Which 2021 NFL Rookies Will Be Immediate Matchup Nightmares?

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2021

Which 2021 NFL Rookies Will Be Immediate Matchup Nightmares?

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    The 2021 NFL draft class contained one of the most impressive groups of skill position players we've seen in some time.

    Indeed, a defensive player wasn't selected until the Carolina Panthers chose Jaycee Horn at No. 8, and four pass-catchers (tight end Kyle Pitts and wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith) were selected in the top 10.

    When we talk about players who are matchup nightmares, we most often mean these kinds of players. Pass-rushers can certainly be matchup nightmares, but there weren't marquee ones in this year's draft. With some exceptions, when it comes to the players who will force opponents to create or even rewrite their game plans with their specific skill sets in mind, it's quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs and tight ends.

    This year, players who could cause headaches for opponents were drafted all the way through Round 3. The players on this list will begin shaking up the league on day one.

    Let's break down the rookies who are going to make life miserable for their opponents—and potentially even change the league.

Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Of all the players on this list, tight end Kyle Pitts may be the epitome of a matchup nightmare—and nearly every analyst used that language to describe him.

    Hugh Douglas, a former NFL defensive end and current radio host for 92.9 The Game in Atlanta, likened Pitts to Rob Gronkowski with speed, a dangerous combination. "Think the size of Gronk and what he used to do to smaller guys, but this cat got speed. Gronk size but with 4.4 speed," Douglas said.

    At Florida in 2020, Pitts posted the most yards per catch (17.9) of all college tight ends ever with 40-plus receptions, per Rich Hribar of Sharp Football Analysis (h/t CBS Sports). His touchdown rate of 27.9 percent was the second-best ever.

    Pitts, the highest-drafted tight end in the modern era, is a generational talent. His flexibility will give the Falcons options on offense for which, frankly, their opponents are not prepared.

    "Pitts is not a dominant blocker, but he's adequate, willing, and his massive frame always will allow him to compete in that realm," The Ringer's Kaelen Jones wrote. "That forces opponents to account for his presence in the box, and when base personnel defenses are deployed on passing plays, that can leave slower linebackers or smaller safeties in coverage against Pitts, which is a matchup nightmare for defenses that Florida regularly took advantage of."

    Gators coach Dan Mullen may have put it best when he recalled what a Florida assistant coach once said about Pitts.

    "He's like, 'Hey, [Pitts is] kind of like a unicorn,'" Mullen said, per Jones. "'And the only way you can defend a unicorn is with another unicorn. So if you don't have a unicorn on defense, you get a problem.'"

Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers ranked 32nd in the league in rushing offense in 2020, so almost anyone could have helped them become more dangerous on the ground.

    However, the fact that they selected Najee Harris at No. 24 in the first round confirmed they plan to reinvent their offense around his explosive ability.

    Harris is a three-down back who will give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers a dynamic option on every play. In the last year of his Alabama career, he led the nation with 26 rushing touchdowns, averaging 5.8 yards per attempt.

    Even though Pittsburgh hasn't adequately addressed its offensive line needs, Harris has the talent to work with what that unit can give him.

    As for the significant draft investment, coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers "don't subscribe to the theory" that running backs shouldn't be drafted in the first round, per Mark Kaboly of The Athletic.

    "He was a player that we really valued," Tomlin added. "We were ecstatic that he was there, and we took him and we took him pretty quickly with little to no dialogue."

Nico Collins, WR, Houston Texans

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Nico Collins is the latest-drafted player on this list, coming off the board in Round 3, but that doesn't mean he will be any less productive on the field this season for the Houston Texans.

    Even as the 89th pick—Houston traded up to get him—Collins has the opportunity to make an immediate impact given the state of the depth chart. Brandin Cooks is back, and Randall Cobb and Keke Coutee will be looking for their share of targets as well, but the most intriguing thing about Collins is that his college production may not even have scratched the surface of his capability at the pro level.

    Quarterback play was inconsistent at best during Collins' time at Michigan, and his numbers weren't eye-popping. But his physicality could make him difficult to defend.

    Per CBS Sports' Dan Schneier, Collins "projects as an immediate red-zone threat." Schneier lauded his "massive frame," which he uses well "to box out defenders in contested-catch situations." Collins also boasts a 7'9" wingspan.

    Collins can make an impact right away as a go-to weapon for the Texans—whomever their quarterback may be—and could eventually claim the No. 1 role as his own.

Rashod Bateman, WR, Baltimore Ravens

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    Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

    We all know Lamar Jackson is a star...even if the Baltimore Ravens haven't quite given him the high-octane weapons he needs to shine brightest.

    On Thursday, the Ravens took an important step in that direction when they selected Minnesota wideout Rashod Bateman with the 27th pick.

    When he met with the media Friday, Bateman didn't mince words about the impact he can have on the offense and how he can help Jackson.

    "Everything he needs," Bateman said, via Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk. "I feel like I'm an all-around receiver, proved I can play inside and in the slot. At the same time, I just want to be what's best for him, what's best for the team. Whatever position that may be, I'm happy to fill that role."

    With the Golden Gophers, Bateman amassed 147 catches for 2,395 yards and 19 touchdowns. Bateman played outside and in the slot, and—depending on how the Ravens use him—he can be a matchup nightmare.

Rondale Moore, WR, Arizona Cardinals

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The ultimate mark of a player who poses a matchup nightmare is when defenses have to adapt to account for them. And that is exactly what Rondale Moore could do in the league in 2021.

    The 5'7", 180-pound Purdue product is much more than a gadget player. At his pro day, he ran a 4.29-second 40-yard dash and posted a ridiculous 42.5-inch vertical leap. In the NFL, he will prove difficult to tackle and even harder to follow as the Arizona Cardinals move him around the field.

    "We're going to use him in as many different ways as we can," Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury told reporters, per Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic. "Rondale is able to do a bunch of different things, whether it's handing him the ball from the backfield, tossing it to him on a sweep, go outside and run a fade route; he does it all."

    That versatility will make it nearly impossible for opposing defensive coordinators to guess what the Cardinals are going to do with Moore on any given play. The speedster can also make a difference on special teams.

    Moore had a tremendous freshman season—114 receptions for 1,258 receiving yards, 213 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns from scrimmage—but played only seven games in his final two college years.

    "He's a smaller guy in stature, but he's really, really strong, and he's really, really explosive, so anytime he gets it with that first step, it's hard to keep up with," Kingsbury said.

Travis Etienne, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars had a good draft, and that's an understatement. The Jags would have had a fantastic Day 1 if they had stopped after selecting top quarterback prospect Trevor Lawrence at No. 1, but they went ahead and picked up running back Travis Etienne at No. 25 as well.

    Etienne is a former 4-star recruit who won ACC Player of the Year honors twice and became the league's all-time leading rusher with 4,952 yards. He also set an NCAA FBS record for games with a touchdown (46).

    Things looked pretty good for Etienne during his sophomore season, when he rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns. But over the next two seasons, he dominated both on the ground and through the air, logging 2,528 rushing yards and 33 scores and adding 85 receptions for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns.

    "The moment he touches the ball, there's a chance he's going," Jaguars coach Urban Meyer said Friday, per John Reid of the Florida Times-Union (via the Indy Star). "I saw firsthand the violence that he plays with. Speed wins."

    Indeed, Etienne has the speed to burn any linebacker or safety assigned to cover him.

    Reuniting with Lawrence will only boost Etienne's production and development. And the connection almost surely means Etienne's damage will start from day one.

Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, Carolina Panthers

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers were already familiar with wideout Terrace Marshall Jr.'s talent and potential before they selected him with the 59th pick in the draft.

    That's because offensive coordinator Joe Brady coached Marshall at LSU in 2019, leading a high-octane offense that also included Ja'Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson.

    "Not too many people are 6'2", 200-plus and run a 4.3 and are able to make plays on the ball like Terrace does," Brady said, per the team's website. "When the ball's in the air, Terrace always finds a way to come down with it, and I think he showcased that every time he was on the football field. Not a lot of games but a lot of production."

    That 2019 Tigers were so packed with receiving talent that Marshall flew under the radar, but that won't be the case with Carolina.

    Marshall recorded 13 scores in 2019 and 10 in 2020. In their scouting report, Chris Towers and Dan Schneier of CBS Sports wrote Marshall is an "immediate red-zone threat via his ability to high point the ball, beat press coverage, etc."

    They also touted his "excellent ability to track the ball in the air on deep passes and stack CBs to create separation on these routes."

Trey Lance, QB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The term matchup nightmare is probably most accurately applied to pass-catchers and running backs, players who, with the ball in their hands, head like homing missiles to the end zone, nearly impossible to cover.

    However, in rare occasions, a quarterback who can kill you through the air or on his feet can also be a matchup nightmare. And that's the case for North Dakota State product Trey Lance.

    In 19 games for the Bison, Lance set four program records: career passing efficiency (173.8), career total offense per play (8.4 yards), single-season passing efficiency (180.6) and single-season total offense (3,886 yards).

    Lance is tied for second in program history with 28 passing touchdowns in a single season (Easton Stick, 2017, 2018). (Brock Jensen sent the record with 34 in 2013; Carson Wentz had 25 in 2014.) Lance is also No. 2 in single-season total offense per game (242.9 yards).

    On three occasions (out of, remember, just 19 outings), Lance rushed for more than 100 yards in a game. In the 2020 FCS Championship Game against James Madison, he carried the ball a whopping 30 times for 166 yards and a touchdown. In the opener against Butler that season, he had five carries for 116 yards and found the end zone twice. That's 23.2 yards per attempt. In his only game last season, he ran 15 times for 143 yards and two scores.

    Lance is the perfect fit for Kyle Shanahan's offense. Shanahan told NBC Sports' Peter King that he was impressed by Lance's "natural ability to play the quarterback position, just in terms of how he plays in the pocket, how he can go through the progressions, how, when no one's open, that he gives it a chance, that he recognizes it. And how quick he reacts to turning it into an off-schedule play. He plays on tape like he's a very poised, smart person who's been playing the position for a while."

    Now, Jimmy Garoppolo remains on the roster, and Lance isn't likely to start right away. Still, we consider him a matchup nightmare because the first time he does play, opposing defensive coordinators will have to rework their playbooks, knowing Lance will rack up yards whether they're stacking the box or planting safeties deep.

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