A year ago, Ja’Marr Chase was embroiled in preseason consternation revolving around drop struggles that plagued the then-rookie.
The stories seem laughable now.
Chase went on to have one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history, netting a Super Bowl era record for receiving yards with 1,455. He set the single-game rookie record for receiving yards in Week 17 versus Kansas City at 266 yards. The Offensive Rookie of the Year became the first rookie to record multiple games with 200-plus yards in a season since 1950 (only six other players have done so).
The preseason struggles and drops were long forgotten. Instead, the rookie was a big-play highlight waiting to happen, generating a league-high seven deep TD receptions (20-plus air yards) in 2021.
During the pre-draft process, debate raged about whether the Bengals should add Chase to a receiver corps that already had Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd or select offensive tackle Penei Sewell to bolster a woeful offensive line. Cincy added Chase and never looked back. Sewell had a solid rookie season and looks like a stalwart tackle in Detroit, but there is zero question the Bengals wouldn’t have been in the Super Bowl without Chase’s dynamic exploits.
Chase’s influence helped lift a long-suffering franchise to its first Super Bowl in 33 seasons. So the question is:
Who from this year’s rookie class could have a similar impact?
I’m not saying the below players (listed in alphabetical order) are shoo-ins to break records. But they’re my favorites to significantly influence their clubs’ fortunes in 2022. Some can put up huge stats, some could lift a playoff team to greater heights, and others might help dig their clubs out of the cellar as 2022 surprises.
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Cook hasn’t dominated preseason action like some of us hoped, and the Bills seem intent on splitting reps with veterans Devin Singletary and Zack Moss to open the season. But those factors don’t make me shy away from adding Cook to this list. He’s an ideal pass-catcher on third downs and a slashing runner. Whether through injury or improvement from the rookie as the season wears on, Cook will play a prominent role on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. He might not have a 1,000-yard rushing season but come January, we could be talking about Cook as a vital cog in Buffalo’s dynamic offense. He’s a player who can put them over the top.
Several Packers rookies should play key roles, from first-rounders Devonte Wyatt and Quay Walker to second-round receiver Christian Watson, who has battled injury. But I’m buying the Doubs training camp hype. Perhaps it’s foolish to believe a fourth-round rookie can push a playoff team to new heights, but I love his ability to stretch the field and snatch the ball in impressive fashion. The drops are overblown at this point — remember Chase? — and I’m not too concerned with Aaron Rodgers’ critiquing the young wideout in camp (it felt like a savvy vet challenging players he knows need to step up). Maybe Doubs’ rookie season ends resembling something closer to Amon-Ra St. Brown’s than Chase’s, but in a revamped WR corps in Green Bay, that would be huge to help get the Packers over the playoff hump.
From a sheer volume perspective, London is the biggest rookie threat to Chase’s rookie receiving record. After gobbling up a host of receptions at USC (88 for 1,084 yards in 2021 — despite missing four games), the big-bodied wideout is in line for a huge target-share in Atlanta, where tight end Kyle Pitts is the only proven pass-catcher. A mismatch weapon, London can line up outside or play the “big slot.” The biggest threat to London stacking up stats will be his health after suffering a knee injury on his first catch of the preseason.
Not unlike Chase, Olave enters the NFL in a receiver corps with proven veterans in Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry. The rookie should be the complementary deep threat weapon who can move all over the formation. With speed to burn, good agility and snatching hands, he can be a field-stretching weapon for Jameis Winston out of the gate. There might be games where Thomas and Landry eat most of the targets, but Olave is too talented to be silenced for long stretches. I’m expecting several blow-up games from the Ohio State product on a good New Orleans squad.
I could have easily gone with George Pickens as the Steelers’ most impactful rookie, but, in the end, the QB position wins out. Pickett has improved each week during the preseason and has brought excitement and big-play potential to Pittsburgh’s offense. The rookie brings moxie, good accuracy and a potent deep-shot ability. His mobility and escape ability would also help him behind a questionable offensive line. While Mitchell Trubisky remains in line to open the season, coach Mike Tomlin hasn’t closed the door on Pickett winning the gig. Even if he’s on the sideline to open the season, I’m betting on the QB getting the nod and upgrading the offense at some point this season. After all, Ben Roethlisberger didn’t open his rookie season as the starter, and we know how well that went.
Like with Chase, there were pre-draft questions about who the Jags should select with their top pick. Thus far, Walker looks legit, with the size, strength and relentless effort to make life difficult for offensive tackles. With the rookie seeing more one-on-ones thanks to the presence of Josh Allen on the other end, Walker has the chance to be a weekly impact player. Beyond the physical tools Walker provides a rebuilding Jaguars team, there is one earworm from NFL Research I can’t get out of my head: At least one team has gone worst-to-first, winning its division the season after finishing in or tied for last place, in 17 of the last 19 seasons. Given the state of the AFC South, a better coaching staff and a second-year quarterback in Trevor Lawrence ready to make the leap, the Jags absolutely have a shot to be that surprise turnaround team in 2022. And if they do, Walker will be a big reason for the radical rise.
Follow Kevin Patra on Twitter.
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