By Anthony Treash
We saw several impressive performances from first-year players between Weeks 1 and 2, but this list has been shaken up massively after Week 3’s slate of games, from a late Day 3 draft pick skyrocketing up the rankings to the first appearance of one of the most popular players in the NFL.
With the help of Premium Stats 2.0, we present the highest-graded rookies in the NFL through Week 3.
1. G Michael Onwenu, New England Patriots
How about sixth-round rookie Michael Onwenu jumping up to the top spot? Over the first couple of weeks, Onwenu saw a good chunk of his snaps come in either jumbo sets or at right tackle, and he more than held his own, earning a 78 PFF grade over 51 snaps in that span.
Onwenu then got the start at left guard in Week 3 and had himself a day, ending with an 86.7 grade and securing a spot on the PFF Team of the Week. He allowed just one hurry across 32 pass-blocking snaps and was a people-mover for the Patriots’ rushing attack, generating an 83.6 run-blocking grade across his 37 snaps as a run-blocker.
Despite logging snaps at three different positions in three games, Onwenu has now produced an 87.6 PFF grade for the season, fifth among all offensive linemen regardless of position. It’s starting to look like Bill Belichick and the Patriots got themselves a steal.
2. WR Justin Jefferson, Minnesota Vikings
Jefferson had one of the most impressive rookie breakout games in recent memory this past weekend against the Tennessee Titans. The former LSU star produced a 93.8 PFF grade, earning PFF Offensive Player of the Week and PFF Rookie of the Week honors.
Jefferson’s dominant outing was the third-highest-graded game by a rookie wide receiver in the PFF era (since 2006). He caught seven of his nine targets for 175 yards, one touchdown, 78 yards after the catch and seven first downs, with five catches and 131 yards coming against single coverage — an impressive number for a first-year pass-catcher.
Jefferson’s production at LSU almost always stemmed from finding a hole in zone coverage as opposed to winning in one-on-one scenarios. And that’s what makes this performance all the more impressive.
3. DT Jordan Elliott, Cleveland Browns
For the third consecutive week, Elliott didn’t have any of those flashy highlight-reel plays. Instead, he limited mistakes, did his job and allowed his teammates to take advantage of their matchups. While he didn’t manage to record a QB pressure on any of his 14 pass-rush reps, he did get the better of Washington guard Wes Schweitzer for a pass-rush win.
That brings his season win rate to 11.3%, tying for 30th at the position and beating the likes of San Francisco’s Javon Kinlaw and Carolina’s Derrick Brown. And while Elliott still has yet to record a run stop, he currently ranks 11th at the position in run-defense grade because (a.) he has yet to be sealed out of a gap and has yet to miss a tackle, and (b.) he has had multiple defeated blocks that have caused some disruption for the ball carrier. It would be nice to see Elliott make more impactful plays from time to time, but you can’t complain too much about a rookie playing as cleanly as Elliott is.
4. T Mekhi Becton, New York Jets
Becton retains his spot at No. 4 after another solid performance in Week 3 against the Indianapolis Colts, even if he did leave with a shoulder injury. There was a lot wrong with the Jets this past Sunday, but Becton’s pass-blocking wasn’t one of them. The 11th overall pick produced an 86.4 pass-block grade for his efforts, the third-best at the position of the week, and he didn’t allow a single pressure across 20 pass-blocking snaps.
5. S Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Todd Bowles used Winfield extensively as a blitzer in Week 3, sending the rookie on 10 occasions over the course of the contest. The first-year safety out of Minnesota repaid his coach with a sack, a hurry and one batted pass at the line of scrimmage. Through three weeks, Winfield now ranks first among safeties in pass-rush grade (91.2) and pressure rate (36%).
Winfield has played well beyond his years in every facet of the game. His grade against the run, in the pass rush, in coverage and as a tackler are all among the 20 best among NFL safeties. His 76.8 overall grade currently ranks fifth among 79 qualifying players at the position.
6. RB James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
We hardly ever saw Robinson get work as a receiver in college at Illinois State, but Jacksonville is clearly making a point of getting him involved in the passing game, and understandably so given what we’ve seen from him in the open field. So far, Robinson has broken seven tackles on 10 receptions (second-most among backs) and is averaging 13.5 yards after the catch per reception (second). Through three weeks, Robinson’s 82.6 receiving grade stands as the fifth-best among running backs.
7. EDGE Chase Young, Washington Football Team
After producing the eighth-best PFF grade among edge defenders through the first two weeks, Young’s Week 3 didn’t go as planned.
The second overall pick suffered a groin injury just 13 snaps into the game, subsequently knocking him out. The good news is that it isn’t reported to be a serious injury that will cause him to miss a significant chunk of time. It’s unknown whether he will be available for Washington’s Week 4 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, but if so, the Football Team will need him to replicate the same level of run defense he’s shown over the first two weeks of the year. In that span, he was fifth at the position in run-defense grade, at 77.3.
8. QB Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals
It took him a couple of weeks, but the No. 1 overall pick finally makes his debut on the top 10 highest-graded rookies list after his exceptional Week 3 performance. The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback ended the game with an 86.5 PFF grade against Philadelphia, the fourth-best of the week, and he also had the lowest negatively graded throw rate of the weekend.
Burrow completed 31 of his 44 pass attempts for two touchdowns, 312 yards and 19 first downs, and the most impressive part of his day was that Burrow was able to do that despite being under pressure on 44.2% of his dropbacks, the fourth-highest rate of the week. He looked so much calmer when pressure arose, producing the second-best pressured passing grade of the week and making multiple big-time throws off-structure, just as he did routinely at LSU.
Burrow has been extremely sharp to the short and intermediate levels so far — he has produced a 91.3 passing grade on throws of up to 19 yards downfield, which trails only Aaron Rodgers for the best in the NFL.
9. G Damien Lewis, Seattle Seahawks
Lewis played just four snaps against Dallas on Sunday before exiting with an ankle injury, but the X-rays came back negative, and the 69th overall pick has a chance at playing in Week 4. So far, Lewis has been notorious for his wildly different play between his pass protection and run blocking, as he ranks third-to-last in pass-block grade but second in run-block grade.
Lewis is opening holes for the ground game as well as any guard in the league. His rate of positively graded run blocks is the highest at the position, and it isn’t particularly close.
10. T Tristan Wirfs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There are only 13 tackles in the NFL who have a grade above 73.0 as both a pass-blocker and run-blocker, and among them is Tampa Bay rookie Tristan Wirfs. The No. 13 overall pick has allowed just a 5.9% pressure rate on his true pass sets so far this season, 21st among all tackles, despite the fact that he has gone toe-to-toe with some of the league’s top pass-rushers. He allowed just one pressure to Cameron Jordan on 29 matchups in Week 1, and this past week didn’t lose a single one of his eight matchups with Bradley Chubb. Wirfs will have his toughest test to date in Week 4, though, as he is set to face off against one of the NFL’s pressure leaders — Joey Bosa of the Los Angeles Chargers.
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