Since we are still waiting for injury reports and different storylines to emerge for the Super Bowl, I thought I would use this week to focus on something different – How did the first-year guys do? To do so I put together my perfect team of rookies based on their play in 2019. Therefore I did not consider players who missed the majority of the season due to injury or simply didn’t have enough time to showcase their talent.
Since 11 personnel is the new base offense nowadays, that is the personnel grouping I used, while adding in a flex spot for another deserving rookie. Defensively I used a 4-3 front and added another flex – for an extra defensive back in this case. Then finally I named four special team performers like you would on a Pro Bowl ballot and for each side of the ball I added a few key backups.
This is my squad:
Quarterback – Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals
We start with things with the number one overall pick. Murray completed 64.4 percent of his passes for over 3700 yards and 20 TDs compared to 12 INTs, while adding over 500 yards and four more scores on the ground. Despite all the size concerns and being sacked 48 times, he only lost two fumbles all year long. To think of how limited the talent was around him, especially when Christian Kirk was out and Kenyan Drake was still in Miami, the fact that the only scored less than 17 points three time all year is pretty remarkable.
Running back – Josh Jacobs, Oakland Raiders
If I had to make a choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year, this would probably be my guy. Jacobs amassed over 1300 yards scrimmage in just 13 games, including 61 first downs gained and whilst averaging just over five yards a touch. The Raiders offense was built around the dynamic rookie and he was the key to Oakland’s 6-4 start despite a limited group of receivers and one of the most conservative quarterbacks out there in Derek Carr.
Wide receivers – X D.K. Metcalf (Seattle Seahawks), Z A.J. Brown (Tennessee Titans) and SLOT Deebo Samuel (San Francisco 49ers)
For my wide receiver trio, I reunited two former Ole Miss Rebels as my guys on the outside. My clear first choice was Brown, who was the only rookie to surpass 1000 receiving yards and he averaged a ridiculous 20 yards per catch. He was borderline uncoverable through the final six weeks for Tennessee, where he had four of his five 100-yard games and scored five of his eight touchdowns. On the opposite end I went with Metcalf as my X, because he is more of that prototype with Brown benefitting more from being off the line. The Seahawks targeted him three times or less in three separate games, but his combination of size and speed made him tough to defend and while it doesn’t really count here, we saw what he is capable of by going for 160 yards against the Eagles in the Wildcard Round. Moving inside, I went with a guy in Samuel, who might not quite have the pure receiving numbers the other two had, but gives his offense a lot of versatility. Whether it was catching a slant over the middle and taking it to the house, getting to the edge on jet sweeps or just the physicality he ran with once the ball was in his hands, Samuel was a crucial piece to Niners’ success with almost 1000 yards and six TDs from scrimmage.
Tight-end – Noah Fant, Denver Broncos
Fant easily was the most productive rookie tight-end with 40 catches for 562 yards and three touchdowns. He might have gone under 20 yards in seven different games, but also broke out for a 115- and 113-yard performance and a quarter of his receptions went for 20+ yards. We saw him burn defenses vertically but also pick up yardage quickly after catching screen passes or dump-offs in the flats.
Offensive tackles – Cody Ford (Buffalo Bills) and Jawaan Taylor (Jacksonville Jaguars)
While I liked the 2019 offensive tackle class as a whole and still see promise in it – especially with my number one guy Jonah Williams missing his entire rookie campaign – it was by far the worst group to pick from for this. Ford started all but one game for Buffalo at right tackle and while he got flagged eight times, his size and power was on display quite a bit. The best rookie tackle overall probably was Taylor, who was largely projected as a top ten pick for the Jaguars, but instead Jacksonville grabbed him a round later due to concerns about his knee. When Cam Robinson is healthy, they have an excellent combination of young book-ends.
Guards – Elgton Jenkins (Green Bay Packers) and David Edwards (Los Angeles Rams)
Moving one spot in from either side – I was very high on Jenkins as a center coming out of Mississippi State, but instead he slipped right into left guard and played as well as any rookie linemen outside of my choice for center. The Rams O-line was a mess through the first half of the season, which opened up room for some young blood. Once Edwards and fellow rookie Bobby Evans were inserted into starting lineup, the rushing attack went to a different level and Jared Goff was sacked just once a game over the last seven.
Center – Eric McCoy, New Orleans Saints
In the middle of this group we have the star of the show – if you like giving the big guys some love. McCoy had one of the best seasons for a center in recent years. He fit in seemingly thanks to his ability to lock horns with defenders in the run game and his ability to act as a communicator early on in his pro career. If anything the rookie was an upgrade over the recently retired Max Unger.
FLEX – Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
For my flex spot I went with another rookie running back I was pretty high on. The Eagles capped Sanders’ number of touches whilst Jordan Howard was available, but after Philly’s loss in Dallas, he averaged 97.4 yards from scrimmage per game and 5.9 yards a touch. Sanders clearly became the most dynamic weapon on an offense that was hampered by injuries.
QB Gardner Minshew (Jaguars)
RB Devin Singletary (Bills)
WR Terry McLaurin (Redskins) & Darius Slayton (Giants)
TE Dawson Knox (Bills)
OL Dalton Risner (Broncos) & Garrett Bradbury (Vikings)
I know the Jaguars had a rather disappointing 6-10 season and Minshew needed to earn the starting gig twice, but I don’t want everybody to just forget about the season he had. He threw 21 touchdowns compared to just six picks and outside of two blowout losses to the Texans and Chargers, Jacksonville was +16 in point differential with the rookie at the helm. I also don’t think general NFL fans would really know who Singletary was if he didn’t show out on the national stage on Thanksgiving at Dallas and at Houston in the Wild Card Round. His 5.1 yards per carry were tied for sixth among all players with at least 100 attempts and he consistently picked up yards after contact. At wide receiver I just could not decide between McLaurin and Slayton, so I listed them both. McLaurin really was the only bright spot on the Redskins offense with over 900 yards and seven TDs on 15.8 yards per catch and Slayton converted two-thirds of his receptions into first downs while playing about the same percentage of the Giants’ snaps, providing several big plays. At tight-end it was slim pickings, since Noah Fant actually was the only rookie at the position to go over 400 receiving yards, so I went with the guy who came the closest and produced most consistently. Knox failed to catch a pass just once all year while averaging 7.8 yards per target and putting in some good work as a run-blocker. With the tackle situation being the way it is, I chose Risner, who quietly played a very solid season at left guard for Denver after excelling at both tackle spots for Kansas State. And finally, I added Bradbury because of the versatility he gives me thanks to his athleticism and agility that can be utilized on different run schemes.
Defensive ends – Josh Allen (Jacksonville Jaguars) and Nick Bosa (San Francisco 49ers)
When it comes to my guys on the edge, the statistics fell in line pretty well with my selections, as Allen and Bosa finished first (10.5) and third (9) respectively among rookies in terms of sacks, but especially in the case of the 49ers standout, those numbers don’t nearly tell the full story. According to Pro Football Focus, Bosa’s 80 total pressures on the year were 14 more than any edge rusher has put up since they started recording the stat in 2006, while being highly disruptive against the run and adding a 46-yard interception. Allen on the other hand was highly impressive due to the productivity he amassed despite playing on a front with Calais Campbell and Jannick Ngakoue.
Defensive tackles – 3-tech Ed Oliver (Buffalo Bills) and 1-tech Dexter Lawrence (New York Giants)
On the interior there is not as much clarity simply based on numbers, but nobody really came close to who I picked in the end. At the more penetrating 3-tech spot I went with the guy I had right behind Bosa and Allen as my fourth-highest ranked prospect. Oliver might have played right at or below 50 percent of the snaps in half the games, but those became more impactful down the stretch and he became a problem for offensive lines, collecting four of five sacks over the second half of the year. And then I went with Lawrence as my shade nose, logging over 700 snaps and doing his best work as a run-stuffer for the Giants.
Linebackers – SAM Brian Burns (Carolina Panthers), MIKE Devin Bush (Pittsburgh Steelers) and WILL Dre Greenlaw (San Francisco 49ers)
At the linebacker level I started with a primary edge defender in Brian Burns playing SAM. He might not be a perfect fit if you ask him to stand up and take on more responsibility in coverage, but he was too good to ignore. His combination of burst and bend make him a dangerous pass-rusher and he has shown the ability to take on tasks in the flats. Moving into the middle, I went with one of the early favorites to earn Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with the young Steelers backer. Bush led all rookies and his team in tackles, while taking the ball away from opposing offenses six times and scoring a touchdown off one fumble recovery. The third spot here goes to more of an under-the-radar guy, who is starting to get the recognition he deserves with his team representing the NFC in the Super Bowl. Greenlaw averaged just under 30 percent of the snaps on defense before Kwon Alexander tore his pec, but over those final eight weeks he wasn’t on the field for just 16 snaps altogether, averaging nine tackles per week and making several crucial plays in the pass game.
Cornerbacks – Sean Murphy-Bunting (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Byron Murphy (Arizona Cardinals)
On the outside I couldn’t really find those two no-doubt studs like we had in 2017 with Marshon Lattimore and Tre’Davious White or 2018 with Denzel Ward and Jaire Alexander. It took a while for Murphy-Bunting to really get on the field, but he logged less than 90 percent of the defensive snaps just twice over final nine weeks. On the season, he intercepted three passes, including a 70-yard pick-six against Detroit, and added eight more PBUs, as the Bucs used his talent on the outside as well as in the slot down the stretch. My second choice came from a secondary that finished 31st in yards allowed through the air, but their rookie hung in there tough. Murphy missed just 28 out of 1133 snaps for the Cardinals D and definitely had some learning experience with the heavy target share he faced, but his 7.7 yards allowed per target was actually significantly better than his running mate, as he broke up ten passes and picked off another one.
Safeties – FS Juan Thornhill (Kansas City Chiefs) and SS Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (New Orleans Saints)
At the safety spots I went with two guys, who were rated pretty close together as prospects but somehow had over 40 players drafted between each other. Thornhill was selected at the end of the second round by the Chiefs to pair up with free agent acquisition Tyrann Mathieu. While it took quite a while for the KC defense to get to the level they were capable of, their secondary under Steve Spagnuolo really started to create problems for opposing quarterback with several different looks and Thornhill excelled in deep coverage before tearing his ACL in week 17. Next to him there’s Gardner-Johnson, who actually spent the majority of his time in the slot, but is a good match here. Not only did he allow just 0.79 yards per snap in coverage from that alignment, he also added 11 QB pressures on four times as many pass-rush opportunities.
Defensive back – Darnell Savage, Green Bay Packers
And as my extra defensive back I went with a Packers first-rounder. Savage did not miss a single snap in 12 of the 14 games he played in and he consistently gave this group energy with the way he was flying all over the field. The rook recorded two interceptions, two forced fumbles and five QB pressures.
EDGE Maxx Crosby (Raiders)
DL Christian Wilkins (Dolphins)
LB Mack Wilson (Browns)
CB Rock Ya-Sin (Colts)
S Taylor Rapp (Rams)
After logging slightly over 100 snaps over the first four weeks and collecting just two sacks over the first half of the season, Crosby caught fire over the second half, averaging a sack per game and forcing four fumbles on the year. Wilkins provided excellent versatility for Miami. While he mainly 3-tech, he also fared very well as a base 3-4 DE and became a blue-chip player for the Dolphin’s rebuild. Wilson was one of the biggest preseason standouts with his rangy play and two INTs. After Christian Kirksey went down in week two, Wilson took over full-time at WILL, playing almost 90 percent of the snaps on defense and making eight total plays on the ball in the pass game. Ya-Sin started 13 games and continually started to improve after a rocky beginning, allowing a passer rating of just 67.7 from week 10 on with some sticky coverage. After running in the 4.7s at his pro day, Rapp’s draft status took a hit and he lasted until the end of the second round. The Rams found a way to put him on the field despite having Eric Weddle and John Johnson, who would be lost for the final ten games eventually. Overall the rookie played about three quarters of the defensive snaps, where he made two picks and was a very dependable tackler in space. Another young player who I thought had some bright moments was rookie defensive back Rashad Fenton for the Chiefs, but he only played about 15 percent of the team’s snaps.
Kicker – Matt Gay, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Punter – Jamie Gillan, Cleveland Browns
Return specialist – Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs
Special teamer – Drue Tranquill, Los Angeles Chargers
We have definitely had better choices for the kicker position in recent years, but Matt Gay was much more dependable than anything the Bucs have had in recent years and he was a consistent threat from distance, going five of eight from 50+ yards and converting on 77.1 overall of his field goal attempts. I thought about making this a two-pack from Utah with the 49ers’ Mitch Wishowsky, but Gillan put up better numbers across the board, finishing top ten in average punt yards, 28 downed inside the 20 and a miniature 2.4 yards allowed per return. I had a pretty tough choice with return specialists between Hardman and the Saints’ Deonte Harris, as both finished top three league-wide in combined return yards and returns of 20+ yards, as well as taking one to the house each. Harris actually slightly outranked Hardman in most categories, but he also fumbled three times and Hardman only did on offense, even if the Saints rookie found a way to pounce on two of them. And finally I picked Tranquill as my special teams ace, since he blocked two punts and recorded 11 tackles on kick and punt coverage combined.