Best NFL Rookie Seasons by Position Since 2000
What's an NFL season without rookie sensations? And what are rookie sensations without constant comparisons to former first-year wunderkinds?
Every year in the NFL, fans and commentators throw out phrases along the lines of: "That guy is having the best season by a rookie [insert position] since [insert player and year]."
It's a fun Mad Libs sort of exercise, but it's often poorly researched and more of a nostalgia comparison than anything else. So we wanted to actually do the legwork of coming up with the best rookies at each of the major position groups in the past two decades.
You might not agree with the selections, but we did try to at least mention several of the best rookies at each position. That way, you'll be extra prepared with multiple comparisons as rookies break into the spotlight over these next few weeks and months.
Quarterback: Robert Griffin III, 2012
The biggest reason we opted for a "by position" approach instead of a general "Top 10 Rookie Seasons" route is that the latter would have been overrun with quarterbacks and running backs. There have been so many quality rookie quarterbacks in the past 20 years, most of whom were just laying the foundation for rock-solid careers.
Ben Roethlisberger went 13-0 as a rookie and orchestrated five game-winning drives. Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck and Dak Prescott immediately turned around teams that were atrocious the year before drafting them. Russell Wilson threw for 26 touchdowns. Cam Newton threw for more than 4,000 yards and had a combined 35 passing and rushing touchdowns.
But by the slimmest of margins over that collection of outstanding candidates, give us Robert Griffin III, who did the seemingly impossible by making Washington both a fun team and a legitimate threat to win a Super Bowl.
For the four seasons before trading up to take Griffin at No. 2 in the 2012 NFL draft, Washington was abysmal on offense, averaging between 16.6 and 18.9 points per game in each of those seasons spent in the NFC East's basement. The entire offense scored just 27 touchdowns in 2011, but then Griffin swooped in and had 27 touchdowns (20 passing, seven rushing) as a rookie while leading Washington to an NFC East crown.
Sure, he fumbled a dozen times. And yes, the "If he keeps running around like that, it's only a matter of time before he gets seriously hurt" postulations ended up being painfully accurate. But of the 40 rookie quarterbacks in the past 20 years to throw for at least 2,000 yards, did you know RGIII boasts the second-highest quarterback rating (102.4), trailing only Prescott (104.9)?
Everyone fondly remembers his scrambling ability, but Griffin was also one heck of a passer before that terrible turf at FedExField destroyed his knee and his career.
Running Back: Ezekiel Elliott, 2016
As with quarterback, there are a bunch of great candidates for best rookie running back of the past two decades.
During that window, 13 first-year backs have accumulated at least 1,600 yards from scrimmage—and that doesn't even include Maurice Jones-Drew, who had 941 rushing yards, 436 receiving yards and 860 kick-return yards in his debut season (2006).
Jamal Lewis (2000), LaDainian Tomlinson (2001), Adrian Peterson (2007) and Saquon Barkley (2018) were, not surprisingly, immediate sensations as top-10 picks. Mike Anderson (2000) and Alfred Morris (2012) were just as impressive despite lasting until the sixth round of the draft. And who can forget Clinton Portis rushing for more than 1,500 yards and scoring 17 total touchdowns in 2002?
However, the pick has to be Ezekiel Elliott, who, at 108.7 rushing yards per game, joined Eric Dickerson (113.0 in 1983) as the only rookie running backs to average at least 105.
Zeke didn't win AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he arguably should have. Teammate Dak Prescott edged him out in a vote that was split 28-21. But Elliott was first-team All-Pro, which no other rookie running back has pulled off since Edgerrin James in 1999.
That first-team All-Pro designation couldn't have been a difficult decision, either. Elliott rushed for 1,631 yards in 15 games while the next-closest running back (Jordan Howard) checked in at 1,313.
Wide Receiver: Odell Beckham Jr., 2014
As with Ezekiel Elliott in the running back discussion, it's the yards per game that pushed Odell Beckham Jr. comfortably over the top for No. 1 rookie wide receiver.
There have only been two players in the past two decades who averaged at least 76 receiving yards per game during their first year in the league: Anquan Boldin went for 86.1 yards per game in 2003, and OBJ demolished that mark with 108.8 six years ago.
Remove the "rookie" and "past two decades" qualifiers and 108.8 receiving yards per game (in at least 12 games played) is the 12th-best average in a single season throughout NFL history.
Granted, Boldin had more total receiving yards (1,377) than Beckham (1,305), but that's only because Beckham missed the first four games with a hamstring injury.
Even after he made his debut, it took a few weeks before he started cooking. Beckham averaged 3.3 receptions for 35.3 yards per game in his first three appearances before exploding for 9.0 and 133.2, respectively, over the New York Giants' final nine contests. He finished with four more touchdowns (12) than Boldin (eight), too.
That rookie season was also when he made the unbelievable one-handed touchdown catch on Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys.
Tight End: Jeremy Shockey, 2002
Much like wide receiver, tight end was a no-brainer—unless you want to try to combine Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez as "New England Patriots rookie tight end," or unless you want to count Marques Colston as a tight end since that wide receiver was unfairly listed as TE-eligible in fantasy football when he eclipsed 1,000 yards as a rookie in 2006.
Both Gronk (546) and Hernandez (563) went for more than 500 yards and combined for 16 touchdowns in their 2010 NFL debut, but neither individual came anywhere close to Jeremy Shockey's 74 receptions for 894 yards.
Coincidentally, the only guy who has come within shouting distance of either of Shockey's marks was another New York Giant. Evan Engram made 64 catches for 722 yards in 2017. Even that isn't all that close as Shockey had him beat by at least 15 percent in both categories. And the next-closest tight end behind Engram was John Carlson, who had 55 receptions for 627 yards in 2008.
A tight end racking up at least 890 yards is hardly uncommon. It has happened 56 times since 2000. But for a rookie to do it was quite impressive. It's why Shockey was the only rookie tight end in the past 20 years to earn either All-Pro or Pro Bowl honors.
The play for which we all most vividly remember Shockey came on his first reception as a professional. It wasn't even a regular-season game. It was late in the second quarter of the preseason Hall of Fame Game that he truck-sticked the Houston Texans' Kevin Williams along the sideline.
Shockey unleashed a similar hit late in the regular season against the Indianapolis Colts, but that first one was an early indicator he was going to be special.
Offensive Line: Quenton Nelson, 2018
In case it wasn't clear from the first four sections, I'm a stat junkie. And one of my biggest grievances as a sports fan/writer is the lack of statistics for offensive linemen.
Granted, even if we had stats for those mammoth men, they would need to be taken with several grains of salt since both the blocking scheme and the talent at both quarterback and running back would have an inevitable impact on those numbers. Still, it's a shame we don't have much of anything outside of player grades via Pro Football Focus or approximate value on Sports Reference.
That said, only three rookie offensive linemen have been named first-team All-Pro in the past 20 years: the Dallas Cowboys' Zach Martin in 2014, the Tennessee Titans' Jack Conklin in 2016 and the Indianapolis Colts' Quenton Nelson in 2018. And of that trio, Nelson had the highest approximate value.
I watched a lot of Nelson during his final season at Notre Dame, in large part because I was curious/befuddled as to why the Fighting Irish, who didn't have a great rushing attack in his penultimate collegiate season, had two players (Nelson and Mike McGlinchey) who entered the 2017 campaign as two of the top offensive linemen on all the draft boards.
It didn't take long to understand the hype.
Nelson's strength and awareness are simply off the charts, and if he gets a head of steam as a pulling guard on a run to the right, it's almost inevitable that some unsuspecting cornerback is going to get pancaked. If he can stay healthy, he's going to go down as one of the greatest interior linemen in NFL history.
Defensive Line: Dwight Freeney, 2002
The list of viable candidates at defensive line was longer than that of any other position.
In 2003, the Minnesota Vikings' Kevin Williams had 10.5 sacks in the first year of a career that eventually included five first-team All-Pro selections. The previous year, the Carolina Panthers' Julius Peppers racked up 12.0 sacks in 12 games. Ndamukong Suh was first-team All-Pro in 2010 with 10.0 sacks as a rookie. Aaron Donald (2014) and Nick Bosa (2019) earned Pro Bowl honors.
Nick's brother, Joey, had 10.5 sacks in just 12 games in 2016. Tamba Hali (2006) and J.J. Watt (2011) also wasted little time making their presence felt in the trenches. And there are at least half a dozen others who warrant mentioning.
But from a gaggle of quality options, the pick is Dwight Freeney.
Freeney wasn't even a starter until midway through his rookie season in Indianapolis, and yet he racked up more sacks (13.0) than all but one rookie in the past 20 years. (Aldon Smith had 14.0 sacks as a situational pass-rusher in 2011.)
Freeney also led the NFL in both tackles for loss (20) and forced fumbles (nine) in 2002. In fact, the nine forced fumbles represent the highest total by a player under the age of 28 in the past 20 years, and the 20 tackles for loss put him in a tie for the second-highest rookie total since 2000.
Not too shabby for a guy who didn't get fully unleashed until Week 9.
Freeney forced three fumbles in his first game as a starter. Ten of his sacks and all nine of his forced fumbles came in the final nine games of the regular season. He also had seven tackles and a sack in what was otherwise a disastrous 41-0 loss to the New York Jets in the playoffs.
Linebacker: Darius Leonard, 2018
As with defensive line, there are more than a few linebackers worthy of consideration here. But with all due respect to the likes of Brian Urlacher, Kendrell Bell, Von Miller, Lavonte David, Clay Matthews, Lofa Tatupu, Khalil Mack and others, this was a two-horse race between Patrick Willis and Darius Leonard—the only rookie linebackers in the past 20 years to be named first-team All-Pro.
Willis' dominance in 2007 was hardly unexpected. Ole Miss didn't have much to celebrate in the mid-2000s, but he was an exception to that rule, leading the SEC in total tackles in both 2005 and 2006 before going No. 11 in the subsequent NFL draft.
He immediately led the NFL in total tackles, too, with 174 of them. Since 2000, the only other player (rookie or not) to record that many tackles in a single season was Jerod Mayo, who also had 174 in 2010. Much like his time at Ole Miss, though, Willis was the lone bright spot on a team that couldn't move the ball on offense to save its life.
Leonard was a much bigger surprise, excelling as a second-round pick out of little-known South Carolina State. And he thrived on a Colts team that improved by six wins over the previous season. In just 15 games, Leonard had an NFL-best 163 tackles, including seven sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a pair of interceptions.
It's a tough call between the two, but we're going with Leonard because he did a better job stuffing the stat sheet—particularly if you also want to consider his 27 tackles and forced fumble/recovery in Indy's two playoff games.
Defensive Back: Patrick Peterson, 2011
With a shoutout to Jairus Byrd's nine interceptions, Marcus Peters' 26 passes defended and the general immediate awesomeness of both Darrelle Revis and Derwin James, we've got to go with Patrick Peterson in this spot.
Peterson was a solid defensive back from the beginning. He broke up 13 passes, including a pair of interceptions. He also had 59 solo tackles, showcasing an ability to make plays in the open field.
But it's what he was able to do after the Arizona Cardinals got defensive stops that pushed him over the top with room to spare.
Peterson had the second-best season of punt returns in NFL history. His four punt-return touchdowns tied Jack Christiansen, Rick Upchurch and Devin Hester for the most in a single season, and his 699 punt-return yards trail only Desmond Howard's virtually untouchable mark of 875 in 1996.
These weren't garbage-time returns, either. In Week 1, his 89-yard fourth-quarter return gave Arizona the 28-21 victory. In Week 9, Peterson had a 99-yard punt-return touchdown in overtime. And three weeks later, his 80-yard touchdown late in the third quarter proved to be the difference in a 23-20 victory.
It's because of those punt returns that it's a no-contest in the approximate value category. Not only was Peterson's AV of 20 a full eight units better than the next-closest defensive back (Peters), but it's also the second-highest score ever recorded by a rookie, trailing only Edgerrin James' mark of 21 in 1999.
Kick/Punt Returner: Devin Hester, 2006
While we're on the subject of game-changers on special teams, we might as well home in on the G.O.A.T. for a bit.
Initially, Devin Hester was exclusively a punt returner. In a Week 1 win over the Green Bay Packers, he took a punt 84 yards for his first career touchdown. Five weeks later, he had an 83-yarder late in the fourth quarter of a one-point win over the Arizona Cardinals. And in Week 13, he had a shorter one (45 yards) against the Minnesota Vikings for his third punt-return TD.
He finished the season with 600 punt-return yards and those three scores.
But that's just the beginning because Week 13 was when Hester also became the Chicago Bears' primary kick returner. He took not one, but two kickoffs to the house the following Monday night against the St. Louis Rams. And who could ever forget Hester's 92-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI?
In case that wasn't enough, Hester also tied an NFL record with a 108-yard touchdown on a return of a missed field goal, which inexplicably does not count toward his all-purpose-yards total. If we do factor that in, he had 1,236 total yards and six touchdowns during the regular season, plus another 216 yards and a seventh touchdown in the postseason.
It's little wonder the Bears started working him into the offense as a wide receiver the following season. Few players in NFL history have been more dangerous with the ball in their hands.
Steve Smith, Cordarrelle Patterson, Ted Ginn Jr. and Danny Amendola deserve honorable mentions for rookie seasons with gobs of all-purpose yards. But Hester was in a class of his own.
Kicker/Punter: Harrison Butker, 2017
From 2014-16, Cairo Santos made 86 field goals for the Kansas City Chiefs. He was no Justin Tucker or Stephen Gostkowski, but he was certainly one of the better kickers in the league. But when he hit the injured reserve with a groin injury in Week 3 of the 2017 season, the Chiefs had to take a flyer on Harrison Butker—a seventh-round draft pick who was cut by the Carolina Panthers before ever attempting a regular-season kick.
The move worked out quite well.
Despite only playing in 13 games, Butker led the NFL in field-goal attempts with 42, making 38 of them.
After missing his first attempt of the season, he went on a streak of 23 consecutive makes. In his season debut against Washington, he made three second-half field goals, including the game-winning 43-yarder with less than 10 seconds remaining.
Butker twice went 5-of-5 on field goals and finished the season a perfect 28-of-28 on extra-point attempts.
He ended up with 142 total points, which is the second-highest total by a rookie since 2000. Only the Philadelphia Eagles' Cody Parkey (150) fared better, but he also had the benefit of playing in all 16 games—for a team that scored at least two touchdowns each week, no less. Look at it on a per-game basis and Butker's scoring average (10.9 points) reigns supreme.
He did have an unfortunate miss in the playoffs, though. Leading 21-10 late in the third quarter, Butker missed a 48-yard attempt. The Tennessee Titans would score two fourth-quarter touchdowns to win 22-21.
But he got a Super Bowl ring two years later, so it's all good.