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The Late-Round NFL Rookies Who Could Make an Instant Impact in 2021

Players at the top of the draft get all the attention, but some less-heralded prospects could be in line to break out this season

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

Players taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft tend to hog most of the hype, leaving all those lesser-known Day 3 guys as relative post-draft afterthoughts. Still, just about every season, we see fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-round picks contribute as rookies for their new teams―particularly when those guys land in the right situation. Here are a few rookies with the right combination of opportunity, talent, and fit to earn a significant role in 2021.

DT Jay Tufele, Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars landed the biggest fish in the draft in quarterback Trevor Lawrence, and the superstar passer is sure to get the bulk of the limelight in Jacksonville this year. But the team isn’t going to get over the hump and back into contention unless it can improve on both sides of the ball, and I liked what Urban Meyer and Co. did in the draft in adding early impact playmakers on defense. One of those guys is Tufele, a 6-foot-2, 305-pound defensive tackle the team selected with the first pick of the fourth round, no. 106. The USC standout combines size, power, and high-end quickness for the position, bringing an attacking, aggressive style to the three-technique spot in Jacksonville’s front line. His first-step burst and nonstop motor gives him a chance to be a disruptive force at that spot.

That will be key for Meyer, who noted when he was hired in Jacksonville that his goal as a college coach was always to build a top-five defensive line. “There is one commonality of great teams,” Meyer said in March, “They have great defensive lines.” The Jaguars have a few pieces already in place on the interior line, with Taven Bryan, DaVon Hamilton (a third-rounder from last year), and Malcom Brown (acquired in a trade with the Saints in March) all set to man the middle. But Tufele, who tallied 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles for a loss in two seasons at USC (before opting out in 2020), has the opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation early on. I expect to see him disrupting the pocket early in his career.

RB Michael Carter, New York Jets

Carter has a good shot at ending up one of the biggest steals of Day 3. Pick no. 107, the North Carolina back arrives in New York as on the heels of back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons for the Tar Heels. He combines quickness, vision, and elusiveness as a runner with the pass-catching chops to be an impact player on all three downs. He’ll have to work his way into the team’s running back rotation early in his career―he’ll be competing with veteran Tevin Coleman, La’Mical Perine (a fourth-rounder last year), and the speedy Ty Johnson for snaps this season―but in my opinion, Carter is the most dynamic running back in that group.

Carter is undersized at 5-foot-8 and just 200 pounds, but he has excellent vision, gyroscopic balance, quick feet, and an effective jump cut as a runner. And he should be an excellent fit in Mike LaFleur’s wide zone run game, where Carter’s ability to cut downhill sharply and accelerate to top speed will come in handy. He’s not a powerful runner so he likely can’t be relied on in short-yardage and goal-line situations, but that shouldn’t stop him from earning a significant role as a rookie.

WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit Lions

The Lions put together an incredibly on-brand draft under new head coach Dan Campbell and GM Brad Holmes, focusing most of their efforts on knee-cap-biting trench players like offensive tackle Penei Sewell, defensive tackles Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill, and supersized cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu. St. Brown, who Detroit chose at no. 112, certainly fits into that draft class motif too, a physical red zone weapon at receiver who is also the son of a former Mr. Universe.

The USC Trojans star isn’t the biggest (listed at 5-foot-11 and 197 pounds) or fastest receiver in this class (he ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash at his pro day), but he’s a technician as a route runner and knows how to use his frame to box out opponents and shield them away from the ball at the catch point. And unlike most fourth-round receiver picks, St. Brown also steps into a situation where he could earn snaps early on in his career. St. Brown will have to compete for looks with the likes of Breshad Perriman, Tyrell Williams, Quintez Cephus, and Kalif Raymond, among a few others, but the departing trio of Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, and Danny Amendola vacates a combined 216 targets from the team’s offense last year. St. Brown has drawn some stylistic comparisons to Rams receiver Cooper Kupp (specifically in his ability to expertly set up out-breaking routes)―and it wouldn’t be a huge shock if the rookie pass catcher quickly emerges as one of Jared Goff’s favorite targets this season.

WR Dez Fitzpatrick, Tennessee Titans

Fitzpatrick wasn’t a frequently hyped prospect in the pre-draft process but his landing spot in a wide open Titans passing attack demands attention. A four-star recruit and four-year starter for the Cardinals, Fitzpatrick tallied 2,589 yards and 21 touchdowns in his college career and impressed at the Senior Bowl with his route-running and strong hands. He plays tough near the sideline, has the speed to get over the top of a defense (he averaged 16.8 yards per reception in his career, including a 19.4-yard average in 2020), and flashed the ability to pick up yards after the catch. Tennessee made the Louisville star the no. 109 pick because of his intriguing mix of size, speed, and playmaking talent. And now the team will surely give Fitzpatrick the opportunity to pick up some of the 192 targets the combination of Corey Davis, Jonnu Smith, and Adam Humphries vacated from last year’s offense.

Crucially, Fitzpatrick has a pretty clear path to a meaningful role. A.J. Brown should garner most of the passing volume, but the competition among the rest of the receiving group—including Josh Reynolds, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, Rashard Davis, Cameron Batson, and Marcus Johnson, and a few others—should be fierce. Fitzpatrick’s biggest hurdle is likely going to be to beat out Reynolds, who won’t be guaranteed a starting job on a one-year, $1.75 million deal. If Fitzpatrick can impress in training camp and the preseason, he has a chance to win the team’s no. 2 or no. 3 spot at receiver.

DT Daviyon Nixon, Carolina Panthers

The Panthers signaled a changing of the guard on their interior defensive line in February with the release of stalwart defensive tackle Kawann Short. Last year’s top pick, Derrick Brown, takes up the mantle in that group, flanked by Bravvion Roy, veteran DaQuan Jones, and a handful of others. And despite surprisingly falling all the way to pick no. 158 for Carolina (I had expected he’d come off the board in the third round), Nixon has a chance to earn a rotational role in the Panthers’ trenches in Year 1. The first-team All-American racked up 5.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and an interception for Iowa last year, showing off a quick first step and rare movement skills for a big man. He’s probably best deployed early on as an attacking one-gap pass rusher, but he brings the size and athleticism to develop into a three-down defender down the line.

WR Cornell Powell, Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs’ passing offense has run heavily through the team’s top two receiving targets in Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill over the past couple of years, leaving an assortment of role-playing pass catchers rotating in as Patrick Mahomes’s tertiary option. But Sammy Watkins is now in Baltimore, and the likes of Mecole Hardman, Byron Pringle, and Demarcus Robinson have all failed to show much consistency or dependability in the team’s passing game. That could create an opportunity for the team’s fifth-round pick, Powell.

The four-star recruit was a late bloomer at Clemson, playing a reserve role his first four years there before breaking out as a redshirt senior, grabbing 53 catches for 882 yards and seven touchdowns in 2020. My pre-draft pro comparison for Powell was, interestingly enough, Sammy Watkins; he’s big, physical at the catch point, can stretch a defense deep, and offers some big-play potential―so when the Chiefs grabbed him as a Watkins replacement, it did pique my interest. He’ll have to really impress coaches in the preseason to leapfrog Hardman, Pringle, Robinson, and a handful of others, but if he can show consistency as a route runner and the ability to win on the outside when given the chance, he could earn a role as the team’s no. 3 receiving option sooner rather than later.