Ja'Marr Chase and Other NFL Rookies Already Looking Like Future Stars

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistSeptember 15, 2021

Ja'Marr Chase and Other NFL Rookies Already Looking Like Future Stars

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    A handful of rookies didn't look like first-year players in their NFL debuts. In fact, they made strong impressions that suggest we only saw the beginning of what's to come in the near future.

    Even though one game isn't enough to stamp a Pro Bowl or All-Pro label on a rookie, we saw several players stand out among the 2021 draft class. Some of them showed flashes during the preseason and training camp, while others flew under the radar until Sunday's matchups.

    Nonetheless, five rookies made an immediate impact on the outcome of their games or exceeded expectations and deserve more spotlight going forward.

    Let's take a closer look at these players and what they did to separate themselves from their rookie peers.

Nick Bolton, LB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    The Kansas City Chiefs beat the Cleveland Browns 33-29 in an offensive battle, but Nick Bolton made stops all over the field. He also burst into the backfield to take down two-time Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb behind the line of scrimmage for a clean solo tackle.

    With Willie Gay on injured reserve (turf toe), Bolton started at linebacker alongside Anthony Hitchens and didn't show many signs of inexperience. He diagnosed plays and followed the action sideline to sideline. The Missouri product tied safety Juan Thornhill and cornerback L'Jarius Sneed for a team-leading seven tackles (four solo).

    Nick Jacobs of KSHB 41 News made note of the rookie's ability to handle the physical aspect of the game while also keeping himself free to roam for stops.

    "Nick Bolton's tackling is on point this series. Great job getting his hands in the TEs chest, disengaging him, keeping tabs on the backfield and making a great tackle," Jacobs tweeted.

    Hitchens' contract expires at the end of the 2022 season, though the Chiefs may have a solid long-term linebacker tandem with Gay and Bolton in the middle of the defense.

Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Ja'Marr Chase struggled to catch the ball at practice and during the preseason. He had no issues with his hands Sunday, though.

    Chase converted seven targets into five receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings, which included a 50-yard catch over cornerback Bashaud Breeland.

    Perhaps skeptics made too much of Chase's struggles through the summer. He spoke about the differences between footballs on the collegiate and pro levels. His comments made rounds across social media a week before Sunday's game. 

    "I don't want to blame it on me sitting on my butt the whole year, but it probably had something to do with it, of course," Chase said to reporters. "There's a bigger ball adjustment, so I don't want to make excuses, but I've just got to be a pro and make the catch." 

    Clearly, Chase made the adjustment, and his connection with former LSU teammate Joe Burrow remains intact.

    The Cincinnati Bengals beat the Vikings 27-24 in overtime. Chase recorded a six-yard reception on the final drive that resulted in a game-winning field goal. He also led all pass-catchers in receiving yards.

Mac Jones, QB, New England Patriots

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Despite the New England Patriots' 17-16 loss to the Miami Dolphins, Mac Jones certainly looked the part of a composed and decisive signal-caller.

    Jones went 29-of-39 passing for 281 yards and a touchdown. He's the only rookie quarterback in league history to complete at least 70 percent of his passes on at least 30 attempts in a debut game, per Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal.

    In the pocket, Jones played the role of an NBA point guard. He spread the ball among his receivers, completing at least three passes to five different players.

    Jones and running back Damien Harris drove the Patriots deep into Dolphins territory as they tried to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, but Harris fumbled in the red zone. Miami burned the remaining three minutes and 31 seconds off the clock for the victory.

    Compared to second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (16-of-27 passing for 202 yards, a touchdown and an interception), Jones had a more productive and efficient performance. The Patriots lost to the Dolphins, but they may have the better quarterback in the long term.

Elijah Mitchell, RB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Lon Horwedel/Associated Press

    On a short list of first- and second-rounders, Elijah Mitchell stands out because of his draft slot. He's a sixth-rounder out of Louisiana, and the second running back in the San Francisco 49ers' 2021 draft class.

    The 49ers selected Trey Sermon in the third round of this year's draft but listed him as a healthy scratch for Week 1. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said the Ohio State product didn't solidify a top-three spot at his position on the depth chart, which is a bit of a head-scratcher. He recorded 16 carries for 63 yards during the preseason

    Nevertheless, running back Raheem Mostert went down with a knee injury in the first half of Sunday's game with the Detroit Lions. Mitchell handled the bulk of the workload for the remainder of the contest, logging 19 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown in a 41-33 victory. JaMycal Hasty backed up the rookie and finished with a reception for 15 yards in addition to one rush attempt for three yards and a score.

    Based on Shanahan's perspective of the depth chart, Mitchell has an edge over Sermon. Despite the draft order, the former may lead the latter in carries if they're both active. Meanwhile, Mostert will sit out for the remainder of the season. The 29-year-old running back announced that he will undergo season-ending knee surgery.

    Typically, Shanahan employs a running back platoon, but Mitchell made his mark on the franchise and became the first 49ers running back to rush for over 100 yards in a debut.

DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    On Sunday, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts had a strong performance (27-of-35 passing for 264 yards and three touchdowns), and he threw his first touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith midway through the first quarter.

    Smith saw eight targets and hauled in six passes for 71 yards and a touchdown in a 32-6 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. He's not known for his speed or explosive traits, but the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner consistently gained separation to free himself from coverage. 

    Smith tied Jalen Reagor in receptions and led the team in receiving yards. Clearly, the rookie wideout has a connection with Hurts. They played together at Alabama between 2017-18—more so in the latter term.

    In his debut, Smith looked silky smooth as he did on the collegiate level. Because of his ability to create space and open passing windows, the 6'0", 175-pounder shouldn't have an issue at the pro level in a go-to role.


    Week 1 statistics courtesy of ESPN.com

    Player contract courtesy of Over the Cap