Predicting NFL's 2022 Surprise Impact Rookies

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMay 17, 2022

Predicting NFL's 2022 Surprise Impact Rookies

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    Broncos tight end Greg Dulcich
    Broncos tight end Greg DulcichSteph Chambers/Getty Images

    The 2022 NFL draft class has yet to play a single snap, but we already know the players who are expected to be stars. High draft picks like Travon Walker, Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux are expected to stand out after stellar college careers.

    Hitting on players like that is great, but the real gems come when a team can find production after the first two rounds. While first- and second-round picks are expected to make contributions right away, the odds of a rookie contributing in a meaningful way start to decline once the third round starts. 

    Yet, there are those who inevitably have great rookie campaigns anyway. Amon-Ra St. Brown was a great 2021 example, as he led the Detroit Lions in receiving despite being a fourth-round selection. 

    Here we'll take a look at players taken in the third round or later who could make an impact based on their ability as well as the situation they got drafted into. 

WR David Bell, Cleveland Browns

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    David Bell saw his stock plummet in the predraft process. 

    He was the No. 51 overall prospect in the post-Senior Bowl edition of the big board. He ultimately wound as the No. 92 prospect on the final version of the board before going 99th to the Cleveland Browns in the draft.

    The concerns over his athleticism are legitimate. He earned a 4.02 relative athletic score, per Kent Lee Platte of Pro Football Network. His workout numbers included a 4.65 40-yard dash, 7.14 three-cone time and 33" vertical. 

    All of which points to a receiver that doesn't have great straight-line speed, change of direction or explosiveness. 

    Yet, he still had 93 catches for 1,286 yards and six touchdowns for Purdue last season. The analytically-minded Browns still took a chance on him despite his athleticism not matching up with the rest of their draft class

    The Browns don't have much depth at receiver. Amari Cooper figures to be their top wide receiver, but former sixth-rounder Donovan Peoples-Jones is next in line for targets and Jarvis Landry is now gone. Bell is going to have every opportunity to carve out a significant role early on. 

CB Coby Bryant, Seattle Seahawks

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner is expected to make an immediate impact with the New York Jets, but don't be surprised if his fellow Cincinnati Bearcat also makes his presence known in Seattle. 

    The Seahawks got Gardner's running mate in the fourth round but could see immediate dividends. For one, there's a lack of competition for the starting spot. With D.J. Reed signing to play with the Jets, the starting spot opposite of Sidney Jones will be a competition to watch in camp. 

    Artie Burns figures to be his biggest competition. The former first-round pick showed some signs of life in Chicago last year but still surrendered a passer rating of 115.1 when targeted. 

    Bryant received a third-round grade from the B/R Scouting Department but also drew a comparison to Josh Norman, and B/R scout Cory Giddings noted he could compete early. 

    "With the ability to play in press and off coverage, he will add depth to a team’s roster; and possibly compete for a starting job in his rookie season," Giddings wrote. 

    Landing in Seattle only increased that chance. Bryant was a highly productive player at Cincinnati. With teams getting aggressive in targeting him to avoid Gardner, he had 11 pass breakups and three interceptions. 

TE Greg Dulcich, Denver Broncos

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    Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images/Getty Images

    The Denver Broncos took a big swing when they traded multiple draft picks and players to get Russell Wilson. So it stands to reason that when the team finally got on the clock with the 64th and 80th picks, they were taking players they believe can help right away. 

    Their first pick yielded Nik Bonitto, a pass-rusher who can contribute immediately. But don't count out Greg Dulcich from playing a big role in the offense just because he was a third-rounder. 

    With Noah Fant headed to Seattle in the Wilson trade, there is now a targets vacuum at the position. Before the draft, it was assumed that Albert Okwuegbunam would step right into that role, but Dulcich's selection throws that into question. 

    The UCLA product was deemed the "best receiver" in the tight-end class by the B/R Scouting Department.

    He was a productive receiver at UCLA where he spent some time split out wide as well as the traditional in-line tight end alignment. He racked up 725 yards and five touchdowns on 42 receptions for the Bruins last season. 

    With Wilson taking over at quarterback, a new targets hierarchy will be established. Dulcich could be in line for a bigger share than expected. 

LB Christian Harris, Houston Texans

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    The Texans are going to rely on their rookie class more than most teams. After all, they used nine selections, including five in the top 75. 

    That 75th selection could wind up being as big a contributor as any, though. 

    The Texans got incredible value with Christian Harris at No. 75. The Alabama linebacker was the third-rated linebacker on the B/R big board and No. 32 player overall. While the B/R scouts may have been higher on him than most, his athleticism is undeniable. 

    Harris posted a 9.06 relative athletic score, per Kent Lee Platte of Pro Football Network. That testing featured a 4.44 40-yard dash that showcased the raw speed Harris brings to the linebacker position. 

    Harris' primary competition to take over as the Mike linebacker is going to be Christian Kirksey. The well-traveled veteran is the incumbent, but the Texans have no reason to play a veteran like Kirksey over a prospect like Harris if the rookie is ready to play. 

S Kerby Joseph, Detroit Lions

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    The Detroit Lions are still in the middle of a roster overhaul under general manager Brad Holmes. That sets up for rookies to make early contributions if they are able to take advantage of the situation. 

    The Lions' safety room still has questions heading into the 2022 season. They re-signed Tracy Walker and handed out a one-year contract to DeShon Elliott. But there's definitely room for third-round selection Kerby Joseph to carve out a role in his first year. 

    Elliott is a good option as a box safety, but he can be a liability in coverage. He's given up passer ratings of 113.4 and 120.6 when targeted in the past two seasons. 

    Joseph's best work comes as a deep safety. 

    B/R NFL Scout Cory Giddings described Joseph as "a defensive back who performs best when in coverage. He played the majority of his snaps at safety, where he was asked to cover slots and to be the deep safety."

    Will Harris, who ranked 91st out of 92 qualifying safeties by Pro Football Focus last season, could be Joseph's primary competition to play deep safety. 

WR Kyle Philips, Tennessee Titans

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    There were 22 wide receivers taken before Kyle Philips, who the Tennessee Titans took with the 163rd overall pick in the fifth round. 

    There won't be 22 receivers with better rookie campaigns than Philips. The UCLA product is strictly a slot receiver, so it's understandable that he was passed on by teams looking for receivers who can play on the outside. 

    However, he received a third-round grade from B/R's panel of scouts as well as a comparison to Sterling Shepard. 

    "His ability to win versus man coverage and to find space versus zone coverage will translate to the NFL, where he should quickly be able to carve out a niche on third down," draft analyst Nate Tice wrote in his scouting report for B/R. 

    With A.J. Brown and Julio Jones gone, there are plenty of targets up for grabs. Treylon Burks is obviously the rookie receiver everyone is watching in Tennessee, but Philips shouldn't be counted out.

    Philips is already generating buzz, too. Ben Arthur of The Tennesseean noted he was the best player on the first day of the Titans' rookie minicamp.

RB Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Because of the role opportunity plays in the life of a rookie, it shouldn't be surprising the Texans have two players on this list. While Christan Harris can be a pivotal cog in the defense, Dameon Pierce is a name fantasy football managers should want to know. 

    That's because Pierce could reasonably be Houston's lead back as early as Week 1. 

    It's not like he should have an overwhelming amount of competition for the job. Marlon Mack has 32 carries for 127 yards over the past two seasons, and Rex Burkhead is now 31 years old. 

    The coaching staff has already spoken highly of Pierce and how they envision using him. 

    "We drafted Dameon in mind with having a guy that can get yards in between the tackles," head coach Lovie Smith said, per Mark Lane of TexansWire. "He is a tough football player, confident football player. We feel like we have a role for him. You can't ever have too many good running backs."

    Despite that description, Pierce isn't just a between-the-tackles thumper. He was second among Power Five running backs in forced missed tackles per carry, per PFF

EDGE Cameron Thomas, Arizona Cardinals

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    Sam Hodde/Associated Press

    It was easy to see the Cardinals as an ideal match for Cameron Thomas, even long before the draft.

    The Cardinals did not have the draft capital to draft one of the more highly touted pass-rushers, and Thomas has shades of J.J. Watt as a bigger built (6'4", 267 pounds) defensive end with pop in his hands. He played inside and out at San Diego State and can be utilized in a similar role in Arizona. 

    It would be interesting to see where Thomas would have been drafted if things had gone differently in the lead-up to the draft. He suffered a hamstring injury that caused him to miss the Senior Bowl, and he only did the bench press and measurements at the combine. 

    Thomas doesn't look like an athletic marvel on film. He wins with his technique and good hand usage. But even just getting to show his athleticism may have improved his stock. 

    Regardless, he should get an early chance to show what he can do in Arizona. With the loss of Chandler Jones, the Cardinals are going to need pass-rush help. Markus Golden had 11 sacks last season, but the next highest returners were Jordan Hicks and Zach Allen with four apiece.