Sunday, February 25, 2024

Ranking most important rookies in 2024 AFC, NFC championships: Lions’ Jahmyr Gibbs, Sam LaPorta are key

Football is a young man’s game, they say. And this year’s NFL playoffs are backing that up. Not only did this postseason include the league’s youngest team in the Green Bay Packers and a star rookie quarterback in the Houston TexansC.J. Stroud, but some of the biggest X-factors going into Sunday’s AFC and NFC championships are first-year players.

Here’s our ranking of the most important rookies still in the hunt for a Lombardi Trophy:

6. Jake Moody, K, San Francisco 49ers

The third-round pick was solid this year, finishing 21 of 25 on field-goal tries (84%), but he notably missed two kicks in Week 18, then had a 48-yarder blocked by the Packers. If the 49ers find themselves in a tight one, his role could be vital. Just ask Bills fans, who watched Tyler Bass send a 44-yard potential game-tying kick wide right against the Chiefs.

5. Brian Branch, S, Detroit Lions

Detroit’s defense gets plenty of criticism, but Branch’s versatility on the back end deserves props. He’s logged at least one pass deflection in eight of his last nine games, playing a significant role alongside veteran C.J. Gardner-Johnson. He was all over the field against the Buccaneers, logging nine tackles — two for loss — and a sack of Baker Mayfield.

4. Zay Flowers, WR, Baltimore Ravens

Mark Andrews‘ return at tight end could change where Lamar Jackson looks as a passer, but even when Isaiah Likely was on the field late this year, Flowers remained Baltimore’s most reliable starter out wide, showcasing elite change-of-direction ability. His numbers against the Texans weren’t gaudy (four catches for 41 yards), but he’ll be even more important against the Chiefs.

3. Sam LaPorta, TE, Detroit Lions

As long as Amon-Ra St. Brown is on the field, the Lions offense is dangerous. But LaPorta has been Jared Goff’s safety valve for much of 2023, and yet another week removed from injury, he returned to a major role against the Buccaneers in the wild-card round, securing nine passes for 65 yards to help keep the chains moving.

2. Rashee Rice, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

Patrick Mahomes spent much of 2023 frustrated over the Chiefs’ lack of reliable options on the perimeter. But Rice has really emerged as a downfield threat, starring against the Miami Dolphins (eight catches for 130 yards and a touchdown) to prove he’s got the separation skills of a No. 1. He wasn’t nearly as splashy against the Bills but still secured all four of his targets.

1. Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Detroit Lions

The shifty rookie is just one piece of a balanced Lions attack, often ceding touches to the more straight-line David Montgomery. But when he’s firing on all cylinders, he takes Detroit to another level, as evidenced late against the Buccaneers; his 114 scrimmage yards came on just 13 touches, and that was against a physical Tampa Bay defense. The 49ers are even stingier, but his usage could be instrumental to keeping San Francisco on its toes in the NFC title game.

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