2023 NFL OTAs: Nine rookies standing out early for their teams, including Anthony Richardson, Tyjae Spears

OTAs are starting around the NFL, and fans are getting their first glimpses at their new-look teams — even if it’s not in-person just yet. D.J. Moore is catching passes from Justin Fields, Derek Carr is getting used to being QB1 for the New Orleans Saints and Aaron Rodgers was enjoying his first action with the New York Jets before suffering a “tweaked” calf.

Another fun facet of OTAs is that we get to see rookies take the field to participate in practice with the veterans. There are plenty of first-year players who are expected to make immediate impacts in 2023, but which ones appear to be making an impact from the jump? Below we will break down several rookies making headlines early in OTAs.

The Panthers previously said No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young wasn’t going to walk into camp as QB1, but it sure looks like he’s close. The Alabama product took the majority of first-team snaps when the Panthers opened OTAs on Monday, per CBS Sports’ Steven Taranto.

Head coach Frank Reich said Young’s command was “10 out of 10” on the first day, and fellow quarterback Andy Dalton even claimed the rookie pointed out an incorrectly labeled play or formation during practice, per WCNC.

We all knew Young’s football IQ was going to quickly stand out, but it’s worth mentioning he looked pretty small behind his new NFL offensive line. Bottom line, a strong start for the top quarterback in this class.

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Days into his first OTAs, the Florida product is already splitting first-team reps with veteran Gardner Minshew, coach Shane Steichen confirmed Thursday. Not only that, but he showed the staff “some next-level stuff” while slinging the ball in practice.

Richardson’s quick ascent to QB1 snaps is all part of the evaluation process, Steichen told reporters; the team wants to see how the rookie fares working with the starting offense. But it’s also a clear sign, in early spring, that the first-round pick is a legitimate candidate to open the 2023 season under center.

Minshew may still have the leg up in the competition for the top job, boasting two years of experience working under Steichen from their time with the Eagles, but it was always a matter of when, not if, Richardson takes the field as the signal-caller.

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According to Travis Wingfield of the Dolphins’ official website, Achane made an immediate impact at OTAs. He chewed up yardage both on explosive runs, and on a deep ball thrown by Tua Tagovailoa. While he was a third-round pick, this burner is someone to keep an eye on. Mike McDaniel made his name scheming for the run, and Achane is someone who could flourish in this offense. CBS Sports NFL Draft expert Chris Trapasso says Achane in Miami is arguably the best rookie-team fit this year, and that he is exactly the kind of player who coach McDaniel would create in the Madden video game for his offense. Achane’s 4.32 40-yard dash tied for the fifth-fastest time for a running back in the officially recorded combine era (dating back to 1999).

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The Broncos have what could be a top-five defense, but they were missing that elite inside linebacker. Drew Sanders may be that guy. A five-star prospect out of Texas, Sanders was the No. 13 overall prospect in his entire class, according to 247Sports. He committed to Alabama, won a championship as a reserve player, then transferred to Arkansas, where he thrived. As a third-round pick, many labeled Sanders as a steal, and he has sure looked like a steal through the early stages of the preseason.

Sanders made what many claim was the play of Broncos rookie minicamp, when he picked off Ben DiNucci and returned it all the way for six. He’s been making big waves early.

“Drew is an unreal athlete,” fellow Broncos rookie Marvin Mims Jr. said, via SI.com. “He’s looked like that since senior year in high school. I mean, the dude is unbelievable.”

Sanders was a First Team All-American last year, and recorded a career-high 9.5 sacks — which ranked second in the SEC. He’s fast, he’s athletic and he has all the traits to be a stud inside linebacker who can also find success blitzing the quarterback.

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Derrick Henry’s new running mate is a dual-threat back who is sure to play a role in Tennessee’s run-first offense. Jim Wyatt of the Titans’ official website says Spears has been “very active” in OTAs, and made a spinning catch in a team period that may have been the play of the day. ESPN’s Turron Davenport says it’s easy to see how Spears can be a weapon in the passing game, and that he “accelerates like a Tesla.”

After Spears was drafted No. 81 overall, NFL Media reported that tests conducted at the NFL Combine revealed Spears had a full thickness cartilage loss, and no ACL in his knee. Additionally, Spears has arthritis. However, it didn’t hold him back at Tulane, and hasn’t held him back in rookie minicamp or OTAs, either.

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University of Houston wideout Tank Dell didn’t want to leave the city, and new Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud helped to make sure that didn’t happen. This connection is in the infant stages of being special, as Dell was Stroud’s favorite option in the passing game on Tuesday with four targets, per ESPN. Even though he’s undersized, Dell’s ability to get in and out of breaks is something that reporters have taken notice of.

No player in the FBS had more receptions (199), receiving yards (2,727) and receiving touchdowns (29) than Dell over the past two seasons.

“Yeah, it’s been going great,” Stroud said of working with Dell, via Yahoo Sports. “We’ve been hanging out in the hotel, just going over scripts, getting the plays down together. It was great to be not only by myself, but with a great rookie class. Not only just football players, but human beings. Tank has done a great job, very vocal, wants to be better, wants to know what we like so he can run a route a certain way, wants to get right with the coaches. He’s just very, very in tune with what we want, and he wants to just be great. So it’s amazing to be with him. He’s very like-minded.”

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Staying with the Texans, head coach DeMeco Ryans says that No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud has “done an excellent job,” but that he won’t be handed the starting job. Texans safety Jalen Pitre also has noticed Stroud’s work ethic, claiming that he’s come in as a “real professional.”

“Every day he’s looking for something to get better at,” said Pitre, via Texans Wire. “Today after OTA2, he come up to the DBs asking different things we’re seeing and different ways he can get better. It’s a real professional in C.J., and you could see why he was drafted so high because he really cares about the game of football.”

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Another Texan! Well, what do you expect when a team expends so much premium draft capital in a single offseason? Anderson was apparently a high-energy presence at some of his first practices.

Fellow defender Jalen Pitre, for example, was raving to reporters this week about Anderson clearly being comfortable as a big-play artist, noting that the rookie whipped out a celebration after a disruptive snap at OTAs. For now, Anderson is working with the second-team “D,” but he’s on track for more action.

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The fifth-round pick wide receiver out of BYU has caught the eyes of some Rams veterans.

“Puka has done a nice job. He’s gotten some reps really in all three groups,” Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford said with a smile, via The Athletic. “Every time I look up, he’s running around somewhere.”

Fellow wide receiver Van Jefferson has noticed Nacua as well.

“He has come in and taken ownership of the playbook, and tried to learn the best he can,” Jefferson said. “You can just see how it (translates) on the field. He’s been having a great two days that he’s been out here.”

Nacua started his collegiate career at Washington, but transferred to BYU for his final two seasons. In 21 total games played for the Cougars, he caught 91 passes for 1,430 yards and 11 touchdowns. CBS Sports NFL Draft expert Chris Trapasso gave the Rams’ selection of Nacua a “C” grade, saying he has average-ish athleticism, but is creative after the catch.

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Anthony Richardson and Tyjae Spears among nine standout rookies during 2023 NFL OTAs.

With OTAs starting in the NFL, some rookies are already making an impact on their teams. Panthers’ QB Bryce Young took the majority of first-team snaps and impressed with his command and football IQ. Jaguars’ QB Trey Lance is already splitting first-team reps with veteran Gardner Minshew, showing that he’s a legitimate candidate for the top job. Miami Dolphins RB Isaiah Achane has also made an impact, impressing with his speed and agility. Meanwhile, Broncos’ inside linebacker Drew Sanders is making waves with his athleticism and ability to blitz the quarterback. Other rookies, including Titans’ WR Jha’Quan Jackson and Rams’ WR Puka Nacua, are also catching the attention of their veteran teammates.

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