For the most part, the NFL rookies who get the most attention are those selected early on in the draft. Quarterbacks also tend to get a ton of play as they prepare for their inaugural seasons in the pros.
With that said, we see mid-round picks excel every single year. We don’t expect 2021 to be the exception to this rule. From a talented wide receiver in Southern California to a few elite-level pass rushers, there’s going to be some rookies surprise moving forward.
Narrowing down that list to teams we expect to earn a playoff spot in 2021, here’s a look at some NFL rookies set to surprise once September comes calling.
Josh Palmer, wide receiver, Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers have a bit of a gap to fill at wide receiver behind starters Mike Williams and Keenan Allen. That’s they they selected this 6-foot-2 former Tennessee standout in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. He could end up being one of the most-surprising NFL rookies this season.
The Volunteers’ struggles passing the ball impacted his numbers. But we’re talking about someone who can move the markers for second-year quarterback Justin Herbert (70% first-down rate during his college career). Palmer should make an immediate impact in 2021.
Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, New York Giants
One of our favorite defensive prospects heading into the 2021 NFL Draft, Ojulari shockingly fell to the New York Giants in the second round. This, despite the fact that he was seen by some as a first-round talent after recording 12.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks for Georgia a season ago.
Despite a smallish 240-pound frame, he seems to fit defensive coordinator Patrick Graham’s defense to a T and will likely vie for a starting outside linebacker spot next to Lorenzo Carter as a rookie.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, Cleveland Browns
Yet another defender we were surprised to see fall outside of the top-32, there were some post-draft reports that Owusu-Koramoah is suffering through some sort of heart issue. The medicals seemed to have checked out from Cleveland’s perspective, landing the team a potential steal in the process.
We’re talking about a sideline-to-sideline backer with plus-level coverage skills and an ability to make an impact in the offensive backfield. It’s just what the doctor ordered for a Browns defense that needs to find a long-term solution at the weakside linebacker spot.
Tutu Atwell, wide receiver, Los Angeles Rams
Selecting a 5-foot-9, 165-pound wide receiver in the second round? What in the heck was Rams general manager Les Snead thinking here? Well, he wanted Los Angeles’ version of Tyreek Hill and might have just found it in this former Louisville standout.
Nearly unstoppable during his final two seasons with the Cardinal, Atwell tallied a combined 115 catches for nearly 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns during that span. We’re also talking about a dude who ran a 4.32 40-yard dash during his pro day. With Sean McVay scheming him open and Matthew Stafford tossing this youngster the rock, he’s going to be among the most-electric NFL rookies this season.
Tyson Campbell, cornerback, Jacksonville Jaguars
New Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke set out this offseason to improve a pass defense that yielded 34 touchdowns against 12 interceptions in 2020. Signing Shaquill Griffin away from the Seattle Seahawks helped. Still, there’s a need for someone to step in at right cornerback or the slot. That’s where Campbell could come into play.
The physical 6-foot-1 second-round pick should have gone on Day 1 based on his tape and stats. He has the height, speed and frame to hold up as a boundary corner in the NFL. Campbell can also play the slot due to his combination of ball skills and plus-level technique at the line. A potential Pro Bowler down the road, look for this kid to make an immediate impact for a Jaguars team that might surprise under fellow rookie Trevor Lawrence.
Amari Rodgers, wide receiver, Green Bay Packers
We can question the Packers right now. The way they have handled the Aaron Rodgers situation is alarming. Heck, it could lead to his departure before the 2021 season even gets going. Despite the issues general manager Brian Gutekunst has had with his star quarterback, he is still capable of making good draft picks.
The 5-foot-1 Amari Rodgers is a prime example of this. He’s a perfect slot guy in the Packers’ offense and dominated last season to the tune of 77 catches for 1,020 yards. With an ability to create immediate throwing lines from the line, Rodgers would work well with the reigning NFL MVP. If the more well-known Rodgers does leave, young quarterback Jordan Love would have a shiny new weapon.
Rashod Bateman, wide receiver, Baltimore Ravens
When it comes to transitioning from college ball to the pros, wide receivers tend to have the toughest go at it as NFL rookies. With that said, we’ve seen some buck this trend in recent years. Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings is the most-recent example of this.
Expect Bateman to follow suit in 2021. To say that wide receivers have let Lamar Jackson down in the past would be an understatement. It’s why Baltimore exhausted one of its two first-round picks on the former Minnesota standout. Boasting strong arms and a wide catch radius, Bateman is just what the doctor ordered for Jackson. Don’t be surprised if the kid goes for north of 1,000 yards in his debut season.
Joe Tryon, EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If Tryon had not sat out the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a strong good chance he would have been the top edge rusher off the board in late-April. Standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing 262 pounds, he recorded 12.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks for Washington back in 2019.
Tryon is also a perfect scheme fit in defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ defense. Should the talented edge rusher put in a full offseason and training camp of work, it would not be a surprise if he were one of the top NFL rookies on the defensive side of the ball in 2021 — potentially spelling Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul at times.
Carlos Basham Jr., EDGE, Buffalo Bills
First-round pick Gregory Rousseau got more hype after being a surprise first-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in late April. For good reason. The former Miami (F) star recorded 15.5 sacks in 2019 before opting out of the 2020 campaign. With that said, there’s absolutely no reason to sleep on Basham Jr. as a rookie.
The former Wake Forest star recorded a combined 33.5 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks over the course of his final three college seasons. Given how much Buffalo struggled rushing the passer a season ago, it would not be a surprise if both Basham Jr. and Rousseau made major impacts for the title contender as rookies.
Marco Wilson, cornerback, Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals gave up 26 passing touchdowns against 11 interceptions a season ago. Future Hall of Fame cornerback Patrick Peterson is now a member of the Minnesota Vikings. That’s why it was a surprise to see the team wait until Round 4 of the 2021 NFL Draft to add a cornerback.
With that said, a lack of depth could force Marco Wilson into an important role early on. Quarterbacks pretty much avoided the 6-foot corner during his final three seasons with Florida due to the defensive back’s elite skillset and ball-hawking skills. He can line up both in the slot and on the outside and is about as aggressive as they come. Wilson could be among the most surprising NFL rookies on defense in 2021.
Cornell Powell, wide receiver, Kansas City Chiefs
The two-time defending AFC champs waited until late in the offseason to re-sign current top slot guy Demarcus Robinson. Meanwhile, Kansas City was looking at its options during free agency. In the end, Robinson was the man they had to settle on.
Enter into the equation this rookie fifth-round pick from Clemson. The dude might not have shown out when it came to his pre-draft measurables. But we’re looking at a consistent force that can get open and provide immediate throwing lanes for Patrick Mahomes. Having averaged 17.7 yards per catch with Clemson a season ago, Powell can also stretch the field. That’s just going to be insane with Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman already doing their thing in Kansas City.
Trey Sermon, running back, San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco surprised the masses by trading up for this former Oklahoma top recruit in the third round. He’s more of your traditional downhill runner — something that has not in the past fit Kyle Shanahan’s system. The 49ers also had a loaded backfield with Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson and Wayne Gallman.
With all of that said, the 215-pound Sermon can be an dynamic threat in the 49ers’ backfield and likely figures to be their three-down back of the future. The kid was absolutely electric down the stretch during his first and only season with Ohio State in 2020 — recording nearly 600 total yards in a two-game span against Northwestern and Clemson before suffering an injury in the National Championship Game. Look for immediate production here.
Jevon Holland, safety, Miami Dolphins
Another player that many expected to go in the first round, Miami got an absolute steal in this former Oregon standout with the 36th overall pick. Holland can play both safety positions, linebacker and slot cornerback. He has elite measurables, ball skills and athleticism for a dynamic 6-foot-1 defensive back.
This is something defensive-minded Dolphins head coach Brian Flores has been missing in the past. Prior to opting out of the 2020 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Holland recorded nine interceptions in his first two seasons with the Ducks. He’s going to be among the top all-around NFL rookies in 2021.
Patrick Jones, EDGE, Minnesota Vikings
The Danielle Hunter situation in Minnesota could force this third-round pick into the mix early in his career. There’s no telling whether the Vikings are going to be forced to move off their Pro Bowl edge rusher. If so, Jones could be more than ready to step into his role.
A former star with the Pittsburgh Panthers, Jones recorded 24 tackles for loss and 17.5 sacks in his final two college seasons. He already boasts a plus-level pass-rush skillset from the outside and would be helped by Minnesota’s dominant interior defensive line.