A draft class often shapes how we view a team’s outlook for the upcoming season, but the reality is most players take time to develop and the true impact of a draft class isn’t truly felt until years two and three. That might be even more likely this season if the regularly scheduled offseason workouts are limited or eliminated.
But there can still be a number of rookies who will be able to step right in and make an immediate impact in 2020.
Jeff Okudah, Detroit Lions
There was more debate than necessary over the projected top cornerback in this year’s draft class. While there was hype around C.J. Henderson in some league circles (he still went ninth overall), Okudah was the clear top corner selected third by the Detroit Lions.
Okudah will instantly become Detroit’s No. 1 corner, thanks in part to an offseason trade that sent Darius Slay to the Philadelphia Eagles. In the NFC North, Okudah will be tasked with covering Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, and Adam Thielen. The Lions’ out-of-division schedule also has no shortage of top receivers in 2020. Detroit will face Arizona (DeAndre Hopkins), Atlanta (Julio Jones), Tampa Bay (Mike Evans), and New Orleans (Michael Thomas).
Last season, Detroit was the heaviest man coverage team in the league per Sports Info Solutions at 54%. The Lions also relied heavily on their coverage unit to hold down the defense with a pass rush that rarely rushed more than four (12% blitz rate was the lowest in the league) and rushed just three (26%) at the highest rate in the league.
It appears likely Okudah will be responsible for most of those top receivers in coverage, a tough ask for a rookie at a position that typically takes time to develop. But Okudah was one of the strongest man coverage corners coming out of Ohio State. Per SIS, Okudah was in man 54% of the time with the Buckeyes last season and opponents had a positive play against him just 39% of pass attempts.
Henry Ruggs, Las Vegas Raiders
It was a bit of a surprise when Henry Ruggs was the first wide receiver drafted in this class, but he went to a situation that might be the perfect place for him to immediately fit in. Ruggs’s trump card is his speed, but he wasn’t really a vertical threat in the Alabama passing game. Ruggs can win vertically, but just 33% of his routes were considered “deep” by SIS in 2019, which was a below-average rate in this wide receiver class.
That matters in this Las Vegas offense that hasn’t pushed the ball down the field often with Derek Carr at quarterback — his 6.3-yard average depth of target was the second-lowest among quarterbacks in 2019 per Next Gen Stats. Ruggs could eventually be the go-to deep threat for whoever comes next at quarterback for the Raiders, but for now, there’s plenty to exploit in the short-to-intermediate area of the field. This is a Raiders offense that despite the lack of deep throws still finished seventh in passing DVOA per Football Outsiders. Jon Gruden can still coordinate an effective offense.
Ruggs has the type of speed when any throw can be turned into a big gain and there might not be a short throw more set up for that than a slant. Last season, Carr threw the seventh-most slants in the league and was relying on Tyrell Williams and Hunter Renfrow to pick up yards after the catch. Per SIS, Ruggs only had four receptions on slants last season, which tied for 140th, but he finished eighth among receivers in yards after the catch on the route and three of those four receptions resulted in touchdowns. With the potential of shortened or nonexistent training camps, passing game chemistry will take time to develop. Working in slants is an easy way around that and what better target than a guy who could take one to the house at any moment.
Jordyn Brooks, Seattle Seahawks
Seattle selection of Texas Tech linebacker Jordyn Brooks might have been the most surprising of the first round, but he fits right into what the Seahawks want to do on defense. Now, that might not be how more modern teams are building defenses, but that’s another conversation.
No team used base defense more than the Seahawks last season, who had three linebackers on the field for 67% of their defensive snaps, per SIS. The next highest rate belonged to the Cardinals at 37%.
Brooks is an athletic downhill linebacker who can fit right in next to Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Brooks had 21.5 tackle for loss last season at Texas Tech, which led this off-ball linebacker class. As a percentage of total tackles, 19% of Brooks’s were for a loss, which trailed only Ohio State’s Malik Harrison at 21.3%. There were also few more consistent tacklers than Brooks last season, who had just a 9% broken tackle rate, which was the fourth-lowest in this class.
Coverage is still a question mark — Brooks allowed 10.7 yards per target on 12 targets last season per SIS — but he could be bailed out by lining up next to Wagner and Wright. The downhill ability also helps against teams in the NFC West, who are all in some ways basing an offense off the run. Though, expect all three opposing play-callers to force Brooks into coverage.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
There’s a question about positional value for a running back in the first round, but now that Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a Cheif, it’s hard to not imagine the possibilities for him in the Kansas City offense. Little of that has to do with running the ball.
At LSU last season, Edwards-Helaire was split out on 21% of plays, which was the highest rate among running backs in this class, save for Antonio Gibson, who basically played slot receiver for Memphis. Only 10 of Edwards-Helaire’s targets and six receptions came when he was in the slot or outside, but his ability to line up and run routes from those alignments can open up the offense.
Where Edwards-Helaire’s skills and Kansas City’s recent use of running backs in the passing game overlap is in space on routes into the flat. Last season CEH had 22 catches on 29 flat route targets for 114 yards with 108 of those after the catch. With the speedy wide receivers of the Chiefs clearing out defenders, the flat is an easy target for the offense and Edwards-Helaire has the ability to make the most of those passes.
Edwards-Helaire’s most effective route is the angle or Texas route, which could be an added element to the Kansas City offense. Damien Williams was targeted on just two angle routes last season per SIS charting. At LSU, CEH had 10 receptions on 11 targets for 147 yards, 113 of which were after the catch.
Few offensive play designers have done a better job at getting a running back in space in the passing game than Andy Reid and Edwards-Helaire is the type of back who can take advantage of that opportunity.
Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals
As a true disciple of the Sean McVay system, Zac Taylor had the Bengals in 11 personnel (three wide receivers) on a league-leading 76% of plays last season. That came without three good wide receivers available. Tyler Boyd played 88.8% of the offensive snaps but then the quality dropped to Auden Tate and Alex Erickson, who each played over half of Cincinnati’s offensive snaps in 2019. That’s not a lot of competition for a 2020 starting role, even if the oft-injured John Ross is factored in.
With A.J. Green expected to return and the selection of Tee Higgins in the second round, the Bengals can roll out a legitimately dangerous three-receiver set and those three will likely see a high volume of snaps. Higgins will be able to line up outside opposite Green while Boyd can stick in the slot, but there’s the possibility to move all three around the formation.
While Higgins doesn’t have the top-end speed some other receivers showed in this class, 55% of his routes were considered “deep” in 2019 and he was able to create enough separation with route running and physicality. His 3.7 yards per route run trailed only CeeDee Lamb in this class per SIS. Higgins also displays insane body control which allows him to adjust to off-target passes, though Joe Burrow was easily the most accurate quarterback in the draft. There’s a mix of ability and opportunity here that could make Higgins one of the most impactful rookie receivers.