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DENVER – So, maybe that long lockout didn’t hurt the NFL rookies after all — aside from the big hits they took to their wallets.
With the league’s new salary structure redistributing the mega-millions to vested veterans instead of first-year players, and encouraging the 2011 draft class to prove its worth, a slew of rookies distinguished themselves on the NFL’s opening weekend.
The stellar debuts included those by Green Bay receiver/returner Randall Cobb, Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin, Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and cornerback/punt returner Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals.
None was more impressive — or seemed more improbable — than the performance of Carolina’s Cam Newton, who broke the NFL record for most yards passing by a rookie in his pro debut.
The Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn was the first overall draft pick, but questions about his accuracy carried through the preseason, when he completed barely 40 percent of his passes and looked as lost as any rookie who missed more than four months of workouts due to the league’s labor dispute.
Now, the questions have turned from whether he’ll be a good NFL quarterback to just how good he’ll be after breaking the mark of 346 yards set by Hall of Famer Otto Graham in 1950.
Newton ignited a Carolina offense that finished last in the NFL in total offense, yards passing, and scoring last season by throwing for 422 yards, the fifth-highest opening day total in NFL history (it was the fourth-highest for 24 hours before being surpassed Monday night by Tom Brady).
“He did everything everybody didn’t expect him to do,” said receiver Steve Smith, who caught TD throws of 77 and 26 yards from Newton. “He was on point. He made some great runs, some great reads and some fantastic throws.”
Newton may have made a believer out of some of his critics, but his teammates have always been in his corner.
“He’s had the world on his shoulders for a year now and I think he’s sort of getting used to it,” Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross said. “It was a tough game. He got hit a lot and there was a lot of crowd noise. He had incredible composure against all odds. He was as advertised.”
Of course, the rookie in that game who came out a winner wasn’t Newton but Peterson, who returned a punt 89 yards for the go-ahead touchdown and added five tackles in Arizona’s 28-21 win.
Newton, whose bid for a game-tying drive in the final minute fell a yard short, makes his home debut Sunday against the defending champion Packers, who were sparked by their own remarkable rookie in Week 1.
Randall Cobb, a second-round draft pick out of Kentucky, caught a touchdown pass and tied an NFL record for longest kickoff return with a 108-yarder in the Packers’ 42-34 win over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night.
The opening weekend came to a close Monday night in Denver, where former Texas A&M pass-rusher Von Miller, who was selected one spot behind Newton in the draft, forced a fumble on his first snap as a pro. Scooping it up was safety and fellow rookie Rahim Moore, a second-round selection from UCLA.
They were two of the Broncos’ record four rookies to start on opening day, a 23-20 loss to Oakland.
Other rookies made immediate impacts that didn’t show up in fantasy football stats, at least not directly.
New England’s first-round draft pick, left tackle Nate Solder, started for an injured Sebastian Vollmer, and Brady didn’t miss a beat, shaking off a rare turnover to throw for a team record 517 yards and four touchdowns, including a 99-yarder to Wes Welker in the Patriots’ 38-24 win at Miami.
Solder helped the Patriots prove the exception to the notion that the offensive line and secondary would be the groups most affected by the lack of OTAs because they need the most synergy.
“We all worked together, and I think that’s good for him,” Solder said of Brady, who recorded the 11th 500-yard passing performance in NFL history.
Marcel Dareus, the third overall pick out of Alabama, was a beast for the Buffalo Bills in their 41-7 whooping of the Chiefs in Kansas City.
The Bills had the worst run defense in the league last year but with Dareus anchoring the middle with his 6-foot-3, 340-pound frame, they held Jamaal Charles to 56 yards rushing. Although he was only credited with two tackles, Dareus was so good at jamming up the line of scrimmage with his brute force and agility that Buffalo’s linebackers had a field day.
By contrast, the Chiefs got nothing from their rookies. Jonathan Baldwin, who hurt a thumb in a training camp fight with Thomas Jones, was one of many first-round picks across the league that weren’t even active on opening weekend.
The Philadelphia Eagles didn’t dress their top three picks but started rookies at two important spots, sixth-rounder Jason Kelce at center and fourth-rounder Casey Matthews at middle linebacker. Nine of the 32 first-rounders didn’t play Sunday with five of them inactive.
And the low draft pick who got the highest marks was Chris Neild, a nose tackle from West Virginia whom the Redskins chose with the next-to-last overall pick in the draft. He had two sacks and forced a fumble despite playing just a handful of snaps in Washington’s 28-14 win over the Giants.
“In college last year I had three sacks the whole season, the year before that I had none,” Neild said. “So I didn’t expect that at all, I just went out there and tried to do my job.”
Kerrigan, the Redskins’ first-rounder, swung the momentum early in the third quarter when he batted Eli Manning’s pass into the air, caught it and returned it 9 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
“I just remember not really being able to see anything,” said Kerrigan, the No. 16 overall pick from Purdue, “as I was getting mauled by my teammates.”
It was a familiar scene for first-timers across the NFL in Week 1.
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi and Sports Writers Tom Withers, Dave Skretta, Joseph White, Tom Canavan and Steven Wine contributed.
Connect with AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton at http://twitter.com/arniestapleton