With its rigorous physical and mental demands, the NFL is one of the hardest professional sports leagues to break into. It’s the reason why players aren’t allowed to join until three years after they’ve graduated high school. The toll on the players’ bodies is simply too much for an underdeveloped young man to take.
All that makes it more impressive when a player can come along and dominate during his rookie season. Let’s take a look at the 10 greatest rookie seasons of all time in the NFL.
10. Ronnie Lott – 1981
At the outset of his Hall of Fame career, Ronnie Lott was already making waves as a safety. The NFL named him an All-Pro and he helped lead the 49ers to their first Super Bowl championship. Lott went on to become known as one of the toughest NFL players of all time, one time choosing to have a finger amputated so he could return to football.
9. Devin Hester – 2006
Devin Hester led the league in returns, return yardage (600 punt, 528 kickoff), and return touchdowns (3 punt, 2 kickoff). Hester would cap off his banner year with a 92-yard kickoff return to lead off Super Bowl XLI against the Indianapolis Colts. He was, without a doubt, the greatest return man in NFL history.
8. Jevon Kearse – 1999
Jevon Kearse (also known as “The Freak” for his incredible athleticism), like Hester and Lott, helped his team to a Super Bowl appearance during his rookie year. The Tennessee Titans would fall to the Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV, but not due to Kearse’s lack of effort. That season, Kearse led the league with eight forced fumbles and also tallied 14.5 sacks.
7. Dick “Night Train” Lane – 1952
It’s one thing for a rookie to post impressive stats in categories important to his position. It’s another thing entirely for that rookie to lead the league in those categories. During his first season, Night Train led the league in interceptions with 14, interception return yardage with 298, and pick-sixes with two. He also led the league in safeties with one.
6. Franco Harris – 1972
After Franco Harris left the Steelers, they were known as a dynasty. Before he got there they had yet to even capture a division title. Harris helped change that along with 10 touchdowns on the ground and 1,055 rushing yards. He also added 21 receptions and a receiving touchdown for good measure.
5. Eric Dickerson – 1983
Eric Dickerson’s stat line in 1983 was good enough for a seasoned NFL veteran running back, much less a first-year pro. He led the league in rushing with 1,808 yards, totaled 18 touchdowns, and received the first of his five All-Pro selections. He also led the league in carries (390) and had the longest rushing play of the season (85 yards).
4. Earl Campbell – 1978
Earl Campbell would get his legendary career off to a fittingly legendary start. Check out his numbers from the 1978 season with the Houston Oilers:
- 1,450 yards rushing – good for first in the NFL. Campbell won the rushing title during each of his first three seasons.
- 96.7 yards per game – also good for first in the NFL
- The longest run of the season – 81 yards
- 13 rushing touchdowns
- 4.8 yards per attempt
3. Lawrence Taylor – 1981
Many have argued that linebacker Lawrence Taylor is the greatest defensive player of all time. His amazing rookie season certainly bolsters his case. He won NFL Defensive Player of the Year the same season he won Rookie of the Year – a feat never achieved up until that point.
2. Randy Moss – 1998
On NFL Draft Day 1998, Randy Moss was widely regarded as one of the best wide receiver prospects but would fall far to the Minnesota Vikings due to off-field concerns. He spent his first season proving everyone wrong. He caught 17 touchdowns on a nearly unstoppable Vikings team that went 15-1.
1. Gale Sayers – 1965
It’s been 50+ years since Sayers’ rookie season, and no player has matched it. Sayers had 14 touchdowns and 867 yards on 166 carries for an average of 5.2 yards per rush. He’d also set an NFL record with six touchdowns in one game.