In the latest indication that first-year NFL players may not have been quite as impacted by the four-month lockout as many observers felt they would be, the 32 teams combined to use 45 rookie starters in the opening week of regular-season play, the most rookie starters on kickoff weekend in at least three seasons.
The numbers, compiled by The Sports Xchange, were gleaned from the official play-by-play documents from each of the 16 contests. They account only for "position" players; special teams players are not included.
The average number of rookie starters per team, 1.4, is above the norm for the past three seasons roughly ranging from 0.9-1.2. Unofficially, five of the rookies gained starts because of injuries.
As of last Wednesday, there were 61 undrafted rookies on NFL rosters, although that number decreased slightly during the week as clubs reconfigured their rosters in advance of the opening games. Conventional wisdom had been that the number of undrafted college free agents would be down from previous years because of limited opportunities resulting from the lockout and the absence of minicamps and OTAs, but it actually increased nearly 20 percent.
For the opening weekend, youth was not only served, it was serviceable as well. Despite the lockout, teams showed little reluctance to employ rookie starters.
The volume of rookie starters was mildly surprising to some, but not all.
"You still play the best guys and the guys who give you a chance (to win)," said one NFC coach. "And you draft players (high), basically because you think they're better than the ones you've got, so why not play them ... lockout or no lockout?"
Not surprisingly, nearly half the rookie starters, 20 of the 45, were first-round picks. That included each of the first six prospects off the board in April and seven of the top 10. Just one of the quarterbacks selected in the first round, top overall choice Cam Newton of Carolina, started the opener. The other rookie quarterback in a club's starting lineup, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, was a second-round pick.
Obviously, the much debated Newton was the week's rookie star, passing for 442 yards, the most ever for a rookie in his first NFL start. Newton also completed eight passes of 20 yards or more for a Carolina team that had only 20 such plays in 2010. There were other rookies, not only starters, who authored solid contributions, but no one made quite the splash that Newton did.
Still, it was an uneven rookie debut overall.
Said Dalton, who suffered a forearm injury in the Bengals' win over Cincinnati: "People talk about the speed of the game, and they're not kidding. It's so much different (than the preseason)."
Keeping with the emphasis of the past several seasons, there were 14 rookie starters on the offensive line, including five first-year tackles. It was guard, though, that tied for the most positional starters, seven, joining the defensive end spot at the top of the list. Six of the seven guards were drafted after the first round, five of them in the third stanza or beyond.
Five teams - Baltimore, Detroit, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and San Francisco - did not start a single rookie. There were also five franchises that each started more than two first-year players: Cincinnati and Cleveland (four each); and Carolina, Denver and Seattle (three apiece).
Beyond the 20 first-round players, the breakdown of rookie starters: nine in the second round, six in the third, four fourth-rounders, two each in the fifth and sixth, and one in the seventh. There was one undrafted free agent starter.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.