Famous Firsts: Playing in the Shadow of Giants

Christian McCaffrey stiff arming a Wildcat
Christian McCaffrey running the ball for Stanford (Carlos Herrera/Icon Sportswire)

It’s never easy being the new kid on the block. It’s especially daunting when the expectations surrounding you are sky-high. That’s the kind of pressure being faced right now by heavily-hyped rookies like Mitch Trubisky, Leonard Fournette, and Corey Davis, all of whom were selected near the top of the 2017 NFL Draft. When they take the field for the first time this season they won’t just be competing against opposing defensive backs and linemen, they’ll also be competing against history. Fair or not, every move they make will draw comparisons to the legends who came before them.

So, just how good do they have to be to control the narrative and become all-time greats themselves? We’re glad you asked. We’ve broken down the best seasons by a rookie quarterback, running back, and receiver, and have selected three players at each position who have a shot at surpassing them. We’ve also listed props and odds for all of our top challengers. Bring on the rooks!

THE QUARTERBACKS

Photo by Keith Allison (Flickr) CC License

The Benchmark: Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh Steelers) – 2004

There’s no shortage of great seasons by a rookie quarterback to choose from. Cam Newton put the league on notice in 2011 when he threw for 4,051 yards and 21 touchdowns. And then there’s Robert Griffin III, who broke nearly as many records as tackles the following year when he became the first player in NFL history to simultaneously lead the league in yards per attempt as a passer and yards per attempt as a rusher.

However, quarterbacks are ultimately judged on winning, and by that measure, no one has had as fine a rookie season as Ben Roethlisberger.

Drafted 11th overall out of Miami of Ohio back in 2004, Big Ben was expected to spend his first season on the sidelines, but that plan went out the window when starter Tommy Maddox went down with ligament damage in his right elbow during Week 2. Roethlisberger quickly claimed the position as his own and led the Steelers to 13 consecutive victories while throwing for 2,621 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Steelers eventually bowed out to the Patriots in the AFC Championship, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort from Big Ben. The 6’5” QB completed 14 of 24 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns in his first taste of postseason action and finished his first season as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.

The Challengers: Mitch Trubisky (Chicago Bears), Deshaun Watson (Houston Texans), DeShone Kizer (Cleveland Browns)

It’s going to take a lot of hard work and more than a little luck for any of this year’s rookie QBs to have a finer first season that Roethlisberger. Trubisky and Watson are both buried behind incumbent starters on their team’s depth charts, and Kizer could soon find himself buried beneath a pile of linebackers when the Browns kick off their regular season.

Odds Mitch Trubisky will be the Bears starting QB by Week 5: 2/1

Odds Deshaun Watson will start more games this season than Tom Savage: 9/2

Odds DeShone Kizer will throw for more than 3,000 yards this season: 3/1

THE RUNNING BACKS

The Benchmark: Eric Dickerson (Los Angeles Rams) – 1983

It isn’t easy standing out in the same rookie class as Dan Marino, John Elway and Jim Kelly, but that’s precisely what Eric Dickerson did in 1983 when he produced the best season by a rookie running back in NFL history. The SMU product led the league in carries (390), yards (1808), yards per game (113), yards from scrimmage (2,212), and longest rush (85), and also hauled in 51 passes for an additional 404 yards. Unlike some rooks, Dickerson’s stats were far from empty as his running rampage ignited the Rams’ offense, and led to a seven-game turnaround and the team’s first postseason appearance since 1980. Mr. Fourth Quarter was rewarded for his overall brilliance with his first of six trips to the Pro Bowl, and was named the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year and the AP NFL Offensive Player of the Year.

The Challengers: Leonard Fournette (Jacksonville Jaguars), Joe Mixon (Cincinnati Bengals), Christian McCaffrey (Carolina Panthers)

This year’s rookie running backs won’t be asked to replicate Dickerson’s historic season, but they will be asked to contribute immediately. Fournette, a fourth overall draft pick, has been banged up lately, but he possesses the athleticism and instincts to become a star. Mixon has been mixing up defenders throughout the preseason and should see plenty of action early on as a runner and pass catcher. McCaffrey, meanwhile, is the kind of electrifying do-everything back that every team covets. His goal-line touches may be limited during his rookie season but he’ll make his presence felt in other ways.

Odds Leonard Fournette will lead the AFC in rushing yards in 2017: 12/1

Over/Under on how many rushing touchdowns Joe Mixon will have in 2017: 5.5

Odds Christian McCaffrey will rush for over 1,000 yards in 2017: 5/1

THE RECEIVERS

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The Benchmark: Randy Moss (Minnesota Vikings) – 1998

Randy Moss only started 11 games in 1998, but he made the most of all of them, grabbing 69 catches for 1,313 yards and a league-leading 17 touchdowns. His ability to stretch defenses to their breaking point was a key reason why the Vikings smashed a 15-year-old NFL scoring record while cruising to a nearly perfect 15-1 record. The outspoken West Virginian was just as good in the postseason, hauling in highlight reel TDs against the Cardinals and Falcons before the Vikes were eliminated on a heartbreaking missed field goal. His season may not have ended with a Super Bowl victory, but Moss could still hold his head high after winning the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award and being selected to the Pro Bowl.

The Challengers: John Ross (Cincinnati Bengals), Corey Davis (Tennessee Titans), Zay Jones (Buffalo)

This year’s crop of rookie receivers will be hard pressed to display the charisma and play making ability of Moss, but that’s no reason to write them off altogether. Ross is already one of the fastest players in the league and will pull double duty as a deep threat and kick returner. Corey Davis holds the NCAA record for career receiving yards and is expected to be ready for Week 1 despite battling a hamstring injury. And don’t sleep on Jones. The rugged 6’2” receiver has been one of the Bills’ top targets throughout the preseason.

Over/Under on how many touchdowns John Ross will have in 2017: 3

Odds Corey Davis will lead the Titans in receptions in 2017: 7/1

Odds Zay Jones will rack up over 650 receiving yards in 2017: 2/3