Week 5 is in the books, and with it the NFL rounds its way into the next third of the regular season. On a macro level we’ve seen wild shifts and incredible parity around the league, with the play of rookies beings a huge factor in why some teams are playing leagues above expectations.
As we approach Week 6 let’s take stock of the biggest standout rookies of the 2023 NFL Draft so far, and what they’ve done to transcend their “feeling out” period to truly becomes forces in the NFL.
No. 1: C.J. Stroud, QB — Houston Texans
Stroud hasn’t just been good by this year’s rookie standards, he’s transcended most starts by ANY rookie quarterback over the last 15 years — and he keeps getting better.
Concerns about Stroud’s processing speed and decision making have washed away by him answering almost every question about his ability to scan the field and make the correct read. The Texans have built an offense that allows Stroud to shine, and he’s rewarded them with damn-near perfect football, starting with 1,461 passing yards, seven touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
There’s ample room to grow too. Stroud’s accuracy has been a little spotty at times (61.3 percent on the season), but this is a very minor quibble — especially this early into his career. There are big risks from making huge determinations about a quarterback’s ability this early (hell, look at the start Mac Jones had to his NFL career over five games), but as it stands Stroud looks like the real deal and is doing everything right in Houston.
No. 2: Christian Gonzalez, CB — New England Patriots
Injury has robbed us of seeing the September defensive rookie of the month continue his campaign, but I’m not going to let that knock him down. Gonzalez will miss the remainder of 2023 with a torn labrum, then come back and continue being a force.
It’s often difficult to point out a stat that makes it easy to evaluate a cornerback, so instead we look at what others weren’t able to do against him. Tyreek Hill was a non-factor against Gonzalez, being held to two catches for eight yards. He followed up by stuffing Garrett Wilson and allowing him to only have 18 yards receiving.
There’s a lot about Gonzalez’s rookie season that resembled Sauce Gardner’s, and it’s shame we won’t see it continue. Nonetheless he’s been incredible to far.
No. 3: Jalen Carter, DT — Philadelphia Eagles
The best defensive player in the 2023 NFL Draft can play football … WHO KNEW?! We all know why Carter fell down the board due to off-field issues, but no defensive rookie has made as big of an impact that Carter through five games.
As it stands he’s ever bit the dominant force in the middle that he was at Georgia. Carter is collapsing the pocket inside and wrecking havoc for opposing quarterbacks, sitting at 12 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles over five starts.
When Carter isn’t stuffing the stat sheet he’s making life easier for everyone around him and is showing every bit that he can be a staple in the NFL for a long, long time.
No. 4: Puka Nacua, WR — Los Angeles Rams
Here’s one that almost started like a joke. The expectation when Cooper Kupp started the season on IR was that he Rams were dead men walking. How do you replace an All-Pro talent like Kupp with a fifth round rookie nobody has ever heard of before?
Then Puka Nacua shut everyone up.
Nacua isn’t an elite athlete, he doesn’t have Jaylen Waddle speed or Ja’Marr Chase leaping ability — but his understanding for football is second-to-none. It’s bizarre to say the Rams found another Cooper Kupp, but they kind of found another Cooper Kupp. Nacua wins by running incredible routes, and never giving up on plays, routinely fighting off the top of his route to find open space and make life easy for Matthew Stafford.
If the Rams can get a little more from their defense other than Aaron Donald we could really see Los Angeles surprise down the stretch based purely off the strength of Kupp and Nacua becoming one of the best 1-2 receivers in the NFL.
No. 5: Bijan Robinson, RB — Atlanta Falcons
Robinson has yet to find the end zone on the ground, but there isn’t a week that goes by where he doesn’t prove why he was such an elite player in the 2023 class. Without Robinson the Falcons would be one of the worst teams in the NFL, and he keeps moving from strength to strength.
On pace to finish with over 1,200 rushing yards this year with another 496 yard receiving, Robinson is the ideal three down back who can do absolutely everything a team needs him to. It’s not just the eye-popping plays, but the efficiency with his production as he’s averaging 5.4 yard-per-carry on a diminished workload while he splits carries with Tyler Allgeier.
There is absolutely no doubt he’s going to become an elite player in this league.
No. 6: Brian Branch, S — Detroit Lions
One of the biggest steals of the 2023 NFL Draft, Branch had no business falling to the No. 45 pick. Everyone else’s loss is the Lions’ gain, who have quickly found the safety to be a game-changer in their defense.
Branch has shown not just a knack for being an instinctive player in the secondary, but a willingness to step up and be a leader on the field, routinely ensuring everyone is aware of the offensive looks coming their way, as well as being in the correct alignment.
Safety might not be a glamor position in the league right now, but Branch is absolutely shining and could make a case for defensive rookie of the year by the end of the season if he keeps his play up.
No. 7: Sam LaPorta, TE — Detroit Lions
Back-to-back Lions rookies, baby!
Water is wet. Iowa tight ends are good. It’s no mystery LaPorta was going to be a stud in the NFL, but what has surprised if how gifted he’s been as a receiving threat so far. Primarily an in-line blocker in college with some nice receiving traits, the Lions have unlocked LaPorta’s ability to truly become an elite pass catcher at the position.
LaPorta is stretching the field at over 11 yards per reception, and is on pace for almost 1,000 yards his rookie season — while already showing a knack for being one of the best blocking tight ends in the league.
No. 8: Devon Witherspoon, CB — Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks rookie might not has stood out as much as Christian Gonzalez early in the season, but he’s been shaping up as a difference maker in the slot.
Witherspoon has a 79.7 grade from Pro Football Focus, one of the highest among defensive rookies, and has developed a knack for playing the ball in the air and disrupting passes. His 97-yard interception against the Giants, coupled with a pair of sacks shows he has playmaking potential from the position that’s impossible to ignore.
No. 9: De’Von Achane, RB — Miami Dolphins
It’s still early in the season and De’Von Achane might be the scariest offensive weapon in the NFL. This is more of a scheme fit than just individual brilliance, but you can’t ignore a rotational running back who’s averaging over 12 yards per carry.
Achane is the perfect change-of-pace back in Mike McDaniel’s system, if the pace is switch from speed to even more speed. He’s lightning in a bottle, and being ranked No. 9 is only a factor of him having limited touches this season. There’s no doubt we’re going to see him integrated into the offense more, and there’s a very good chance he could skyrocket up the rankings.
In the last three weeks he’s rushed for 460 yards and five touchdowns. It’s incredible to watch.
No. 10: Zay Flowers, WR — Baltimore Ravens
Flowers has gone from being a promising rookie piece for Lamar Jackson to the only Ravens receiver worth a damn. His skill as a downfield burner has paired perfectly with Jackson’ deep ball accuracy and the two are already forming a dynamic pairing.
There are rookie moments and dropped passes, as every young player has — but that doesn’t mean we should ignore how well he’s played for the Ravens thusfar.
No. 11: Tank Dell, WR — Houston Texans
This is shaping up to be a legendary draft for the Texans, and Dell is a big reason why. We all had a feeling C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson were going to be good, but finding an impact receiver in the third round isn’t common.
Dell’s seven-catch, 145-yard games against the Jaguars in Week 3 showed the long-term potential of him as a downfield threat that can stretch the field. Paired with Nico Collins it’s giving a hell of a 1-2 punch to the Houston offense that’s soaring right now.
No. 12: Will Anderson, LB — Houston Texans
Yet another Texans’ rookie. Anderson doesn’t have eye-popping stats, but he’s doing all the little things right. With 21 tackles and a sack on the season, the former Alabama edge rusher is translating to a do-everything player at the NFL level.
There’s still some improvement to be made as he adjusts to pro-level pass blocking, but we’re seeing the groundwork being put down for Anderson to become a plus-level player or better in the NFL.