We’re nearing the end of the NFL season, which means there’s a large enough sample size to start evaluating some of the rookies from this year’s draft class. There have been stars emerging from the top of the class, with Jets CB Sauce Gardner and Lions edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson having impressive rookie seasons.
But there are also players from outside the top-20 picks who are starting to look like draft steals. Here are eight players who have been exceeding expectations in their rookie seasons:
Tariq Woolen, CB, Seahawks (153rd Pick)
Only two rookies made the Pro Bowl. They’re both cornerbacks who entered the NFL with different levels of hype.
Sauce Gardner was highly touted out of Cincinnati and drafted fourth overall by the New York Jets. As advertised, he’s been a shutdown corner (two interceptions, 16 passes defensed, 58 tackles) and certainly a key player for a much-improved Jets defense. There were 152 players selected before the Seahawks made Woolen their fifth-round pick. He was a former wide receiver who only played corner for two seasons at Texas-San Antonio.
At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Woolen is a big corner and a terrific athlete, who ran a 4.26 40-yard dash and had a 42-inch vertical at the 2022 NFL Combine. A starter for Seattle from Day 1, he is tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions and has 13 passes defensed (tied for third in the league). He also has 51 tackles for a Seahawks team fighting to stay in the wild-card race.
Brock Purdy, QB, 49ers (262nd)
How can I not include Mr. Irrelevant? The 49ers seventh-rounder from Iowa State was the last pick in the draft and is now starting — and winning games — for a Super Bowl contender. I know it’s a small sample size since Purdy has only two starts and one relief appearance since Jimmy Garoppolo broke his foot, but he’s having the best rookie season of any quarterback, including first-rounder Kenny Pickett in Pittsburgh.
Garoppolo might be able to return for the playoffs, but it’s unclear whether he’d supplant Purdy, who has a 100.3 QB rating, with six TD passes against only one interception and a 67% completion rate in his three games.
Purdy looked extremely poised in a 35-7 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two weeks ago and outplayed Tom Brady (thanks in part, of course, to the 49ers’ top-ranked defense). Kyle Shanahan has started Purdy with conservative game plans and likely will continue in that mode, especially with Deebo Samuel banged up. It will be interesting to see what happens if Purdy faces the Philadelphia Eagles’ stout defense in the playoffs.
James Houston IV, Edge, Lions (217th)
A sixth-round pick from Jackson State, Houston had to bide his time on the practice squad before joining the active roster on Thanksgiving Day against the Bills. He’s proven to be a great complement to second-overall pick Aidan Hutchinson, producing five sacks in his first four games since joining the roster. He is one of the keys to the significant improvement of Detroit’s defense over the last month.
Kerby Joseph, S, Lions (97th)
A third-rounder out of Illinois, Joseph became the Lions’ starter at free safety when Tracy Walker suffered a season-ending Achilles’ injury in late September. In his 11 starts, Joseph has 65 tackles, three interceptions, five passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
Christian Watson, WR, Packers (34th)
A second-round speedster out of North Dakota State, Watson appeared to be in Aaron Rodgers’ dog house early in the season with some bad route running and too many drops, including a deep ball on the Packers’ first offensive play in their season opening loss at Minnesota. Watson stuck with it and has emerged as a talented playmaker with seven touchdown receptions and two touchdown runs since Week 10. He now has 29 catches for 447 yards, and appears to be the Packers’ No. 1 receiver moving forward.
Dameon Pierce, RB, Texans (107th)
Pierce was picked in the fourth round out of Florida, where his best season was as a senior when he rushed for 574 yards. He’s a versatile back who has gained 939 yards on the ground for the Texans, with four touchdowns. He also has 30 receptions for 165 yards. His best game was 139 yards rushing against the league’s top team, the Eagles. He’s productive even as defenses load up the box against him with the Texans’ passing offense ranked 26th in the league.
Pierce likely would have been replaced on this list if the Jets’ Breece Hall (a second-round pick) had not suffered a torn ACL in his seventh game after getting off to a torrid start with 463 yards rushing, 218 yards receiving and five combined TDs.
The Seahawks’ Kenneth Walker (second round) has rushed for 696 yards and nine touchdowns, so he also was off to a great start this season but he has been less productive the last four games with only 126 rushing yards.
Tyler Linderbaum, C, Ravens (25th)
Linderman is the only first-rounder in this group, but I still consider him a steal since he was picked late in Round 1. He’s off to a great start with the Ravens and will likely be a Pro Bowl center in the years ahead. The Iowa product was praised by Ravens coach John Harbaugh for his solid play against three-time Steelers All-Pro Cam Heyward two weeks ago. He’s not the biggest center, but he is strong, athletic and plays with a lot of tenacity, which always is a great asset for an offensive lineman.
Ryan Stonehouse, P, Titans (UDFA)
We need a special teams representative, Stonehouse makes the cut. Undrafted out of Colorado State, he leads the league in gross average at 53.6 yards per punt, has a solid 44.5 net average, with 28 punts downed inside the 20 (fifth in the NFL) and no blocks against him.
I considered Vikings undrafted punter Ryan Wright, who has a 47.5-yard gross and ranks second with 31 punts inside the 20 along with no touchbacks, but his net average (42.8) also is lower than Stonehouse’s and he had a punt blocked for a touchdown by the Colts last week.
I love undrafted players such as Stonehouse and Wright, who against all odds make it in the NFL. One of my favorites was defensive tackle John Randle, who I signed with a $5,000 signing bonus as a 240-pound player from Texas A&M-Kingsville. By his second season, Randle had built himself up to a 280-pound starter who wound up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with 137.5 career sacks. He was one of the NFL’s all-time draft steals and someone the players listed above will try to emulate in their careers.
Jeff Diamond is a former Minnesota Vikings general manager, former Tennessee Titans team president, and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. You can follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.