Padded practices began across the league last week as organisations ramp up their preparation for the start of the 2020 season. Everyone associated with football has waited with baited breath for months to see what the calendar would look like for teams this year. Or indeed if there would be a calendar at all. With the NFL’s safety protocols proving so far to be largely successful, we can say with a degree of confidence that we are now just over two weeks away from the season opener in Kansas City.
One thing that does not remain certain, however, is the state of NFL rosters. With the cancellation of pre-season games GMs and coaches don’t have the luxury of seeing their fringe players in meaningful reps as they get ready to whittle down 80-man rosters to 53. Whilst the lack of pre-season action is going to make it undeniably tougher for undrafted free agents and depth players to make a final roster, this season will also put more pressure on rookies than the league has ever seen before.
Every year we see players come in and impress during their first season, but with all but three teams having players opt out due to COVID-19 it means rookies are going to be playing an ever important role in the success of their respective organisations. With that in mind, here is a look at the top-five rookies who will make the most impact in 2020.
1. Chase Young – Washington Football Team
Could there have been a more obvious choice for the highest impact rookie? Chase Young is about to enter the league as the fifth first-round pick on Washington’s defensive line. Even if Young is presented with the same double (and sometimes even triple) teams that he saw in college then it will free up the likes of Ryan Kerrigan, Jon Allen and second-year Montez Sweat to start teeing off on opposition quarterbacks.
Young was the consensus #1 overall player in this year’s draft and coming into the season many fans are excited to see how his abilities translate to professional competition. The former Buckeye has looked every bit the monster scouts expected in what we’ve seen so far in training camp. The Washington defensive front should all see an increase in production this year just by playing alongside him. That being said, it would be a surprise if Young can’t tally enough production himself to put himself in the defensive rookie of the year conversation.
2. Kenneth Murray – LA Chargers
The Chargers have been searching for a Pro-Bowl linebacker since Shawne Merriman back in 2007. Whilst their defense has been littered with star power over the last few seasons, the middle of the field has been an area opposition has been able to exploit. Kenneth Murray has all of the attributes to become the much-needed alpha presence at the middle linebacker position.
With great speed, instincts and power to rival some of the biggest hitters in the league the former Oklahoma Sooner is going to be a day one difference maker for Gus Bradley’s defense.In a class with only one real standout edge rusher Murray has the opportunity to enter the rookie of the year conversation with a big statistical output. Something he’s more than capable of, having led the big 12 in tackles back in 2018
3. D’Andre Swift – Detroit Lions
The last time that the Detroit Lions had a 1000-yard rusher was Reggie Bush all the way back in 2013. Kerryon Johnson managed to become the first Lions running back in 70 regular season games to finish with 100 yards on the ground back in 2018. A record that also spanned back to 2013.Whilst Johnson broke the franchise’s depressing streak of no 100-yard games, he has only managed to reach this mark three times in his career and is yet to come close to 1000 yards. If Matt Patricia puts put faith in D’Andre Swift early we could see the best season from a Lions running back in the best part of a decade. Swift was used to being the focal point of Georgia’s offense, totalling at least 1300 yards in his last seasons in college.
Prior to injury last year, Matt Stafford was playing some of the best football of his career. Now 32 and under contract for another three years, the Lions franchise quarterback is likely on his last major deal. If Stafford is to be a winner in Detroit, the offense will have to move away from him pushing the ball downfield nearly 40 times a game.
With Swift’s dual-threat capabilities, the pressure will be taken off Stafford’s shoulders and hopefully result in a more rounded, and competitive product on field. D’Andre Swift should be a fantasy favourite and a remains a sleeper for offensive rookie of the year.
4. Kyle Dugger – New England Patriots
Born out of necessity as much as anything, Kyle Dugger’s role in New England’s defense is going to be pivotal to the team’s success in 2020. In their first season without Tom Brady, the Patriots will be looking to the defensive unit to keep games close and allow either Cam Newton or Jared Stidham the opportunity to win games and keep New England competitive in a division that is beginning to slip away from them.
The problem with that plan? Two of their most important defensive players have opted out for the 2020 campaign. With Patrick Chung missing until 2021, Dugger will have to assume responsibility of the safety position sooner than perhaps expected. Not only will the former Division II athlete be starting at safety, but he will likely be spending a lot of time down in the box thanks to the absence of another opt-out and teams starting linebacker Dont’a Hightower. With guys of this calibre missing out, expect Kyle Dugger to end up wherever the ball goes throughout the upcoming season.
5. CeeDee Lamb – Dallas Cowboys The second Sooner on this list. Oklahoma is now one of the great colleges when it comes to turning out starting calibre prospects.There weren’t many more natural fits in the first night of this year’s draft than CeeDee Lamb to the Dallas Cowboys. His long frame and great ball skills make him the perfect compliment to Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Whether lined up inside, or asked to make contested catches downfield Lamb is going to be able to thrive in an offense that will look to stretch the field wherever it can.
With a running back like Zeke Elliott taking up the defense’s attention, Dak Prescott has shown that he’s able to make big plays consistently on play-action passes early in his career. In a year where he now needs to prove (again) that he’s capable of being Dallas’ franchise quarterback, Prescott has another certified big play machine to add to Cooper and Michael Gallup- who both reached over 1000 yards last season. Expect Lamb to end up around that number by the time the season ends.