Rookie Watch At The Quarter Mark: Offense
By Simon Carroll
With a quarter of the regular season already in the books, Simon Carroll takes a look at the standout rookie at each position so far and how they compare to their pre-draft scouting report. We begin with the offense:
Quarterback: Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
Absolute no-brainer to begin this article folks. The only rookie at his position to start week 1 and play all four games so far, Joe Burrow has looked every bit the franchise quarterback.
Bengals fans will be impressed with his composure behind a fragile o-line and his ability to compartmentalise mistakes and bounce back immediately. This designed QB run on his debut was an excellent piece of play-calling from Zac Taylor, allowing the former LSU Tiger to make amends for the pick he threw on Cincy’s previous drive:
Despite playing for a winless team Burrow ranks in the top ten for passing yards, has just two picks and holds a better completion percentage than Tom Brady and Matt Ryan. Pre-draft fears of his body of work and ability to operate within an offense that maybe doesn’t possess the comparative level of talent he’s used to appear to be unfounded. After 4 weeks, I’m anointing Burrow a bona fide star.
Running Back: James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Probably the most unlikely name on this list, James Robinson’s ascendency to RB1 in this Jaguars’ offense has allowed many casual observers to forget this franchise cut a running back that had more than 1,300 scrimmage yards last year. The ‘Tank for Trevor’ may still be on, but nobody has told Robinson that; the former Illinois State Redbird (yeah I had to Google it) has turned heads not just starting, but thriving in DUVAL County.
An undrafted free agent rookie from an FCS school, you have my colleague Rebecca Rennie to thank for the scouting report. And as you can see, the traits that stood him in good stead at college have translated to the pro game. Robinson is a physical, bowling ball of a running back that keeps his pads low and his feet churning. It’s not glamorous, but at 4.8 yards a carry who cares?
The most surprising aspect of his development has come as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield – his 161 receiving yards are twice as many as he amassed the whole of his final year at Illinois State.
Wide Receiver: Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings
A tough choice here – CeeDee Lamb has done very well to carve himself out a consistent role in a stacked Dallas offense, and was very much considered. But it’s no coincidence that The Minnesota Vikings finally looked capable of moving the ball when Kirk Cousins started hitting his newest weapon in week 3. Seven catches for 175 yards and a score against a stout Tennessee defense was Justin Jefferson at his very best, lining up across the formation and garnering separation like we saw every Saturday at LSU.
Jefferson has some similarities to his predecessor Stefon Diggs – their route running is their greatest asset, and it’s why you can expect JJ to be a consistent producer in this offense opposite Adam Thielen. The only surprise is how little his number was called upon in weeks 1 and 2.
As noted pre-draft, his deep speed isn’t quite what Cousins will be used to when Diggs was around, but it doesn’t stop him getting the yards; only DK Metcalf (25.2) has a better yards per reception than Jefferson (21.8) out of all receivers with ten or more catches.
Tight End: Harrison Bryant, Cleveland Browns
Harrison Bryant claims this spot by the sheer fact that there has been little to no production from rookie tight ends throughout the first quarter of the 2020 season. A notoriously difficult position for rookies to make an immediate impact was exacerbated by the lean draft class and landing spots for these tight ends.
Seven receptions, 59 yards and a score across four games doesn’t amount to much, but Bryant deserves credit for forcing his way onto the field. Not only does he have Austin Hooper and David Njoku ahead of him on the depth chart, he’s also on an offense with Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. To have played 52% of all offensive snaps under these conditions shows what this coaching staff think of him, and with Njoku’s injury that’s only likely to increase.
Bryant went a round later than I thought he would, likely because he’s raw. But he’s proven to be a useful depth piece for Cleveland and will see more of the football as his growth continues.
Offensive Tackle: Mekhi Becton, New York Jets
The Jets have predictably been a hot mess, but don’t lay the blame at the feet of their new big blind side protector. Despite the pre-draft belief that Mekhi Becton would have quite a steep learning curve he has been the standout piece of an otherwise porous offensive line.
After a standout season at Louisville, Becton wowed onlookers at the combine with his ridiculous speed for a 6’7”, 369lb dude. His measurables and athleticism were off the charts, but technique and refinement needed work. No such worries so far in his NFL career – Becton has allowed just one sack and had one penalty in four games for The Jets, and at 76.9 was the third-highest graded rookie through the first three weeks:
One thing to look out for with Becton would be the lack of concern from The Jets regarding his health; he suffered a shoulder injury in week 3 and still played against The Broncos last Thursday. He lasted just seventeen snaps before getting hurt again. With Adam Gase’s job on the line they’re desperate to protect Darnold as much as possible, but who’s protecting the protector?
Interior Offensive Line: Michael Onwenu, New England Patriots
Sometimes it’s nice to be right. One of the steals of the draft, Onwenu has proven to be a perfect fit in Josh McDaniels’ varied offense. The Patriots are renowned for shaping their gameplan around the personnel they have available, so it was no surprise to see them roll out the jumbo package early and often this season to take advantage of their super-sized rookie.
A big man with positional versatility, Onwenu was used early as an extra lineman and also at right tackle. He even lined up as a full back and a tight end on occasion – and perhaps made as much of an impression there as fellow rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene.
He impressed, and in week 3 became a starter at left guard. Onwenu’s ability to block for Cam Newton has been a valued addition to this line as he allowed just one hurry against The Raiders. He went a lot later in the draft than I ever would have imagined, and it still makes me shake my head now. The Patriots’ recent drafting record has been middling at best, but in Onwenu they have unearthed a gem.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.