These rookies will make their presence felt in Wild Card Weekend of the 2021 NFL Playoffs.
For the first time in the history of the NFL Playoffs, there will be six games played on Wild Card Weekend. With an expanded playoff, comes an expanded opportunity for key rookies to continue building upon their stellar regular seasons and establish themselves as household names.
With a great slate of games on both Saturday and Sunday, the lights are the brightest they’ve been yet for these first-year players. Some are first-year studs, others have increased roles due to COVID complications and ill-timed injuries.
Regardless, look for these first-year players to be what separates a deep playoff run or a one and done playoff berth.
NFL Rookie Watch No. 7: J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ravens
Season Stats: 805 rushing yards, 6.0 YPC, 9 touchdowns
The Ravens ended the season on a five-game winning streak, all of which featured J.K. Dobbins as the lead back. In those five games, Dobbins amassed six rushing scores and never once saw his yards per carry average fall below 4.0.
Dobbins came into his first season as third on the Ravens depth chart but, with Mark Ingram showing signs of his age and Gus Edwards as more of a specialist back, the Ohio State product was called upon to be the lead back for the league’s No. 1 rushing attack and answered with great effectiveness.
He lacks versatility in the passing game but, for a pure downhill runner, he handles designed runs and option plays with great success. Against a middle of the road run defense in Tennessee, expect Baltimore to incorporate a heavy dosage of Dobbins in their gameplan.
NFL Rookie Watch No.6: Jedrick Wills, OT, Browns
The Crimson Tide product has been a stud protecting Baker Mayfield’s blindside since Week 1. Jedrick Wills has played on nearly every offensive down the Browns have played this season, and has been a large part of the development of Mayfield and the Browns passing game.
A large part of the success of the Browns’ dual-headed rushing attack between Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt can also be attributed to the rookie. Behind Wills and the rest of the Cleveland offensive line, Chubb surpassed 1,000 yards rushing in only 12 games and Hunt topped 1,000 all-purpose yards.
With left guard Joel Bitonio on the COVID/IR list and expected to miss Sunday night’s matchup with the Steelers, Wills will have his hands full in the trenches with likes of T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward. The Browns will have to lean on Wills now more than ever if they are to make their first playoff berth in 18 years last longer than one weekend.
NFL Rookie Watch No. 5: Jaylon Johnson, CB, Bears
Season stats: 34 solo tackles, 15 passes defended
By far the best rookie defensive back, Jaylon Johnson is tied for fourth in the league with 15 passes defended, in company amongst defensive backs such as Xavien Howard and Denzel Ward. Stud receiver Michael Thomas is expected to return to the Saints lineup and with Emmanuel Sanders lined up opposite of him The first-year Utah product will have a lot on his plate.
The Bears are coming into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as perhaps the biggest underdogs on the weekend. If they are to have any chance at moving on to the Divisional Round, they’ll be depending on their secondary to hold up against Drew Brees and the gang. Johnson plays a majority of his snaps in the slot so look for him to be both physical and opportunistic vs the Saints passing game.
NFL Rookie Watch No. 4: Tristan Wirfs, OT, Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have a clear cut formula for success, protect the quarterback. In games Tom Brady has been sacked two or fewer times, they are 10-2 with the two losses being both Kansas City and the Los Angeles Rams. In games Brady was sacked three-plus times, they are 1-3.
The Iowa product has been stellar in pass protection this year. With great speed and athleticism, he holds his stances firmly and has had no problem covering for rear side rushers. The Bucs played for the No. 5 seed hoping for a matchup with the Giants or the Cowboys. Instead, they got Washington who boasts perhaps the best front four in football.
The Bucs head into Washington as the favorite but, as we’ve seen this season from time to time, they can unravel fast and the offense can look ugly. Look for the matchup with fellow rookie Chase Young in particular in this game as Wirfs and the crew look to keep Brady’s pocket clean.
NFL Rookie Watch No. 3: Chase Claypool, WR, Steelers
Season stats: 62 receptions, 873 yards, 9 touchdowns
Chase Claypool started the 2020 season white-hot with almost 300 yards through the first four games, including a three-touchdown game vs. Philadelphia. However, he hit a bit of a wall as most rookies do and didn’t once surpass 75 yards from Weeks 5-16. It is worth noting, he finished the regular season strong despite working with backup Mason Rudolph and Steelers fans have to hope that he has gotten some of his swagger back.
Claypool will be back with Roethlisberger this week and, with Pittsburgh’s sputtering rushing attack, Claypool has no choice but to but to produce if the Steelers are to avoid an upset. With teammate JuJu Smith-Schuster likely drawing the matchup with Denzel Ward, Claypool should be in for a productive day.
NFL Rookie Watch No. 2: Jonathan Taylor, RB, Colts
Season stats: 1,169 yards, 5.0 YPC, 11 touchdowns
This may come as a surprise as there were only seven games that Jonathan Taylor got over 15 carries but the Wisconsin tailback not only lead all rookies in rushing yards but was third overall in the NFL.
Splitting carries with Nyheim Hines, it appeared at times there were some games where Taylor wasn’t written into the gameplan. Nonetheless, Taylor has been nothing short of spectacular, both rushing and receiving the ball.
Going into Buffalo late in the season, you can almost guarantee the game time temperatures will be freezing. Fortunately for the Colts, Taylor is coming into the postseason the hottest player in the NFL. After a 253-yard, two-touchdown performance in Week 17, Taylor and the Colts will be hitting the ground running both figuratively and literally.
NFL Rookie Watch No. 1: Chase Young, DE, Football Team
Season stats: 7.5 sacks, 32 solo tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 12 tackles for loss
The presumptive Defensive Rookie of the Year, Chase Young has shown the ability to singlehandedly wreck game plans. At San Francisco this year, Young had one sack, six tackles (one for loss, two QB hits, two pass deflections, and a forced fumble and recovery returned for a touchdown
In a word, Young is a disruptor. He is already chomping at the bit for the chance to get to Tom Brady in a playoff game and, if he does, the Bucs might find themselves one and done.
Young has lived up to the billing as the No. 2 overall pick and then some. But getting to Brady is easier said than done. The Bucs offensive line has only allowed 22 sacks all season, fourth-fewest in the league, and they’re coming into Washington healthy and fully-loaded. Asking for Brady in the playoffs is bold but, if there’s anyone that can walk the walk, it’s Young.