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NFL rookie rankings: Ja’Marr Chase, Micah Parsons, Chargers duo earn best early 2021 draft grades

The 2021 NFL Draft class was loaded with talent across the board and that’s come to fruition early in the season. Although the focus has been on the five rookie first-round quarterbacks, that position has struggled the most out of the gate with some starting right away, some not.

Looking beyond QB, there’s been plenty of immediate impact from the league’s newest crop of rookies. It’s not a coincidence that the teams who drafted them are succeeding because of it.

Here’s who’s been the best brightest so far early in their career as Sporting News grades the top rookies going into Week 5:

MORE: Grading NFL rookie quarterbacks from Week 4

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NFL rookie rankings 2021

Grade: A

1. Ja’Marr Chase, WR, Bengals (No. 5 overall, first round)

Chase (6-1, 200 pounds) had a great first month, turning only 17 catches into 297 yards and 4 TDs. He’s lived up to the hype, showing great chemistry again with Joe Burrow. He’s a big reason Cincinnati has an explosive offense, which has helped it start 3-1.

2. Micah Parsons, LB, Cowboys (No. 12 overall, first round)

Parsons (6-3, 245 pounds) has been used everywhere on Dan Quinn’s defense, showing that he can be a special pass rusher (2.5 sacks) when needed on top of being a rangy playmaker in other facets. As Chase is the early favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, Parsons, a force for an improved 3-1 team, has the lead for Defensive Rookie of the Year. 

3. Rashawn Slater, LT, Chargers (No. 13 overall, first round)

Slater (6-4, 315 pounds) has been outstanding as Justin Herbert’s new rock of a pass protector. The Northwestern product notably joined Chase (LSU) and Parsons (Penn State) in opting out of his final 2020 college football season to focus on his pro promise. It’s paying off for another 3-1 team.

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4. Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Chargers (No. 47 overall, second round)

GM Tom Telesco delivered a 1-2 punch in the draft by getting Samuel (5-10, 180 pounds) too. He hasn’t wasted time to show he can be a premier cover corner like his namesake father. Samuel was tabbed as a top-flight nickel but he has looked great outside with 2 interceptions and 5 passes defended. 

5. Creed Humphrey, C, Chiefs (No. 63 overall, second round)

Humphrey (6-5, 312 pounds) was a key part of Kansas City’s massive offensive line overhaul to handle the snapping duties for Patrick Mahomes. Like Samuel he was a first-round caliber talent and another AFC West team is benefiting from that.

6. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Browns (No. 52 overall, second round)

Owusu-Koramoah (6-2, 221 pounds), who did everything at Notre Dame, was another player who should have gone in the first round. He’s been flying around on the second level in Cleveland with 17 tackles and a half-sack.

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Grade: A-

7. DeVonta Smith, WR, Eagles (No. 10 overall, first round)

Smith (6-0, 170 pounds) has some rookie struggles but he’s also flashed his full talent as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner with 18 catches for 237 yards and a TD in four games. The Eagles are a high-volume passing team with Jalen Hurts and the connection between him and Smith has been reheated well.

8. Odafe Oweh, EDGE, Ravens (No. 31 overall, first round)

Oweh (6-5, 251 pounds) has given Baltimore what it needs as a freakish high-upside pass rusher with two sacks and plenty of pressures. He was a perfect fit for the system and that’s been evident from the get-go.

Grade: B+

9. Mac Jones, QB, Patriots (No. 15 overall, first round)

Jones (6-3, 217 pounds) has looked the part of the Patriots’ long-term franchise quarterback with his confidence and command of a complicated offense. His smarts and accuracy are playing to his advantage to lessen the learning curve, also boosted by a strong support system.

10. Greg Newsome II, CB, Browns (No. 26 overall, first round)

Newsome (6-0, 192 pounds) impressed enough in the offseason to be the No. 2 outside opposite Denzel Ward. He’s used his size and instincts well in coverage, adding to the big improvement in their pass defense.

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Grade: B

11. Michael Carter, CB, Jets (No. 154 overall, fifth round)

The Jets drafted this Michael Carter (5-10, 184 pounds) from Duke for their defensive backfield after taking the other rookie Michael Carter from North Carolina for their offensive backfield. He’s been the better Michael Carter with nice work in the slot for Robert Saleh’s quick pass defense fix.

12. Sam Cosmi, RT, Washington (No. 51 overall, second round)

At 6-6, 309 pounds, the former Texas star Cosmi was another first-round talent who fell late in the draft process. Washington has gotten great returns from him in both pass protection and run blocking.

13. Trey Smith, G, Chiefs (No. 226 overall, sixth round)

Smith (6-5, 330 pounds) also has come through on the interior next to Humphrey to flank pricey free-agent addition Joe Thuney.

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14. Najee Harris, RB, Steelers (No. 24 overall, first round)

Harris has been advertised as a versatile big back (6-1, 232 pounds). He isn’t getting much help from poor run blocking with only 185 yards rushing at 3.4 yards per carry in four games. Harris has compensated, however, by showing off his receiving prowess, catching 26 of 34 targets for 178 yards.

15. Rondale Moore, WR, Cardinals (No. 49 overall, second round)

When the Cardinals splurged on the diminutive dasher from Purdue (5-7, 180 pounds), they wanted to set him for big plays in the open field in a variety of ways, like a modern Percy Harvin. Moore has been a dynamo through his calculated limited touches, catching 16 of 18 targets for 211 yards a TD. He also added 12 yards on 3 rushes. Moore can do a lot more but Arizona has several skilled hands and legs for Kyler Murray to feed.

16. Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Eagles (No. 150 overall, fifth round)

Gainwell should have gone on Day 2 of the draft based on his production from Memphis and promise to do well in many NFL systems. At 5-9, 200 pounds, he’s been looking like the better all-around back than Miles Sanders for Philadelphia’s pass-heavy offense under Nick Sirianni. On top of catching 13 of 18 targets for 114 yards, he’s been efficient when getting a chance to run with 19 carries for 84 yards a TD.

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Grade: B-

17. Javonte Williams, RB, Broncos (No. 35 overall, second round)

Williams (5-10, 220 pounds) has flashed in a timeshare with Melvin Gordon III with 54 touches for 236 yards. He has struggled to find running room at times and there’s still some work to do to become the complete back he can be.

18. Kwity Paye, EDGE, Colts (No. 21 overall, first round)

Paye (6-2, 261 pounds) has yet to record a sack and is dealing with an early hamstring injury that kept him out for Week 3. There are still many signs that he will be an all-around force with his stout play against the run.

19. Tre’Von Moehrig, S, Raiders (No. 43 overall, second round)

Moehrig (6-2, 210 pounds) is one more player who was in the late first-round conversation for a long time and the Raiders were wise to jump on his versatile playmaking a few picks later. He’s been a good complementary free safety to take pressure off fellow starter Johnathan Abram.

20. Kyle Pitts, TE, Falcons (No. 4 overall, first round)

Pitts (6-6, 246 pounds) is having some of the typical rookie tight end troubles with a lot being put on his plate, including the Falcons’ desire to have him run routes like a wide receiver. He has only 15 catches on 26 yards for 189 yards and is still looking for his first TD after ending his Florida career as a scoring machine. The blocking has been a work in progress. He makes this cut based on upside and bigger usage around the corner.

21. Jaylen Waddle, WR, Dolphins (No. 6 overall, first round)

Waddle (5-10, 182 pounds) is doing his best to stay with Chase and Smith, with 25 catches for 200 yards. He’s been hurt by quarterback transition from his former college pass Tua Tagovailoa to dinking and dunking Jacoby Brissett. The Dolphins have yet to unveil their big-play oriented passing game in which Waddle was to play an integral part. The talent is evident and he’s just making the best of a bad situation.

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