NFL News & Analysis

NFL Week 4 Rookie Preview: Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler face a favorable matchup, Justin Jefferson poised to build on his breakout performance

Another week, another rookie roundup. We’re now at the point where any rust from lack of preseason should be sufficiently shaken off, and I think we’ll see several rookies contributing in a more meaningful way starting this week and going forward. Let’s dive in.

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Denver Broncos @ New York Jets

Broncos center Lloyd Cushenberry III’s head must be absolutely spinning right now. After Pittsburgh’s stunts put him in a tizzy in Week 2, he had to face arguably the most powerful nose tackle in the NFL in Tampa Bay’s Vita Vea in Week 3. The result was 10 pressures allowed over the past two weeks. Thankfully, Jets nose tackle Steve McLendon is little threat to get after the quarterback, given that he's managed all of three pressures this season.

Meanwhile, the Jets defense presents a favorable matchup for the Broncos' rookie receivers. Slot corner Brian Poole has earned the highest coverage grade of any Jets corner this year, at 66.7. That’s where Jerry Jeudy also resides, as 109 of his 134 snaps have come from the inside. The Jets' weak corners on the outside could also mean a breakout game for K.J. Hamler after he dropped passes in each of the past two weeks.

For the Jets, this might be Mekhi Becton’s easiest test all season, and he’s passed all others with flying colors en route to a 76.9 overall grade so far. His opponent in this one, edge defender Bradley Chubb, has struggled mightily since returning from an ACL injury, earning a 60.1 pass-rush grade to go with just seven pressures on the season.

Arizona Cardinals @ Carolina Panthers

Derrick Brown finally looked like the guy we saw at Auburn, with four run stops against the Chargers in Week 3. Now, if that can start translating as a pass-rusher — where he’s notched all of two hurries this season — we can get excited. The Cardinals' weak interior would be a good place to start.

Linebacker Jeremy Chinn has probably had the second-most-encouraging start for the plethora of Panthers rookies on defense. After an ugly Week 1, where he missed four tackles, he’s been around the ball more the past couple of weeks and has made three stops in each. They’ve given him the role everyone thought Isaiah Simmons would play, with 71 snaps in the box, 61 snaps from the slot and 50 snaps as a deep safety.

Simmons may finally be getting a taste of that role himself, as head coach Kliff Kingsbury hinted at Simmons' potential move to safety this week. He’s looked lost at linebacker so far this year, earning a 30.3 overall grade on 35 snaps.

Indianapolis Colts @ Chicago Bears

Jonathan Taylor has been productive but is struggling mightily to break tackles so far. His 0.15 broken tackle per attempt rate ranks 24th among players with at least 25 carries. Things have gone far worse for fellow second-rounder Michael Pittman Jr., though, as he had a scary moment Sunday when he was forced to have emergency surgery after getting compartment leg syndrome in his calf. He’s expected to miss around six weeks.

After a two-pass-breakup performance in his first game, Julian Blackmon wasn’t exactly tested by the Jets passing attack last week. He didn’t get targeted, although he did miss one tackle on two attempts.

For the Bears, receiver Darnell Mooney saw a career-high 52 snaps against the Falcons. He only caught two of his four targets for 19 yards, but it’s clear that the Bears' coaching staff likes what they see.

On the other side of the ball, cornerback Jaylon Johnson should have a little easier test this week. His 41.6 coverage grade against the Falcons was his lowest of the season, as he allowed four catches from six targets for 51 yards.

Sep 27, 2020; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) throws a touchdown pass during the second quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Jacksonville Jaguars @ Cincinnati Bengals

On paper, this will likely be the weakest pass-rush the Bengals have faced yet, so maybe Joe Burrow won’t be under pressure on more dropbacks than any other quarterback again this week. His grade has improved every game so far, and that culminated in an 86.5 overall grade last week. Now we just need to see him connect downfield, as he’s only 1-for-16 on deep balls so far this season.

The Bengals had two other encouraging outings from other rookies last week against the Eagles. WR Tee Higgins hauled in 5-of-9 targets for 40 yards and two scores while LB Logan Wilson made the most of his 29 snaps with a pick and three stops.

I’ve highlighted a good deal of Jaguars rookies here in the past, with guys like C.J. Henderson and Laviska Shenault Jr. having encouraging starts. The guy the Jags need to see more from is first-rounder K’Lavon Chaisson. He’s only managed two pressures on 59 pass-rushing snaps so far. That’s almost to be expected, as he was an “upside” pick whose production was very inconsistent at LSU (only 79.8 pass-rushing grade last season). If there’s any game to do it, it’s against a weak Bengals offensive line.

Cleveland Browns @ Dallas Cowboys

The Browns look like they got one of the steals of the draft in third-round defensive tackle Jordan Elliott. His 77.0 overall grade is the highest of any rookie with at least 50 snaps — don’t be surprised to see his snap counts rise as the season wears on after playing only 82 through three games.

Last week against Seattle wasn’t a banner day for the Cowboys' rookies. Receiver CeeDee Lamb tweaked his knee on a punt return — though he still caught 5-of-6 targets for 65 yards — and corner Trevon Diggs allowed 100 yards and two scores, with his touchdown-saving forced fumble on the goal line saving him from a third. If there is any silver lining for Diggs’ start, it’s that he’s been getting his hands on passes. His three forced incompletions are third-most of any rookie corner so far.

New Orleans Saints @ Detroit Lions

We finally got to see Cesar Ruiz, and he passed his initial test. Even though it came against a banged-up Green Bay interior, Ruiz didn’t allow a single pressure on 38 pass-blocking snaps at right guard.

The Lions first-rounder Jeffrey Okudah made his first splash play with a second-half pick courtesy of Kyler Murray. He still got worked overall, however, allowing 5-of-6 targets to be caught for 79 yards. The good news is that he won’t have to guard Davante Adams or DeAndre Hopkins this week, as the Saints receiving corps without Michael Thomas isn’t too hot.

Maybe the oddest storyline for the Lions rookie class is second-rounder D’Andre Swift. He was an obvious scapegoat after his Week 1 drop on a possible game-winning touchdown. Since then, he’s seen his snaps go from 34 in Week 1 to 20 in Week 2 to only six this past week. I can’t see how handing it off to a 35-year-old Adrian Peterson 22 times is going to inspire confidence in the rookie running back.

Minnesota Vikings @ Houston Texans

These two have been on opposite ends of the rookie contributions scale. The Texans have 59 snaps total from their rookie class, with none of those rookies earning a starting role, while the Vikings have 396 snaps with starters at wide receiver and corner.

Speaking of that wide receiver, Justin Jefferson looked a lot like the guy we saw at LSU against the Titans. He hauled in 7-of-9 targets for 175 yards, one touchdown and had two broken tackles. Maybe more importantly, 45 of his 51 snaps came out wide after mainly playing from the slot in Weeks 1 and 2.

Now, if they could only get that breakout game from Jeff Gladney, who has given up 196 yards in his two starts. This would be the game for it, as Gladney’s speed is tailor-made to stop the Texans' fast receiver corps.

Seattle Seahawks @ Miami Dolphins

We saw a little more of linebacker Jordyn Brooks last week, but it was still only 14 snaps and too little to base much on. Unfortunately, the one Seahawks rookie who’s been consistently contributing, right guard Damien Lewis, left Sunday’s game with an ankle injury after only four snaps.

On the other side, if Dolphins rookie offensive linemen Austin Jackson and Solomon Kindley are going to turn things around, it’s going to be against the Seahawks' 31st-ranked pass-rush unit. Jackson and Kindley have pass-blocking grades of 52.7 and 56.8, respectively.

Their other rookie starter has a tough test, however. It’s unclear if Byron Jones is going to be back this week, but if Noah Igbinoghene is tasked with either D.K. Metcalf or Tyler Lockett in man coverage, he’s going to have his hands full.

Sep 27, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) throws the ball in the fourth quarter against the Carolina Panthers at SoFi Stadium. The Panthers defeated the Chargers 21-16. Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Chargers @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Despite the loss last week, Justin Herbert still looked poised against an admittedly weak Panthers defense, earning a 71.3 passing grade. Now he faces arguably the best defense in the NFL through the first three weeks, as the Bucs rank fourth in both team pass-rush and coverage grades so far.

One guy leading that defensive charge is safety Antoine Winfield Jr. It’s incredible how up to speed he is already, with other rookies on the defensive side of the ball struggling mightily across the NFL. His 76.8 overall grade is the highest of any rookie defensive starter, and he looks like he can do pretty much anything asked of him.

The Bucs rookie to watch this week, though, is right tackle Tristan Wirfs. While the Chargers will be without Melvin Ingram III, Joey Bosa still lines up over right tackles for the majority of his snaps and has 19 pressures through three games.

Pittsburgh Steelers @ Tennessee Titans

We finally got to see more snaps from Chase Claypool last week (61), and it wasn’t quite the bang we saw the first couple weeks. He drew a pass interference penalty and caught one screen for 24 yards on the day. His size could be a problem for the Titans' undersized cornerback group, though.

For the Titans, the Chris Jackson experiment in the slot ended last week, as Kristian Fulton ultimately took over that role. The second-rounder looks like he can hold his own there and allowed only one catch for eight yards.

The Titans also finally got to see third-round running back Darrynton Evans suit up last week, but he only saw eight snaps and doesn’t look like he’ll factor into the offense much.

Baltimore Ravens @ Washington Football Team

Things simply aren’t turning around for linebacker Patrick Queen. He had a three-play stretch Monday night where Clyde Edwards-Helaire beat him for a 24-yard catch, he committed a horse-collar tackle and then missed a tackle. He’s got an ugly 30.0 overall grade for the season.

Guard Tyre Phillips has similarly struggled and will face a difficult interior duo of Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne on Sunday. He’s got a 47.3 overall grade on the season and has allowed five pressures.

Chase Young has obviously been the headliner for Washington, but he left last Sunday’s game with a groin injury and is unlikely to play this weekend. That means the Football Team's main rookie contributor looks like Antonio Gibson, who has been as advertised with nine broken tackles on 31 carries and an average of 3.19 yards after contact per attempt. He had a fumble last week but looked like a dynamic player with the ball in his hands.

New York Giants @ Los Angeles Rams

It’s officially time to be a little worried about left tackle Andrew Thomas. Against a 49ers defensive front without Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, Thomas still allowed four pressures on 35 pass-blocking snaps. The Rams don’t have much in the way of edge talent, so things will hopefully change quickly.

The Giants rookie who does have a tough test, however, is slot cornerback Darnay Holmes. He’s not forced an incompletion yet on 16 targets and has allowed 12 catches for 145 yards. Those could go even higher facing Cooper Kupp and the Rams' bunch formations.

The Rams' rookie contributions have been mild. The only starter last week was sixth-round safety Jordan Fuller, but he hurt his shoulder eight snaps in and may not be playing this week. Similarly, running back Cam Akers is still nursing a rib injury and is uncertain this weekend.

Sep 10, 2020; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (25) celebrate scoring a touchdown during the second half against the Houston Texans at Arrowhead Stadium. Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots @ Kansas City Chiefs

Patriots matchup weapon Kyle Dugger has been a fun player to watch. Hopefully they have plans to blitz him against Kansas City, because he’s blown up two blockers on only five pass-rushing snaps so far. The man can cover some ground and tackle in the open field.

The Pats look like they have something on the offensive side of the ball in guard Michael Onwenu. This past week, he filled in at left guard with Joe Thuney kicking to center for the injured David Andrews. Onwenu earned an 86.7 overall grade and only allowed one pressure against the Raiders. At 350 pounds, he’s a line-of-scrimmage mover.

Meanwhile, Edwards-Helaire continues to be a dual-threat for this Chiefs offense. He caught 5-of-6 targets for 70 yards against the Ravens and also added 64 yards on 20 carries, with 56 of those coming after contact.

The big story of the Chiefs rookie class, though, is fourth-round corner L’Jarius Sneed. He’s been excellent and almost had his third straight game with a pick against the Ravens, but it slipped through his hands. Unfortunately, he would later break his collarbone and will now be down for an extended period of time.

Buffalo Bills @ Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders will likely be without both of their first-rounders, as corner Damon Arnette re-injured his thumb, and Henry Ruggs III tweaked his hamstring. They’ll also be without receiver Bryan Edwards after he sustained an ankle injury.

That means all their rookie contributions will come left guard John Simpson, who is starting in place of Richie Incognito. There’s no sugar coating it; he’s been a liability with nine pressures allowed in two games. This past week was maybe even more discouraging than his first start, as the Patriots don’t have much in the way of pass-rushers inside.

For the Bills, they have to be encouraged with the progress of fourth-round receiver Gabriel Davis. He caught 4-of-5 targets for 81 yards this past week after hauling in a highlight-reel touchdown catch in Week 2. For him to be playing 46 snaps with as many established receivers as the Bills have means he’s doing something right in practice, too.

Defensively, keep an eye out for A.J. Epenesa, especially if Raiders right tackle Trent Brown is still out. Epenesa quietly had a sack, a hit and a hurry last week on only 13 pass-rushing snaps.

Sep 27, 2020; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (11) scores a touchdown during the second half in front of New York Giants free safety Julian Love (20) and cornerback Isaac Yiadom (27) at MetLife Stadium. Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles @ San Francisco 49ers

The Eagles' rookie class hasn’t had near the impact they were hoping. WR Jalen Reagor is on IR with a thumb injury, John Hightower has the lowest yards per route run average of any wide receiver in the NFL (0.23), and they’ve got 37 total snaps from rookies on defense. Don’t expect much from rookies against the 49ers.

On the other side of things, Brandon Aiyuk has generated a respectable 1.57 yards per route run since coming back in Week 2. He got much more involved against the Giants this past week, hauling in 5-of-8 targets for 70 yards.

The shining light of the rookie class, though, has been the play of Javon Kinlaw. He has reps where he already looks like a Pro-Bowler. He’s recorded at least one pressure in every game and has a 68.0 overall grade for the season.

Atlanta Falcons @ Green Bay Packers

The Packers' offensive turnaround has come with barely any contributions from their rookie class, as Josiah Deguara, A.J. Dillon and Jon Runyan have combined for 59 snaps so far.

As for the Falcons, they’ve been relying on rookies defensively, which hasn’t worked out well for most across the league. A.J. Terrell was struggling with a 63.4 coverage grade before testing positive for COVID-19 before Week 3. Linebacker Mykal Walker has been given the starting nod, as well, but struggled outside of a forced fumble last week, managing a 65.8 overall grade. He’ll have his hands full trying to deal with Green Bay’s new motion-heavy offense.

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