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Silverman: Non-QBs Have Also Impacted Strong Rookie Class

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly tackles fellow rookie Russell Wilson. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly tackles fellow rookie Russell Wilson. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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By Steve Silverman-

(CBS) This has been the year of the rookie quarterbacks.

Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson have changed the expectations for first year quarterbacks in the NFL – and they have also turned their teams into playoff contenders.

However, while the rookie quarterbacks have gotten the bulk of the attention, this season has seen a number of outstanding performances from rookies who are not quarterbacks.

RGIII’s teammate Alfred Morris has been a revelation at the running back slot for head coach Mike Shanahan.

The Redskins drafted Morris in the sixth round of Florida Atlantic and they were hoping Morris might be able to push Roy Helu (injured reserve) and Evan Royster (14 carries). Instead, Morris has blown them out of the water and become the team’s best running back by a wide margin.

Morris has already rushed for 1,130 yards and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He has exceeded the 100-yard mark five times this season, and he had a season-best 124 yards Monday night against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants.

What makes Morris so unique is that he gets almost all his yards by running between the tackles and then taking on the linebacker. His linemen are opening some decent holes, but he initiates the contact with linebackers who are seemingly ready to pop him and put him on the ground, but Morris is winning the battle.

The Bears will get their second look at one of the best rookies in the league in Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil this Sunday. Kalil was taken with the fourth pick in the first round because the Vikings believed he had all the characteristics needed to become a solid left tackle in the NFL.

That’s what all teams want when they draft an offensive lineman in the first round but as the Bears have learned rather painfully, it doesn’t always work that way.

Kalil is ahead of schedule. The Vikings knew that Kalil was a great athlete with quick feet when they drafted him and they were confident that he could protect quarterback Christian Ponder’s back side because of his pass blocking skills. However, he is a shockingly good run blocker.

When you are blocking for Adrian Peterson, he will get a lot of yards on his own. However, Kalil has been overpowering at times as a run blocker and is even better than advertised.

Rookie cornerback Casey Hayward has been one of the most surprising rookies in the league for the Packers. While the Packers don’t have a stellar defense – they rank 15th overall and 17th against the pass – that’s a lot better than they were last year when they ranked dead last in both categories.

The Packers have been without Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson for huge chunks of the year, but Heyward has been an impact player.

Hayward has emerged from that football factory known as Vanderbilt to intercept five passes and deflect 21 other passes. Hayward is not a big man at 5-11 and 192, but he is a solid hitter who has registered 41 tackles.

Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly appeared to have the kind of hitting ability that all coaches appreciate when the Panthers drafted him with the ninth pick in the first round out of Boston College.

Kuechly has been ready to play since the start of training camp and has proved to be one of the team’s best defensive players in his rookie year.

If the rest of his teammates weren’t so soft, the Panthers might be having a decent year, but Kuechly has basically been alone on the island. He has a team-high 114 tackles and while he has a bit of nastiness to his game, it’s his instincts that have allowed him to play superlative football.

No other Panthers defensive player has more than 74 tackles.

Kuechly is almost always in the right place at the right time and he also has a nose for the ball. He has five passes defensed and he has made three fumble recoveries.

Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner has stepped off the campus of Utah State to take over as starting middle linebacker for the Seahawks.

After opening eyes with a solid training camp, Wagner has started 11 of 12 games and is the Seahawks’ leading tackler with 101 stops.

The second-round draft pick was all over the field against the Bears in Week 13 and had a team-high 11 tackles. Wagner is a young player who understands his responsibilities and is rarely out of position.

Head coach Pete Carroll does not hesitate to ask him to do more each week and Wagner is becoming one of the Seahawks’ most valuable defensive players he’s a great complement to the Seahawks’ strong pass rush.

steve silverman small Silverman: Non QBs Have Also Impacted Strong Rookie Class

Steve Silverman

Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.