NFL rookie rankings 2021: A surprise top-ranked first-year, a defense-dominated top 10 and just o...

ByJeff Legwold ESPN logo
Thursday, September 30, 2021

We're three weeks into the 2021 NFL season, and the growing struggles for the league's rookie quarterbacks have certainly headlined the play of this year's draft class overall in the early stages -- and impacted how a list of the best first-year performers looks to this point. The five first-round QBs have combined for a 1-9 record as starters with 10 passing TDs and 18 interceptions. And in our first rookie rankings of the season, just one quarterback made the cut for the top 10, and just four top-10 picks from April's draft are represented.

To build the list, we polled some personnel executives around the league and worked our way through the game tape. We also include who just missed the list and a few other names to keep handy in the coming weeks. Finally, we looked to ESPN Stats & Information's Seth Walder to name an under-the-radar rookie to keep an eye on and ESPN Chalk's Doug Kezirian to provide the best value bets for Rookie of the Year.

Let's dive into the first edition of the 2021 rookie rankings, starting with a player who has jumped right in on the blindside for one of the NFL's top young passers.

Jump to:

Top 10| Just missed| Notes

Under the radar | Value bets

1. Rashawn Slater, OT, Los Angeles Chargers

Stats: 3 starts, 87.8% pass block win rate

Drafted: No. 13 overall

That No. 13 slot has been a quality draft spot for tackles over the past two years -- Tristan Wirfs was selected there in the 2020 draft -- and Slater has been entrusted to protect the blindside of the Chargers' most valuable investment: QB Justin Herbert. Folks might ask why there wasn't a skill player at the top, but it's about degree of difficulty as well. And other than quarterback, no position might face a more difficult introduction to the league than a rookie left tackle.

Slater is one of two rookie tackles to see at least 80 pass block plays so far and not allow a sack (Penei Sewell). And Slater's work in Week 1 against Washington edge rusher Chase Young was just a football appetizer for what he has done in the early going.

2. Micah Parsons, LB, Dallas Cowboys

Stats: 13 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 passes defended

Drafted: No. 12 overall

Because of injuries, the Cowboys might have actually been forced to turn Parsons loose in the pass rush more than they expected. Parsons has played at defensive end and outside linebacker, and he has been active, forcing the issue both at the point of attack in the run game and the pass rush. He has six quarterback hits, and his 30% pass rush win rate is tops in the NFL among rookies.

3. Greg Newsome II, CB, Cleveland Browns

Stats: 7 tackles, 2 passes defended

Drafted: No. 26 overall

Newsome, whose draft stock took a bit of a hit because of injuries and his penchant for drawing flags (15 in 21 career games at Northwestern), has played 94% of the Browns' defensive snaps thus far. He has been good enough that opposing quarterbacks haven't had the impulse to test him over and over again. Newsome left this past Sunday's game with a calf injury, so he is a question mark for Week 4.

4. Pat Surtain II, CB, Denver Broncos

Stats: 9 tackles, 1 interception, 2 passes defended

Drafted: No. 9 overall

Again, it's about degree of difficulty, and Surtain was asked in training camp to be ready to play at either outside spot, in the slot and at weakside linebacker in the dime -- something coach Vic Fangio said "was pretty rare'' to ask of a rookie. Surtain has made two starts, and the Broncos would be hard-pressed to move him out of the starting lineup when Ronald Darby returns from a hamstring injury.

5. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Stats: 11 catches, 220 yards, 4 TDs

Drafted: No. 5 overall

He opened his career with a 101-yard day against the Vikings, as he has quickly shown the same affinity with quarterback Joe Burrow that he had at LSU in 2019. (Chase opted out of the 2020 college football season when Burrow was an NFL rookie.) He has turned 16 targets into 11 receptions and four touchdowns with the size, speed and route-running combination that figures to make him a regular on this list throughout the season. His 20.0 yards per catch leads the rookie crop, and after preseason concerns about drops, he has zero through three weeks.

6. Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Los Angeles Chargers

Stats: 10 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 passes defended

Drafted: No. 47 overall

Samuel has been busy, as his 93 coverage snaps are the fourth highest among the eight players in the league with at least two interceptions. And he's the only rookie with at least two picks. When you've played three career games and already have an interception on Patrick Mahomes, that's doing some work. Samuel's six disrupted dropbacks -- the sum of all sacks, interceptions, batted/tipped passes and passes defended -- paces all rookie defenders.

7. Odafe Oweh, DE/LB, Baltimore Ravens

Stats: 9 tackles, 1.0 sack, 1 forced fumble

Drafted: No. 31 overall

Oweh has steadily played more and more in Ravens' defense, with 56% of snaps in the opener jumping to 75% in Week 2 and 79% in Week 3. He has been one of the most consistent rookies in the early going after being one the draft's biggest riddles. He had no sacks in seven games last season at Penn State, despite testing numbers of the rarest kind, including a 4.39-second 40-yard dash at 257 pounds to go with a 39.5-inch vertical jump. He is the only rookie with at least 50 pass-rush plays so far.

8. Penei Sewell, OT, Detroit Lions

Stats: 3 starts, 85.7% pass block win rate

Drafted: No. 7 overall

It's still unclear what happens to Sewell once Taylor Decker is ready to return from finger surgery, but he could move to right tackle. That was the plan for him when the season began. Sewell has made three starts at left tackle, while Decker, who had surgery Sept. 10, has gone through his recovery. He did allow a sack to 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa in the season opener but has played solid overall, with a little more consistency as a run blocker.

9. Azeez Ojulari, OLB, New York Giants

Stats: 7 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble

Drafted: No. 50 overall

Ojulari leads all rookies in sacks and is the first player in Giants history to have a sack in each of his first three career games. He has transferred a fiercely competitive approach from college to his first NFL season and has shown more polish in the pass rush than some had expected. His 17.5% pass rush win rate trails just Parsons and Tampa Bay's Joe Tryon-Shoyinka among rookies.

10. Mac Jones, QB, New England Patriots

Stats: 737 yards passing, 2 TDs, 3 INTs, 67.5% completion rate

Drafted:No. 15 overall

None of the league's rookie quarterbacks have found much smooth sailing through three weeks, but they've obviously had more thrown on their plates than other rookies. Jones has struggled with deep ball accuracy -- his 29.6% completion percentage on throws at least 15 yards downfield is the second-worst rate in the NFL -- but he did take 11 quarterback hits in the loss to the Saints. Of the rookie passers, he has best maintained his mechanics for the most part amid the punishment, and his 52.0 QBR is well above Trevor Lawrence (23.1), Zach Wilson (21.9) and Justin Fields (7.0).

Just missed

Trey Smith, G, Kansas City Chiefs

Smith, who was the 226th player selected this past April, is part of a Kansas City offensive line that also includes rookie center Creed Humphrey. Smith missed part of the 2018 season at Tennessee with blood clots in his lungs but started his last 22 games for the Vols with no additional medical issues and won the right guard job in training camp. His big reach -- 82 1/8-inch arm span -- has been evident against the power rushers he has faced, and he has an excellent 95.7% pass block win rate.

Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos

Williams' 138 yards make him second among rookies in rushing (Elijah Mitchell), and his work in pass protection has been top shelf, earning him plenty of passing-down snaps as well. The second-rounder has shown the physicality to close the deal on his runs -- his 86 rushing yards after first contact lead all rookies -- and his playing time should only go up.

Josh Myers, C, Green Bay Packers

Myers, a second-round pick last April, is the first rookie center to play with Packers quarterbackAaron Rodgerssince Corey Linsley did in 2015. Myers has played with composure and rebounded from mistakes quickly, as he has handled all of Rodgers' work at the line of scrimmage. He has a 94.4% pass block win rate and hasn't allowed a sack.

Greg Rousseau, DE, Buffalo Bills

Rousseau played just one full season at Miami -- he opted out in 2020 and played in just two games in 2018 because of an ankle injury -- so despite eyebrow-raising workout numbers before the draft, he still required plenty of projection. He had a two-sack day against the Dolphins in Week 2 and has played 59% of the snaps overall for the league's No. 4 scoring defense.

Keep an eye on: Sam Cosmi, OT, Washington Football Team; Creed Humphrey, C, Kansas City Chiefs; Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers; Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Cleveland Browns; Rondale Moore, WR, Arizona Cardinals; Jaylen Waddle, WR, Miami Dolphins

Other rookie notes

  • The four rookies who have started games at quarterback thus far -- Lawrence, Wilson, Fields and Jones -- have found football life to be more than a little difficult. Inconsistent pass protection and a tendency to hold the ball too long while they try to figure things out on the fly have impacted all of their games. The four have combined for 18 interceptions, as Lawrence and Wilson are tied for the league lead with seven apiece. Those two are the only quarterbacks in the league with more than four. The fifth first-round QB, Trey Lance, has played seven snaps for the 49ers and has one passing touchdown in his only attempt to go with one rushing touchdown.
  • Browns linebacker Owusu-Koramoah has certainly made the most of his playing time. He has played 66 snaps in Cleveland's first three games -- he has just one game with more than 38% of the team's defensive snaps -- but has 10 tackles, a half sack and three knocked-down passes. That's game ball worthy if it all happens in one afternoon.
  • Chase's four receiving touchdowns are more than every other wide receiver selected in last April's draft combined. The Dolphins' Waddle, the Eagles' DeVonta Smith and the Cardinals' Moore have one each, and they are the only other rookie receivers with touchdown catches in the first three games.

Walder's under-the-radar rookie

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Cleveland Browns

He has played only 40% of Cleveland's defensive snaps, but in a limited sample, the second-rounder has been effective. He doesn't qualify for our run stop win rate leaderboard, but if he did and kept up his same pace of play, he would rank third among linebackers in the metric. And there are positive signs in coverage, too. Owusu-Koramoah has allowed four receptions on 11 targets for 39 yards, with three passes defended and a minus-38% completion percentage above expectation as the nearest defender to the targeted receiver.

Kezirian's Rookie of the Year value bets

Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars

When all is said and done, I think the most talented quarterback will land the hardware. All five first-round QBs have underwhelmed thus far, but if you believe in Lawrence's abilities, then I think the value play is him at 10-1 for an award that doesn't really need a solid win-loss record.

Micah Parsons, LB, Dallas Cowboys

I typically don't love playing a favorite this early in the season, but Parsons has generated all the attention and leads a defense that has completely turned things around. At +550, I still value in this play.

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