Life in the NFL is hard, as rookies everywhere found out. While in your typical year rookies have the preseason to be phased into the realm of professional football, the rookie class of 2020 had to endure a baptism by fire. They were playing for keeps right out of the gate and became major contributors for their respective teams throughout the 2020 regular season.
Which rookie performers were able to make the most of their action in Week 17? We, along with our partners at Panini, are recognizing the best of the best each week. Here are the Defensive Rookies of the Week from each conference for Week 17 of the 2020 NFL season.
AFC DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE WEEK
OLB Alex Highsmith, Pittsburgh Steelers
If Steelers fans were concerned about a drop off when Bud Dupree got injured, Alex Highsmith has given them plenty of reasons not to worry. He was performing admirably even before Dupree got injured, but has firmly stepped into the role as the starter since. Highsmith has been in the starting lineup for five games, but this last game was his best performance so far, recording his first sack as a starter. He had nine tackles, one tackle for loss, and a sack to close out the regular season against the Browns. He did this going against a 2020 top-10 pick in Jedrick Wills, who has performed like a stud all season. Highsmith was able to amass several pressures in the game, even when he did not get home. Pittsburgh finished the season as the No. 1 team in the NFL in sacks and has seemingly found a gem on the edge in Highsmith.
NFC DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE WEEK
S Xavier McKinney, New York Giants
Xavier McKinney will likely tell you he didn’t have the type of rookie year he expected. He fractured his foot in training camp and didn’t make his season debut until Week 12. In a Week 17 game that (at least momentarily) kept the Giants in the hunt for the NFC East title, McKinney came up with a big play to seal the game. In the fourth quarter, Andy Dalton desperately threw up a prayer on a 3rd-and-long which McKinney intercepted. This interception ultimately gave the Giants the victory. McKinney finished Sunday’s game with four tackles, four assisted tackles, one tackle for loss, and the game-sealing interception. Unfortunately for New York, the Eagles ruined the Giants’ playoff hopes by losing (some thought intentionally) to Washington on Sunday Night Football.