Fri, 30 Oct 2020

TWENTYMAN: Top rookies Lions will face in 2020

Detroit Lions
28 May 2020, 20:25 GMT+10

Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray and San Francisco edge rusher Nick Bosa were immediate impact players as rookies last season. They won the league's Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, respectively.

Detroit saw Murray bring Arizona back from an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit to earn a tie against the Lions in his first NFL game Week 1 in Arizona last year. Detroit didn't face the 49ers or Bosa, but they watched him help San Francisco make it all the way to the Super Bowl in his first season.

Who will emerge as the top rookies in the NFL this year? Could the Lions square off against them at some point in 2020?

Here's a look at some of the top rookies the Lions will face in 2020:

1. Edge rusher Chase Young (Washington)

Drafted: Round 1, No. 2 overall

Young bio: The top pass rusher in this draft can play with his hands in the dirt or rush as a stand-up outside linebacker, which makes him a fit in any scheme. Young led the nation with 16.5 sacks and six forced fumbles in 12 starts last season for Ohio State. He was tied for fourth in the FBS with 21 tackles for loss among his 46 total tackles.

How it affects Lions: Detroit was middle of the pack in the NFL last year allowing 43 sacks. The Lions will look different upfront on offense with right tackle Rick Wagner and right guard Graham Glasgow no longer on the team. Some analysts think Young has the potential to be even better than former Ohio State edge rushers Joey and Nick Bosa, who both were Defensive Rookie of the Year winners and who have become elite edge rushers in the NFL. Left tackle Taylor Decker and expected starting right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai could have their hands full in this matchup against Young and the Redskins.

When Lions face him: Week 10 (Nov. 15) in Detroit

2. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown (Carolina)

Drafted: Round 1, No. 7 overall

Brown bio: Brown was considered the best interior defender in this draft as a powerful and explosive player who spent a lot of time in the opponent's backfield in college. He posted 55 tackles for Auburn last year and tied for the team lead with 12.5 tackles for loss. He also recorded four sacks and four pass breakups, and caused two fumbles.

How it affects Lions: Brown was on the short list of players the Lions probably considered drafting No. 3 overall, but they ultimately selected Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah there. Brown is a disrupter from the interior, and any quarterback will tell you the worst pressure they can face is pressure up the middle right in front of them. Lions center Frank Ragnow, and whoever ends up playing the two guard spots for the Lions, could be in for a good matchup against Brown in this one, both in pass protection and trying to push him off his spot in the run game.

When Lions face him: Week 11 (Nov. 22) in Carolina

3. Linebacker Isaiah Simmons (Arizona)

Drafted: Round 1, No. 8 overall

Simmons bio: Like Brown, Simmons was on the list of players the Lions most likely considered drafting at No. 3. He was the ultimate Swiss Army Knife for Clemson's defense the last few years, playing linebacker, safety and even rushing the passer from the edge. He can match up in the slot and run with the league's talented tight ends. Simmons notched 104 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, three interceptions and eight pass breakups last season.

How it affects Lions: It really depends on how the Cardinals use him, but the problem for Detroit in an early matchup like this is there won't be a whole lot of film to study. He and Lions second-year tight end T.J. Hockenson could match up from time to time, which would be fun to watch. The last time Hockenson was in Arizona he caught six passes for 131 yards and a touchdown.

When Lions face him: Week 3 (Sept. 27) in Arizona

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4. Cornerback C.J. Henderson (Jacksonville)

Drafted: Round 1, No. 9 overall

Henderson bio: He was widely considered the second best cornerback in the draft behind Okudah. Henderson is a smooth and fluid corner who ran the 40 in 4.39 seconds at the Combine. He defended 11 passes for Florida last season and had six interceptions over the last three years.

How it affects Lions: There will likely be some extra motivation for Henderson in this matchup to try and prove who the best cornerback in this draft really is - him or Okudah. Detroit has a talented and experienced receiving corps with a veteran quarterback in Matthew Stafford who will probably try and attack a rookie corner like Henderson early and often.

When Lions face him: Week 6 (Oct. 18) in Jacksonville

5. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson (Minnesota)

Drafted: Round 1, No. 22 overall

Jefferson bio: As a sophomore at LSU, Jefferson had 875 yards playing outside receiver. He led the country with 111 receptions as a junior this past year transitioning into the slot. He had 18 receiving touchdowns (tied for second most in SEC history) and caught a College Football Playoff-record four touchdown passes in the Peach Bowl and won a national championship this past year.

How it affects Lions: Jefferson steps in alongside Adam Thielen to try and fill the void left by Stefon Diggs, who was traded to Buffalo this offseason. Jefferson is a high-production pass catcher stepping into a good situation in Minnesota with a veteran receiver next to him, a veteran quarterback throwing to him and a balanced offense that can run the football. A potential Okudah vs. Jefferson matchup could be fun to watch in this one.

When Lions face him: Week 9 (Nov. 8) in Minnesota & Week 17 (Jan. 3) in Detroit

6. Running back Jonathan Taylor (Indianapolis)

Drafted: Round 2, No. 41 overall

Taylor bio: Taylor rushed for 1,977, 2,194 and 2,003 yards with 50 total touchdowns over the last three seasons with the Badgers. The Lions selected running back D'Andre Swift six spots ahead of Taylor with the 35th overall pick. Taylor ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at the Combine, so he has production and explosive big-play potential.

How it affects Lions: Detroit made a concerted effort this offseason to improve the defense, with a focus on being better against the run. Through the first half of last season, opponents were averaging more than 135 yards per game on the ground against the Lions' defense. Detroit was much better the second half of the year (96.1), but Taylor and a strong Indianapolis offensive line will test Detroit's run defense in the middle of the season.

When Lions face him: Week 8 (Nov. 1) in Detroit

7. Linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson (Jacksonville)

Drafted: Round 1, No. 20 overall

Chaisson bio: Probably the fastest player off the edge among this year's draftable pass rushers, Chaisson recorded 60 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and one forced fumble for LSU this past season.

How it affects Lions: Chaisson could really put pressure on tackles with his terrific speed off the edge. The Jags have lost a lot of pieces of their defense the last couple seasons, and Chaisson joins last year's first-round pick, Josh Allen, as the future for Jacksonville's pass rush. Chaisson is a versatile weapon, whether it's playing out of a two-point stance and rushing the passer or dropping back in coverage.

When Lions face him: Week 6 (Oct. 18) in Jacksonville

8. Offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs (Tampa Bay)

Drafted: Round 1, No. 13 overall

Wirfs bio: Wirfs will have the important task of protecting new Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady as the apparent replacement for veteran Demar Dotson at right tackle. Wirfs is a rare athlete and powerful blocker. He was voted the Big Ten's best offensive lineman in 2019 at Iowa, and according to Pro Football Focus, he allowed just two sacks, two quarterback hits and three hurries for seven total pressures last season. His pressure rate of 1.5 percent was one of the best in the draft class.

How it affects Lions: Wirfs will have nearly a full season under his belt when the Lions see him Week 16 in Detroit. By that point, rookies aren't really rookies anymore. The Bucs are expected to have an explosive offense with Brady, Rob Gronkowski and a terrific complement of receiving weapons on the outside. The big question mark is how well their revamped offensive line will protect Brady. Trey Flowers, Jamie Collins Sr., Julian Okwara and the rest of Detroit's pass rushers will certainly look to get the better of the young Wirfs, and try to disrupt Brady and the passing game in this matchup.

When Lions face him: Week 16 (Dec. 26 or 27) in Detroit

9. Guard/center Cesar Ruiz (New Orleans)

Drafted: Round 1, No. 24 overall

Ruiz bio: Started five games at right guard and played in 10 games total for the Wolverines as a true freshman. He was moved to center and started there the following two seasons, and was considered one of the top interior offensive linemen in the 2020 draft class. He was named the best pass-blocking center in the country by Pro Football Focus in 2019, with 447 snaps spent in pass protection and just eight pressures allowed.

How it affects Lions: The Lions will look very different upfront on defense with the additions of Nick Williams and Danny Shelton at defensive tackle. The Lions hope Da'Shawn Hand's injury woes are behind him and he plays a full season for the first time in his third year. Williams, Shelton, Hand and the rest of Detroit's interior defenders get their first crack at Ruiz and the Saints in Week 4, when Ruiz could still be adjusting to the speed and athleticism of the NFL game.

When Lions face him: Week 4 (Oct. 4) in Detroit

10. Defensive tackle Ross Blacklock (Houston)

Drafted: Round 2, No. 40 overall

Blacklock bio: Blacklock was widely considered one of the top interior defenders in the class alongside Brown and Javon Kinlaw. Blacklock tied for the TCU lead with 3.5 sacks last season, while his nine tackles for loss tied for second. He was tied for fifth on the team with 40 tackles, and recorded a tackle for loss in seven games.

How it affects Lions: This is the only nationally televised regular-season contest currently on the schedule for the Lions. The interior of Detroit's offensive line will look different this year, and it will be interesting to see if rookies Jonah Jackson or Logan Stenberg have worked themselves into starting roles or key rotational roles at this point in the season. Blacklock will certainly be looking to prove he's the best defensive tackle in this class in front of a nationally televised audience on Thanksgiving.

When Lions face him: Week 12 (Nov. 26) in Detroit

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