In the dog-eat-dog, spot lit world of professional football, the rookie transition into the league tends to be a sink-or-swim endeavor. As so many life variables change during the passage from the comfortable familiarity of college to the white-knuckled intensity of the NFL, it is extremely challenging for players to keep their heads above water off the field, let alone find smooth sailing on it. With this reality in mind, it’s always a pleasure to watch the uncommon cases of rookies who can weather the storm and become Day 1 contributors for their teams.
Rapid transitions are even more so impressive for mid-round draft picks, who, as indicated by their draft position, were not projected to be as NFL-ready as their early-round peers. These prospects are considered either developmental – they own the high-end traits to have starter upside but need time to tighten technique – or deficient in some aspect of their game, be it size, athleticism, or positional skill, such that a backup role seems a more likely ceiling.
Every year, though, there are a handful of odds-beaters who emerge from the middle rounds to be impactful right away, and that is due, in part, to landing in opportunistic situations of which to take advantage. In 2021, Amon-Ra St. Brown entered an underwhelming wide receiver room in Detroit and cracked the top-15 in the league in receptions. With the Jets’ offense easing its rookie quarterback into the professional level, Michael Carter hit the ground running to be the team’s leading rusher in his first season. The Steelers’ young and inexperienced offensive line gave Dan Moore a chance to play from the jump, and he became a serviceable starter at left tackle.
These mid-round surprises not only become foundational components of championship rosters, but also allow the architects in the front office to define their team-building strategy by removing positional question marks sooner than expected. As we inch our way closer to the 2022 NFL season, here are a few mid-round rookies with potential to emerge as contributors in the early going:
Daniel Bellinger / TE / New York Giants
This offseason, the Giants’ tight end room has undergone a sort of home makeover that remains incomplete. It lost Evan Engram to Jacksonville in free agency, discarded both Kyle Rudolph and Kaden Smith, and added Ricky Seals-Jones and Jordan Akins on one-year deals to join Chris Myrick in a group that lacks an obvious starter.
Enter Daniel Bellinger.
The 4th-round pick out of San Diego State may be the most skilled blocker of the bunch from the get-go as he owns a good blend of size, strength, and physicality to factor in the run game. Perhaps the more exciting aspect of his game is his untapped potential as a receiver. Despite his limited passing game usage in the Aztecs’ run-heavy offense, Bellinger made the most of his targets as he rarely dropped passes and averaged over 11 yards per reception in his college career. As indicated by his top-tier testing performance at the NFL Combine, he has the athletic ability to expand his route tree while utilizing his excellent hands to be of service as a security blanket for Daniel Jones.
Zamir White / RB / Las Vegas Raiders
With the 122nd pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, the Las Vegas Raiders selected Georgia’s Zamir White, an instant value-add to their running back room. In the same way Josh McDaniels leveraged the run game in New England to take some weight off the shoulders of Mac Jones, he could look to engineer a balanced attack operated by Derek Carr. Both Josh Jacobs, whose fifth-year option was declined, and Kenyan Drake are in contract years, which makes White a likely early contributor as the assumed long-term option in the Raiders’ current committee-based backfield.
The offense’s addition of the game-changing Davante Adams figures to force defenses to prioritize coverage and play lighter boxes that will create exploitable opportunities on the ground for White, a powerful, contact-balanced, and laterally agile runner can execute both the gap- and zone-scheme concepts that have served as staples in Josh McDaniels’ offenses. His punishing style will generate chunk gains on early downs, win the inches in short-yardage, and wear down defenses over four quarters.
Coby Bryant / CB / Seattle Seahawks
The outlook for Seattle’s defensive backfield is somewhat nebulous entering the 2022 season. Despite the consequential loss of D.J. Reed in free agency, the uncertainty is more so a matter of durability than talent; Sidney Jones has only played one full season in his five-year career, Tre Brown will be coming off a season-ending knee injury after playing in only five games last season, and newly signed Artie Burns played limited snaps in 2021 for Chicago after missing the entire 2020 season with a torn ACL. If these injury trends continue, Coby Bryant, the team’s 2022 4th-round pick, will be tested sooner than later, and if his career at Cincinnati is any indication, he’ll be ready.
Bryant transitioned easily into the collegiate level as he quickly became a productive starter for the Bearcats. Through extensive playing experience over the course of his career, he has honed anticipatory coverage instincts that, when coupled with his zone prowess, present a polished skillset that is particularly compatible with Seattle’s Cover 3-heavy defensive scheme. Look for Bryant to ascend beyond the role of depth-providing special teams cog in his rookie season.