Updated at: 11/08/2012 11:35 PM
By HOWARD FENDRICH
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."
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett pointed to that as one of the reasons for Claiborne’s early success at cornerback despite missing offseason workouts while recovering from wrist surgery and then losing time in training camp with a left knee injury.
"He came from a big-time program and had played a lot of big games," Garrett said, "so I don’t think at any point we feel like he’s been in awe."
Browns general manager Tom Heckert made a point of drafting players who played a lot in established college programs, making the move to the NFL easier.
Cleveland is 2-7 as it rebuilds and counts a lot on rookies _ 17, nearly a third of the 53-man roster. The Browns have four first-year players starting on offense: Weeden, Schwartz, Richardson (whose 815 yards from scrimmage rank fifth in the AFC) and receiver Josh Gordon (who leads NFL rookies with 417 yards receiving and four TD catches). Defensive tackle Billy Winn, a sixth-round pick, has started every game, and linebacker James-Michael Johnson, a fourth-rounder, started the past four.
Johnson moved into the lineup after a veteran was lost for the season to injury, the way a lot of rookies often get their chance.
But whereas they used to play primarily because they needed to, now rookies play because they can. Coaches believe they can handle it.
"That’s why they drafted us," said Bucs safety Mark Barron, the No. 7 overall pick. "To come in and contribute early."
His teammate Martin, taken 31st overall, is third in the NFL in rushing with 794 yards. Second-round pick Lavonte David, a starting linebacker, and Barron are two of Tampa Bay’s three leading tacklers.
David, credited with 16 tackles in last weekend’s victory at Oakland, has handled and relayed defensive play calls all season.
Bobby Wagner, who tops Carroll’s Seahawks defense with 72 tackles, also makes those calls from his middle linebacker spot. Carolina’s Luke Kuechly is another linebacker making noise as a rookie.
Not every rookie _ even the high draft picks _ pans out right away, of course. Some never do.
Among this season’s disappointments has been Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who hurt his left knee while working out over the summer and didn’t even get into a game until last Sunday, and that was only on special teams. Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd hasn’t lived up to expectations, and Jaguars receiver Justin Blackmon has shown a knack for dropping passes.
Still, for each underachiever there are several overachievers.
Cornerback Casey Hayward, the next-to-last pick in the second round, is tied for third in the NFL with four interceptions. The Rams saw late-round picks such as Givens (five consecutive games with a catch of 50 yards or longer) and running back Daryl Richardson beat out higher draft selections.
Morris, a sixth-round pick by the Redskins out of Florida Atlantic, is fourth in the league in yards rushing, pairing with Griffin to become the first running back and quarterback teammates to both top 500 as rookies.
The Vikings are getting key contributions from rookies in all three phases: left tackle Matt Kalil, safety Harrison Smith, and Walsh.
Kalil has played every offensive snap and has not been whistled once for a holding penalty. Walsh missed only one field-goal attempt, is 5 for 5 from 50-plus yards and is second in the NFL with 35 touchbacks.
Another kicker drafted in the sixth round, Zuerlein _ "Greg the Leg," to some _ is 7 for 7 from 40-49 yards, 5 for 7 from 50 and beyond. He’s the first player in NFL history to connect on field goals of at least 60 yards and 50 yards (his went 58) in the same game.
Brandt noted that one meaningful indication of how much more likely coaches are to have faith in rookies is what’s happening with the Patriots.
Jones leads NFL rookies with six sacks. Wilson leads AFC rookies with three interceptions. Hightower started five games. They were joined by safety Nate Ebner and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard against the Rams in New England’s most recent game, giving the Patriots five rookies on the field at once.
"Ten years ago, if you would have said, `They are going to have (that many) rookies, with Bill Belichik coaching, on a very, very good team that will compete for the Super Bowl,’ I would have said, `It’s not going to happen,’" Brant said. "But ... it’s people being more prepared today than ever before. Coaches can trust them."
AP Sports Writers Tim Booth, R.B. Fallstrom, Fred Goodall, Stephen Hawkins, Joe Kay, Michael Marot, Howard Ulman, Teresa Walker, Joseph White, Steven Wine, Tom Withers, and AP Pro Football Writers Dave Campbell, Arnie Stapleton and Barry Wilner contributed to this report.
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(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)