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NFL Rookie Heat Check: Which First-Year Players Are Hot Heading Into Week 3?

Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud and Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson were high draft picks in April, yet they’ve managed to exceed expectations at the beginning of the season. Here are other players off to a hot start.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NFL teams spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars trying to figure out which college players will be good pros. Then rookies play two games and it becomes glaringly obvious who belongs on an NFL field. This season, we’ve already seen the most receptions and receiving yards by rookies through Week 2 in more than half a century. Let’s run through some of the rookies who have already impressed just two weeks into the season and solidified themselves as NFL players:

C.J. Stroud, Quarterback, Houston Texans

In the predraft process, Stroud was considered by many draft analysts to be inferior to Bryce Young in key areas like creating plays out of structure and processing. Yet two games in, Stroud has shown that perhaps everyone was wrong about those weaknesses. He has 626 passing yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. Since 2000, only three quarterbacks, Cam Newton, Kyler Murray, and Justin Herbert, have had more yards in their first two starts. Stroud has played with anticipation, timing, and decisiveness even with everything crumbling around him. Take this pitch and catch with receiver Nico Collins:

Stroud makes this throw look effortless. But with four offensive linemen, including star left tackle Laremy Tunsil, already injured, these perfect pockets aren’t always presenting themselves. But when the play breaks down, Stroud has already shown his ability to make things happen.

Stroud threw for 384 yards and two touchdowns in the Texans’ loss to the Colts last week. Incredibly, he already has more games with at least 300 passing yards than fellow Buckeye Justin Fields. More amazing is that Stroud is playing well despite nursing a right shoulder injury that limited his reps in practice last week.

Of course, Stroud has not been perfect, and Houston is 0-2. He has already taken 11 sacks, the most in the NFL through the first two weeks. He’ll get hit, he’ll make mistakes, and it isn’t great that he already has a throwing shoulder injury this early in his career (Houston’s first franchise quarterback, David Carr, had his career wrecked after years of punishment behind a pathetic offensive line). But it’s already clear that Stroud has what it takes to be an NFL quarterback. His early success is in contrast with Young’s rocky start. Through two weeks, the Panthers are also 0-2, but Young has looked discombobulated, often running for his life behind a bad offensive line, struggling to find open receivers, and looking like, well, what was promised: one of the shortest and lightest QB prospects we’ve ever seen.

Bijan Robinson, Running Back, Atlanta Falcons

This video of Robinson has been everywhere, and rightfully so, because it’s worth watching from every angle.

And the overhead shot is even more fun.

Sure, taking a running back in the first round is considered bad football business as it relates to managing a salary cap. But nobody doubted Robinson’s status as one of the best and most versatile running back prospects in 20 years, in the conversation with guys like Saquon Barkley and Adrian Peterson.

Robinson’s impact on the 2-0 Falcons has been immediate. He ranks second this season in rushing yards over expectation, behind only San Francisco’s Christian McCaffrey, per NFL’s Next Gen Stats. Not bad company. The Falcons, for some reason, are still giving the bulk of their goal line carries to Tyler Allgeier, so Robinson has no rushing scores yet. But Atlanta is delivering on its promise to play positionless football. For example, here is Robinson splitting out wide on third-and-3 with the game on the line and under five minutes left in the fourth quarter. He runs a slant, makes the catch, and picks up the first down.

So often, teams talk about using players like this and never do it. Here are the Falcons using Robinson as a wide receiver in his second career game. He’s every bit what was advertised.

Puka Nacua, Wide Receiver, Los Angeles Rams

Nacua had 10 catches on 15 targets for 119 yards in Week 1. We figured that kind of outlier performance from an unknown rookie wasn’t likely to happen again. We were right. Kind of.

In Week 2 against the 49ers, Nacua was even better, catching 15 of 20 targets for 147 yards. That is the most receptions ever by a rookie in a single game.

Through two weeks, Nacua has led the league in targets (35) and catches (25) and is second to Justin Jefferson (!) in receiving yards. Puka, a fifth-rounder out of BYU, has the most catches in his first two career games in NFL history. But that is underselling it. Only 14 players have even half that many catches in their first two career games, and Nacua’s 25 catches would tie Stefon Diggs for the most catches by a day-three pick through four games, and Nacua has played in only two. Not bad for the 20th wide receiver taken in this year’s draft.

This ridiculous production is notable because under Sean McVay the Rams haven’t historically relied on rookies. But, perhaps out of necessity, Nacua has immediately inserted himself into the do-it-all role Robert Woods used to fill in McVay’s offense: receiving, blocking, and taking jet sweep handoffs. And he’s doing it on a Cooper Kupp–sized scale. If Kupp comes off the injured reserve when eligible after Week 4, we might be looking at one of the best receiver groups in the NFL in Kupp, Nacua, and the revived Tutu Atwell. Kupp will certainly be the best no. 2 receiver in the NFL. (I’m joking. Kind of.)

Jalen Carter, Defensive Tackle, Philadelphia Eagles

Carter was widely considered the best player regardless of position in the 2023 draft and likely slipped out of the top five only because of character concerns. Two games in, and Carter is already backing up the football hype. The only players who’ve had more quarterback pressures than Carter through the past two weeks are the Cowboys’ Micah Parsons, the early favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year; Detroit’s Aidan Hutchinson, the no. 2 pick in last year’s draft; and Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt, a former DPOY winner. Considering that those other three players are edge rushers and Carter is a defensive tackle who rushes up the middle—where pressures that collapse the pocket are more valuable but harder to accomplish—it’s reasonable to argue that Carter has been one of the best defenders through two weeks, period. The way Carter effortlessly sheds Patriots blockers in the below video is reminiscent of Aaron Donald.

This looks less like an NFL pass rush and more like a Madden glitch in which a defender runs through a blocker.

Perhaps the best show of Carter’s strength is this play from Week 1, in which he takes David Andrews, New England’s eight-year veteran center, and flips him like it’s a judo match:

If he keeps this up and stays healthy, Carter will look like a shoo-in to win Defensive Rookie of the Year. The only question is how long it will take for him to be first-team All-Pro, too.

The Green Bay Packers Offense

Yes, the entire offense. Take out the running backs, and here are Green Bay’s leading receivers by yardage and age:

  1. Jayden Reed, 23 (rookie)
  2. Luke Musgrave, 23 (rookie)
  3. Romeo Doubs, 23 (second season)
  4. Dontayvion Wicks, 22 (rookie)
  5. Samori Toure, a geriatric 25 (second season)

These guys are putting the “green” in “Green Bay.” That list doesn’t even include no. 1 receiver Christian Watson, who is also in his second season at 24 years old but has missed two games with a hamstring injury. It also doesn’t include Jordan Love, who is technically in Year 4 but is in his first season as a starter. But two weeks in, and the Packers have answered the questions about whether this young bunch has staying power.

The Packers usually like big receivers in the draft. They broke their own rule to bring in Reed, a second-round pick from Michigan State. Watch him play, and it’s clear why: He plays bigger than his 6-foot, 190-pound frame. At the Senior Bowl in February, Reed played like a grown-ass man. This season the Packers are already using his speed in short motions to freeze defenses like the Dolphins do with Tyreek Hill. Reed’s first career touchdown “catch” came on a jet sweep where Love tossed the ball 2 feet to a sprinting Reed, who ran into the end zone.

This season, Reed already has six catches for 85 yards and two touchdowns, which account for two of Love’s three touchdown passes in Week 2 against Atlanta. Love’s other touchdown pass was to Wicks for a 32-yard score.

Wicks nearly had a far bigger day—Atlanta’s standout cornerback, A.J. Terrell, tackled him to prevent a huge gain here (Terrell was flagged for pass interference).

Terrell also used a veteran technique to bat a pass out of Wicks’s hand to prevent another score. But this much is clear: Wicks may not be the best fifth-round receiver in this draft (thanks to Nacua), but he is already a legit NFL contributor.

Ditto for Musgrave, who is an unreal athlete and has held his own in the blocking game while moving like a receiver.

With Love, Watson, Wicks, Reed, and Musgrave—plus second-year receivers Doubs and Toure—the Packers have an entire offensive skill group that will age together. But the Packers had the flexibility to invest in the offense for the past two drafts after spending a decade using most of their first-round picks on defenders. Green Bay is a throwback team with a throwback approach to quarterback succession plans, and now it has a throwback approach to receivers, too: giving them the time to develop chemistry.

Love may never be as good as Aaron Rodgers. None of these receivers may be as good as Davante Adams. But collectively, this group could be special considering how long it will spend together. It will be amazing to see what the Packers can do when this much talent gets this much time.