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Aaron Doster/Associated Press
Only a handful of rookies can have an elite impact upon arrival in the NFL.
Last year, some of the expected names did just that. Chase Young was a terror for offensive lines with Washington. Quarterbacks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert were about as elite as it gets for passers debuting without the benefit of a preseason. And wideout Justin Jefferson bullied his way into the top-15 conversation in part thanks to a stat-happy Minnesota offense.
A few select rookies will get to have similar arrivals in 2021. The projectable upside and likely big numbers are factors that set them apart from the rest of the class. But so are the individual situations they dropped into with new teams that should enable said breakouts.
These are the seven rookies who can take the NFL by storm this season.
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David Dermer/Associated Press
Micah Parsons is one of the few rookies who has a chance to post major stats during his debut.
Parsons was the first pick by a Dallas Cowboys team hoping to rebuild what was a historically inept defense from last year. They made him the 12th overall pick in this pursuit, banking on elite sideline-to-sideline talent that had some people—like NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein—comparing him to Myles Jack.
No wonder, as Parsons was one of the top prospects entering the collegiate level and lived up to that hype over 26 games at Penn State, looking pro-ready while posting 191 total tackles, 18 for loss, with 6.5 sacks, five passes defended and six forced fumbles.
Playing in what should be a simplified scheme after last year’s overly complex looks ended up with poor results and a coordinator let go, Parsons will get to run wild to his strengths alongside Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. It guarantees a suitable instant-impact environment that will make Parsons impossible to ignore as he stuffs the stat sheet and gets the credit for being the catalyst that revives an entire unit.
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Rusty Costanza/Associated Press
It isn’t often a rookie running back gets to take the league by storm anymore.
Despite great landing spots, Clyde Edwards-Helaire in Kansas City and D’Andre Swift in Detroit didn’t really do so last year.
But Najee Harris in Pittsburgh has a chance to be different.
The Steelers, after all, have been searching for a workhorse back since Le’Veon Bell left. James Conner wasn’t the answer, and the team let him leave in free agency, then went against typically advised draft strategy these days and drafted a running back in the first round.
Harris might just end up being worth it, though, after a dominant streak at Alabama that produced 3,843 yards and 46 touchdowns on a 6.0 average, in addition to 80 catches as a receiver. And he happens to be the perfect fit in Pittsburgh’s rushing scheme, which is just another reason the Steelers were comfortable taking the risk.
While rookies like Edwards-Helaire had to split the workload last year, Harris is a big workhorse back who could flirt with the 300-touch mark right out of the gate, which could be bad news for the AFC North and NFL as a whole.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Similar to running back, offensive tackle hasn’t seen a lot of guaranteed production lately at the NFL level right out of the gate.
The transition to the pros just isn’t easy for the position thanks to the uptick in fast, elite defenders, complex schemes coming at them and the uptick in the amount of time they have to block.
But if there’s a guy who can shove through all that, it’s probably new Detroit Lions tackle Penei Sewell.
While the predraft process is a land of hyperbole, there were whispers of Anthony Munoz chasing Sewell to the league. Even Zierlein compared him to elite left tackle Trent Williams. Pro Football Focus graded him at a 95.5, highest of any tackle since 2014. And no wonder—at the crisp age of 18, Sewell was bullying the Pac-12 into submission and looking like a No. 1 overall pick.
Of course, the value of quarterbacks and weaponry leaguewide helped push Sewell down the board to No. 7. But in Detroit, Sewell will get the nod right away and quickly adapt, maybe spurring some regret from the teams that said no thanks on draft night.
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Aaron Doster/Associated Press
Of the rookie receivers who went early, Ja’Marr Chase easily landed in the coziest position.
Chase didn’t just land in a pass-heavy Cincinnati Bengals attack flanked by weapons like Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and Joe Mixon, which will leave him with favorable matchups to exploit.
He also landed with arguably the best quarterback situation of any early rookie wideout, linking up with Joe Burrow, the No. 1 pick from a year ago who matched every expectation of the draft slot before getting hurt.
Oh, and these two were teammates at LSU during a sprint to the national title in 2019. Along the way, Chase recorded 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns before opting out of the 2020 season. He did that damage alongside Justin Jefferson, one of the guys mentioned in the intro.
Even without some of these features, Chase the prospect alone would have landed him on this list. There aren’t question marks about his game because, compared to other first-round wideouts, he’s so big to go along with the rest of his skill set. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport heard Julio Jones comparisons for a reason.
He’s an elite boundary wideout prospect who should flourish in almost any situation, especially one where he already has a rapport with the quarterback and the offense will organically help him thrive.
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Brynn Anderson/Associated Press
Speaking of rookies in huge-upside passing attacks with best-in-class potential at their positions, it doesn’t get much more noteworthy than Kyle Pitts.
The Atlanta Falcons made Pitts the highest-drafted tight end ever for good reason.
Pitts, 6’6″ and 245 pounds, holds his own well enough when it comes to blocking. But it’s his skill as a receiver that sets him apart as an elite weapon. Over mostly two seasons of work at Florida, he amassed 1,492 receiving yards on 100 catches, scoring 18 times while averaging 14.9 yards per catch. His 2020 season was good enough for a 96.2 PFF grade.
Now Pitts takes that natural receiving talent to Atlanta, where he can move all over the formation and create mismatches for Matt Ryan to exploit in a pass-happy attack.
And this big upside works independently of whatever happens with Julio Jones—if the star receiver is there to soak up a defense’s attention, great. If not, that just means more creativity and targets for Pitts, who will still operate alongside weapons like Calvin Ridley to great effect.
On paper, Pitts should put to bed any questions about his ability to live up to the expectations of his draft slot.
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Kathy Willens/Associated Press
Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert might have changed some minds about just how good rookie passers can be after last year’s showings on iffy teams despite an unorthodox summer.
Now it’s Zach Wilson’s turn with the New York Jets after hearing his name called second on draft night.
While Wilson has a bit of a smaller frame (6’2″, 214 pounds), he has the mobility and arm that make him attractive to modern NFL offenses. He showed that well enough in his final season at BYU, completing 73.5 percent of his 336 attempts for 3,692 yards and 33 touchdowns against three interceptions, earning a 95.4 PFF grade.
Wilson has the on-the-fly improvisation game that should help him excel right away in almost any locale. But kudos goes to the Jets for building the roster the right way around him. First-rounder Alijah Vera-Tucker is a big boost for the offense line alongside 2020 No. 11 pick Mekhi Becton, and 2020 second-round wideout Denzel Mims combines well with free-agent addition Corey Davis to create a huge-upside cast of weapons.
Given the skill set and supporting cast, Wilson has a chance to follow in the footsteps of the breakout 2020 passers and be one of the headliners from this quarterback class.
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John Raoux/Associated Press
It would have been pretty interesting to see Burrow and Trevor Lawrence compete for the No. 1 spot in the same draft class.
Instead, Burrow went first last year and Lawrence went first this year to the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he has a chance to match, if not exceed, the Cincinnati passer in terms of rookie performance.
Lawrence embarrassed the majority of the competition in college, throwing for 10,098 yards and 90 touchdowns against 17 interceptions over three seasons, putting stunning film on tape that made him look like a borderline generational passer.
Unlike some other rookies listed here, there are some big red flags about Lawrence’s surroundings. He’s mired in one of the league’s biggest rebuilds, one that’s headed up by a question mark of a head coach with Urban Meyer.
But counteracting that is a good-looking supporting cast that includes veteran wideout Marvin Jones Jr., big-upside targets in DJ Chark Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr., plus a strong running back tandem of James Robinson and first-rounder Travis Etienne Jr.
Besides all that, Lawrence is one of those prospects who could drop in anywhere and still have a shot at being the best rookie from his class—both during his debut year and far, far into the future.