NFL Draft: Which B1G first-rounder will have the best rookie season?
Seven players from the B1G were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Some of those players will likely transition into Pro Bowl selections at some point in their career and enjoy a lengthy and successful career in the NFL. So, that poses a question.
Which of the seven has the chance to have the best rookie season? The debate started on Thursday night and has carried over into this week.
Connor O’Gara, senior national columnist
Rashod Bateman. It’s big of me to put down my Bears bias and say that Justin Fields isn’t the answer here, but Andy Dalton is QB1, which means a Super Bowl is coming to the Windy City, and then Fields will take over in Year 2.
In all seriousness, I’ll go with Bateman in part because of where he ended up. The biggest concern I usually have with rookie receivers making the transition to the NFL is getting separation. When you have a quarterback like Lamar Jackson who constantly draws eyes from the back end of the defense, it can be a receiver’s best friend. Bateman’s ability to get open when plays break down could be what allows him to break out in Year 1. We know the skills are there. We know he can make plays on the outside, and he’s a dangerous downfield threat, though not exclusively.
It also might work out for Bateman that he’s going to a situation in which he likely won’t see No. 1 corners, but Hollywood Brown and Sammy Watkins aren’t exactly target monsters. Could Bateman be the 2021 version of Justin Jefferson? An 88-catch, 1,400-yard rookie season might be a bit ambitious, but I wouldn’t bet against the former Gopher star emerging as the top target in Baltimore by season’s end.
Paul Harvey, news writer
There are definitely some tempting choices for which B1G rookie will shine the brightest in 2021. Rashawn Slater with the Chargers or Greg Newsome II with the Browns are probably safe selections but with a lesser chance at having a huge season statistically. Justin Fields will have the ball in his hands a lot leading the Chicago offense and Kwity Paye has a big chance for an immediate impact as a rookie pass rusher with Indy. However, I’m going with former Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman after getting selected by the Ravens.
Bateman is a bit of a risky selection as a wide receiver in a rush-based attack, but he definitely looks like the missing piece for Baltimore’s offense under quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Ravens led the NFL with just over 3,000 yards rushing in 2020, but they finished dead last in the league with 2,739 yards through the air. That led to just two Baltimore players eclipsing 700 yards receiving, and one of those was tight end Mark Andrews.
Baltimore has already signed Sammy Watkins to go with Andrews and Marquise Brown, along with the elite rushing attack led by Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, and Gus Edwards. Bateman’s addition is not enough for the Ravens to drastically shift the offense away from what has worked running the ball, but make no mistake about it. Bateman has serious WR1 potential in the NFL due to his size, speed, and route-running ability. He’s also likely to see a lot of one-on-one coverage early as teams try to deal with the run, leading to some early big-play potential for Bateman.
Spenser Davis, news writer
I’m optimistic about each of the Big Ten’s 1st round picks for various reasons, but I think Justin Fields is the clear answer here. There’s no legitimate reason that he should have fallen all the way to No. 11 overall, and I expect him to prove that he was the steal of this draft.
Bears coach Matt Nagy is a good offensive mind, but he’s never had a quarterback as talented as Fields while he’s been with the Bears. Nagy should be able to get Fields into position to be successful right away. The Bears could use an overhaul at receiver, but Allen Robinson is a stud and Anthony Miller is a breakout candidate with quality QB play.
Chicago went 8-8 last season despite having one of the worst quarterback situations in the entire league. Fields leading the Bears to 10 wins and into the playoff conversation is certainly a possibility.
Dustin Schutte, managing editor
When I look at Rashawn Slater, I see Tristan Wirfs. The former Iowa star and first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft was able to carve out a starting role along the offensive line for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which ended up winning the Super Bowl. Wirfs was also one of the highest-graded rookies for the season.
Slater has the potential to have a similar impact with the Los Angeles Chargers after being taken No. 13 overall in this year’s draft. I don’t believe his arrival is going to catapult the Chargers in the Super Bowl conversation, but he could wind up having the best season for a rookie offensive lineman in 2021.
It’s not the attractive pick and obviously there aren’t a lot of big numbers for an offensive lineman to put up on the stat sheet, but just watch Slater’s tape from the 2019 season, particularly how well he kept Chase Young in check throughout that game in Evanston. Slater could end up being a Pro Bowl selection, or at least named to the All-Rookie Team, by the end of his first season in L.A.