Moving past the 2021 NFL Draft as teams approach training camp, we look at top picks to win the NFL Rookie of the Year award.
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 decent showing, but it wasn’t enough to become a Rookie of the Year winner.
Fueled by first-year phenoms such as Justin Herbert, Justin Jefferson, Joe Burrow, Chase Young, Antoine Winfield Jr., and more, fans witnessed 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 boasts plenty of potential.
Oddsmakers have set Trevor Lawrence as the odds-on favorite to win the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award, and that’s no surprise. The odds to win AP Defensive Rookie of the Year aren’t as clear-cut, with Micah Parsons as the early leader to win DROY and several other contenders nearby. With plenty of solid ROY contestants on both sides of the ball, the 2021 NFL Draft class has the potential to make history.
In some ways, the incoming rookie class is already historic. For the first time in NFL history, eight QBs were selected in the first three rounds.
While quarterbacks tend to dominate the conversation, the 2021 NFL Draft featured 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 NFL Rookie of the Year
- Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers – Violent runner, could bring the power-running game back to the ‘Burgh
- Patrick Surtain II, CB, Denver Broncos – Great instincts, smooth in coverage, should make an instant impact
- Jaycee Horn, CB, Carolina Panthers – Son of former Saints great WR Joe Horn, first defender drafted in 2021
- Kwity Paye, EDGE, Indianapolis Colts – Athletic with a strong motor, could be one of the best edge defenders in the class
- Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami Dolphins – Boasts strong pass-rush abilities, part of a strong defensive unit, could rack up sacks as a rookie
2021 NFL Rookie of the Year possibilities
10. Mac Jones, quarterback, New England Patriots
NFL scouts are all over the place when evaluating Mac Jones. 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. However, for now, he’s behind Cam Newton as the New England Patriots starting quarterback. But that may not last long, as Jones has been impressive so far. All eyes will be on Bill Belichick’s QB decisions in Foxborough as the regular season nears.
9. DeVonta Smith, wide receiver, Philadelphia Eagles
Though they won’t admit it, the Philadelphia Eagles are desperate to find their go-to receiver. Doubling down on first-round WR selections after taking Jalen Reagor ahead of Justin Jefferson last year, DeVonta Smith was a great pickup for the Eagles. The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner, Smith was nearly unstoppable for the Crimson Tide as a senior, leading to high expectations for his first year in the pros. Some buzz prior to the draft knocked the receiver’s 6-foot-1, 170 lb frame, with skeptics suggesting Smith is too small. Though the Eagles didn’t appear to be worried, trading up to continue the Jalen Hurts-DeVonta Smith Alabama college connection. If things click for the birds in Philly, the offense could be in for a big year.
8. Jaylen Waddle, wide receiver, Miami Dolphins
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. Fast like fellow former Alabama receiver Henry Ruggs, who ran a 4.27 and went 12th overall to the Raiders, Waddle hopes to make a bigger splash for the Dolphins. Not only does Waddle have jet-like quickness, he might be the best kick and punt returner in this draft class. Waddle’s existing chemistry with Tua Tagovailoa from their Alabama days could lead to an explosive year in Miami.
7. Justin Fields, quarterback, Chicago Bears
As the latest top quarterback to come out of Ohio State, Justin Fields is highly-touted. Having run the quickest 40-yard dash time of all incoming QB prospects to be clocked in 2021, if Fields proves his worth as a passer in the NFL, watch out for the Chicago Bears. After missing out on several dual-threat options over the years, general manager Ryan Pace pounced on the opportunity to trade up and draft Fields. Despite QB1 Andy Dalton being ahead of him on the depth chart, Fields is a strong bet to finish the season as the starter for ‘Da Bears. Having a true No. 1 wide receiver such as Allen Robinson II should only help his chances to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Early sleepers for 2021 ROY award
6. Micah Parsons, linebacker, Dallas Cowboys
Though first-year playing time may be a factor with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch also on the roster, many have Micah Parsons as the early DROTY favorite. As a linebacker who can cover from sideline to sideline, expect to see a lot of Parsons highlights playing in Jerryworld, or in Hard Knocks. The Cowboys also plan to employ Parsons in a pass-rushing role, which should help him stay on the field. After wearing number 11 in college for Penn State, Parsons will try to continue that success by rocking the same digits in the pros. Four of the past ten DROTY winners were linebackers, can Parsons have similar success under the lights?
5. Trey Lance, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers
After playing just one game in 2020, some question Trey Lance’s readiness for the NFL. After flirting with a Matthew Stafford trade, the Niners weren’t hesitant to shoot their shot for their QB of the future, with head coach Kyle Shanahan reportedly becoming obsessed over Lance’s skills. Dangerous with his legs, Lance’s big arm oozes enough talent to blossom into one of the NFL’s next superstar quarterbacks. The former NDSU D-I champ landed in an ideal spot for success. With Jimmy Garoppolo still on the roster, how soon Lance starts in the NFL will be a storyline to watch as the preseason unfolds.
4. Ja’Marr Chase, wide receiver, Cincinnati Bengals
With former LSU teammate Joe Burrow expected to enter camp healthy, rookie Ja’Marr Chase has a chance to flourish from Day 1 in the NFL. As possibly the best pure WR prospect in the 2021 Draft class, Chase opted out of the college football season in 2020. It’s amazing that even though he didn’t suit up, Chase was still the first wideout selected. Scouts have 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 will immediately be the top target on the Bengals. One evaluator even stated Chase is the best WR draft prospect since Julio Jones.
3. Kyle Pitts, tight end, Atlanta Falcons
With even just a glimpse of watching his tape, one can see how Florida’s Kyle Pitts tied for the highest-drafted tight end in NFL draft history. At 6-foot-6, with a 40-yard dash time in the 4.4s, Pitts is the best athletic freak in the 2021 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, teams may regret passing on Pitts for years to come. With the Julio Jones trade, Pitts could quickly become Matt Ryan’s top target in Atlanta, effectively boosting his chances to win OROTY.
2. Zach Wilson, quarterback, New York Jets
Entering the 2020 college football season, the name Zach Wilson was nowhere to be found when discussing top quarterback prospects. Just over a year later and the former BYU star finds himself starting for the New York Jets after being drafted second overall. Mildly athletic with the ability to throw from various angles, Wilson is the ultimate boom-or-bust prospect. Though the Jets just went through the rookie QB process with Sam Darnold, Wilson has all the tools in place to become the next star QB in the Big Apple
1. Trevor Lawrence, quarterback, Jacksonville Jaguars
As one of the best QB prospects since Andrew Luck, Clemson phenom Trevor Lawrence has long been under the spotlight. The top recruit since high school, Lawrence is projected to be an NFL superstar. Despite an ailing hamstring and an unwillingness to hand him the job, Lawrence will start right away. Fans may even get to see Tim Tebow dust off the ol’ cleats to catch a few footballs. It’s going to be an exciting season in Duval. Can Urban Meyer coach Lawrence to become the 2021 Offensive Rookie of the Year? He’s the early favorite, only time will tell.
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? Perhaps we’ll see another early runaway for NFL Rookie of the Year. Or maybe an unlikely sleeper candidate emerges.
With three preseason games 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.