2021 NFL Rookies: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The NFL’s 2021 rookie class has had its ups and its downs, but overall I’d say this class has fared well this season. The quarterbacks struggled a ton in the beginning of the season, some are still struggling through 12 weeks of football, but others are picking things up and climbing in discussions for offensive rookie of the year (OROY). This running back has been exceptional, from the full-time starters to the backups filling in, none have disappointed. The wide receivers have done well too, more specifically Ja’Marr Chase who is on pace for a record-breaking season. But the love cannot go all to the offensive side of the ball, the rookie defenders have had their success. One individual sticks out the most though and has appeared to have locked up his spot for defensive rookie of the year.
The last quarterback taken in the first round of the 2021 draft fell into the best system possible with Bill Belichick in New England. The Patriots shockingly cut Cam Newton a few weeks prior to the season beginning which meant Mac Jones would be taking the starting role in year one. Jones never necessarily struggled this season like his fellow rookies, but he has had his fair share of interceptions with 8, but he has thrown for 16 touchdowns. Week 12 against the Titans the Patriots won 36-13 and now sit on top of the AFC. Mac Jones threw for 310 yards and 2 touchdowns while completing 71.9% of his passes. Mac Jones is slowly cooking his way past Ja’Marr Chase for OROY.
Number 2 overall pick Zach Wilson is not only playing bad football, but he has had backup quarterbacks outshine him (Mike White, Josh Johnson, Joe Flacco). Zach Wilson led the Jets to their first win over the Tennessee Titans which shocked the league, but after that game Wilson went back to struggling and then going down with an injury. This week against the Houston Texans the Jets escaped with a 21-14 win. Wilson rushes for a touchdown and throws for 145 yards but adds another interception to bring his season total into the double digits (10). A win for the Jets is great, however Zach Wilson needs to improve his play if the Jets want to be able to become a competitive team.
The Bears traded up to the number 11 overall pick for Justin Fields in hopes of finding their franchise quarterback. Is it Matt Nagy’s awful coaching to blame, the terrible offensive line he is playing behind, or is it the curse of being an Ohio State quarterback coming into the NFL? We saw glimpses of Justin Fields in week 1 and week 2 as a backup and there were some promising signs from him. Week 3 Fields took over the starting job after Andy Dalton got hurt, and with Fields as the starter the Bears have a 2-6 record. Fields is a great versatile quarterback with his ability to get out of the pocket and make plays with his legs, but his passing has been horrendous. Justin Fields has 8 interceptions to 4 passing touchdowns, and has a 58.1 completion percentage, which is 33rd in the league… There are 32 teams in the NFL. The only two worse quarterbacks are Trevor Siemian and fellow rookie Zach Wilson. After a Thanksgiving win delivered by Andy Dalton, it will be intriguing to see if Matt Nagy sticks with the veteran or turns things back over to his struggling rookie quarterback.
The only first round rookie quarterback we have yet to see as a true starter this year is Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo went down in week 4 versus the Seahawks and Lance really shined. But when he got the start against the Cardinals week 5 it was not the same Trey Lance from week 4. Time will tell with Trey Lance, but right now it is Jimmy Garoppolo’s time to lead the 49ers.
Stud, difference maker, showstopper, and many other things can describe what Najee Harris has done this season for the Steelers. Many others and I doubted the thought of the Steelers drafting a running back in the first round with the state that their offensive line was in. I can say for myself and others, man we were wrong. Sure the Steelers haven’t been phenomenal this season, but Najee sure has heck has made a huge impact for this Steelers offense. The volume the Steelers have given Najee Harris is absurd, through 11 games Najee has 248 touches on the ball (196 carries and 52 receptions). This week in Cincinnati Najee was kept completely in check getting just 8 carries for 23 yards, and 3 receptions for 14 yards. This has been a common theme throughout the season for Harris, it seems the Steelers have found the perfect way to use Harris productively and then they stray away completely.
Along with Najee Harris this 2021 rookie class has been arguably one of the most productive. Javonte Williams has been splitting time with Melvin Gordon and could quite possibly be Denver’s lone running back in 2022. Michael Carter has been a fine running back as well this season, though he is not in a good system with the Jets and recently landed on the injury reserve with an ankle injury. A ton of credit needs to go to Elijah Mitchell, Rhamondre Stevenson, and Khalil Herbert for being as successful as they have been taking on the lead running back role while their respected teams main back was out with injuries.
“The ball is different because it is bigger, it doesn’t have the white stripes on the side…” These were the words from Ja’Marr Chase when asked about his preseason catching troubles. The Bengals drafted Ja’Marr Chase with the 5th overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft and despite the hate that the team received for not drafting offensive line, I think Chase in this offense has worked better than anyone expected. Last year Chase’s former LSU teammate Justin Jefferson lit the league on fire and Ja’Marr Chase through 11 games is doing the exact same:Justin Jefferson (2020)Ja’Marr Chase (2021)Targets7282Receptions5250Receiving Yards918906Receiving Touchdowns68
The LSU connection with Joe Burrow has been a huge plus to Ja’Marr Chase’s success, but it also helps that the Bengals offense is loaded with weapons. Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and Joe Mixon make it hard for defenses to put all their focus on stopping Ja’Marr Chase because any of those three guys just mentioned have the same capabilities of taking over a game. Ja’Marr Chase has easily been the best wide receiver from this class and is now neck and neck with Mac Jones for offensive rookie of the year.
But along with the running back group from this rookie bunch, the wide receivers have all around been just as good. DeVonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle, Kadarius Toney, Rashod Bateman, Rondale Moore, and Elijah Moore have all had their shining moments but nothing quite like what Ja’Marr Chase has done. Ja’Marr Chase truly separates himself from the rest with 3 of his own 100+ yard games (one of those being a 201-yard game), and the 6 wide receivers listed have combined for 5.
Arguably the best defender that was coming into the NFL this year fell into the Cowboys lap at the 12th overall pick, and he has been nothing short of amazing. Micah Parsons set a record within the Cowboys organization for most sacks by a rookie (9), mind you there are still 6 weeks left in the season! So far in the 11 games that Parsons has played he has combined for 67 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss (TFL), and 23 quarterback hits. The best defender in the 2021 draft class and he proves that week after week, Parsons now has his eyes on the rookie sack record set in 1999 by Jevon Kearse (14.5). No other rookie on the defensive side of the ball even comes close to what Parsons has done, give him the DROY trophy now.
Just because McPherson is a kicker does not mean he does not deserve the rookie love too. If there was a special teams rookie of the year award Evan McPherson would be a unanimous winner. The Cincinnati Bengals found a gem kicker in the 5th round of this year’s draft, kicking 83.3% on field goals and 96.7% on extra points so far this season. Week 11 against the Raiders McPherson had 4 field goals: three from 50+ yards and one from 47 yards, as well as three extra points. McPherson earned AFC special teams player of the week in week 1 against the Vikings, and week 11 versus the Raiders. This week against Pittsburgh nothing changed, kicking 2/2 on field goals and 5/5 on extra points, adding another 50-yard field goal to his season total (6).
All of these NFL rookies are just 12 weeks into their careers, and they have already put the league on notice. The offensive rookie of the year is between Mac Jones and Ja’Marr Chase, defensive rookie of the year already has the trophy made with Micah Parsons name on it, and Evan McPherson is making a case for a need for special teams player/rookie of the year.