Every year, plenty of players are selected outside of the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft who make an impact. Some could show up often enough throughout the season that they get some votes for NFL Offensive or Defensive Rookie of the Year.
These four guys may be a bit off the grid because they’re a tier below the first-round picks, but all four – two on offense and two on defense – are really good players who landed in the right situation.
2 Offensive Rookie of the Year Sleepers
WR Puka Nacua, Los Angeles Rams
Puka Nacua struggled with injuries at BYU, but when he played, he operated out of the slot and was one of the best jet sweep runners in college football. That, by the way, is a play the Los Angeles Rams run all the time.
The 6-foot-2, 201-pound Nacua has good hands and knows how to get open. His skillset translates well to being a punt returner.
He might have been the best player on the field on the first day of practices at the Senior Bowl, but unfortunately, he got hurt. If the Rams can keep the fifth-round pick healthy in Sean McVay’s offense and with quarterback Matthew Stafford returning, Nacua could be a sleeper we’re talking about at the end of the season. – Davis
WR Josh Downs, Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts selected Josh Downs in the third round, two rounds after they picked quarterback Anthony Richardson. It’s often said a quarterback’s best friend is the running game, and maybe his other best friend is a tight end. I put a slot receiver up there with a running game and a tight end because they likely will get a mismatch on the inside.
The Colts have talented outside receivers in Michael Pittman Jr. and Alec Pierce. Downs is good enough to play outside, but who’s going to guard him when he lines up inside? He probably won’t draw opponents’ No. 1 or No. 2 corner. The location also plays a role, too. The slot is easier to throw to because he’s closer to the quarterback.
Downs twice had 1,000-yard seasons at North Carolina, playing with NFL-type quarterbacks. Sam Howell might start for the Washington Commanders, and Drake Maye will be a top-five pick as soon as next year and maybe even the No. 1 overall pick. So Downs is used to playing with this type of talent.
The Colts really seem to like Richardson, and he may start right away. Downs could become a go-to receiver for him. Tar Heels coach Mack Brown said Downs was not just the best receiver on their team, but the best football player on their team. – Burmeister
2 Defensive Rookie of the Year Sleepers
LB Dorian Williams, Buffalo Bills
Tremaine Edmunds did great work for the Buffalo Bills while he was there. His length and ability to run helped him make a ton of tackles. One thing he didn’t do was make game-changing plays as often as Matt Milano, the Pro Bowl linebacker next to him, did. Edmunds’ work helped Milano do that, but Edmunds signed with the Chicago Bears in free agency. So they had to replace him.
In comes third-round pick Dorian Williams, who made 132 tackles last season for Tulane and runs well. Rookie of the year contenders tend to have eye-popping stats. Tariq Woolen made six interceptions for the Seattle Seahawks last season. Micah Parsons had 13 sacks for the Dallas Cowboys in 2021. Williams is going to pile up a lot of tackles, possibly 125-130.
Williams is the type of player who can pursue sideline to sideline. As time goes on, the Bills may use him to rush the passer because he has the skills to do it. But Williams’ tackle numbers will get him some notice for defensive rookie honors. – Davis
Edge Isaiah Foskey, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints drafted Isaiah Foskey nine picks into the second round. He didn’t have the tackle numbers that Williams did, but he had more sacks than any player in Notre Dame history, with 25, including 10.5 in 2022. He added 13.5 tackles for a loss. His production has been impressive.
Foskey’s size and length (6-foot-5, 264 pounds) also are impressive. When you look at him, you wonder if he is an undersized defensive tackle or a really big defensive end. The reality is he could be both.
Foskey has scheme versatility, and he went to a system that will move him around. He can accelerate and get after the quarterback. I love this fit between player and team because the Saints attack pretty well. Their 48 sacks tied for fifth-most in the NFL, but they didn’t have one player in the top 25 for sacks. That tells me their scheme is sound, and they have good players like Cam Jordan and Demario Davis in it. Coach Dennis Allen is freeing up players to get to the quarterback by the scheme and confusing opposing offenses.
Wherever they plug in Foskey, he will be effective. He’s solid against the run and really good at rushing the passer, and top defensive rookies have to make their name with either interceptions or sacks. Foskey could finish with close to 10 sacks, and that would put him in the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year. – Burmeister
Paul Burmeister, a former starting quarterback at Iowa, is a studio host with NBC Sports and the radio voice of Notre Dame Football. For a decade he worked as a studio host at NFL Network. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulWBurmeister
Charles Davis is an NFL analyst for CBS and NFL Network. He joined the sports media world after playing safety at the University of Tennessee.