Projecting what the future holds for the league's current crop of rookies seems as difficult a task as ever in the midst of the most unusual offseason. We're not about to quit ranking things on this website, though. This task is sure to come with its share of whiffs (no one was projecting Gardner Minshew to be one of 2019's top rookie QBs a year ago). Indeed, appearances in May are often exposed as ill-conceived thought experiments by September, but before I try to rid myself of all accountability for the curation of this list, here's my ranking of the rookies who seem to be in the best position to succeed in Year 1.
Don't sleep on 'em
25) Jaylon Johnson, CB, Chicago Bears: Artie Burns and Kevin Toliver are the other options to start opposite Kyle Fuller. In other words, the Bears need Johnson to step up and win that job. The good news is he's up to the task. Perhaps his history of shoulder surgeries -- the most recent one coming in March -- scared some teams off and explains why he was available late in Round 2 (50th overall) after many had him pegged as a first-round pick. Regardless, it's a great value for a Chicago secondary that gets a feisty corner with the toughness, strength and instincts the team covets. Bears fans shouldn't have to worry about whether Johnson can defend the island, as the former Ute has shown he can more than hold his own in single coverage over the past couple seasons, recording the FBS' fifth-best passer rating when targeted (51.4) and the second-best explosive play rate allowed (10.9%), per Pro Football Focus.
24) Cesar Ruiz, OG, New Orleans Saints: The Saints feel so good about their first-round pick (24th overall) that they recently released Larry Warford, a 28-year-old starting guard who made the Pro Bowl each of the last three seasons. Sean Payton doesn't make a move like that unless he's extremely confident he's not hurting the protection for his 41-year-old QB1. Erik McCoy was a rookie who slid into a starting spot on the Saints' interior O-line with aplomb last year, and Ruiz could follow suit for a team that expects to contend for the Super Bowl once again thanks, in part, to a front five that's long been one of the league's best.
23) Jalen Reagor, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: Reagor is that speedy deep threat the Eagles sorely lacked last season after DeSean Jackson was lost to injury. Now he gets to team with DJax to take the top off of defenses every week. We can identify with the folks who were stunned to see Reagor drafted before Justin Jefferson (who's ranked quite a bit higher than Reagor on this list) but, hey, Philly's first-rounder can do some serious damage, too! We're expecting fireworks when Carson Wentz connects with this blazer.
22) Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams: Akers, a second-round pick (52nd overall), has a very good shot of becoming the clear RB1 of an NFL team in his first season, which gives him a significant leg up on a lot of his competition for a spot on this list. He can play on every down and, by all accounts, is an excellent fit for Sean McVay's zone-heavy scheme. He'd probably be ranked higher if the Rams didn't happen to be a team that failed to make any significant upgrades to the offensive line after having one of the worst run-blocking units in the league last season.
21) Xavier McKinney, S, New York Giants: It's been a while since the Giants' defense wasn't ranked toward the bottom of the NFL, but here's some reason for hope. Big Blue landed the top safety in the draft in Round 2, giving its young secondary a do-it-all guy who should be ready to play from Day 1. And you don't have to take our word for it. Listen to McKinney's college coach, a man named Nick Saban, who once had Giants coach Joe Judge on his staff. "I think it'll be helpful to him because we do -- when I was coach at the Dolphins or Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator in Cleveland -- we do a lot of the same stuff here from a coverage standpoint, from a secondary standpoint," he told the Giants' website. "So our guys typically make good adjustments. I know a few years ago we had six guys sign NFL contracts and five of them ended up starting as rookies. Even though this will be a transition, I think most of the things that 'X' is going to be exposed to, he's probably done. They might call it something different. I think it'll be an easy transition for him." ... Easy?! Sounds good to us!
20) Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts: This big (6-foot-4, 223 pounds) former Trojan has a shot to step right in, immediately remind his veteran QB of a favorite target from a former life and become a go-to guy, particularly in the red zone, on a team with legit Super Bowl aspirations. Colts GM Chris Ballard has likened Pittman to Vincent Jackson, the former receiver who had three 1,000-yard seasons during his time with Colts QB Philip Rivers (still sounds weird to say) when they played for the Chargers. There's the potential for Pittman to lose reps to Zach Pascal, who's coming off a quietly solid second season, but the rookie's size, toughness and ball skills gives him the edge.
19) D'Andre Swift, RB, Detroit Lions: We're hedging here, mainly because of Kerryon Johnson, a 2018 second-round pick who isn't headed for the dust bin despite Swift's exciting arrival. Johnson showed promise early on as a rookie in 2018, but his injury woes have limited him to only one 100-yard game since October of that year. Swift can kick this offense up a notch as a rusher and receiver. Plus, we can't erase this piece of analysis from NFL Network draft expert Daniel Jeremiah from memory: "Swift has a similar skill set to Josh Jacobs, and I expect comparable results at the next level." If Swift produces like Jacobs did as a rookie, we will have vastly underrated him on this list.
18) J.K. Dobbins, RB, Baltimore Ravens: Dobbins' inclusion on the list might raise some eyebrows considering the Ravens still have Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, Justice Hill and Lamar Jackson to split carries between. Then again, Baltimore wants to run the ball down people's throats. There's going to be a significant workload for the former Buckeye, and no one should be surprised if he becomes the reigning AFC North champs' most effective back in 2020 with Ingram entering his age-30 season. He's the perfect grind-it-out runner for this offense.
Big opportunity, big payoff?
17) Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers: Disclaimer: Herbert might not play at all in 2020 if Tyrod Taylor takes the job and runs with it. That's a big if, though. The 10th-year veteran was in a similar situation a couple years ago before being replaced by Baker Mayfield a few weeks into the season. Herbert has to rip the Band-Aid off and become more comfortable attacking defenses if he's going to unlock his potential, but he's certainly walking into an enviable situation, with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Hunter Henry and Austin Ekeler waiting to catch passes from him. Combine that with the importance of the position he plays, and there's enough potential here for the sixth overall pick to earn a spot on this list, even though that offensive line still gives us pause.
16) Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers: Aiyuk's not the most polished route runner, but John Lynch didn't trade up for this fella in Round 1 to sit him on the bench. On the heels of Deebo Samuel's success as a rookie in the Niners' offense, Aiyuk is next in line as another YAC demon who'll make Kyle Shanahan's heart sing. The former Sun Devil averaged 10.9 yards after the catch in 2019, according to PFF. To put that in context, the Power Five average was 5.5! He has the toughness and explosiveness to thrive in San Francisco.
15) Derrick Brown, DT, Carolina Panthers: We're not super enthused about the Panthers' chances to make noise in 2020, given that they're rebuilding on defense and playing in a pretty well-stacked division. Brown might not rack up the sack numbers he probably needs to put himself in the DROY conversation. That's never been his jam, though (12.5 in four seasons at Auburn). So what's he doing on this list? Well, because the man causes problems at the point of attack. He's at the center of Matt Rhule's plan to fix a defense that was gashed for a league-worst 5.2 yards per carry in 2019. The first-year coach found a guy with the potential to dominate with the seventh overall pick.
14) Javon Kinlaw, DT, San Francisco 49ers: The Niners traded Pro Bowl DT DeForest Buckner away and will replace him by plugging in one of the draft's most dominant defenders to one of the league's most talented defensive lines. Is this fair? No! But it happened. Playing alongside Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford, Kinlaw should see plenty of favorable matchups inside and with further development of his pass-rush moves, he should take full advantage of them. If you don't think this 6-5, 324-pound hulk is going to have Robert Saleh losing his mind with glee, you're kidding yourself.
13) Jedrick Wills, OT, Cleveland Browns: No, we didn't get forget about the offensive tackles. Wills was the second of four OTs that came off the board within the draft's first 13 picks, but of that top tier at the position, we like the Browns rookie's Year 1 situation the best, by far. Look no further than the man who'll be playing next to him for a key reason we're so confident in the youngster, who'll transition from protecting lefty Tua Tagovailoa's blindside at right tackle to securing the edge for Baker Mayfield on the left side. Left guard Joel Bitonio was selected to each of the last two Pro Bowls and can help smooth his new teammate's adjustment. Plus, Wills can also count on help from two other fellow O-linemen who also happen to be among the best at their respective positions: center JC Tretter and right tackle Jack Conklin. The draft's 10th overall pick is drawing comps to nine-time Pro Bowl OT Jason Peters for good reason.
12) Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings: Here comes the receiver run portion of this list! Will the Stefon Diggs replacement be more productive in 2020 than Diggs was in 2019 (63-1,130-6)? Won't be easy, of course, but I'm not going to rule it out for a guy who has proven he can produce at absurd levels (18 TD catches in 15 games last season!). Jefferson could quickly become Kirk Cousins' best friend if he proves he can consistently run crips routes. Why? Well, 82.8 percent of passes that came Jefferson's way in 2019 were completed, which was the highest rate in college football, per PFF. He can go up and get it.
Greatness within reach
11) Jerry Jeudy, WR, Denver Broncos: There wasn't a better route runner in the draft, but we're a little lower on Year 1 Jeudy than his fellow Tier 1 rookie receivers because of his QB situation (Drew Lock, with five career starts, has plenty to prove before it's a certainty that Denver's offense is ready to take flight), in addition to the fact that he has to share the ball with Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant and KJ Hamler, among others. That said, no one should be surprised if a guy who scored 26 touchdowns in his last 28 college games is quickly producing at a high rate for a team that's trying to match the explosiveness of the rival Chiefs.
10) Henry Ruggs III, WR, Las Vegas Raiders: Ruggs is another clear case of a player whose impact can't simply be measured by his stat line. He's going to create more room for his teammates to make plays just by taking the field, as defenses have to respect his blazing 4.27 speed. Las Vegas' receiving corps was a horror show that not even Chucky wanted to watch last season, but Ruggs adds a dose of explosiveness that Derek Carr and Co. sorely needed. The fit here seems near perfect, although it might take a little time for the rookie to clean up his release against press coverage.
9) CeeDee Lamb, WR, Dallas Cowboys: Lamb leads a much-ballyhooed group of receivers on this list for a combination of reasons, but the best thing he has going for him (aside from his talent) is the situation he enters. Dallas had the No. 1 pass offense in the league last season, and while there are mouths to feed in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, there still should be plenty of opportunities for the rookie to catch passes from two-time Pro Bowl QB Dak Prescott. Randall Cobb and Jason Witten departed this offseason, and they accounted for 166 targets last season, per Pro Football Reference. That's nearly 30 percent of the team's targets that need to be filled by someone. Enter Lamb, who averaged an eye-popping 21.4 yards per catch (most of any FBS receiver with more than 30 receptions) for the Sooners last season.
8) Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts: The only thing standing in the way of a monster debut season for Taylor is fellow Colts RB Marlon Mack, who can attest to the benefits of running behind one of the league's best offensive lines after recording his first 1,000-yard season in 2019. The tooth-rattling power of road grader Quenton Nelson and Taylor put together could make for fun viewing in Indy. Colts OC Nick Sirianni is calling Mack and Taylor a "1-1 punch" instead of a 1-2 punch, presumably to give both a confidence boost, but c'mon. Chris Ballard traded up to land Taylor in Round 2. Now let the beast eat.
7) Patrick Queen, LB, Baltimore Ravens: Somehow, the rest of the NFL let Queen fall to the Ravens with the 28th pick in Round 1, and now those teams must pay the price. Baltimore filled its biggest need with a spark plug for the second level of the defense, a player with the instincts and athleticism to start from Day 1. It's not yet clear whether he'll play on the weak side or in the middle, but I'm not sure it matters much. Queen has a good defensive line in front of him, the burst to close running lanes in a hurry and is smooth dropping into coverage, too. DC Don "Wink" Martindale had to be smiling when Baltimore made this pick.
6) Jeff Okudah, CB, Detroit Lions: His production totals might not end up jumping off the page in his rookie campaign, just like they didn't during his Ohio State career (three interceptions, 18 passes defensed in three seasons). Those numbers are an indication of how badly quarterbacks wanted to avoid throwing at him. He has all the tools to become a shutdown corner at the next level, and a defensive-minded head coach like Matt Patricia should be able to get the most out the draft's third overall pick in his man-coverage-heavy scheme.
Top contenders for ROY honors
5) Isaiah Simmons, LB, Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals are planning to play the draft's most versatile defender at linebacker "the majority of the time," according to head coach Kliff Kingsbury. That still leaves the door open for him to move around a bit, whether they're using him as a blitzer, in coverage or as a spy against dual-threat QBs. If Arizona sticks to that script, it's not hard to envision this rare, hybrid talent taking the NFL stage and becoming an immediate terror.
4) Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins: And now we arrive at the first rookie that we considered leaving off this list. The reports on Tua's recovery from hip surgery have been glowing all offseason, but the health concerns and uncertainty about when he'll get a chance to relieve Ryan Fitzpatrick of his starting duties made us question whether the former Alabama star really belonged in these rankings, despite the declarations that he's a left-handed Drew Brees. Ultimately, the potential is too great to ignore, even with an offensive line that leaves plenty to be desired. Miami hired a coordinator (Chan Gailey) who can design a spread offense that will play to Tagovailoa's strengths and the skill-position talent has a chance to be much better than folks expect.
3) Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: The fit seems too good to be true. A three-down weapon provides a havoc-wreaking offense with one of the few pieces it still needed? That'll play. Think of the one-on-one matchups against linebackers that Andy Reid will be able to exploit with this dynamo catching passes out of the backfield. Patrick Mahomes got exactly what he wanted, which is bad news for the rest of the league. Damien Williams, coming off a 133-yard, two-TD performance in the Super Bowl, has earned a role in the backfield, but Reid has said Edwards-Helaire is better than his star all-purpose back from his Eagles days, Brian Westbrook. If that's true, it would be malpractice for him to not give CEH the bulk of the workload.
2) Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals: Do I have concerns about that Cincy O-line? You bet. Keep this in mind about Joe, though: He was the best FBS QB under pressure last season, per PFF, and led the nation with 17 touchdown passes in those situations (no one else had more than 10). The Bengals' skill-position talent is highly underrated, with A.J. Green, Joe Mixon, Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, Auden Tate and John Ross in tow. The arrival of the first overall pick, who's coming off what was probably the best season ever by a college quarterback, gives Zac Taylor a chance for a smooth recovery after a turbulent first ride as a head coach.
1) Chase Young, DE, Washington Redskins: Widely considered the best player in the draft, Young joins a defensive line that was already loaded with former first-round picks in Jonathan Allen, Ryan Kerrigan, Daron Payne and Montez Sweat. That talent is going to create opportunities for him and vice versa. NFL Network draft guru Daniel Jeremiah has likened the 6-5, 264-pound freak off the edge to Julius Peppers and Mario Williams. Enough said.