The 2020 NFL draft was heavier at certain offensive positions (such as wide receiver and offensive tackle) and lighter at others (tight end and interior offensive line come to mind). That unbalance is reflected in our projection for the best rookies on that side of the ball.
How the quarterback crop shapes up of course will be fascinating, with three going in the top six overall selections. Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert are the class’ clear centerpieces, and how they fare as rookies will be a story we track all season long.
Even with all the receivers and tackles drafted high this spring, we had to whittle down our list for the ones we think might be the best first-year contributors — and we didn’t go with all the higher picks.
Consider this list something of a primer for an all-rookie team, with 10 offensive rookies who will be big Year 1 contributors:
Bengals QB Joe Burrow (Round 1, 1st overall)
With Tagovailoa and Herbert likely to take some time to earn starting roles in Miami and Los Angeles, respectively, there’s one clear-cut choice this year at quarterback.
Bengals fans were retrofitting and recycling their old Carson Palmer No. 9 jerseys as early as last November with the hopes that the eventual Heisman Trophy winner would land in Cincinnati. Now that the dream has come true, there’s no stopping Burrow from winning the Week 1 starting gig.
And even when Burrow has made mistakes in camp, he has impressed veterans with his accuracy, poise and rare veteran-like presence for a rookie. The Bengals were bad in almost every regard last season, but it’s hard not to picture him adding a clear upgrade at quarterback right away.
We loved him coming out, ranking him our 22nd overall player regardless of position in the 2020 NFL draft, and he landed in the perfect offense in which to thrive. Edwards-Helaire goes from the most explosive college offense in recent history to the best NFL offense, and he was and can be a big part of both.
With Damien Williams opting out for the season, Edwards-Helaire’s workload increases — and he’s the type of pinball runner and gifted receiver who could put up Kareem Hunt-like numbers in Kansas City in Year 1.
CEH is a STUD, folks.
Packers RB A.J. Dillon (Round 2, 62nd overall)
His swollen legs have been all the rage at camp, and for good reason — the dude is a physical freak. As the season draws closer, Dillon’s power running will end up being a key element of the Packers’ offense.
Two things could hold back Dillon’s impact. The first is that Aaron Jones is a centerpiece of the offense, and there are only so many carries to go around. (The Packers averaged 22.3 handoffs to backs per game last year.) The second worry is Dillon’s pass blocking, which reportedly has been an adventure early in camp.
There’s a roadmap for Dillon to be successful as a rookie, and that’s to give him the majority of the between-the-tackles runs and deploy Jones as more of a weapon in space. Dillon has more juice as a runner than Jamaal Williams and can bring back memories (the good ones) of Eddie Lacy barreling through would-be tacklers his first few NFL seasons.
Bears TE Cole Kmet (Round 2, 43rd overall)
It was a weaker crop of tight ends in this year’s draft, and Kmet was the only one selected in the first 90 overall selections. We debated even adding any of them to this list, as tight end tend to be a slower-developing position.
But the top TE drafted this year has been one of the standouts in Bears camp, earning what appears to be legitimate praise for his work. Kmet might not explode out of the gates, but eventually he and Jimmy Graham could offer Matt Nagy more “12 personnel” versatility after using that package a mere 115 snaps last season.
Jets OT Mekhi Becton (Round 1, 11th overall)
Sam Darnold might not have a surplus of playmaking talent at his disposal, but his line might be the most pivotal position for the Jets to improve offensively. Last season, the Jets averaged only 0.7 rush yards before contact per attempt, the lowest mark of any team in the NFL. They also allowed pressure in 2.5 seconds or less on 27.5 percent of their dropbacks, which was the second-highest mark in the league.
That’s why Becton — who has received rave reviews so far — might be a critical element to the offense in Year 1. Adam Gase couldn’t hold back when asked about Becton’s rare size and athleticism.
“It’s rare that you see a 370-pound guy move the way he does,” Gase said. “It’s hard to explain what it feels like when you stand next to him. When you get next to him, you realize how big this guy is.
“When other players are talking about his size, his length, his strength, that’s when you know it’s real, that it’s not just a coach or a scout talking about it. He applies it on the field.’’
Giants OT Andrew Thomas (Round 1, 4th overall)
As with Becton across town, Thomas’ development is key to the Giants’ offense taking a step forward. He was a surprise as the first tackle drafted in a deep class at the position, and that decision will be weighed for years to come. All that matters now is how the rookie gears the run game and holds up in pass protection for QB Daniel Jones’ blind side.
The Giants could have bookend rookies starting at tackle — with third-rounder Matt Peart a candidate at right tackle — with Nate Solder opting out this season. We’re a little worried about Thomas and Peart holding up in five-man protections, but each are athletic movers who can help spur Saquon Barkley to a bounceback season.
Seahawks OG Damien Lewis (Round 3, 69th overall)
Pete Carroll might rave about a lot of players this time of year, but he seems especially ebullient about the rookie guard from LSU. We loved Lewis’ power on tape last season, as well as his leadership behind the scenes, and his bulldog mentality was easy to see in the Auburn game (when he got beat early but rallied to win battles against DT Derrick Brown late).
There appears to be a clear lane to a starting role for Lewis in Year 1 on a team that perennially seems to be shuffling its offensive line. Lewis’ improvement in sustaining blocks was apparent last season while buying time for QB Joe Burrow, who loved to extend plays as long as possible. Russell Wilson does the same thing — in a different way.
Another interior candidate we like as a potential rookie standout is the Saints’ Cesar Ruiz, who appears poised to start. The only question is where he lines up: center or guard?
Colts WR Michael Pittman Jr. (Round 2, 34th overall)
We’ll cheat slightly and pair up Pittman and RB Jonathan Taylor, who was drafted seven picks after Pittman, as the Colts’ Round 2 Daily Double. It could be the best pair of skill-position players drafted by one team in the second round in many years, as both mature and talented rookies are lining up with the starters early in camp.
Taylor might have to share some carries with Marlon Mack, but Pittman has a clear lane to be a go-to receiver right away for new QB Philip Rivers, especially with T.Y Hilton seemingly at a crossroads in his career.
With the Chargers, Rivers’ favorite receiving targets (outside of the running backs) tended to be the longer, bigger receivers — think Vincent Jackson, Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams and Mike Williams. The 6-foot-4, 223-pound Pittman fills that role better than any other receiver on the Colts’ roster.
Eagles WR Jalen Reagor (Round 1, 21th overall)
A fun note from our friend Jimmy Kempski of the Philly Voice, who writes:
“If you were an alien and you landed on the Eagles’ practice field, having no idea who anybody was, you could pretty easily identify Reagor as having superior physical ability above the other players on the field.”
Kempski adds that Reagor is going to start from Day 1, which is impressive considering how many bodies the Eagles have at that position, even with a good number of questions there. We can see Reagor putting up Year 1 numbers similar to, say, what Sterling Shepard did as a rookie for the Giants in 2015: 65 catches, 683 yards and eight TDs.
Raiders WR Bryan Edwards (Round 3, 81st overall)
This one is a leap of faith for a few reasons.
Edwards wasn’t the highest-drafted rookie receiver for the Raiders this year — first-rounder Henry Ruggs III was. Also, his past injury history is a bit concerning.
That said, there’s a growing sense that Edwards should have a major role in the Raiders’ offense, and that optimism started cresting prior to Tyrell Williams going down with injury in training camp. Ruggs will be involved, too, and his speed could lead to a higher rate of big plays. Edwards could be the busier worker, though, as a man who consistently got open in college, catching at least one pass in each of his 48 games at South Carolina, and grabbing multiple passes in 46 of them despite some mediocre QB play there.
You know Edwards had to be high on general manager Mike Mayock’s board for them to draft a second receiver in three rounds, and coach Jon Gruden appears ready to entrust the rookie with a sizable role early.
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