NFC Benefits From an Outstanding 2011 Draft Class

As the NFL season approaches the halfway point, rookies around the league are making an impact. At quarterback, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft – Carolina’s CAM NEWTON – has excelled as a passer and runner. He is averaging more than 300 passing yards per game (300.4) and ranks second among all NFL players with seven rushing touchdowns.

Running back MARK INGRAM, a first-round pick (No. 28) by New Orleans, leads all rookies with 329 rushing yards. Dallas’ DE MARCO MURRAY, the team’s third-round selection (No. 71), rushed for 253 yards in the Cowboys’ 34-7 win over St. Louis, a single-game franchise record. And Atlanta’s JULIO JONES, also a first-rounder (No. 6), leads NFC rookies in catches (25) and receiving yards (358).

Ingram and Jones were college teammates at Alabama and rank first among NFC rookies in rushing yards and receiving yards, respectively. If both finish the season as the conference’s rookie leaders, it would mark the third time since 1970 that two players from the same school were the rookie leaders in a conference in both categories.

Defensively, linebacker ALDON SMITH (first round, No. 7) of San Francisco leads NFC rookies with 5.5 sacks while linebacker RYAN KERRIGAN (first round, No. 16) is the only NFL rookie with two sacks and an interception return-touchdown.

And Green Bay’s second-round pick, RANDALL COBB (No. 64), ranks fourth in the NFL in kickoff-return average (30.5). Cobb has provided a dynamic presence on special teams and on offense.

A closer look at some of the outstanding NFC rookies in 2011:

CAM NEWTON, Carolina (Round 1, No. 1 overall, Auburn): The top selection in the 2011 NFL Draft ranks fourth in the NFL with 2,103 passing yards (300.4 per game). With seven rushing touchdowns, Newton has already tied VINCE YOUNG (2006) for the most by a rookie quarterback since 1970. Newton is also the only player in NFL history with at least seven passing (8) and seven rushing (7) touchdowns in his first seven games

“He can run. He can throw,” says Washington cornerback DE ANGELO HALL of Newton, the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Month in September. “He’s got the total package. He’s going to be a player in this league for a long time.”

MARK INGRAM, New Orleans (Round 1, No. 28, Alabama): The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner, Ingram rushed for a career-high 91 yards in the Saints’ 62-7 victory over Indianapolis in Week 7. With three rushing touchdowns and a rookie-best 329 rushing yards, Ingram is on pace to become the third rookie in team history to rush for at least 750 yards and score at least five rushing touchdowns (GEORGE ROGERS, 1981; REUBEN MAYES, 1986).

“He’s a pretty quiet, unassuming guy,” says New Orleans quarterback DREW BREES of Ingram, “but you can see the fire that burns inside of him by the way he carries the ball. He’s confident in his abilities, but he won’t tell you that vocally. He’ll show you.”

DE MARCO MURRAY, Dallas (Round 3, No. 71, Oklahoma): A third-round selection out of Oklahoma, Murray rushed for a franchise-record 253 yards with one touchdown in the Cowboys’ 34-7 win over St. Louis on Sunday. His 253 rushing yards were the second-most rushing yards in a game by a rookie in NFL history. Murray surpassed Pro Football Hall of Famer EMMITT SMITH’s team-record 237-yard performance and currently ranks second among NFL rookies with 324 rushing yards.

“Outstanding. Great. Amazing. I can keep going,” Cowboys’ wide receiver DEZ BRYANT said of Murray’s breakout performance. “He said he wanted opportunities, and he got what we wanted. The rest is history.”

JULIO JONES, Atlanta (Round 1, No. 6, Alabama): Jones leads NFC rookies in catches (25) and receiving yards (358) despite missing two games due to a hamstring injury. Averaging 71.6 receiving yards per game in his five contests, Jones aims to surpass the Falcons’ rookie record for receiving yards held by SHAWN COLLINS (862 in 1989).

“He’s very, very focused and very, very competitive,” says Atlanta general manager THOMAS DIMITROFF.

ALDON SMITH, San Francisco (Round 1, No. 7, Missouri): Smith has helped the 49ers to a 5-1 start, the team’s best since 1998. He leads San Francisco with 5.5 sacks, the most among NFC rookies this season. Smith is on pace to set the 49ers’ rookie sack record, which is currently held by CHARLES HALEY (12 in 1986). Haley and DANA STUBBLEFIELD (10.5 in 1993) are the only 49ers rookies with at least 10 sacks in a season.

“He demands so much attention,” says San Francisco defensive end JUSTIN SMITH of his rookie teammate. “You’ve got to double team him because otherwise there’s going to be some sacks.”

RYAN KERRIGAN, Washington (Round 1, No. 16, Purdue): The 16th overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft has started all six games and has two sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception-return touchdown and 24 tackles for the Redskins. Kerrigan, the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Month in September, is the only NFL rookie with two sacks and an interception-return TD this season.

“He’s getting better each and every week,” says Redskins linebacker BRIAN ORAKPO of Kerrigan. “He’s coming along very fast. I’m excited for him to be a part of this defense. He’s a quick learner. He’s getting it faster than when I first got here. I’m excited for him.”

RANDALL COBB, Green Bay (Round 2, No. 64, Kentucky): Cobb, who was selected No. 64 overall, has provided a spark as a kick returner and wide receiver for the defending Super Bowl champion Packers. Cobb ranks first among rookies and fourth in the NFL in kickoff-return average (30.5) and also has 11 catches for 187 yards and one touchdown. In Green Bay’s Week 1 victory over New Orleans, Cobb tied the NFL record for longest kickoff-return touchdown (108 yards).

“You’ve got to be excited about Randall,” says Packers head coach MIKE MC CARTHY. “He’s got a chance to be special.”