Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
The best first-year players in NFL history, or at least since Gale Sayers was a rookie.
It's rare that a first-year player comes into the NFL and has an immediate impact on the game. But it does happen. Athlon Sports looks back at the best rookie players in NFL history, or at least since Gale Sayers took the field in 1965.
1. Eric Dickerson, RB, Los Angeles Rams, 1983
Sure, Dickerson took a pay cut from his days as an SMU Mustang to be a member of the L.A. Rams. But the No. 2 overall pick didn’t let that stop him. Dickerson put on his goggles, put a helmet over his jheri curl — which was the fashion of the day? — and ran 390 carries for 1,808 yards and 18 TDs, while also hauling in 51 catches for 404 yards and two trips to the end zone.
2. Lawrence Taylor, OLB, New York Giants, 1981
Bill Parcells undoubtedly took all of the credit for the athletic genius that was L.T. But the Giants’ first-year defensive coordinator just happened to hit the good-timing lottery with the No. 2 overall pick out of North Carolina. Taylor terrorized the league and began redefining the outside linebacker position en route to winning Defensive Player of the Year honors as a rookie.
3. Randy Moss, WR, Minnesota Vikings, 1998
After falling all the way to No. 21 overall in the 1998 NFL Draft, Moss made his doubters pay — “straight cash, homey?” — with 69 catches for 1,313 yards and 17 TDs as a rookie. The Dallas Cowboys’ tab was the biggest, however. Randy dropped a three-catch, 163-yard, three-TD turkey at Jerry Jones’ old house in Dallas, during a Thanksgiving Day performance even tryptophan couldn’t slow down.
4. Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers, 2011
The self-proclaimed “entertainer and icon” lived up to his ego as a rookie. Cammy Cam Juice powered a video-game-gaudy stat line. Newton completed 60 percent of his passes for 4,051 yards and 21 TDs through the air, while scrambling for 706 yards and 14 TDs on the ground for the Cats.
5. Barry Sanders, RB, Detroit Lions, 1989
Barry talked and walked softly, but the decibel level was off the charts whenever he cut, spun and sprinted. A classical composer of highlight-reel footage, Sanders started strong — with 1,470 rush yards and 14 TDs as a rookie — and never missed a beat until his abrupt retirement prior to the 1999 season. In fact, he’s still the Lions’ best option at running back.
6. Gale Sayers, RB-KR-PR, Chicago Bears, 1965
It only took Sayers 14 games to score 22 TDs. The triple-threat runner-receiver-returner hit paydirt with 14 rushing scores, six receiving TDs, one kick return and another punt return. Of the 56 career TDs that Sayers scored, 22 came during his marvelous rookie campaign.
7. Jevon Kearse, DE, Tennessee Titans, 1999
Never was the Freak more freakish than during his 1999 party, when he was a Super Freak capable of stomping on Charlie Murphy’s couch and bringing any girl he wanted home to mama. Or, he was a really disruptive pass rusher. However it’s phrased, Kearse had 14.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles, was runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year and carried the Titans to a runner-up finish in Super Bowl XXXIV.
8. Anquan Boldin, WR, Arizona Cardinals, 2003
Not only did Boldin have one of the greatest first seasons in NFL history, he had one of the best first games of all-time. His 10-catch, 217-yard, two-TD Week 1 explosion nearly detonated the internet, as fantasy football owners worldwide hit the web looking for a smoking hot waiver wire pickup. For those whose dial-up was fast enough, Boldin was a boon, with 101 catches for 1,377 yards and eight TDs.
9. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004
Before the multiple Super Bowls and rape accusations, Big Ben was just a wide-eyed kid trying to avoid being yelled at (and subsequently spit on) by Bill Cowher’s lispy jaw. And he did a damn fine job, completing 66.4 percent of his passes for a 98.1 passer rating, while going 13–0 as a starter, with six game-winning drives and five fourth-quarter comebacks as a rook.
10. Edgerrin James, RB, Indianapolis Colts, 1999
The Edge may never get the credit he deserves. But prior to mid-prime (sub-prime?) knee injury, James was one of the all-time great runners. Replacing Marshall Faulk should not have been as easy as Edgerrin made it seem, posting 1,553 rush yards, 586 receiving yards and 17 total TDs as the Colts’ top thoroughbred. Turns out, Bill Polian made the right move by drafting James ahead of Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams.