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Rookies Made Their Mark on the NFL’s Week 1 Slate

A shortened offseason and a lack of preseason games didn’t seem to have much impact on some of pro football’s most high-profile newcomers. From top picks like Chase Young to undrafted free agents like James Robinson, plenty of rookies showed potential.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Imagine being an NFL rookie in arguably the most unusual season ever. No preseason. No fans. Hell, even the draft wasn’t normal. The NFL has always had a learning curve. This year, that curve has been bent and twisted into something resembling a coiled hose.

But just as a handful of rookies do every year, some performed at an exceptionally high level in Week 1. Below, we take a look at some players who stood out from their peers.

Chase Young, Edge, Washington Football Team

Whew. Young’s talent makes him an obvious choice to claim NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. And if his selection at no. 2 overall wasn’t any indication of how bright his future is, then his debut against the Eagles made it plenty clear. He posted four total tackles, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble, and one QB hit to help Washington to a surprise 27-17 win.

Young was a catalyst for Washington’s defense, which had a field day harassing Eagles QB Carson Wentz. Wentz seemed helpless at times behind Philadelphia’s makeshift offensive line, which was missing starting right tackle Lane Johnson. Washington tallied eight sacks, 14 QB hits, and two interceptions. According to Pro Football Focus, Young notched an overall grade of 86.5, a pass-rush grade of 81.4 and rush defense grade of 75.3. He joined the Chargers’ Joey Bosa as the only two players to top a PFF grade of 75 in both categories in their debuts. Young set up his first sack by beating veteran tackle Jason Peters with an impressive spin move:

Young was also effective in the run game, splitting a combo block to halt Eagles tailback Corey Clement for a short gain:

Needless to say, it was an impressive showing for the rookie.

C.J. Henderson, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Do yourself a favor: Go rewatch Henderson’s outing against the Colts. Sure, maybe you don’t want to spend too much time watching the Jaguars, but Henderson’s play is worth it. The ninth overall pick was fantastic and showcased shutdown cornerback potential. He broke up three passes and snatched his first career interception to demonstrate why the Jaguars invested so heavily in him.

Henderson consistently stuck with receivers throughout the game and displayed an instinctive nose for the ball. He also helped limit T.Y. Hilton to four catches and 53 yards on nine targets. Often, Hilton was just unable to shake the rookie:

And even when Hilton could find some space, Henderson showed the ability to close quickly:

Henderson also flashed excellent tackling and great awareness. On this play, he quickly vacates his zone and screams toward Colts wideout Parris Campbell, making a stop on a crucial third down in the fourth quarter:

Henderson registered an 84.2 overall grade (no. 2 among cornerbacks), according to PFF. He also posted a 83.5 coverage grade, allowing two catches on six targets while in man coverage. The Jags hit big when they drafted All-Pro Jalen Ramsey a few seasons ago. Henderson has shown the tools necessary to one day produce at a similar level.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs

Hopefully, you’re not one of the many who thought Edwards-Helaire, the only running back selected in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft, might be overhyped entering the year. CEH is a premiere back, and he’s exactly what the Chiefs needed in their high-powered offense to complement superstar Patrick Mahomes and the passing game.

CEH blends the skill set of Damien Williams—Kansas City’s projected starter who opted out of the season—with the patience of an every-down back. In his debut, he rushed 25 times for 138 yards and one touchdown, and looked every bit as special as expected in Andy Reid’s offense.

Reid’s game plan in Week 1 was more run-heavy than it was in any game last season, and the Texans tried to account for it. Houston loaded the box with eight or more defenders on 36 percent of CEH’s carries, per Next Gen Stats (sixth most among running backs). He still averaged 5.5 yards per carry and registered 38 rushing yards more than expected—both good indicators that CEH is more than ready to be Kansas City’s feature back. He also ran the third-most routes among rookie running backs (17) in his debut, which highlighted his potential in the passing game.

James Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Robinson became the first undrafted tailback to start a season opener since 1990. And he looked pretty good, producing 62 yards on 16 carries and one catch for 28 yards.

The Jags successfully schemed some open lanes for Robinson on a handful of carries by using fullback Bruce Miller to lead the way. But otherwise, Robinson faced crowds at the line of scrimmage often. Of the 19 players who attempted at least 15 carries in Week 1, Robinson’s 1.3 yards before contact per carry ranked tied for 16th, per Pro Football Reference, suggesting that he rarely had room once receiving the ball last week. Still, Robinson consistently demonstrated power and strength, blasting through arm tackles and sometimes dragging defenders for extra yards. He averaged 2.6 yards after contact per carry for fifth most among players with 15 or more carries in Week 1. He did well identifying available lanes and accelerating through them as defenders were caught flowing the other way, like on this play:

Robinson, who attended Illinois State, clocked an underwhelming 4.64 at the combine, and came into the NFL as a complete afterthought. But he showed plenty of burst behind his 5-foot-9, 219-pound frame. His offensive line didn’t routinely provide clear running lanes for him—the unit notched a 63.7 run-blocking grade (19th), per PFF—but when it did, Robinson capitalized on his chances, displaying playmaking potential. He caught only one pass, but it was perhaps his best highlight play of the day:

Robinson toted the rock with confidence. The Jaguars had enough faith in him to cut former first-round pick Leonard Fournette shortly before the season began. Robinson earned a big share of backfield reps in Week 1, playing on 68 percent of Jacksonville’s offensive snaps; backup Chris Thompson, known for his receiving abilities, played on just 24 percent. This suggests that the Robinson Show could very well continue. It’s gotten off to an encouraging start.

Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

The no. 1 overall pick nearly pulled off an exciting debut win. Let’s start with the good. Burrow is known for his record-setting passing talent, but in Week 1, his legs helped him tremendously. He’s mobile enough to extend plays and dance around in the pocket. Per PFF’s Eric Eager, the Bengals called four designed runs for Burrow on which he gained 31 total yards.

Burrow showed that he’s capable of generating some good plays using athleticism, including on his first NFL career score, a 23-yard touchdown scamper:

That mobility can lend to some overconfidence and overcompensation at times from Burrow. Throughout Sunday’s loss, there were several moments when it was clear he was trying to make up for his ho-hum supporting cast. And on too many occasions, Burrow tried to do a little too much. In the first quarter, facing a third-and-10, he avoided pressure and flipped the ball to Joe Mixon, who luckily was able to corral it before any Chargers defenders did. (Burrow had earlier attempted to flip out a pass to Mixon that fell incomplete trying to avoid pressure.)

Burrow was OK through the air in his debut, finishing 23 of 36 passes for 193 yards. He shined brightest during his final drive (8-for-10 with 70 passing yards). It was nearly capped by a game-winning sideline touchdown pass to A.J. Green. Instead, Randy Bullock bricked a field goal off the upright to end the game. There were absolutely some missed opportunities, which can likely be attributed to lack of live reps and still-developing rapport. Burrow delivered a perfect deep throw to John Ross III, who dropped a pass earlier in the third quarter that would have given Cincy the lead:

But two plays later, Burrow missed a wide-open Green on a deep pass:

Burrow didn’t get much help from receivers, who dropped two passes, nor the offensive line, which contributed to Burrow’s constant pressure. (Going against a defensive line boasting Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa didn’t help matters.) It wasn’t one of Burrow’s jaw-dropping performances, but for his first NFL start, things could’ve gone much worse. Burrow’s 63.9 completion percentage was 2.7 points over his expected completion rate, per Next Gen Stats. It’s a start. Based off the Week 1 showing, there’s reason to believe that, with time, things will get better for Burrow.

Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

Taylor is due to figure into the Colts’ backfield rotation more heavily than initially thought after starter Marlon Mack suffered a season-ending torn Achilles in the first half on a noncontact play. The two-time Doak Walker Award winner (given to college football’s best RB) flashed his potential in spurts in Week 1, but never really got established on the ground. He finished with a team-high nine carries for only 22 yards (2.4 ypc) and didn’t register a rush longer than 10 yards or gain a first down. There weren’t many highlight-worthy carries.

But where Taylor did shine was through the air. He logged six catches (tied for second most on the team) for 67 yards (second) to register 87 yards after the catch and pick up two first downs. Philip Rivers has a penchant for getting tailbacks involved in the passing game—Chargers RB Austin Ekeler caught 92 passes last year with Rivers under center—and that trend has continued with his move to Indianapolis, both by design, such as on this screen pass that nearly went for a touchdown …

… and out of necessity, such as on this dump-off in the flat:

According to Athletic writer Ben Baldwin’s database, Taylor was worth 4.3 estimated points added on his Week 1 receptions, a mark higher than Nyheim Hines and any of Indy’s receivers. With Hines in the fold, Taylor will still have to fight for snaps, but Taylor’s playmaking ability is evident and he could see his usage increase as the season progresses.