The NFL 2021 draft class made their regular-season debut this week. Here are some of the top performances and players to keep an eye on.
1. Mac Jones, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots took a gamble on Mac Jones when they released Cam Newton earlier this month, and it seems to have paid off. Although the Patriots came up one point short against the Miami Dolphins, Jones showed promise for the rest of the season. The Alabama rookie went 29-for-39 for 281 yards and a touchdown. He was efficient in his passing, spreading the ball to multiple receivers and finding gaps in the Miami defense to make plays. He also led the offense to go 11-for-16 on third downs during the game, something that the Patriots struggled with last year. However, he struggled to score in the red zone, scoring only one touchdown in four red zone drives. Penalties and turnovers plagued the New England offense, showing that the Patriots need to correct their mistakes if they want to be considered a contender in the AFC this season. Jones will be an interesting addition to the equation, especially without a veteran like Cam Newton to lean on if he falters.
2. Devonta Smith, Philadelphia Eagles
The Heisman winner helped the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Atlanta Falcons soundly 32-6. After he missed the first preseason game due to injury, fans were worried that they wouldn’t get the same player who went No. 10 overall. That was not the case. Devonta Smith finished with six receptions for a team-leading 71 yards. The rookie wide receiver caught a go-ahead touchdown halfway through the first quarter, giving the Eagles a lead they would not relinquish. The 18-yard touchdown was also the first catch of his NFL career, caught just barely in the endzone after sneaking past two Falcon defenders. Ending the game with the title of the only player in franchise history to have five catches and a touchdown in his first career game, Smith looks to be everything the Eagles have been missing the last several years and more.
3. Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons
The fourth overall pick this year, Kyle Pitts was thrown onto the field against the Philadelphia Eagles. Although the Falcons lost to the Eagles 32-6, the tight end performed well. Pitts had the highest target rate of any Falcons receiver, receiving one-fifth of Matt Ryan’s pass attempts. He had highlights when he converted a clutch fourth down, and a 15-yard reception down the seam. He was comfortable in the slot, playing 20 snaps there with a combined 23 snaps from inline and wide. Although Pitts clearly still has work to do – he generated only one yard per route run and one first down – his NFL debut showed promise on a team that will give him plenty of time on the field. This experience and opportunity might be exactly what he needs to grow into the player he has the potential to become.
4. Elijah Molden, Tennessee Titans
The defensive back out of Washington made an impact this Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. After making a splash the week before with eight sacks and a few key plays against the Buccaneers, Elijah Molden and the Titans took a hit with a 13-38 loss. Now a cornerback, Molden is a key part of the Titan’s defense, even though he is a rookie. He had two tackles this weekend, failing to live up to the expectations he set during the preseason. He also missed a tackle for loss and gave up a touchdown, but according to coach Mike Vrabel, the defense will “bounce back.” Considering the volatility of his past few games, he is definitely a rookie to keep an eye on. He has the potential to help the Titans make an impact this season, but he still needs to find his footing.
5. Zach Wilson, New York Jets
Zach Wilson offered a ray of hope for long-suffering Jets fans this week against Carolina. Finally, it appears as if the Jets might have someone to take the reins at the quarterback position that has failed them for years. Although the Jets lost to the Carolina Panthers 14-19, the BYU rookie threw two touchdowns. Both touchdowns were thrown to Corey Davis. Wilson showed grit that he will need to play for the Jets when was faced with heavy pressure throughout the game but still managed to rally the offense. He battled the entire game, going 20 of 37 for 258 yards. After struggling in the first half and throwing a pick, Wilson came out strong in the second half. He scored his second touchdown with 1:58 left in the game to give the Jets a chance to come back. With more playing time and a few adjustments to the offensive line, Wilson will find his footing in the NFL. Although the Jets still have some work to do and injuries to nurse, they are expected to be much better than they have been in the previous years, and Zach Wilson will lead the way.