Rookie Watch – My Top Five on Offense by Gareth Evans

Rookie Watch – My Top Five on Offense by Gareth Evans
Reading Time: 6 minutes.

The 2020 NFL Draft boasted an array of talent. It was a great year for defensive backs, offensive linemen, quarterbacks, and especially wide receivers.

With the NFL season well under way, 11 weeks in, I will be looking at the best performing offensive and defensive picks of the Class of 2020 with my top five performers, starting on offense.

It’s difficult to rank players who are entering different situations in the league. Some will be coming into established foundations and line-ups with strong support. Others will be arriving with the hopes of a city, sometimes state, on their shoulders, as the cornerstone on which to rebuild a crumbling franchise.

With the season in its second half, who has made the best start?

1. Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals – 2,485 passing yards, 12 TD passes/5 interceptions. 89.8 QB rating.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) throws during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

(Image credit: Aaron Doster/AP)

The No.1 pick has entered a tough situation in Cincinnati after a final year in college where his stock rose extremely quickly at LSU. Having been third on the depth chart at Ohio Start, Burrow delivered the most extraordinary year at quarterback, breaking school, and NCAA records along the way. It’s easy to forget that he wasn’t even in the conversation for an NFL pick at the start of the year, Tua and Justin Herbert were touted as potential No.1s, Herbert even as top pick for the draft a year earlier, had he not decided to return to school.

The Ohio native seems to have returned like the prodigal son. Ohio likes its quarterbacks tough and Burrow has displayed this in abundance. Sat behind a leaky offensive line, Burrow has shown light footwork and a patience in the pocket to deliver the right pass knowing he is about to take yet another hit. Burrow has a promising receiving corps. His partnership with fellow draft pick Tee Higgins (the 33rd pick out of Clemson) is developing and he has the talented veteran A.J. Green to throw to.

Burrow struggled against Pittsburgh, taking four sacks and has been sacked 32 times this season, second only to Russell Wilson, surprisingly. An offensive lineman will be high on Cincinnati’s draft priorities. They will be hoping Penei Sewell is available when they hand their card in on draft night. Burrow has come into a harder situation than any rookie quarterback, expected to start from Day One when Andy Dalton was traded to Dallas, and carrying the hopes of fans who have faced years of disappointment. He has performed as a No.1 pick in those circumstances, and that’s why he is my top offensive rookie in the season so far.

2. Justin Herbert, L.A. Chargers – 2,333 passing yards, 19 TD passes/6 interceptions. 102.8 QB rating.

Nov 8, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws a pass against the Las Vegas Raiders during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

(Image credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

It’s possible Justin Herbert could be a year into his NFL career, wearing a Giants or Washington jersey now, had he not decided to return to Oregon for his senior year. Scouts seemed pessimistic about how whether the laid-back Herbert could handle the speed and pressure of the NFL. Yet here he is, in a Chargers jersey that has been the possession of Philip Rivers for the last 15 years, flourishing in a spread-based passing system that plays to his strengths much more than at Oregon.

Herbert was expected to learn the ropes behind Tyrod Taylor in LA. He was told just five minutes before his NFL debut in Week Two that he would be starting against the reigning Super Bowl Champions. Against the Chiefs, he threw for 311 yards, passed for a touchdown, and rushed for another. He has built up a string of impressive performances since although a loss against Miami highlighted his weakness against pressure in the pocket. This is a work in progress. If NFL scouts were asked the design the ideal template for an NFL quarterback, they might come up with Herbert. At 6’6” and 237lbs, Herbert has a rocket arm and can move. He has 19 touchdown passes this season and a 67% completion rate. The Chargers are in great shape with the rookie under center for the next few years. The third quarterback selected in the draft this year may well prove to be the best long-term and with Burrow and Tua flourishing, 2020 may prove to one of the best quarterback classes ever.

3. Tristan Wirfs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 1 sack allowed.

(Image credit: bucsreport.com)

Wirfs must have experienced a huge range of emotion on Draft Day. In an excellent draft for offensive linemen, many had predicted Wirfs would be the top lineman taken. I had mocked him as the fourth pick overall. Instead, he fell. Andrew Thomas, Jedrick Wills and Mekhi Becton were all taken above him, and he was still there at No.13. Within minutes, he learned he was about to learn his trade protecting Tom Brady.

David Bakhtiari has just demonstrated how important a great tackle is to an organisation. Green Bay have just agreed a $105.4million contract extension for him to protect Aaron Rodgers for the next four years. Wirfs has been a monster this year and will be the foundation of the Bucs’ offensive line for the next decade. In 682 snaps played to date at right tackle, he has been penalised just three times and allowed just one sack. To Khalil Mack. Andrew Thomas, who was taken fourth, has allowed six. The offensive line is rarely recognised when it comes to picking out a star individual. The addition of Wirfs, strong in the run game and excellent against the pass rush, has been instrumental in the success of the Bucs’ offense this season.

4. Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings – 42 receptions, 762 receiving yards, 3 touchdowns.

Jefferson was the fifth receiver taken in what will be known as one the best receiving draft classes in history. Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb and Jalen Reagor were all selected ahead of him. The bright spot in a Vikings team off to a sluggish start, Jefferson has filled the significant void left by Stefon Diggs’ departure to Buffalo. Dalvin Cook’s return to form from injury and Adam Thielen lining up on the other sideline has given Jefferson a great opportunity to showcase his talents under a little less pressure. That said, when Chicago snuffed out the threat of Cook on Monday night, Jefferson stepped up with a 135-yard night.

He is on course to have a better rookie receiving year than Randy Moss, and that should be an indicator of what a great start he’s had.

5. James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars – 689 rushing yards, 5 touchdowns, 4.4 yards per carry.

Sep 24, 2020; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars running back James Robinson (30) runs the ball against Miami Dolphins linebacker Elandon Roberts (44) during the first half at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

(Image credit: Douglas DeFelice/USA Today Sports)

What a story. Robinson was an undrafted rookie from Illinois State. Eighteen running backs were taken but Robinson has outshone them all. Antonio Gibson, JK Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor have made good starts in Washington, Baltimore, and Indianapolis, respectively. D’Andre Swift is finding his feet in Detroit and Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the top back taken, has made the most of an excellent situation in Kansas City.

Robinson has joined a Jacksonville team in some disarray but has given them a chink of light in their rebuilding process. In a draft where defense was their priority, Robinson didn’t cost them a pick. He has the fifth-highest rushing yard total in the NFL, over 100 more than Edwards-Helaire and ahead of Kenyan Drake, Kareem Hunt and Ezekiel Elliott. Robinson has also added two receiving touchdowns and 228 receiving yards. While the Jaguars have questions at quarterback, the rookie that arrives in 2021 (Justin Fields?) will have Robinson and emerging rookie wide receiver Laviska Shenault to grow with.

Honourable mentions:

Tua Tagovailoa – The No.3 pick has taken the reigns in Miami, but it’s too early to assess him fairly.

Mekhi Becton – In a nightmare season for the Jets, Becton has been impressive in the run game.

Jedrick Wills – Has slotted into the pressure left tackle position impressively in Cleveland.

Chase Claypool – the Canadian wide receiver is becoming Ben Roethlisberger’s favourite target.

Michael Onwenu – the Patriots’ sixth round pick from Michigan is now a lock at right guard.

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