We’re taking a look at the NFL’s all-time single-season and single-game rookie records in key stats and reflecting on just how great some of these first-year players were right out of college.
It’s not easy being a rookie in the NFL.
Even in the new age of rookies starting right away at quarterback and other positions, there are almost always speed bumps along the way.
But some rookies can make it look easier than others. There are a select few that burst onto the scene and look like five-year veterans.
We’re taking a look at the AFL/NFL rookie records in key stats and reflecting on just how great some of these first-year players were right out of college. It should be noted that in the NFL, being on a roster, even on the IR, counts towards a player’s rookie eligibility – so a player who is injured his entire “first season” and then plays his first career game the next year is no longer a rookie.
Marc Bulger threw for 453 yards for the St. Louis Rams against the San Diego Chargers in November 2002, but he had been on the team the previous year without seeing any action so was not considered a rookie. Likewise for New Orleans Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks, who passed for 441 yards against the Denver Broncos in his first year of game action in 2000 after backing up Brett Favre in Green Bay in 1999.
Most Passing Yards in Season: 4,374 – Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts (2012)
It’s hard to imagine Luck retired less than a decade after putting up the most passing yards ever for a rookie, but he chose to step away from the game after the 2018 season. He lived up to the hype of a No. 1 pick while playing though, making the Pro Bowl as a rookie, and in three of his other five seasons. He also led the league in passing touchdowns in 2014.
Most Passing Yards in a Game: 437 – Jeff Garcia, San Francisco 49ers at Cincinnati Bengals (Dec. 5, 1999)
Most Passing Yards in a Playoff Game: 385 – Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons (Jan. 13, 2013)
Most Passing Touchdowns in a Season: 31 – Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers (2020)
Herbert finished runner-up to Luck on the rookie passing yards list but ahead of Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, Jameis Winston of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles. And he blew everyone out of the water on the rookie TD list with four more than Baker Mayfield’s 27 in 2020. Herbert was a polarizing prospect, and only got to start at all because Tyrod Taylor got a punctured lung while receiving a pre-game injection in Week 2. He came in and threw for 311 yards and a touchdown in his first start and never looked back. With the rising passing rates in the league, it’s possible someone comes for Herbert’s throne in the next few years. Ten of the top 12 rookie seasons with the most passing yards have come since 2010.
Most Passing Touchdowns in a Game: 5 – Five Players Tied
- Daniel Jones, New York Giants at Washington, on Dec. 22, 2019
- Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans vs. Kansas City Chiefs, on Oct. 8, 2017
- Jameis Winston, Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Philadelphia Eagles, on Nov. 22, 2015
- Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions vs. Cleveland Browns, on Nov. 22, 2009
- Ray Buivid, Chicago Bears at Chicago Cardinals, on Dec. 5, 1937
Most Passing Touchdowns in a Playoff Game: 3 – Three Players Tied
- Brock Purdy, San Francisco 49ers vs. Seattle Seahawks, on Jan. 14, 2023
- Dak Prescott, Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers, on Jan. 15, 2017
- Sammy Baugh, Washington at Chicago Bears, on Dec. 12, 1937
Most Passing Interceptions in a Season: 28 – Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts (1998)
Speaking of growing pains, even the great Peyton Manning had a rough go as a rookie quarterback for the Colts before becoming a Hall-of-Fame passer later in his career. Manning never really came close to matching this mark, with his second-highest interception total of 23 coming in 2001. He also threw for 26 touchdowns as a rookie and ended up with 539 – the third most in NFL history – over an illustrious 17-year career. He was named Super Bowl XLI MVP in a win over the Bears before winning another title with the Broncos.
Most Passing Interceptions in a Game: 6 – Jim Zorn, Seattle Seahawks vs. Detroit Lions (Oct. 24, 1976)
Most Passing Interceptions in a Playoff Game: 4 – Todd Marinovich, Los Angeles Raiders at Kansas City Chiefs (Dec. 28, 1991)
Most Rushing Yards in a Season: 1,808 – Eric Dickerson, Los Angeles Rams (1983)
Most Rushing Touchdowns in a Season: 18 – Eric Dickerson, Los Angeles Rams (1983)
The Hall of Famer had a monster rookie season, leading all players (not rookies, players) in touches, rushing yards, touchdowns, yards from scrimmage, and just about any other running back stat. He even finished second to Joe Theismann in the MVP voting. Dickerson then set the NFL record for rushing yards the following year. Jim Brown is the only rookie to ever win the MVP award as a rookie, but he finished with half as many touchdowns (nine) and just over half as many yards (942) as Dickerson in an admittedly different era.
Most Rushing Yards in a Game: 296 – Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings vs. San Diego Chargers (Nov. 4, 2007)
Most Rushing Yards in a Playoff Game: 204 – Timmy Smith, Washington vs. Denver Broncos (Jan. 31, 1988)
Most Rushing Touchdowns in a Game: 10 Players Tied With 4
The most recent rookie running back to rush for four TDs in a game was Doug Martin for the Buccaneers against the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 4, 2012.
Most Rushing Touchdowns in a Playoff Game: 3 – Three Players Tied
- Sony Michel, New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Chargers, on Jan. 13, 2019
- Leonard Fournette, Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers, on Jan. 14, 2018
- William Floyd, San Francisco 49ers vs. Chicago Bears, on Jan. 7, 1995
Most Receptions in a Season: 104 – Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins (2021)
Most Receptions in a Game: Three Players Tied With 14
- Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Cincinnati Bengals, on Sept. 26, 2021
- Saquon Barkley, New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys, on Sept. 16, 2018
- Roy Helu Jr., Washington vs. San Francisco 49ers, on Nov. 6, 2011
Most Receptions in a Playoff Game: 13 – Chad Morton, New Orleans Saints at Minnesota Vikings (Jan. 6, 2001)
Most Receiving Yards in a Season: 1,473 – Bill Groman, Houston Oilers (1960)
The name everyone had in mind, I’m sure. Groman had 1,473 receiving yards in a 14-game season, and that number has held up, even with Justin Jefferson and Chase challenging him over a two-year stretch. Groman helped lead the Oilers to the AFL championship, hauling in a touchdown reception in a 24-16 AFL title game win over the Los Angeles Chargers. He followed up his rookie season by making first-team All-Pro his sophomore season, but struggled with knee injuries after that. He had just 833 yards the rest of his career. Jefferson’s 1,400 yards stood as the Super Bowl-era mark for one season until Ja’Marr Chase had 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Bengals in 2021. Chase’s performance included a single-game rookie-record 266 yards in a win over the Chiefs.
Most Receiving Yards in a Game: 266 – Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals vs. Kansas City Chiefs (Jan. 2, 2022)
Most Receiving Yards in a Playoff Game: DK Metcalf, Seattle Seahawks at Philadelphia Eagles (Jan. 5, 2020)
Most Receiving Touchdowns in a Season: 17 – Randy Moss, Minnesota Vikings (1998)
It’s interesting to see that the leader in passing, rushing and receiving touchdowns as a rookie has some separation from the pack. John Jefferson’s 13 receiving touchdowns are four behind the dominant rookie season of Moss, who was incredible in college but at a smaller school in Marshall. Questions about Moss’ character caused him to fall to the No. 21 pick in the draft, but he started proving he could be a force against NFL competition right away. His rookie season was the first of six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to start his career, and he led the league in receiving touchdowns five times. He scored a touchdown in both of his playoff games that season as well, capping a great start to his Hall-of-Fame career.
Most Receiving Touchdowns in a Game: Two Players Tied With 4
- Jerry Butler, Buffalo Bills vs. New York Jets, Sept. 23, 1979
- Harlon Hill, Chicago Bears at San Francisco 49ers, on Oct. 31, 1954
Most Receiving Touchdowns in a Playoff Game: 2 – Nine Players Tied
The last rookie to haul in two picks in a playoff game was Chase Claypool for the Steelers against the Browns in the AFC wild-card game on Jan. 10, 2021.
Most Defensive Interceptions in a Season: 14 – Dick “Night Train” Lane, Los Angeles Rams (1952)
Night Train Lane doesn’t just have the rookie record for interceptions, he has the overall record. That’s right, no one has eclipsed the 14 he had in his first season. He also had two defensive touchdowns in the first year of his Hall-of-Fame career for the Rams. Lane led the league in interceptions in 1954 as well with 10. Unlike the rookie passing marks, the league leaderboard for rookie interceptions hasn’t changed at all recently, with Anthony Henry of the 2001 Browns being the only rookie since 1991 to have at least 10 picks. Everson Walls has the Super Bowl-era mark with 11 in 1981.
Most Defensive Interceptions in a Game: 4 – Two players tied
- Bobby Ply, Dallas Texans vs. San Diego Chargers, on Dec. 16, 1962
- Goose Gonsoulin, Denver Broncos at Buffalo Bills, on Sept. 18, 1960
Most Defensive Interceptions in a Playoff Game: 4 – Vernon Perry, Houston Oilers at San Diego Chargers (Dec. 29, 1979)
Most Sacks in a Season (Since 1982): 14.5 – Jevon Kearse, Tennessee Titans (1999)
They called him “The Freak” for a reason. Kearse edged out Aldon Smith in 2011 by half a sack for this regular-season record, as he was unstoppable as a rookie for the Titans. He made the Pro Bowl for the first of three straight years to start his career and led the league in forced fumbles with eight. He also finished runner-up to Warren Sapp of the Buccaneers in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting.