2022 NFL Rookies Who Already Look Like Draft-Day Steals

·7 min read

We have a long way to go before the book on the 2022 NFL draft class is written, but some rookies are already building positive momentum for themselves.

The road to carving out an NFL career can be tough. Given the elevated competition, complex playbooks and grueling schedule, there are all sorts of reasons it takes players a while to adjust to life in the league.

That's why it's notable when rookies are standing out even before the pads come on.

There are still plenty of opportunities for players to prove themselves, but making an impression now is a good sign someone could be in for big things early.

That's expected of a first-rounder. But these rookies who were selected outside of the first 32 picks are looking like they could make immediate contributions that will make them steals by the time the regular season rolls around in September.

It was baffling when Nakobe Dean fell all the way to the third round on draft night. The slide still doesn't make sense.

The Georgia linebacker was one of the leaders and best athletes on a Bulldogs defense that was one of the best in recent memory. His athleticism, intelligence and ability to make plays all over the field landed him at No. 21 on the final big board by B/R's scouting department.

He fell all the way to No. 83 in the third round, where the Philadelphia Eagles were more than happy to take him.

Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported during the draft that a pec injury was one of the reasons Dean's draft stock plummeted.

Thus far, that hasn't seemed to come up. Reuben Frank of NBC Sports reported that Dean is learning two positions (Mike and Will), "has dazzled the Eagles' coaches with his intelligence" and is a candidate to wear the green dot. The dot signifies the player with the headset in their helmet to communicate with the coaches.

If Dean is athletic enough to be an every-down linebacker and smart enough to wear the green dot, the rest of the league messed up.

The Green Bay Packers are no strangers to finding good receivers outside of the first round.

Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings are just some of the talents they've found. General manager Brian Gutekunst might not have held that title for those picks, but he has been with the franchise since 1998.

This year, the Packers took a shot on three more receivers. Christian Watson (second round), Romeo Doubs (fourth round) and Samori Toure (seventh round) will all have an opportunity to earn a role.

The offense has 224 vacated targets after the departure of Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

The hype is around Watson, but don't count out Doubs to make an impact.

Maurice Jones-Drew of NFL Network even went as far as to say the Nevada product could become the team's No. 2 wide receiver this season. Matt Schneidman of The Athletic also highlighted Doubs for having a "stellar spring" in early offseason work.

If Doubs can even become the third or fourth receiver for a Super Bowl contender in his rookie year, he will have been well worth the fourth-round selection.

Finding a left tackle who can start as a rookie is hard enough in Round 1. Finding one in Round 5 is nearly impossible.

Yet Braxton Jones is starting to make it look like a possibility for the Chicago Bears.

The 168th overall pick from Southern Utah has taken first-team reps at left tackle, while Teven Jenkins worked with the second unit at right tackle, per Courtney Cronin of ESPN. Jenkins was a second-round selection last year but was not picked by current general manager Ryan Poles.

A new regime often favors "their guy," and it would appear that Jones is going to get the opportunity to make an early impact at a crucial position.

"The talent is all there," Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said of Jones, per Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune. "He's a really twitched-up athlete. The pass-set stuff, the redirect, he looked like an NFL left tackle on his junior tape. We were really high on him."

Jones was at the Senior Bowl, where he got to make an impression against FBS competition. Coming up from the FCS level, he continues to impress.

If he can provide decent protection for second-year quarterback Justin Fields as a fifth-round pick, he will be one of the best values in the entire draft.

Once upon a time, the New England Patriots helped develop J.C. Jackson from an undrafted free agent into one of the best corners in the NFL.

After watching Jackson leave for the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency, they will once again have to lean on development to find a star. Fourth-round selection Jack Jones appears to be making his case early.

Mike Reiss of ESPN has been high on Jones. On June 12, he wrote that his coverage on the outside was "sticky" and he could push for a starting spot. Reiss once again highlighted the former Arizona State Sun Devil a week later, noting that Jones was coached by Herm Edwards and Marvin Lewis in Tempe.

Both Edwards and Lewis are former NFL head coaches with defensive backgrounds.

That coaching appears to have paid off, as Jones played opposite Jalen Mills as a starting cornerback at mandatory minicamp.

Jones was actually the second corner the Patriots took in the draft. Marcus Jones was their third-rounder, but he has been limited in practice with a shoulder injury and projects as a slot corner.

The Patriots don't have to turn Jones into an All-Pro corner in Year 1. If he even becomes a starter, that's a huge value for the fourth round.

The Baltimore Ravens are in need of pass-catching threats, and they may have found one in fourth-round pick Isaiah Likely.

The tight end stood out in OTAs by making "several plays," according to The Athletic's Jeff Zrebiec, who later noted the 6'4", 235-pound Likely "already has a fan in [Lamar] Jackson."

That's significant because Jackson didn't join the team until mandatory minicamp after skipping voluntary OTAs. Jackson is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

The Ravens have to develop a receiving corps that can support their quarterback. Rashod Bateman is presumed to be the No. 1 receiver after the team traded Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals. Tight end Mark Andrews will have a big role, but the hierarchy gets murky after that.

The fact that Likely—who played nearly half of his snaps in the slot in 2021, per Pro Football Focus—developed a quick chemistry with Jackson could point to significant contributions.

Likely was the second tight end the team drafted. Charlie Kolar was taken at No. 128 in the fourth round. However, it's the Coastal Carolina product who looks like he could be a steal.

The mental aspect of playing quarterback in the NFL is one of the biggest hurdles to climb.

Running a pro-style offense used to mean lining up in the "I" and under center. In today's game, it means understanding the complexity of an NFL playbook along with all of the accompanying checks, audibles and protections.

So when a head coach goes out of his way to praise a rookie quarterback on the mental side of things, it's worth paying attention.

Last week, Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith called third-round pick Desmond Ridder "light-years ahead of most other young quarterbacks from the neck up," per Charles Odum of the Associated Press.

With most of the summer program thus far revolving around learning the system, the University of Cincinnati product has surpassed his own expectations.

"Honestly, I'm not going to lie, I thought I was going to come in and struggle a little bit,” Ridder said, per Odum. “We’re almost all the way through all our installs and putting in all those checks. I’ve got a good grasp of it."

Ridder's success lines up with what Nate Tice noted in his B/R scouting report. Tice noted Ridder showed a "deep understanding of the offense" for the Bearcats.

The quick development of the quarterback could set up a legitimate training camp competition with veteran Marcus Mariota. But even if it doesn't come to that, he's showing early signs he could wind up being a franchise quarterback.

Despite waiting until the third round to be chosen, Ridder could still live up to Tice's ranking as the top quarterback in the draft class.