This NFL season started like no other. The coronavirus pandemic necessitated a virtual offseason, and there were no preseason games to develop chemistry or help first-year players navigate the leap from college to the pros. Yet these hurdles have not stopped the 2020 rookie class, especially the skill players, from making a huge impact.
This draft class is producing nine more points per 100 opportunities with the football (pass attempts, rushes and targets) than expected after accounting for the down, distance and field position of each play, per data from TruMedia. That equates to an extra 10 points per game, collectively, over a 16-game season.
Only three draft classes — 2006, 2007 and 2008 — have overachieved more than this one at the same point of the season. Some notable names from those drafts include Adrian Peterson (a former league MVP and offensive player of the year), Calvin Johnson (a six-time Pro Bowl pick and a three-time all-pro) and Matt Ryan (a former offensive rookie of the year, MVP and offensive player of the year), not to mention Joe Flacco (who won Super Bowl XLVII), Marshawn Lynch, DeSean Jackson and Jordy Nelson.
The early marks are so impressive, in fact, history shows there are likely to be a number of future all-pros and Hall of Famers in this class. Looking back at the 2006, 2007 and 2008 classes shows us the quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends who stood out as rookies got even better over the next few years.
For example, the quarterbacks of the 2006 class as a group scored six points fewer than what we would expect at the position as a whole. That doesn’t sound impressive on first glance, but that performance is much better than you would expect from an average rookie quarterback during his first season. In their second season, those quarterbacks took off, posting six points more than expected, and they increased again the next year to 16 points more than expected. The quarterback class of 2008 saw its average expected points rise from 10 in its first season to 12 in the second to 16 in the third.
While you expect players to improve year-over-year, that’s not always a given when you look at an entire position group from a draft class. To put that in perspective, the 2017 quarterback class — which includes reigning MVP Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield — averaged 19 points fewer than expected in its rookie year. That class is averaging six points more than expected in its third season, making those players below-average producers per this metric. In other words, they’re still good quarterbacks; they’re just not seeing their production take off like those from the 2006 and 2008 classes, who started their careers at a higher level.
Likewise, this year’s rookie quarterbacks show signs of a promising future. Joe Burrow (the No. 1 pick) and Justin Herbert (No. 6) are the front-runners to win the offensive rookie of the year award. Burrow, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner at LSU, has completed 65 percent of his passes for 2,485 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions for the Cincinnati Bengals. Herbert has completed 67 percent of his passes for 2,333 yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions for the Los Angeles Chargers, and he has added three rushing touchdowns. Also making a splash is Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa. The former Alabama star’s past two games for the Dolphins were solid: He completed 35 of 53 passes for 417 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
As a class — which also includes Ben DiNucci (Dallas Cowboys), Jake Luton (Jacksonville Jaguars) and Jalen Hurts (Philadelphia Eagles) — this year’s rookie quarterbacks are scoring almost three more points per game than expected. If it holds, that would be the best per-game rate since 2002, the year the league expanded to 32 teams.
Best QB draft class
EPA per game
2020 (through 10 weeks)
Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota
Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco
Andrew Luck, Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson and Ryan Tannehill
Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott and Jared Goff
Rookie wide receivers have also excelled. Justin Jefferson (Minnesota Vikings) is on pace for more than 1,200 yards and is averaging 3.1 yards per route run, the most among wideouts in the league. Burrow and Tee Higgins have improved their chemistry each week and have connected on 40 of 61 targets for 603 yards and four touchdowns. Chase Claypool (Pittsburgh Steelers) has produced a league-high 140.7 passer rating with Ben Roethlisberger; Claypool also has two rushing touchdowns. Brandon Aiyuk (San Francisco 49ers) has established himself as a key cog in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, accounting for a team-high 22 percent of red-zone targets with a whopping 36 percent of targets within five yards of the end zone.
CeeDee Lamb (Cowboys) has declined since Dak Prescott’s injury yet still manages 1.9 yards per route run from the slot, the fourth most among wideouts lining up inside. His nine catches on deep throws (20 yards or more in the air) are tied for the most among all receivers with Jefferson and DK Metcalf. Darnell Mooney of the Chicago Bears is one of three rookies without a dropped pass. And Jerry Jeudy of the Denver Broncos has rebounded from three unfortunate drops in the first two weeks to lead his team in receiving yards (552). Tight end Harrison Bryant (Cleveland Browns) has contributed, too: In nine games, he has three touchdowns and almost six yards per reception after the catch.
This season’s first-year running backs aren’t adding to their teams’ scoring boom like the other positions, but they also aren’t holding them back as much as rookie running backs usually do. For example, this year’s class is scoring six points less per 100 opportunities with the football (rushes plus targets) after accounting for the down, distance and field position of each play. By comparison, rookie running backs cost their teams 11 points per 100 opportunities in 2019.
Looked at another way, there are three rookie running backs — D’Andre Swift (Detroit Lions), J.K. Dobbins (Baltimore Ravens) and Jonathan Taylor (Indianapolis Colts) — who have had a positive impact in terms of expected points added in at least 50 opportunities with the football. There were none last year. The top rookie running backs per expected points added from previous draft classes include Clinton Portis (2002), Lamar Miller (2012), David Johnson (2015), Ezekiel Elliott (2016) and Alvin Kamara (2017). Swift leads all running backs in 2020 with eight expected points added after tallying 606 yards from scrimmage with six total touchdowns in the first 10 weeks.
Just because they aren’t adding value via EPA doesn’t mean other rookie running backs aren’t contributing. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is accounting for 61 percent of Kansas City’s rushes on first and second down plus 54 percent of the carries in the red zone. Zack Moss has his name called on a third of Buffalo’s carries in the red zone. Washington’s Antonio Gibson is handling 54 percent of the early-down work and gets a third of the opportunities (rushes plus targets) inside the 5-yard line.
It’s hard to tell which players from this year’s rookie class will be future all-pros, but if history is any guide, we are seeing stars in the making, especially under center.
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