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 takes a closer look at the top rookie classes of the 2022 NFL season.
There's no better way to quickly reverse the fortunes of an NFL franchise than to nail the draft.
Although it is hard to count on rookies to make an immediate impact, given the difficult transition from college to the pro game, an infusion of speed, athleticism and talent can upgrade the roster and improve overall performance on the field. This requires a commitment to playing the young players and living through their rough moments, but the draft and develop approach can set a team up for long-term success when things fall into place.
As a player with the Green Bay Packers, I frequently heard Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf discuss the benefits of utilizing the draft to acquire young, talented players with the potential to form the foundation of a championship squad.
In the 1995 NFL Draft, Wolf selected Craig Newsome (first round, No. 32 overall pick), Darius Holland (third round, No. 65), William Henderson (third round, No. 66), Brian Williams (third round, No. 73), Antonio Freeman (third round, No. 90), Travis Jervey (fifth round, No. 170) and Adam Timmerman (seventh round, No. 230). Each individual contributed initially as a role player before ascending to the starting lineup or a key-contributor spot on the Super Bowl XXXI-winning 1996 squad.
It is hard to replicate that level of success, but some teams have knocked it out of the park with their 2022 rookie classes. Here are the five most impactful crops of newbies, with notable players highlighted:
The Jets have emerged as playoff contenders behind an impressive rookie class that has made immediate contributions to the squad. Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner (Round 1, No. 4 overall) is playing like an All-Pro on the island as a lockdown corner with elite instincts, awareness and cover skills. Despite his inexperience, Gardner has already played his way into the conversation around the NFL's No. 1 corner; heading into Week 16, he leads the league in passes defensed (16) and has two picks. Little wonder that he earned a Pro Bowl nod.
Garrett Wilson (Round 1, No. 10) is also making noise as a receiver with a five-star game. He's an explosive WR1 with the speed and route-running skills to overwhelm defenders on the perimeter. Although the Jets' inconsistent quarterback play has impacted Wilson's numbers, he still remains on track to be the first player in franchise history to top 1,000 receiving yards in his rookie season. Don't be surprised if Wilson emerges as a top-five receiver by this time next year.
Breece Hall (Round 2, No. 36) looks like a keeper as an RB1. Until a knee injury ended his season in Week 7, the Iowa State product felt like a shoo-in to claim the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, flashing electric skills as a runner-receiver out of the backfield.
With the Jets getting solid contributions from Jermaine Johnson (Round 1, No. 26) and Micheal Clemons (Round 4, No. 117) as key role players, as well as undrafted free agent running back Bam Knight, Gang Green deserves the blue ribbon for its rookie class' performance.
It turns out head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider may know what they are doing when building a roster. The Seahawks have drafted and developed a rookie class that has helped propel the team into the playoff picture this season and could pave the way for even bigger things to come. The offense has trotted out a pair of rookie tackles (Charles Cross, drafted ninth overall in Round 1, and Abraham Lucas, selected 72nd overall in Round 3) and a running back (Kenneth Walker III, chosen 41st overall in Round 2) who have looked like seasoned vets since Day 1. With veteran quarterback Geno Smith playing at a Pro Bowl level while surrounded by babies, the Seahawks look like a team gearing up for a serious postseason run in the near future.
Defensively, the Seahawks have found a set of young corners, Tariq Woolen (Round 5, No. 153 overall) and Coby Bryant (Round 4, No. 109), who might have been able to play on the island with the "Legion of Boom." Woolen is a super-sized cover corner who has blanketed receivers on the perimeter while also showcasing impressive instincts and ball skills, as evidenced by his six interceptions through 14 games. Like the Jets' Gardner, Woolen earned Pro Bowl recognition right out of the gate. Bryant has specialized in locking down WR3s as an inside-outside cover man.
As the Seahawks work Boye Mafe (Round 2, No. 40) into the mix as a pass-rush specialist, the rookie class is driving the bus on the team's playoff push this season.
Credit coach Dan Campbell and GM Brad Holmes for adding a group of rookies who fit the Lions' brand. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (Round 1, No. 2 overall), linebacker James Houston (Round 6, No. 217), defensive back Kerby Joseph (Round 3, No. 97) and linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (Round 6, No. 188) have brought grit, toughness and playmaking ability to a defense that has started to improve down the stretch. Although that unit is far from perfect, the group has been playing winning football since defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn ushered in a youth movement on his side of the ball.
On offense, Jameson Williams (Round 1, No. 12) could spark the unit as a late-season addition. The Alabama product is slowly working his way back from a torn ACL, but his speed, burst and big-play ability will add a new dimension to the unit. (He has just one career catch so far, but it was a memorable one.) James Mitchell (Round 5, No. 177) has become a more significant contributor since T.J. Hockenson's departure. As a TE2/TE3, the big-bodied pass catcher has revealed himself to be a dependable chain mover in the Lions' heavy formations.
After evaluating the play of the Lions' rookie class, it is not a surprise that Detroit's recent run of success (6-1 over the past seven games) has coincided with a strong showing by this crop.
The Chiefs have been able to reign over the AFC West for seven consecutive seasons thanks partially to their ability to plug and play young players into their system. And that's been no less true in 2022.
Defensively, pass rusher George Karlaftis (Round 1, No. 30 overall) and cover corners Trent McDuffie (Round 1, No. 21), Joshua Williams (Round 4, No. 135) and Jaylen Watson (Round 7, No. 243) have played like starters since Day 1. Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has unleashed the newbies in an aggressive scheme that encourages defenders to play fast and free between the lines. Karlaftis, meanwhile, has flourished as a pass-rush specialist on the edge. Although his numbers are not eye-popping (3.5 sacks, five tackles for loss and six passes defensed), the relentless effort from the first-year defender has keyed the Chiefs' solid defensive showing this season (ranked No. 14 overall).
The Chiefs' young cornerback trio has also thrived in a man-heavy scheme that leaves the defenders isolated on the perimeter. McDuffie, Williams and Watson have shown solid cover skills and playmaking ability after working through some rough patches. The improvement on the island will enable Kansas City to expand its call sheet heading into the postseason.
On offense, receiver Skyy Moore (Round 2, No. 54) and running back Isiah Pacheco (Round 7, No. 251) have enjoyed solid rookie campaigns. Although Moore (18 catches, 212 yards, zero touchdowns) has not put up the numbers that fantasy footballers might have expected when he was drafted, the speedy WR4 has shown potential (11.8 yards per catch) when the ball has headed in his direction. Pacheco has crushed it as the Chiefs' RB1/return specialist. He's logged at least 66 rushing yards in each of the Chiefs' last six games; with a strong finish, the rookie could secure the job for the foreseeable future.
Despite the Texans' dismal record, H-Town should be excited about what's on the horizon, based on the impact of the 2022 rookie class. Derek Stingley (Round 1, No. 3 overall) and Jalen Pitre (Round 2, No. 37) have played like future Pro Bowlers in a scheme that is ideally suited for their talents. Stingley has shown "shadow" coverage skills as he travels with the opponents' WR1 and utilizes various off-man techniques to limit and eliminate deep throws and big plays. Pitre has been a Swiss Army Knife-like defender who can create chaos near the line of scrimmage or as a deep middle/half-field defender. With coach Lovie Smith molding the coverage scheme around his rookies' superior skills, the Texans have stayed competitive in games despite the unit's overall shortcomings.
Linebackers Christian Harris (Round 3, No. 75) and Jake Hansen (undrafted free agent) have made spot contributions as second-level defenders. The duo is working through some growing pains, but the improved play down the stretch should encourage the coaching staff and front office to continue to work with them as young starters.
Offensively, the solid performance by Dameon Pierce (Round 4, No. 107) as a surprise starter helped give the Texans a rugged identity. The rookie was on track to win the Offensive Rookie of the Year award (939 rushing yards, four rushing TDs) before a Week 14 ankle injury landed him on injured reserve. Kenyon Green (Round 1, No. 15) has been a solid addition to an offensive line specializing in moving defenders off the ball. The former Texas A&M standout is a bully at the line of scrimmage, and his tenacity has helped the Texans punish opponents on the ground.