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2023 NFL season: One pivotal rookie for each team

With the start of the 2023 NFL regular season fast approaching, Lance Zierlein identifies the one rookie most pivotal to each team's success this year.


Drafted: Round 1, No. 25 overall

While some of the pivotal rookies on this list could help determine whether or not a team is able to improve on one side of the ball, Kincaid might be the rare newbie poised to have a legit impact on how deep a contender can go in the postseason. Kincaid's hands are almost automatic, and he has an outstanding feel for getting open as a route-runner. Kincaid adds real juice to Buffalo at the tight end position and in the slot. Bills playoff foes will need to be able to put up a bundle of points to survive and advance.

De'Von Achane
Texas A&M · RB

Drafted: Round 3, No. 84 overall

We've seen how San Francisco's offense has been able to evolve by adding a variety of skill-position threats over the last few years. In Miami, it's clear that former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel is following that same game plan. Achane has electric breakaway speed as a slashing runner who will be ready to share carries, but what makes him so pivotal for the Dolphins is his ability to mismatch defenses as a pass catcher out of the backfield.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 17overall

Gonzalez possesses a combination of size, speed and fluidity that is hard to find, but his instincts have been a bit average -- that will need to improve against NFL offenses. Defensive end Keion White is worth mentioning here, as he was quite disruptive in the Patriots' preseason opener and could enjoy a solid rookie campaign, but Gonzalez's performance feels more crucial if New England is to compete for a playoff spot in the challenging AFC East.

Will McDonald IV
Iowa State · DE

Drafted: Round 1, No. 15 overall

McDonald is a long, bendy edge with a wicked spin move and explosive speed to help collapse the pocket as a situational "wave" rusher for Robert Saleh. He currently looks like the most pivotal Jets rookie in my book, but that could change if Joe Tippmann wins the starting center job at some point in camp or early in the season.


Zay Flowers
Boston College · WR

Drafted: Round 1, No. 22 overall

Flowers is an easy selection on a team looking to boost production in the passing game. The Ravens have struggled to find a consistent playmaker at wide receiver since Lamar Jackson took the quarterbacking reins midway through the 2018 season, but Flowers has the confidence and ball skills to flourish as a go-to target in the slot. One thing that could impact Flowers' production, though: Odell Beckham Jr. potentially becoming a squeaky wheel and looking for more targets than he might deserve.

Drafted: Round 2, No. 60 overall

The second-rounder is unlikely to start, but a quick glance back at the 2022 Chiefs' Super Bowl run underscores how important rookie depth at cornerback can be. Turner is slender, but has the elite speed to run with deep targets and the deft footwork to compete against route specialists. He gives the Bengals quality depth at a priority position in an AFC loaded with prolific passers.

Dawand Jones
Ohio State · OT

Drafted: Round 4, No. 111 overall

Despite being drafted on Day 3, this mountainous (6-foot-8, 375 pounds) right tackle could play a pivotal role at some point this season. Jack Conklin is locked in as the starting RT, but he's suffered from a variety of injuries throughout his career and hasn't logged a full season of work since 2019. Jones is massive and powerful, but his athletic limitations might need to be coached/schemed around.

Drafted: Round 2, No. 49 overall

With OT Broderick Jones, CB Joey Porter Jr. and TE Darnell Washington also vying for playing time, this is one of the more challenging selections in this exercise. While Jones and Porter have a chance of becoming cornerstone players who ultimately exceed Benton's ceiling, the DT's two-gapping power at the point of attack should give him an immediate opportunity play a critical role in the D-line rotation.


Juice Scruggs
Penn State · C

Drafted: Round 2, No. 62 overall

I expect C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson Jr. to step right in and go through the expected highs and lows of Year 1 in the NFL. I also anticipate slot sensation Tank Dell playing a bigger role in this offense than many realize. However, Scruggs might be the most pivotal rookie following the season-ending knee injury to center Scott Quessenberry. Scruggs must prove he can handle the physical and mental challenges that the pivot presents in order for Stroud and the offense to get on track.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 4 overall

Did I get too cute in the Texans blurb? Well, no need to do so here, especially in the wake of Shane Steichen officially naming the No. 4 overall pick as Indianapolis' starting quarterback. The rookie is a physical sensation, but there is no denying his inexperience and obvious need for growth as a passer and game manager. Colts GM Chris Ballard's decision to take Richardson showed an admirable willingness to prioritize the future over the now. That said, owner Jim Irsay will still want to see enough in 2023 to know that Richardson was the right call so early in the draft.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 27 overall

The Jaguars took a giant step forward last year, but to maintain that momentum, Trevor Lawrence and Co. must rely on Harrison to immediately play with poise and consistency at a position that can be tough on rookies. Remember: Cam Robinson is suspended for the first four games of the season, thus reshuffling Jacksonville's offensive line. The Oklahoma product is a savvy pass protector but lacks plus athleticism in that department. He must prove he can handle NFL speed rushers.

Peter Skoronski
Northwestern · OG

Drafted: Round 1, No. 11 overall

With second-round pick Will Levis likely in a QB2/QB3 role and third-rounder Tyjae Spears sitting behind Derrick Henry, Tennessee's first-round selection really has no competition in this spot. Skoronski was one of the safest and most game-ready offensive linemen in the 2023 draft. He has the run-blocking talent to keep the train moving on the ground. However, the former Northwestern left tackle will need to prove he can handle bull rushes from NFL interior linemen.


Drafted: Round 2, No. 63 overall

It's no secret the Broncos have a ton invested in Russell Wilson, whose first season in Denver was an abject failure. While new coach Sean Payton is looking to get the nine-time Pro Bowler back on track from the sideline, Mims could be a key addition on the field. The rookie wideout has been nicked up this offseason, but he's a talented wideout with excellent vertical speed from the slot. If he can slide in comfortably alongside Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, Wilson will have plenty of weapons at his disposal.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 31 overall

Kansas City's another challenging team in this exercise. Second-round pick Rashee Rice is bunched with a group of wide receivers vying for targets, so he might not make a huge impact in Year 1. Meanwhile, sixth-round DT Keondre Coburn could become a solid contributor on the defensive front, but labeling him as "pivotal" might be a little much. Instead, I'll go with Anudike-Uzomah, as the rookie edge rusher could impress in early action, given the six-game suspension for Charles Omenihu.

Michael Mayer
Notre Dame · TE

Drafted: Round 2, No. 35 overall

With No. 7 overall pick Tyree Wilson still inactive following two surgical procedures on his foot, it is looking more and more like Las Vegas' second-round pick will be the pivotal rookie. Jimmy Garoppolo is a game manager who must be supported by solid structure and scheme. Mayer is a plus blocker who can help soften the edges in the run game. Not to mention, he's a big, reliable target for the Raiders' two-TE sets.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 21 overall

Johnston is the clear-cut choice for the Chargers. As Ric Flair has always preached, "To be the man, you've got to beat the man!" (WOOOOOOOO!) In this case, "the man" is Kansas City. Los Angeles needs the firepower to keep up with the defending Super Bowl champions. Johnston is a big target who can get vertical or stack yards after a short reception. One thing, though: The rookie must prove he can consistently catch the football.


Mazi Smith
Michigan · DT

Drafted: Round 1, No. 26 overall

Inside the division, Dallas must contend with three teams that all have the potential to run the football. The Cowboys understood that they needed to become more stout on the defensive interior, which is why they made Smith a first-round pick. The 6-3, 337-pounder boasts rare athletic ability for his size, but I also believe he can become a much better pocket pusher than what we saw from him at Michigan. This will be imperative against the well-rounded offense of the reigning NFC East champion Eagles.

Drafted: Round 2, No. 57 overall

While QB Daniel Jones absolutely cashed in this offseason, RB Saquon Barkley had to settle for a modest raise. Still, we all know the Giants' offense is substantially better when they can establish the run. Consequently, it's easy to see why there's so much riding on Schmitz's ability to upgrade the interior run blocking while also playing an intelligent brand of football against blitzing NFL fronts.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 9 overall

Carter's off-field issues clearly impacted his draft position, but he's still the most talented player in this entire rookie class. Carter can be nearly impossible to block when he cranks it up, but he needs to prove to the Eagles (and the league) that he can stay focused and in shape. If he's firing on all cylinders, Carter can be the kind of game-wrecker who helps propel Philadelphia back into the Super Bowl.

Emmanuel Forbes
Mississippi State · CB

Drafted: Round 1, No. 16 overall

I'm not sure what's wilder: Forbes' six pick-sixes in college or the fact that diminutive quarterback Bryce Young outweighed the corner by 38 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine. It is impossible to miss Forbes' instincts and ball skills on tape, but it's also impossible to ignore his extremely slender frame. If the body type can hold up in run support and in coverage against big wideouts, Forbes' playmaking pizazz will shine behind Washington's disruptive front.


Darnell Wright
Tennessee · OT

Drafted: Round 1, No. 10 overall

Without question, the battle for the starting cornerback spot opposite Jaylon Johnson between rookies Terell Smith and Tyrique Stevenson is extremely important for the Bears. However, the continued growth of Justin Fields is the ultimate priority in Chicago. Wright's play at right tackle figures to massively impact whether or not the quarterback takes a big leap in Year 3. 

Drafted: Round 2, No. 34 overall

Linebacker Jack Campbell is the favorite to have the most productive year as a Lions rookie, while fellow first-rounder Jahmyr Gibbs is sure to provide plenty of firepower as a weapon out of the backfield. Still, this is a team without a proven TE1, so LaPorta has a prime opportunity to make a huge impact on Ben Johnson's offense. The latest product of Iowa's TE factory, LaPorta will need to prove that he can hold his own as a blocker and uncover as an NFL pass catcher.

Luke Musgrave
Oregon State · TE

Drafted: Round 2, No. 42 overall

Musgrave was my top-rated tight end in the 2023 draft, thanks to an enticing combination of size, speed and athletic ability. By the way, he can block a little, too. The Packers need to get a good feel for what Jordan Love can become before they hit next year's draft. Musgrave's physical tools and skill set could provide Love with the type of safety blanket he will need in his first season as the starter.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 23 overall

Undrafted free-agent signee Ivan Pace Jr. is all the rage at Vikings camp, with the linebacker flying all over the field to make plays. However, the development of Addison as a complementary WR threat to Justin Jefferson will yield the best indicator of where Minnesota's headed this season. Addison is a polished receiver but lacks separation speed, so his ball skills and route-running must shine to keep Kirk Cousins humming in that offense.


Drafted: Round 1, No. 8 overall

Robinson is really the only choice for the Falcons, but he could be pivotal for league perception of his position, as well. Many teams are shying away from drafting running backs in Round 1, but the Falcons just took one inside the top 10. Robinson's three-down ability could help smooth the water for second-year QB Desmond Ridder while continuing to shine a spotlight on the impact of an elite talent in the backfield.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 1 overall

Second-round pick Jonathan Mingo deserves mention, but let's not overcomplicate this. Panthers fans are dying to buy into a true face of the franchise in a watered-down division. Young will go through the usual bumps along the way, but staying healthy and throwing consistently from the pocket will help quiet concerns about drafting such a small quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 29 overall

New Orleans' run defense ranked in the bottom third of the league in 2022, giving up more than 130 yards per game, so it wasn't surprising to see the Saints draft a defensive tackle in the first. Bresee is a squared-off defender who plays with above-average energy and has the ability to be quite disruptive. The injury bug hit him hard at Clemson, but with a clean bill of health, the former five-star recruit is a top-notch talent on the defensive front.

Cody Mauch
North Dakota State · OG

Drafted: Round 2, No. 48 overall

The definition of "pivotal" for Mauch may have more to do with whether he falls above or below average for a rookie offensive lineman. Tampa is attempting to rebuild its offensive front, and Mauch appears headed for a baptism by fire at right guard. I believe first-round DT Calijah Kancey will have a strong rookie season, but Mauch's play could have a substantial impact on what the Bucs are able to do offensively.


Drafted: Round 1, No. 6 overall

Johnson is the no-brainer selection for the Cardinals. I'm not sure the rookie tackle can change the fortunes of the what lies ahead for Arizona this year, but when rebuilding, it is always imperative that a team finds quality line play as quickly as possible. After initially trading down, Arizona moved back up to grab Johnson with the sixth pick. A solid rookie season from the tackle could go a long way toward helping to define the next phase of Cardinals football.

Drafted: Round 2, No. 36 overall

If 2023 is anything like 2022 for the Rams, seventh-round punter Ethan Evans merits serious consideration for this spot. I kid, I kid. The Rams are hoping for better play up front, and Avila is definitely an upgrade to that group. Analysts appear to be sleeping on the Rams, but the return of Matthew Stafford will be much more impactful if the Avila can help move bodies around and open holes for Los Angeles' running backs.

Drafted: Round 3, No. 99 overall

The 49ers didn't have a pick inside the first two rounds, but they did select a safety and a kicker with their first two selections in Round 3. S Ji'Ayir Brown was one of my favorites during the pre-draft process and should compete for starting reps at some point, but Moody is more pivotal right away. Rather than sticking with the aging (but ultra-consistent) Robbie Gould, San Francisco drafted the Michigan kicker. Moody, who missed a 40- and 58-yarder in his preseason debut, will need to prove he has the mental toughness to kick for a team with lofty expectations.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 20 overall

No. 5 overall pick Devon Witherspoon is a strong option, but I'm going with Seattle's second first-round pick. Without question, Witherspoon needs to step into his role and make plays, but Smith-Njigba could really help to cement DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett into well-tailored roles while giving Geno Smith yet another dynamic weapon. I believe the ability to unlock an even more explosive offense is the key to Seattle nabbing another playoff bid.

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