Week 18 of the NFL season is over, and with it, the 2021 regular season. All 32 first-round rookies have played the final regular-season game of their debut seasons, and some have earned the right to extend their playing time into the postseason. Trevor Lawrence finally showed some promise with the upset of the week, while Trey Lance resumed his seat on the bench as the 49ers tossed the keys back to Jimmy Garoppolo.
This group of players features some of the best performers in the NFL, and multiple players showed up on the PFF All-Pro team — something that doesn’t typically happen.
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PICK NO. 1: QB Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
Overall Rookie Grade: 59.6 (Rank: 4/9)
Week 18 Grade: 83.8
It took 18 weeks, but we finally got to see a Trevor Lawrence who looked worthy of the No. 1 overall pick in a big upset win over Indianapolis. Lawrence made multiple big-time throws and no turnover-worthy plays, completing over 70% of his passes for the first time this season and posting an 87.1% adjusted completion rate, the best of his season.
Lawrence has been in an ugly situation in Jacksonville and undermined at more or less every turn, but he has also had precious few bright moments.
PICK NO. 2: QB Zach Wilson, New York Jets
Overall Rookie Grade: 59.3 (Rank: 5/9)
Week 18 Grade: 37.2
In contrast to Lawrence, Wilson — who had been showing encouraging signs lately — went back in the tank in Week 18 against the league’s best pass defense. Wilson finished his rookie year with the lowest PFF game grade (37.2) of his season, completing passes for just 4.4 yards per attempt and averaging almost four seconds per throw.
Wilson showed some brief flashes this season of the ability that made him such an exciting prospect, but he recorded one of the 10 lowest big-time throw rates in the league (2.5%) at the same time as having one of the 10 highest turnover-worthy play rates (3.8%). That’s not a good combination.
PICK NO. 3: QB Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers
Overall Rookie Grade: 59.9 (Rank: 3/9)
Week 18 Grade: DNP
Jimmy Garoppolo’s injured thumb was healed enough for the 49ers to turn the job back over to him in a win-and-in Week 18 game. Lance took a seat back on the bench and had no cause to get up from that seat against the Los Angeles Rams. Lance has played 179 total snaps this season, with 128 of them coming in two starts when Garoppolo was injured. He has three big-time throws to four turnover-worthy plays but shows obvious arm talent any time he drops back to pass.
Lance would be a fun player to watch lead this team, but heading into the postseason, Garoppolo likely does give San Francisco the better chance to win.
PICK NO. 4: TE Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons
Overall Rookie Grade: 79.7 (Rank: 1/14)
Week 18 Grade: 44.3
Pitts came into the league as the best tight end prospect in years but was always more of a hybrid player. And as the season has progressed, he has become a de facto No. 1 wide receiver for the Falcons. Pitts aligned at tight end on passing plays six or fewer times in a game in each of the past three weeks. Overall, he lined up in line as a tight end just marginally more than he split out wide, and he was in the slot more often than either.
Wherever Pitts lines up, he is a problem for defenses. He generated over 2.0 yards per route run this season. The sky's the limit for him, but how the team deploys him going forward will be interesting to monitor.
PICK NO. 5: WR Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals
Overall Rookie Grade: 83.1 (Rank: 1/29)
Week 18 Grade: 76.1
Chase wasted no time in becoming one of the best receivers in the NFL, despite sitting out last year and having one season of significant college production. He has been able to win in a variety of ways in the NFL — with speed, after-the-catch ability and contested-catch skills against tight coverage. Passes targeting Chase generated a 121.2 passer rating despite six interceptions occurring on those targets, showing just how productive Chase was when the ball did get through to him. A relative cool stretch in the middle of the year only serves to show there’s still more in the tank. Cincinnati nailed this draft pick.
PICK NO. 6: WR Jaylen Waddle, Miami Dolphins
Overall Rookie Grade: 78.3 (Rank: 3/29)
Week 18 Grade: 58.4
Waddle set the rookie record for receptions in a single season, finishing with 104 catches from 138 targets to pass Anquan Boldin. Waddle averaged 9.8 yards per catch and 1.75 yards per route run, but it’s difficult to get a gauge on how much of a complete threat he can be within an offense so reliant on RPOs and short passing to protect a disastrous offensive line and a young quarterback. Waddle possesses game-changing speed, reliable hands and a proven ability to be a high-volume target, but the team still needs to explore how much of an impact downfield he can make.
PICK NO. 7: OT Penei Sewell, Detroit Lions
Overall Rookie Grade: 77.4 (Rank: 2/19)
Week 18 Grade: DNP
Sewell didn’t play in Week 18, but his rookie year was a big success for the Lions, particularly given the concerns about his preseason performances on the right side of the line. Sewell played both left and right tackle for Detroit this season and moved between the two seamlessly when Taylor Decker returned from injury. The rookie allowed 35 pressures from 644 pass-blocking snaps and was one of the best run-blockers in the league. Given the pace offensive linemen typically develop at, the Lions should be very excited about his future.
PICK NO. 8: CB Jaycee Horn, Carolina Panthers
Overall Rookie Grade: 67.8 (Rank: 8/42)
Week 18 Grade: DNP
Horn broke his foot on Thursday night in Week 3 of the 2021 NFL season after an encouraging start to the campaign. He gave up two catches on six targets for 18 yards overall.