News & Analysis

10 offensive rookies in position to make an immediate impact in 2021

There is no more optimistic time for an NFL fan base than right now. Every rookie is a slam-dunk pick or the “steal” of the draft until proven otherwise. But of course, only a few 2021 rookies will truly make a positive impact right away.

Take the 2020 class, for example. A record 13 wide receivers were selected in the first two rounds, but only two earned an 80.0-plus PFF grade.

So, which offensive players from the 2021 class are set up to have an immediate influence in Year 1? Let’s dive in.

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QB Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

This one is a no-brainer. Trevor Lawrence was the easiest No. 1 pick in recent memory, and there's a good reason why. Lawrence joins Baker Mayfield as the only two quarterbacks to earn a 90.0-plus PFF grade in three consecutive seasons since PFF started grading college football in 2014.

Jacksonville is still very much a work in progress with a new coaching change and plenty of holes still on the roster. However, Lawrence has a solid set of weapons at his disposal in D.J. Chark Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr., Marvin Jones Jr., James Robinson and former Clemson teammate Travis Etienne

There have been quarterback prospects who are more accurate, more athletic and stronger-armed than Lawrence, but none were as complete as Jacksonville’s newest franchise cornerstone.

QB Justin Fields, Chicago Bears

The Bears were initially on the outside looking in when it came to the top quarterback prospects in this year’s draft. That was until they pulled off a draft-day heist by trading up for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. 

Fields is the total package at the quarterback position and can help elevate a Bears offense that’s been one of the league’s worst over the past few seasons.

According to PFF’s Wins Above Average (WAA) metric, no other quarterback has been more valuable than Justin Fields in college football since 2019. He was also the only quarterback to earn top-10 PFF grades as a passer (92.2) and a runner (84.3) in 2020. 

Yes, the Chicago brass has said Andy Dalton is still the quarterback for this season, but if he doesn’t win out of the gate (6-16 over past two seasons), Chicago will be calling for Fields to save the season.

WR Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals

Alexa, play ”Reunited” by Peaches and Herb.

The dynamic Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase are finally on the same sideline once again.

Burrow and Chase lit the college football world on fire in 2019 while completing an undefeated season en route to a national title. The pair connected on 14 touchdowns of 20-plus yards, which not only led the nation in 2019 but also in 2020.

Chase’s arrival brings an immediate deep presence to Cincinnati. His 24 deep catches in 2019 are the most we’ve seen in a college season. This is a sigh of relief for head coach Zac Taylor, as the Bengals had arguably the worst deep passing attack in the NFL last season. 

Exhibit A:

Deep Completions Deep completion % Deep TD passes Deep contested target %
15 (last)  20.5% (last) 2 (T-last)  42.5% (1st) 

The 2021 wide receiver class is one of the best we have ever seen from a prospect perspective, but Chase reigns supreme as the lone Tier 1 wide receiver in this class and should have an immediate impact in Year 1.

WR Rashod Bateman & Tylan Wallace, Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens swung and missed during free agency while trying to land a big-time wide receiver, so they turned to the draft to fill one of their most glaring needs. Baltimore general manager Eric DeCosta did that and then some, taking both Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman and Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace. 

I said pre-draft that Rashod Bateman was the perfect fit for Baltimore, and Wallace is just an added bonus to what is now one of the most complete rosters in the NFL.

Bateman is among the more NFL-ready receivers, boasting excellent separation skills (five touchdown receptions coming with a step or more of separation in 2019) and after-the-catch ability that perfectly addresses a need for Baltimore.

The Ravens rank 31st league-wide in yards after the catch from receivers since 2019. In college, Bateman forced 36 missed tackles and recorded 905 yards after the catch, ranking eighth and 16th, respectively, among Power Five receivers.

Wallace is no slouch, either, despite his fourth-round draft label. His 46 contested catches and 40 receptions of 20-plus yards since 2017 both rank first in college football.

WR Dyami Brown, Washington Football Team

One of my favorite Day 2 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft was North Carolina’s Dyami Brown landing in Washington.

The Football Team has quietly built one of the best rosters in the NFL — minus the quarterback position.

As his new head coach Ron Rivera lists above, Brown adds another level of dynamism to the Washington offense. The Football Team came into the offseason with Terry McLaurin as the lone true receiving threat, but Curtis Samuel and Brown are now in the mix.

Brown excels at stretching the field and coming down with contested targets. He ranks first in college football in receptions (15), yards (606) and touchdowns (8) on go routes since 2019 and never dropped a contested target in his North Carolina career (46).

Simply put, Brown is a highlight machine — a much-needed addition to the Washington offense. 

RB Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

There’s only one reason why a team would draft a running back in the first round: for them to be the offense’s workhorse.

Whether or not you agree with the pick, Najee Harris is primed to see upwards of 250-300 touches this season and will be a featured part of the Pittsburgh offense from Day 1. Kevin Cole's fantasy projections have Harris racking up over 1,400 yards and nine touchdowns in his rookie season.

Harris posted above an 88.0 PFF grade in three straight seasons for the Crimson Tide. After deciding to return for one more season, he enjoyed his best year yet, finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and breaking Derrick Henry’s single-season touchdown record set when he won the Heisman in 2015.

At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Harris has what it takes to endure the typical bruising punishment of an NFL workhorse running back. He also possesses a unique catch radius for the position and should feature in the Steelers' passing game from the jump.

OT Penei Sewell, Detroit Lions; OT Rashawn Slater, Los Angeles Chargers; OT Christian Darrisaw, Minnesota Vikings

In a loaded tackle class, there are sure to be plenty who get a starting nod in Week 1, but the trio of Penei Sewell, Rashawn Slater and Christian Darrisaw is bound to have the most impact of them all. 

Sewell has been labeled as a generational talent at tackle and was a consensus top-five prospect on various big boards. He posted a 95.8 PFF Grade in 2019 — the highest of any offensive player in college football that season.

He fell past both the Bengals and Dolphins — who elected to address the receiver position — to the Lions, and it has already been stated he will play right tackle, which he should adjust to seamlessly.

Los Angeles’ main goal this offseason has been to protect quarterback Justin Herbert. Slater is a perfect prospect to jump in and immediately secure Herbert’s blindside. In 2019, Slater allowed zero sacks on 355 pass-blocking snaps, even holding his own against 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young.

Lastly, the Vikings’ selection of Darrisaw earned an “elite” grade after they moved back and still secured the third-best tackle prospect on PFF’s Big Board. Darrisaw was the Power Five’s highest-graded tackle in 2020 (95.6).

Honorable Mentions:

QB Zach Wilson, New York Jets 
RB Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
RB Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers
TE Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons
WR Elijah Moore, New York Jets
WR Terrace Marshall Jr., Carolina Panthers
WR Amon Ra-St. Brown, Detroit Lions

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