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Zach Bolinger/Associated Press
At the halfway point of the 2021 NFL season, several notable rookies are trending in opposite directions.
Some have exploded onto the scene as budding household names by matching or exceeding their predraft hype in terms of production. Meanwhile, others have failed to live up to expectations or have tailed off in recent weeks.
Cincinnati Bengals wideout Ja’Marr Chase, the No. 5 overall pick, dominated the first quarter of the season and leads all rookies in receiving (44 catches, 835 yards, seven touchdowns, 19.0 yards per catch average). Although he’s cooled off a bit in recent weeks, his hot start to the season keeps his stock afloat for now.
Below, we’ll outline recent rookie movement, including recognizable names and ones that should classify as such after big climbs.
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The Kansas City Chiefs underwent one of the league’s most dramatic offensive line rebuilds this offseason after injuries left them depleted in last year’s Super Bowl. Second-round pick Creed Humphrey was somewhat of an afterthought in that equation, but it’s now clear that he shouldn’t be.
The Chiefs traded a package including a first-round pick to the Baltimore Ravens to acquire left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. in April. They also signed guard Joe Thuney to a five-year, $80 million deal in free agency.
However, Humphrey has been a glue guy in the middle. He played every snap through the Chiefs’ first nine games and has allowed only one sack and three penalties on 700-plus snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He currently has a 90.5 PFF grade, which puts him in the “elite” category.
While most of the attention is going to the bigger names on the offensive line and the struggles of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Humphrey has quietly looked like a borderline All-Pro.
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Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
When the New York Giants selected Kadarius Toney with the No. 20 overall pick, they did so with the idea of pairing him with big free-agent addition Kenny Golladay (four-year, $72 million) to help spur the development of 2019 No. 6 overall pick Daniel Jones.
Instead, Toney missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury and COVID-19. He also suffered an ankle injury early in the Giants’ Week 6 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, which caused him to miss the following game.
Toney did flash in Week 5 on the road against the Dallas Cowboys, catching 10 of 13 targets for 189 yards. The Giants still lost, but it seemed like it could be the start of a breakout season, especially since Mike Glennon attempted more passes than Jones after the starter suffered a concussion.
Instead, Toney has caught only eight passes over the ensuing three games. He topped out at 36 receiving yards during that span.
In a stacked wideout class headlined by Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase, Miami’s Jaylen Waddle and Philadelphia’s DeVonta Smith, Toney looks like far less of a potential difference-maker.
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John Munson/Associated Press
While Kadarius Toney has largely disappointed thus far, edge-rusher Azeez Ojulari is looking like a second-round steal for the New York Giants.
After posting 9.5 sacks over 10 games with Georgia last year, Ojulari already had 5.5 sacks over nine games with the Giants. That’s tied for team lead with Leonard Williams, who played on the franchise tag last year and signed a three-year, $63 million contract this past offseason.
There’s plenty of reason to believe he’s just getting started. As one of the top early-round steals from this year’s draft class, Ojulari’s stock is pointing straight up.
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The Miami Dolphins are in a full-blown free fall at 3-7 after last year’s 10-win campaign. That’s in large part because aren’t getting much from the five first-round picks that they made over the last two drafts.
Most of the attention goes to 2020 fifth overall pick Tua Tagovailoa given the importance of the quarterback position. But don’t overlook edge rusher Jaelan Phillips, this year’s 18th pick.
Phillips currently has a 53.2 PFF grade, which falls into the “replaceable” category. It’s too early to give up on him completely, but he’s off to an alarmingly slow start for a top-20 pick.
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Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
Second-round tight end Pat Freiermuth didn’t appear poised to have a major rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger figured to focus on wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson, first-round running back Najee Harris and veteran tight end Eric Ebron.
But with Smith-Schuster now out for the season and Ebron having missed a few games, Freiermuth has become a reliable presence for Big Ben in recent weeks.
After receiving only 20 targets over six games before the Steelers’ Week 7 bye, Freiermuth has received 22 targets over the three games since. He’s caught 14 passes for 118 yards and three touchdowns during that span.
Freiermuth has only 276 receiving yards on the year, but he leads the team with four touchdown catches. He seems likely to be a much bigger part of the passing attack moving forward, as the Steelers have gone 2-0-1 out of the bye after their 3-3 start.
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No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence was widely seen as a generational, can’t-miss prospect. The Jacksonville Jaguars are in the midst of a rebuild, but he entered the season with high expectations after first-round passers Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert made an immediate splash last year.
However, Lawrence hasn’t gotten off to nearly the same hot start. He’s completed only 58.0 percent of his passes for 1,983 yards, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Advanced metrics don’t paint a better picture for the Clemson product. He trails only Chicago Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields in bad-throw percentage (23.9 percent), and he has the worst on-target percentage (66.8 percent) of any signal-caller with at least 150 passing attempts this season.
Growing pains are common for rookie passers, but Lawrence has failed to reach the 200-yard mark or throw a touchdown in two consecutive games now. He’s only had one game in which he ‘s thrown for more than one score.
Nobody would argue Lawrence has a good supporting cast, but No. 1 overall picks routinely get drafted into bad situations. Lawrence hasn’t been able to overcome his surroundings yet.
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Michael Dwyer/Associated Press
Early in the season, the New England Patriots kept things simple for No. 15 overall pick Mac Jones. However, both Jones and the Patriots have made major strides in recent weeks.
The Alabama product threw two touchdowns and three interceptions over his first three starts, and the Patriots started off 1-2. But this past Sunday, he torched the Cleveland Browns with three touchdowns and no picks in a 45-7 win.
As PFF’s Anthony Treash noted, Jones’ 87.0 grade is the highest for a rookie passer over his first 10 starts since 2006, and he’s the fifth-highest graded passer in the NFL. His bad-throw percentage is only 15.7, while he’s on target 79.2 percent of the time.
While Jones has thrown only 13 touchdowns and seven picks so far, he’s completed 69 percent of his attempts. His upward progression has coincided with the Patriots’ 4-0 run after a 2-4 start.