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Browns general manager Tom Heckert made a point of drafting players who played a lot in established college programs, making the move to the NFL easier.
Cleveland is 2-7 as it rebuilds and counts a lot on rookies -- 17, nearly a third of the 53-man roster. The Browns have four first-year players starting on offense: Weeden, Schwartz, Richardson (whose 815 yards from scrimmage rank fifth in the AFC) and receiver Josh Gordon (who leads NFL rookies with 417 yards receiving and four TD catches). Defensive tackle Billy Winn, a sixth-round pick, has started every game, and linebacker James-Michael Johnson, a fourth-rounder, started the past four.
Johnson moved into the lineup after a veteran was lost for the season to injury, the way a lot of rookies often get their chance.
But whereas they used to play primarily because they needed to, now rookies play because they can. Coaches believe they can handle it.
"That's why they drafted us," said Bucs safety Mark Barron, the No. 7 overall pick. "To come in and contribute early."
His teammate Martin, taken 31st overall, is third in the NFL in rushing with 794 yards. Second-round pick Lavonte David, a starting linebacker, and Barron are two of Tampa Bay's three leading tacklers.
David, credited with 16 tackles in last weekend's victory at Oakland, has handled and relayed defensive play calls all season.
Bobby Wagner, who tops Carroll's Seahawks defense with 72 tackles, also makes those calls from his middle linebacker spot. Carolina's Luke Kuechly is another linebacker making noise as a rookie.
Not every rookie -- even the high draft picks -- pans out right away, of course. Some never do.
Among this season's disappointments has been Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who hurt his left knee while working out over the summer and didn't even get into a game until last Sunday, and that was only on special teams. Cardinals receiver Michael Floyd hasn't lived up to expectations, and Jaguars receiver Justin Blackmon has shown a knack for dropping passes.
Still, for each underachiever there are several overachievers.
Cornerback Casey Hayward, the next-to-last pick in the second round, is tied for third in the NFL with four interceptions. The Rams saw late-round picks such as Givens (five consecutive games with a catch of 50 yards or longer) and running back Daryl Richardson beat out higher draft selections.
Morris, a sixth-round pick by the Redskins out of Florida Atlantic, is fourth in the league in yards rushing, pairing with Griffin to become the first running back and quarterback teammates to both top 500 as rookies.
The Vikings are getting key contributions from rookies in all three phases: left tackle Matt Kalil, safety Harrison Smith, and Walsh.
Kalil has played every offensive snap and has not been whistled once for a holding penalty. Walsh missed only one field-goal attempt, is 5 for 5 from 50-plus yards and is second in the NFL with 35 touchbacks.
Another kicker drafted in the sixth round, Zuerlein -- "Greg the Leg," to some -- is 7 for 7 from 40-49 yards, 5 for 7 from 50 and beyond. He's the first player in NFL history to connect on field goals of at least 60 yards and 50 yards (his went 58) in the same game.
Brandt noted that one meaningful indication of how much more likely coaches are to have faith in rookies is what's happening with the Patriots.
Jones leads NFL rookies with six sacks. Wilson leads AFC rookies with three interceptions. Hightower started five games. They were joined by safety Nate Ebner and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard against the Rams in New England's most recent game, giving the Patriots five rookies on the field at once.
"Ten years ago, if you would have said, 'They are going to have (that many) rookies, with Bill Belichik coaching, on a very, very good team that will compete for the Super Bowl,' I would have said, 'It's not going to happen,'" Brant said. "But ... it's people being more prepared today than ever before. Coaches can trust them."
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