NFL rookies Bryce Young, C. J. Stroud, and Anthony Richardson will all be under tremendous pressure immediately. But what about the non-quarterbacks in 2023? Here are the top five who need to have big seasons in their first year:
5. Jake Moody, K, San Francisco 49ers
Drafted: No. 99 overall
A kicker would typically not make this list. Then again, kickers are not usually picked this early.
San Francisco pulled off one of the biggest shockers of the 2023 NFL Draft. When the 49ers made this late third-round selection, it marked the highest a kicker had been taken since 2016 (Roberto Aguayo, second round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers). General manager John Lynch defended the move by saying that other teams were trying to trade up in front of the 49ers to grab Moody. We’ll never know the truth.
Moody walks into a difficult situation. He’ll be expected to replace veteran Robbie Gould, who left as a free agent. Gould is one of the most reliable kickers in NFL history. Moody will be asked to make clutch kicks for a Super Bowl contender. As a senior at Michigan, Moody was 26-of-32 on field goal tries and was the 2021 Lou Groza Award winner.
Jake Moody’s first kick in a 49ers uniform: over the net 🙌🏼 pic.twitter.com/1IHjHzQdNr— David Lombardi (@LombardiHimself) May 12, 2023
4. Mazi Smith, DT, Dallas Cowboys
Drafted: No. 26 overall
Jerry Jones usually opts for a splashy move. However, this time he showed restraint by picking a player from an unglamorous position. Defensive tackles are rarely noticed unless they’re absolute freaks like Aaron Donald. Their top responsibility is stopping the run. Dallas’ decision to take Smith is a direct response to the division they play in. Two of last year’s top-six rushing teams were in the NFC East (The Philadelphia Eagles were No. 4 at 152 yards per game, and the New York Giants were No. 6 at 146.3 yards per game).
Dallas struggled at times stopping the run, ranking No. 22 (124.4). In the Cowboys’ five regular-season losses, that ballooned to 168 per game. Smith should help. At Michigan, he was a key part of a defense that was fifth in the country against the run (97.9). Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is one of the best in the game. If Smith plays up to his potential, the Cowboys’ defense should be elite.
3. Anton Harrison, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars
Drafted: No. 27 overall
The Jacksonville Jaguars were one of the league’s biggest surprises. A year after the Urban Meyer debacle, they won the AFC South and staged the third-biggest comeback in playoff history to rally past the Los Angeles Chargers. Expectations are higher this season. The biggest Achilles’ Heel might be their offensive line, which is currently ranked No. 26 by Pro Football Focus. The Jaguars will likely open the season without both of their starting tackles from 2022. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor signed as a free agent with the Kansas City Chiefs, and left tackle Cam Robinson is reportedly facing a suspension due to violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy.
Jacksonville head coach Doug Pederson said the plan is to start Harrison at right tackle. That’s the easier of the two positions for a rookie. However, Harrison played left tackle for most of his college career. Harrison’s versatility and athleticism might make him a left tackle down the road. Regardless of where he lines up, he’ll need to excel immediately.
2. Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Detroit Lions
Drafted: No. 12 overall
Alabama running backs have a solid track record in the pros. Josh Jacobs and Derrick Henry were the NFL’s top two rushing leaders in 2022. Will Jahmyr Gibbs also emerge as a star? The Detroit Lions better hope so because they stunned the establishment by using the No. 12 overall pick to draft a guy who some thought would be a second-round pick. Texas’ Bijan Robinson (No. 8 overall to the Atlanta Falcons) was the only running back with a consensus first-round grade. The selection of Gibbs might have been the biggest reach of the draft. It’s up to Gibbs to justify the Lions’ faith in his abilities.
Gibbs was a threat as a runner and receiver with Alabama. He’ll get plenty of touches with Detroit. Top rusher Jamaal Williams scored a team-record 17 rushing touchdowns last year but is 28 years old. And D’Andre Swift was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason. With the Lions opening the season on Thursday Night Football against the Super Bowl champion Chiefs, the focus will be on Gibbs early.
Hey there Jahmyr Gibbs. pic.twitter.com/BKXGjEJ6b4— Nick Penticoff (@NickPenticoff) June 7, 2023
1. Jalen Carter, DT, Philadelphia Eagles
Drafted: No. 9th overall
Jalen Carter was in the running for the top overall pick until his highly publicized legal issues. The defensive tackles faced charges in connection to a car crash that killed his Georgia teammate Devin Willock and a Georgia football staffer. Carter pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of reckless driving and racing and was sentenced to probation. It’s a tragedy that will stay with him for the rest of his life.
The pressure is on Carter because the most talented defensive rookie is playing for a team favored to return to the Super Bowl. And there are few sports towns with more demanding fans than Philadelphia. The good news is that he’s on a loaded squad surrounded by playmakers. Carter doesn’t necessarily have to dominate, but he must play well from the start.
“Everybody is connected. There’s a good connection in the locker room. I plan on making a big impact to the team and to the season early. And go back to the Super Bowl and win it this time.”— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) May 24, 2023
-Eagles rookie Jalen Carter says he will be better in the NFL than he was in college. pic.twitter.com/LJ0Bw2HxJL