NFL Analysis


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Ranking the Top 10 NFL Rookie Seasons of All Time

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons (11) celebrates his sack against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium in Glendale on Set. 24, 2023.

The NFL is littered with rookies who had spectacular starts to their careers. Narrowing the list to 10 is nearly impossible, but we somehow accomplished it.  

In this piece, we decided only to rank the top rookie seasons post-merger, meaning Gale Sayers, Mike Ditka, and Sammy Baugh didn't make this list. 

Those players deserve recognition for their outstanding play, but we are keeping this list from the last 50+ years to make it easier to rank the best rookie seasons ever. 

So, without further ado, here is the list of the top rookie seasons since 1970:

10. Devin Hester, KR/PR, Chicago Bears (2006)

Devin Hester was officially voted into the Hall of Fame this year, and it was well-earned. He is the most productive returner in NFL history. It didn't take long for him to make his mark, as he was dynamic from the get-go. 

Hester set an NFL record during his rookie season with the most return touchdowns (five) in a single season. He broke that record in 2007 with six (four punt returns touchdowns and two kick returns touchdowns), and it seems unlikely it'll ever be broken.

During Hester’s rookie season, he led all punt returners in yards (600) and touchdowns (three), averaging 12.8 yards per attempt. That number could have been even higher if Hester had called for more fair catches, but he was always willing to sacrifice his body to give the Chicago Bears better field position. 

Hester also led the NFL in kick return touchdowns (two) that season while averaging a whopping 26.4 yards per return. Hester returned 67 kicks for 1,128 yards and five touchdowns in his first season. 

He spent some time on defense that season playing cornerback. However, he is on this list because of his effectiveness as a returner. 

9. Micah Parsons, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys (2021)

When you think of the greatest rookie seasons of all time, Micah Parsons probably doesn't jump to mind. But he should for several reasons. 

It's important to remember just how unique the 2021 season was for Parsons. The former Penn State star sat out the entire 2020 college season due to COVID-19, a popular decision from many players in the 2021 NFL Draft (Ja’Marr Chase, Penei Sewell, Rashawn Slater, etc). 

The Dallas Cowboys still picked him 12th overall, and he started his career as an off-the-ball linebacker. However, after several injuries on the defensive line, Parsons moved to edge rusher in Week 2, and the rest is history. 

He finished the year with 13 sacks and was the consensus Defensive Rookie of the Year. 

Parsons was a unanimous first-team All-Pro selection and finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Parsons was immediately one of the league’s best defensive players out of the gate despite playing a new position. 

For that reason alone, he deserves to make the list.

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson laughs after a flag was thrown on him against the Seattle Seahawks in the second half at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. USA-Today Sports.

8. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals (2011)

Quarterback and cornerback might be the two most challenging positions to play immediately. But that certainly didn't stop Patrick Peterson, who dominated immediately for the Arizona Cardinals. Peterson was the No. 5 pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and lived up to the hype. 

In his first year, Peterson started all 16 games and recorded two interceptions, 13 pass deflections, and a sack. Even as a rookie, teams did not throw at Peterson much because of how good he was.

However, Peterson makes this list not solely because of what he did on defense. But it's what he did on special teams. 

On top of being a shutdown cornerback, Peterson led the league in punt return yards (699) and return touchdowns (four) in 2011. He averaged a whopping 15.9 yards per punt return and was among the most dangerous return men we have ever seen in the NFL. 

On top of making the Pro Bowl, Peterson was a first-team All-Pro selection in 2011. He posted the highest approximate value (AV) ever recorded by Pro Football Reference (22) during a rookie season. 

Peterson has played 13 seasons in the NFL and was voted to the 2010 All-Decade Team by the NFL Hall of Fame.

7. Dan Marino, QB, Miami Dolphins (1983)

A list of the top rookie seasons would feel incomplete without including Dan Marino, who many believe had the best rookie season ever for a quarterback. That rookie season was the standard for a young quarterback for decades despite being a little overrated. 

Let’s first talk about the good. Marino was instantly one of the league’s best quarterbacks. Despite starting just nine games, Marino threw 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions. 

Those numbers are impressive now but were even more so back in 1983. The Miami Dolphins had a 7-2 record with Marino under center, and he led the league in adjusted net yards per attempt (7.39).

Marino was poised, accurate, and willing to stand tall in the pocket and deliver the ball down the field. A year later, he set an NFL record with 48 passing touchdowns and 5,084 yards. It was some 20 years later before those records were broken. 

Marino is lower on this list because the sample size is relatively small, and he played on an excellent team. During the 1982 season, the Dolphins went to the Super Bowl, and they had a 5-2 record in 1983 with Marino on the bench. 

His 1983 team was significantly better than most rookie quarterbacks have to play with, but we shouldn't knock him too much for it, considering how great he was right away for the Dolphins. 

His rookie season is still one of the best of all time, even if it is slightly overrated.

6. C.J. Stroud, QB, Houston Texans (2023)

It's important to remember just how bad the Houston Texans were before C.J. Stroud's selection. From 2020 to 2022, they had a combined record of 11-38-1. 

The Texans were outscored by 383 points during that stretch. The Texans were a dumpster fire that had cycled through three different coaches during that span. 

Everything changed when the Texans drafted Stroud. They instantly became relevant in the AFC, winning their division for the first time since 2019. They won 10 games and advanced to the Divisional Round of the playoffs after defeating the Browns in Round 1. 

Those team accomplishments alone should get Stroud on this list, but his numbers were fantastic in 2023. Stroud finished the year with a 100.8 passer rating and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt. He led the NFL in interception percentage at 1.0 percent, throwing just five interceptions on 499 attempts.

Stroud gets the nod over Marino because he started 15 games compared to nine and where the two teams were before their arrivals. The Dolphins were in the Super Bowl the year before selecting Marino, while the Texans had the league’s second-worst record in the league. 

Going into the 1983 season, the Dolphins were +1200 to win the Super Bowl while the Texans were +20000 with an over/under win total set at 6.5. Both quarterbacks had fantastic rookie seasons, but they certainly weren’t in the same situation. 

It’s also worth mentioning that Stroud was playing with a first-year head coach, while Marino played with the winningest head coach in NFL history (Don Shula). 

Both players had fantastic rookie seasons, but Stroud deserves the nod over Marino. 

5. Edgerrin James, RB, Indianapolis Colts (1998)

Several rookies have posted big numbers at running back during the last two decades, including Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, and Leonard Fournette. But none have matched Edgerrin James’ 1999 season with the Colts.  

In 1998, the Colts were 3-13, and Peyton Manning had a rough first year. The Indianapolis Colts had a Pro Bowl running back at the time, Marshall Faulk, who, at the age of 25, totaled more than 2,200 yards from scrimmage. 

After that season, the Colts traded Faulk, picking up a second-round pick and some change. They then used the No. 4 pick on James, making their backfield younger and more dynamic.

James saw a monster workload as a rookie, leading the NFL in carries (369) and total touches (431). He had at least 20 rushing attempts in 13 of his 16 games that season. And James was productive with that workload. 

He ran for a league-high 1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns while racking up 586 yards in the receiving game. James led the NFL in total touchdowns (17) and was named a first-team All-Pro selection on top of winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. 

The Colts significantly improved in 1999, winning 13 games and earning the AFC’s No. 2 seed. Manning's development was the biggest reason for the 10-game difference in wins, but James' play certainly had a huge impact. 

San Francisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott (42) on the field after defeating the Denver Broncos during Super Bowl XXIV at the Superdome. The 49ers defeated the Broncos 55-10. USA TODAY Sports.

4. Ronnie Lott, CB, San Francisco 49ers (1981)

We will never see a rookie cornerback dominate right away like Ronnie Lott. In his first season, Lott recorded seven interceptions and led the league in defensive touchdowns (three). He was one of the league’s most dangerous outside cornerbacks and had fantastic size and incredible ball skills.

Lott was special because he was more than just a takeaway artist. He was a physical tackler who racked up 89 tackles on the outside. Of course, he later moved to safety and made five All-Pro teams as a safety from 1986 to 1991. 

Lott was a first-team All-Pro selection as a rookie, and he was the last cornerback to do so before Sauce Gardner accomplished that feat more than 40 years later. 

The only reason why Lott didn’t win Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1981 was because of the No. 3 player on this list. Lott is the best defensive back in NFL history, and it all started because of his dominant rookie season.

3. Lawrence Taylor, LB, New York Giants (1981)

You can argue that Lawrence Taylor's rookie season should be No. 1, and you won't get any pushback from me. 

Many NFL historians believe he might be the league's best overall player. Taylor is the only player in NFL history to win Defensive Rookie of the Year and the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. 

What is so surprising is Taylor wasn’t even the consensus Defensive Rookie of the Year, as Ronnie Lott, mentioned above, received more than 27 percent of the vote. Taylor recorded 9.5 sacks and one interception as a rookie, but the stats don’t tell the story. 

Before Taylor arrived, the New York Giants had gone 18 seasons without making the postseason. However, in Taylor’s first year, the Giants had the No. 3 ranked scoring defense and not only made the playoffs but also defeated the Eagles in Round 1, advancing to the Divisional Round for the first time since 1963. 

Taylor changed the game and changed how teams account for star pass rushers. His intensity and ability to wreak havoc are just two of the many reasons why he is so high up on this list. 

Wide receiver Randy Moss catches a one-handed pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers as a member of the Minnesota Vikings.

2. Randy Moss, WR, Minnesota Vikings (1999)

There have been several outstanding rookie seasons by wide receivers, including Puka Nacua in 2023 and Ja'Marr Chase in 2021. Still, nothing will ever come close to what Randy Moss did during the 1998 season with the Minnesota Vikings

Moss played all 16 games that season but only started 11, playing behind Cris Carter and Jake Reed. It didn't take long for everyone to see that Moss was among the most unique and dynamic players ever to play the position. 

In his first career game, he was targeted five times, catching four passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns. 

But the game that turned him into a superstar was on Thanksgiving when he caught three passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns against the Cowboys. 

While he had several other big outings before that, his legendary game on a national stage with John Madden and Pat Summerall announcing made it one of the best single-game performances in NFL history.

Moss led the league in touchdown receptions with 17 despite just 69 receptions. No other player in NFL history has had more than 13 receiving touchdowns during their rookie season.

It’s also worth noting that Moss averaged 19 yards per reception, the second-highest ever for a rookie receiver (since the 1970 merger) with at least 50 receptions.

Moss's 1998 season remains the gold standard for rookie receivers, and it’s unlikely anyone will ever be more dominant right out of the gate than he was for the Vikings.

>> READ: The Complete Story of Randy Moss' Draft Day Slide

1. Eric Dickerson, RB, Los Angeles Rams (1983)

It's not uncommon for a rookie running back to have elite production. That's been the case in the NFL for decades. 

However, what Eric Dickerson did in 1983 will never be replicated. He led the NFL in six categories: carries, yards, touches, and yards from scrimmage. He finished the year with 2,212 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns. 

Dickerson also set the single-season carries record (390) as a rookie. That record was eventually broken a few years later, but no rookie has ever touched the ball that many times.

He averaged 113 rushing yards per game that season, which, of course, led the league. The following year, Dickerson averaged a whopping 131.6 yards per game and ran for 2,105 yards, which is still the NFL record.

Dickerson defeated Marino and Curt Warner as the AP Rookie of the Year. He finished second in the MVP voting, earning more than 21 percent of the votes. The Rams went from one of the league’s worst teams in 1982 to a playoff team in 1983 behind Dickerson. 

There is no doubt Dickerson is one of the best running backs in NFL history, and no running back will ever outproduce his rookie season. He was the most dominant player in the NFL from the get-go, and it shouldn't be surprising that he finished No. 1 on our list.