Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:
But first, a look at 10 rookies drafted outside of the first round who are playing like premium picks ...
The NFL Draft is the critical component in the team-building process. General managers, scouts and coaches are hoping to plug holes with top prospects, but the best teams also find key contributors in the mid-to-late rounds.
During my scouting days, I would grade prospects based on how much they could theoretically contribute to the team in the first few years. While everyone expects a first-round pick to make an immediate impact as a starter or top reserve, the prospects selected in the second and third rounds are generally viewed as solid backups with potential to develop into starters down the road.
Players taken in Rounds 4 through 7 are viewed as developmental prospects who will hopefully provide initial returns as quality backups or special team standouts. They are rarely seen as Day 1 contributors, unless a character concern or medical issue forced scouts to deduct points from the final draft grade.
When I was working for the Carolina Panthers back in the aughts, I got a first-hand look at Steve Smith's rise from third-round return specialist to first-team All-Pro wide receiver. The diminutive pass catcher, who's now my colleague at NFL Media, exceeded all expectations by becoming a true alpha WR1. Shoot, he was the last guy to win the receiving triple crown before Cooper Kupp accomplished the feat last season.
Although it is rare for a team to uncover a hidden gem as staggeringly productive as Smith beyond Round 1, the league is full of players who outperform their draft status. And though we're only six weeks into the first regular season for the Class of 2022, this group has plenty of non-first-rounders making their presence felt right off the bat. Time will tell if these rookies are able to sustain their hot starts and develop into legitimate superstars, but they've certainly made a great first impression.
Given some time to study the film and chat with a few scouts about this rookie class, I'd like to reveal my top 10 early draft steals.
DRAFTED: Round 5, No. 153 overall | UTSA
Maybe scouts should have paid closer attention to the remarkable tools Woolen brought to the table, as a 6-foot-4, 205-pound corner with blazing speed (4.26-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine) and explosive leaping ability (42-inch vertical jump). Pete Carroll could not resist the temptation to take on another extra-large CB prospect after successfully transforming Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner into Pro Bowlers and Super Bowl champs. Woolen appears to be another success story, with an interception in four straight games and an improving skill set that could make him a weekly problem for wideouts facing him on the island.
DRAFTED: Round 2, No. 36 overall | Iowa State
Yes, Hall is the only second-rounder on this list. By calling him a "steal" at No. 36 overall, I'm screaming how much I like him. The former Iowa State standout was a touchdown machine in the Big 12 as a multi-purpose weapon out of the backfield. He has reprised that role with the Jets, as a runner-receiver with outstanding instincts, awareness and big-play ability. Although it took New York's coaching staff a few games to come up with a plan to maximize his talents as an offensive weapon, the rookie running back is beginning to make his mark as an electric playmaker with the potential to become one of the true elites at the position.
DRAFTED: Round 4, No. 107 overall | Florida
Lovie Smith has put the ball in the hands of an old-school runner to set the tone for a Texans offense that wants to beat up opponents with a smashmouth running game. Pierce is a perfect fit, as a downhill back who runs through arm tackles and glancing blows. With the second-most rushing yards after contact in the NFL (414, per Next Gen Stats) and the second-most missed tackles (33, per PFF), the Texans' RB1 is the sledgehammer that wears down defenses in a 60-minute game.
DRAFTED: Round 4, No. 137 overall | Western Kentucky
Leave it to Bill Belichick to find another late-round quarterback with a penchant for winning games. Zappe has not only energized the Patriots in Mac Jones' injury absence with his efficient play from the pocket, but he has helped Matt Patricia and Co. come up with a formula that works for the team's offensive personnel. While some skeptics are waiting to see if the clock strikes midnight on Zappe's Cinderella run, the former Western Kentucky standout looks like a keeper as a pass-first point guard directing a fast-break offense in New England. Jones might retake the reins here soon, but at the very least, Zappe's exciting depth at the position.
DRAFTED: Round 3, No. 72 overall | Washington State
With the Seahawks' offensive line providing solid protection at the line of scrimmage, Geno Smith is playing at a high level. No coincidence there. Starting at the right tackle spot opposite fellow bookend and No. 9 overall pick Charles Cross, Lucas has been a major part of the O-line's resurgence as a first-year starter with a polished game.
DRAFTED: Round 4, No. 121 overall | Arizona State
New England keeps unearthing DB gems in the later stages of the draft. Jones is the next unheralded cornerback poised to become a star in Bill Belichick's system. The instinctive ballhawk with quick feet and superb awareness has a pair of interceptions while also displaying air-tight coverage on the perimeter. As the Patriots continue to evolve defensively, Jones' emergence as a potential lockdown corner could allow Belichick to open up the playbook.
DRAFTED: Round 6, No. 195 overall | Georgia
Whenever a young player receives a game ball from coaches acknowledging his effort as a new starter, it speaks volumes about the player's preparation and performance. Salyer has jumped in and solidified the Chargers' left tackle spot after a season-ending injury to Pro Bowler Rashawn Slater. Despite being projected as an offensive guard throughout the pre-draft process, Salyer has been a rock-solid player on the edge as a blind-side protector for Justin Herbert.
DRAFTED: Round 6, No. 188 overall | Oklahoma State
The Hard Knocks star has been quite the find for the Lions. Rodriguez is a heavy-handed linebacker with a tough-guy mentality and non-stop motor. The first-year starter has immediately impressed as a tackling machine with A+ instincts and diagnostic skills. Although Rodriguez's numbers might be a little inflated due to the defense's overall struggles, it is hard to ignore his immediate impact as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker.
DRAFTED: Round 4, No. 132 overall | Nevada
Despite the criticism leveled at Packers brass for the lack of playmakers around Aaron Rodgers, the front office appears to have knocked it out of the park with the former Nevada standout. As a crafty route runner with strong hands, Doubs excels at doing the dirty work over the middle of the field. As Rodgers becomes more comfortable with his connection to the rookie wideout, Green Bay could see the fourth-rounder settle in as a solid starter and key weapon in the passing game.
DRAFTED: Round 3, No. 73 overall | Virginia
The super-sized tight end has quickly developed into an effective red zone weapon for the Colts, with three touchdowns on five catches. Woods' superior size (6-7, 253 pounds), length and athleticism make him a tough matchup anywhere on the field. With more playing time and experience, the rookie's role could expand to include more opportunities to become a trusted chain-mover on critical downs.
Cole Strange is getting the last laugh
Looks like the joke is on everyone who made a mockery of Cole Strange's selection in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. The 29th overall pick has not only played solid football for New England as a Day 1 starter, but he has helped solidify an offensive line that has performed like an elite unit, according to PFF, which had the Patriots ranked as the NFL's third-best offensive line through Week 6.
Roger Goodell announcing Strange's name on the opening night of this past April's draft was a surprise to everyone, draft analysts and fans alike. But the lampooning of the pick went to a whole other level when Twitter got its hands on the live reaction from Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead, with McVay laughingly telling the assembled media, "And we wasted our time watching him, thinking he'd be at (pick No.) 104 maybe."
In McVay's defense, he said his reaction was "misunderstood." And apparently, the coach called Bill Belichick and Strange himself to explain that he was a big fan of the pick and the player. But the mockery was off and running, undoubtedly fueled by the player's surname and small-school background.
As a 6-foot-5, 307-pound offensive guard out of Tennessee-Chattanooga, Strange impressed evaluators with his ability to hold his own at the 2022 Reese's Senior Bowl. Although the Southern Conference standout did not wow scouts with his physical dimensions or explosiveness, he was a rock-solid blocker at the point of attack with a technically sound game that made him tough to defeat at the line of scrimmage.
That said, offensive guard is not deemed a marquee position in the team-building process, and OG prospects aren't exactly headline-grabbing names during all the pre-draft mock madness. This helps explain why the Patriots' decision to expend a first-round pick on a small-school guard drew confusion from observers around the social media world. Based on traditional roster construction, offensive tackles are the most valuable position on the offensive line, and some scouts believe quality offensive guards can always be found in Days 2 and 3 of the draft.
While all of that might have been true back in the day, the changing dynamics of interior line play make it essential to have a blue-chip guard on the line of scrimmage. Defensive coordinators are increasingly utilizing pass-rushing defensive tackles to disrupt the passing game by pressuring the quarterback from up the gut.
With a stout and sturdy offensive guard needed to neutralize interior rushers on passing downs while also moving defenders off the ball in the run game, the interior blocker is undervalued in the draft process. Credit Belichick for looking beyond the traditional team-building model to recognize the importance of solidifying the interior with a stationary quarterback under center in Mac Jones.
Given Jones' lack of mobility, the Patriots needed to shore up the interior to ensure that he would be able to throw the ball from a clean pocket. According to PFF, Strange -- who hasn't committed a single penalty in Year 1 -- has allowed eight total pressures in six games, with just two in the last three. By eliminating penetration in the middle of the line, the Patriots' quarterbacks -- most recently Bailey Zappe, who's 2-0 as a starter while Jones recovers from an ankle injury -- are able to throw from the center of the pocket without obstruction. Moreover, they are able to neutralize the penetration that forces immobile quarterbacks to flee the pocket into the hands of more athletic pass rushers on the outside.
The football world enjoyed a hearty belly laugh at the expense of Strange on draft day, but it looks like the Patriots and their first-round pick are getting the last laugh.