When the Washington Football Team drafted the first eight players of the Ron Rivera regime, the expectation was to bring pieces the team could use to build towards the future. After seeing what the rookie class put forth during their first regular seasons, it certainly accomplished that goal. According to Pro Football Focus, Washington has the most valuable rookie class using its WAR metric.
Several of Washington's rookies have become key contributors on either offense, defense or special teams. Some have dealt with injuries or have not made their season debuts yet, but all have shown potential as being part of the core Washington will use to build a sustainable, winning culture. Here's how each rookie has performed:
DE Chase Young (Round 1, No. 2 overall)
2020 stats: 44 total tackles (32 solo), 7.5 sacks, 4 forced fumble, 4 pass deflections, 3 fumble recovery, 1 touchdown
The best defensive prospect in the 2020 NFL Draft has certainly lived up to the billing in his first season. Young has by far the highest defensive grade (87.2) on the team, according to Pro Football Focus, and the fourth-highest grade among rookie edge defenders over the past decade. Young is also a favorite among many outlets for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Young's best game of the season came against the San Francisco 49ers when he recorded six tackles, a sack, two pass deflections, a forced fumble and fumble recovery returned for a touchdown. Young was also named to his first Pro Bowl, becoming the youngest player in franchise history to receive the honor.
"Without talking too much about scheme, the bottom line is he's doing a great job," Del Rio said. "He plays hard, he works hard, he's a great teammate. He comes out with great energy every day. His numbers are going to come. We really just want to encourage him to stay the course and continue to be the fine young man that he is and continue to play with an edge."
RB Antonio Gibson (Round 3, No. 66 overall)
2020 stats: 170 attempts, 795 yards (4.7 yards per carry), 11 touchdowns; 36 receptions, 247 yards (6.9 yards per reception)
Antonio Gibson quickly established himself as the team's most productive running back. He's the sixth-most efficient running back in the NFL with a minimum of 100 attempts, and he's tied for seventh among running backs with 11 rushing touchdowns.
Gibson's development has stood out to offensive coordinator Scott Turner, who has noticed consistent improvement each week from the former Memphis Tiger. Gibson (toe) was inactive against the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks, but he made his return in Week 16.
"I just think his vision and natural instincts of running in between the tackles -- physically, he's always been capable to do that it's just a matter of getting those reps," Turner said. "The continued exposure to those types of plays is going to get him better. It's hard for me to say exactly how far along he is, but you can definitely see the week-to-week improvement."
T Saahdiq Charles (Round 4, No. 108 overall)
Saahdiq Charles was believed to be in contention for the starting left tackle spot, but he sat out most of training camp and missed the first five games of his rookie season with a calf injury. Charles finally made his debut against the New York Giants on Oct. 18, but two snaps later, Charles went down with a knee injury. Charles is currently on Injured Reserve.
"It's very difficult just because you see the promise," Rivera said. "Saahdiq played two plays and you see both those plays and you sit there and say: 'The guy is something else.' He blocked their best pass rusher on the very first play. He went down the line, and on the kick out block was in great position to create a crease and then he hurts his leg. You just sit there and say: 'Wow, this kid has potential,' but every time something like this sets him back.'"
WR Antonio Gandy-Golden (Round 4, No. 142 overall)
2020 Stats: 1 reception, 3 yards; 1 rushing attempt, 22 yards
Antonio Gandy-Golden, like much like Charles, was expected to contribute for Washington in his rookie season after a successful career at Liberty. Unfortunately, fans have only been able to see glimpses of Gandy-Golden this season as he's been on Washington's Injured Reserve list for most of the season. In his first five games, Gandy-Golden had one reception for three yards on four targets and one rushing attempt for 22 yards. Gandy-Golden was activated in Week 16 but did not record a catch on three targets.
Washington wide receiver coach Jim Hostler said Oct. 9 that the rookie wide receiver has done a good job but needs to develop consistency.
"He's in the same boat as the other guys. It's the consistency over time. It's easier to play a couple weeks as a young guy. No one knows you; you go out there, you're focused, you're locked in. It's the week-to-week [progression] in however many weeks that we have left that's going to tell you...how he develops."
C Keith Ismael (Round 5, No. 156 overall)
Keith Ismael has yet to make his NFL debut, but he has been a valuable piece to Washington's offensive line. Ismael adds a new layer of depth to to the group by being able to play all three interior positions. Ismael was part of the second offensive line during training camp and even played with the starters on occasion. Washington's offensive line has been banged up at various points this season, so Ismael's first snap could be on the horizon.
"He's done a nice job. We've put a lot on Keith," Rivera said Aug. 29. "We've had him not just playing the center position but playing both guards. Again, we talk about position flex, and he's showing that he can do both things. He's made some mistakes and he's had some mental breakdowns at times. But, with the amount of volume we've put on him, he's handled it very well."
LB Khaleke Hudson (Round 5, No. 162 overall)
2020 Stats: 14 tackles (8 solo), 1 quarterback hit
Khaleke Hudson has not played much in his rookie season, but he has been a useful special teams player, appearing in at least 80% of those snaps in 14 of 16 games. He received his first two defensive starts in Week 15 and 16 and recorded 11 tackles. He has also made aa distinct impression on special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor, who has noticed steady improvement from the former Michigan linebacker.
"When guys get opportunities, they shine. That's what we got from Khaleke," Rivera said. "I thought he did a nice job. Again, he's an athletic, young football player that still has a lot to learn. He got an opportunity and took advantage of it."
S Kamren Curl (Round 7, No. 216 overall)
2020 Stats: 88 tackles (63 solo), 2 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 4 pass deflections, 3 interceptions, 1 touchdown
Not much was expected of seventh-round pick Kamren Curl when he joined the roster, but he has quickly become one of the defense's most vital players. Curl made multiple interceptions in training camp, and since then he has exceeded expectations. Curl became the starting strong safety after Landon Collins was placed on Injured Reserve, and he has 88 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks this season. Although he did allow a touchdown against the Giants in Week 9, Curl also had a career-high 11 tackles.
Curl had one of his best games against the 49ers when he recorded seven tackles -- all solo -- a quarterback hit and his first career interception, which he returned 76 yards for a touchdown.
"Well, he's such a smart football player. He reminds me, obviously, of a young [Kendall] Fuller, a guy that can give you some position flex in case you have some injuries," Rivera said. "Or [if] you want to do some sub-package stuff because, again, here's a guy that is replacing a heck of a football player in Landon."
DE James Smith-Williams (Round 7, No. 229 overall)
2020 Stats: 10 tackles (8 solo, 2 assist), 2 quarterback hits, 0.5 sacks
James Smith-Williams joined Washington's roster after a solid career as a pass rusher at N.C. State, but it has been difficult for him to get in the rotation with five first-round picks crowding the defensive line. Still, defensive line coach Sam Mills III has been impressed with Smith-Williams' preparation.
"Well, James, first and foremost -- the intelligence jumps out," Mills said. "He's got a unique way that he approaches the game. It's not really like a rookie. Sometimes we forget that James is a rookie because he's got an old soul. He can play inside and outside, so he can do a lot of different things for you. You can play him in different packages. We're just excited to give him those opportunities."
Most of Smith-Williams' playing time has come on special teams, where he has impressed Kaczor and long snapper Nick Sundberg.
"James obviously has impressed his teammates. That's important," Kaczor said. "Sundberg being a seasoned veteran...and Nick is very smart. James plays a position on punt that lines up right next to Nick, so Nick knows exactly how these guys learn, their skillset and he can feel how much help he's getting from them. "