|LT best NFL rookie of all time|
By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff
It's only three weeks into the NFL season, but that doesn't mean it's too early to start talking about the top rookies. Is it Arizona wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who has caught 23 passes (first in the NFC) for 378 yards (2nd) and two touchdowns? (That projects out to 123, 2016, and 11 -- yowza!). Or Seattle safety Ken Hamlin, who's racked up 17 solo tackles, an interception, and a forced fumble in three games? Or maybe Packers linebacker Nick Barnett, who's made 28 tackles and intercepted two passes?
You know what? It is too early to tell. But unless Boldin stays on fire, it doesn't look like anyone from this year's rookie class has a chance to match up with the greatest rookies of all time.
1. Lawrence Taylor, 1981 Giants
In 1980, the 4-12 Giants had the second-worst defense in the NFL, surrendering 425 points. In 1981, they had the third-best defense, allowing only 257 points. They went 9-7 and made the playoffs.
Fellow linebacker Brian Kelley was also surprised by LT. "Look at it on paper, you wouldn't believe a weakside linebacker could affect a defense so much. Watching it on film, it's obvious. With Lawrence out there, he completely changes the whole offense."
2. Eric Dickerson, 1983 Rams
Dickerson was named United Press International's NFC Player of the Year. "Eric Dickerson is the best running back I've ever seen," said O.J. Simpson. "I can't remember any back with more talent or potential than Eric, and that includes myself and Gale Sayers. Every time Dickerson touches the ball, he can go all the way."
3. Dick "Night Train" Lane, 1952 Rams
He also outplayed them all, with 14 interceptions, still a rookie and NFL record (and he did it in just 12 games). Lane, a cornerback, returned two INTs for TDs, and was known as a brutal tackler, with his famous "Night Train Necktie." In the final regular-season contest, he picked off three passes, returning one of them 42 yards for a TD, as Los Angeles beat Pittsburgh on a brutally hot day (it was 101 degrees at one point during the game at the Coliseum). That tied the Lions for the Western Conference lead, but the Rams lost in the playoff the following week.
4. Barry Sanders, 1989 Lions
In retrospect, Sanders' rookie year was an "average" season for him ... meaning, in a word, great. He carried the ball 280 times for 1,470 yards and 14 TDs, and caught 24 passes for 282 yards, elevating the Lions from a 4-12 in 1988 to a respectable 7-9 squad. He finished the year second in rushing yards and TDs, and third in yards from scrimmage.
Walter Payton had a look at Sanders when the Lions visited Soldier Field in December. "He's better than I was," Payton told reporters. "I was never that good."
5. Ronnie Lott, 1981 49ers
Lott intercepted seven passes even though most teams threw away from him, and tied the NFL record by returning three picks for TDs. Anchoring a secondary that included two other rookie starters (Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright), he also was second on the 49ers in tackles (52 solo, 89 overall), and forced four fumbles and recovered two. But perhaps the most remarkable number of all for Lott's rookie season was 1: that's how many times he was beaten for a TD.
It was a magical rookie season for the future Hall of Famer: The 49ers won the Super Bowl, and Lott went to the Pro Bowl.
6. Edgerrin James, 1999 Colts
But then there's the other stuff -- 1,553 yards and 13 TDs on the ground, 62 receptions for 586 yards and another four scores. James set a rookie record with 10 games of 100+ rushing yards. James had big shoes to fill -- Marshall Faulk, who had just departed for St. Louis. And he filled them just fine.
7. Bob Hayes, 1965 Cowboys
"We knew we drafted 9.1 speed," coach Tom Landry said early in the season, "but we didn't expect to get a complete football player, too. Hayes can use speed to the best advantage of any player I ever saw."
8. Dan Marino, 1983 Dolphins
Marino didn't make his first pro start until Game 6, but what a debut it was: he completed 19 of 29 passes for 322 yards and 3 TDs in a thrilling 38-35 OT loss to Buffalo. The starting job was his for good, and he led the Fins to seven wins in the next eight games, sealing a playoff berth. He ended the season with 173 completions in 296 attempts, throwing 20 TD passes while having only six picked off.
Marino still holds the records for highest passer rating for a rookie (96.0) and highest completion percentage for a rookie (58.45). Marino started only nine games, but became the only rookie to lead a conference in passing and the first rookie QB to start in the Pro Bowl.
9. Gale Sayers, 1965 Bears
On Dec. 12, Sayers wrapped up all his gifts and delivered the package to the 49ers, scoring six TDs on 336 total yards -- 113 rushing, 89 receiving, and 134 on punt returns -- as Chicago routed San Francisco 61-20. "This was the greatest football exhibition I have ever seen by one man in one game," said Bears owner and head coach George Halas, who'd seen it all.
10. Randy Moss, 1998 Vikings
Cris Carter knew what was coming. In early September, he said, "My brother [Butch] played pro basketball, so I was around when guys like Magic and Bird were coming in. Do you understand that this kid could be Michael Jordan? That we're on the ground floor of something huge?"
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