Posted September 14, 2011

Rookies already having big impact, but who can keep it up?

Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots, Washington Redskins

Cam Newton was electrifying in his NFL debut last Sunday. (Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire)

It was a smashing debut for the 2011 rookie class in Week 1, starting with Randall Cobb’s dazzling kickoff return on opening night and continuing right on through Von Miller’s forced fumble Monday night.

But one challenge NFL rookies always face is trying to maintain their stride over a full 16-game regular season. Can this year’s group do it?

Here’s a look at the prospects of five guys who started strong:

• Cam Newton: In what may go down as one of the most surprising performances of the entire season, the Panthers’ No. 1 overall pick threw for 422 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed for another TD, in Carolina’s loss at Arizona.

If Newton kept that pace up, he would throw for 6,752 yards — or about 1,700 yards more than the current single-season passing record held by Dan Marino. So, Newton’s not going to play like that every week, and he may crash back down to earth Sunday when the Panthers host Green Bay.

In reality, this was a nice matchup for Newton in Week 1, against a depleted Arizona secondary still coping with the trade of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the offseason. That’s not to take anything away from Newton, who looked confident and decisive throwing the ball. He just set the bar pretty high for himself.

Ryan Kerrigan: The Redskins traded down in the draft’s first round, giving up their No. 10 pick to Jacksonville, then took Kerrigan at No. 16. No complaints so far.

Kerrigan actually wound up accounting for the game-winning touchdown, batting a third-quarter Eli Manning pass into the air, intercepting it and taking it back nine yards for a touchdown. The play put Washington up 21-14 en route to a 28-14 win. Kerrigan finished with four tackles, in addition to his clutch TD.

Playing on the outside in Washington’s 3-4 scheme, Kerrigan looks like he could turn into a great complement for Brian Orakpo. Despite Miller being our unanimous Defensive Rookie of the Year preseason pick here at SI, Kerrigan has thrust his name into the mix early and should stay there.

• A.J. Green: Cincinnati’s rookie wide receiver had as many touches as Kerrigan (1), a stat that won’t make the Bengals all that thrilled. But Green’s one catch was a big one — a 41-yard scoring strike from Bruce Gradkowski that put Cincinnati on top of Cleveland for good, 20-17.

Week 1 marked a relatively slow start overall for Green, though the loss of starting QB Andy Dalton to injury late in the second quarter didn’t help. Green was targeted just four times against the Browns, a number that will have to go up as the season progresses. Still, he showed off the big-play attribute that made him so highly coveted in the draft.

Green has a lot of ground to make up on Newton in the Offensive Rookie of the Year race as it stands one week in, but he could get to double-digit touchdowns.

• Nate Solder: New England asked an awful lot of Solder in his NFL debut. The rookie backup left tackle was moved to the right side in place of the injured Sebastian Vollmer, meaning Solder had to play out of position and deal with Cameron Wake, Miami’s pass-rusher extraordinaire.

Solder more than held his own, almost completely taking Wake out of the game for large stretches, especially early. And while Wake wound up getting one sack for one yard on Tom Brady, that was the only time Miami took down the Patriots quarterback, who threw 48 times for 517 yards.

The Patriots will face a decision with Solder once Vollmer is ready to go. The initial idea was to let Solder learn the system and work his way into the rotation at left tackle, behind aging veteran Matt Light. But Solder played well enough at right tackle Monday that New England may reconsider that plan.

Randall Cobb: One of the surprise stars of Green Bay’s camp, the rookie wide receiver from Kentucky could not have made a bigger impression in his debut. Playing against the Saints on national TV, Cobb hauled in two catches for 35 yards and a touchdown, and took back a kick 108 yards.

He should be a dangerous weapon in the return game all year for Green Bay, and if all goes well, has a chance to make a major impact in the slot as well. With Aaron Rodgers slinging the ball all over the field — and defenses paying attention to the Packers’ veteran stars — Cobb looks like a situational receiver who could pay huge dividends.

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