The 2023 NFL Draft injected a total of 259 players into the talent pool, and that’s just the players who were drafted. Several others signed with teams as undrafted free agents. Of course, not all of these prospects make the final cut once teams trim the roster down from 90 to 53 players ahead of Week 1.
While we won’t know who can hang and who needs more time to develop until the pads come on, it’s never too early to project which rookies are set to hit the ground running in their first seasons. Here’s our early glimpse of players who could make a smooth transition from college to the pros and even make a Pro Bowl roster in their first seasons.
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Bryce Young’s set for early success with Panthers
Rookie quarterbacks rarely dominate in the NFL. It’s not a stretch to say QBs have the steepest learning curve transitioning from college to pro-level speed, athleticism, and advanced experience.
But the Carolina Panthers have a setup as good as any with former NFL QBs Frank Reich and Josh McCown on the coaching staff, plus two Pro Bowl receivers in Adam Thielen and DJ Chark, even if neither are in their prime.
If Young did reach the Pro Bowl, it would be a significant achievement considering no other first-year QB has earned such honors since Dak Prescott did so in 2016. But Young’s ability to lead a locker room, make smart decisions, and advanced football IQ could make him stand out as a rookie. Who knows? Maybe he can be the transcendent talent who looks sharp enough to generate enough Pro Bowl votes, even as a rookie.
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Zay Flowers may be the missing piece for Ravens
While he might have been the third wide receiver drafted, Zay Flowers has a chance to be the best of his first-year peers. He has the best opportunity, as after Mark Andrews, Flowers could become Lamar Jackson’s second-most frequent target.
Flowers has shown he can take short passes for long gains and also burn defenders deep downfield. If given enough opportunity, the shifty weapon with 4.42 speed could quickly become a star in Baltimore. If Jackson has goals of passing for 6,000 yards, Flowers going off for over 1,000 will be a must.
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Will Anderson Jr. could go to Pro Bowl and grab DROY
Knowing they lack an impact pass rusher, the Houston Texans packaged the 12th overall pick plus their own first-round selection next year to bounce back up to No. 3 to take Will Anderson Jr. He’s coming off an incredibly impressive college career where he compiled 34.5 sacks across three seasons at Alabama.
Now playing a key role in first-year coach DeMeco Ryans’ defense, expect the Texans to try everything in an effort to help their young cornerstone thrive. Anderson was as polished as anyone coming out of the draft, and many considered him the top player in the prospect pool. Now he’ll have a chance to prove it on a Texans defense that desperately needs talent.
Bijan Robinson has Offensive Rookie of the Year potential
We saved the best for last. Bijan Robinson has the best chance out of any rookie on this list to crack a Pro Bowl roster as a first-year player. After becoming the eighth overall pick, you can bet the Atlanta Falcons plan to get their newest offensive weapon involved in a multitude of ways.
They’re not going to wrap their 21-year-old rushing/receiving threat in bubble wrap. Instead, expect the Falcons to give the former Texas star even more touches than the 226 Tyler Allgeier received as a rookie fifth-round pick last season.
With Robinson’s game-breaking speed and ability to line up as a receiver, the Falcons won’t struggle to come up with different ways to get him involved. Robinson has 1,000-yard rushing potential and could chip in a few hundred more as a pass-catcher too. The sky is the limit for Robinson’s rookie season.