By: Madeleine Hudak
In an absolutely way too early game of speculation, which rookies have made the biggest splash thus far? The spotlight is on the newbies this year – tasked with entering the league off an unprecedented offseason, without the luxury of preseason games to shake off early-season jitters, it makes the rookie standouts all the more impressive. Even more so when you consider the slew of injuries that demolished half of the NFL in Week 2, otherwise known as Black Sunday. With that, here’s some obvious, and nonobvious, frontrunners for Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year (ROTY), respectively, for conjecture’s sake.
1. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire – Kansas City Chiefs
The decision by Andy Reid to snag Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the 32nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft almost now seems omniscient. Damien Williams opted out of the season due to health risk concerns for his mother, wife, and daughter; resultantly, Edwards-Helaire was quickly thrust into his role. Not only has he filled that void entirely, but he’s been absolutely electric thus far. While the Chiefs are decidedly an aerial team, Edwards-Helaire’s presence massively opened up their offense and he’s quickly become a deadly weapon. He had the opportunity to display his prowess on a primetime stage in the Week 1 NFL opener – with 25 carries for 138 yards and a touchdown, Edwards-Helaire stole the show. The Offensive ROTY has vacillated between RBs and QBs since 2015 – this year should be no different.
2. QB Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
Just as the MVP award typically is bestowed upon a quarterback, it’s sensible to assume the ROTY award will likely follow suit. Despite his team attempting to hospitalize him the last three weeks, Burrow just looks like a seasoned pro right off the bat – much unlike, for example, Johnny Manziel. Burrow is debatably one the most promising quarterbacks to ever come out of the draft; he certainly won’t lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl with their pitiful o-line protection, but his presence immediately bolstered the 2-14 team. Burrow has thrown for over 300 yards the last two games and thus far has 5 TDs; despite his team’s reckless endangerment last Sunday against the Eagles where Burrow was sacked 8 times and took 18 hits, he still managed to record a 105.5 passer rating and threw for 312 yards. Many rookies in his position would be cowering on the floor after that type of beating. Frankly, if Burrow can win 6 games this season, he’s just an obvious shoo-in.
3. QB Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
I’ll throw in a hot take per category – Herbert might be the sleeper pick if Burrow gets lampooned into oblivion this season. As a result of potentially egregious medical malpractice, Herbert got thrust into the starting role at quite literally the final hour in Week 2 – against the reigning champions at that. A daunting task for veteran backups, Herbert didn’t even skip a beat, and nearly upset the Chiefs under the utmost pressure. He looked in control and decisive; under the circumstances, he flourished. With back-to-back impressive performances, Herbert is poised to rival Tyrod Taylor for the starting role. Moreover, unlike Burrow, he actually has a supporting cast that’s up to the task – statistically, he may just surpass him. Herbert is the dark horse candidate if he retains the starting spot.
1. DE Chase Young, Washington Football Team
A relatively obvious choice, Young is on the trajectory to follow Nick Bosa’s footsteps last year in exact; both DEs were the 2nd overall pick in their respective drafts, and Bosa was the 2019 Defensive ROTY. Accordingly, Young has a high chance of following suit. While Young missed Week 3’s matchup due to a groin injury, the rookie recorded two sacks and a forced fumble in his first two games. His dominant gameplay in Week 2 was all the more impressive when you consider he was tasked with chasing down the elusive Kyler Murray.
The only argument thus far against Young comes from NBC Sports’ Peter King; his reasoning, fairly so, is that Young joined an already talented defensive front where the wealth is spread around. Correspondingly, Young won’t have as much of a chance to shine. It’s a valid counterpoint when you look at last year’s Defensive ROTY, Nick Bosa. Bosa joined a team that ranked 23rd in DVOA in 2018; with the addition of Bosa – and Dee Ford, to be fair – the unit jumped to 2nd in DVOA in 2019. Essentially, Young needs to play lights out, and then some, to truly stand out on his team’s stacked defensive front.
2. DT Javon Kinlaw, San Francisco 49ers
Speaking of a stacked defensive front, or lack thereof, enter Javon Kinlaw. If King’s argument against Young holds up, Javon Kinlaw becomes a sleeper favorite. With the absolute decimation of the 49ers pass rush, the opportunity is more than available for Kinlaw to make a splash. After the loss of Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas in the Sunday that shall never be named again, Kinlaw was promptly thrust into the position to make a name for himself on the 49ers defensive front. Playing well through adversity bodes well for ROTY prospects, and if Kinlaw can step up in the void left by DeForest Buckner, in the absence of Bosa and Thomas, he frankly might be a shoo-in.
3. CB Jeff Okudah, Detroit Lions
The potential ROTY theme is clear: flourishing when thrust into adversity, a la Herbert and Kinlaw. Jeff Okudah’s narrative thus far has been no different. After the loss of Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman, Okudah received a warm welcome to the NFL matched up against two of the league’s top receivers – Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins. While that daunting task proved more than difficult – though he managed to pick off a pass intended for Hopkins – there’s a reason he was drafted to be the future of Detroit’s secondary. Deemed a film rat, there’s a strong chance he’ll quite quickly get up to speed.
Moreover, though this applies to rookies across the league, Okudah entered the NFL in the strangest offseason of all time, sans preseason games, and missed the season opener due to injury. Then there’s the abrupt loss of half of the Lions’ secondary. Rooting for the obvious frontrunner is never any fun. I’m with Peter King – watching Chase Young flourish in an already stacked line is boring, and ultimately won’t make much splash. If Okudah can be the comeback kid this season, he just might be the rookie to watch as the season progresses.
Maddy also writes for Canal St. Chronicles/ SB Nation. She received her masters in legal studies from Northeastern University. Make sure to follow her @MaddyHudak_94