The 25 Best Rookie Seasons in NFL History
The pressure on rookies in the National Football League is tremendous. The higher a player is drafted, the more he is expected to contribute to his team, especially in the current generation.
First-round picks are expected to be key starters for their team on day one, plugging holes from the previous year's team.
Some players can handle the pressure, while others fall flat on their face, overwhelmed by day one. The following slides will highlight the 25 best rookie seasons in the history of the NFL, and yes, most of these were first-round picks.
Some notable players who missed the cut for the top 25 include Ben Roethlisberger, Dan Marino, Clinton Portis, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Adrian Peterson, Cookie Gilchrist, Steve Van Buren, Lem Barney, Bob Hayes, Anquan Boldin, John Jefferson, Keith Jackson, Patrick Willis, Brian Cushing, Alfred Morris, Von Miller, Aldon Smith, George Rogers and Billy Sims.
25. Devin Hester, KR/PR, Chicago Bears (2006)
There may never again be a better returner than Devin Hester, especially with the NFL rules changing kickoffs.
As a rookie in 2006, Hester scored seven touchdowns, all on returns. He took back three punts for touchdowns. He scored twice on kicks. He returned a missed field goal 108 yards for the longest touchdown in NFL history. And he returned the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl back 92 yards for a score.
24. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals (2011)
Drafted with the fifth overall pick by the Arizona Cardinals, Patrick Peterson turned in a rookie season that wouldn't look out of place on Deion Sanders' stat sheet.
He intercepted two passes and defensed 13 more, but he made his reputation as a return man. Peterson scored four times on punt returns, a single-season record. His most memorable play was a 99-yard punt return touchdown in overtime to stun the St. Louis Rams.
23. Mike Ditka, TE, Chicago Bears (1961)
The first tight end ever inducted into the Hall of Fame, Mike Ditka's best season was his first.
He caught 56 passes for 1076 yards and 12 touchdowns. His 19.2 yards per catch is almost six yards higher than his career average (13.6).
22. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers (2011)
Expectations were through the roof for Cam Newton heading into his rookie season. He didn't disappoint. A year after winning the Heisman at Auburn, he earned NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors with the Carolina Panthers.
Newton did it all as a rookie. He threw for more than 400 yards in each of his first two games, finishing the year with 4051 yards and 21 touchdowns. He added 706 yards and a quarterback-record 14 rushing touchdowns.
21. Robert Griffin III, QB, Washington Redskins (2012)
Here's all you need to know about what RGIII did in 2012: He became the first player in the history of the NFL to lead the league in both yards per attempt as a passer and yards per attempt as a rusher in the same season.
He threw 20 touchdowns, led the league in interception percentage, ran for 815 yards and seven scores, and led the Redskins to a shocking NFC East division title. His season should be remembered for the season-ending seven-game winning streak, not the major knee injury suffered in the postseason loss.
20. Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts (2012)
From the surface, Andrew Luck's numbers look good, but not great. He threw for 4374 yards and 23 touchdowns. But he also threw 18 interceptions and posted just a 76.5 passer rating.
There's more though.
He led the Colts to an 11-5 record, including seven fourth-quarter comeback victories, despite a subpar running game, a terrible offensive line and a defense that allowed the team to be outscored by 30 points on the season.
19. Ryan Clady, OT, Denver Broncos (2008)
Unfortunately it's impossible to know how offensive linemen did before sites like Pro Football Focus started tracking statistics like sacks allowed and hurries.
What we do know is that Ryan Clady's 2008 rookie season stands as the most dominant by an offensive lineman in recent history. He allowed just half a sack all season, the only offensive tackle in the league to allow fewer than a sack. He committed just three penalties and was named by The Sporting News as the best offensive tackle in the NFL following the season.
18. Dick Butkus, MLB, Chicago Bears (1965)
Dick Butkus terrorized NFL offenses from the first time he stepped onto a football field in his 1965 rookie season.
It's hard to know exact impact without game film, but statistics do show that he set career-highs in interceptions (5) and fumble recoveries (7) as a rookie. He earned All-Pro honors and put the rest of the league on notice that there was a new beast in the NFL.
17. Jim Brown, RB, Cleveland Browns (1957)
Jim Brown's 1957 rookie season was the worst year of his career.
All he did was lead the entire NFL in rushing yards (942) and rushing touchdowns (9), while earning league Most Valuable Player honors.
For the next eight years, Brown averaged 1421 rushing yards and 14.5 touchdowns per season. He earned MVP honors two more times, establishing himself as perhaps the most dominant player in league history.
16. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Detroit Lions (2010)
One of the most decorated college football players in history, Ndamukong Suh terrorized opposing offenses the minute the Lions drafted him second overall in 2010.
He collected 10 sacks, an interception, a fumble recovery touchdown and 65 tackles. He won the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year award and was named an All-Pro selection.
15. Earl Campbell, RB, Houston Oilers (1978)
The top overall pick in the 1978 draft, Earl Campbell exploded onto the scene with a dominant first three seasons.
As a rookie in 1978, he carried 302 times for 1450 yards and 13 touchdowns. He won the rushing title and was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year for the first of three straight seasons.
14. Mike Anderson, RB, Denver Broncos (2000)
The Mike Anderson story is pretty cool.
He spent four years in the Marine Corps after high school, then attended college for four more years. All that led to him getting drafted by the Broncos in the sixth round of the 2000 draft as a 27-year-old rookie.
He played 16 games as a rookie, starting 12, where he established himself as one of Mike Shanahan's many late-round wonders at running back. Anderson rushed 297 times for 1487 yards and 15 touchdowns. That's 5.0 yards per carry.
Against the New Orleans Saints in Week 13, he carried a ridiculous 37 times for 251 yards and four touchdowns.
Anderson's incredible season earned NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He struggled with injuries over the next few years, posted another 1000-yard season at age 32 in 2005 and retired with the Baltimore Ravens after the 2007 season.
13. Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions (1989)
The Detroit Lions couldn't decide between Barry and Deion Sanders for the third pick in the 1988 draft. They ended up drafting Barry, the former Heisman Trophy from Oklahoma State.
Sanders got off to a rocky start in Detroit, missing all of training camp with a contract dispute. But he ended up playing 15 games and rushing for 1470 yards and 14 touchdowns on 5.3 yards per carry.
Over the next nine seasons, Sanders would establish himself as arguably the most elusive running back in the history of the NFL.
12. Eric Dickerson, RB, Los Angeles Rams (1983)
The first round of the 1983 draft will forever be remembered as the Year of the Quarterback, as Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly were just a number of the players taken in the first round.
But three other all-time greats were taken in the same round: running back Eric Dickerson, guard Bruce Matthews and cornerback Darrell Green.
Dickerson, the second overall pick, turned in the best season by a rookie back in league history. He carried 390 times for 1808 yards and 18 touchdowns. He led the league in carries, yards, longest rush and yards per game.
The Rams running back also caught 51 passes for 404 yards and two scores, finishing with a league-leading 2212 yards and 20 total touchdowns.
The only blemish on his brilliant season was a ridiculous 13 fumbles.
11. Paul Krause, S, Washington Redskins (1964)
The NFL's all-time interception leader, Paul Krause turned in his most productive season as a rookie.
He collected 12 interceptions in 14 games, including an interception in seven straight games. He was named to the All-Pro team, his first of three throughout his career.
10. Ronnie Lott, CB, San Francisco 49ers (1981)
The most important defensive player for the San Francisco 49ers during their dynasty in the 1980s, Ronnie Lott finished second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting in 1981, losing out to Lawrence Taylor.
Lott intercepted seven passes, returning three for scores. He collected 89 tackles and led the 49ers to a Super Bowl victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.
9. Bill Groman, WR, Houston Oilers (1960)
The most dominant rookie season by a wide receiver in NFL history came in 1960 by undrafted free agent Bill Groman.
Groman, with future Hall of Famer George Blanda throwing to him, caught 72 passes for 1473 yards and 12 touchdowns. He led the NFL in receiving yards, yards per catch, longest touchdown and yards per game.
Groman would catch just 102 more passes throughout the rest of his career, although he was almost equally as dominant in 1961, his second season.
8. Sammy Baugh, QB, Washington Redskins (1937)
The quarterback position practically didn't even exist before Sammy Baugh began his career in 1937.
All Baugh did as a rookie was lead the league in virtually every passing category: attempts, completions, completion percentage, yards, touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, yards per completion and passer rating.
Oh, and he played defensive back and punted too.
The one-man show led the Redskins to the NFL championship, where he threw for 335 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-21 victory. The 335 passing yards stood as a single-game rookie record for quarterbacks in the postseason until Russell Wilson broke it in 2012.
7. Jevon Kearse, DE, Tennessee Titans (1999)
Known as The Freak, Jevon Kearse turned in the best season by a rookie defensive end in NFL history.
Kearse collected 14.5 sacks and forced a ridiculous eight fumbles. He also scored on a fumble return touchdown.
His magnificent season helped the Titans finish with a 13-3 record. They would eventually advance to their first Super Bowl in franchise history. Kearse collected three sacks during the postseason.
6. Tommy Nobis, LB, Atlanta Falcons (1965)
He's forgotten now but Tommy Nobis was Ray Lewis half a century ago.
The number one pick in the 1966 draft, Nobis recorded 294 tackles in 14 games during his rookie year. That's unprecedented. That's a still-standing single-season record (in 14 games, too) that will probably never be broken. That's an average of 21 tackles per game. That's practically a tackle every three defensive snaps.
5. Randy Moss, WR, Minnesota Vikings (1998)
20 teams passed on Randy Moss in the 1998 draft. He made them all look foolish from day one.
His incredible 1998 rookie season included 69 catches, 1313 yards and 17 touchdowns. He and Randall Cunningham formed the most dangerous quarterback-to-wide receiver combination in the NFL, and the Vikings scored a single-season record 556 points. They came within three points of a trip to the Super Bowl.
4. Greg Cook, QB, Cincinnati Bengals (1969)
The younger NFL generation doesn't even know the name Greg Cook and it's a shame because the former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback could have been an all-time great if he stayed healthy.
Cook, the fifth overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals, turned in a dominant rookie season. He led the NFL in completion percentage, yards per attempt, yards per completion and passer rating. His yards per attempt and yards per completion percentage are still records among rookie quarterbacks.
But Cook suffered an undiagnosed torn rotator cuff early in his first season. He also suffered a partially detached biceps muscle. He missed the next three seasons, briefly returned in 1973 and retired at the age of 27.
3. Lawrence Taylor, OLB, New York Giants (1981)
Perhaps no player in NFL history has been more feared before he ever played a game.
Drafted second overall by the New York Giants in 1981, Lawrence Taylor terrorized quarterbacks throughout the season, collecting 9.5 sacks. He's the only player ever to win Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the same season.
The Giants won five more games than the previous season, and even when they were eliminated in the postseason, it took the San Francisco 49ers using their best offensive lineman to block Taylor throughout the game. Oh, and he still finished with a sack and three tackles.
2. Night Train Lane, CB, Los Angeles Rams (1952)
Night Train Lane walked into the front office of the Los Angeles Rams in 1952 and asked for a tryout. The 25-year-old originally tried out as a wide receiver (he caught 18 touchdowns during his one year at junior college) but was switched to defensive back because the Rams had a pair of Hall of Fame receivers on the squad.
All he did during his rookie season was set a still-standing record with 14 interceptions, made more incredible because he achieved the feat in just 12 games. He returned the picks for 298 yards and two touchdowns.
He also became famous for his unique style of tackling, known across the NFL as the Night Train Lane Necktie.
1. Gale Sayers, RB, Chicago Bears (1965)
The greatest rookie season in NFL history belongs to Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears.
He did it all in 1965. He rushed for 867 yards and 14 touchdowns on 5.2 yards per carry. He caught 29 passes for 507 yards and six scores. He returned 16 punts for 14.9 yards per return, including a touchdown. And he returned 21 kicks for 31.4 yards per return, including a touchdown.
In all, Sayers scored 22 touchdowns, the most in a single-season in league history at that point. His 2272 all-purpose yards also set a single-season record.
His performance against the San Francisco 49ers on December 12, 1965 is probably the single greatest game by any player in NFL history. He scored six touchdowns, four on the ground, one through the air and one on a punt return. He collected 113 rushing yards, 89 receiving yards and 134 punt return yards. That's a total of 335 all-purpose yards.
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