NFL’s 2011 rookie class off to a fine start

So, maybe that long lockout didn’t hurt the NFL rookies after
all – aside from the big hits they took to their wallets.

With the league’s new salary structure redistributing the
mega-millions to vested veterans instead of first-year players, and
encouraging the 2011 draft class to prove its worth, a slew of
rookies distinguished themselves on the NFL’s opening weekend.

The stellar debuts included those by Green Bay receiver/returner
Randall Cobb, Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin, Washington
linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and cornerback/punt returner Patrick
Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals.

None was more impressive – or seemed more improbable – than the
performance of Carolina’s Cam Newton, who broke the NFL record for
most yards passing by a rookie in his pro debut.

The Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn was the first overall
draft pick, but questions about his accuracy carried through the
preseason, when he completed barely 40 percent of his passes and
looked as lost as any rookie who missed more than four months of
workouts due to the league’s labor dispute.

Now, the questions have turned from whether he’ll be a good NFL
quarterback to just how good he’ll be after breaking the mark of
346 yards set by Hall of Famer Otto Graham in 1950.

Newton ignited a Carolina offense that finished last in the NFL
in total offense, yards passing, and scoring last season by
throwing for 422 yards, the fifth-highest opening day total in NFL
history (it was the fourth-highest for 24 hours before being
surpassed Monday night by Tom Brady).

”He did everything everybody didn’t expect him to do,” said
receiver Steve Smith, who caught TD throws of 77 and 26 yards from
Newton. ”He was on point. He made some great runs, some great
reads and some fantastic throws.”

Newton may have made a believer out of some of his critics, but
his teammates have always been in his corner.

”He’s had the world on his shoulders for a year now and I think
he’s sort of getting used to it,” Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan
Gross said. ”It was a tough game. He got hit a lot and there was a
lot of crowd noise. He had incredible composure against all odds.
He was as advertised.”

Of course, the rookie in that game who came out a winner wasn’t
Newton but Peterson, who returned a punt 89 yards for the go-ahead
touchdown and added five tackles in Arizona’s 28-21 win.

Newton, whose bid for a game-tying drive in the final minute
fell a yard short, makes his home debut Sunday against the
defending champion Packers, who were sparked by their own
remarkable rookie in Week 1.

Randall Cobb, a second-round draft pick out of Kentucky, caught
a touchdown pass and tied an NFL record for longest kickoff return
with a 108-yarder in the Packers’ 42-34 win over the New Orleans
Saints on Thursday night.

The opening weekend came to a close Monday night in Denver,
where former Texas A&M pass-rusher Von Miller, who was selected
one spot behind Newton in the draft, forced a fumble on his first
snap as a pro. Scooping it up was safety and fellow rookie Rahim
Moore, a second-round selection from UCLA.

They were two of the Broncos’ record four rookies to start on
opening day, a 23-20 loss to Oakland.

Other rookies made immediate impacts that didn’t show up in
fantasy football stats, at least not directly.

New England’s first-round draft pick, left tackle Nate Solder,
started for an injured Sebastian Vollmer, and Brady didn’t miss a
beat, shaking off a rare turnover to throw for a team record 517
yards and four touchdowns, including a 99-yarder to Wes Welker in
the Patriots’ 38-24 win at Miami.

Solder helped the Patriots prove the exception to the notion
that the offensive line and secondary would be the groups most
affected by the lack of OTAs because they need the most

”We all worked together, and I think that’s good for him,”
Solder said of Brady, who recorded the 11th 500-yard passing
performance in NFL history.

Marcel Dareus, the third overall pick out of Alabama, was a
beast for the Buffalo Bills in their 41-7 whooping of the Chiefs in
Kansas City.

The Bills had the worst run defense in the league last year but
with Dareus anchoring the middle with his 6-foot-3, 340-pound
frame, they held Jamaal Charles to 56 yards rushing. Although he
was only credited with two tackles, Dareus was so good at jamming
up the line of scrimmage with his brute force and agility that
Buffalo’s linebackers had a field day.

By contrast, the Chiefs got nothing from their rookies. Jonathan
Baldwin, who hurt a thumb in a training camp fight with Thomas
Jones, was one of many first-round picks across the league that
weren’t even active on opening weekend.

The Philadelphia Eagles didn’t dress their top three picks but
started rookies at two important spots, sixth-rounder Jason Kelce
at center and fourth-rounder Casey Matthews at middle linebacker.
Nine of the 32 first-rounders didn’t play Sunday with five of them

And the low draft pick who got the highest marks was Chris
Neild, a nose tackle from West Virginia whom the Redskins chose
with the next-to-last overall pick in the draft. He had two sacks
and forced a fumble despite playing just a handful of snaps in
Washington’s 28-14 win over the Giants.

”In college last year I had three sacks the whole season, the
year before that I had none,” Neild said. ”So I didn’t expect
that at all, I just went out there and tried to do my job.”

Kerrigan, the Redskins’ first-rounder, swung the momentum early
in the third quarter when he batted Eli Manning’s pass into the
air, caught it and returned it 9 yards for the go-ahead

”I just remember not really being able to see anything,” said
Kerrigan, the No. 16 overall pick from Purdue, ”as I was getting
mauled by my teammates.”

It was a familiar scene for first-timers across the NFL in Week

AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi and Sports Writers Tom
Withers, Dave Skretta, Joseph White, Tom Canavan and Steven Wine

Connect with AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton at