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Sizing Up NFL Rookies That Flopped In 2020

2020 was a great season for some rookies around the NFL. Justin Jefferson set the rookie receiving yards record. Justin Herbert said a huge year for the Chargers. James Robinson earned the lead-back role in Jacksonville from the start and through Week 15 was the overall RB4 in PPR.

But not every rookie was able to adapt to the NFL during this strange year where there wasn't a normal offseason/preseason. Players we expected decent numbers from struggled. But, why?

Let's look at some of the rookies whose 2020 seasons didn't really work and address why they flopped and what we should think of them going forward.

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Henry Ruggs III (WR, LV)

What Happened?

Derek Carr is probably not the right quarterback for Ruggs, but looks like he'll have to make do.

Carr was 15th in air yards per attempt this season and 14th in deep-ball completion percentage. While those numbers are improvements from Carr's 2019 numbers, they weren't huge improvements when you factor in that the Raiders added a speed threat in Ruggs.

Ruggs has some pretty insane workout metrics. Per Player Profiler:

Ruggs ended up leading all receivers in average target separation. He had plenty of space to work in and was second in the league in average target distance.

But his 14 deep targets ranked 40th among wide receivers. He was 59th in total air yards. And while he was third among receivers in yards per reception, he was only 79th in yards per route run.

It wasn't all the quarterback's fault. Ruggs's true catch rate was 104th among receivers. His target quality ranked first, so the targets he was getting were good. He should have done more with them.

Ruggs might never be someone who can succeed in short-yardage or the red zone, so he needs to be among the league leaders in deep targets every year to maximize his production.

Now What?

I mean, read that last sentence again: he needs to be among the league leaders in deep targets every year to maximize his production.

Will that happen? Maybe not all the way, but we have to assume Ruggs gets more usage next year, even with Carr at QB. Jon Gruden's not just going to sit back and let his team use Ruggs in suboptimal ways two years in a row. If he can continue to get elite separation from defensive backs, he'll find success in the NFL. I'm going to want to have Ruggs on a lot of fantasy teams next year because I think people will go into 2021 far too low on him.

 

Jalen Reagor (WR, PHI)

What Happened?

The Eagles quarterback situation was a mess; also, Reagor was hurt.

A thumb injury in Week 2 kept Reagor out until Week 8. When he returned, he didn't have more than 52 yards in a game or more than five receptions.

But the Eagles also were struggling to pass the ball. They ended 2020 with the fifth-fewest passing yards, second-most interceptions, worst net yards per attempt, and just 22 passing touchdowns, with seven of those going to backs and tight ends.

The team's best passing moments came while Reagor was sidelined. By the time he returned, we'd solidly entered the "what is wrong with Carson Wentz" period, followed by the "Jalen Hurts is now starting and is a fun quarterback but doesn't pass the ball enough to sustain all these weapons" period. I don't really want to blame Reagor for that.

Now What?

I don't know. Philly enters the offseason with so much uncertainty. If Hurts is the starter next year, Reagor might have another season where he doesn't post the kinds of numbers that his fantasy managers want to see. Of course, we could see this receiving corps shortened in the offseason, giving Reagor a clearer path to snaps and helping ensure 2021 is an improvement over 2020.

Or, the Eagles could decide to bring Wentz back as the starter. That likely would boost Reagor's numbers more, making him someone I'd target as my WR4.

 

Van Jefferson (WR, LAR)

What Happened?

The offense wasn't as good as it's been in the past and Jefferson couldn't beat out Josh Reynolds.

We've gotten used to the Rams having three solid fantasy receivers with Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Brandin Cooks. But Jared Goff's yards per game dropped to his lowest mark since 2017 this year and the tight end position was used more, which left little room for a third receiver.

Adding to the difficulty for Jefferson was that Josh Reynolds was targeted 81 times. Reynolds took at least half of the offensive snaps for the Rams in all but one game. Jefferson took over 50 percent of the snaps once, in the season finale. That was also his most-targeted game of the year, as he was targeted eight times, finishing with four catches for 50 yards.

It was a nice end to a disappointing rookie season...

Now What?

...but it wasn't enough of a strong ending to make me want Jefferson on my fantasy team in 2021. As long as Kupp and Woods are back, Jefferson's best-case scenario is to be the third receiver on this team, and while that could still be a decent role, I don't think Jefferson really proved at all this year that he should be considered a favorite to actually win that role in camp next year. Unless he suddenly goes out and plays a huge role in the postseason, he won't be on my fantasy radar next season.

 

Ke'Shawn Vaughn (RB, TB)

What Happened?

The Buccanneers decided to go with veteran backups behind Ronald Jones II.

Vaughn had a chance to earn meaningful snaps in Tampa, but then the team added Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy just before the start of the season. That left Vaughn in a tough spot. He played 10 games but had more than five carries just once.

That one game was a good one, as he had 15 carries for 62 yards against the Lions and also added a seven-yard reception. With Jones not available, Vaughn led the team in carries, even though it was Fournette who found the end zone.

It should be noted that Vaughn's first carries came with his team up 20-0, and he was used the most in the fourth quarter after the Patriots had rested their key players. And when Week 17 rolled around and Jones was back, Vaughn played three offensive snaps and had no touches.

Now What?

Lots of moving pieces in Tampa. Per Spotrac, here's the Bucs current contract situation at running back:

Vaughn is young and cheap. He's under contract next year, while Fournette and McCoy aren't. He's not as good as RoJo, but Jones also enters the final year of his contract in 2021. So, we can't just assume Vaughn will always be a lost cause in Tampa.

But until we see what happens in free agency, we probably don't want to buy in on Vaughn. He might end up being a sleeper once we get close to the season, but a lot of things will have to happen with this running back room before then.

 

The Tight Ends

What Happened?

Tight end is a notoriously tough position when it comes to transitioning to the NFL. You have to show you can block NFL-level defenders while also showing you can be a positive contributor as a receiver too. That's not easy!

The 2020 tight end class always had to deal with another issue: a lack of elite talent.

We knew coming into this season that this tight end class was one of the weakest we've seen in recent years. There wasn't a can't miss prospect -- probably because there wasn't an Iowa tight end in the class. Cole Kmet came in with some upside and had some impressive showings down the stretch, including a seven-catch, 41-yard Week 17 against the Packers, but Chicago used Jimmy Graham plenty because they trusted the veteran.

Harrison Bryant had a good game against the Bengals, but that was because Austin Hooper was out. Plus, David Njoku was never traded despite his demands. Teams like their veterans. Adam Trautman never got going in New Orleans because the Saints trust Jared Cook. The Patriots drafted two tight ends in Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi, but they combined for 12 targets and five catches. Asiasi's two catches for 39 yards and a touchdown all came in Week 17.

Now What?

The nature of the position is that the future of this TE class is brighter than 2020 but by how much? If we're exclusively looking ahead to 2021, I'd draft Kmet as a TE2, but no other rookie tight end from 2020 is anywhere on my radar.



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