One of the fears at the end of the 4 1/2-month lockout was how much all the missed practice and meeting time would affect rookies.
Three weeks from the end of the season, those concerns appear ill-founded.
Sure, there have been some first-year flops, from Jacksonville quarterback Blaine Gabbert to Giants defensive back Prince Amukamara to Chiefs receiver Jonathan Baldwin _ the latter two slowed by injuries, but mediocre when they have gotten onto the field. And yes, some or all of them might turn out to be All-Pros down the line.
Yet, nearly each of the 32 teams has had an impact rookie this year. Some, such as quarterbacks Cam Newton in Carolina and Andy Dalton in Cincinnati on offense, Denver linebacker Von Miller and Arizona cornerback Patrick Peterson on defense, have made headlines and highlight reels weekly. Others have flown a bit lower while contributing quite a bit.
Take Detroit’s Titus Young, a second-round draft choice from Boise State who has a habit of making long gains _ not a bad trait for a wide receiver. He’s overshadowed by veterans Calvin Johnson and Nate Burleson, but has made enough splashy plays, including four catches longer than 40 yards, to help Detroit stay in the wild-card chase.
“Yeah, he’s gaining experience each week and he’s making more plays each week and it’s obviously something we need when we see teams that trick up Calvin and want to game plan to take Calvin away,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “The arrow has been going up for Titus the whole season. He’s had ups and downs like any rookie does, but overall, he’s been trending up, and you’re seeing some of the explosive plays that we know we can get from him.”
Opponents are seeing the explosiveness of two young defenders: Houston linebacker Brooks Reed and end J.J. Watt.
Second-round pick Reed has set a Texans rookie record for sacks with six, has 11 quarterback hits and a fumble recovery. Pretty good for a guy who made the starting lineup when Texans star Mario Williams was lost for the season in Week 5 and Houston had to move Connor Barwin into Williams’ spot.
First-rounder Watt has started from the outset, has 4 1/2 sacks and shares the team lead in tackles for loss (10). He’s also recovered two fumbles.
Houston _ and perhaps the league’s _ most surprisingly effective rookie has been quarterback T.J. Yates. A third-stringer (and fifth-round selection from North Carolina), Yates stepped in when both Matts, Schaub and Leinart, went down with season-ending injuries. All he’s done is guide the Texans to a huge comeback victory at Cincinnati to clinch the first playoff berth in their 10-season existence.
“That’s an impressive thing,” said Panthers linebacker Dan Connor, whose team faces Houston this week. “A lot was on the line for them and he helped them win. That says a lot about him as a quarterback to be able to do that, especially when he’s a rookie.”
Yates wasn’t given the reins, nor even considered for them, when the season kicked off. Newton and Dalton, of course, were behind center from the beginning, a trend that developed in the last decade and has led to Ben Roethlisberger, Vince Young, Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford winning top offensive rookie honors. It never happened before Roethlisberger arrived in Pittsburgh in 2004.
Newton and Dalton might be the front-runners for the award this season, especially with Cowboys sensation RB DeMarco Murray gone with a broken right ankle. But nobody should ignore Washington RB Roy Helu; WRs A.J. Green of Cincinnati, Doug Baldwin of Seattle, and Julio Jones of Atlanta; Philadelphia center Jason Kelce; Oakland guard Stefan Wisniewski; Miami center Mike Pouncey; and tackles Orlando Franklin of Denver, Marcus Gilbert of Pittsburgh and Nate Solder of New England.
Arizona’s Peterson has taken his spectacular efforts to special teams, where he has tied a league mark with four punt returns for TDs, one from 99 yards and another from 80.
“There’s no secret there, he’s an outstanding player for the reasons that he’s had success this year,” Browns coach Pat Shurmur said as he prepared to face Arizona this weekend. “When you have a guy that’s scored four touchdowns, two of which won games at the end _ I know for a fact it was the Rams, he beat them twice on punt returns _ I’m going to remember that Sunday.”