News & Analysis

10 NFL rookies who could surprise in 2020

Every year, undervalued rookies shock the NFL with dominant performances right out of the gate. There are several prime examples from last year's class, as we saw several non-first-round picks — players like Terry McLaurin, Hunter Renfrow and Gardner Minshew — outperform their respective draft positions.

This year will be no different. Even though the offseason program is limited, and even though there is no preseason at all, there will be rookie surprises in 2020. So, we here at PFF have decided to look at the first-year players we think could make the biggest impacts right away. We've taken into account projected lineups and PFF College grades and advanced data as well as the bevy of information included in the 2020 NFL Draft Guide.

LB MARKUS BAILEY, CINCINNATI BENGALS

Yesterday, I wrote an article on the 10 rookies who need to get off to a great start in 2020, and among the group was Logan Wilson, the first of the three linebackers Cincinnati selected in the 2020 NFL Draft.

The Bengals desperately needed to revamp their linebacker room. In 2019, the Cincinnati linebacker unit combined to produce the second-lowest PFF WAR total among all 32 NFL teams, which prompted them to take Wilson 65th overall, Akeem Davis-Gaither 107th overall and Bailey 215th overall.

One of the three has got to emerge for the Bengals in 2020. But while Bailey, a seventh-round pick, was the last of three to be selected, he very well could be the one to emerge from the group this season.

The reason Bailey slipped to the final round of the draft doesn't have to do with what he did on the field at Purdue, but rather the looming question marks around his health. He's had multiple ACL injuries in his career, with one coming in his final year in 2019. Assuming his health is all in order, Bailey could make some noise this year, given what we saw from him when he was healthy. 

Bailey was incredibly productive in every facet of play for the Boilermakers. He made his name known as one of the best blitzers in the country, racking up 52 pressures from 2017 to 2018 and tallying four pressures on eight pass-rushing snaps in what was his final game, Week 2 of 2019. From 2016 to 2018, no Power 5 linebacker had more defensive stops than Bailey — he is versatile, explosive and completely unafraid to take on blocks. 

If he can stay healthy, the seventh-round linebacker might just end up as the guy to lead the Cincy linebacker room in 2020.

CB PARNELL MOTLEY, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

What was once a glaring weakness has become a strength for the Buccaneers. In 2018, Tampa Bay's cornerbacks ranked 31st of the 32 NFL teams in EPA per pass allowed. The Bucs then jumped 20 spots to 11th in that same metric in 2019. They even got better as the season progressed, as they ranked third from Weeks 10-17.

A big reason for that was the emergence of 2019 third-round pick Jamel Dean as well as the development of 2018 second-round pick Carlton Davis. Those two are locked in the outside starting jobs, and 2019 second-round pick Sean Murphy-Bunting is set to man the slot, but the team still needs a leader in the second unit — and the UDFA Motley could be that guy.

Motley has reportedly been turning heads at training camp thanks to numerous impressive plays on the ball, which is precisely what we saw from him throughout his time at Oklahoma. The 6-foot cornerback recorded an impressive 24.5% forced incompletion rate in 2019, 13th among FBS cornerbacks. He hardly lost at the catch point (25 tight-coverage targets forced, only three catches allowed) and displayed great press technique, too.

Our biggest concern about Motley heading into the draft was his somewhat middling athleticism, but even that should not have been enough to knock him out of the draft altogether, as we had Motley 139th on the 2020 NFL Draft Big Board.

WR JAUAN JENNINGS, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Tennessee wide receiver Jauan Jennings (15) stands during a senior day presentation before a game between Tennessee and Vanderbilt at Neyland Stadium. Credit: Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel, Knoxville News Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

At the time Jennings was taken in the seventh round, it didn't seem likely that we were going to see much of him right off the bat in the 2020 season. Now, there's a fairly decent chance we could, given the plethora of injuries within the 49ers wide receiver unit. Jalen Hurd is out for the year, Deebo Samuel‘s and Richie James' status for Week 1 is up in the air and first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk is currently week-to-week with a strained hamstring. 

The good news is that we believe that Jennings was a big-time draft steal; he is a player who really could surprise the league if the 49ers are forced to give him significant reps right away. 

Jennings was 70th on PFF's big board, yet he slipped to San Francisco at Pick 217. The key reason why we are so high on Jennings' potential is because of his after-the-catch ability. He lacks straight-line speed but is incredibly difficult to bring down at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, and he has great balance and suddenness. Jennings broke 30 tackles on 59 catches in 2019, four more missed tackles than any other FBS wide receiver. 

S GENO STONE, BALTIMORE RAVENS

With the release of Earl Thomas, Baltimore now needs a new starting free safety. DeShon Elliott is the likely candidate to replace Thomas, but it is no guarantee that he even holds the job, given that he has played only 40 snaps in two years due to injury. And right behind Elliott is Stone, a seventh-round selection in this past draft. 

Some might be skeptical of Stone's ability to make a significant impact in Year 1 — after all, 218 players were taken ahead of him — but we here at PFF believe the opposite. He was actually the biggest steal of the 2020 NFL Draft in our eyes, as he was 53rd overall on our big board.

Stone has sharp instincts; he reacts swiftly and is a big-time playmaker. Over his last two seasons at Iowa, Stone produced the third-best coverage grade in college football at the position. And when lined up at free safety specifically, Stone forced six incompletions (tied for third-most), had 10 defensive stops (tied for most) and came down with three interceptions. In fact, he was so good in college that he earned one of the best college-to-pro projections in the entire 2020 safety class, according to work done by our very own Eric Eager.

Stone is bound to get some reps now that Thomas is out of town, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up as a standout rookie by season's end.

CB AMIK ROBERTSON, LAS VEGAS RAIDERS

Las Vegas made a point to improve its secondary this offseason, and rightfully so — they've ranked in the bottom five of the NFL in team coverage grade in each of the last three seasons.

The additions of rookie Damon Arnette and veteran Prince Amukamara should bolster the cornerback unit alongside the developing Trayvon Mullen, but one move we aren't talking enough about is the selection of Amik Robertson in the fourth-round, as he could very well challenge Lamarcus Joyner for the slot job.

Joyner has struggled in the slot throughout his career. The best season of his career from a grading perspective came in 2017 when he primarily played deep safety for the Rams. In his first season as a Raider last year, Joyner played a career-high 608 slot-coverage snaps and produced the third-worst slot-coverage grade in the NFL.

“Robertson plays the game in a way you can't help but fall in love with. Physical tools be damned; he can play slot for us any day.” — PFF lead draft analyst Mike Renner in the PFF 2020 Draft Guide

Robertson may only be 5-foot-9, but he plays far bigger than that — he's the definition of a “Gruden Grinder.” His feisty playstyle helped him earn the highest grade of any college cornerback since 2018, and he held that No. 1 ranking on contested targets, too, allowing only nine of 38 such targets to be caught while forcing 24 incompletions. He played mostly on the outside for LA Tech, but he should thrive in the slot with his physical playstyle and short-area quickness.

WR JOHN HIGHTOWER, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Feb 27, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Boise State wide receiver John Hightower (WO22) catches a pass during the 2020 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia's receiving unit was one of the biggest disappointments of the 2019 season. They have high hopes again this year, though, with a healthy Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson, the hopeful development of JJ Arcega-Whiteside and the addition of first-round receiver Jalen Reagor.

However, if recent reports out of Eagles training camp are anything to go by, former Boise State wideout John Hightower, the team's fifth-round selection from the 2020 draft, could very well be in the mix for a chunk of targets this year.

He's not going to win many contested balls downfield, but Hightower's sheer speed means that he can avoid those altogether on go-routes. He earned the 16th-best deep-receiving grade in college football over his final two years at Boise State while his nine deep touchdowns with at least a step of separation in that span tied for the second-most.

He's more than just a deep threat, too, as he's also a complete route-runner. It shouldn't come as a surprise to see him break away from Philly's defensive backs in camp. Philadelphia got great value for Hightower in a loaded receiving class, and he's a player who is capable of making some noise in Year 1.

C TYLER BIADASZ, DALLAS COWBOYS

Dallas has some of the best offensive linemen in the NFL right now. Right guard Zack Martin came in at second in our interior offensive line rankings while tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins finished 7th and 19th, respectively, in our offensive tackle rankings. And while the Cowboys did once have one of the league's best centers in Travis Frederick, his retirement now leaves a hole in the middle of an otherwise formidable offensive line.

Joe Looney, who filled in for Frederick in 2018 when he missed the year, is the favorite for the starting job, but there is a reasonably good chance he doesn't hold that spot very long. Looney struggled in both facets of play when filling in for Frederick and earned just a 55.1 PFF grade on the year, 33rd among 38 qualifying centers.

Biadasz, Dallas' fourth-round rookie, is behind Looney on the depth chart for now, but we could see him take over at some point this season. The Wisconsin product was another steal from the draft, as he was 87th on the PFF big board but fell to Pick 146. He started at center for Wisconsin for three years and was a strong run-blocker in all three, ranking fourth or better in PFF run-blocking grade every year. We have our fair share of concerns with his balance and drop-off in pass protection in 2019, but that's not to say he can't be a quality center for Dallas.

WR DARNELL MOONEY, CHICAGO BEARS

The Bears have a load of young wide receivers who desperately need to step up in order to give this anemic passing attack a spark in 2020. Anthony Miller is a candidate to break out in his third NFL season (assuming he stays healthy), but they need one of Javon Wims, Riley Ridley or 2020 fifth-round pick Darnell Mooney to emerge and take over the WR3 role.

PFF's Ben Linsey actually named Mooney as a projected starter, as it looks like the Bears want his lights-out speed on the field in training camp. And why wouldn't they?

Mooney was an explosive play waiting to happen for Tulane. Over the last three years, he racked up 64 receptions that resulted in a 15-plus-yard gain, the ninth-most in the FBS over that time. While Mooney has suffered from a bad drop problem in the past, he was still strong at the catch point, hauling in over 57% of his contested opportunities since 2017. Don't be surprised to see Mooney emerge as an explosive weapon for the Bears, just as he was for the Green Wave.

LB JOE BACHIE, NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie before the Ohio State game at Ohio Stadium. Credit: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press, Detroit Free Press via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Saints' biggest question mark this past offseason was at off-ball linebacker. It was expected that they'd pursue one of the top prospects at the position with their 24th overall pick but instead took interior offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz before taking Zack Baun, an edge-turned-off-ball-linebacker, with their next pick. Baun is expected to start for New Orleans, but there is another rookie who could see the field at the position for the Saints, as UDFA Joe Bachie looks poised to secure a roster spot and compete for playing time in 2020.

New Orleans picking up Bachie was one of our favorite undrafted free-agent acquisitions this year. Our concerns with him really stemmed from his athleticism, but he outperformed at the combine to void those concerns. The 6-foot-2, 238-pound linebacker stuffed the run routinely at Michigan State, producing run-defense grades above 90.0 in both 2017 and 2018, and that skill should translate to the NFL. And while he's a little limited in coverage, he's certainly not a liability there, given that he earned 70.0-plus grades in that facet in each of his last three seasons.

DI BRAVVION ROY, CAROLINA PANTHERS

Roy isn't touching a starting job anytime soon, but he looks poised to be a quality No. 2 option behind seventh overall pick Derrick Brown. He has his limitations — he rushes the passer too high, has limited length and is a nose-tackle-only at this stage — but his quicks, strength and college production are all too good to ignore. 

Roy was college football's highest-graded pass-rusher when lined up at nose tackle while playing under Matt Rhule at Baylor this past year, and he produced 47 pressures at that alignment, 25 more than anyone else in college football. Roy was strong against the run at the position, as well, earning the eighth-best run-defense grade while producing the most run stops.

Again, Roy isn't going to see as much playing time as some others on this list, but he has the potential to be uber-productive for a sixth-round rookie.

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