Unheralded NFL Rookies Who Are Already Exceeding Expectations

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistOctober 22, 2021

Unheralded NFL Rookies Who Are Already Exceeding Expectations

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    We expect early-round draft picks to make immediate contributions, but some general managers find the best talent for a coaching staff's schemes even in the later rounds.

    Oftentimes, we'll hear about how well some of the lesser-known rookies perform at practice, or how they flashed during the preseason, but that's not always sustainable. Some training camp stars fade in the regular season because of the level of competition among starters. 

    However, several Day 3 picks have established themselves with consistency.

    We'll highlight eight rookies drafted from Rounds 4 to 7 who made a significant impact through the first six weeks of the season.

Derrick Barnes, LB, Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Draft Status: 113th pick

    As the Detroit Lions rebuild their defense, they might have found a linebacker who covers ground quicker than any of their other players on that side of the ball.

    Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn mentioned a couple of Derrick Barnes' intriguing traits before the rookie made his first start in Week 3 against the Baltimore Ravens. 

    "Barnes is a guy that brings an element of speed, explosiveness," Glenn told reporters. "Just who he is." 

    According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Barnes "impressed" the Lions, which factored into their decision to put ninth-year linebacker Jamie Collins on the trade block. Detroit released the veteran at the end of September, and the rookie has started in three of the last four games.

    In Week 6 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Barnes showcased his ability to play sideline-to-sideline, finishing with a team-leading nine tackles (six solo) and a pass breakup. 

    Head coach Dan Campbell kept his assessment of Barnes' progress to the point Monday, stating the first-year linebacker is "doing pretty good." 

    While playing 30 percent of the defensive snaps, Barnes has notched 26 tackles (18 solo), one for loss and a pass breakup. His numbers don't look flashy, but the Lions need his energy on defense.

Chuba Hubbard, RB, Carolina Panthers

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Draft Status: 126th pick

    As Christian McCaffrey battles a hamstring injury, Chuba Hubbard has assumed the featured role in the Carolina Panthers backfield.

    McCaffrey has missed three games, and the Panthers placed him on injured reserve before Week 6. Meanwhile, Hubbard has run with the baton as the fill-in starter, rushing for 219 yards and a touchdown over the last three games. He ran for 101 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5. 

    Obviously, Hubbard doesn't compare to McCaffrey, who's an All-Pro running back with 1,005-plus yards rushing and receiving in a single season, but the rookie keeps defenses honest and moves the chains. The Oklahoma State product has recorded 18 first downs as a ball-carrier or pass-catcher this season. 

    Following the Panthers' Week 6 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, head coach Matt Rhule seemed adamant about scripting a run-heavy game plan featuring Hubbard, telling reporters:

    "The shame of the game yesterday when you really go back and watch the game, we ran the ball well, we just have not been committed enough to running it. And that's going to change, I can tell you right now. You'll see a vastly different look from us moving forward. We're not going to line up and drop back and throw it 40 times a game and think that's going to win the game for us. It hasn't. So there's no McCaffrey, Chuba's showing us he can run the ball at a high level when given enough opportunities." 

    With McCaffrey on IR, Hubbard could turn more heads around the league.

Michael Carter II, CB, New York Jets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Draft Status: 154th pick

    As a majority of the offenses attack with a heavy use of three-wide receiver sets (11 personnel), teams need a reliable slot cornerback, and the New York Jets may have found one in the fifth round.

    Michael Carter II has flashed as the Jets' primary slot defender. Three weeks into the season, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich praised the Duke product for his solid performances at a tough position, telling reporters:

    "You're always careful about having expectations for rookies, especially on the back end because it's just such a trial by fire and it's so much different than the college game back there. We were really careful about our expectations for him, and I really feel like he's exceeded our expectations. He's done an exceptional job back there."

    Technically, Carter isn't a weekly starter because of his position, but he's been on the field for 64 percent of the defensive snaps, logging 27 tackles (14 solo), two for loss, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery. He's only allowing 7.6 yards per reception and an 82 passer rating in coverage.

    Carter can supplement the run defense, tackle in one-on-one situations and cover receivers without allowing excessive yards after the catch. He's a complete player at his position.

Nate Hobbs, CB, Las Vegas Raiders

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Draft Status: 167th pick

    The Las Vegas Raiders' maligned defense looks like a much different group this year. While the front line deserves a lot of credit for the improvement, Nate Hobbs has been an active slot cornerback who cleans up blind spots on the first and second levels of the unit.

    During the preseason, Hobbs earned a game ball and locked down the nickelback job. He's still productive while the games count in the standings.

    The Raiders have had issues with tackling in recent years, and Hobbs bolsters the defense with his textbook takedowns, limiting receptions to a minimum after the catch. 

    While playing 75 percent of the defensive snaps, Hobbs has logged 31 tackles (20 solo). He's allowing just 6.1 yards per completion in coverage.

    As we witnessed during the preseason, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley could also unleash Hobbs on a slot cornerback blitz because of his speed. Quarterbacks have to keep an eye on him before the snap.

Elijah Mitchell, RB, San Francisco 49ers

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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    Draft Status: 194th pick

    Going into the San Francisco 49ers' Week 6 bye, Elijah Mitchell led the team in rushing yards with 189. That's a shocker because he was the second running back in their draft class.

    San Francisco selected Trey Sermon in the third round, but the team listed him as a healthy scratch in Week 1, which opened the door for Mitchell to take advantage of a heavy workload once Raheem Mostert suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the team's first game. 

    In that contest, Mitchell recorded 19 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Detroit Lions. Per The Athletic's Dane Brugler, the 49ers running back became the first rookie Day 3 pick to rush for 100-plus yards in a season opener.

    While head coach Kyle Shanahan will likely divvy up touches among multiple running backs when everyone's healthy, including Mitchell, Sermon and JaMycal Hasty, who's recovering from a high ankle sprain, the rookie sixth-rounder has secured a role in backfield, which may allow him to finish the season as the team's top rusher.

    Mitchell missed Weeks 3 and 4 because of a shoulder injury, but he's back on the field and has logged the most carries among the team's tailbacks.

Khalil Herbert, RB, Chicago Bears

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Draft Status: 217th pick

    The Chicago Bears offense has gone through significant changes by choice and because of injuries and illness.

    While Andy Dalton nursed a knee injury, the Bears named Justin Fields their starting quarterback for the remainder of the season on Oct. 6. To take some pressure off its rookie signal-caller, Chicago has cranked up the ground attack.

    The Bears have rushed for at least 140 yards in each of the last three outings, and rookie Khalil Herbert has shouldered a heavy load over the last two games.

    In Week 4, David Montgomery went down with a knee injury. In addition, the team placed Damien Williams on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and he didn't play last week.

    Since Week 5, Herbert has recorded 37 carries for 172 yards and a touchdown.

    Bears running back coach Michael Pitre thinks Herbert made the most of his time with an expanded role.

    "He just got some more opportunities and took advantage of the opportunities he was presented," Pitre told reporters.

    When Montgomery and Williams return, the Bears can play a physical brand of football with a strong three-man backfield. Herbert, a sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech, can lead the trio with the hot hand.

Trey Smith, OG, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    Draft Status: 226th pick 

    The Kansas City Chiefs had an open battle for the right guard spot during the offseason, and Trey Smith had to beat two veterans in three-time Pro Bowler Kyle Long and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif to win the job.

    Long suffered a knee injury in June, and Duvernay-Tardif broke a bone in his hand in August. Still, Smith didn't win the competition by default. He earned it.

    On ESPN's Get UpLouis Riddick talked about the rookie's impressive offseason (h/t Kevin Flaherty of 247Sports).

    "I think we're overlooking the rookie sixth-round pick Trey Smith out of Tennessee, who Kansas City drafted, along with Creed Humphrey in the second round at offensive center," Riddick said. "This guy has been blowing the doors off of people in training camp for the Chiefs."

    Smith has held his own in the trenches, especially on running downs. In back-to-back weeks, free-agent tackle Mitchell Schwartz has highlighted plays that illustrated Smith's contributions to the ground attack. If Chiefs ball-carriers need to find a running lane, they should follow the rookie guard.

    Though Smith had some recent missteps in pass protection, he's solid in that regard as well. According to Pro Football Focus, the Tennessee product has allowed two sacks through 430 snaps.

Tre Norwood, DB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Draft Status: 245th pick

    The Pittsburgh Steelers had to develop talent in their secondary after the departures of cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton.

    Seventh-round pick Tre Norwood has logged most of his defensive snaps in the slot, but the coaching staff isn't afraid to line him up in center field as a deep safety or close to the line of scrimmage. 

    Norwood's ability to handle multiple roles shows he's a quick study, which defensive coordinator Keith Butler talked about with reporters (h/t Matthew Marczi of Steelers Depot). 

    "21 has really come a long way," Butler said. "Very smart man. Takes coaching and teaching very well. Tries to do what you ask him to do. I'm glad we got him."

    Norwood has made 15 tackles (14 solo), one for loss, without missing any attempts. He also broke up a pass and allows an 82.7 passer rating when targeted in coverage. The Oklahoma product hasn't allowed big plays, and he's on the spot to make stops with clean tackles.

    As Norwood continues to earn trust, the coaching staff will find ways to put him on the field in critical situations.


    Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton. Statistics via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted. 


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