Only five regular-season games are left in the 2023 NFL season, but rookies have plenty of time to make their mark. Last season, Brock Purdy started the San Francisco 49ers' final five games and became one of the league's best stories. He didn’t make the first start of his career until Week 14 — and the rest is now history.
So which rookies will break out before the season ends, and who could help lead their team to the playoffs? Here are six who could put up monster performances before the playoffs.
Six Rookies Who Could Break Out
Bijan Robinson, RB, Atlanta Falcons
It feels weird to say that Bijan Robinson could "break out" over the season's final five games because he is already having a really nice year. He has totaled more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage this season and has six touchdowns. There is no arguing he has been a good player and one of the most exciting running backs in the league.
However, there is still a lot of room for him to grow. And with the Atlanta Falcons currently leading the NFC South, Robinson has a chance to carry his team the rest of the way and earn a first-round home playoff game.
Early in the year, the Falcons were very cautious with Robinson’s touches. He averaged just 11.4 rushing attempts per game and 14.5 total touches. Atlanta didn't want to overwork him and tried to keep him fresh for a late-season run. That late-season run is here, and the Falcons have done a better job of getting him more involved in the offense.
In his previous three games, Robinson had a total of 63 touches (21 touches per game) and totaled 308 yards and three touchdowns. He also played better during that stretch, totaling 99 yards after contact (according to TruMedia). He’s starting to break tackles at a higher rate and is doing a better job of avoiding hits altogether.
Atlanta is doing a better job of getting him involved as a receiver. Earlier in the year, Robinson was targeted mostly at the line of scrimmage.In the first nine weeks of the season, he had an average depth of target (ADOT) of 0.3. But since Week 10, that has moved up to 3.0. While that might not seem like a huge change, it has resulted in some big plays for Robinson in the passing game.
Atlanta has three divisional games left on its schedule and will need to win them all to clinch the NFC South. QB Desmond Ridder is still struggling, so it makes even MORE sense for the Falcons to lean on Robinson to carry the offense.
We’ve seen rookie running backs get hot down the stretch, and we should expect that from Robinson. At this point, it would be a pretty big shock if he didn’t average 100-plus yards per game over the final five weeks. He will firmly establish himself as one of the top three running backs in the league by the time we get to the New Year.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Seattle Seahawks
The 2023 NFL Draft has given us a ton of productive receivers right out of the gate. Puka Nacua, Tank Dell, Jordan Addison, Zay Flowers and Rashee Rice have all been fantastic as rookies and have posted impressive numbers.
But the first receiver picked in the Draft has yet to have the same type of success.
However, something changed in Week 12 for Smith-Njigba and his role in the offense. He saw a career-high 11 targets and turned them into seven catches for 62 yards. Before that game, he never had a game with more than seven targets.
Against the Dallas Cowboys, he was even better than the box score suggests. Right before halftime, he caught an incredible 30-yard touchdown with just seven seconds remaining. Unfortunately, that play was overturned after the ball moved ever so slightly when he hit the ground.
Smith-Njigba did draw a pass interference in the end zone that gave the ball to the Seahawks at the 1-yard-line (DK Metcalf scored on the next play). That play doesn’t show up in the box score, but it was a massive momentum change that helped Seattle take a one-point lead going into halftime.
The Seahawks are fighting to earn a playoff spot in the NFC, and it's clear Smith-Njigba is their second-best option in the passing game after Metcalf. After his performance on Thursday Night Football, it only makes sense to get him more involved in the offense over the final five games, especially with games coming up against the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Jack Campbell, LB, Detroit Lions
One of the most surprising picks in Round 1 of the 2023 NFL Draft was Jack Campbell at No. 18. According to the industry consensus board, Campbell was the No. 44 player in the class and the third-ranked linebacker. Usually, linebackers “fall” in the NFL Draft due to positional value. Instead, Campbell went much higher and was the first off-the-ball linebacker selected.
Campbell was touted as a “pro-ready prospect” who could be a Day 1 starter for the Detroit Lions. While he has started a majority of the games, he has not been much of an impact player. Opponents were targeting him in coverage, and there were times when the Lions had to take him off the field.
To his credit, Campbell has turned things around over the past two weeks and had the best performance of his career in Week 13. Campbell had nine tackles — two for a loss. He was flying around the field and finally looked like the linebacker Detroit hoped to get after spending a top-20 pick on him.
The Lions will win the NFC North and still have an outside chance of getting the No. 1 seed in the NFC if they win out. But for Detroit to be viewed as a contender in the playoffs, it will need its defense to play a lot better.
If Campbell can continue playing like he did in Week 13, the Lions might be able to do some damage in the playoffs. He has a big opportunity ahead of him over the season's final month to show why the Lions were smart to pick him so high in Round 1.
Jonathan Mingo, WR, Carolina Panthers
Unlike the other players and teams mentioned above, the Carolina Panthers are not in playoff contention. Instead, the Panthers are in evaluation mode for their next head coach. Carolina will need to rebuild its offense this offseason drastically, but its next five games are important to see who might be a potential building block and who is not.
Second-round receiver Jonathan Mingo is one player to watch over the final month. The Panthers selected Mingo with the No. 39 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft with the idea that he could be a big slot receiver who could win with his incredible size and athleticism. Mingo has not produced much this season, totaling 226 yards in the first 11 weeks.
But since coach Frank Reich has been fired, Mingo's role in the offense has grown. During the past two games, he's caught 10 passes for 129 yards on 16 targets. During that two-game stretch, he’s played 137 snaps (94 percent of the offensive snaps) and has been much more involved in the game plan.
Mingo should see a bunch of targets over the next month, and that only makes sense given that he is (hopefully) one of the young, core pieces of the Panthers' offense moving forward. Considering how Mingo has played recently, it wouldn’t be a big surprise if he put together a really nice stretch of games to finish the season.
Michael Mayer, TE, Las Vegas Raiders
It’s pretty rare for rookie tight ends to produce right away, but that has been the case this season. Both Sam LaPorta (Lions) and Dalton Kincaid (Buffalo Bills) have been really productive for their respective teams. And before he was injured, Luke Musgrave was coming along nicely for the Green Bay Packers.
But one tight end who has yet to have that type of success is the Las Vegas Raiders' Michael Mayer. Mayer was considered the top tight end in the 2023 class for most of the draft process, but after a poor combine, he fell to the second round. Mayer ended up being the third tight end off the board.
Unlike LaPorta and Kincaid, Mayer did not land on a team with a stable quarterback situation. Instead, he’s playing with fourth-round rookie Aidan O’Connell, who has yet to throw multiple touchdowns in a game or for 275 yards in a single game. There isn't a lot of efficiency right now in Las Vegas' passing game.
However, Mayer has shown flashes of excellence this season. Whenever he's gotten an opportunity, he's been dynamic. And with the Raiders starting to fall out of playoff contention in the AFC, they’ve been more open to playing their young players ahead of their veterans.
Since Week 8, Mayer has played at least 80 percent of the offensive snaps each game. And while that hasn’t turned into big statistical production, he is getting more involved in the offense.
Mayer is averaging over 11 yards per reception this season and has proven to be a vertical threat. What is more impressive is how good he has been after the catch this season. According to TruMedia, Mayer is averaging 6.14 yards after the catch per reception this season. That is the fifth-best in the NFL among all qualifying tight ends (minimum 20 receptions). Mayer has been outstanding whenever the Raiders get him the ball on the move — and they should consider ramping up his targets over the next month.
With Las Vegas in full-on evaluation mode going forward, don't be surprised if it alters its game plan to get Mayer even more involved in the offense. He is among the few Raiders young studs on offense and should be the focal point of the unit moving into 2024 and beyond.
Ji’Ayir Brown, S, San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers have not gotten much out of their rookie class. The tight end they selected in the third round (Cameron Latu) was placed on injured reserve before the season started. They picked a kicker in the third round, and the only other pick inside of the top 150 had not played more than 13 defensive snaps in a single game before Week 10.
But Ji’Ayir Brown has a chance to save the 2023 rookie class for the 49ers.
All-Pro safety Talanoa Hufanga tore his ACL in Week 11 and will miss the remainder of the season. San Francisco was already struggling in the secondary before his injury and has since scrambled to find an adequate replacement. But Brown has a chance to steady the ship in the secondary — it has already started taking place.
Brown played a combined 30 snaps on defense in the first 10 weeks of the season. He was primarily a special teams player who never got on the field on defense. But since the Hufanga injury, in the last two games, he's played 100 percent of the defensive snaps. To his credit, he’s been able to step up in a big way for the 49ers.
Brown has been excellent in coverage over the last two weeks, allowing just 19 receiving yards on four targets per TruMedia. While he isn’t quite as dynamic or imposing as Hufanga, Brown's coverage ability has been an upgrade for San Francisco.
He's only played two full games with the 49ers, but he'll be tested going forward. San Francisco still has games on the schedule against the Seahawks, Ravens and Rams. All three teams will surely challenge the rookie safety, but his recent play has been rock-solid.
Brown's development over the next month will be critical for the 49ers if they want to advance to the Super Bowl. Undoubtedly, San Francisco will face several-top tier passing attacks in the playoffs, and having good safety play is a must in the NFC.
During the next few weeks, keep an eye on Brown to see how the former Penn State safety fares in Steve Wilks’ defense.