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Joe Tryon-Shoyinka meets Jaret Patterson meets Terrace Marshall: Who will rise from the NFL's 2021 rookie class?
As the 2021 NFL season edges closer, Sky Sports' Cameron Hogwood explores some of the rookies looking to make a splash; from Jaelan Phillips to Milton Williams and D'Wayne Eskridge to Rashawn Slater
Last Updated: 09/09/21 12:10pm
In the wake of being drafted by the San Francisco 49ers fifth-round safety Talanoa Hufanga set the goal of becoming a special teams Pro Bowler in his rookie season.
He might well have since set loftier goals, Hufanga's course instead deviating and accelerating towards a more prominent role on defense than had been expected. Within a head-turning training camp came a leaping one-handed interception on a Josh Rosen deep ball, before the 49ers' preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs inaugurated the special teams predator as advertised.
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The absence of Jaquiski Tartt and Tarvarius Moore this summer granted him an 'eyes on me' opportunity to audition before newly-promoted defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. His performances, meanwhile, warranted the unofficial endorsement of external observers, which did him no harm.
There is a different rookie story to every team across the league, names you know and names you just learned about. The factory-built metahumans primed for instant conquest, the advanced but temperamental 'jury's out' brigade, the silent assassins, the wronged undrafted outcasts with a reckoning in mind.
Justin Jefferson put up a debut season like few others by setting a new NFL record for receiving yards in a rookie season in the Super Bowl era with 1,400, shattering expectations and alleviating concerns over life after Stefon Diggs for the Minnesota Vikings. James Robinson became the self-elected ambassador for undrafted rookies as he finishing joint-fifth in rushing yards for a stagnant Jacksonville Jaguars team and Justin Herbert earned Offensive Rookie of the Year to reassure the Los Angeles Chargers of their answer at quarterback.
First-round right tackle Tristan Wirfs allowed just one sack on Tom Brady during the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Super Bowl-winning campaign as the standout performer from a coveted offensive lineman class, while sixth-round pick Michael Onwenu played over 90 per cent of snaps as he spread his time between left guard, right guard and left tackle for the New England Patriots. Washington's seventh-round safety Kamren Curl slotted in seamlessly when Landon Collins went down injured and late second-round safety Jeremy Chinn spearheaded the Carolina Panthers' all-defensive draft class with the most tackles from a rookie.
From Joe Burrow and Chase Young looking every bit the consensus No 1 and No 2 overall picks to the likes of Harrison Bryant and Darnell Mooney arising as day three gems, the stories run deep. Who will be next?
Under the microscope
Forget the red flags for a moment and Jaelan Phillips stands to be the most technically-sound edge player entering the league after the Miami Dolphins outweighed his tumultuous injury history with his prototypical pass rush traits to make him the 18th overall pick. Phillips retired from football on medical grounds in December 2018 after suffering two concussions in a year at UCLA and subsequently turned to music production studies, before later returning to the field with Miami in 2020 following his transfer and putting up 45 tackles along with eight sacks. The talent is there, but so are the question marks.
There was a time when Detroit Lions offensive tackle Penei Sewell, the seventh overall pick, and Buffalo Bills defensive end Gregory Rousseau, the 30th overall pick, looked destined to be frontrunners in their position groups. That would just about remain the case for Sewell while Rousseau's draft stock fell after the pair opted out of the 2020 season due to Covid-19. Though their decision to do so was fully justified at a time of uncertainty, a year away from competitive football makes for an even tougher step up to the pros.
Like Phillips, appreciation for the unquestioned skillset of Philadelphia Eagles second-round center Landon Dickerson has been reined in by queries over his history of knee injuries, while the New Orleans Saints' surprise first-round selection Payton Turner appears to be immediate competition at right defensive end for 2018 first-rounder Marcus Davenport, the added six-game suspension of defensive tackle David Onyemata also tempting use of him on the interior.
Expectations run high when it comes to Alabama products, Eagles Heisman-Trophy winning wide receiver DeVonta Smith shouldered with aiding a quarterback transition amid tiresome doubts over his size and first-round offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood part of a refurbished and unproven line with the Las Vegas Raiders.
Watch out for...
Quarterbacks will soon come to learn of Milton Williams, notably when the 6ft 3 Eagles defensive lineman is piledriving them to the ground with 290 pounds of weight behind him. The third-round pick out of Louisiana Tech boasts a spider chart of measurements frighteningly similar to Aaron Donald, and with the versatility to plug in at both defensive end and tackle he is a double-team prospect providing all goes to plan.
Jordan Smith looms as a potential steal for the Jaguars after general manager Trent Baalke traded up nine spots to take the forgotten edge rusher in the fourth round. Smith started out at Florida as a four-star recruit until he was suspended due to allegations regarding a credit card fraud scheme. He subsequently transferred to Butler Community College in Kansas where he recorded 77 tackles, 11 sacks and a forced fumble in his sole campaign before flourishing at FBS school UAB over the past two seasons. He's explosive, he gets skinny with ease and he comes with upside as support to Josh Allen and K'Lavon Chaisson.
The name Kene Nwangwu didn't feature too prominently in pre-draft festivities, but the fourth-round running back out of Iowa State was electric in Vikings training camp to the extent he has warranted the attention of Dalvin Cook - who insisted he wanted no part in a foot race with the 23-year-old. Nwangwu will start the season on injured reserve, but keep an eye out for his return.
Sticking to the running back theme, the Green Bay Packers look set at the position for the foreseeable based on the early signs from seventh-round pick Kylin Hill, who will back up Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon in 2021. Hill had just one fumble in 481 touches at Mississippi State, which bodes well in a league where coaches love ball security. Second-round center Creed Humphrey could also have an immediate impact as part of an overhauled Kansas City Chiefs offensive line, bringing with him wrinkles of Lincoln Riley's offense at Oklahoma.
In Denver second-round running back Javonte Williams could dislodge Melvin Gordon as the Broncos' lead option out of the backfield, while in Vegas the Raiders injected youth at safety with the arrival of second-round pick Tre'von Moehrig, third-rounder Divine Deablo and fourth-rounder Tyree Gillespie.
2021's Justin Jefferson?
So. Many. To. Choose. From. Of the six wide receivers taken in the first-round of the 2020 draft, Justin Jefferson was touted by few as the man to lead the way, which is perhaps testament to the reputation the Jerry Jeudys and CeeDee Lambs had built for themselves. The departure of Diggs in Minneapolis put added value on Jefferson's role: value equals volume, volume equals production and you might argue this year's wideouts offer more immediate value to their quarterbacks and teams than that of the class before them.
Jaylen Waddle brings the pyrotechnics as everything from a backfield decoy to slanting chunk-yard merchant to slaloming yards-after-catch ploy to home-run hitter that Tua Tagovailoa's offense needed in Miami; DeVonta Smith's route-running and ability to haul in bad throws, difficult catches and everything in between is invaluable to Jalen Hurts' progression in Philly; Ja'Marr Chase is back in Cincinnati with a quarterback in Joe Burrow, notably returning from a serious knee injury, that he knows inside out from their time together at LSU.
Rashod Bateman, despite his injury, is precisely the added playmaking threat to complement tight end Mark Andrews on the outside that Lamar Jackson and the Ravens had been searching for, and Terrace Marshall gives a Sam Darnold looking to revive his career big-play adeptness and red zone dominance as he reunites with former LSU passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Joe Brady.
The Jets haven't stopped singing the praises of expert technician Elijah Moore, Amon-Ra St Brown's arrival in Detroit follows the loss of Kenny Golloday and 360 total targets from last season, and if Russell Wilson has anything to say about how the Seahawks offense is run (he better!) then D'Wayne Eskridge, his track speed, devastating comeback routes and bruising blocking will pack a punch in Seattle.
And Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts can play a little bit, just a little bit. Julio Jones is gone, so he should be busy...
Bucs rivals will be left wondering how they ever allowed the Super Bowl champs to waltz in and scoop up a player like Joe Tryon-Shoyinka with the final pick of the first round. Long story short, he will feast on quarterbacks under Todd Bowles, whose ambitions of earning a second head-coaching job took another stride upon Tryon's arrival.
No James Conner and Ben Roethlisberger teetering towards the end of his career, the Pittsburgh Steelers are primed to run their offense through Najee Harris. He is a running and catch, slipping and sliding third-down back ready to go, the only worry being a new-look offensive line.
In Penei Sewell's absence last season Northwestern's Rashawn Slater asserted himself as a threat to the Oregon man's reputation as No 1 offensive tackle in the class, eventually earning his way to a role as chief protector for Justin Herbert as the No 7 overall pick to the Chargers. And he looks as much a sure thing as Tom Telesco and Brandon Staley could have wished for, Joey Bosa recently admitting Slater had been giving the team's defensive lineman trouble in training camp.
Amid an A-grade draft display the Cleveland Browns were the beneficiaries of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah's fall into the second round, general manager Andrew Berry pouncing on the instincts-meets-speed-meets-athleticism package of Notre Dame's boundless, free-flowing linebacker. He might somehow prove to have been a borderline luxury pick.
And the defensive back class is certified, Panthers No 8 overall pick Jaycee Horn and Broncos No 9 pick Patrick Surtain II poised to swarm the league's top receivers at cornerback for years to come.
Such has become the value in hanging around to draft running backs in the latter rounds that it comes as no surprise some of the most successful undrafted rookies of past years lie in the backfield. James Robinson, Austin Ekeler, Phillip Lindsay and Jeff Wilson among the more recent advocates for life beyond seven rounds.
Jaret Patterson is a lead candidate to make a career for himself edged out Peyton Barber to earn a spot on Washington's 53-man roster behind Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic. He arrived on the back of three successive 1,000 yard seasons at Buffalo, during which he tied the FBS single-game record with eight rushing touchdowns in a 70-41 win over Kent State last November.
Former Syracuse defensive back Trill Williams secured a spot on the Dolphins' 53-man roster having been released by the Saints in May, while cornerback AJ Parker also played his way into the Detroit Lions' plans as a shining light in training camp and preseason.
As with all No 1 picks, Trevor Lawrence is met by a more precarious situation in Jacksonville than that of his fellow rookie quarterbacks in the wake of a 1-15 season and coaching change. He left Clemson with a 34-2 record as starter having lost just two games in high school, so not winning every week is something he will soon get used to. But with all the world has come to learn about him, he will be just fine.
The sudden 'who's this kid' nature of Zach Wilson's emergence in 2020 puts his induction as the day one starter for the Jets into full focus, particularly being the mould of off-the-cuff quarterback who won't shy from taking chances. How he adapts his flair and expression to pro defenses will be defining.
And Mac Jones might just be the story of week one after beating out Cam Newton to become the New England Patriots' new starting quarterback.
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It feels like a matter of time when it comes to Justin Fields and Trey Lance occupying starting jobs, though both come with their own point to prove: Fields having seen his draft stock bizarrely plummet and Lance facing questions over his limited college experience.
Beyond the first-rounders, Kellen Mond lurks behind Kirk Cousins in Minnesota, Ian Book watches on as Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill go at it for the Saints and Davis Mills, noted for his role in Stanford's pro-style offense, looks to put pressure on likely Texans week one starter Tyrod Taylor.