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Top 10 Rookie Seasons in NFL History


photo by Mike Morbeck, CC 2.0

Football is by far the most complex of the five major professional team sports. With thousands of potential plays and formations, it often takes several years for players to make a major impact for their teams. The following 10 players not only made an impact as rookies, they became superstars in their first NFL season. Here are the top 10 rookie seasons in NFL history.


1) Gale Sayers, Chicago Bears, 1965


1965 will always be remembered as the year “The Kansas Comet” hit Chicago. The versatile running back from Kansas set NFL records with 22 touchdowns and 2,272 all-purpose yards for the Bears in 1965. Sayers scored 14 rushing, six receiving and one each on kick and punt returns to lead the league with 132 points in 14 games. On December 12, he tied an NFL record with six touchdowns in a 61-20 blowout of the San Francisco 49ers at Wrigley Field.


2) Eric Dickerson, Los Angeles Rams, 1983


In 1983, Dickerson not only led the NFL with 1,808 rushing and 2,212 scrimmage yards, he also set rookie records in both categories. The second overall pick from SMU also scored 20 touchdowns to place second behind the Washington Redskins’ John Riggins, who broke the NFL record with 24. The 6’3,” 220-pound running back dominated NFL defenses during the eighties, including setting an NFL single-season record with 2,105 yards in 1984.


3) Dick “Night Train” Lane, Los Angeles Rams, 1952


In 1952, Lane set an NFL record by intercepting 14 passes, a mark that still stands nearly 70 years later. His speed and agility in the open field also made him a threat with the ball in his hands, as his 298 return yards and two touchdowns would indicate. In addition to being an outstanding cover corner with excellent ball skills, Lane was also one of the game’s most ferocious tacklers. His combination of skill and physicality changed the way the position of cornerback was played.


4) Randy Moss, Minnesota Vikings, 1998


The NFL had seen both big receivers and fast receivers before Moss, but it had never seen a 6’4,” 210-pound receiver who could run a 4.25 40-yard dash. Moss used this unique skill set to become the league’s most feared deep threat, catching 69 passes for 1,313 yards and a rookie record 17 touchdown receptions in 1998. The All-Pro receiver’s combination of size, speed and athleticism became the prototype for future NFL draft picks at the position.


5) Jim Brown, Cleveland Browns, 1957


Sixty four years later, Brown remains the only rookie to win NFL MVP honors. The sixth overall pick from Syracuse led the league with 942 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns while leading the Browns to the NFL Championship Game. The 6’2,” 232-pound runner used his combination of speed and power to dominate the NFL for the next decade, leading the league in rushing in eight of his nine seasons.


6) Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants, 1981


In 1981, Taylor became the first player in NFL history to win Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. The second overall pick from Carolina changed the way the position of outside linebacker was played, taking a more aggressive approach rather than a reactive one. Taylor had 133 tackles, 9 ½ sacks (unofficial) and two forced fumbles for the Giants, who went from 27th to third in the NFL in scoring defense in his rookie year.


7) Edgerrin James, Indianapolis Colts, 1999


While he was often overshadowed by teammates Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison, James was one of the NFL’s most versatile and dangerous offensive weapons. In 1999, the rookie running back from Miami led the NFL with 1,553 rushing yards and 17 total touchdowns, while also catching 62 passes for 586 yards for the 13-3 Colts. James’s 2,139 yards from scrimmage are the second most by a rookie in league history.


8) Ronnie Lott, San Francisco 49ers, 1981


Later in his career, Lott became known as arguably the greatest safety in NFL history, but in his rookie year of 1981 he was one of the game’s best corners. The USC rookie intercepted seven passes, including three that he returned for touchdowns. His stellar play continued into the postseason, as he intercepted two more passes, including another pick-six, as the 49ers won their first of four Super Bowls in the 1980s.


9) Devin Hester, Chicago Bears, 2006


Return men often go unnoticed, but in 2006 the football world couldn’t help but notice Hester. The Bears’ rookie set NFL records with six non-offensive touchdowns, including three on punt and two on kick returns. In Super Bowl XLI, the All-Pro speedster became the first player in Super Bowl history to return the game’s opening kickoff for a touchdown.


10) Mike Ditka, Chicago Bears, 1961


Prior to 1961, a tight end’s primary duty was to block. Catching passes was merely an afterthought. Ditka changed that perception, as the 6’3,” 228-pound rookie caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Bears, and became the first tight end in NFL history to record 1,000 receiving yards in a season.

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