The 2022 NFL Draft was among the wildest in recent memory. The dust is still settling, and training camp is on the horizon. It is time to take a look at five rookies with a clear path to immediate starter reps. Each guy I selected possesses the talent to make the most of those early opportunities. More often than not, these awards go to players who heard their names on day one. I have a couple who fit the bill, but this draft also presents a trio of great options that were drafted on day two as well. Without further ado, I’ll start this off with a guy who landed in an ideal spot with the ideal organization…
Kyle Hamilton, Safety, Ravens
The Ravens ranked dead last in passing yards allowed during the 2021 NFL season. This can be attributed to injuries, lack of a consistent pass rush on a weekly basis, and subpar talent at the safety positions. General manager Eric DeCosta, a member of the Ravens organization dating all the way back to 1996, knew what needed to be accomplished entering this offseason, and he wasted zero time getting to it.
The first addition came via free agency, when the Ravens were able to persuade former New Orleans Saints safety Marcus Williams to trade in the black and gold for black and purple. Williams graded out with a PFF score of 80.1 last season, leading to an appearance on their All-Pro second-team. While Williams has never earned an actual All-Pro selection or even a Pro Bowl nod in the league, few question that he belongs in those conversations. He is a ball hawk in every sense of the term, securing two or more interceptions in each of his five professional seasons.
They continued rebuilding the secondary by using the 14th overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft to grab a guy that some considered the best player in the entire class — Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton. With Hamilton, the Ravens get a versatile chess piece that new defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald will be able to deploy in a myriad of ways.
Hamilton flashed the ability to lock down defenders in man coverage, serve as the centerfielder playing deep zone coverage, and showed enough of a mean streak when pursuing ball carriers that there’s little doubt of his ability to play in the box. This is music to fans in Baltimore, as they were stuck with a safety group last year that featured players past their prime or ones that are often injured. Adding Hamilton (and Marcus Williams) to the mix is a game changer in the biggest of ways for the Ravens.
Drake Jackson, DE, 49ers
Nick Bosa is one of the most gifted pass rushers that currently plays on Sundays. This is further supported by the fact that he recorded 15.5 sacks in 2021, while facing far and away the most double teams of any edge rusher. The fact of the matter is, Bosa has rarely had a threat on the opposite side that inspires enough fear in the opposition to take the focus off of him. Dee Ford was supposed to be that, but a combination of age and injuries prevented it. Instead of crossing their fingers and hoping Ford resuscitates his career, they took the matter into their own hands by adding Drake Jackson, a pass rusher out of USC that still hasn’t reached his full potential yet.
Given the fact that the Trey Lance trade last offseason left the team with little to work with in the 2022 NFL Draft, the front office hit a home run on their lone second-round selection. Jackson is one of the youngest rookies from this years’ class, having just turned 21 on April 12th of this year. The youth showed up — a lot at times — during his tenure with the Trojans. As an 18 year old freshman, Jackson showed an athletic profile and natural ability to bend the edge at a high rate of success. In 11 games, the youngster recorded five-and-a-half sacks, while being credited with three passes defended as well.
More attention started to be thrown at Jackson, leading to a stagnation in every statistical category the following two seasons. Evaluators took note of that, but many (myself included), became infatuated with “what could be”. I expected Jackson to go earlier in round two than he did, but landing with the 49ers could not have worked out better for both him and the team. San Francisco regularly builds their defense through the draft, and this move is the next in a long line of great moves over the years.
Now, Jackson will be able to provide a legitimate presence alongside Nick Bosa. The tandem should wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. It is ultimately going to come down to “picking your poison” for most offensive coordinators when they matchup with San Francisco. Either you double team Nick Bosa every time and allow Drake Jackson to clean up the one-on-one assignments, or help off Bosa and give him the ability to shoot for a 20+ sack total in 2022. Neither one of those options are particularly inviting, but my guess would be that Bosa will still see frequent double teams. Jackson realizing his true potential and bringing down the quarterback a dozen times should not be counted out.
Treylon Burks, WR, Titans
The Tennessee Titans, led by head coach Mike Vrabel, laid claim to the No. 1 seed in the AFC even amidst a season full of injuries. Last offseason, general manager Jon Robinson boldly sent a second-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft in order to acquire the rights to former All-Pro wide receiver, Julio Jones. In doing so, Robinson and Co. bet on Jones to regain form and become the final piece of the puzzle for their offensive unit.
Unfortunately, Father Time is undefeated and added another win when Julio was forced to miss a majority of the season due to a nagging hamstring that never quite got right. Jones was not the only weapon to miss time, as fellow star wideout AJ Brown found himself battling injuries of his own, resulting in four missed games during the regular season. When Derrick Henry went down, it felt like a cruel joke, but the Titans persevered through adversity and continued to pile up wins.
That is… until they got to the playoffs. This put the franchise in a stalemate of sorts heading into the offseason. They were good enough to be the one seed, but it was clear as day during their playoff defeat against the Bengals that changes still needed to be made. The team quickly decided to cut their losses with Julio, and soon thereafter made an under-the-radar move by acquiring Robert Woods from the Los Angeles Rams for a day three pick. The offensive transformation continued as the 2022 NFL Draft got under way. To the surprise of many, AJ Brown was traded during the first round to the Eagles, in exchange for the No. 18 overall selection in the draft.
This leads me to the man who garnered comparisons to the aforementioned Brown, Treylon Burks. There are a couple factors that I see working in Burks’ favor: Robert Woods and Derrick Henry. Woods should get most of the attention from defenses early on, and the threat of King Henry will keep defensive coordinators honest. This leaves a lot of meat on the bone for Burks to regularly see one-on-one matchups on the outside and to be a jack-of-all-trades type of guy from the slot and backfield. The sheer amount of opportunity, coupled with his incredible skillset leads me to believe that Treylon Burks should be the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Dameon Pierce, RB, Texans
Fellow rookies such as Breece Hall, Kenneth Walker, and James Cook will grab most of the headlines entering the season, but given the state of Houston Texans football, Dameon Pierce is the guy who I think will have the quickest (and potentially biggest) impact early in his career. The team deployed a rotation of veteran journeymen at running back in 2021, and after signing Marlon Mack and retaining Rex Burkhead, one might assume more of the same in 2022. However, I can assure you that Pierce has other ideas.
Pierce was a four-star recruit out of Bainbridge, Georgia before committing to play his collegiate football further south in Gainesville for the Florida Gators. During his time with the squad, he was never given a chance to be the feature back. Although, when Pierce did see the field, he made sure that you noticed him immediately. The only problem is, the coaching staff didn’t begin noticing the obvious until this past season.
Pierce did not let this dissuade his NFL dreams, instead proving to be a model teammate and willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win. This showed up in 2021, as Pierce toted the ball 100 times on the ground (scoring on 13 of those touches) and snatched 19 receptions to boot. His patient running style and ability to be a true three-down threat as a pass catcher, along with his leadership and maturity level, is an increasingly rare combination to find.
Dameon Pierce enters training camp third on the depth chart. Look for him to perform so well, and relish the chance to become the feature of an offense, that it forces the hand of the coaching staff to thrust him into the starting lineup early. The Texans are firmly in a rebuild, but they may already have their quarterback of the future in Davis Mills. The best way to find out is to surround the quarterback with as much talent as possible. Because of this, I could see Pierce catching 4-5 checkdowns a week and serving as a goal line back on the weeks that the offense does move the ball. Opportunity meets talent.
Arnold Ebiketie, OLB, Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons were terrible in nearly every statistical category in 2021. None more so than their abysmal sack numbers as a team, a measly total of 18. To paint the picture clearer, the next closest team to the Falcons was the Philadelphia Eagles, who had 29 sacks as a unit. You could triple the total for the Falcons and it still would not eclipse what the Steelers did last season. It legitimately could not have went worse in the pass rushing department. The bright side to that, though? The only way to go now is up.
The first step in making that leap to respectability came when the Falcons traded up in the second round and used one of their four picks on day two to choose a sack artist out of Penn State — Arnold Ebiketie. Ebiketie began his career at Temple, before eventually transferring to the Nittany Lions as a senior. A move that paid huge dividends for the 23 year old. In his only season against Big Ten competition, Ebiketie blossomed into a star. He was able to record 62 total tackles, with 18 of them going for a loss. On top of that, he also chipped in a team leading nine-and-a-half sacks.
Now, it is expected that Ebiketie steps in immediately and provides a presence that the team has sorely been lacking for years. The leaps and bounds in which he improved in 2021 is the best selling point for his chances at success as a rookie in the NFL. Ebiketie never once looked overmatched or out of his league at Penn State, and I can’t imagine he will on Sundays either. His game translates very well because he is extremely twitchy and has a natural born instinct for stopping quarterbacks and running backs behind the line of scrimmage.
Ebiketie’s college tape shows a guy that has never once taken a play off. He works hard from snap to whistle, and it was clear to see that he improved with each passing week. Ebiketie now enters an edge rusher group that is begging for a leader. With his skillset, and his ability to remain on the field for all three downs, I see that as a major feather in the cap of his Defensive Rookie of the Year chances. After only sacking the quarterback 18 times as a team, they now have a pass rusher who is capable of getting 50% of that total on his own as a rookie.