Rookie head-to-head matchups we're excited about following NFL's schedule release

Eric Edholm
·9-min read

The NFL was forced to do things backwards this offseason, conducting the 2020 NFL draft prior to the league’s 2020 season schedule release, given the uncertainty of things amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But we now have a pretty good idea of when some of the recent draft picks will square off, assuming their good health and learning curves work out favorably.

With that in mind, we decided it might be fun to look at the best rookie-versus-rookie matchups that could unfold during the 2020 season now that we know where they’re all playing and when:

Joe Burrow vs. Justin Herbert (?)

Week 1 — Los Angeles Chargers at Cincinnati Bengals

It appears, following the Bengals’ release of Andy Dalton, that Burrow will be the heavy favorite to open the season as Cincinnati’s starting QB. But we don’t know if Herbert can fight off Tyrod Taylor — especially if there is a condensed offseason, training camp and preseason — for the Chargers’ starting job.

But even if Herbert is the backup for this one, it will be fun to see how Burrow handles a Chargers defense that, by and large, was pretty good last season despite their 5-11 record. They allowed the sixth fewest yards and fifth-fewest pass yards a year ago, even if their interceptions (14th in INT percentage) and sacks (23rd in sack percentage) weren’t quite as lofty.

And another possible rookie storyline here could arrive if the Chargers’ other first-round pick, LB Kenneth Murray, earns a Day 1 starting gig. The last time Burrow and Murray faced off, LSU gashed Oklahoma repeatedly in the playoff semifinals last December.

Kristian Fulton vs. Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler

Week 1 — Tennessee Titans at Denver Broncos

When the Titans gave away Logan Ryan’s number last week, it was a clear indication they had moved on — which Ryan later confirmed on social media. And who got his number? Second-round CB Kristian Fulton, who at the very least figures to be one of the Titans’ top three corners. He might not be a starter outside right away, with Malcolm Butler and Adoree’ Jackson as returning starters, but Fulton could earn the slot role from the start.

We also don’t exactly know how the Broncos will roll out their new stable of pass catchers, but it makes sense that their first- and second-round picks, Jeudy and Hamler, both could see time inside.

Jeudy played 58.8 percent of his snaps in the slot last season, doing the majority of his receiving damage from the inside. And Hamler lined up inside on a whopping 89.3 percent of his snaps in 2019 for Penn State, with 51 of his 65 grabs (plus 80 of his 92 targets) and all eight TD catches coming from the slot.

How both teams choose to line up their respective first- and second-rounders remains to be seen, but we suspect there will be some choice rookie-on-rookie battles in this contest.

Isaiah Simmons vs. Antonio Gibson and DeAndre Swift

Weeks 2 and 3 — Arizona Cardinals vs. Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions

Really, Simmons’ Week 1 matchup against the multiplicity of the 49ers’ offense will be pretty telling about how the Cardinals truly intend to unleash the rookie. Will he follow TE George Kittle around all afternoon? Arizona had virtually no success defending tight ends a year ago.

But we also will be curious to see how Simmons is employed vs. talented pass-catching backs such as Gibson and Swift. These matchups might be a bit too early in the season to have a clear picture of how high their ceilings will be or how expansive their roles are for Washington and Detroit at this stage of the season.

Even so, we could see Simmons being asked to handle that responsibility in these games, as Arizona also struggled to contain good receiving backs last season. Facing Gibson and Swift, however, only could be an appetizer for what the Cardinals will see in Week 4 with Christian McCaffrey.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire vs. Patrick Queen

Week 3 — Kansas City Chiefs at Baltimore Ravens

It surely will be billed as the undercard to Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson meeting again, but we can’t wait to see this LSU-vs.-LSU rookie battle shake out.

And CEH and Queen faced off regularly at practice in college, of course. At the combine, Edwards-Helaire called Queen “an elite athlete” and credited his “relentless effort [in] practice” as a key to him developing.

Expect them to square off plenty in this one. The Chiefs could be handing off and throwing to the rookie quite a bit, and the Ravens were pretty good defending receiving backs a year ago. Adding Queen and his pass-coverage ability appear to bolster that group.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire hopes to flash the touchdown sign when he and the Kansas City Chiefs face off against the Baltimore Ravens and his college teammate, Patrick Queen. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Clyde Edwards-Helaire hopes to flash the touchdown sign when he and the Kansas City Chiefs face off against the Baltimore Ravens and his college teammate, Patrick Queen. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

A year ago, it would have been hard to imagine either of the 2020 first-round picks having gone in Round 1. Neither was a full-time starter for the Tigers in 2018, and Queen didn’t earn that role until several games into the 2019 season. But here they are, former college teammates who are expected to be key players for Super Bowl contenders.

“I feel like we were kind of in that same boat, just kind of being able to get the experience that we wanted and get the opportunities that we were fortunate to gain, and [we] made the best of,” Edwards-Helaire said.

Chase Young vs. Jedrick Wills Jr.

Week 3 — Washington Redskins at Cleveland Browns

With Wills moving to left tackle, he has a clear lane to a starting gig with free-agent addition Jack Conklin expected to be encamped at right tackle, the position he’s played predominantly over his first four seasons. (Conklin did take a combined 68 snaps at left tackle over his first two seasons, per Pro Football Reference, for what it’s worth.)

Even so, Young flip-flopped on the left and right sides of the defense in college and probably will be asked to do the same in the pros. So at some point in this contest, we expect the two top-10 picks to face off. And it will be their first time doing so; the last time Ohio State and Alabama met, both were in high school.

Another little subplot here: The Redskins engaged in trade talks with Cleveland for Trent Williams extensively, dating back to last year. Had Williams been sent to the Browns, instead of being traded to the 49ers on Day 2 of the draft, Wills might have ended up elsewhere.

Derrick Brown vs. Cesar Ruiz

Week 7 — Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints

This one is for the trench junkies. Brown was perhaps the most destructive interior defender in the country last season. Ruiz really made a name for himself as the Wolverines’ center last season, rising throughout the draft cycle. They were the two highest-drafted interior defensive and offensive linemen drafted, respectively.

Ruiz appears to be getting the first crack at the right guard job in New Orleans that was held last season by Larry Warford. Brown is almost a given to be a Day 1 starter for new head coach Matt Rhule.

On the outside, this matchup’s biggest storyline could be Panthers QB Teddy Bridgewater’s return to New Orleans for the first time as an opponent. But you can bet we’ll be squared in on Brown and Ruiz whenever they’re matched up.

Michael Pittman Jr. vs. Jeff Okudah

Week 8 — Indianapolis Colts at Detroit Lions

By the time the Colts arrive at Ford Field, Okudah will have faced a gauntlet of big, impressive wide receivers. Assuming he wins the starting job, Okudah could be looking at having had matchups against Allen Robinson (Week 1), Davante Adams (Week 2), DeAndre Hopkins (Week 3) and Michael Thomas (Week 4) in the first four games before Detroit’s bye, followed by D.J. Chark (Week 6) and Julio Jones (Week 7).

Nothing quite like a baptism by fire, if that’s indeed how it plays out.

Jeff Okudah and the Detroit Lions will face some tough wide receivers this season, including at least one gifted rookie opponent. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Jeff Okudah and the Detroit Lions will face some tough wide receivers this season, including at least one gifted rookie opponent. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

And Pittman will have had an extra week to prepare for Okudah and the Lions, with the Colts coming off a Week 7 bye prior to their game at Detroit. Okudah faced some very solid receivers in college, although nothing quite like the murderer’s row of wideouts that potentially stare him down early on.

Will the insane battery of head-to-head tests prepare Okudah for his matchup with Pittman? Or beat him down before the Colts’ impressive rookie arrives? We shall see.

Joe Burrow vs. Tua Tagovailoa

Week 13 — Cincinnati Bengals at Miami Dolphins

Burrow-Tua 3.0? We shall see.

This matchup of the top two 2020 quarterbacks drafted made Yahoo Sports’ Frank Schwab’s list of 10 most fascinating matchups, and for good reason. But we first need to see whether Tagovailoa will be cleared for action — and even if he is, will he stay healthy enough to start this game?

Tagovailoa and Alabama got the best of Burrow and LSU in their first matchup in 2018, but Burrow outgunned Tua in the 2019 thriller — a game we’ll be talking about for many years to come for its stakes, its star power and the meeting of the first and fifth overall picks in the 2020 draft.

Will this be the start of a Brady vs. Manning type of rivalry? That’s hard to say, though the fact that they might only meet every few seasons likely hurts that. But it will be fun to see both teams’ progress this season, especially if the rookie QBs are helping lead the way by this point.

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