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This season's NFL rookies 'as good as any group'

Thursday - 11/8/2012, 11:10pm  ET

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) throws against the Miami Dolphins during the first half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012. Luck threw for 433 yards and two touchdown passes, breaking Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's single-game passing record (422 yards) for a rookie as he led the Colts to a 23-20 win. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

HOWARD FENDRICH
AP Pro Football Writer

Good as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III have been, look beyond the first-year quarterbacks making a strong first impression and check out the other NFL rookies delivering dynamic performances.

It's a deep class, from Tampa Bay's Doug Martin, Cleveland's Trent Richardson and Griffin's Redskins teammate Alfred Morris at running back, to the Rams' Chris Givens and Titans' Kendall Wright at wide receiver, to Minnesota's Matt Kalil and Cleveland's Mitchell Schwartz on the offensive line, to Dallas' Morris Clairborne and New England's trio of Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower and Tavon Wilson on defense. Even kickers Greg Zuerlein and Blair Walsh are getting in on the act.

"By and large, this is an outstanding group of players. What they've done halfway into the season -- I think you're safe to say it is one of the best groups of rookies ever," said former Dallas Cowboys general manager and NFL draft consultant Gil Brandt, who's been evaluating football players since the 1950s. "This is as good as any group, in terms of playing time and honors."

Rookies certainly are being counted on like never before.

Heading into the game between Luck's Indianapolis Colts and the Jacksonville Jaguars on Thursday night, there were 503 games started by first-year players, the highest total through Week 9 since at least 1991, according to STATS LLC. As recently as 15 years ago, there were fewer than half that many rookie starts.

And they're producing.

STATS said the 10,089 yards passing by first-year players leads the way to this point in a season for any year since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. This class' 5,716 yards rushing is the most since the merger except for the strike year of 1987, when replacement players inflated the statistics.

AFC and NFC offensive player of the week honors both went to rookies this week: Luck, whose 433 yards passing Sunday set a single-game record for a rookie; and Martin, who rushed for a franchise-record 251 yards and four touchdowns and became the first back -- not first rookie -- since at least 1940 to score on three TD runs of at least 45 yards in one game, according to STATS.

"I don't really know if there's something in the water or what. The rookies are definitely making a huge impact this year," Dolphins running back Reggie Bush said.

He plays in Miami alongside one of those green QBs getting so much attention, Ryan Tannehill, the eighth overall pick in April's draft, behind No. 1 Luck and No. 2 Griffin. Add in Cleveland's Brandon Weeden (No. 22) and Seattle's surprising Russell Wilson (taken 75th overall, in the third round, he beat out veteran free agent Matt Flynn), and this season's first-year quarterbacks already have accounted for 19 victories, closing in on the record of 26 set in 2004 by a collection that included Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Carson Palmer.

In his first eight games, Luck threw for the same number of yards as four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning in 2012 and put the Colts, 2-14 a season ago, on pace to make the playoffs.

Griffin and Wilson rank sixth and seventh in NFC passer rating, ahead of veterans such as Eli Manning of the Giants, Jay Cutler of the Bears and Matthew Stafford of the Lions.

Tannehill's 1,762 yards passing through eight games have him on track to shatter Hall of Famer Dan Marino's club record for a rookie. Weeden's 2,088 are the third-most by a rookie through his first nine games, even though the Browns lead the NFL in dropped passes.

"They're knowledgeable, and they're talented. There's no question that this is a very, very, very good group," Brandt said. "Now, will we say that five years from now? We could be saying, 'Yeah, they're good, but their teams haven't played in any Super Bowls or playoff games.' But if you were a wagering man, I would wager that this class of rookie quarterbacks is going to have some Super Bowl appearances."

He and others point to a number of factors contributing to the success.

Above all, players are coming into the league better prepared, mentally and physically, for the professional game.

Colleges have more serious weight training and nutrition programs these days. Pro-style offenses get quarterbacks up to speed in college -- and force players at various other positions to adjust, too. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier traces it all the way back to increasing sophistication in high school football.

"Everything is evolving to a higher level," said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who was an NFL head coach in the 1990s, then was at Southern Cal, before returning to the league in 2010. "The quarterback position is so unique and it has taken just a quantum leap here in the last 10 years, with guys understanding what's going on and being exposed to great coaching so early. ... I do think it has affected everyone; certainly receivers, corners, defensive backs and everyone who has to rush the passer, as well. They're all much more aware of the game than they were in years past."

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