NFL Rookies Exploded in Week 1. Which Are Here to Stay?
Before Sunday, a grand total of seven rookie pass catchers had eclipsed 100 receiving yards in their first career game. Four players added their names to that list in Week 1, with the Ravens’ Marquise Brown, Lions’ T.J. Hockenson, Redskins’ Terry McLaurin, and Titans’ A.J. Brown all posting triple-digit receiving yards in their debuts. And incredibly, they weren’t even alone on the list of outstanding rookie debuts—Raiders running back Josh Jacobs posted 113 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns, Bills playmaker Devin Singletary notched 98 yards on just nine touches, and Seahawks receiver D.K. Metcalf added 89 yards on four catches. Together, those seven first-year standouts combined for what might’ve been the most impressive opening week for rookie skill players since the NFL-AFL merger.
The jump from the college game to the NFL is notoriously difficult; it often takes players a couple seasons just to get their feet under them. But each of those seven rookies made the transition look easy last weekend, playing like seasoned vets for their respective teams. The obvious question to ask now is: Were those shocking performances just one-game flukes, or can we expect more of the same as the season goes on? To answer that, let’s dig into the tape and the numbers.
WR Marquise Brown, Ravens
Brown’s breakout performance was probably more surprising than any of the rest—not because I doubted his talent; he was my top-ranked receiver going into the 2019 draft—but because he’d been limited in practice for most of training camp as he recovered from a Lisfranc injury. Brown had played just a few preseason snaps and was listed on the injury report going into Sunday’s game against the Dolphins, and his playing time jibed with that lack of practice reps in the run-up to the opener; the 5-foot-9, 170-pound pass catcher logged just 14 snaps and ran a mere eight routes on the day, a clear indication that the team was looking to slowly ease him into the offense.
But Brown sure made the most of his limited opportunities, catching four of his five targets for 147 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first player in NFL history with multiple 40-yard touchdowns in his career debut.
Brown’s incredible efficiency clearly won’t be repeatable week in and week out, but the way he was deployed schematically in Baltimore’s offense certainly can be. His frenetic outburst of production on Sunday was pretty much a continuation of what he did all last year at Oklahoma. My pre-draft scouting report reads like a recap of his first game in the NFL:
Brown’s a breakaway threat from anywhere on the field. [He] requires the attention of the defense on every snap. … At the snap, he eats up a cornerback’s cushion in the blink of an eye, and defenders simply can’t keep up on deep crossing routes. He tracks the ball well on deep passes and is competitive on jump balls, but his hands technique and grip strength to hold on to the ball all the way through the catch can be lacking at times. He’s elite as an after-the-catch playmaker, exploding through creases in the defense to run away from defenders.
Brown’s first score came on an RPO play; as the defense collapsed down on what appeared to be a run to the right, quarterback Lamar Jackson pulled the ball back and hit the rookie receiver on a slant to the left; from there, Brown did the rest, racing past his defender and into wide-open green. His second touchdown was a deep post route out of the slot, where Brown simply outran safety Minkah Fitzpatrick down the middle. He also mixed in a hitch route on the outside, which exploited a massive cushion given by the cornerback, and nearly got loose downfield with a one-on-one route out of the slot a second time, but All-Pro corner Xavien Howard knocked the ball away.
All four of those plays illustrate exactly why the Ravens took Brown in the first round: He not only gives the team a home-run-hitting threat with which to exploit defenses that stack the box, but also helps give Jackson a dynamic underneath threat who can separate early in routes. The Ravens are likely to continue the slow ramp-up of Brown’s playing time, so don’t expect massive two-touchdown games like we saw on Sunday every week. But as long as he can get his foot fully healthy, shake the hip injury he’s dealing with this week and start playing bigger chunks of snaps, expect Brown to emerge as the team’s de facto no. 1 receiver sooner rather than later. He’s the real deal.
TE T.J. Hockenson, Lions
Hockenson didn’t lack hype entering the draft, frequently drawing comparisons to another former Iowa tight end: 49ers star George Kittle. If that wasn’t lofty enough praise, the eighth overall pick’s performance in his first game should help push the comp right past Kittle and into Rob Gronkowski territory. As PFF’s Scott Barrett pointed out, “Gronkenson” posted rare numbers in his debut.
T.J. Gronkenson in Week 1
– 164 air yards
+ would have been most by any TE in any week last year
– 131 yards
+ most by any TE in Week 1
+ most by any TE in their NFL debut all-time
— Scott Barrett (@ScottBarrettDFB) September 11, 2019
Hockenson tallied six catches for 131 yards—the most receiving yards ever in a tight end’s first game—and a score. He was utilized as a pass blocker, as a de facto lead-blocking fullback, and as a moveable chess piece in the Lions’ passing game. Hockenson dusted Cardinals linebackers and safeties downfield on several occasions, picking up huge chunks of yards and a late-game touchdown.
Per PFF, Hockenson led all rookie pass catchers in receptions of 15-plus yards (four) last week, and per NFL Next Gen Stats, he was one of only two players (joining McLaurin, who I’ll get to in a minute) to average more than 3 yards of separation on passes that traveled 15-plus yards downfield. The big mismatch creator was my overall top-ranked pass-catcher going into the 2019 draft, and he did not disappoint, showing off the smooth athleticism and build-up speed to threaten the seam and get behind the defense that was evident on his college tape. Hockenson, like Brown, probably won’t post triple-digit receiving yards and score touchdowns every week, but nothing felt flukey about what he was able to do in Week 1. The Lions have a future game-changer at tight end.
WR Terry McLaurin, Redskins
McLaurin played the primary X-receiver spot for Washington in the team’s 32-27 loss to the Eagles on Sunday, notching five catches for 125 yards and a touchdown in his first game as a pro. The former Ohio State standout showed off blazing 4.3 speed, nuanced route running, and excellent body control, which he showed off when he won a jump ball near the sideline while taking the top off the Philly defense on two separate occasions. (One went for a touchdown; the other was overthrown by quarterback Case Keenum.)
McLaurin’s breakout wasn’t super surprising to those following his meteoric offseason rise from Senior Bowl standout to third-round pick to training camp star for the Redskins. The 23-year-old rookie came into the game as the team’s de facto no. 1 and was deployed like it, playing 92 percent of the team’s snaps while running 40 routes (second on the team only to slot receiver Trey Quinn) and racking up 143 air yards, ninth among all players in Week 1 and 43 percent of the team’s total. He totaled seven targets on the day (second only to running back Chris Thompson), grabbed three passes for first downs, and notched three receptions of 15-plus yards, per PFF.
McLaurin’s production may have some volatility week in and week out depending on whether a mediocre Redskins offense can feed him targets on play-action deep shots like we saw in Week 1, but his usage suggests the team views him as a go-to receiver.
WR A.J. Brown, Titans
It was Brown, not third-year pro Corey Davis, who looked like the team’s top receiver in the Titans’ shocking Week 1 blowout of the Browns in Cleveland. The former Ole Miss star grabbed three catches for 100 yards in the rout, with all but 2 yards of that total coming on a pair of deep shots downfield from Marcus Mariota.
Apart from Brown’s two big plays, though, the Titans struggled to get much of a passing game going downfield. The Browns worked to take Davis out of the game with frequent blanket coverage by star corner Denzel Ward, and Mariota mostly focused on dump-offs to his tight ends and running backs when he looked to pass. Mariota finished with an average depth of target of just 6.6 yards on the day, tied for 25th out of 31 qualifying passers on Sunday. That relative reluctance to push the ball deep could hurt Brown’s bottom line each week, and it doesn’t help that Brown ran just 18 total routes on Sunday and played just 42 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. With almost all of Brown’s production coming on those two big plays, expect the rookie playmaker to be a boom-or-bust option for the Titans until his snap rate goes up.
RB Josh Jacobs, Raiders
Raiders coach Jon Gruden told us all preseason that the team was going to give its rookie first-round running back an opportunity to carry the load this year, and he didn’t deviate from that in Week 1. Jacobs carried the ball 23 times for 85 yards and two scores in Oakland’s 24-16 win over the Broncos on Monday night, adding one catch for 28 yards. Jacobs showed off physicality and versatility out of the backfield, regularly grinding out tough yards in the trenches.
There’s no reason to believe that Gruden will scale back Jacobs’s role. The rookie back handled the heavy load with ease.
RB Devin Singletary, Bills
Singletary didn’t get a target until the second quarter and didn’t take his first handoff until well into the third, but he made the most of his second-half opportunities in the Bills’ 17-16 come-from-behind win over the Jets, gaining 98 yards on nine touches. He caught five passes out of the backfield, gaining 28 yards, and on his four carries he ripped off gains of 12 yards, 15 yards, 20 yards, and 23 yards, respectively.
In the scouting report I wrote for Singletary in April, I noted that he “draws on innate anticipation, deft footwork, and lateral explosiveness to consistently leave defenders lunging for clouds of smoke. He’s got excellent vision and plenty of patience as a runner, letting his blocks set up before making his cut. He has extraordinary balance through contact and regularly powers through lower-body hits as he slaloms through second-level defenders.” That skill set definitely showed up on his four explosive runs on Sunday:
Singletary showed off his versatility when the team went into catch-up mode in the second half, ending the game with 47 snaps (71 percent) while running 36 routes out of the backfield (fifth most of all backs in Week 1, per PFF), a clear indication of the role he’ll serve in Buffalo’s offense. Frank Gore is still the de facto no. 1 in that backfield, according to head coach Sean McDermott, but Singletary’s snap count and pass route totals showed that the Bills view him as a versatile pass catcher and complementary runner. I expect he’ll start to eat into Gore’s early-down work as the season goes on, too, and get a bigger piece of the ground game pie.
WR D.K. Metcalf, Seahawks
Metcalf returned from a minor knee surgery in mid-August to surprisingly suit up for the Seahawks’ first game, and wasted little time in making his presence known as the team’s leading receiver in Seattle’s 21-20 win over Cincinnati. The Seahawks struggled to deal with pressure up front and the Bengals took Russell Wilson’s favorite target away, regularly bracketing Tyler Lockett downfield, in effect telling Seattle that someone else would have to beat them. Metcalf stepped up, grabbing receptions of 16 yards, 42 yards, and 25 yards.
All three of those plays helped lead to Seahawks touchdowns, and Metcalf’s physicality and speed showed up on each one. He dropped into the second round of the draft because of concerns, ostensibly, over his lack of agility in the short area—a legitimate issue that could make him a poor fit in certain schemes that require precise, sudden route running or the ability to separate underneath. But the big, former Ole Miss star always looked like the perfect fit for Seattle’s scheme, which mostly eschews that type of dink-and-dunk passing in favor of taking deeper shots downfield. As I wrote in my pre-draft scouting report, “Metcalf is a rare physical talent, mixing elite size with explosiveness off the line, agility to shake defenders, and home-run-hitting deep speed. He tracks the ball well over his shoulder and can reach out with go-go-Gadget arms to extend and reel in off-target passes. Metcalf boasts body control, understanding of leverage, and physicality to go up and win in contested pass situations.”
He showed off all those traits in his first game as a pro. I hesitate to say that he’ll have a major role each week for a low-volume Seahawks offense that likes to spread the ball around and scheme up different players based on opponents’ weaknesses, but if Week 1 told us anything, it’s that Metcalf can be a potent secondary option opposite Lockett.