The NFL will hand out the Rookie of the Year trophy in about six weeks, and Justin Herbert or Justin Jefferson is going to win it. It’s been a two-horse race for most of the year, in part because the rookie running back class got off on the wrong foot.
But don’t you worry about these young tailbacks. We’re going to have a ball with them in 2021.
Amid the madness and weirdness of an NFL Week 17, a couple of first-year backs zoomed to the head of the class Sunday. Jonathan Taylor exploded for 253 rushing yards and two scores over the hapless Jaguars, while J.K. Dobbins threw 160 rushing yards and two scores at Cincinnati. The heroics were well-timed, as the Colts and Ravens both won and secured playoff berths.
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Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins made statements in Week 17. (Photos by Bobby Ellis/Todd Olszewski/Getty Images)
It took both players several weeks to get into a groove, but we’ve seen smashing returns of late. Taylor and Dobbins will be Top 25 picks in any reasonable league next year, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see either one sneak into the first round. We don’t have to lock in on this stuff now, but they’ve both put exciting things on the tape — and on the stat sheet — in recent weeks.
For Taylor, the challenge was getting adjusted to the speed of the pro game, learning to read what a running lane looks like in the NFL. He stumbled through a nasty three-game stretch in early November — 24 carries, 61 yards — but the Colts never lost faith in the Wisconsin product. He’s been fantastic over the last six games, rolling up 741 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns. He’s averaging 6.2 yards per carry over that span, silly numbers for anyone.
Taylor’s 253-yard afternoon is something special, tying for second-best all-time among rookie running backs. Adrian Peterson hit the Chargers for 295 yards back in 2007, and DeMarco Murray had a 253-yard party against the Rams in 2011.
While Taylor was struggling to get his sea legs earlier in the year, Dobbins was struggling to get on the field. He didn’t see double-digit carries in a game until Week 8, and it wasn’t until late November when the Ravens finally bought in and started to feature Dobbins (finally accepting that Mark Ingram was no longer a viable option in the process). Dobbins found the end zone for the sixth consecutive game Sunday, and although he’s not seeing the same volume as Taylor, he’s rolled up 495 yards on 77 carries over that stretch, a juicy 6.4 average.
The Ravens haven’t fully unleashed Dobbins yet — he’s yet to see more than 15 carries in any week, and he has just 18 catches on the year. He was a useful receiver at Ohio State, but Lamar Jackson’s game sometimes seems at conflict with utilizing a pass-catching back. Assuming well-regarded OC Greg Roman sticks in Baltimore, you’d expect this to be addressed in advance of the 2021 season.
Get out your scouting notebooks, we’ll have fun watching Taylor and Dobbins through the playoffs. And we’ll probably be throwing proactive draft picks at them when August rolls around. The kids are alright.
Rookie receivers also finish strong
Taylor and Dobbins weren’t the only rookies playing a game of “Can You Top This?” on Sunday. A bunch of rookie receivers crashed the Week 17 leaderboard, too.
Start with Jerry Jeudy, who tossed a 5-140-1 game at the Raiders, a nifty bounce back after his five-drop nightmare last week. Jeudy is already one of the twitchiest receivers in the league, a devil to cover in space. The Broncos are loaded at the skill positions for 2021, it’s just a matter of coaching up Drew Lock or finding a different quarterback. I’ll be proactive with Jeudy next year.
The Steelers weren’t taking Week 17 seriously, but no one told Chase Claypool (5-101-1), who did just fine paired with backup QB Mason Rudolph. Gabriel Davis (2-107-1) remains a splash play waiting to happen in Buffalo, though the Bills have gridlock at the receiver spot, holding down Davis’ upside for 2021. Laviska Shenault (6-68-2) could be a fun sophomore breakout, especially if expected No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence hits the ground running.
And before we wrap on the rookie wideouts, we go back to the aforementioned Jefferson, who had an ordinary — for him — nine-catch, 133-yard afternoon. At least the Lions kept him out of the end zone. Jefferson rang up an even 1,400 receiving yards on the season, a new mark for rookies. Anquan Boldin (1,377 yards) held the previous record, set in 2003.
Jefferson will be a third-round pick at worst next year but could rise into the second round. Figure Claypool slots around the fourth round. Jeudy should be a fun target in the 5-7 range, with Shenault perhaps a round later. Davis goes down as a lottery ticket, for the moment blocked by a handful of talented teammates. But no one doubts he can play, too.
More to come ...