I try to tell people—and myself—that the evaluation of incoming rookies into the NFL is not an instant gratification thing. Sometimes it can be depending on the landing spots and situations, but when we scout, we scout for what a player can be throughout their career as a whole.
That being said, we get excited for these careers to take off just like everyone else, and when rookies get selected to teams, sometimes we can’t help ourselves anticipating what they can do in their first year.
As the last two decades of pro football have evolved in the NFL, rookies have become contributors and even stars more and more often. Rookie years used to be seen as almost like redshirt years in college where the first season was used more for acclimation than accolades. But as teams desperately try to improve as much as they can each year, they’ve shown to be more and more willing to give their new blood a chance at setting the standard for their careers early on.
Right now there are a handful of over/under bets that are available regarding some of the top pass-catchers taken in the 2021 NFL Draft. I thought a fun way to examine the hype and projections for these talented rookies is to see whether or not we believe they’ll hit the over or under mark for touchdowns in their first season.
Ja’Marr Chase: Over/Under 7
There’s a good chance this prop bet gets the most action one way or the other due to the fact that you can create a case for either side.
On the over side, the last time Chase and quarterback Joe Burrow were on the same team, Chase caught 20 touchdowns, Burrow won the Heisman trophy, Chase won the Biletnikoff award, and LSU won a national championship. That chemistry will likely carry over and Chase should be a Week 1 starter given that he was drafted at No. 5 overall.
But on the under side of things, this ain’t college anymore, and seven touchdowns for a receiver is still a lot. Seven receiving touchdowns would’ve led the Bengals last year, and though many would say that Chase should be the top wide receiver there anyway, the Bengals were almost bottom five in the NFL in touchdown passes thrown in 2020. The offensive line also might not make passing the ball as easy as it could be, but the Bengals will likely be down and throwing in most contests. Even Justin Jefferson, who was absolutely incredible last season, had just seven touchdowns himself last year. I think Chase is in for a good year, but to predict it being better than Jefferson’s last year? I can’t do that.
I’m going with under.
DeVonta Smith: Over/Under 5.5
Where I just went through my case saying how seven touchdowns is a lot, I fully expect DeVonta Smith to go over five and a half. The man was just far too dominant in college football last year to think that he can’t step in and be the Eagles’ best—really only?—legit pass-catching option. He and Jalen Hurts do have some chemistry going back to their Alabama days, and I also don’t see Philadelphia’s defense keeping their contests low scoring and close. Give me the over for Smith.
Jaylen Waddle: Over/Under 5
So what about another Alabama wide receiver making a name for himself? Waddle is in a crowded wide receiver room in Miami with incumbent receivers like Preston Williams and DeVante Parker, as well as a newcomer veteran Will Fuller. The best thing Waddle has going for him: he’s unique. Fuller is a field-stretcher and a speed demon, too, but Miami wouldn’t have used the No. 6 overall pick on Waddle if they didn’t believe he can stand out within the receiver group they have. They want to get more explosive and they’ll do that with Waddle. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa struggled to look comfortable last season, and a familiar face in Waddle could help that.
Still, I think there are too many mouths to feed in the passing attack in Miami—while Waddle will help, he won’t be a big end zone guy. I’ll say just under.
Kyle Pitts: Over/Under 7
If I asked you who the best two tight ends in the NFL were you’d hopefully say George Kittle and Travis Kelce. Kittle touchdowns in his rookie season: two. Kelce touchdowns in his first season: zero. If I asked you to name the highest recently-drafted tight end before Pitts you’d say T.J. Hockenson. Hockenson touchdowns his rookie year: two.
It just doesn’t happen very often that a rookie tight end can be that consistent of a red zone target for their team. Now, Kelce and Kittle weren’t drafted in the top 10 like Pitts was, so that goes into their early playing time, but in their first years as starters (second years), Kelce and Kittle both had just five touchdowns.
Pitts is joining an offense that is subtracting a lot of targets that went to Julio Jones. Many of those could go straight to Pitts. He was also a monster in the red zone in college, and the Falcons will use him as such, but I would still bet the under. Seven is just so many, and to win the bet he’d obviously need eight.
If he gets more than seven touchdowns as a rookie, this guy will be on the fast track to an All-Pro career. Not doubting him, just saying how impressive it would be.