The headliners from the 2021 NFL Draft have long been established: Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Ja'Marr Chase — and Trey Lance, if he keeps this up — will all play a significant role in 2021, and few would be surprised to see them play well.
But it's not just the household names who can make an impact. The late-round rookies have just as much of a chance to explode onto the NFL scene and carry the flag for the league's newest generation. One can even make the case that the Day 2 and Day 3 rookies have more of a chance, given that these picks are made with “upside” in mind rather than a college career's worth of stable play.
Here are 10 rookies — listed by draft order — who have a clear path to playing time and the talent to surprise fans in 2021.
Moore's situation at Ole Miss:
Moore served as the quintessential slot receiver in Lane Kiffin’s offensive juggernaut last season. He was a true savage out on the field, and the sheer number of times he put his body on the line just to make a catch makes him every old-school coach's dream player.
Moore’s 96.7% catch rate on passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage led all FBS wide receivers this past season. He was also strong in contested scenarios despite his small stature, catching 11-of-15 contested targets. The shifty slot receiver's toughness also showed after the catch, with 31 broken tackles on 153 receptions since 2019.
The current situation in New York:
The Jets completely revamped their roster this offseason and hit a home run by securing Moore, a first-round talent, in Round 2. Head coach Robert Saleh is reportedly aware that Moore can play inside or outside, and he has been giving Moore looks at each alignment this offseason. And so far, he’s been generating a wave of excitement at training camp, according to The Athletic’s Robert Mays.
Holland's situation at Oregon:
Holland's razor-sharp instincts, rather than any outstanding athletic trait, helped him rack up plays at the catch point at Oregon. From 2018 to 2019, the Ducks defensive back accumulated 20 combined pass breakups and interceptions splitting time between safety and slot cornerback, the second-most in the FBS over that period. It's why he was known around the nation as one of the high-upside players in the 2021 NFL Draft class.
The current situation in Miami:
Earlier this week, Dolphins head coach Brian Flores indicated that Holland was “moving in the right direction.” The rookie is currently battling with veteran Jason McCourty for the starting free safety spot and is giving the former Patriot, who has only played cornerback in his NFL career, a run for his money. Holland has a skill set that can translate swiftly to the NFL — he is fully capable of making waves early for the Dolphins.
Barmore's situation at Alabama:
Barmore didn’t quite have the superior breakout season many were expecting in 2020, but he was still the best interior defensive lineman in college football. He dominated when it mattered most, in the College Football Playoff, earning a 91.3 pass-rush grade, a 23.2% win rate and 12 pressures during his two postseason contests. That pass-rush grade is by far the best we have seen in the CFP.
The current situation in New England:
Barmore was the top defensive lineman on PFF’s big board and the 12th-rated prospect overall. He slid into Round 2 because of reports that claimed he doesn’t respect or seek out coaching. However, Bill Belichick has praised Barmore for his work in camp and raved about his attributes. His build, flexibility, explosiveness and hand usage could make him a force to be reckoned with early on in the NFL.
Jenkins' situation at Oklahoma State:
Jenkins looked like a school bully on the playground at times for the Pokes, displaying the nastiness football guys love and using his upper-body strength to his advantage on a weekly basis. So it should come as no surprise that he ranked first in the Power Five in negatively graded run-block rate in 2020.
The current situation in Chicago:
Jenkins began camp on the sidelines because of a back issue, but he is making his way back for when the pads come on. He will be ready to rock as the Bears’ starting left tackle come Week 1.
The Oklahoma State product may not have supreme length, and he may not be the most fleet of foot, but he is more than capable of piling NFL defensive linemen into the turf from Day 1. In the last five years, there has only been one non-first-round rookie to produce a PFF grade north of 80.0 when playing tackle, but Jenkins, a first-round talent, can add to that total.
Samuel's situation at Florida State:
Samuel makes up for his 5-foot-10, 180-pound frame with his read-and-react ability and quicks. Despite his small stature, he racked up the second-most forced incompletions in the Power Five from 2018 through 2020, easily handling press coverage.
The current situation in Los Angeles:
Brandon Staley’s defense is a dream fit for the Florida State product. The new head coach needs athletic and instinctive corners to play in his unique defense, and that’s precisely who Samuel is. He’s a fit for an off-zone system that takes advantage of his inside-outside versatility and won’t require him to play press-man coverage. It’s a perfect marriage.
Samuel hasn’t locked down the third corner spot in the Chargers’ defense just yet, though. He’ll have to beat out Brandon Facyson in camp for the job, but it’d be quite a surprise if he didn’t.
Moore's situation at Purdue:
Back in 2018, his first year on campus, Moore was one of the 10 highest-graded wide receivers in college football — and he was a true freshman. His first-year explosion featured 37 broken tackles after the catch, shattering the single-season Power Five record for a wideout.
Moore played a simplistic role for the Boilermakers. His route tree lacked nuance, his touches schemed, but it shouldn’t matter — all he needs is the ball in his hands. He has ridiculous explosiveness and strength, which showed up after the catch and at his pro day, where he recorded a 4.29-second 40, a 42.5-inch vertical and a 6.68-second three-cone.
The current situation in Arizona:
The Cardinals’ slot situation will look very different this season, given that longtime Cardinals legend Larry Fitzgerald will likely be moving on.
While the future Hall of Famer was among the NFL’s elite many moons ago, he struggled in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense and couldn’t quite handle the underneath targets.
Enter Rondale Moore, who has been receiving rave reviews at Cardinals camp because of his athletic ability. Whether he starts right away is unknown at this point, but it’s still going to be hard to keep him off the field.
EDGE AZEEZ OJULARI, NEW YORK GIANTS
Ojulari's situation at Georgia:
Ojulari is a speed rusher through and through, and he pairs that ferocious playstyle with a stacked pass-rush toolbox. Ojulari put up the fourth-best pass-rush grade ever earned by an SEC edge defender, behind Josh Allen in 2018 and Myles Garrett in 2014 and 2015.
Power is not Ojulari’s game. He’s firmly in the “undersized” category, at 6-foot-2 and 249 pounds, but what he lacks in size and strength, he makes up for with traits and great length.
The Georgia product broke out in a big way last season, improving his 71.4 pass-rush grade to 91.7, second in the FBS, forcing three strip-sack fumbles and generating a top-five pass-rush win rate (24.3%).
The current situation in New York:
Ojulari's performance when the pads come on will be the ultimate deciding factor in whether he carves out a starting spot. But so far, head coach Joe Judge likes what he sees. Judge has mentioned the great physical shape Ojulari is in relative to his counterparts and praised his knowledge of the system. Considering how refined he was at Georgia and the lack of quality pass-rushers in New York, Ojulari is likely to play a significant role right away.
Humphrey's situation at Oklahoma:
Humphrey was a three-year starter at center for the Sooners and produced high-end play each season. His best play came in his final year in 2020, when he earned an 80.9 PFF grade.
Issues gaining leverage and snapping popped up from time to time, but he was still rarely beaten from the middle of the offensive line. Over his three years, Humphrey didn’t allow a single sack in pass protection and produced the lowest negatively graded run-block rate among Power Five centers.
The current situation in Kansas City:
Humphrey has been getting first-team reps at center and reportedly looks just as good as he did in Norman. Just take a look at the block former Chiefs tackle Mitchell Schwartz pointed out this past weekend:
Extremely well blocked play across the board! But the best block here is actually by @creed_humphrey on the N. When you’re back blocking and drive that guy 4-5 yards downfield, that’s the good stuff https://t.co/Pzw49WDqlO
— Mitchell Schwartz (@MitchSchwartz71) July 31, 2021
In the last decade, only four centers have finished their rookie years as one of the 10 highest-graded players at the position: Cody Whitehair in 2016, Travis Frederick in 2013, Corey Linsley in 2014 and Erik McCoy in 2019. Humphrey could etch his name on that list in 2021.
McNeill's situation at NC State:
McNeill came to the Wolfpack as a four-star recruit who played linebacker and running back in high school. He ended his college career as one of the best nose tackles in college football.
McNeill moved to 0-technique in 2019, producing a 79.4 PFF grade, before breaking the barrier to elite status with a 90.7 grade in the same role in 2020. The interior lineman has elite explosiveness but still has room to develop his pass-rush toolbox.
The current situation in Detroit:
McNeill has been seeing first-team reps at nose tackle at Lions camp, and many have been impressed with what they are seeing. How he fares with pads will give us a better idea of what to expect from him in 2021, but all indications are that he is on the path to locking up a starting spot for Week 1.
Graham's situation at Oregon:
Graham may not be the poster child for all-around athletic ability, but he is still a patient corner with balanced and nimble feet who attacks the catch point incredibly well. He was lights out in coverage over his final two seasons for the Ducks in 2018 and 2019, earning PFF coverage grades of 79.8 and 82.9. He ranked among the top 10 FBS cornerbacks in both passing stops (23) and plays made on the ball (29) in those two years combined.
To say that he was a steal at Pick 228 is an understatement.
The current situation in Chicago:
Duke Shelley remains the slight favorite to win the slot job in the Bears’ defense, but Graham could challenge for the top spot.
Before camp opened, Chicago head coach Matt Nagy acknowledged that he “absolutely thinks there’s an opportunity for him,” and Graham has been adding to the defense's “turnover bucket” in the short time he has been at camp. Considering what he did at Oregon before his 2020 opt-out, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him exceed expectations right away.