In the modern NFL, we have seen a transformation that has turned offenses around the league into high-flying, highlight-reel powerhouses. The new rules protecting quarterbacks and receivers have allowed this, which has both helped and hurt the NFL.
Into this new world steps an unusual class of rookies, featuring a slew of players who have defied the odds and expectations surrounding them to become difference-makers immediately on their teams.
There are history-makers (Cam Newton), unexpected winners (Andy Dalton), and a terrific talent pool for us to observe as it grows.
The question left to us all now is: Who among these incredible rookies is the best on offense?
Here are five guys whose rookie campaigns have launched them into the spotlight.
When Torrey Smith was taken by the Baltimore Ravens in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, it was expected that he would take time to develop into a reliable starting NFL wide receiver. The signing of Lee Evans to go along with Anquan Boldin fit into that line of thinking
While it is true that Smith lacks certain skills in route-running and over-the-shoulder catches, he more than makes up for his deficiencies with his blazing speed. He exploded onto the scene in Week 3 by catching three touchdown passes in the first quarter against the Rams and racking up 157 receiving yards on just five total receptions.
Over the course of the 2011 season we have seen similar great flashes from Smith, including the diving endzone catch for the game-winning touchdown on the road against the Pittsburgh Steeelers in Week 9.
Smith's deep-threat abilities have vaulted him from unheralded wideout to one of 2011's best rookie surprises. His whopping 20.2 yards-per-catch (best among rookies, and second-best among all WR's with at least 25 catches), doesn't hurt his case.
32 Rec, 645 yards, 20.2 YPC, 5 TDs
Season Highlight: Game-winning TD at Heinz Field vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
DeMarco Murray was widely considered to be an explosive enough athlete to be a first-round talent, but his injury history and massive college football workload caused NFL teams to balk.
Well, the Dallas Cowboys took a chance on him, and they do not regret it. After seeing very little action to start his career, DeMarco Murray blew up to the tune of 235 yards (including a 91-yard touchdown run) in Week 7 against the St. Louis Rams, breaking Emmitt Smith's single-game record for Dallas.
Since Week 7, Murray has bruised his way to 872 rushing yards and a total of 1,049 yards from scrimmage. He leads all rookie running backs in rushing by a massive margin (368 yards ahead of Daniel Thomas in Miami).
Not bad for a third-round draft choice.
872 yards rushing, 5.5 YPC, 2 TDs
25 Rec, 177 yards
Season Highlight: 91-yard TD run
Unlike the others before him on this list, A.J. Green came into the league with huge expectations riding on his shoulders.
He has not disappointed.
The Cincinnati Bengals took the Georgia wide receiver to replace the departing Chad Ochocinco, and to give rookie Andy Dalton a top-tier target to grow with. Green has been fantastic in 2011, already owning the Bengals' rookie record for consecutive games with a touchdown catch or 100 yards receiving.
Green is second among rookies in catches (50), but is way out in first for receiving yards with 832 to Torrey Smith's 645. He also leads all NFL rookies in receiving touchdowns with seven, and several of his catches have been game-winners or have set up game-winning field goals.
Most amazing perhaps, is that 34 of Green's 50 catches have gone for first downs, an eye-popping 68 percent.
If you add in his few running touches, Green's total yards from scrimmage comes out to 860. Not bad for a guy on a team that was supposed to have zero offense this year.
2011 Stats: 50 Rec, 832 yards, 16.6 YPR, 7 TDs; 3 rush, 28 yards
Season Highlight: Circus catch vs Buffalo Bills
In the minds of many, Andy Dalton should be running away with the Rookie of the Year award. In most other seasons, this would easily be the case.
The rookie out of TCU came to the Cincinnati Bengals as a second-round draft pick and was expected to sit behind Bruce Gradkowski while he learned the ropes on a woeful squad that had zero expectations.
Instead, this surprising red-head has piloted the Bengals into perfect position to snag a wild card berth. It is unthinkable at this point that the Bengals were 4-12 last season under Carson Palmer.
Dalton has stepped admirably into the big shoes of a whiny veteran who abandoned the team (Carson Palmer) and has made the Bengals forget about him almost instantly.
The way he has turned the Bengals around is eerily reminiscent of Matt Ryan with the Atlanta Falcons in 2008.
229/387 (59.2%), 2,644 yards, 17 TDs, 12 INTs, 81.6 total QBR
Season Highlight: Game-winning drive(s) against the Buffalo Bills
When Cam Newton was drafted No. 1 overall by the Carolina Panthers, there was a cacophony of voices (including my own, sadly), who shouted that Cam Newton would be a terrible choice for a rebuilding team at No. 1 and that he should go sit behind an incumbent veteran before being thrown to the wolves.
Boy, were we wrong. He took the pigskin and ran, threw, and simply rammed it down the throats of his detractors.
Never before has anyone had a rookie season like Cam Newton. Literally. His campaign has been historic in nearly every way.
Andy Dalton may be the winningest quarterback in the 2011 class (so far), but you cannot compete with a man who has shattered numerous rookie records, and even a few standard ones, in his debut year.
Newton left Vince Young's seven rookie QB rushing touchdowns in the dust and now owns the single-season record for QB rushing touchdowns, period, with 13.
He is the fastest quarterback to ever reach 1,000 yards, doing it in his first three games. He is the only rookie to ever throw back-to-back 400 yard games and is the only rookie to throw for 400 yards in his first career game. For that matter, with 432 yards against Green Bay, he holds the rookie record for passing yards in a game as well.
He is the first rookie quarterback to ever have 10 rushing and passing touchdowns in a single season, and the ONLY player in history to ever have five of each in his first five games.
He is one of only four rookies to pass for 3,000 yards, and with 3,297 passing yards to date, he is on pace to shatter Peyton Manning's rookie record of 3,739.
On a side note, he ranks second among all rookies in rushing yards with 518, only behind DeMarco Murray; you know, a running back.
A player of Newton's like has never been seen before, and might never be again. He is, without a doubt, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
2011 Season Stats:
251/413 (60.2% comp), 3,297 Passing Yards, 13 TDs, 14 INTs, 518 Yards rushing, 13 TDs.
Season Highlight: Uhhh—everything.