NFL News & Analysis

Ranking the top 25 rookies from the 2021 NFL season: Dallas Cowboys LB Micah Parsons leads the way

Arlington, Texas, USA; Washington Football Team offensive tackle Sam Cosmi (76) blocks Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Micah Parsons (11) during the second quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 rookie class could very well go down as an all-timer.

In all, 16 first-year players generated more than 0.3 wins above replacement (PFF WAR) in the regular season, and no other class in the last decade boasted more than 10 players with that much value. So, needless to say, compiling this year’s PFF rookie rankings was a challenging task.

With the help of PFF’s unique play-by-play grading system and other advanced metrics, we were able to pick the 25 best first-year performers from the 2021 NFL season.

Note that this ranking doesn't incorporate positional value and is not projecting future play. This is purely a ranking of the best rookie performers from the 2021 season. 

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1. LB MICAH PARSONS, DALLAS COWBOYS

Parsons is in the midst of one of the most impressive seasons we've ever seen — not just from a rookie, but from any defensive player.

The Penn State product seamlessly transitioned from the edge to off-ball linebacker countless times this season and has been dangerous at either role. The 12th overall pick recorded a 93.0 pass-rush grade, 22.4% pressure rate and a 24.8% pass-rush win rate this season — all of which are among the five best in the NFL, regardless of position. In coverage, he allowed 0.69 yards per snap and earned a 69.4 coverage grade, both of which rank 11th or higher among linebackers.

2. WR JA’MARR CHASE, CINCINNATI BENGALS

Only two wide receivers — Justin Jefferson of the Minnesota Vikings and Davante Adams of the Green Bay Packers — earned a higher grade than Chase against single coverage this season. Chase’s 868 receiving yards on such plays actually leads the NFL for the season.

The former LSU star looked like the complete package in college back during the Tigers' historic 2019 campaign, and that’s carried into his rookie campaign. With his play strength, route-running, deep speed, releases, ball skills and YAC ability, Chase is destined to be a routine top-five wide receiver in the NFL.

3. C CREED HUMPHREY, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Humphrey was the highest-graded center in the entire league in 2021 and broke the record for the highest single-season PFF grade by a rookie at the position. He ranked top-five in both positively and negatively graded run play rate — something no other center did this season — en route to a position-leading 92.5 run-block grade. The 63rd overall pick got better with his pass-protection as the season went along, too, with zero pressures allowed in six of his last seven games.

4. T RASHAWN SLATER, LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

Slater earned an 83.7 overall grade in 2021, a top-10 mark at the position and the best grade by a rookie tackle in over a decade. He thrived regardless of the play call, producing a grade above 80.0 as both a run- and pass-blocker. The only other players to accomplish that feat? Trent Williams of the San Francisco 49ers, Tyron Smith of the Dallas Cowboys and Jordan Mailata of the Philadelphia Eagles. That's not too shabby for a 22-year-old rookie who didn’t play a down of football in 2020 due to the pandemic.

5. TE KYLE PITTS, ATLANTA FALCONS

Pitts may have fallen short of Chicago Bears legend Mike Ditka’s rookie receiving yards record, but his rookie campaign was one for the PFF record books. Pitts' 81.6 receiving grade is the sixth-best from a tight end in the 2021 season and tied for fourth with Rob Gronkowski for the best by a rookie since 2006.

What’s most impressive is that the 6-foot-6, 240-pound tight end did this with 187 snaps lined up out wide, over 100 more than the next rookie since 2006. Pitts generated 10 more 15-plus-yard receptions on the outside than any other rookie in that same timespan with 14.

6. S JEVON HOLLAND, MIAMI DOLPHINS

Holland has been one of the best safeties in the NFL this year. His 84.6 PFF grade is the third-best at the position, behind only Kevin Byard of the Tennessee Titans and Antoine Winfield Jr. of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

And he only got better as the season progressed. Holland is the highest-graded safety since Week 9 by over four grading points. Not only is he doing this after not playing a down in 2021 due to the pandemic, but he is also doing this almost exclusively at free safety despite playing a more versatile role in college. But, that’s not to say he can be a versatile piece, as we saw against the Baltimore Ravens:

7. QB MAC JONES, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Jones’ processing, accuracy and timing stood out when he led Alabama to a national championship in 2020. Those traits have translated to the NFL right away and resulted in high-level play for the rookie.

The Pats quarterback enters the postseason with a 77.8 PFF passing grade, a top-10 mark at the position and the sixth-best passing grade among all rookie quarterbacks in the last decade. His 2.5% turnover-worthy play rate and 19.8% uncatchable pass rate on throws beyond the line of scrimmage are both the sixth-best in the NFL.

The fifth quarterback taken in the 2021 NFL Draft has performed better than any other rookie passer, and it’s not particularly close.

8. WR JAYLEN WADDLE, MIAMI DOLPHINS

Waddle took off after a subpar first month, as the sixth overall pick was one of the 10 highest-graded wide receivers in the NFL from Week 6 on.

Waddle's grade on targets thrown less than nine yards downfield was the fifth-best of the 2021 season. The scary aspect about that is that there’s still a lot of untapped potential with the speedster, specifically deep downfield, as he caught only four deep passes this season.

9. T PENEI SEWELL, DETROIT LIONS

Sewell had a rough first five weeks in the NFL ranks, but he quickly rallied and became one of the top players at the position in the NFL. His grade from Week 6 on was the ninth-best among all tackles. The seventh overall pick did that while flipping from left tackle to right tackle midway through the year. Sewell was the best tackle prospect PFF has ever evaluated, and he is living up to the hype.

10. WR DEVONTA SMITH, PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

Smith has been utilized as a downfield pass-catching threat, as he has generated the sixth-highest average depth of target in the NFL at 15.2 yards. He’s held up his end of the bargain with the fifth-most deep receptions (12) over 20 yards downfield.

Interestingly, the 2020 Heisman winner has dominated on hitch routes this year. His receiving grade and 298 yards on hitch routes are top-three among wide receivers.

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) in action against the New Orleans Saints during the second quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

11. WR AMON-RA ST. BROWN, DETROIT LIONS

St. Brown has gone from fourth-round pick to top-20-graded wide receiver in one year. Over the last six weeks, he even ranks third in PFF grade behind only Cooper Kupp and Davante Adams.

While he might not be beating press-man on the outside, St. Brown has done an excellent job finding soft spots in zone from the slot. He also hasn’t dropped a pass since Week 3 and has caught half of his contested opportunities.

12. CB NATE HOBBS, LAS VEGAS RAIDERS

Las Vegas was forced to start Hobbs right away in the slot out of necessity, and the fifth-round pick has more than exceeded expectations. He’s played more snaps in the slot than anyone else this season and leads the NFL in coverage grade on those reps.

Given that the Illinois product played solely outside cornerback in college, that’s impressive. He is an explosive and feisty player who has been a productive blitzer from the slot as well, with nine pressures on 20 rushes.

13. LB JEREMIAH OWUSU-KORAMOAH, CLEVELAND BROWNS

There are times Owusu-Koramoah looks like he has been shot out of a cannon in the short area of the field, and that helped him fly to the ball quickly. As a result, he was the first defender to contact at the eight-highest rate among off-ball linebackers this season. Owusu-Koramoah also ranked fifth among that group in positively graded run play rate, helping him to a 74.4 PFF grade that ranked ninth.

14. S TREVON MOEHRIG, LAS VEGAS RAIDERS

Moehrig played the second-most snaps at free safety (1,058) than anyone else in the NFL. He produced a top-10 coverage grade at the position, as he combined for as many plays on the ball as first downs or touchdowns allowed (5). Moehrig also attempted 24 tackles in coverage when playing free safety and didn’t miss one.

15. TE PAT FREIERMUTH, PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Freiermuth may not be the same dynamic athlete Kyle Pitts is, but the 6-foot-5, 258-pound tight end's play strength has been a highlight. The former Penn State Nittany Lion’s 10 contested catches and 11 broken tackles after the catch are tied for sixth among tight ends.

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16. CB PATRICK SURTAIN II, DENVER BRONCOS

Making the jump from college to the NFL is tough for cornerbacks. Just ask Atlanta Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell, who went from allowing 901 yards as a rookie in 2020 to allowing just 200 yards in 2021.

Surtain was seemingly unaffected by the dreaded learning curve, though. After a few poorly graded games in the first quarter of the season, the Bama product has stepped up and been a legitimate CB1 for Denver. Since Week 7, he is one of the 25 highest-graded players at the position and has allowed more than 60 yards in coverage just once this season. He leads the rookie class in pass breakups plus interceptions with 12.

17. QB JUSTIN FIELDS, CHICAGO BEARS

As bad as the situation was in Year 1 for Fields, he showed a lot of promise in the Windy City with his arm talent and 4.4 speed. Fields recorded a 6.1% big-time throw rate and 14 explosive runs of 10 or more yards, both of which were fifth among quarterbacks in 2021. Fields rarely put the ball in harm's way from a clean pocket, as evidenced by his fifth-ranked 1.4% turnover-worthy play rate on clean-pocket dropbacks. It wasn’t a banner rookie campaign, but he still showcased the traits to be a star quarterback.

18. CB GREG NEWSOME II, CLEVELAND BROWNS

Earning a top-10 grade in single coverage in the NFL, as Newsome just did, is hard to do for a seasoned veteran, let alone a rookie. The first-round pick has as many plays on the ball as first downs allowed (8) on such plays this season. Cleveland’s scheme doesn’t require Newsome to play a lot of press-man, but he has impressed on those reps when asked. Between him and Owusu-Koramoah, Cleveland has to be pretty happy with their 2021 draft class.

19. CB ERIC STOKES, GREEN BAY PACKERS

Stokes took over a starting job in Week 3 and showed immense growth as the season progressed. He comes into the playoffs on his hottest stretch of play. Since Week 12, he has been one of the 10 highest-graded cornerbacks in the NFL. He has allowed a mere 0.46 yards per coverage snap and 3.1 yards per target in that span, both of which are second among cornerbacks.

Overall, Stokes has allowed the lowest rate of open targets among all cornerbacks this year at 26%. His progress is something the Packers desperately needed with All-Pro corner Jaire Alexander out for most of the season due to injury.

20. DI CHRISTIAN BARMORE, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Since Week 9, Barmore ranks fifth at his position in pass-rush grade (82.6) and third in pass-rush win rate (21.2%). He did suffer a serious-looking injury in Week 18, but fortunately, reports indicate that he avoided anything major.

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21. SCB ELIJAH MOLDEN, TENNESSEE TITANS

Molden was one of the steals of the 2021 NFL Draft, as he was 35th on the PFF draft board and went 100th overall to Tennessee. The Washington product had a rough few first weeks, but since Week 3, he’s the eighth-highest-graded slot defender in coverage.

22. LB NICK BOLTON, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Bolton enters the postseason with one of the three highest tackling grades among off-ball linebackers, with just six missed on 122 attempts. He’s also been a high-level playmaker against the run with more tackles for loss or no gain, 20, than any other player at the position this season.

23. RB NAJEE HARRIS, PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Pittsburgh molded Harris into a workhorse, giving him the second-most rushing attempts (307) and most targets (97) among running backs. Harris wasn’t an explosive runner by any means, but he at least never put the ball in harm’s way with no fumbles. He also had a knack for running through defenders after the catch as a receiver, with 35 broken tackles in the passing game — 14 more than any other back this season.

24. LB PETE WERNER, NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Werner was forced into the starting lineup for just over a month earlier this season due to an injury to Kwon Alexander. Once the veteran returned, the 60th overall pick went back to the bench but still saw valuable reps in that role, in addition to a couple of starts.

The Ohio State product earned a 79.6 PFF grade over his 394 snaps in that span. He earned a 90.9 run-defense grade for the year, ranking top-five at the position in both positively and negatively graded run play rate. He also missed only three tackles on 62 attempts, forming the second-lowest rate among linebackers with at least 50 tackle attempts.

There’s reason to be cautious, considering this production came in a small sample and not in a full-time starting job, but his career outlook looks to exceed his expectations as the 60th overall pick.

25. RB JAVONTE WILLIAMS, DENVER BRONCOS

Williams is an angry runner. His 0.31 missed tackles forced per attempt as a rookie — the highest in the NFL — backs that up. While running back isn’t an overly valuable position, Williams made a substantial mark among his counterparts in Year 1 in the NFL by ranking 13th at the position in PFF WAR generated.

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