NFL Insiders Highlight Their 5 Biggest Impact Rookies for 2020 Season
The 2020 NFL season will be unique in many ways. Key players are opting out because of risks associated with COVID-19, while others are being asked to adapt to new cities, new coaches and new playbooks.
Even when given a prolonged training camp and preseason to learn and work through, it often takes time for rookies to transition from college to the NFL. Without that, expectations for first-year players should be tempered in 2020.
"We'll see a lot of guys ramp up to playing time," one AFC coach said. "We felt really good about our draft class, but I wouldn't want to tell you any of them is going to produce immediate results."
But in talking to decision-makers around the NFL, rookie running backs and pass-rushers are expected to make the biggest early-season impacts. A running back doesn't have to know the entire playbook to come in and contribute. The same goes for a pass-rusher, who can be unleashed in situational spurts and produce sacks and hurries.
Which rookies do NFL coaches and scouts expect results from in 2020? These five stood out.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs
"This is probably obvious, but we felt like he was the best running back in the class and can replace some of what we lost at the position previously. There's talent there for him to be a very good player early on." — Kansas City Chiefs front-office member
Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the first running back off the board in the 2020 draft, and he will be thrust into an even bigger role with incumbent starter Damien Williams opting out of the season.
On an offense featuring wideouts Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman stretching defenses vertically and tight end Travis Kelce as an elite mid-field threat, the Chiefs can now employ a running back who caught 55 passes at LSU last season (more than Henry Ruggs III had for Alabama) and is a bowling ball between the tackles.
With Patrick Mahomes and the track team he has around him at receiver spreading defenses out, Clyde the Glide will have plenty of running room and a pass-catching skill set that makes him the top rookie running back both from a fantasy and real football perspective.
Stat Projection: 225 rushes, 1,035 yards rushing, 9 TDs; 58 catches, 550 yards, 4 TDs
Chase Young, Edge, Washington Football Team
"He's going to FEAST in that scheme with that talent around him. You can't double-team anyone on that line without a gigantic risk. He's my Defensive Rookie of the Year pick." — NFC area scout
Chase Young is good. The Washington defensive line around him is, too.
It's easy to look at Young's talent and his situation and see him making an impact like his former college teammate Nick Bosa had in his rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers. Especially when you remember that a majority of scouts preferred Young to Bosa as a prospect.
Young's special blend of speed and power equaled production and impact in college even though he faced triple-teams from offensive lines at times. With fellow first-rounders Montez Sweat, Da'Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen and Ryan Kerrigan (not to mention standout Matt Ioannidis) alongside him on the defensive line, NFC East offensive tackles will be facing a tall order to shut down his outside speed rush.
Projecting the No. 2 pick in the draft to have a big season isn't a surprise, but based on conversations with coaches and scouts, the expectations for Young are nearly All-Pro. One Washington coach said "he's the best player here" after getting a look at Young in training camp workouts.
Stat Projection: 11 sacks, 25 QB hits, 45 hurries
Cam Akers, Running Back, Los Angeles Rams
"Who else do they have? He'll be the guy early, and from what I know of Sean [McVay's] scheme, they're gonna get him a lot of touches." — NFC West defensive coach
The Los Angeles Rams did select running back Darrell Henderson in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft, but with Todd Gurley limited last season, Henderson didn't make much of an impact. Akers, the second-rounder from Florida State, has a chance to take over the starter role.
At 5'10" and 217 pounds, Akers has the build to be an RB1, and he showed at FSU the skill set as a runner and receiver out of the backfield to take on a heavy load of the offense right out of the gate. Unlike many rookie running backs, he also showed a willingness and proficiency in pass protection that could keep him on the field on third downs before other rookies are ready to stay in to protect franchise quarterbacks.
There shouldn't be huge statistical expectations for Akers behind a patchwork offensive line in Los Angeles, but this is a similar situation he faced at FSU. He was still able to grind out more than 1,100 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns while catching 30 passes and adding four scores through the air last season.
Stat Projection: 185 carries, 777 yards, 8 TD; 30 catches, 430 yards, 3 TD
Kyle Dugger, S, New England Patriots
"I expect Dugger to play as a multidimensional safety in the Patrick Chung role for the Patriots. Man-up TEs, play underneath as a robber, spin down to cut crossers and also play over the top as a deep half defender—with the ability to rotate to the post.
"Dugger has all the natural traits of the position, plus he has a rare size/speed combo. Without an offseason and a reduced camp, and coming from D-II level, we could see Terrence Brooks start the season in [Patrick] Chung's spot, but Dugger has the skill set to develop into that role." — Matt Bowen, former NFL safety and ESPN analyst
With Patrick Chung opting out of the 2020 season, Bowen hits the nail on the head here. The Patriots could ask Dugger to play the Chung role and take on a huge load in their secondary.
Like Chung, Dugger is a smart cover man who can lock up tight ends. But his athleticism as a three-down player could make him a potential upgrade. He can drop down into the box, play as a post safety or man-up targets.
As one of the biggest sleepers from the 2020 class, Dugger will be propelled into a starting role and asked to make a big-time impact as a second-round pick.
Stat Projection: 80 tackles, 2 INTs, 1.5 sacks
Darrell Taylor, Edge, Seattle Seahawks
"He was one of my favorite under-the-radar guys, and when (Seattle) drafted him, you knew he was going to be in a great situation. Complete opposite of the dude they drafted last year (L.J. Collier)." — AFC area scout
The Seattle Seahawks excel at putting defensive players in situations to produce. Darrell Taylor's situation is reminiscent of Bruce Irvin's rookie year, when he wasn't asked to be an every-down impact player but still made his presence known as a situational pass-rusher. That's what Taylor can be in 2020.
A first-step warrior with awesome speed and the ability to dip under the hands of blockers, Taylor's speed rush will be an ideal fit outside the offensive tackle in Seattle's scheme. And while it won't be the exact same position Irvin held down back in the day, the similarities in usage should excite Seattle fans.
Stat Projection: Eight sacks, 11 QB hits, 13 hurries