Challengers to Mac Jones for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
The 2021 NFL Draft was loaded with offensive talent, and that’s been proven over the first 12 weeks of the 2021 NFL season.
Each of the first seven selections -- and 18 of the top 27 -- were offensive players. Between potential franchise quarterbacks, dynamic wide receivers and bruising offensive linemen, this class had it all.
Which players have stood out so far? Is a quarterback destined to win Offensive Rookie of the Year? Or can a skill position player steal the spotlight?
Here’s everything you need to know about the offensive rookies in the NFL this season:
Who is the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year?
Three positions dominate the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award -- quarterback, running back and wide receiver. In fact, those are the only three positions that have won the honor since it was first awarded in 1967.
This year seems no different, with Mac Jones, Ja’Marr Chase and Najee Harris among the favorites through Week 12. Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts, drafted No. 4 overall, had a chance to make history by winning the award, but that now looks unlikely.
Jones has been steady all season under center for the New England Patriots. The No. 15 overall pick was the fifth quarterback taken, yet he leads all rookies in passing yards (2,850), touchdowns (16), completion percentage (70.3%), passer rating (97.1) and yards per pass attempt (7.5).
Despite cooling off in recent weeks, Chase has still been the best wideout from his class. He has 50 receptions for 906 yards and eight touchdowns through 11 games, completely transforming the Cincinnati Bengals’ offense after reuniting with Joe Burrow.
Who are the best non-quarterback offensive rookies?
The five first-round quarterbacks made all the headlines on draft night, but other rookies have outshined them on the field at times.
The Pittsburgh Steelers made Harris the first running back selected at No. 24 overall. He’s played up to his draft billing, leading all rookies in rushing yards (708) and touchdowns (5).
Despite being the second RB drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, Elijah Mitchell has clearly been the standout from their class. Selected No. 194 overall, the Louisiana alum has four 100-yard rushing performances in his first eight career games.
Three wideouts taken in the top-10 -- Chase, Waddle and Smith -- have all performed. Chase leads all rookies in touchdown catches and receiving yards, while Waddle is atop the class with 77 receptions. Smith has been the Philadelphia Eagles’ No. 1 receiver all season, leading his squad in receptions (48), receiving yards (686) and touchdowns (4).
Pitts was drafted higher than any tight end in NFL history, so it’s only right that he's been on pace to set the rookie record for receiving yards by a tight end. Through 11 games, he has 661 receiving yards on 45 catches for the Atlanta Falcons.
Pat Freiermuth, selected No. 55 overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers, is just behind Pitts with 40 receptions for 327 yards. He leads all rookie tight ends with six touchdowns.
Four offensive linemen have stood out from this class -- two first-rounders and two mid-rounders. Detroit Lions tackle Penei Sewell (No. 7 overall) and Los Angeles Chargers tackle Rashawn Slater (No. 13 overall) have been solid in their roles. Sewell had a slower start to the season, but has rounded into form in recent weeks. Slater has been strong since Week 1 in protecting Justin Herbert’s blindside.
The Kansas City Chiefs nailed two late picks on offensive linemen with center Creed Humphrey (No. 63 overall) and guard Trey Smith (No. 226 overall). Humphrey and Smith have both started all 11 games for the Chiefs, who badly needed an upgrade on the line after an ugly performance in last year’s Super Bowl.
Which offensive rookies will make an impact in the playoffs?
The best rookies often don’t get a chance to perform in the playoffs because they are selected by the worst teams. That’s the case again this year to an extent, though there are several impact rookies who will contribute to potential Super Bowl teams.
For the 8-4 Patriots, Jones and fellow rookie Rhamondre Stevenson have been catalysts on the team’s six-game winning streak. Jones is running the show at quarterback, but Stevenson has been a revelation after several healthy scratches early in the season. He’s rushed for over 45 yards in four straight games and will be crucial to the Pats’ success in January.
Humphrey and Smith are perhaps the most likely to make a deep playoff run. With Patrick Mahomes as their quarterback, you can never discount the Chiefs. As we saw last year, Mahomes can only carry the team so far. It’ll be these offensive linemen who could determine Kansas City’s fate.
Several other rookies could make the postseason, including Chase, Mitchell and Slater. The Bengals, 49ers and Chargers are fighting for wild card and division titles, but a playoff berth is far from guaranteed.
Another under-the-radar rookie who will be important in the postseason is Arizona Cardinals receiver Rondale Moore. He’s had a solid campaign -- 47 catches for 413 yards in 11 games. Even though he’s behind DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk on the depth chart, Moore will definitely be a factor as a small, speedy weapon.
Which offensive rookies have struggled this season?
With every draft class, there are the stars and then there are the busts. It’s way too early to call anyone from this class a bust after just 12 weeks, but there have certainly been some disappointments.
Between ineffectiveness and injuries, New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson tops this list. Selected No. 2 overall, Wilson has four passing touchdowns and 10 interceptions through seven starts. With several quarterbacks selected behind him already looking more competent, the Jets need Wilson to make some progress over the final six weeks.
The Las Vegas Raiders stunned many when they picked tackle Alex Leatherwood at No. 17. He was a projected second-rounder and, despite starting all 11 games for Vegas, he’s underwhelmed. His PFF grade is 43.6, which they categorize as “replaceable.”
Two running backs with high expectations have also disappointed, albeit for different reasons.
The Jacksonville Jaguars envisioned pairing Travis Etienne with No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence and recreating their magic from Clemson. Instead, the No. 25 overall pick was injured in the preseason and will miss the year.
Trey Sermon, drafted No. 88 overall by the 49ers, was expected to thrive in Kyle Shanahan’s RB-friendly offense. Instead, he was surpassed by Mitchell and relegated to a special teams role. He has 41 carries in nine games, including six games with one or zero attempts.