NFL News & Analysis

NFL Rookie Rankings: 10 highest-graded rookies through Week 12

Nov 29, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver Bisi Johnson (81) in the fourth quarter against the Carolina Panthers at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

It isn’t typical to see a newcomer among the top 10 rookies this late into the season, but this week we have one, and it’s a Day 3 pick.

With the help of Premium Stats 2.0, we present to you the 10 highest-graded rookies in the NFL through Week 12 of the 2020 NFL season.

[Editor's Note: PFF's advanced statistics and player grades are powered by AWS machine learning capabilities.]

1. WR JUSTIN JEFFERSON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Jefferson has been putting on a route-running clinic all season long. He didn’t have his best day on Sunday against Carolina, earning just a 66.1 receiving grade, but Jefferson still flashed his route-running chops and grabbed a couple of explosive plays against single coverage. 

Despite the good-not-great game in Week 12, Jefferson remains with an elite PFF grade for the season at 90.1 — second only to Davante Adams. When diving into his performance against press coverage, Jefferson leaps Adams for the top spot. On those plays, he has hauled in 23-of-26 targets for 437 yards and three touchdowns. Not too shabby for a rookie.

2. OL MICHAEL ONWENU, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Onwenu has continued to get better and better in pass protection at tackle. The sixth-round rookie earned his highest pass-block grade since his move over to right tackle in Week 7 at 77.8, sixth among all right tackles in Week 12. In his first four games at the position, Onwenu ranked 21st of the 32 qualifying right tackles in pass-block grade. Over his last two games, he has improved his standing to eighth. Next week, however, Onwenu will face one of the toughest tests of his rookie season as he faces Joey Bosa and the Chargers.

Bosa has been on an absolute tear ever since he got shut down by Tampa Bay's Tristan Wirfs in Week 4. Since Week 5, Bosa has been the NFL’s highest-graded pass-rusher at 92.2 and has posted a win rate over nine percentage points higher than the next closest player (33.1%).

3. T TRISTAN WIRFS, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Wirfs netted 45 pass-block opportunities on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs and put up a goose egg in the total pressures allowed column for just the second time this season. Week after week, Wirfs has been one of the top pass-protecting right tackles in the league. He has yet to produce a single game pass-block grade below 60.0 — something only five right tackles have done this year.

Wirfs is now tied for fourth at the position in pass-block grade on the season. Next week he and the Buccaneers have a bye, but when they return, Wirfs will face off against a Vikings team with the second-lowest team pass-rush grade in the NFL. Once again, it could be feeding time for the standout rookie.

4. WR BRANDON AIYUK, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Aiyuk was unable to play in the 49ers’ Week 12 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams due to COVID-19 protocols, but he has become a key part of this 49ers offense in 2020. The team will want him back sooner rather than later.

The Niners' first-round rookie was far from productive in his first five games in the NFL, generating just 0.94 yards per route run to pair with a 68.7 receiving grade. But he has been red-hot in his last three games. Aiyuk has raised his yards per route run figure to 2.63 and earned a receiving grade of 87.3 over that span — the third-highest in the NFL.

5. RB ANTONIO GIBSON, WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

Gibson was fed the ball on Thanksgiving against the Dallas Cowboys and played more snaps than he ever has in a single game in his young NFL career. He did put together an impressive box score with 115 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries, but it’s important to note that he had the third-highest-graded run-blocking unit of Week 12 creating holes for him.

As a result, Gibson saw more yards before contact than any running back of the week at 4.0, which is why he didn’t jump up any higher on this list. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a solid day on the ground. After all, he did earn a 69.7 rushing grade that ranked 12th of 34 qualifying backs in Week 12.

6. LB MYKAL WALKER, ATLANTA FALCONS

The first of the two new entrants on this list is none other than Walker, a fourth-round pick out of Fresno State. He hasn’t played much this season, with just 283 snaps on the year, but Walker is coming off two outstanding performances in Weeks 11 and 12.

The off-ball linebacker has logged 48 snaps over the last two games against the Saints and Raiders, respectively, and he has come away with an 89.9 PFF grade. Walker has excelled in coverage, earning an impressive 90.3 coverage grade. Whether or not he can sustain this in an increased role is unknown, but Walker has no doubt exceeded expectations for a Day 3 pick in his limited playing time.

7. G DAMIEN LEWIS, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Lewis went back to his natural position at right guard on Week 12’s edition of Monday Night Football after the disastrous debut at center last week. The 69th overall pick was thrown in at center due to necessity for that game, and to no surprise, it did not go very well from a pass-blocking perspective (seventh-worst pass-block grade of the week among centers).

Lewis did give up a sack this week against the Eagles, but he played significantly better overall, earning the fifth-best PFF grade among right guards in Week 12.

Next week’s matchup will be another tough one for the rookie against the New York Giants‘ monster interior defensive line. Dalvin Tomlinson, Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence and B.J. Hill are all coming off one of their better outings as a collective group. They took advantage of a poor Cincinnati Bengals offensive line and all recorded double-digit pass-rush win rates. The Giants may not be a great team, but Lewis versus this interior defensive line will be an interesting matchup to watch in Week 13.

8. QB JUSTIN HERBERT, LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Week 12 saw Herbert record the third-worst game of his career from a grading perspective. The sixth overall pick posted a 62.7 PFF grade against the Buffalo Bills, and it was just the second time this season he failed to come away with a big-time throw. He also registered four turnover-worthy plays in the game, the second-most of the week and only the second time he notched more than one this year — he recorded two in Week 3.

The big concern is the fact that three of those turnover-worthy plays came from a clean pocket, and his grade on such plays was over 20 grading points worse than when under pressure.

9. EDGE CHASE YOUNG, WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

Young fell off this list after a three-game lull from Week 9 to Week 11 in which he recorded a 53.7 PFF grade. The Ohio State product has crept back in after his strong performance on Thanksgiving, however. Young recorded his third-best PFF grade of the season against the Cowboys that day at 80.4. He consistently disrupted the rushing attack, leaving the game with an impressive 81.2 run-defense grade. 

Young hasn’t quite been the dominant pass-rusher many expected right out of the gate, given his collegiate grading profile and prospect evaluation, but he still has performed well for a rookie. His 75.3 PFF grade is currently the ninth-best by a rookie edge rusher since 2010.

10. WR CHASE CLAYPOOL, PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Claypool’s per-route production isn't as crazy as his touchdown total, but 2.16 yards per route run is still quite impressive for a rookie. It’s actually on pace to be the seventh-best by a rookie wideout in the past decade.

We still don't know for sure when the Steelers' Week 12 game against the Baltimore Ravens will be played, but whenever that is, the first-year wide receiver will be a must-watch. And it’s all because he will be looking for redemption.

Baltimore was one of just a few teams that have managed to keep Claypool in check this year. In his last game against the Ravens, Week 8, Claypool earned his third-lowest receiving grade of the year, lost a fumble and stumbled to his third-least-productive game on a per-route basis.

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