolphins: Dan Marino, QB (1983)

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    Rookie of the Year? No.

    Dan Marino didn’t earn his first start until Week 6, but he posted numbers that were essentially unheard-of coming from a rookie.

    Marino won seven of his nine games as a starter and passed for an average of 219 yards over the span.

    He set numerous rookie records including passer rating (96.0), completion percentage (58.4) and touchdown-to-interception differential (20 to 6). 

    If you're not one to actually watch the videos included in these slides, I beg you to reconsider for this one. 

Minnesota Vikings: Randy Moss, WR (1998)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    This one is pretty obvious.

    Randy Moss immediately established himself as one of the great deep threats in the league, averaging 19 yards per catch.

    He finished the year with 69 receptions, 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns. Moss’ 17 scores are a rookie record and only three players have ever reeled in more. 

New England Patriots: Mike Haynes, CB/PR (1976)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    Mike Haynes’ rookie performance mirrors that of Dale Carter. Of course, the end of their careers are drastically different.

    Haynes, a Hall of Famer, had eight interceptions and three recovered fumbles over 14 games in his rookie year. He also took two punts to the Baja. 

New Orleans Saints: George Rogers, RB (1981)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    At least it took more than one year for the Saints to truly regret grabbing George Rogers ahead of Lawrence Taylor. Rogers, the first selection of the 1981 draft, was a first-team All-Pro his rookie year.

    Rogers led the league in rushing (1,674 yards) and attempts (378). He also scored 13 touchdowns.

    Unfortunately, Rogers could never reproduce his success from year one.  

New York Giants: Lawrence Taylor, OLB (1981)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    The greatest defensive player that has ever lived established himself as such from year one. Not only did Lawrence Taylor win the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, he was also named the Defensive Player of the Year.

    LT forever changed the game of football. He transformed one of the league’s worst defenses of 1980 (425 points allowed) into one of the best in ’81 (257). 

    There are some absolute John Madden commentary gems in this video. 

New York Jets: Erik McMillan, FS (1988)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    Erik McMillan is not the best cornerback in Jets history, but his rookie year was better than that of Darrelle Revis (although Revis' was pretty good as well).

    McMillan had eight interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns, over 14 games. He earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in 1988 as well as the following year.

Oakland Raiders: Charles Woodson, CB (1998)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    Charles Woodson barely earned this selection over Marcus Allen.

    One reason is that rookie cornerbacks possibly have the toughest time of any non-quarterback position, so Woodson gets some bonus points. Some inexperienced corners can make game-changing plays, but are still consistently burned and are a liability in run support.

    Woodson, though, was as reliable as any defensive back from the first game of his career. He started all 16 games, intercepted five balls and forced two fumbles.

    A trademark of Woodson’s career has been his aggressive run support and superb tackling abilities. He really exhibited these equally important gifts his rookie year. Woodson had 61 solo tackles, which he surpassed only once from 1998-2008. 

Philadelphia Eagles: Reggie White, DE (1985)

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    Rookie of the Year? No.

    Any list of greatest rookies of all time must include Reggie White. White was not drafted until the 1985 Supplemental Draft.

    The Minister of Defense had 13 sacks in 13 games his first year in the league, as well as two fumble recoveries. 

Pittsburgh Steelers: Ben Roethlisberger, QB (2004)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    This was another easy selection.

    Ben Roethlisberger went 13-0 in the regular season and finished the year with a 98.1 passer rating—the current rookie quarterback record.

    Big Ben established himself as a resilient quarterback with five fourth-quarter come-from-behind drives and six game-winning drives overall. 

San Diego Chargers: LaDainian Tomlinson, RB (2001)

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    Rookie of the Year? No.

    Maybe it’s because he is the first transcendent NFL player I was able to follow and truly appreciate from draft day to retirement, but there will always be a special place in my heart for LT. So forgive me if this one is a tad biased.

    Then again, the only reason to ho-hum at 1,603 total yards, 10 touchdowns and 398 touches is because you know what rests ahead for LT. 

San Francisco 49ers: Ronnie Lott, CB (1981)

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    Rookie of the Year? No.

    Ronnie Lott is yet another rookie who made the first-team All Pro squad in 1981.

    San Francisco has a history of great young defenders—especially recently—but Lott’s first effort was the best. He finished the year with nine takeaways and a rookie-record three defensive scores.

    Much like how Lawrence Taylor transformed the Giants defense, Lott took the 49ers from the No. 27 total defense to the No. 2 spot. 

    It's a good thing Lott played in an era that tolerated his ruthless hits. 

Seattle Seahawks: Curt Warner, RB (1983)

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    Rookie of the Year? No.

    The original Curt Warner gained 1,774 yards from scrimmage for 14 touchdowns. How was that not enough for Offensive Rookie of the Year?

    Warner fell to the greatest offensive rookie season ever. Eric Dickerson of the Los Angeles Rams—who is not eligible for this slideshow—pumped out 2,212 yards and 20 scores.

    Poor Warner can’t even be the best of his namesake. 

St. Louis Rams: James Laurinaitis, MLB (2009)

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    Rookie of the Year? No.

    The St. Louis Rams only date back to 1995. Sam Bradford is the natural choice, but I’m going to say James Laurinaitis was even better in year one.

    Laurinaitis delivered a DeMeco-Ryans-esque rookie season. He had 107 solo tackles, two sacks, two interceptions, five batted passes and one fumble recovery.

    Bradford may be the leader of the offense. Laurinaitis, even with Chris Long in front, is the leader of the defense. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Warrick Dunn, RB (1997)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    Warrick Dunn earned a Pro Bowl spot his first year in the league after accumulating 1,440 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns.

    Dunn was a key component of Tampa’s offense for five seasons. Only his contributions from the 2000 NFL season were better than those from his rookie year (1,555 yards, nine touchdowns).

Tennessee Titans: Jevon Kearse, DE (1999)

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    Rookie of the Year? Yes.

    You know a player is truly great when he invents a cliché. Before Jevon Kearse, the word “freak” was not one that shamelessly and meaninglessly littered blogs, podcasts and sports debates.

    Kearse’s dominating rookie season quite literally presented a new image of what a defensive end can be. He was 6’4”, 265 pounds.

    Sleek, freakishly athletic defensive ends are found on most 4-3 defenses today, but none of them have been able to replicate Kearse’s rookie sack total. His 14.5 sacks are still the record for a first-year player. 

Washington Redskins: Robert Griffin III, QB (2012)

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    Rookie of the Year? Still in progress, but probably not.

    Even though Andrew Luck has stepped ahead of Robert Griffin III in the race for Offensive Rookie of the Year, I think we have seen enough to project RG3 as the best rookie in Redskins history. 

    I know, I know. This is premature, ridiculous and completely dismissive of the team’s 80-year history. 

    But consider this: Even if Griffin throws and runs for 50-percent fewer yards and touchdowns per game than he has so far (there’s no reason to predict this), he will still finish with 3,502 combined yards and 19 total touchdowns.

    Never mind the fact that at such an inexplicably cut rate, he could throw an interception every game and still have more passing touchdowns than picks.