As pass offenses opened up, it become easier for rookie wide receivers to play a major role. The systems themselves are still complicated, with lots of option routes and adjustments, but they now contain so many "college style" plays - tunnel screens, short smash routes in open space - that a newcomer can catch lots of passes, even if he doesn't know every nuance of the playbook. Throw the occasional bomb up for grabs, mix in some end-arounds and kickoff returns, and a lot of rookies are making names for themselves before learning all 256 different ways to run a post route.
Here's a rundown of some of the most dynamic rookie receivers of 2011 - who they are, what they have done, and what makes them so special:
Julio Jones, Falcons: 24 catches, 342 yards, no touchdowns
Jones is one of the most gifted athletes you will ever see on a football field, but NFL history is littered with talented speedsters who could not learn an offense or get open against zone coverage. Jones' speed and leaping ability got him to the NFL, but his mastery of the Falcons' offense has set him apart from the others on this list. Jones is not a bombs-and-screens receiver or trick-play specialist. He is running a full route tree and making an impact in a variety of situations, including third-and-long.
The Seahawks are playing four-deep zone coverage, with their safeties and cornerbacks deep and man-to-man coverage on the three "inside" receivers (everyone but Jones and White). The defense is designed to prevent deep passes and make it easy for the safeties to tackle receivers shy of the a first down. At the snap, all three receivers to the right of the formation run deep routes, bringing their defenders with them. Jones runs a shallow drag route at seven yards.
Last year, this coverage would have worked against the Falcons. Michael Jenkins played Jones' position, and Jenkins could easily be tackled after a catch over the middle. But Jones accelerates too quickly for defenders to allow to roam free like this. The safety is a step late to make the tackle, and Jones turns upfield to make a catch, gaining 29 yards.
Jones is still waiting for his first touchdown, though it is only a matter of time. The next receiver on our list scored a touchdown on his first NFL reception.
A.J. Green, Bengals: 19 catches, 312 yards, 2 TDs
The Bengals are 2-2, but they could easily be 0-4 without Green. His 41-yard touchdown catch gave the Bengals a fourth-quarter lead in their season-opening win against the Browns. He had 58-yard catch and a 40-yarder against the Bills, the second gain setting up a field goal that sparked the Bengals' comeback.
Athletically, Green is nearly on par with Jones. He was known for his eye-popping catches at Georgia, and his long receptions demonstrated his outstanding body control. He has not matched Jones' production, but their circumstances are different. Jones gets to be a cog in a talent-laden offense, while Green instantly became a go-to receiver in the Bengals offense and must catch passes from fellow rookie Andy Dalton.
That is why Green may mean more to the Bengals than Jones does to the Falcons -take him away, and Dalton has no one who can command deep coverage or get open 10 yards down the field.
Green is still finding his way as a route runner, and Green and Dalton need to improve upon their third down efficiency; they are just 2-of-10 when trying to connect on third downs, with three of those incomplete passes occurring in the red zone. (One of the completions, to be fair, was the touchdown against the Browns). Once Green and Dalton find ways to connect in critical situations, they will turn some field goals into touchdowns, and near misses into Bengals victories.
Denarius Moore, Raiders: 12 catches, 199 yards, 2 TDs, one rushing touchdown
Stop me if you heard this one before, but the Raiders have a young wide receiver with blazing speed that they like to throw bombs to.
OK, well here's the new wrinkle: this one is pretty good. Moore, unlike the Darrius Heyward-Bey types that came through the system before him and still line up next to him, can catch the ball, has some lateral quickness to go with his track speed, and can actually run some pretty good routes besides the Official Route of Raiders Football (read: straight).
The average pass to Moore travels 19.1 yards in the air. Factor in the occasional screens he runs, and there have been a lot of 30-60 yard throws to Moore this year. Seven of them, to be exact. Catches of 50 and 42 yards, a short touchdown against the Patriots, and an exciting end-around touchdown against the Jets have made the highlight reels, but Moore has also drawn two long pass interference penalties, and all of those fly routes keep safeties deep so the Raiders can pursue their other passion - pounding Darren McFadden off tackle.
Moore may never develop into an all-around receiving threat like Jones, but he is a Raider, so no one will ask him to.
Randall Cobb, Packers: 7 catches, 148 yards, 1 TD, one kickoff return touchdown
Who said we had to follow the league-leader list? Titus Young, Doug Baldwin, Greg Little, and Dane Sanzenbacher have all caught more passes than Cobb, and Torrey Smith has more yards and touchdowns. All of them have shown flashes of excellence, particularly Young, who does some of the things for the Lions that Jones does for the Falcons. But all of Smith's production came in one game, little averages just 9.4 yards per game, Baldwin plays for a Seahawks team that completes most of its passes in garbage time, and I don't want to keep spelling the other guy's name.
But seriously, Cobb has the potential to have a much bigger impact than any of those other players, even if his numbers do not show it yet. Cobb is the tipping point player in the league's best offense. When he takes the field with all of those other great receivers, stopping the Packers goes from "hard" to "completely impossible."
So how do you defend this personnel grouping? The Broncos keep their safeties 12 and 15 yards deep, dropped everyone into zones, and cross their fingers. A fake handoff freezes the linebackers for a split second, but really, no linebacker has a chance to cover Cobb in the open field, even without the fake. Safety Rahim Moore takes a bad angle, underestimating Cobb's speed, and this simple play design turns into a 61-yard completion.
As the season wears on, Cobb's most important contribution to the Packers will be on special teams, and not just because he has the potential to rip off another 108-yard kickoff return touchdowns. Last year, the Packers pressed Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams and other important starters into return duties. With Cobb handling them, and handling them well, the Packers starters don't have to risk injury doing double duty. So Cobb can be one of the most valuable receivers in the league, even without the 61-yard catches.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.