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Twelve weeks into the 2021 NFL season and we are completely in the body-of-work zone for the league’s freshmen. Some of the beginners have blinked for a week and felt every bump on the learning curve of others, while some have been derailed for a moment by injuries. But on the season’s third rookie rankings, there’s a new No. 1 again. Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons rises to the spot as he continues to be versatile, powerful and extraordinarily busy as 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 remains the only rookie passer to beat the top 10 – though Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence continues to sharpen closer to the list. But it’s not about a glimpse here, a big play there and a mistake over there; it’s about play from week 1 to 12 as a whole. It’s about the degree of difficulty in what these players are being asked to do and how they’ve handled it.
As usual, we asked some staff managers 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 that you may have on hand in the coming weeks. Finally, we looked to ESPN Stats & Information’s Seth Walder to pick an under-radar rookie to keep an eye on, and ESPN Chalks’ Doug Kezirian to provide the best value for this year’s rookie.
Top 10 | Just missed | Notes
Under the radar | Value bets
Statistics: 11 starts, 67 tackles, 9.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
The position: No. 12 overall
Parsons’ pass rush victory rate is a draw for third place in the league among all players and that’s just part of the equation. He has lined up on the edge and played inside the linebacker, and he has collected the most tackles of any player in the league who also has at least nine sacks. The Parsons also have 14 quarterback hits over their last four games.
Statistics: 12 starts, 2,850 passing yards, 16 TDs, 8 INTs
The position: No. 15 overall
His team has won six games in a row and seven of the last eight after the Patriots opened the season 1-4 when Jones was thrown into the deep end of the pool. He has learned on the go – he has thrown three interceptions over the last six games after six over the first eight. He has the best infrastructure around him of all beginners and it can be seen but his decision making and penchant for getting the ball out on time has usually been spot on. Jones has four games over the last seven with six or fewer finishes, and he has completed 70.3% of his passes overall.
Statistics: 10 starts, 3 INT, 11 passes defended, 1 TD
The position: No. 9 overall
Surtain is in sixth place in the league among all defensive backs with 11 defensive passes, and Broncos coach Vic Fangio said this week that Surtain should be in the conversation about 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 many different Broncos zone looks and matched up in man coverage. Surtain has only surrendered 5.7 yards per carry. goals this season.
Statistics: 11 starts, 89.7% passed block win
The position: 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’ play through 11 games – and staff evaluators around the league have consistently ranked him among the league’s best first-year players.
Statistics: 11 starts, 97.3% passed block win
The position: No. 63 overall
Like Slater, Humphrey has had a high work rate right from the start of the season (789 snaps), and although 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 play. He has delivered a sack this season and has allowed more than one pressure in just two games.
Statistics: 7 starts, 51 tackles, 3 QB hits, 1 pass defense, 1.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble
The position: No. 167 overall
You have to differentiate Hobbs a bit from some of the Raiders’ games in general in defense – they are last in the league in red zone defense and goal-to-go defense, and they are now number 30 in scoring defense. But Hobbs’ work as a castle corner is not the problem. He is physically on the attacking point in the running game, while his footwork and balance have helped him consistently limit catches when targeted. He has to turn that positioning for some extra play on the ball as he has no interceptions and a passing defense but his toughness and reliability will go a long way.
Statistics: 45 catches, 661 receiving yards, 1 TD
The position: No. 4 overall
The Pitts have not had a touchdown since Week 5, and since his back-to-back 100-yard games in October, he has had three games over the last five with less than 30-yards received. So what? The guy is still one of the best rookies in the league, and if the Falcons had Calvin Ridley or Hayden Hurst in the lineup, the defense would not be able to spend that much time around him, especially in the red zone. Pitts also has 14.7 yards per carry. catch this season.
Statistics: 50 catches, 906 receiving yards, 8 TDs
The position: No. 5 overall
Chase’s highlight so far this season may have been the best of any freshman, but it’s working time. Life is routinely tough for rookie-wide receivers as defensive veteranbacks begin testing them physically, either on the field or at the catch point. Chase gets fewer wins in controversial situations as the season progresses, places where he won the ball more often in September. That said, he will soon go over 1,000 yards, and his 18.1 yards per. catch is third among the league’s wide receivers.
Statistics: 6 starts, 49 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 4 passes defense, 2 QB hits
The position: 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.
Statistics: 9 starts, 46 tackles, 2 INTs, 2.0 sacks, 7 defensive passes, 5 QB hits
The position: No. 36 overall
I see a very different player on the feature film from week 5 onwards, and it’s easy to see his growing comfort in everything he’s asked to do in the Dolphins’ defense, including in the pass rush. Holland is active and consistent and he can just be the surest tackler of any defensive back in this absolutely loaded rookie class. Throw some return work – he has averaged 7.5 yards on 11 point returns over the last six games – and he affects a game in several ways.
Odafe Oweh, OLB / DE, Baltimore Ravens
There are moments when Oweh is simply amazing, and as he continues to put more and more of these moments together in the same game, his influence will continue to increase. He has five games with only one or two tackles, but he collects quarterback hits (five in the last three games).
DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
While the Eagles continue to read more and more on the run, Smith has cut some effect games 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 pulls tacklers on his runs. He is number two among the league’s rookie backs in rushing yards (568) and is just the leader among rookie backs in yards per. carry (4.9). And his role grows in the passing game; he has been targeted at least four times in three of the last five games.
Matthew Berry calls Javonte Williams 1A and Melvin Gordon 1B in the Broncos’ backfield for Week 13 against Kansas City.
Nick Bolton, ILB, Kansas City Chiefs
Some in the league wondered if the election in the second round would have the coverage capabilities to be a full-time player in an NFL defense. And there have been times this season where that part of the game has been a significant challenge for him. But filling Anthony Hitchens (right elbow) resulted in 15-tackle and 11-tackle fights. His snap count has dropped with Hitchens’ return, but as the Chiefs keep him around the line of scrimmage, he has been effective.
Greg Newsome II, CB, Cleveland Browns
After missing two games early in the season with a calf injury, he has consistently played calmly. His work in Week 9 against the wide receivers of the Bengals, 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 winning rate is best among the league’s inside rookies.
Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Although the Steelers’ offense continues to contract – 22nd in total offense, 28th in rushing and 30th in third attempt – Harris has been consistently productive. But he also has six games this season with 16 or fewer carrys, despite his potential to produce with more options.
Matthew Berry explains why he is and is not worried about Najee Harris in fantasy.
Watch out for: 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 such an annoyed season as Washington tackles Sam Cosmi. Cosmi has shown glimpses of enormous 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 the injured reserve on Monday.
The Broncos, 6-5 and on the edge of the AFC playoffs, 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 last four matches. 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 penny for most of the season.
Walder’s novice under the radar
Pete Werner, ILB, New Orleans Saints
He has not played a ton (40% of defensive snaps), but Werner – an off-ball linebacker in the late second round from Ohio State – has been effective when he was on the field. If we lower the qualifying threshold to 75 plays with a win or a loss, Werner ranks third among linebackers in the run-stop win rate after only Cleveland rookie Owusu-Koramoah and Houston’s Zach Cunningham. In coverage, Werner has allowed 0.8 yards per carry. 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 in his position, and if Jones posts pedestrian numbers, or the Patriots falter, Chase will win.