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Buying or Selling NFL's Early Rookie Breakouts

Maurice Moton

Almost halfway through the 2021 NFL season, a handful of rookies have broken away from the pack.

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase has put his preseason case of the drops behind him, while Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts has come on strong as of late, too. Meanwhile, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons and Baltimore Ravens edge-rusher Odafe Oweh have cemented themselves as critical parts of their respective team's defenses.

However, there's no guarantee that these breakout rookies will maintain that level of production moving forward. Some may fall victim to the rookie wall during the second half of the season.

Here, we'll decide whether notable rookie standouts will stay as productive through the rest of the year.

Kyle Pitts, TE, Atlanta Falcons

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Heading into Week 5, Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts had yet to top 73 receiving yards. But when the Falcons traveled to London to take on the New York Jets, the No. 4 overall pick erupted with nine catches for 119 yards and a touchdown.

Wideout Calvin Ridley didn't suit up for that game (personal reasons), which allowed quarterback Matt Ryan to home in on Pitts. The rookie tight end led the Falcons in targets (10) against the Dolphins.

Ridley returned to the lineup Sunday after the Falcons' Week 6 bye, but Ryan continued to look for Pitts. He finished with seven catches for a career-high 163 yards against the Miami Dolphins.

With a team-leading 471 receiving yards, Pitts has become a big part of the Falcons' aerial attack after a somewhat modest start to the season. As his connection with Ryan heats up, he'll have more 100-plus-yard performances.

Verdict: Buy

DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles

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DeVonta Smith ranks third among rookies in receiving yards (406)which leads all Philadelphia Eagles pass-catchers.

Eagles general manager Howie Roseman traded up to the 10th spot for Smith, which has worked out in quarterback Jalen Hurts' favor.

Hurts threw his first touchdown pass of the season to Smith, and he's targeted the rookie wideout far more times (53) than any other player on the roster. The Alabama product has 22 more targets than rookie running back Kenneth Gainwell, who's second on the roster with 31.

However, Hurts' inconsistency could continue to limit Smith's production in matchups against solid pass defenses. He's completed fewer than 60 percent of his pass attempts in four out of seven games and thrown for fewer than 200 yards in three outings.

Smith hasn't scored a touchdown since Week 1 and has finished with fewer than 40 receiving yards in three contests this season.

Verdict: Sell

Ja'Marr Chase, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

The Cincinnati Bengals have the early front-runner for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Ja'Marr Chase went through a dreadful offseason filled with drops at practice and during the preseason. Now, he has the most receiving yards (754) through a rookie's first seven games in NFL history. 

The big-play wideout adds an explosive component to the Bengals' aerial attack. He's averaging 21.5 yards per catch and has five touchdown catches of 34 or more yards.

Already the primary target in the Bengals' passing attack, Chase should continue to rack up gaudy numbers. His chemistry with quarterback Joe Burrow, which goes back to their 2019 championship run at LSU, isn't going to fade anytime soon.

When the Bengals selected Chase with the No. 5 overall pick, he talked about breaking franchise records. Well, he's currently on pace to top Chad Johnson's single-season receiving yards record (1,440).

Chase may rewrite the Bengals' record books, finish among the top 10 in multiple receiving categories and become the first wide receiver to win Offensive Rookie of the Year since Odell Beckham Jr. in 2014.

Verdict: Buy

Greg Rousseau, Edge, Buffalo Bills

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Greg Rousseau has provided a notable spark across the Buffalo Bills defensive line, which is a key unit for a defense that's allowed the fewest yards and the second-fewest points leaguewide.

Rousseau looks like a complete defender on the edge, having already notched 20 tackles (17 solo), four tackles for loss, three sacks, nine quarterback pressures, an interception and a pass breakup. 

Despite those mpressive numbers, Rousseau has played only 51 percent of the defensive snaps, which limits his ceiling. In fact, he saw a slight drop-off in his workload after Week 3, playing fewer than 48 percent of the snaps in three consecutive contests.

The Bills have depth at defensive end with Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, A.J. Epenesa and rookie second-rounder Boogie Basham in the rotation. Rousseau could have some quiet outings if he continues to lose snaps in a deep group.

Verdict: Sell

Micah Parsons, LB, Dallas Cowboys

Stew Milne/Associated Press

At Penn State, Micah Parsons showcased his ability to play linebacker and rush the passer. Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has put the rookie's skill set to good use.

Though Parsons has handled his duties as an inside linebacker, he's also filled some of the pass-rushing void as defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence recovers from foot surgery. His versatility has made him an instant star in the middle of the Cowboys defense.

Since Week 4, Parsons has played at least 93 percent of the snaps in each game. He took the field for every play on defense in Week 6 against the New England Patriots. 

Through six games, Parsons has recorded 31 tackles (20 solo), three for loss and 2.5 sacks. He leads all rookies in quarterback pressures (14).

The Cowboys seem to have the utmost trust in Parsons as the centerpiece of their defense. With his every-down role and pass-rushing production, he's the clear-cut favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Verdict: Buy

Odafe Oweh, Edge, Baltimore Ravens

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Odafe Oweh didn't have much production as a pass-rusher at Penn State. He didn't record a single sack in his redshirt sophomore term.

Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale has tapped into Oweh's potential, putting him in a position to use his traits effectively as a pass-rusher. The former Nittany Lion has recorded 14 tackles (12 solo), three for loss, three sacks and ranks second among rookies in quarterback pressures (12).

Oweh must further develop his skill set to make an impact after the Ravens' Week 8 bye, which is a concern for a rookie without a highly productive track record in college. He's had quiet outings over the last two weeks, recording only one tackle. 

In Week 7 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Oweh lined up for 60 percent of the Ravens' defensive plays. That was his second-lowest snap count since Week 1.

Martindale can generate pocket pressure in a variety of ways, using several different players. This season, nine Ravens have recorded at least one sack. Baltimore has blitzed on 27.7 percent of dropbacks (fifth-most leaguewide), so the defense isn't reliant on edge-rushers pressuring the quarterback.

Oweh's pass-rushing numbers will likely fluctuate through the remainder of his rookie campaign.

Verdict: Sell

Rashawn Slater, OT, Los Angeles Chargers

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Rashawn Slater didn't allow a sack until he went up against Cleveland Browns star edge-rusher Myles Garrett in Week 5. Aside from that matchup, the Northwestern product has won his one-on-one battles in the trenches, providing reliable pass protection on quarterback Justin Herbert's blind side. 

If it takes Garrett's ferocious pass-rushing ability to knock Slater off his square, the Chargers have a young talent who should be able to handle most of his blocking assignments. 

While talking to reporters, head coach Brandon Staley praised Slater's communication and willingness to tell running back Austin Ekeler not to help out with chip blocks against Garrett:

"I think what you're seeing is a player that is earning the confidence to say that because he has a lot of belief in his game. ... We all know Myles is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, one of the top rushers in the league, one of the top defensive players in the league. Those are all encouraging signs, to me, both of those things."

Compared to Penei Sewell (No. 7 overall pick), who's allowed four sacks, per Pro Football Focus, Slater (No. 13 overall pick) looks like the better first-round tackle thus far.

Verdict: Buy

Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Los Angeles Chargers

Nick Wass/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Chargers lost cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. to the Las Vegas Raiders in free agency, but they selected a ready-made starter in Asante Samuel Jr., who won Defensive Rookie of the Month for September.

At 5'10" and 180 pounds, Samuel likely slipped to the second round in the draft because of his atypical size for a boundary cornerback. Yet through six games, he's come up big for the Chargers, logging 20 tackles (15 solo), one for loss, two interceptions and five pass breakups.

Samuel has allowed a 59.4 percent completion rate and an 81.1 passer rating. However, the Chargers benched him in Week 5 against the Cleveland Browns. He played only 40 percent of the snaps in that game but had a full workload against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6. The Florida State product has also surrendered three touchdowns.

The Chargers may have to accept the good with the bad and hope Samuel has a lot more performances that fall under the former description. Despite his strong showing through September, he's experienced some lapses and may struggle in red-zone situations, which raises some concerns.

Verdict: Sell

Najee Harris, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Fred Vuich/Associated Press

Though it took a few weeks, Najee Harris now looks like the dynamic playmaker who racked up 1,891 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior at Alabama.

In Week 3, Harris had a breakout performance against the Cincinnati Bengals, hauling in 14 passes for 102 yards. Two games later, he rushed for 122 yards and a touchdown against the Denver Broncos. The first-year running back has scored at least one touchdown in each of the last three games.

Before a Week 7 bye, the Steelers started to ramp up their ground attack. Harris logged 47 carries for 203 yards and a touchdown over the last two games.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has struggled to find his rhythm in a new system under offensive coordinator Matt Canada, throwing for multiple touchdowns in only one contest. When you factor in his decline because of age (39), the Steelers will likely lean on Harris' fresh legs to move the ball in the second half of the season.

With 632 yards and four touchdowns from scrimmage, Harris is on wideout Ja'Marr Chase's heels in the Offensive Rookie of the Year race.

Verdict: Buy

Azeez Ojulari, Edge, New York Giants

Adam Hunger/Associated Press

The New York Giants had to bolster their pass rush on the edge to complement defensive end Leonard Williams, who led the team in sacks (11.5) last year. They may have found a consistent pass-rusher in Azeez Ojulari.

According to The Athletic's Dan Duggan, Ojulari might have slipped to the second round because of concerns about his knee. The Giants took a chance on him, which has paid early dividends. The Georgia product leads the team and all rookies in sacks (5.5).

More importantly, the Giants have expanded Ojulari's role over the last four games. In Week 7 against the Carolina Panthers, he played a season-high 67 percent of the defensive snaps and put together a 2.5-sack performance.

Ojulari has already produced at the level of a first-round pick. With his snap count trending up, he's a dark-horse candidate to win Defensive Rookie of the Year because of his impressive sack count.  

Verdict: Buy


Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.


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