Position Power Rankings

Presented By

Top rookie debuts of 2021 NFL season: DeVonta Smith, Mac Jones shine

Not every NFL rookie faces a steep learning curve. In this edition of the Position Power Rankings, Nick Shook highlights the 10 best debuts from first-year pros from Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season.

Rank
1
DeVonta Smith
Philadelphia Eagles · WR

Week 1 performance: 6 catches, 71 yards, 1 TD in win over Atlanta


Merrill Reese's call of Smith's first career touchdown should be all you need to hear to understand the importance of a hot start for the rookie wideout. Smith capped Philadelphia's emphatic opening drive by sprinting out of a rub route with a slight screen set by Zach Ertz, beating Fabian Moreau to the front pylon and hauling in a perfectly placed pass from Jalen Hurts. The score was Smith's first career reception, but it wouldn't be his last Sunday. On one second-quarter drive alone, Smith became Hurts' trusted target, catching four consecutive passes in a variety of fashions. What stood out the most in this sequence was Smith's innate ability to find and settle into the soft spots in zone coverage, proving the capability of his trusty hands with each grab. Combined with the constant downfield threat he poses -- Smith caught three passes for 56 yards and a touchdown on targets of 10-plus air yards Sunday -- he's worthy of frequent attention from opposing defenses. The Eagles spent the last few years grabbing receivers wherever they could find them. It sure must feel nice to have a target who can make a big play -- and the little ones in between.

Rank
2
Elijah Mitchell
San Francisco 49ers · RB

Week 1 performance: 19 carries, 104 yards, 1 TD in win over Detroit


It didn't take long for the 49ers to run into a familiar foe -- the injury bug -- in Week 1. Raheem Mostert's early departure with a knee injury called Mitchell into action, and the sixth-round pick capitalized on his unexpected opportunity, rushing 19 times for 104 yards and a score in a high-flying affair at Ford Field. Mitchell filled a role that most thought would be reserved for third-round selection Trey Sermon, but the former Ohio State standout spent Sunday as a healthy scratch. Mitchell did not shy from a battalion of defenders; in seven attempts against stacked boxes (eight or more defenders), he gained 62 yards and scored a touchdown. He was especially effective when rushing to the right, averaging 9.1 yards per carry on attempts in that direction. As the new lead back (for at least Week 1) in San Francisco's effective rushing attack, Mitchell proved to be a problem for Detroit. We'll see if that continues in the weeks ahead.

Rank
3
Ja'Marr Chase
Cincinnati Bengals · WR

Week 1 performance: 5 receptions, 101 yards, 1 TD in win over Minnesota


The consternation over Chase's preseason struggles to catch passes proved to be overblown. Regaining the form that made him the fifth overall pick in April's draft, Chase broke the 100-yard mark in his debut. Bengals coach Zac Taylor quickly demonstrated he'd like to get plenty of use out of his team's first-rounder, making Chase the only Bengal targeted at all four levels of the field (behind the line of scrimmage, short, intermediate, deep) in their overtime victory. Chase and Joe Burrow revived memories of their days spent together at LSU on Chase's 50-yard touchdown, in which he ran right past defensive back Bashaud Breeland down the sideline, caught a well-placed pass and won the race to the end zone for his first NFL score. He's since said he's out to break records. Considering a 17th game was added this season, he's off to a strong pace.

Rank
4
Mac Jones
New England Patriots · QB

Week 1 performance: 29 of 39, 281 yards, 1 TD, 102.6 passer rating in loss to Miami


Jones sure didn't look like a rookie in his NFL debut, shining as if he'd been in a tight game before -- and seeing as how he experienced a few of those at college powerhouse Alabama, it made sense. The NFL speed wasn't intimidating for the 15th overall pick, who was remarkably excellent even when his protection broke down. Against the blitz, Jones completed 14 of 18 attempts for 124 yards, getting sacked just once. He was just as sharp when pressured, completing 7 of 10 passes for 71 yards, including an impressive touchdown toss to Nelson Agholor. New England lost because of an ill-timed fumble by Damien Harris, but Jones did everything necessary to put his team in a position to win, moving the ball consistently and efficiently. As our own Gregg Rosenthal said on the Around the NFL Week 1 recap podcast, the Patriots should be excited: They have themselves a quarterback.

Rank
5
Rashawn Slater
Los Angeles Chargers · OT

Week 1 performance: 78 offensive snaps played (100 percent) in win over Washington


On paper, Slater's first pro game was shaping up to be a rude introduction to the NFL; facing Washington's vaunted front, he was sure to get plenty of one-on-ones against reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Chase Young. But when the time came to get things going in the nation's capital, Slater ended up being the problem for Washington's pass rush. Los Angeles' combination of quick releases -- 27 of Justin Herbert's 47 attempts were thrown under 2.5 seconds from the snap -- and Slater's reliable blocking on Herbert's blind side created a fast passing game that made life difficult for The Football Team. While Young came into the game averaging over three QB pressures per contest, he didn't record a single one in the 11 instances he and Slater faced off. Slater was unflappable, no matter what kinds of stunts and games Washington threw at him. Washington recorded just eight total pressures, while Slater was good enough to earn a solid grade from Pro Football Focus (73.5 overall and 79.9 in pass blocking). So much for that narrative about the Chargers not having a decent line.

Rank
6
Paulson Adebo
New Orleans Saints · CB

Week 1 performance: 3 tackles, 1 interception in win over Green Bay


One way to begin your NFL career: Intercept a future first-ballot Hall of Famer who also happens to be the reigning NFL MVP. That's what Adebo did Sunday, finding himself in the right place at the right time with a little bit of assistance from his pass-rushing teammates. With pressure bearing down on Aaron Rodgers, the Packers QB stepped into the pocket and attempted to fling an in-case-of-emergency pass to a crossing Davante Adams. Instead, he threw it in Adebo's wheelhouse, resulting in the rookie's first career interception. Adebo played an excellent game when viewed through the Next Gen Stats lens, finishing with the third-lowest completion percentage under expectation allowed at -26.8 percent (minimum of five targets). Thanks to his interception, Adebo's passer rating allowed was as good as possible: 0.0. And his targeted expected points added -- the total scoring difference produced by an individual player's efforts -- was a league-best -8.6 among defensive players. That interception sure was worth a lot, including a win for the Saints in their temporary home of Jacksonville.

Rank
7
Jaylen Waddle
Miami Dolphins · WR

Week 1 performance: 4 catches, 61 yards, 1 TD in win over New England


Waddle just might be the perfect yards-after-catch complement to DeVante Parker's jump-ball threat in Miami's offense. The Dolphins certainly believe so, judging by some of the opportunities they presented to him in their one-point win over the rival Patriots. Waddle saw three targets in the seams inside 10 air yards and caught all of them, gaining 25 yards and, on one, winning the race to the front pylon for his first career touchdown. He also showed off some highlight-reel ability, beating Jonathan Jones out of a trips set down the sideline and winning his fade route, leaping to haul in Tua Tagovailoa's pass for a gain of 36. That grab helped set up a game-tying field goal just before halftime in a contest that was ultimately decided by a single point. It seems wise to mine Alabama for talent, and with two former Crimson Tide stars teaming up in Miami, we should be excited about their future together.

Rank
8
Penei Sewell
Detroit Lions · OT

Week 1 performance: 84 offensive snaps played (100 percent) in loss to San Francisco


Sewell spent the entire summer re-teaching himself how to play offensive tackle in a different location -- and then, at the last moment, he was sent back to his roots on the left side of the line because of an injury to Taylor Decker. Sewell's instincts and years of experience showed well enough to earn compliments from his opponent, former Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa. After Sunday's game, Bosa said he thought Sewell is better on the left side than the right, and that he's headed for a successful career. The tape backs up Bosa's opinion: Sewell faced off with Bosa plenty, dropping in pass protection against him 27 times. He allowed just four pressures, per Next Gen Stats. Sewell was just as good in the run game, finding success on his very first snap, helping down on a quick double team before peeling off to the second level and creating a seal for Jamaal Williams to gain 10 yards. He brought his motor with him from Oregon, too, displaying a dedication to finishing blocks and occasionally tossing rushers aside.


If there was a hole in Sewell's game, it was against the inside move, which Bosa used to various degrees of success a few times. He won once with a bull rush, too. Otherwise, Sewell looked every bit like the first-rounder Detroit selected in April. The Lions might have a tough decision on their hands whenever Decker returns.

Rank
9
Anthony Schwartz
Cleveland Browns · WR

Week 1 performance: 3 catches, 69 yards in loss to Kansas City


With Odell Beckham Jr. on the sideline, an opportunity arose for Schwartz in the unfriendly confines of Arrowhead. Baker Mayfield didn't wait long to get the rookie involved, finding him for a 16-yard completion and a fresh set of downs less than four minutes into the game. Schwartz later ripped off a 44-yard gain via a bobbling grab that might have been a house call, had he caught it cleanly. Browns coach Kevin Stefanski didn't shy from getting the ball to the draft's fastest player in unconventional ways, running a reverse to Schwartz that fooled Kansas City's defense and resulted in a 17-yard gain. Stefanski enjoyed moving Schwartz around to create opportunities for him, getting Schwartz targets from three different alignments (wide, tight, slot) -- he was the only Browns receiver to do so Sunday.


Schwartz's only miscue came in a key moment late when he failed to haul in a third-and-7 pass that would have kept Cleveland's drive alive. Otherwise, he was stellar in the handful of opportunities he received. Amid the Browns' stable of weapons, Schwartz doesn't have to do much. He just has to do what he does best when called upon, and he largely did Sunday.

Rank
10
Rondale Moore
Arizona Cardinals · WR

Week 1 performance: 4 catches, 68 yards in win over Tennessee


Fans of the screen will come to love Moore. The rookie speedster received three targets behind the line of scrimmage, catching all of them for 50 total yards. One nearly went for six, if not for Rashaan Evans' downfield tackle. Like Schwartz, Moore has speed to burn, and coach Kliff Kingsbury clearly isn't afraid to utilize it out of the slot, where Moore saw four targets, catching three for 59 yards. The aforementioned screens came out of the slot, of course, and if his receiving teammates can consistently create seals for him on bubble screens and the like, we might soon know exactly who No. 4 is. His per-catch mark of 17 yards surely put him on Tennessee's radar.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

Related Content

Gamepass_vert_web_r

See all the Action

Replay every game all season.