With just four weeks of the NFL regular season left to be played, it's the time of the year when award battles heat up and debate is sparked over the best players of the year. One of the tightest award races is the Rookie of the Year. There are always lofty expectations for rookies immediately after the NFL Draft from team draft grades and fans getting a bit too dreamy, NFL rookies have a lot on their plates from the second they enter the league.
Many of the most talented rookies who you'd expect to be competing for Rookie of the Year aren't able to cut it, while most of the guys that end up on this list were dark horse candidates. After the draft, it seems like the league would have expected Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy and CeeDee Lamb to all be listed here, they were the first three receivers taken. Despite having nice seasons, none of those guys made the cut and it has been some of the more subtle playmakers who have risen up the rankings.
This list represents the top rookie players who have not only put up big numbers during their first season in the NFL but have also had moments that make them memorable and stand out from the rest of the pack. Here are our Top 10 Rookie of the Year candidates. For the purposes of this article, we're going to put offense and defense on the same list (we understand the awards are separate).
10. Antoine Winfield Jr. - Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Safety
The Buccaneers rookie was in the spotlight immediately due to his relation to his father, Antoine Winfield Sr. His dad played in the NFL for 14 years and had a notable interception of Tom Brady, his son's teammate, back in the early 2000's. Winfield Jr. is an undersized safety but has shown how aggressive he can be at the top level and why the Bucs drafted him in the second round.
The University of Minnesota prospect received pro comparisons to Tyrann Mathieu and Quandre Diggs. While it may be too early to justify that comparison, he has put up an excellent season for the Bucs. Winfield has 69 combined tackles, a pair of sacks, a forced fumble, and an interception to his name. He was also the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month for September.
Winfield is a fun player to watch as he is quick from sideline to sideline and despite his size can put a massive hit on players. His biggest contribution to the Bucs came during a Monday Night Football game when he broke up a two-point conversion attempt from Daniel Jones to Dion Lewis. Some complained there was pass-interference but it seems that he got to the player at the perfect time and the Bucs went on to win the game. Winfield Jr. is going to be a fun player to watch in Tampa's secondary for a very long time.
9. Chase Claypool - Pittsburgh Steelers - Wide Receiver
There were so many talented wide receivers to be selected in the 2020 NFL Draft that it's beginning to feel like this specific class will represent the NFL at that position for a long time. Claypool was a wide receiver from Notre Dame who went under the radar. He was drafted in the second round of the draft and was entering a lineup that already had JuJu Smith-Schuster and Dionate Johnson. That didn't stop Claypool from having the ultimate coming-out party.
In a game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5, Claypool caught 7 passes for 100 yards and three touchdowns. He added another score on the ground and the Steelers won 38-29 with Claypool scoring 28 of those points. If you didn't know his name before, you did after.
At this point in the season, Claypool has the most touchdowns caught by a rookie with eight and has gone for 649 yards receiving. He can be used on the outside, the slot and in the backfield. It has become evident that Claypool is going to be a fixture week-in and week-out for the Steelers.
8. Clyde Edwards-Helaire - Kansas City Chiefs - Running Back
Not many guys can say they had a better start to 2020 than Cylde Edwards-Helaire. CEH helped the LSU Tigers win a National Championship in January, was drafted as the first overall running back in the 2020 Draft and was selected by the reigning Super Bowl Champions.
Andy Reid said he loved CEH coming out of college and the head coach was looking for another weapon to use on an already potent offense. Reid loves his running backs and he went as far to say that CEH was better than the Eagles-great Brian Westbrook.
"Once we get to a point, I give Coach a couple guys to take a peek on. I told Coach, ?Wait until you finish up your work on Clyde Edwards-Helaire. He's going to remind you of Brian Westbrook.' Coach called me back and said ?He's better than Brian.'
That high praise has been translated onto the field where Edwards-Helaire has rushed for 692 yards and four touchdowns. Had he not missed a game due to sickness, it's likely that he would have rushed for over 1000 yards this season, although there is still a chance of that happening.
7. Julian Blackmon - Indianapolis Colts - Safety
Safeties are popular players on this Top 10 NFL Rookies list and this safety has been one of the most impressive out of all of them. Julian Blackmon was drafted in the third round, behind Winfield Jr., but he has been more impressive up to this point.
There were a lot of red flags that scouts and evaluators had about Blackmon before he ever entered the league, getting comparisons to guys like Terrence Brooks and Eric Murray. While he has made some typical rookie plays, he has already emerged as one of the top defensive players on a talented Colts unit.
Blackmon has been a constant disruptor to receivers with six passes defended, two interceptions and a forced fumble. He came up with a massive fumble in an overtime game against the Green Bay Packers that helped win. Former Rookie of the Year and teammate Darius Leonard is ready to hand Blackmon the award.
"We gotta start giving him some credit. I'm tired of nobody giving him any credit. Anytime we're in a big game, what he do? He steps up. He makes big plays.''
The Colts are one of the best defensive teams in the National Football League and Blackmon has contributed massively to that. While numbers are an important part of any player's season, the ability to step up and play your best with the game on the line separates the average from the great.
6. Antonio Gibson - Washington Football Team - Running Back
From the second that Antonio Gibson entered the NFL, there was quite a bit of hype around him. The Memphis star was immediately compared to the All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey by head coach Ron Rivera who coached McCaffrey for three seasons in Carolina.
"He's a little bit bigger than Christian, but he's got a skill set like Christian.?
That's high praise to immediately receive on Draft Night but Gibson took it and ran with it. He was entering a crowded backfield in Washington that already had future Hall of Fame back Adrian Peterson. That was until the Football Team dropped Peterson in favor of Gibson. Peterson even had great things to say about him on the way out the door.
"Look, Gibson is a hell of a talent. This system really fits him. I feel like I can do that pony style too, more as a receiving back.?
Gibson has responded to all that praise and turned in one heck of a season. He has rushed 659 yards and 11 touchdowns, third best in the NFL. He's also added 233 receiving yards to that impressive stat line. In comparison, McCaffrey had under 500 yards rushing and just two touchdowns in his rookie season.
5. Jeremy Chinn - Carolina Panthers - Safety
Whenever you win the NFL's Rookie of the Month twice in a row, it's a telling sign that your name deserves to be on a list like this one. Jeremy Chinn was drafted in the second round by the Panthers and is already emerging as a total steal in the draft.
Chinn won the Rookie of the Month in October and November and is putting up big numbers. The safety has 87 combined tackles, five passes defended, one interception, three quarterback hits, and two fumbles recovered for touchdowns. In a division where he is facing off against guys like Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan, secondary matters and Chinn has provided quite the weapon for the Panthers.
In his most impressive game of the season, Chinn completely stole the show. Taking on the Minnesota Vikings in Week 12, Chinn recorded two touchdowns. The wildest part was that those touchdowns came within ten seconds of each other. Before the Vikings even had time to breathe, a safety had accounted for 14 points. The touchdowns were fumble recoveries on consecutive plays from scrimmage. Moments like that help boost stock in a Rookie of the Year conversation.
4. James Robinson - Jacksonville Jaguars - Running Back
The second running back on this list couldn't have had a more opposite draft experience than Clyde Edwards-Helaire. No one was comparing him to greats and he wasn't hosting a draft party on night one. In fact, if Robinson held any kind of draft party, it was more than likely a very long night for the running back. He went undrafted out of Illinois State but ultimately penned a deal with the Jags as an undrafted free agent.
His opportunity to really step up in Jacksonville came when the team released Leonard Fournette, creating a situation for Robinson to climb the ladder. Throughout training camp, he turned heads, being named the starter and making his debut in Week 1. He has turned into the most consistent rookie back in the league and one of the top rushers at his position. Robinson already has 968 yards rushing, on track to rush for over 1000. He has seven rushing touchdowns to go along with another two through the air and over 300 receiving yards.
He has four different games where he has rushed for over 100 yards and another three where he has racked up over 100 all-purpose yards. Robinson may not be the overall most deserving rookie on this list, but by far is the best story and the truest "dark horse? candidate that there is. Rookies who are drafted have to fight hard but undrafted rookies have to work twice as hard just to make the roster. He has taken the opportunity and run with it, literally.
3. Chase Young - Washington Football Team - Defensive End
Chase Young had a ton of hype around him when he was coming out of Ohio State. The hype has lived up to the expectation and Young looks like he's going to wreak havoc on quarterbacks and backfields in the NFC East for many years. The Buckeye product was drafted second overall last April when the Washington Football Team committed to taking the best player available rather than a quarterback like Justin Hebert or Tua Tagovailoa.
Young isn't helping the obvious issues that the Football Team sufferers on the offensive side of the ball he is helping his offense get the ball more often. We have seen some ridiculous hits from Young this year, including one against Joe Burrow and another where he stopped Steelers running back Benny Snell on a fourth down run.
Young is the obvious favorite to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year and it isn't particularly close. He is favored at +350 right now and the award seems like it is his to lose. He has 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 11 games. Young is already becoming a "can't miss? player for offensive coaches to game plan against when they take on Washington. No, he may not be a quarterback but he is going to be one of the top defenders in the league.
2. Justin Jefferson - Minnesota Vikings - Wide Receiver
Justin Jefferson is surely laughing at all the teams that passed on him now. Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb and Jalen Reagor were all selected before the LSU product came off the board at spot 22 in the first round for the Vikings. He was Joe Burrow's top threat in their Tiger days yet he still fell quite a bit on draft night. Now, Jefferson is making a serious push to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year as a wide receiver, a position usually won by a quarterback.
Jefferson is putting up Randy Moss numbers in Minneapolis. The last rookie wide receiver to put up 1000 yards was Moss back in 1998. Jefferson has four games left to play and already has 1,039 yards, a number that is on pace to break Moss' 1,313. Jefferson is averaging 17 yards per catch and has reeled in seven touchdowns. He became just the fifth player in the Super Bowl era to record over 1000 yards in their first 12 games, three of those players went on to win Rookie of the Year.
Jefferson is not just the best rookie wide receiver in 2020 but he is becoming an elite wide receiver in the NFL in his first year. That is a rare feat being accomplished by the Vikings wide receiver. If you ask Michael Thomas, he thinks Jefferson already has the ROTY in the bag.
1. Justin Herbert - Los Angeles Chargers - Quarterback
It seems like a weird surprise that Justin Herbert is the only quarterback to make this list. Before the season began, we all assumed that Joe Burrow would be taking home this award but even before his season-ending injury, Herbert was out-playing the Bengals QB.
Outside of one bad game against the New England Patriots, Herbert has looked like anything but a rookie. He has challenged Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes and lost by just a score or less in each. He has passed for 2,324 yards, 23 touchdowns to just nine interceptions and has a QB rating of 94.2. The rookie record for touchdown passes is 23, a record that Herbert will likely shatter and some with four games remaining.
Herbert has dazzled us with his arm strength and accuracy plus his ability to make the plays when they really do count. He was clearly the right choice of the Chargers and in fact, you could probably call him the perfect fit for a team that was moving on from their previous franchise QB.
Herbert isn't responsible for the terrible losses that have ensued in Los Angeles this season and he is clearly the front-runner for the Rookie of the Year trophy. Before Week 14 began, his odds were more than -1000 at most sports books. Herbert has won the Offensive Rookie of the Month on two separate occasions and it should come as no surprise if he wins the yearly award in February.