Best NFL Rookie Seasons Of All-Time
Every NFL franchise is dependent on first-year players. Some inevitably disappoint. Others are key contributors on a contender, which has often been the case among the best NFL rookie seasons of all-time.
College players are used to big crowds and expectations. Moving into the NFL is a real leap even for the greatest NFL prospects ever, though, such is the increase in physicality and the weight of a franchise on their shoulders.
Greatest Rookie Campaigns in NFL History
NFL players have limited time to get acclimated. There’s training camp and a handful of preseason games, but then they’re straight under the brightest of lights. There’s no minor league system and no G-League.
Drafting is a skill. Some front offices are innately better at it than others. There is still an element of fortune in landing a young player who produces one of the best NFL rookie seasons – no one knows how they will perform in the pros until they get there.
Here are 10 of the best rookie campaigns in the history of the NFL.
Featuring in the best safeties of all-time, Paul Krause was an obvious choice for this list, too. Krause took to the NFL with almost alarming comfort, settling straight in as one of the premier pass defenders in the league.
Paul Krause was an All-Pro as a rookie with #WashingtonFootball pic.twitter.com/vF6cWCrJzr
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) July 26, 2021
It’s a rare feat to make All-Pro as a rookie. Krause did that. He also registered 12 interceptions in the season, which was good enough to lead the league. In fact, only one other player made it to double figures in that category.
Some start their career on fire and tail off. Krause was not one of those. From being drafted in the second round out of Iowa, he continued his ascension and was selected to the Pro Bowl seven more times en route to the Hall of Fame.
Going in the first round, expectations were high for Marshawn Lynch in Buffalo. Beast Mode’s career is best remembered for his exploits on the other side of the country, but it was in a Bills uniform where we first got a taste of his destructive ability in the NFL.
Lynch posted over 1,100 yards on the ground and finished seventh in rushing yards per contest. He made just 13 starts on the season, but was effective throughout, carrying a major offensive burden during that time.
He didn’t reach the same heights until he was traded to Seattle – this great rookie season was the best the Bills got from Beast Mode.
Only Lawrence Taylor could stop Ronnie Lott winning Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1981. Lott was a central figure in the Niners’ dynasty throughout the 1980s, and his impact was instant. The Niners won the Super Bowl in 1982, capping off one of the best rookie seasons of all-time from the former USC cornerback.
Love the facemask that Ronnie Lott wore during his rookie year. 👌 pic.twitter.com/na2YPsBcBY
— FB_Helmet_Guy (@FB_Helmet_Guy) May 9, 2019
With seven interceptions – three of which were returned for a score – and 89 tackles, Lott did everything asked of him and more as a rookie.
A Hall of Famer and icon in San Francisco, Lott went from rookie sensation to become one of the best defensive players of all-time.
Read more: Best safeties in NFL history
Taken second overall in 2010, Ndamukong Suh had a glittering college career behind him. The reputation built up in the college game was delivered on once he reached the NFL with the Detroit Lions.
Suh was a menace from day one. He forced three fumbles on 17 quarterback hits and even had an interception to his name. The highlight, though, was the 10 sacks. That was the basis of what made him an All-Pro selection.
90 days @Lions Football Week 1
Ndamukong Suh (Det. 2010-2014):
*Defensive Rookie of the Year 2010 *4x Pro Bowl w/Lions
*3x All Pro 1st Team
Love him or hate him; he was a beast. Now he's a champ. pic.twitter.com/59kKYrsvNU
— Mike Archambeau #OnePride DetroitLionsVsEverybody (@archambeaum3) June 14, 2021
Winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, Suh has built on that stellar start to his NFL career. The former Nebraska DT remains elite at his position well into his thirties.
An NFL leader in rushing yards as a rookie, Eric Dickerson flew out of the blocks when he reached the pros. When he went second overall to the Rams, many thought he could be the hub of their offense, but few could have predicted just how impactful he would be.
3 Rams have rushed for 1,000 yards in their rookie season- Jerome Bettis, Eric Dickerson and Todd Gurley pic.twitter.com/AzCf2xbo1P
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 18, 2015
The Rams went 9-7, clinching a wildcard berth. They lost in the Divisional Round to Washington, but nothing could overshadow what Dickerson had achieved.
He had almost 250 more yards on the ground than anyone else. Only one other player recorded more rushing scores. It was an all-time NFL rookie season.
Carrying the football 302 times for 1450 yards and 13 touchdowns, Earl Campbell was taken first overall in 1978 and did not disappoint. Having arrived on the scene in the late 1970s, it was a different era for football, with running backs often seen as the true star and the passing game much less significant than it is in the 2020s.
OTD in 1978, the #Oilers usher in a new era as rookie RB Earl Campbell debuts with a bang, scoring on a 73-yard TD off a screen pass in only the third touch of his career. The Falcons would prevail in this one, thanks to their D and future Houston QB coach June Jones #LuvYaBlue pic.twitter.com/TllaFQ3qTg
— 𝕃𝕦𝕧 𝕐𝕒 𝔹𝕝𝕦𝕖 (@BudsOilers) September 3, 2020
Campbell was the center of everything for the Houston Oilers as a result. He put up three straight All-Pro seasons to start his career, leading the league in rushing yards in all three campaigns.
More impressive than the individual accolades, though, was the team success which came with Campbell’s hefty workload. The Oilers got all the way to the Championship Game in 1978 with Campbell notching a touchdown in both of their postseason wins.
There are great NFL rookie seasons. Then there’s what Gale Sayers did for the 1965 Chicago Bears.
BOTD Gale Sayers
A rookie Gale Sayers takes a punt back 85 yards equalling the #NFL record for touchdowns in a game with his 6th.
Sayers also set the single season TD record with this score (21).#DaBears pic.twitter.com/reRSnCASn6
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) May 30, 2022
He scored 22 touchdowns split between rushing, receiving, and kick and punt returns. Excelling in numerous disciplines was a remarkable feat in itself, and it was made all the more impressive by the fact he set an all-time record all-purpose yards in a season.
Sayers registered 113 rushing yards, 89 receiving yards and 134 punt return yards against the Niners. It was not just a magical moment in one of the spectacular NFL rookie seasons; many believe it to be the best individual game in NFL history.
He was a truly special athlete, and one of the best running backs ever seen.
Saying that Jevon Kearse won Defensive Rookie of the Year perhaps understates what he meant to the Tennessee Titans after he was selected 16th overall.
The numbers are outrageous. Kearse was crashing into opponents with ground-shaking force on a regular basis, putting up 49 solo tackles and 15 tackles for a loss. Silliest of all, though, was the league-leading eight forced fumbles.
It’s no surprise this greatest of NFL rookie seasons was rewarded with a first-team All-Pro berth. Kearse even added three playoff sacks as the Titans reached their first Super Bowl.
Randy Moss was the cornerstone of the Vikings offense which set a single-season record for total points. He led the league with 17 receiving touchdowns in what has become the benchmark for a great rookie wide receiver season.
Justin Jefferson just broke Randy Moss' franchise record for receiving yards by a rookie 🔥 @JJettas2 @RandyMoss @Vikings pic.twitter.com/bLm5sxjNR9
— ESPN (@espn) January 3, 2021
Moss and the Vikings were just a field goal away from the Super Bowl on the back of his majestic 1998 showing. His chemistry with Randall Cunningham had opposing defenses quaking in their cleats – Moss’ performances helped Cunningham make All-Pro for the first and only time.
No other player has won Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
Lawrence Taylor is the only rookie to ever win Defensive Player of the Year…
Could Micah Parsons be No. 2? (+3500) pic.twitter.com/ABB0I00WBH
— PFF Bet (@PFF_Bet) December 8, 2021
Lawrence Taylor is now recognized as one of the best linebackers of all-time. When he arrived as a rookie, opponents were already fearful of him, and within weeks he had only given them more reason to be scared.
He collected 9.5 sacks as a rookie. It was the first of eight All-Pro selections, too.