It’s once again time to look ahead to the meaningful rookie matchups we will see this weekend. We will also get the lay of the land on the playing time and roles of the first-year players around the NFL. Let’s kick it off with the Thursday Night Football matchup between the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars.
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This one is loaded with rookies.
We finally got our first real glimpse of first-rounder Noah Igbinoghene last week, and I can’t even blame him for getting torched. They had him following Stefon Diggs around the field for a good portion of the game, and Diggs himself gave Igbinoghene 139 yards. His matchup will obviously be easier this week, and he could even get matched against Laviska Shenault Jr., whom I recently ranked as the third most-impressive rookie receiver so far.
It’s not quite time to panic about the Dolphins' rookie offensive linemen, but there’s been no real silver lining to their play, either. Left tackle Austin Jackson and right guard Solomon Kindley have earned pass-blocking grades of 45.7 and 48.6, respectively, so far. Jackson will get a healthy dose of rookie-on-rookie action himself, as K’Lavon Chaisson (65.3 overall) lined up over the left tackle on 17 of his 18 snaps against the Titans.
Of course, we can’t move on without talking about C.J. Henderson, who currently is tied for the highest grade among rookie corners, at 80.3 overall. He should see a good deal of DeVante Parker in what will be a nice physical matchup for the youngster.
I asked for more Darnell Mooney last week, and Matt Nagy delivered. Mooney went from 21 snaps in Week 1 to 39 this past week, and he repaid Nagy’s trust with a slick touchdown grab. His Week 3 matchup pits him against a Falcons defense that has the 12th-lowest coverage grade in the NFL.
Maserati Mitch buys time and finds Darnell Mooney for the TD ????
— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) September 20, 2020
Some of those struggles are due to rookie A.J. Terrell, although he bounced back nicely this past week. In a difficult matchup with the Cowboys receiving corps, he allowed only two catches and 7 yards from three targets in coverage.
If we’re talking about impressive corner play, however, the Bears' Jaylon Johnson takes the cake. Johnson has four pass breakups to his name so far, but he will now face easily his toughest test of the season, as Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones rank fourth and fifth, respectively, in terms of average depth of target this season.
After some issues with missed tackles in Week 1, sixth-round safety Jordan Fuller showed why he’s starting over Taylor Rapp this past week, earning a 74.8 overall grade and allowing only two catches for 13 yards. This week, Fuller will have his sights set on Bills running back Zack Moss, who so far hasn’t been quite as elusive as he was at Utah. He’s broken only three tackles on 17 attempts, and only two of his attempts have gone for a first down.
The highlight-reel matchup here is two top-10 picks going at it on the line of scrimmage. Second overall pick Chase Young is the highest-graded rookie so far; he's earned an 81.1 overall grade and tallied four pressures in each of his first two games. Tenth overall pick Jedrick Wills Jr. has been impressive in his own right after switching to left tackle, with only three pressures allowed on 64 pass-blocking snaps. Young has fairly evenly split time over left and right tackles so far this season, so we’ll see a good deal of this one.
The one other rookie worth highlighting is Browns third-rounder Jordan Elliott. A PFF favorite coming out, he’s similarly hit the ground running with a 78.2 overall grade so far. He’ll face a Washington offensive line that was already rough and will now be even rougher with right guard Brandon Scherff on IR.
We’ve got a good opportunity for a lot of rookie-on-rookie action here. Justin Jefferson has been operating primarily out of the slot for Minnesota, and that means he’ll face a good deal of Chris Jackson. The UDFA cornerback has struggled, however, allowing eight catches from 12 targets for 81 yards and a score. We could also see Jefferson line up some outside against Kristian Fulton, who had a much better outing last Sunday as he allowed only one catch for 9 yards with a gimme pick mixed in.
Kristian Fulton career interception No. 1:
— Shea Dixon (@Sheadixon) September 20, 2020
Vikings rookie corner Cameron Dantzler missed practice Wednesday and may not go again. That means more Jeff Gladney, who needs to turn things around fast. Gladney earned a 37.9 coverage grade in his first game as a starter last Sunday, allowing six catches from eight targets for 76 yards and a score.
The Pats' secondary should be quite a challenge for the Raiders' youngsters. I’m not exactly sure how they’ll be deployed just yet, but J.C. Jackson looks like he has the speed to at least keep up with Henry Ruggs III while Stephon Gilmore has the size to check Bryan Edwards. Either way, it will be a great test for both.
They aren’t the only rookie starters on offense now that Richie Incognito has been placed on IR. Fourth-round guard John Simpson filled in for the veteran on Monday night and looked completely out of place — he earned an 11.8 pass-blocking grade, with five pressures allowed. Thankfully, New England doesn’t have much in the way of interior pass rush, with Lawrence Guy’s 68.4 pass-rushing grade leading the way.
On the other side of the ball, first-round corner Damon Arnette is likely to face his easiest test yet, as the Patriots have struggled to get production from their outside receivers. Cam Newton has only 138 passing yards to receivers split wide (where Arnette lines up) — the third-fewest of any QB in the NFL.
While Patriots safety Kyle Dugger got his number called for 34 snaps against the Seahawks in Week 2, don’t be surprised if he cedes those snaps to Joejuan Williams this week. The Pats used Williams to go toe-to-toe with athletic tight end Mike Gesicki in Week 1 and will likely use him similarly against Darren Waller this week.
The 49ers are going to need more from first-rounder Brandon Aiyuk. The team has only five completions to receivers split wide all year — the fewest in the NFL. That’s where Aiyuk lined up on 36 of his 44 snaps last week en route to two catches for only 21 yards. That also means that Giants slot corner Darnay Holmes will likely be under siege. He’s struggled to make plays out of the gate, with three missed tackles on nine attempts and eight catches and 85 yards allowed from 11 targets in coverage.
The top picks for each should have everything set up for themselves to eat Sunday. Javon Kinlaw will be going up against the lowest-graded pass-blocking line in the NFL through two weeks, while left tackle Andrew Thomas is likely to pull journeyman Kerry Hyder as his matchup with Nick Bosa out for the season. Thomas has struggled to a 56.0 overall grade so far, but he’s also had to face Bud Dupree, Robert Quinn and Khalil Mack as his opponents through two weeks.
Expect Joe Burrow to once again face near-constant pressure, as he's set to go up against a strong Eagles defensive line in Week 3. Even a little banged up, they should be able to get after what’s been one of the lowest-graded guard duos in the NFL.
That’s really it for notable rookies in this one, as receiver Jalen Reagor is set to miss a few weeks with a UCL tear in his thumb. And yes, the Bengals are still rotating in Akeem Davis-Gaither and Logan Wilson at linebacker, but the results haven’t been great so far.
This is about as bereft a rookie matchup as you’ll see in the NFL. The Steelers have 107 snaps played from rookies while the Texans have 56. That doesn’t mean guys haven’t impressed in limited time, however. Wide receiver Chase Claypool has two highlight-reel catches already despite being in on only 20 pass plays, so expect to see more of him. Guard Kevin Dotson didn’t allow a single pressure against the Broncos last weekend in his first career start, but it’s unclear if he’ll get the nod this Sunday with starter David DeCastro now back at practice.
Mekhi Becton is currently the highest-graded offensive rookie in the NFL, but he draws a willy veteran in Justin Houston this week. Houston is off to a slow start with only four pressures, but he will still be a legit test for the first-year tackle.
For the Colts, this might be the game Michael Pittman Jr. gets more involved. All his catches so far have come between 5-10 yards downfield, and while he’s gotten open in that area, he can likely do more downfield against these Jets corners.
The one formidable area for New York is right up front, which might mean tough sledding for RB Jonathan Taylor. Taylor had some more openings on the ground last week, but he only broke three tackles on 26 carries.
Lastly, keep an eye out for safety Julian Blackmon, who is seeing time in the wake of Malik Hooker’s ACL tear. Blackmon is fresh off his own ACL tear but broke up two passes on 34 snaps against the Vikings last week.
All reports about Tyrod Taylor’s punctured lung suggest that it will be Justin Herbert who gets the nod this week at quarterback. I wrote up exactly what we saw from him in his debut and why he should start going forward. This Panthers defense has been one of the worst in the NFL so far, which should ease Herbert into his role nicely.
As far as the defensive rookies in this game go, there’s not been much to write home about. Chargers linebacker Kenneth Murray is the highest-graded of the bunch at 50.9 overall, while Jeremy Chinn (43.1), Troy Pride (30.0) and Derrick Brown (29.9) have all struggled mightily.
If the Lions are going to dig themselves out of the 0-2 hole, they’re going to need serious contributions from their rookies, and quickly. Jeffrey Okudah got lit up for over 100 yards in his debut and could draw DeAndre Hopkins a good deal this week.
Of course, we have to talk about the superb performance from Jonah Jackson last week. He earned a 77.0 overall grade and has now allowed three pressures on 81 pass-blocking snaps this season.
I also don’t know how much we’ll see of Cardinals first-rounder Isaiah Simmons in this one. After giving up three catches for 86 yards and two scores Week 1, the linebacker saw only seven snaps against The Football Team.
I’m not sure any team has gotten more positive contributions from their rookie class (non-quarterbacks) the first two weeks than the Bucs. Both right tackle Tristan Wirfs and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. look like bonafide studs already. Wirfs is fresh off an 86.0 overall grade against the Panthers, while Winfield has a 77.4 overall grade on the season and six stops already.
While the Bucs have the most positive contributions, the Broncos have had a ton of contributions from their rookie class themselves…just not all positive. Their 266 snaps from their rookie class are the third-most in the NFL, but center Lloyd Cushenberry (47.3 overall grade) and cornerback Michael Ojemudia (54.5) have struggled mightily. It won’t get any easier for either, with Cushenberry facing Vita Vea and Ojemudia facing that vaunted receiving corps.
No team in the NFL has gotten more snaps from their rookie class than the Cowboys. That’s been a good thing in the case of CeeDee Lamb, who is fresh off the first 100-yard game of his career. He’ll face Seattle’s slot corner Ugo Amadi, who has allowed over 80% of his targets to be caught in his career.
It has, however, been a bad thing in the case of right tackle Terence Steele, who has earned a 50.8 overall grade despite their best efforts at protecting him. Luckily, he has a fairly easy draw this week with Seattle’s dead-last-graded pass-rush.
It’s been an up-and-down thing in the case of corner Trevon Diggs, who has flashed some nice reps but ultimately allowed seven catches from 11 targets for 123 yards through two games. He gets a nice taste of D.K. Metcalf’s speed this week.
For the Seahawks, their only real rookie contributor has been right guard Damien Lewis. That might change this week, though, with Jordyn Brooks set to make his first start after playing only 15 snaps so far this year. Lewis has been an absolute mauler in the run game, with the third-highest run-blocking grade of any guard. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated in pass protection, as he's allowed seven pressures already.
The Packers' full back/tight end Josiah Deguara looks like he’ll be back this week. The third-rounder looks like he’ll be a real option in that offense after seeing two targets Week 1. On the other side for green bay, linebacker Krys Barnes is sure to be tested when he’s in with the Saints' underneath-heavy attack. He’s been very impressive across his 30 snaps, with only two catches and 5 yards allowed so far.
For the Saints, it’s still unclear if Cesar Ruiz will start. He was cleared to play Monday, but Nick Easton still got the start at right guard. The one rookie who does look likely to play for New Orleans is UDFA Malcolm Roach. He’s seen 52 snaps already at defensive tackle, with two run stops in each game, though he is yet to record a pressure. The Packers interior has been very formidable this season, too, which means that may not change this week.
Ravens rookie linebackers Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison trying to tackle running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire will be a terrific rookie matchup. Edwards-Helaire has obviously balled out through two weeks, but Queen hasn’t gotten up to speed nearly as quickly — he’s earned a 42.0 overall grade having allowed seven catches for 66 yards already.
For the Chiefs, they’ll need a handful of rookie contributors on defense. Fourth-rounder L’Jarius Sneed has been one of the most impressive rookie corners in the league after securing a pick in each of his first two starts. He has 4.3 speed that can keep up with Marquise Brown on the outside. Along the defensive line, fifth-rounder Michael Danna and UDFA Tershawn Wharton have seen 69 and 39 snaps, respectively. While Danna has struggled, Wharton has been one of the brightest players in the entire rookie class. He’s earned a 74.5 overall grade, and they could use his insane leverage to stuff this Ravens rushing attack.