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Rookies of '12 could be most impressive ever

Nov. 30, 2012 @ 12:35 AM

Without intentionally trying to embroil myself in a heated debate about which NFL draft class is the best of all-time, I will say earnestly and with great panache that this year's cast of rookies is historically impressive. Not saying 2012 is the best draft class of all time (it's way too soon to speculate); I'm saying the rookies this year -- weighed against the rookie season from every other rookie ever -- are the best we've seen, convincingly so, and we're still five games from being finished.

Following is the 2012 draft class's Big Three:

Doug Martin, Tampa Bay

Rather quietly, Martin is putting together the best rookie running back campaign we've seen in years. Martin ranks fourth in the league in rushing yards (1,040), and his 95.5 rushing yards per game -- the 10th best mark of any rookie since the AFL-NFL merger -- falls only three-tenths of a point shy of Adrian Peterson's average when he was a rookie in 2007.

The Buccaneers won five of their last six games largely because of Martin's brilliance. It's been a spectacle to behold: eight touchdowns (seven rushing, one receiving) and 829 yards from scrimmage (642 rushing, 187 receiving) on 134 touches (118 carries and 16 receptions). The real gem within that stretch was Martin's production against the Oakland Raiders when he matched Mike Anderson for the third most rushing yards in a single game by a rookie (251) and tied the mark for most rushing touchdowns in a game by a rookie (4).

Andrew Luck, Indianapolis

I've written before about Luck's burgeoning legend, so I won't rehash what I've already said. Instead, here's a fresh batch of research, the kind that substantiates how excellent Luck has been as far as rookie quarterbacks go and just how much this patently untalented Indianapolis team has leaned on him for production.

Through 11 games, Luck is averaging 291.4 passing yards per game (the highest average ever for a rookie quarterback; the next closest is 30 yard less (Marc Bulger, 260.9). Of every rookie quarterback who has played more than one game, Luck is averaging the most completions (23.18) and pass attempts (40.81) per game.

But what's most impressive is that Luck has Indianapolis positioned for the playoffs. Which is unfathomable when you remember that this team won exactly two games last season. On paper, this team should be one of the worst in the league. Their roster is heavy on inexperience and extra light on talent, but it's being held together by the synergy of a singular purpose -- as tragic as it might be that they found focus in head coach Chuck Pagano's illness -- and a whole lot of Luck.

Robert Griffin III, Washington

Anyone with a kernel of football knowledge can probably deduce that Griffin has had a sensational year. But I think it's not until you dig deep into the historical standing of his numbers that you discover truly how ridiculous his performance has been.

Griffin has the highest completion percentage (67.5) of any rookie quarterback who attempted at least 200 passes. Take this even farther and compare it to how Griffin stacks up against rookies who attempted at least 300 passes and the disparity is even greater: Griffin's completion percentage is six-and-a-half points higher than the next closest rookie quarterback who attempted 300 passes or more (Matt Ryan, 61.1%).

Griffin's passer rating (104.6), which is the fourth best in the league, is the highest we've ever seen from a rookie quarterback, and the only rookie quarterbacks to throw for more yards per attempt than Griffin (8.21 YPA) were Bulger and Ben Roethlisberger. Griffin has 16 passing touchdowns. which is the 10th most ever by a rookie -- 10 shy of Peyton Manning's record -- with five games to play (and we haven't even talked about his prowess as a runner!).

What's in play for Griffin is that he'll end up as the most productive rookie quarterback in terms of scoring and efficiency that we have ever seen. Another way to put it: The greatest rookie quarterback of all time.

Chad Pemberton is a Marshall University graduate who follows the NFL and is writing about it for The Herald-Dispatch. Email him at pemberton@herald-dispatch.com.