Ed. note: The following information comes from the NFL. If it came from the CHFF staff, it would be smudged with bacon grease and, most likely, human bodily fluids.
NFL coaches often preach patience, especially with rookies. Making the transition from college to pro can be just as demanding mentally as it is physically, but year after year, rookies across the NFL emerge as key contributors.
Last year, Baltimore's JOE FLACCO became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to an AFC Championship game. Despite his early success, Flacco recalls the uncertainty of his rookie year, saying he felt "like a freshman in college, a freshman in high school again."
But with a full year's experience under his belt, he feels "light years ahead" of where he was last season.
"You can't replace playing 19 games in an NFL season," says Flacco, whose three playoff games provided him even more of a chance to grow. "The experience I gained through that is incredible. I feel much more comfortable right now."
This year's rookies are still a long way from finishing their first professional season, but many have already become vital cogs for their respective teams. As the season progresses, these players will look to build on their success, and in some cases, continue to help their teams in the push to the playoffs.
A look at just a few of the notable 2009 AFC rookies:
S JAIRUS BYRD, Buffalo (Round 2, No. 42 overall, Oregon): Byrd, who has 24 tackles, five interceptions and seven passes defensed in seven games, is quickly developing a reputation as a playmaker with a nose for the ball. All five of his interceptions have come in the month of October, making Byrd the first rookie with five INTs in a month since Chicago safety MARK CARRIER (December 1990).
"We wanted a guy that we knew was a ball hog," says Buffalo head coach DICK JAURON of Byrd, who has three more interceptions than any other 2009 NFL rookie. "Some of the plays he makes are plays you don't see very often. We think we have a terrific player, and we think we have a terrific young man."
Byrd was the Bills' defensive standout in the team's back-to-back wins, posting two interceptions in each game, becoming the first rookie with two interceptions in consecutive games since Dallas cornerback EVERSON WALLS in 1981.
WR AUSTIN COLLIE, Indianapolis (Round 4, No. 127 overall, Brigham Young): With PEYTON MANNING demanding much from his teammates at all times, it often takes young Colts several years to earn their All-Star quarterback's trust.
But Collie, who has 24 receptions for 264 yards for 6-0 Indianapolis, appears to be ahead of the curve. Just six games into his pro career, Collie already has as many touchdown catches (four) as any other Colts rookie during the Manning era (since 1998), tying running back EDGERRIN JAMES and wide receiver TERRENCE WILKINS (four TD catches each in 1999).
"He can get down the middle and put some pressure on that safety," says Manning of Collie, whose has scored at least one touchdown in each of his past three games. "I am proud of how hard he is working and how he is taking very seriously the cerebral part of the game."
LB BRIAN CUSHING, Houston (Round 1, No. 15 overall, Southern California): Cushing has started all seven games for the Texans, totaling a team-high and NFL rookie-best 56 tackles with two forced fumbles, one interception, one safety, a half-sack and six passes defensed.
"I think it surprised everyone how quick the mental part came to him," says Houston head coach GARY KUBIAK. "But the physical part, the plays he makes, they're the same ones he was making last year. He's just doing it again at a new level."
Cushing is on pace to become the second rookie in Texans history to lead the team in tackles and can join current teammate DE MECO RYANS, who had 155 tackles in 2006 en route to winning the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year award, as the only players to accomplish the feat. He's been productive week in and week out, either leading the team or tying for the team lead in tackles four times in his first seven games.
Cushing is the only rookie to win an AFC Player of the Week award this season (Defense, Week 6), posting nine tackles (six solos), two forced fumbles, one interception and two passes defensed in the Texans' 28-17 win over Cincinnati.
RB KNOWSHON MORENO, Denver (Round 1, No. 12 overall, Georgia): Moreno has been a steady contributor for the first-place Broncos this season, stepping up to play the role of starter in the past two games. He leads Denver with 381 rushing yards and is just the fifth rookie running back since 1970 to lead a 6-0 team in rushing.
"He can do it all," says Denver rookie head coach JOSH MC DANIELS of Moreno, who also has nine receptions for 68 yards and two touchdowns (one rush, one receiving). "He's talented and durable. He is a tough, smart, competitive player and good person."
Moreno was also the featured player in the Broncos' version of the Wildcat formation, known as Wild Horses in Denver, which helped keep the New England defense off balance in the Broncos' 20-17 overtime victory in Week 5.
QB MARK SANCHEZ, N.Y. Jets (Round 1, No. 5 overall, Southern California): After Sanchez struggled through his toughest game as a pro in a 16-13 overtime loss to Buffalo in Week 6, Jets head coach REX RYAN didn't doubt his new franchise quarterback for a moment.
"He's resilient," said Ryan after the game. "He's going to bounce back from this."
Sanchez didn't disappoint in his next outing in Week 7, passing for 143 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions for a career-high 114.0 passer rating in the Jets' 38-0 win over Oakland. For the season, Sanchez has completed 94 of 178 passes (52.8 percent) for 1,178 yards with 6 touchdowns for the 4-3 Jets.
Earlier this season, Sanchez became the first rookie quarterback to start and win his team's first three games of a season since 1969.
"He's got an unbelievable amount of talent," says Ryan of Sanchez, who was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month in September. "We all see it. We know what he's going to be in the future."