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NFL rookie rankings 2021 – Our top 10 first-years, Ja’Marr Chase’s record-setting start, rising corners, more

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We’re seven weeks into the 2021 NFL season, and the first-year cornerbacks continue to flex their collective muscles. Three of them make the second edition of our rookie rankings. And while our top 10 has some movement, once again only one quarterback made the cut. It’s actually a pass-catcher atop the board here, as the Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase has launched himself to the head of the class as the season’s halfway point approaches. That shouldn’t surprise anyone — he’s setting records for rookie receivers and seems to have a deep-ball TD every week.

To build the list, we polled some personnel executives around the league and worked our way through the game tape. 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 name an under-the-radar rookie to keep an eye on and ESPN Chalk’s Doug Kezirian to provide the best value bets for Rookie of the Year.

So who are the top rookies in the NFL right now, and why are they excelling? Let’s cut to the Chase, pun intended.

Jump to:
Top 10 | Just missed | Notes
Under the radar | Value bets

Stats: 35 receptions, 754 yards, 6 TDs
Drafted: No. 5 overall

Where to start? The 21-year-old leads the league in yards per catch (21.5), has three 100-yard games — including a 200-yard outing — and has the most receiving yards through seven career games in NFL history (754). Watch his routes and how he sets up more experienced defenders — add the Ravens’ Marlon Humphrey to what will be a growing list — and it’s clear this is a dynamic player who is going to require defenses to make a plan for him every weekend. And that means going beyond just putting their best cover player on him most of the time.


Stats: 6 starts, 88.3% pass block win rate
Drafted: No. 13 overall

Lists like these are often about degree of difficulty, and Slater checks that box pretty rigorously. He has already faced the likes of Chase Young, Maxx Crosby and Myles Garrett in his first six starts. Garrett did overpower Slater for a sack in Week 5 — though he may have gotten away with a hands-to-the-face penalty on the play — but body of work is always what matters most, and Slater’s body of work thus far is top shelf.


Stats: 31 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 passes defended
Drafted: No. 12 overall

His versatility and the Cowboys’ need to change his job description at the earliest stages of his NFL career will impact how some may see Parsons’ success. The bottom line: He has made an impact at defensive end when the team needed him to play there — he has 10 quarterback hits — and he has shown the ability to work in coverage at linebacker, as well as hold his gap at the point of attack in the run game. Parsons leads all rookies in pass rush win rate at 26.2%.


Stats: 24 tackles, 1 interception, 6 passes defended
Drafted: No. 9 overall

Surtain has played 86% of the team’s defensive snaps, been tasked with a handful of WR1s and played with such competitiveness from down to down that when Ronald Darby came off injured reserve, it was veteran Kyle Fuller who went to the bench. Surtain does need to clean up some of his tackling in the run game, but opposing quarterbacks have consistently been frustrated far more often than not when they’ve tried to test him.


Stats: 28 tackles, 1 forced fumble
Drafted: No. 52 overall

Owusu-Koramoah may have difficulty holding on to this spot, given he went to injured reserve (ankle) on Oct. 18, missed the Browns’ Week 7 win over the Broncos and is expected to miss several weeks. But just before his injury, which happened on Oct. 17 against the Cardinals, he had played 91% and 85% of the defensive snaps in his prior two games, as he consistently showed top-end play speed to the point of attack with quality work in coverage.


Stats: 1,779 yards passing, 9 TDs, 6 INTs, 70.4% completion rate
Drafted: No. 15 overall

Jones has faced the highest degree of difficulty among the top 10 and showed the resolve to bounce back from his three-interception day in Week 3 against the Saints for seven touchdown passes and three interceptions over the next four games. He also got his first career 300-yard game in a blowout win over the Jets this past weekend. The game tape shows a little more progress each week in protecting himself in the pocket — especially against the unnecessary sack — and taking care of the ball.


Stats: 20 tackles, 2 interceptions, 5 passes defended
Drafted: No. 47 overall

Like one of his mentors — Broncos coach Vic Fangio — Chargers coach Brandon Staley wants competitive cornerbacks who can tackle and play with discipline in a variety of coverages. Samuel has been reliable much of the time and has shown the versatility to play in the slot or outside, depending on what is needed of him.


Stats: 7 starts, 96.7% pass block win rate
Drafted: No. 63 overall

The Chiefs have a growing pile of trouble in some places on the depth chart, but Humphrey is not on that list. He has played with composure and keeps his footwork clean. The game film shows he has allowed just one sack in pass protection, and ESPN’s metrics (via NFL Next Gen Stats) have him with just six pass-block losses on the season overall.


Stats: 31 receptions, 471 yards, 1 TD
Drafted: No. 4 overall

Personnel evaluators around the league expected Pitts to find his footing as the season moved toward the halfway mark. Consider it found. He has two 100-yard games over the past two weeks and a wide receiver-worthy 15.2 yards per catch on the season.


Stats: 32 tackles
Drafted: No. 167 overall

The former Illini defensive back finds his way into this spot because of the Raiders’ expanding portfolio for him in recent weeks and his ability to consistently have an impact in each of those roles. Hobbs has five starts, has played at least 50% of the defensive snaps in every game — including a season-high 93% in the Raiders’ Week 7 win over the Eagles — and has just one missed tackle on the year.

Just missed

Azeez Ojulari, LB, New York Giants

The second-round pick’s 5.5 sacks lead all rookies, including the 2.5 he had against the Panthers this past Sunday. He has added some counters in his pass-rush work, and the more he progresses there, the more sack-happy games he will have. His 14.0% pass rush win rate is second among rookies to Dallas’ Parsons.

Penei Sewell, OT, Detroit Lions

His potential is still clear, but the move to left tackle to replace the injured Taylor Decker has impacted Sewell’s quality of play overall, as he fights his way along the learning curve. After a choppy two-game stretch against Minnesota and Chicago, when he allowed four sacks, he rebounded with high-quality efforts against the Bengals and Rams.

Greg Newsome II, CB, Cleveland Browns

Newsome missed two games with a calf injury — Weeks 4 and 5 — and played just 21 of the team’s defensive snaps in Week 6. But he got the start and played all 50 defensive snaps against the Broncos this past Thursday. His play shows an attention to detail, and he has been flagged just once this season.

Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos

Williams, who has 320 rushing yards this season, is a broken-tackle festival waiting to happen. We saw it recently against the Ravens, when six different Baltimore players tried to tackle Williams before he eventually was pulled to the ground. He has shown potential in the passing game, as well, with 122 yards on 20 catches. The only quibble is on those rare occasions when he doesn’t show his customary decisiveness.

Eric Stokes, CB, Green Bay Packers

Stokes has played every defensive snap in four of the Packers’ past five games. He has been flagged three times this season — all for pass interference — but all three were in his first two starts. Stokes has an interception and eight passes defended.

Keep an eye on: Osa Odighizuwa, DT, Dallas Cowboys; Rondale Moore, WR, Arizona Cardinals; Spencer Brown, OT, Buffalo Bills; Trey Smith, G, Kansas City Chiefs; Odafe Oweh, DE/LB, Baltimore Ravens; Kadarius Toney, WR, New York Giants; Sam Cosmi, OT, Washington Football Team; Pete Werner, LB, New Orleans Saints; Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers; Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars; Pat Freiermuth, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers; DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles; Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Greg Rousseau, DE, Buffalo Bills

Other rookie notes

  • Let’s just plan on a Ja’Marr Chase note in each edition of these rankings, as he is already getting folks to page through the record books. His 200-yard game this past Sunday was just the 17th by a rookie receiver. And with his high target volume and big-play ability, it’s likely a good time to remind people of Jerry Butler’s rookie single-game record of 255 yards in 1979. While Chase put up his 200-yard effort in his seventh career game, Butler did it in his fourth career game. And oddly, Butler did not have another game with more than 140 receiving yards in his 88-game career.

  • Packers rookie center Josh Myers, a second-round pick, was on the fast track up the rankings. He had played every snap in Green Bay’s first four games and replaced former All Pro center Corey Linsley, who signed with the Chargers in free agency. But Myers missed a game with a finger injury and then suffered a knee injury in Week 6 against Chicago, sending him to injured reserve.

  • Buffalo Bills rookie tackle Spencer Brown, an Iowa native, had joked he watched the Chiefs-Bills AFC Championship Game in his basement last January and then 10 months later he made his second NFL start in Arrowhead in the Bills’ 38-20 win in Week 5. Keep an eye on Brown, a third-round pick this past April who played eight-man football in Lenox, Iowa, in high school. He has shown he’s ready for the job on a Super Bowl-hopeful team after he was moved into the lineup at right tackle when the Bills shuffled their starters and Daryl Williams was moved inside to guard.

Walder’s under-the-radar rookie

Trey Smith, G, Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs crushed the offensive line portion of their draft; not only did they get the aforementioned Humphrey late in the second round, but they also nabbed Smith in the sixth out of Tennessee. Seven games in, Smith ranks 11th in both pass block win rate and run block win rate among guards this season. That’s a lot of value for a late-round pick, and Smith — along with Humphrey and veteran free-agent signing Joe Thuney — makes the interior of the offensive line a real strength for Kansas City.

Kezirian’s Rookie of the Year value bet

Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons

Cincinnati’s Chase is rightfully receiving tons of attention and praise, but Pitts at +1400 feels like great value for Offensive Rookie of the Year. The main concern is that Chase and Pitts play similar positions, so their stats will be compared to one another, as opposed to how voters might compare a QB and receiver. However, we still have two full months remaining in the regular season, and it seems like Pitts is just now hitting his stride with back-to-back 100-yard games.

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Kansas City Chiefs fans, in nod to Bills Mafia, donate $255,017 to Buffalo children’s hospital

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — Just days ago, the Kansas City Chiefs handed the Buffalo Bills one of the most heartbreaking losses in franchise history.

Chiefs fans, inspired by the fundraising spirit of Bills Mafia, have decided to turn their team’s big overtime win Sunday into a positive for the Buffalo community, raising $255,017 for Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo as of late Wednesday afternoon, per the hospital.

Beginning Tuesday, donations in increments of $13 began being sent to the hospital from Chiefs fans in honor of the 13 seconds it took for the Kansas City offense to drive down the field to tie the divisional-round playoff game at the end of regulation. The Chiefs went on to win 42-36 on the first drive of overtime.

The original idea from a Chiefs Kingdom Facebook group was to donate in $13 increments to quarterback Patrick Mahomes‘ charitable organization, the 15 and the Mahomies Foundation. That changed when Chiefs fans heard more about the Bills fans’ tradition of giving back to other teams; they instead direct their efforts to their opponent’s charity of choice.

The Oishei Children’s Hospital became closely connected with Bills quarterback Josh Allen after fans donated in $17 increments, totaling $1.1 million, in honor of Allen’s grandmother, Patricia Allen, who died last year. There is now a Patricia Allen Pediatric Recovery Wing in the hospital and the Patricia Allen Fund to benefit the critical care team and provide support for equipment, training, education and programs.

One of the most noteworthy examples of the Bills fans’ tradition came in 2017 when Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver Tyler Boyd connected for a game-winning touchdown over the Baltimore Ravens that led to the Bills clinching a playoff berth for the first time in 17 years.

In $17 increments, fans raised $442,000 for the Andy & Jordan Dalton Foundation. This year, Bills fans have led donation efforts in honor of cornerback Tre’Davious White tearing an ACL, giving back to the Food Bank of Northwest Louisiana in his hometown, among others.

Last year, Bills fans donated to Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson‘s foundation after a playoff win over the Ravens.

While 13 seconds likely will never again have a positive association in Buffalo, fan bases turning a tough ending into a positive for a different community is an uplifting tradition.



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Cleveland Browns QB Baker Mayfield taking break from ‘all social media for foreseeable future’

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CLEVELAND — As he recovers from shoulder surgery, Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield plans to rest his thumbs as well.

Mayfield said he’s going to take a break from “all social media for the foreseeable future.”

Ironically, the polarizing QB went on his Instagram page Wednesday to announce his hiatus from tweeting and posting.

“Gotta do what’s best to focus on me, my family and loved ones,” Mayfield wrote. “Appreciate all the support. Time to get right.”

Mayfield concluded his message by also including a contact for anyone making business or marketing inquiries.

Mayfield recently concluded a dreadful, injury-filled fourth season with the Browns, who were among the NFL’s most disappointing teams. Cleveland went 8-9, missed the playoffs and dealt with drama, much of it involving Mayfield.

Late in the season, Mayfield went on Twitter to dispel a story about issues between him and coach Kevin Stefanski. He called the report “clickbait” and added that “many other Cleveland local media continue to be drama stirring reporters with no sources or facts.”

Mayfield’s wife, Emily, also used her Twitter platform to claim he received death threats. Mayfield downplayed those and described his attackers and critics on social media as “keyboard warriors.”

The 26-year-old Mayfield injured his left, non-throwing shoulder in Week 2 while trying to make a tackle and struggled all season. He recently underwent surgery in Los Angeles for a torn labrum and is expected to need more than four months to recover.

The team said he should begin light throwing in April.

Following the season, both Stefanski and Browns general manager Andrew Berry publicly supported Mayfield by saying they believe he will bounce back next season as their starter. However, it’s likely the team will at least explore other options at quarterback during this offseason.

Mayfield is under contract next season for $18.9 million after the team exercised his fifth-year option.

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Baltimore Ravens targeting Michigan Wolverines’ Mike Macdonald to be new DC

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The defensive coordinator who keyed Michigan‘s dramatic turnaround in 2021 is on the cusp of heading back to the NFL.

The Baltimore Ravens have targeted Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, a former Ravens assistant, to be John Harbaugh’s next defensive coordinator, sources told ESPN.

A deal is expected to be finalized in the upcoming days, according to sources. Macdonald has been replaced on the road recruiting by a graduate assistant coach, Dylan Roney, in preparation for his departure.

The Detroit Free Press first reported that the Ravens were targeting Macdonald.

This comes after Macdonald stabilized a defense that keyed a one-year turnaround for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan, as the Wolverines went from 2-4 in 2020 to the College Football Playoff and a 12-2 record this past season.

Michigan’s scoring defense under Macdonald improved from No. 95 in 2020 with 34.5 points per game to No. 8 with 17.4 ppg. Michigan went on to beat Ohio State for the first time since 2011 and win the Big Ten for the first time since 2004.

Macdonald’s hire at Michigan proved to be one of the most impactful in all of college football last season. His schemes helped eliminate Michigan’s propensity to give up big plays under former defensive coordinator Don Brown. Under Macdonald, the Wolverines yielded 100 yards less per game in 2021, an average of 330.8 after giving up 434.3 the prior season.

Macdonald also helped launch the Heisman candidacy of defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, who finished as a finalist for the award after finishing with 14 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Macdonald, 34, would become the youngest defensive coordinator in the Ravens’ 26-year history. Before leaving for Michigan last year, Macdonald spent seven years in Baltimore (2014-20), joining the Ravens in 2014 as an intern. He was Baltimore’s inside linebackers coach for three seasons (2018-20) and was considered the heir apparent for the Ravens defensive coordinator position before leaving for Michigan.

The Ravens fired Don “Wink” Martindale on Friday after the sides were unable to agree on a contract extension through 2023, a source said. Under Martindale, the Baltimore defense ranked in the top 10 in three of four seasons.

Macdonald would take over a Ravens defense that finished No. 25 in the NFL last season. That was Baltimore’s worst defensive ranking since it was 25th in 1997.

In 2018, Macdonald interviewed for the Ravens defensive coordinator position that eventually went to Martindale. Now, four years later, it appears Macdonald will get his chance to step into that role.

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