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Best NFL Rookie Seasons of All Time: Jim Brown, C.J. Stroud Headline Top 9

What are the best NFL rookie seasons of all time? We offer our top nine, which includes iconic campaigns from Jim Brown and C.J. Stroud.

Being a rookie in the NFL isn’t easy. The vast majority of first-year players struggle, and many never turn things around. However, some players hit the ground running in the pros and submit excellent freshmen campaigns.

But what are the best NFL rookie seasons of all time? We ranked the top nine, along with five honorable mentions.

9 Best NFL Rookie Seasons of All Time

Honorable mentions: Ja’Marr Chase (2021), Micah Parsons (2021), Devin Hester (2006), Ryan Clady (2008), Justin Herbert (2020)

9) Eric Dickerson, 1983

Stats: 1,808 rushing yards, 18 rushing TDs, 51 catches, 404 yards, 2 TDs

What an electric debut.

Eric Dickerson set the single-season rushing record in his second season, but his freshman campaign also was incredible. His 2,212 scrimmage yards at the time ranked second all-time behind O.J. Simpson, and his 18 rushing touchdowns were tied for fourth.

Dickerson was an absolute machine as a rookie for the Los Angeles Rams.

8) C.J. Stroud, 2023

Stats: 63.9 completion percentage, 4,108 passing yards, 23 TDs, 5 INTs, 167 rushing yards, 3 rushing TDs

This was a tough one. On the one hand, you could say we’re being prisoners of the moment by ranking C.J. Stroud’s rookie season ahead of other impressive first-year QB campaigns (Cam Newton has a strong case). However, on the other hand, what Stroud did as a rookie truly was incredible.

Stroud, who went second overall in the 2023 NFL Draft, led the NFL in interception percentage (1.0%) and passing yards per game (273.9). He also led the Houston Texans to a playoff victory over the Cleveland Browns.

7) Jevon Kearse, 1999

Stats: 14.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, 1 defensive TD

If you want to know why Jevon Kearse was nicknamed “The Freak,” look no further than his amazing rookie season.

His eight forced fumbles led the NFL, and he earned First-Team All-Pro honors. His speed and explosion from the edge made him a matchup nightmare, and he was a key contributor on a Tennessee Titans team that earned a Super Bowl berth.

Kearse never matched the production of his rookie season, but he still enjoyed a long, successful career.

6) WR Puka Nacua, 2023

Stats: 105 catches, 1,486 yards, 6 TDs

Some might argue that Ja’Marr Chase, not Puka Nacua, should be in this spot. But such arguments likely would over-emphasize Chase’s 13 TDs while overlooking the multiple quiet stretches he went through as a rookie

Nacua, however, was excellent from start to finish. A fifth-round pick out of BYU, Nacua set single-season rookie records for both catches and yards. Sure, he only had six touchdowns, but he also had 11 games with 70-plus yards, whereas Chase only had eight.

We have another wideout higher on this list, but you could argue that Nacua had the greatest rookie season for a receiver in NFL history. What a draft steal by the Rams.

5) Robert Griffin III, 2012

Stats: 65.6 completion percentage, 3,200 passing yards, 20 TDs, 5 INTs, 815 rushing yards, 7 rushing TDs

It’s easy to forget just how good Robert Griffin III was as a rookie in Washington.

Dynamic as a passer, the Baylor product also was a game-breaking threat as a runner. At the time, it seemed as if we were watching someone destined for all-time greatness. Unfortunately, a late-season knee injury led to an ACL tear in the playoffs, and Griffin never was the same.

4) Randy Moss, 1998

Stats: 69 catches, 1,313 yards, 17 TDs

We know we just said you shouldn’t put too much weight on Chase’s 13 TDs. But Randy Moss posted 17(!), which still stands as the single-season rookie record.

This is also about the eye test. Moss entered the NFL as one of the most-hyped receiver prospects in league history — and immediately lived up to the buzz. Moss was otherworldly, forming a one-two punch with Cris Carter that made the Minnesota Vikings offense nearly unstoppable.

This is an admittedly subjective take, but Moss simply made a greater impact than any other rookie receiver in league history.

3) Gale Sayers, 1965

Stats: 867 rushing yards, 14 TDs, 29 catches, 507 yards, 6 TDs, 2 return TDs

Gale Sayers’ rookie numbers might not jump off the screen, but you must remember seasons only lasted 14 games back then. Plus, Sayers’ impact as a returner for the Chicago Bears can’t be overstated.

The reality is that, as a rookie, Sayers was one of the most incredible talents football fans ever had seen. And in Week 13 of his rookie season, he posted this absurd stat line:

  • 9 rushes, 113 yards, four TDs
  • 2 catches, 89 yards, two TDs
  • 1 punt return TD

For those keeping score at home, that’s six total TDs on 11 offensive touches. And Sayers was a threat to do that in every game.

2) Lawrence Taylor, 1981

Stats: 9.5 sacks, 133 tackles (unofficial), 1 forced fumble, 1 interception

Lawrence Taylor’s rookie campaign was like the defensive equivalent of what Sayers did as a freshman. The numbers might not overwhelm young fans, but the eye test — and tales from legends like Bill Belichick — tell the story of a player who took the NFL by storm.

All you really need to know is that Taylor still is the only rookie to win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. He immediately established himself as the best defensive player on the New York Giants and one of the best in the league. These days, he’s considered the greatest defensive player in football history.

1) Jim Brown, 1957

Stats: 942 rushing yards, 9 TDs, 1 receiving TD

Considered by some the greatest player in football history, Jim Brown is responsible for the greatest rookie campaign of all time.

His 942 rushing yards and nine TDs aren’t overly impressive until you consider both led the NFL and the season only lasted 12 games. Brown still is the only rookie to win the MVP, and his 237-yard performance in Week 9 still stands as one of the best single-game rushing performances in football history.

And he never dropped off. Brown led the NFL in rushing in eight of his nine seasons with the Cleveland Browns, finishing his career with three MVPs and one championship. He’s one of the best athletes in the history of United States professional sports.