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The Class Of Their Class
Paul Zimmerman
November 14, 1983
Eric Dickerson, Curt Warner and Dan Marino are the cream of the NFL's deepest crop of rookies ever
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November 14, 1983

The Class Of Their Class

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

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Marino, who completed 15 of 29 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns in Miami's 20-17 win over San Francisco Sunday, now leads the AFC's passers with a 102.7 rating. He has thrown only one interception in his last 139 passes. The last rookie to lead a conference in passing was Greg Cook, when he was with the Bengals in 1969. The highest completion percentage for a rookie passer in NFL history is Jim McMahon's 57.1 last year with the Chicago Bears. Marino is currently at 60.1%.

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

"That's where he got lucky," Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard says. "There are not 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. He handled him just right. He didn't throw him in to sink or swim; he put him in when he thought he was ready."

"If you were a scientist, you'd have to run a control on this," says one player personnel director who was an original Marino knocker. "Put Marino in someone else's system and see where he'd be now. Then take an Elway or an Eason and put him with Shula and see where he'd be. Maybe they'd be doing the same things Marino's doing."

Marino could make the Pro Bowl by default. The major AFC competition—Dan Fouts and Terry Bradshaw—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; his 15 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 Ram coach, 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 in a lot of ways," says Seattle's left guard Reggie McKenzie who blocked for O.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 chose the Chicago Bears over a high hurdles berth on the Olympic team, has been nicknamed Dr. Gault by Left Guard Noah Jackson, "because he makes all our other receivers feel well." Gault has averaged 20.9 yards a catch and had one streak of six touchdowns in three games. The Bears' other first-round choice, Jimbo Covert, has been a fixture at offensive left tackle, a rough-cut diamond who makes mistakes but still shoves people around. "When Chicago played Tampa Bay," Giddings says, "I saw him drop Lee Roy Selmon a couple of times with his hands. There might not be a stronger tackle in the game today." Jones, the big Florida fullback who was supposed to block for Billy Sims in Detroit, has been doing just fine on his own, leading the Lions in rushing while ranking second in receiving.

In San Diego, the Chargers were thinking of their four rookie defensive starters in terms of the Super Bowl, not the Pro Bowl. Cornerbacks Gill Byrd and Danny Walters and inside linebackers Billy Ray Smith and Mike Green were supposed to give the Chargers a defense that would bring them a title—much in the manner of the 1981 49ers, with Ronnie Lott, Carlton Williamson and Eric Wright—but it hasn't worked out that way. Byrd and Walters have been doing a fine job at the corners, but the lack of a pass rush has given them nightmares. Green has been terrific as an inside plugger and run-stuffer, but Smith, the fifth player drafted, has had trouble making the conversion from stand-up defensive end to inside backer, where the traffic moves in all lanes at all speeds.

Considering the talent that went to the USFL, this could have been a truly dazzling rookie crop. People like running backs Kelvin Bryant and Gary Anderson, Wide Receiver Trumaine Johnson and Safety David Greenwood could have been Pro Bowl-bound, but we'll never know. Some scouts say that the presence of the USFL caused NFL clubs to hold onto their draft choices and give them a longer look—to keep them away from the new league. Whatever the reason, there are certainly an awful lot of rookies around—low-round choices, high-rounders...it doesn't seem to make any difference.

The Steelers, never heavy on rookies in their Super Bowl days, added nine to their active roster, and that's after 13 made it last year. At Atlanta, 16 rookies made the club, including eight of its 11 draft choices; Houston kept 15, nine of whom start. The Bengals didn't cut any of their 12 picks in the first 11 rounds. Ten of the 12 are on the squads, one's on the injured reserve and one went to the USFL. There are 12 Colt rookies, including Left Guard Chris Hinton and Right Linebacker Vernon Maxwell, both of whom have had an immediate impact; the Colts won a total of only two games the last two seasons, but after beating the Jets 17-14 Sunday they were 6-4 and challenging first-place Miami (7-3) in the AFC East.

In terms of blue-chip quality, though, it's hard to match the 1973 rookie group, when Ray Guy, Greg Pruitt and Isaac Curtis made the AFC Pro Bowl squad, and Charle Young, Tom Wittum, Nick Mike-Mayer, Chuck Foreman and Wally Chambers the NFC team. Future All-Pros from that year included John Hannah, Joe DeLamielleure, Jerry Sisemore. Drew Pearson, Leon Gray, Bert Jones, Fouts, Ron Jaworski, Otis Armstrong, Terry Metcalf Harvey Martin, Cody Jones and Brad Van Pelt. One exotic note: On the 17th round of that '73 draft, the Vikings picked the guy who would become the richest athlete of them all, a basketball- and baseball-playing tight-end projection from the University of Minnesota named Dave Winfield.

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