News & Analysis

Predicting which NFL teams will have the most impactful rookie classes in 2020

This is not who had the best draft class. This is not who will get the most value compared to their picks. This is purely trying to answer the question of which teams will get the most impact from their rookies in the 2020 season? While this is my opinion, it’s also based on what we’ve been hearing from beat writers in terms of playing time and standing on respective depth charts.

1. Cincinnati Bengals

This one is almost cheating. The Bengals are the only NFL team that will start a rookie quarterback in Week 1. With how much potential value comes from that position, comparing the Bengals' Year 1 group to other rookie classes isn’t quite apples to apples. It’s not just that Joe Burrow plays quarterback, however. According to pretty much everyone around Bengals camp, Burrow is already playing the position at a high level.

The numbers back that up, as his 71.7% accuracy rate in 2019 at LSU was the highest we’ve ever charted. I thought so highly of his 2019 season and how he should translate to the league, that I predicted he’ll be a top-10 quarterback in Year 1.

While he’s the only Bengals rookie currently listed as a starter, there’s a path for others to see the field. Second-rounder Tee Higgins is WR4 and will be on the field immediately if injuries strike to their starters (with John Ross‘ and A.J. Green’s health of late, that’s almost a given). Also, their drafted trio of linebackers (Logan Wilson, Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey) could all fight for time and starting roles as the season wears on.

2. Dallas Cowboys

With their first two picks in the 2020 NFL Draft, the Cowboys got two top-32 players on the PFF draft board at two valuable positions, and both will be starting in Week 1 (WR3 is a starter in Mike McCarthy’s offense). That’s a pretty good trifecta. By all accounts, receiver CeeDee Lamb has been dominant in camp. He was the sixth-ranked player on PFF’s draft board — only one slot behind Jerry Jeudy for top receiver in the class. Considering Mike McCarthy used 11 personnel on 75.6% of his snaps his last season in Green Bay, Lamb will see the field a lot.

While I don’t foresee second-round corner Trevon Diggs hitting the ground as smoothly as Lamb, I still thought he was an NFL-ready prospect. In his first year back from a serious foot injury, Diggs was lights-out in all but one game last year. That single performance was poor enough to torpedo his draft stock to the second round, though. Diggs got turned into a pretzel by LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase.

When you look at that game compared to the rest of his season, however, it’s a massive outlier.

Trevon Diggs 2019 Stats
Stat vs. LSU Rest of Season
Completions 9 13
Targets 12 39
Yards 133 176
TDs 1 0
PBUs 0 8
INTs 0 3
Passer Rating 138.5 16.6

I’m not excusing the performance — and he’ll see some receivers much better than Chase this year — but it’s one blip on an otherwise stellar resume.

3. Detroit Lions

While only third-rounder Jonah Jackson was listed as a starter on the Lions' unofficial depth chart (right guard), that doesn't mean the rest of the rookies won't have roles. I fully expect cornerback Jeffrey Okudah and edge rusher Julian Okwara to at least factor in nickel/dime situations early and push for starting jobs sooner rather than later. I would also imagine second-round running back D’Andre Swift will split carries with Kerryon Johnson once he’s back healthy.

To say we liked all four of those rookies mentioned would be an understatement. Okudah was easily our top corner, Swift our top running back, Jackson our second-ranked interior lineman, and Okwara our fourth-ranked edge defender. Even in limited roles, I’d expect a significant impact from that kind of haul.

4. Indianapolis Colts

Hopefully, my analytics colleagues didn’t read this far, as I think the addition of Jonathan Taylor could take this Colts offense to scary heights. It’s not simply that I think he’s a talented runner. It’s that he’s a talented runner paired with the best offensive line in the NFL. While the running game carries little value for the vast majority of teams in the NFL, outliers on the top-end of the spectrum can still dominate in the league (as we saw from the Ravens last season). Taylor's 1,300 yards after contact per season average represents a massive step up from Marlon Mack.

Add to that another PFF favorite in Michael Pittman Jr. and you have the makings of something special in this rookie class. Pittman was WR6 and ranked 22nd on our final draft board. Perhaps more importantly, he was the top-ranked “big” receiver (large catch radius, good in contested situations, good hands, possession traits, etc.). That’s been the archetype Philip Rivers has built a rapport with over the years. Keenan Allen is the smallest player to ever have 1,000 receiver yards with Rivers, and he’s 6-foot-2, 211 pounds. Expect a lot of balls to go Pittman’s way.

5. Carolina Panthers

The fifth spot on this list was hotly contested. The Raiders, Buccaneers and even the Football Team — on the back of Chase Young’s expected dominance — all got consideration. The sheer breadth of possible impact from the Panthers' rookies gave them the nod, however. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown (16th on draft board), edge defender Yetur Gross-Matos (68th), linebacker Jeremy Chinn (107th) and cornerback Troy Pride Jr. (61st) are all listed as Week 1 starters on the Panthers' unofficial depth chart. That’s the most of any team in the NFL, with only a couple other squads having even three rookie starters listed. While we weren’t particularly high on the value of Carolina's draft class overall, that’s a lot of potential on-field impact.

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