Analysis

2021 NFL season: Best/worst-case projections for notable offensive 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 13 intriguing offensive rookies.

Trevor Lawrence
Clemson · QB
Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars

Drafted: Round 1, No. 1 overall


Best-case scenario: Lawrence clearly wins the starting job coming out of the preseason. The Jaguars establish a consistent running game and Lawrence quickly adjusts to the speed of the pro game. He approaches the rookie records set by Chargers QB Justin Herbert last season.

 

Worst-case scenario: The offensive line struggles to adjust to the new system and places too much of the offensive load on the passing attack. Lawrence struggles to adjust to consistent pressure, which leads to turnovers. The wow plays are still there, but the team fails to consistently win games. 


Projected stats: 3,950 passing yards, 28 TDs and 17 INTs; 400 rushing yards, 4 rushing TDs.

Zach Wilson
BYU · QB
New York Jets
New York Jets

Drafted: Round 1, No. 2 overall


Best-case scenario: Wilson finds a groove with offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. He gets the ball out on time and in rhythm to avoid sacks and turnovers. He flashes his unique off-schedule ability, but the majority of the offense runs on time. The former BYU star forms a dynamic connection with fellow rookie Elijah Moore.

 

Worst-case scenario: The new pieces on the offensive line fail to jell right away. Wilson struggles to give up on plays, which leads to turnovers. He improves as the year goes along, but there is a lot of frustration during the season. 


Projected stats: 3,800 passing yards, 24 TDs and 12 INTs; 350 rushing yards, 4 rushing TDs.

Trey Lance
North Dakota State · QB
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers

Drafted: Round 1, No. 3 overall


Best-case scenario: You could argue sitting for the entire season could be the best-case scenario for Lance and the 49ers, but I believe he needs to play this fall. He needs reps. I like the idea of easing him in with a package of plays before he takes over the starting job six or seven games into the season. His unique blend of size, mobility and toughness sparks a deep playoff run for the 49ers.

 

Worst-case scenario: Lance is forced to take over as QB1 before he's ready. Jimmy Garoppolo gets injured at the beginning of the year before Lance is totally comfortable in the system. Even in this tough predicament, I believe Kyle Shanahan could adjust his scheme to ease the transition and make it work. 


Projected stats: 2,400 passing yards, 17 TDs and 10 INTs; 450 rushing yards, 6 rushing TDs.

Kyle Pitts
Florida · TE
Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons

Drafted: Round 1, No. 4 overall


Best-case scenario: Pitts emerges as the field-stretching presence in the Falcons' offense. Calvin Ridley has another huge year, which allows Pitts space to work and thrive. He has the best rookie season we've ever seen from a tight end.  

 

Worst-case scenario: It's rare for rookie tight ends to make a major impact. That said, Pitts is a rare player. The only negative outcome I can foresee would be injury. If he stays healthy, I believe he'll emerge as a top-10 tight end right away. That's the worst case.


Projected stats: 65 catches, 900 yards, 6 TDs.

Ja'Marr Chase
LSU · WR
Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals

Drafted: Round 1, No. 5 overall


Best-case scenario: Chase quickly recaptures the chemistry he had with Joe Burrow at LSU. Cincinnati features him on a bunch of quick-hitting passes, which highlights his run-after-the-catch ability. He also emerges as the team's primary red zone threat with his leaping ability and ball skills.

 

Worst-case scenario: There is an adjustment period for the first month or so of the regular season after he opted out of the 2020 campaign. The Bengals have a quality receiving corps, and that limits the top-end production for all of them. 


Projected stats: 75 catches, 920 yards, 5 TDs.

Jaylen Waddle
Alabama · WR
Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins

Drafted: Round 1, No. 6 overall


Best-case scenario: Similar to Ja'Marr Chase, Waddle quickly reconnects with his college QB (Tua Tagovailoa). He provides the big-play vertical threat the Dolphins covet. The run game is successful, which limits the two-high-safety looks from opposing defenses, allowing him to generate chunk plays.

 

Worst-case scenario: Tua doesn't make the leap we're all hoping for, and that limits the upside of Waddle. The passing game remains too conservative. He flashes his speed on some quick-hitters, but the ball doesn't get vertical very often. 


Projected stats: 60 catches, 950 yards, 6 TDs.

DeVonta Smith
Alabama · WR
Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles

Drafted: Round 1, No. 10 overall


Best-case scenario: Smith is clearly the No. 1 option in the passing game. His smooth route running creates consistent separation, and he piles up some home runs over the top as well. He's in the mix for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

 

Worst-case scenario: The two potential negative outcomes for Smith involve durability issues (wasn't a problem in college) or a run-dominant offense led by Jalen Hurts. Even if the Eagles do lean on the run game, that should create more one-on-one matchups for an elite route runner. 


Projected stats: 80 catches, 1,000 yards, 6 TDs.

Justin Fields
Ohio State · QB
Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears

Drafted: Round 1, No. 11 overall


Best-case scenario: Fields takes over the starting job a few games into the season and brings life to the Bears' offense. His athleticism helps cover up some holes in the offensive line and generates big plays down the field. He forms an instant connection with Allen Robinson on his way to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year.

 

Worst-case scenario: He sits. I know there is the Patrick Mahomes precedent, but I don't think Fields needs to follow that plan. He's played at a high level against the best competition in college football. I think sitting him for the majority of the season would be a mistake. 


Projected stats: 2,800 passing yards, 18 TDs and 11 INTs; 550 rushing yards, 7 rushing TDs.

Mac Jones
Alabama · QB
New England Patriots
New England Patriots

Drafted: Round 1, No. 15 overall


Best-case scenario: Jones wins the starting job coming out of the preseason. He already looks very comfortable in the system and that carries over to the regular season. He's very efficient, avoids turnovers and leads New England back to the playoffs.

 

Worst-case scenario: He wins the job, but somehow the run game doesn't live up to its reputation, putting too much pressure on Jones and the passing attack. I can't see this happening, but the AFC East does feature talented defensive players and coaches. 


Projected stats: 3,100 passing yards, 17 TDs and 8 INTs.

Kadarius Toney
Florida · WR
New York Giants
New York Giants

Drafted: Round 1, No. 20 overall


Best-case scenario: Toney gets healthy and provides some big plays for an offense that desperately needs it. He's used in a variety of roles and allows for some creativity in the offensive attack.


Worst-case scenario: He never catches up after missing so much time this offseason and in camp. He starts to come on in the second half of the season, providing some hope for the future. This scenario would be crushing for an offense that needs to step up and support Daniel Jones.


Projected stats: 45 catches, 580 yards, 4 TDs.

Najee Harris
Alabama · RB
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers

Drafted: Round 1, No. 24 overall


Best-case scenario: The former Tide star leads the league in rushing. That sounds ambitious, but Harris has the ability to carry a heavy workload if the Steelers choose to go that route. If he gets the touches, he will produce a monster season.

 

Worst-case scenario: The offensive line fails to jell after adding so many new pieces in the offseason. They've given a lot of lip service to returning to the run game in Pittsburgh, but it might be tempting for Ben Roethlisberger and Co. to keep airing it out to a bevy of talented pass catchers. If the offense leans that way, Harris could catch 65-plus passes. 


Projected stats: 1,200 rushing yards, 10 rushing TDs; 45 catches, 2 receiving TDs.

Travis Etienne
Clemson · RB
Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars

Drafted: Round 1, No. 25 overall


Best-case scenario: Etienne teams up with James Robinson to form one of the best young running back duos in the league. He makes 70-plus catches while splitting his time between the backfield and slot.

 

Worst-case scenario: He struggles because he's being asked to do too much too soon. He fails to get comfortable moving around the formation. Robinson proves to be too reliable/dependable to share carries as the season goes along. 


Projected stats: 550 rushing yards, 3 rushing TDs; 500 receiving yards, 3 rushing TDs.

UPDATE: Etienne suffered a Lisfranc injury in Monday night's preseason game and will miss the 2021 season, per NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport.

Elijah Moore
Mississippi · WR
New York Jets
New York Jets

Drafted: Round 2, No. 34 overall


Best-case scenario: He's the No. 1 target for Zach Wilson and leads all rookies in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He has that type of ability. He won't match Justin Jefferson's numbers from last year but he comes close.

 

Worst-case scenario: The Jets fail to protect Wilson consistently and that limits the damage Moore can do down the field. However, he should still be a high-volume receptions guy this fall. 


Projected stats: 85 catches, 1,100 yards, 7 TDs.

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter.

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