You’ll notice there has been a lot of running backs on this list, but there are far less defensive players. Willis was majestic in 2007 during his rookie season. An All-American with the University of Mississippi, Willis brought that form to the San Francisco 49ers. Instantly, he became a star.
It was no surprise that he won the Defensive Player of the Year award after his remarkable consistency. The middle linebacker had 135 tackles and four sacks on his way to All-Pro Honors. By the end of his first two seasons, Willis had established himself as one of the best defensive players in the NFL.
Boldin is another Florida State alumnus who went on to achieve great things in the NFL. Drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 2003, he was one of the most exciting players in the league that year. In the end, he won the NFL Offensive Player of the Year award.
The former second-round pick had 101 receptions for 1,377 yards and eight touchdowns in his first season. Boldin was also the only rookie to play in that season’s Pro Bowl. Furthermore, he still holds the NFL record for most receptions in the first 26 games of an NFL career. It was a magnificent beginning to his professional career.
Another player who retired in his prime, Sanders was brilliant for the Detroit Lions. He won the Offensive Rookie of the Year award for his stunning efforts in 1989. The running back was incredibly elusive, using his ability and agility to great effect. His numbers that year back up all of the talk.
Initially, there were concerns about his size, but these proved to be groundless. He finished the season second in the NFL in rushing yards and touchdowns. Sanders had 280 carries for 1,470 yards and 14 touchdowns after going third overall in the draft. It set him up for a brilliant career.
Urlacher was unbreakable during his rookie season with the Chicago Bears. After performing poorly in his first game, Dick Jauron didn’t start him in week two. But he rebounded and proved his excellence.
He had 101 tackles and eight sacks in his rookie season and won Defensive Rookie of the Year. Both of these numbers eclipsed the Bears’ previous records. Furthermore, he made the Pro Bowl in his rookie year. Not many players can claim that accolade. In sum, he was a superb linebacker and a deserving Hall of Famer.