Analysis

2021 NFL season: Best/worst-case projections for notable defensive rookies

With the start of the 2021 NFL regular season just around the corner, NFL.com analyst and former scout Daniel Jeremiah projects the best- and worst-case scenarios for eight intriguing defensive rookies.

Jaycee Horn
South Carolina · CB
Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers

Drafted: Round 1, No. 8 overall


Best-case scenario: Horn emerges as a playmaker on one of the most talented young defenses in the NFL. He backs up his brash talk with big plays and takeaways.


Worst-case scenario: He's too talented to have a poor year. I just can't see that happening. I wouldn't be surprised if he lets his emotions/feistiness lead to some overaggressive penalties, but you don't want to take away his competitiveness.


Projected stats: 50 tackles and four interceptions.

Patrick Surtain II
Alabama · CB
Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos

Drafted: Round 1, No. 9 overall


Best-case scenario: He establishes himself as one of the premier big cornerbacks in the NFL. Surtain isn't quite as twitched up as Jalen Ramsey, but he's a more polished player than Ramsey was coming out of Florida State. I can envision Surtain emerging as a similar player right out of the gate.


Worst-case scenario: He is going to face a gauntlet of talented pass catchers in the AFC West. Keenan Allen and Tyreek Hill are two of the toughest matchups in the entire league. He will give up some plays, but I think the Broncos will be happy with the way he handles himself.


Projected stats: 60 tackles and five interceptions.

Micah Parsons
Penn State · LB
Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys

Drafted: Round 1, No. 12 overall


Best-case scenario: Parsons emerges as a versatile chess piece for coordinator Dan Quinn's defense. He matches up with tight ends one week and emerges as pass-rush threat the next week. His explosive playmaking sparks a major turnaround for the Dallas defense.


Worst-case scenario: With Dallas moving him around a lot in the first few games, Parsons' head starts to spin and there are some assignment busts. The coaching staff ultimately decides to park him in one spot and he dominates in that role. There really isn't much downside here.


Projected stats: 95 tackles, 6.5 sacks and two interceptions.

Zaven Collins
Tulsa · LB
Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals

Drafted: Round 1, No. 16 overall


Best-case scenario: The Brian Urlacher comparisons start floating around the league after Collins displays his uncanny coverage ability at his size (6-foot-4, 260 pounds). He finishes first on the team in tackles and emerges as a leader for the group.


Worst-case scenario: He has to make a small adjustment to the physicality in the run game before ultimately figuring out how to effectively take on and shed blockers at the NFL level. He trails only Budda Baker in tackles.


Projected stats: 115 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.

Jaelan Phillips
Miami · EDGE
Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins

Drafted: Round 1, No. 18 overall


Best-case scenario: Despite missing valuable practice time in training camp due to injury, he captures a starting role near the beginning of the season. He collects 10-to-12 sacks and his athleticism shows up as a zone dropper, as well.


Worst-case scenario: It takes him about half of the season before he earns an every-down role on the defense. He's still a dynamic player in the Dolphins' sub packages while he learns the nuances of playing the run in Miami's scheme.


Projected stats: 55 tackles and eight sacks.

Jamin Davis
Kentucky · LB
Washington Football Team
Washington Football Team

Drafted: Round 1, No. 19 overall


Best-case scenario: Davis is a Day 1 starter. He makes an immediate impact on third downs with his speed and coverage ability. He's kept clean from blockers by his talented defensive line, allowing him to range and flow to collect a boatload of tackles.


Worst-case scenario: The game moves a little fast for him because of his limited college experience (one season as a full-time starter). He still makes some highlight-reel plays early in the season, but there are times when he struggles to sort through the trash on inside runs. He improves as the year goes along.


Projected stats: 95 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions.

Kwity Paye
Michigan · EDGE
Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts

Drafted: Round 1, No. 21 overall


Best-case scenario: Paye is a dominant edge setter who wreaks havoc with his speed-to-power combination. He sees a lot of one-on-one matchups because of the talent around him.


Worst-case scenario: Paye's ability against the run is undeniable, but he ends up being more disruptive than productive in the passing game. He posts a lot of pressures, but the sacks don't pile up.


Projected stats: 60 tackles and 7.5 sacks.

Gregory Rousseau
Miami · EDGE
Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills

Drafted: Round 1, No. 30 overall


Best-case scenario: The Bills' offense picks up where it left off last season, building leads and creating a lot of pass-rush opportunities for Rousseau. He racks up double-digit sacks and forces a handful of fumbles.


Worst-case scenario: The Bills utilize a deep rotation of linemen and that limits Rousseau's overall production. He still finds a way to collect 6-to-8 sacks and uses his length to bat down a bunch of throws.


Projected stats: 50 tackles and 10 sacks.

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter.

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