NFL Rookies Who Won't Start in 2021 but Definitely Should

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2021

NFL Rookies Who Won't Start in 2021 but Definitely Should

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Not every notable NFL rookie gets to avoid a redshirt season.

    That doesn't mean it's the right decision.

    A year ago, the Los Angeles Chargers weren't going to start quarterback Justin Herbert, but an injury to Tyrod Taylor threw him to the wolves. He responded well, to say the least, throwing 31 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions with eight 300-plus-yard games behind a bad offensive line.

    Not every example will work out so spectacularly. But rookies, especially quarterbacks, need to be out there, getting as many reps as possible to adapt to the pro game quickly. It also benefits the team to get the most usage out of those cheap first five years of the contract—and recent breakouts like Herbert, Josh Allen and Joe Burrow suggest that more than ever, rookie passers are arriving ready for the modern game.

    Here are a handful of rookies who don't project to be immediate starters but who absolutely should be. Keep in mind starting is a relative term these days and primarily revolves around snap counts.

Trey Lance, QB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers are still tap-dancing around what to do with their quarterbacks.

    Head coach Kyle Shanahan has went as far as saying there won't be a competition between No. 3 pick Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo. But the 49ers also tried to posture like they didn't trade up from No. 12 to No. 3 for Lance, either, so don't be shocked if the front office opts to move the veteran and his team-high $26.4 million cap hit, which only carries $2.8 million in dead money.

    But this is primarily about Lance, anyway. NFL.com's Lance Zierlein compared him to Josh Allen for a reason. He completed 65.4 percent of his passes with 30 touchdowns and one interception over 19 collegiate games and added another 18 rushing scores.

    Lance, with his ability to make plays while on the move, is a modern passer who could fit so well in Shanahan's offense, which was the point of the pick in the first place. There's little reason not to get him out there, because Garoppolo has had one anomalous good season with worthwhile attendance since joining the team.

Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    After they crushed fans with the idea of a supposed Andy Dalton era, will the Chicago Bears really go through with it after lucking in to Ohio State passer Justin Fields at No. 11p?

    Let's hope not, for all involved.

    The Bears shockingly traded up after Fields' fall and are already taking a we'll see stance about the situation. But Dalton is a stopgap at best with his third team in as many years. There's little upside to having the veteran start, whereas Fields would at least provide a chance to uplift the entire offense—similar to what Josh Allen and Justin Herbert did.

    Fields, after all, completed 68.4 percent of his passes with 63 touchdowns and nine interceptions over two seasons with the Buckeyes. The idea that he's raw dropped him down the board a bit, but pass-catchers Allen Robinson II and Anthony Miller and running back David Montgomery in Matt Nagy's offense make for cozy developmental surroundings.

    Provided nobody expects Fields to be the best signal-caller in the NFC North right away, there's little reason to not get him out there.

Mac Jones, QB, New England Patriots

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots stood still at No. 15 and backed into Alabama quarterback Mac Jones. It makes for an interesting situation after the front office spent the bulk of the offseason building around returning veteran Cam Newton.

    But the decision shouldn't be too hard.

    Bill Belichick said Newton is still the starter, but the Patriots will really have to believe Newton can improve upon his eight touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in 2020 to stall Jones' development for a year.

    They just can't afford to be that patient as Newton goes into his age-32 season, especially after getting so many years out of Tom Brady. The time is now to develop a passer, and Jones is apparently their guy after he spent four seasons with the Crimson Tide and completed 74.3 percent of his passes with 56 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

    Much of New England's surprising free-agency spending will help Jones just the same as it would Newton. With the AFC East now headlined by the Buffalo Bills and to a lesser extent Miami Dolphins, the Patriots need to embrace the developmental cycle in hopes of a long-term return to contention.

Travis Etienne, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    The Jacksonville Jaguars stunned observers when they drafted Clemson running back Travis Etienne at No. 25 in the first round despite the devalued nature of the position and the extent of the rebuild around Trevor Lawrence.

    Then new head coach Urban Meyer dropped a head-scratching revelation, saying Etienne will be a third-down back.

    There's plenty of reason to believe him too, as James Robinson was a rookie star last year with 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns on 4.5 yards per carry and the team added effective veteran Carlos Hyde in free agency.

    Those details make the pick and planned usage all the more perplexing. Etienne was a great player in college, rushing for nearly 5,000 yards at 7.2 yards per clip over four seasons, scoring 70 touchdowns on the ground and catching more than 100 passes.

    A first-round back needs to be a three-down back, not a third-down back. Etienne's performance should correct the incorrect label pretty quickly, but for now, he is a primary example of this theme.

Walker Little, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    The Jaguars might have backed into one of the steals of the draft with Stanford offensive tackle Walker Little.

    Little was the No. 1 prospect in the country entering college and was at one point projected to be the second pick in 2020. But an injury in the 2019 season opener and his opt-out in 2020 led to Little's fall down the draft board.

    Despite Little's huge upside if he checks out medically, the Jaguars haven't guaranteed anything when it comes to his getting on the field. But practicing against star edge-rusher Josh Allen all summer should get him plenty ready to play a starting role.

    After all, 2017 and 2019 second-round picks Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor allowed five and eight sacks last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and posted poor grades. They have had plenty of chances to develop, so Little should be out there, learning on the fly and putting his upside to use in front of Trevor Lawrence.

Dyami Brown, WR, Washington Football Team

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Washington seemed on a mission to do whatever it took to get No. 1 wideout Terry McLaurin a solid running mate or two this offseason.

    That quest started with Curtis Samuel in free agency, which let the team put the need on the back burner during the draft.

    Washington backed into North Carolina's Dyami Brown in the third round anyway.

    He was a steal after he put up 1,000-plus yards in each of his last two collegiate seasons with 20 touchdowns over that span. He averaged a gaudy 18.7 yards per catch for his career, with that figure creeping to 20.3 and 20.9 in his final two seasons.

    Brown's field-stretching speed and big-play ability should translate just fine to the pros. He will be in a position to make an immediate impact, provided he can earn more reps than Kelvin Harmon and Cam Sims. No matter who starts at quarterback, Brown should be a staple in three-wideout sets.

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