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The Top 10 NFL Impact Rookies

By: Greg Davis | Updated 1/2

The NFL regular season has once again come to a close, and while we have the playoffs to look forward to, we can also take the time to look back and reflect upon the young talent that was in the spotlight this season. we’re ranking just the best of the best—a look at the top 10 rookie performers on the season (with some honorable mentions to boot).

Honorable Mentions:

Kevin Smith, RB, Detroit Lions
Rushed for 976 yards and eight touchdowns, added almost 300 more yards receiving, and did it for arguably the worst team ever.

Jonathan Stewart, RB, Carolina Panthers
DeAngelo Williams was given more opportunities, but Stewart pounded out 836 yards on the ground and ten touchdowns.

Jeremy Zuttah, OG, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He saw time at both guard positions and played very well. Zuttah gives the team options heading into next season.

Curtis Lofton, LB, Atlanta Falcons
Earning 94 total tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble isn’t too shabby, especially for a rookie. Lofton will be seeing postseason action.

Chris Horton, S, Washington Redskins
A late seventh-rounder, Horton finished the season with 76 tackles, three interceptions, five passes defended, and a sack. Nice. Antoine Cason, CB, San Diego Chargers He ended the season with 74 total tackles, seven passes defended, and came away with two interceptions. Cason could soon be a star.

10. Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
Flacco passed for nearly 3,000 yards, threw 14 touchdowns, and helped the Ravens reach the playoffs. He didn’t always provide a ‘wow’ moment and he relied on his defense an awful lot—like most Baltimore quarterbacks of late—but he was poised in the pocket much of the time and his steadiness made things easier on the rest of his unit and the other units. While he threw twelve picks, he completed sixty percent of his passes and had a quarterback rating of 80.3. Flacco sets himself apart, however, by using his legs in tight situations. He ran the ball for 180 yards and a pair of scores, including a 38-yard scamper in his first career game to help the Ravens get a win over the division rival Cincinnati Bengals. Any time a rookie quarterback takes his team to the playoffs, it deserves a fair amount of attention.

9. Jake Long, LT, Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins had just a single win last season and when the first pick came around, they decided to go with an offensive left tackle in Jake Long. Long had talent, sure, but what really stood out were his leadership qualities at Michigan. The pick has paid off, as Long’s leadership and talent have both translated nicely to the next level. Because of the rookie’s work on the offensive line, quarterback Chad Pennington was provided time to throw and running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams had space to run. The team that won a single game a year ago is now heading into the playoffs as a division winner. Pennington had his best season since 2002 with the New York Jets, and the play of Long and the others on the offensive line deserve kudos for protecting their quarterback.

8. Eddie Royal, WR, Denver Broncos
With star receiver Brandon Marshall being suspended to open the season, Royal more than filled the hole, catching nine passes for 146 yards and a touchdown; he also contributed on special teams with two punt returns and a kick return. Royal came back to earth during the next couple of games, but still scored a touchdown and made nine catches combined during weeks two and three. In week four, with Marshall already back the week prior, the rookie still managed nine more receptions for 104 more yards. Royal's best performance on the season came in week ten against Cleveland when he made six catches for 164 yards and a score. All told, he missed a game and still had 91 receptions for 980 yards and five touchdowns. His 740 total yards on special teams returns solidifies his place on this list and his place in the NFL.

7. DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Donovan McNabb has been looking for a legitimate number one receiver since the falling out with Terrell Owens and although Kevin Curtis was able to fill the void last season, his battle with injury meant that someone would need to step up. Jackson was the player to do so. The dynamic receiver and return man led the Eagles in receptions with 62; he turned those receptions into 912 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Often, Jackson used his speed to create space and get open down field. Those same talents allowed him to be a threat on special teams as he was at Cal; he had 440 punt return yards and returned one for a 68-yard touchdown in week five against Washington. The one knock on Jackson eventually being a solid number one is his size, but his quickness will allow him to be a very useful weapon for Philadelphia as his career continues.

6. Ryan Clady, LT, Denver Broncos
The second Denver player to make the list, Clady was a steady performer on the offensive line for a team that just missed out on winning the division and a trip to the playoffs. Denver couldn’t find a running back that could stay healthy, but during the times that backs were healthy, Clady was a big part of the reason that the team moved the ball on the ground. The Broncos offense sputtered at times as the season wore on, but it is difficult to place much blame on the first-round rookie out of Boise State. Given the responsibility of playing arguably the most critical position on the line in terms of protection, Clady helped give quarterback Jay Cutler the time to pass for more than 4,500 yards and 25 touchdowns. Cutler was only sacked eleven times and Clady was responsible for just half a sack, an incredible feat for anyone, let alone a rookie.

5. Steve Slaton, RB, Houston Texans
As the '08 season got underway, Texans' head coach Gary Kubiak had a stable of running backs to work with, but none had proven enough to be assured of the number one spot on the depth chart. Slaton was given a majority of the carries early, and as the season progressed, Slaton saw the ball more and more. He proved to be a critical piece of the team's offense and the talent he displayed in college translated into success at this level. He rushed for triple-digit yardage five times and his 156 yards on 14 carries in week eleven against Indianapolis was his largest total; he broke away for a 71-yard touchdown, showing his high-end speed. He led all rookies in rushing yards and only five backs had more yards on the ground. He also provided Houston quarterbacks an outlet, catching 50 passes for 377 yards. The former Mountaineer found the end zone ten times--nine via the rush and one via catch. A versatile and athletic weapon, Slaton alleviated what was a considerable concern when the season opened and should be a factor for a long time to come.

4. Jerod Mayo, LB, New England Patriots
The Patriots were able to win eleven games even without Tom Brady and still just missed the playoffs in a tough AFC. One of the reasons for the team's success was Mayo. The former Tennessee Volunteer proved to be a rock at the inside linebacker position, tallying 128 total tackles, including 100 solo tackles. Mayo also forced a fumble in a rout of Arizona in week sixteen. The AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, by a wide margin finished, tenth overall in total tackles and first overall in tackles by a rookie. The most impressive thing about Mayo, though, may just be the way he leads by example and the physical style he brings on the field. Like the others on this list, Mayo played well beyond his years this season.

3. Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
While Forte broke Chicago’s record for most rushing yards by a rookie and thus surpassed the likes of Walter Payton and Gale Sayers in that regard, no one should be fooled into thinking he has the same level of talent. However, Forte appears to have a good thing going for him. A second-rounder, the back out of Tulane worked hard to impress the Bears’ staff and earn the starting role from the outset of the season. The Bears missed the playoffs again, but finished the season with a winning record and Forte was able to top the century-mark for rushing yards in three of the Bears victories. In all, he worked for 1,238 yards on the ground and 477 yards in the passing game while crossing the goal line on twelve occasions. The only concern may be his workload—he carried the ball 316 times, a total surpassed by only three others, and made 63 receptions, most among all NFL running backs. The Bears will make changes but the backfield will remain Forte’s job for the foreseeable future.

2. Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee Titans
Tennessee hit pay dirt when they took Johnson in the back half of the first round and it was one of the big reasons that the team managed to win 13 games and secure the number one seed in the AFC. The back’s athleticism and shiftiness—as well as his breakaway type speed—kept defenses on their toes as Johnson gave the Titans the one-two punch they needed with LenDale White also sharing carries. Johnson may be ready to carry the ball like a number one, but for now he is in a beneficial situation. Johnson wound up leading the team in carries (251) and rushing yards (1,228) while finding the end zone a nine times on the ground and once on a reception. His 43 receptions were second best on the team and he turned those into 260 more yards. Perhaps most impressive was the fact that he turned the ball over only a single time even while having a high number of touches. Johnson will continue to wreak havoc on defenses in the playoffs and should be one of the better backs in the league for a long time to come.

1. Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons
It would be difficult for anyone to argue against Matt Ryan topping this list. For starters, Ryan helped lead his team to an 11-5 record and a playoff birth. The early success of the Falcon’s came as a shock to many and the more the team kept winning, the less the talk of Michael Vick was heard. To shift attention from Vick and his transgressions would have seemed impossible when the season started, but Ryan was able to do it by playing consistent and intelligent football. Ryan is considered to be ahead of his time in terms of his preparation, calmness, and execution, and his numbers back that up. He threw for over 3,400 yards and finished with a passer rating of 87.7 for the season, a respectable mark that just ten quarterbacks bettered this year. Ryan also threw for 16 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions, balancing the ratio in the right direction. To top it off, the former Boston College passer won the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Award and will see the postseason right away. Atlanta has a very bright future in their third overall selection.

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