Bleacher Report's 2021 Expert Consensus NFL Rookie Awards
The new kids are on the block.
Now that the 2021 NFL draft (and the wave of undrafted free-agent signings that follows) has come and gone, over 300 young players are trying to live out their dream of playing professional football.
For many of those players, those dreams are just that. At some point over the summer, they will either be released or relegated to a spot on the practice squad.
However, the best of those rookies—including those fortunate enough to have been drafted in the first round—will make the 53-man roster. Some will earn a spot in the starting lineup. And a few will become key contributors or even stars.
For some, that's expected. Trevor Lawrence is supposed to be good. But there will also be surprise stars and players who don't come close to living up to expectations.
We've gathered NFL analysts Brad Gagnon, Brent Sobleski and Gary Davenport together to offer their assessments on which rookies will shine and which will flounder, by giving their picks for the Bleacher Report 2021 Expert Consensus NFL Rookie Awards.
The envelope, please.
Most Passing Yards
Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars (3 votes)
This first category is most likely a two-horse race for a few reasons.
The teams who drafted those young quarterbacks—the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets, respectively—were the NFL's two worst clubs in 2020. They should hopefully be better in 2021, but that doesn't mean they will be good.
Both signal-callers figure to be playing from behind frequently as rookies, which means they'll be throwing the ball a ton.
Given those circumstances, it comes down to a matter of talent and supporting cast. And in that regard, Gagnon believes that Lawrence has a clear edge.
"I know this doesn't involve us going out on a limb, but let's be real," Gagnon said. "There's still a decent chance Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones aren't Week 1 starters, while Wilson is a much bigger gamble than Lawrence as a potential one-year wonder at BYU. Lawrence put up big numbers rather consistently in college, and he has three good receivers to throw to."
With D.J. Chark Jr., Marvin Jones Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr. as his top three receivers and a familiar face behind him in former Clemson teammate Travis Etienne, Lawrence should have everything he needs to post big numbers as a rookie.
Most Rushing Yards
Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers (3 votes)
This one is the biggest no-brainer of any rookie award.
Last year at Alabama, running back Najee Harris was a force of nature. The 6'1", 232-pounder piled up 1,466 yards on 251 carries, averaging a robust 5.8 yards a pop. No player in FBS scored more times on the ground than Harris, who piled up 26 rushing touchdowns on the way to winning the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back.
While Harris was terrorizing college football, the Steelers ground game was frightening exactly no one. Once known for their punishing ground game, they finished the 2020 season dead last in the NFL in rushing with a paltry 84.4 yards per game.
The Steelers desperately needed to add pop to their running game. Harris was the best back in the class. Hand, meet glove.
Harris said he can't wait to help get Pittsburgh's ground game back on track.
"One thing about the Steelers, [the offense] has always evolved around the running game," Harris told reporters. "I always thought it would be a perfect fit to be there."
"The losses Pittsburgh suffered along the offensive line are cause for some concern with Harris," Davenport said. "But of the top backs in the class of 2021, he's easily the most likely to be handed a featured role right out of the gate. As long as he stays healthy, Harris should lead all rookies in rushing yards by a considerable margin."
Most Receiving Yards
DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles (2 votes)
The class of 2021 was stacked at wide receiver. Three wideouts were drafted inside the top 10, including the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
The first wideout off the board got one vote from our panel. LSU's Ja'Marr Chase didn't play in 2020, but when last we saw him in 2019 alongside new Cincinnati Bengals teammate Joe Burrow, he hauled in 84 catches for 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Chase has even larger aspirations in the NFL.
"I'm going to break every record they've got. That's my goal right there. I'm telling you right now," he said, per Geoff Hobson of the team website. "I don't know how I'm going to do it, but it's going to get done."
However, the third wide receiver drafted got the nod from our other two writers.
DeVonta Smith may not even weigh 170 pounds, but that didn't stop him from tearing up the SEC last year to the tune of 117 catches for 1,856 yards and 23 scores. Now that he's the new No. 1 receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, Sobleski expects big things in 2021.
"Usually, the first wide receiver selected doesn't post the most receiving yards during his rookie season," he said. "Justin Jefferson, A.J. Brown, Calvin Ridley, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Michael Thomas led their respective classes over the last five years. Each of those was selected a little later in the first or even second round. As such, we'll skip Ja'Marr Chase and even Jaylen Waddle, who may be the obvious choices here. But they each have legitimate talent around them at wide receiver to take away targets and yardage opportunities. DeVonta Smith doesn't in Philadelphia. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner will enter that scheme as the No. 1 target for quarterback Jalen Hurts."
Others Receiving Votes: Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU (1 vote)
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Cleveland Browns (2 votes)
When gauging which rookie is most likely to lead all first-year players in tackles, it's a good idea to look at the off-ball linebackers. There were a few selected on Day 1 of the NFL draft.
None won this vote, although the linebacker who did should have come off the board in Round 1.
One of those first-round linebackers did at least earn a vote. The Dallas Cowboys selected Penn State's Micah Parsons with the No. 12 overall pick, making him the first linebacker off the board, and Gagnon singled out the 6'3", 246-pounder as this year's rookie tackle king.
"If you spend a top-12 pick on an off-ball linebacker, you'd better get him on the field early and often," he said. "The well-rounded Parsons is a superb tackler who should get plenty of work all year in place of Sean Lee and Joe Thomas and alongside the injury-prone Leighton Vander Esch."
However, Sobleski and Davenport both went with a player who dropped all the way to No. 52 overall amid health concerns about his heart.
That draft-day slide was something of a surprise, as most draftniks expected Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah to come off the board in Round 1. In fact, as Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon-Journal reported, Cleveland gave real thought to taking him at No. 26.
"He was definitely under consideration. I'll say that," Browns chief strategy officer Paul DePodesta said.
Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com reported earlier this week that Owusu-Koramoah's heart is A-OK, and that's all that Davenport needed to hear.
"Owusu-Koramoah is a little undersized, but that could actually be a blessing for a Browns team that loves to run the 4-2-5 under defensive coordinator Joe Woods," he said. "He has a good chance of earning an every-down role for a Browns defense that has improved by leaps and bounds in the offseason."
Others Receiving Votes: Micah Parsons, LB, Dallas Cowboys (1 vote)
Kwity Paye, Edge, Indianapolis Colts (2 votes)
It can be hard for even the best edge-rushers to rack up sacks as rookies.
As great as Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns is, he had only seven sacks in his first season. Last year's Defensive Rookie of the Year, Chase Young, had 7.5. Even three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald had only nine sacks back in 2014.
However, someone has to lead all rookies in sacks this season, and two of the analysts here at B/R settled on Michigan's Kwity Paye, who the Indianapolis Colts picked at No. 21.
The 6'2", 261-pounder wasn't especially productive at Michigan, but his athletic testing numbers leading up the draft belie his considerable upside. Rob Rang of Fox Sports hailed the pick given Indy's need at the position and Paye's potential:
"After losing nearly half of last year's sacks with Justin Houston and Denico Autry no longer on the roster, the Colts' top need was adding an edge-rusher to pair with star DeForest Buckner. Paye didn't produce many sacks at Michigan (11.5), but he has exciting potential, showing burst, power and a relentless motor. His backstory is inspirational, and his upside is obvious. Give him a year or two to develop and Paye could wind up proving a steal outside of the top 20."
Sobleski expects Paye to be a quick study in the pros.
"The idea of Paye blossoming into an elite defender from the onset of his career is rather simple. He was the best pure edge-defender in this year's class and will immediately take over as the top pass-rushing edge on one of the league's best and most disciplined defensive units," he said. "On top of that, blocking schemes will converge on All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, thus creating more opportunities for the rookie."
Others Receiving Votes: Jaelan Phillips, Edge, Miami Dolphins (1 vote)
TIE! Paulson Adebo, CB, New Orleans Saints; Patrick Surtain II, CB, Denver Broncos; Caleb Farley, CB, Tennessee Titans (1 vote each)
With only three participants in these awards, it was just a matter of time until we had a divergence of opinions that led to a tie. That's what happened with the most interceptions by a rookie.
Sobleski cast his vote for Stanford's Paulson Adebo, whom the New Orleans Saints took in the third round.
"Interceptions are all about opportunities," he wrote. "Defensive backs have to be in the right place at the right time to create turnovers. More importantly, they need to be on the field. The Saints waited until the third round to snag Adebo despite their significant need at cornerback. Adebo should immediately slot as the starter opposite Marshon Lattimore since the Saints lack any type of quality depth at the position. Adebo's draft stock faltered due to a suspect 2019 campaign and a decision to opt out the following season. But his ball skills are impeccable with 27 defended passes and eight interceptions in two seasons.'
Meanwhile, Davenport went with a player who was drafted much earlier in Patrick Surtain II of the Denver Broncos.
"The Broncos didn't pass on a quarterback at No. 9 overall for Surtain to watch from the sidelines," he said. "And with two capable veteran corners already on the roster in Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller, opposing quarterbacks will likely look to test the rookie early and often."
Gagnon finished off this three-way tie with Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley, whom the Tennessee Titans selected 22nd overall. Back surgery caused Farley's stock to slide before the draft, but he has excellent ball skills and a clear path to playing time after the Titans lost Malcolm Butler and Adoree' Jackson in free agency.
Zach Wilson, QB, New York Jets (2 votes)
This is the vote that no one wants to win.
To be a first-round pick in the NFL draft, a player has to display considerable talent and potential. But for a variety of reasons, many never live up to that potential.
And the long-suffering New York Jets have endured quite a few busts at the quarterback position.
After three disappointing seasons, the Jets traded Sam Darnold to Carolina. Before Darnold, there was second-round pick Geno Smith. Before Smith, there was Mark Sanchez. That Sanchez (he of the "butt fumble" fame) is considered the best of that group tells you all you need to know.
Unfortunately for Gang Green, two writers (including Gagnon) believe BYU's Zach Wilson could be headed down a similar path.
"I just don't trust him, nor do I trust the Jets," he said. "Considering the size of the investment and the pressure he'll face in New York, it's that simple."
The second overall pick faces an uphill climb.
The Jets had the fourth-worst offensive line in the league last year, per Pro Football Focus. They took steps to improve their skill-position talent in the offseason, but it is still average at best. Wilson has only one big season on his collegiate resume. And the New York sports media isn't generally known for its patience and understanding.
Maybe Wilson will buck history. But if he doesn't, things could get ugly quickly.
Others receiving votes: Travis Etienne, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars (1 vote)
TIE! Brevin Jordan, TE, Houston Texans; Dazz Newsome, WR, Chicago Bears; Michael Carter, RB, New York Jets (1 vote each)
Given the nature of this category, it makes sense that three different players earned a single vote for surprise star. If everyone agreed on one guy, it wouldn't be all that big of a surprise.
The New York Jets have a sizable hole at running back, which they attempted to address with North Carolina running back Michael Carter. ESPN's Mel Kiper called Carter his favorite Day 3 pick of the entire draft.
"We always say 'wait on running backs,' and the Jets did," Kiper said, via Nick Kosko of CBS Sports. "And they get Michael Carter in the fourth round out of North Carolina. He runs with attitude. He's low-based. He's a strong kid, explosive, catches out of the backfield, a ton of production for Mack Brown and a ton of consistency and reliability as well."
"Jordan is a bit of a tweener at 6'2” and 247 pounds. He is not your traditional inline tight end, but he does not have to be to produce. The former Hurricane is a YAC monster and owns the athleticism to create mismatches against linebackers. With a subpar receiving corps, expect Jordan to receive a healthy workload as a rookie."
"Newsome is another speedy weapon that's been added on offense for new quarterback Justin Fields and Andy Dalton, who will likely start the 2021 season. At his pro day, Newsome ran a 4.57 40-yard dash. The fact that Chicago was able to get Newsome in the sixth round was a steal, and some are wondering if we could have another (Darnell) Mooney on our hands."
We love the smell of upside in the morning.
Offensive Rookie of the Year
Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears (2 votes)
This vote may come as a surprise to some.
It isn't especially surprising to see Kyle Pitts earn a vote for Offensive Rookie of the Year. When the Atlanta Falcons selected the Florida product with the fourth overall pick, it was the earliest a tight end had ever been drafted.
As Deen Worley of Falcons Wire wrote, only two tight ends have earned a 99 draft score from NFL Next Gen Stats since 2003. The first was two-time Pro Bowler Vernon Davis. The second was Pitts, who has the absurd athleticism to be a difference-maker from Day 1.
Although Trevor Lawrence was our unanimous pick to lead all rookies in passing yards, he didn't receive a vote here. Instead, 11th overall pick Justin Fields got the call from Davenport and Sobleski as the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
While Fields isn't guaranteed to start Week 1, he'll get to begin his NFL career that has made the postseason in two of the past three years.
"The Bears made the single best selection of the entire draft when they swung a trade to move up and choose Fields," Sobleski said. "This organization has been searching for a true franchise quarterback for so long, the pairing almost seems like a dream. It's my belief that Fields was the clear No. 2 quarterback prospect in this year's class, and he actually outplayed Lawrence in 2019 and during last season's Sugar Bowl. As long as head coach Matt Nagy has a plan for how to employ his new signal-caller, Fields will become the toast of the town in the Windy City."
Others Receiving Votes: Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons (1 vote)
Defensive Rookie of the Year
TIE! Kwity Paye, Edge, Indianapolis Colts; Jaelan Phillips, Edge, Miami Dolphins; Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Cleveland Browns (1 vote each)
In recent years, the Defensive Rookie of the Year award has favored pass-rushers. In each of the past two years, an edge-rusher has won the award, and three of the past five DROYs make their living getting after the quarterback.
Given that, it's understandable that two of the three votes went for edge-rushers. For Sobleski, it was Indy's Kwity Paye, who drew praise from NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah before the draft for his immense upside.
"Paye has the ideal frame and explosiveness for an NFL edge-rusher," he said. "... Paye is raw, but there could be a huge payoff when he puts it all together."
Gagnon went with the first edge-rusher drafted this year in Miami's Jaelan Phillips, who went to the Miami Dolphins at pick No. 18.
"It's fair to be concerned about Phillips on a long-term basis because of his concussion history," he said. "Let's pray that doesn't become an issue for him personally or professionally. But it certainly didn't appear to be a problem in 2020, and I think lingering concerns are the only reason he wasn't a top-10 pick. I'm happy to bet on him staying healthy and excelling at the NFL level, as he has every tool required to produce right away after an eight-sack 2020 campaign at Miami. He should also have plenty of opportunities from the get-go in Brian Flores' pass-rushing rotation, and there aren't a lot of blue-chip defensive players in this class anyway."
Davenport cast his lot with the player he chose to lead all rookies in tackles, voting for Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah of the Cleveland Browns.
"There's some precedent for an off-ball linebacker winning DROY. Darius Leonard of the Colts captured the award in 2018, and Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers won back in 2012," he said. "I'm not about to compare 'JOK' to either of those players just yet, but some already have. In a class that lacks a Chase Young type or a truly elite cornerback prospect, the door is open for Owusu-Koramoah to take home some hardware at the end of his first season."
Rookie of the Year
Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears (2 votes)
This is it. The big one. The award to end all awards.
OK, so it isn't an actual award. Killjoy.
Given what the Bears gave up to move up nine spots in the draft and acquire Fields, it's hardly surprising that the folks who pulled that trigger would be bullish on their new quarterback. But even by coachspeak standards, Bears head coach Matt Nagy was effusive in his praise of the 6'2", 227-pounder while speaking with Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated:
"The one thing from afar I always noticed was how crazy tough this kid was with all the shots he kept taking. He just kept coming back in and making plays. And to have a guy that was such a dual threat, and yet he's a competitor, he's a leader, his teammates love him, he's obsessed with the game—when you hear all that, how do you not get excited about it?"
The Bears continue to insist that they won't rush Fields into action. But if Andy Dalton is still starting games for the Bears by Halloween, something will have gone terribly wrong in the Windy City.
Davenport doesn't expect that to be the case.
"I have said several times in recent weeks that Fields was closer to Trevor Lawrence in terms of ability than the other quarterback prospects are to Fields, and I'm sticking to my guns there. And unlike Lawrence and Zach Wilson, Fields wasn't drafted by a perennial bottom-feeder. The Bears won 12 games in 2018 with Mitchell Trubisky as their starter under center, and to say that Fields is an upgrade over Trubisky is an understatement. He has what it takes to get the Bears into the playoffs as a rookie, and while it may not be a record-setting season, it will be (in totality) the best of any first-year quarterback in the league. This pick really was a game-changer for Chicago."
Others Receiving Votes: Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons (1 vote)