Stretching the Field: Some rookies grow up fast
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - They get tied to goal posts and others are forced to shave their heads. Some even have to sing their alma mater's fight song during team meetings or carry a veteran's equipment.
That's the early life of an NFL rookie.
But when a first-year player begins to establish himself and earn the respect and trust of veteran teammates, that rookie label is cast aside.
In no particular order, here is a list of rookies who have matured since the dog days of summer:
RUSSELL WILSON - Wilson took the Pacific Northwest by storm when he beat out Matt Flynn for the starting quarterback job with the Seattle Seahawks. Wilson impressed coach Pete Carroll in training camp and preseason, making Flynn an expensive backup. Flynn signed a deal reportedly worth $26 million to step out of the shadows of Aaron Rodgers, but may have been too confident the job was his to lose with Seattle. Wilson rallied the Seahawks to a 23-17 overtime win in Chicago on Sunday and has thrown a game-winning touchdown pass in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime three times. Wilson has 19 TD passes and eight INTs in 12 games and has the Seahawks on the brink of a playoff berth.
LAVONTE DAVID - One area of concern for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was at linebacker when coach Greg Schiano took over. So, the Bucs plucked linebacker Lavonte David in the second round of the draft and haven't looked back. David is a starting outside linebacker in Tampa Bay's 4-3 scheme and leads the team with 108 tackles this season. Tampa Bay is in the race for a postseason spot and needs its defense to play at the same level of the improved offense. David was just named Defensive Rookie of the Month for November, racking up an NFL- best 47 tackles in that time with a league-high 40 solo stops. He posted eight tackles or more in all four games in November for the Bucs, who will need David to stay healthy in a playoff run.
MATT KALIL - A standout tackle for the USC Trojans in college, Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Matt Kalil is having similar success at the elite level. Kalil, the fourth overall pick in April's draft, has experienced the thrill of victory in blocking for stud running back Adrian Peterson, who had a season-high 210 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in a loss at Green Bay, but also the agony of defeat in having to protect the backside of erratic quarterback Christian Ponder. Ponder has rarely shown flashes of brilliance. However, he wasn't sacked Sunday against the Packers and has gone down just four times in the last three weeks. The Vikings have a solid player in Kalil to build around across the offensive line, which has mammoth tackle Phil Loadholt on the opposite end. When Kalil signed his rookie contract in late July, an ecstatic Ponder said "hopefully we'll be together in a Vikings uniform for a long time." Many hope Ponder won't be.
TRENT RICHARDSON - Back in early November, a few Baltimore Ravens defenders said Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson is the hardest back to tackle in the NFL. Whether the Ravens were buttering Richardson's muffin or simply playing mind games, the bulky back from Alabama rolled to 105 yards on 25 carries in a 25-15 loss on Nov. 4. Richardson has the strength to shed tacklers and it's unfortunate the Browns have played so poorly this season. Richardson is the lone bright spot on offense, which is run by rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. Weeden has some work to do and won't even sniff this current list of improving rookies. Richardson is averaging 95.8 rushing yards per game in the last five weeks.
JANORIS JENKINS - The St. Louis Rams needed help in all phases and hope most of its pick from the 2012 NFL Draft pay off down the road. That road has been traveled quite often by rookie cornerback Janoris Jenkins. A playmaker since his early days of football, Jenkins is beginning to etch his name among the elite rookies with his athleticism and ball-hawking ability. Jenkins has been consistent all season and opened eyes with a pair of interceptions for touchdowns in a win at Arizona on Nov. 25. He was at it again the following week in an overtime win versus San Francisco, scooping up a fumble and scoring from two yards out in the fourth quarter. Jenkins' quickness and consistent play on defense has made him the first rookie in franchise history to score three touchdowns in a season. It's also nice to play alongside Cortland Finnegan and Quintin Mikell in the secondary.
ANDREW LUCK - The top pick of the NFL Draft, Luck has the Indianapolis Colts knocking on the doorstep of the playoffs. The Colts needed a replacement for Peyton Manning, who just helped the Denver Broncos capture an AFC West title, and landed a gem in Luck. The former Stanford standout led the Colts to a win over Detroit this past weekend by finding Donnie Avery in the flats for a 14- yard touchdown as time expired. He had 391 yards through the air and has passed for 3,596 yards this season, the most by a rookie in his first 12 games. Luck, who had 1,234 passing yards with five touchdowns in November, is third in NFL history for the most yards by a rookie in a single season. Carolina's Cam Newton (4,051) and Manning (3,739) are the only ones better. The Colts have some young talent on the roster, including wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, and can only thank last season's debacle in landing Luck.
ROBERT GRIFFIN III - When you already have a nickname even before you take a snap in the NFL, that means something. Griffin, more commonly known by the moniker RG3, was taken right after Luck by the Washington Redskins and has dazzled his way into NFL stardom. With a cannon for an arm and track star speed, Griffin has taken the Redskins under his wing and has the storied franchise alive and kicking in the postseason hunt. Redskins middle linebacker London Fletcher said the Redskins aren't used to having a stable quarterback because it's been musical chairs at QB under owner Daniel Snyder. Even before the season started, Fletcher said RG3 is the "real deal" and "the sky's the limit" for last year's Heisman Trophy winner. Griffin has played well under coach Mike Shanahan's read-option system, but defenses could pick up on that down the road and his reckless style may even get him injured severely. He already suffered a concussion this season, so keeping him out of harm's way and healthy are Washington's keys to success. That, and a good running back.
ALFRED MORRIS - While RG3 became the first Redskins player to pass for four touchdowns in two straight games, rookie running back Alfred Morris has also helped Washington become a formidable offense. Without the glamour and glitz of a diva wide receiver, Morris has taken some of the pressure off of Griffin and is second among NFL rookies with 982 rushing yards. Morris has four 100- yard rushing efforts this season and it helps to have a tackle as talented as Trent Williams. RG3 was asked who he thought would be a good candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year and the one also considered for the award praised Morris in saying, "He's my running back, he's had a very quiet but very great season for a running back, and I'm proud to have him on this team." Morris has six rushing scores on the season and is closing in on the Redskins rookie single-season record of carries. Morris claims he is built for the long haul and doesn't believe he'll hit the proverbial rookie wall.
DOUG MARTIN - The Buccaneers hit a home run when they selected Doug Martin with the 31st pick in April's draft. Similar to Ray Rice from his Rutgers days under Schiano, Martin is playing under the aforementioned coach and enjoying every minute of it. Martin, who led the NFL with 507 rushing yards and six touchdowns in November, may just run away with Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, but first has a major responsibility in getting the Buccaneers back on track for a wild card berth. Martin leads all rookies with 1,106 rushing yards -- third-best in the entire league -- but has been slowed down the last two weeks to the tune of 106 yards on 39 carries. He had 251 yards rushing and four scores in a Nov. 4 win at Oakland and can also catch passes, registering 32 receptions for 374 yards. Martin is more than just a pawn in Tampa Bay's offense that is led by quarterback Josh Freeman and wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. But behind every productive pass attack is a talented running back. Martin has proven a bright future is on the horizon.
LUKE KUECHLY - The only Boston College alumnus garnering attention this season is Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly would argue that. Kuechly has done everything the coaches have asked him to do this season, and that includes moving from his regular weak side spot to play middle for the absence of starter Jon Beason. Kuechly leads the Panthers with 115 stops and has displayed the type of tenacity that made him a tackling machine for BC. He has recorded 10-plus tackles on seven occasions this season and has made no less than eight in each of the previous eight weeks of action. Carolina isn't headed to the playoffs and there's still plenty of time for Kuechly and the rest of the fresh faces to learn for next season. Kuechly, the ninth pick in the NFL Draft, is giving the Panthers issues on what they should do next season in the middle. Beason hasn't played since Sept. 30 because of a knee injury and is on injured reserve. Who knows if Beason will be able to shed the injury-prone tag? If he can't, the Panthers know where to go in the middle.
HONORABLE MENTION - Kendall Wright, Justin Blackmon, Zach Brown, Courtney Upshaw, Casey Hayward, Ryan Tannehill, Blair Walsh, Justin Tucker, Mark Barron, Vontaze Burfict, Miles Burris, Dont'A Hightower, Fletcher Cox, Morris Claiborne.
12/03 15:29:18 ET