NFL 100: Ranking the 20 greatest rookie seasons in NFL history

Baker Mayfield had an impressive rookie season in 2018, throwing for a rookie record 27 touchdown passes. Peyton Manning, two decades earlier, also enjoyed a banner rookie campaign, setting a then-rookie record for passing yards. 

Despite their efforts, Mayfield and Manning failed to crack the list of the 20 best rookie seasons in NFL history. Here are the 20 players whose rookie seasons continue to be the standard by which all other rookie seasons are measured. 

20. Sammy Baugh, 1937

One of the NFL's greatest players of pre-Super Bowl era, Baugh led the NFL in completions, attempts, and passing yards during his rookie season while earning All-Pro honors. He also led the league with 14 interceptions.

19. Greg Cook, 1969

Cook enjoyed one of the best rookie passing seasons in pro football history, leading the league with an 88.3 quarterback rating. An undiagnosed torn rotator cuff during his rookie season, coupled with a biceps injury, cut his career short, as Cook attempted just three regular season passes after his rookie season. 

18. Tommy Nobis, 1966

The No. 1 pick in the '66 draft, Nobis tallied a whopping 294 tackles in 14 games. The middle linebacker earned the first of five career Pro Bowl selections that season.

17. Paul Krause, 1964

The NFL's all-time leader with 81 career interceptions, Krause earned All-Pro honors as a rookie while leading the NFL with 12 picks. 

16. Bill Groman, 1960

A forgotten receiver, Groman's rookie season is still one of the best in league history. In 1960, he paced the AFL with 1,473 yards. He also caught 12 touchdown passes while averaging 20.5 yards per catch. 

15. Jim Brown, 1957

Brown, the NFL's all-time leading rusher until 1984, led the NFL in rushing yards (942) and rushing touchdowns (9) as a rookie. It was the first of five straight years that Brown would pace the NFL in rushing. 

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Barry Sanders put up some big numbers in his rookie season. USATSI

14. Barry Sanders, 1989

The 1988 Heisman Trophy winner, Sanders hit the NFL running in '89, rushing for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns as a rookie while earning All-Pro honors. It was the first of a record 10 consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons for the Hall of Fame running back. 

13. Mike Ditka, 1961

"Iron Mike" had his best statical season as a rookie. That year, the Hall of Fame tight end caught 56 passes for 1,076 yards and 12 touchdowns. 

12. Dick Butkus, 1965

The most intimidating player of his era, Butkus earned All-Pro honors during his rookie season. That year, the Hall of Fame inside linebacker intercepted five passes while recording seven fumble recoveries in 14 games. 

11. Ben Roethlisberger, 2004

Rookie Roethlisberger won each of his 13 starts, an NFL record. With Big Ben's help, the Steelers went 15-1 that season, a year after going 6-10. 

10. Ronnie Lott, 1981

Lott, a Hall of Fame safety, earned All-Pro honors as a rookie while leading the NFL with three interception returns for touchdowns. Lott's play (along with the two other rookies that started in San Francisco's backfield that season) helped the 49ers win their first-ever Super Bowl title. 

9. Devin Hester, 2006

Hester put together one of the greatest seasons by a return man in NFL history in 2006. That season, Hester returned a league best three punt returns for scores while also running back two kickoffs for touchdowns. HIs 92-yard kickoff return for a score in Super Bowl XLI is the earliest touchdown scored in Super Bowl history. 

8. Jevon Kearse, 1999

Nicknamed "The Freak", Kearse lived up to his nickname during his rookie season. The standout defensive end out of Florida racked up 14.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles while helping lead Tennessee to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXIV. 

7. Night Train Layne, 1952

The Hall of Fame defensive back enjoyed a memorable rookie season. In 1952, the former Lions' standout led the NFL in interceptions (14), interception return yards (298) and interception returns for touchdowns (two). 

6. Franco Harris, 1972

Harris' 10 rushing touchdowns and 5.6 yards per carry average helped the '72 Steelers capture their first-ever division title. His "Immaculate Reception" against the Raiders during the postseason gave the Steelers their first-ever playoff victory. 

5. Eric Dickerson, 1983

A member of SMU's famed "Pony Express", Dickerson burst onto the NFL scene in 1983, earning All-Pro honors that season while leading the NFL with 1,808 rushing yards and scoring 18 touchdowns. 

4. Earl Campbell, 1978

Following a legendary career at the University of Texas, "The Tyler Rose" led the NFL with 1,450 rushing yards in 1978 (his first of three consecutive rushing titles). His epic performance that season against the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football (28 carries, 199 yards, four touchdowns) still stands as one of the most memorable games in MNF history. 

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Lawrence Taylor was a dominant linebacker right from the start.

3. Lawrence Taylor, 1981

Arguably the greatest pass-rushing linebacker of all-time, Taylor unofficially recorded 9.5 sacks in 1981 (the NFL didn't officially track individual sack totals until 1982) while becoming the first player in league history to win NFL Defensive Player and Rookie of the Year honors. 

2. Randy Moss, 1998

Moss had a remarkable rookie season, catching a rookie record 17 touchdown passes for the 15-1 Vikings. His performance in the '98 Thanksgiving Day game against the Cowboys  — three catches, 163 yards, three touchdowns — was his true NFL "coming out party."

1. Gale Sayers, 1965

Sayers' rookie season remains the greatest in NFL history. That season, the "Kansas Comet" scored 14 rushing touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry. Sayers also caught 29 passes for 507 yards while also returning one punt and one kickoff for scores. His six touchdowns that season against the San Francisco 49ers remains an NFL single-game record. 

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