2021 marks the first season in 43 years that the NFL season length will change. The league went from 14 to 16 games in 1978 and added a bye week in 1990, but it hasn't changed the length since then. With the advent of a 17th game this season, it’s more than the season's length that will be changing. Records — and PFF grades — as we know them won’t compare to previous seasons.
With that in mind, let’s look back at the best rookie seasons we’ve seen at every position since the conception of PFF grading in 2006.
QB Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks (2012)
Not only did the NFL teams whiff on their evaluation of Wilson, but they realized it immediately. Wilson earned an 89.7 grade during the regular season that year and led the Seahawks to the playoffs. The key to the immediate success of Wilson and honorable mention Robert Griffin III was obvious — they ranked first and second in play-action usage and averaged 11.8 and 8.8 yards-per-attempt on play-action passes, respectively.
Honorable Mention: Robert Griffin III, Washington (2012)
RB Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (2007)
Just as he did at Oklahoma, Peterson established himself as the best in the business from Day 1. In the fifth game of his career, he went for 224 yards on 20 carries. Three games later, Peterson broke the single-game rushing record with 296 yards. Peterson finished with a 91.1 overall grade that season with 1,341 yards on 238 carries.
Honorable Mention: ALVIN KAMARA, New Orleans SAINTS (2017)
WR Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants (2014) & Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings (2020)
Beckham still has the most efficient rookie season in NFL history. Even after missing the first four weeks of the season with a hamstring tear, Beckham still went for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns in as many games. Translate that to a full season, and he’s 340 yards clear of Jefferson’s 1,400-yard rookie receiving record. Jefferson had a slow start himself, but it wasn’t injury-related. Somehow, he wasn’t even a starter for the Vikings at the beginning of the year, but after a 175-yard performance against the Titans in Week 3, he never looked back.
Honorable Mention: PERCY HARVIN, Minnesota VIKINGS (2009) & MICHAEL THOMAS, New Orleans SAINTS (2016)
TE Rob Gronkowski, New England Patriots (2010)
While his reign of seven straight seasons with 90+ overall grades didn’t start until his second season, Gronk’s 86.7 overall grade as a rookie in 2010 was unlike anything else we’ve seen at the position. His 84.0 run-blocking grade was a sight to behold from a rookie. While his 546 receiving yards may not look impressive, remember that he didn’t become a full-time player that year until mid-season, so 445 of those yards came from Week 9 and later.
Honorable Mention: JORDAN REED, Washington (2013)
LT Joe Thomas, Cleveland Browns (2007)
Thomas was billed as a special prospect and delivered on that right away. He didn’t allow a sack his entire rookie season and allowed only 28 pressures all year for a 90.2 pass-blocking grade. You won’t find a better rookie season from a tackle.
Honorable Mention: JAKE LONG, Miami DOLPHINS (2008)
LG Carl Nicks, New Orleans Saints (2008)
To unseat Quenton Nelson is no small task, but it’s easy to forget how special Nicks was before his career was tragically sidetracked. He earned an 85.8 overall grade as a rookie for New Orleans and never graded lower than 84.6 in his four years there. After moving on to Tampa Bay on a market-setting deal in free agency, Nicks contracted MRSA, and complications from it forced him to retire a year later.
Honorable Mention: QUENTON NELSON, Indianapolis COLTS (2018)
C Cody Whitehair, Chicago Bears (2016)
Whitehair is one player on this list who never lived up to the expectations set by his rookie season. In fact, his 87.5 overall grade from 2016 is still a career-high. It hasn’t helped either that 2016 was one of only two seasons that didn’t see him jostled back-and-forth between different positions. Now, he’s apparently settled in to start at left guard for the Bears in 2021.
Honorable Mention: NICK MANGOLD, New York JETS (2006)
RG Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys (2014)
Much like Thomas, Martin was different right out the gate. He earned a 92.0 pass-blocking grade as a rookie — the highest PFF has ever seen. He never allowed a sack and only yielded 10 pressures all season long.
Honorable Mention: JAHRI EVANS, New Orleans SAINTS (2006)
RT Marshal Yanda, Baltimore Ravens (2007)
While Yanda’s work at guard is what will be remembered when he goes into the Hall of Fame, his two seasons at tackle proved that he would have been damn good no matter where he lined up. He earned an 85.9 overall grade at right tackle as a rookie before moving inside to guard.
Honorable Mention: TRISTAN WIRFS, Tampa Bay BUCCANEERS (2020)
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EDGE Aldon Smith, San Francisco 49ers (2011) & Von Miller, Denver Broncos (2011)
What a contested group. Nick Bosa holds the rookie record with 80 total pressures, and Smith holds the rookie record with 14 sacks. Miller graded above 80.0 in run defense, pass-rushing and coverage, which he dropped into 111 times his rookie season. Cameron Wake holds the rookie record for pass-rush win rate at 25.2%. The grades lean Smith and Miller, but all deserve some love.
Honorable Mention: Cameron Wake, Miami DOLPHINS (2009) & Nick Bosa, San Francisco 49ERS (2019)
DI Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams (2014) & Sheldon Richardson, New York Jets (2014)
Impact players on the interior are more difficult to come back as rookies than on the edge. In fact, Donald is the only rookie defensive tackle to play at least 600 snaps and earn an overall grade over 80.0. Richardson barely missed that cutoff, though. He was a dominant run defender from Day 1, posting a 90.7 run-defense grade his first season.
Honorable Mention: LEONARD WILLIAMS, New York JETS (2015) & DA’SHAWN HAND, Detroit LIONS (2018)
LB Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers (2007) & Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks (2012)
Hall of Famers usually look like Hall of Famers from the beginning. Willis came in and earned an 86.8 overall grade on a 49ers team that went 5-11. Wagner came in and earned an 84.1 overall grade for a Seahawks team that marked the start of a defensive dynasty.
Honorable Mention: Chris Borland, San Francisco 49ERS (2014) & DARIUS LEONARD, Indianapolis Colts (2018)
CB Tre’Davious White, Buffalo Bills (2017) & Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints (2017)
This is another position group where both players entered the league during the same year. Lattimore and White were transcendent in their ability to translate immediately to the NFL game. This applies especially to Lattimore, who was forced into a ton of man coverage as a rookie and still earned a career-high 87.9 coverage grade with five picks and 13 pass-breakups.
Honorable Mention: RICHARD MARSHALL, Carolina PANTHERS (2006) & JOE HADEN, Cleveland BROWNS (2010)
Nickel Casey Hayward Jr., Green Bay Packers (2012)
Not only did Hayward have the best rookie nickel season we’ve seen, but it was the best season from a nickel defender in PFF's 15 years of grading. He allowed 33 completions on 74 targets and finished with six picks and 12 pass-breakups for a PFF record 31.1 passer rating. The problem was that the Packers never saw him as more than a slot, but he proved that narrative wrong during his time with the Chargers.
Honorable Mention: TYRANN MATHIEU, Arizona CARDINALS (2013)
S Dawan Landry, Baltimore Ravens (2006) & Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers (2018)
While it was Landry’s brother, LaRon, who got all the hype coming out of college, Dawan made a bigger splash despite being a fifth-round pick. He picked off five passes and broke up four more for an 89.9 overall grade as a rookie. Nowadays, Dawan and LaRon would almost certainly have played linebacker in the NFL. James, on the other hand, bridged the gap between safety and linebacker perfectly as a rookie en route to an 87.8 overall grade. Sadly, he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Still, he looks every bit back this preseason.