NFL News & Analysis

Projecting Week 1 rookie starters on every NFL team’s depth chart

Aug 23, 2021; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) audibles against the New Orleans Saints defensive line during the first half at Caesars Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Now that almost all official NFL team sites have posted their Week 1 depth charts, it’s worth glancing across the NFL landscape at the rookies slated to start the first week of the 2021 NFL season.

Of the league's 32 franchises, 13 are unlikely to start a single rookie for Week 1, once again reinforcing how teams should approach the NFL draft with a long-term vision over a short-term one.

Let’s dive into each NFL team's rookie class to see what we should expect for the upcoming season. 


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Arizona Cardinals

LB Zaven Collins

There's no surprise here, as Collins was declared the starter when he was drafted — much to the chagrin of some of the linebackers already on the Cardinals' roster.

The 16th overall pick of the 2021 NFL Draft will pair up with Isaiah Simmons to form the league’s youngest — and highest-drafted — linebacking duo. The bigger surprise here is that Rondale Moore falls out of the starting lineup after an electric camp and preseason. The second-round receiver will surely still see touches and carve out a role in the slot for Arizona.

Atlanta Falcons

LG Jalen Mayfield, TE Kyle Pitts

Pitts and Mayfield had two decidedly different preseasons, but both ended up with a starting role.

Pitts played all of two snaps but showed exactly why he was the highest-drafted tight end ever with an electric catch and run against the Browns. On the other hand, Mayfield played 123 snaps — the fourth-most of any Falcons player this preseason — and took his lumps in pass protection. He allowed eight pressures and earned a 30.4 pass-blocking grade in three preseason outings.

Baltimore Ravens

None

This isn’t going to be the case all season, as first-rounder Rashod Bateman will likely join the starting receiver rotation once he recovers from his core muscle surgery. Outside of that, there weren’t too many starting jobs up for grabs, given the talent the team brought back from last year.

Buffalo Bills

None

Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham were never supposed to start right away, as both were long-term plays for a cash-strapped roster. They’ll still factor in heavily in obvious pass-rushing situations, however.

Carolina Panthers

CB Jaycee Horn

After starting rookie defensive players all over the place a season ago, only top-10 pick Jaycee Horn gets the call in Week 1. The South Carolina product didn’t allow a single catch on five targets this preseason, with a pass breakup thrown in for good measure.

It will be interesting to see how the 20-year-old corner transitions from a press-man-heavy scheme to a more diverse role in the NFL.

Chicago Bears

None

After mortgaging a lot of draft capital to secure quarterback Justin Fields in the first round and tackle Teven Jenkins in the second round, it can't be pleasant for Bears fans to see neither player in this starting lineup.

Jenkins is currently on IR after back surgery and has an uncertain timetable moving forward. Fields' timetable is equally uncertain, but that’s because Matt Nagy and company are still hesitant to throw the rookie into the fire.

Cincinnati Bengals

WR Ja’Marr Chase

We aren’t too worried about Chase just yet. While he dropped four of his five catchable targets this preseason, the more encouraging thing for Bengals fans is that those five targets came on only 11 routes. He’ll be a heavy factor in that offense and very much looks like their No. 1 option.

While it’s unfortunate that second-rounder Jackson Carman didn’t win a starting job, the interior lineman looked better down the stretch in the preseason.

Cleveland Browns

CB Greg Newsome II

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah surprisingly misses out on a linebacker spot here. The second-rounder looked exceptional this preseason, with seven stops in the Jaguars game alone. He himself said he expects a “big role” against the Chiefs Week 1, so maybe this is just a smokescreen.

First-rounder Greg Newsome II quickly usurped Greedy Williams on the depth chart and now gets the pleasure of lining up across from Tyreek Hill this weekend.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons (11) during training camp at the Marriott Residence Inn. Credit: Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas Cowboys

DT Osa Odighizuwa, LB Micah Parsons

If you watched the Cowboys in 2020, you know that these are two positions the Cowboys desperately needed help at this offseason.

While Parsons already looks like the answer at linebacker after earning a 91.0 overall grade this preseason, Odighizuwa has a bit more of an uphill climb when it comes to shoring up the Cowboys' interior woes. In the past five seasons, only five rookie interior defenders have played at least 500 snaps and earned grades over 70.0 for the year. Of them, none was drafted later than the second round, as Odighizuwa was.

Denver Broncos

None

The Broncos did a fantastic job of plugging holes in free agency to the point where they don’t need to rely on youth to get the job done. That being said, they had two outstanding rookie performers this preseason who will very likely be starting earlier rather than later in 2021.

Detroit Lions

RT Penei Sewell, NT Alim McNeill

Sewell’s struggles this preseason have been well-documented. Yes, he may have earned a 38.6 overall grade this preseason, but that's no reason to sit your No. 7 overall pick and keep him from getting valuable game reps right from the get-go.

While McNeil is the only other listed rookie starter, it’s more of a technicality between him and second-round defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike. McNeil is the more traditional nose tackle who gets listed in base defenses, but Onwuzurike will likely play just as much, given the prevalence of sub-packages.

Green Bay Packers

C Josh Myers, RG Royce Newman

While Myers was penciled in as the starting center from Day 1 after he was drafted, Newman went out and earned his starting role by putting up a monster 91.8 overall grade this preseason. His emergence also makes it a much cleaner transition once left tackle David Bakhtiari returns from the PUP list. Once that happens, Elgton Jenkins will simply move back from left tackle to left guard, where he played last year.

Houston Texans

None

It’s crazy to think that even with the lowest projected win total in the NFL, the Texans still don’t have a single rookie starter on their depth chart. Of course, third-round receiver Nico Collins will factor in the rotation at the position, but they’re not developing much in the way of young talent in this throwaway year.

Indianapolis Colts defensive end Kwity Paye (51) works out during Indianapolis Colts OTAs. Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Indianapolis Colts

Edge Kwity Paye

This was to be expected, as second-round defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo tore his Achilles before he was even selected and isn’t back healthy yet. The way Paye played this preseason, he may be all the help their defensive line needs. He earned a 94.2 overall grade on 32 snaps across two preseason games.

Jacksonville Jaguars

QB Trevor Lawrence

It’s Lawrence’s show at the Jags' quarterback position, and he was as advertised by the end of preseason, earning a 93.0 grade on 12 dropbacks against the Cowboys.

While it may be a tad disappointing that their three other top-50 picks were unable to crack the starting lineup, it’s not necessarily a surprise. All three were drafted at positions of depth on the roster, while running back Travis Etienne has already been ruled out for the 2021 campaign. 

Kansas City Chiefs

C Creed Humphrey, RG Trey Smith

You can pretty much add right tackle Lucas Niang as a glorified rookie after he opted out last season. The trio handled their business admirably as starters this preseason, with the interior duo even looking like an upgrade from Kansas City's tandem a year ago. Smith led the way with a 74.4 overall grade, while Humphrey and Niang weren’t too far behind with overall grades of 73.7 and 71.5, respectively.

Las Vegas Raiders

RT Alex Leatherwood, FS Trevon Moehrig

While neither player has produced in meaningful games yet, this has to be an encouraging sign for Raiders fans. After two top-100 picks from 2020 failed to even play a snap in a Raiders uniform, they couldn’t afford similar fates from Leatherwood or Moehrig. Leatherwood finished the preseason with a 63.2 overall grade on 39 snaps while Moehrig earned a 66.3 on 39 snaps.

Los Angeles Chargers

LT Rashawn Slater, CB Asante Samuel Jr.

The Chargers staff saw Slater shut down the Rams edge rushers on 12 pass-blocking snaps in the first week of preseason and decided they’d seen enough to know. The rookie left tackle looks as ready as can be to contribute from Day 1 and be a massive upgrade at the position.

It was also announced Wednesday that second-round cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. has won the nickel corner position, which may as well be a starter in Brandon Staley's defense. It's not going to be your traditional nickel, though, as Samuel will be playing on the outside opposite Michael Davis when he comes in. That's where he earned an 82.8 coverage grade last year at Florida State.

Los Angeles Rams

None

With only one top-100 pick — and even that came at No. 57 overall — it’s no surprise the Rams' rookie class hasn’t produced a starter yet. They were quite clearly trying to get second-rounder Tutu Atwell acclimated to the NFL game quickly this preseason, as he was targeted 28 times in three games, eight more than any other player in the NFL. Unfortunately, he caught only 18 and moved the chains just four times.

Miami Dolphins

WR Jaylen Waddle

We didn’t get a particularly comprehensive look at the Dolphins' top-10 pick this preseason, but we didn’t need to. We already know the special skill set he brings to the table. He was targeted four times on 22 routes, hauling in three for 21 yards with a drop. He’ll have a big role out the gate with Will Fuller V suspended for Week 1.

While listing a first-rounder as a starter on a depth chart can be seen as something of a formality, it’s worth noting that Jaelan Phillips is currently listed as the third-string edge, behind Andrew Van Ginkel and Brennan Scarlett.

Minnesota Vikings

None

The elephant in the room here is obviously first-round left tackle Christian Darrisaw. He was given a two- to three-week recovery timeline after a core-muscle surgery on Aug. 12, but it obviously took much longer, as he only started practicing Wednesday. Odds are he’s starting sooner rather than later over Rashod Hill, but it’s hard to expect that after only a few days of practice.

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones 10) calls a play against the Washington Football Team during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots

QB Mac Jones

This one has been discussed ad nauseam at this point, but Jones balled out and earned that starting job fair and square, finishing the preseason with a scintillating 92.2 overall grade on 59 dropbacks.

Just because second-rounder Christian Barmore isn’t listed as a starting defensive lineman, don’t think he won’t factor in the rotation. The former Alabama standout will almost certainly be on the field in obvious passing situations after flashing as a pass-rusher this preseason.

New Orleans Saints

None

First-rounder Payton Turner was always going to be a rotational plan and future insurance policy against Marcus Davenport leaving or Cam Jordan retiring. It’s unclear exactly how he’ll factor in after the Saints were cautious with him all camp and held him out of the entire preseason with a minor, undisclosed injury.

New York Giants

None

The Kadarius Toney saga will be one to monitor into the season. Between an undisclosed injury and a bout with COVID-19, he’s barely practiced in camp. He’s starting off behind the eight ball in a crucial developmental year for a developmental type of receiver.

It may be a tad surprising that second-rounder Azeez Ojulari wasn’t able to leapfrog either Lorenzo Carter or Oshane Ximines in a relatively weak edge group, but not too much so after a non-descript 62.1 overall grade on 35 snaps this preseason.

New York Jets

LG Alijah Vera-Tucker, WR Elijah Moore, QB Zach Wilson, LB Jamien Sherwood, LB Hamsah Nasirildeen

The Jets are throwing out more rookie starters than any team in the NFL, which is something you love to see from a rebuilding franchise. While Vera-Tucker and Moore didn’t play a single snap this preseason because of lingering injuries, Wilson lit opposing defenses — and the New York media — on fire. He earned an 85.7 overall grade on 20 dropbacks. 

Sherwood and Nasirildeen on defense could very well be joined by either Jason Pinnock or Brandin Echols as starting corners. The Jets depth chart currently lists both men alongside Isaiah Dunn as starting corners opposite Bryce Hall.

Philadelphia Eagles

WR DeVonta Smith

The Eagles' coaching staff didn't mess around with their depth chart. They rank WR1, WR2 and WR3, with the rookie already earning the top spot. While he didn’t get much chance to shine in the preseason — he ran only 18 routes and saw four targets — Smith’s oft-discussed size didn’t look like it would be much of an issue.

Pittsburgh Steelers

LT Dan Moore Jr., C Kendrick Green, TE Pat Freiermuth, RB Najee Harris

There’s a ton of new faces on the offensive side of the ball in Pittsburgh. While Harris and Freiermuth garnered far more headlines with their draft status and play this preseason, Moore and Green should be the area of focus for Steelers fans.

The offensive line was the hot topic in Pittsburgh all offseason, and they afforded Harris all of 0.6 yards before contact this preseason. Moore did enough to earn the starting left tackle job as a fourth-rounder, but Zach Banner being hurt to start the year was a larger factor in that decision. Moore and Green earned pass-blocking grades of 58.5 and 46.2, respectively, this preseason.

San Francisco 49ers

None

No Trey Lance … yet.

That’s not a surprise, given: A). the fact that they never cut Jimmy G with his massive cap hit, and B). Lance’s 56.7 overall grade this preseason. The bigger worry here is second-rounder Aaron Banks. He hailed from an NFL-ready scheme at Notre Dame but looked anything but in his lone game of preseason action. He earned a 29.8 overall grade against the Chiefs in week 1 of the preseason before injuring his shoulder and missing a few weeks of practice. He looked like a shoo-in to take over for Daniel Brunskill at right guard when he was drafted, but that hasn’t been the case.

Seattle Seahawks

None

With only three draft picks — and none until No. 56 overall — the Seahawks knew this would be the case. The more encouraging thing was that all three picks, including Pick 208 Stone Forsythe, made the active roster. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

None

This isn’t because the Bucs didn’t draft well –in fact,  Joe Tryon-Shoyinka looks like one of the steals of the draft — it’s because there simply weren’t any spots open. Tryon earned a 75.6 overall grade on 88 snaps this preseason and made big plays each week. He’ll be a value add to the Bucs' third-down packages, even if they didn't really need it.

Tennessee Titans

None

While this may be disappointing to Titans fans after last year’s rookie class, there’s no Isaiah Wilson-esque start from the Titans rookies to be worried about.

While Caleb Farley and Elijah Molden are listed at last on the cornerback depth chart, something tells me that’s more gamesmanship than anything else. Molden earned an 85.7 overall grade on 68 snaps and looks like an eventual shoo-in for the slot role. Farley allowed three catches from five targets for 21 yards across 27 coverage snaps.

Washington Football Team

RT Sam Cosmi, MLB Jamin Davis

The Football Team drafted two of the best athletes at their respective positions and will get a good hard look at them in Year 1. Cosmi excelled in the run game this season, putting up a 92.5 grade across 24 run-blocking snaps.

Davis struggled a bit more en route to a 43.6 overall grade, but his usage was tempered, as he didn’t blitz once. With his explosiveness, his ability to add on to their front four is what could take the Washington defense to another level.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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