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

synergy.

”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

inactive.

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

touchdown.

”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

1.

AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi and Sports Writers Tom

Withers, Dave Skretta, Joseph White, Tom Canavan and Steven Wine

contributed.

Connect with AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton at

http://twitter.com/arniestapleton