NFL Rookie Watch: What a start for Sam Darnold and Denzel Ward

Mark Twain famously said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

There you have it -- the road map to a younger roster, more productive draft classes and the salary-cap flexibility youth brings. All that needs to happen is to, as John Elway has put it, “find the right guy who is mentally ready to be a pro, to take all of that information and combine it with enough ability to play right away.”

Easy enough. Week 1 saw first-year players have big performances. From game analysis and discussions with personnel evaluators, here’s a look at the top 10 rookies so far this season:

Top 10

1. Sam Darnold, QB, New York Jets

Stats: 16-of-21, 198 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 84.9 Total QBR

The youngest quarterback to ever start a regular-season game (21 years, 97 days) had his first pass attempt intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Then all he did was show the bring-it-on composure that made him the No. 3 pick of the draft with just four incompletions after the interception. It wasn’t the biggest stat line, but the Jets look like they have a talented player to build on.

2. Mike Hughes, CB, Minnesota Vikings

Stats: 3 tackles, 1 INT returned for a TD, played in 80.3 percent of defensive snaps

Forced into more playing time than planned because of injuries in the Vikings secondary, Hughes played 52 snaps on defense in the Vikings’ win to go with 13 plays on special teams. He knocked down three passes, one in the end zone to save a touchdown, and returned an interception 28 yards for a touchdown. The Vikings defense was already loaded and it found another playmaker in Hughes.

3. Ja'Whaun Bentley, LB/DE, New England Patriots

Stats: 7 tackles, played in 69 percent of defensive snaps

It’s no small feat for a rookie to carve out some playing time in Bill Belichick’s defense, but Bentley even got the start, and the former three-year captain at Purdue finished with seven tackles, one tackle for loss and a hit on Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

4. Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants

Stats: 18 carries for 108 yards, TD, 2 catches for 22 yards

Barkley was the most hyped prospect in the draft, but had a tough start against Jacksonville’s run defense. Seven of Barkley’s first 17 carries went for 1 yard, no gain or negative yardage, but the 18th carry showed what all the excitement was about when Barkley ripped off a 68-yard score. Part of the excitement around Barkley during the draft process was his versatility, and while he had only two catches, he was targeted six times in the passing game.

5. CB Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns

Stats: 6 tackles, 2 INTs, played in 98.8 percent of defensive snaps

As many as 50 family members and friends were in the stands to watch the Ohio native and Ohio State star. He was the second of Cleveland’s first-round picks, but the only one to play. It was a sloppy, rainy game, but the Browns forced six Steelers turnovers and Ward played a big role.

6. Will Dissly, TE, Seattle Seahawks

Stats: 3 catches, 105 yards, TD

The draft analysis on Dissly, a fourth-round pick from Washington, was that he was a blocker first and receiver second. You could have fooled the Broncos, who saw the rookie lead the Seahawks in receiving. On his touchdown catch, he broke four tackles and broke off a 66-yard catch and run.

7. Phillip Lindsay & Royce Freeman, RBs, Denver Broncos

You couldn't split up the two rookies in the Broncos offense Sunday and you can't split them up here as both finished with the exact same statistical line for the opener: 15 carries for 71 yards rushing. They rushed for 142 of the Broncos’ 146 yards rushing in the win. Lindsay, an undrafted free agent, also showed up in the passing game with two catches for 31 yards and a score.

8. Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers

Stats: 3 tackles, sack

He did get caught in Tyreek Hill’s vapor trail in zone coverage on Hill’s 58-yard touchdown reception, but overall he started and played 56 plays on defense. In one second-quarter drive, James showed the talent that makes him so dynamic in the secondary. On first down, with the Chiefs at the Chargers’ 45, James broke up a deep pass thrown to Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce that saved a score and two plays later James sacked Patrick Mahomes to end the drive.

9. Roquan Smith, LB, Chicago Bears

Stats: 3 tackles, sack

Smith battled a hamstring injury in the preseason and makes the list based on raw efficiency. He played just eight plays on defense in the Bears' opener and finished with three tackles and a sack.

10. Darius Leonard, LB, Indianapolis Colts

Stats: 9 tackles, fumble recovery, played 100 percent of defensive snaps

The Colts played 10 rookies in their season-opening loss to the Bengals. Leonard started and played 55 plays.

Trending up

Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds: The Bills were disassembled by the Ravens, but Edmunds was the only Bills player to play all 80 plays on defense and he added seven more on special teams. He had seven tackles, as well as a sack and a forced fumble in the same series.

Rookie offensive linemen: In total, eight rookie offensive linemen played 100 percent of offensive snaps. That includes first-round picks Quenton Nelson (Indianapolis Colts), Mike McGlinchey (San Francisco 49ers), Kolton Miller (Oakland Raiders), Frank Ragnow (Detroit Lions) and Billy Price (Cincinnati Bengals). McGlinchey, who started at right tackle for the 49ers, was moved to guard after an injury. It’s a position he hadn’t played since youth football.

Seahawks P Michael Dickson: Had the best day of the first-year specialists with a 57.5 net yards per punt average in the Mile High confines in Denver, including a 69-yard bomb. He also put four down inside the Broncos’ 20-yard line.

Close, but not quite

Bengals DB Jessie Bates (82 plays, eight tackles); Packers CB Jaire Alexander (49 plays, three tackles); Packers CB Josh Jackson (46 plays, three tackles, one tackle for loss); Broncos OLB Bradley Chubb (54 plays, three tackles, .5 sack); Texans T Martinas Rankin (63 plays, allowed a sack, but helped Texans rush for 168 yards); Broncos WR Courtland Sutton (44 plays, two catches for 45 yards); 49ers WR Dante Pettis (48 plays, six catches, 61 yards, 1 touchdown).

Bumpiest ride on learning curve

Bills QB Josh Allen: The Bills didn’t think he was ready to start the opener -- Nathan Peterman started instead -- but they then decided Allen was ready after Peterman went 5-of-18 for 24 yards and two interceptions. So, Allen got tossed into the pool when the Ravens led, 40-0. He played 32 plays, went 6-of-15 passing for 74 yards and was sacked three times.