The 16 Best Rookie Seasons in NFL History

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There have been some amazing draft picks to hit the professional football gridiron, but who had the best rookie seasons in NFL history? Let's talk about it!

Even as Tom Brady maintained a stranglehold on the NFL into his mid-40s before finally retiring (for now), football is a young man's game—the sport's unique physical toll demands it. Still, being a rookie in the NFL is hard. Of the 256 rookies who are drafted each year, only two dozen-ish actually contribute—and of the two dozen-ish who actually contribute, only a handful of them do so at a truly elite level.

As such, these are the 16 best rookie seasons in NFL history.

1. Jim Brown, 1957

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  • 942 rushing yards
  • 9 touchdowns

Arguably the greatest football player (if not athlete) of all time, Jim Brown is the only player to ever win MVP as a rookie. In his ninth game for the Cleveland Browns, Brown ran for 237 yards, a league-wide record that stood for 14 years and a rookie-record that was unbroken for 40. Although Brown’s stats seem modest by today’s standards, NFL seasons were only 12 games long at the time; his 942 yards and 9 touchdowns both led the league. Building on his legendary rookie season, Brown won two more MVPs and led the league in rushing yards another seven times. 

2. Lawrence Taylor, 1981

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  • 9.5 sacks

Like Jim Brown, Lawrence Taylor began building out his trophy case during his rookie season. In 1981, Taylor became the first and only rookie to be named Defensive Player of the Year. It’s hard to get a full picture of Taylor’s rookie season because the NFL didn’t record tackles as a stat until 1993, but his 9.5 sacks were a tasty amuse bouche to the backfield-demolishing menace that Taylor would be for the New York Giants throughout his career.  

3. Gale Sayers, 1964

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  • 2272 all-purpose yards
  • 22 total touchdowns

With 867 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns, 507 receiving yards, six receiving touchdowns, 898 return yards and two return touchdowns, Sayers was an all-around monster from the second he entered in the NFL. Before his career was cut short by injuries, Sayers was one of the most exciting and dynamic players in NFL history.  For the first five years of his career with the Chicago Bears, Sayers racked up five top-five MVP finishes and was named first-team All Pro all five years as well. 

4. Robert Griffin III, 2012

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  • 3200 passing yards
  • 20 passing touchdowns
  • 815 rushing yards
  • 7 rushing touchdowns

After winning the Heisman Trophy the previous year and becoming the second pick in the NFL Draft, RG3 got off to a scintillating start to his professional career. During his inaugural campaign in Washington, the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year carried a moribund Redskins (now Commanders) team to the playoffs, going 9-6 in his 15 healthy games. Sadly, Griffin tore his ACL against the Seattle Seahawks in the Wildcard Round of the playoffs, an injury which would derail the rest of his career. 

5. Ja’Marr Chase, 2021

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  • 81 receptions
  • 1455 yards
  • 13 touchdowns

As the fifth pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Ja’Marr Chase had huge expectations to elevate the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense. He surpassed even the most optimistic projections. Ultimately, Chase’s 1,455 yards set a new rookie record and he was named Offensive Rookie of the Year as well as second team All-Pro. Capping off his successful rookie year, Chase helped lead the Bengals on a surprising run to the Super Bowl, contributing 368 yards across four playoff games. 

6. Micah Parsons, 2021

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  • 84 tackles
  • 13 sacks

The reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, Parsons pieced together arguably the greatest season that a rookie linebacker has had since Lawrence Taylor in 1981. After spending most of his college career at Penn State as an off-ball linebacker, Parsons became one of the NFL’s most fearsome pass-rushers on the fly. Even more impressive than his 13 sacks, Parsons hit the quarterback 30 times, tied for fourth-most in the NFL. As a result, Parsons was runner up for Defensive Player of the Year. 

7. Ryan Clady, 2008

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  • 0.5 sacks allowed

The ultimate testament to Clady’s greatness as a rookie is that just about nothing happened. Proving himself as a world-beating left tackle from the second he entered the league, Clady allowed just 0.5 sacks in his rookie season. Despite being the only lineman in the entire NFL to allow less than one sack that season, Clady was snubbed in both All-Pro and Offensive Rookie of the Year voting, settling for a second team All-Pro appearance and a third place finish for Rookie of the Year. Although Clady dealt with injuries throughout his career, he's one of the greatest tackles in Denver Broncos history and won a Super Bowl with them in 2015.

8. Jevon Kearse, 1999

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  • 14.5 sacks
  • 58 tackles

Nicknamed “The Freak” because of his athleticism, Kearse put together a freakishly good rookie season in 1999. The first ever draft pick of the Tennessee Titans, Kearse amassed 14.5 sacks, (which still stands as the rookie record). He played a major part in fueling Tennessee’s Super Bowl appearance. For his troubles, Kearse became the first rookie to start in the Pro Bowl and was named first-team All-Pro at defensive end. 

9. Randy Moss, 1998

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  • 69 receptions
  • 1313 yards
  • 17 touchdowns 

From just about the first second he entered the NFL, Randy Moss was unstoppable. A freakish combination of size and speed, Moss initially made his mark as a devastating deep threat, averaging 19 yards per reception. In total, Moss set a rookie record with 17 touchdowns, which has yet to be broken or even approached. 

10. Devin Hester, 2006

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  • 1128 return yards
  • 5 return touchdowns

Despite not being terribly productive as a wide receiver, Devin Hester quickly became a phenomenon because of his kick returning skills. His two kickoff return touchdowns and three punt return scores were both tops in the NFL, establishing himself as the greatest return-man of all time. Most memorably, Hester took the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI to the house, giving Chicago an early 7-0 lead, albeit one they’d ultimately squander.  

11. Justin Herbert, 2020

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  • 4336 passing yards
  • 31 passing touchdowns
  • 10 interceptions

Initially disparaged as a raw quarterback who would need years of mentorship and development before he could succeed in the pros, Herbert put together the most statistically impressive rookie passing season in NFL history. Over the course of the 2020 season, Herbert set rookie records for passing yards (4,336) and touchdowns (31), surpassing the combined totals of his higher drafted contemporaries Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. Only two years into his career, Herbert is already on a potential Hall of Fame trajectory.

12. Eric Dickerson, 1983

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  • 1808 rushing yards
  • 18 rushing touchdowns
  • 2212 scrimmage yards
  • 20 total touchdowns

While Dickerson set the all-time single season rushing record in his sophomore year, his rookie year was historic in its own right. At the time, Dickerson’s 2212 yards from scrimmage ranked as the second-most ever, trailing only O.J. Simpson’s 1975 tally. Ultimately, Dickerson wase worn down by the gargantuan workload he assumed (he averaged more than 350 carries per season during his prime), but his record-shattering early success was enough to warrant a Hall of Fame berth and a spot on the 1980s all-decade team.

13. Ezekiel Elliot, 2016

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  • 1631 rushing yards
  • 16 rushing touchdowns

To a degree, Ezekiel Elliot was a modern version of Eric Dickerson, pairing all-time production with all-time volume. Although Elliot has been an elite running back since he entered the league, his 2016 rookie year still stands as his best effort. Having led the league in rushing yards, Elliot was named a first-team All Pro and finished third in MVP voting.

14. Cam Newton, 2011

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  • 4051 passing yards
  • 21 passing touchdowns
  • 706 rushing yards
  • 14 rushing touchdowns

Despite being the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the first pick in the 2011 Draft, Newton still had a better rookie season than anybody could have anticipated. From the outset, the Carolina Panthers star was an electrifying dual-threat quarterback. In this sense, he overpowered defenses with both his arm and his 6’5, 245-pound frame. At the time, his 4.051 passing yards were a rookie record. (since broken by Andrew Luck in 2012 and Justin Herbert in 2020) To this day, his 14 rushing touchdowns are still the most ever by a quarterback in a single season. 

15. Dick Lane, 1952

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  • 14 interceptions

Dick “Night Train” Lane’s 1952 rookie season is arguably one of the most impressive defensive performances of all time. At a time where teams threw 20% less frequently than they do today, Lane nabbed 14 interceptions, which still stands as both a rookie and all-time single season record. In this sense, Lane was the NFL’s first true superstar cornerback for the then-Los Angeles Rams. By the end of his career in 1965, Lane was widely regarded as the greatest cornerback of all time, earning him induction into the Hall of Fame and a spot on the 1950s all-decade team. 

16. Mike Ditka, 1961

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  • 56 passes caught
  • 1076 receiving yards
  • 12 touchdowns

One of the first great tight ends in NFL history, Mike Ditka hit the ground running in his rookie year. He caught nearly 60 passes for over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. The 19-yards-per-catch was the highest YPC average of his career. Ditka went on to coach the Chicago Bears to their franchise's only title in 1985, making him one of the best player/coaches football has ever seen.

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