Which rookie classes are shining brightest at the midway point of the 2019 NFL season? Around the NFL’s Chris Wesseling examines the league’s best crops of newcomers through eight weeks:
1) Jacksonville Jaguars
From sixth-round pick to franchise savior? Gardner Minshew has been a godsend for the Jaguars, generating a better passer rating (95.4 to 90.5), yards-per-attempt average (7.2 to 7.1) and TD-to-INT ratio (11:1 to 11:8) over his first seven starts than injured veteran Nick Foles has managed in eight starts for Philadelphia and Jacksonville since the beginning of the 2018 season. The only three quarterbacks with a better TD-to-INT ratio than Minshew in 2019 are either former MVPs or Super Bowl winners: Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. From escapability, to accuracy, to decision making, to third-down conversions, to elevating his surrounding talent and inspiring the fan base, Minshew has played like a young Tony Romo.
If Minshew is the favorite for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, No. 7 overall pick Josh Allen would be a candidate for defensive honors in any season that didn’t include 49ers sensation Nick Bosa. With two more sacks along with three QB hits and a forced fumble against the Jets in Week 8, Allen is on pace to threaten Jevon Kearse’s rookie record of 14.5 sacks. He ranks third among all NFL edge rushers with 30 pressures this season, per Next Gen Stats. He’s not the only impact rookie defender in Duval, as third-round linebacker Quincy Williams has replaced Telvin Smith in the starting lineup alongside Myles Jack. Second-round right tackle Jawaan Taylor has helped solidify a shaky offensive line, playing every snap through eight games.
2) Oakland Raiders
While the two edge rushers sandwiching Clelin Ferrell at the top of the draft (Nick Bosa and Josh Allen) have combined for 14 sacks, the No. 4 overall pick has been outplayed by fourth-rounder Maxx Crosby, a defensive end ticketed for multiple Pro Bowls in the future, according to CBS analyst Tony Romo. That tandem forms the nucleus of a young Oakland defense, along with punishing safety Johnathan Abram, who knocked himself out of action for six months with a torn rotator cuff sustained in the season opener. Now that Gareon Conley has been shipped to Houston, the Raiders will see what they have in second-round cornerback Trayvon Mullen as the starter opposite Daryl Worley.
The showpiece of Mike Mayock’s sterling rookie class, Josh Jacobs became the first running back since LaDainian Tomlinson (2001) to gain at least 100 yards from scrimmage and rush for a pair of touchdowns in his NFL debut. It was Jacobs’ performance versus the Packers in Week 7 that caught my eye. After trucking safety Adrian Amos on one early run and stiff-arming his way to a 42-yard gain on another, the former Alabama star flashed a series of sharp switchbacks like a seasoned mountain hiker on a 27-yard scamper late in the third quarter. He’s been the tone-setter on a surprisingly effective offense that also features rookie slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, tight end Foster Moreau and fullback Alec Ingold.
3) San Francisco 49ers
In a year with no clear-cut front-runner, Nick Bosa has a chance to join Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor (1981) as the only rookies to capture Defensive Player of the Year recognition in addition to Defensive Rookie of the Year. Whereas Allen has found himself in the right place at the right time for a couple of his sacks, Bosa has shown the ability to take over a game for long stretches, as he did in personal-showcase victories over the Browns and Panthers.
While Bosa became the third rookie to record at least three sacks and an interception in a single game, Deebo Samuel also had a star turn versus Carolina. After gaining nine yards on an end-around earlier in the drive, the second-round wideout took an inside handoff 20 yards to pay dirt for his second score of the season. The undefeated Niners have also received important contributions from fill-in tackle Justin Skule, linebacker Dre Greenlaw and punter Mitch Wishnowsky.
4) New York Giants
Quarterback Daniel Jones has run hot and cold since replacing Eli Manning, countering turnover woes with impressive touch and ball placement. He’s been helped by fifth-round steal Darius Slayton, who beat veteran cornerback Rashaan Melvin at the catch point for a pair of leaping touchdowns in last week’s loss to the Lions. On the other side of the ball, behemoth tackle Dexter Lawrence has proven to be more than just a two-down run stuffer as the centerpiece of an improved defensive line. Cornerback DeAndre Baker has come on lately after a rough baptism in September, and pass rusher Oshane Ximines has chipped in with two sacks off the bench. It’s a shame linebacker Ryan Connelly tore his ACL in Week 4, as the fifth-rounder had found a home alongside Alec Ogletree in the starting lineup prior to the injury.
5) Minnesota Vikings
After a sluggish start to his NFL career, first-round center Garrett Bradbury has keyed a ground game that seems to grow stronger by the week. The Vikes boast the league’s most productive backfield duo in Dalvin Cook and third-round power back Alexander Mattison, combining for 1,154 yards, 10 touchdowns and 5.1 yards per carry on 224 rushes. A one-dimensional offense that finished last season at No. 18 in Football Outsiders’ efficiency rankings has been upgraded to No. 5 at the midpoint of 2019, thanks in no small part to a bumper crop of rookies. An injury to Pro Bowl wideout Adam Thielen would have sunk Kirk Cousins‘ aerial attack in years past. Cousins can survive and even thrive this time around with second-round tight end Irv Smith Jr. and seventh-round wideout Bisi Johnson earning the quarterback’s trust and making plays where Laquon Treadwell could not.
6) Green Bay Packers
The Packers might not have as many rookies contributing on a weekly basis, but they can boast an every-down impact player on each side of the ball. Second-round guard Elgton Jenkins has solidified an offensive line that might be as reliable as any in Aaron Rodgers‘ storied career. First-round safety Darnell Savage has brought ballhawking tendencies and closing speed to the back end of Mike Pettine’s defense, which has skyrocketed from 29th in Football Outsiders’ 2018 metrics to 13th this year. Fellow first-rounder Rashan Gary has had a tough time cracking the pass-rushing rotation with Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith playing at a Pro Bowl level in their Green Bay debut seasons.
7) Arizona Cardinals
In a bit of an upset, Kyler Murray has neither set the league on fire nor imploded behind a subpar offensive line in an experimental offense. Instead, he’s the caretaker of a middle-of-the-pack attack that has turned the ball over a league-low four times. Murray plays an entertaining style, with a wrist flick so smooth and natural that it calls to mind cartoon Spider-Man releasing the web. His rookie receiving corps has been a letdown, however, with Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson taking a backseat to the likes of Damiere Byrd and Trent Sherfield. A pair of defensive rookies, end Zach Allen and cornerback Byron Murphy, earned starting jobs out of training camp, though the former has been sidelined by a shoulder injury for the past month. With the late-September release of veteran D.J. Swearinger, the rookie safety tandem of Deionte Thompson and Jalen Thompson are splitting snaps opposite Budda Baker.
8) Indianapolis Colts
Speedy second-round wide receiver Parris Campbell has a bright future, but his much-awaited impact has been waylaid by hamstring and abdominal injuries. The Colts‘ defense, on the other hand, has benefitted from a handful of rookies filling in for injured starters. Second-round cornerback Rock Ya-Sin and fourth-round safety Khari Willis have become mainstays in a secondary that offers more size and physicality than previous iterations. Fifth-round pick Marvell Tell entered the rotation last week, pushing veteran Quincy Wilson to the bench. Linebacker Bobby Okereke and edge rusher Ben Banogu have also generated game-changing plays for a fist-place Colts outfit exceeding expectations without Andrew Luck. This is a deep draft haul with a bright future.
9) Washington Redskins
Billed as one of the strongest special teams prospects in recent memory, Terry McLaurin proved in training camp that he’s far and away the best wide receiver on the roster. Even better, he’s been the NFL’s premier all-around rookie receiver to date, using his 4.35 speed not only to take the top off of defenses downfield but also to get open at will with lightning-quick routes against veteran cornerbacks. His emergence as an elite playmaker has softened the blow of former college teammate Dwayne Haskins‘ inability to unseat Case Keenum atop the quarterback depth chart. The defense features a trio of rookie contributors in edge rusher Montez Sweat, run-stuffing linebacker Cole Holcomb and cornerback Jimmy Moreland.
10) Buffalo Bills
I expected this class to rank much higher, but the performances of first-round defensive tackle Ed Oliver and second-round right tackle Cody Ford have been spotty at best. On the other hand, seventh-round defensive end Darryl Johnson has been a pleasant surprise, as has third-round tight end Dawson Knox. Now that playmaking scat back Devin Singletary is over a hamstring injury that kept him out of action for a few weeks, this group has a chance to shine brighter in the season’s second half. Singletary has a skill set that calls to mind Chargers tailback Austin Ekeler, one of the league’s most dangerous pass catchers out of the backfield and a lethal red-zone weapon.
Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @ChrisWesseling.