Half a season does not make an NFL player's career, but as a draft analyst it's only natural that I check in on the rookies at the midway point of the regular season, right?
Let's assign grades for the play of the first-round picks from the 2021 NFL Draft halfway through their debut seasons as professionals. And these grades are strictly performance-based. I did not factor in cost of trading up/down.
No. 1: Jacksonville Jaguars - QB Trevor Lawrence
Lawrence has not played like a once-in-a-generation prospect through seven games. Just hasn't. Sure, the environment in Jacksonville is hardly helping. And it's understandable that a No. 1 overall pick takes his lumps through the first half of his rookie season. We've seen it many times before.
However, in September, Lawrence was routinely clanking layup-type throws and playing uncharacteristically panicked inside the pocket. Toward the end of October, he started to resemble the Clemson version of himself a bit more, yet Lawrence has a ways to go before he's remotely close to meeting his massive expectations.
No. 2: New York Jets - QB Zach Wilson
Every game -- before his injury -- did feature some high-end throws, many of which came in garbage time, yet they were outweighed by bad decisions both inside and outside the pocket and occasional bouts of ball-placement issues. Outside of his 297-yard performance in the win over the Titans, it's been very tough sledding for Wilson out of the gate.
No. 3: San Francisco 49ers - QB Trey Lance
We all kinda/sorta knew Lance needed time, more time than the other quarterbacks picked in the first round of the 2021 draft, and he's looked like a not-quite-ready passer when he's been forced onto the field for the 49ers this season. Lance's lone start against the Cardinals featured a litany of quick resorts to scrambling and late rockets over the middle.
This grade could also have been an "incomplete" because Lance has only attempted 48 passes to date.
No. 4: Atlanta Falcons - TE Kyle Pitts
To begin his NFL career, the Falcons kept the training wheels on Pitts, and I don't know why. Then, the lightbulb went on. Pitts average depth of target went from 8.8 in Weeks 1-4 to 14.4 since, and, on the vertical route tree is where the pterodactyl-like pass catcher is most effective.
He posted back-to-back 100-plus yard outings in Weeks 6 and 7 but was limited to a measly 13 yards on two receptions in Week 8 against the Panthers, in like the 3,000th strange NFC South contest of the Matt Ryan era. Overall, the Falcons have gotten quality return on Pitts.
No. 5: Cincinnati Bengals - WR Ja'Marr Chase
Easy "A" for the Bengals, of course. Chase is the frontrunner for the Offensive Rookie of the Year, and he's having a Randy Moss-esque debut year in the NFL. He's averaging a hefty 8.0 yards after the catch per reception -- which is buoyed by a 82-yard score against the Ravens that was of the highlight variety after the catch -- and Burrow's passer rating is 124.1 on throws in Chase's direction, which indirectly equates to Burrow being the best quarterback in the NFL when he targets his former LSU teammate.
No. 6: Miami Dolphins - WR Jaylen Waddle
As my WR1 in the 2021 class, I'm miffed at how Waddle's career has started. He's much more talented than his unfathomably low 8.6 yards-per-catch average indicates. The Dolphins are colossally conservative, and Waddle has barely been featured down the football field, one of the many places he shined under the bright lights in Tuscaloosa.
A minuscule 7.6% of Waddle's targets have been on throws 20 or more yards downfield. That's negligent offensive game planning. I will say, Waddle hasn't made defenders miss as frequently as he did in college. He does lead the team with 48 receptions.
No. 7: Detroit Lions - OT Penei Sewell
For someone unfamiliar with unsteady play, it was a shaky start for Sewell in Detroit. Over the past month, he's looked more like the prospect who landed in the top 7 of the 2021 draft at 20 years old with only two years of starting experience in the Pac-12 on his collegiate resume.
Sewell is starting to assert his will on opponents and is not playing with nearly as much anxiety and discomfort in pass protection as he demonstrated in September and early October. Also, I loved that he stood up to Aaron Donald a few weeks ago. Great sign.
No. 8: Carolina Panthers - CB Jaycee Horn
Horn's logged just 146 snaps across three games for Matt Rhule's club. He broke his foot in late September, and, of course, was placed in IR. He did have an interception -- but did allow a touchdown. A return later in the season wasn't deemed to be completely out of the question, but right now, it'd be unfair to slap a grade on the Panthers selection of Horn.
No. 9: Denver Broncos - CB Patrick Surtain
Surtain's certainly fared better than last year's crop of first-round corners, but that's not saying much. Unsurprisingly, Surtain's played similarly to how he did at Alabama. Sticky in man coverage against larger wideouts, some hiccups down the field and an occasional splash play -- he does have a pick and four pass breakups heading into the weekend.
Has Surtain been absolute lock-down? No. Has he been a liability? Far from.
No. 10: Philadelphia Eagles - WR Devonta Smith
I don't know how precisely I feel about Smith because he's been a rollercoaster in the first half of the season, and I'm not accustomed to rollercoaster play from Smith. He was as steady as can be at Alabama. He's already dropped three passes with the Eagles after just 10 in his entire stay with the Crimson Tide.
And there have been flashes -- like the seven-grab, 122-yard outing against the Chiefs and his NFL debut, an eight-catch, 71-yard, one-touchdown outing in a thrashing of the Falcons in Atlanta. But it does feel like the physical side of the game is steepening his learning curve at times, although his silky-smooth movements do generate separation in most cases, and they're still a joy to watch.
I expected more consistency from Smith, I really did.
No. 11: Chicago Bears - QB Justin Fields
Fields is starting to come along. He really is. And while I'm here -- he looked noticeably more comfortable without Matt Nagy on the sidelines against the 49ers in Week 8.
But the start was not pretty. Definitely looked in need of a redshirt....season? Yeah. Or something close to that. Fields is still leaning on his supreme athletic gifts more than anything else, but that's not the worst thing for a rookie quarterback to do as he's getting his bearings on the speed and complexity of NFL defenses.
I'd love to see more vertical shots off play-action. But there have been times when those big plays we saw so frequently at Ohio State have been there in Chicago, yet Fields has taken an extra second to process that he needs to let it rip. He's currently the most sacked quarterback in football. That sack rate of 14.1% is ghastly -- but not completely unheard of for a first-round rookie passer.
No. 12: Dallas Cowboys - LB Micah Parsons
Parsons is a different cat. He's a 6-foot-3, 240-pound off-ball linebacker by trade -- mostly -- who was thrust into a role as edge-rusher in the first month of his NFL career, and he's played beyond his years as a pass rusher.
That is not to say Parsons didn't show edge-rushing capabilities at Penn State. He did. But I wasn't of the belief he could flourish in a predominant outside pass rusher role in his rookie season. There have been the normal rangy sideline-to-sideline tackles we all want to see in linebackers. There's so much juice to his game, which is quite amazing given his thick frame.
Parsons has a ways to go learning the nuances of coverage, and he hasn't quite shed blocks as effortlessly as he did in the Big 10 -- imagine that -- but the Cowboys should be happy with their first-round pick at this juncture.
No. 13: Los Angeles Chargers - OT Rashawn Slater
Philip Rivers has GOT to be saying "dagummit" in Alabama where he's coaching high school football watching the play of Slater at left tackle in a Chargers uniform.
Slater has been the best rookie blocker by a wide margin, and just like he did in 2019, gave Chase Young major problems on the perimeter in their matchup in September. The former Northwestern star is hyper athletic for a strapping offensive tackle, and not once have I thought he has a future at guard.
No. 14: New York Jets - OL Alijah Vera-Tucker
The pass-blocking for AVT has been suboptimal. Not overly bad, just not encouraging. However, the expensive first-round pick had made amends for his pass-protection hiccups with awesome play for the ground game that's respectfully 18th in Football Outsiders run-game DVOA.
Vera-Tucker is a methodical wrecking ball on pulls and never looks too anxious to find work. He's graceful out in space and has dealt with the strength of NFL defensive tackles, that's almost always overwhelming for young blockers, well.
No. 15: New England Patriots - QB Mac Jones
It feels like Jones should be graded on a curve halfway through his rookie season. He's operated an immensely conservative, throw-it-in-the-flat-or-check-it-down offense, but he's operated it well. The big-time throws have been few and far between. The improvisation has been awkward when not completely non-existent in a given game, but he's shown a keen sense for getting rid of the football in a hurry to the right places.
Jones has looked the part of a passer who can successfully manage a game. Has he shown, for any stretches, that he'll eventually be able to elevate those around him? No. Not at this point. Either way, the Patriots should feel good about landing Jones, especially considering how poorly the rest of the first-rounders have played.
No. 16: Arizona Cardinals - LB Zaven Collins
Collins has had an inauspicious start to his NFL career. Nothing horrific. Nothing truly special. The weird thing I've noticed -- where are the pass-rushing reps? This is a 6-4, 260-pound linebacker we're talking about here. That's edge-rusher size! And he was productive in that role at Tulsa.
Gotta ramp up that part of his game, Cardinals.
No. 17: Las Vegas Raiders - OT Alex Leatherwood
Being straight-up -- Leatherwood has really struggled out of the gate. He's allowed 27 pressures through eight games. Not good. The run-blocking steadiness he showcased at Alabama has been almost invisible too. Now, this is a super-experienced SEC blocker we're talking about here. I will not be surprised if he has an Andrew Thomas-esque second half of his rookie season.
But to date, Leatherwood has looked like a bizarre selection for the Raiders, and it was a pick that turned heads on draft night.
No. 18: Miami Dolphins - EDGE Jaelan Phillips
Phillips has one strong outing -- against the Colts -- on his NFL resume thus far. And while the 17 pressures on 204 pass-rushing snaps equates to a not-totally-brutal 8.4% pressure-creation rate, the diverse pass-rush move arsenal and complete game he put on display in his one-year showcase at Miami has simply not be as effective as Miami would've hoped in legitimate one-on-one situations.
The strong edge-setting, block-defeating run defender he proved to be in 2020 has rarely appeared on the field early in his NFL career.
No. 19: Washington Football Team - LB Jamin Davis
Another rocky start for a first-round linebacker. Remember last year, Kenneth Murray, Patrick Queen, and Jordyn Brooks were all abysmal. Davis' slower diagnosing skills, five missed tackles, uncomfortable reps in coverage, and generally non-impactful run defense have been key in Washington's surprisingly bad defensive performance in the first half of 2021.
At his size, with his speed, and the splashes he made in coverage last season at Kentucky, Davis felt like a first-round linebacker bound to buck the recent trend of that position struggling in Year 1. But maybe the one-year wonder phenomenon leads to a longer acclimation process at the pro level.
No. 20: New York Giants - WR Kadarius Toney
Toney was initially ticked at his lack of opportunities in the Giants offense, then they listened to him in early October, and he proved to be right with two strong outings at the beginning of the month, including a 10-catch, 189-yard game in the Superdome in a win no one saw coming over the Saints.
He's since cooled, with 52 yards combined yards receiving in his last two outings, but he's played like University of Florida Toney for the vast majority of the season. His 7.4 yards-after-the-catch-per-reception average narrowly trails Chase for second among all qualifying rookies.
No. 21: Indianapolis Colts - EDGE Kwity Paye
Paye does not have a sack in the NFL yet. And he's generated just eight pressures on a healthy 133 pass-rushing snaps to date. But the rocked up edge rusher has made his presence felt against the run. Not surprising given how much pop he played with in college when setting the edge.
Now, the Colts would probably like to get more pass-rushing productivity from Paye, and he hasn't been completely overwhelmed on that front. But the positive play stopping the run indicates he's strong enough already to be, at the very least, a serviceable two-down player on one of the league's better defenses.
No. 22: Tennessee Titans - CB Caleb Farley
Man, I feel for Farley. He was a deemed a dangerous injury proposition by many during the pre-draft process due to injuries at Virginia Tech, a back ailment chief among them. But the Titans loved his upside enough to select him in Round 1, and after playing on just 60 snaps in the NFL, he tore his ACL and is out for the year.
Can't give the Titans on grade on Farley now.
No. 23: Minnesota Vikings - OT Christian Darrisaw
It was a long road for Darrisaw to see the field -- a groin injury kept him off the field until Week 5. And he was worth the wait for the Vikings. Believe me. He's allowed just three quarterback pressures against the likes of Brian Burns and Randy Gregory on 183 pass-blocking snaps, and many of his wins have been seemingly effortless, just like they looked at Virginia Tech.
Darrisaw has experienced some problems on super-speedy outside rushes, but he's been ready for everything else. Maybe most importantly, Darrisaw has handled those pure power bull rush situations, plays where most rookies have major problems.
No. 24: Pittsburgh Steelers - RB Najee Harris
Harris himself wasn't going to fix the Steelers run game. But the 2020 Doak Walker winner sure is trying. He leads all rookies with 128 carries but averages just 3.7 yards per carry to date. Most of that is on Pittsburgh average run-blocking unit. The flashy runs have been few and far between, but there's only so much a ball carrier as big and talented as Harris can do.
He's been a godsend for Ben Roethlisberger in the pass game with 37 receptions and 273 yards and two scores. However, toting the rock behind this iteration of Pittsburgh's offensive line isn't quite the same as doing so at Alabama over the past four years.
No. 25: Jacksonville Jaguars -RB Travis Etienne
Etienne was lost for the year in the summer. We'll have to wait until next season for he and Lawrence to be reunited on a football field again.
No. 26: Cleveland Browns - CB Greg Newsome
Newsome landed in Round 1 when everybody finally got to the Northwestern tape and saw how naturally athletic he was, and how aggressive he played the ball in the air. He has been the rare first-round rookie cornerback who has stepped in and confidently played quality coverage down the field in the first half of his rookie season.
He has four pass breakups to date and looks like an ascending young defensive back.
No. 27: Baltimore Ravens - WR Rashod Bateman
An injury kept Bateman on the shelf until Week 6, and the early returns have been encouraging, which is big news for Lamar Jackson and the Ravens passing offense. Before Baltimore's bye in Week 8, Bateman demonstrated his deceptive field-stretching skills with 80 yards on three grabs against the Bengals.
His "incomplete" grade could fluctuate quite a bit down the stretch of Bateman's rookie year, when he's bound to be a central part of what Baltimore tries to do through the air.
No. 28: New Orleans Saints - EDGE Payton Turner
Probably the most surprising first-round pick in April, the oversized edge rusher has held his own in a limited, rotational role on the Saints defensive front. He has only nine quarterback pressures on 103 pass-rushing snaps to date, but at 6-6 and 270 pounds, it should come as no shock that Turner has made his greatest impact against the run, where he's been an immovable object.
I like how the Saints have utilized him up and down the line of scrimmage too.
No. 29: Green Bay Packers - CB Eric Stokes
Stokes has been up and down for the Packers, with five pass breakups but two touchdowns allowed in his coverage area. The athleticism has been noticeable in most outings. Stokes has occasionally been a touch over-aggressive -- an issue at Georgia -- but it's been a fine albeit unspectacular start for the first-round corner thrust into a full-time role at the outset of his NFL career.
No. 30: Buffalo Bills - EDGE Gregory Rousseau
As my "buyer beware" prospect for the 2021 class, the prospect I believed most needed a redshirt season, the Bills have gotten better-than-I-expected dividends from Rousseau in the first half of the season. His two best outings came against the Dolphins porous offensive line, but there've been some splash plays against the run against other teams and a nice display of his length and athleticism on an interception of a Patrick Mahomes screen.
However, Rousseau has gotten moved often in the run game, and, discounting the Dolphins contests, has just three quarterback pressures on 93 pass-rushing snaps.
No. 31: Baltimore Ravens - EDGE Odafe Oweh
Oweh got the ever-elusive sack early in his pro career -- after not registering one in his final season at Penn State -- so the monkey was off his back early. That was big. A hefty amount of his 24 pressures have been totally schemed for him, but that's the way of the pass rush in Baltimore under Wink Martindale.
The massively explosive tendencies to Oweh's game have been apparent, but he's a tick stiff at times around the corner. Overall, the Ravens have to be pleased with Oweh's fit in their defense.
No. 32: Tampa Bay Buccaneers - EDGE Joe Tryon
Playing time is hard to come by on either side of the ball in Tampa Bay, and Tryon has played on 222 snaps through eight contests. He's registered 13 pressures on 129 pass-rushing snaps -- not terrible, not great -- and many times he's being utilized on twists with an interior defensive linemen. Against the run, Tryon has often completely sold out to get upfield that he's taken himself out of run plays in his direction.
It's early, but it's hard to get a real feel for Tryon's game.
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