In the first three weeks of this 2008 NFL season we have already seen a ton of impressive performances from the neophytes of the league.
It has already been a great year for running backs, but we have also seen rookie QBs step into the fire and lead their teams, as well as wide receivers and many guys on the defensive side of the ball.
Here, based on their performances so far this year and the expectations for the rest of the '08 campaign, I rank the top 10 NFL rookies:
10. Antoine Cason (SD), Cornerback
Cason has stepped right into an already good defense and played like he belongs. The Chargers defense has struggled a bit in the early going—most notably by allowing 39 points to the high-powered Denver offense in week two.
But Cason has teamed up with Antonie Cromartie to form a young CB duo with a chance to become one of the league’s best in the years to come. He already has an interception and a forced fumble to go along with his placing fifth among all rookies in tackles with 15.
9. Eddie Royal (DEN), Wide Receiver
After exploding out of the gates with a nine-catch, 146-yard performance in week one, this receiver out of Virginia Tech has cooled a bit in the past two weeks.
Although he racked up just 37 yards in week two, he scored the Broncos' touchdown that cut the Chargers lead to 38-37. On the very next play he proved how clutch he can be by hauling in Jay Cutler’s two-point conversion pass to win the game.
8. Jerod Mayo (NE), Linebacker
Even after losing their own first round pick due to Spygate, a shrewd move with the Niners during the previous year’s draft still left the Patriots with the seventh pick, which they wisely spent on Mayo.
He has jumped into a defensive core that was desperately in need of some youth and has not disappointed. Even with the Dolphins shredding the Patriots on the ground all day this past Sunday, he stepped up with 12 tackles and on the season leads all rookies with 25.
7. Darren McFadden (OAK), Halfback
The consensus No. 1 running back in the draft showed what he can do in week two, with a 164-yard performance against the Chiefs, helping the hapless Raiders to what may be their only win for a while. McFadden has often been compared to last year’s star rookie, Adrian Peterson, which certainly isn’t a bad thing.
But it’s unlikely he will get enough carries this year to have the same kind of production. In weeks one and three combined, he has just 23 carries for 88 yards.
6. Matt Ryan (ATL), Quarterback
While Ryan’s stats aren’t as impressive as many of these other rookies, he has stepped into a tougher situation than any of them. Being a rookie quarterback on a bad football team is an unenviable task, but Ryan has adapted to the role impressively, winning two of his first three games, playing efficient football in the two wins.
He has been helped greatly by the running of Michael Turner and Jerrious Norwood, but in the two wins, Ryan has compiled a stat line of 21-31 passing for 353 yards and two TDs. Very good stats indeed.
5. Felix Jones (DAL), Halfback
McFadden’s former running mate in the Arkansas backfield has had even more of an impact so far. Jones has scored a touchdown in each of the Cowboys’ first three games, and has quickly justified Jerry Jones’ decision to select a back from his alma mater.
Jones has been electric as a kick returner, taking one to the house against the Eagles, and has a 60-yard TD run against Green Bay to his credit. The only factor preventing him from ranking higher on this list is that he has only carried the ball 18 times so far this year.
4. Chris Long (STL), Defensive End
Lost amid the absolute futility of the Rams' team as a whole is the fact the No. 2 pick in the draft can really play some football. After struggling in St. Louis’ week one shellacking by the Eagles, he has come on strong with 11 tackles and a sack from his defensive end spot the past two weeks.
Long’s strong upper and lower body make him an asset against the run, in addition to his already well-developed pass-rushing abilities.
3. DeSean Jackson (PHI), Wide Receiver
Eagles fans came into the season with high hopes for this diminutive wideout from Cal, but many were skeptical that he could have much of an impact on the offense. Given his lack of size and experience, they figured that he would primarily impact the team as a punt returner.
Jackson immediately proved those skeptics wrong by becoming the first Eagles receiver since 1940 to go for 100 yards in each of his first two games. He has caught 17 passes for 256 yards and been electric returning punts as well, averaging 10 yards on 12 opportunities.
Aside from his memorable flub against Dallas (which I’m sure you’ve all seen), he has been everything the Eagles needed, and has established himself as the best rookie receiver in the league.
2. Chris Johnson (TEN), Halfback
Not a whole lot of people knew about this guy coming into the season, but they sure know about him now.
Johnson is fast. Crazy fast. His clocked 40-yard dash time of 4.24 seconds at the NFL combine is the fastest ever, and that speed translates directly to the field, where he and LenDale White have formed one of the league’s best running tandems.
He has averaged 5.5 yards per carry on his way to 276 yards in the first three games, including a 51-yarder in week two that helped him to 109 on the day.
1. Matt Forte (CHI), Halfback
This has certainly been a banner year for rookie halfbacks thus far, and none more so than Matt Forte. All of the other running backs on this list have been explosive, but have not carried the bulk of the workload for their respective teams. Forte has.
Forte walked into a Chicago lineup that sorely needed a dependable runner after letting Thomas Jones go in favor of the great draft bust Cedric Benson.
He has 86 touches in the first three games, running 73 times for 304 yards and catching 13 passes for another 105. With a great defense and the incomparable Kyle Orton at QB, the Bears will undoubtedly lean heavily on Forte in their bid for a playoff spot in the NFC North.
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