News & Analysis

NFL Rookie Rankings: 10 highest-graded rookies through Week 13

Dec 6, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen (19) celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver Justin Jefferson (18) in the second quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

There’s quite a bit of shuffling in this week’s rookie rankings, and the gap between first and second place is growing larger and larger.

With the help of Premium Stats 2.0, we present to you the 10 highest-graded rookies in the NFL through Week 13 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

Another week, another productive game for Jefferson.

The 22nd overall pick saw 11 targets in Week 13. He came away with a 142.8 passer rating when targeted, averaged 2.63 yards per route run, hauled in three contested catches and added a couple of deep catches from passes thrown over 20 yards downfield. Those two deep catches catapult him into the league lead in that statistic; he now was 14 deep catches on the year and is the highest-graded receiver in the NFL on deep targets.

Only Davante Adams has been more productive on a per-route basis than Jefferson this season. The LSU product's route running is a true nightmare to defend, but he has still been a top performer even when he doesn’t have separation. His grade against tight coverage still resides in the top 10 among receivers.

Next week will be an interesting matchup to watch, as Jefferson will face off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers‘ duo of Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis. Dean is the eighth-highest-graded corner in coverage this year, while Davis has forced the second-most incompletions in single coverage since 2019.

2. OL MICHAEL ONWENU, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Onwenu posted a 59.5 PFF grade against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 13, causing the gap between him and Jefferson to widen.

The sixth-round pick played the first three quarters at right tackle before kicking inside to right guard for the fourth quarter, but he struggled at both positions. He lost three total reps on 26 pass-blocking snaps, two of which resulted in a quarterback pressure. And every single one came against Joey Bosa, who continued his hot stretch of play.

Next week won’t get any easier for Onwenu either, as he will see some matchups against Los Angeles' Aaron Donald, one of the greatest defensive linemen the NFL has ever seen. Donald has been his normal, dominant self this season, producing at least three quarterback pressures in every game played.

3. WR BRANDON AIYUK, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Aiyuk played for the first time since Week 10 on Monday night, and he picked up right where he left off. The 49ers may have ultimately lost to the Bills, and there was a drop from the rookie that ended up falling into the hands of Micah Hyde for the interception, but he still came away with 2.71 yards per route run, the second-best single-game mark of his career. Aiyuk also was responsible for the 49ers’ biggest play of the night with a 49-yard grab on a vertical route against Levi Wallace, who struggled to contain the rookie on numerous occasions.

The last four games have been by far Aiyuk’s best performances of his rookie campaign. In those four since Week 7, Aiyuk is tied for sixth in yards per route run (2.63) and fourth in receiving grade (87.3). He may not be on Jefferson’s level, but Aiyuk is without a doubt putting together the second-best rookie campaign at the position.

4. T TRISTAN WIRFS, TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Wirfs netted 45 pass-blocking opportunities back in Week 12 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 PFF pass-blocking grade on the season. Next week, he and the Buccaneers will face off against a Vikings team that owns the second-lowest team pass-rush grade in the NFL. It could be feeding time for the standout rookie once again.

5. RB ANTONIO GIBSON, WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

Gibson played only a few snaps in Washington’s upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday night before suffering a toe injury that knocked him out of the game. The severity of the injury is currently unknown, but hopefully it isn’t something that causes him to miss time.

Gibson currently owns the fourth-highest rushing grade among all running backs this year at 83.2. He has broken tackles at an impressive rate (0.22 per attempt, seventh-best) and is taking advantage of the sixth-highest-graded run-blocking unit ahead of him. The rookie back has played some part in the Football Team ranking second to only the Tennessee Titans in rushing efficiency on running back carries.

6. LB MYKAL WALKER, ATLANTA FALCONS

Walker just keeps on surprising. The former Fresno State Bulldog earned a 71.5 PFF grade against the New Orleans Saints in Week 13 and made several key stops in the contest.

The fourth-round linebacker recorded a couple of defensive stops (a solo tackle that constitutes a loss for the offense) in coverage and another against the run. Those impactful plays in coverage only added on to the others he has made throughout the season, bringing his season-long PFF coverage grade to 90.5 on the year.

It’ll be interesting to see how much more playing time Walker gets down the stretch, especially considering how much better he is playing than the incumbent, Foyesade Oluokun (57.8 PFF grade).

7. T MEKHI BECTON, NEW YORK JETS

The Jets had an unforgettably horrendous ending this past weekend in their last-second loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. But they did have a few positives to come out of that game, one being the performance of rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton.

The 11th overall pick got off to a hot start in his rookie campaign, but a couple of injuries took their toll and he fell into a midseason lull, posting PFF grades between 47.2 and 69.6 between Week 4 and Week 8.

It's been a completely different story over the last three games, though, as Becton has recorded his two best single-game performances at the NFL level in two of the last three weeks. He now ranks fourth among all left tackles in PFF grade in that span.

Becton was the third-highest-graded left tackle of the week as a run-blocker. That, along with the strong play in the two games prior, helped him reclaim a spot in our rookie rankings.

8. G DAMIEN LEWIS, SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Lewis didn’t have the best of games against the New York Giants‘ interior defensive line on Sunday, which is why he has dropped a spot here.

The 69th overall pick has been notorious for being excellent in one facet and bad in the other, but this time around, he struggled in both aspects of the game. It was just the second time he has failed to earn a grade above 65.0 in those two areas, which resulted in his third-lowest PFF grade of the season (62.7).

Considering Lewis played more snaps in pass protection than any other right guard of the week — and that’s the area he has mostly struggled in this year — it definitely could have been worse. He effectively shut down 2019 first-round pick Dexter Lawrence in their matchups, but he gave up a hurry and lost a couple of reps to B.J. Hill and Dexter Lawrence.

Next week, we will get to see Lewis go toe-to-toe with 2019 third overall pick Quinnen Williams, who has been on fire as of late. Williams ranks fourth among interior defensive linemen in PFF grade since Week 6, behind only Aaron Donald, Chris Jones and Cameron Heyward.

9. WR TEE HIGGINS, CINCINNATI BENGALS

Higgins has still managed to find success even though QB Joe Burrow is out with an injury. The former Clemson Tiger is fresh off a career-high PFF grade in Week 13 against the Miami Dolphins (81.8). He hauled in five of his seven targets, and all of those receptions came against Xavien Howard and Byron Jones — an impressive feat for a rookie.

Higgins started to emerge in Week 3 of his rookie campaign. Since then, he ranks 16th among qualifying wide receivers in PFF receiving grade. He has caught 28 passes beyond the sticks over that span, tying for the ninth-most among wide receivers.

We’d still like to see him be a bit stronger against tight coverage given his so-far low rate of separation, but it’s fair to assume Higgins will eventually find some consistency in that area. After all, that was his bread and butter in college.

It’s going to be hard for Higgins to put up monster numbers like Jefferson, considering the quarterback situation. Still, he has the opportunity to do some damage in Week 14 when he and the Bengals will face the Dallas Cowboys, who own the fifth-worst team coverage grade in the NFL.

10. EDGE CHASE YOUNG, WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

To no surprise, Ben Roethlisberger got the ball out swiftly against the Football Team, with nearly half of his passes being thrown in under two seconds from the snap. That, in turn, limited Young’s pass-rushing opportunities, but he did have a handful of impressive wins when Big Ben wasn’t firing almost immediately.

The second overall pick was given 24 pass-rush opportunities on throws that were over 2.1 seconds from the snap, and he came away with a 17% win rate on those. However, his best play of the night came against the run, with a stop made on fourth down at the goal line. He now has a 74.6 run-defense grade, 16th among qualifying edge defenders.

Young is likely to face his toughest matchup of the season next week. Not only is he going to see few true pass-rush opportunities against Kyle Shanahan’s offense, but he is going to go up against Trent Williams — the NFL’s second-highest-graded left tackle — for most of the game.

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