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Eight NFL Rookies Who Will Make The Most Impact In 2021

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PITTSBURGH, PA – JUNE 05: Pittsburgh Steelers First Round Pick Najee Harris waves to the crowd before throwing out the first pitch before the start of the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Miami Marlins at PNC Park on June 5, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

1. Steelers – Najee Harris

When the Pittsburgh Steelers attempted to run the football in 2020, the team could barely manage even a few yards. It almost became a running joke (pun intended.)

They hope that drama is over now that they’ve drafted Najee Harris from Alabama, a player who gives the team a LOT of hope that they can recover from their disastrous run game just one season ago.

NFL.com stats writer Cynthia Frelund wrote about Harris and what he brings to the Pittsburgh offense, an offense that QB Ben Roethlisberger is excited about running this season.

“As of right now, the Steelers’ offensive line forecasts to grade out in the 20s by the time everyone establishes their 53-man rosters, meaning Harris faces a tough task,” Frelund says.

“The good news is that his volume forecasts to be high, as does his ability to keep earning positive yardage. Pro Football Focus credited Harris with earning 821 rushing yards after contact in 2020, which was the second-most in FBS.

“Harris also forced 93 missed tackles on touches last season, the most in FBS, with 71 coming off rushes and 22 on receptions.”

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA – MAY 27: Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Jacksonville Jaguars looks on during Jacksonville Jaguars Training Camp at TIAA Bank Field on May 27, 2021 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

2. Jaguars – Trevor Lawrence

The Jaguars were awful in 2020, which was disheartening for fans. However, it also allowed the team to draft quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a player they feel will turn the franchise around in a short period of time.

Urban Meyer is now running the show in Jacksonville, and he’s ready to hand the ball to Lawrence and have him be the leader on the team’s offense. Lawrence has a solid set of weapons at his disposal: D.J. Chark Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr., Marvin Jones Jr., James Robinson and former Clemson teammate Travis Etienne.

As with any rookie QB, Lawrence will have growing pains and will likely have a handful of games in his rookie year he’ll want to forget. On the other hand, much like Joe Burrow with the Bengals last season, Lawrence will probably make plays and help the Jags start to regain their form.

Give Lawrence some time. He’s a star in the making.

CLEVELAND, OHIO – APRIL 29: Zach Wilson stands onstage with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being drafted second by the New York Jets during round one of the 2021 NFL Draft at the Great Lakes Science Center on April 29, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

3. Jets – Zach Wilson

New Jets QB Zach Wilson will have his work cut out for him in 2021 and beyond, but the Jets should give him a great opportunity to be the next star on Broadway.

Wilson will have the benefit of four running backs who can help shoulder some of the load each Sunday. Last season, Tevin Coleman played in just eight games for San Francisco, starting one. He rushed for just 53 yards on the season. Now that he’s with the Jets, Coleman should get more of an opportunity.

Three other current backs on the roster are Josh Adams, Ty Johnson, and La’Mical Perine, so it looks like it’s going to be a running back by committee in the Big Apple, at least to start the season.

All this should give Wilson a chance to be successful, but he’s got to have a good camp. He needs to gain the trust of his teammates and coaches so that he can be the starter for Gang Green on Day One.

CLEVELAND, OHIO – APRIL 29: Kyle Pitts poses onstage after being selected fourth by the Atlanta Falcons during round one of the 2021 NFL Draft at the Great Lakes Science Center on April 29, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

4. Falcons – Kyle Pitts

Taken with the 4th pick, Kyle Pitts could be the steal of the draft for the Atlanta Falcons, a team that needs another playmaker now that they have traded away the services of future Hall of Fame pass catcher Julio Jones, who was moved to the Tennessee Titans over the weekend.

At 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, Pitts is just about the perfect tight end for QB Matt Ryan and the Falcons system. Last season, Pitts dominated at Florida, catching 43 passes for 770 yards (17.9 yards per catch) with 12 touchdowns. With Jones gone, you can bet that Ryan is going to give Pitts plenty of chances.

Teams with good tight ends usually do well, and Pitts will have that chance right away as an opening day starter for new coach Arthur Smith, Ryan and the Falcons in 2021.

CLEVELAND, OHIO – APRIL 29: Jaylen Waddle poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell onstage after being selected with the sixth pick by the Miami Dolphins during round one of the 2021 NFL Draft at the Great Lakes Science Center on April 29, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

5. Dolphins – Jaylen Waddle

The Dolphins cannot live on the bread of second-year QB Tua Tagovailoa alone, and that’s where young wide out Jaylen Waddle comes into play.

Waddle tips the scales at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, and there’s going to be some days when he just dominates small corners in the league and hooks up with Tagovailoa to make some plays.

Last season, the pass catcher lived up to form at Alabama, pulling in 45 receptions for 848 yards and seven touchdowns, numbers that have to make Tagovailoa a happy quarterback.

Waddle was also playing behind a few other high-profile wide outs — Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, and 2020 Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith — so the fact that he still made a significant impact on the team shows just how effective Waddle is.

Look for Waddle to have a big impact in Season One for Miami. He may even become the team’s No. 1 pass catcher by the time the 2021 season comes to a close.

CLEVELAND, OHIO – APRIL 29: Micah Parsons poses onstage after being selected 12th by the Dallas Cowboys during round one of the 2021 NFL Draft at the Great Lakes Science Center on April 29, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

6. Cowboys – Micah Parsons

Last season, the Dallas Cowboys had a campaign that can best be described with one word – disaster.

The team went 6-10, which was nearly enough to win the NFC East, but it was not nearly enough to compete with the big boys, and it certainly wasn’t enough for Cowboys fans.

Part of the reason the Cowboys were just not very good was their defense, which allowed an average of 29.6 points per contest.

There was no question that once the season ended, the team was going to focus on defense, and that’s when the team settled in on Penn State rookie linebacker Micah Parsons, a player they hope will be an impact starter from Day One.

Parsons totaled 191 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, five pass breakups, and six forced fumbles in his college days in 2018 and 2019, and now he’s been spending his time learning Dallas’ system and how it’s going to work in 2021 and beyond.

“Right now I’m building that confidence, and I think I’m starting to get the older guys’ attention and their belief in me,” Parsons said.

“So once I get their belief and keep building up my own confidence, I think the sky is the limit for myself and this team.”

It may take some time, but Parsons will likely be an impact guy for the Cowboys moving ahead.

CLEVELAND, OHIO – APRIL 29: Patrick Surtain II poses with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell onstage after being selected ninth by the Denver Broncos during round one of the 2021 NFL Draft at the Great Lakes Science Center on April 29, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

7. Broncos – Patrick Surtain II

The Denver Broncos were not all that good on defense in 2020, which is why it wasn’t a shock that the team drafted Alabama corner Patrick Surtain in the first round.

Surtain was one of the best college cornerbacks last season, and he wrapped up his time at Alabama with 116 total tackles, 82 solo tackles, six tackles for loss, four interceptions, one touchdown, 24 pass deflections, one fumble recovery and four forced fumbles.

The Broncos defense allowed 27.9 points per game a year ago, 25th in the NFL, so any help will be a big asset to the D, and Surtain is just the guy who can step in and have a big impact on the roster.

MIAMI GARDENS, FLORIDA – JANUARY 11: Justin Fields #1 of the Ohio State Buckeyes leaves the field following the College Football Playoff National Championship game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Hard Rock Stadium on January 11, 2021 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

8. Bears – Justin Fields

The Chicago Bears were in a quandary as they entered the offseason. It was fairly obvious they were not going to bring back former first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky, which meant that they would need to find a new QB to throw the football in 2021 and beyond.

Enter…Andy Dalton?

Yes, the pickup of Dalton spelled the end for Trubisky, who then inked a deal with the Buffalo Bills to play backup to rising star Josh Allen.

Dalton’s arrival doesn’t mean he’s officially the Day One starter though. There will definitely be a competition between the veteran and the team’s newest pickup, first-round draft pick Justin Fields this summer.

The former Ohio State quarterback comes to the Windy City with a ton of expectations, but he’s got the advantage of having Dalton in front of him (for now) to show him what it takes to be a solid NFL QB.

This offseason, Dalton will likely take first-team reps, and Fields will take snaps with the second-string players.

Make no mistake though. Fields has already been compared to Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, so people expect greater things for the rookie QB.

It’s likely he’ll have to carry a clipboard and wear a baseball cap for at least the first 6 or 8 games of the season, but Fields will eventually win over the coaching staff and the other players on the roster.

Written by Matt Loede

Matt has been a part of the Cleveland Sports landscape working in the media since 1994 when he graduated from broadcasting school. His coverage beats include the Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns and Cleveland Cavaliers. He's written three books, and won the "2020 AP Sports Stringer Lifetime Service Award."

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