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The Brandt Report

2020 NFL playoff picture: Rookies who will shape postseason race

You might not think of standout rookies playing starring roles on playoff teams, as the general perception of contenders is that they're full of savvy veterans. But a significant number of Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year winners also reached the postseason in their first pro seasons -- over the past 20 seasons, nine Offensive Rookies of the Year and eight Defensive Rookies of the Year were on playoff teams.

We're still four weeks away from knowing exactly which rookies this season will have the chance to play deep into January. But we can identify the rookies who are likeliest to take on a major role in the playoff race down the final stretch of 2020.

Below, ordered according to their ability to make a difference for their respective teams, are my 12 picks:

Cam Akers
Los Angeles Rams · RB

Drafted: Round 2, No. 52 overall

After serving as a one-man band at times while playing for a downtrodden Florida State program, Cam Akers is now part of a committee in Los Angeles -- but he could emerge as the lead back by the time the 8-4 Rams are done battling with 8-4 Seattle for supremacy in the NFC West. In Sunday's win over Arizona, Akers became the first Rams rookie to score a touchdown in three straight games since Todd Gurley did it in 2015. It's no coincidence that L.A. made Akers the team's first draft choice after cutting ties with Gurley last offseason. QB Jared Goff is at his best when the play-action game is clicking, which means Akers is in line to potentially play a pivotal role in determining the Rams' fate down the stretch.

Tua Tagovailoa
Miami Dolphins · QB

Drafted: Round 1, No. 5 overall

Of the three 2020 first-round picks to start at quarterback in the NFL this season, only Tua Tagovailoa is in the playoff chase. His performance thus far hasn't matched the highs reached by Bengals QB Joe Burrow (before his season-ending knee injury) or Chargers QB Justin Herbert, but Tagovailoa is 4-1 as a starter -- and he'll have a chance to make a real statement by helping Miami claim a playoff spot in a very competitive AFC field. The Dolphins should feel especially encouraged coming off his best outing of the season; despite dealing with a thumb injury on his throwing hand, Tua posted season highs in completions (26) and passing yards (296) in a 19-7 win over the Bengals. He also became the second QB in the Super Bowl era to log at least one touchdown pass and zero interceptions in each of his first five career starts,  joining Jeff Kemp.

The big question: Is he far enough along in his development to deliver if Miami's staunch defense gets into trouble against a remaining slate of opponents who are also jostling for playoff positioning? And if he struggles, will head coach Brian Flores again turn to veteran backup Ryan Fitzpatrick

J.K. Dobbins
Baltimore Ravens · RB

Drafted: Round 2, No. 55 overall


I know the Ravens have preferred to use a committee approach to drive one of the better run-oriented attacks in the league, but it's become obvious that J.K. Dobbins, who is averaging 5.4 yards per carry, is special. Baltimore should strongly consider giving him a bigger share of touches than Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards as the team attempts to salvage what has been a disappointing season by making a strong December push for a playoff spot. Don't be surprised if Dobbins plays well enough for the Ravens to consider releasing Ingram in the offseason to clear cap space and further showcase this year's second-round pick.

Antonio Gibson
Washington Football Team · RB

Drafted: Round 3, No. 66 overall


Let's start with a caveat here: There's a major potential hurdle to Antonio Gibson impacting the playoff race, and it's the turf toe injury that knocked him out of Washington's Week 13 win over Pittsburgh. If it causes Gibson to miss significant time as the team battles the Giants for the top spot in the NFC East, Washington could be in trouble. If, however, Gibson is able to return relatively quickly, he'll make a major difference. Gibson scored an NFL-high eight rushing touchdowns between Weeks 7 and 12, serving as one of the key factors in keeping Washington alive in the division. Kudos to Ron Rivera, offensive coordinator Scott Turner and anyone else in the organization who identified Gibson as having the type of rushing and receiving skills he'd need to thrive in a do-everything, Christian McCaffrey-esque role. 

Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings · WR

Drafted: Round 1, No. 22 overall

The last Vikings receiver to hit the ground running as quickly as Justin Jefferson ended up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Randy Moss. Speaking of Moss, Jefferson joined him, Anquan Boldin, Marques Colston and Odell Beckham Jr. as the only rookie receivers in the Super Bowl era to crack the 1,000-yard mark in their first 12 career games. (Interestingly, of those four to do it previously, only Colston did not win Offensive Rookie of the Year.) Jefferson entered the season with big shoes to fill in the wake of Stefon Diggs' trade to Buffalo, but he's filled them capably, joining Adam Thielen to help Kirk Cousins play at a high level and keep Minnesota alive in the playoff race after a 1-5 start. Now, the Vikings will need Jefferson to continue delivering down the stretch if they are to reach the postseason despite the uncharacteristically leaky play of Mike Zimmer's defense. 

Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts · RB

Drafted: Round 2, No. 41 overall

Jonathan Taylor was a model of consistency in his three years with Wisconsin, which makes his roller-coaster 2020 something of a surprise. He burst onto the scene with a 101-yard effort against Minnesota in Week 2, then his production slowed, and he landed in the doghouse after committing a pivotal fumble in a Week 9 loss to Baltimore. Taylor resurfaced in Week 11, hanging 90 yards on the Packers' defense -- only to then head to the reserve/COVID-19 list. Finally, in Week 13, Taylor put together a monster performance against the Texans, racking up 135 yards from scrimmage and leading Frank Reich to praise him for running with decisiveness and confidence. The Colts are trying to take pressure off 39-year-old QB Philip Rivers, which means Taylor will be key to their playoff push.

Alex Highsmith
Pittsburgh Steelers · LB

Drafted: Round 3 , No. 102 overall

Receiver Chase Claypool is having a nice rookie season, but he isn't the focus of Pittsburgh's passing offense at this point. More pressure will be on Alex Highsmith as the stretch-run replacement for injured pass rusher Bud Dupree. Highsmith was largely off the recruiting radar coming out of high school, but he came on like gangbusters at Charlotte, posting 14 sacks in 2019, drawing high praise from Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who faced him that year. I think Highsmith is going to be a big factor for the Steelers if they do as well as I think they're going to do, picking up where Dupree left off as the pass rusher feasting opposite defensive stud T.J. Watt.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Kansas City Chiefs · RB

Drafted: Round 1, No. 32 overall

Clyde Edwards-Helaire flashed major talent in a memorable 138-yard Week 1 debut, reminiscent of ex-Chief Kareem Hunt's first pro game in Kansas City in 2017. However, Edwards-Helaire has crossed the century mark just one time since, while his workload dropped with the addition of veteran back Le'Veon Bell -- Edwards-Helaire didn't play in Sunday's win over Denver after suffering an illness last week. The thing is, in the Chiefs' pass-heavy attack, the rookie doesn't have to carry the offense; he just has to contribute when called upon, which he did even as his usage decreased between Weeks 7 and 12, scoring four total touchdowns on 53 touches in that span. It's not hard to envision him coming through with big play in a key moment as Kansas City continues to mount its title defense. 

Henry Ruggs III
Las Vegas Raiders · WR

Drafted: Round 1, No. 12 overall

Henry Ruggs III has already proven pivotal to the Raiders' playoff hopes, securing a game-winning 46-yard touchdown catch in the closing moments against the Jets last Sunday to keep Las Vegas from losing ground in the chase for a wild-card spot. That play, which also helped cost Gregg Williams his job as Jets defensive coordinator, is a reminder of the perils of not properly accounting for the speedy Ruggs in the deep passing game. The first wideout chosen in the 2020 NFL Draft has had an up-and-down season, but he's looking like an increasingly important cog for an offense that must produce to compensate for a shaky Raiders defense.

Jedrick Wills
Cleveland Browns · OT

Drafted: Round 1, No. 10 overall


No lineman will ever win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, but Jedrick Wills' ability to make a difficult transition from college right tackle to NFL left tackle -- without the benefit of a traditional training camp or preseason -- should at least put him in the conversation. Wills and the rest of the Browns' offensive line kept QB Baker Mayfield from getting sacked in Cleveland's 41-35 win over the Titans. Browns offensive line coach Bill Callahan, who has the reputation of being one of the best O-line coaches in the history of the NFL, should get credit for Wills' performance, while head coach Kevin Stefanski also cited the benefits of having Wills play next to veteran left guard Joel Bitonio. Wills has allowed just four sacks all season and ranks 14th among all NFL tackles in pass-blocking, according to Pro Football Focus, and he should only get better as he gets more seasoned.  

Isaiah Simmons
Arizona Cardinals · LB

Drafted: Round 1, No. 8 overall


Isaiah Simmons received limited snaps for most of the first half of the season -- then emerged in a Week 7 win over Seattle, grabbing an interception in overtime that helped decide the game. He later logged 10 tackles, one sack and two tackles for loss against the Seahawks in their Week 11 rematch. If Arizona is going to salvage a playoff run after falling to 6-6, the Cardinals are going to need more play like that from Simmons to supercharge a defense missing multiple starters, including injured pass rusher Chandler Jones. Encouragingly for the Cards, Simmons has been coming along nicely in recent weeks. 

Tyler Bass
Buffalo Bills · K

Drafted: Round 6, No. 188 overall


Successfully completing the transition from college to the pros is a huge leap for kickers, but Tyler Bass has already been a major difference-maker for Buffalo. Bass made six field goals against the Jets in Week 7, comprising the entirety of the Bills' scoring, and he's 7-of-7 in field goals over the past three games. Things figure to get even more challenging for Bass as the season intensifies, but his ability to make kicks will be even more crucial as the weather turns colder in Orchard Park. 

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