Top 10 candidates for 2021 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year
By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
One of the eternal rites of spring for passionate NFL fans is the hope that this year’s crop of rookies will take their favorite team to the next level.
It's one reason why the NFL Draft is easily the most popular draft in sports.
First-year players often make huge and lasting differences in the NFL. Consider that some of the top rookies over the past decade – like last year’s AP Rookie of the Year, Justin Hebert of the Los Angeles Chargers – and many of his recent predecessors such as Kyler Murray, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara and Dak Prescott rank among the best and most exciting players in the league.
The 2021 NFL Draft boasted one of the richest NFL quarterback crops of the decade, with difference-makers also at running back, wide receiver and even at tight end – a position not recognized as the AP Rookie of the Year since Mike Ditka earned it for the Chicago Bears way back in 1961.
The depth of the class makes this year more difficult than most to predict which rookie will make the most impact.
Here are my 10 best bets in descending order, ranked by their likelihood to be named the Associated Press as the 2021 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
History says awards like Offensive Rookie of the Year are typically more about individual statistics than helping contenders take the next step in the standings (or playoffs). As such, a smooth route-runner with sticky hands like Bateman, is more likely to become Lamar Jackson’s favorite on money downs than to leap ahead of Marquise Brown as the Ravens’ featured receiver – which is likely what it would require for Bateman to win the award.
With all due respect to No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance’s natural talent, a significant reason why I am so high on his fit in San Francisco is my respect for Kyle Shanahan’s ability to develop quarterbacks. The scary thing for opposing defenses is Shanahan is even better with running backs. Sermon has everything scouts look for in a back, except straight-line speed. His vision, burst to and through the second level and willingness to bury his shoulder into defenders could make him the latest Shanahan superstar in San Francisco.
A bowling ball who barrels through would-be tacklers like pins in the alley, the 5-foot-10, 220-pound Williams is the best runner through contact in this draft. Other than the first-round backs – Najee Harris (Pittsburgh) and Travis Etienne (Jacksonville) – Williams is the best bet to star as a rookie runner in 2021. He is very similar to tough runners drafted outside of the first round like Kareem Hunt and James Conner. Williams might not put up quite the numbers to win the hardware, but he’s a star in the making, especially given the scoring opportunities Denver’s offense should generate.
The Jets last made the playoffs in 2010, and that fact alone should earn the quarterback who helps them qualify for the postseason plenty of accolades. Wilson possesses the quick trigger, accuracy in the pocket and the moves and moxie to ultimately get the Jets off the tarmac and into the air – but it seems unlikely to occur during his rookie season.
Like the aforementioned Wilson, Fields has the raw talent and big stage to make a strong run as Rookie of the Year – if he can lead the Bears to a playoff berth. To do so, of course, he will first need to win the job as Chicago’s starting quarterback. If able do so, however, Fields’ grit and dual-threat ability could capture the attention of the city's QB-starved fans in much the same way that Jalen Hurts did in Philadelphia last season.
Some scouts think that if anyone in this class is to one day wear the gold jacket in Canton, it will be Chase. The LSU star's ability to win 50-50 balls, breakaway speed and established rapport with Joe Burrow are all reasons why opponents could be chasing this year’s top-rated receiver as a ROY candidate. The last receiver to win the honor was former NFC East rival Odell Beckham Jr. in New York, back in 2014. With all due respect to Cincinnati, it is hardly the media match as Broadway.
With the Heisman Trophy in his back packet and an established rapport with former Alabama teammate Jalen Hurts, Smith is the most likely wide receiver to turn enough heads in 2021 to earn the OROY. As much as I love Smith and his fit in Philadelphia, those looking to bet on him taking home the hardware should remember only three receivers (Beckham Jr. in 2014, Percy Harvin in 2009 and Anquan Boldin in 2003) have been recognized as the top rookie since 1998.
If you think receivers are a rarity in winning this award, check out the track record of tight ends, with the aforementioned Ditka the last one to earn the honor — a full 60 years ago. The phrase "generational talent" gets thrown around a lot, but Pitts has the long arms, body control and breakaway speed to snatch the idea and run with it. Pitts is talented enough to break the trend — and he has the quarterback and rest of the complements to do so. However, if this "unicorn" is to truly fly in 2021, he will need enough voters willing to acknowledge his wings. Double-digit touchdowns are possible — but possibly required — to win this award.
Quarterbacks have earned five of the past 10 AP ROY awards, but running backs have carried home the trophy four times, as well. At 6-1, 230 pounds, Harris can play the role of bull-dozer and generate the hard-nosed rushing touchdowns that previous recent RB winners Barkley, Kamara, Todd Gurley (2015) and Eddie Lacy (2013) earned for their respective clubs. Harris does not get enough credit for his receiving skills, however, showing the soft hands and body control to become the featured three-down workhorse for Pittsburgh. All of that suggests a monster stat-line in 2021 could be the horizon.
It isn’t just that Lawrence is ridiculously gifted. He also is surrounded by burgeoning talent at wide receiver in D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault Jr. (among others) as well as at running back and even along the offensive line. Play-callers Brian Schottenheier and Darrell Bevell — each of whom as offensive coordinators previously in Seattle helped another dual-threat quarterback in Russell Wilson — will put Lawrence in a position for success. The past three AP Offensive Rookies of the Year (Herbert, Murray and Barkley) were drafted in the top six picks. If Lawrence can help spark the Jaguars to even a handful of wins this season, he should be the most likely candidate for the hardware.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL draft for over 20 years with his work found at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.