The Brandt Report

Eight NFL rookies in the best position to succeed in 2021

With all the attention paid to prospects on an individual level in the lead-up to the NFL draft, it can be easy to forget that team fit and other surrounding circumstances can have as much to do with rookie success as anything. But some rookies are in a more favorable spot to succeed right away than others.

Below are eight rookies in the best position to succeed in 2021. But before digging in, please take a minute to remember that this list is subjective -- so don't take the absence of, say, Trey Lance, Justin Fields or Mac Jones to mean that I don't think they'll be successful right away. Though the 49ers and Bears (and, maybe, the retooled Patriots) are in relatively strong shape, roster-wise, all three QBs face ostensible veteran competition, and given that they lack a no-doubt path to the starting job in Week 1, I didn't include them here.

Rank
1
Najee Harris
Alabama · RB
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers brass must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when Miami, a potential suitor for Harris, selected pass rusher Jaelan Phillips 18th overall, leaving Pittsburgh free to snap up Harris with the 24th pick. The winner of last season's Doak Walker Award, given to college football's best running back, Harris has all the markings of the kind of bell-cow rushing-and-receiving weapon the team has been searching for since Le'Veon Bell's last season with the Steelers, in 2017. Pittsburgh needed to boost the NFL's worst rushing attack of 2020 (3.6 yards per carry) to take some of the pressure off 39-year-old QB Ben Roethlisberger's shoulders this year, and to help give the revamped offensive line some time to click after the departures of long-time left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and center Maurkice Pouncey. Harris will have the chance to be a true difference maker for this offense as the team tries to extend its competitive window under Big Ben.

Rank
2
Trevor Lawrence
Clemson · QB
Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars

Lawrence significantly brightened Jacksonville's long-term future the moment he was drafted first overall -- he has far more potential than the last two quarterbacks selected in the top 10 by the Jags, Blaine Gabbert and Blake Bortles. But Lawrence also has the capability to impact this team immediately. He's probably going to have to get comfortable losing regular-season games, which he didn't do once in college, but Lawrence has the skills to get this franchise going in the right direction in Year 1 -- and while that might not result in a ton of wins, it will mark a huge shift in Duval County. After all, Joe Burrow didn't win more than two games as a starter in his injury-shortened rookie season, but it's hard to argue he wasn't successful in 2020, given that he showed himself to be the long-term answer for the Bengals at the game's most important position.


Lawrence's near-term prospects look especially promising with new coach Urban Meyer taking significant steps to build around the QB, using two of his first four picks on offensive assistance (running back Travis Etienne and offensive tackle Walker Little) and signing veterans like Marvin Jones and Carlos Hyde. Even the decision to possibly kick the tires on Tim Tebow at camp could end up helping Lawrence, if the former Heisman Trophy winner ends up providing veteran stability in the locker room.


Rank
3
Zach Wilson
BYU · QB
New York Jets
New York Jets

Wilson showed enough promise and production at BYU that he likely would have been first overall in a draft class that did not also include a once-in-a-decade prospect like Lawrence. Jets general manager Joe Douglas cast his lot definitively with Wilson when he traded Wilson's predecessor, 2018 No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold, to Carolina. Douglas has already done a lot more to support Wilson than the Jets ever did for Darnold, drafting guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, receiver Elijah Moore and running back Michael Carter and signing receiver Corey Davis.


Like Lawrence, Wilson might not pile up a ton of victories this season. But I would argue that his record doesn't matter as much as providing tangible evidence -- more than just flashes or promise but sustained competitive play -- that he can be the franchise player this organization has been seeking since the days of Joe Namath. And as long as Wilson can handle the pressure that comes with the NYC spotlight, he's set up well to do just that in Year 1.

Rank
4
Kyle Pitts
Florida · TE
Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons

I know tight ends typically face a relatively steep learning curve in the NFL, but that applies more to players who are asked to function as traditional tight ends, blocking and releasing for short passes and so forth. Pitts, however, is a supremely gifted prospect who is extremely well-positioned to make an instant impact as a rookie pass-catcher. Drafted to provide immediate support for veteran QB Matt Ryan, the fourth overall pick will have plenty of chances to shine from the jump, working alongside elite receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. He's a mismatch nightmare who presents an impossible conundrum for opposing defenses; too difficult for linebackers to cover, Pitts will force Atlanta's opponents into doing things they don't want to do.

Rank
5
Dillon Radunz
North Dakota State · OT
Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans

Still smarting from the decision not to exercise right tackle Jack Conklin's fifth-year option for the 2020 season -- which precipitated Conklin's departure for Cleveland as a free agent -- and from the implosion of rookie first-rounder Isaiah Wilson, the Titans addressed their deficiency at the position by using a second-round pick on Radunz. Though Radunz played left tackle at North Dakota State, where he excelled at protecting No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance's blindside, he did pre-draft work at right tackle in preparation for a possible move. I like Radunz a lot, and he's in great position to provide an immediate boost to a unit that dropped from eighth in Pro Football Focus' ranking of offensive lines in 2019 to 15th without Conklin last season.

Rank
6
Jaylen Waddle
Alabama · WR
Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
2021

After an up-and-down rookie season by Tua Tagovailoa, the Dolphins could have changed direction at quarterback. Instead, they doubled down on Tagovailoa by trading out of the third overall spot and drafting Waddle sixth overall (after moving back up) to give the QB an explosive weapon to work with in the passing game. Waddle averaged a ridiculous 19 yards per catch at Alabama and possesses game-breaking speed that makes him a threat to score every time he touches the football. He also has the advantage of having played with Tagovailoa before, during their time together at Alabama. And he'll benefit from working alongside veterans DeVante Parker and Will Fuller. Don't be surprised if Miami uses Waddle as a return specialist; he averaged 19.3 per punt and 23.8 per kick in three seasons with the Crimson Tide. 

Rank
7
Micah Parsons
Penn State · LB
Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys

For a variety of reasons, linebacker play slipped considerably in Dallas last season, and the Cowboys hope installing the 12th overall pick in new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn's system will reverse that downward trend. Parsons' skill set will enable him to both play a traditional linebacker role and help DeMarcus Lawrence rush the passer off the edge. The team apparently feels bullish enough about Parsons that one-time Pro Bowler Leighton Vander Esch -- who has been slowed recently by injuries -- had his fifth-year option declined in the days following the draft.

Rank
8
Patrick Surtain II
Alabama · CB
Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos

I mean no slight toward the first cornerback drafted, Jaycee Horn, taken eighth overall by Carolina -- but I'm quite high on the future of the player selected immediately after him. Surtain, chosen ninth overall, may very well be the best cornerback prospect turned out by Alabama since Nick Saban became head coach there in 2007, and that's saying something, considering the talent Saban has produced. Surtain was the highest-rated defensive player on GM George Paton's draft board, and it's easy to see why. The SEC Defensive Player of the Year should immediately step into the starting lineup, and he'll have three veteran cornerbacks (Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller and Bryce Callahan) and a cornerback-turned-safety (Kareem Jackson) to serve as guideposts.

Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter.

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