NFL Rookies Who Won't Start in 2022 but Definitely Should

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2022

NFL Rookies Who Won't Start in 2022 but Definitely Should

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    The 2022 NFL draft is in the rear view, and teams head into their offseason programs with rookie classes in tow. Many rookies will be asked to start right away, and plenty should be immediate difference-makers.

    While NFL teams have become more open to starting rookies as of Week 1, some incoming players are still afforded de facto redshirt seasons. The San Francisco 49ers, for example, only put 2021 No. 3 pick Trey Lance in the starting lineup as a rookie when Jimmy Garoppolo was injured.

    This doesn't necessarily mean that sitting Lance was the right call. Yes, Garoppolo helped San Francisco reach the NFC title game, but he also prevented Lance from gaining a valuable year of starting experience.

    Lance is the presumed starter heading into 2022, and he enters the season with only two starts on his resume. Starting Lance wouldn't have been the win-now decision, but it would have been the right call from a long-term perspective.

    This season is likely to provide more examples of rookies who should start right away but probably won't. These are incoming players with the proven production, physical attributes, skill sets and/or positional value needed to justify starting Day 1. However, they're unlikely to start because of positional depth, supporting cast or other team-specific factors.

    We'll dive into each prospect, why they probably won't start and why they should. Players are listed in alphabetical order.

Matt Corral, QB, Carolina Panthers

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers took Mississippi quarterback Matt Corral in Round 3, but he wasn't necessarily their top choice. The Panthers were in talks with the Cleveland Browns about acquiring Baker Mayfield. According to Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson, talks "halted" when the teams couldn't agree on how to split Mayfield's $18.8 million salary in 2022.

    So, the Panthers went with Corral, who will likely sit behind 2021 acquisition Sam Darnold. The Panthers already committed to Darnold's fifth-year option, and they're poised to give him one final audition before abandoning the project.

    They shouldn't. Carolina should turn the page to Corral now, for a few reasons.

    The biggest is the Panthers largely know what they have in Darnold, and it's not enticing. The USC product went 4-7 as a starter last season while throwing nine touchdown passes, 13 interceptions and posting a dismal 71.9 quarterback rating.

    Carolina needs to find out what it has in Corral before the 2023 draft, which is loaded with high-end quarterback talent. Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Alabama's Bryce Young will both vie to be the No. 1 pick, and there should be plenty of other early first-round targets.

    If Corral isn't the answer, the Panthers can target a top-tier prospect. If he shows enough potential, though, Carolina could be in position to flip an early pick to another quarterback-needy team for a tremendous amount of capital.

    Corral, who passed for 3,349 yards, rushed for 614 yards and totaled 31 touchdowns last season, might be the answer. He's a bit raw, but he's a proven leader who oozes upside.

    "Overall, Corral is a fun player whose competitive play will fire up teammates and create yards out of thin air," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.

    The Panthers should commit to playing Corral and figuring out if he can be a franchise quarterback instead of leaning on Darnold for another year.

Jordan Davis, DT, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Eagles traded up to snag Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis with the 13th pick. However, Philadelphia didn't necessarily trade up to get a starter.

    There are two big obstacles standing between Davis and a starting role—defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave. Cox is a six-time Pro Bowler and a fixture of the Eagles' defensive front. Hargrave was acquired last offseason and made the Pro Bowl in 2021.

    While it would be a tough sell to Eagles fans, Philadelphia should start Davis over Cox. The 31-year-old is in the final year of his contract and probably won't be re-signed with Davis now in the fold. Cox is still a solid player, but he had just 3.5 sacks and 35 tackles in 2021, both the second-lowest totals of his career.

    Davis, meanwhile, is a 22-year-old physical phenom spring-loaded with potential.

    "There aren't many 6'6", 340-pound players period, let alone those as athletically gifted as he is," Derrik Klassen of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.

    The mammoth defensive tackle tallied 32 tackles, 17 solo stops, 5.5 tackles for loss and two sacks last season while playing as part of a heavy Georgia defensive-line rotation. That rotation is the other piece of the equation.

    The Bulldogs frequently rotated their front four, which means Davis wasn't a full-time player. The Eagles need to figure out if Davis can handle a full-time role and if he can remain disruptive with an expanded snap count.

    Starting Davis from Day 1 and scaling back his workload as needed would be the optimal approach for Philadelphia. How he handles that role will give them valuable information when it comes to re-signing Cox or feeling comfortable moving on from the longtime star.

George Pickens, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    With Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph on the roster, the Pittsburgh Steelers may not start rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett right away. However, Pickett was the only quarterback selected in the first two rounds, suggesting the Steelers view him as an immediate contributor and not a project.

    Georgia receiver George Pickens should be viewed as an early contributor and an immediate starter.

    The 21-year-old tore his right ACL in March last year but battled back to play late in the season. This shows a dedicated work ethic and a strong desire to play, which is something the Steelers noticed.

    Pickens finished last season with five catches for 107 yards. In 2020, he caught 36 passes for 513 yards and six touchdowns. While his limited numbers over the past two years aren't impressive, his upside is.

    The 6'3", 195-pound pass-catcher posted a 4.47-second 40-yard dash and 33-inch vertical at the combine, and he has all the tools to be a high-end perimeter target.

    "He has the size, ball skills and enough athleticism to be an X receiver who primarily runs a vertical route tree, which will also allow him to use his body strength and catching range," Tice wrote. "His size will translate into the red zone, and his blocking will be an asset right away."

    However, Pickens will likely begin his career below Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson on the depth chart. Players like Anthony Miller and Miles Boykin could also stand in the way of his playing time.

    The Steelers should hand Pickens a starting role, though. While Johnson and Claypool are very good when at their best, neither has been particularly consistent. Johnson was a Pro Bowler in 2021, but the pending free agent was credited with 18 drops over the past two seasons. Claypool had 11 combined rushing and receiving touchdowns as a rookie in 2020, but he provided a quarterback rating of only 77.5 when targeted this past season.

    Pickens has a chance to be Pickett's long-term go-to receiver moving forward. The Steelers need to get him onto the field early and start building their chemistry.

Dylan Parham, G, Las Vegas Raiders

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    The Las Vegas Raiders didn't make a selection until Round 3 after trading first- and second-round picks for Green Bay Packers receiver Davante Adams. However, the Raiders still landed a wonderful interior line prospect in Memphis' Dylan Parham.

    The 22-year-old Parham, the eighth-ranked interior lineman on the Bleacher Report Scouting Department's big board, started at right tackle and both guard positions. He might be a future fit at center, too.

    "Parham's athletic ability will allow him to pull and work in space effectively while his processing skills lend themselves to a possible move inside at center, where his sawed-off frame may be best utilized long-term," Brandon Thorn of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.

    Parham may not start right away, though, because of veterans like guard Jermaine Eluemunor and tackle Brandon Parker. The biggest obstacle, though, will be 2021 first-round pick Alex Leatherwood.

    The Raiders reached for Leatherwood and then struggled to find the proper fit for him last season. He moved from right tackle to right guard after four games. No matter the position, though, Leatherwood was a disaster as a rookie.

    He started all 17 games but was responsible for 14 penalties and eight sacks allowed, according to Pro Football Focus. Parker wasn't much better, amassing nine penalties and eight sacks allowed, per PFF.

    Leatherwood's draft status and Parker's experience shouldn't keep Parham on the sideline. The rookie should be given every opportunity to start at either right tackle or right guard with Leatherwood, Parker and/or Eluemunor filling the remaining spot.

    Eventually, Las Vegas could use Parham to replace center Andre James. But getting him on the field now would be the right move for the Raiders. Las Vegas is looking to build off of last year's playoff campaign and shouldn't start an offensive liability over Parham just because he's unproven.

    Leatherwood and/or Parker can serve as fallback options if Parham struggles, but neither should be a top choice heading into camp.

Desmond Ridder, QB, Atlanta Falcons

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    As is the case with Corral, the Atlanta Falcons should start former Cincinnati quarterback and third-round pick Desmond Ridder right away because of the looming 2023 class.

    If Ridder doesn't show enough to suggest he's "the guy," the Falcons can begin targeting quarterback prospects before the season is even over. If Ridder remains a relative unknown late in the season, Atlanta may be less inclined to position itself for an early quarterback pick.

    There are plenty of reasons to believe Ridder can be the guy in Atlanta, too. He was the top-ranked quarterback on the B/R board, a four-year starter for the Bearcats and has a pro-ready skill set. He's got size (6'3, 211 lbs), mobility, quickness running in space and plenty of arm talent.

    "Considering the improvement he showed his senior season and with still enough upside left to tap into, he has a path toward being a Pro Bowl-caliber player at the position if he gets in the right situation and can continue to work on his consistency," Tice wrote.

    Former NFL general manager Rick Spielman called Ridder the "steal of the draft."

    The reality, though, is Atlanta is likely to stick with the more proven Marcus Mariota in early in the 2022 season after signing the 2015 No. 2 pick to a two-year, $18.8 million deal this offseason.

    Mariota has 61 starts under his belt and has experience with Falcons head coach and former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. From a win-now perspective, starting Mariota out of the gate makes the most sense.

    However, 2022 shouldn't be about winning for the Falcons. This season should be about developing Ridder and then looking to pivot to a top 2023 prospect if the 22-yaar-old flounders. Ridder might not be poised for immediate success, but that's OK. The Falcons should allow him to take his lumps and learn on the job instead of sitting him behind Mariota.

Kenneth Walker III, RB, Seattle Seahawks

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Seahawks have taken a committee approach to their backfield since Marshawn Lynch retired following the 2015 season. They have Chris Carson, who is coming off of neck surgery, under contract for another year. Seattle also signed Rashaad Penny to a one-year, $5.8 million deal after a strong finish to the 2021 season.

    Penny rushed for 671 yards and six touchdowns over his final five games.

    Even if second-round pick Kenneth Walker III is the designated "starter," he's unlikely to see a true workhorse role. Keeping it from him will be a mistake, though, because neither Carson nor Penny is a reliable every-down ball carrier.

    Carson has two 1,000-yard campaigns on his resume but was hampered by foot and neck injuries over the past two seasons. While Penny's late-2021 flash was impressive, it was the only stretch in four years in which the 2018 first-rounder has shined.

    Injuries—including a torn ACL in 2019—and inconsistent play limited Penny to 37 games and six starts in four seasons.

    Walker, meanwhile, has true three-down potential.

    "Walker is a dynamic running back with the potential to be a true three-down starter in the NFL," Tice wrote. "He has the burst to hit the hole and the acceleration and overall speed to consistently get to the edge on outside runs and when bouncing runs. ... He is comfortable catching the ball, but he will need to refine his routes to expand his game even more. And he has the athleticism and body control to do so."

    Rather than working Walker into the lineup slowly, Seattle should hand him the reins and use Carson and Penny as change-of-pace options. Neither of them is likely to carry the Seahawks offense into the future, but Walker can be Seattle's first workhorse since Lynch.


    Contract information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.