Commentary

These eight rookies are on the fast track to NFL success

The early returns are in, and these eight rookies have jumped to the head of the of the class.

Originally Published: October 2, 2008
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com

Matt ForteDavid Stluka/Getty ImagesBears rookie Matt Forte has rushed for 347 yards and leads the league with 92 carries.
OK, let's get to some truth-telling. As you watched the NFL draft five months ago -- and, yes, we know you watched every minutes of ESPN's coverage -- which names stood out to you?

Did you really think a tailback from Tulane would lead the league in carries after four games? Did you foresee that scrawny Virginia Tech receiver exploding onto the scene with a 146-yard game on Monday Night Football? Were you expecting a running back from the University of Richmond to have three touchdowns in four games?

Related
More on the NFL's impact rookies:
• NFL's early risers
• Chadiha: Chiefs' rookie show
• Mosley: Horton a quick study
• Matt Ryan: The rookie life
• Scouts Inc. rankings
• SportsNation: Rank 'em
• Fantasy Focus: Darren McFadden
• Football Today: Green
• Watch: Countdown Daily
There is plenty of season left to play, but the first rookies out of the gate represent a collection of unexpected gems. Chicago tailback Matt Forte, drafted in the second round to back up Cedric Benson, instead is starting and has touched the ball on 42 percent of the Bears' offensive plays. Broncos receiver Eddie Royal, initially projected at best as a No. 3 receiver, has two 100-yard performances in his first four games.

Meanwhile, Arizona has turned running back Tim Hightower -- a fifth-round draft choice -- into a scoring machine. At this rate, he'll finish the season with 12 touchdowns.

Our NFL blog network selected impact rookies from each division, identifying a number of surprises along with a few high-profile names. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, the No. 3 overall pick, has won two games this season. So has Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, the 18th overall pick.

Look for more rookies to surface as the season progresses. But for now, these are our standouts:

NFC East: WR DeSean Jackson, Eagles

All through training camp, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb attempted to temper the expectations for rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson. The only problem is that Jackson has refused to cooperate.

The Eagles haven't surrounded McNabb with a consistent downfield threat since T.O. left town in 2005. Jackson was supposed to help as a return specialist, but injuries to starting receivers Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis forced the rookie into the starting lineup. He opened with six catches for 106 yards against the Rams and followed that with a six-catch, 110-yard performance against the Cowboys.

But as you might expect, there have been bumps along the way. Jackson celebrated a 61-yard touchdown a yard early against the Cowboys, and had to wait two more weeks to record his first TD. He scored against the Bears on Sunday, but then he muffed a punt in the second half, which led to a Chicago touchdown.

The most surprising thing about Jackson is how good a route runner he is. He consistently gets open, and he makes catches in traffic. He gives McNabb the weapon he has needed for the past three years. Seventh-round draft choice Chris Horton also should be considered as the rookie who has made the biggest impact. The safety from UCLA is continually around the ball -- hence his three interceptions. He has replaced Reed Doughty as the starter, and he made another huge play Sunday in the win over the Cowboys.

Under the radar: Orlando Scandrick became the Dallas Cowboys' nickel corner when Terence Newman was hurt early in the season. The former Boise State player was a fifth-round draft pick, but he has outplayed first-round corner Mike Jenkins to this point. Scandrick is a big, physical player who can jam slot receivers at the line of scrimmage. He's an excellent find at that point in the draft.

-- Matt Mosley, NFC East blogger

NFC North: RB Matt Forte, Bears

The Chicago Bears weren't looking for immediate help when they drafted Matt Forte, a workhorse tailback from Tulane, in the second round of the 2008 draft.

At the time, Cedric Benson stood atop the team's depth chart and was expected to shoulder the majority of its workload. Forte would get a handful of carries per game and perhaps work in third-down situations under that arrangement.

But after releasing the troubled Benson, the Bears turned immediately to Forte. He hasn't disappointed them, amassing the sixth-most rushing yards (347) in the NFL through four games. Forte leads the league with 92 carries and is the Bears' top receiver with 18 receptions.

Along the way, Forte has alleviated concerns about his upright running style. Although, at 6 feet 2, he is taller than most backs, Forte knows how to lower his pad level and avoid direct hits. His receiving skills, meanwhile, allow him to stay on the field for most third downs and suggest a long career for a player who entered the league with little fanfare.

Under the radar: Minnesota Vikings safety Tyrell Johnson has proved a solid replacement for starter Madieu Williams, who is expected to miss several more games because of a neck injury. Johnson isn't a flashy player, but for the most part he has tackled soundly and been in the right position in most coverages. He has gained valuable experience and given the team every reason to believe he can be a long-term starter.

-- Kevin Seifert, NFC North blogger

NFC South: QB Matt Ryan, Falcons

After a lengthy debate, the Atlanta Falcons decided to go with rookie Matt Ryan as their starting quarterback from the beginning of the season. They haven't been sorry.

Ryan has been solid through four games. There have been bumps, but he's shown resilience and continues to improve. Ryan's been at his best when the Falcons have been able to establish the running game with Michael Turner and keep the pressure off the quarterback. That hasn't always been possible and Ryan has taken some hits behind an offensive line that has been without injured rookie left tackle Sam Baker at times.

But Ryan has played with poise throughout and has quickly earned the respect of his teammates and coaches. He's throwing the deep ball well and already has developed good chemistry with top receiver Roddy White.

Opposing defenses have been loading up against Turner and the run, challenging Ryan to beat them. The next step in his development will be to show he's capable of making things happen in the passing game and opening the way for the running game.

Under the radar: The Carolina Panthers were so high on third-round draft pick Charles Godfrey that they put him in as the starting free safety on the first day of training camp. He has yet to leave the lineup. Godfrey gets plenty of help from veteran strong safety Chris Harris, who is the leader of the secondary. But Godfrey no longer needs a lot of help.

He's a very smart safety, who sees the field very well. He's not making many mistakes and he has the potential to develop into a big-play safety who creates turnovers.

-- Pat Yasinskas, NFC South blogger

NFC West: RB Tim Hightower, Cardinals

The Cardinals went into the draft hoping to select a running back as early as the first round. Opportunity failed to meet perceived value until the fifth, when Arizona landed Tim Hightower with the 149th overall choice.

Tim Hightower
Chris Morrison/US PresswireTim Hightower, who has three rushing TDs, has become the Cardinals' first choice in short-yardage situations.
The move has paid off sooner than anticipated despite a 2.5-yard rushing average.

Hightower has become the Cardinals' first choice in short-yardage situations. He has three rushing touchdowns, eight receptions for 84 yards and 29 percent of carries by Arizona running backs.

The Cardinals are trusting Hightower in critical situations. They leave him in the backfield as a pass protector from four-receiver personnel groupings. Hightower missed a block in Week 4, but he also made at least two others to give Kurt Warner additional time to throw. Arizona handed off to Hightower twice on fourth-down running plays at San Francisco. Hightower converted both times, once for a touchdown.

Edgerrin James remains the starter and primary back. The Cardinals think Hightower, at 6 feet tall and 224 pounds, offers more of a home run threat. We haven't seen that yet -- Hightower's longest run this season covered 13 yards -- but the rookie looks like a potential starter in the future. He'll continue to get carries as long as he protects the football.

Under the radar: Seattle Seahawks defensive end Lawrence Jackson has two sacks in three games after winning the starting job over incumbent Darryl Tapp. Jackson flew under the radar in part because the Seahawks didn't draft him until the 28th pick of the first round. Chris Long, chosen second overall by the Rams, drew a lot more attention. Long has been steady, but Jackson has probably exceeded expectations. He's big enough to hold up against the run, an attribute Seattle's undersized defense needed.

-- Mike Sando, NFC West blogger

AFC East: LB Jerod Mayo, Patriots

Even after training camp, there were doubts about how quickly inside linebacker Jerod Mayo would contribute for the New England Patriots.

[+] EnlargeJerod Mayo
Paul Jasienski/Getty ImagesJerod Mayo was the only Patriot to be on the field for every defensive snap through the first two games.
Rookies need to earn coach Bill Belichick's trust before he'll use them. Mayo needed to integrate into an elite, veteran defense -- and replace a future Hall of Famer, no less.

Mayo, drafted 10th overall out of Tennessee, hasn't been a sometimes player or a work in progress. From 2008's opening kickoff, Mayo has been an every-down player for the Patriots.

"This team won 18 games last year," Mayo said. "There is not really too much you can do to improve on that, but at the same time, I'm just trying to learn as much as I can and get on the field any way I can."

Mayo was the only Patriot on the field for every defensive snap through the first two games. His 21 unassisted tackles lead the Patriots and are tied for 24th in the NFL despite a bye week.

"He's been very consistent," Belichick said. "He's learning something every time he walks out onto the field both in practice and in the games. I think he's shown ... his speed, his range, toughness and his playmaking ability.

"There are things that Jerod hasn't seen before. Things that are a little bit different than the situation in practice. [Things] that we went through in practice, he learns from those, improves on them the next time and they're usually not problems. He works awfully hard at it."

Under the radar: When the No. 1 overall draft pick is in the same locker room, it's easy to get overlooked. Jake Long, the 6-7 left tackle from Michigan, is the highest-paid lineman in NFL history and gets the attention. But Miami Dolphins defensive end Phillip Merling, the 31st draft pick from Clemson, has two sacks. He has fared well against such Pro Bowl linemen as Alan Faneca and Logan Mankins.

"In practice you can block him," Dolphins guard Justin Smiley told the Palm Beach Post. "In the games, it seems he's unblockable, seeing him whip up on some good guards, guards I think are some of the best in the NFL. He's constantly getting pressure and making plays. It's special to watch. He's a gamer."

--Tim Graham, AFC East blogger

AFC North: QB Joe Flacco, Ravens

Joe Flacco is not winning over his teammates and coaches in the Baltimore Ravens with gaudy stats. But his presence and unflappable demeanor have been major reasons why the upstart Ravens (2-1) are serious contenders in the AFC North.

The first-round pick from Delaware was the second quarterback taken in April's NFL draft, No. 18 overall. But Flacco was viewed as a distant second behind Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons, mostly because of his collegiate pedigree.

But the strong-armed Flacco has proven he can make the jump from a small school to the NFL by getting better with each game. His gutsy 192-yard, one-touchdown performance on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers in an overtime loss this week has been Flacco's signature performance thus far.

Flacco is 2-1 as a starter and has thrown for 450 yards, one touchdown (he has run for another) and two interceptions. He is in a good spot in Baltimore because the team is solid on defense and special teams. All the rookie has to do is manage the offense and put a few points on the board to win.

The Ravens, who have suffered through quarterbacks such as Vinny Testaverde, Elvis Grbac and Kyle Boller, have been searching for a long-term solution since their inception in 1996. Through a quarter of the 2008 season, Flacco has shown the potential to be that player.

Under the radar: Rarely does a seventh-round pick become the most productive rookie in a team's draft class, but that has been the case so far for Cleveland Browns outside linebacker Alex Hall. The small-school product from St. Augustine impressed coaches early in mini-camp and has earned significant playing time this season. Hall is tied with Shaun Rogers for the team lead in sacks with two and reminds the Browns' coaching staff of a raw version of teammate Kamerion Wimbley.

-- James Walker, AFC North blogger

AFC South: RB Chris Johnson, Titans

Many draft gurus and fans scoffed when the Tennessee Titans bypassed a receiver and selected Chris Johnson at No. 24 in the draft. They understand now. He's the NFL's seventh leading rusher with 337 yards and averaging five yards a carry.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Jim Brown/US PresswireChris Johnson has rushed for 337 yards and is averaging five yards a carry.
While the Titans are still finding carries for LenDale White and giving him the ball near the goal line, Johnson is the player scaring defenses. Twice against a Minnesota defense that has been solid, Johnson beat the Vikings to the corner, picked up solid blocks and eased into the end zone at the pylon.

Perhaps as impressive as anything, four games into his career he's playing some on third down. Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said it's a big deal for a rookie to be trusted in such situations as a pass protector.

On draft day, Johnson compared him to Brian Westbrook. Others have mentioned Marshall Faulk and Adrian Peterson. Kerry Collins recently said Johnson is as skilled a back as he has played with, noting that Tiki Barber is on the list.

The versatile Johnson has caught 10 passes so far, but the team has not been utilizing him as much in the passing game as expected. In time, they'll put him in motion or split him out wide to create matchup problems and to help get him some space.

Under the radar: Jacksonville Jaguars return man Brian Witherspoon ranks third in the NFL with a 15.8-yard punt return average and fourth in the league with a 29.7-yard kickoff return average. He's an electric player with surprising speed who will pose a problem for coverage teams all year. And he'll leave a lot of scouting staffs wondering how they didn't select the undrafted rookie cornerback out of Division II Stillman in April.

-- Paul Kuharsky, AFC South blogger

AFC West: WR Eddie Royal, Broncos

How did Eddie Royal get to this point? How did the second-round pick from Virginia Tech emerge as the top impact rookie of the AFC West in the first quarter this season?

After all, there are four rookies in this division who were drafted in the first 15 picks, two of whom were taken in the first five picks. But Royal, who was taken by the Denver Broncos with the No. 42 pick, has outshone them all, including Oakland's Darren McFadden and Kansas City's Glenn Dorsey.

While the other AFC West top rookies look as if they will fulfill their potential, Royal already looks like a star. He has 27 catches for 298 yards in four games. In his NFL debut, Royal had nine catches for 146 yards as he routinely embarrassed Oakland's Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall. The next week, Royal caught a touchdown and the two-point conversion with 24 seconds remaining as Denver beat San Diego.

Royal was drafted to be a return man, initially. Yet, after a fantastic offseason and training camp in Denver, he became an instant starter. Royal hasn't disappointed. He has been lauded for his work ethic and his grounded personality.

Under the radar: Wide receiver Chaz Schilens, a seventh-round pick from San Diego State, is emerging into a rotation receiver for the Oakland Raiders. He is a highly skilled player who has great size (6-4, 225 pounds) and terrific speed. He has two catches for 29 yards so far, but expect him to become a bigger part of the offense as the season progresses. The Raiders are thirsting for a play-making receiver and it is clear they believe Schilens has the ability to become an impact player.

-- Bill Williamson, AFC West blogger

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