NFL rookie rankings 2021: Micah Parsons surges to No. 1 in our top 10, Mac Jones leads all QBs an...

ByJeff Legwold ESPN logo
Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Twelve weeks into the 2021 NFL seasonand we are squarely in the body-of-work zone for the league's first-year players. Some of the rookies have flashed one week and felt every bump on the learning curve in others, while some have been derailed for a moment by injuries. But in the third rookie rankings of the season, there is, again, a new No. 1.Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsonsascends to that spot, as he continues to be versatile, impactful and exceedingly busy, given he has played 84% of the team's defensive snaps.

Six of the top 10 were selected in the first round of last April's draft, and the Patriots' Mac Jones continues to be the only rookie passer to crack the top 10 -- though Jacksonville'sTrevor Lawrence continues to grind his way closer to the list. But it isn't about some flash here, a big play there and a mistake over there; it's about play from Weeks 1 through 12 as a whole. It's about degree of difficulty in what these players are being asked to do and how they've handled it.

Per usual, we polled some personnel executives around the league to get their thoughts and worked our way through the game tape to make this top 10 list.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 pick an under-the-radar rookie to keep an eye on and ESPN Chalk's Doug Kezirian to provide the best value bet for rookie of the year.

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Top 10| Just missed| Notes

Under the radar | Value bets

1. Micah Parsons, ILB/DE, Dallas Cowboys

Stats: 11 starts, 67 tackles, 9.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles

Drafted: No. 12 overall

Parsons' pass rush win rate is tied for third in the league among all players, and that's just part of the equation. He has lined up on the edge and played inside linebacker, and he has the most tackles overall of any player in the league who also has at least nine sacks. Parsons also has 14 quarterback hits over his past four games.

2. Mac Jones, QB, New England Patriots

Stats: 12 starts, 2,850 passing yards, 16 TDs, 8 INTs

Drafted:No. 15 overall

His team has won six games in a row and seven of the past eight after the Patriots opened the season at 1-4 when Jones was tossed into the deep end of the pool. He has learned on the go -- he has thrown three interceptions over the past six games after six over the first eight. He has the best infrastructure around him of any of the rookie passers, and it shows, but his decision-making and penchant for getting the ball out on time has usually been spot on. Jones has four games over the past seven with six or fewer incompletions, and he has completed 70.3% of his passes overall.

3. Pat Surtain II, CB, Denver Broncos

Stats: 10 starts, 3 INTs, 11 passes defended, 1 TD

Drafted: No. 9 overall

Surtain is tied for sixth in the league among all defensive backs with 11 passes defended, and Broncos coach Vic Fangio said this week that Surtain should be in the conversation for the Defensive Rookie of the Year. His pick-six in Week 12 was the first of his career, and he has consistently played with discipline in the variety of the Broncos' zone looks and matched up in man coverage. Surtain has surrendered just 5.7 yards per target this season.

4. Rashawn Slater, OT, Los Angeles Chargers

Stats: 11 starts, 89.7% pass block win rate

Drafted: No. 13 overall

Slater's pass block win rate is the best among the league's rookie tackles. He has played 759 snaps this season -- 100% of the Chargers' plays through 11 games -- and personnel evaluators around the league consistently have ranked him among the league's top first-year players.

5. Creed Humphrey, C, Kansas City Chiefs

Stats: 11 starts, 97.3% pass block win rate

Drafted: No. 63 overall

Like Slater, Humphrey has had a high work rate right from the season opener (789 snaps), and while he has not been forced to work in pass protection in space, his 97.3% pass block win rate is best among the league's linemen through Week 12's games. He has surrendered one sack this season and has allowed more than one pressure in just two games.

6. Nate Hobbs, CB, Las Vegas Raiders

Stats: 7 starts, 51 tackles, 3 QB hits, 1 pass defended, 1.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble

Drafted: No. 167 overall

You have to separate Hobbs a bit from some of the Raiders' struggles overall on defense -- they're last in the league in red zone defense and goal-to-go defense, and they're now 30th in scoring defense. But Hobbs' work as a slot corner isn't the problem. He's physical at the point of attack in the run game, while his footwork and balance have helped him consistently limit catches when targeted. He needs to turn that positioning into some additional plays on the ball, as he has no interceptions and one pass defended, but his toughness and dependability will go a long way.

7. Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons

Stats: 45 catches, 661 receiving yards, 1 TD

Drafted: No. 4 overall

Pitts hasn't had a touchdown since Week 5, and since his back-to-back 100-yard games in October, he has had three games over the past five with fewer than 30 yards receiving. So what? The guy is still one of the best rookies in the league, and if the Falcons hadCalvin RidleyorHayden Hurstin the lineup, defenses wouldn't be able to spend so much time around him, especially in the red zone. Pitts has 14.7 yards per catch this season, too.

8. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Stats: 50 catches, 906 receiving yards, 8 TDs

Drafted: No. 5 overall

Chase's peak thus far this season may have been the best of any first-year player, but it's body-of-work time. Life is routinely tough for rookie wide receivers as veteran defensive backs start to test them physically, either at the line of scrimmage or at the catch point. Chase is getting fewer wins in contested situations as the season wears on, spots where he was winning the ball more often in September. That said, he's going over 1,000 yards soon, and his 18.1 yards per catch is third among the league's wide receivers.

9. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, ILB, Cleveland Browns

Stats: 6 starts, 49 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 4 passes defended, 2 QB hits

Drafted: No. 52 overall

Owusu-Koramoah missed three games with an ankle injury, but since his return in Week 10, he has shown the speed and versatility that enables defensive coordinator Joe Woods to engage him in a variety of ways. His 12-tackle, half-sack performance in the loss to the Ravens on Sunday was his best game of the season.

10. Jevon Holland, S, Miami Dolphins

Stats: 9 starts, 46 tackles, 2 INTs, 2.0 sacks, 7 passes defended, 5 QB hits

Drafted: No. 36 overall

I see a much different player on the game film from Week 5 on, and it's easy to see his growing comfort in all that he is asked to do in the Dolphins' defense, including in the pass rush. Holland is active and consistent, and he just might be the surest tackler of any defensive back in this absolutely loaded rookie class. Toss in some return work -- he has averaged 7.5 yards on 11 punt returns over the past six games -- and he impacts a game in multiple ways.

Just missed

Odafe Oweh, OLB/DE, Baltimore Ravens

There are moments when Oweh is simply astounding, and as he continues to put more and more of those moments together in the same game, his impact will continue to rise. He has five games with just one or two tackles, but he piles up the quarterback hits (five in the past three games).

DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

Even as the Eagles continue to lean more and more on the running game, Smith has carved out some impact plays along the way. He had three touchdowns combined in back-to-back games against the Chargers and Broncos.

Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos

Williams pulls, pushes and drags tacklers on his runs. He's second among the league's rookie backs in rushing yards (568) and is tied for the lead among the rookie backs in yards per carry (4.9). And his role is growing in the passing game; he has been targeted at least four times in three of the past five games.

Nick Bolton, ILB, Kansas City Chiefs

Some in the league wondered whether the second-round pick would have the coverage skills to be a full-time player in an NFL defense. And there have been times this season when that part of the game has been a significant challenge for him. But filling in for Anthony Hitchens(right elbow) resulted in 15-tackle and 11-tackle games. His snap count has dipped with Hitchens' return, but when the Chiefs keep him around the line of scrimmage, he has been impactful.

Greg Newsome II, CB, Cleveland Browns

After missing two games early in the season with a calf injury, he has consistently played with composure. His work in Week 9 against theBengals' wide receivers, including Chase, caught the attention of many evaluators in the league.

Christian Barmore, DT, New England Patriots

Barmore has hovered between 48% and 76% of the team's defensive snaps in every game this season, and he has two starts. He is explosive and disruptive, as his 7.8% pass rush win rate is best among the league's rookie interior linemen.

Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Even as the Steelers' offense continues to contract -- 22nd in total offense, 28th in rushing and 30th on third down -- Harris has consistently been productive. But he also has six games this season with 16 or fewer carries, despite his potential to produce with more opportunities.

Keep an eye on: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars; Eric Stokes, CB, Green Bay Packers; Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Los Angeles Chargers; Kwity Paye, DE, Indianapolis Colts; Baron Browning, LB, Denver Broncos; Penei Sewell, OT, Detroit Lions; Azeez Ojulari, OLB, New York Giants; Elijah Mitchell, RB, San Francisco 49ers; Jaelan Phillips, DE, Miami Dolphins; Rondale Moore, WR, Arizona Cardinals; Trey Smith, G, Kansas City Chiefs; Kadarius Toney, WR, New York Giants; Pete Werner, ILB, New Orleans Saints; Pat Freiermuth, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers; Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Jaylen Waddle, WR, Miami Dolphins; Michael Carter, RB, New York Jets; Elijah Moore, WR, New York Jets; Tre'von Moehrig, S, Las Vegas Raiders

Other rookie notes

  • Few rookies have had as vexed a season as Washington tackle Sam Cosmi. Cosmi has shown flashes of immense potential when he has played, but he has missed five games this year with injuries, including a hip injury in Week 11 that forced Washington to move him to injured reserve Monday.
  • TheBroncos, at 6-5 and on the fringe of the AFC's playoff race, are No. 3 in the league in scoring defense, No. 9 in total defense and No. 10 in red zone defense with four rookies currently in the defensive lineup. Surtain has started since Week 2, while Baron Browning (third round) has started the past four games. Linebacker Jonathon Cooper (seventh round) has started three games, and safety Caden Sterns (fifth round) started against the Chargers in Week 12 and has played in the dime for much of the season.

Walder's under-the-radar rookie

Pete Werner, ILB, New Orleans Saints

He hasn't played a ton (40% of defensive snaps), but Werner -- a late second-round off-ball linebacker out of Ohio State -- has been effective when on the field. If we lower the qualifying threshold to 75 plays with a win or loss, Werner ranks third among linebackers in run stop win rate behind only Cleveland rookie Owusu-Koramoah and Houston's Zach Cunningham. In coverage, Werner has allowed 0.8 yards per coverage snap per NFL Next Gen Stats, slightly above average for linebackers with at least 100 coverage snaps.

Kezirian's Rookie of the Year value bet

Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Chase has value right now for Offensive Rookie of the Year at +230. Mac Jones is a -300 betting favorite, but unlike the MVP, this award is not earmarked for quarterbacks. Chase is among the league's best at his position, and if Jones posts pedestrian numbers or the Patriots falter, Chase will win.

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