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Monday, September 22, 2003
Updated: September 23, 9:38 AM ET
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.

Lawrence Taylor
Taylor's speed and attacking rushes from his linebacker position changed the way defenses attacked quarterbacks.

1. Lawrence Taylor, 1981 Giants
It was defensive coordinator Bill Parcells' first year with the Giants, and what a year it was -- in 1981, the Giants' D dominated, thanks largely to LT, who quickly became the best linebacker in the NFL, making the Pro Bowl and being named AP Defensive Player of the Year.

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 burst onto the scene with a spectacular season, rushing for a rookie record 1,808 yards and 18 TDs; he also caught 51 passes for 404 yards and another two TDs. He led the NFL in rushing attempts (390), yardage, and yards from scrimmage, and finished second to John Riggins in TDs.

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
The Rams of the early 1950s assembled not only a great bunch of players (they won the 1951 NFL Championship), but a great bunch of nicknames, too -- there was Vitamin (Smith), Skeets (Quinlan), Tank (Younger), and Crazy Legs (Hirsch). But Dick Lane out-nicknamed them all (he went by "Cue Ball" as a prep, but was dubbed "Night Train" by Norm Van Brocklin, after the Buddy Morrow song of that title).

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.

Barry Sanders
Sanders was electrifying and unstoppable the moment he stopped on an NFL field.

4. Barry Sanders, 1989 Lions
The first time Barry Sanders touched the ball in an NFL game, he ran for 18 yards. The fourth time, he scored a TD. It was the Lions' 1989 opener, and all the more impressive because Sanders, who skipped his final year of college, had missed training camp in a contract holdout and was unfamiliar with the Lions' new run-and-shoot offense.

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
The Niners picked Lott, a cornerback from USC, in the first round of the draft, and he didn't disappoint. He led a completely revamped 49ers defense in 1981, helping it turn around from one of the league's worst to one of the league's best.

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
You can look at all of James' stats for 1999 -- he led the league in rushing and was second in total yards from scrimmage -- but there's one that really stands out: 369. That's the number of times he carried the ball. Only one other Colts running back rushed all season -- Keith Elias, who ran the ball 13 times. Amazing.

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
The world's fastest human -- he had won a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics -- immediately made a huge impact on the game. His raw stats tell part of the story: 46 passes caught for 1,003 yards and 12 TDs. His speed tells the other part: he ripped apart the man-to-man and rudimentary zone defenses of the mid-1960s, forcing opposing coaches to come up with complex double-coverage zone schemes just for Hayes.

"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
The 1983 draft was a QB bonanza, but Dan Marino's stock was far from the highest: he was the sixth play-caller to be selected in the first round, behind John Elway, Todd Blackledge, Jim Kelly, Tony Eason and Ken O'Brien.

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.

Gale Sayers
Sayers' total of 22 touchdowns remains the rookie record.

9. Gale Sayers, 1965 Bears
All the Bears had to do in 1965 was put the ball in Sayers' hands, in any way possible, and let his feet do some magic. Sayers did it all -- he rushed for 867 yards, second in the NFL, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He caught 29 passes for 507 yards, an average of 17.5 yards per catch. He scored 22 TDs (14 rushing, 6 receiving, 2 returns), a rookie record. Sayers was also the second-best punt returner in the league, averaging 14.9 yards per return, and the second-best kick returner.

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
Moss, who slid to 21st in the draft because of his off-the-field troubles, caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards and 17 TDs, helping the Vikings power to a 15-1 record with the most potent offense in NFL history. Among his more spectacular games was an early October MNF contest at Lambeau Field, when he caught five passes for 190 yards, including 52- and 44-yard scores.

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?"

Also receiving votes:
  • Kevin Butler (1985 Bears): In 1985, Butler nailed all 51 of his PAT attempts and hit 31 of 37 field-goal attempts. He led the NFL in scoring with 144 points.

  • Clinton Portis (2002 Broncos): Portis rushed for 1,508 yards last season, averaging 5.5 per carry. He also scored 17 TDs.

  • Earl Campbell (1978 Oilers): Campbell led the NFL in rushing his rookie year, gaining 1,450 yards and scoring 13 TDs.

  • Mike Anderson (2000 Broncos): Anderson rushed 297 times for 1,500 yards in 2000, an average of 5.1 yards a carry. He also scored 15 TDs on the ground, second-best in the NFL.

  • Jevon Kearse (1999 Titans): Kearse had 14½ sacks in 1999, and was a big reason Tennessee made it to the Super Bowl.

  • Curt Warner (1983 Seahawks): Led the Seahawks to the AFC Championship in their first playoff trip with more than 1,400 yards rushing and 14 TDs.

  • Ottis Anderson (1979 Cardinals): "O.J." Anderson rushed for 1,605 yards (4.8 average) and scored 10 TDs.