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Freshman class filled with stars

At one time, there was an adage long honored in professional football that a team will lose one game for each rookie in its starting lineup. The adage was dropped in the trash heap this season, which has turned out to be the "year of the rookie."

It goes far beyond today's game between the Bills and Tennessee in Ralph Wilson Stadium. Another old football saying, one concerning those with special talents, says "this guy is a horse." When Titans quarterback Vince Young sprinted 39 yards to beat Houston in overtime two weeks ago, he wasn't just any horse but an NFL version of Secretariat.

The Bills don't have a single answer for Young, but an entire chorus -- playing a half-dozen glistening rookies at a time who have added up to additional victories, not losses.

That sort of thing has been happening all over the NFL, particularly in the last half of the season.

Tennessee made Young the first quarterback taken in the last college draft, but the second and third quarterbacks have been impressive also. Arizona is suffering its customary losing season but Matt Leinart has embarrassed the talent assessors who felt his lack of a rocket arm would keep him from excelling as a pro. Instead he is doing what won him a Heisman Trophy, taking advantage of his height to locate receivers. Plus he's using his experience with a sophisticated offense at the University of Southern California.

Denver is beginning to regret not promoting strong-armed Jay Cutler as its starter a month earlier.

At midseason the early favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award was Patriots running back Laurence Maroney, but while he's battled injuries Maurice Jones-Drew of Jacksonville has exceeded him as a ball-carrier, already scoring 13 touchdowns.

Before the season began the odds-on favorite as top rookie was Reggie Bush of New Orleans, but the Saints suddenly have so many stars, especially their new quarterback Drew Brees, that Bush is just one of the team's many. While Bush was the No. 2 pick in the entire draft (he should have been No. 1), New Orleans' seventh-round selection, Hofstra wide receiver Marques Colston, became Brees' favorite target. A third Saints rookie, guard Jahri Evans from Bloomington (Pa.) State, became one of the top freshman offensive line stars.

A year ago A.J. Smith, the Chargers' general manager, plucked Shawne Merriman, the Maryland linebacker who became the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year. This season Smith's prize pick was Marcus McNeill, the Auburn tackle who opened holes for Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown in college and this year helped LaDainian Tomlinson reach historic heights for San Diego.

It was a big year for freshman offensive linemen. In New York, the Jets' second first-round draft choice, center Nick Mangold, outplayed their initial first-rounder, tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. The two of them made life easier for rookie running back Leon Washington.

Defensively the focus was on two linebackers, the Packers' A.J. Hawk, who played up to expectations after a great career at Ohio State, and DeMeco Ryans of Houston, who came from Alabama with far less notice.

My choice as the top rookie would be a player who didn't start on offense or defense but went where no return specialist had ever gone before -- Devin Hester of the Chicago Bears.

Larry Felser, former News columnist, appears in Sunday's editions.

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