Written by: Joseph Yun
The 2020 NFL regular season was full of exciting thrills, spills, and fulfillments from its rookie class. Which first-year debutants showed out during an atypical and unprecedented season for everyone involved? Who has the brightest future ahead among them? Can they provide an encore in 2021?
First Team Offense
QB: Justin Herbert / LA Chargers
- The former Oregon Duck has an argument for posting the greatest rookie season ever for a quarterback even if team success wasn’t the best (as is usually the case). He tantalized and wowed fans and opponents alike with his physical tools and mental toughness. Herbert looks to have the talent and intangibles to be a franchise quarterback for the Los Angeles based outfit for years to come.
2020 Stats: 396 / 595 (67%) 4,336 yards 31 touchdowns 10 interceptions; 55 attempts 234 yards, five touchdowns
RB: James Robinson / Jacksonville Jaguars
- Before missing the final stretch closing out yet another miserable season for #Duuuuvall, the undrafted rookie had a shot at the all-time rookie rushing record. Robinson could be the latest UDFA success story with his standout rookie campaign. While he likely won’t be mentioned among the superstar backs, he will have a decent career out of it most likely.
2020 Stats: 240 attempts 1,070 yards, seven touchdowns; 49 receptions 344 yards three touchdowns
RB: Jonathan Taylor / Indianapolis Colts
- Robinson’s fellow rookie AFC South running mate, Taylor took a bit to get going but when he did, it was fireworks. He ended the regular season with a bang for the AFC South runners up with 241 yards and two touchdowns. The much-hyped former Badger will be an issue for the AFC to cover in the future. The second-round pick did most of his work behind a veteran offensive line that had some health questions throughout, making his case all the more impressive.
2020 Stats: 232 attempts 1,169 yards. 11 touchdowns; 36 receptions 299 yards one touchdown
WR: Justin Jefferson / Minnesota Vikings
- For a franchise that has featured the incomparable Randy Moss, Jefferson had an all-time rookie season. He deserves all the accolades and then some. What can he do for an encore in 2021? People heavily criticized the team for trading the transcendent Stefon Diggs but Jefferson proved to be an astute draft selection who could provide dynamism unseen since the halcyon days of Moss and Carter.
2020 Stats: 88 receptions 1,400 yards, seven touchdowns
WR: Chase Claypool / Pittsburgh Steelers
- Claypool entered the league in ideal circumstances in the Steel City as Pittsburgh had a veteran quarterback and not much of a rushing attack. He proved to be an ideal number two man behind the star JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers’ potent passing offense has enough touches for him to succeed while catering towards Juju and an emerging PPR machine Diontae Johnson. Can Claypool keep up the production while the franchise begins to slowly transition away from Big Ben?
2020 Stats: 62 receptions 873 yards, nine touchdowns
WR: CeeDee Lamb / Dallas Cowboys
- Lamb entered the league with much fanfare and he did deliver in big fashion despite some terrible circumstances that befell America’s Team i.e. hardly any offensive line help, Zeke not being Zeke, and of course Dak Prescott’s injury. CeeDee took awhile to get going but he blossomed down the stretch run that saw Dallas “compete” for the downtrodden NFC East. He thrived as the number two behind Amari Cooper. Success with Andy Dalton is a great harbinger of continued prosperity if Prescott returns (he is indeed a free agent, technically).
2020 Stats: 74 receptions 935 yards five touchdowns; 10 attempts 82 yards one touchdown
TE: Cole Kmet / Chicago Bears
- Another Fighting Irish alum made it onto the first team but with less hype. Kmet didn’t have a ton of production but showed flashes of what he could become (rookie tight ends don’t typically burst out of the gates). The former second-round pick is a name to watch should the Bears ever get around to solving their quarterback issues. He could be a great secondary weapon next to Allen Robinson.
2020 Stats: 28 receptions 243 yards two touchdowns
OT: Tristan Wirfs / Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Wirfs has been outstanding from Day 1, entrenching himself as the right tackle starter with signs of multiple All-Pro teams in his future. The former Iowa Hawkeye is credited with allowing only one sack and just three penalties in the regular season. He has been well worth the first-round selection and draft hype that preceded that.
OG: Kevin Dotson / Pittsburgh Steelers
- He has been a hidden gem for the Steelers as a fourth-round selection. Has assisted in stabilizing an offensive line that was in arrears to some degree. He’s a foundational piece going forward for a team that could be in transition soon. Dotson has allowed zero sacks to date and has gone up against some of the best of the best and succeeded.
C: Cesar Ruiz / New Orleans Saints
- Ruiz played very well as the point man for a Super Bowl contending team, especially considering that he’s a rookie with the circumstances that he had. Going up against the Saints’ defense in practice gives him every chance to succeed and improve. The former Wolverine has a bright future ahead of him if he can stay healthy.
OG: Jonah Jackson / Detroit Lions
- Jackson was a rising star of the draft process and he did not disappoint as a rookie. While the Lions struggled as a whole, he more than held his own against some fierce competition. As Detroit launches itself headlong into another coaching change, I expect JJ to be as good as advertised if not better going forward.
OT: Mekhi Becton / New York Jets
- He certainly had his rookie bumps and bruises but overall he was very consistent even as the Jets failed their way into the second overall selection in the 2021 draft. The big man projects to be a star left tackle for whoever the Jets decide to go with at quarterback.
First Team Defense
EDGE: Chase Young / Washington FT
- Young is all that and then some. He more than lived up to the immense hype and is a stone-cold lock to win defensive rookie of the year. It was one of the more impressive showings from a rookie regardless of position in a long time. He has a chance to garner future MVP votes and the requisite contract earnings leading the talented WFT defensive line.
2020 Stats: 44 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hits, four passes defensed, four forced fumbles, three fumbles recovered, 7.5 sacks
DT: Derrick Brown / Carolina Panthers
- The first-round pick and first defensive tackle off the board had a great successful rookie campaign. He was a key piece for the Panthers star-studded defensive line, allowing them to thrive into a solid ranking statistically. Brown was a force to be reckoned with and will be so for years to come. A solid start one could say.
2020 Stats: 34 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hits, four passes defensed, two sacks
DT: Raekwon Davis / Miami Dolphins
- The Dolphins second-round selection had a great rookie season by any measure and was an essential piece for the Fish’s run to the playoff contention. While he likely won’t be a superstar, he will be a starter-level type of player going forward. I love his skill set as such. The former five-star recruit fell to a perfect team for him
2020 Stats: 40 tackles, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit
EDGE: Alex Highsmith / Pittsburgh Steelers
- Another year, another unheralded Steelers defensive rookie prospering. It’s an annual tradition at this point. Highsmith benefited from teams focusing on the other defensive stars but in his limited snaps, he had some great reps. The third-round selection more than merited a place on the first team.
2020 Stats: 48 tackles, five tackles for loss, six quarterback hits, two sacks. one interception, one pass defensed
LB: Patrick Queen / Baltimore Ravens
- Queen has been an All-Pro caliber rookie for the Ravens and should’ve never reached their pick. He’s a playmaker all over the field and has grown to the position very nicely. Many future honors await him. If he keeps up his level of play, he will likely compete with Darius Leonard as the next great inside linebacker of this generation.
2020 Stats: 106 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries. one interception
LB: Kenneth Murray / LA Chargers
- Murray has been a catalyst for the young and talented Chargers defense despite all the injuries around him. He had a great rookie year and lived up to his draft slot quite comfortably. Another exciting young linebacker trying to find his way like a Deion Jones. He’s going to be good next to Derwin James, Joey Bosa, and possibly Melvin Ingram in the coming years.
2020 Stats: 107 tackles, five tackles for loss, one quarterback hit, three passes defensed, one sack
LB: Isaiah Simmons / Arizona Cardinals
- The do-everything athlete from Clemson didn’t have the best of starts to his fledgling career but closed it down the stretch with a flurry. Fans were mystified that DC Vance Joseph didn’t use him more in the beginning and strictly limited to linebacker duties, questioning his mental capacities to limit Simmons. Regardless, expect Simmons to have a pretty good career as a utility safety type like a Kenny Vaccaro.
2020 Stats: 54 tackles, four tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, two sacks, two passes defensed, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, one interception.
CB: Jaylon Johnson / Chicago Bears
- The former Ute defensive back came into the league underhyped in some circles and got his career off to the right start. He was seriously impressive as a rookie corner (those usually have an inconsistent debut). He locked down one half of the field for a great Bears defense. He’s going to be a good one for years to come.
2020 Stats: 44 tackles, one tackle for loss, 15 passes defensed
CB: A.J. Terrell / Atlanta Falcons
- Terrell was a late bloomer in the draft circuit but has stepped up well for a Falcons defense that flashed the potential of something more. He ably slid into a starting job and held his own against superior receiver competition for the most part. Looks to be a building block for the next defensive staff at Flowery Branch. The former first-round pick is a #good CB1 for the Dirty Birds.
2020 Stats: 74 tackles, three tackles for loss, one quarterback hits, seven passes defensed, one interception, three forced fumbles
S: Julian Blackmon / Indianapolis Colts
- Blackmon won a fierce competition at the safety position for S1 honors after posting an excellent season for the Colts. All the more remarkable considering that he suffered a severe knee injury in December 2019 and relegating the once-powerful Malik Hooker to the bench had he not been injured. Utah sure knows how to develop defensive players.
2020 Stats: 42 tackles, three tackles for loss, two interceptions, six passes defensed, one forced fumbles
S: Antoine Winfield, Jr / Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- You could say that Winfield 2.0’s success was preordained but he was very successful in his own right. The second-rounder was an immediate hit in the NFL after an incredible career at Minnesota. He definitely has the bloodline and talent to make a long-lasting impact in the NFL, that’s for sure. He’s going to be a dominant playmaker as the years go by.
2020 Stats: 94 tackles, one tackle for loss, four quarterback hits, six passes defensed, one interception
Second Team Offense
QB: Joe Burrow / Cincinnati Bengals
- The Bengals rookie signal-caller looked the part of a future franchise passer before ultimately bowing out with a devastating knee injury thanks to an extremely suspect offensive line. If the Bengals can get him an offensive line that can play even mediocre NFL football, he would be in business when he comes back. The 2019 Heisman and national title winner certainly has a bright future should he come back to full health.
2020 Stats: 264 / 404 (65%), 2,688 yards 13 touchdowns, five interceptions; 37 attempts 142 yards, and one touchdown
RB: Antonio Gibson / Washington FT
- The versatile playmaker from Memphis was a surprise to some but he gained the lion’s share of touches once he got the job. Gibson is going to be a good chess piece for the WFT and a PPR machine in the near future. He was highly productive given the turmoil that was the quarterback situation in Landover which bodes well.
2020 Stats: 170 attempts 795 yards 11 touchdowns; 36 receptions 247 yards
RB: Clyde Edwards-Helaire / Kansas City Chiefs
- Everyone’s favorite fantasy football rookie running back had his moments for sure. CEH nearly tripled the number of touches of his colleague Le’Veon Bell and Darrell Williams despite missing three games. He was the key cog for the reigning Super Bowl champions and a weapon that teams had to account for even with the multitude of assets seemingly ahead of him in the pecking order.
2020 Stats: 181 attempts 803 yards, four touchdowns; 36 receptions 297 yards one touchdown
WR: Tee Higgins / Cincinnati Bengals
- The former Clemson receiver exploded onto the scene as the number two man behind Tyler Boyd. Higgins led the Bengals in yards and touchdowns, believe it or not. While he probably won’t be a true blue WR1, he can be a solid WR2 with a solid consistent target share behind Boyd opening things up.
2020 Stats: 67 receptions 908 yards, six touchdowns
WR: Jerry Jeudy / Denver Broncos
- It was a season of lost opportunity for Jeudy as he was targeted a whopping 110 times but only had 52 receptions. The drops were an issue, yes but the talent is undeniable. The chemistry between him and Drew Lock needs work for sure. His production merited a spot on the second team, however. Hopefully, Jeudy gets a chance to work on some things with Lock or whoever the QB is for Denver in the offseason more.
2020 Stats: 52 receptions 856 yards, three touchdowns
WR: Brandon Aiyuk / San Francisco 49ers
- Aiyuk was a highly productive rookie receiver and the lead dog for the 49ers depleted offensive attack. He missed a couple of games himself due to COVID so hopefully, he doesn’t suffer any long term effects. The former Sun Devil can form a high powered one-two punch with a healthy Deebo Samuel in 2021. With Kyle Shanahan’s creativity and Aiyuk’s route running, his potential is limitless.
2020 Stats: 60 receptions 748 yards, five touchdowns, six attempts 77 yards two touchdowns
TE: Harrison Bryant / Cleveland Browns
- Tight ends as rookies are traditionally underwhelming and Bryant was the best of the remaining bunch. He did just enough to merit a coveted spot on this team. Perhaps he can develop much more rapport with Baker Mayfield as his career progresses and show more of the promise that flashed in Mobile. Bryant is a former Mackey Award winner so there’s that
2020 Stats: 24 receptions 238 yard, three touchdowns
OT: Jedrick Wills, Jr / Cleveland Browns
- Wills has seamlessly fit in as the starting left tackle for the surging Browns and could be the next DUDE. Now I won’t claim that he will be Joe Thomas but is well on the way to be a franchise blocker. That counts for something right?
OG: Michael Onwenu / New England Patriots
- Onwenu spent most of the year as a tackle for the Patriots this season but he did play both guard spots at times so it counts. He was excellent in all aspects and looks to be a key asset to build the next great New England line around much like in their heyday. Marcus Cannon who? He was excellent regardless of the position he was put in. Looks to be the next franchise right tackle.
C: Lloyd Cushenberry / Denver Broncos
- Cushenberry had his bumps as a rookie center but more than held his own leading the Broncos offensive line as the anchor. The former LSU standout has flashed the potential to be the next Tom Nalen for Denver. High praise indeed but he can live up to that standard. You don’t wear the famed LSU #18 for being just another guy.
OG: Damien Lewis / Seattle Seahawks
- Cush’s linemate in college was a find for the Seahawks as he was an immediate hit for them. The third-round selection played very well and Seattle could have found a piece to finally retool their line around. Lewis even played center in a pinch.
OT: Austin Jackson / Miami Dolphins
- The first-round pick had a bit of a slow start and some health questions but really came on strong late. He needs more development time but flashed enough potential to make it worth the Dolphins investment in him. I feel like he’s on the cusp of something good should everything go right.
Second Team Defense
EDGE: Alton Robinson / Seattle Seahawks
- Robinson was a productive rookie when he was in for the under-siege Seahawks defense that not even Jamal Adams could save. The former Syracuse product didn’t have the best of draft processes but he built a solid enough rookie year resume to be considered for second-team honors.
2020 Stats: 22 tackles, five tackles for loss, four quarterback hits, four sacks, one forced fumbles
DT: Javon Kinlaw / San Francisco 49ers
- Kinlaw had an inconsistent rookie year due to injury and the specter of having to replace the all-world DeForest Buckner (the man he was essentially traded for). Still, he has shown enough to merit a spot on the second team based on talent alone. Hopefully, his sophomore campaign goes a bit better for him and the training staff of the team.
2020 Stats: 33 tackles, three tackles for loss, four quarterback hits, 1.5 sacks, four passes defensed, one interception
DT: Justin Madubuike / Baltimore Ravens
- The former third-round selection from Texas A&M flashed some potential that tantalized many in his limited reps. Overall, he had a pretty decent rookie season given the talent ahead of him on the depth chart. 2021 will be a fairer judge of his capabilities.
2020 Stats: 19 tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, one sack
EDGE: DJ Wonnum / Minnesota Vikings
- Wonnum was a pleasant surprise for a stop unit that needed a bit of a boost in the pass rush area. The former Gamecock flashed the potential to become something more under the right defensive staff.
2020 Stats: 24 tackles, five tackles for loss, eight quarterback hits, three sacks, one pass defensed, one forced fumble
LB: Mykal Walker / Atlanta Falcons
- The Falcons certainly didn’t have the season that they wanted but Walker flashed a ton of potential with the limited reps he had. Atlanta got a good one from Fresno State as he can grow further next to one of the premier linebackers in the game in Deion Jones (when healthy). Current DC and linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich did a great job with bringing along Walker. If he’s developed right, he can follow the traditions of franchise greats such as Jessie Tuggle, Sean Witherspoon, and Keith Brooking.
2020 Stats: 45 tackles, one tackle for loss, two quarterback hits, one passes defensed, one forced fumble
LB: Krys Barnes / Green Bay Packers
- The former undrafted UCLA Bruin has been a revelation for the Packers as he was a Day 1 starter and has delivered. Green Bay may have gotten away with a good one for their defense. Barnes has been very productive and won his spot over teammate Kamal Martin who was pretty good himself. Unheralded but he delivered.
2020 Stats: 80 tackles. five tackles for loss, one quarterback hit, one forced fumble
CB: Trevon Diggs / Dallas Cowboys
- Diggs had a typical inconsistent rookie corner season but really came on late in the year to earn his spot on the second team. While he likely won’t be a CB1 type, he can slot in as a CB2, which isn’t bad.
2020 Stats: 58 tackles, one tackle for loss, three interceptions, 14 passes defensed, one sack, one forced fumble
CB: Jeff Gladney / Minnesota Vikings
- The first round selection had the production but was inconsistent as expected. He did get a ton of reps so that’s a positive going into his second season. Minnesota had a ton of injuries and he didn’t get a lot of time with the other projected starters to gel with. Gladney’s future looks bright alongside Cam Dantzler (who just missed being on the team).
2020 Stats: 81 tackles, seven tackles for loss, one quarterback hit, three passes defensed, one forced fumble
NB: L’Jarius Sneed / Kansas City Chiefs
- Sneed has looked like a steal for the champions as a fourth-round selection from Louisiana Tech. He was injured for a portion of the season but came back as strong as ever. He was among the best corners in the league as both a nickel and outside corner, which is very impressive as a rookie. Normal rookie corners need a year or two to get their legs underneath them but Sneed has wasted little time in making a great impression. He looks to be a key piece alongside Tyrann Mathieu, Bashaud Breeland, and Juan Thornhill that the team can count on going forward.
2020 Stats: 41 tackles, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, three interceptions, seven passes defensed
S: Jeremy Chinn / Carolina Panthers
- What an incredible rookie campaign for the former SIU star. He was awesome throughout the year despite some welcome to the NFL moments here and there. Not a bad start to his career at all. The FCS to the pros is a tough road and he’s well on his way to mastering it. He looks to be the future playmaker that the Panthers envisioned to be with a second-round investment.
2020 Stats: 117 tackles, two tackles for loss, five quarterback hits, one interception, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles, two fumbles recovered, one sack, two touchdowns
S: Kamren Curl / Washington FT
- The WFT got a great steal in the seventh round with Curl. He’s been great all year long for them replacing the injured Landon Collins in their run to the NFC East title. He projects to thrive in the box safety role ala Mark Barron and Collins once made theirs. Kudos to HC Ron Rivera and company for unearthing a late-round gem.
2020 Stats: 88 tackles, four tackles for loss, five quarterback hits, three interceptions, four passes defensed, one touchdown