Every team, after every single draft, thinks they hit the nail on the head with their class of rookies. Still, the percentage of draftees who make a transformative impact in their first NFL season is small.
Those players who start out as rookies can completely change the direction of their franchise. That was the case in 2021 when fifth overall pick Ja’Marr Chase exploded onto the stage and helped propel the Cincinnati Bengals forward within minutes of a Super Bowl victory.
Last season also established Dallas Cowboys first-round pick Micah Parsons as one of the most feared defensive players in the league.
Both Chase and Parsons received individual honors as they respectively won Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
The 2022 NFL draft didn’t have the same standard as the 2021 class, but this group of rookies still includes several players who could repeat the rise to stardom that Chase and Parsons enjoyed in their first campaign.
Aidan Hutchinson – Edge Rusher, Detroit Lions
No defensive tackle in the NFL draft comes into the league as versatile as Hutchinson, who showed his tremendous potential for the Lions last season.
With flexibility, power, speed, and a wide variety of pass-rush moves in his arsenal, Hutchinson’s 30.8 percent pressure rating was the second-best of any Edge prospect in this year’s class.
The tools he used to amass 14 sacks in his final season with Michigan should translate extremely well to the pros and significantly strengthen a Lions defense that ranked 27th in pass rush win rate last season .
After a 2021 season in which they went 3-13-1 but lost six games by one goal, the Lions are viewed by many as an up and coming team.
They’re unlikely to fight for the playoffs this year, but Hutchinson’s ground is high enough to quickly become a household name with a stellar season for a team that’s at least one more step forward on their way to competition should do.
Chris Olave – Wide receiver, New Orleans Saints
Olave had to wait to have his name called after Garrett Wilson, a former Ohio State teammate, but he’s in a better position to immediately succeed at the highest level.
A smooth and detailed route-runner with the speed to test defense deep, Olave is a perfect match for a typically aggressive quarterback in the form of Jameis Winston.
The former Buckeye was sixth in burn rate among wide receivers in that class in 2021 and won his matchup with a defender on 69.9 percent of his goals. He finished third in burn yards per target (14.08) while recording the second-highest average target depth (14.3).
With Michael Thomas’ health still a concern, Olave could quickly become the top target on the Saints offense. Given his propensity to split in downfield, such an opportunity could result in significant production for Olave, provided Winston’s encouraging pre-injury form in 2021 doesn’t prove a false omen.
If they get a viable quarterback game, the Saints have the list to contend for a postseason return, and Olave has a good shot at following in Chase’s footsteps by winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, if he’s a key factor in a campaign that ends in a playoff berth for New Orleans.
James Cook – Running Back, Buffalo Bills
In the past four years, the Bills haven’t eclipsed a player by more than 870 rushing yards in a single season, so it made sense to hit Cook in the second round.
Though none of their backs have come close to the 1,000-yard mark recently, the Bills are one of only six teams to have averaged at least 150 rushing yards per game over the past three seasons and are reaping the benefits of dual-threat Quarterback Josh Allen’s ability to benefit adjust.
The younger brother of Minnesota Vikings star running back Dalvin Cook, Cook was a star during his time in Georgia, averaging 6.5 yards per carry during his career with the Bulldogs and his final season averaging 1,012 scrimmage yards on 140 touches finished fifth in Power 5 Backs with 7.2 scrimmage yards per touch. He had seven touchdowns on the ground and four in the air as Georgia rode him to their first national championship since the 1980s.
Cook thrived on his second-level breakout and high speed, which could increase the big-play threat of a running game that hit 60 carries for 10 yards or more in 2021, the seventh most in the NFL.
And even if he doesn’t have a huge advantage, Cook can be effective. He was fifth in the NCAA in yards per one-stop carry-on.
His receiving skills saw him log 11 receptions from at least 10 yards last season, earning him tied 12th place among Power 5 backs. Playing on an offense where defenders constantly fear Allen’s deep ball, Cook has the potential to become a dynamic short-game weapon that can exploit the underlying space he’s often afforded.
Since LeSean McCoy, the Bills haven’t had a back with the all-around ability that Cook possesses. Their offense could be borderline unstoppable should the Bills immediately capitalize on his talents and position Cook to rise to his brother’s stardom as a rookie.
George Karlaftis – Edge Rusher, Chiefs of Kansas City
When the Chiefs selected the 30th pick of this year’s NFL draft, Purdue Edge Rusher, it was the highest draft pick they had drafted for the position since taking over 23rd pick Dee Ford in 2014.
The Chiefs ranked 19th in the league in sacks in 2020 before plummeting to 29th in that category in 2021, showing their inability to attend to arguably defense’s most important task — hitting the quarterback.
Last season, the Chiefs blitzed at the eighth highest rate in the league (28.1%) and were credited with 278 quarterback pressures. Only nine teams produced more in the regular season. But the league’s best quarterbacks thrive against the Blitz, and a more sustainable formula for defensive success is to create constant pressure by sending just four rushers.
Karlaftis can thrive there.
In his 26 games at Purdue, Karlaftis averaged 29 tackles for loss and 14 sacks, and his 21.9 percent pressure rating was the sixth best of any edge rusher in that draft class.
Karlaftis, who will play on the Chiefs front line alongside Chris Jones, arguably the NFL’s leading defensive tackle other than Aaron Donald, could be an instant difference for a Chiefs team looking for another Super Bowl push has in mind if his monstrous physical traits carry over into the NFL, as many are anticipating.
Christian Watson – Wide Receiver, Green Bay Packers
The Packers have one of the greatest quarterbacks in the sport’s history to win back-to-back league MVP awards — but it remains to be seen if Aaron Rodgers’ guns are up to the task.
Only Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp received more goals in 2021 than Davante Adams, Rodgers’ favorite target since 2016, who was traded to the Las Vegas Raiders this offseason. Watson was one of the men selected to fill the void, picking 34th overall from North Dakota State in this year’s draft.
Watson is 6’5″ and a height-weight-speed receiver who ran a 4.36 40-yard dash and has the versatility to damage as a receiver and from outside the backfield. He carried the ball 49 times for his career at Fargo, averaging eight yards per rush and over 20 yards per reception as a pass catcher.
Playing against weaker competition at FCS, however, he appeared to have been usurped this preseason by fellow rookie fourth-round pick Romeo Doubs. Doubs is younger, has been producing since his regular freshman season and could be a better footballer at this point, but the Packers will need more than one threat to feature this season, turning Watson’s athletic gifts, duplicity and big game on its head Give it the highest cap of all recipients on your list.
If he forms a relationship with Rodgers, Watson could play a big part in finally making ends meet for the Packers.
Kaiir Elam – Cornerback, Buffalo Bills
The Bills already have an All-Pro cornerback in Tre’Davious White and are hoping to find another after using their first-round pick against Elam.
Elam rose to the draft board after an impressive final season with Florida, in which he held his own against some of the SEC’s best.
His performance against Jameson Williams in the Gators’ clash with Alabama was one that drew rave reviews, and Elam ended the year in 10th place.
Elam’s success in providing tight coverage was evident in his preseason debut against the Indianapolis Colts, which further encouraged him to enjoy a smooth and quick transition to the pros.
A physical and aggressive corner with the speed to stay in step with Blazers like Williams, Elam’s man-covering skills could allow a Bills defense, which was 22nd in blitz rate (22.9%) last year, a more diverse range of pressure packs throwing at opponents as you try to climb the hump and win a first Super Bowl.
Playing opposite a corner of White’s reputation, Elam is constantly being tested. His own profile will grow quickly if he passes these tests.