Top 10 NFL Rookies to Watch in 2021
A slew of rookies stood out in 2020. Justin Herbert and Justin Jefferson were busy setting records left and right. Tristan Wirfs made sure that Tom Brady had plenty of time to operate in a clean pocket.
Chase Young wreaked a bunch of havoc in the nation’s capital and helped elevate Washington’s D into one of the best units in football.
With the summer months approaching and training camps around the corner, who are the best NFL rookies in 2021?
Forget about fantasy football and dynasty rankings for a second and focus on who will provide the biggest impact on the field of play.
Starting at 10 and counting down to the top dog, here is my preseason NFL rookie rankings for 2021.
10 – Azeez Olujari, EDGE, New York Giants
It’s not about when you got drafted, it’s about how quickly you can adjust to a new system and how ready are you to contribute. That is what makes me love Olujari’s fit in New York.
The 50th pick in this year’s draft arrives in the Big Apple with a clear path to a starting OLB job in the Giants 3-4 scheme. At 6’3” and 249 pounds, he is essentially the identical size as Von Miller was when Miller entered the league.
Perhaps not as explosive with as noticeable of a burst, Olujari’s trajectory reminds us that he’s still an unfinished product.
After leading Georgia with 5.5 sacks as a RS freshman in 2019, Azeez racked up 9.5 sacks in 2020 and was 2nd in the nation with four forced fumbles. The Giants were quietly a top-10 defense this past season; tossing Olujari into the fray gives them another layer of steady pressure.
9 – Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos
My RB1 in the 2021 class throughout the pre-draft process remains unchanged as we turn into June. Javonte Williams is a three-down workhorse who is going to make fans in Mile High forget that Melvin Gordon even existed.
It’s easy to marvel at Williams’ video-game-like stats with the Tar Heels, but I dug a little deeper.
A whopping 40.3% of Javonte’s touches during his career in North Carolina resulted in either a first down or a touchdown. That is more than anyone else in college football since the start of 2017.
For perspective, Najee Harris was second (34.6%) and Travis Etienne (34.2%) was third. In terms of breaking tackles, Williams was the best at that, too.
|Missed Tackles Forced Per Attempt Since 2017 (Per PFF)|
|1 – Javonte Williams||0.39|
|2 – Travis Etienne||0.32|
|3 – Trey Sermon||0.32|
|4 – Najee Harris||0.29|
|5 – Michael Carter||0.28|
Something tells me Denver did not trade up in round two just to add a rotational piece to their running back room. I am expecting 15+ touches per game and a whole lot of production.
8 – Penei Sewell, OT, Detroit Lions
It will be difficult to shine as an offensive lineman playing in Detroit, however, Sewell’s proficiency at his craft will be impossible to deny.
Some are concerned that opting out in 2020 means Penei will need time adjusting to NFL speed – I have little qualms. His head coach is not concerned at all.
Dan Campbell plans on sliding Sewell in at right tackle and hopes that Frank Ragnow’s work ethic starts rubbing off. Sewell’s rare blend of size and athleticism has him lined up to evolve into a perennial Pro Bowler.
7 – Jamin Davis, LB, Washington Football Team
Talk about walking into a plus-situation, Jamin Davis has a red carpet rolled out to have a huge year in D.C. Washington anchors the #2 spot in my NFL defense power rankings on the heels of The Football Team deploying the top front-four in the league.
Set to assume one of Ron Rivera’s starting linebacker positions, Davis can play inside or out after a breakout year in Lexington.
The First-Team All-SEC linebacker does not have a whole lot of film (11 career starts), but he demonstrated a distinct initiative to track down ball carriers at all costs.
He was excellent in coverage consistently flashing the speed and range necessary to blanket tight ends (3 interceptions in 2020).
Surpassing 100 tackles as a rookie while providing a presence as a blitzer isn’t out of the question.
6 – Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami Dolphins
After wrecking ACC protection schemes just down the road in Coral Gables, Jaelan Phillips makes the short trip north to link up with a burgeoning Dolphins defense.
Miami led the NFL in turnovers forced and third-down defense; they were 5th in points allowed. On the flip side, the Phins clocked in 18th in hurries and 17th in QB knockdowns.
Entering the draft in need of a more reliable pass rush, fans in South Beach should be stoked that Phillips fell into their lap.
The way Chris Grier has constructed this defense should leave Phillips with plenty of one-on-one matchups on the edge. Look for the 6’5” 260-pound rookie DE to take full advantage.
5 – Rashawn Slater, OT, Los Angeles Chargers
Pegging Rashawn Slater ahead of Penei Sewell in my 2021 NFL rookie rankings isn’t necessarily me saying that “Slater’s better than Sewell.” It is me assessing the situation in LA vs. Detroit and considering the “end of the day” contributions.
The Lions offense is likely to be among the worst in the league. The Chargers offense is brimming with talent and will benefit greatly from plugging Slater in at left tackle.
Rashawn plays balanced and upright and uses heavy hands and agile footwork to seal off the edge.
Slater gets a big test in week one in a matchup against Chase Young, although it won’t be the first time the Bolts new left tackle squares off against the reigning DROY.
Chargers @ Washington in Week 1 👀 Rashawn Slater vs Chase Young 🍿May 12, 2021
So far, it’s Slater 1, Young 0.
4 – Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons
They don’t call this guy the “Unicorn” for nothing. The highest-graded skill-position player in the history of PFF, Kyle Pitts is being considered a top-4 NFL tight end before he even steps foot on the gridiron.
Rather than rehash his insane measurables that have already been well documented, let’s key in on how Arthur Smith is likely to utilize his uncanny skillset.
Don’t think of a traditional tight end – think of a faster and more versatile version of Darren Waller.
As for what Kyle brings to the table in year one in Atlanta, there will be tons of attention keyed in on not letting Julio and Calvin get loose on the perimeter. That leaves Pitts in the seams against safeties and nickel corners.
I can see Matt Ryan’s saliva dripping from here.
3 – Zaven Collins, LB, Arizona Cardinals
One of my NFL hot takes in 2021 is that Zaven Collins wins the 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year. He is the most polished and complete linebacker in the rookie class. He’s also getting to work behind a pass rush armed with Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt.
Penciled in as a starter on Arizona’s defense from the start, it is hard to come up with any legitimate scenarios of Collins failing.
Under the radar to some due to playing in the American Conference, there’s plenty of stats and videos that display Zaven’s natural abilities.
Maybe the best way to sum up his capability as a three-down linebacker is to simply list some of his accolades from his 2020 season.
- 2020 Lombardi Award Winner
- 2020 Bednarik Award Winner
- 2020 Nagurski Trophy Winner
That is the short way of saying Collins was the best defensive player in college football this past year.
2 – Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Even with Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd both commanding targets, Ja’Marr Chase will have no issues putting up big numbers in year one.
Chase’s rapport with Joe Burrow is impossible to deny – the Bengals new #1 wideout caught 84 passes for 1,780 yards (21.2 yards/reception) as a sophomore in Baton Rouge. 20 of those went for touchdowns.
Here is another tidbit highlighting how dangerous of a weapon Ja’Marr can be.
Ja’Marr Chase has the most receiving TDs on throws 20+ yards downfield in college football the last 2 seasons with 14. He only played one of those seasons, and Joe Burrow was his QB👀May 19, 2021
Passing on an offensive tackle at #5 given the Bengals’ desperate need for help in the trenches was not a sign of the front office being naïve or foolish. It is a direct reflection on the impact they expect Ja’Marr to have in Cincy.
1 – Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
I hate just about every decision Urban Meyer has made since taking over as the Jags head honcho. Luckily for Urban, Trevor’s superiority will cover up a lot of Meyer’s mistakes.
And thankfully for Lawrence, Darrell Bevell arrives as the OC with a systematic scheme that will allow his young QB to spread his wings from the outset.
Bevell incorporated lots of play-action passing when he worked with Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford – expect more of the same now partnered up with the top quarterback prospect in the last 40 years.
From being the first true freshman to receive a 90+ grade at PFF to the guy who was locked in as the first pick for multiple years, I don’t throw around the phrase surefire prospect often.
Talking about Trevor Lawrence is one of the rare exceptions.
Ranking the Best NFL Rookies in 2021
I did not forget about the other quarterbacks who went in round one. I just did not bother trying to be “sexy” when I was unveiling my first edition of NFL rookie rankings.
This was about evaluating talent and forecasting how players will be used. That is why you see a couple of second-round selections and a pair of offensive linemen – guys who might not be advertised in other rookie rankings.
If you want some insight into some of the rookie sleepers, check out the blog below.