- Covered Broncos for nine years for Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News
- Previously covered Steelers, Bills and Titans
- Member of Pro Football Hall of Fame Board
of Selectors since 1999
Well, they made it. A strange, weird, never-anything-like-it-before 2020 NFL regular season is in the books. And the rookies? They didn’t get an on-field offseason or preseason games, but plenty of them flourished throughout the year.
How does the rookie class stack up? Nine ESPN writers and analysts ranked their top 10 rookies for the year. We tabulated the results, using Heisman-type scaling for each ranking, which gave us an overall list. To be clear, voting was based on the regular season, and playoff performance thus far was not factored into the ranking. The Buccaneers placed two players among the top 10, and five first-round picks closed the year on our list.
Let’s take a look at the 10 best first-years of 2020.
1. Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers
Stats: 4,336 yards, 66.6% completion rate, 31 TDs, 10 INTs (234 rushing yards, 5 TDs)
Drafted: No. 6 overall
Despite seeing his coach, Anthony Lynn, get fired after the Chargers’ season, Herbert tops our list and now faces learning a new offense in 2021. He set rookie records for passing touchdowns, total touchdowns, completions, multiple-passing-touchdown games, three-touchdown games and 300-yard passing games. It was a fantastic start for the third quarterback drafted in 2020.
2. Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Stats: 88 receptions, 1,400 yards, 7 TDs
Drafted: No. 22 overall
Two picks in, and we have two Justins with rookie records. Jefferson set his mark for receiving yards in a rookie season — Anquon Boldin’s record had stood for 16 years — and his 88 catches also set a new Vikings team record for rookies, putting him ahead of Hall of Famer Randy Moss. He finished the year with seven 100-yard games and will be a major piece for this Minnesota offense going forward.
3. Chase Young, DE, Washington Football Team
Stats: 44 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, 1 TD
Drafted: No. 2 overall
On top of 7.5 sacks, Young also had 10 tackles for loss, 12 quarterback hits and returned one of three fumble recoveries for a touchdown. Even in a defensive line stacked with former first-round picks, he is already the high-motor guy whom offenses are forced to focus on. That, in turn, gives the other playmakers along the line a little more room to work.
4. Tristan Wirfs, OT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Stats: 89.1% pass block win rate, 16 starts
Drafted: No. 13 overall
Wirfs played every snap of the regular season for the Buccaneers, as well as every snap of the wild-card win over Washington. In the Buccaneers’ pass-heavy offense, he had 41 more graded pass plays than any other rookie tackle, finished second among full-time rookie tackles overall in ESPN’s Stats & Information’s pass block win rate and ended up first among the rookie tackles in run block win rate.
5. Jeremy Chinn, S, Carolina Panthers
Stats: 117 tackles, 1 interception, 1.0 sack, 2 forced fumbles, 2 TDs
Drafted: No. 64 overall
In most years — or at least in years without a guy like Young doing top-shelf things in the pass rush — Chinn would be getting tons of love as the potential Defensive Rookie of the Year. He had a do-it-all year, as he led all rookies in tackles and posted at least 10 in three games. Chinn also knocked down five passes, rushed for 28 yards on a fake punt and scored two touchdowns 10 seconds apart in the Panthers’ loss to the Vikings earlier in the season.
6. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts
Stats: 232 carries, 1,169 yards, 11 TDs (36 receptions, 299 yards, 1 TD)
Drafted: No. 41 overall
Talk about finishing well. Over the closing weeks of the season, Taylor averaged at least 5 yards per carry in five of six games, and at least 7 yards per carry in three of them. He had three of his top four rushing games over that span, too, including his two best of the season (150 yards against the Raiders and 253 yards against the Jaguars). In his first career postseason action, Taylor stacked up 78 rushing yards and a score.
7. Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Stats: 2,688 yards, 65.3% completion rate, 13 TDs, 5 INTs (142 rushing yards, 3 TDs)
Drafted: No. 1 overall
He played in 10 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury, but he was still the first rookie to have three consecutive 300-yard passing games. In fact, he finished with five of them in those 10 games. His 406-yard effort in Week 7 was one of just 12 400-yard passing games overall in the 2020 regular season.
8. James Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Stats: 240 carries, 1,070 yards, 7 TDs (49 receptions, 344 yards, 3 TDs)
Drafted: Undrafted free agent
Not only was Robinson the only undrafted player to make our top 10, he was also the only player on the list not drafted in the opening two rounds of the 2020 draft. He carried the ball 202 more times than the next active Jaguars running back, was fourth on the team in catches and led the Jaguars in scoring.
9. Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Stats: 94 tackles, 1 interception, 3.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Drafted: No. 45 overall
Winfield finished the season with two 10-tackle games and played at least 97% of the team’s defensive snaps in 15 games, including Saturday’s wild-card win over Washington. He knocked down six passes, forced two fumbles and had four quarterback hits on the season.
10. Chase Claypool, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Stats: 62 receptions, 873 yards, 9 TDs (2 rushing TDs)
Drafted: No. 49 overall
As the Steelers’ passing offense contracted a bit as the season wore on, Claypool was still the team’s only receiver to catch more than 40 passes and average more than 10.5 yards per catch (he finished the regular season at 14.1). His nine receiving touchdowns — seven of which came by Week 10 — also tied for the team lead. And to cap off a solid rookie season, Claypool made two touchdown catches in the Steelers’ wild-card loss to the Browns.
Tee Higgins, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
It shouldn’t be a shock his production took a significant hit when Burrow suffered his injury; Higgins (the 33rd pick in April) had both of his 100-yard games and three of his four games with at least six receptions with Burrow behind center. He also averaged at least 15.5 yards per catch in four of the 10 games Burrow started. But he deserves a lot of recognition for a 908-yard season.
Mike Onwenu, G/OT, New England Patriots
A sixth-round pick (182nd overall) started every game for the Patriots and saw time at right tackle, both guard spots and as an extra tight end early in the season. His pass block win rate was third among qualified rookies at 92.3%. Not bad for a guy who was considered a depth player when training camp opened.
Mekhi Becton, OT, New York Jets
Becton, selected 11th overall, started 13 games for the Jets — he had a chest injury earlier this season and left two games early with a shoulder injury — and was one of the few bright spots for the team. In a season where he powered through many defensive linemen, his signature play for some was pushing Aaron Donald just enough for Frank Gore to score on a fourth-and-goal in what was the Jets’ first win of the season.
Jedrick Wills Jr., OT, Cleveland Browns
The 10th pick of the draft started 15 games in the regular season and was the league’s top rookie tackle in pass block win rate (92.4% win rate) and ninth-best tackle overall in the category.
Also received votes: J.K. Dobbins, Antonio Gibson, Brandon Aiyuk, Jaylon Johnson, CeeDee Lamb, Julian Blackmon, L’Jarius Sneed, Derrick Brown, Jordan Fuller and Patrick Queen
Other rookie notes
The 49ers’ Brandon Aiyuk gave a rather tidy glimpse of the future when the wideout had four of his five touchdown catches in the season’s second half. He consistently beat man-to-man coverage down the stretch.
He missed six weeks with a fractured collarbone, but the Chiefs’ L’Jarius Sneed still might be one of the real third-day steals of the draft, as he was the clear leader among the league’s first-year cornerbacks. Sneed has played both outside and in the nickel corner spot for the Chiefs.
Washington safety Kamren Curl, a seventh-round pick (216th overall), is another example why teams should think long and hard before ditching late picks as throw-ins to move up six slots in a round rather than working the board all the way to the end. Curl showed plenty of versatility, having lined up in the slot, as an in-the-box defender and deep in coverage.
While there is still plenty of the story to be told, with the impact Winfield, Chinn, Curl, the Colts’ Julian Blackmon, the Dolphins’ Brandon Jones, the Patriots’ Kyle Dugger and the Rams’ Jordan Fuller each had at safety this season, it might be the best initial hit rate at any position. Twenty-three safeties were taken in the 2020 draft.
Note: Voters for our top-10 list included Matt Bowen, Mike Clay, Jeremy Fowler, Dan Graziano, Mina Kimes, Jeff Legwold, Jason Reid, Kevin Seifert and Field Yates.
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