There is not a single draft pick who doesn’t face enormous pressure as a rookie, but there’s no denying that some are more scrutinized than others.
Some rookies enter the league with expectations of becoming stars. Some players are tasked with altering the trajectory of an organization entirely. Following the 2021 NFL Draft, there were more than a handful of players who had high expectations.
Here is a look at five rookies facing the most pressure in 2021.
5. DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
After Ja’Marr Chase, Smith was arguably the most sought-after wide receiver in April’s draft. The Giants were very open about their desire to nab him, which is what prompted the Eagles to jump their NFC East rivals to select him. In doing so, they made a deal with the devil by trading a third-round pick to their other rival, the Dallas Cowboys, to move up three spots. It was a strange and unexpected move, but a necessary one to land the Heisman Trophy winner. Smith now tops Philly’s depth chart at receiver and will be their go-to guy in 2021 and beyond. Can he shed the concerns about his size? Can he reach the ceiling the Eagles expect? And can he make that in-division trade worth it as he now battles the Giants and Cowboys a combined four times per season? Those are all questions waiting to be answered.
4. Kadarius Toney, WR, New York Giants
After missing out on DeVonta Smith, the Giants traded back in the 2021 NFL Draft and eventually selected Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney — a move many felt was a reach. Although Toney fits New York’s system and was selected based on that projected fit, it’s not why he’s included on this list. Toney’s presence here stems from the bizarre start to his NFL career. He missed time during rookie minicamp with a cleat issue, then skipped some practices due to an unsigned contract, left mandatory minicamp due to a death in his family but still managed to release a new single, landed on the COVID-19 list, and is now sidelined over what the team calls “situations.” The entire situation is very strange and has led to the pressure mounting.
3. Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
In the minds of many, the value of a first-round running back has dipped substantially over the past decade. Part of the reason for that is their average shelf life, which remains lower than all other positions. Some who stake their reputation on analytics and advanced data would even argue that no running back should be taken in Round 1. The Steelers ignored that memo and selected Harris 24th overall this past April. Right out of the gate, that means he’s up against it to prove his bosses right and the rest of the league wrong. Beyond that, Harris will be tasked with having to carry the load from Day 1. Not only will he start for Pittsburgh, he he will also be their featured bell-cow back. That’s a tall order for a 23-year-old rookie.
2. Zach Wilson, QB, New York Jets
First-round quarterbacks are always under a ton of pressure, but there’s a reason why Wilson is named here while others are not. And it should be easy to guess why. The Jets have had a revolving door at quarterback for years. The Sam Darnold failure has left a sour taste in their mouth. They have to hit on their pick of Wilson. That’s just all there is to it. That may or may not be fair to Wilson, but that’s the nature of business in the NFL. The fans are not going to give him much time (see: Daniel Jones across town and Darnold before him). And if New York fans turn on you, things can get ugly in a hurry. Wilson has to start strong and stay strong.
1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Could there have been a more obvious pick than Lawrence to top this list? He may represent the most obvious choice, but that comes with being the No. 1 overall pick. There’s no way around that. The hype for Lawrence entering the 2021 NFL Draft was through the roof, and expectations are sky high. Can he turn the Jaguars into a winning football team? Is he capable of being the face of a struggling franchise? Will his college success transfer to the NFL? He’ll face that pressure and those questions on a weekly basis. Any sort of hiccup will be dissected under every single microscope across the country whether it’s fair or not. He will also regularly be compared to every other first-round quarterback that was selected after him. There is a lot resting on Lawrence’s shoulders.