Analysis

Projecting the 2022 Defensive, Specialist All-Rookie Team: Sauce Gardner, Aidan Hutchinson lead squad

Getting thrown into the fire is no small task for NFL rookies. After lining up against college competition for the last three to five years, they now must face veteran pros in the prime of their careers.

It is no surprise that the top performers among rookies have typically been first-, second- or third-round selections, at least according to All-Rookie Teams as selected by the Pro Football Writers of America. The position players in the 2021 edition were comprised of 14 first-rounders, seven second-round picks and one Day 3 pick (Chiefs guard Trey Smith). All-Rookie squads from past years have included a handful of players from Rounds 4 through 7, however, and the occasional undrafted rookie, too.

As you'll see, my projection for the 2022 All-Rookie Team leans heavily on early-round picks, as well. They have the talent -- and just as importantly, the opportunity that most middle-to-late round picks lack -- to impress during their initial professional season.

DEFENSE

DT
Perrion Winfrey
Oklahoma · College: Oklahoma

Drafted: Round 4, No. 108 overall


Even if Winfrey doesn't win a starting job coming out of training camp, I expect the Browns to get him into the game in sub-packages regularly early in the season to attack the backfield. His playing time should increase as he progresses through his rookie campaign, in which he’ll accumulate somewhere in the range of six to eight tackles for loss and three to five sacks for the year.

Edge
Aidan Hutchinson
College: Michigan

Drafted: Round 1, No. 2 overall


I expect the Lions to use Hutchinson in multiple alignments, whether it’s standing up on the edge, playing with his hand on the turf outside or kicking inside on obvious passing downs. Even if he’s not posting huge numbers right off the bat, Hutchinson will gain traction as the year goes on and make life very difficult for opposing offenses.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 30 overall


The Chiefs needed a complement to Frank Clark off the edge and found a bargain in Karlaftis late in the first round. His power and advanced hand usage will free him to make plays in the run game and stop quarterbacks trying to run away from Clark as he steams toward them.

Edge
Kayvon Thibodeaux
College: Oregon

Drafted: Round 1, No. 5 overall


It will not be a shock if Thibodeaux racks up double-digit sacks as a rookie, like former top-10 picks Josh Allen, Joey Bosa and Von Miller did in Year 1. That's certainly his stated goal in 2022. The Giants will give him every opportunity to use his length and strength on the edge across from last year's second-round pick, Azeez Olujari

LB
Christian Harris
College: Alabama

Drafted: Round 3, No. 75 overall


I like Harris' chances of seeing significant playing time with the Texans as a rookie, as he can play all three linebacker spots in head coach Lovie Smith's 4-3 alignment. Houston signed a few veteran linebackers this offseason but Harris' ability to cover, rush the passer and attack running lanes should put him in position to win a starting job early in the year.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 27 overall


Lloyd's a versatile linebacker who can handle coverage duties whether it’s playing man-to-man against a tight end or dropping into zones. Also, his power between the tackles will free up veteran tackle machine Foye Oluokon to chase the ball outside. Add in his ability to blitz through the A or B gaps, and Lloyd should make an immediate impact on the Jaguars' defense.

LB
Quay Walker
College: Georgia

Drafted: Round 1, No. 22 overall


The Packers needed a strong inside presence next to All-Pro De'Vondre Campbell. Walker's ability to stand up to blockers in the run game as well as sprint to the sideline to cover running backs and tight ends, limiting big plays, will solidify the team's second-level defense. Don't be surprised if he works in tandem with Rashan Gary and Preston Smith to secure a handful of sacks, too.

CB
Sauce Gardner
College: Cincinnati

Drafted: Round 1, No. 4 overall


Gardner was basically avoided by college quarterbacks while at Cincinnati. NFL passers will test him, however, which means he'll get more chances for pass breakups and interceptions as a rookie. While Gardner will give up some plays, like every rookie corner, I think he'll make quarterbacks pay for throwing in his direction.

CB
Kaiir Elam
College: Florida

Drafted: Round 1, No. 23 overall


Quarterbacks will test Elam as a rookie, especially when Pro Bowl CB Tre'Davious White -- who is recovering from an ACL tear -- is back to full health. He's more than up for the challenge, though, with a physical style and great confidence in his abilities against all comers. If teams fall behind against the Bills' potent offense, Elam will join White in shutting down desperation pass plays.

S
Jaquan Brisker
College: Penn State

Drafted: Round 2, No. 48 overall


Chicago added Brisker to complement Eddie Jackson at safety, with Brisker primarily thriving in the box while allowing Jackson to excel as a center fielder and over the slot. The former Penn State Nittany Lion can play deep, as well, and cover tight ends adeptly, which should make him a reliable starter as a rookie.

S
Jalen Pitre
College: Baylor

Drafted: Round 2, No. 37 overall


Pitre did a bit of everything for Baylor's defense in 2021 and Texans fans should expect to see the same from him this fall. The comparisons with Tyrann Mathieu will be hard to ignore, as Pitre seems to regularly find the ball whether blitzing, avoiding linemen to get to running backs or staying with slot receivers and tight ends in coverage. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Drafted: Round 4, No. 124 overall


York's leg strength has already impressed people in Cleveland. He made 15 of 19 attempts (78.9 percent) from 50 or more yards during his LSU career, which is the sort of consistency from distance that the Browns need going up against fellow AFC North kickers Chris Boswell (Pittsburgh), Evan McPherson (Cincinnati) and Justin Tucker (Baltimore).

Undrafted


Yes, he's long been known as "Dicker the Kicker” but his final year at Texas showed he could be a triple threat: punter, kicker and kickoff specialist. If he can handle holding duties, too, he should beat out veteran Riley Dixon for a roster spot. Keep in mind that three of the last five All-Rookie punters were undrafted (Rigoberto Sanchez, 2017; Jamie Gillan, 2019; Tommy Townsend, 2020). 

Drafted: Round 5, No. 162 overall


The Broncos averaged just 16.2 yards per kickoff return (last in the NFL) and 8.2 yards per punt return (19th) in 2021. Washington's ability to attack coverage units after fielding a kickoff (returned one for touchdown at Samford last year) or punt (four returned for TD in his career with the Bulldogs) will bring the excitement that Denver's special teams units have sorely lacked. He also scored six times as a runner and nine times as a receiver in 2021, so it's possible he sees some snaps on offense down the line.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter.

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