NFL Power Rankings: Ranking the Most Valuable Rookies for 2011

Avi Jerushalmy@@DFGURUSContributor IIDecember 26, 2011

NFL Power Rankings: Ranking the Most Valuable Rookies for 2011

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    With a lockout, rookies are not supposed to be as much of a factor as in other years.

    In 2011, it was just the opposite.

    This was a strong rookie Class of 2011. Several first-year players contributed greatly to their team's success, and others put up big numbers in their first season, making fans excited for the future of their franchise.

    These rookies have all grown into top NFL players in just their first season, and are looking to improve in coming years as well. There were many who proved to be extremely valuable, and among those, seven stood out. 

7. Aldon Smith

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    With uncertainty at the quarterback position and some other quality prospects at the position on the board with the seventh pick, many predicted the San Francisco 49ers would select a quarterback.

    Instead, they went with Aldon Smith, the outside linebacker out of Missouri.

    The pick seemed very bold and did not get very good feedback from analysts, mostly because linebacker was considered the strongest position on this defense last year. Smith was regarded as a great athlete, but wasn't as productive in college as most of the other potential picks that early in the draft.

    So was it the right pick?


    Smith has developed into a force as a pass-rusher, recording an astonishing 14 sacks this year, which is the fifth-most in the league.

    Smith has become the perfect complement to top tacklers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman with his elite edge-rushing ability. He is a major reason why this defense, ranked No. 1 in the NFL this year, has been so dominant all year long.

    The risky pick surely paid off for San Francisco, and Smith will be a top pass-rusher for years to come, further strengthening this frightening defense.

6. DeMarco Murray

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    Unlike the rest of the rookies on this list, DeMarco Murray was not so highly regarded coming into the draft.

    The running back from Oklahoma was a third-round pick for the Cowboys, which meant he would open the season burried in the depth chart behind Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.

    After five games with limited opportunities, Murray finally got the start with Jones injured and Choice proving to be ineffective.

    And it is safe to say he made the most of his opportunity.

    To say Murray was good was an understatement, and calling him great would still not suffice.

    Murray was spectacular against the Rams, recording 253 yards and a touchdown, while averaging more than 10 yards a carry. This was the most rushing yards a Cowboy has ever run for in a game—more than Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith or Tony Dorsett. 

    With that, the DeMarco Murray era began in Dallas.

    Murray led the NFL in rushing yards during the first seven starts of his career, and Cowboys fans got a glimpse of their future franchise back. Unfortunately, Murray's rookie year ended on a sad note.

    In Week 14, Murray broke his ankle against the Giants, sending him to the IR. However, Murray was this year's best under-the-radar rookie and looks to be the running back of the future in Dallas. 

5. Patrick Peterson

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    When the Cardinals selected Peterson with the fifth pick, it was considered a value pick. Peterson was widely considered the top player in this draft, and cornerback was not a glaring need for Arizona.

    Peterson's all-around athleticism has been crucial to the Cardinals winning games.

    He has defended the best receiver each week and has done an exceptional job as a rookie. Peterson has a pair of interceptions and has done a good job as a cover-corner, something some analysts doubted he could be.

    But Peterson has been most valuable returning punts.  

    He has an NFL record-tying four punt returns for touchdowns in only his rookie year. These returns have not been meaningless; rather, three of them have proved to win the ball game for Arizona. Peterson has surely been the most valuable return man in the league this year, which should land him in Hawaii.

    Peterson has had an exciting rookie campaign and will only grow as a cornerback as his career progresses. A full offseason should surely help him this year since he did not have a whole summer to practice with his team due to the lockout.

4. Von Miller

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    Coming out of college, Von Miller drew very impressive comparisons.

    Among them was one to former Giant great Lawrence Taylor, widely known as the best defensive player in NFL history.

    Looking back now, the resemblance was not so far-fetched.

    A fiery linebacker who crushed opponents, LT was the most intimidating player in the league.

    In just his first year at this level, Miller has rejuvenated the Broncos' defense with exciting plays and has demonstrated leadership regularly reserved for veterans. He has instilled confidence into his unit and is a major reason why the Broncos are sitting pretty on top of the AFC West on the road to the postseason.

    Miller has recorded 11.5 sacks and has been making plays all over the field. His toughness has rubbed off on teammates as the defense has improved significantly.

    Miller will be a cornerstone for this franchise for years, and he has been the most valuable defensive rookie in the NFL this season.

2b. A.J. Green

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    The Cincinnati Bengals were surely going to draft a wide receiver with top pass-catchers (and headaches) Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens leaving for free agency.

    A.J. Green was the answer.

    The rookie out of Georgia exploded with huge games from the start and quickly developed chemistry with rookie gunslinger Andy Dalton, a connection that we should see a lot of for a very long time.

    In his first 14 career games, Green has caught 63 balls for 1,031 yards and seven touchdowns. This is a huge season for an established receiver in this league, but for a rookie this is phenomenal.

    Green's reliable playmaking ability has strengthened the confidence of Dalton, who has been able to lead the Bengals to dramatic wins. Cincinnati would certainly not be in playoff position without Green, who has made as many big catches as anyone in the league. He is without a doubt a star in the making and future Pro Bowler.

2a. Andy Dalton

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    I have been on the Andy Dalton bandwagon all year.

    In fact, earlier in the season I wrote an article about why I think Dalton should win Rookie of the Year.

    While I still think he should be considered for the award, it is all but certain that Cam Newton will win that title.  

    Either way, Dalton deserves recognition for the special rookie season he has had. He has overcome tremendous pressure from fans and has quickly made everyone forget about Carson Palmer.

    Dalton has been terrific this year, surely surpassing any expectations set for him. He has been able to win ballgames, which was not what these fans might have expected this quickly after rebuilding. It has truly been a remarkable year for Dalton, who has made the most of the lack of offensive weapons at his disposal, and it is safe to say he has made his teammates better.

    Cincinnati is in playoff position, something unimaginable after last year's horrific 4-12 season. Dalton is also a rising star and has been able to win games as a rookie—a rare accomplishment in the NFL. 

1. Cam Newton

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    Alright, it's obvious.

    No rookie has had a better year than the No. 1 pick.

    In fact, no rookie has ever had a year as good as the season Cam Newton has had in 2011.

    He just knows how to win.

    Fresh off a college championship and Heisman Trophy-winning season, Cam Newton was given the challenge of leading the worst team in the NFL last year, the Carolina Panthers, to success. It would not have been reasonable to ask for a winning season, but merely signs of improvement with a few wins.

    Now, thanks to Newton's incredible season, the Panthers already have six wins, which is three times as many they won in 2010.

    Panthers fans are overjoyed with the new face of their franchise. Not only has Newton played exceptionally in his rookie year, but he has surely had an effect on his teammates.  

    Newton has revitalized the career of Steve Smith. Smith has exploded for 1,308 yards, the most he has had since 2008, and third-most in his 11 years in the league.

    There is an obvious impact from Newton. Legedu Naanee and Brandon LaFell have also had career-best years, while tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey have flourished with Newton under center.  

    After his incredible year at Auburn last year, Newton was regarded as an amazing runner and a pretty good passer. That was still enough for him to be the first pick in the draft, but after his first 15 starts, Newton has broken the rookie passing record held by Peyton Manning. It is impossible to doubt that Newton can flourish as a quarterback in this league after exhibiting such maturity as a pocket-passer.

    And then there's the mobility. Newton has already ran for 14 rushing touchdowns this year, a figure that has not surpassed by any quarterback in the history of the league in one season.

    Newton has become one of the most dynamic players in the league, and his athleticism paired with his impressive leadership role has been truly remarkable. With that skill set, it is impossible to know just how far Newton can carry his team.

    In his first year, Newton has not just become the most valuable rookie in the league but he has also developed into one of the most valuable players the NFL has to offer.  

    The sky is the limit for Cam Newton.