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Under-the-Radar NFL Rookies Impressing Early in 2023

The 2023 NFL Draft class is already off to a fantastic start. Several players have stood out positively, including C.J. Stroud, Will Anderson and Jalen Carter. But all three players were top-10 picks and have been highly thought of for some time.

So, who are the rookies that have stepped up and performed well despite not being an early-round selection? Let’s look at six rookies who might have gone under the radar in the draft but are shining in their first NFL season. 

For this exercise, we will exclude any players selected in Round 1 of the 2023 NFL Draft. Instead, we will focus on players selected on Day 2 and Day 3 (and UDFAs) with early-season impacts. 

6 Underrated Impact Rookies

Tank Dell, WR, Houston Texans

Several bite-sized wide receivers have been drafted inside the top 100 of the NFL Draft in recent years. That includes Wan'Dale Robinson, Tutu Atwell and Rondale Moore

We have learned those receivers usually don't have significant impacts right away. Robinson, Atwell and Moore combined for just 737 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns during their rookie seasons. However, Tank Dell appears to be the exception.

Through the season's first three games, Dell has caught 15 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns. But unlike many smaller receivers before him, most of Dell’s production comes as an outside receiver. 

He’s only lined up in the slot on 21 percent of his snaps. That’s pretty impressive, considering he weighed just 165 pounds at the NFL Combine. 

Dell isn’t a gadget player, and he isn’t just a slot player. Instead, he is a dynamic playmaker the Houston Texans have been missing for several seasons. 

Ivan Pace Jr., LB, Vikings

It’s not often you see a 5-foot-10, 230-pound linebacker in the NFL. It's even rarer to see that type of player be an effective pass rusher. But that's precisely what the Minnesota Vikings got in Ivan Pace Jr., an undrafted free-agent linebacker out of Cincinnati. 

While the box score might not show it, Pace has been an incredibly effective pass rusher through the season's first three games. He’s been their most reliable and consistent rusher outside of Danielle Hunter

He is a special blitzer, as he has incredible speed and instincts when getting to the quarterback. Pace has created many opportunities for other players on the Vikings by creating havoc in the backfield. He can fly to the football, which Minnesota needed in the middle of their defense.

Pace continues to improve in coverage, which was a knock on him coming out of school. But he’s quickly turned himself into one of the most valuable players on Minnesota’s defense despite falling completely out of the 2023 draft. 

Pace looks like he’ll be a long-term starter for the Vikings.

Keion White, Edge, Patriots

The New England Patriots always look for big defensive ends who can hold up against the run. But it’s not often they find ones who also are freak athletes. That’s what happened in the second round when they gambled on Keion White from Georgia Tech.

White’s start has been fantastic, proving he can help stop the run and generate a pass rush with his power. While that hasn’t translated into great box score numbers, he is a big reason the defense has been so good against the run. 

White has played about 20 snaps per game for New England. However, that number should rise because he is already one of their most impactful defensive linemen. White is too good to keep off the field, even as a rookie.  

Sam LaPorta, TE, Lions

The general belief is that rookie tight ends struggle to produce immediately. That's usually the case. Nine tight ends were selected in the first three rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft, so it was widely regarded as one of the best groups we've ever seen. 

But if you remove Sam LaPorta from the list, those other eight tight ends have combined for just 206 receiving yards through three games. Several have struggled even to garner targets. 

Michael Mayer has just one reception, while Darnell Washington and Tucker Kraft are still looking for their first NFL catch. It's a position that is tough to learn and have success playing right away due to the speed of the NFL.

But LaPorta has been the exception to the rule. He’s already one of the best receiving options for the Detroit Lions. He’s caught 18 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown. LaPorta is improving weekly, racking up 84 yards and a touchdown in Week 3. 

What makes LaPorta unique is how easily he can create separation as a rookie. He’s already one of the better route runners at the tight end position in the league. 

LaPorta already stands out in a class with several fantastic tight end prospects. Could he be the third tight end in NFL history to go over 1,000 receiving yards as a rookie? That certainly seems like where we are trending after a few games. 

Dawand Jones, RT, Browns

The Cleveland Browns have suffered massive injuries this year, losing RB Nick Chubb and RT Jack Conklin. Both players are among the best at their respective positions and will miss the remainder of the 2023 season due to knee injuries.

However, the Browns have done an excellent job of winning despite their injuries. One of the players who has helped steady the ship is Dawand Jones, a fourth-round pick from Ohio State. He has yet to allow a sack through three games and appears to be a long-term option on the right side. 

Jones hasn't been perfect by any stretch. He's still a work-in-progress as a run blocker, which separates him from Conklin. But him stepping in right away and being an above-average pass blocker is a massive win for Cleveland. If Jones can improve as a run blocker, he has the potential to be one of the NFL’s best right tackles. 

Keeanu Benton, DT, Steelers

You can make a strong case that Carter has been the NFL’s best defensive tackle through the season's first three games. But because he was a first-round pick in April’s draft, he is ineligible for this list. 

But another rookie defensive tackle that has stood out has been Keeanu Benton of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Drafted in the second round, Benton was selected to be a rotational player for the Steelers behind Cameron Heyward. But Heyward was placed on the injured reserve list after Week 1 (groin surgery) and likely won't return for at least another month. 

That has allowed Benton to see more snaps, and he has earned every single one of them. Benton is an up-the-field rusher who plays with incredible quickness and power. 

His biggest weakness is taking on double-teams, but the Steelers have put him in situations where he can use his athleticism and natural power and avoid combo blocks.

Benton has already made several splash players for the Steelers, and it appears they've hit on another interior pass rusher. Benton has all the tools to be a star in Mike Tomlin’s defense, and his role should only grow as the season progresses. 

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 is currently a managing editor at USA Today Sports Media Group and the 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 You can follow him at @Marcus_Mosher.