The 2011 season has been a special one for rookies. We’ve seen rookies break records, revive dead franchises and already look like Pro Bowlers. This is particularly amazing when you take into account how little time they had with the lockout.
Many of the rookies we’ve seen succeed in the league this year are rookies that came out of nowhere. Rookies we never could have guessed would succeed.
Here are the top 10 rookie phenoms we never saw coming this year.
With the Browns switching to a 4-3 defense in the offseason, they drafted Jabaal Sheard with their second-round pick. Sheard was knocked coming into the draft for being undersized and for having some character issues.
Sheard has flourished in the 4-3 defense, becoming an absolute nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. He currently has 5.5 sacks and five forced fumbles, which leads the league.
With a team that does not have much of a history in pass-rushing, Sheard is already being named one of the best pass rushers in Browns history.
With the fifth pick of the 2011 NFL Draft, the Cardinals drafted Patrick Peterson, mainly for his ability at cornerback, but he was also noted to be a good punt returner. No one could have seen how good he was going to be at punt returning though.
Through 12 games Peterson has already tied the record for most punt return touchdowns with four. He is second in the league in punt return average with 17.5 yards, behind only the great Devin Hester.
The Cardinals have won two games off Peterson’s punt returns, including an amazing 99-yard return in overtime Week 8 to beat the Rams.
Unsurprisingly, Peterson has also been good at cornerback too, producing two interceptions.
Seeing his name go undrafted, Doug Baldwin signed on with the Seattle Seahawks in the offseason.
Making a name for himself in the preseason mainly on kick returning, Baldwin was able to climb up to the starting slot receiver position before the regular season began.
Baldwin has since emerged as one of Tarvaris Jackson’s favorite targets and a very reliable option. He is the leading receiver on the Seahawks in receptions with 38 and ranks fifth in the league in receptions on third down.
Baldwin, who ranked 71st among receivers in the 2011 draft class by Nfldraftscout.com, is now third for rookies in receiving yards and seems to be a steal for the Seahawks.
It didn’t appear second-round pick Brooks Reed would get much playing time in 2011, mainly because he sat behind one of the best pass rushers in the game today, Mario Williams.
When Williams, a cornerstone to the Texans defense, went down in Week 7, it appeared as if the defense would suffer greatly.
In reality, they didn’t miss a beat.
Brooks Reed stepped in and has been playing Mario Williams’ role just fine. In the last seven games he has recorded six sacks and 29 total tackles for the Texans defense.
In need of a deep receiver threat, the Ravens drafted Torrey Smith in the second round, but one of the concerns in his scouting report was his number of dropped passes.
Smith had a rough start to his rookie career, as it seemed like the number of dropped passes would doom his NFL career.
After two dropped passes and only one catch in the third week of the preseason, head coach John Harbaugh was prompted to tell reporters, “Lay off the kid and let him develop and become the player that he’s going to be.”
The first two weeks of the regular season didn’t get much better for Smith. He got little playing time and didn’t have a catch.
That all changed Week 3 against the Rams, where Smith caught three touchdown passes in the first quarter. He would finish the game with five receptions and 152 yards.
Although his numbers haven’t been consistent and dropping has still been an issue, Smith has provided Joe Flacco with a deep threat and shows a lot of promise.
With questions of his durability and strength, Roy Helu fell all the way to the fourth round to the Redskins who were in need of a backup for Tim Hightower.
After a spectacular preseason including a 14-carry, 101-yard rushing game against the Colts, Helu still didn’t get the start over Hightower.
Helu only had 27 carries going into Week 8 when head coach Mike Shanahan finally decided to start him against the 49ers. He finished the game with eight carries for 42 yards and also caught 14 balls for an additional 105 yards.
Despite the great game he had against the 49ers, Shanahan still started backup Ryan Torain the following week, and he had another bad game, only picking up 20 yards on 10 carries.
Long story short, when the Redskins finally decided to give Helu the ball more than 20 times, they were rewarded.
Helu rushed for 108 yards on 23 carries Week 12 against the Seahawks, and the next week gave Helu 22 carries against the Jets where he rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown.
Currently, Helu has 456 yards rushing and has also been a receiving threat with 309 receiving yards on 42 receptions. One thing he must improve, though, is his pass blocking.
Maybe if the Redskins had given the ball to Helu from the beginning, they could’ve won more games.
Despite being ranked one of the better linebackers of the 2011 draft class, Colin McCarthy fell in the fourth round to the Titans due to concerns about his size and speed.
For eight games, McCarthy got little playing time and sat behind newly-signed free agent Barrett Ruud.
When Ruud was injured in Week 7, McCarthy got the start for Week 8. Let’s just say it kind of sucks to be Barrett Ruud.
McCarthy has posted 37 combined tackles in the last four games, and he has also posted two forced fumbles and an interception.
Many experts have been raving about McCarthy such as Gregg Rosenthal of profootballtalk.com who said, “Every time we watch the Titans on tape, McCarthy just pops off the screen.”
It appears that McCarthy has taken the starting job, and Ruud will hit the free agent market again since he only signed a one-year contract last year.
Following a Heisman season at Auburn, the Panthers took Cam Newton with the No. 1 pick, but questions still surfaced whether Newton could succeed in the pros.
One former player who thought Newton would not succeed is Kurt Warner, who said after the draft, "I don’t think he’s a franchise quarterback, definitely not at this time...It has yet to be seen whether he will get there, but I think it will be very, very difficult."
Newton’s preseason performances didn’t exactly help make his case.
Through his first three preseason games, Newton had a 40.4 completion percentage and a passer rating of just 57.6. Newton said of himself, ”That’s an embarrassing stat.”
Newton was able to silence all of his critics in one game, passing for 422 yards and throwing for two touchdowns in his first NFL start. He was able to prove it wasn’t a fluke by following it up with a 432-yard passing performance while both throwing and rushing for a touchdown.
The Panthers are only 4-8, but Newton has provided fans with much-needed hope and have made the Panthers watchable again.
Currently, Newton has thrown for 3,297 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he broke the record for most single-season rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 13.
So, Kurt, is he still not a franchise quarterback?
The Cowboys were in need of a change-of-pace back for Felix Jones, so with their third-round pick they selected DeMarco Murray.
Sitting third on the depth chart coming into the season, Murray was able to quietly work his way up to second but still saw little action. Coming into Week 7 he only had 24 carries before his first start.
Felix Jones was then declared out against the Rams in Week 7, and the Cowboys never looked back.
In his first start in the NFL, Murray rushed for 253 yards, breaking Emmitt Smith’s franchise record.
Many people considered it a fluke as the Rams have the worst rush defense in the league statistically. He was able to follow up his Rams performance by rushing for 348 yards on 50 carries the next three games.
Murray has been vital to the Cowboys' success, winning five games of their last seven. He has established the run game, and Romo has benefited as well.
Since Murray’s first start, Romo has averaged a 103.2 passer rating.
Currently, Murray sits 11th in rushing yards with 872 yards while starting only seven games. He also is tied for second among running backs in yards per carry with 5.5. He has even been compared to Eric Dickerson by Jerry Jones.
Not bad for the sixth running back taken in the 2011 draft.
The Bengals were in shambles, coming off a 4-12 season with Carson Palmer holding out for a trade.
To substitute Palmer, the Bengals drafted Andy Dalton in the second round as their quarterback for the future, but the 2011 season looked to be a waste.
The preseason wasn’t kind to Dalton, as an 8-19 performance against the Jets made him appear a long way from ready for the regular season. He improved in the last two weeks of the preseason, but it still didn’t appear he was ready.
Former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason chimed in and said about Dalton before the season, "If they force-feed him and put him in games right away, he will get killed. He will get eaten alive.''
Dalton didn’t exactly get that memo.
He started off with a pretty good performance against the Browns, throwing 10-of-15 for 81 yards and a touchdown which led the Bengals to a win.
The next week, Dalton shut plenty of people up against the Broncos with a 332-yard passing performance with two touchdowns. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to close out the game, and the Bengals were stalled twice near midfield to lose the game.
With the help of rookie star A.J. Green, Dalton has led the Bengals to a 7-5 record in the Wild-Card chase.
He currently has thrown for 17 touchdowns with 12 interceptions for 2,644 yards and a 81.4 rating.
The Bengals have hope again, and we have yet to see Dalton get eaten alive.