The 2023 rookie class is off to a phenomenal start. C.J. Stroud is playing like a Pro Bowl quarterback right away in Houston. Bijan Robinson already looks like one of the best running backs in the league, and Sam LaPorta might already be a top-five tight end in the NFL. But which high-profile rookies have struggled out of the gate and need to start producing? Here are six NFL rookies who have yet to live up to expectations this season.
6 Rookies Falling Short
Las Vegas Raiders DE Tyree Wilson
When the Las Vegas Raiders selected Tyree Wilson with the No. 7 pick, they knew it would take some time for him to develop. The Texas Tech star injured his foot at the end of the 2022 college football season and could not participate in any offseason workouts. He missed almost all of training camp and only played a handful of snaps in the preseason.
But after the release of Chandler Jones, Wilson was inserted into the lineup and has since played 148 defensive snaps. Unfortunately, the Raiders haven’t gotten production from Wilson, who has recorded just four pressures and zero quarterback hits or sacks, according to TruMedia. He's been one of the least effective pass rushers in the league and hasn't been that close to creating a sack.
Tyree Wilson (drafted 7th overall) vs Khalil Mack (drafted 5th overall) thru first 6 gms of their careers
0 sacks 😱
0 TFL 😱
0 QB hits 😱
— Raiders History (@Oaklraiders1976) October 18, 2023
Wilson was a bit of a project coming out of the Big 12, and his foot injury certainly hasn’t helped. The Raiders are desperate for pass-rush help outside of Maxx Crosby, and Wilson has yet to be able to contribute. Las Vegas needs him to improve in the second half of the season significantly. Because so far, that pick is a disaster.
New York Jets EDGE Will McDonald IV
The NFL has seen a few rookie pass rushers take the league by storm over the last few years. Nick Bosa (2019), Micah Parsons (2021) and Aidan Hutchinson (2022) all had fantastic rookie seasons. But it’s unfair to expect that type of production for most rookie edge rushers. Bosa, Parsons and Hutchinson are three of the best six pass rushers in the NFL today, and most rookies usually struggle to get more than five sacks in their first season.
However, it isn't very encouraging when a rookie edge rusher can't even get on the field. That's been the case for Will McDonald IV and the New York Jets. McDonald has played just 56 defensive snaps all season, according to TruMedia. He has recorded just one pressure and no quarterback hits or sacks. He’s been invisible all year, tallying one tackle this season.
McDonald is 24 years old; it’s a bad sign for an older rookie if he can't produce immediately.
Considering how many pass rushers the Jets already have on the roster, McDonald was an odd draft pick for them. Undoubtedly, New York hoped to get more of McDonald early in the season, but that hasn't happened yet. As the season progresses, the Jets will need McDonald to be more effective as they continue to try to win games with their defense.
Washington Commanders CB Emmanuel Forbes
One of the biggest surprises on draft night was Emmanuel Forbes being selected ahead of Christian Gonzalez. The consensus draft board had Gonzalez as the No. 7 overall player in the class, while Forbes sat at No. 36. It's not uncommon to see reaches in the first round of the NFL Draft. They happen all the time. But it is unusual to see teams reach on players who are significant outliers.
Before the 2023 NFL Draft, Denzel Ward was the lightest cornerback selected in Round 1 since 2000. He weighed in at 183 pounds at 5-foot-11. But Forbes came in significantly lighter, weighing 170 pounds at the NFL Combine despite being two inches taller than Ward. Unfortunately, Forbes’ lack of weight and muscle has been a problem in the NFL. He's missed several tackles and been unable to match the physicality of bigger receivers.
Forbes struggled in Weeks 4 and 5, allowing well over 200 receiving yards and multiple touchdowns to A.J. Brown and DJ Moore. He performed so poorly in Week 5 that he was eventually benched and did not play a single snap against the Atlanta Falcons the following week.
Being a rookie in the NFL is never easy. It's a roller coaster.
Emmanuel Forbes didn't play vs. Atlanta.
Emmanuel told me, "there's always going to be ups and downs in these football games, especially playing DB. You just have to embrace it and stay true to yourself." pic.twitter.com/IzNQQVEAtV
— Scott Abraham (@Scott7news) October 18, 2023
Forbes is still a very young player getting used to the speed and physicality of the NFL. But the early concerns about his size and strength have been warranted. The Washington Commanders will surely put him back on the field soon, but he needs to show that he can hold up on the outside against bigger and more physical receivers.
Los Angeles Chargers WR Quentin Johnston
Picking at No. 21, the Los Angeles Chargers had their choice of any receiver in the 2023 NFL Draft outside of Jaxon Smith-Njigba (picked at No. 20). With Keenan Allen and Mike Williams both aging and struggling to stay healthy, it’s not a surprise that the Chargers decided to draft a play-maker for Justin Herbert.
The expectation was that Quentin Johnston could be the No. 3 wide receiver out of the gate and could replace Allen or Williams should they go down with an injury. That hasn't been the case at all, as Josh Palmer opened the season as the team’s third receiver. And when Williams went down because of a torn ACL, Palmer saw an increased role, not Johnston.
It's hard not to be disappointed with Johnston's play and production so far. Through five games, he has just six catches for 44 yards. In the game against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football, Johnston was shut out in the box score. He did receive two targets, one of which was on the team’s final offensive play. Veteran Stephon Gilmore outmuscled Johnston and beat him back to the ball, resulting in an interception.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but Zay Flowers (Baltimore Ravens) and Jordan Addison (Minnesota Vikings) were the following two players off the board in the 2023 NFL Draft. They both are having fantastic rookie seasons, and it seems like they would have fit in well with Herbert. Instead, Johnston is buried on the depth chart in Los Angeles, and there haven’t been a lot of bright moments to date.
The Chargers have a brutal schedule over the next month and need someone opposite Allen to step up in the passing game. Will that be Johnston? The Chargers certainly hope so.
Buffalo Bills TE Dalton Kincaid
Tight end has historically been a position where young players struggle. Year in and year out, we see first-round picks at tight end disappear during their rookie seasons. Yes, that has changed a bit over the last few seasons as Kyle Pitts (Atlanta Falcons) went over 1,000 yards as a rookie, and LaPorta (Detroit Lions) is second in the NFL in receiving yards (325) among all tight ends.
However, the Buffalo Bills have yet to see that kind of production from Dalton Kincaid, the first tight end selected in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Bills targeted Kincaid during the draft, moving ahead of the Cowboys to select him at No. 25. All offseason, the expectation was that Kincaid would be Buffalo’s pseudo slot receiver who could make plays down the seam and be the No. 3 option in the passing attack.
So far, that hasn’t been the case at all. Kincaid has 17 receptions on the year, but he only has 118 yards and no touchdowns. He’s averaging 6.9 yards per reception, which is shockingly low for someone of his skill set.
Sean McDermott on #Bills rookie TE Dalton Kincaid: "His best is yet to come."
— alex brasky (@alexbrasky) October 18, 2023
The lack of production isn’t entirely Kincaid’s fault because his average depth of target (ADOT) is just 3.3 this year, according to Pro Football Reference. That is the second-lowest ADOT among all qualifying tight ends this season. It’s hard to put up stats and be an explosive weapon at tight end when so many of his targets are coming near the line of scrimmage.
The Bills are desperate for someone other than Stefon Diggs to step up in the passing game, and the use of a first-round pick on Kincaid means they are hoping it’s him. Buffalo needs to put Kincaid in a better situation to make plays, but they also need him to start playing better. It’s as simple as that.
Dallas Cowboys DT Mazi Smith
The Cowboys have an incredible track record of first-round picks immediately playing at a high level. Look no further than the last three drafts: CeeDee Lamb (2020), Parsons (2021) and Tyler Smith (2022) all came in right away and produced at an elite level at critical positions. That’s why it’s fair to be a little disappointed in Mazi Smith after six games.
Smith was drafted to help fix the run game, which Dallas has improved. The Cowboys are getting gashed on the ground less often, which is a fantastic sign for their long-term future. However, Smith hasn't been a big part of that improvement.
He has played 87 defensive snaps this season (14.5 snaps per game), mainly on run downs. However, he has just two run stops on the year, and teams have successfully moved him off the ball. He’s still having problems getting off the snap on time, and his raw power isn’t enough to always keep him in the right gap.
The Cowboys didn't draft him for his pass-rush ability, which has been evident through six games. He's recorded just two total pressures, according to TruMedia. But to his credit, he has earned more snaps during the past two weeks and has shown some signs of life as a run defender. Still, those one or two snaps per game aren't enough to justify using a first-round pick on Smith.
The good news for the Cowboys is that they have gotten some good play from other defensive tackles on the roster. While they certainly would like Smith to improve over the next 11 games, they aren't dependent on him to succeed on defense.
Whenever a team spends a first-round pick on a run-stopping defensive tackle, the hope is the player can contribute in that area right away. Without a doubt, Dallas was hoping to get more out of Smith immediately as a run defender. Defensive tackles usually take a while before they start making a consistent impact in games. But with the Cowboys in a Super Bowl window, they hope to get more from Smith sooner rather than later.
Marcus Mosher is an NFL writer with a decade of experience in podcasting and writing for various NFL websites, including Bleacher Report, Pro Football Focus and The Athletic. He’s currently a managing editor at USA Today Sports Media Group and host of the Locked On Cowboys Podcast. Marcus has been working full-time covering the NFL since 2015 and works as a betting expert for Gambling.com. You can follow him at @Marcus_Mosher.