Every year, the NFL Draft culminates in an exciting and revelatory day of trades and recruitments. Those who follow the NCAA closely, have a chance to find out which team their favorite players will end up on, while also seeing which budding stars end up as first-round picks — the new NFL rookie class.
Aside from the obvious intrigue of shifting rosters and the opportunity to weigh up the latest prospects, the Draft sets the scene for the incoming preseason and, as August rolls around, the start of the official season. Rumors from summer camp and in-depth dives from dedicated pundits come to a point when Week 1 kicks off.
Inevitably, some rookies fail to meet the hype surrounding their collegiate careers. Others, who may have flown under the radar in college, rise to the occasion with monumental plays. And more still tread water for a few years as they build confidence and skill in the big leagues.
This year’s NFL Draft and regular season have been the subject of an even higher degree of speculation given 2020’s stunted sports offerings. As the end of the regular season approaches, newcomers are running out of time to cement themselves as the best or worst of the 2020 NFL rookie class.
Best and Worst of the 2020 NFL Rookie Class
Best: QB Justin Herbert, LA Chargers
After a sudden pre-game injury in Week 2, resident quarterback for the Charges, Tyrod Taylor, wasn’t able to take the field. Since then, Justin Herbert has risen to the occasion and worked tirelessly to learn the ropes as he goes along.
Despite the fact that the Chargers recently barely skated by the Jets, the NFL’s worst team this season, Herbert has been a binding force keeping the LA team on track this year, throwing for 290 yards in three consecutive games.
Though on the field the team may not look too sharp, expert analysts creating NFL picks watch closely to gauge the game-readiness of integral rookies like Herbert before they draft their predictions. He may be too green to lead the Chargers to greatness, but the Oregon grad also hasn’t succumbed to the daunting pressure of starting as a QB after Taylor’s sudden injury.
Best: QB Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
The 2020 season has created many star rookies, but none shine as bright as Joe Burrow. Given Burrow’s illustrious performance at LSU and his easy nabbing of both the Maxwell Award and the Heisman Trophy, few football fans thought he’d slip under pressure after becoming the Bengals’ starting quarterback.
So far, Burrow has risen to the challenge with flying colors. He became the first rookie NFL quarterback to throw for more than 300 yards in three consecutive games, and later broke NFL records for the most completed passes in his first eight games.
Unfortunately, Burrow tore his ACL and MCL in his left knee during the Bengals’ recent game against the Washington Football Team, so he will now be out of action for at least the rest of the year.
Best: S Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Though drafted 45th overall, Antoine Winfield Jr. made a quick name for himself by giving the Broncos hell in Week 3 of play. By midseason, Winfield won a Midseason Defensive Rookie of the Year award for his ability to quickly join the Buccs defensive blitz.
In fact, Todd Bowles, the defensive coordinator for the Buccs, has already factored Winfield into his starting lineup. The player has been on the field for all but one snap from the Buccs this season. He recorded his first pass interception in a Week 7 game against the Las Vegas Raiders.
After only nine games, Winfield had tallied 34 tackles, four pass breakups, and forced a fumble. He’s not only caught the attention of the nation as a star defensive rookie, but he’s also continued his legacy from his time at the University of Minnesota—not to mention, he seems on track to continue his father’s legacy as a three-time Pro Bowl participant.
Worst: OT Austin Jackson, Miami Dolphins
The pressure on faltering NFL rookies mounts week after week. Though every athlete knows the compounded pressure of defying a losing streak, none feel the weight quite like a first-round rookie failing to live up to their hype. For rookies like offensive tackle Austin Jackson, drafted at age 21 after forgoing his senior year, the pressure is even more intense.
Currently, Jackson is on injured reserve after suffering a foot injury after only four games. Prior to his injury, Jackson struggled against the edge talent he faced in games against the Patriots, Bills, Seahawks, and Jaguars.
In that time, the rookie allowed 11 pressures that left him with a low overall grade of less than 50 for his debut season. However, Jackson’s rookie status may be his saving grace, as the player will have the chance to prove himself coming off injured reserve with the Dolphins.
For now, Jackson is likely spending time with fellow IR rookie, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, as both await their chance to help steer the Dolphins out of the mud.
Worst: CB Jeffrey Okudah, Detroit Lions
After only four games of his rookie season, pundits and fans of the powerhouse Buckeye grad knew cornerback Jeffrey Okudah wouldn’t meet the great expectations set out for him. Going into Week 5, he’d allowed 19 catches for a total of 299 yards without posting a single pass breakup.
Still, those following Okudah noted that his play improved with the Lions as the weeks went on. Many pointed to his preseason hamstring injury, which saw him start on Week 2 against the Packers, to account for his struggles in the NFL.
Unfortunately for Okudah, his chances to turn around his rookie season will be limited. Even worse for the Lions, Okudah isn’t the only star rookie to be out on the injured reserve. The cornerback is out on a shoulder injury, while running back D’Andre Swift is also out with a concussion.
Though the Lions will suffer now that they’re missing both Okudah and Swift, the cornerback’s injury-ridden season may be a saving grace if he can prove that his stutter-stepping through the 2020 season was a combination of difficulties following his preseason hamstring injury and rookie jitters.
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