The 2020 NFL preseason was horrible for rookies. No camps in the traditional sense, no preseason games to get warmed up with, literally no real game practice before Week 1 of the NFL season kicked off.
Yet, despite this unprecedented offseason and the perfect excuse for any NFL rookie to have a bad year, we saw some incredible performances this year from rookie players. Patrick Queen stepped into an instant leadership role with the Baltimore Ravens, we had defensive end Chase Young make it to the pro bowl, James Robinson and Jonathan Taylor showed the RB position is far from dead in modern football, and both wideout Justin Jefferson and QB Justin Herbert set rookie records at their positions.
In probably the worst environment for rookies in modern sports history, these players were just a few of the great things we saw in the 2020 season from rookies, and whoever ends up winning the award for rookie of the year (ROTY), it symbolizes that now more than ever rookies are ready to start straight out of college.
Let’s get into the different categories we can put these NFL rookies in, showing their overall likelihood in getting the 2020 NFL offensive rookie of the year award:
While players like linebacker Patrick Queen for the Baltimore Ravens, safety Antoine Winefield Jr. for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jeremy Chinn of the Carolina Panthers won’t win ROTY, they should be noted for the instant impact they had on the field.
It’s hard enough for defenders to win this award without producing amazing stats, which neither three of these players had. But the stats isn’t why they are on this list, it’s because they stepped on to the field and instantly became an NFL starting defensive player. While they still have room for improvement, all three of their teams are very happy to have them on their team for the next three to four years.
Chase Claypool also had an impressive season his first year being a wideout for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although a guy from Minnesota outperformed him in every aspect, Claypool should also be noted for a great first season in Pittsburg.
Won’t Win Because Of Their Team
Just like the MVP award, rookies on horrible teams usually don’t win ROTY. The player would have to truly shine on the bad team, and almost universally not be blamed for their team’s losing performance.
This is where Jacksonville Jaguars RB James Robinson comes in, with Robinson putting up over 1,400 yards from scrimmage on a Jaguars team that won exactly one game in 2020. No one puts those 15 losses on Robinson, especially Robinson’s fantasy owners this season. But it’s hard for any player on a 1-15 team to win an award, fair or not.
If Robinson was able to produce those stats and his team won the division, this would be an entirely different story. In all honesty, Robinson should be considered more for this award. We all know he won’t though, so we don’t need to pretend he will get it.
Defensive Rookie of The Year
Before getting to the more controversial pick of offensive ROTY, let’s quickly reveal who the defensive ROTY year will be: defensive end Chase Young. The best player on a team with the worse nickname, Young led the Washington Football Team to be a top defense this year, and most likely was the only reason they were able to win the NFC East this season.
Chase Young should in reality be unanimous in this vote. While the other defensive players listed had good first seasons, Young looked like a seven-year veteran on the field scaring opposing QBs. 7.5 sacks, 12 QB hits, and four forced fumbles make him one of the better performing rookie defensive linemen in NFL history.
The real question is not will Young win the award, but who on earth would take any votes away from him.
#3 Place for Offensive ROTY
While he had a great rookie campaign, others just had better ones. Jonathan Taylor for the Indianapolis Colts surprised everyone and became one of the leading rushers in the NFL his rookie season. After cementing his position as the lead back after getting 26 carries in week 2 against the Minnesota Vikings, getting over 100 yards and a TD in the process, Taylor quickly shot up the list of ROTY year candidates.
The biggest thing holding Taylor back from this award was while he had awesome games, including getting 253 yards and two touchdowns in Week 17, Taylor just had too many ineffective games this season. His role in the receiving game was not great either, but still impressive given the few target he got. This is all to be expected since he is a rookie. And in a season without our #2 and #1 picks, he could easily be a serious contender for the award.
From a numbers standpoint, James Robinson had a better season than Taylor. The reason Taylor has a higher chance to win this award though was that he was a key reason the Colts made the playoffs this year. Fair or not, that is worth something in the voter’s eyes.
#2 Offensive ROTY
The player who will be disappointed walking away with second place this year in offensive ROTY voting will be…wideout Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings.
With Stephon Diggs being traded to the Buffalo Bills, many Vikings fans were scratching their heads wondering what they will have out of rookie Justin Jefferson that Diggs couldn’t provide. But all of those fears evaporated in week 3 when Jefferson caught seven passes for 175 yards with a TD, and then followed it with a 103-yard performance.
Jefferson had seven games this year where he had 100+ receiving yards, and two games with more than 150. Even in the final stretch when the Vikings were still fighting for a playoff spot, Jefferson was getting targeted 10+ times a game, being a reliable target for a Viking offense that lost steam in the last month of the season.
Jefferson’s 1,400 receiving yards is the most for a rookie in the Super Bowl era, while also getting seven receiving TDs. Many would not only consider him the best rookie wideout in 2020, but one of the best wideouts in the entire league last season.
Only three wideouts had more receiving yards than Jefferson this season, and he racked up more yards than studs like Davante Adams of the Packers, D.K. Metcalf of the Seahawks and Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs.
Justin Jefferson will get votes for offensive ROTY, and in almost any other season he would be a shoe in to win it. But looking at the betting lines right now, Justin Jefferson has +800 odds to win the awards. To those who aren’t familiar in odds, that comes out to around 11.1% chance of winning the award.
How come a player who produced like Jefferson is rated so low in his chances of winning? Because of the performance of another Justin in Los Angeles.
ROTY Goes To…Justin Herbert
Remember what I said about players on terrible teams usually don’t win the award? The caveat to that statement was that they would truly have to shine on this bad team, and almost universally not be blamed for the team’s record. It’s weird to say that about a QB, but that couldn’t be more true about Los Angeles Chargers QB Justin Herbert.
The Chargers went 6-10 this season, and while they missed the playoffs they really don’t meet the definition of a “terrible team”. In fact, almost all of their losses were by a touchdown or less.
Four of their losses were by three points or less, and all but two of them were decided by a touchdown or less. If a few things broke their way, they could have been in the playoffs. Instead of blaming Herbert, the coaching decisions in those close games are easily to blame.
Looking at the stats, Herbert really only had one bad game all year. Imagine that, a rookie QB only having one bad game all year? In his 0-45 blowout loss against the New England Patriots, he threw for 209 yards and two interceptions against a New England coaching staff that is famous for how much they tear up rookie QBs.
The crazy thing is that Herbert’s worst game came in week 13, not week 2 when he made his surprise NFL start. Then starting QB Tyrod Taylor had a surprise trip to the emergency room Sunday morning, and Herbert was told literally right before kickoff against the defending Super Bowl champions Kansas City Chiefs that he would be the starting QB.
Herbert’s NFL debut came with no notice against Patrick Mahomes: the Chiefs won that game 23-20 in overtime with a field goal in the final two minutes. Herbert almost led his team to victory against the Super Bowl champs, throwing for more yards than Mahomes in the process.
While it took Herbert and the Chargers until Week 7 to win a game against the hapless Jaguars, Herbert dominated the offensive side of the ball in a way we haven’t seen since Andrew Luck’s rookie season. Herbert had 300+ passing yard games eight times this season, more than half of his games.
He was able to throw 31 passing touchdowns, an NFL rookie record, while throwing only 10 interceptions. Only two QBs who played at least 15 games their rookie season threw less than 10 interceptions.
Even Andrew Luck’s rookie season, considered one of the best for a QB in NFL history, had only 23 touchdowns with 18 interceptions. About the only stat Herbert didn’t beat against Luck was passing yards: Herbert threw 4,366, and Luck threw 4,374 (eight yard difference).
Other accomplishments by Herbert is that he has the most completions by a rookie, only rookie QB to throw four TD passes in a game, the youngest player to throw for 30+ TDs in a season and the most total TDs by a rookie. Remember, all of this came from a surprise start in week two, and that was after rumblings of why the Chargers took Herbert with the 6th pick in 2020.
While Justin Jefferson has a case for the best ever performance from a rookie wideout, he loses out to the other Justin that had the best ever performance from a rookie QB. With all due respect to the wideout position, excelling at the QB position as a rookie is extremely difficult. There is so much of the game one has to process so quickly, not even speaking to the leadership roll the QB plays in the team.
Justin Herbert wins the Offensive ROTY award from simply being the best ever rookie at the most important position in the game. Simple as that.