Jalen Reagor, J.K. Dobbins, Tristan Wirfs: NFL rookies to keep an eye on in 2020

Rarely have NFL rookies faced a tougher introduction to the professional ranks than in 2020 as teams overcome the hurdles posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Nevertheless, this year’s NFL Draft delivered some of the most gifted college football stars in recent years, whether the loaded wide receiver class, a stacked offensive tackle group or the rising franchise quarterbacks.

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Who will rise to the occasion? Who will emerge as a surprise asset? Who might prove a draft steal?

We have picked out some of the first-year players to keep an eye on throughout the 2020 season…

Jalen Reagor (WR, Philadelphia Eagles) and Justin Jefferson (WR, Minnesota Vikings)

Both of these first-round wide receivers – selected back-to-back at 21 and 22 – have big roles to fill in 2020, and there will be a lot of pressure on their shoulders. Their careers will forever be compared after Eagles fans expected their team to take Jefferson, only for the Vikings to be pleasantly surprised with his fall.

In Philadelphia, wide receiver play was absent last season and they are in dire need of help. They ended the season with Greg Ward and Deontay Burnett on the outside, and this year Reagor is likely the top outside option with DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery contributing on the rare occasions they make the field. Philly’s top pick could be in for a big year.

Similarly, expect Jefferson to step right in and contribute. Stefon Diggs leaves behind 94 targets (which led the team) from last season after he was traded to Buffalo, and Jefferson has the talent and slot-receiver savvy to replace Olabisi Johnson or Tajae Sharpe with ease.

Tristan Wirfs (OT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

In your first NFL season, you are drafted in to protect a newly-acquired, Hall of Fame quarterback in Tom Brady as he begins a new era in Tampa Bay. How about that for a first-year assignment?

According to Football Outsiders, the Buccaneers ranked 23rd in the NFL in Adjusted Line Yards and 22nd in Adjusted Sack Rate in 2019. Jameis Winston was sacked 47 times, just once behind joint leaders Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray.

Brady is clearly better at avoiding pressure than Winston, but his New England line ranked fifth in Adjusted Sack Rate last year and first in 2018. Will his new big boys upfront be able to take care of the 42-year-old?

Wirfs is slated to come in and start immediately at right tackle and will need to gain his quarterback’s trust right away.

Javon Kinlaw (DT, San Francisco 49ers)

If we are talking high expectations, Kinlaw certainly has those in San Francisco. The 49ers had a ferocious, swarming defense on their way to an NFC Championship and Super Bowl berth last year – and at the heart of it was 2016 first-round pick DeForest Buckner.

Instead of locking him up to a long-term deal, San Francisco elected to trade Buckner to the Colts and subsequently select Kinlaw with the 14th overall pick they received in the deal.

The good news for Kinlaw? He lines up next to three first-round picks in Nick Bosa, Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead. The bad? Opponents are likely to put the rookie under as much pressure as possible right from the off. He could be in for a lot of work.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB, Kansas City Chiefs)

This selection was what we call a luxury pick. Patrick Mahomes and his offense scored 117 points over three games during their Super Bowl-winning postseason run and now, they’ve added arguably the top running back in the 2020 Draft.

Without any major need, Kansas City had their options open before taking ‘CEH’ but rather than sharing the backfield as we initially thought he might, he looks set for a ‘do-it-all’ role after last year’s starter Damien Williams opted out of the season.

Going to the best offense in the league and arguably the most running back-friendly coach in Andy Reid – who has helped many backs thrive including Kareem Hunt, Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy and Brian Westbrook – Edwards-Helaire is likely to contend for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Andrew Thomas (OT, New York Giants)

Any questions over where Thomas would line up for the Giants in 2020 were seemingly answered last month when veteran left tackle Nate Solder opted out amid the coronvirus pandemic.

That slot looks set to be occupied by the No 4 overall pick, who general manager Dave Gettleman turned to as a long-term solution to the Giants’ offensive line woes.

Thomas arrives as not only blind-side protection for second-year quarterback Daniel Jones, but also a potential battering ram ahead of running back Saquon Barkley as he seeks a return to top form having been slowed by injuries in 2019.

The 2019 unanimous All-American helped control the line of scrimmage ahead of rookie Detroit Lions running back D’Andre Swift as he rushed for 1,218 yards and seven touchdowns.

Thomas’ transition to pro football will come with some gruelling early tests as he comes up against talented pass rush units from the Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers over the first three weeks. Cameron Heyward, Khalil Mack, Nick Bosa.

J.K. Dobbins (RB, Baltimore Ravens)

In one of the least talked about picks of the Draft, the Ravens went and nabbed Ohio State running back Dobbins in the second round to bolster their already well-staffed rushing attack.

To put it into perspective, Dobbins, third in the nation with 1,829 rushing yards for 20 touchdowns last year, will accompany Lamar Jackson after he set an NFL record for most rushing yards from a quarterback in a single season with 1,206.

His introduction turns Greg Roman’s offense into an even bigger nightmare for opposition defenses, particularly with Mark Ingram having proved into 2019 he remains a valuable commodity.

The attention Dobbins demands out of the backfield could meanwhile be key in assisting Jackson as he continues to develop as a passer.

K.J. Hamler (WR, Denver Broncos)

Jerry Jeudy has dominated the receiver talk in Denver since being drafted at 15th overall out of Alabama, but what about the other guy?

The Broncos lavished quarterback Drew Lock with presents back in April, including Penn State wideout Hamler in the second round.

Hamler led his team with 56 catches for 904 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019, catching the eye as an explosive playmaker in the process.

The interest lies in how he might be utilised in Mile High within a receiver unit likely to be led by Courtland Sutton and Jeudy. It sure can’t hurt to have another trick up the sleeve, which is what he might turn out to be.

Josh Uche (OLB, New England Patriots)

For Bill Belichick’s ability to extract the best from his players, it’s always worth keeping tabs on what the New England Patriots get up to in the Draft.

The Patriot will be without Dont’a Hightower in 2020 after the veteran linebacker decided to opt out following the recent birth of his son. Hightower has won three Super Bowls with the Patriots and established himself as a leader on defense.

His absence adds to the departure of fellow veteran linebackers Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy, both of whom signed for the Lions in the offseason.

The loss of all three paves the way for Josh Uche to have an immediate impact after the Michigan product was drafted at 60th overall in the second round.

Uche produced 35 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 8.5 sacks and one fumble recovery for the Wolverines in 2019.

Isaiah Simmons (LB, Arizona Cardinals)

Ask every NFL defensive coordinator who they would have selected were they calling the shots in April and there’s a good chance most would have answered with Isaiah Simmons.

The No 8 overall pick out of Clemson lands with a reputation as one of the most versatile defensive assets in the nation having taken snaps at linebacker, defensive end, cornerback and safety at college.

In 2019 he racked up 104 tackles, seven sacks, eight passes defended and three interceptions to help his team reach the College National Championship game.

Simmons is perhaps a sign of what is to come in the NFL over the years in regards to a rise in hybrid defenders.

It may actually prove a challenge working out how best to exploit Simmons’ qualities, but you can be sure Vance Joseph is itching to get started with him.

The first-round quarterbacks

Last, but not least, we would be remiss for missing the most important pieces of the draft puzzle. The four QBs selected in round one – Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert in the top six, and Jordan Love at 26th overall – will all play a part this season, even if it is not on the field.

Burrow is entrenched as the Week One starter in Cincinnati. Can he begin to turnaround the Bengals and help them compete again?

Similarly, while Ryan Fitzpatrick will attempt to continue to create magic as the QB1 in Miami, if Tagovailoa is healthy, surely he has the talent to play straight away? If he doesn’t kick off the season leading the team, it might not take long.

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