AFC Rookies: Reaching New Heights

The future is bright for a cast of NFL rookies around the league. Making the transition from college to pro can be just as demanding mentally as it is physically. But year after year, rookies across the NFL emerge as key contributors.

“The strength of rookies coming into the National Football League is so much more advanced each year due to the quality coaching and offseason programs that they get in college,” says former Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel (1960-1989) and senior analyst GIL BRANDT. “I think this rookie class has been an exceptional group in all three facets of the game.”

A look at just a few of the notable 2011 AFC rookies:

QB ANDY DALTON, CINCINNATI (ROUND 2, NO. 35 OVERALL, TEXAS CHRISTIAN) & WR A.J. GREEN, CINCINNATI (ROUND 1, NO. 4 OVERALL, GEORGIA): The Bengals’ rookie quarterback-wide receiver tandem of ANDY DALTON and A.J. GREEN have quickly developed a unique bond.

“The quarterback and receiver relationship begins with the mindset of winning football games,” says Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver and NFL Network analyst MICHAEL IRVIN, who shared a strong chemistry with former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer TROY AIKMAN. “You have to start on that same base and the primary goal is always winning.”

Dalton and Green have played a pivotal role in the Bengals’ 4-2 start, including a current three game winning streak. Dalton has 1,311 passing yards and seven touchdowns through six games and is on pace (3,496 passing yards; 18 TDs) to surpass the Bengals rookie record in both categories (GREG COOK, 15 TD passes and 1,854 passing yards in 1969).

“He has been exceptionally effective for a rookie, and as good as he has been, we know he has tremendous potential to be even better,” says Bengals head coach MARVIN LEWIS. “Our players believe in him and have faith in the way he goes about everything he does. He’s a tough young man. He’s a rookie and he’s had a few ups and downs, but the down parts are just like water off a duck’s back for him.”

Green, who has served as Dalton’s No. 1 receiving option, leads NFL rookies in receptions (29) and receiving yards (453). Green can challenge CRIS COLLINSWORTH (67 receptions, 1,009 receiving yards in 1981) for the most receiving yards by a rookie in franchise history.

“A.J. is simply a cut above most players in the league,” says Lewis. “He brings as nearly a complete package as you could ask of a player at any position. Hands, athleticism, agility, speed. He’s well-schooled, has very good knowledge of the game, and he has a great work ethic. He’s a guy who will push the defense and make them defend him over the top. He’ll compete against that defense, and he’ll open things up for other guys.”

LB VON MILLER, DENVER (ROUND 1, NO. 2 OVERALL, TEXAS A&M): The first defensive player selected in the 2011 NFL Draft, Miller has started all six games for the Broncos this season, registering 23 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles.

“I think he’s done a great job. He’s obviously rushing the passer really well,” says Denver Broncos defensive coordinator DENNIS ALLEN. “He’s developing. We’re pleased with where he’s at. He’s been a dynamic playmaker for us, and we’re expecting him to continue to be a dynamic playmaker for us.”

Miller has certainly found his niche in rushing the passer. Miller leads NFL rookies with six sacks this season and is on pace to surpass MIKE CROEL (10 in 1991) for the most sacks by a Denver rookie since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. Miller can also challenge JEVON KEARSE’s NFL rookie sack record of 14.5 in 1999.

Denver linebacker ELVIS DUMERVIL, who holds the Broncos single-season sack record with an NFL-best 17 in 2009, recognizes the impact that Miller brings to the defensive unit.

“I’ll tell you one thing, Von is a special player,” says Dumervil. “I’m very thankful to have a guy like that on the opposite side.”

G STEFEN WISNIEWSKI, OAKLAND (ROUND 2, NO. 48 OVERALL, PENN STATE): At 6-3, 315 pounds, Wisniewski has helped pave the way for the AFC’s No. 1 ranked rushing attack (159.3 rush yards per game) this season.

The son of former NFL nose tackle (1982-84) LEO WISNIEWSKI and the nephew of former Raiders offensive lineman (1989-2001) and current assistant offensive line coach STEVE WISNIEWSKI, Stefen has become a leader for the Raiders’ offensive unit.

“Playing next to him is great,” says Raiders center SAMSON SATELE. “He’s smart and he plays hard. He doesn’t look like a rookie out there, he looks like a veteran and he plays like a veteran. Having a guy that’s a rookie playing like a vet is key to our offense.”

Wisniewski has started all seven games at left guard for the Raiders and his versatility to play multiple positions on the offensive line has been pivotal.

“I think he’s done some really good things,” says Raiders head coach HUE JACKSON. “We brought him in here because SAMSON SATELE wasn’t on the team at the time. I thought he was going to be a center and he went to training camp and his most natural position has been a guard and he’s done a tremendous job. Obviously, we had a hole in that position from losing ROBERT GALLERY and he stepped right in there from the third week in training camp and has played really well thus far.”

RB DANIEL THOMAS, MIAMI (ROUND 2, NO. 62 OVERALL, KANSAS STATE): A physical back that can shed defenders, Thomas has been a bright spot alongside running back REGGIE BUSH in Miami’s backfield. The 6-1, 228-pound running back averages an NFL-best 75.5 rushing yards per game among rookies.

“I really liked him coming out of the draft,” says Dolphins head coach TONY SPARANO. “I thought he was a guy that got squared really good at the line of scrimmage, was able to find the end zone in college and doing it now. He scored several touchdowns in the last couple of ball games and looks like to me he’s beginning to play very good football. I think he’s one of those young emerging stars in this league that will be around for a long time.”

Thomas ranks third in the NFL and first in the AFC among rookies with 302 rushing yards and can challenge KARIM ABDUL-JABBAR (1,116 in 1996), RONNIE BROWN (907 in 2005) and ANDRA FRANKLIN (711 in 1981) to rank in the top three for the most rushing yards by a rookie in franchise history.