NFL rookies faced challenges like we haven’t seen before for young players in the 2021 season, with COVID-19 wiping out rookie minicamps and preseason games. Things will be back to normal this fall and that’s great news for the 2021 NFL Draft class.
There are a lot of players to get excited about among the NFL rookies. Trevor Lawrence is a generational talent, this could prove to be a historically deep wide receiver class and 13 of this year’s first-round picks were offensive skill players. But even with a full summer of practices and training, adjusting to the NFL can be a challenge.
Let’s take a look at five first-round picks who may struggle in their rookie season.
Zach Wilson, quarterback, New York Jets
Zach Wilson sent his draft stock skyrocketing in 2020 thanks to a breakout season with the BYU Cougars. After racking up 3,692 passing yards, completing 73.5% of his passes and posting a 33-3 TD-INT ratio in 12 games, everyone knew he would be a top-10 pick. After his breathtaking Pro Day performance, Wilson was locked in with the Jets.
New York is already doing a much better job building around Wilson than it did Sam Darnold. Mekhi becton is one of the best, young tackles in the NFL and he’ll now be paired with Alijah Vera-Tucker, the best interior linemen from the 2021 draft class. Not only will the left side of the Jets’ offensive line be strong, but its receiving corps is improved with Corey Davis and Elijah Moore.
Fans need to temper their expectations. Wilson dominated the likes of San Diego State, Houston, Troy and UCF in 2020. Not only were his skills far superior to the talent on the opposite side, but he always operated from a clean pocket behind one of the most dominant offensive lines in the country. That’s not going to happen in New York. The Jets’ offensive line is average at best and this remains one of the weaker rosters in the NFL. Just don’t be surprised if Wilson makes a lot of mistakes and leads NFL rookies in turnovers this season.
Najee Harris, running back, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers telegraphed their first-round pick for weeks, if not months. Pittsburgh’s second-half collapse in 2020 was in part due to the team losing its ability to run the football, a key to their offensive identity for so many years. Recognizing Harris’s skills as a three-down back, it’s understandable why general manager Kevin Colbert fell in love with the Alabama star.
Harris can be a great player and he might have been the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year if he landed elsewhere. While being the workhorse back in an NFL offense is great for him, this situation is far from ideal. Pittsburgh failed to adequately address its offensive line in free agency or the NFL Draft, meaning this will be one of the worst units in the NFL. Harris has good vision and can break tackles, but it’s going to be difficult to make plays when defensive lineman are in the backfield before you can even secure the football.
Kadarius Toney, wide receiver, New York Giants
Dave Gettleman probably could have secured a bigger return in his trade down with the Chicago Bears, but we’ll give him credit for making a deal. With that said, the decision to draft Kadarius Toney was bizarre. He was certainly one of the most electrifying players in college football last season, but the landing spot and value are all wrong.
Toney is far more of an athlete than a wide receiver at this point. He couldn’t run crisp routes at Florida, primarily freelancing on plays and he struggled whenever a defender made contact with him. There are ways to work around those issues early in a player’s career, creative offensive minds have a variety of plays, motions and designs to get offensive weapons in space. The problem, Jason Garrett thinks a stick figure is too creative of a drawing.
New York could have drafted Kwity Paye to bolster its pass rush or taken a superior receiving talent in Rashod Bateman. Instead, Gettleman took a player who needs the right environment to thrive and threw him into a bad spot.
Kyle Pitts, tight end, Atlanta Falcons
Kyle Pitts is among the most exciting NFL rookies to enter the league in recent years. Many consider him to be one of the best pass-catching weapons, including wide receivers, who can make a huge long-term impact. There’s also more reason for excitement about Pitts’s potential role, given the Julio Jones trade rumors. But it might also be time to ease back on the excitement.
The over/under on Kyle Pitts stats in his rookie season are through the roof. Many think he’s capable of scoring eight-plus touchdowns and even eclipsing 900 receiving yards. That is more possible in a 17-game season, but there are also important things to consider.
For one, tight ends historically struggle in their rookie season as they adjust to the speed of the NFL. Pitts is certainly unique regarding his talent, but there will be an adjustment period. There’s also a ton of buzz about how Pitts will wit with Arthur Smith, a former tight ends coach. But as USA Today’s Charles McDonald broke down, Pitts is something Smith has never had before and he’ll need to learn how to use him.
Trevor Lawrence, quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars
There’s no question the Jaguars made the right pick, Lawrence is why Urban Meyer took this job. While he isn’t a finished product by any means, Lawrence’s combination of athleticism, arm strength and intelligence. The 21-year-old is the early favorite for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and there should be a ton of excitement in Jacksonville.
But all of this is going to take time. Clemson’s offense relied heavily on RPPs, screens and the running game with Lawrence under center. He didn’t operate in a pro-style offense and while play-caller Darrell Bevell does great work with quarterbacks, it’s going to take months of practice and game reps for Lawrence to really understand this system.
He’ll be playing behind an offensive line with two left tackles who surrendered 98 total pressures and 13 sacks last season. Lawrence will need to make decisions much quicker and that’s going to lead to some mistakes. It’s understandable why he is the leader among the NFL rookies to have a big year, but Lawrence is going to go through major ups and downs in 2021. With the Jaguars not contending, it shouldn’t be a surprise if someone else wins OROY.