Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's precipitous drop in production this season is a cautionary tale about not getting too excited about the play of NFL rookies.

Yet, it's difficult to ignore the impact being made by this year's impressive rookie class.

Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III leads the league with a 70.4 completion percentage. Redskins running back Alfred Morris is third in the league in rushing with 658 yards and on pace to become the first rookie to rush for 1,500-plus yards since Clinton Portis in 2002.

Former Stanford standout Andrew Luck is on pace to shatter numerous Colts and league records for a rookie quarterback, as is quarterback Ryan Tannehill for the Miami Dolphins.

Gil Brandt, the longtime Dallas Cowboys vice president of player personnel (1960-89), says this shouldn't come as much of a surprise, given the way college football resembles the pro game more and more each year.

"The strength of rookies coming into the NFL is so much more advanced each year due to the quality coaching and offseason programs that they get in college," Brandt said.

Tannehill fits the bill of the modern-day rookie to a tee, having been reared in a pro-style offense at Texas A&M by Mike Sherman, now the Dolphins offensive coordinator.

Tannehill picked up in Miami where he left off in college. Even so, Sherman said Tannehill is exceeding expectations.

"He's ahead of where I thought he'd be," Sherman said. "He's doing things now you expect in the fifth or sixth year for a quarterback. He's off-the-charts smart."

It used to be that it took most rookies time to acclimate to the speed and schemes of the NFL. More than half of the 2012 first-rounders already are entrenched as productive starters.

All four quarterbacks selected in the first round this year, as well as third-rounder Russell Wilson, have started every game for their respective teams. Those five teams are a combined 14-19, with four of them with at least three victories.

  • Talk about going out on top. Former Cal standout tight end Tony Gonzalez is making like running backs Jim Brown and Barry Sanders in retiring while he's still at the top of his game.

    The Atlanta Falcons star leads all tight ends with 43 receptions so far, and he is 4 yards behind New England's Rob Gronkowski (434) for the most yards by a tight end (Gronkowski has played one more game).

    In a career sure to end with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Gonzalez is on pace to break his league record (102 in 2004) for most receptions in a season by a tight end with 114.

    Yet, Gonzalez said he is about 95 percent certain that he is calling it quits after this season, his 16th.

    "I'm hoping for that 5 percent," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "That's all you can do. Tony's without a doubt, in my mind, the greatest tight end to ever play the game."

    The stats bear it out. Gonzalez needs one more touchdown reception to reach 100 for his career. That would make him the only tight end to hit the century mark and only the eighth player overall.

    He is eight receptions shy of 1,200. Former 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice is the only player with more career receptions (1,549) than Gonzalez.

    Gonzalez said he tells Rice each offseason that Rice's record is safe. Yet, who knows? If the Falcons win the Super Bowl, it's not a stretch to envision Gonzalez being coaxed into returning next season.

    "I'm never ever going to say 100 percent," Gonzalez said. "I'm just enjoying it one week at a time. I'm lucky enough to stick around this long. To end it like this, playing with some great players, great quarterback, great receivers outside, it's a lot of fun."

  • New Orleans' Drew Brees and Dever's Peyton Manning square off Sunday night in a meeting between the two quarterbacks with the highest per-game passing yardage average in their careers.

    Brees has averaged 267.7, Manning 264.7 during their illustrious careers. Coincidentally, New England's Tom Brady is fifth at 250.5, meaning three of the top five are playing right now.

  • Remember all that talk about how teams kicking off from the 35-yard line instead of the 30 was going to render the kick return almost obsolete?

    Didn't think so.

    The average return through seven weeks stands at 24.9 yards, more than 1 yard ahead of the league record for a season.

    Sure, there are more touchbacks, but players are bolder in deciding to return kicks fielded in the end zone. Five kicks have been returned 100 yards or more for a touchdown this season.