Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Best NFL Rookie Class Ever?

By Brad Oremland

This was an amazing season for NFL rookies, particularly on offense. Quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco had two of the greatest rookie seasons we've ever seen at their position. Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, and Steve Slaton all rushed for 1,000 yards. Two first-year offensive linemen made the Pro Bowl. Was this the best rookie class in history?

Well, it's certainly on the short list. I've ranked the top 12 rookie groups since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. To be fair to this year's group, I focused on rookie performance, but I also considered career achievements, where applicable. For example, Terry Bradshaw had an awful rookie year, but he's obviously a net plus for the 1970 draft class. Deciding what to do with people like Tom Brady was trickier. Brady was technically a rookie in 2000, but he didn't really play until 2001. Does he count in the draft class of 2000, or 2001? Or neither? Ultimately — and I'm sure this will not sit well with some people — I decided on neither. Maybe Colt Brennan, a sixth-round pick for Washington last year, is a future Hall of Famer. He didn't play as a rookie, so we don't know. If someone didn't play as a rookie, or did in very limited action, he is not included here. Sorry, Tom.

Last note before we get to the top 12: players who started their careers in another league (most notably the USFL) do not count toward any class. To take one example, Jim Kelly was drafted in 1983 and first joined an NFL roster in 1986. He doesn't count as part of either year's rookie class. This will be important later.

12. Rookie Class of 2003
Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year: Anquan Boldin and Terrell Suggs

Almost half of my top 12 are from the last decade, and I don't think it's because of any bias on my part. I suspect that free agency has spurred teams into getting their young players involved earlier. In the past, it was common for blue-chip prospects to sit (or play exclusively on special teams) not just for a season, but sometimes for several years. Try that today, and the player's contract will have expired by the time you see what he's got. There are also more teams now, which means more rookies, period. And finally, many colleges now run "pro-style" offenses which facilitate easier transitions for young players.

Anyway, 2003 was a particularly good year for defensive rookies. Suggs had 12 sacks, 4 fumble recoveries, and an interception. CB Terence Newman had an exceptional rookie campaign in Dallas, Kevin Williams got double-digit sacks, Nick Barnett started 15 games at middle linebacker, and Eugene Wilson was a starter for the Super Bowl champion Patriots. This was also the rookie season for Lance Briggs and Troy Polamalu.

Boldin (101 receptions, 1377 yards, 8 TD) was the clear standout on offense, but Houston teammates Domanick Davis (1,000 yards rushing) and Andre Johnson (976 receiving) also had nice debuts. Both Super Bowl teams had rookies starting on the offensive line: Dan Koppen for the Patriots and Jordan Gross for Carolina. The 2003 draft class also included guard Eric Steinbach and tight end Jason Witten.

11. Rookie Class of 2005
Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year: Cadillac Williams and Shawne Merriman

Another one that made the list because of defense. Merriman was a runaway choice as DROY, but in most years, Lofa Tatupu (Pro Bowl), DeMarcus Ware (8 sacks), and Odell Thurman (98 tackles, 5 INT) would have been contenders. Derrick Johnson and LeRoy Hill had nice years at outside linebacker.

Cadillac Williams was the only obvious standout on offense, but tight end Heath Miller had a nice rookie campaign for the Super Bowl champion Steelers. More impressive than offense, for the 2005 rookie class, was special teams. Rookies Justin Miller (KR TD, 26.3 avg) and Pacman Jones (1,127 KR yds, PR TD) were among the most productive returners in the league, and Houston's Jerome Mathis (2 KR TDs, 28.6 avg) was named first-team all-pro as a returner.

10. Rookie Class of 1974
Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year: Don Woods and Jack Lambert

When I started this project, I figured 1974 would be among the top three. The Steelers alone drafted four future Hall of Famers in this class! Unfortunately, only Lambert brought his 'A' game in '74. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth combined for 27 catches, under 500 yards, and 3 TDs, while center Mike Webster split time with Ray Mansfield. Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper and perennial HOF snub Randy Gradishar have the same story. Casper caught only four passes as a rookie, and Gradishar started only three games. On rookie performance alone, this group wouldn't make the list. But knowing what we do today, I can't leave it out of the top 10.

9. Rookie Class of 1973
Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year: Chuck Foreman and Wally Chambers

This group produced three future Hall of Famers, all on offense. Guard John Hannah got off to a nice start, and today is almost universally seen as the finest guard in history. Joe DeLamielleure was a key member of the "Electric Company", blocking for O.J. Simpson during the first 2,000-yard rushing season in history. The other HOFer, QB Dan Fouts, experienced a less distinguished beginning: a 46.0 rating and an 0-5-1 record as starter.

This was a banner year for rookie RBs. Besides Foreman (1,263 yards from scrimmage), Boobie Clark (1,335) and Terry Metcalf (944) were both among the league leaders. Greg Pruitt, Sam Cunningham, and Otis Armstrong also made their debuts in 1973, and Pruitt made the Pro Bowl as a returner. Receivers Isaac Curtis (843 receiving yards) and Charle Young (854) also made the Pro Bowl, and Young was named all-pro tight end as a rookie. Future all-pro lineman Leon Gray was part of this year's class.

The defensive group this year featured few standout performances apart from Chambers', but it did produce future Super Bowl MVP Harvey Martin, five-time Pro Bowler Brad Van Pelt, and ESPN fixture Tom Jackson.

8. Rookie Class of 1998
Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year: Randy Moss and Charles Woodson

Let's get this out of the way: Woodson is the only elite defender in this group. We're here for the offense. Peyton Manning was a rookie in 1998, but Charlie Batch may have outplayed him. Batch posted one of the best passer ratings ever for a first-year player, and his rookie record for interception percentage still stands. Fred Taylor (1,644 yards from scrimmage, 17 TDs) and Robert Edwards (1,446 YFS, 12 TDs) would have won the Offensive Rookie award in most other seasons. But most seasons, you don't have to go up against Randy Moss, who led the league in scoring and set NFL rookie records for receiving yards and touchdowns. Moss lifted the Vikings to a 15-1 record. Hines Ward was also a rookie in 1998, as were offensive linemen Alan Faneca, Jason Fabini, Jeremy Newberry, and Kyle Turley.

7. Rookie Class of 1988
Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year: John Stephens and Erik McMillan

After 1988, it was all downhill for Stephens and McMillan. Stephens (1,168 yards) never had another 1,000-yard season, and history has forgotten him in favor of fellow rookie running back Ickey Woods (1066 yards, 5.3 avg, 15 TD). Thurman Thomas (881 yards) went on to the Hall of Fame career Stephens and Woods never did.

McMillan (8 INT, 2 TD) made the Pro Bowl in both of his first two seasons, but was out of the league by 1994. If we could go back in time, Chris Spielman (150 tackles) might win this instead of McMillan. A pair of young cornerbacks, Eric Allen and James Hasty, each had 5 interceptions in 1988, and Michael Dean Perry got 6 sacks and a fumble return for a touchdown, setting the tone for a six-Pro Bowl career. Fellow six-time Pro Bowler Neil Smith was also a rookie this year, but his accomplishments were more modest.

Other high-performing 1988 rookies included offensive linemen Randall McDaniel and Dermontti Dawson, tight ends Keith Jackson and Ferrell Edmunds, plus wide receivers Brian Blades, Tim Brown, Michael Irvin, and Sterling Sharpe. Jackson (all-pro TE) and Brown (led NFL in all-purpose yards) were particularly impressive; Irvin and Sharpe had their best seasons in the '90s. Future Pro Bowl WR Anthony Miller had a promising debut on kick returns (25.9 avg, TD), and rookie QB Chris Chandler (9-4 as starter) actually had a strong first season.

6. Rookie Class of 1986
Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year: Rueben Mayes and Leslie O'Neal

The 1986 rookie class was strong across the board: offense, defense, and special teams. Mayes rushed for 1,353 yards and 8 TD with a 4.7 average. Receivers Bill Brooks and Ernest Givens both broke the 1,000-yard mark. Will Wolford and Tom Newberry made strong debuts on the offensive line. Vai Sikahema and Bobby Joe Edmonds each made the Pro Bowl as returners, and Edmonds was named all-pro.

O'Neal had a fantastic rookie season, with 82 tackles, 12.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions, one of them returned for a touchdown. Charles Haley had 12 sacks, and Tim Harris had 8. Pat Swilling, the 1991 DPOY who finished his career with over 100 sacks, got off to a relatively modest start, with 4 in his 1986 rookie year. John Offerdahl made the Pro Bowl as an inside linebacker with Miami, and rookie DB David Fulcher shook up the league both in coverage and on the safety blitz.

Note that a number of USFL refugees (including Jim Kelly and Herschel Walker) made their NFL debuts in 1986. If we counted them as part of this rookie class, it would rank among the top three. 1985, which also got some big-deal USFL veterans (Reggie White and Steve Young) would make the top 10.

5. Rookie Class of 2008
Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year: Matt Ryan and Jerod Mayo

Is this lower than you expected? Me, too, a little. Blame it on the defense. Mayo was the only real standout, though a few rookie DBs showed promise. This year's class is on the list for its offense. Ryan and Flacco had two of the best rookie seasons we've seen from modern quarterbacks. Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, and Steve Slaton all rushed for 1,000 yards, and they all did it in style. Forte was a great receiver, Johnson and Slaton averaged almost 5 yards a carry, and all three scored double-digit TDs. Fellow RB Kevin Smith (976 yards, 8 TD) had a pretty good season in Detroit.

The QBs and running backs were the stars of the show, but wide receivers Eddie Royal (91 receptions) and DeSean Jackson (1,008 yards from scrimmage, PR TD) both made key contributions early. Tight end John Carlson (627 yards, 5 TD) looks like a keeper in Seattle. The real rage in the 2008 draft was offensive tackles, with seven going in the first round. Two of them, Denver's Ryan Clady and top overall pick Jake Long, are going to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. I'm not aware of any other season two rookie offensive linemen made the Pro Bowl.

4. Rookie Class of 2006
Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year: Vince Young and DeMeco Ryans

Don't you kind of wish we could have this one back? Vince Young went 8-5 as a starter, but he had a 66.7 passer rating, and he hasn't visibly developed since the 2006 Rose Bowl. Instead of Young, we could have picked Maurice Jones-Drew (2,250 all-purpose yards, 16 TD), Joseph Addai (1,081 rushing yards, Super Bowl ring), or even Reggie Bush (1,307 YFS, 9 TD). We could have gone with Marques Colston, or Pro Bowl OT Marcus McNeill. And let's not forget Devin Hester, who had 6 return TDs. DeAngelo Williams and Leon Washington certainly weren't OROY contenders two years ago, but both are excellent now.

The defensive side of this group was less stacked, but nothing to be ashamed of. Ryans led the NFL in tackles. Mark Anderson and Kamerion Wimbley got double-digit sacks. A.J. Hawk and Dawan Landry were among the best in the league at their respective positions. Mario Williams and Haloti Ngata were rookies in 2006.

3. Rookie Class of 1996
Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year: Eddie George and Simeon Rice

The famous 1996 receiver class includes (get ready) Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Keyshawn Johnson, Muhsin Muhammad, Eric Moulds, Amani Toomer, Joe Horn, Terry Glenn, Eddie Kennison, and Bobby Engram. That is a heck of a group. Harrison, Keyshawn, Glenn, and Kennison got off to particularly strong starts, all picking up at least 800 yards — Glenn had over 1,100. Overshadowed by the receivers, 1996 was also a pretty good year for rookie offensive linemen, including Jonathan Ogden and Willie Anderson. George rushed for almost 1,400 yards.

Defensive rookies this year included Ray Lewis, Zach Thomas, and Brian Dawkins. All three had good seasons, but Rice earned DROY with 12.5 sacks for the Cardinals. Kevin Hardy and Donnie Abraham played very well as rookies in 1996.

2. Rookie Class of 1983
Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year: Eric Dickerson and Vernon Maxwell

This class is famous for its quarterbacks, with six drafted in the first round. Most notably, that included John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly. Elway had a decent year, Marino had one of the best rookie seasons ever, and Kelly went to the USFL. If he counted as part of the 1983 class, it might rank as the best ever. This wasn't just a great year for passers, though — check out the running backs: Dickerson (1808 yards, 20 TD), Curt Warner (1449 yards, 14 TD), and Roger Craig (1152 YFS, 12 TD).

Still not impressed? How about receivers? Henry Ellard and Mark Clayton were used mostly as returners, both scoring punt return TDs, but they combined for 11 career 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Now let's talk offensive linemen. Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews began his NFL career in 1983, playing in every game. Jim Covert helped bring Walter Payton back to the forefront of the NFL's greatest rushers. And Chris Hinton, obtained by Baltimore in the Elway trade, made the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

The offense alone would be enough to get this group on the list, but the defense is pretty impressive, too. Greg Townsend and Maxwell had double-digit sacks. This was also the rookie season for Richard Dent, Charles Mann, Karl Mecklenburg, and Darryl Talley. The real strength of the 1983 defensive rookies, though, was the secondary. Hall of Famer Darrell Green immediately established himself as a star, running down Tony Dorsett and starting all 16 games for a defense that led the league in interceptions. Lionel Washington intercepted 8 passes as a rookie. Albert Lewis and Joey Browner were part of this class, as well.

1. Rookie Class of 1981
Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year: George Rogers and Lawrence Taylor

The rookie class of 1981 is not merely the best group of defensive rookies in history. It is by far the best group of defensive rookies in history. No other year is close. No other year is close to being close. Lawrence Taylor won Defensive Player of the Year, in what is widely regarded as the greatest rookie season ever. Ronnie Lott went to the Pro Bowl and won a Super Bowl ring. Fellow HOFers Mike Singletary and Howie Long were rookies in 1981. Kenny Easley, who should also be in the Hall of Fame, had 7 takeaways, including an 82-yard interception return for a touchdown. Everson Walls, undrafted as a rookie, made the Pro Bowl after leading the NFL with 11 interceptions.

That's not all. Rickey Jackson, who went on to a fine career (6 Pro Bowls) is credited — unofficially — with 125 tackles and 8 sacks as a rookie in 1981. That's DROY stuff if you're not going up against Taylor, Lott, and Walls. Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson started all 16 games for the Super Bowl champion 49ers, combining for 11 takeaways.

Dexter Manley is one of the more tragic figures in NFL history, but his career got off to a good start, with (unofficially) 6 sacks, in a career that had over 100. Hugh Green had a good rookie season in Tampa. Hanford Dixon and Dennis Smith were also rookies in 1981.

That defensive group, by itself, is enough to merit serious consideration for the number one position on this list. But let's add a few running backs. Rogers' career was shortened by injuries, but in 1981, he rushed for 1674 yards and 13 TDs. James Brooks was a triple-threat runner, receiver, and returner, leading the NFL in all-purpose yardage. Stump Mitchell led the league in return yards. Tony Collins had 1,100 yards from scrimmage. Freeman McNeil and James Wilder both had good rookie years.

In addition to the RBs, consider WR Cris Collinsworth, who made the Pro Bowl after a 1,000-yard rookie season. Joe Jacoby and Russ Grimm, the best of the "Hogs," were also rookies this season, starting 13 games each.

We saw exceptional rookie performances this season, but the rookie class of 1981 was the greatest in NFL history.

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