AFC rookies picked after Day 1 of NFL Draft who could earn key roles in 2023: Tyjae Spears among 16 sleepers

Breece Hall and Dameon Pierce were Day 2 picks who played like first-rounders in Year 1 in the NFL. The season before that, Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith went from somewhat obscure non-Day 1 picks to key pieces of the Chiefs offensive line as rookies.

In 2020, Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, Steelers receiver Chase Claypool, and Patriots guard Michael Onwenu were AFC rookies who weren’t selected on Day 1 of the draft but sure as heck played like Day 1 selections during their debut season. 

The year before that, A.J. BrownDiontae Johnson and Gardner Minshew headlined those outstanding value selections. And you, NFL fan starved for football, know all about your favorite team’s first-round pick in the 2023 draft. Now it’s time to really get acclimated with the non-Round 1 selection who has the talent — and situation — to flourish as a rookie. 

Earlier this week I ran through who these players can be this season for each NFC team. Below is the AFC edition. 

AFC East

Buffalo Bills

LB Dorian Williams
 No. 91, third round
Impressive stat to know: 4.49 in the 40-yard dash at 6-foot-0 3/4″ and 228 pounds

Williams might not start Week 1 next to Matt Milano in Sean McDermott’s defense. He will, eventually, play considerable and critical snaps as a rookie. Blessed with that supreme speed at his size, Williams can get to the football in a flash, and he demonstrated keen awareness of route combinations behind him in college, as evidenced by his 13 pass breakups and pair of interceptions in his final three seasons for Tulane. Beyond that, Williams plays like an oversized, downhill linebacker, which mitigates most of any size concerns, stacking and shedding violently. With nearly 34-inch arms, his tackling radius is large. Williams is the prototypical linebacker for Buffalo’s system, and there’s a starting gig open. Williams will thrive under McDermott as a rookie. 

Miami Dolphins

CB Cam Smith
No. 51, second round
Impressive stat to know: 16 pass breakups and four interceptions in his final two seasons at South Carolina

Everything’s come up Devon Achane regarding the Dolphins rookie class in the month after the draft. And I love the fit with Mike McDaniel. I want to focus some attention on Smith here. It’s deserving. He was my No. 1 corner in the 2023 class — yes, that happens sometimes, one of your top-rated prospects goes in Round 2, or later — after a stellar, lockdown career in the SEC at South Carolina. He is a tick lighter than the other corners picked ahead of him but otherwise has comparable athleticism. His ball skills were tremendous on film, and Smith always welcomes the challenge of playing press man on an island. He mirrors like a seasoned veteran too. Even with Jalen Ramsey in the mix, Smith will bounce around different spots of Vic Fangio’s defense and relatively often close throwing lanes in a hurry as a rookie. 

New York Jets

RB Israel Abanikanda
No. 143, fifth round
Impressive stat to know: 86 forced missed tackles on his final 364 carries at Pittsburgh

Abanikanda is who we’ll all eventually point to as “EXAMPLE A” when pitching why there’s absolutely no need to pick a running back in the first round (no offense, Bijan and Jahmyr). Abanikanda is a still-20-year-old electric runner with nifty feet and subtle contact balance at the second level. Abanikanda was the unquestioned focal point of Pittsburgh’s offense and averaged 6.0 yards per rush with 20 rushing scores in 2022. He’s deceptively fast in top gear and has subtle make-you-miss talent. Even with Breece Hall working his way back from injury, Abanikanda will provide the Jets with electricity as a rotational ball carrier in Year 1. 

New England Patriots

WR DeMario Douglas
Drafted: No. 210, sixth round
Impressive stat to know: 39.5-inch vertical and 11-foot-2 inch broad jump at the combine

Douglas would’ve caught 75-plus passes as a rookie in the Tom Brady era. The offensive philosophy has generally been the same since Brady’s departure with the focus being on high-percentage throws underneath and yards after the catch. Those are the two areas in which Douglas thrives. He’s little but nimble and has reliable hands. Douglas’ reception total and receiving yards increased in all four seasons at Liberty. He’s going to be a go-to, chain-moving target for Mac Jones in 2023.  

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals

RB Chase Brown 
Drafted: No. 163, fifth round
Impressive stat to know: Above the 85th percentile among RBs in the 40-yard dash, vertical, broad jump and bench press at the combine … and that’s dating to 1999 at the position

In short — Brown runs like a rocket. At just under 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, he has an ideal, stocky frame. While not a ridiculous contact-balance back, Brown weaves through traffic like an action-movie star in a car-chase scene and proved in 2022 he has soft hands — 27 receptions for the Illini. With Samaje Perine now in Denver, the Bengals needed a legitimate complement to Joe Mixon. They have it with Brown. 

Pittsburgh Steelers

TE Darnell Washington
Drafted: No. 93, third round
Impressive stat to know: Forced 14 missed tackles on 45 career receptions at Georgia

I can’t get enough Washington hype. Send all of it my way. I adored him as a prospect although I acknowledged he was vastly different than the vast majority of en vogue tight ends today. Those forced missed tackles? Most of them were earned Angry Runs style through, not around, defenders. At a hair under 6-foot-7 and 264 pounds with a frame that could easily add another 10-15 pounds without any explosiveness being sapped, Washington will be a runaway train in the NFL tell. Plus, he’s a sincerely devastating blocker. Washington adds such a fun and unique layer to Year 2 of the Kenny Pickett era. 

Cleveland Browns

EDGE Isaiah McGuire
Drafted: No. 126, fourth round
Impressive stat to know: 76 pressures on his final 551 pass-rush snaps at Missouri

McGuire has active hands he deploys with pinpoint precision, and he demonstrated high-level explosion with his combine workout. The Browns added Za’Darius Smith and Obo Okoronkwo to the Myles Garrett-led pass rush yet most teams have four capable outside rushers they use on gamedays. McGuire is polished enough to be the fourth man in that rotation — although Alex Wright stands in front of him — as a rookie. He has a slippery style and can flip on the power switch when necessary. 

Baltimore Ravens

LB Trenton Simpson
Drafted: No. 86, third round
Impressive stat to know: Ran 4.45 in the 40-yard dash at 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds

Simpson is an in-space defensive weapon out of Clemson. He’s not ready to handle old-school linebacker duties from the jump in the pros, but with Patrick Queen and Roquan Smith, the Ravens don’t need Simpson to play a traditional role. Simpson and his elite speed are fully accentuated when he’s a movable blitzer and attacker of outside runs. The coverage could take time to round into acceptable form. Simpson will be useful before that occurs because of his explosiveness.  

AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars

TE Brenton Strange 
Drafted: No. 61, second round
Impressive stat to know: 10-foot-4 inch broad jump (92nd percentile) at the combine

Strange should’ve gotten the ball more at Penn State. Felt like every time it was in his hands he was making a critical play for the Nittany Lions offense and oftentimes, he made something out of an essentially nothing, underneath throw. That innate capability and his elite testing figures are why he was a second-round selection despite minimal receiving production — only averaged 11.3 yards per in his final two seasons. Even behind Evan Engram, who’ll theoretically be a fine teacher to a young, highly athletic tight end, Strange will pop when given opportunities from Trevor Lawrence.  

Indianapolis Colts

WR Josh Downs
Drafted: No. 79, third round
Impressive stat to know: 195 receptions in his final two seasons at North Carolina

Downs will be the extension of Indianapolis’ run game in 2023. Particularly with Shane Steichen calling the plays and a rookie quarterback in the shotgun. Steichen was part of the coaching staff that provided Justin Herbert with plenty of easy, schemed-open targets in his rookie season of 2020 then followed by being part of the staff that constructed a cozy environment for Jalen Hurts in 2021. Downs will be the main recipient of Steichen’s RPO game and receiver screens of every variety. He’s ultra quick and has sneaky explosiveness. Plus, he tracks the football like he’s 6-foot-2. 

Houston Texans

WR Tank Dell
No. 69, third round
Impressive stat to know: Led college football with 1,398 receiving yards in 2022

Houston’s roster isn’t an abomination anymore thanks to an aggressive free agent spending period. However, the receiver group wasn’t addressed with a collection of established pass-catching options, and the club picked Dell, who established a rapport with C.J. Stroud during the pre-draft process. Gone is Brandin Cooks, meaning the Texans need that ultra-quick weapon who can attack downfield. That’s exactly where Dell will make his impact. He could struggle with physical corners out of the gate. Good luck suffocating Dell at the line, though. He’s an incredible challenge in press man. 

Tennessee Titans

RB Tyjae Spears
No. 81, third round
Impressive stat to know: Forced 106 missed tackles on his final 360 rushing attempts at Tulane 

Spears was a superstar at Tulane the past two seasons, and he averaged a massive 6.8 yards per tote in his four-year collegiate career. Explosive cuts and acceleration through the second level are the hallmarks of his game, and there’s deceptive power through weak arm-tackle attempts. Of course, there’s the inimitable Derrick Henry in Tennessee’s backfield, yet the front office has attempted to find a reliable complement to him for years now. The Titans found that dude in Spears. He’s a big play waiting to happen and doesn’t need much space to really go. Henry led the NFL in carries last season, marking the third time in four years that’s occurred. If anyone can shoulder an enormous workload, it’s him. But the Titans will likely lean on any serviceable contributions from the ground game more than ever before in the Henry era. 

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs

WR Rashee Rice
No. 55, second round
Impressive stat to know: Forced 52 missed tackles on 232 career receptions at SMU

I took a huge swing on Skyy Moore last year, and pulled my hamstring on the whiff. However, I do still believe in Moore and envision a sizable rebound his second season, but that is for another article, another time. Rice is the second-round Chiefs rookie receiver who’s going to pop instantly. He’s a compact wideout from a spaced-out offense not too dissimilar philosophically from Andy Reid’s attack. Beyond that, Rice is a contested-catch winner and scary YAC threat. It’s easy to understand why the Chiefs picked him. There are plenty of targets to go around in Kansas City. Rice will be a highish-volume producer in Year 1. 

Las Vegas Raiders

CB Jakorian Bennett
No. 104, fourth round
Impressive stat to know: 24 pass breakups and five interceptions in his final two seasons at Maryland

Bennett had a Day 2 grade in my scouting gradebook. He was that sticky and productive on film. Oh, and he tested like an elite athlete at the combine. While not quite as big and long as his first-round cornerback mate Deonte Banks, Bennett was around the football more frequently at Maryland and has legitimate perimeter-slot versatility. The Raiders have spent years trying to revamp the secondary with minimal return. Bennett will be part of an improved, more opportunistic — Las Vegas only has 12 interceptions over the past two seasons! — Raiders secondary in 2023. His feisty, athletic nature will be welcomed to the defensive backfield.  

Denver Broncos

LB/EDGE Drew Sanders 
Drafted: No. 67, third round
Impressive stat to know: 26.3% pressure-creation rate on 148 pass-rush snaps in 2022 

As long as the Broncos don’t try to make Sanders a classic off-ball linebacker and primarily ask him to do things like stack and shed blocks between the tackles and sift through traffic to get to the ball carriers, he will make a significant impact on the Broncos defense in 2023. So what should they do with him? Literally deploy him precisely the way the Cowboys did with Micah Parsons in 2021. Plenty of traditional edge-rushing responsibilities. Some interior blitz opportunities. That’s where Sanders is best. If he’s unchained to rush the passer from the perimeter of the defensive line — monster rookie year for Sanders.  

Los Angeles Charges

LB Daiyan Henley
No. 85, third round
Impressive stat to know: Five interceptions in his final two seasons at Washington State

Want to get an idea of how athletic Henley is? He started his career at Nevada … at wide receiver. Played that position for two seasons before transferring to Washington State. He bulked to 225 pounds at close to 6-foot-1, perfectly acceptable size for the linebacker position today and had arguably the cleanest, three-down film of any linebacker in the class. Lightning-quick processing of plays, serious speed to the perimeter, comfort in coverage, ball skills galore. After losing Drue Tranquill in free agency, the Chargers needed to add a genuinely athletic, coverage-specialist linebacker. They got that in Henley. 

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16 Sleeper AFC Rookies Selected Beyond Day 1 of NFL Draft Who May Garner Vital Positions in 2023, Including Tyjae Spears

Various AFC non-Day 1 draft picks in the NFL who shined in their rookie years were highlighted. The article spotlighted one player from each team in the AFC and what they bring to the table. For the Miami Dolphins, Cam Smith stood out as an effective cornerback and lockdown player who always welcomed challenging press man on an island. Meanwhile, Houston Texans’ potential player Deuce Harmon looked promising above the 90th percentile among CBs in the 40-yard dash, vertical, broad jump, and short shuttle.

#NFLrookies #nonDay1selections #valuepicks #underratedtalent #AFCedition #BuffaloBills #MiamiDolphins #NewYorkJets #NewEnglandPatriots #CincinnatiBengals #PittsburghSteelers #ClevelandBrowns #BaltimoreRavens #JacksonvilleJaguars #IndianapolisColts #footballrookies #NFLdraftpicks

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