With the entire NFL preseason wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic, first-year players didn't get any real, live game action until Week 1 of the regular season. So, which newbies made the best first impressions? In this week's Position Power Rankings, Nick Shook spotlights the top 10 rookie debuts.
WEEK 1 STATS: 25 carries, 138 yards, 1 TD, +38 RYOE.
Edwards-Helaire brought with him a worthy amount of hype so strong that it saw him selected in the first round of many fantasy drafts. While others scoffed, those risk-taking owners were immediately rewarded when CEH exploded for 138 rushing yards in the 2020 Kickoff Game. Kansas City was rewarded, too, watching its first-round pick exceed the standard by rushing for 38 yards over expectation. It's been a couple of years since Kareem Hunt was lighting it up in Kansas City, but Edwards-Helaire provided his best Hunt impression, gaining the most rushing yards in an NFL debut since Hunt went for 148 in Week 1 of 2017. Edwards-Helaire was also the first player with 100-plus rushing yards and one or more rushing touchdowns in his NFL debut since Saquon Barkley's 2018 debut against Jacksonville.
CEH's first game was more than a huge gust of fresh air to Chiefs fans, who grew accustomed to a no-name backfield committee in 2019. Last season in Kansas City, the starting running backs averaged a grand total of nine carries per game for 38.2 yards and less than half of a touchdown. Simply put, Kansas City's running game wasn't a threat. Thanks to the No. 32 overall pick from April, that is no longer the case. And even if defenses try to train their focus on stopping him, they'll fall short:
WEEK 1 STATS: 4 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble.
Taken second behind quarterback Joe Burrow, Young was viewed by many draft analysts -- including our own Daniel Jeremiah -- as the top overall prospect in the 2020 class. And considering the game-wrecking freak was selected by a Washington team already stocked with talent on the defensive front, the hype only increased. Still, the rookie -- and his D-line cohorts -- more than lived up to the billing in a shocking upset of Philadelphia.
Young wreaked havoc to the tune of 1.5 sacks as part of a defensive front that now features five first-round picks. Oh, and each of these five 1s logged at least a half-sack in the opener -- a first in NFL history. Washington pressured Philadelphia on 34 percent of dropbacks (17 out of 50), with four of those pressures coming from Young for a pressure rate of 11.4 percent. His disruption rate was identical, and with the league's best disruptors landing between 14 and 19 percent in 2019, Young wasn't far off in his first game. The rookie played less than 80 percent of defensive snaps, but he sure made his mark in Week 1.
WEEK 1 STATS: 3 tackles, 2 passes defended, 1 interception.
Here's our first unheralded choice. Sneed was thrust into action in Week 1 when Charvarius Ward fractured his hand, and the rookie delivered, recording an interception of an errant pass disrupted by safety Tyrann Mathieu.
Sneed is the first Chiefs player with an interception in his first career game since Marcus Peters did so in Week 1 of 2015, also vs the Texans. (Peters went on to tie for the NFL lead with eight interceptions that season.) The average separation between Sneed and his nearest target last Thursday was a measly 1.3 yards, per Next Gen Stats, meaning Sneed was blanketing pass catchers. Sneed also played the most coverage snaps on his team, allowing just two receptions on seven targets for a quarterback rating of 39.6 and a catch percentage that was -18.5 percent below expectation.
Following Kendall Fuller's offseason departure for Washington and Bashaud Breeland's four-game suspension to start the 2020 season, the Chiefs really couldn't afford another loss in their secondary. Or at least it seemed that way. But when Ward went out, Sneed answered the bell -- and might have earned himself a legitimate role after only one week.
WEEK 1 STATS: 5 tackles, 3 passes defended, 1 interception.
Henderson was strong in his rookie debut, as evidenced by his three passes defended. We can't stop there, though -- not in 2020, with all of this information available to us.
Next Gen Stats paints a picture of a corner who got off to a better start than most of his strongest cheerleaders probably even realize. Henderson was targeted a team-high 11 times and allowed just five receptions for 58 yards. He picked off Philip Rivers once, while also allowing a -4.3 catch percentage below expectation and forcing tight windows on 54.5 percent of targets. Henderson became the sixth Jaguars player with an interception in his first career game, and first in over a decade (Derek Cox, 2009).
That's far from all. Indianapolis clearly intended to go after the rookie from the outset, targeting him 11 times. Henderson didn't back down, though, allowing an average of just 2 yards of separation per target, according to NGS. He was lively on said targets, too, posting a ballhawk rate -- plays in which Henderson recorded a pass defense or interception -- of 27.3 percent, which was the most (by a wide margin) among defenders targeted 10 or more times in Week 1.
Throwing the rookie's way simply wasn't ideal for the Colts. Future opponents, take note.
WEEK 1 STATS: 3 receptions (4 targets), 37 yards, 1 touchdown.
We're picking two Jaguars?! No, in fact, we're picking THREE Jaguars! But before we get to No. 3 of Duval's finest, let's take a moment to acknowledge the contributions of Shenault, the former Colorado star.
Shenault became the fifth Jaguars receiver with a receiving touchdown in his first career game, and the first in five years (Rashad Greene, 2015). On passes headed for Shenault, Gardner Minshew owned a passer rating of 142.7. Shenault enjoyed this success while being pressed on more than a quarter of routes run, and posted a catch rate over expectation of +4.5 percent on limited targets.
The second-round pick is joining a receiving corps that also includes youngster D.J. Chark and Keelan Cole, among other playmakers. He fit right in on Sunday.
WEEK 1 STATS: 12 carries, 60 yards, 1 touchdown.
Who needs Melvin Gordon when you have Austin Ekeler and Joshua Kelley involved? The former UCLA runner stepped right into a significant role as a rookie, toting the rock a dozen times and setting a very solid yards-per-carry mark of 5.0. Kelley's touchdown was just the cherry on top of a tasty debut.
Kelley's 60 yards aren't remarkable on their own, but Next Gen Stats tells us he was only expected to rush for 40. The other 20 were of his own doing, producing a per-attempt mark in rush yards over expectation of 1.67. That was the fourth-best figure in the entire NFL among ball carriers with 10 or more attempts, which really makes his debut remarkable, even if it didn't include a huge yardage total.
WEEK 1 STATS: five catches (six targets), 59 yards (long of 33).
Lamb efficiently cracked 50 yards while playing in a receiving corps that also includes Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, making his money between the seams, with all six of his targets coming in that narrow strip of turf, per Next Gen Stats. On those six targets (five of which produced catches), Lamb averaged 3.4 yards of separation, per NGS, spawning open or wide-open opportunities on half of those targets. He posted a catch rate over expectation of +12.7 percent, doing more than the average pass catcher on his very first Sunday in the NFL, and helping Dak Prescott produce a passer rating of 107.2 on these targets.
Dallas didn't get the win, which was understandably a bummer for Cowboys fans everywhere, but Lamb's early activity bodes well for the future of this loaded offense.
WEEK 1 STATS: 9 carries, 22 yards; 6 catches (6 targets), 67 yards.
No one wanted it to happen this way, but here we are after one week.
The Colts drafted Taylor to add to their backfield, but also to protect against losing Marlon Mack, which had a negative effect on their playoff hopes last season. Mack's exit on Sunday due to an Achilles tear accelerated whatever process Indianapolis had in place to acclimate the rookie, and while he didn't run roughshod over Jacksonville in the tight loss, he demonstrated some surprising versatility.
Taylor gained 67 receiving yards, bringing his all-purpose total to 89 for the day and offering unexpected encouragement for involving him in the passing game more. He wasn't much of a threat in the air attack at Wisconsin -- just 407 of Taylor's 6,581 all-purpose yards as a Badger came in the passing game -- but he might have found himself a new skill in Indianapolis.
WEEK 1 STATS: 16 carries, 62 yards; 1 reception (1 target) for 28 yards.
We go from second-round RB thrust into a bigger role to undrafted signee with immediate bell-cow responsibilities. After jettisoning Leonard Fournette out of Duval County, the Jaguars turned to a name few had heard of in Robinson, and they did so with meaningful intent.
No back other than Robinson carried the ball even once for Jacksonville, and the Illinois State product finished with 90 scrimmage yards in the Jaguars' stunning win over the heavily favored Colts. We're not saying this is going to become a regular thing, but for one wacky Sunday, it was fun.
WEEK 1 STATS: four receptions (eight targets), 56 yards.
Jeudy spent much of the aftermath of Monday's heartbreaking loss lamenting his dropped pass that might have cost the Broncos a game-sealing touchdown, but the rookie shouldn't dwell too long. Jeudy is a key piece of the Broncos' future, and while his key teammates attempt to return from individual injuries, Jeudy is going to get more than a few chances to prove he's worthy of the big stage and first-round draft slot.
Jeudy's four catches for 56 yards came as a result of being targeted at least once in each of Monday night's four quarters. The rookie found opportunities by creating space, averaging nearly 5 yards of separation (4.8) when targeted, leading to open or wide-open targets 62.5 percent of the time.
The rookie will have to improve on his inconsistent hands. Jeudy led all Broncos receivers in receiving yards Monday night, but also had two drops, a development indicative of a problem he struggled with while at Alabama.