My primary work assignment for Draft Countdown in 2023, will revolve around watching the play of Rookies on a weekly basis. Especially those making a mark for themselves on the field. I am using this pre-season edition as my own warm-up for the real deal come September.
Tracking rookie performances can be a bit tricky in pre-season games because how much they play varies from game to game, as does the company they play with and the opponents they face. What I look for is guys making flash plays, or piling up outlier stats in limited playing time.
The work of two teams in parlaying Rookies into early contributors, with long-range starter potential seems to stand out to me right now, after watching Week 2 pre-season game tape.
PRESEASON ROOKIES ROUNDUP
First up are the CHARGERS, who completed their heaviest personnel lifting by inking Franchise QB JUSTIN HERBERT to his first big pay-day contract. The numbers involved in his contract are of course huge, which means that the Chargers now enter the world of tight Salary Cap management. As it turns out, at least to my eyes, the team may have struck ‘double-gold’ with their TCU draftees QUENTIN JOHNSTON & DERIUS DAVIS. JOHNSTON has already demonstrated his biggest weakness, which is dropped balls, but when he catches them he is a huge weapon everywhere on the field. His little (5’8/165) buddy may be an even more significant overall contributor because of his ability as a Return Specialist. Both players have already made major contributions to the Chargers offense in-game action.
I have been absolutely stunned by the bonanza of solid gold being panned up in Seattle, where the extra Draft Picks gained in the Russell Wilson trade are patching up roster holes left and right. Just as a refresher course for you, last year the team filled both of their OT slots with draftees CROSS/LUCAS. They also picked up a new RB1 in Kenneth Walker and a CB tandem in WOOLEN/BRYANT. In this recent Draft, they added a playmate for WALKER in ZACH CHARBONNET, who has looked solid with Walker working through a minor injury right now. It looks like they are grooming OG/Anthony Bradford in a starting role sooner, rather than later.
They added JAXON SMITH-NJIGBA to fill their slot receiver spot and he is delivering immediately with meaningful, play-making receptions. Not to mention Rookie Free Agent JAKE BOBO/UCLA who is filling Special Teams roles as well as making multiple receptions in the passing offense. Their top Pick DEVON WITHERSPOON/CB has looked so pro-ready that the team is experimenting with last year’s other CB draftee now being used at a S slot. Kudos to GM SCHNEIDER and HC CARROLL for finding and playing so many true players.
And a big thank you to QB GENO SMITH, for proving them right last year that he could capably handle their starting QB spot. This team could have up to 15 full or part-time starters on their roster, age 25 or younger, come the opening day of the regular season.
Please remember that teams are often very careful about exposing their top Rookies too much in pre-season contests. Therefore, players like BRYCE YOUNG & C.J. STROUD, are seeing limited game action with practice sessions and in-week workouts/scrimmages making up the bulk of their prep for the regular season.
WIDE RECEIVERS ROOKIES
There was a lot of discussion in pre-Draft scouting circles about the lack of elite receivers available for the 2023 Draft. The position group was deep, but not heavy in the cream at the top. There are some young men I have watched that look like they are ready for the big time and may play prominent roles for their teams right away. Here are a few of the names I am watching closely right now.
Fastest wideout at the Combine and an excellent Return Specialist in addition to WR. He’s not beating out a healthy EVANS or GODWIN, but with GAGE now out of the year with a knee injury, he should get a shot as WR3. He’s already making impact plays in limited playing time.
He has seen limited game time but that may well be because they are saving his best for work for LAMAR come September. He’s fast and quick and is showing a physical nature, especially for a guy 5’9/180.
The big guy (6’3/215) has some serious straight-line speed for his size and is going to win his share of 50/50 throws. Has worked the sideline very effectively already this August.
The Packers may be the youngest team in the league when the 53-man rosters are finalized, with up to 12 Rookies. If HEATH can carve out a solid Special Teams role or two he has a chance to make it despite being underfed. He’s big (6’2/215) and has been getting open and making catches whenever he’s on the field. The Packers’ young WR room is just crazy with talent and potential.
A guy I had pegged as a borderline Round 1 prospect early on, is emerging in a rebuild receiver room for the Chiefs. He exploded in Game 2 last weekend.
While COOPER KUPP nurses a bad wheel on the bench he seems to be mentoring NACUA and man, it is working. NACUA has a nice size (6’2/205) and good hands. He is polishing his route running and even when KUPP gets back on the field I can’t see NACUA any lower than WR4, if not 3.
I can say with a straight face that BROWNLEE has been a top performer when the big names have gone to the bench early for the JETS. He has a tough battle to win a job, but he is close to earning one. He may make it tough for the JETS to sneak him onto their Practice Squad.
The steady, veteran Wolverine receiver looks like a very nice fit for a top-heavy receiving corps that could use a savvy, young (23) guy to replace a couple of 30-year-old journeymen backups like CONLEY/SNEAD. He had a big catch count in Game 2 last weekend.
And these are far from being the only non-premium Draft Pick wideouts making a push for NFL rosters for the 2023 season. There are a surprisingly high number of teams who barely total 20 true Rookies on their 90-man rosters right now. And that is an indicator that more than a few marginal prospects went back to school and are making more in NIL money/benefits than they would have as College Free Agents at the bottom of NFL rosters, and likely Practice Squad participants. But many of these 20-25 roster Rookies have a chance to be on 53-man rosters next month based on other work this August.
Cheers to you all.