Now that draft picks have become NFL rookies, it's time to decide which are ready to be "instant impact" players -- one of my favorite phrases to type this time of year on the NFL calendar. Because now every team is technically in "win-now" mode given how short patience has become in today's NFL and society at large. It's become increasingly difficult for franchises that look to be in "tank mode."
Last year, Sauce Gardner was a lockdown corner from the jump with the Jets, Charles Cross, Abraham Lucas, Kenneth Walker, and Tariq Woolen were integral to the Seahawks surprise trip to the playoffs, and George Pickens flashed insane circus-catch capabilities with the Steelers.
In 2021, Micah Parsons was a menace immediately. Rashawn Slater blocked everything in September and never looked back. Creed Humphrey locked down the center spot in Kansas City. And Ja'Marr Chase was sensational.
The year before, it was Justin Herbert who erupted out of the gate. And Tristan Wirfs. And Justin Jefferson. And Chase Young. Here's my list of the top 10 instant impact rookies from the 2023 NFL Draft class.
Back in 2021, I incorporated a rule to not include quarterbacks because of how outrageously obvious they would've been from that draft class. Last year, I added a rule that only one selection from the top-five was allowed.
Honorable Mention: Michael Mayer, TE, Raiders
I had to squeeze in Mayer. He's too complete of a tight end not to get some love here. In Jimmy Garoppolo's offense, being run by Josh McDaniels, this Raiders team won't shy away from featuring a young tight end. Mayer isn't freaky athletically, but he understands how to find space in zone, has just enough juice to create some separation, and he catches everything. The only reason he's at honorable mention and not inside the top 10 -- Davante Adams, Jakobi Meyers, and Hunter Renfrow.
10. Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Seahawks
JSN's agility-drill performance at the combine catapulted him from a quality receiver prospect who most were worried about athletically to the most universally beloved wideout in the 2023 class. Smith-Njigba is ultra-quick. Is he ridiculously explosive? Not really. But he doesn't need to be the guy in Seattle instantly given the established presence of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Those two veteran wideouts and Geno Smith likely continuing to be a lower-volume quarterback are why such a nifty slot option is lower than you probably expected on this list.
9. Zay Flowers, WR, Ravens
Flowers is a three-level winner at the receiver spot. The only concern I had with his game is his lack of size and the tiny catch radius that comes with it. He's sudden, fast, gets open with good regularity, and is a blast after the catch. He's a more polished, rocked-up version of Marquise Brown, who actually was a quality pass catcher early in his career with Lamar Jackson. Baltimore's offseason moves suggest the team is preparing to be more pass-happy in 2023 than they were during the Greg Roman era, but let's not forget new offensive coordinator Todd Monken adores the power run game too. We saw it at Georgia. That fact keeps Flowers a little lower on this list.
8. Quentin Johnston, WR, Chargers
Johnston was my WR1 in this class mostly due to his impeccable yards-after-the-catch prowess. And he's ahead of JSN and Flowers because of the quarterback who'll be throwing him the football. To me, Justin Herbert is already an elite quarterback, a top-5 talent at the position who was foolishly limited by previous offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi who installed the methodical, mostly quick-strike Drew Brees offense for a passer with one of the strongest arms in the league. Johnston isn't Mike Evans or George Pickens when the ball is in the air. But it's not as if he never wins in a contested-catch scenario. And he'll be able to take the routine completion and morph it into a large gain more frequently than anyone else on the Chargers roster.
7. Sam LaPorta, TE, Lions
LaPorta is George Kittle Lite. I really believe that. Not quite as powerful, but the Iowa product is a highly athletic, nifty-with-the-ball-in-his-hands receiver in a nearly 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame. Detroit's offense was so fun last season, but the recently traded D'Andre Swift finished second on the team in targets with just 70. Amon-Ra St. Brown will still garner the most looks from Jared Goff -- and rightfully so. And we'll watch a Marvin Jones-Lions reunion this season.
But, theoretically, there are plenty of available targets in Ben Johnson's offense, and I'm fascinated to see how this attack takes shape with a young formidable tight end. Yes, the Lions traded T.J. Hockenson in season last year, yet there's clearly a desire to feature that position in 2023 given how early Detroit picked LaPorta.
6. Jordan Addison, WR, Vikings
Addison was my WR5. I had a grade on him in the 40s. But I acknowledged that if he landed with a team that wouldn't ask him to be the alpha receiver instantly, Addison could have a Calvin Ridley-like start to his NFL career. And, yeah, Justin Jefferson might be the most alpha wideout in football, so Addison will take a backseat to him early which will lead to plenty of one-on-one matchups and limited safeties over the top. Ideal situation for Addison to thrive. Remember, Ridley, as the Robin to Julio Jones' Batman, went for 821 yards with 10 touchdowns in his rookie season with the Falcons. Believe it or not, the Vikings attempted the third-most passes in football last year (672!) during the regular season.
5. Christian Gonzalez, CB, Patriots
As my colleague Tyler Sullivan mentioned on our NFL Draft grades episode of the Pick Six Podcast, the great Patriots defenses have always featured a premier, man-to-man cornerback. Ty Law. Darrelle Revis. Stephon Gilmore. Gonzalez could become that type of lockdown presence on the outside. Not necessarily insinuating he'll instantly be an obvious future Hall of Famer. But he has the athletic goods to be sticky in coverage at all three levels of the field. Bill Belichick will plug him in instantly, and across three seasons in the Pac-12, Gonzalez proved to be a star in the making.
4. Deonte Banks, CB, Giants
Banks was born to play aggressive press man in Wink Martindale's system. That's probably why the Giants traded up to pick him. He's 6-foot, 197-pounds with arms just under 32 inches. Not amazingly tall or long. Perfect size to deal with many of the smaller elite receivers in football today. Where Banks' profile is special is his explosiveness -- 4.35 speed, 42-inch vertical, and an 11-foot-4 inch broad jump. Damn. No receiver in football will be able to beat Banks on suddenness or pure downfield speed. Banks' dynamic movement skills allow him to effectively cram receivers at the line, and that's precisely what Martindale will ask him to do as a rookie on an ascending defense.
3. Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Lions
Yes, the Lions signed David Montgomery in the free agency. Gibbs couldn't be any more of a different back. Montgomery has always won laterally with insane jump cuts and low-center-of-gravity contact balance. Gibbs is a sleek rocket ship ready for liftoff every time he touches the football. Right around 5-foot-9, 199 pounds with serious giddy-up 4.36 speed. He accelerates like a Tesla and has soft hands as an underneath receiver. Detroit did not pick him at No. 12 overall -- and then ferociously celebrate -- to barely utilize him as a rookie.
2. Bijan Robinson, RB, Falcons
In terms of usage, a lot of what I wrote about Gibbs applies to Robinson, although it feels like Robinson will be the No. 1 back from Week 1 on in the Falcons offense. Never mind Tyler Allgeier's 1,000-plus yard rookie season. Robinson will be the dude in Arthur Smith's run-oriented attack from the jump. And I can't blame him. Robinson is the best pure runner to enter the league since Saquon Barkley -- although people quickly forgot about how damn good Najee Harris was at Alabama too. He breaks tackles with ease, processes blocks rapidly, and is a weapon as a receiver. Atlanta rushed the football 559 times in 2022, the most in the NFL. That number could be higher in 2023 with Robinson in the backfield.
1. Darnell Wright, OT, Bears
An offensive lineman at No. 1?! Yep. An offensive lineman at No. 1. Not flashy, I know. But Wright will have the biggest direct impact on his team among all the rookies. In Sharpie, scribble him in as the Bears' starting right tackle. And he's ready to mash NFL defenders today. Wright is 6-foot-5 and 330-plus pounds with nearly 34-inch arms and one of the most advanced hand-work toolboxes I've ever scouted at his position. He's an elite pass protector, and providing Justin Fields more clean pockets in Year 3 is vital to his and the Bears taking the next step as an organization. Wright isn't quite Tristan Wirfs -- remember the impact he had in Tampa Bay in 2020?! -- but as a specimen and pass blocker, he's close.