13 NFL Rookies Who Are Breaking Through the Rookie Wall

Dan Hope@Dan_HopeContributor IIINovember 20, 2012

13 NFL Rookies Who Are Breaking Through the Rookie Wall

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    With all NFL rookies now starting on contracts of only four years, it has become increasingly difficult for rookies to transform into immediate stars in the league.

    The jump from college football, even in power conferences like the SEC, to the NFL is a massive one. Every player has to go through a transition period to make it to the next level, and for most players, that transition period takes significantly more than a year.

    However, the 13 following rookies have transitioned quickly in their first NFL seasons, and they've already become crucial contributors for their teams.

Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck

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    The Indianapolis Colts made Andrew Luck the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft because they believed he could immediately emerge as the franchise’s next star quarterback following the Peyton Manning era.

    Through the first 10 games of his career, Luck has not disappointed.

    Sure, he has made his share of rookie mistakes, with 12 interceptions thrown. Despite those nearly unavoidable hurdles, the Colts have had one of the NFL’s most productive passing offenses, and Luck has emerged as a leader capable of making any throw on the field.

    With Luck leading the way, the Colts are eighth in the league with 283 passing yards per game.

    As Luck gains experience, he will gain confidence, leading to more complete performances and fewer mistakes. Nonetheless, he has had a terrific rookie season thus far, and his leadership has the Colts well-positioned in the AFC Wild Card race with a 6-4 record.

Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III

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    The 2012 draft class had two elite quarterback prospects, and the Washington Redskins traded up to the No. 2 overall pick for the chance to draft the second, Robert Griffin III. And he hasn’t disappointed.

    Griffin has immediately established himself as possibly the league’s top dual-threat quarterback.

    Griffin has been tremendously efficient as a pocket passer, completing 67.1 percent of his passes for 2,193 yards and 12 touchdowns, while only throwing three interceptions. He also leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards this season, with 613 through 10 games.

    The Redskins aren’t in position to make a playoff run this season, but if Griffin’s rookie performance is a sign of things to come, they certainly have the right man in place to lead the team back to postseason contention.

Minnesota Vikings OT Matt Kalil

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    I only considered three prospects in the 2012 NFL draft to be truly elite, and the only non-quarterback among them was left tackle Matt Kalil. Like the quarterbacks, Kalil has also lived up to the hype after the Minnesota Vikings made him the No. 4 overall pick.

    Kalil has been a steadying force at left tackle, giving Christian Ponder the premier blindside protector he needs. He is a terrific all-around left tackle who has become the leader of the Vikings in the trenches already, but he has been especially effective in pass protection.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Kalil has only allowed one sack this season, and he has a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 97.5, the third-highest in the league.

    At left tackle, one of the toughest positions to make the leap from college football to the NFL, Kalil is accomplishing a rare feat for a rookie by becoming one of the league’s best in his first season.

Green Bay Packers CB Casey Hayward

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    There have been a number of impressive defensive backs among rookies, but the standout among them has been Green Bay Packers cornerback Casey Hayward. A late second-round pick at No. 62 overall, Hayward already looks like a huge steal.

    Hayward has been an all-around solid cornerback right off the bat, locking down opposing receivers while forcing opposing quarterbacks into mistakes. He has been an immediate playmaker in the Packers secondary and is currently tied for third league-wide with 14 passes defensed, including five interceptions.

    Longtime standout defensive back Charles Woodson may be on the tail end of his career at 36, but fortunately for the Packers, they appear to have already found their next secondary star in Hayward.

    Hayward hasn’t been the only productive rookie defensive back and steal for the Packers, either. Strong safety Jerron McMillian, whom the Packers drafted with a compensatory fourth-round pick, has also been a huge surprise this season by becoming a much-needed tackler and playmaker in the Packers’ defensive backfield.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Doug Martin

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    For a running back to gain 1,000 yards in their rookie season is an impressive feat on its own. Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin has achieved that exact number in 10 games.

    Martin was solid through the first six games of his career, rushing for a combined 408 yards and two touchdowns, but over the past four weeks, he has absolutely exploded onto the scene.

    Martin has rushed for more than 135 yards in three of his past four games, including his breakout moment in a 251-yard, four-touchdown embarrassment of the Raiders’ run defense.

    Martin’s 251-yard game is the largest single-game rushing total by any player yet this season, and it is the only four-touchdown rushing performance yet this season. As Martin keeps on rolling through a productive rookie season, it's clear that performance was no fluke.

    No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson may end up being the best running back from the 2012 class, but through the first 10 games of their careers, No. 31 overall pick Martin has emerged as a star first.

    Martin is a well-rounded back with a great combination of speed, quickness and power, and he has become the key to the Buccaneers offense already.

Washington Redskins RB Alfred Morris

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    Doug Martin hasn’t been the only rookie running back to explode on the scene this season. Another ranks among the league’s top five in rushing yards, and surprisingly, that back is Washington Redskins sixth-round pick Alfred Morris.

    Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has a reputation for finding diamond-in-the-rough running backs, and through the first 10 games of his career, that has been the case for Morris. Morris is well on his way to a 1,000-yard rushing season, with 869 yards and five touchdowns already.

    There is nothing that stands about Morris’ game, but he is a hard, physical runner who is yet another example of how even a running back drafted late can make an immediate impact in the right system.

    It is highly unlikely that anyone actually predicted Morris would have more rushing yards than Trent Richardson through the first 10 games of their careers, but that is the case, by a whole 199 yards.

Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly

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    The early production of Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly should come as no surprise. Kuechly came into the NFL as a tackling machine, having led the NCAA each of his last two seasons, and that skill has transitioned quickly to the league.

    Kuechly had some growing pains in his first few weeks, but once standout linebacker Jon Beason went down for the season with persistent knee issues, Kuechly stepped up as the leader the Panthers needed at middle linebacker.

    With 10 or more tackles in each of his last six games, Kuechly has 97 tackles already in his rookie season. Ranking third in the NFL, the chances are looking good that Kuechly could keep his string of tackles titles going for a third straight year, but now as a professional.

    Jon Beason’s best years could be behind him if he continues to deal with injury issues, but the Panthers seem to have found another long-term standout to lead their linebacker corps in Kuechly.

Cincinnati Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict

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    Before Kuechly rose to the top of the boards as the clear-cut top middle linebacker prospect and a top-10 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, he had competition for that top spot from Vontaze Burfict.

    Burfict, however, suffered from one of the worst stock collapses in draft history due to serious character questions and poor workout numbers, and he ended up an undrafted free agent.

    Therefore, there may be no bigger surprise rookie on this list than Burfict, who has quickly turned his career back around and looks like he should have been a first-round pick after all.

    Burfict did not just make the team in Cincinnati, he became an immediate starter at outside linebacker and has become the Bengals’ best linebacker.

    Burfict needs to become more disciplined on defense, but he has been a very solid run defender with 67 tackles already, and he has also been a very pleasant surprise in pass coverage.

    It certainly looks like the entire NFL made a mistake when they let Burfict go completely undrafted.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Lavonte David

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    Luke Kuechly isn’t the only rookie in the NFL’s top 10 in total tackles. The other is Tampa Bay Buccaneers second-round pick Lavonte David, whose instincts and tackling have made him a fine contributor at the next level.

    David likely slipped to the No. 58 overall pick because he is undersized, but he has made it clear right away that he can make up for it with his athleticism and nose for the football. With 90 total tackles (73 solo) through the first 10 games of his career, David has been all over the field on the Buccaneers defense.

    The Buccaneers drafted safety Mark Barron with the No. 7 overall pick with the expectation that he would become an immediate defensive standout, but although Barron has been solid, David has been the star among their defensive rookies thus far.

New England Patriots DE Chandler Jones

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    Chandler Jones came out of Syracuse with huge upside and a lot of raw potential, but he was expected to be a player who would need a couple years to develop into an NFL difference-maker. Instead, Jones has been a much-needed playmaker for the New England Patriots defensive line.

    Jones emerged as an pass-rushing threat, drawing double-teams from his first game in the league, and he already has six sacks in his rookie season. Jones has been very solid in run defense as well.

    Jones’ production has dipped somewhat in the team’s past two games, and his status for the Patriots’ contest vs. the Jets on Thursday may certainly be in question after he left the Patriots’ victory over the Colts in the first quarter with an ankle injury.

    Overall, however, his rookie season has been a terrific success thus far.

    Jones hasn’t been the only rookie to stand out early for the Patriots—fellow first-round pick Dont’a Hightower and seventh-round pick Alfonzo Dennard have become key contributors for the defense as well—but Jones has been the standout of their rookie class to this point.

Seattle Seahawks DE Bruce Irvin

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    Many (myself certainly included) thought the Seattle Seahawks made a big mistake when they drafted Bruce Irvin, a very raw and unpolished defensive end with fantastic athletic ability, with the No. 15 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. Thus far, however, the Seahawks are looking like the smart team in the equation.

    Irvin has been what many of us criticized he would be in our pre-draft evaluations: a situational pass-rusher. That term shouldn’t come with a negative connotation with Irvin’s performance thus far, however.

    A better term for Irvin given his rookie-season production would be pass-rushing specialist. Although Irvin has only played less than 40 percent of snaps this season (according to Pro Football Focus statistics), he leads all rookies with seven sacks this season.

    The Seahawks have been rotating Irvin in on pass-rushing downs, and he has been a difference-maker on the field. His explosive athleticism has translated quite well to the next level, much to the chagrin of those of us who criticized the Seahawks' pick.

Seattle Seahawks LB Bobby Wagner

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    The Seahawks defense has been one of the league’s elite this season, and a big reason is the immediate contributions they have gotten from their rookies.

    While Irvin has been the biggest playmaker among team's defensive rookies, second-round pick Bobby Wagner has arguably been the best of their defensive rookies.

    Wagner has taken over as the Seahawks’ middle linebacker, and he has proved to be a very sound all-around player at the position. Wagner leads the Seahawks with 81 tackles (No. 17 in the league), and he looks to be a player who will lead the defense for many years to come.

Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson

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    Ten games in, the Seattle Seahawks appear to be the big winners of the 2012 NFL draft, which is a big reason why stand at 6-4 and are in position to make a run at an NFC playoff berth.

    While the defense has carried their team, another rookie whose breakout performance has been absolutely pivotal is that of third-round pick and starting quarterback Russell Wilson.

    When the Seahawks drafted Wilson with the No. 75 overall pick, he was certainly not expected to be an immediate starter after the team had signed Matt Flynn to a three-year, $26 million contract. Wilson won the job in the preseason, however, and he has made steady improvement while keeping the Seahawks on the right side of .500.

    The Seahawks’ passing offense with Wilson has been far from explosive—they rank dead last in the NFL in passing yards per game—but over his past three games, Wilson has completed 67.9 of his passes and thrown for seven touchdowns with just one interception. 

    Wilson has been efficient, and the surprising starter has outperformed first-round pick quarterbacks Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden.

    Additionally, the low passing yardage numbers are in large due part to a weak group of wide receivers and shaky pass protection, as Wilson has shown the ability to make big plays with his strong arm.

    Wilson’s game is still a work in progress, but for a third-round quarterback, he has had a fantastic rookie campaign thus far.

    Think there’s a rookie I missed? Let me know who and why in the comments section!

    Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist and the New England Patriots game day correspondent for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.