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  • Writer's picturekevinlaffey

We're Young, but We're Not the Same

What would an all-star team of 2023’s rookie crop look like?

Every April, we all gather to celebrate the start of a new NFL trip around the sun; a time of new beginnings, of stories flipping to their next chapter, of dreams coming true.


The NFL Draft.


We speculate for months. Before, during, and after the college football season. We watch freaks of nature scamper around in the NFL’s version of a leotard, benching 225 lbs. painlessly, running near Olympic-level 40-yard splits, and world-class skill on full display. Then?

The season happens, and the guys who ran sub-4.4 40-yard dashes and benched 225 lbs. 29 times aren’t always the stars of the season. Sometimes, it’s the 177th overall pick who breaks the single-season rookie record for receiving yards. Sometimes, it’s a quarterback who gets caught by a media storm surrounding a meaningless written test to predict their cognitive function…


Whatever the case may be, there’s a group, every year, that separates them from the pack, and here they are.



QB: C.J. Stroud, Houston Texans

We all watched this season. I don’t believe there needs to be too much said here. Stroud immediately jumped into the league's top-ten signal callers. Bobby Slowik’s offense needed an injection of what I like to call “sexy” play at the QB position, and Stroud delivered at a high level.


Notable Numbers: #8 in pass yards, #1 in pass yards per game, #1 INT %, Texans improved by seven wins and won a playoff game.


RB: Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit Lions

We all expected this one to turn out as Bijan Robinson, and by all means the argument can still be made for Bijan, as he bested Gibbs in essentially every receiving category…but as Gibbs’ role shook out, he was a clear next-level talent.


Notable Numbers: #5 in yards per attempt, #10 in rushing touchdowns, #2 in rookie rushing yards


RB: De’Von Achane, Miami Dolphins

It has to be done. Achane was a man possessed before his IR stint, racking up 800 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground, along with another 27 catches and 3 touchdowns. On a per-touch basis, I don’t think I can argue anyone as more effective with the ball in their hands this season.


Notable Numbers: #1 in yards per attempt (7.8!), 11 touchdowns in 11 games

WR: Puka Nacua, Los Angeles Rams

Similar to CJ Stroud, Puka’s as unanimous a selection as you can have for this kinda list. In nearly any other year ever, Puka Nacua is your Rookie of the Year, having broken the receiving yards (1486) AND receptions (105) record for all rookies in history, as well as the most yards in a playoff game by a rookie (182). Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford have broken records for a WR before, and Puka is the newest toy.


Notable Numbers: NFL rookie records for yards and receptions, #9 in NFL receptions, #4 NFL in receiving yards, #5 in receptions for first downs


WR: Rashee Rice, Kansas City Chiefs

Super Bowl Champ, check. Second most rookie receiving yards, check. Newest option in an elite level offense surrounded by the best, check.

Rashee Rice landed in a spot where he could do day one damage, and boy did he ever. As the season went on, Rice grew into a bona fide #2 option for a Super Bowl Champion. He’s now a certified baller and real player to watch for.


Notable Numbers: #2 rookie receiving yards, tied for #3 rookie receiving touchdowns, 6 catches for 39 yards in the Super Bowl.


WR: Zay Flowers, Baltimore Ravens

How is it that every few years, a very “undersized” receiver enters the great league, and proves that you don’t need to break the measurement charts to help teams win games? All season I couldn’t help but see Wes Welker running around in purple and black. A 1-on-1 matchup nightmare because of his fast feet and ability to fill vacuums of space, Zay was an on the field GEM this season.


Notable Numbers: 5 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown vs. Kansas City in the playoffs, #5 rookie receiving yards

TE: Sam LaPorta, Detroit LIons

In a season where we saw a plethora of great tight end prospects get drafted (LaPorta, Trey McBride, Dalton Kincaid, Luke Musgrave, Michael Mayer), LaPorta undeniably took the cake. He set the rookie receptions record for a tight end with 86, and has just been an across-the-board elite player for Motor City Dan Campbell’s squad. A great run blocker who fits the philosophy of tough nosed football, but with flair.


Notable Numbers: Tight end rookie receptions record, #4 in rookie receiving yards, #5 in NFL in receiving touchdowns


Tackle: Dawand Jones, Cleveland Browns

One of my absolute favorite draft week steals in recent memory, I initially had Jones as a first-round grade. PFF sure loved Jones, as well, as he led all rookie linemen in both overall grade (64.7) and pass-blocking grade (73.0). The competition at RT was definitely heavy this year, as most rookie tackles lined up over there. But until Jones got injured in Week 14, he had been the top of the league.


Tackle: Paris Johnson Jr., Arizona Cardinals

A situation that seemed dire to start the season, Johnson Jr. entered Arizona and started all 17 games for the Cardinals, and his best games were mostly in the second half of the season, protecting Kyler Murray and showing the fans that there is real hope and a solid core to the NFC West squad.


Guard: Steve Avila, Los Angeles Rams

One of the simplest choices on the list, Avila was the best pass protector of the rookie class. He anchored a playoff team’s offensive line, and helped allow Stafford to revive the offense yet again.


Guard: Peter Skoronski, Tennessee Titans

One penalty on the season is a short way to put Skoronski’s game; sturdy. Transitioning from tackle in college, Skoro had his ups and downs, surely as any rookie does. But, when it was good, it was GOOD.


Center: Joe Tippmann, New York Jets

Weeks 1-4, guard. Injury. Weeks 9-18, center. And that arguably established him as the only future mainstay to an offensive line that reached tumultuous at times this season. He also is only one of three rookies to see a load of snaps at center this year, and he simply outplayed Jarrett Patterson and John Michael Schmitz.




EDGE: Will Anderson Jr., Houston Texans

Defensive Rookie of the Year, 59 QB pressures, a cog to the Texans defense moving from bottom of the league to nearly top 10. A rookie that lived up to the unreal billing set on his name when Houston decided to move back up to #3 for him in the 2023 NFL Draft. Will Anderson Jr. is a household name for a decade to come.


Notable Numbers: #4 among rookies with 7 sacks, all those sweet pressures


EDGE: Tuli Tuipulotu, Los Angeles Chargers

Tuli warmed the hearts of Los Angeles fans this year. On a team that’s been constantly trying to piece that defense together, they’ve finally found a homegrown star. Finishing only 5 pressures behind Anderson Jr. for the rookie lead, his 88.4 PFF rush-defense grade ranked only behind the elite of the elite edge rushers in the league. Only the likes of Maxx Crosby, DeMarcus Lawrence, teammate Khalil Mack beat him out on that front.


Notable Numbers: #4 in NFL with 88.4 PFF run-defense grade, #2 in QB pressures among rookies (51)


IDL: Jalen Carter, Philadelphia Eagles

Carter was, very simply, phenomenal as a rookie. He finished as the 5th ranked PFF defensive tackle on the season, and I could argue that he has been the best player on an Eagles defense that took a severe hit coming off of a Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs last February. He’s a force to be reckoned with, and will constantly remind pundits why he should’ve gone no lower than #3 overall.


Notable Numbers: 49 pressures, best PFF pass-rush grade for a DT in history (85.9)


IDL: Kobie Turner, Los Angeles Rams

Turner came to the same town as the living legend Aaron Donald and… outplayed him? Okay, sure, Donald sees tons of double teams and is actively game planned for, but Turner surely had his fun. He tied Donald’s franchise rookie sack record (9). For 2023, Turner had more pressures against the double team than, you guessed it, Aaron Donald (22 to 17, respectively). LA is on fire with young talent, and Turner is helping lead the charge.


Notable Numbers: 9 sacks, 22 pressures vs. double teams

LB: Ivan Pace Jr., Minnesota Vikings

Undrafted, but not forgotten. Pace Jr. covered the entire stat sheet over the course of 2023 for Brian Flores, posting 102 tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, an interception, and got after the quarterback with eight hits, 2.5 sacks


LB: Jack Campbell, Detroit Lions

Campbell is a simple case for me here: he’s a very solid player who helped stabilize the second level of the Lions defense in 2023. His coverage may have been suspect myriad times, but he’s a high-level run stopper on a team that won’t allow him to be stagnant. While the class for linebackers didn’t provide elite guys like at running back or tight end, Campbell is a starter from here on out.


CB: Devon Witherspoon, Seattle Seahawks

Inside, outside, slot, bump and run, sticky 1v1 coverage, rushing the pocket. You name it, and Witherspoon has it.

According to PFF, he joins only All-Pro Antoine Winfield Jr. as defensive backs to post a grade of 79 or more in all three of defending the run, the pass, and rushing the passer.


Notable Numbers: 10 QB pressures, 3 sacks, one interception (returned for a 97-yard touchdown), 10 pass breakups, #5 in NFL 16 passes defensed


CB: Tyrique Stevenson, Chicago Bears

Where Witherspoon was an automatic, known commodity, Tyrique Stevenson had a flash-filled season for the Bears, aiding a defense that completely turned it around from the trade deadline forward. Sure, the film by the eye wasn’t an elite season, but Stevenson had an incredibly respectable season filled with highs and lows.


Notable Numbers: #5 in NFL with 16 passes defensed, #4 in NFL with 5 interceptions, two forced fumbles, #6 in tackles amongst corners (86)


Brian Branch Spot: Brian Branch, Detroit Lions

Brian Branch is Brian Branch. He can do it all, mainly manning the slot corner position for Detroit this year, nabbing three interceptions and allowing less than a yard per snap to slot receivers on the season.


Safety: Jordan Battle, Cincinnati Bengals

Jordan Battle had huge shoes and production to fill with Jessie Bates III’s departure from Cincinnati, and fill it did he, posting a top-10 overall PFF grade. Battle was one of only five safeties in the league to top a grade of 75 or better in both run and pass defense.


Safety: Ronnie Hickman Jr., Cleveland Browns

Simply put, Hickman Jr. joined an elite defense and put a ceiling on the backend of it. He’s a coverage savant, allowing four receptions across 200+ coverage snaps, genuinely wildly impressive.


Kicker: Brandon Aubrey, Dallas Cowboys

Professional soccer player turned USFL kicker turned NFL player, Aubrey’s journey was different than almost all, but a star was born in Dallas this season. After going perfect through 16 games (NFL rookie record), Aubrey was the best kicker in football for the year, not just for rookies.


Notable Numbers: Most 50+ yard field goals in rookie history (10), most consecutive field goals made to start a career (35-35)


Punter: Bryce Baringer, New England Patriots

“The Pin King” led the entire NFL with 38 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Baringer has cemented himself early as a high-level punter for years to come.

With the future stars of the league established after one season, we turn our heads toward the off-season.

It’s closer than you think.

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