NFL's 2011 rookie class off to a fine start

By Arnie Stapleton

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 13 2011 2:51 p.m. MDT

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin (15) runs past San Francisco 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers (22) as he scores on a 55-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game in San Francisco, Sunday, Sept. 11, 2011.

Paul Sakuma, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

DENVER — So, maybe that long lockout didn't hurt the rookies after all — aside from the big hits they took to their wallets.

With the league's new salary structure redistributing the mega-millions to vested veterans instead of first-year players, and encouraging the 2011 draft class to prove its worth, a slew of rookies distinguished themselves on the NFL's opening weekend.

The stellar debuts included those by Green Bay receiver/returner Randall Cobb, Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin, Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and cornerback/punt returner Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals.

None was more impressive — or seemed more improbable — than the performance of Carolina's Cam Newton, who broke the NFL record for most yards passing by a rookie in his pro debut.

The Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn was the first overall draft pick, but questions about his accuracy carried through the preseason, when he completed barely 40 percent of his passes and looked as lost as any rookie who missed more than four months of workouts due to the league's labor dispute.

Now, the questions have turned from whether he'll be a good NFL quarterback to just how good he'll be after breaking the previous record of 346 yards set by Hall of Famer Otto Graham in 1950.

Newton ignited a Carolina offense that finished last in the NFL in total offense, passing yards and scoring last season by throwing for 422 yards, the fifth-highest opening day total in NFL history (it was the fourth-highest for 24 hours before being surpassed Monday night by Tom Brady).

"He did everything everybody didn't expect him to do," said Panthers receiver Steve Smith, who caught TD throws of 77 and 26 yards from Newton. "He was on point. He made some great runs, some great reads and some fantastic throws."

Newton may have made a believer out of some of his critics, but his teammates have always been in his corner.

"He's had the world on his shoulders for a year now and I think he's sort of getting used to it," Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross said. "It was a tough game. He got hit a lot and there was a lot of crowd noise. He had incredible composure against all odds. He was as advertised."

Of course, the rookie in that game who came out a winner wasn't Newton but Peterson, who returned a punt 89 yards for the go-ahead touchdown and added five tackles in Arizona's 28-21 win.

Newton, whose bid for a game-tying drive in the final minute fell a yard short, makes his home debut Sunday against the defending champion Packers, who were sparked by their own remarkable rookie in Week 1.

Randall Cobb, a second-round draft pick out of Kentucky, caught a touchdown pass and tied an NFL record for longest kickoff return in history with a 108-yarder in the Packers' 42-34 win over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night.

The opening weekend came to a close Monday night in Denver, where former Texas A&M pass-rusher Von Miller, who was selected one spot behind Newton in the draft, forced a fumble on his first snap as a pro. Scooping it up was safety and fellow rookie Rahim Moore, a second-round selection from UCLA.

They were two of the Broncos' record four rookies to start on opening day, a 23-20 loss to Oakland.

Other rookies made immediate impacts that didn't show up in fantasy football stats, at least not directly.

New England's first-round draft pick, left tackle Nate Solder, started for an injured Sebastian Vollmer and Brady didn't miss a beat, shaking off a rare turnover to throw for a team record 517 yards and four touchdowns, including a 99-yarder to Wes Welker in the Patriots' 38-24 win at Miami.

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