The first year in the NFL is often challenging for rookies. After dominating high school and college opponents for years, it takes time to adjust to the NFL’s level of speed and execution. It will be even more difficult for the 2020 NFL Draft class, given the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out minicamp and could limit training camp.
Given how talented this year’s rookie class is, we expect many of them to handle it well. In fact, a few of them will even become Pro Bowlers early in their careers. The spotlight will also be on the first-round picks, but we’ve got our eye on some other talents who will make an impact quickly in the NFL.
Let’s take a look at five rookies who will surprise during the 2020 NFL season.
Laviska Shenault Jr, wide receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars will likely be rebuilding this season, which is understandable given all the holes on their roster. A defense that will go through a lot of growing pains and an offense that will need to prove itself to stay around, it all creates the perfect situation for a rookie receiver. While opponents focus their coverage on DJ Chark Jr and Dede Westbrook, Shenault will be moving all around the field and proving why he could be a draft-day steal.
Shenault struggled at the NFL Combine, then underwent core muscle surgery. It explained his poor performance, but also solidified durability questions that pushed him out of the first round. When he is healthy, though, few athletes can match his game-changing ability. In 2018 when he stayed healthy, Shenault recorded 1,011 receiving yards, 115 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns. He is an offensive weapon that can be lined up anywhere and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden will take advantage. We expect Gardner Minshew to quickly fall in love with Shenault’s skills and pepper him with targets that lead to big plays.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, running back, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers surprised plenty of people when they waited until the third round to take a running back. However, the organization loved Vaughn and it’s frankly hard to blame them. He showed excellent vision and some wiggle during consecutive 1,000-yard seasons at Vanderbilt. Even more importantly for his NFL future, he showed tremendous growth with his receiving skills out of the backfield. He would need the right situation to be successful, but he landed in the perfect spot.
Opposing teams had difficulties stopping Tampa Bay’s offense with Jameis Winston under center. Now that Tom Brady is running things and Rob Gronkowski is in town, this will be one of the league’s best offenses. If Vaughn can beat out Ronald Jones in training camp, the rookie will run behind a great offensive line and have plenty of room to run. Given Brady’s willingness to throw check-down passes to his running back, Vaughn’s potential production becomes even greater. We won’t be shocked if he finishes his rookie season with 1,000-plus scrimmage yards and eight total touchdowns.
Bryan Edwards, wide receiver, Las Vegas Raiders
It’s unusual for a team to spend a first- and third-round pick on wide receivers. The Raiders likely didn’t plan on taking another receiver for awhile after snagging Henry Ruggs, but that all changed in the third round. When general manager Mike Mayock saw Bryan Edwards still on the board, he snagged him with the No. 81 pick.
It’s an easy decision to make given they put a first-round talent grade on Edwards. The 6-foot-3 star at South Carolina had a habit of making one absurd, one-handed grab after another on Saturdays. However, a track record with a concussion and multiple lower-body injuries pushed him down the draft board. Las Vegas took advantage and the 21-year-old receiver is going to reward them for it. Ruggs might be the star of this receiving corps, but Edwards could be great.
Zack Baun, linebacker, New Orleans Saints
The Saints came out of the 2020 NFL Draft with a seriously impressive haul, an accomplishment given their limited draft capital. While the first-round selection of Cesar Ruiz was nice and will benefit the offensive line significantly, Baun could be the best player from this group. Now that he is joining this defense, with some incredible talent at every level, it creates the perfect opportunity for Baun.
Expect Baun to be used in a hybrid role this season by New Orleans. When the Saints need to pressure the quarterback, he’ll bring outstanding burst off the edge and can fight through blocks to collapse the pocket. Baun will also be used at inside linebacker, putting his athleticism and football IQ to help stop the run. He needed to find the right home and a coaching staff that will take advantage of his versatility, that’s what made this pick perfect and why he will thrive.
Antonio Gibson, running back/wide receiver, Washington Redskins
Washington desperately needed more playmakers on offense and Ron Rivera recognized that the moment he walked through the door. After enjoying Christian McCaffrey’s unique abilities for years in Carolina, Rivera might have found a McCaffrey-lite in Antonio Gibson.
Now, no one is saying Gibson will suddenly become an All-Pro running back and flex player. However, as Rivera explained, McCaffrey and Gibson bring similar versatility and tools to the table. Washington will use Gibson, a third-round selection, at running back and wide receiver this season. We should see creativity from offensive coordinator Scott Turner, finding ways to keep putting the ball in Gibson’s hands. If Washington can do that, it will reap the rewards of a player who makes moves like this as a runner, receiver and return man.