NFL Rookie Watch, Divisional Round: 5 First-year playmakers primed to star

These rookies will play major roles in the Divisional Round of the 2021 NFL Playoffs.

Super Wild Card Weekend’s action has come and gone to start the 2021 NFL Playoffs and, with that, notable rookie stars such Chase Young and Jonathan Taylor have bowed out of the postseason race. A field of eight teams remains and, in an ordinary season, teams would begin to lean more heavily on experienced players and veterans.

However, this NFL season has been anything but ordinary. Injuries and COVID regulations have opened doors for rookies to play bigger roles and teams have ridden their production all the way up to within two games of a Super Bowl appearance.

With two doubleheaders on both Saturday and Sunday, keep a lookout for these first-year playmakers to be the difference between a shot at glory in the NFL Playoffs or a long offseason.

NFL Rookie Watch No. 5: Gabriel Davis, WR, Bills

Season Stats: 35 receptions, 599 yards, 7 TDs

The first-year UCF product had a bit of a quieter rookie season compared to fellow receivers Justin Jefferson and CeeDee Lamb. But in the Wild Card Round, Gabriel Davis put on a clinic working the sidelines for the Buffalo Bills.

With John Brown in and out of the lineup and Cole Beasley slowed by a knee injury, Davis has seen an uptick in his snap count and may find himself a crucial part of Buffalo’s passing game as they welcome Baltimore and their boastful secondary on Saturday night.

Davis stretched the field for the Bills to the tune of four catches on four targets, all for first downs. With a long reception of 37 yards and a total of 85 on the day, the hopes of Bills Mafia may reside in No. 13.

NFL Rookie Watch No. 4: Antoine Winfield Jr., SS, Buccaneers

Season Stats: 94 tackles (64 solo), 6 pass defenses, 2 forced fumbles

The starter in the secondary since Week 1, Antoine Winfield Jr. has been on the field for Tampa Bay for nearly every defensive snap this season. Winfield plays an angry, all-gas-no-brakes style, hits hard and is seemingly always around the ball. In the victory over the Football Team, he paced the secondary with six tackles (all solo) including two for loss. His versatility both against the run and the pass has him slated to see big playing time versus the divisional rival New Orleans Saints.

It was ugly the last time the Saints and Bucs met but, since then, a lot has changed for the two clubs. Drew Brees both suffered and returned from a ribs injury but has yet to look fully comfortable. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers have seemingly righted the ship, are getting key defensive players back and are coming into the Divisional Round firing on all cylinders.

Look for Winfield to dial it up on Sunday night as Tampa looks to slow down Kamara, while also getting after an immobile Brees.

NFL Rookie Watch No. 3: J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ravens

Season Stats: 805 rushing yards, 6.0 YPC, 9 TDs

J.K Dobbins saw a limited workload in the Raven’s 20-13 Wild Card victory, rushing for only 43 times on nine attempts but he did find his way into the end zone, extending a streak that is now seven games strong. Still the lead back for the league’s most run-heavy offense, Dobbins should expect to get back on track against a Bills defense that just surrendered 160 yards on the ground to Indy last week.

If the total numbers aren’t gaudy for Dobbins this week, he is guaranteed to at least get the goal-line totes.

NFL Rookie Watch No. 2: Tristan Wirfs, OL, Buccaneers

In each of the two meetings between the Saints and Buccaneers, Brady was sacked 3+ times. The bad news for the Buccaneers is that, last week, Washington got to their quarterback three times as well.

The silver lining is that they won, and after starting 0-3 in games where Brady is sacked 3+ times, the Bucs are now (2-3). The Saints are seventh in the league at getting after the quarterback and if the Bucs are going to have a clear shot at a Super Bowl, they are going to have to protect Brady.

A brunt of that responsibility will fall on former Iowa tackle Tristan Wirfs as he will likely draw the assignment of star pass rusher Cameron Jordan. Wirfs will also be relied upon for run blocking and getting downfield for screen passes. The first-year starter has been a stud all season and a home run pick for Tampa. Look for him to keep Brady upright and the Bucs in the game in what should be a high scoring affair.

NFL Rookie Watch No. 1: Cam Akers, RB, Rams

Season Stats: 625 rushing yards, 4.3 YPC, 2 TDs

In a season that mostly featured a running back by committee offensive scheme, the Rams are finally leaning on Florida State product Cam Akers and the rookie is answering the call. With Jared Goff still hampered with an injured thumb, Akers carried the offense with 134 yards on the ground including a score, as well as 45 yards through the air. If the Rams are going to go leave Lambeau with their season still alive, it is going to be on the back of Akers.

The Packers defense will likely be dialed in on Akers and stack the box for a majority of the game. His versatility both inside and outside the tackles, as well as his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, should leave plenty of room for production.