7 Unheralded NFL Rookies Who Will Make a Big Splash in 2021

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistSeptember 10, 2021

7 Unheralded NFL Rookies Who Will Make a Big Splash in 2021

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    Some rookies just need an opportunity to show they belong on the pro level—even the late-round picks.

    Usually, we don't expect much from first-year players who came off the draft board in Rounds 4-7. However, with the right coaching staff, a chance to line up against first-stringers at practice and some preseason snaps, they can rise up the depth chart.

    While some under-the-radar rookies take advantage of more reps because of injuries at their position, others just ooze potential when they step on the field.

    Several Day 3 draft picks have made strong statements at training camp and in exhibition action. We'll highlight seven of them as unheralded players capable of making consistent contributions in starting or important roles for the regular season.

Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, Detroit Lions

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    The Detroit Lions need someone to emerge at wide receiver. The offense doesn't have a standout playmaker at the position. Tyrell Williams could lead the team in targets because of his experience, but he hasn't caught more than 43 passes in a single term since 2016.

    Though Amon-Ra St. Brown went to the Lions in the fourth round, he has a high ceiling because of his versatility and technical skill. The Athletic's Chris Burke believes the USC product could make significant contributions this season: 

    "The ceiling for St. Brown would keep him in the Offensive Rookie of the Year debate for a long while. The Lions are going to give him looks in all situations, and they figure to be trailing quite a bit. St. Brown was one of the best route runners (if not the best) among all Lions receivers from the day he set foot on the practice field. Because of that, OC Anthony Lynn has not hesitated to use him from the slot, on the edge or in motion across the backfield. When Lynn wants to be creative with his attack, he’ll make sure St. Brown is involved."

    While Offensive Rookie of the Year seems like a lofty goal for a player who didn't hear his name called until Day 3 of the draft, St. Brown should see plenty of targets, which will allow him to rack up yards and touchdowns. He could see the most opportunities in the aerial attack behind Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson.

    Assuming St. Brown plays a majority of the offensive snaps with looks on the outside and in the slot, he'll finish the 2021 term as one of the most productive rookies.

Kylen Granson, TE, Indianapolis Colts

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    Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich utilizes multiple tight ends in his scheme. Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox and Trey Burton all played at least 34.4 percent of the offensive snaps at the position last year.

    The Colts haven't re-signed Burton, who's still a free agent. Kylen Granson will replace him as the pass-catching tight end who lines up in different spots. According to The Athletic's Stephen Holder, the rookie fourth-rounder made a strong impression at practices:

    "Doyle and Alie-Cox are proven commodities, so not much to debate there. Both can be crushing blockers and also clutch receivers. Granson, however, has a chance to really come onto the scene in a big way as a rookie. He will be the Colts’ 'move' tight end, the player who is moved around the formation and split out wide. His speed was evident in training camp, as he gave the linebackers all they could handle." 

    With the Philadelphia Eagles, quarterback Carson Wentz had a strong rapport with his top two tight ends, Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. The former led the team in targets for consecutive terms (2018 and 2019). In 2019, both pass-catchers eclipsed 50 catches and 600 receiving yards with at least 87 targets while wideouts Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery battled injuries.

    Going into his age-31 term, Doyle may serve as an inline blocker more than a pass-catcher. Alie-Cox and Granson could see most of the opportunities in the passing game. At Rice and SMU, the latter hauled in 129 passes for 1,879 yards and 16 touchdowns. He's equipped to carve out a decent role with Wentz's tendency to rely on his tight ends.

Trey Smith, OG, Kansas City Chiefs

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    The Kansas City Chiefs listed two rookies in starting roles across the offensive line on their depth chart. Creed Humphrey, a second-rounder, and Trey Smith, a sixth-rounder, will line up at center and right guard, respectively.

    Typically, second-rounders have a shot to start right away, so Humphrey isn't a surprise first-stringer. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif broke a bone in his hand, which likely opened a clear pathway for Smith. With that said, the Chiefs thought the Tennessee product had early-round talent, per The MMQB's Albert Breer:

    "As the Chiefs saw it, the Tennessee product’s '19 tape was that of a top-50 or so prospect. His ’20 tape wasn’t nearly as good, but, as Kansas City dug into his file, the team found that was largely a result of his inability to practice last year, resulting from medication he was taking for the blood clots. And if he was able to come off the medication and practice in ’21, they figured he could become the first- or second-round player they thought he was before, which is exactly how things have played out." 

    ESPN's Louis Riddick caught wind of the buzz around Smith at camp (h/t Kevin Flaherty of 247Sports). 

    "This guy has been blowing the doors off of people in training camp for the Kansas City Chiefs," Riddick said on ESPN's Get Up. "Their offensive line is going to be a strength for them, and this young man is gonna help lead the way." 

    Last year, the Chiefs offense led the league in yards, though it fielded a middling rushing attack, which ranked 16th. Smith's presence on the interior may unlock the ground game and help second-year running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire break out this season.

Dan Moore Jr., OT, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers placed right tackle Zach Banner on injured reserve, which will cost him at least three games. He's struggled to stay on the field over the past year. Last September, he tore his ACL and missed all but one game for the 2020 season.

    In Banner's absence, rookie fourth-rounder Dan Moore Jr. will slide into the starting lineup at left tackle while Chukwuma Okorafor shifts back to right tackle, where he took most of his snaps last season.

    Moore had an impressive showing in exhibition games. According to Pro Football Focus, he played the most pass-blocking snaps without allowing a quarterback pressure through Week 2 of the preseason.

    Head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters that he "underestimated" Moore's potential, which says a lot about the rookie's offseason. If the Texas A&M product continues to play at a high level, Banner may not have a spot with the starting lineup when he's healthy. Pittsburgh may opt to keep Moore on the left and Okorafor on the right side for the entire season.

Hamsah Nasirildeen, LB, New York Jets

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    Hamsah Nasirildeen made a noteworthy transition from safety at Florida State to inside linebacker with the New York Jets.

    In the modern league, second-level defenders need some speed and pass-coverage ability to stay on the field for all three downs. Nasirildeen's experience at safety should help his full-time move into the front seven.

    During a visit at Jets training camp, The MMQB's Albert Breer took note of Nasirildeen's quickness, length and football IQ as a fit under head coach Robert Saleh, who served as the San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator between the 2017 and 2020 terms. 

    "Shift to Saleh-style D is clear LB spot will be interesting. With Jarrad Davis down, Hamsah Nasirildeen and Jamien Sherwood have flashed as RS' types—long, fast, smart and tough," Breer tweeted.

    Typically, inside linebackers do all the underappreciated work, tasked with coverage on underneath routes and run defense. Yet Nasirildeen, a sixth-round pick, has the skill set to make impact plays on passing downs. As a collegian, he recorded four interceptions and nine pass breakups. 

    Because Davis struggled in pass coverage with the Detroit Lions, allowing at least a 69.2 percent completion rate for each of the last three seasons, the Jets will likely pair him with Nasirildeen once he recovers from an ankle injury.

Marco Wilson, CB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Marco Wilson's fourth-round draft pedigree isn't the only reason he's under the radar. The Florida product didn't project to see a big role until cornerback Malcolm Butler went on the retired/reserve list.

    With Butler out of the picture, the Arizona Cardinals will depend on Robert Alford, Byron Murphy and Wilson to cover the boundary and slot areas. The MMQB's Albert Breer highlighted the rookie as the X-factor within the group. 

    "And really, the swing factor will be rookie Marco Wilson, who has flashed in camp," Breer wrote. "Those three guys delivering would be a way better remedy than some castoff from another team." 

    Assuming Murphy shifts inside in nickel packages, Wilson will line up on the outside when the Cardinals field a trio of cornerbacks. With most teams going heavy on three-wide-receiver sets, he'll play plenty of snaps this season.

    If Wilson holds his own, Arizona's cornerback group would look solid as opposed to a unit that's in desperate need of a playmaker and replacement for Butler.

Nate Hobbs, CB, Las Vegas Raiders

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    Nate Hobbs made his presence felt during the preseason. In his first exhibition game, the rookie fifth-rounder sacked Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith on a slot cornerback blitz off the edge. 

    In the following matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, Hobbs displayed his awareness in coverage and ability to fit the run defense, logging four tackles, three solo, one for loss, an interception and an additional pass breakup. Head coach Jon Gruden gave him a game ball for that performance. 

    Gruden told reporters that Hobbs "may be the opening-day starter" in the nickelback role. The Raiders skipper also said the rookie has the "it factor."

    The Raiders have to fill the slot cornerback position because Nevin Lawson has to serve a two-game suspension for violating the performance-enhancing substances policy.

    If Hobbs continues to make plays in coverage to go along with his quickness and instincts, he'll likely hold on to the starting job over Lawson.