The 11 best NFL rookies in preseason, ranked

NFL preseason is in the books and, as always, the major focus is on the rookie class.

It takes a really granular, specifically obsessed football fan to be intently watching the second half of a third preseason game to see which depth offensive guard is making a difference — but when it comes to rookies, the eye test is simpler, especially at skill positions . It’s also a whole lot sexier to see if a player is able to match or exceed their college production, vs those who are simply getting better after being in the league for years.

The big selling point of the 2022 NFL Draft class was an overwhelming belief that this was an exceedingly deep group, with starters available well into the second day — but light at the top on superstars. This was also a draft where nobody thought a quarterback was worth an early pick, so let’s see how that all played out in the preseason.

No. 11: James Cook, RB—Buffalo Bills

Now it seems like the Bills are ready to have a multi-dimensional offense, really for the first time since Josh Allen emerged as a superstar. Buffalo’s second round pick, Cook has had limited opportunities in the preseason with the team electing to test their back-end depth at running back instead, but when he’s been given the ball Cook has shown to be an impact player.

In total he rushed 10 times for 56 yards this preseason, and showed a knack for making good decisions with the ball in his hands. When he had the opportunity to run with the team’s top offensive line against Denver, he averaged 9.5 yards-per-carry.

Bills fans should be over the moon with Cook’s production, and excited to see what he can do with Devin Singletary as a 1-2 punch.

Walker hasn’t stuffed the stat sheet this preseason, but he’s doing all the little things well. The No. 1 overall pick finished the preseason with four tackles and a sack, but far more importantly he showed himself to be a matchup nightmare.

The big question about him as the top pick was whether speed and power alone warranted taking a leap of faith. So far he’s shown that it’s working. Walker is very much a work in progress when it comes to developing an array of pass rush moves, but as it stands he can collapse a pocket and make life a nightmare for anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way.

Walker should continue to develop as a rookie, and preseason was a big first step.

No. 9: KaVontae Turpin, WR/ST — Dallas Cowboys

Sure, a lot of this is based off one preseason game — but Turpin was the most electric return man in the NFL this preseason and is definitely a player to watch. Against the Chargers he recorded a punt return and kick return for a touchdown, and immediately cemented himself as a lock for the 53 man roster.

The former USFL MVP signed with the Cowboys to little fanfare, and since then has proven himself a difference maker on special teams, as well as a serviceable receiver, should his number be called.

With some creativity a player with Turpin’s raw speed could become an absolute gem in the NFL this season.

This was a very offensive line heavy draft, and thus far nobody is making the transition to the NFL better than Charles Cross. Outside of some embarrassing false starts against the Bears, he’s been a great pickup who has shut down almost every pass rusher to cross his path.

Cross has great instinct to hold the edge and amazing technique in pass blocking not to lose his base under pressure. It immediately looks like he’ll be starting as a rookie, and rightfully so because he’s won the job hands down.

It’s not that fellow top picks Evan Neal or Ikem Ekwonu, have been bad — but Cross has just looked more ready to step onto a team and take on a major role immediately.

No. 7: Sam Howell, QB — Washington Commanders

Rewind a year and Howell was being touted as a future No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. The North Carolina quarterback struggled in his final college season, and he plummeted — like every QB in this class. Now we’re seeing flashes of promise that could make Howell a special player for the Commanders.

Aside from showing no quit when anyone could forgive him for taking a sack and living to fight another play, Howell has been a very solid passer. He led all quarterbacks this preseason with 547 yards, completing 62.3 percent of his passes while adding a touchdown and one interception.

It wasn’t always perfect, but worlds better than the 5th round pick which Washington invested. I don’t know if Howell will be a long-term option, but the Commanders should at least roll the dice and try to get him some reps this season because Carson Wentz has been fine — but nothing special.

The Ravens were given huge props for their 2022 draft haul, and it’s picks like this that made the class worthy of praise. Likely was a huge weapon for the Ravens this preseason, and showed he can make a big impact in his rookie year.

Lamar Jackson is in dire need of weapons after the team traded Marquise Brown during the draft, and he’s already used to leaning on tight ends in the Baltimore offense with Mark Andrews. Likely brings a slightly different dimension, and he’s more of a deep threat who can stretch the field.

This preseason he caught 12 passes for 144 yards and a touchdown — despite only playing in two preseason games. This is a player to watch, and all it cost was a fourth round pick.

No. 5: Boye Mafe, LB — Seattle Seahawks

Mafe blew the doors off everyone’s expectations in preseason Week 1 when he recorded two sacks and forced a fumble, then seemingly dropped off in Week 2. However, the devil is in the details. While Mafe didn’t stuff the stat sheet in the remainder of the preseason, there are so many other things he did exceedingly well.

There’s a coalescence of ability and instinct happening here that’s impossible to ignore. The Seahawks got a really, really good football player who can be used in a variety of ways, and he fell to them in the second round.

I’m really excited to see how Mafe develops, because I think he can become a force very quickly.

If you followed the draft process you know that prior to the combine Karlaftis was a guy getting Top 5 hype, then he progressively slipped further, and further down draft boards — finally settling at No. 30, where the Chiefs got a steal.

In a perfect example of overthinking the process, teams went for high-upside players and let a gem slip. So far in limited reps Karlaftis has beaten every expectation by recording 2.0 sacks and five pressures in 31 pass rush snaps. That’s extremely productive, and exactly what you’d hope from a first round pick — so getting a guy of this caliber back at 30 was an absolute coup.

With a little more time and seasoning Karlaftis looks like a player who can anchor the side of a line for a decade. He might never be a 15.0 sack monster, but he’s always going to be productive and reliable.

So much for this draft having no good quarterbacks. Yes, I know, I know, it’s early — and everyone could still easily be trash, but the early returns on Willis are looking really strong.

Keep in mind that of all the “top” QBs in this weak class it was Willis who figured to need the most time to develop. He didn’t have multiple years as an NCAA starter, he was coming out of a Liberty system that barely saw him play any top flight competition, and because of this he was able to get away with a lot of things that didn’t translate to the NFL.

After preseason all the unlikely traits are translating. We’re not seeing perfect accuracy yet (especially on short and intermediate routes) but Willis is doing some truly eye-popping things with the football that are reminiscent of Patrick Mahomes’ ability to improvise, and Lamar Jackson’s rushing ability.

Heck, look at his ability to take over the game on two drives. First, a huge run that showed off his scrambling ability.

Then, later in the quarter he showed off his ability throwing in tight windows with one of the best passes we’ve seen this preseason.

Willis has gone 28-for-54, 318 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT with his arm and ran another 14 times for 159 yards and another touchdown. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but he’s looking really promising so far, and has the most superstar potential

Nobody has more pressure on them this preseason than Kenny Pickett. The Steelers’ rookie was mocked for his small hands during the combine, then Pittsburgh was poked fun at for taking him in the first round while every other passer was left on the board until the third. Now it’s Pickett and the Steelers who are laughing.

Through three games Pickett was functionally perfect, throwing 29-for-36, 261 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. His teammates are raving about his leadership and command of the huddle, and we’re fast approaching head coach Mike Tomlin needing to make a decision whether Pickett has earned the starting job in a year everyone thought Mitchell Trubisky would be the guaranteed starter.

The Steelers have done an exceptional job protecting Pickett both on the field and with play calling. They’re not asking him to do too much, or push the ball downfield a lot, which is very smart to help build his confidence. It’s too early to start assuming Pickett is the next Justin Herbert or Joe Burrow, but the returns are incredibly promising.

Nobody was better as a rookie this preseason than McCutcheon, who looked so good his production felt like it had to be fake. He led the entire NFL with 259 receiving yards, including two touchdowns and a 60-yarder.

McCutcheon runs routes cleanly, he doesn’t have a lot of body movement selling his change of direction. Hell, look at how he burned Derek Stingley Jr., the No. 3 overall picks.

There was this belief that the Rams would take a major step back in their receiving corps after losing Robert Woods to free agency and choosing not to re-sign Odell Beckham Jr. Now we’re looking at the possibility of a McCutcheon breakout, paired with Cooper Kupp’s brilliance, Van Jefferson, and hopes that Allen Robinson II can return to form.

There is a very real chance this team could be even scarier thanks to this rookie. At a time where everyone was bending over backwards to find the next big thing through trade, free agency or investing a high draft pick, the Rams found a gem through undrafted free agency.

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