In the end, the best of the best of the 2021 NFL rookie class was found largely on the first two days of the draft. Four of the top 10 players in our final rookie rankings of the season — which factored in only regular-season performance — were selected in the 2021 draft’s top 10 picks. And every player who made the top 10 was selected in either the first or second round.
But even after all of the discussion about the quarterbacks leading up to the draft and through the preseason, few of the class’ signal-callers were among the league’s best first-year players. In fact, only one QB cracked our rankings. One of the top defensive draft picks led the pack: Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons multitasked his way to a future remember-when kind of season.
So, for one last time this season, let’s run through the top 10 rookies in the NFL. Per usual, we polled personnel executives around the league to get their thoughts and worked our way through game tape to make the list. We also include those who just missed the list and a few other names to keep handy in the coming years. Finally, we looked to ESPN Stats & Information’s Seth Walder to pick an under-the-radar rookie to keep an eye on. We begin in Dallas.
Top 10 | Just missed
Notes | Under the radar
Stats: 84 tackles, 13 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
Drafted: No. 12 overall
Parsons is enormously disruptive with consistent efficiency in the pass rush. He was one of six players in the league with at least 13 sacks — 10.5 of which came after Week 8 — and was just 1.5 sacks from Jevon Kearse’s rookie record. Plus, Parsons was reliable in coverage and a point-of-attack defender in the run game, with the range to chase down ball carriers even when the play was designed to run away from him. Few, if any, defensive players in the NFL showed consistent excellence across such an expansive job description, let alone a rookie.
Stats: 3,801 passing yards, 22 TDs, 13 INTs
Drafted: No. 15 overall
Jones discovered down the stretch what many rookies — especially quarterbacks — eventually do: Adjusting when opponents attack your weaknesses is simply a part of NFL life. He had two of his three multi-interception games over the last four weeks, and he completed just 51.9% of his passes over a two-game losing streak at the end of December. But in terms of degree of difficulty, what was on his vocational plate and the expectation level for the team (both inside and outside the building), Jones dealt with more than anyone else in the rookie class. And his team made the postseason with 10 wins.
Stats: 16 starts, 90.4% pass block win rate
Drafted: No. 13 overall
Those who thought he was a guard should just move aside and let the man work. No left tackle in the league played more pass-blocking snaps than Slater this season (471), and his work in Justin Herbert’s 64-attempt season finale put an exclamation on Slater’s first pro campaign. Slater missed one game (Week 15) after testing positive for COVID-19, but he otherwise didn’t miss a single snap.
Stats: 17 starts, 97.7% pass block win rate
Drafted: No. 63 overall
Like the first three players on this list, Humphrey wasn’t just good for a rookie; he was playing at an All-Pro level for much of the season. He was the biggest value pick among this year’s top 10 rookies after checking in as the second-to-last selection of the second round last April. Humphrey’s movement skills, recognition and composure are evident throughout the game tape, and he is exactly what a long-term solution looks like at the position. His 97.7% pass block win rate was No. 1 in the entire NFL, and his 98.2% pass block win rate when facing double-teams was sixth.
Stats: 81 receptions, 1,455 receiving yards, 13 TDs
Drafted: No. 5 overall
Chase was a problem for defenses early in the season (101 yards in Week 1), in the middle of the season (201 yards in Week 7) and late in the season (266 yards in Week 17). Flowers and well-wishes to the AFC North defensive backs for, well, years to come. As he and quarterback Joe Burrow continue to build on what they’ve already done, more days like the rookie-record 266-yard effort against the Chiefs in the second-to-last game of the regular season are possible. His 1,455 receiving yards were the most for a rookie in the Super Bowl era, and before you point to the extended regular season, he actually broke the record in Week 17.
Field Yates, Matthew Berry and Stephania Bell break down why Ja’Marr Chase’s huge Week 17 performance is the best fantasy game of the season.
Stats: 68 receptions, 1,026 yards, 1 TD
Drafted: No. 4 overall
Some will point to the lone touchdown, but talk to personnel executives around the league, and you get a lot of no-doubt assessments of his play. Many actually have Pitts above Chase here because of the upside and skill set. Pitts consistently wins in man coverage, even when defensive coordinators put a cornerback across from him, and he can work from all over the formation, both in tight and out wide. He is just the second rookie tight end in league history to top 1,000 yards, as his 1,026 receiving yards sit right behind Mike Ditka’s 60-year-old NFL-record 1,076 yards.
Stats: 58 tackles, 4 INTs, 14 passes defended, 1 TD
Drafted: No. 9 overall
Surtain missed the Broncos’ season finale with a calf injury, but up until that point, he consistently played with the composure of a “guy who’s been in there for years,” Broncos safety Justin Simmons said. Denver coach Vic Fangio was willing to put Surtain across from the best of the best every week without worry. The top-10 pick wasn’t often challenged by quarterbacks, who usually chose not to pick on the rookie, but he tended to get his hands on the ball when they did.
Stats: 104 receptions, 1,015 yards, 6 TDs (plus one rushing TD)
Drafted: No. 6 overall
For some, Waddle’s production will always be measured against the trade the Dolphins made to select him (the Dolphins moved up six spots, but it cost them an additional 2022 first-rounder). But Waddle consistently improved as the weeks went by, with five games with at least eight receptions during Miami’s six-game winning streak in the second half of the season.
Stats: 76 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 4 passes defended
Drafted: No. 52 overall
Owusu-Koramoah missed three games with an ankle injury, but after his return in Week 10, he had four games with at least six tackles and played at least 75% of the team’s defensive snaps in five of the Browns’ eight remaining games. His work in coverage was advanced, among the best in the league at the position and far more consistent than it was as a college player. It would be intriguing at some point to see the Browns turn him loose in the pass rush far more than they did in 2021.
Stats: 69 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 INTs, 10 passes defended
Drafted: No. 36 overall
Holland fits what is needed at the safety position in today’s NFL. He is physical in the run game at the point of attack, comfortable in coverage and doesn’t often let any pre-snap business by the offense force him into a wrong step. Holland had five games this season with multiple disrupted dropbacks, and he played at least 96% of the defensive snaps in 11 of his games.
Nate Hobbs, CB, Las Vegas Raiders: Hobbs’ next step will be to turn the high-quality snaps he consistently showed as a slot corner (74 tackles) into more ball production. He finished the season with one interception and three passes defended.
DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: Smith closed out the year with 64 receptions, 916 receiving yards and five touchdowns in an offense that had the fewest pass attempts in the league (29.1 per game). And 67% of Smith’s receptions this season resulted in a first down.
Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos: He had more than 17 carries in just one game this season and still finished with 903 rushing yards to go with his 43 receptions. Williams was second among league rookies in rushing.
Christian Barmore, DT, New England Patriots: Barmore injured his right knee in the regular-season finale against the Dolphins but was consistently explosive and disruptive on the inside. His seven quarterback knockdowns were second on the team to Matthew Judon.
Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers: Harris finished a busy rookie season with 1,200 rushing yards (tops among rookies) and 74 receptions (second on the Steelers). His 381 touches as a runner and receiver led the league’s running backs, and he was one of just two running backs in the league to top 300 carries for the year.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR Detroit Lions: Talk about a quality finish. St. Brown finished with 90 or more receiving yards in each of the final four games of the season — with 100-yard games in the last two. He caught at least eight passes in each of the final six games of the year.
Field Yates breaks down why he believes Amon-Ra St. Brown will be continue to be productive in the seasons to come.
Penei Sewell, OT, Detroit Lions: Sewell missed the season finale but showed plenty of resiliency after some early-season struggles when he moved to left tackle in place of the injured Taylor Decker.
Greg Newsome II, CB, Cleveland Browns: Newsome missed time with a concussion and an ankle injury, but he played 95% and 100% of the defensive snaps, respectively, in the Browns’ final two games. He had nine passes defended in 12 games. The only thing missing on a top-tier rookie season? Zero interceptions.
Keep an eye on: Sam Cosmi, OT, Washington; Nick Bolton, ILB, Chiefs; Odafe Oweh, OLB/DE, Ravens; Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jaguars; Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Chargers; Kwity Paye, DE, Colts; Baron Browning, ILB, Broncos; Azeez Ojulari, OLB, Giants; Elijah Mitchell, RB, 49ers; Jaelan Phillips, DE, Dolphins; Rondale Moore, WR, Cardinals; Trey Smith, G, Chiefs; Alim McNeill, DT, Lions; Pete Werner, ILB, Saints; Pat Freiermuth, TE, Steelers; Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, OLB, Buccaneers; Michael Carter, RB, Jets; Elijah Moore, WR, Jets; Tre’von Moehrig, S, Raiders; Alijah Vera-Tucker, G, Jets; Davis Mills, QB, Texans
Other rookie notes
The Texans’ Davis Mills was the eighth quarterback selected in the draft (67th overall). Many in the league liked his potential, but Mills had played just 14 games in his career at Stanford, mostly because of knee injuries. Even so, only Mac Jones was as consistent among rookie QBs as Mills was at the end of the season. Mills had three 300-yard games in his last six starts and threw eight touchdown passes over the last four games.
Washington offensive tackle Sam Cosmi played in nine games this season because of an ankle injury but flashed enough at right tackle for Washington to hope he can keep himself there far more in his second year. He could to be a solution for that line over the long haul.
It’s hard to argue a player did more with less than Javonte Williams did for the Broncos. Backfield mate Melvin Gordon III said, “Either one of us would have been top three [in rushing], but we literally split carries.” Both backs finished with 203 carries. Williams also turned 53 targets into 43 receptions in the passing game and created plenty of broken tackles.
Walder’s under-the-radar rookie
Trey Smith, G, Kansas City Chiefs
Smith was my under-the-radar rookie in October’s edition of the rookie rankings, but he’s back again. Perhaps he hasn’t gotten quite the recognition he deserves because he has been overshadowed by fellow rookie Creed Humphrey — who is my pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year. But we should not be sleeping on Smith, who was stellar in his own right. Among guards, he ranked second in pass block win rate and third in run block win rate. In other words: By our win rate metrics, Smith was one of the very, very best guards in the league this season despite being a rookie taken in the sixth round. The Chiefs knocked this pick out of the park.