Adrian Peterson's gaudy numbers are one thing. It's the way the Minnesota Vikings' rookie running back has burst into the NFL that has impressed seasoned veterans.
"Every time he touches the ball, my jaw drops," teammate and safety Darren Sharper said.
Despite being sidelined for a few weeks with a knee injury, Peterson has already done enough to rank at the top of this season's talented rookie class. He ran his way into the record books with 296 yards rushing against San Diego earlier this month and was leading the NFL with 1,081 yards. Peterson, the seventh overall pick in April, was also on pace to break Eric Dickerson's rookie rushing record when he was injured Nov. 11.
"Surprised? I wouldn't say surprised," said Peterson, who hopes to return soon from a partially torn lateral collateral ligament in his right knee. "With the mind-set I have and the guys I have up front, I know anything is possible."
That's how it is with rookies. Limitless potential can excite teams and fans as soon as a player is drafted. It's the players whose talent shine through as the season progresses that make teams believe they can build around them.
Along with Peterson, Kansas City's Dwayne Bowe, Buffalo's Marshawn Lynch, Cleveland's Joe Thomas, San Francisco's Patrick Willis and Houston's Amobi Okoye are among a strong group of first-year players who have made their teams look smart in the draft.
For every one of those, though, there have been underachieving duds Tampa Bay's Gaines Adams, Atlanta's Jamaal Anderson, Miami's Ted Ginn Jr. and Carolina's Dwayne Jarrett as well as surprising rookies who have come out of nowhere to make impacts such as New Orleans' Pierre Thomas.
"You're evaluating players off of what you see on tape and in workouts," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "It's not an exact science. If it was, then everybody would hit on all their picks. There's a lot of time and effort and money invested in doing that."
Of the first 10 picks in the opening round, four have been as good as advertised: Peterson, Joe Thomas, Arizona offensive tackle Levi Brown and Washington defensive back LaRon Landry.
"He's what we thought we were going after in the draft," coach Joe Gibbs said of Landry, the sixth overall selection. "There are guys who come up here and say, 'Hey, I belong here. This is what I was meant to do.' He feels like he belongs."
So does Joe Thomas, who has rarely looked like a rookie while helping solidify Cleveland's offensive line.
"I don't know if there is anything that has surprised me," said Thomas, the No. 3 pick. "I knew from the beginning they were going to take their shots at the rookie."
While Thomas has flourished, Cleveland's other first-rounder, quarterback Brady Quinn, hasn't thrown a pass as Derek Anderson seized the starting job in Week 2.
JaMarcus Russell can relate. The No. 1 overall pick in April has yet to play for the 2-8 Raiders, who have frustrated fans by rotating Daunte Culpepper and Josh McCown instead of using Russell.
"You don't want to have to rebuild him," coach Lane Kiffin said. "The last thing you want to do with him is put him in when he's not ready and have to rebuild him and get him out of bad habits because he's playing when he's not ready." Most of this year's rookie quarterbacks are languishing. Of the 11 quarterbacks drafted, only Buffalo's Trent Edwards and Miami's John Beck have started at least one game.
Lynch has done all he can to help the Bills forget Willis McGahee. He'll miss his second straight game with a badly sprained left ankle but was still eighth in the NFL with 751 yards rushing.
Being selected in the first round doesn't always guarantee instant success, of course. Tampa Bay's Adams, the first defensive player selected at No. 4, has been a disappointment for much of the season. He has 2 1/2 sacks, but the Buccaneers are expecting more.
"He's got a ways to go to become a truly great defensive end, but he's on schedule in terms of his work ethic," coach Jon Gruden said. "His pass rush has some flash, and he's got some areas in which he needs to improve on."
The Falcons expected their top pick, Anderson, to bolster the pass rush. The No. 8 selection is still looking for his first sack after 11 games.
Miami was criticized for taking Ginn with the next pick, and the detractors have been right so far. Ginn has only 12 catches and a touchdown, and has been good but not spectacular on returns.
Cincinnati's Leon Hall, the third defensive back taken after Landry and the New York Jets' Darrelle Revis at No. 18, has been picked on often, but has four interceptions while playing in every game."He's going through life in the NFL as a corner," coach Marvin Lewis said. "It's been a tough baptism at times, but he's getting a chance to do it instead of watching someone else."
A list of some of this year's good and not-so good rookies, with name, position, team and draft status:
Dwayne Bowe, wr, Kansas City (No. 23 overall). Has rookie-leading 45 catches as Chiefs' No. 1 wide receiver.
Marshawn Lynch, rb, Buffalo (No. 12 overall). Eighth in NFL in rushing despite sprained ankle and has helped Bills forget Willis McGahee.
Amobi Okoye, dt, Houston. (No. 10 overall). 20-year-old leads rookies with five sacks.
Adrian Peterson, rb, Minnesota (No. 7 overall). Out a few weeks with knee injury, but still leads NFL in yards rushing and set single-game mark with 296 yards.
Joe Thomas, ot, Cleveland (No. 3 overall). Has rarely looked like a rookie while solidifying Browns' offensive line.
Jamaal Anderson, de, Atlanta (No. 8 overall). Still seeking first NFL sack through first 11 games.
Craig Davis, wr, San Diego (No. 30 overall). Just 12 catches for 123 yards and one TD.
Dwayne Jarrett, wr, Carolina (second round). "Next Keyshawn" has measly six catches.
Robert Meachem, wr, New Orleans (No. 27 overall). Inactive all season with ankle, knee injuries.
Quentin Moses, de, Miami (third round by Oakland). On third team after being cut by Raiders, Cardinals.
Ted Ginn Jr., wr, Miami (No. 9 overall). 12 catches and so-so impact on returns belies lofty draft status.