Just like last season, the weekly rookie report will cover some of my favorite first-year players around the league as we follow them through their rookie campaigns. It will release every Friday and discuss the previous week’s performance and the upcoming weekend’s game. The ranking from my 2019 NFL Draft Big Board is listed in parenthesis.
Josh Allen, Jaguars DE (1)
As if six teams passing on Allen wasn’t bad enough, the “fall” let him get to Jacksonville—which could make the defense even better than it was a couple of years ago. The bendy, explosive pass-rusher recorded 17.0 sacks in his final season at Kentucky, and the defensive line may be unstoppable in obvious passing situations with Allen and Yannick Ngakoue on the outside with Calais Campbell kicking inside. I think he’s the clear favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Christian Wilkins, Dolphins DL (3)
The Dolphins are expected to be perhaps the worst team in the league this season, but if Wilkins can help it, that won’t be the case. At Clemson, the versatile defensive lineman won 51 games in four years, including two national championships, so his leadership will be key for Miami as they try to establish a winning culture under Brian Flores. Wilkins has the ability to play multiple roles in any defensive scheme.
Deandre Baker, Giants CB (6)
Baker—who didn’t allow a touchdown in either of the past two seasons at Georgia—will start from Day 1 for the Giants, and he’s a very stick cover man that can frustrate receivers on the perimeter. Despite being selected in the late first round (No. 30 overall), Baker was the first corner off the board in April’s draft, and I think like Tre’Davious White (2017) and Jaire Alexander (2018) before him, he will be prove to be an impact player that shouldn’t have been around in the back half of Round 1.
Dexter Lawrence, Giants DL (7)
New York has a very promising core of young defenders with Lawrence (21) and Baker (just turned 22 a couple of days ago) joining the team as starters alongside Lorenzo Carter (23), Jabrill Peppers (23), B.J. Hill (24), Dalvin Tomlinson (25), and others. Overall, the Giants are in excellent hands, and against three teams that want to run the ball in the NFC East, Lawrence will help lead a stout defensive front.
A.J. Brown, Titans WR (9)
Brown is currently listed as a second-team receiver behind Tajae Sharpe, but he missed most of camp with a hamstring injury, and it shouldn’t take long for him to not only supplant Sharpe in the starting lineup, but also potentially take over as Tennessee’s No. 1 target. The Ole Miss product has tremendous size, but he is very smooth and possesses natural receiving skills with the ability to run a variety of routes.
Brian Burns, Panthers OLB (10)
The rookie report is heavy on defense, but that shouldn’t be a surprise because this year’s draft class was undoubtedly better on that side of the ball. Burns is a slippery edge defender that had 9.5 sacks as a true freshman for Florida State, and he could draw a start in his NFL debut with Bruce Irvin (hamstring) already ruled out for the Panthers. I have a preference for 3-4 alignments, and it will be fun to see how Ron Rivera implements the new scheme with a guy like Burns being able to get after the quarterback or drop back in coverage.
Daniel Jones, Giants QB (18)
Jones is the only player on the rookie report that was drafted higher than I had him ranked, but compared to the rest of the industry, I viewed the No. 6 overall pick way more favorably than everyone else. Just like Josh Allen (the Bills quarterback) last year, it’s like people decided to look at box scores to formulate their opinion and didn’t bother watching a second of tape. Last November’s Clemson game is the biggest example, as Jones was 24/43 for 158 yards, zero touchdowns, and zero interceptions—but the game actually sold me on him as a franchise quarterback because of the toughness and accuracy he showed against a defense loaded with NFL talent. The plan for New York is to have Jones sit behind Eli Manning in 2019.
Justin Layne, Steelers CB (19)
The No. 83 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Layne isn’t opening the year as a starter, but I think we should see him crack the lineup by November when Pittsburgh gears up for what they hope will be a Super Bowl run. The Steelers will likely need to face the Patriots (Josh Gordon), Chiefs (Sammy Watkins), or Chargers (Mike Williams) in the postseason, and Layne has the size/athleticism to match up with star receivers on the perimeter as a former wideout himself.
Jaquan Johnson, Bills S (23)
Johnson will need an injury to earn a role in Buffalo’s elite secondary this year, but he should at least be a key special teams contributor, and the rookie profiles as a player that can force his way into a significant defensive role in the future based on the things you can’t measure with a 40 time or vertical jump. I think Johnson may have been the most intelligent player in the 2019 draft class because of his ability to see plays before they happen at Miami, and that’s a trait that will translate to the next level.
Chase Winovich, Patriots DE (32)
He will start his career as a rotation piece on the defensive line, but bringing energy off the bench may perfectly fit Winovich’s personality—and I actually said in the pre-draft process that he could “be an immediate contributor for New England or another contender.” In addition to having a high motor to get after the quarterback, Winovich knows how to annoy opponents, which the Patriots may be able to use to their advantage if he’s smart about it.