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Which 2021 NFL Draft 1st rounders will have their fifth-year option picked up?


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By Diante Lee

Young, cost-controlled talent is paramount to building a functional and competitive roster in the NFL. Having developing players significantly outperform their contracts can help lift a team from competitive to contending to — if all falls into place — champions. And though finding solid starters and quality depth in the middle or late rounds of the draft is a step toward that goal, GMs will always be judged by whether they can identify franchise players in the first round.

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The window for maximizing an opportunity with franchise-level talent is much shorter than it appears on draft day. After Year 3 of a first-rounder’s rookie contract, teams have to decide whether that player is worth his fifth-year option.

Those decisions will happen next offseason for the 2021 first-round picks. Let’s take a look at how that draft’s top 32 selections are performing in comparison to others on rookie contracts. (Note: To control for some variance, all stats noted below are weighed against players with 500-plus career snaps.)

Tier 1: Franchise cornerstones

Micah Parsons, Edge, Cowboys (Pick No. 12)

Thus far, the best pick of the 2021 NFL Draft has been a guy who has spent a significant number of snaps playing out of his best position. Entering 2023, he’s now a full-time edge, a spot at which he already ranks first in pressure and sack rates among all players on rookie contracts. By expected points added (EPA), no edge rusher on a rookie deal has been more impactful for his team’s passing defense than Parsons. The more time Parsons spends on the edge, the better he’s become as a run defender, too.

Parsons stands to be the future record holder for highest-paid defensive player of all time, and he’ll also likely be the league’s most valuable defensive player.

Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jaguars (No. 1)

The second half of the 2022 season was all it took to remind the football world that Lawrence just needed some time.

Lawrence, while playing behind a middling offensive line and throwing to equally middling receiving options, has the lowest sack rate of QBs on rookie contracts and the fifth-best success rate as a passer. He’s not faultless — there is some Justin Herbert/Aaron Rodgers-like risk aversion in his game that leaves you wanting — but he’s an incredible problem solver in his youth, has all the physical tools to win playing any style of football and already has dragged his franchise to the divisional round. Using the fifth-year option is a no-brainer for Jacksonville — if Lawrence doesn’t get a huge contract extension first.

Kyle Pitts, TE, Falcons (No. 4)

Any Pitts doubter is gaslighting you into seeing problems that don’t exist. If you look at the data and watch the last two years of film, there’s no question how integral Pitts is to opening up the field for his teammates and to Atlanta’s passing game in general. Judging him against other TEs on rookie deals, he’s first in target rate and explosive-play rate (gains of 20-plus yards), and he’s third in EPA per target.

 

The problem has been the Falcons’ QB situation, not Pitts. If Desmond Ridder can be even league average as a passer, we’re more likely than not to see Pitts’ production levels finish in line with his 2021 season (68 catches for 1,026 yards). Pitts’ option certainly will be picked up.

Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Bengals (No. 5)

Chase already is arguably a top-five receiver in the NFL. Of all receivers on rookie deals, Chase ranks fifth in receptions leading to a TD or first down, and he’s eighth in EPA per target against man coverage — although, the data doesn’t begin to tell the story of his gravity on the perimeter. As defenses sell out to deny the deep ball, Chase will be hard-pressed to replicate his gaudy 2021 numbers (1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns), but he’s grown as a route runner and is always a big-play threat after the catch.

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What Cincinnati is going to do with the roster after paying its playmakers is beyond me, but Chase is part of this team’s long-term planning.

 

Jaylen Waddle, WR, Dolphins (No. 6)

With another legitimate receiver across the field from him in 2022, Waddle finally broke out beyond the RPOs, screens and manufactured touches he’d previously lived on. Waddle ranks first in catches resulting in first downs or TDs among rookie-deal receivers, and he’s fifth in EPA per target against man coverage.

He’s too fast to defend in single coverage, and Mike McDaniel’s offense puts him in position to catch the ball with room to run against zone. Waddle can be a top-15 receiver in the league because of the threat of his speed alone, so Miami will be picking up his fifth-year option next offseason.

DeVonta Smith, WR, Eagles (No. 10)

Of the top three receivers in this class, Smith is in the least prolific passing offense. What that costs in volume, however, hasn’t affected his efficiency or explosiveness. Though he ranks outside of the top 10 in target rate, explosive gains and catches resulting in first downs or TDs, he’s in the top 10 for EPA per target — he ranks third when defenses play man. When Philadelphia needs to get him the ball, it often results in good offense.

The questions about Smith’s size were unfounded, as he’s been impossible to press or bully in tight coverage. Smith could be this era’s Marvin Harrison. He’s well on his way to being a legitimate top option and should be receiving his fifth-year option.

Penei Sewell, OL, Lions (No. 7)
Rashawn Slater, OL, Chargers (No. 13)

Finding reliable data on offensive line play is still tricky in the modern era — which is why we should be thankful it’s been so obvious that Sewell and Slater walked into the league ready to play at Pro Bowl levels. They’re already top-10 tackles on their respective sides (Sewell on the right, Slater on the left), and their powerful styles of play don’t come at the cost of performance in the passing game.

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Both rank in the top 10 of pressure rate allowed, and they anchor passing offenses that are top 10 in EPA and success rate when they’re on the field. Premium position talent always tips the scale a bit, but Sewell and Slater being ahead of schedule will make these decisions even easier for the Lions and Chargers, respectively.

Pat Surtain II, CB, Broncos (No. 9)
Eric Stokes, CB, Packers (No. 29)
Greg Newsome II, CB, Browns (No. 26)

Each of these cornerbacks is well on his way to being at the top of this position group, and they win in distinct ways.

Surtain is your prototypical lockdown corner on the outside. He’s already earned first-team All-Pro honors, has six career picks and 24 passes defended, and when he’s on the field, Denver is top five in defensive EPA against the pass (among defenses playing rookie-deal corners). His technique and footwork are impeccable. His size makes him impossible to body up on contested catches, and he’s a legitimate threat to make QBs pay with turnovers — if they’re brave enough to throw in his direction.

 

Stokes is more of a No. 2 corner, but the speedy Green Bay DB has shown much better technical prowess in his first two years than it appeared he had at Georgia. His defense has the fourth-best defensive EPA against the pass (among those with rookie-deal CBs), and he allows the Packers to put Jaire Alexander on the best receiver, no matter where he lines up. Stokes’ ball skills are still underwhelming — he has just one interception against 14 total passes defended — but his athleticism and skill set make him a priority for Green Bay’s roster pivot.

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Newsome has become a jack of all trades for Cleveland’s defense. When he plays, Cleveland has the third-best defensive EPA against the pass (when using CBs on rookie deals), and he also can take his physicality into the slot and thrive. He spends about one-third of his time in the slot, and his success rate on tackles ranks in the top five of our sample — which includes safeties. Like Stokes, the lack of turnovers Newsome forces can be a point of annoyance with fans, but it’s been more a product of bad luck than a reflection of his ability. Newsome has battled some injuries already in his young career, so his availability will need to improve, but there’s no questioning what he produces when he’s on the field.


Tier 2: Plus starters/High-ceiling players

Kadarius Toney, WR, Chiefs (No. 20, drafted by the Giants)

I’m usually pretty skeptical about smaller receivers having major impact on an offense — especially if they’re playing with the most talented QB ever — but the numbers bear that Toney is as good for a passing game as you can find on a rookie deal. Because he was out of the rotation so often in New York, his snap numbers don’t technically qualify in all my datasets, but he’d be first in target rate of all players on rookie contracts and top 20 in conversion rate, explosive gains and EPA per target against man coverage.

When he hits the field, quarterbacks want to get him the ball, and he typically produces. I wouldn’t be shocked if he had a major breakout in his first full season as a high-usage player.

 

Greg Rousseau, Edge, Bills (No. 30)
Jaelan Phillips, Edge, Dolphins (No. 18)

Buffalo has been searching for a productive, cost-controlled starter on the edge for a half-decade now, and I’m banking on Rousseau breaking through in 2023. His 12.0 career sacks and 14 percent pressure rate are right on track with what you’d want from a young edge rusher. If Buffalo can be a bit more aggressive in coverage and at sending blitzes, it can help get Rousseau home sooner. He still isn’t entirely there as a run defender, but his pass rush is too valuable not to see the possibilities.

Phillips, Rousseau’s former Miami Hurricanes teammate and current AFC East rival, is in the same boat. He ranks seventh in pressure rate among edges on rookie deals, and he’s top 15 in sack rate and sack EPA. Phillips’ speed rush quietly has developed into a problem for offensive tackles, and he flashed counter moves and power rushes in 2022 to keep tackles off balance. He’s probably more pass-rush specialist than three-down player, but playing under Vic Fangio will give him a chance to add more to his repertoire as an OLB, too.


Tier 3: Solid starters/High-floor players

Jaycee Horn, CB, Panthers (No. 😎

A broken foot in 2021 set Horn back from the other first-round corners, but how he’s performed when healthy has proven that he’s closer to being a plus starter than just another guy in the league. Playing in Steve Wilks and Phil Snow’s blitz-heavy defense has meant spending a lot of time in man or tight coverage, and Horn has handled the demands well. By EPA, he is one of the 10 most impactful coverage defenders on a rookie deal, and he’s in the top five of tackle success rates (stops that generate positive defensive EPA), both on the outside and in the slot. That tells us Horn isn’t beat deep often, and that he’s in position to make plays even when the ball is caught.

Christian Darrisaw, OT, Vikings (No. 23)
Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, Jets (No. 14)

Darrisaw and Vera-Tucker have been huge additions for Minnesota and New York, respectively. The latter is a good run blocker and versatile enough to play some tackle in a pinch. The former has been a rock for the Vikings’ line and has helped the offense remain steady over the last two years. Neither guy will be a perennial All-Pro performer, but they’re both likely to play for multiple contracts and serve as necessary building blocks.

Rashod Bateman, WR, Ravens (No. 27)

Bateman has had a rough start to his career: his own injuries, Lamar Jackson’s injuries and playing in an offensive scheme that struggled to feature his best abilities. He just sneaked into the top 25 of rookie-contract players in target rate, as well as catches for first downs and touchdowns, but his EPA against man and his explosive-play rate don’t reflect his legitimate speed or playmaking when the ball is in his hands. New Ravens OC Todd Monken could unlock Bateman’s game in 2023.

 

Kwity Paye, Edge, Colts (No. 21)
Odafe Oweh, Edge, Ravens (No. 31)
Travis Etienne Jr., RB, Jaguars (No. 25)

Paye and Oweh have a combined 18.0 career sacks between them. Etienne posted nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage last year after missing his entire rookie season with a foot injury.


Tier 4: Something to prove/Long-term projects

Justin Fields, QB, Bears (No. 11)
Mac Jones, QB, Patriots (No. 15)

Two QBs under intense scrutiny in 2023. Because his supporting cast has significantly improved, Fields’ stock is high entering the upcoming season, but he was in the bottom three of EPA per dropback, sack rate, success rate and off-target throw rate. Even if his offensive line remains porous, Fields’ dynamic athletic ability can maintain his viability for a bit. The arm talent is clearly there, too, but Bears fans will need to see him grow as a passer before invoking the names and trajectories of Josh Allen or Jalen Hurts.

Jones is a polar opposite evaluation. In the aggregate, he’s been decent or better in the pocket, he’s pretty accurate, and he knows his strengths and weaknesses. He just lacks the arm talent necessary to punish defenses for playing man coverage or sending blitzes. Among QBs on rookie deals, Jones has the second-worst EPA per dropback against five or more rushers — even though he has the fourth-lowest sack rate. If Jones can’t find answers against blitzes and tight coverage, then there’s nothing the Patriots can do to fix their passing game.

Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Edge, Buccaneers (No. 32)
Najee Harris, RB, Steelers (No. 24)
Zaven Collins, LB, Cardinals (No. 16)
Jamin Davis, LB, Commanders (No. 19)

Harris, who followed up a 1,200-yard, 381-touch rookie season with another 1,263 yards from scrimmage last year, could be a test case for how teams value running backs in the modern era.


Tier 5: Last-chance players/Depth pieces

Zach Wilson, QB, Jets (No. 2)
Trey Lance, QB, 49ers (No. 3)
Payton Turner, Edge, Saints (No. 28)
Caleb Farley, CB, Titans (No. 22)
Alex Leatherwood, OL, Bears (No. 17, drafted by the Raiders)

If Lance somehow reclaims the 49ers’ starting job, perhaps he could push his way up this list. Otherwise, these players likely are headed toward free agency at the end of their rookie deals, if not before. Leatherwood, for one, already has been waived once — the Bears claimed him, meaning they still could utilize his fifth-year option.

(Top photo of Penei Sewell and Micah Parsons: Cooper Neill / Getty Images)


The Football 100, the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Pre-order it here.

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Tier 3: Solid starters/High-floor players

Christian Darrisaw, OT, Vikings (No. 23)
Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL, Jets (No. 14)

Darrisaw and Vera-Tucker have been huge additions for Minnesota and New York, respectively. The latter is a good run blocker and versatile enough to play some tackle in a pinch. The former has been a rock for the Vikings’ line and has helped the offense remain steady over the last two years. Neither guy will be a perennial All-Pro performer, but they’re both likely to play for multiple contracts and serve as necessary building blocks.

Tier 5: Last-chance players/Depth pieces

Zach Wilson, QB, Jets (No. 2)
Trey Lance, QB, 49ers (No. 3)
Payton Turner, Edge, Saints (No. 28)
Caleb Farley, CB, Titans (No. 22)
Alex Leatherwood, OL, Bears (No. 17, drafted by the Raiders)

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8 minutes ago, jgb said:

Are we as Jets fan way off on AVT or is the media?

It's interesting because they define him is "versatile" a "good run blocker" and a "building block" but they seem oddly emphatic he'll never be an All Pro.

I think the fact that he changed positions 10x and got injured last year probably hurt his perception a little -- had he played the whole year at G he might get a little more love.

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Wasn’t avt on the recent list of the top ten players to build a franchise around? Or was it just qwill and sauce? Point is avt is not a third tier player for his position. Could be the writer just doesn’t value interior linemen that highly but we have seen guards key parts of dominating oline.

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11 minutes ago, rangerous said:

Wasn’t avt on the recent list of the top ten players to build a franchise around? Or was it just qwill and sauce? Point is avt is not a third tier player for his position. Could be the writer just doesn’t value interior linemen that highly but we have seen guards key parts of dominating oline.

Or it could be that fans over rate their own players lol.

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12 minutes ago, rangerous said:

Of course that’s part of it. On the other had that doesn’t take away from his excellent play on the field.

Maybe I missed it, but the article seems to say AVT is quite good. 

Just not a perennial all-pro.

Seems on point to me. 

But like I said, in fanland, it's often all or nothing, so I guess if you don't think AVT is the best of the best for the next 20 years, then you must hate him and think he sucks?

 

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