Identifying early 2021 NFL Rookie of the Year candidates

By Andrew Buller-Russ

Since the 2021 NFL Draft has not happened yet, narrowing down a list of possible NFL Rookie of the Year winners can be tricky. A large part of analyzing whether a player will thrive in his new environment depends on many things such as his fit within a scheme or positional depth. Last season, a popular early ROY pick was Clyde Edwards-Helaire due to Kansas City’s lead back opting out. CEH had a great year, but it wasn’t quite the year many were anticipating.

Fueled by incredible rookies such as Justin Herbert, Justin Jefferson, Joe Burrow, Chase Young, Antoine Winfield Jr., and more, fans got to witness a special group of talent from the 2020 NFL Draft class. Even though the college football season featured fewer games than usual, the 2021 rookie class figures to feature plenty of potential. Some NFL Draft analysts expect as many as five or six quarterbacks taken in the first round alone.

While quarterbacks tend to dominate the conversation, the 2021 NFL Draft features a lot more than players who can throw a football. Let’s dive into some of the other candidates for the 2021 Rookie of the Year award.

Honorable Mentions for ROTY

Atlanta Falcons draft picks: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
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  • Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan – Strong run defender with a good motor and powerful bull rush
  • Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami – Draws athletic comparisons to Julius Peppers
  • Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech – Size/speed freak with impressive ball skills
  • Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina – Plays with competitive fire, Son of WR Joe Horn
  • Najee Harris, RB, Alabama – Offers intriguing mix of size/speed, great stiff arm, patient runner
  • Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson – Fast, runs hard with good ballcarrier vision
  • Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State – Athletic linebacker with very high upside

2021 NFL Rookie of the Year possibilities

10. Mac Jones, quarterback, Alabama

NFL Rookie of the Year, Mac Jones
Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of recent hype surrounding Mac Jones. It is well-deserved as he tore it up in 2020, but let’s slow down with the Tom Brady comparisons. Either way, Jones has the feel of a prospect set to hit the ground running as he enters the NFL. It’s no secret that Alabama traditionally does a great job of preparing players for the next level as it’s practically an NFL Draft factory. Jones is smart, accurate, and has plenty of experience both being around talent and playing in big games.

Read More: Mac Jones: 5 teams who are a perfect fit for Alabama QB in 2021 NFL Draft

9. Trey Lance, quarterback, North Dakota State

NFL Rookie of the Year, Trey Lance
Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

After playing just one game in 2020, there are questions about Trey Lance and his overall NFL readiness. While he appears to possess all the traits needed to excel in the pros, which team Lance lands with will be crucial to his early success. Lance is a dual-threat with a strong arm and has enough talent to blossom into one of the NFL’s next superstar quarterbacks. Draft projections are all over the place on the former NDSU D-I champ, with rumors linking him as high as No. 3 on draft day.

Read More: North Dakota State star QB Trey Lance set to declare for 2021 NFL Draft?

8. Patrick Surtain II, cornerback, Alabama

2021 NFL mock draft: 2021 NFL Draft: Los Angeles Chargers
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As the son of a three-time Pro Bowl corner, Patrick Surtain II has a high football IQ and plays with discipline. At 6-foot-2 and 203 pounds, Surtain II is a big, physical CB who is great in press coverage. Surtain Jr. could become the next player’s son to succeed at the highest level and has a chance to be the best cornerback in the draft class. A cornerback hasn’t won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year since Marshon Lattimore took home the honors in 2017, but Surtain Jr. has the talent to get it done.

Related: 2021 NFL mock draft – QBs dominate top-10 picks, big trades

7. Jaylen Waddle, wide receiver, Alabama

New England Patriots draft picks: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Credit: Gary Cosby-USA TODAY Sports

Some may doubt him due to his listed height of 5-foot-10, but Jaylen Waddle is a legitimate deep ball threat. A big part of that is thanks to his world-class speed. Waddle claims to be able to run the 40-yard dash in the high 4.2s, low 4.3s. Similar to fellow former Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs, who ran a 4.27 and went 12th overall to the Raiders, Waddle will be dangerous at the next level. Not only does Waddle have jet-like quickness, he might be the best kick and punt returner in this draft class.

Read More: Atlanta Falcons draft picks: Best 2021 NFL Draft targets, potential draft selections

6. Kyle Pitts, tight end, Florida

NFL Rookie of the Year, Kyle Pitts
Credit: Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

NFL personnel are gushing over the idea of adding Kyle Pitts to their team. At 6-foot-6, with a 40-yard dash time in the 4.4s, Pitts is the best athletic freak in this draft class. Imagine a taller version of Vernon Davis combined with Calvin Johnson and you end up with a generational talent like Kyle Pitts. Capable of lining up at tight end or wide receiver, any team would be foolish to pass on a player of this caliber. There’s a reason why he’s No. 2 on Sportsnaut’s NFL Draft Big Board.

Related: NFL Top 100 Players of 2021 – The GOAT is #1, Chiefs’ Kelce Top 10

Early sleepers for 2021 ROY award

5. Ja’Marr Chase, wide receiver, LSU

LSU WR Ja'Marr during game against Auburn
Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Ja’Marr Chase opted out of the college football season in 2020. It’s amazing that even though he didn’t suit up, he still finds himself in the conversation for the best receiving prospect in the class. It has been said that when compared to fellow former LSU Tiger, Justin Jefferson, Chase is the superior talent. With great hands and a knack for hauling in 50-50 balls, Chase would be the No. 1 option on most NFL teams. One evaluator even states Chase is the best WR draft prospect since Julio Jones.

Read More: Philadelphia Eagles draft picks: Top selections, ideal 2021 NFL Draft targets after Carson Wentz trade

4. DeVonta Smith, wide receiver, Alabama

NFL Rookie of the Year: DeVonta Smith
Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner, DeVonta Smith was nearly unstoppable for the Crimson Tide as a senior. Considered to be the top wide receiver prospect in the 2021 draft class, Smith is a shifty wideout with top-notch route-running skills. He may not possess the raw speed that fellow Alabama alumni such as Henry Ruggs or Jaylen Waddle have, but Smith is a lot more polished. Recent buzz has grown questioning his 6-foot-1, 170 lb frame, with skeptics suggesting Smith is too small. If he slips at all on draft day, expect a highly motivated version of Smith to exact vengeance upon the teams who overlooked him.

Top-3 pre-draft NFL Rookie of the Year candidates 

3. Justin Fields, quarterback, Ohio State

Justin Fields: New England Patriots
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As the latest successful quarterback to come out of Ohio State, Justin Fields has a lot going for him. Conversely, Fields enters the draft as a controversial prospect due to various concerns about his lack of experience, inconsistency, and tendency to stare down receivers. However, Fields has everything it takes to become a star at the next level, with a great arm, plenty of athleticism, and sky-high potential. Perhaps the biggest question is: which team will decide Fields is their ideal QB of the future? Many signs point to it being the 49ers. A dream pairing of Fields and Kyle Shanahan would set the Niners up nicely for the next decade.

Read More: Justin Fields: 5 teams who are a perfect fit for Ohio State in 2021 NFL Draft

2. Zach Wilson, QB, BYU

2021 NFL mock draft: 2021 NFL Draft
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Entering the 2020 college football season, the name Zach Wilson was nowhere to be found when discussing top quarterback prospects. Fast forward to a year later and Wilson has vaulted himself up draft boards, possibly going as high as No. 2 overall. Mildly athletic with the ability to throw from various angles, Wilson could become the 2021 version of Justin Herbert in that he has instant success in the pros. Will the Jets surround him with enough talent?

Read More: NFL Draft rumors: Four quarterbacks expected to be top-10 picks in 2021

1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

2021 NFL mock draft: 2021 NFL Draft
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As one of the best QB prospects since Andrew Luck, Clemson product Trevor Lawrence has long been under the spotlight. The top recruit going back to his high school days, Lawrence is projected to be a superstar at the next level. Pretty much guaranteed to go No. 1 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Lawrence is in line to be a day-one starter in the NFL. Can Urban Meyer coach Lawrence to become the 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year?

Read More: Top NFL Draft prospect Trevor Lawrence undergoes shoulder surgery, to be ready for training camp

Revisiting the 2020 NFL Rookies of the Year

The players from the 2020 NFL Draft class surpassed all expectations. Justin Jefferson and Justin Herbert broke rookie records. Joe Burrow gave Cincinnati Bengals fans hope until he suffered an unfortunate injury.

Chase Young became almost an instant force on the defensive line for the Washington Football Team. Antoine Winfield Jr. and Tristan Wirfs both started all 16 regular-season games on their way to winning Super Bowl LV with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It was an incredible display of talent from an incoming group of players who had no idea what to expect with their first foray into the league, despite having fewer reps than their fellow rookies before them.

Of course, Justin Herbert went on to win the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award and Chase Young won the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award with their dominant performances. Young was a popular early pick for the trophy, but Herbert was not as he entered the season as a backup.

Will we see something similar for this year’s upcoming batch of rookies? Will there be an early runaway or will we have some sleeper candidates fans did not expect to have such success?

With three preseason games expected to be played this season, at least we’ll have a chance to see the rookie class in action before the real games start. When the Dallas Cowboys take on the Pittsburgh Steelers for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, it will be our first opportunity to watch pro football in nearly six months, you can bet the world will be tuning in. For many NFL fans, August 5th can’t come soon enough.