The Detroit Lions’ 2021 rookie class is going to be tested and tested right away. Whether it’s due to their early success in camp, the Lions’ thin roster, or a combination of both, several of Detroit’s rookies are lined up for either starting roles or heavy rotational work right out of the gate.
That makes predicting the Lions’ 2021 Rookie of the Year a bit of a challenge. At least three players will have starting roles out of the gate, and several players look like they’ll hit the ground running. Hell, even undrafted rookie AJ Parker appears to have won the nickel cornerback job.
Unsurprisingly, our picks are all over the place. Here’s a look:
Who will be the Lions’ 2021 Rookie of the Year
Ryan Mathews — Levi Onwuzurike
Detroit’s rookie class is one full of intrigue. Any of Brad Holmes first five picks could be candidates for this honor because they’ll all be receiving significant playing time and opportunities.
For Derrick Barnes, his playing time could increase as the season moves along, but players like Penei Sewell, Alim McNeill, and Amon-Ra St. Brown all figure to be starters from Week 1. The one player left out from those starters was second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike, but he could end up playing a lot more for this team to start this season after Da’Shawn Hand’s move to the injured-reserve left the team with less depth along the defensive interior. I’ll take Onwuzurike, a player selected to Pro Football Focus’ All-Rookie team this preseason, as the Lions top rookie for the 2021 season.
Mike Payton — Derrick Barnes
I think it’s obvious (from my defensive MVP pick) that I’m going with Derrick Barnes here as well. This is the sword I may fall on.
John Whiticar — Alim McNeill
Alim McNeill is going to see a lot of snaps, and based on what we’ve seen in preseason, there is a lot to be excited about. Having a dynamic nose tackle—that’s almost an oxymoron—is such a valuable asset for a defense, and McNeill figures to add some serious pop from the interior. He might not play every down, but I think he will have a significant impact on this defense, especially for a rookie. Penei Sewell’s preseason struggles give me pause, and I worry it will take a year before he settles in at right tackle. Levi Onwuzurike will also play a key role on defense, but he will likely be in a rotation. Amon-Ra St. Brown could impress, but he is also a fourth-round pick, so expectations should be tempered. Derrick Barnes was a preseason star, but he is likely to remain behind Jamie Collins and Alex Anzalone. I think McNeill has an excellent combination of talent and opportunity.
Chris Perfett — McNeill
Alim McNeill has been furious, hungry and nasty. This is the combination for messy, and that’s very good if you happen to be an interior defensive lineman in the NFL. He’ll make an immediate impact on the line and he can show it right away in his rookie year.
Jerry Mallory — Onwuzurike
Lots of good candidates. Sewell will settle in and be a force in run blocking out the gate. McNeil turned heads in training camp, earning a starting gig. Derrick Barnes was a great surprise also. Each will likely be starters out the gate or shortly thereafter (your days are numbered, Anzalone). But I’m going with the guy who is slept on for now but not for long.
Levi Onwuzurike was a forgotten prospect by many after opting out of the 2020 season. I believe if he played the COVID season and continued his trajectory from his previous three seasons at Washington, he would’ve been picked in the mid-to-late teens instead of the top of Round 2. Once arriving in Detroit, he missed some time early on but came into camp making an immediate impact. The same happened in the preseason in which he was the only Lion rookie to make PFF’s All-Rookie team. He won’t start unless injury strikes up front, but he will get plenty of snaps. He will prove to be the best interior pass rusher the Lions have en route to a stellar rookie season.
Kyle Yost — Onwuzurike
The Lions invested so heavily on both lines during the draft that someone is due to hit the ground running. It would arguably be more important (and more likely) for that to be Penei Sewell, but Onwuzurike could really elevate the defense in a variety of ways if he is as good as expected. This is probably a class that has an okay rookie season but one that looks really strong three or four years down the line.
Kellie Rowe — Amon-Ra St. Brown
Did I mention the Lions are thin at receiver? This rookie will hopefully see his share of targets and prove to be the future of the Detroit Lions receiving corps. It was hard not to say Penei Sewell here but I just feel awesome about St. Brown, especially after his strong preseason showing.
Erik Schlitt — St. Brown
When looking at who could earn rookie of the year honors, a lot of the decision will come down to opportunity. There are three rookies starting at this time, Penei Sewell, Alim McNeill, and Amon-Ra St. Brown. I’d love nothing more than to see a nose tackle win the honors but I’m not sure that’s realistic. Sewell makes a ton of sense, but as is often the case with offensive linemen, they only stand out when they’re making mistakes, which will happen as he continues to acclimate. St. Brown is in the best spot to consistently contribute week-in and week-out, and he might already be third in the pecking order for targets. He also definitely has the swagger to make people notice him, which will make him someone fans will fall in love with.
Jeremy Reisman — St. Brown
The good news is that the Lions actually have a ton of candidates here. Perhaps it’s bad news that no one has taken the Lions’ first-round pick Penei Sewell, but I think we all understand he plays a tough position, is switching positions, and the kid is only 20 years old. He needs time.
St. Brown, on the other hand, does not need time. He won over the starting slot position almost immediately, and wide receivers tend to transition to the NFL more quickly than almost any other position. St. Brown will be an early favorite option for Jared Goff, and his tenacious work ethic will only make him better and better as the season goes on.
Plus, wide receivers get stats, so St. Brown will be the kind of box score warrior that wins him these types of awards.
Hamza Baccouche — Barnes
I’d have to say Derrick Barnes. He’s a linebacker and that means a steep learning curve, but this coaching staff has shown lots of patience and a willingness to usher him along at his own pace. If that continues into the regular season, that means relying more on Alex Anzalone and Jamie Collins to take on heavier workloads, while allowing Barnes to focus on what he’s good at as he adapts to the pace of the game. With limited preseason action I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case, and I definitely think he is being put in the best position of all rookies to have a successful year.
Andrew Kato — McNeill
Defensive tackle Alim McNeill will effectively have a starting nose tackle workload by October. McNeill and Michael Brockers will shut down the inside run in a way we haven’t seen since the second half of 2018. Opposing offenses might still get the better of the Lions, but it won’t be due to interior defensive line play.
Who will be the Detroit Lions’ Rookie of the Year in 2021?
This poll is closed
Amon-Ra St. Brown