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Which Ohio State rookie will have the greatest impact in the NFL in 2021?

The start of the regular season is right around the corner.

Buffalo Bills v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Which Ohio State rookie will have the greatest impact in the NFL in 2021?

Josh’s Take: Trey Sermon, RB — San Francisco 49ers

Ohio State had 10 players taken in the 2021 NFL Draft, and five others signed with teams as undrafted free agents. It followed a recent trend of OSU producing ready-made players for the next level. They trail only Alabama in number of draft selections since 2010. Early returns over the last handful of years have been great for former Buckeyes, and 2020 was no different. J.K. Dobbins was a standout running back for the Baltimore Ravens, Chase Young was named Defensive Rookie of the Year for the Washington Football Team… you know the deal, former Buckeyes have been lighting it up. Unfortunately, I doubt that this 2021 class will have more than a few contributors — especially in their rookie year(s).

After the 2019 season, Shaun Wade was projected to be the next great Buckeye corner, but his stock has fallen, and he is now part of a deep and talented position group in Baltimore. Wyatt Davis is a plug-and-play offensive lineman, but they rarely receive a lot of attention or praise — especially at guard. The linebackers were uninspiring in college aside from Pete Werner, and landed in NFL spots where they all project as backups. Justin Fields and Trey Sermon are the most likely to impact their new team(s), and I really don’t think Gene and I are left with other options to consider. A case could be made that Jonathan Cooper looks like the reincarnation of Lawrence Taylor during the preseason, but I am not losing an argument to my podcast co-host by choosing a seventh-round draft pick.

Buckeye loyalists all believe Justin Fields will be great, and I am no exception. However, I believe Trey Sermon will make a bigger impact in his rookie year with the San Francisco 49ers. At the very least, Sermon’s success could lead to winning more football games. After what I have seen in the preseason, if Fields were to win the starting quarterback job for the Chicago Bears, he will have the weight of the franchise on his shoulders. The Bears look awful. Sermon, on the other hand, could become the lead running back for a well-balanced offense; an offense that is complimented by a young, talented defense and led by a creative coach. Sorry Chicago: I love your city, but your offensive guru of a coach looks like he left his ability to call plays in Kansas City.

Let’s focus on Trey Sermon now, shall we? He landed in the perfect spot to potentially be successful. The 49ers love to run the football. Their coach, Kyle Shanahan, stays extremely loyal to a specific zone running scheme, but he creatively uses a ton of pre-snap motion and eye candy to keep defenses off-balance. He puts his running backs in a position to succeed, no matter what type of runner they are (or were perceived to be). As I pointed out in my fantasy football piece on the former Buckeye, the only thing Sermon lacks is top-end speed, which Shanahan has gravitated towards in recent seasons. However, he has also gotten plenty of production out of bruisers like another former Buckeye: Carlos Hyde

The Niners and their coach clearly wanted Sermon, as they traded two picks to move up and select him in the third round. Sermon was identified as having all other traits necessary to succeed in SF’s scheme, and the draft capital given up to go and get him should not be discounted. For that reason, I believe that the team will give him every opportunity to earn playing time… unlike what Matt Nagy seems to be doing with Fields in Chicago.

Even if Sermon is not the primary running back in San Fran, the Niners always use multiple backs. It’s not like Sermon will be sitting behind Derrick Henry; only getting carries in mop-up duty. With Shanahan as the coach, the team has rushed the ball over 400 times in each of his four seasons. During the last two, journeyman third-stringers finished third on the team in carries, and each was given at least 81! Sermon is no practice squad standout, so I feel like 100 carries is the floor. That is quite an impact.

Lastly, I want to go back to the Derrick Henry example as a true workhorse running back. If you look at the rest of the 49ers’ roster, you won’t see anybody resembling a Derrick Henry-type… or Dalvin Cook… or another former Buckeye, Zeke Elliott. The Niners currently have Raheem Mostert sitting atop their depth chart, with Sermon nipping at his heels. The rest of the RB room is filled out by Wayne Gallman and Jeff Wilson. It’s not a Skip Bayless-level hot take to say that Sermon is the most talented running back on the roster.

Sermon has the most upside among current SF running backs, and the coaching staff knows it. It is part of the reason they traded up to get him. He has a clean bill of health after exiting the Clemson game for a shoulder injury, and he’s fresh. He is ready for 15-20 carries a game, even if he is not technically the starter.

As a rotational back, I expect Sermon to thrive and eventually take the starting gig. His team can afford to split reps at his position, unlike the Bears. The Niners can live with a fumble or a missed blocking assignment from the rookie running back as he grows into his role, and the fans won’t be booing the house down if it happens, unlike… well, you see where I am going with this. Because of the position he plays, and the fact that he will not be asked to carry the offense, I believe Trey Sermon will be the most impactful Ohio State rookie this season. I am not arguing talent, because another player (wink, wink) is most definitely a future Hall of Famer, but give me Sermon in 2021.

Gene’s Take: Justin Fields, QB — Chicago Bears

When Josh and I decided to debate this topic, I figured there would be at least a handful of good option so that neither of us would have to take the ridiculously obvious choice of Justin Fields. However, as Josh has already laid out, that really isn’t the case. Davis will be great, but interior linemen don't often stand out no matter how good — see: Jonah Jackson. Wade could be good in Baltimore, but he is surrounded by other talent on that defense. I did consider Cooper, as he has looked really good in the preseason and I'm sure Von Miller’s comment out how “Ohio State guys can play some football,” wasn’t for no reason. However, at the end of the day, if Josh wants to serve me up an alley-oop by letting me have Fields, I will finish the dunk.

I don't think I have to waste much time selling Justin Fields to you all. All he did in 22 games at Ohio State was throw for almost 5,400 yards and rush for over 800 yards with 78 total touchdowns to only nine interceptions. Thanks to Kirby Smart’s inability to properly evaluate quarterbacks, the former five-star prospect fell right into Ryan Day’s lap, and looked every bit like the scouting reports said he would as he led the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff in both of his seasons in Columbus, despite battling a pretty serious knee injury in year one and getting roughed up against Clemson in year two. He should have been the second QB off the board after Trevor Lawrence, but alas he fell to the Bears at No. 11 overall.

Now he finds himself in Chicago as part of a QB ‘battle’ with Andy Dalton, who head coach Matt Nagy has already said multiple times will be the team’s starter to begin the season. While that is a largely questionable decision, Nagy is following the same path many old school coaches take, believing that a rookie QB should sit behind a veteran at least for a little bit before taking over the reigns. Unfortunately for Nagy, it has become increasingly clear throughout practice and the preseason that Fields is the more talented QB, and the fans in Chicago have quickly taken notice.

It likely won’t be long before Fields takes over that starting spot, and perhaps the Bears are actually doing him a favor by not starting him in week one against the Rams, where the Bears’ dreadful offensive line would likely get him killed against the likes of Aaron Donald. However, even without earning the role just yet, Fields has already demonstrated the same tremendous leadership abilities he showcased at Ohio State. When fans began chanting in name in this past weekend’s preseason game against the Bills to come in and replace Dalton, Fields was quick to defend his fellow QB.

“That’s not helping Andy play better, them cheering my name. That’s not doing that. So I would say my advice to them would be just cheer for who’s out there playing on the field,” Fields said when asked about the chants. “Andy is out there on the field right now, so I really think it’s kind of disrespectful to Andy, them cheering my name like that. They have to trust in coach to make sure he’s making the right decisions and cheer Andy on.”

While being a good leader and teammate is obviously important for a starting QB in the NFL, the play must be there as well. Luckily for Fields, he has looked pretty darn good in limited action in the preseason.

In the team’s first game against the Dolphins, Fields entered the game in the second quarter with the Bears trailing 13-0. Fields had a couple tough drives to start, aided in no way by some penalties by that aforementioned offensive line, but quickly found his rhythm. He would go on to complete 14-of-20 passes for 142 yards and a TD, while also rushing for 33 yards and another TD — all while leading the Bears on a 17-0 run. He had a tougher go of it against the Bills, completing 9-of-19 attempts for 80 yards with 46 rushing yards while also taking a pretty nasty hit from an unblocked rusher off the edge, but did complete this really pretty back foot throw to show off that arm talent.

Nagy will likely stick to his guns even amid all of the outside pressure and let Dalton be the de-facto starter to begin the season. However, it is pretty clear that Justin Fields gives the Bears the best chance to win football games in 2021, and so it shouldn't be more than a few games before the rookie is installed as QB1. Chicago really doesn’t have a ton of weapons at the offensive skill positions for Fields to light it up quite like he did at Ohio State, but his dual-threat ability completely changes that offense, and if there is a receiver open he will put the ball right on the money far more often than not.

I am ready for Chicago Bears staring quarterback Justin Fields for years to come.