No preseason, no problem: NFL rookies shine in strange year

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New York Jets offensive tackle Mekhi Becton (77) celebrates as he runs off the field after a win over the Los Angeles Rams during an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Facing fourth-and-goal at the 1 in the third quarter against the Los Angeles Rams, the New York Jets turned to veteran Frank Gore — along with rookie Mekhi Becton.

The critical play called for Gore to run behind Becton, a 6-foot-7, 363-pound left tackle and the 11th overall pick in the 2020 draft. Becton stonewalled five-time All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald and created enough of a hole for Gore to power into the end zone for his 100th career touchdown. It gave the Jets a 20-3 lead and was instrumental in their first victory of the season.

“It was great because that’s what I strive for,” Becton said. “I want to have everything on my shoulders. I want the ball to be behind me in clutch situations like that.”

Becton is among dozens of rookies who have made significant impacts this season, disproving the notion that losing preseason games and organized team activities because of the coronavirus pandemic would negatively affect first-year players.

Instead, they broke records and raised eyebrows across the league. Washington’s Chase Young, Los Angeles’ Justin Herbert, Tampa Bay’s Tristan Wirfs and Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson are at the top of what’s shaping up to be a stellar rookie class, a group that features several franchise quarterbacks, playmakers on both sides of the ball and quite possibly the best collection of offensive tackles in decades.

Young and Jefferson made the Pro Bowl, and surely more rookies would have joined them as alternates at the league’s now-canceled all-star game.

Young has 42 tackles, including 6½ sacks, and no play showcased his ability more than his 47-yard fumble return for a touchdown at San Francisco in Week 14. The defensive end scooped up the football as smoothly as a major league middle infielder, gripped it in his left hand as if it was a track baton and pulled away from everyone chasing him.

And that was only part of the big picture for the second overall pick.