Predicting NFL's 2021 Surprise Impact Rookies
The biggest prospects in the 2021 NFL draft are already household names. Think Trevor Lawrence, Penei Sewell and Zach Wilson, to name very few.
But it's the lesser-known names who could have equal or even bigger impacts as rookies and over the long term. There's a reason the first couple of rounds feature teams gambling on upside, not need, before settling down and fleshing out rosters with the remaining picks. Teams are built for the long haul in the third round and beyond.
The biggest surprise rookies in 2021 have a clear shot at playing time and will get a chance to make an impact. Some don't have as obvious of a path to snaps, but the athletic profile and pro projection hint at big contributors that should lead to even more chances.
To keep it fair, we'll stick to rookies drafted in the third round and beyond that don't have a ton of hype to their name—yet. These are the surprise impact rookies to know this year.
Trey Sermon, RB, San Francisco 49ers
When one thinks of the big running backs in this class, Najee Harris and Travis Etienne Jr. come to mind.
But Trey Sermon has an outside shot at being the best over the long-term.
Sermon, the No. 88 pick of the third round by the San Francisco 49ers, has everything a coach like Kyle Shanahan wants in a pro back. He can work well as a receiver, is superb in pass protection and is an efficient runner.
How efficient? Sermon was a big deal at Oklahoma before transferring to Ohio State in 2020, where he was much of the same. Over four total years, he ran for 2,946 yards and 26 scores on a 6.5 average and added another 486 yards and three scores as a receiver.
The red flag here is the number of backs on San Francisco's roster, headed by Raheem Mostert. Names like Jeffery Wilson and Wayne Gallman could always see reps. But Shanahan and Co. traded up to get Sermon and his every-down traits should see him getting immediate work—and good luck taking him off the field once he gets going.
Joseph Ossai, DE, Cincinnati Bengals
Teams aren't always looking for immediate impact players in the third round. But rebuilders are, which is certainly the case with the Cincinnati Bengals and edge rusher Joseph Ossai.
The 69th pick in the draft, Ossai joins a team that has won six games over the last two seasons and just lost its best pass rusher, Carl Lawson, to free agency.
Ossai was quietly an amazing value for the Bengals outside of the first two rounds after they addressed big needs like wideout and offensive line first. Ossai won't technically get listed as the starter, but the tandem of Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard isn't exactly guaranteed to be potent.
On a rotational role to start his career, Ossai will put those athletic traits and pass-rushing moves that helped him tally 11.5 sacks and 30 tackles for loss over three years to work. As NFL.com's Lance Zierlein pointed out while comparing him to former first-round pick Takkarist McKinley, he's a former inside linebacker still learning the role but has massive upside that should get him on the field and keep him there.
Michael Carter, RB, New York Jets
Running back is the sort of position teams can find instant-starter material well into the fourth or fifth rounds these days.
And the New York Jets did just that with North Carolina's Michael Carter.
Carter, a fourth-round pick at No. 107, had about as ho-hum of a hype train as possible. But the numbers say it all—over four years, he ran for 3,404 yards and 22 touchdowns on a 6.6 average, plus caught 82 passes for 656 yards and six scores. He even worked kick returns, averaging 22.4 yards per attempt.
Impressive as it all is, Carter wouldn't necessarily be a starter on most teams. But the Jets are stuck in a big rebuild and the running back depth chart there has always been lacking. It shouldn't take a back with three-down traits like Carter long to surpass the likes of La'Mical Perine and Tevin Coleman, eventually taking the lion's share of the snaps.
When Carter does, it will be hard to ignore what he inevitably produces.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Detroit Lions
Like other positions, Amon-Ra St. Brown is hardly the first name to come to mind when thinking of 2021 wideouts in a class led by Ja'Marr Chase.
But St. Brown's landing spot with the Detroit Lions at No. 112 will give him a big chance to shine.
Detroit knew exactly what it was doing when selecting St. Brown. Breshad Perriman and Tyrell Williams already project as the outside boundary players in the offense and the rookie projects best as an inside slot man, where he spent plenty of time in college.
Along the way, St. Brown tallied 2,270 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 12.8 yards per catch. He's a surehanded, quick-footed inside guy who can shake loose of coverages and provide a safety blanket for Jared Goff.
While it's not as flashy as some of the other prospects at the position, St. Brown's impact right away could be hard to ignore.
Jabril Cox, LB, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys needed all the help they could get to rebuild the historically inept defense from a year ago, so it shouldn't be a surprise to see they doubled up on linebackers over the draft's first four rounds.
Jabril Cox was the second of those out of LSU in the fourth round, falling far behind the hype levels of Micah Parsons at 12th overall.
But Cox should be out there pretty quickly, too. Making a name for himself in the SEC last year with 58 total tackles, one sack, five passes defended and three interceptions isn't anything to turn up the nose at. It's his skill in coverage that even had Cox ranked as the 46th overall prospect on Pro Football Focus' big board.
That the Cowboys got Cox at No. 115 isn't just a steal—it speaks to the confidence they have in his abilities to see him through the logjam of names at linebacker, including Keanu Neal. Those coverage skills will have him on the field and making plays, especially considering he's a rookie learning the new scheme just like everyone else after a coordinator change.
Jaelon Darden, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It wouldn't be an NFL draft without predicting a slot wideout working with Tom Brady breaks out, right?
Jaelon Darden out of North Texas certainly has a better chance than most, though.
Darden, 5'9" and 174 pounds, continues to add muscle to his frame, but that didn't stop him from breaking out last year to the tune of 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaging 16.1 yards per catch. He had nearly 2,000 receiving yards and totaled 31 touchdowns over his final two collegiate seasons.
The Buccaneers got PFF's 79th-ranked prospect at No. 129 and his main competition for playing time such as Scotty Miller only had 501 yards and three scores last year.
Darden's continued physical development and wicked-fast skill set could make him a favorite of Brady early on, which would be bad, bad news for defenses already desperate just to contain Mike Evans and Chris Godwin.
Brevin Jordan, TE, Houston Texans
Almost any rookie drafted by the Houston Texans has a chance at a massive breakout this year given the dire state of the league's most dramatic rebuild.
Those Texans, after all, added 30 players this offseason, yet just seven of them received longer than a one-year prove-it deal.
Meaning fifth-round rookie Brevin Jordan has a big chance to earn his way into big playing time and never look back. He's got the profile for it too after amassing 1,358 yards and 13 touchdowns on a 12.9 per-catch average over just 105 collegiate catches.
A three-year starter tabbed by some such as Zierlein as a third or fourth-round player with big upside as a receiver, Jordan doesn't have a ton of competition in front of him on the depth chart. Once he puts the skill set to use as a receiver, the talent-desperate Texans will be more than happy to give him a prominent role.
Daviyon Nixon, DL, Carolina Panthers
Daviyon Nixon out of Iowa was a really fun prospect to track during his journey to the draft because he was just so disruptive as a three-technique from the middle of the Hawkeyes' defensive line.
That skill should easily translate to the NFL.
A big body (6'3", 305 pounds) with quick-twitch athleticism and power to collapse pockets by his lonesome up the middle, Nixon tallied 8.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss over 21 college games, helping him land as the 114th-ranked prospect on PFF's big board.
The Carolina Panthers got Nixon at No. 158 and should be better for it right away. There isn't a ton on paper to suggest Nixon won't have a big shot at playing time early next to a bigger name like Derrick Brown, making for a big-upside one-two tandem in the middle of the Panthers defense—all while Brian Burns and others command attention from offensive lines on the edges.
Nixon won't get flashy stats comparable to some of his fellow 2021 classmates who rush from the edges, but his impact could be just as big.