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2022 NFL season: One pivotal rookie for each team

With the start of the 2022 NFL regular season fast approaching, Lance Zierlein identifies the one rookie most pivotal to each team's success this year.


Kaiir Elam
Florida · CB

Drafted: Round 1, No. 23 overall

Elam is the easy selection for Buffalo, considering the position he plays and the aspirations of the organization in 2022. Losses to Tampa Bay (in the regular season) and Kansas City (in the playoffs) cast a spotlight on the need for more impactful cornerback play opposite Tre'Davious White, who is making his way back from the ACL tear he suffered last November. If Elam can keep receivers from getting behind him and play with a decent level of consistency, the Bills might be playing football in February.

Erik Ezukanma
Texas Tech · WR

Drafted: Round 4, No. 125 overall

The Dolphins didn't make a pick until the third round and made just four selections total, so the options here are limited, but Ezukanma is making plenty of noise in camp. He could offer Tua Tagovailoa a big target if he can carve out a supporting role behind burners Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Third-round linebacker Channing Tindall never was a starter at Georgia and his transition into the league could take more time than Ezukanma's.

Cole Strange
Tennessee-Chattanooga · OG

Drafted: Round 1, No. 29 overall

After seven years as a starting guard for the Patriots, Shaq Mason was dealt to Tampa Bay in March, opening the door for New England to draft Strange and immediately plug the Tennessee-Chattanooga product into the starting lineup. The Pats’ offensive identity will likely be tied to their ability to run the football effectively, increasing the importance of Strange making a smooth transition from the FCS to pro ball.

Breece Hall
Iowa State · RB

Drafted: Round 2, No. 36 overall

In a talented Jets rookie class, Hall stands out as the one guy who must rise to the occasion in Year 1. His ability to move the chains on the ground and as a receiver out of the backfield could take pressure off of New York's downfield passing attack, which might be without injured QB Zach Wilson in Week 1. It could also help an offensive line that is turning to veteran Duane Brown at tackle after losing 2020 first-round pick Mekhi Becton to injury.


Drafted: Round 1, No. 25 overall

Even with Linderbaum's recent foot injury, he would seem to be the choice here over fellow first-rounder Kyle Hamilton. The Ravens are trying to re-ignite their rushing attack without forcing Lamar Jackson to carry such a heavy workload in that area. Linderbaum boasts rare quickness, allowing him to get to seemingly impossible angles. His health and performance will be critical in boosting the ever-important run game in Baltimore.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 31 overall

With Jessie Bates' camp absence due to a contract dispute, Hill has been thrust into the free safety spot, learning on the fly. While most expect Bates to return before the regular season kicks off, Hill's versatility gives the Bengals an opportunity to play him in multiple alignments and coverages, which is a big advantage for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo.

Martin Emerson
Mississippi State · CB

Drafted: Round 3, No. 68 overall

Tough to find a clear-cut option here, with the Browns not drafting until the third round. Perrion Winfrey could see snaps as a rotational defensive lineman, but there is a better chance that Emerson will factor in at some point, despite competition for reps in Cleveland's defensive backfield. The Browns are likely to be light on "pivotal" rookies this season.

Drafted: Round 2, No. 52 overall

Quarterbacks drafted in the first round usually land in this space, but with Kenny Pickett currently down the depth chart, Pickens is clearly the most pivotal rookie. Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson bring specific tools/traits to the wideout position for the Steelers, but Pickens might be the most complete of the three -- and he has the confidence to step into a prominent role early on.


Kenyon Green
Texas A&M · OG

Drafted: Round 1, No. 15 overall

You could definitely make a case in this space for cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. or safety Jalen Pitre, but to me, Green is the most pivotal. Houston couldn't run the ball last year, ranking dead last at 83.6 ground yards per game, and had no real identity as a team. Toughness is the best jump-off point for organizations looking to rebuild, and Green's physicality should help bolster both the running game and the overall attitude of the club.

Drafted: Round 3, No. 96 overall

Wide receiver Alec Pierce was the Colts' first pick in the 2022 draft (53rd overall) and will absolutely factor in this season, but the third-round safety will likely carry the most importance in Year 1. Cross is big, explosive and physical -- and he immediately steps into a starting role after the retirement of Khari Willis. Cross provides much-needed coverage speed on the back end.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 1 overall

Walker gets the nod here for a couple of reasons. Obviously, the Jaguars need to get back to imposing their will along the defensive front; Walker has the size, length and toughness to help them do just that. Furthermore, a strong rookie performance could also buoy the hopes of Jags fans, who have been forced to sit through just four total wins over the last two seasons.

Drafted: Round 2, No. 35 overall

I still give Treylon Burks a legitimate shot at competing for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but McCreary is potentially more pivotal to Tennessee's prospects in 2022. The Titans' success has been built upon running the football and playing solid defense. Frankly, McCreary should offer a talent upgrade at cornerback for a secondary that's been inconsistent at times against quality passing attacks.


Drafted: Round 3, No. 80 overall

The trade that brought Russell Wilson to Denver sent tight end Noah Fant to Seattle. The Broncos have capable wideouts likely to garner most of Wilson's targets, but Dulcich has the speed and separation potential to help attack the second and third levels. While Dulcich's impact is likely to be spotty, there is room for the former UCLA walk-on to make a difference in 2022.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 21 overall

Choosing between WR Skyy Moore, DE George Karlaftis and McDuffie is beyond challenging, as each will be counted on this season. However, as a cornerback in the pass-happy AFC West, McDuffie is most likely to significantly impact Kansas City's chances of winning the loaded division and advancing deep into the playoffs.

Drafted: Round 4, No. 122 overall

White's frame and demeanor have early NFL significance written all over them, regardless of the Georgia product's fourth-round draft slot. The trade for Davante Adams was clearly the most important offseason move, and Josh Jacobs is currently the RB1, but White's arrival could add thunder to the running game and create competition for carries moving forward.

Zion Johnson
Boston College · OG

Drafted: Round 1, No. 17 overall

As with Rashawn Slater last season, Johnson will be tasked with stepping in and playing at a competent level early on. The Chargers need better push up front, and Johnson has the power to do just that. The biggest concern likely revolves around his ability to handle athletic, interior rushers in pass protection. Johnson's consistency could be a quiet key for the Chargers in 2022.


Drafted: Round 1, No. 24 overall

DE Sam Williams and WR Jalen Tolbert should both see opportunities to make their mark with the Cowboys in 2022, but the first-round tackle-turned-guard could have the biggest impact this season. Smith's natural strength and talent pop off the tape, but the raw 21-year-old still has a lack of discipline and penchant for penalties. If Smith can take coaching quickly, he could pay immediate dividends as a bulldozing run blocker.

Evan Neal
Alabama · OT

Drafted: Round 1, No. 7 overall

Edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and Neal, New York's two top-10 picks, are each poised to play a significant role for Big Blue in 2022. But if Neal doesn't perform well, it could have an adverse effect on the futures of Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones as Giants. Stability up front is absolutely critical. A strong year from Neal -- combined with continued growth from LT Andrew Thomas -- could go a long way in making New York's offense viable for a change.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 13 overall

Whether he begins the season as a starter or not is irrelevant. Davis is going to play and he's going to create problems for blocking schemes across the league. LB Nakobe Dean has Eagles fans buzzing, but every linebacker's job is going to get easier in Philly with the big man eating up blocks. Davis is unlikely to post the type of production to earn Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration, but if he requires additional game-planning by opposing offenses, he's certainly doing his job.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 16 overall

Washington follows Indianapolis as the latest team enrolled in the Carson Wentz reclamation project. Since finding a starting quarterback who can be trusted to play at a high level is the ultimate priority for every NFL team, it makes sense that Dotson -- a speedy target with outstanding ball skills -- would be the most pivotal rookie. If Dotson can step up and give the Commanders a quality target to take pressure off Terry McLaurin, it will be a huge win for Wentz, as well.


Braxton Jones
Southern Utah State · OT

Drafted: Round 5, No. 168 overall

Make no mistake: I expect Jaquan Brisker to be the best rookie from this year's Chicago haul. When it comes to assessing the most important or pivotal rookie, though, it'd be hard to choose anyone other than the presumptive starter at left tackle. Jones has enjoyed a solid camp up to this point, but he'll have his hands full as a fifth-round pick from an FCS school tasked with protecting Justin Fields' blind side. Important job. Tough job.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 2 overall

Head coach Dan Campbell's vibe is always set to tone-setting. I'm sure he orders iced tea at a restaurant with intensity. Campbell and GM Brad Holmes are clearly trying to build a team that matches the head coach's fervor and toughness, making Hutchinson's addition so important. The Heisman runner-up's work ethic and attitude -- on and off the field -- are essential to the reshaping of the Lions.

Drafted: Round 4, No. 132 overall

I'm not worried about Quay Walker. The first-round linebacker is big, tough and instinctive; he should acclimate very quickly to the pro game. That said, the real key for these Packers very well could be the fourth-round wideout from Nevada. Doubs was taken two rounds after Christian Watson but possesses substantially more polish, which is something that will appeal to Aaron Rodgers as he attempts to navigate life without Davante Adams.

Drafted: Round 2, No. 59 overall

Despite their higher draft slotting and long-term potential, S Lewis Cine and CB Andrew Booth Jr. may not clock the same level of 2022 importance as this second-round guard. I felt like the Vikings might've reached on Ingram, but he's already seeing starting reps at right guard. Cine and Booth are the future of Minnesota's secondary, but a desire to get the running game back on track this year could put Ingram's rookie campaign under the microscope.


Desmond Ridder
Cincinnati · QB

Drafted: Round 3, No. 74 overall

It wasn’t easy to make a selection for this spot, but getting a read on what Ridder can offer in the pros could have more value to the franchise -- which appears to be firmly in rebuilding mode -- than first-round pick Drake London's rookie performance. The Falcons have a bridge quarterback in Marcus Mariota, but the long-term plan at the position is not as clear. Playing third-round quarterback Davis Mills as a rookie last season gave the Texans insight into his ability to run the show. Committing to a Ridder audition could make plenty of sense for Atlanta by the midway point of the 2022 campaign.

Ikem Ekwonu
N.C. State · OT

Drafted: Round 1, No. 6 overall

Head coach Matt Rhule said early this month that the Ekwonu had "a long way to go" as he battled for first-team reps. It appears he's made progress since then, as Rhule named him the starting left tackle on Tuesday. He’s explosive and athletic, but improving his technique -- especially in pass protection -- will be essential for him to prove he can thrive as a tackle in the pros. Ekwonu is going to take his lumps against NFL pass rushers -- just like every other rookie OT -- but the importance of his development to the franchise is what earns him this spot in my list.

Chris Olave
Ohio State · WR

Drafted: Round 1, No. 11 overall

First-round OT Trevor Penning might be the choice for some, but I'm going to give a slight edge to Olave as the most pivotal Saints rookie. Michael Thomas is practicing again after playing just seven games in 2020 and zero last season. Given the veteran's injury history, though, it will be important to bring Olave along to not only help the offense this year but to provide some security for the receiving corps beyond 2022.

Rachaad White
Arizona State · RB

Drafted: Round 3, No. 91 overall

Guard Luke Goedeke, defensive lineman Logan Hall and White are all in contention here, but I’m beginning to believe White will be the rookie who helps the most this season. The running back has impressed at camp and in the preseason opener (32 yards rushing, 13 yards receiving, 43 yards on kickoff returns). He has the three-down talent to make things happen if Leonard Fournette misses any time. Even if Fournette stays healthy, don’t be surprised if White ends up with somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 carries for the year.


Trey McBride
Colorado State · TE

Drafted: Round 2, No. 55 overall

Arizona, which made just three picks in the first five rounds of this year’s draft, might not see a rookie provide a major impact in Year 1, but McBride is the strongest candidate to do so. In line to back up Zach Ertz, McBride is a feisty blocker and plus athlete. He has the ability to line up in multiple spots, offering head coach Kliff Kingsbury opportunities to become more varied with personnel groupings.

Cobie Durant
South Carolina State · CB

Drafted: Round 4, No. 142 overall

Guard Logan Bruss has a chance to become a starter at some point, while Durant is fighting for a backup spot. However, could we see more of Durant in 2022 due to injury, the Rams’ defensive personnel groupings or some combination of the two? His ability to hound receivers of all sizes is tremendously valuable for modern defenses hoping to counter mismatch game-planning by offensive play-callers.

Drafted: Round 2, No. 61 overall

Fourth-rounder Spencer Burford is the projected starter at right guard, but I see Jackson as the more pivotal rookie because of his potential impact. Jackson might not get the nod as a starter, but his bend-and-slither rush approach could help him become a critical factor in the 49ers’ sub-packages versus the pass. 

Charles Cross
Mississippi State · OT

Drafted: Round 1, No. 9 overall

OLB Boye Mafe, RB Kenneth Walker III and Cross will all play pivotal roles in Seattle's attempt to rebuild/reload on the fly. We will go with Cross here due to the importance of the left tackle position and the fact that he was drafted ninth overall. He showed impressive growth from 2020 to 2021 at Mississippi State, and a solid rookie season will give the Seahawks confidence that they can protect a young quarterback if they decide to look in that direction come next year's draft.

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