With the NFL’s regular season in the books, now is a good time to look back on the 2021 rookies and determine which players excelled at each position.
Mac Jones, New England Patriots, Pick 15
Stats: 3,801 Yards, 22 Passing Touchdowns, 13 Interceptions, 67.6% Completion
The 2021 rookie class had some excellent rookie prospects, but none played better this year across the whole season than Mac Jones. While the Patriots asked Jones to mostly function as a game manager, the rookie quarterback was accurate and careful with the ball. Jones’ steady play was a major factor in the Patriots returning to the playoffs. While the jury is still out on which quarterback is the best from the class, there is no doubt Jones had the Patriots in good hands this year.
Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers, Pick 24
Stats: 307 Carries, 1,200 Yards, 3.9 YPC, 7 Rushing Touchdowns, 74 Catches, 467 Yards, 3 Receiving Touchdowns
It is not a stretch to say Najee Harris was the most important player on the Steelers offense this year. The rookie running back touched the ball almost 400 times this year because Pittsburgh had a hard time moving their offense along any other way. Harris’ efficiency might not wow anyone, but it is clear the Steelers leaned on him to make plays and he’s a big reason they’re playoff bound now. Expect his numbers to look a lot better when Pittsburgh replaces their ancient quarterback and open up their offense.
Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos, Pick 35
Stats: 203 Carries, 903 Yards, 4.4 YPC, 4 Rushing Touchdowns, 43 Catches, 316 Yards, 3 Receiving Touchdowns
Despite dysfunction on the Denver Broncos offense across the whole year, Javonte Williams was a bright spot. The rookie running back made plays week-in and week-out for the Broncos, posting up big numbers despite splitting duties with Melvin Gordon. Williams hard running style immediately translated to the NFL and he should probably take on a more featured role next year.
Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals, Pick 5
Stats: 81 Catches, 1,455 Yards, 18 YPC, 13 Touchdowns
Ja’Marr Chase exploded onto the scene for the Bengals and basically never looked back. Chase was exactly the player Cincinnati needed to open up their whole offense and he did so with a rare blend of speed, yards after catch ability and physicality at the catch point. Chase broke the single game and single rookie season receiving records and helped the Bengals reach the playoffs. Not bad considering he just turned 21 years old.
Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins, Pick 6
Stats: 104 Catches, 1,015 Yards, 9.8 YPC, 6 Touchdowns
Miami’s passing game ran through Jaylen Waddle this year. It was clear the Dolphins wanted to exploit how dangerous Waddle is with the ball in his hands by getting him passes on slants, drags, screens and RPOs on a regular basis. Waddle broke the record for receptions by a rookie and looked dangerous all season. There was a some questions about Waddle’s durability after a lower body injury in his last season at Alabama, but he proved his health this year as he shouldered the load of the Miami passing game.
DeVonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles, Pick 10
Stats: 64 Catchers, 916 Yards, 14.3 YPC, 5 Touchdowns
The Eagles desperately needed DeVonta Smith to come in and immediately be a difference maker. The former Heisman winner responded by setting the franchise record for receiving yards despite the Eagles being the most run heavy team in the NFL. DeVonta Smith is already an advanced route runner with phenomenal ball skills. It will be exciting to see what kind of numbers he puts up as the Eagles passing game improves.
Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons, Pick 4
Stats: 68 Catches, 1,026, 15.1 YPC, 1 Touchdown
It is a rare occurrence for rookie tight ends to be immediate contributors. It is also rare for any tight ends to break the 1,000 yard mark. So consider a rookie tight end breaking that mark and you realize what kind of special player Kyle Pitts is. On a beat up Atlanta offense still getting comfortable with a new scheme, Kyle Pitts was always the best player on the field. His speed, size, and ability after the catch meant Atlanta could deploy him in all sorts of ways.
Rashawn Slater, Los Angeles Chargers, Pick 13
Everyone expected Rashawn Slater to be a day one difference maker and he did not disappoint. Despite missing his final season at Northwestern, Slater did not miss a beat in the NFL and was instantly the best player on the Chargers line. His prowess as a pass blocker is a huge factor in Justin Herbert’s big leap. The Chargers and Justin Herbert should be thrilled with what they have in Rashawn Slater.
Penei Sewell, Detroit Lions, Pick 7
Penei Sewell was pegged as a blue chip player in last year’s draft and delivered like one. While there was not much to be excited about in the Lions season this year, Sewell’s immediate impact at right tackle was notable. The Lions have some building blocks on offense to be excited about and Penei Sewell is going to be the most important one.
Landon Dickerson, Philadelphia Eagles, Pick 37
It took a few weeks for Landon Dickerson to settle in at guard. He was coming off injury, switching to guard after playing center at Alabama, and was part of an injured and shuffled around Eagles offensive line week after week. However, once Landon Dickerson got comfortable and the Eagles started running the ball… everything changed. Dickerson became one of the best all-around guards in the league and certainly one of the better running blocking offensive linemen. His strength, physicality and athleticism played a massive role in the Eagles becoming the best rushing offense in the NFL. It is not a stretch to say Dickerson was crucial in the team’s surprise run to the playoffs.
Trey Smith, Kansas City Chiefs, Pick 226
The Kansas City Chiefs struck gold with Trey Smith in the sixth round. The rookie guard quickly developed into a game changing run blocker. While the Chiefs offense had some growing pains in the early part of the year with so many new pieces on their offensive line, everything changed once all the young guys clicked. Trey Smith looks like one of the best picks in the draft so far.
Creed Humphrey, Kansas City Chiefs, Pick 63
Another outstanding pick by Kansas City, Creed Humphrey was arguably the best center in the AFC this year. Humphrey’s steadiness as a pass blocker has been huge for the Chiefs and will be crucial in their playoff run. Him and Trey Smith are going to be key pieces in Kansas City’s offense for a long time.
Offensive Player of the Year: Ja’Marr Chase
Who else? This rookie class has a ton of really impressive players on the offensive side of the ball, but it is hard to deny that Ja’Marr Chase stands head and shoulders above his fellow first years. Not only did Ja’Marr Chase go from missing a year at LSU to breaking rookie receiving records, but he really changed the whole outlook for the Cincinnati Bengals and their offense. After Joe Burrow’s rookie year was cut short by a knee injury, there were all sorts of questions about Cincinnati’s ability to protect Burrow and give him the necessary supporting cast to propel the team to the next level.
Many criticized the drafting of Ja’Marr Chase, who dominated college football when he played with Joe Burrow at LSU. There were plenty who thought drafting a wide receiver wouldn’t help the Bengals take another step when they couldn’t protect Burrow. Well, it turns out when you can draft a guy who is truly special at wide receiver, your quarterback will thank you. Chase has been one of the best players in the whole league this season and the Bengals are in the playoffs because of it.