The only game left this season is the Super Bowl, which we will break down in depth here on my page next week, but right now let’s take a look what these NFL rookies have done in their pro debuts. I filled out a starting lineup for offense and defense, plus notable backups, and the key special teamers (just like you would usually when voting for the Pro Bowl).
For the offense, I went with 20 personnel, meaning two running backs and three receivers, because that definitely gives me the best eleven players out on the field. Tight-end I only listed among the notable backups, because the whole class didn’t even combine for 100 catches or 1000 yards in all of 2020. Vikings rookie receiver Justin Jefferson alone outperformed them as a group basically.
And on defense I went nickel personnel. So a four-man front with two stacked linebackers behind it and three safeties on the field, even though one of them is more of a slot backer anyway. That is the most common personnel grouping in the NFL today (or rather if you put a true nickelback in there) and it also once gives me the best eleven defenders in one lineup I feel like.
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Quarterback: Justin Herbert
Running backs: James Robinson & Antonio Gibson
Receivers: X Chase Claypool, Z Justin Jefferson & F Ceedee Lamb
Offensive line: LT Mekhi Becton, LG Jonah Jackson, C Lloyd Cushenberry, RG Michael Onwenu & RT Tristan Wirfs
Herbert was the obvious choice at quarterback, once Joe Burrow went down with his knee injury in week 11. Up to that point to me this was a head-to-head race. Herbert has had one of the greatest rookie seasons we have ever seen at any position, setting rookie passing records for completions (396), passing touchdowns (31), total touchdowns (36) and 300-yard games (8) and he did it despite not playing in week one. That means he would have also certainly thrown for the 38 yards necessary to make it a clean sweep for most ever rookie passing yards. He was phenomenal throwing the deep ball, beating the blitz and creating out of structure all year long.
Like I explained in the intro, I went with two running backs in my starting lineup here, because it gives me the best collection of skill-players, plus one of them primarily was a receiver in college anyway. First there’s James Robinson, who set the record for most scrimmage yards for an undrafted rookie in only 14 weeks (1404 yards) and reached the end-zone ten times. His combination of power and ability to consistently keep the offense moving (90+ total yards in ten games) was one of the very few bright spots in Jacksonville. For Antonio Gibson on the other hand, it took a while for him to truly become the lead-back in Washington, but once he did, he went on a tear. Over the final eight games he played, he averaged 108.7 scrimmage yards and a touchdown. There are still some things he is figuring out as a runner, but he is big and explosive. Just ask the Cowboys how they liked tackling him on Thanksgiving.
It’s kind of funny when you think that only one of the first four receivers drafted back in April actually made the cut here, especially with how much hype that class got. I don’t think there is any doubt who to the top guy is, when you look at the fact Jefferson just broke the NFL’s rookie record with 1400 receiving yards, which was recently held by another former Viking in Randy Moss. He has been absolutely phenomenal – so advanced in the way he attacks defenses and creates separation as a route-runner. Claypool on the other side doesn’t quite have that volume as part of a balanced trio of receiver in Pittsburgh, but he finished with nine touchdowns through the air (tied for 10th in the league) and 14 receptions of 20+ yards (tied for 20th) despite only 62 targets and several of them came behind the line of scrimmage, as a big-play threat for the Steelers. And then I’m going to put Lamb into the slot, which is where he played for pretty much the whole season anyway. There were a couple of down moments for him, but he still managed to crack 1000 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns, while converting 50 of his 84 touches on the season into first downs, despite playing with four different quarterbacks. He made some circus catches to go along with being a consistent chain-mover.
Right off the bat, my O-line is completely filled with maulers in the run. If you put somebody like a Dalvin Cook behind them, I think he’s surpassing his rushing total on the season. Becton is in that conversation for biggest humans on earth, but he is also on track for entering the chat as one of the best tackles in all of football soon. His sacks allowed went up towards the end of the season (seven total), when he was banged up, but he hasn’t been called for holding once all season – which is extremely rare – and the Jets have relied on him widening the B-gap on the front side of runs. Wirfs on the other hand has been one of the best rookies in the league regardless of position and maybe the top right tackle altogether, surrendering just one sack all season long and limiting penalties to 40 yards. Jackson at left guard has really stabilized the interior of the Lions front, with his only bad performance coming against DeForest Buckner & company. While Onwenu finished with the third-highest grade among all rookies, behind only two stars in Justin Jefferson and Chase Young, as he was a monster getting out in front as a puller and was only flagged once all year. And finally, I had to pick somebody at center and while I really liked Cushenberry coming out of LSU, especially being a steal in third round, he has had some growing pains in year one. But he is the only one to actually start most of the year at the pivot.
QB Joe Burrow, RB Jonathan Taylor, WR Brandon Aiyuk, TE Harrison Bryant, OT Jedrick Wills Jr., IOL Kevin Dotson
Defensive line: EDGE Chase Young, IDL Derrick Brown, IDL Javon Kinlaw & EDGE D.J. Wonnum
Linebackers: Patrick Queen & Kenneth Murray
Cornerbacks: Jaylon Johnson & L’Jarius Sneed
Safeties: FS Julian Blackmon, SS Antoine Winfield & FLEX Jeremy Chinn
Let’s be real here – three of the four spots on the D-line should and probably are the same for everybody out there. Young was the second overall pick because he was a generational prospect and while he was banged up for a while, there was never much doubt that he would become a dominant player at the next level as well, leading all rookies in tackles for loss (10), sacks (7.5) and forced fumbles (four). Wonnum off the other edge certainly doesn’t get as much recognition and I think there is certainly a big drop-off after Young, but he has been a valuable rotational pass-rusher for them (21 total pressures) and he got a strip-sack on Aaron Rodgers, as he was loading up for his signature Hail Mary attempt at the end of their second game, to secure the victory. On the inside I’m going with the top two guys selected, which were really in a class of their own coming into the draft and after what I saw in year one from them. Brown was a monster in the middle of that Carolina defense and even though he got his only two sacks at Green Bay, he was impactful throughout the season, including eight TFLs. And then Kinlaw got his only 1.5 sacks at New Orleans, but he flashed in the backfield routinely, while being a problem to throw over (four passes batted down) and getting a pick-six in an upset win over the Rams.
It wasn’t necessarily a great year for rookie linebackers as a group, but I’m sticking with the duo at the top of my list behind Isaiah Simmons, who was more a freakishly athletic hybrid player anyway. Queen filled the stat-sheet for Baltimore in a LB-friendly scheme, that heavily utilized him as a blitzer and kept him clean for the most part, when that D-line was healthy. He recorded over 100 total tackles, nine of them for loss, three sacks, an interception and a couple of fumbles forced and recovered each, including a touchdown. However, teams have taken advantage of him at times by manipulating his eyes and dictating where he’s going. Murray also crossed triple-digits in terms of
tackles, but he didn’t come up with any takeaways. Still, he has played 93 percent of the defensive snaps, giving that unit a true speed element on the second level to erase angles and he only missed eight tackles on the season, bringing ball-carriers down in space in a dependable fashion
I’m breaking secondary down into safeties and corners, which we’ll start with the former. And outside of Chase Young, these are arguably the top three defensive rookies of 2020. Blackmon has become what the Colts always hoped for that they’d get when they drafted Malik Hooker back in 2017, in terms of a true single-high free safety. The Colts still use some of the cover-two shells that they relied on under DC Matt Eberflus, but Blackmon gives them somebody, who has the range to make plays on the ball from numbers to numbers, while showing tremendous pursuit to come downhill against the run, recording more plays on the ball (eight) than missed tackles (seven). Winfield would be more of your typical strong safety in my scheme, having shown the ability to cover bodies in the slot and getting home as part of your blitz packages (three sacks), but the Bucs use a lot of quarters coverage to go with those man-looks when they send extra bodies, where Winfield does a tremendous job of driving on routes and knocking the ball out. He forced three turnovers in the regular season and has made big plays in key moments all year. And then there’s Chinn – a ridiculous athlete at any position, who the Panthers used in more of a see-ball, get-ball role, where he constantly finds himself around the pigskin, leading all rookies with 117 total tackles, to go along with back-to-back fumble return TDs in the Vikings game and a couple of punt fake conversions.
On the outside, the choices are pretty easy for me as well, especially with Johnson, who immediately stepped in at corner on the right side of that Bears defense, which carried a horrendous offense for most of the season, and he has been asked to run a multitude of coverages – press and off man, quarters, three-deep, etc. Despite being relied upon on that edge, he has missed single-digit tackles and only five players in the whole league have more than his 15 PBUs, despite missing three games, while you can find him at the back-end of a lot of crucial passes. Sneed opposite of him played in just nine games, but he was a revelation right off the bat. When the Chiefs were missing their two starting corners early on in the season, he came in and balled out right away. Overall he picked off three passes, deflected seven more, holding opposing passers to a QB rating of just 54.2 and adding a couple of sacks to the mix.
EDGE Alton Robinson, IDL DaVon Hamilton, LB Mykal Walker, CB Michael Ojemudia, S Jordan Fuller, FLEX Kamren Curl
K Tyler Bass, P Tommy Townsend, RS Devin Duvernay & ST James Pierre
Kicker might have been the toughest choice on this entire list, because Rodrigo Blankenship for a long time was the league’s leading scorer, being heavily relied on as part of a run and defense oriented team, but Bass has made the Bills a score from 60 yards in on field goals. Blankenship has a better percentage (86.5 compared to 82.4%), but he has only made one of his three attempts from 50+ yards, while Bass is four of six, and they have both missed two PATs, yet the Bills kicker has attempted an NFL second-highest 59. And he also handles all the kickoffs unlike the Colts standout, booming 70 percent of them through the end-zone.
At punter, there is not really a standout rookie like a Michael Dickson or Jamie Gillian in recent years, but Tommy Townsend has had a solid season replacing a long-time vet at that position for Kansas City. On 52 punts, he has averaged 45 gross yards, only had 15 of them returned and 20 times he pinned opponents inside the 20, plus he has completed a pass for a first down on a fake.
Duvernay finished top five in average yards per kick return (27.5) and was the first in the league to score on one this season (91 yards). The Ravens actually had another rookie in James Proche return the majority of punts, leaving Duvernay with just four attempts (46 yards), but he is highly capable of fielding either one and I like his strong build to break tackle to go along with his track speed.
None of these rookies really jumped off the screen to me watching tapes of every single game this season. Pierre led all first-year players with 11 special teams tackles and as undrafted free agent, he had to excel at that third of the game and he has only played 35 snaps on defense all year, with half of them coming in a meaningless week 17. He plays on the outside on both punt teams and serves in a safety role on kickoffs, only getting flagged twice altogether.