Take a look around football.
As offenses continue to progress and diversify as the weeks wear on, headliners have developed for many of football’s top offensive arsenals. But, it’s not who we’ve become accustomed to.
As the NFL has groomed us to expect production from offseason trade acquisitions or a big-time free agent signing, a.k.a the veterans of the locker room with a few years of NFL action under their belt, a swath of first and second-year impact skill players have taken the league by storm, putting to bed the narrative of “first-year struggles.” From the 2020 sophomore class of Jonathan Taylor, Justin Jefferson, and CeeDee Lamb, to the high-octane rookie class of Ja’Marr Chase, Kyle Pitts, DeVonta Smith, and Najee Harris, in just the last two drafts, an overflowing amount of youth-infused talent has quickly introduced some of the NFL’s most dominant offensive weapons. Players with drastically different skill sets coming out of the college game, the laundry list of names who’ve been able to make an impact with little to no experience on Sundays have invited a changing of the guard to how we project initial success.
In the past, whether it's a running back, tight end, or a wideout, a grace period was handed to rookie players where elite production was far-fetched and sideline time was expected. Players were asked to sit behind veterans—whether they provided more of an impact or not—learning the intricacies of the offense before their name was ultimately called upon. And surely, if you were put in a general manager's shoes and were asked to trust the six-year vet at 29 years old or the first-year talent at 20 years of age, no matter the skill sets, the needle would sway toward the vet. And while other dynamics play into coaches' decisions of who exactly to start when draft allotment and other outliers are put into consideration, if it comes down to it, and even it may sound like politics, talent is talent and production is king.
From Jefferson’s outstanding start working in tandem with Kirk Cousins in Minnesota to Harris’ do-it-all role in Pittsburgh, the ability of collegiate prospects in today’s landscape to immediately translate success has become paramount for some of the league’s most successful teams. While players are scouted with stronger, faster, more versatile defenders in mind that make up the league, players like Smith, whose draft stock resembled a roller coaster due to concerns about his play weight and longevity on the outside at X, has put skeptics to bed.
A four-year pass-catcher at Alabama, a blueblood SEC program where Smith won the Heisman last fall competing against the nation’s top secondary defenders, any doubt of his success on Sundays was a folly leading up to Week 1. For guys like Pitts and Chase, not only did their draft allotment usher in a high bar of expectation, and rightly so, but they’re casually on their way to record-setting seasons at their respective positions for teams that weren’t expected to remain in divisional contention come Christmas.
However, as great as the aforementioned offensive studs have been, none have been more impressive than Taylor, who’s firmly in the conversation for AFC Offensive Player of the Year after a five-touchdown performance against the Buffalo Bills in Week 11. An under-the-radar talent out of Wisconsin that fell victim to helmet scouting during his pre-draft circuit, Taylor has taken over the Colts’ offense and has Indianapolis breathing down the neck of the division-leading Tennessee Titans.
In a league bannered by the 44-year old Tom Brady, a breath of fresh air has been injected into the lungs of the NFL by way of its youngest stars. From versatile backfield talent to game-breaking ability on the outside, the NFL’s most youth-infused superstars are just getting their feet wet. The best is yet to come.