NFL rookie roundup: which first-year players are making their mark?

Graham Searles
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Anthony Souffle/AP</span>
Photograph: Anthony Souffle/AP

The 2020 draft class are three games into life in the NFL and, while the test is harder than ever as Covid-19 presents a fresh set of challenges for everyone in the league, some are already making the leap from green-edged rookie to battle-hardened starter.

Related: Denver Broncos earn first win of season as lowly New York Jets come from ahead

The Jets appear to have found the golden tackle ticket with Mekhi Becton who is about the only person able to protect Sam Darnoldm and a number of the high-grade receivers taken in round one have already flashed when given the chance: CeeDee Lamb and Brandon Aiyuk in particular.

The first-year players’ fates are by no means sealed, but what better time to check in and see who is flourishing already.

Justin Jefferson, wide receiver, Minnesota

It was always likely a receiver would be an instant hit this season. Jefferson, the fifth of six wideouts taken on day one, has surged to prominence not only at his position but in the entire class. His 71-yard touchdown last week against Tennessee demonstrated exactly what made Jefferson a star at LSU. His speed off the line left the 36-year-old Jonathan Joseph in another timezone, his hands were immaculate as he made the over-the-shoulder grab in stride and his agility supreme as he beat the safety for the score. One drop of the shoulder left Kenny Vaccaro grasping thin air as he tumbled head over heels into the dirt. An impressive 50-yard catch transformed into a sashay through the endzone for a first career touchdown. He finished with 175 yards from seven catches with 131 of those coming against single coverage.

For Mike Zimmer his inept defense means the Vikings need to score points and a truckload of them. Jefferson answered the call against Tennessee, despite the team losing once more, so in Minnesota leaning on him early he has had a fast track on developing his skill set for the NFL. Weeks five and six against Seattle and Atlanta, the two worst units at defending the pass (the former giving up a hilariously bad 430 yards per game in the air), should provide ample opportunity to add to his highlight reel and stay ahead of the chasing pack of first-year receivers.

Verdict Stefon Diggs, who?

Joe Burrow, quarterback, Cincinnati

The No 1 overall pick has hit the ground running in Cincinnati despite a winless start, but alarmingly has just plain hit the ground too. Burrow’s most impressive attribute thus far – his cool under immense pressure and willingness to take a hit for his team as defenders attack through the turnstile that doubles as an offensive front for the Bengals – has also been his achilles heel. During last week’s tie with Philadelphia, Burrow was pressured on 44% of his dropbacks while taking 18 hits and eight sacks, but had a better completion rate than either of his first two outings. He has put himself in danger of ending his season prematurely when attempting to reproduce evasive measures that led to big-time improvisational plays for LSU. But the potential is there. On the whole, his 141 total pass attempts are the second-highest in the league. But while his accuracy needs work, he clearly has a high level of savvy to limit mistakes (one interception and one fumble lost) while finding his feet. The Bengals’ head coach, Zac Taylor, has already said Burrow must take fewer sacks. The hit rate he is currently at is unsustainable for staying healthy, so let’s hope he takes his Taylor’s advice on board. More big gains like the dart to Tee Higgins on the sideline against the Eagles would delight Bengals fans and Burrow would surely love a better offensive line, but until then just throwing it away would be an improvement.

Verdict Good but not great

Antoine Winfield Jr
Pro Football Focus ranks Tampa Bay rookie Antoine Winfield Jr as the top safety in the league at pressuring and rushing the quarterback after three games. Photograph: Chris O’Meara/AP

Isaiah Simmons, linebacker, Arizona

The virtual-draft hype train was in overdrive for Simmons as his star potential was certified and versatility to play in all positions across the defense heralded as the game’s future back in April. Cut to the volcanic baptism Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers gave Simmons. A horse-collar tackle on the first play of his career, and putting up the white flag as Raheem Mostert strolled by for a 76-yard score minutes later, led Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury to hit the emergency brake. He was used on 10 snaps or fewer in the following two games. Kingsbury is protecting his man and a lack of preseason could explain the rust. We might see him again very soon, though, as Arizona are short after injuries at safety and Simmons is the next man up.

Verdict Master of none?

James Robinson, running back, Jacksonville

An undrafted free agent has blitzed the field of running backs. Robinson has stunningly risen above the first-round pick Clyde Edmunds-Helaire who flashed on opening day for Kansas City and has been steadily productive since, and rather less stunningly, the now mothballed D’Andre Swift. The former backup of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb at Georgia seized his moment against Miami in primetime of week three, scoring both of Jacksonville’s touchdowns while quarterback Garnder Minshew wilted. In the offseason the Jaguars had so much faith in their rookie they cut 2017’s fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette. Who do we have to thank for this minor miracle? NFL draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah explained on the Bleav in the Jags podcast that scout Marty Miller was forced to create a lockdown war room with his family to try and pick up a back after the draft. Following numerous disappointments, his wife, Kerinda, asked, “Well, what about James Robinson?” Miller had assumed the talent would have already been taken. You know what they say about assuming, Marty.

Verdict Kerinda Miller is your team’s next general manager

Antoine Winfield, safety, Tampa Bay

Winfield, drafted in the second round, is repaying a high workload from defensive coordinator Todd Bowles by already becoming a key weapon in the Buccaneers’ pass rush. Bowles sent him haring after Denver’s quarterbacks 10 times on Sunday. Winfield produced a sack, one hurry and a batted pass at the line. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the top safety in the league at pressuring and rushing the QB. Spectacularly, Winfield ranks fifth at the position overall.

Verdict Defensive rookie of the year contender