Saturday, January 29, 2022

Creating NFL 2021 Rookie Awards, from Best QB to Biggest Day 3 Gem: Mac Jones, Micah Parsons headline

The 2021 NFL draft class featured five first-round quarterbacks and a collection of opt-out players from the previous college season. Most of the quarterbacks did not fare well as rookies, but the marquee opt-outs were mostly tremendous. And with the 2021 regular season complete, it’s time to create awards to hand to deserving first-year pros. 

Before I begin, I’ll provide my picks for the official rookie awards. 

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Bengals

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Micah Parsons, EDGE, Cowboys

Now let’s get to it. 

Best Quarterback 

Jones’ season was centered around him methodically operating the Patriots conservative, throwback game plan and limiting mistakes. While he did throw 13 interceptions — not exactly a crazy-low figure — he was smart with the football and understood where to go with it underneath for Josh McDaniels. Contrary to some of the publicity, Jones did not have a rookie year resembling Justin Herbert or Kyler Murray. Remember, don’t automatically equate wins to high-caliber quarterback play. However, New England should be encouraged by what its first-round pick showcased in the majority of his outings this season, especially relative to the other rookie passers. 

Best Offensive Lineman 

Slater is already a top 10 left tackle in football, so this was a fairly easy decision. He stepped in Week 1 protecting Justin Herbert and played with effortless balance and power all season. For as sterling as his pass-blocking reputation already is, Slater rocked in the run game too. His athleticism and natural strength allow him to play with so much calmness among the play-to-play chaos that occurs in the trenches. The Chargers got their quarterback in the first round of 2020 and their franchise left tackle last April. 

Best Outside Pass Rusher

Parsons is an instant superstar. Seriously. And he’s going to stay an edge rusher for the rest of his career. He was borderline unblockable over the final three months of the season and occasionally chipped in as a rangy off-ball linebacker. Parsons had 67 pressures on only 307 pass-rushing snaps (21.8% pressure-creation rate, which is astounding). He had three forced fumbles, three pass breakups, 13 sacks, 84 total tackles, and led the NFL with 20 tackles for loss. And did all of that in 16 games. 

Best Interior Pass Rusher 

The Patriots picked Barmore in the second round, and he provided first-round caliber productivity as a rookie. On 396 pass-rushing snaps, the former Alabama star accumulated 47 pressures. A pressure-creation rate of nearly 12% in a debut NFL season is damn good for a defensive tackle. Like Parsons, Barmore popped early in college and did the same in the NFL. He turned 22 just two months before the season and looks primed to be one of the more difficult pass-blocking assignments in the AFC for centers and guards in the future. 

Most Reliable Coverage Linebacker

Owusu-Koramoah was the best overall rookie linebacker this season, and he especially thrived in coverage. After watching him at Notre Dame, it seemed obvious Owusu-Koramoah was going to thrive in space on pass plays. While he didn’t snag an interception, he defended four passes while allowing just one touchdown in his coverage area on 33 targets. Speaking of targets, Owusu-Koramoah limited many of them — plays that’ll never hit the stat book — due to his his twitch, speed, and route-awareness. 

Biggest Day 3 Gem

Through September, St. Brown had six grabs for 43 yards. Then he went nutty. In the last 14 outings, St. Brown had 84 receptions for 869 yards with five touchdowns, one of which was a walk-off winner against the Vikings

Now, the early fourth-round pick averaged just 10.1 yards per catch, which appears low at first glance, but given that he served as the Lions‘ possession slot wideout, it’s actually an impressive average. Only two drops on 115 targets screams reliable option in any passing offense. The polished route runner will be an integral facet of Detroit’s attack in the future. 

Most Valuable Undrafted Free Agent

Not a large selection to choose from here, but Jacobs turned in the most impressive UDFA season in 2021, with seven pass breakups and a forced fumble in 13 games before landing on IR with a torn ACL. The Arkansas State and Arkansas product was a chippy outside corner in Dan Campbell’s offense, an appropriate style for a team looking bite its opponent’s kneecaps every week. 

Most Impactful Playmaking Defensive Back 

Patrick Surtain II had a fine rookie season — four interceptions including a pick six — but Holland was more consistently impactful in all phases of the game. The first safety off the board in the 2021 NFL Draft was deployed in a variety of roles by Brian Flores, smart considering all the hats worn by Holland at Oregon. And the second-round pick produced in a major way — 69 tackles, 2.5 sacks, three tackles for loss, 10 pass breakups, and two interceptions. Plus, he generated 16 pressures on 62 snaps as a blitzer. Holland was everywhere for Miami this season.

Best Out-Of-Nowhere Performance 

Week 15. At home. Against Justin Jefferson and the Vikings. Graham finally gets an opportunity to ascend from the practice squad and make some plays for the Bears defense, which featured a secondary that had issues at cornerback all year. And boy did he ever make some plays — four tackles and three pass breakups. All of the forced incompletions came on throws down the field, and one was a diving effort in the end zone. The Bears got a gem in Graham. 

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