Rookie Meter: Newton highlights stellar rookie class

Posted Jan. 04, 2012 @ 4:04 a.m.
Posted By Kevin Fishbain

This year's rookie class had no minicamp. Players couldn't meet with coaches and coordinators to learn the playbook. The best thing they could do last summer to prepare for their rookie season was participate in workouts with their teammates.

The lockout did everything it could to put the rookies at a disadvantage, and they responded by being one of the better rookie classes in recent memory.

It starts at the top with the No. 1 overall pick, Panthers QB Cam Newton, who finishes atop the Rookie Meter. Newton rewrote the record books this season and brought a dynamic to the quarterback position with his athleticism and arm strength. Newton threw for more than 4,000 yards, rushed for over 700 yards and accounted for 35 touchdowns.

Newton's QB play was superb, but he wasn't the only rookie signalcaller who got experience early and often. This year's rookie class of quarterbacks of Newton, Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert, Christian Ponder and T.J. Yates totaled 61 starts, a record since the merger. Dalton, who may be the runner-up to Newton for Offensive Rookie of the Year, threw for more than 3,000 yards, making it the first time in NFL history two rookie quarterbacks threw for over 3,000 yards.

Dalton and Yates will become the first rookie QBs to face off in a playoff game in the Super Bowl era.

For the second year in a row, the top two picks in April's draft finished 1-2 in the Rookie Meter. Von Miller struggled down the stretch, but, along with 49ers OLB Aldon Smith, we saw two of the best pass-rushing rookies in years. The pair combined for 25½ sacks. Smith recorded the most sacks by a rookie (14) since Jevon Kearse in 1999.

In the return game, Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson had four punt-return touchdowns. Bengals WR A.J. Green was the first rookie to total more than 1,000 yards receiving since 2006. An ankle injury ended his season, but Cowboys rookie RB DeMarco Murray was sensational, with a 5.5-yard rushing average.

It's hard to find a bust or disappointment among the top picks from April's draft. Many rookies overachieved, especially considering the hardship they had to play through because of the lockout.

For most rookies, now comes the biggest step — their first full offseason, where we see many NFL players make a big jump, and some, like last year's Rookie Meter stud Sam Bradford, suffer a sophomore slump.

On to the final Rookie Meter of the 2011 season:

1. Panthers QB Cam Newton (first round, first overall)
Last week's ranking: 1

Newton had to fight to get the top spot back from Miller at the end of the season, but there's no question who the best rookie was in the NFL. Newton made some rookie mistakes during the season, but he consistently made big plays and brought some excitement to Carolina. His 60.0 percent throwing accuracy was maybe one of his more impressive stats. In the regular-season finale against the Saints, Newton threw for 158 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 32 yards.

2. Broncos OLB Von Miller (1, 2)
Last week's ranking: 2

Miller should hang on to defensive rookie honors, but he did not do himself any favors down the stretch, totaling two tackles and zero sacks in the final three games. He did have a QB hit in the Broncos' season finale and finished with 24 quarterback hits on the season. His all-around defensive effort set him apart from Smith.

3. 49ers OLB Aldon Smith (1, 7)
Last week's ranking: 4

Smith could not overtake Jevon Kearse for the all-time rookie record for sacks in a season. He did have two tackles, one for a loss, in the Niners' season finale. He finished his rookie campaign with 27 QB hits, and his 14 sacks are good for a tie for fifth in the league.

4. Bengals QB Andy Dalton (2, 35)
Last week's ranking: 3

Dalton earns a lot of credit for getting the Bengals into the playoffs, as Cincy was one of the league's bigger surprises. He did not throw a pick vs. Baltimore in the season finale, but he also didn't throw a TD and completed only 50 percent of his passes. Dalton's 3,398 passing yards are good for the fifth-most by a rookie all-time.

5. Bengals WR A.J. Green (1, 4)
Last week's ranking: 5

With Dalton's struggles, Green couldn't have a big game in Week 17, finishing with two catches for 26 yards on nine targets. He finishes with the rookie lead in catches (65) and receiving yards (1,057).

6. Falcons WR Julio Jones (1, 6)
Last week's ranking: 7

Jones would have given Green quite the battle for top rookie receiver if he had been healthy all season. He finished his late-season surge in style with four catches for 76 yards and two scores. Jones finished second to Green with 959 receiving yards but had the most receiving touchdowns among rookies with eight and the most receiving yards per game — 73.8.

7. Cardinals CB Patrick Peterson (1, 5)
Last week's ranking: 9

Peterson continued his special-teams tear in the final game, blocking a field goal and totaling 63 punt-return yards on four returns. Peterson finished his season with 13 passes defensed and two interceptions, and his pass defense improved throughout the campaign.

8. Texans DE J.J. Watt (1, 11)
Last week's ranking: 6

Watt was a mainstay on the meter and a big part of the Texans' defensive turnaround. He only had one tackle in Week 17 but finished fifth on the team with 56 tackles and first with 13 tackles for loss.

9. Redskins OLB Ryan Kerrigan (1, 16)
Last week's ranking: 8

Kerrigan had two tackles in the Redskins' season finale. His year ended with nine tackles for loss and four forced fumbles to go along with 64 tackles, good for fourth on the team.

10. Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray (3, 71)
Last week's ranking: NR

Murray didn't play in the last three games of the season, but he deserves to end his season on the Rookie Meter as the leading rusher among all rookies. His 897 rushing yards were over 200 more than that of any other rookie running back. The only thing Murray didn't excel at was finding the endzone — he only had two touchdowns on the season.

On the cusp (listed alphabetically)

Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin (undrafted)
Buccaneers DE Adrian Clayborn (1, 20)
Bills DT Marcell Dareus (1, 3)
Titans DT Karl Klug (5, 142)
Browns WR Greg Little (2, 59)
Texans OLB Brooks Reed (2, 42)
Browns DE Jabaal Sheard (2, 37)
Ravens WR Torrey Smith (2, 58)
Cowboys ORT Tyron Smith (1, 9)
Jets DE Muhammad Wilkerson (1, 30)

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