Analysis

2021 NFL season: One pivotal rookie for each of the 32 teams

With the start of the 2021 NFL regular season fast approaching, NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein identifies the one rookie most pivotal to each team's success this year.

AFC EAST

Gregory Rousseau
Miami · EDGE
Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills

Drafted: Round 1, No. 30 overall


Finding a pivotal rookie for the Bills in 2021 is a bit of a challenge, as many of their picks were geared toward the future over the present. Rousseau has talent, but lacks experience as a rusher and might not come on until the second half of the season. Still, he has inside/outside rush potential in sub-packages and could provide some needed energy for Buffalo's rush attack. 

Jaylen Waddle
Alabama · WR
Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins

Drafted: Round 1, No. 6 overall


Tua Tagovailoa needs to find his rhythm early in games, which makes Waddle the easy selection here. He can handle the catch-and-run throws that should spring the big play and plant confidence in his quarterback. Waddle is a plus route-runner for being a speed guy, so there is no reason why he can't make an immediate impact as a short, intermediate or deep option.

Christian Barmore
Alabama · DT
New England Patriots
New England Patriots

Drafted: Round 2, No. 38 overall


Hard choice between Mac Jones and Barmore, but I ended up leaning on the player who could have a greater impact early on. Barmore's talent has never been in doubt, but questions about his maturity might have caused him to fall in the draft a bit. He can rush from the interior and is tough to block in the running game. The Patriots need to get back to dominating on the defensive front, and Barmore improves their chances of doing that quite a bit.

Elijah Moore
Mississippi · WR
New York Jets
New York Jets

Drafted: Round 2, No. 34 overall


Quarterback is the most important piece of any team. However, Moore is the most pivotal rookie for the Jets in 2021. Moore's confidence and character should help complement and uplift rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. Oh, did I mention he runs great routes, has sticky hands and catches through contact?

AFC NORTH

Rashod Bateman
Minnesota · WR
Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens

Drafted: Round 1, No. 27 overall


The Ravens have made no secret about their desire to improve a lackluster passing game. Contributions from Bateman could be key to giving Baltimore the additional juice it seeks. First of all, though, he needs to get healthy after recently undergoing groin surgery that is expected to keep him out into September. When he returns, Bateman's route-running talent should allow him to uncover more than the Ravens' outside receivers of the past, which will open wider throwing windows for Lamar Jackson.

Ja'Marr Chase
LSU · WR
Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals

Drafted: Round 1, No. 5 overall


Easy selection for the Bengals, as incorporating Chase's home run-hitting talent could be the difference between Joe Burrow and the offense taking that next step or spinning their wheels. Chase is clearly the most pivotal rookie for the Bengals, but Burrow's return from injury and the missed 2020 season for Chase (COVID-19 opt-out) could complicate things.

Greg Newsome II
Northwestern · CB
Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns

Drafted: Round 1, No. 26 overall


The decision between Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Newsome was a tough one, but the reality is Newsome is more game-ready at this juncture. He's in a great position to help the Browns at a position of need. Cleveland appears poised to become a serious challenger in the AFC North, and quality cornerback play could become a big differentiator for the team.

Najee Harris
Alabama · RB
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers

Drafted: Round 1, No. 24 overall


This selection was one of the easiest for me to make. The Steelers must get back to running the football effectively after finishing dead last in rushing yards last season. Harris offers more juice and more versatility than any runner they've had since Le'Veon Bell. Harris is the type of three-down runner who can handle a heavy workload and make things happen as a pass catcher, which could help improve the efficiency of Ben Roethlisberger and the offense overall.

AFC SOUTH

Nico Collins
Michigan · WR
Houston Texans
Houston Texans

Drafted: Round 3, No. 89 overall


Collins didn't play last season after opting out and he's stepping into a murky quarterback situation in Houston, so finding his footing could take time. However, the big-bodied wideout has good downfield speed and is physical at the catch point, which are both important pro qualities. With a weak receiving corps in Houston, Collins figures to find early reps and production.

Kwity Paye
Michigan · EDGE
Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts

Drafted: Round 1, No. 21 overall


Before I get to Paye, let me first say that rookie H-back Kylen Granson is definitely worth keeping an eye on. The fourth-rounder averaged 16-plus yards per catch at SMU and has intriguing upside. With that said, the ability to go get the quarterback consistently is often the difference between a good team and a great team. If the Colts can cultivate Paye's explosiveness and foot quickness and turn it into consistent pocket harassment, that would be the very definition of pivotal.

Travis Etienne
Clemson · RB
Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars

Drafted: Round 1, No. 25 overall


I'm not going to make the obvious selection of Trevor Lawrence for this spot so we can take a deeper look at the Jaguars' draft class. Cornerback Tyson Campbell has all the traits and has generated some buzz this summer, but let's not overthink it. Etienne is a slasher with very good power and he's developed into quite a pass-catcher. His Clemson pedigree and ability to help on all three downs should give Lawrence an even better chance to succeed as a rookie.

Elijah Molden
Washington · DB
Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans

Drafted: Round 3, No. 100 overall


First-rounder Caleb Farley is the most talented player the Titans drafted this year, but he's coming off of back surgery and a 2020 opt-out, which might limit how pivotal he can be in 2021. Let's look to Molden, whose instincts and position versatility could offer help on the coverage side more quickly than expected.

AFC WEST

Patrick Surtain II
Alabama · CB
Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos

Drafted: Round 1, No. 9 overall


Tough choice between RB Javonte Williams and Surtain here. The deciding factor: The Broncos play in a division that features the explosive passing attacks of the Chiefs and Chargers. Williams needs to play well to help propel the offense, but Surtain's coverage talent is a must if Denver wants to return to prominence.

Creed Humphrey
Oklahoma · C
Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs

Drafted: Round 2, No. 63 overall


Linebacker Nick Bolton might have a splashier rookie season for the Chiefs, but Humphrey's athleticism and leadership should not be slept on as it pertains to getting the offensive line (and running game) back on track. Humphrey was a starter for impressive Oklahoma offenses in each of the last three seasons and has the talent to block in space, which should help Clyde Edwards-Helaire show what he's capable of in 2021.

Trevon Moehrig
TCU · S
Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders

Drafted: Round 2, No. 43 overall


Moehrig's 2019 tape was a very fun watch, with his ball skills and coverage versatility on full display. Those same qualities have made him an early hit in Raiders camp thus far. Las Vegas must improve on the back end, and taking the ball away should be a top priority. Moehrig has the rare talent to cover slot receivers, big tight ends or play a high safety role -- all while looking to force turnovers.

Rashawn Slater
Northwestern · OT
Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers

Drafted: Round 1, No. 13 overall


No-brainer here. The Chargers were desperate for tackle help and they added a good one in Slater. Justin Herbert should have more confidence in his protection in Year 2, which will go a long way in his development, and that doesn't even take into account the run-blocking prowess of Slater. The Northwestern product could help turn would-be narrow losses into narrow wins and have the Chargers fighting for a shot at the postseason.

NFC EAST

Micah Parsons
Penn State · LB
Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys

Drafted: Round 1, No. 12 overall


With Parsons in the mix, the Cowboys have a shot to become both fast and furious in pursuit. He has speed, coverage talent and an ability to get after the passer. If Dallas can unlock his versatility, it might be looking at one of the most improved defensive units in football.

Azeez Ojulari
Georgia · EDGE
New York Giants
New York Giants

Drafted: Round 2, No. 50 overall


Kadarius Toney might have been the Giants' first-round pick, but he's dealt with issue after issue over the last few months. Meanwhile, Ojulari is beginning to make his mark. Edge rusher Oshane Ximines just recently was activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list and has just five career starts to his name, so the opportunity is there for the taking. Ojulari can compete for starting reps and bolster the overall depth of a quality front.

DeVonta Smith
Alabama · WR
Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles

Drafted: Round 1, No. 10 overall


The big question the Eagles are seeking to answer this season is whether Jalen Hurts can develop into a quality, full-time starter. With his ability to work short, intermediate and deep, a healthy Smith gives Hurts his best chance for success as a potential high-volume rookie with big-play ability.

Samuel Cosmi
Texas · OT
Washington Football Team
Washington Football Team

Drafted: Round 2, No. 51 overall


First-round pick Jamin Davis is going to be a very good linebacker in the NFL, but Cosmi is the pivotal rookie this season. Washington has an intimidating defensive front and enough talent at the offensive skill positions to warrant excitement. However, the consistency of Cosmi at right tackle could go a long way toward facilitating improvement on offense.

NFC NORTH

Justin Fields
Ohio State · QB
Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears

Drafted: Round 1, No. 11 overall


Second-round offensive tackle Teven Jenkins is now set to undergo back surgery, so this was a fairly easy selection to make. Even if Fields doesn't begin the season as the starter, there has been a sudden burst of practice productivity from the No. 11 pick that carried over into Chicago's first preseason game, and it has energized Bears fans. If Fields continues to make progress throughout the preseason, the team might be much more willing to call his number early on in the regular season and begin a new era.

Penei Sewell
Oregon · OT
Detroit Lions
Detroit Lions

Drafted: Round 1, No. 7 overall


If the Lions are going to start building in the right direction, it's imperative they see a steady, confident version of Jared Goff as their new starter. Goff will be working with a downgraded group of wideouts relative to the talent that surrounded him with the Rams, so a consistent running game and pass protection are critical. Sewell is young and lightly experienced, but his rate of growth could be critical for both Goff and the Lions in 2021.

Josh Myers
Ohio State · C
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers

Drafted: Round 2, No. 62 overall


Tough call between first-round cornerback Eric Stokes and the second-round center, but I'll side with Myers given the dynamics around Green Bay's offensive line right now. Corey Linsley departed via free agency after seven years as a starter in the middle of the O-line, and it's unclear when left tackle David Bakhtiari will return from the ACL tear he sustained late last season. Finding steady center play will be a key to keeping Aaron Rodgers in a groove.

Christian Darrisaw
Virginia Tech · OT
Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota Vikings

Drafted: Round 1, No. 23 overall


It's difficult to find any players from the Vikings' draft class that I'd classify as pivotal to the team this season. Darrisaw was expected to become an early starter at tackle, but he recently underwent his second core-muscle surgery since January to repair an injury that has been an issue all offseason. At this point, getting Darrisaw back on the field and into practice reps would be noteworthy for Minnesota.

NFC SOUTH

Kyle Pitts
Florida · TE
Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons

Drafted: Round 1, No. 4 overall


No one is going to easily fill Julio Jones' shoes, but Pitts has similarly freaky athletic traits and could create mismatches that would allow Matt Ryan to feel comfortable targeting the rookie with a high level of frequency. Atlanta's running game has ranked toward the bottom of the league for the last few seasons, so Pitts' readiness and production are extremely important if the passing game is going to continue to carry the load.

Jaycee Horn
South Carolina · CB
Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers

Drafted: Round 1, No. 8 overall


Horn's rare size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and aggressive demeanor are certain to give him advantages at times, allowing him to highlight his CB1 potential. However, he's also a handsy cover man -- and that can be challenging to coach out of a player in his rookie season. Carolina has plenty of room for improvement in the secondary, and Horn's ability to adapt to NFL coverage rules could be the linchpin in determining whether the Panthers move out of the bottom half of the league in pass defense.

Paulson Adebo
Stanford · CB
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints

Drafted: Round 3, No. 76 overall


The Saints are desperate to find a cornerback opposite Marshon Lattimore whom they can depend on this year and beyond, which makes Adebo the pivotal rookie to focus on. Adebo, who opted out of Stanford's 2020 season, has the ballhawking mentality and long frame to help him match up with NFL targets earlier than some might have expected.

Joe Tryon
Washington · EDGE
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Drafted: Round 1, No. 32 overall


Tryon has been impressing teammates and coaches alike with his flashes during camp. The Bucs fielded one of the top pass-rush units in the league in 2020, but injecting a young talent with a comfortable runway for development should allow Tampa Bay to pick and choose its spots for him, which increases his likelihood for early success.

NFC WEST

Zaven Collins
Tulsa · LB
Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals

Drafted: Round 1, No. 16 overall


Arizona took a first-round swing on the rare athletic gifts of Isaiah Simmons last year, and he wasn't quite ready to handle the heavy lifting at linebacker in 2020. The Cardinals went back to the linebacker well in 2021 and landed a huge, highly decorated talent in Collins. If he can rise to the occasion, the rookie will give the Cardinals an immediate upgrade on the second level and a future on-field leader for the stop unit.

Ernest Jones
South Carolina · LB
Los Angeles Rams
Los Angeles Rams

Drafted: Round 3, No. 103 overall


I'm a little less hopeful than others that the Rams' top pick, Tutu Atwell, will step up and become an early hit for the offense. On the defensive side, however, Jones has been impressive in practice and has shown a propensity for leading as a young player. His physicality and football IQ could be just what the Rams are looking for inside.

Trey Sermon
Ohio State · RB
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers

Drafted: Round 3, No. 88 overall


Trey Lance is a perfect fit for Kyle Shanahan's offense and he's going to become a good starter in time. However, Jimmy Garoppolo remains the 49ers' likely Week 1 starter, per GM John Lynch, and the team might not have to lean on Lance this year in order to perform at a high level. On the other hand, a robust running game is the catalyst for a leveled-up Shanahan attack, and Sermon could become the perfect complement to speed back Raheem Mostert, allowing the offense to soar once again.

D'Wayne Eskridge
Western Michigan · WR
Seattle Seahawks
Seattle Seahawks

Drafted: Round 2, No. 56 overall


With just three Seahawks selections in the 2021 draft, identifying the most pivotal rookie for Seattle was a fairly easy task. We know DK Metcalf can fly, but Eskridge offers catch-and-run explosiveness that can elevate the Seahawks' quick game and help keep Russell Wilson out of harm's way.

Follow Lance Zierlein on Twitter.

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