AFC ROOKIES: REACHING NEW HEIGHTS
Making the transition from college to pro can be challenging, but year after year, rookies across the NFL emerge as key contributors.
Last year, Colts quarterback ANDREW LUCK passed for 4,374 yards, topping CAM NEWTON’s rookie record of 4,051 in 2011, becoming the first rookie in NFL history with 4,000+ passing yards and 10+ wins.
Despite his early success, Luck has a full year’s experience under his belt and is ahead of where he was last season as a rookie.
“I think it’s a natural progression,” says Luck. “As you get older, no matter what position you are, you’re going to maybe tackle a little more or have a little more of a presence.”
This year’s rookies are still a long way from finishing their first professional season, but many have already become vital contributions for their respective teams. 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 a few notable 2013 AFC rookies:
WR KEENAN ALLEN, San Diego (Round 3, No. 76 overall, California): Allen, who has served as a reliable receiving option for Chargers quarterback PHILIP RIVERS, leads NFL rookies in receiving yards (568) and is tied for an AFC-rookie best in receptions (38).
“He is a young player that is getting better every week,” says Chargers head coach MIKE MC COY. “The timing between him and Philip is getting better. He just keeps working hard. The great thing about him is he wants to be challenged day in and day out. You can say whatever you want. It’s not going to faze him. He’s just going to keep playing.”
Allen can challenge JOHN JEFFERSON (1,001 receiving yards in 1978) for the most receiving yards by a rookie in franchise history. Allen also needs 22 receptions to surpass LA DAINIAN TOMLINSON (59 in 2001) for the most receptions by a Chargers rookie.
LB KIKO ALONSO, Buffalo (Round 2, No. 46 overall, Oregon): Alonso has started all 10 games for the Bills, totaling a team-high and NFL rookie-best 99 tackles with one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, four interceptions and four passes defensed.
“I’ll go back to what we saw in college,” says Bills head coach DOUG MARRONE. “He was a player that made tackles all over the field and stayed on the field for three downs. That’s one of the things that we liked about him, knowing that he could play three downs, knowing that he could run, knowing that he was physical. We’re excited about him. He’s actually getting better and better each week.”
Alonso earned NFL Rookie Defensive of the Month honors in September and is the only player in the NFL this season with at least four interceptions and two sacks. Through Week 10, Alonso’s four interceptions are tied for the second-most in the AFC. The former Oregon product needs two interceptions to tie MIKE STRATTON (six in 1962) for the most interceptions in a season by a Bills rookie linebacker
RB LE’VEON BELL, Pittsburgh (Round 2, No. 48 overall, Michigan State): A physical runner who can shed defenders, Bell has started six contests since missing the Steelers’ first three games due to a foot injury. The 6-1, 244-pound running back is tied for an NFL-rookie best with four rushing touchdowns.
“He has patience,” says Steelers quarterback BEN ROETHLISBERGER of Bell’s running style. “Sometimes when I hand it off and I carry out my fake I turn around, it’s almost like he is standing still in the hole. It’s not because he doesn’t know what he’s doing or where he is going. He’s a good runner and he knows his surroundings and what is going on. He is doing a great job.”
Bell aims to challenge Pro Football Hall of Famer FRANCO HARRIS (10 in 1972) for the most rushing touchdowns by a rookie in Steeler annals.
RB GIOVANI BERNARD, Cincinnati (Round 2, No. 37 overall, North Carolina): Bernard has been a steady contributor for the first-place Bengals this season. Bernard has played in all 10 games and leads AFC rookies with 723 scrimmage yards.
“He’s almost like a punt returner that’s playing running back,” says Ravens defensive lineman CHRIS CANTY. “He’s a jitterbug. He gets in and out of cuts very quickly. He can accelerate very quickly. He gets into those small holes.”
Bernard is on pace (1,157) to become the first Bengals rookie running back to reach 1,000 scrimmage yards since COREY DILLON in 1997 (1,388).
WR DE ANDRE HOPKINS, Houston (Round 1, No. 27 overall, Clemson): Hopkins has been a bright spot alongside veteran wide receiver ANDRE JOHNSON in Houston. Hopkins ranks second among NFL rookies in receiving yards (539) and has the third-most catches (37) among all rookies.
“He’s very talented,” says Johnson. “We knew that when he first got here. He’s just working to become better. His hard work is paying off. When he gets opportunities, he makes plays. He’s great at attacking the ball when he’s up in the air and he’s making big plays so far.”
Hopkins, who was named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Month in September, can challenge the Texans’ rookie records for receptions (66) and receiving yards (976) set by Johnson in 2003.
“He’s off to one heck of a start for a young guy,” says Texans head coach GARY KUBIAK. “That’s what we brought him here for. The thing I’m really impressed with is how hard he practices, how hard he works at what he does and he really likes to play.”
DT SHELDON RICHARDSON, New York Jets (Round 1, No. 13 overall, Missouri): Richardson has been a major factor for the Jets’ defense which is allowing an NFL-low 73.8 rush yards per game. The 6-3, 294-pound defensive tackle is effective in defending the run and providing an interior pass rush.
Richardson has played in all nine games with eight starts, registering 41 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one pass defensed.
“This young man can almost do anything you can ask a D-lineman to do,” says Jets head coach REX RYAN. “We take advantage of a guy’s movement skills, we take advantage of the athleticism of our guys, so to me he certainly fits us. It is rare to have a guy with that kind of athleticism. I mean, he’s never off his feet unless he’s making a tackle.”
QB GENO SMITH, New York Jets (Round 2, No. 39 overall, West Virginia): Smith, who has started all nine games, has shown that he can will his team to victory. The strong-armed quarterback has led a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime in four of the Jets’ five wins. Earlier this season, Smith became the only quarterback since the 1970 merger with four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in his first seven career games.
“I think Geno is a tough guy,” says Ryan. “He’s focused. He just wants to win. I think it’s just not about stats, it’s not about anything else, it’s about let's find a way to win. I do love his mentality. He can bounce back. If he makes a poor play, he’s going to bounce back and try to do better, and that’s what he does.”
The West Virginia product (1,997) needs 448 passing yards for the most passing yards by a rookie in franchise history (MARK SANCHEZ, 2,444 in 2009).