The NFL Draft is a long-term proposition for the league’s 32 teams, who are mostly looking years down the road when they pick a new batch of prospects. But for the NFL rookies themselves, there’s no better time than the present to start making an impact. In fact, most good teams rely on rookie contributors during their first seasons in the league.
Every team hopes their top draft pick makes a mark sooner rather than later, but jumping into the NFL and contributing from day one is no easy feat. Nevertheless, these six rookies seem poised to be really good, really quickly in the upcoming 2021 season.
Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons tight end
The No. 4 overall pick was one of the most dominant college tight ends ever. His numbers in 2020––43 catches for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns––are impressive, but they don’t quite capture how big a problem he can be for an opposing defense.
At 6’5” and 245 pounds, he has a receiver’s ball skills and a tight end’s ability to play on the line of scrimmage and create matchup nightmares with linebackers. He’s entering an offense with a solid quarterback in Matt Ryan, at least one talented receiver in Calvin Ridley (we’ll see about Julio Jones), and a handful of quality linemen who can facilitate a good passing game. It wouldn’t be surprising if Pitts starts racking up touchdowns in his first season in the NFL.
Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver
Chase has just about everything he needs to put up big numbers right away. His quarterback will be Joe Burrow, who’s a year removed from being the No. 1 overall draft pick. The two have history: They last played together during the 2019 season at LSU, when they combined to form one of the deadliest QB-receiver pairs in college football history. (Something the Bengals considered when drafting Chase fifth overall.) In addition, the Bengals also have a longtime star in wide receiver A.J. Green, and he should draw some defensive attention away from Chase.
Penei Sewell, Detroit Lions offensive tackle
The Lions are likely in for another season of mediocrity, but Sewell is talented enough to manhandle NFL edge rushers right away. The seventh overall pick opted out of the 2020 season at Oregon, but he didn’t have anything to prove. He’s incredibly athletic, having run the 40-yard dash in 5.09 seconds (at 6’5” and 331 pounds). His highlight tape from his college career makes clear that he has the physical skills to beat up on NFL defenders right now. He’ll be a welcome presence on The Lions’ offense: Quarterback Jared Goff has struggled, and he’ll need all the time Sewell can give him.
Patrick Surtain II, Denver Broncos cornerback
Surtain has all the technical skills needed to follow in the footsteps of his father, who made an All-Pro team and three Pro Bowls in an 11-year career as an NFL corner. He was one of the most hyped cornerback recruits of all time when he arrived at Alabama in 2018, and he more or less validated all of that buzz during a dominant three-year career.
He’s also sliding into a good situation in Denver. According to Pro Football Focus, the Broncos had a top-10 pass rush in 2020, and they achieved that rank despite having the best player on the team, edge rusher Von Miller, miss the entire year. Assuming the Broncos can hassle quarterbacks again, Surtain’s job will be a lot easier.
Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys linebacker
Parsons is incredibly gifted. In a pre-draft workout, he ran the 40-yard dash in a reported 4.39 seconds while measuring 6’3” and 246 pounds. He was a productive player at Penn State despite low sack totals (just 6.5 across 2018 and 2019 before an opt-out in 2020)—mostly because of how the Nittany Lions deployed him. Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has a track record of letting edge rushers roam free and go after opposing QBs. When Quinn coached the Falcons in 2016, Vic Beasley had 15.5 sacks. When Quinn was the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator before that, his edge rushers generated all kinds of havoc.
The Cowboys also have a number of defenders who can handle coverage duties, which should free up Parsons to do more pass-rushing than he did in college.
Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers running back
The Steelers have no choice but to lean on Harris right away. The team’s former starting running back, James Conner, left for the Arizona Cardinals in free agency, and aging QB Ben Roethlisberger is not nearly the passer he used to be. That means Harris is going to get the ball a lot, which may or may not be great for his long-term career growth but should be awesome for his 2021 fantasy football numbers.
Of course, fantasy isn’t real football, but Harris should play well IRL, too. He already has the physical traits of an experienced NFL running back and should be able to handle a heavy workload.
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