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Week 17 Booms and Busts: Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins race up 2021 draft board

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The NFL will hand out the Rookie of the Year trophy in about six weeks, and Justin Herbert or Justin Jefferson is going to win it. It’s been a two-horse race for most of the year, in part because the rookie running back class got off on the wrong foot.

But don’t you worry about these young tailbacks. We’re going to have a ball with them in 2021.

Amid the madness and weirdness of an NFL Week 17, a couple of first-year backs zoomed to the head of the class Sunday. Jonathan Taylor exploded for 253 rushing yards and two scores over the hapless Jaguars, while J.K. Dobbins threw 160 rushing yards and two scores at Cincinnati. The heroics were well-timed, as the Colts and Ravens both won and secured playoff berths.

Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins. (Photos by Bobby Ellis/Todd Olszewski/Getty Images)
Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins made statements in Week 17. (Photos by Bobby Ellis/Todd Olszewski/Getty Images)

It took both players several weeks to get into a groove, but we’ve seen smashing returns of late. Taylor and Dobbins sho be Top 25 picks in any reasonable league next year, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see either one sneak into the first round. We don’t have to lock in on this stuff now, but they’ve both put exciting things on the tape — and on the stat sheet — in recent weeks.

For Taylor, the challenge was getting adjusted to the speed of the pro game, learning to read what a running lane looks like in the NFL. He stumbled through a nasty three-game stretch in early November — 24 carries, 61 yards — but the Colts never lost faith in the Wisconsin product. He’s been fantastic over the last six games, rolling up 741 rushing yards and eight total touchdowns. He’s averaging 6.2 yards per carry over that span, silly numbers for anyone.

Taylor’s 253-yard afternoon is something special, tying for second-best all-time among rookie running backs. Adrian Peterson hit the Chargers for 295 yards back in 2007, and DeMarco Murray had a 253-yard party against the Rams in 2011.

While Taylor was struggling to get his sea legs earlier in the year, Dobbins was struggling to get on the field. He didn’t see double-digit carries in a game until Week 8, and it wasn’t until late November when the Ravens finally bought in and started to feature Dobbins (finally accepting that Mark Ingram was no longer a viable option in the process). Dobbins found the end zone for the sixth consecutive game Sunday, and although he’s not seeing the same volume as Taylor, he’s rolled up 495 yards on 77 carries over that stretch, a juicy 6.4 average.

The Ravens haven’t fully unleashed Dobbins yet — he’s yet to see more than 15 carries in any week, and he has just 18 catches on the year. He was a useful receiver at Ohio State, but Lamar Jackson’s game sometimes seems at conflict with utilizing a pass-catching back. Assuming well-regarded OC Greg Roman sticks in Baltimore, you’d expect this to be addressed in advance of the 2021 season.

Get out your scouting notebooks, we’ll have fun watching Taylor and Dobbins through the playoffs. And we’ll probably be throwing proactive draft picks at them when August rolls around. The kids are alright.

Rookie receivers also finish strong

Taylor and Dobbins weren’t the only rookies playing a game of “Can You Top This?” on Sunday. A bunch of rookie receivers crashed the Week 17 leaderboard, too.

Start with Jerry Jeudy, who tossed a 5-140-1 game at the Raiders, a nifty bounce back after his five-drop nightmare last week. Look at him turn on the afterburners on his 92-yard touchdown catch. Jeudy is already one of the twitchiest receivers in the league, a devil to cover in space. The Broncos are loaded at the skill positions for 2021, it’s just a matter of coaching up Drew Lock or finding a different quarterback. I’ll be proactive with Jeudy next year.

The Steelers weren’t taking Week 17 seriously, but no one told Chase Claypool (5-101-1), who did just fine paired with backup QB Mason Rudolph. Gabriel Davis (2-107-1) remains a splash play waiting to happen in Buffalo, though the Bills have gridlock at the receiver spot, holding down Davis’ upside for 2021. Laviska Shenault (6-68-2) could be a fun sophomore breakout, especially if expected No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence hits the ground running.

And before we wrap on the rookie wideouts, we go back to the aforementioned Jefferson, who had an ordinary — for him — nine-catch, 133-yard afternoon. At least the Lions kept him out of the end zone. Jefferson rang up an even 1,400 receiving yards on the season, a new mark for rookies. Anquan Boldin (1,377 yards) held the previous record, set in 2003.

Jefferson will be a third-round pick at worst next year but could rise into the second round. Figure Claypool slots around the fourth round. Jeudy should be a fun target in the 5-7 range, with Shenault perhaps a round later. Davis goes down as a lottery ticket, for the moment blocked by a handful of talented teammates. But no one doubts he can play, too.

Speed Round

• The Lions offense was frisky against Minnesota (hail to Matthew Stafford, who played very well despite several nagging injuries), but eventually the Detroit defense proved too big a burden. The Lions allowed a whopping 519 points this year, the second-most all time. Then again, only snake-bitten Lions could draw a crucial penalty for (checks notes) making a routing sack of the opposing quarterback.

D’Andre Swift was another rookie running back who ended the year on a high note. He’s no worse than a third-round pick next year, perhaps a second-rounder. Despite some puzzling usage at times and missing three games with injuries, he caught 46 passes his rookie year, to pair with 521 rushing yards and a tidy 4.6 average. Only four other running backs (one of them another rookie, Antonio Gibson) had a higher points-per-touch return than Swift.

• Although the schedule sure helped, Seattle’s rebuilt its defense over the last two months. It’s a good reminder that our view of matchups and team strengths will always be a moving target, and it dips and flutters like a butterfly.

• No one knows if John Wolford will have a meaningful role in the NFL, but for one week, he wasn’t Jared Goff — and that was just what Los Angeles needed. The Rams have the best defense in the league, it’s just a matter of if the offense can sustain a few drives but basically stay out of the way.

• You don’t want to be too hard on Arizona after a loss to the Rams; the LAR defense is terrific, and Kyler Murray missed most of the game after getting hurt. But Kliff Kingsbury’s refusal to be creative with how he lines up DeAndre Hopkins is downright puzzling. The Cardinals make it as easy as possible for opponents to scheme against their essential downfield weapon.

Had Arizona made the playoffs, it might have been in spite of Kingsbury, not because of him. He’s also struggled with some rudimentary game theory and strategy during the year, stuff the 11-year-old Madden aces have mastered.

• It was embarrassing to see the Browns life-and-death to put away a Steelers team that was resting several primary players. This is likely Cleveland’s “happy to be here” playoff moment; they might win a game at most (I’ll be picking Pittsburgh, thanks), but they have no major upside yet. Keep in mind, at minus-11, the Browns have the worst point differential among the 14 playoff teams. Still, you have to walk before you run, and for the first time in a while, the Browns know they hired the right head coach. For now, that’s enough.

• A number of players who were targeting milestones and incentive clauses hit their mark Sunday — Derrick Henry, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Evans (before the unfortunate injury), Tyler Lockett, Minnesota’s Jefferson. I’m going to try to collect a list of these target players around this time next year, see if we can do anything with it. You can’t be sure of performance, of course, but it seems like most of the coaches around the league want to help a player make his desired goal, if it’s within reasonable grasp.

• The Patriots showed up against the Jets — never underestimate how much Bill Belichick hates the Jets — and coaxed a strong game from Cam Newton. Nonetheless, Newton is probably done in New England, and perhaps done as an NFL starter. Belichick isn’t playing for moral victories these days, it’s simply hoping for a 9-7 or 10-6 season; he wants to build another primary contender. A quarterback capable of driving this isn’t currently on the roster.

• Over Tom Brady’s final eight quarters of the year, he threw for 1,067 yards and 10 touchdowns. Pretty, pretty good. Even if Evans can’t go in the playoffs, this passing game finally has found its gear. Antonio Brown looked like a Pro Bowler against Atlanta. The Buccaneers travel to Washington next week, a fascinating matchup between an experienced name-brand offense and a young, nasty, emerging defense.

• Although Justin Herbert wasn’t facing the best of the Chiefs roster, also remember the Chargers didn’t have two of its best pass-catchers, Keenan Allen and Hunter Henry. Herbert has shown the ability to maintain poise in the pocket and sort through progressions, and he’s also excellent when plays drop out of structure. Cincinnati probably still feels good about Joe Burrow, injury and all, but if the 2020 class was redrafted, Herbert goes No. 1 overall in a second.

And the Dolphins have to be petrified they took the wrong quarterback; maybe Tua Tagovailoa will take a step forward in his second season, but at no time during his rookie stint did he look like a high first-round draft pick. Had Ryan Fitzpatrick been in uniform Sunday at Buffalo, he surely would have relieved Tagovailoa early in the game, as the Dolphins looked to save their fading playoff hopes.

• The Bears are probably in purgatory with Mitch Trubisky; he’s not good enough to earn a long-term commitment, but too interesting to just let him fly. Look for Trubisky to get franchised, which means “we don’t really know what to do, let’s buy a year and reevaluate.”

• Baltimore was the AFC favorite at this time last year; no one thinks that at the moment, although the Ravens did get hot at the end of the season. A favorable schedule surely helped. But check this sneaky piece of trivia; despite not winning their division, the Ravens lead the NFL in point differential this year, checking in at plus-165. This team still has an intriguing upside. Lamar Jackson has his mojo back, and a number of his skill players (notably Dobbins and Hollywood Brown) are surging as well.

Tennessee hosts Baltimore next weekend, a delicious matchup of last year’s shocking playoff upset.