The Class of Their Class

Eric Dickerson, Curt Warner and Dan Marino are the cream of the NFL's deepest crop of rookies ever
Eric Dickerson, Curt Warner and Dan Marino are the cream of the NFL's deepest crop of rookies ever
November 14, 1983

Draftniks called1983 the Vintage of the Century. For them, the collection of college footballplayers waiting to be picked by the pros was the finest ever. Footballhistorians said it was the best since '73, a year that sent eight rookies intothe Pro Bowl. At any rate, it was going to be one heckuva college crop.

Just how good hasit been? Well, there's plenty of talent, all right. Rookies have invaded theNFL in great numbers, more than ever before, thanks in part to a four-manincrease in the roster size that took effect in '82, and defections to theUSFL. This year the league's teams had 266 "first-year" men (adesignation that also includes Canadian imports and '82 rookies who had neverplayed because of injuries) on their opening-day squads. Sixty-five of them noware starters. Both figures are alltime highs. But while the '83 rookie cropcertainly looks solid, it hasn't been as brilliant as expected, a bit of itsflash having gone to the USFL. "A great draft for red-chippers," saysMike Giddings the superscout who evaluates all the pro players for eight NFLclubs "but not great for blues—yet."

Right now threemembers of the class of '83 seem headed for the Pro Bowl—the Rams' EricDickerson and Seattle's Curt Warner, who lead the NFC and AFC, respectively, inrushing, and Miami Quarterback Dan Marino. That's where it gets interesting,because 1983 was also supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback, and on draftday Marino rated at the bottom of what was known as the Group.

The Group, a.k.a.the Big Five. They were the five quarterbacks who figured to go in the firstround, giving the position the heaviest first-round overload in draftinghistory. Stanford's John Elway was going to be the No. 1. Everyone knew that.Then the scramble was on. Illinois' Tony Eason, Miami's Jim Kelly and PennState's Todd Blackledge would be the next three. Choose any order. Then Pitt'sMarino. At the beginning of his senior season he had rated as the No. 2 pick,right behind Elway, but 1982 was a downer for him. He seemed out of sync withthe offense. His receivers kept dropping the ball. "I don't want to talkabout last year," Marino says now. "I don't even want to think aboutit."

By draft day hewas projected as a low first-rounder. Some scouts were even predicting secondround for him. "A pusher," one player personnel director said. "Hepushes the ball. He's lost his throwing rhythm completely."

Elway went toBaltimore on the first pick, Denver eventually getting him in a trade.Blackledge went to Kansas City on the seventh, Kelly to Buffalo on the 14th andEason to New England one choice later. On the 24th pick the Jets went for KenO'Brien, a sleeper quarterback from UC-Davis. In the war room in Miami, DonShula stared at the board in disbelief. He had been thinking aboutdefensive-line help. The Dolphins had the 27th selection.

"I'd beenhoping Marino would be there, but I didn't see any logical way he could,"Shula says. "I'd seen him in the Hula Bowl and Senior Bowl. All he'd donewas win the MVP in both. I had him rated right up there with Elway."

Cincinnati tookNebraska Center Dave Rimington on the 25th pick, the Raiders took USC TackleDon Mosebar, and Marino belonged to Miami. Everyone's calling it a steal now,but at the time no one could figure it out. "What's Shula want that guyfor?" one scout said.

Six months havegone by. Elway started five games for the Broncos, and they went 2-3. In gameNo. 6 he sat down, Steve DeBerg took over and the Broncos won four straightgames. Last Sunday DeBerg went out with a shoulder injury in the third quarterat Seattle, and Elway was waved in. He completed eight of 15 passes for 134yards and a touchdown, but couldn't overcome Seattle's 20-9 lead—and Denverultimately lost 27-19. "In time John'll be a great one." Denver CoachDan Reeves says. "We gave him too much all at once." Kelly went toHouston of the USFL; he'll see his first action in '84. Blackledge has thrownfive NFL passes, Eason four and O'Brien none. No one wants to rush them intoanything. And Marino?

Well, when he tookover for David Woodley after five games, the Dolphins were 3-2; they were lastin the NFL in passing and fifth from last in scoring. Marino made his firststart against the Bills in the Orange Bowl, and things began disastrously.Midway through the second quarter he had thrown two interceptions and beensacked once, and the Bills had a 14-0 lead. But there he was, marching down thesidelines, grabbing his running backs' shoulder pads, patting his linemen'shelmets, nodding to his receivers and telling each one to relax, he wasn'tgoing to fold. He didn't...and he hasn't since. Miami lost that game inovertime, but Marino finished with 322 yards passing. Since the Buffalo gamethe Dolphins have gone 4-0. Under Marino they've upgraded their scoring from16.2 points a game to 21.9 and moved eight notches up in the pass rankings.

Marino, whocompleted 15 of 29 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns in Miami's 20-17 winover San Francisco Sunday, now leads the AFC's passers with a 102.7 rating. Hehas thrown only one interception in his last 139 passes. The last rookie tolead a conference in passing was Greg Cook, when he was with the Bengals in1969. The highest completion percentage for a rookie passer in NFL history isJim McMahon's 57.1 last year with the Chicago Bears. Marino is currently at60.1%.

"I'm throwingthe way I've always thrown," he says, low-keying his success. "I'mreading coverages better because it's a full-time job now, an all-day thinginstead of just a few hours in the afternoon. Plus I've got Coach Shula workingwith me."

"That's wherehe got lucky," Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard says. "There arenot a lot of great quarterback coaches around. Shula happens to be one of them.He took that kid down there right after the draft and really prepared him. Hehandled him just right. He didn't throw him in to sink or swim; he put him inwhen he thought he was ready."

"If you were ascientist, you'd have to run a control on this," says one player personneldirector who was an original Marino knocker. "Put Marino in someone else'ssystem and see where he'd be now. Then take an Elway or an Eason and put himwith Shula and see where he'd be. Maybe they'd be doing the same thingsMarino's doing."

Marino could makethe Pro Bowl by default. The major AFC competition—Dan Fouts and TerryBradshaw—is on the sidelines with injuries. Dickerson, whose 10-game,1,223-yard total is the sixth best in history at this stage, is a shoo-in; his15 rushing TDs, including two in the Rams' 21-14 win over Chicago on Sunday,are a rookie record. "A great, great runner so far," says his Ramcoach, John Robinson, "and his true greatness is still to be realized."The Seahawks' Warner is also a safe bet. "He reminds me of O.J. Simpson ina lot of ways," says Seattle's left guard Reggie McKenzie who blocked forO.J. "Same ability to cut on a dime, same knack for finding the holes."After that, the Pro Bowl pickings from this year's rookie crop look slim,unless Willie Gault or James Jones suddenly goes crazy.

Gault, who chosethe Chicago Bears over a high hurdles berth on the Olympic team, has beennicknamed Dr. Gault by Left Guard Noah Jackson, "because he makes all ourother receivers feel well." Gault has averaged 20.9 yards a catch and hadone streak of six touchdowns in three games. The Bears' other first-roundchoice, Jimbo Covert, has been a fixture at offensive left tackle, a rough-cutdiamond who makes mistakes but still shoves people around. "When Chicagoplayed Tampa Bay," Giddings says, "I saw him drop Lee Roy Selmon acouple of times with his hands. There might not be a stronger tackle in thegame today." Jones, the big Florida fullback who was supposed to block forBilly Sims in Detroit, has been doing just fine on his own, leading the Lionsin rushing while ranking second in receiving.

In San Diego, theChargers were thinking of their four rookie defensive starters in terms of theSuper Bowl, not the Pro Bowl. Cornerbacks Gill Byrd and Danny Walters andinside linebackers Billy Ray Smith and Mike Green were supposed to give theChargers a defense that would bring them a title—much in the manner of the 198149ers, with Ronnie Lott, Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright—but it hasn'tworked out that way. Byrd and Walters have been doing a fine job at thecorners, but the lack of a pass rush has given them nightmares. Green has beenterrific as an inside plugger and run-stuffer, but Smith, the fifth playerdrafted, has had trouble making the conversion from stand-up defensive end toinside backer, where the traffic moves in all lanes at all speeds.

Considering thetalent that went to the USFL, this could have been a truly dazzling rookiecrop. People like running backs Kelvin Bryant and Gary Anderson, Wide ReceiverTrumaine Johnson and Safety David Greenwood could have been Pro Bowl-bound, butwe'll never know. Some scouts say that the presence of the USFL caused NFLclubs to hold onto their draft choices and give them a longer look—to keep themaway from the new league. Whatever the reason, there are certainly an awful lotof rookies around—low-round choices, doesn't seem to makeany difference.

The Steelers,never heavy on rookies in their Super Bowl days, added nine to their activeroster, and that's after 13 made it last year. At Atlanta, 16 rookies made theclub, including eight of its 11 draft choices; Houston kept 15, nine of whomstart. The Bengals didn't cut any of their 12 picks in the first 11 rounds. Tenof the 12 are on the squads, one's on the injured reserve and one went to theUSFL. There are 12 Colt rookies, including Left Guard Chris Hinton and RightLinebacker Vernon Maxwell, both of whom have had an immediate impact; the Coltswon a total of only two games the last two seasons, but after beating the Jets17-14 Sunday they were 6-4 and challenging first-place Miami (7-3) in the AFCEast.

In terms ofblue-chip quality, though, it's hard to match the 1973 rookie group, when RayGuy, Greg Pruitt and Isaac Curtis made the AFC Pro Bowl squad, and CharleYoung, Tom Wittum, Nick Mike-Mayer, Chuck Foreman and Wally Chambers the NFCteam. Future All-Pros from that year included John Hannah, Joe DeLamielleure,Jerry Sisemore. Drew Pearson, Leon Gray, Bert Jones, Fouts, Ron Jaworski, OtisArmstrong, Terry Metcalf Harvey Martin, Cody Jones and Brad Van Pelt. Oneexotic note: On the 17th round of that '73 draft, the Vikings picked the guywho would become the richest athlete of them all, a basketball- andbaseball-playing tight-end projection from the University of Minnesota namedDave Winfield.

Before '73, themost famous NFL rookie crop probably was the one in 1965. That year GeorgeHalas turned the Bear draft over to an assistant, George Allen, and Allenpromptly chose two Hall of Famers, Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, and later onalso grabbed Michigan State's Dick Gordon, who wound up a Pro Bowler and theBears' fourth-leading alltime receiver. Who says Allen doesn't know how todraft? Across the board the '65 group was blue chip all the way—Joe Namath,Craig Morton, Jim Nance, Ken Willard, Mike Curtis, Fred Biletnikoff, OtisTaylor, Jethro Pugh, Chris Hanburger.

Two earlier groupsof rookies stand out from the days when drafting was less scientific. The classof '57 produced such stars as Jim Brown, Jim Parker, Sonny Jurgensen, LenDawson, Paul Hornung, John Brodie and the late Willie Galimore. And 1952 willbe remembered as the great West Coast invasion, when three Pacific Coastrunning backs, Ollie Matson, Frank Gifford and Hugh McElhenny, all begancareers that would end in the Hall of Fame. Seven Hall of Famers, total,emerged from that '52 rookie contingent—Gino Marchetti, Bill George, NightTrain Lane and Yale Lary, in addition to the West Coast trio—making it, for topof the line quality, the bluest of all the blue-chip classes.

There are teamsthat can put their finger on a specific rookie group and say, "This is theone. This did it for us." The Steelers got five Pro Bowlers in '74, thefinal push into their Super Bowl years and the topper in a six-year periodduring which they added 14 players who eventually made the Pro Bowl, includingsix from the class of '71. The Redskins say the '81 group, which brought themthree of the Hogs who block for John Riggins (Mark May, Russ Grimm and JoeJacoby) plus pass-rusher Dexter Manley and Wide Receiver Charlie Brown was thekey to their Super Bowl triumph Redskin historians recall that one of the moreunusual drafts in history belongs to their club. On their first two choices in1964 they selected the players who would become the NFL's alltime careerleaders in receptions and interceptions, Charley Taylor and Paul Krause.

How well does thisclass of '83 measure up? Well, check back in a decade or so, when Marino isstaring down his whiskers at some youngster who wants his job, when Dickersonand Warner are trying to squeeze some more mileage out of old and batteredlegs, when Willie Gault has lost a step or two and the new Transworld FootballLeague, based in Tokyo, is threatening to sign the class of '94 en masse. Bythen we'll have it all sorted out.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

Preview Of Coming Attractions
With the major bowl and college All-Star games still to come, this is how NFLscouts rank the best prospects for the 1984 draft. The consensus is that theupcoming crop is fair. It's as good as 1983's, better than 1982's, with a lackof top runners after Rozier. The top dozen, with scouts' comments:

Player & Rank

Height & Weight

40 Speed

1. MIKE ROZIER, HB, Nebraska
A slasher. Billy Sims-Freeman McNeil type. Won't run away from many people butwill run over a few.

5'10", 211


2. STEVE YOUNG, QB, Brigham Young
Could be first player picked, depending on how badly Houston or Tampa Bay needsa QB. Precision passer rather than gunner. Terrific athlete, superiorrunner.

6'½", 195


3. IRVING FRYAR, WR, Nebraska
Great runner after the catch, with linebacker toughness. "Mr.Individual" one scout says. "Everyone wears red sweats; he wants towear blue."

5'11¾", 195


Now you know why Nebraska is No. 1. Some scouts call him the finest offensiveline prospect since John Hannah. Great feet, coordination and drive-blockingexplosion.

6'3¼", 270


5. REGGIE WHITE, DT, Tennessee
Played a four-point stance, "contain" style, as a junior, but now thathe's free to read and react he has come into his own.

6'4¾", 274


A raw talent. Languished under former Coach Jerry Claiborne, but Bobby Ross'spro-style offense is made to order for his freewheeling game.

6'3¾", 205


7. CARL BANKS, LB, Michigan State
Earlier knee injury is O.K. now. Probably projected inside. A supremerun-stuffer.

6'4¼", 235


8. KENNY JACKSON, WR, Penn State
Game-breaking potential. Particularly effective on crossing patterns.

5'11½", 180


Hugh Green Jr. will be somebody's designated right-side sacker.

6'½", 227


Nice-sounding name. Speed and great athletic ability. Appears lean at 265.

6'4‚Öù", 265


11 BILL MAAS, DT, Pittsburgh
Roughhouse, barreling type who looks like he'll be wearing an NFL uniform for10 years.

6'4¼", 270


12 RICK BRYAN, DT, Oklahoma
Quickness, great determination and ball-pursuit instincts. May go outside to DEin the pros.

6'3‚Öù", 260


PHOTOOne of his blockers says that when Warner turns on the juice, he becomes Juice-like. PHOTODickerson has broken free of the pack to set a rookie record with 15 rushing TDs. PHOTOThe good news for Chicago's Bears is the play of two No. 1's, Gault (83) and Covert. PHOTOShula had Marino rated high, but he got him low and has made the most of his talents. PHOTOBenched when he found Denver's playbook hard to grasp, Elway played well Sunday. PHOTOConfined to the sideline, Blackledge has plenty of time to chew on Kansas City's offense. TWO PHOTOSHinton (left) is handling the blocking and Maxwell the block busting for Baltimore. PHOTOGreen, a ninth-round pick out of Oklahoma State, has played better than expected at one of San Diego's inside linebacker spots... PHOTO...but that can hardly be said for Smith, a No. 1 choice who has had his troubles.
Eagle (-2)
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