Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he spotlights five rookie crops poised to make serious noise.
The Kansas City Chiefs didn't lack for star power in their run to last season's Super Bowl title, with league MVP Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Chris Jones all at the peak of their powers as first-team All-Pro selections. Even so, the team received substantial contributions from many less-established figures, including a series of rookies on both sides of the football. And without the influx of Year 1 talent, it's a safe bet K.C. isn't the NFL's current title town.
Remember, the Chiefs weren't viewed as world-beaters last offseason. Having traded Tyreek Hill and lost a few key veterans in free agency, Kansas City was far from a Super Bowl favorite. But they entered the 2022 NFL Draft with some serious draft capital -- and exited the Las Vegas event with a number of newbies who would ultimately play key roles in securing the franchise's third Lombardi Trophy.
Offensively, RB Isiah Pacheco and WR Skyy Moore made their mark as contributors on an offense that utilized a "share the wealth" approach in Hill's absence. A mix of power runs and quick passes enabled the Chiefs to control the ball and score points without relying on one playmaker to carry the entire workload. As a seventh-round pick, Pacheco was quite the revelation in the second half of the season, finishing as Kansas City's leader in rushing yards (830) and ground scores (five). While Moore had some ball-security issues on special teams, he provided a crucial punt return in the final minute of the narrow AFC Championship Game win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
And the rookie returns on the other side of the ball were even greater, particularly in the back end.
On defense, the Chiefs' young secondary flourished with a group of rookies thrust into key roles. Despite their inexperience, Trent McDuffie, Jaylen Watson, Joshua Williams and Bryan Cook took turns making plays throughout the season. Although the Chiefs had to live through the growing pains of a young defensive backfield acclimating to the pro game, the influx of athleticism and playmaking helped coordinator Steve Spagnuolo attack opponents with an array of blitzes that produced big plays and timely sacks. Speaking of sacks, defensive end George Karlaftis started all 20 games and really came on down the stretch as a force off the edge.
Given the widespread success of the Chiefs' rookies in 2022, I wanted to spotlight five rookie classes that could significantly impact the 2023 season. I'm not holding any of these groups up to Kansas City's Super Bowl standard, of course, but I believe each of them could shape the playoff picture.
Dan Campbell is building a bully in Detroit with a group of young, hungry players joining a handful of seasoned veterans, transforming a long-suffering franchise into a viable NFC contender. On offense, No. 12 overall pick Jahmyr Gibbs is an explosive playmaker as a rusher and receiver, giving creative coordinator Ben Johnson more ammunition to befuddle opposing defenses. And the enticing new weaponry doesn't stop there. As tight end Sam LaPorta gets comfortable with his role in the passing game, the second-round pick could divert some of the attention away from Pro Bowl wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown on key downs. With Jared Goff willing to utilize every option within each passing concept, LaPorta could post impressive numbers as a first-year starter.
First-round LB Jack Campbell and second-round DB Brian Branch immediately upgraded the Lions' defense with their athleticism and playmaking potential. With Campbell and Branch having enjoyed prolific tenures at Iowa and Alabama, respectively, the duo's vast collegiate experience and winning pedigree mesh with the Lions' ultra-competitive culture while providing defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn with more high-IQ players in "traffic cop" positions. As the D begins to feature more checks and adjustments with more established veterans coming aboard in free agency (SEE: DBs Cameron Sutton, C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Emmanuel Moseley), the additions of Campbell and Branch could be the final pieces to an NFC North-winning team in Detroit.
Pete Carroll and John Schneider might have struck gold in back-to-back drafts. Last year's loaded haul, headlined by 1,000-yard rusher Kenneth Walker III and Pro Bowler Tariq Woolen, helped Seattle make a surprising playoff appearance. And this past April's impressive collection of talent could further push the team to true contender status.
First-round WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba and second-round RB Zach Charbonnet are primed for key roles on offense. JSN perfectly complements DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett as a productive slot receiver with electric catch-and-run skills. He will terrorize opponents with his superb route-running skills, as Geno Smith quickly makes the Ohio State product one of his favorite targets in critical moments. Meanwhile, Charbonnet is a perfect sidekick for Walker, as a downhill runner with explosive strength and power. The two young backs give Seattle a deadly 1-2 punch, enabling Carroll to impose his will on opponents on the ground.
No. 5 overall pick Devon Witherspoon and second-rounder Derick Hall add more sizzle to a defense that is attempting to get back to its 2010s playing style. As a versatile "lockdown" corner with superb instincts and coverage skills, Witherspoon could eventually flourish on the island opposite Woolen, though the Illinois product is currently dealing with a sore hamstring and could miss Week 1. Hall also might need a little seasoning before jumping into the rotation, but his athleticism and explosiveness add another tool to the toolbox for defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt.
After adding a unique offensive weapon and a versatile trench warrior to the starting lineup, the Falcons have the firepower in place to potentially rise to the top of a winnable NFC South.
Bijan Robinson gives Arthur Smith an explosive runner/receiver to feature in a creative scheme that utilizes a mix of power and finesse to keep defenders on their heels. The Texas product displays rare traits as a do-it-all playmaker with the toughness and tenacity to pick up the dirty yards between the tackles while whipping linebackers and safeties with dazzling route-running ability. As a potential "100/1,000" player (100 catches/1,000 rush yards) with a game that matches Christian McCaffrey's versatility, Robinson could set the table for an offense that is loaded with super-sized playmakers on the perimeter.
Matthew Bergeron's second-round selection might have flown under the radar, but Smith, GM Terry Fontenot and Co. appreciated the offensive lineman's experience and versatility at the point of attack. The Syracuse standout can align anywhere along the front, and that experience could make him a valuable commodity as the Falcons attempt to put the best five blockers on the field at the same time.
The Steelers' youth movement could propel Mike Tomlin's squad back into title contention this season. The Class of 2023 joins a collection of second- and third-year players who have the team positioned to make a run at the AFC North title and a top spot in the postseason tournament. Though Tomlin typically likes to take a patient approach with rookies, this year's fresh crop is loaded with difference-makers who offer the potential to upgrade the team on each side of the ball.
First-rounder Broderick Jones is the left tackle of the future, but I still think the athletic bookend will crack the starting lineup by midseason. Hulking Darnell Washington will make his mark as a TE2 with the capacity to seal the edge in the running game while also thriving as a seam runner down the middle of the field. With the Steelers intent on balancing out their offense this season, the extra-large playmaker could play a vital role for the team.
DT Keeanu Benton and CB Joey Porter Jr. are expected to contribute as spot starters/key reserves. As second-round picks with enticing traits, it is only a matter of time before they crack the lineup after receiving some on-the-job training as role players. If fourth-rounder Nick Herbig continues to flash the dynamic pass-rushing skills he exhibited throughout the preseason, the Steelers will be forced to add the rookie edge rusher into the regular rotation.
Whenever a quarterback is selected as the No. 1 overall pick, that new franchise face is expected to help his team re-emerge as a playoff contender early in his NFL career. Bryce Young has the talent and potential to guide Carolina back into the postseason in Year 1, especially in an NFC South in transition. Though he is not surrounded by A-level talent, he can get the Panthers back in the January mix by utilizing the solid game-management strategies that he learned at Alabama. If Young avoids major mistakes and keeps his turnovers to a minimum, Carolina's defense and running game can lead the way until the rookie is ready to assume playmaking duties. With Frank Reich and Co. intent on setting Young up for success with simplistic calls that enable him to play fast and free from the pocket, Young could chalk up wins without shattering the record book as a passer in Year 1.
Despite a ho-hum preseason, second-rounder Jonathan Mingo could play a significant role in the offense by the end of the season as the Panthers' WR2. The big-bodied playmaker is a cheat code on the perimeter, with his superior size (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) and solid speed (4.46-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine) creating problems for defenders in one-on-one matchups.