By C.G. Morelli
Love of NFL Correspondent
Labeled a weak crop by many early on, I can’t recall another season where more rookie players became the centerpieces for their teams, nor can I remember a time when so many rookie-led teams made it as deeply in the playoffs. Really, it was quite remarkable.
With 2008 firmly in the rear view, it’s time to take a look back at a few outstanding first-year heroics on offense. Here are the five offensive NFL rookies with the brightest futures.
5. Steve Slaton, RB Houston Texans
Many GM’s around the league said the 5’ 9”, 203 pound Slaton was too small to be an every down back in the NFL. They ignored his school record 3,923 career rushing yards and his 52 TDs at West Virginia. More over, they went as far as discounting his blazing speed and impressive performance at the combine. They allowed Slaton to slip all the way into the third round, where he was eagerly scooped up by Texans’ GM, Rick Smith. Smith and Coach Gary Kubiak would not be disappointed. After sharing carries with Ahman Green early on, Slaton completely took over the position by midseason, racking up nearly 1,600 total yards from scrimmage and plunging the ball into the end zone 10 times. You better believe opposing defensive coordinators will spend a great deal of time next season game planning against Slaton.
4. DeSean Jackson, WR Philadelphia Eagles
Snatched in the middle of the second round by Philadelphia, many believed he was a draft day steal, and boy were they right. All Jackson did was come in and catch 62 passes for 912 yards, leading the team in receiving in his rookie year. But he wasn’t done there. He averaged nine yards per punt return (with a 62-yard return for a TD) on a special teams unit that desperately needed a top flight returner heading into the season. Jackson’s speed and elusiveness as a receiver was a major reason why Donovan McNabb and the Eagles were able to make a surprising run to the NFC Championship, a game in which the rookie route runner caught a deep pass for a TD to give the Eagles their only brief lead of the contest. Look for big things from this kid as he continues to develop by working regularly this offseason with the great Jerry Rice.
3. Joe Flacco, QB Baltimore Ravens
Uh-oh. Looks like the Ravens finally found themselves a decent quarterback. Flacco, of course, was much more than just “decent” this past season. His cool and collected demeanor allowed him to lead his team, comprised largely of veterans, to the AFC Championship. True, the rookie hit a few bumps on his journey, but you can’t ignore the composure of this former Delaware Blue Hen. One thing’s for sure, Flacco can toss the ball a long, long way, folks. Expect to see quite a few deep touchdown passes from this youngster in coming seasons. That means no more stacking it up against the Raven’s running game. Scary!
2. Matt Ryan, QB Atlanta Falcons
This year’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Award went to the number two overall pick in the draft, Matt Ryan, and boy did this kid deserve it. Not only did he lead the lowly Falcons to their first playoff berth since 2005, but did so while throwing for 3,440 yards, 16 TDs, and only 11 interceptions. Ryan stepped into the unflattering shoes of a certain Michael Vick and took a disgruntled fan base head-on this season. Yet contrary to popular theory for rookie QBs, he came through it with flying colors, finishing the season as the team’s clear leader on offense. The prodigy makes intelligent decisions behind the line of scrimmage, and always puts the Falcons in a position to win the game. As Ryan continues to get more comfortable in this offense, and with the NFL game in general, I think we’ll see some really special performances out of him … though it might be hard to improve upon an already-sparkling 87.7 quarterback rating in 2008.
1. Matt Forte, RB Chicago Bears
There were times this season, as I watched Forte rumbling over defenders in a truly dominant style, when I completely forgot he was a rookie. He looked more like a polished veteran running back, patiently waiting for lanes to open before bursting through them. He touched the ball more than any other offensive weapon in Chicago, catching pass after pass out of the backfield, while easily plunging balls into the end zone in goal line situations. Most times Forte simply appeared to be moving a little faster, or running a little harder than all the defenders around him. And maybe he was. The youngster ran for over 1,200 yards and eight TDs. He also added 477 receiving yards and four TDs through the air. True, he didn’t lead the Bears into the playoffs, but I think it’s safe to say Matt Forte will be playing in quite a few of those in his brightly lit future.