Undrafted – The Network

The Rookies – 10 More to Watch in 2021

The Rookies I covered last week are those with the best chance to make a name for themselves in Year 2. This week I will look at those who half broke out and can consolidate their status this in 2021. There are also a couple of outside shots to establish themselves if everything falls right for them.

If you didn’t catch last weeks article here it is.

So without further ado I bring you 10 more rookies who I think will be much closer to household name status after the 2021 season.

Laviska Shenault Jr. (WR – Jacksonville Jaguars)

Shenault scores his first touchdown of his NFL career against the Colts – (Image Credit – The Ralphie Report)

Everyone loves a swiss army knife kind of a player, as long as he fits the system that he is in. Shenault would likely have been a first round pick last year if he hadn’t required surgery after his final college season which kept him from the Combine. Coming out of Colorado he was a receiver with great hands and a solid frame who was also adept at running with the ball.

Appearing in 14 games in his rookie season Shenault accumulated 600 yards and 5 touchdowns. That he did this with decidedly average Quarterback play is even more impressive. He only added 91 yards on the ground but I fully expect this figure to increase next year. A full offseason of NFL training and a brand new shiny Quarterback are the perfect recipe for a sophomore explosion.

The Jaguars have a new offensive co-ordinator and a new head coach, who both believe in running the ball until the opposition has to defend this. For a player like Shenault this will present myriad opportunities to be involved. I am expecting great things this year from one of my favourite rookies of 2020. The Jaguars are going to be extremely exciting this year I think.

J.K. Dobbins (RB – Baltimore Ravens)

Yes, ok, this is one of those rookies who half announced himself last year. With Mark Ingram now released I fully expect Dobbins to light up the NFL in 2021. Playing in the Raves run heavy scheme will only further accentuate the skills Dobbins evidenced in Year 1.

He didn’t start the year off particularly quickly, in the first 7 weeks he only had 25 carries for 152 yards. After the bye week however things started to pick up. The rest of the season he only dipped under double digit carries once, although never bypassing 15 in a game. The final 6 weeks of the season he scored 7 touchdowns, capping the regular season in Week 17 with 2 touchdowns and 160 yards against the Bengals.

In 2021 Dobbins will still be part of a committee as Gus Edwards has also shown he is more than deserving of time on the field. Dobbins will be the leader though, and the go to pass catcher, and as such I fully expect him to blow past 1200 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns in Year 2. This isn’t something totally unexpected from a player who broke Ezekiel Elliot’s college yardage record at Ohio State.

Michael Pittman Jr. (WR – Indianapolis Colts)

Last year Michael Pittman had to wait his turn behind T.Y. Hilton and others on a team who only started to appreciate his value towards the end of the season. I’d argue that he was only properly utilised in two games last season. Week 10 against the Titans in which he caught 7 balls for 101 yards, and in the playoff loss to Buffalo. Int hat game he caught 5 for 90 yards.

Throughout the rest of the season he was largely limited to 3 or so catches a game and only went over 50 yards once. This is not his fault however. The eye test shows me that the Colts have a receiver who can be much more the player we saw in week 10 and the playoffs. He is a big bodied receiver who has the attitude to be a WR1 for this team.

With T.Y. Hilton either leaving in Free Agency or coming back (I expect in a reduced role) Pittman is clearly better than the other options the Colts have. He will offer Carson Wentz an option that he often did not possess in Philly, a reliable guy on the outside, capable of running the entire route tree and who is also a red zone threat. Any less than 7-8 touchdowns for Pittman would be a let down in 2021.

Kamren Curl (CB – Washington Football Team)

Curl returns his first NFL interception 76 yards for a TD – (Image Credit – Washington Times)

This guy may be my favourite rookie from last year (outside of the Ravens) who nobody has heard of. A 7th round pick out of Arkansas, he was not a lock to even make the roster, let alone become a starter for Washington. In spite of this he appeared in all 16 games for the Football Team at Strong Safety, starting 11. His role grew so quickly much as a result of the season ending injury to Landon Collins in Week 8.

He only improved as the season went on as well. Curl ended the season with 59 solo tackles and another 25 assisted. The last four weeks of the season also showed how the game was slowing down for him. He recorded 3 interceptions over the last four weeks, one which he returned 76 yards for a touchdown against the 49ers. Add in 2 sacks and 4 passes defended and you have a player who far outplayed his draft position.

Year 2 sill be about consolidating his role, Collins will be returning from his achilles tear so it will be interesting to see what Ron Rivera does there. That said, Curl has put himself in a very solid position. Looking at his PFF grades he was the top graded rookie safety, finishing well above Jeremy Chinn, Antoine Winfield Jr and Julian Blackmon. Expect to see much more of this guy next year and to hear his name mentioned far more, Washington has a gem here.

Lucas Niang (OT – Kansas City Chiefs)

This is the first of my “everything needs to fall right” guys. Niang, a 3rd round rookie from 2020 opted out of the season as a result of the Covid pandemic, a brave move for a rookie. In the meantime the Chiefs made the Superbowl and showed thew world why solid Tackles are important.

The first part of the “falling right” has happened for Niang, both starting Tackles have been released. A Right Tackle coming out of college, his draft profile noted that he had day 1 starting quality and although it is now a year on, I don’t expect that to have changed. He only fell in the Draft due to an injury picked up halfway through his final college season and with nearly 2 years between that injury and the start of the 2021 season I expect there will be no lingering effects of this whatsoever.

Niang is exactly what the Chiefs need. He plays a position of great need and is cheap, considering the cap space the Chiefs have all this points to Niang being a day 1 starter who can make the position his own. He’s agile and reads the game well, it should also be noted that over his 3 years at starting Right Tackle for TCU he didn’t allow a single sack. Watch him quickly become one of Mahomes’ favourite guys. The only thing that could derail this prediction is if he has spent 2020 not staying in shape as he will then have to rectify this which could take away from his prep for 2021.

Ezra Cleveland (OT/G – Minnesota Vikings)

Staying in the trenches I also have a lot of faith that Ezra Cleveland will solidify his position on the Vikings O-line. The bar is low to make that line but improvement has to start somewhere and I believe this guy is where that begins. Coming out of Boise State as a 2nd round pick, Cleveland made his first start in Week 6 having played a bit-part role up to that point. He played out the remainder of the season at Right Guard for the Vikings although he projects as their future starting Left Tackle.

Cleveland was the bright spot to the O-line’s season. He offered protection and blocking prowess, his performance in Week 8 against the Packers being one of the main reasons that Cook ran for 163 yards and 3 touchdowns. The offseason will be big for Cleveland, he needs to add some weight to his frame and will need to work on his strength in order to be able to better anchor against NFL Defensive Tackles.

The Vikings will have to decide if they want to continue his development at Right Guard or if they want to shift him and ask him to learn a new NFL position. Yes he played Tackle in college but he has spent a year now learning new footwork. Players like Orlando Brown have shown that muscle memory can enable players to revert to their college positions and personally I feel this is where Cleveland will end up, protecting Kirk Cousins’ blindside. He has the tools to do this well, lets wait and see how this plays out.

Jalen Reagor (WR – Philadelphia Eagles)

Reagor scores his first career touchdown against the Cowboys – (Image Credit – Fort Worth Star – Telegram)

Playing Wide Receiver for the Eagles is a thankless task. It seems that the quickest way to injury is to assume the role on the outside in Philadelphia. Reagor did not manage to avoid this curse in his rookie year. Injuries hampered his early season and I wonder whether they lingered the rest of the way. Reagor will always be compared to the player picked immediately after him, Justin Jefferson, another case of ‘what if’ for the Eagles.

Reagor should have had a path to first year success, injuries to Alshon Jeffrey and DeSean Jackson opened up a clear path but Reagor could not capitalise. He accumulated 396 yards and 1 whole touchdown whilst starting 11 games. Coming out of TCU he was hyped up to be the deep threat guy, that just didn’t materialise. He only had two receptions over 25 yards. Reagor wasn’t helped out by some decidedly questionable Quarterback play. I know this sounds like an excuse but for rookies coming into the league they’re going to need some help. Jefferson had Kirk Cousins who, whilst not the most electric, is an extremely accurate Quarterback and was able to find Jefferson easily and often.

Jalen Hurts and Carson Wentz struggled all season, I do not think that Hurts is the answer in Philly and I fully expect Reagor to have a new QB by Week 3/4 of the 2021 season. With more time to work on his basics, route running and getting back to full strength, the talent is there. Reagor can be a WR1 in this league, that he didn’t do it in his first season doesn’t make him a bust, just ask Davante Adams.

Bryce Hall (CB – New York Jets)

The Jets were a disaster this year. They then topped it off by wining 2 games and losing the 1st pick in the Draft, it couldn’t have gone much worse. You have to look pretty hard to find any silver lining in this year for them and Denzel Mims aside I think I have found another. Bryce Hall had a gruesome end to his college career, he dislocated his left ankle, broke his fibula and suffered ligament damage in October 2019. He wasn’t recovered enough to take the field again until Week 8 of the 2020 NFL season.

When he went down injured he was to be a 1st/2nd round pick, the Jets got him in the 5th. In 8 games (7 starts) Hall had 34 tackles, 3 passes defended and 1 interception. In his 2018 college season he had a crazy 21 pass breakups. He has the size to be a success and showed all the attributes needed to be a starting quality Corner in the league, he is a physical press coverage guy who can also stick with receivers in man.

A further year removed from his injury can only help, that he is on a team with so little competition for his position means that he should be one of the first names on the team sheet next year. He has all the skills and traits to make a splash, the rest is down to him. Expect to see Hall step up as a leader alongside Marcus Maye in a very young Jets secondary very quickly.

Gabriel Davis (WR – Buffalo Bills)

Well, the Bills were rather good weren’t they! Steffon Diggs, John Brown and Cole Beasley all had great to good seasons but alongside them more than pulling his weight was Gabriel Davis. A rookie out of UCF he got his chance this year with injuries to John Brown opening up a starting role at times. It would be fair to say however that he was in and out of certain games, he could get 70 yards one week and the 0 the next.

Overall, 599 yards and 7 touchdowns is a good first season, that Josh Allen isn’t worried to look his way also bodes well. With John Brown gone there is an opening on the outside and Davis will have first refusal. With Diggs drawing so much coverage I can see Davis having similar success to Juju in Pittsburgh playing with Antonio Brown.

He will be more involved on a regular basis and there is no reason to think he cant approach 1000 yards this year coming. His big body and sure hands make him a go to in the red zone and I can see a future where he becomes a safety blanket for Allen. A 4th round pick who can become a reliable starter in only his second year is rare, the Bills have a good one here who will only improve next year.

Jaylon Johnson (CB – Chicago Bears)

Johnson’s break-up in his first career game for the Win against The Lions – (Image Credit – Full Press Coverage)

A 2nd round pick out of Utah, Johnson very quickly showed his worth to the Bears. He started the first 13 games of the season before picking up a shoulder injury which kept him out of the final weeks of the season and the playoff loss to the Saints.

In those 13 games he registered 42 tackles and 15 passes defended. Opposition Quarterbacks went after him often at the start of the season and he more than held his own. He was targeted 40 times in the first 6 weeks, the second most of any Corner in the league. Tasked with replacing Prince Amukamara, Johnson allowed 20 receptions on those 40 targets but only 1 touchdown. The second half of the season he did struggle a bit however he clearly showed enough that the Bears front office were comfortable with letting Kyle Fuller go this offseason.

He ranked 6th amongst outside cornerbacks forcing an incompletion rate of 21%. Going into his second season there is no reason to think that Johnson cant be the next great Chicago Defensive Back. He plays with a physical, offensive style that perfectly fits the Bears defence. There is no reason to think he will not continue to build on a good start to his career, god knows, the Bears could use it!

Well, that’s the second 10, I can’t keep going even though I want to and as such we have the Honourable Mentions:

  • Darnell Mooney (WR – Chicago Bears)
  • Brandon Aiyuk (WR – San Fransisco 49ers)
  • Javon Kinlaw (DT – San Francisco 49ers)
  • Denzel Mims (WR – New York Jets)
  • Zach Baun (LB – New Orleans Saints)
  • Alex Highsmith (DT – Pittsburgh Steelers)

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