For the unenlightened who pay too much attention to the NFL's pitch and catch game, the rookie class of 2000 might seem an underachieving bunch.
Wrong! Very wrong.
Sure, there is no rookie quarterback getting playing time this year -- many teams took care of that position last year, and Minnesota's Daunte Culpepper doesn't count, even though he didn't throw a pass in '99. And the receivers generally have done too much giving away and not enough receiving all season.
Still, this is a strong rookie crop led by such defensive standouts as Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher, Cleveland end Courtney Brown, and Philadelphia tackle Corey Simon.
On offense, Washington tackle Chris Samuels, Denver running back Mike Anderson and Miami tackle Todd Wade have had major impacts.
And it's spiced by placekicker Sebastian Janikowski, who after off-field controversy followed by a slow start, now is making the big kicks Oakland sought in drafting him 17th overall.
The Raiders are 9-2, tied for the best record in football, in part because they are winning close games they lost last year. Janikowski missed two games with a foot infection, and also missed seven field goals earlier this year. But he's found the target on nearly every kick since and made final-minute game winners over Kansas City and San Diego.
Coach Jon Gruden likes the way Janikowski responded to his slump.
"He has to understand that sometimes Tiger Woods has walked off the green after a three-putt," Gruden said. "And I've seen pros miss chump shots and not hit the curveball, but they keep concentrating and great players come out of it."
While Janikowski is contributing to a playoff-bound team, Urlacher is standing out with not nearly the same level of help: Chicago is 3-8.
But Urlacher, a safety-linebacker-kick returner at New Mexico, has revived Monsters of the Midway references with his knack for finding the ball and destroying whoever has it.
Urlacher leads the Bears with 114 tackles, including a 16-tackle game against Buffalo. He has six sacks, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
"It's exciting when I get there (to the ball carrier)," Urlacher said. "I just try to run over them. When I can't do that, I make adjustments, break down the situation and try to get to the play."
While Urlacher has been the most dynamic defender among rookies, he has plenty of company in the highlight films. Top overall choice Brown, Philadelphia's Simon, Minnesota's Chris Hovan, New Orleans' Darren Howard and the Jets' Shaun Ellis are drawing raves up front.
Chicago's Ralph Brown, Kansas City's Greg Wesley and Minnesota's Tyrone Carter are coming on in the secondary. Linebackers LaVar Arrington of Washington, Tennessee's Keith Bulluck, Tampa Bay's Nate Webster and Atlanta's Mark Simoneau have shown flashes of possible stardom.
Cleveland coach Chris Palmer can't find enough good things to say about Courtney Brown, the top overall pick from Penn State.
"He's a guy who I look forward to Monday morning and watching him on film," Palmer said. "He's a guy who plays every play full speed."
While so many young defenders are contributing this season, the strongest offensive positions for rookies are on the offensive line. Salary cap restrictions and a lack of depth have led many coaches to trust unproven blockers. Lots of them are coming through; Samuels, Wade, Green Bay's Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher have been the best.
Samuels, the third overall draft choice, has plugged Washington's huge hole at left tackle -- by opening huge holes in opposing defenses.
"To me, he looks like one of the better tackles in the league," Redskins lineman Andy Heck said of teammate Samuels, who could become the first offensive lineman to win offensive rookie of the year honors. "Not just one of the better rookies, but one of the better tackles in the league."
Wade is up there, too. The Dolphins selected him 53rd overall out of Mississippi and plunked him at right tackle, where he has been outstanding, particularly as a power blocker.
"I haven't been around a rookie offensive lineman who, from the first day of training camp, had the presence and the toughness where you had a good feeling that he would be the starter just as fast as you wanted to put him in there," coach Dave Wannstedt said.
Even if the less-glamorous positions on offense have most of the standout rookies, playmakers have emerged at running back in Anderson, Jamal Lewis of Baltimore and Sammy Morris of Buffalo. The Giants' Ron Dayne has displayed a bit of the power that helped him to the Heisman Trophy, and J.R. Redmond might be the back New England has been searching for since Robert Edwards wrecked his knee. Cleveland might have gotten a third-round gem in Travis Prentice.
Several other rookies expected to make instant impacts saw their debut seasons shortened by injury.
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