The NFL season is back, and one of the main selling points for fans will be to see how well rookies perform in their first professional action. Of course, not every rookie is awarded significant in-season reps from the get-go, but here are five that could play pivotal roles this Sunday (and Monday).
*Note: Kansas City Chiefs running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire played on Thursday night and therefore wasn’t included on this list
1. Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow (vs. Chargers)
We start with the most obvious choice in Burrow.
The only rookie quarterback set to start in Week 1 this season, the expectations on Burrow’s shoulders are sky-high, not only from a media perspective but also from a Bengals one. Awarded team captain honors before even taking a snap, the pressure to put forth a solid first game is quite big, as are his entire first-year projections. If there’s one thing we know about Burrow, however, it’s that his ability to combat pressure is nothing short of elite.
Still, Week 1 doesn’t look favorable for him from a matchup perspective, as the Chargers’ fierce pass-rush should theoretically eat the Bengals’ offensive line alive, thus forcing Burrow into an extremely difficult situation.
With this in mind, I’m certainly not expecting a masterful performance for the passer, nor a surprising win for Cincinnati, but if Burrow can come out of Week 1 with roughly 250 yards, two touchdowns, and one turnover or fewer, that would be a nice and realistic building block to go off of.
2. New York Giants OT Andrew Thomas (vs. Steelers)
Drafted fourth overall to be the Giants’ right tackle this season, Thomas’ 2020 role went from big to giant (pun intended) when left tackle Nate Solder opted out for the year. Now protecting quarterback Daniel Jones’ blindside, he’s going to have an extremely difficult Week 1 task, especially against a dominant Steelers defense.
Likely to align against Bud Dupree all game long (thankfully it’s not T.J. Watt), Thomas’ ability to give Jones time will be crucial to his overall success, perhaps even more so than your traditional passer. Turning into a flustered, turnover-machine when pressured, the Giants passer is almost an entirely different quarterback when kept clean. Here’s to hoping Thomas can keep Jones upright in his first professional outing.
3. Cleveland Browns OT Jedrick Wills (vs. Ravens)
Like Thomas, Wills is expected to man his quarterback’s blindside against a dominant and difficult defense. Unlike Thomas, however, he never played on the left side in college and thus will be taking his very first snaps there on Sunday afternoon.
I have no doubt he can make the transition, especially due to his quality footwork and impeccable pass sets, but doing it against a team like Baltimore is a tough ask. Aligning in a lot of multiple looks and dialing up a ton of blitzes and stunts, the Ravens’ ability to confuse opposing offensive linemen is also important to note. Throw them against a brand new Browns unit that has hardly worked together and the outcome could be less than ideal for Cleveland.
4. Washington Football Team RB Antonio Gibson vs. Eagles
I wouldn’t have expected to list Gibson here back in April, but here we are.
After Derrius Guice and Adrian Peterson’s respective releases, Gibson is “the guy” in a depleted Washington backfield, even with limited collegiate carries on his resume. Likely to be factored in the passing game a fair amount (he was essentially a wide receiver at Memphis), how Gibson fares against an elite Eagles run defense (ranked third last season) will be an extremely pivotal Week 1 matchup.
5. Las Vegas Raiders WRs Henry Ruggs & Bryan Edwards (vs. Panthers)
I cheated a little with this one, but only because I’m so excited to see this tandem in action.
First- and third-round picks, respectively, Ruggs and Edwards are locked into the Raiders’ top two receiving roles this season (Hunter Renfrow is the third), and are expected to see a major amount of targets right from the get-go. Going up against an extremely young and unproven secondary in Carolina, there’s not a more perfect Week 1 matchup for the duo to feast on, as this is the ideal opponent to begin your professional career against.
Let’s pray that Derek Carr strings together some solid throws and that Ruggs and Edwards can take advantage of the opportunity at hand.