October 4, 2021

Ranking the 10 Best NFL Rookies

The first month of the 2021 NFL season has been filled with exciting games and breakout performers. The 2021 NFL Draft class was rightfully regarded as a top-heavy yet impactful group of contributors. Beyond the five first-round quarterbacks selected, it was common knowledge there would be special difference-makers even as rookies.

We're starting to see the best rookies separate themselves from the pack. Those struggling right now aren't necessarily doomed for a disappointing career, but the top-10 rookies through Week 4 have given their teams extra joy as they reap the early rewards of their selection. We've reviewed the film and stat sheet to identify the league's finest rookies thus far.

Each of these 10 rookies has a long way to go to cement their status as a superstar in the NFL. Getting acclimated to the NFL this fast says a lot about their talent and drive, though.

Let's dig into the top-10 NFL rookies through Week 4.

10. Nate Hobbs, CB, Las Vegas Raiders

The best value pick of the 2021 NFL Draft thus far has been fifth-round cornerback Nate Hobbs. The slot corner has helped transform this Raiders' defense into something the franchise can win with. He's quickly become a valuable starter in three games entering into "Monday Night Football" against the Chargers.

With 11 tackles and consistently good coverage, Hobbs does the little things that Gus Bradley has needed for his unit to become legitimate. The communication errors have dropped as Hobbs has assumed a bigger role. He played just half of the defensive snaps in Week 1 but has seen the field on 82% and 86% of total defensive snaps in the last two games, respectively.

9. Odafe Oweh, Edge, Baltimore Ravens

Sacks aren't everything and Odafe Oweh has proven that with Baltimore. The athletic freak has produced just two sacks and 10 tackles so far but is constantly harassing the quarterback and impacting plays. He's the type of guy who stands out on film even more than the box score. 

Ravens defensive coordinator Wink Martindale is having fun utilizing Oweh on stunts and delayed blitzes thus far. Oweh has arguably the highest ceiling of any defender in this class thanks to his athletic gifts. He simply must convert more often to fill the stat sheet.

8. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Cleveland Browns

The Browns could easily feature two stud rookies on this list as Greg Newsome has been everything the team has hoped for. However, it's linebacker JOK who has stolen the show over the last two weeks as his role has grown. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah's speed has transformed the Browns' defense into one of the fastest and most dangerous units in the league.

His ascent has been slower than some of his peers but his impact is apparent. His snap count has gone from 38%, 30%, 51%, to 52% in each progressing week. It's time for Cleveland to continue giving JOK opportunities to make plays. He's totaled 17 tackles and three pass deflections so far.

7. Azeez Ojulari, Edge, New York Giants

The rookie sack leader simply must be mentioned here. The Giants haven't had a lot of positives occur over the last month — minus their overtime victory over the Saints on Sunday — but there are individuals who are exceeding expectations early on — and that includes Azeez Ojulari.

The speedy edge-bender hasn't even been a full-time player and that needs to change soon. With three sacks and 11 tackles thus far, he's a difference-maker on a defense lacking them. He's played in 54% or fewer snaps in three games, and only 64% of snaps in their other contests. If the Giants want to win then they need to get this man on the field!

6. Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Los Angeles Chargers

The first legacy corner on this list isn't a surprise. Asante Samuel Jr. was a playmaker at Florida State and has immediately bolstered the Chargers' secondary in that same role. He has a nose for the ball and plays incredibly tough as a slot corner in a defense that values the position as much as any.

Samuel is the type of ballhawk who simply makes you nervous when the ball is near his side of the field. He's so quick and always has his eye on the ball. He has two interceptions and four pass breakups in just three games entering "Monday Night Football" against the Raiders.

5. DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

This spot may have gone to Rondale Moore prior to this last week, but the Cardinals rookie cooled off in the last two games and Smith broke out in Week 4. Smith totaled a career-high with seven receptions for 122 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs. He's now the second-leading rookie receiver from the 2021 class.

His ability to win on a variety of routes and alignments makes him one of the most intriguing playmakers in the class. He's so quick on cuts and dangerous deep that the Eagles can continue growing his role all season long. He has 18 receptions for 237 yards and one score through his first month of action.

4. Micah Parsons, LB/EDGE, Dallas Cowboys

It's impossible to have missed the speedy and versatile Micah Parsons if you've tuned in at all in this first month. Parsons has been flying all over the field for the Cowboys, utilizing one of the more dynamic skill sets in the league at the position. The team has had Parsons as both an off-ball linebacker and edge rusher.

He's accumulated 2.5 sacks and 17 combined tackles despite playing more than 78% of total snaps in only one game. Week 4's performance at Carolina was his first full-time game. We expect Parsons to continue to rise with his role growing.

3. Patrick Surtain II, CB, Denver Broncos

No one should be surprised Patrick Surtain II has quickly adjusted to the NFL. Arguably the smartest corner prospect I've seen in the last decade, Surtain has used his long and strong frame to push receivers around and win at the catch point. He's already earned CB1 status on Vic Fangio's defense, a rare feat for a rookie.

Surtain's ability to defend the sideline and play the run has given him a uniquely high floor and great ceiling. The Broncos rightfully received flack for taking Surtain over a quarterback but he was as good as they could get as a consolation. He'll anchor the secondary for the next decade.

2. Rashawn Slater, OT, Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers wisely rebuilt their offensive line this offseason and a big part of that effort was landing Slater with the 13th overall pick. It was shocking to see the athletic big man fall so far. Teams such as the Miami Dolphins and Philadelphia Eagles could've easily justified taking Slater to help their own line.

The Chargers are thrilled Slater is starting for them, though. He's a human highlight reel already, much like how Tristan Wirfs made a quick impact for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year. He's a must-watch performer as he bulldozes defenders into the ground.

1. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

There's no other place to start when talking about playmakers from the 2021 class. The former LSU product has easily been the best rookie skill position player from a loaded group. Chase has performed at a borderline All-Pro level through his first month.

Skeptics were doubting his ability to separate and create chunk plays despite his dominant 2019 LSU campaign. Landing with Joe Burrow surely has helped Chase ease into the NFL, but Chase has also shown the same ability to dominate defenders one-on-one despite his age. He's racked up 297 yards and four scores on 17 receptions.

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration