The NFL regular season is over! It ended with a feeble flop as the Washington Football Team secured their division title at 7-9 against an effete Philadelphia Eagles roster, but through all of the ups and downs of a wacky year, the rookies shined—as they always do.
Our eyes at The Draft Network are always turned to the class of new NFLers throughout the season. We, along with our partners at Panini, are recognizing the best of the best. Now that the regular season is booked and many rookie seasons are over, I’m submitting my ballot (not really; nobody takes my ballot for anything) for First- and Second-Team All-Rookie squads.
I focused on quality film more than anything else, but of course took production, availability, and roles into account. There is no order within positions with multiple candidates. There are flex positions because I want there to be.
Argue with me if you want. I’m on Twitter: @BenjaminSolak.
Los Angeles QB Justin Herbert
Who else could it be? Herbert has set multiple rookie passer records, including the season-long touchdown record set by Baker Mayfield a couple of seasons ago. We’ll always wonder what would have happened with Herbert if not for a terrible medical mishap that thrust him into a starting role in Week 2, but for a player many consider a toolsy prospect, his immediate success is eye-popping.
Herbert is one of the most promising young players in the league outright, and the Chargers’ four-game winning streak to close the season is just a foretaste of his potential.
Jacksonville RB James Robinson
It was a long-debated running back class, and the top five all went within 23 picks of one another. My first-team back? Not selected at all. Illinois State UDFA Robinson was a revelation for a Jacksonville Jaguars offense that couldn’t get much going in the passing game this season. As the quarterback carousel spun, Robinson remained steady, providing three-down value with his soft hands in the passing game and maximizing yardage as a runner with smart angles and good power.
Minnesota WR Justin Jefferson
The easiest pick on either side of the ball: Jefferson has been one of the most entertaining film watches over the season. He looked quick and fluid at LSU—somehow, in the NFL, he looks even more explosive. Jefferson has been elite on downfield patterns, catching 100% of his catchable targets and turning four into touchdowns—he has seven scores overall. He isn’t Stefon Diggs yet, but he’s well on his way.
Pittsburgh WR Chase Claypool
The wide receiver class was so good in 2020—and the tight end class so bad—that there was pre-draft conversation about moving the 6-foot-4, 238-pound Claypool to a flex TE role. The Steelers have kept him at outside receiver, and to their credit. Claypool has been dominant at the catch point for Pittsburgh, just as he was at Notre Dame—but it’s the big boy YAC he generates with his 4.42s 40-yard dash that’s most exciting for his future.
Dallas WR CeeDee Lamb
The WR1 for many analysts, Lamb delivered on his billing for the Cowboys. He was second only to Amari Cooper in targets (119 to 102), was fourth among rookies in receiving yards/game, and dominated from the slot after largely rotating through positions at Oklahoma. With functional quarterback play over 16 games for the Cowboys, expect Lamb to produce the gaudy numbers that Jefferson did this season.
Cleveland TE Harrison Bryant
The tight end class has done little of note this season, but on an offense heavy on multiple-TE sets, Bryant’s 590 snaps and proficiency as a stalk blocker in space shouldn’t go unrecognized. Much of Bryant’s production as a receiver has been a function of scheme, but for as long as he seals angles in space for the Browns’ running game, he’ll stay on the field and continue to attract passing game volume.
Washington RB Antonio Gibson
Before the season, I said that Gibson would look great by the end of the year—I just thought he’d need a whole season to on-board, learn his reads, become consistent, and become trustworthy. Well, he never really took over the backfield—largely splitting time with J.D. McKissic—but he became the primary ball-carrier quickly and showed more maturity in vision and blocking schemes than I expected. They’ve got a great athlete with a good developmental arc there—now don’t mess him up.
Tampa Bay OT Tristan Wirfs
Wirfs is in the conversation for All-Pro teams at tackle, not just All-Rookie teams. The Iowa product has been sensational after waiting to hear his name called fourth out of the big-four tackles pre-draft. In a heavy passing approach, Wirfs’ comfort pass setting on an island and handling both speed and power rushers late in the down is stunning when you consider the offense he left in Iowa. Wirfs will be one of the best players in the league for years to come.
Cleveland OT Jedrick Wills
You could easily and appropriately make a Mekhi Becton argument here, but I’ll make the case for Wills for the sheer variety of responsibilities he’s fulfilled in Cleveland. Bill Callahan asks more of his offensive line than perhaps any coach in the league, and Wills hasn’t dropped an assignment since Week 1. On the hoof in that movement-heavy approach, Wills is nightmare fuel for second-level players.
Interior Offensive line
New England iOL Michael Onwenu
I wasn’t sure if Onwenu belonged with the tackles or with the guards, as he’s taken the majority of his snaps at tackle as a response to injury, but started the season at guard. I think he’ll stay there for the Patriots, but his length, displacement power, and awareness in pass protection will translate pretty much anywhere. You could argue he’s been better than any rookie offensive lineman not named Wirfs this season.
Pittsburgh iOL Kevin Dotson
Dotson was a road-grader beside Miami Dolphins-draftee Robert Hunt at Louisiana-Lafayette, and while concerns about his athletic ability were warranted, he has shown how hand strength and aggressiveness can fit the bill at guard. Dotson proves that pass protection is not passive, and while he may not be the quickest mover, he lets you know when he arrives.
Detroit Lions iOL Jonah Jackson
A lot of names could go here, and you can find them on the second-team. I went with Jackson because I appreciated his steadiness—he missed his first snaps of the season in Week 17 with an injury—and immediate impact. Jackson was lockdown at right guard, had to switch after a few weeks, and was immediately lockdown at left guard as well. Jackson is a great culture fit beside Frank Ragnow in Detroit as well.
Interior Defensive Line
San Francisco iDL Javon Kinlaw
Kinlaw has been as billed—a homewrecker on the interior with obnoxious play strength and explosiveness, even for the NFL field. He’s still raw—he was expected to be raw out of South Carolina—but he’s a perfect fit for that Kris Kocurek defensive line with his length and rolling power through contact. He’ll start to stuff the stat sheet in a year or two.
Carolina iDL Derrick Brown
It was a slow start for Brown, who took some time to acclimate to NFL play—that’s just the way it goes for some rookies. Flip on the film of recent weeks, and it’s like watching a different player. Brown isn’t stoppable; he’s just delayable. He regularly collapses the pocket with bullrushes and buries runs early by grabbing immediate control of the center. Nose tackle isn’t a sexy job, but he does it well.
Washington EDGE Chase Young
Young won’t end the season with Bosa or Allen’s production from last year, but I’d argue he’s been just as disruptive on a snap-to-snap basis. Young’s frame and first step jump off of NFL film just as they did on his college film, and with every week he’s demonstrating faster hands and quicker eyes to recognize and attack offensive tackles. He’s a monster now and a true terror in the making.
Pittsburgh EDGE Alex Highsmith
This rookie EDGE class has not been very good, nor has Highsmith been very productive—but he was effective enough in a rotational role that when Bud Dupree went down with an injury, he was installed as a starter in a key role for the Steelers defense and has delivered. Over the last five weeks as a starter, Highsmith’s 13 pressures are second only to K’Lavon Chaisson among rookie rushers, and he continues to be a violent influence against the run.
Baltimore LB Patrick Queen
Queen has been far from perfect in his rookie year, but linebacker rarely sees an easy on-boarding process—there’s just too much to process, and in a Wink Martindale defense, Queen’s playbook is truly intimidating. With that said, Queen’s been a highly effective blitzer given his play speed, the primary run stopper between the tackles, and has had his moments in coverage. Baltimore likes the return on its investment.
Seattle LB Jordyn Brooks
Listen, I riffed on the Brooks selection (he was picked one spot before Queen, funny enough) just as much as the next guy—but he’s been good for the Seahawks! He’s still a subpackage player, but Brooks’ comfort in coverage has impressed early on, and his play speed has been a welcome boost to the Seahawks’ second level alongside Jamal Adams. Brooks will really get put to the test if and when Seattle moves on from K.J. Wright, but early returns are strong.
Kansas City CB L’Jarius Sneed
Limitless kudos belong to a college safety that becomes a stud NFL rookie CB—that’s exactly what Sneed has done, coming from a Group of 5 program at Louisiana Tech as well. Sneed’s wicked straight-line explosiveness and long speed allow him to work on the outside and carry routes downfield, but a player with little coverage background shouldn’t be so naturally comfortable with his back to the ball working through the catch point. I’m excited to see if he can keep this up in 2021 and beyond.
Chicago CB Jaylon Johnson
Johnson’s season tailed off a tad after a white-hot start, and an injury has kept him off the field over the last few weeks, but there’s no ignoring his body of work across the year. Johnson leads all rookies in passes broken up, with aggressive and physical play from Utah following him effortlessly into the league. Johnson must learn how to play with a bit more temperance, but ball skills always matter among corners, and he’s generating big-time plays.
Tampa Bay S Antoine Winfield Jr.
Like father, like son: Winfield Jr. looks like a future stud at safety for Tampa Bay. Winfield has been an excellent combo safety, dominating from the roof with tremendous route recognition, but more than holding his own in the box despite his size limitations. Winfield’s a great fit for the Todd Bowles defense because of the range he covers in zones—it takes elite recognition to hang back there, and Winfield is well on his way.
Indianapolis S Julian Blackmon
Nobody gets immediate impact from rookie defenders quite like Indianapolis and Matt Eberflus. Blackmon has been a true ballhawk in split-field zones, with more than enough range and timing to take great angles to sideline routes—his cornerback background is apparent when he addressed the football in the air. He doesn’t have the same difficult asks of other safeties in the league, and his production has dipped a little bit as he’s hit the rookie wall, but the Colts have a solid start here.
Carolina S Jeremy Chinn
Chinn has taken just about as many snaps at linebacker as he has at free safety, so he’s truly an appropriate pick for the flex spot. Long overshadowed by Kyle Dugger among hybrid linebackers in the 2020 draft process, Chinn’s combination of length and straight-line speed has been a huge boon for him when affecting passing lanes in the middle of the field. Chinn must improve in man coverage, but his sideline-to-sideline influence is sick. A guy with this play speed will be an impact player for a while.
Cincinnati QB Joe Burrow
Indianapolis RB Jonathan Taylor
Cincinnati WR Tee Higgins
San Francisco WR Brandon Aiyuk
Denver WR Jerry Jeudy
Chicago TE Cole Kmet
Jacksonville WR Laviska Shenault
New York OT Mekhi Becton
Miami OT Robert Hunt
Interior Offensive Line
Minnesota iOL Ezra Cleveland
Seattle iOL Damien Lewis
Dallas iOL Tyler Biadasz
Interior Defensive Line
Baltimore iDL Justin Madubuike
Miami iDL Raekwon Davis
Jacksonville EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson
Kansas City EDGE Mike Danna
Atlanta LB Mykal Walker
Green Bay LB Krys Barnes
Atlanta CB A.J. Terrell
Jacksonville CB C.J. Henderson
Washington S Kamren Curl
Los Angeles Rams S Jordan Fuller
New England S Kyle Dugger