Two rookie running backs wasted no time laying the groundwork for—they hope—two great careers

As the league's top rookie passers dueled in Tampa, another friendly rivalry was renewed between two top rookie rushers. On one sideline at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium was the Chargers' Melvin Gordon (above, right). On the other was Ameer Abdullah (above, left) of the Lions. The pair first met in Myrtle Beach, S.C., as high school seniors, when they roomed together in the weeklong run-up to the 2011 Offense-Defense All-American Bowl all-star game. "I knew he would excel," Gordon said four days before San Diego rallied past Detroit for a 33--28 victory, "especially at this level."

Both backs were Big Ten standouts, with the 5'9", 203-pound Abdullah rushing for more than 1,000 yards in three straight seasons at Nebraska, and the 6'1", 215-pound Gordon gaining 2,587 yards as a Wisconsin senior in 2014—a single-season output second in FBS history to only Barry Sanders's 2,628 in 1988. Gordon's total included a 408-yard, four-TD performance against the Cornhuskers, in a game in which Abdullah ran for 69 yards.

On draft day Chargers GM Tom Telesco traded up to No. 15 to select Gordon and all but proclaimed him the second coming of LaDainian Tomlinson. But when Gordon—despite his LT--like work ethic in the weight room, in film study and on the field—struggled to find his footing during the preseason, averaging 2.3 yards per carry in two games while nursing a right ankle sprain, panicked fans were ready to call him a lemon. Meanwhile, Abdullah, the 54th pick, was gaining 6.8 yards per run and earning comparisons with former Lion Sanders.

On Sunday, Abdullah rushed for a team-leading 50 yards on seven carries (the first went for a 24-yard touchdown), caught four passes, for 44 yards, and returned three kicks, for 105 yards. Hisearly contributions helped the Lions secure a 21--3 first-half lead and overshadowed his college rival's performance. Gordon's line, while an improvement over the preseason (14 carries, 51 yards), doesn't capture the ferocity with which he attacked the heart of Detroit's thick interior line. Nor does it account for a gyroscopic, 21-yard touchdown run that was formally logged as a seven-yard gain after officials whistled Gordon down on Detroit's 14-yard line as he was bent over and spinning away from a tackle by Lions safety Glover Quin. (Gordon's elbow apparently grazed the turf.)

Gordon also had a third-quarter fumble; such rookie mistakes necessitate that he be insulated within a rotation of proven veteran backs (Danny Woodhead, Donald Brown, Branden Oliver) until he becomes a 20-plus touch workhorse. Abdullah is similarly protected (by Joique Bell and Theo Riddick). Each rookie has the potential to break out in divisions—Abdullah in the NFC North, Gordon in the AFC West—that don't especially hang their helmets on run defense.

Abdullah and Gordon, naturally, have even loftier expectations for themselves. After the game the pair exchanged jerseys, looking more like backs in soccer than football. Abdullah was asked if he'd consider getting his Gordon jersey framed. "Of course," he said in the locker room afterward. "He could be one of the greats one day, man!"