Justin Herbert and Justin Jefferson battled for the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2020, with the electric Chargers passer ultimately winning in large part because he set the NFL record for touchdown passes thrown by a rookie.
This year, there are a plethora of fascinating first-year quarterbacks and offensive skill-position players in marquee roles on their respective teams. Let's rank the likely Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates for the 2021 season.
Next to each player is his OROY odds, set by William Hill Sportsbook.
11. Travis Etienne, RB, Jaguars (+2200)
This low of a ranking is not an indictment of Etienne's talent, although he was my RB2 in the 2021 class behind Najee Harris by a rather wide margin. When his blocking is in sync, like it was during most of his Clemson career, Etienne is a big play waiting to erupt from behind the line of scrimmage.
His situation in Jacksonville is not conducive to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. Think about it. At quarterback is the most hyped prospect in a decade. In front of him on the depth chart is a 1,000-yard runner from a season ago. There are youthful weapons at receiver, and the offensive line is loaded with uncertainty. Oh, and Etienne is being crossed trained at receiver -- a new position -- early in his pro career.
Etienne will probably hit some explosive plays in Jacksonville in Year 1. But he'd need to have an unprecedented campaign to unseat his quarterback from the spotlight and, to a lesser degree, the assortment of skill-position players in front of him.
10. Trey Lance, QB, 49ers (+650)
Lance deserves a spot on this list even though he's not in line to start. Why? Because he's going to play in 2021. This is not a Patrick Mahomes redshirt situation. Things would have to go almost perfectly for veteran Jimmy Garoppolo to secure the starting gig the entire season.
And while I'll never predict an injury, if there are any dips in Garoppolo's play this season, there'll be a chorus of people -- likely important, front office types -- demanding Lance see the field in the most quarterback-friendly system in the league. And with Lance comes variations of Shanahan's offense not seen since Robert Griffin III's rookie season when he won ... Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Sure, Lance is raw. But if any head coach can mask rawness, it's Shanahan. And Lance is unbelievably talented as a passer and runner. While it'd take an early-season supplanting of Garoppolo to win this award, Lance with Shanahan and San Francisco's offensive skill-position players absolutely could get it done.
9. Najee Harris, RB, Steelers (+1400)
Harris was my RB1 in the 2021 class. Le'Veon Bell 2.0. It's perfect the Steelers drafted him. And unsurprising. Given the downturn we've seen in Ben Roethlisberger's play of late, the Steelers will likely turn to their versatile offensive weapon early and often, and big statistical output always boots a runner's Offensive Rookie of the Year chances.
Pittsburgh's line is in flux. Or, it's at least going to take half a season for new pieces -- possibly including two rookies -- to gel into a bonded unit that consistently paves lanes for this big, talented back.
A strong second half of 2021 will push Harris up OROY boards, but he's probably a year away from having a monster season in the NFL. Look out for him as a pass catcher, too. Best receiving back in this draft class.
8. Zach Wilson, QB, Jets (+700)
Surprised? Rightfully so. Wilson was my QB2 in this class. Everybody loved him as a prospect. I'm just very skeptical of the environment the Jets have for Wilson ... in his rookie season. Are the cast of characters better than they were for Sam Darnold at any point of his disappointing tenure with Gang Green? Yeah. But they set a low bar.
The pass-catching options are solid, albeit unspectacular. The right side of the offensive line is not solidified. Wilson has a first-time, defensive-minded head coach. Sure, the expectations for the Jets are relatively low, a fine foundational ingredient to an Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign. Yet Wilson is in for a rude awakening in terms of pressure rate from what he faced in his breakout 2020 that catapulted him from obscurity into the No. 2 overall slot in the draft.
And typically young quarterbacks -- even the ultra-talented, accurate, and cerebral ones -- take time to acclimate to dealing with pressure at the NFL level. Wilson will flash as a rookie. But I don't believe he or the Jets will be quite good enough in 2021 for him to be one of the favorites to win Offensive Rookie of the Year.
7. Devonta Smith, WR, Eagles (+1200)
I'm so glad Smith won the Heisman. It was refreshing to see voters get it right regardless of position. He was the best player in college football last season, a majestic producer in every way, in every game, the heartbeat of the ridiculously efficient national title-winning Crimson Tide.
He's an enigma because it looks like he never stepped foot in Alabama's NFL-caliber weight room during his four years with the program. But he's effortless. On vertical routes, after the catch, when extending for a high throw. Smith is going to be a reliable NFL wideout.
At this point, though, I don't have enough faith in his young quarterback, Jalen Hurts, for Smith to be a serious OROY contender. The offensive line is a shell of its former self and the Eagles are more rebuilding than they are ready to win in 2021. Smith is going to produce. No doubt. At a Offensive Rookie of the Year level? No.
Craving even more NFL coverage focusing on previews, recaps, news and analysis? Listen below and follow the Pick Six podcast for a daily dose of everything you need to follow pro football.
6. Rashod Bateman, WR, Ravens (+5000)
Bateman is your guy if you've been scouring a value pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year. It was a challenge to find a blatant flaw to his game. And he was productive for back-to-back seasons at a young age at Minnesota. He was 19 at the start of the 2019 campaign when he caught 60 passes for over 1,200 yards with 11 touchdowns on a team with another NFL receiver on it. Impressive.
And Baltimore needs to increase its pass game -- the usage and efficiency of it. Bateman has the abilities to be integral in both things happening in 2020. And if Lamar Jackson takes a step forward as a passer, it'll be easy to point to the team's first-round pick as a main reason why, especially given the lackluster group of veterans at receiver on the Ravens roster.
5. Jaylen Waddle, WR, Dolphins (+1600)
This ranking is mostly tied to how immensely talented I believe Waddle is. He's exceptionally fast, quick, and plays like he's 6-4 because of his leaping ability and ball-tracking brilliance. I felt as confident as possible about my pre-draft Tyreek Hill comparison for him.
There are two reasons my WR1 in the 2021 class isn't higher -- his quarterback, and the receiver talent in front of him on Miami's roster. Tua Tagovailoa's play in 2020 raised significantly more questions than answers. While accurate, his arm talent is NFL average, as is his athleticism.
And there's DeVante Parker, Mike Gesicki, Jakeem Grant, and Will Fuller technically in front of him in Miami's collection of pass catchers. Waddle absolutely will be an explosive weapon as a rookie. And the big plays will happen frequently enough that he'll receive some OROY attention at instances throughout the season.
4. Kyle Pitts, TE, Falcons (+1200)
Let's call them the Atlanta Matchup Nightmares this season. Julio Jones has been one his entire NFL career. Calvin Ridley proved himself in 2021 in the absence of Jones, and now Pitts resides at tight end.
And with Matt Ryan locked in as the starter for the next two seasons, the Falcons are going to air it out. Often. Last year, he quietly led the NFL in completions and attempts, and the Falcons didn't draft a running back. Ryan's going to throw it around 40 times per game -- there'll be plenty of opportunity for Pitts even on a team with two 1,000-yard receivers.
Pitts is going to be placed in advantageous situations coverage-wise. He'll see linebackers and safeties frequently. And is a slot corner matching up with him? Zero chance. Not at almost 6-6 and 245 pounds with nearly 34-inch arms and intricate route-running capabilities. The Falcons should be improved in 2021, and an uptick in the win column from the previous season isn't necessary but always helps a star first-year player's Offensive Rookie of the Year chances.
3. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Bengals (+1400)
Chase brings a WR1 skill set to the NFL. He's deceptively quick in and out of his breaks to get open on a routine basis. He dominates at the catch point down the field, and he's A.J. Brown 2.0 after the catch thanks to a thick lower half and running back-like contact balance.
And he's reuniting with his guy, Joe Burrow, in Cincinnati. Sure, there are some good, young weapons around him in Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, but Chase was picked to be the top priority in the pass game from Week 1. And Burrow was averaging more than 40 attempts per game before his injury in the 10th game last season. The Bengals want to be pass happy. And remember, head coach Zac Taylor is a Sean McVay disciple, and McVay adores the three-receiver set. Now Cincinnati has a favorable "11 Personnel" grouping.
2. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jaguars (+275)
Here's the layup-line Offensive Rookie and Year selection. Lawrence is the best quarterback prospect of the past 40 years. He exemplifies the term "pro ready." There will be distinct flashes from a Jaguars team at the beginning stages of a giant reconstruction process.
The skill-position talent is good for a club that went 1-15. D.J. Chark has legitimized himself as a true WR1. Laviska Shenault was fantastic as a rookie. Undrafted free agent James Robinson went over 1,000 yards on the ground in 2020.
And, because of his immense hype, Lawrence will start the season with an early lead for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Oftentimes, if no other rookie has a transcendent debut season, the most sought after prospect in the draft takes home the award almost by default. I'm concerned about Jacksonville's offensive line and Urban Meyer micromanaging. But Lawrence will boost the Jaguars franchise from the jump in the NFL and earn serious OROY consideration. Lawrence reminds me a lot of last year's winner of this award.
1. Justin Fields, QB, Bears (+550)
Fields is my Offensive Rookie of the Year selection for a multitude of reasons, his phenomenal talent chief among them. On the field, he's Deshaun Watson 2.0, a receiver-caliber athlete playing quarterback with a big arm, smart coverage-reading tendencies, and a propensity to rip it deep down the field and drop it into the bucket.
And he lands with a Bears franchise starving for quarterbacking mastery. It's been so long. Too long. Fields inherits a group perfectly suited to help him win OROY. Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, Darnell Mooney, and Cole Kmet aren't so good that a strong rookie season from Chicago's first-round pick will be viewed as buoyed by skill-position talent. But they're competent, ripe to be elevated by an ultra-talented quarterback. And that's precisely what the Bears have in Fields.
Because of his fall to No. 11 overall, he'll be viewed as somewhat of an underdog story, and if Fields has the Bears in the playoffs again -- this time with an efficient offense -- it'll be easy for him to be viewed as a the front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year.