(Sports Network) - They get tied to goal posts and others are forced to shave
their heads. Some even have to sing their alma mater's fight song during team
meetings or carry a veteran's equipment.
That's the early life of an NFL rookie.
But when a first-year player begins to establish himself and earn the respect
and trust of veteran teammates, that rookie label is cast aside.
In no particular order, here is a list of rookies who have matured since the
dog days of summer:
RUSSELL WILSON - Wilson took the Pacific Northwest by storm when he beat out
Matt Flynn for the starting quarterback job with the Seattle Seahawks. Wilson
impressed coach Pete Carroll in training camp and preseason, making Flynn an
expensive backup. Flynn signed a deal reportedly worth $26 million to step out
of the shadows of Aaron Rodgers, but may have been too confident the job was
his to lose with Seattle. Wilson rallied the Seahawks to a 23-17 overtime win
in Chicago on Sunday and has thrown a game-winning touchdown pass in the final
two minutes of regulation or overtime three times. Wilson has 19 TD passes and
eight INTs in 12 games and has the Seahawks on the brink of a playoff berth.
LAVONTE DAVID - One area of concern for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was at
linebacker when coach Greg Schiano took over. So, the Bucs plucked linebacker
Lavonte David in the second round of the draft and haven't looked back. David
is a starting outside linebacker in Tampa Bay's 4-3 scheme and leads the team
with 108 tackles this season. Tampa Bay is in the race for a postseason spot
and needs its defense to play at the same level of the improved offense. David
was just named Defensive Rookie of the Month for November, racking up an NFL-
best 47 tackles in that time with a league-high 40 solo stops. He posted eight
tackles or more in all four games in November for the Bucs, who will need
David to stay healthy in a playoff run.
MATT KALIL - A standout tackle for the USC Trojans in college, Minnesota
Vikings offensive lineman Matt Kalil is having similar success at the elite
level. Kalil, the fourth overall pick in April's draft, has experienced the
thrill of victory in blocking for stud running back Adrian Peterson, who had a
season-high 210 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in a loss at Green Bay,
but also the agony of defeat in having to protect the backside of erratic
quarterback Christian Ponder. Ponder has rarely shown flashes of brilliance.
However, he wasn't sacked Sunday against the Packers and has gone down just
four times in the last three weeks. The Vikings have a solid player in Kalil
to build around across the offensive line, which has mammoth tackle Phil
Loadholt on the opposite end. When Kalil signed his rookie contract in late
July, an ecstatic Ponder said "hopefully we'll be together in a Vikings
uniform for a long time." Many hope Ponder won't be.
TRENT RICHARDSON - Back in early November, a few Baltimore Ravens defenders
said Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson is the hardest back to tackle
in the NFL. Whether the Ravens were buttering Richardson's muffin or simply
playing mind games, the bulky back from Alabama rolled to 105 yards on 25
carries in a 25-15 loss on Nov. 4. Richardson has the strength to shed
tacklers and it's unfortunate the Browns have played so poorly this season.
Richardson is the lone bright spot on offense, which is run by rookie
quarterback Brandon Weeden. Weeden has some work to do and won't even sniff
this current list of improving rookies. Richardson is averaging 95.8 rushing
yards per game in the last five weeks.
JANORIS JENKINS - The St. Louis Rams needed help in all phases and hope most
of its pick from the 2012 NFL Draft pay off down the road. That road has been
traveled quite often by rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins. A playmaker since
his early days of football, Jenkins is beginning to etch his name among the
elite rookies with his athleticism and ball-hawking ability. Jenkins has been
consistent all season and opened eyes with a pair of interceptions for
touchdowns in a win at Arizona on Nov. 25. He was at it again the following
week in an overtime win versus San Francisco, scooping up a fumble and scoring
from two yards out in the fourth quarter. Jenkins' quickness and consistent
play on defense has made him the first rookie in franchise history to score
three touchdowns in a season. It's also nice to play alongside Cortland
Finnegan and Quintin Mikell in the secondary.
ANDREW LUCK - The top pick of the NFL Draft, Luck has the Indianapolis Colts
knocking on the doorstep of the playoffs. The Colts needed a replacement for
Peyton Manning, who just helped the Denver Broncos capture an AFC West title,
and landed a gem in Luck. The former Stanford standout led the Colts to a win
over Detroit this past weekend by finding Donnie Avery in the flats for a 14-
yard touchdown as time expired. He had 391 yards through the air and has
passed for 3,596 yards this season, the most by a rookie in his first 12
games. Luck, who had 1,234 passing yards with five touchdowns in November, is
third in NFL history for the most yards by a rookie in a single season.
Carolina's Cam Newton (4,051) and Manning (3,739) are the only ones better.
The Colts have some young talent on the roster, including wide receiver T.Y.
Hilton, and can only thank last season's debacle in landing Luck.
ROBERT GRIFFIN III - When you already have a nickname even before you take a
snap in the NFL, that means something. Griffin, more commonly known by the
moniker RG3, was taken right after Luck by the Washington Redskins and has
dazzled his way into NFL stardom. With a cannon for an arm and track star
speed, Griffin has taken the Redskins under his wing and has the storied
franchise alive and kicking in the postseason hunt. Redskins middle linebacker
London Fletcher said the Redskins aren't used to having a stable quarterback
because it's been musical chairs at QB under owner Daniel Snyder. Even before
the season started, Fletcher said RG3 is the "real deal" and "the sky's the
limit" for last year's Heisman Trophy winner. Griffin has played well under
coach Mike Shanahan's read-option system, but defenses could pick up on that
down the road and his reckless style may even get him injured severely. He
already suffered a concussion this season, so keeping him out of harm's way
and healthy are Washington's keys to success. That, and a good running back.
ALFRED MORRIS - While RG3 became the first Redskins player to pass for four
touchdowns in two straight games, rookie running back Alfred Morris has also
helped Washington become a formidable offense. Without the glamour and glitz
of a diva wide receiver, Morris has taken some of the pressure off of Griffin
and is second among NFL rookies with 982 rushing yards. Morris has four 100-
yard rushing efforts this season and it helps to have a tackle as talented as
Trent Williams. RG3 was asked who he thought would be a good candidate for
Offensive Rookie of the Year and the one also considered for the award praised
Morris in saying, "He's my running back, he's had a very quiet but very great
season for a running back, and I'm proud to have him on this team." Morris has
six rushing scores on the season and is closing in on the Redskins rookie
single-season record of carries. Morris claims he is built for the long haul
and doesn't believe he'll hit the proverbial rookie wall.
DOUG MARTIN - The Buccaneers hit a home run when they selected Doug Martin
with the 31st pick in April's draft. Similar to Ray Rice from his Rutgers days
under Schiano, Martin is playing under the aforementioned coach and enjoying
every minute of it. Martin, who led the NFL with 507 rushing yards and six
touchdowns in November, may just run away with Offensive Rookie of the Year
honors, but first has a major responsibility in getting the Buccaneers back on
track for a wild card berth. Martin leads all rookies with 1,106 rushing yards
-- third-best in the entire league -- but has been slowed down the last two
weeks to the tune of 106 yards on 39 carries. He had 251 yards rushing and
four scores in a Nov. 4 win at Oakland and can also catch passes, registering
32 receptions for 374 yards. Martin is more than just a pawn in Tampa Bay's
offense that is led by quarterback Josh Freeman and wide receivers Vincent
Jackson and Mike Williams. But behind every productive pass attack is a
talented running back. Martin has proven a bright future is on the horizon.
LUKE KUECHLY - The only Boston College alumnus garnering attention this season
is Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke
Kuechly would argue that. Kuechly has done everything the coaches have asked
him to do this season, and that includes moving from his regular weak side
spot to play middle for the absence of starter Jon Beason. Kuechly leads the
Panthers with 115 stops and has displayed the type of tenacity that made him a
tackling machine for BC. He has recorded 10-plus tackles on seven occasions
this season and has made no less than eight in each of the previous eight
weeks of action. Carolina isn't headed to the playoffs and there's still
plenty of time for Kuechly and the rest of the fresh faces to learn for next
season. Kuechly, the ninth pick in the NFL Draft, is giving the Panthers
issues on what they should do next season in the middle. Beason hasn't played
since Sept. 30 because of a knee injury and is on injured reserve. Who knows
if Beason will be able to shed the injury-prone tag? If he can't, the Panthers
know where to go in the middle.
HONORABLE MENTION - Kendall Wright, Justin Blackmon, Zach Brown, Courtney
Upshaw, Casey Hayward, Ryan Tannehill, Blair Walsh, Justin Tucker, Mark
Barron, Vontaze Burfict, Miles Burris, Dont'A Hightower, Fletcher Cox, Morris
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