2021 NFL Rookies Who Already Look Like Draft-Day Steals
It's the time of year when hope springs eternal across the NFL. "OTAs" stands for "organized team activities," but it might as well be "only terrific affirmations." Sure, there's a worrisome rumbling here and there (Tua Tagovailoa threw five interceptions in a minicamp practice), but for the most part, reports about players are glowing, especially the rookies.
It's a regular love-fest.
Still, the praise is more than just hype for some. As we get closer to training camps at the end of July, there have been some first-year players who have adapted quickly to their new surroundings, impressing coaches and teammates alike.
And while it's still way too early to anoint any of those rookies as stars in the making, there are players who appear to have been bargains in the 2021 draft.
Mac Jones, QB, New England Patriots
On some level, it might seem a little odd to call someone drafted in the top 15 a "steal."
But when that player is the fifth guy selected at his position, it makes more sense, especially if said player is a quarterback.
Since the New England Patriots took Mac Jones with the 15th overall pick in April, the general belief was that while Jones was the future in Beantown, Cam Newton remained the present.
That future may be coming sooner than we thought.
It's nothing that Newton has done wrong per se. As Mike Reiss reported for ESPN, Newton has fared well in workouts.
"Cam's way ahead of where he was last year at this time," head coach Bill Belichick said.
But Jones has been showing off as well, impressing teammates with the poise that helped him lead Alabama to a national championship in 2020.
"He's a young guy, but you can't really just refer to him as a young guy. You can tell he's been at a place where's got some coaching," offensive tackle Trent Brown said. "He's going to be special here in the future."
During the predraft process, Jones was praised for his ability to work through his progressions and master an offensive scheme. Per Reiss, the Crimson Tide product has looked comfortable in coordinator Josh McDaniels' system.
If OTAs were any indication, training camp in Foxborough is going to feature a full-on battle to start at quarterback.
It won't be surprising if Jones comes out on top.
Elijah Moore, WR, New York Jets
Elijah Moore wasn't the first wide receiver drafted in 2021. Or the fifth. But the 5'9½", 178-pounder has already been hard at work making the teams who passed on him wonder if that was a mistake.
As ESPN's Rich Cimini reported, Moore was a star of Jets OTAs, with head coach Robert Saleh praising the Ole Miss standout's versatility:
"He can line up wherever you want, and he's going to execute it at a very high level, even though the routes might be a little bit different, the stems might be different, the releases might be a little bit different. He's showcasing his ability to be as versatile as possible in terms of being at different parts of the field, being at different positions, understanding what needs to get done, so when the ball gets to his hands he can still do what he does best -- and that's run after catch."
Per Randy Lange of the team's official website, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur talked up his work ethic.
"This guy wants to be really, really good in this league. He wants to make a name for himself. He's so internally motivated and driven. It's always the next play, what can I do better? ... You can see it with some rookies that come into this league — 'Give me a year and I'll figure this game out.' He doesn't want to wait a year. He wants it now."
Moore's new quarterback has been equally impressed.
"Elijah wants to be great," Zach Wilson said, per Lange. "I spend a lot of time with him. He's someone I want to be around because he wants to be great. He's definitely a motivating person, and we're going to have a good time doing this thing together because he's going to be a good player."
Other than that, hardly anyone is saying anything nice about Moore.
Rondale Moore, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Elijah Moore isn't the only electrifying young receiver drafted in Round 2.
"I'm very excited to play with a guy like Kyler. So crazy enough, I got a chance. I was training in Texas, pre-draft, and he was there for a while. Didn't really get a chance to talk to him, because I didn't know him much. But he texted me after the draft and, hopefully, we get a chance to get some work in. But I think, Kyler, as a player, is phenomenal. He can, obviously, throw the ball and get out of some trouble with his legs. So I think he can make some very great (plays) for our offense and I think it's a nightmare for a defensive coordinator."
Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury is already looking forward to scheming ways to get Moore the ball in space.
"He's very good in the open field, making the first guy miss," Kingsbury said after the first full minicamp, per ESPN's Nick Wagoner. "He has a knack at some of those plays, so, yeah, he's going to be a guy that's going to be fun to try to draw stuff up for, and see how many times we can get it to him."
On an offense that also has DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk and A.J. Green, Moore is going to see a lot of single coverage. And after watching the 5'7", 181-pound speedster (4.29 40-yard dash) embarrass defenders in the open field at Purdue, that single coverage will likely lead to some chunk plays.
Nico Collins, WR, Houston Texans
OK, so this list is admittedly a little wideout-heavy. OTAs are the type of practice session that shows off certain skill sets better than others.
It's hard for a guard to get his groove on without hitting anyone.
There isn't a team that needs more help at wide receiver than the Houston Texans. The team got aggressive on Day 2 of the 2021 draft, sending a package of picks to the Carolina Panthers to move up and select Michigan's Nico Collins, a 6'4", 215-pound boundary receiver with 4.43 speed.
Per Aaron Wilson of SportsTalk 790, Texans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly lauded the performance of the No. 89 overall selection.
"He's doing a good job coming here in and learning the offense. Making that transition, it’s a totally different game, especially for a guy who didn’t play last year, who opted out," Kelly said. "He's done a great job. He came in in great shape, and he's really learning the offense and he's been impressive."
Veteran wideout Brandin Cooks agreed, stating that Collins didn't give off the vibe of a first-year player.
"How I feel about Nico, this guy doesn't look like a rookie to me," Cooks said. You talk about a guy who's out there that's coachable and is able to pick up things pretty fast. You love to see that from a young guy, a guy who is explosive with natural hands, and I look forward to continuing to work with him and seeing him grow."
If Collins can be a quality complement opposite Cooks, those picks Houston sent to the Panthers will be more than worth it.
Trey Sermon, RB, San Francisco 49ers
Most of the post-draft hubbub at the running back position has centered on the two first-rounders: Najee Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Travis Etienne of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But there's another young back who is turning heads, and by December, Trey Sermon of the San Francisco 49ers may have inserted himself firmly into the conversation to be the rookie rushing leader.
With first-year players able to participate in workouts this summer as opposed to last year's coronavirus-impacted mess, youngsters like Sermon are getting the head start the class of 2020 didn't. Sermon's offseason has been kicked into hyperdrive by injuries to Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson that have allowed him to run with the first team in OTAs.
The Ohio State product has made the most of those opportunities.
"It gives those guys just an idea of when they come into camp, what I've got to work on," head coach Kyle Shanahan said, per Jennifer Lee Chan of NBC Sports. "And I think it helps those guys have a much better rookie year. Trey's been great. Each week he's gotten more and more reps and as we cooled it down with Raheem a little bit here, the last couple of weeks, it's given him even more opportunities."
We know that Sermon has talent. Prior to getting hurt against Alabama in the national championship game, he gashed Northwestern and Clemson for 524 rushing yards. And we know that the Niners love to run the ball. In 2019, the team led the NFC with 144.1 yards per game on the ground.
If Sermon wins the lead job in San Francisco, he could easily lead all rookies in rushing in 2021.
Tommy Togiai, DT, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns took a buzzsaw to their defense in the offseason, adding veteran talent at all three levels. They brought in Malik Jackson and Jadeveon Clowney up front. They signed Anthony Walker at linebacker. Troy Hill and John Johnson III joined the secondary.
It was an impressive overhaul. But given Jackson's age (31) and injury history and Andrew Billings' lost 2020 season (opted out), the middle of the defensive line could still be a bit of a question mark.
The Browns added some depth on the third day of the draft, selecting Ohio State's Tommy Togiai in the fourth round. But as ESPN's Jake Trotter reported, someone apparently forgot to tell Togiai that Cleveland brought him in as a backup:
"The fourth-round pick out of Ohio State has made a splash during both OTAs and minicamp. The combination of power and quickness is there. Considering one of Cleveland's projected starting defensive tackles has an injury history (Malik Jackson) and the other (Andrew Billings) didn't play in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns, Togiai could become an important piece up front for the Browns."
In his scouting report for the Draft Network, Kyle Crabbs talked up Togiai's ability to stuff the run while comparing him to longtime NFL vet Tyson Alualu.
"This dude is relentless in pursuit. His vision and feel of the line of scrimmage are excellent. He's shown high levels of competency to discard blocks and challenge in the gap and also scrape down the line of scrimmage to contest outside the tackle box. Togiai wins against the run as both a finesse and leverage player—an impressive combination that should help him build appeal for a number of different defensive fronts and principles."
That relentlessness is apparently showing up in practices.
Nate Hobbs, CB, Las Vegas Raiders
At his introductory press conference, cornerback Nate Hobbs made it clear that he thought the Las Vegas Raiders got a massive bargain in the fifth round.
"I play with passion, I play with want-to, and when I'm on the field, I'm going to enforce my will," Hobbs said. "They're getting the best underdog they've ever drafted."
So far, the 167th overall pick has lived up to that bold proclamation.
Granted, there's a big difference between covering guys in non-contact drills and hanging with the likes of Keenan Allen and Tyreek Hill in the AFC West in games that count. But the 6'0", 195-pound Illinois product has been steadily impressive in workouts, drawing praise from veteran teammate Trayvon Mullen.
"I feel like he's going to be really talented," Mullen said, per Levi Edwards of the team's official website. "He practices hard; he goes through his drills really well. I like the way he approaches practice. I feel like he's going to be a real good player for us as long as he just keeps his mentality up and keeps going hard every day."
Hobbs has seen a lot of time on the practice field as the nickel corner, and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley likes what he's seen so far.
"The guy that's probably really jumped out at us is Hobbs," Bradley said. "Very impressed with him. I think he's come in with a real good knowledge of the position, so his learning curve has really jumped up."
The Raiders need all the help they can get in the secondary after finishing in the bottom 10 in passing yards allowed in 2020. If Hobbs can carry this momentum over into training camp, the underdog could find himself playing significant snaps.
Benjamin St-Juste, CB, Washington Football Team
The Washington Football Team sent a few eyebrows skyward when they used a third-round pick on Minnesota cornerback Benjamin St-Juste.
Since the beginning of OTAs, those eyebrows have been spiking for a different reason. He has been balling out.
Chris Russell of SI.com wrote that St-Juste has been one of the team's defensive stars:
"St-Juste was all over the place. He was hounding just about every receiver he went up against at the right outside corner position. Quite simply, if this is the type of player the WFT drafted, look out.
"In one team period of 11-on-11, St-Juste had three pass breakups by my count and they looked mostly clean (on time and no DPI). St-Juste was harassing Dyami Brown all day and unofficially had five passes defended on the morning.
"On one St-Juste defended pass over the middle, a coach yelled out, 'Oh yeah...that's what I'm talking about.'"
It's not just pundits who have been wowed.
"He's got exceptional quickness. He had a 6.6 three-cone [drill], which is unheard of," defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said of St-Juste, per Andrew Oliveros of SI.com. "And so for a guy [who is] 6'3" to do that shows you the short-area quickness.”"
Washington's top two corners are set in Kendall Fuller and William Jackson III. The No. 3 slot is less certain, though, and right now, St. Juste is staking an early claim.
Daelin Hayes, Edge, Baltimore Ravens
It's no secret that the Baltimore Ravens needed help on the edge after Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue left in free agency. The team attempted to remedy that by adding Penn State's Odafe Oweh with the 31st overall pick.
Baltimore went back to that well in the fifth round, selecting Notre Dame's Daelin Hayes at No. 171, and it looks like the Ravens may have added some pop to the pass rush on the cheap.
As Jeff Zrebiec reported for The Athletic, Hayes has had success getting after the quarterback in early practices.
"Hayes showed his pass-rushing repertoire, beating blocking tight end Eric Tomlinson with a nifty inside spin move," Zrebiec wrote. "A few plays later, Hayes got the better of undrafted rookie Foster Sarell with an outside speed rush."
Veteran edge-rusher Tyus Bowser said that Hayes reminded him of a younger version of himself.
"Daelin kind of gives me an impression of me when I was coming into the league—just [with] how mobile he is, how well he can move, how well he can get the defense down," he said, per Kevin Oestreicher of Ravens Wire.
A couple of practice sacks don't mean a lot. Hayes fell to the draft's third day because of a perceived lack of athleticism. But the Ravens have a track record of developing young pass-rushers, and for what it's worth, Judon was a fifth-round pick in 2016.
That worked out OK.
Thomas Graham Jr., CB, Chicago Bears
The 2021 draft presented teams with a unique challenge. There were dozens of players who sat out the 2020 season because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. Some, like Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Oregon offensive tackle Penei Sewell, didn't have their draft stock affected.
However, Sewell's teammate Thomas Graham Jr. had to wait until the sixth round to hear his name called at No. 228 despite an honorable mention All-Pac-12 nod in 2019. Pro Football Focus ranked the 5'10", 192-pounder as the No. 76 prospect in the 2021 class (h/t Larry Mayer of the Bears' official website).
Graham said he isn't paying attention to that ranking anymore. Or how far he fell in the draft. His only order of business is making Chicago glad it drafted him.
"I personally don't really know what made me drop or even if I was actually rated that high," Graham said. "But all that did was kind of put a chip on my shoulder—and I've always played with a chip on my shoulder. I've always been the underdog. I'm just going out there ready to play, ready to go ball."
According to Lake Shore Sports, Graham has already made an impression on defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend.
"He is a playmaker," Townsend said. "He can see the ball in the air, he can find it, track it."
In fact, Graham has made such an impression that he is reportedly in the mix to take over the starting job in the slot as a rookie.