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Bijan Robinson, Bryce Young highlight top 10 impact rookies in NFC South
National Football League

Bijan Robinson, Bryce Young highlight top 10 impact rookies in NFC South

Published Jun. 7, 2023 12:45 p.m. ET

As a division that didn't have a team with a winning record last year, the NFC South should naturally have a ton of impact rookies in 2023, and that definitely looks to be the case.

Even with teams as active in free agency as the Falcons and Panthers were, there are spots all over the field between the four teams where rookies are in strong position to not only start but to make major contributions. The top two names on this list could arguably be 1-2 in the entire league, and we've tried to make sure we're not just listing these in draft order. Here goes …

1. Bijan Robinson, RB, Falcons (first round, eighth overall)

It's hard to list a player ahead of a No. 1 overall pick, but Robinson is the odds-on favorite for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, helping the Falcons offense as both a primary back and a frequent pass-catcher. Atlanta had a rookie rush for 1,000 yards last year in Tyler Allgeier, but it's easy to see a model where Robinson gets to 1,500 yards from scrimmage if he's healthy for the entire season.


How many passes might he catch? If you look at the NFL's all-time rookie records for running backs catching passes, three of the top five are from the NFC South: Reggie Bush caught 88 passes for the Saints in 2006, Alvin Kamara caught 81 for New Orleans in 2017 and Christian McCaffrey caught 80 for the Panthers that same year. The comp most will make for Robinson is Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 1,307 yards in 2018 while catching 91 passes for another 721 yards, good for 2,028 yards of total offense.

Robinson has a real chance to be in the top 10 at his position at the end of this season, and it's hard to make that case for any other rookies in the NFC South, and few across the league as a whole.

2. Bryce Young, QB, Panthers (first round, first overall)

Young could become the first quarterback in NFL history to be picked first overall and lead his team to a division title as a rookie. On that alone, you could make a case for him belonging at the top of this list, so the question is simply at how high a level can he play in his first year.

The transition to the NFL can be tough, even for a No. 1 pick — two years ago, Trevor Lawrence threw just 12 touchdown passes against 17 interceptions as a rookie before taking a major step forward in his second year. A good measuring stick for Young would be Kyler Murray's 2019 debut with the Cardinals, throwing for 20 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. And the ambitious goal for Young would be to challenge Justin Herbert's 2020 rookie season: an NFL rookie record 31 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions.

Carolina is entering its 29th NFL season and has had just two 30-touchdown seasons in its history. Props if you can correctly guess the franchise's record-holder for TD passes in a season. It's not Cam Newton, who won an MVP with 35 touchdowns in 2015, but actually Steve Beuerlein, who threw for 36 in 1999, including 12 scores each to Wesley Walls and Patrick Jeffers. 

The Panthers have done well to equip Young with talented players to throw to, signing receivers Adam Thielen and DJ Chark in free agency as well as a Pro Bowl running back in Miles Sanders. Young averaged 39 touchdowns against six interceptions in his final two years at Alabama, so the bar will be set high for an impressive rookie season.

3. Calijah Kancey, DL, Bucs (first round, 19th overall)

Kancey has exceptional athleticism for a defender his size — 4.67 speed in the 40 at 281 pounds — so he'll step in alongside Vita Vea as part of a new Bucs defensive front that also includes former Rams starter Greg Gaines. With Akiem Hicks and Will Gholston still unsigned and Rakeem Nunez-Roches signing with the Giants, Kancey is in line for major playing time in the rotation up front.

He's the only NFC South player getting his own line for Defensive Rookie of the Year, albeit at 25:1, tied for 15th-best odds. The division's other rookie edge rushers all went in later rounds, so Kancey still has an easy path to getting the most sacks of any NFC South rookie.

4. Bryan Bresee, DT, Saints (first round, 29th overall)

New Orleans, too, has seen a major overhaul to its defensive line, losing David Onyemata to the Falcons, Shy Tuttle to the Panthers and Kentavius Street to the Eagles. That puts Bresee in position to play a decent amount as a rookie, along with veteran newcomers Nathan Shepherd and Khalen Saunders

Bresee didn't have huge stats at Clemson, totaling 15 tackles in 10 games last year with 3.5 sacks, so his impact might be as much in occupying opposing linemen to free up other defenders to get to the quarterback.

5. Jonathan Mingo, WR, Panthers (second round, 39th overall)

We mentioned Thielen and Chark among Carolina's key additions, but the challenge of replacing D.J. Moore also falls on Mingo, who brings 4.46 speed and a 6-foot-2 frame that could make him a favorite target for Young. Mingo didn't have gaudy stats in college, so simply matching his 2022 production — 51 catches for 861 yards and five touchdowns — seems like a reasonable goal. Rookie receivers don't always click immediately, but in the second half of 2023, he could be Carolina's most productive pass-catcher.

6. Cody Mauch, OL, Bucs (second round, 48th overall)

The Bucs traded up two spots to grab Mauch, who starred at North Dakota State and hopes to continue the team's penchant for finding draft gems from smaller schools. Tampa Bay has shaken up its offensive line, with left tackle Donovan Smith released and right guard Shaq Mason traded to the Texans, and with Pro Bowl right tackle Tristan Wirfs moving to the left side. But Mauch has a good shot at Mason's old job, which means moving inside from his college position and lining up next to what's likely to be another young starter in second-year pro Luke Goedeke on the right side. 

[RELATED: Bucs draft colorful Cody Mauch to fill gap on their offensive line]

[RELATED: Bucs' Tristan Wirfs determined to excel at left tackle: 'I have very high expectations']

7. Matthew Bergeron, OL, Falcons (second round, 38th overall)

Like Mauch, Bergeron was a prospect the Falcons liked enough to trade up for in the second round, and their offensive line has four solid returning starters in tackles Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary, Pro Bowl guard Chris Lindstrom and center Drew Dalman. Left guard was a rotating cast last year, and Bergeron will have a chance to step in and start right away there, moving inside after playing tackle at Syracuse.

8. Isaiah Foskey, OLB, Saints (second round, 40th overall)

The Saints' top returning sack leaders from last season — Cam Jordan and Demario Davis — will both be 34 when the season starts, so an infusion of youth in the pass rush is a must for New Orleans. Foskey had double-digit sacks in each of his last two seasons at Notre Dame, so he will be able to help offset the departure of Marcus Davenport in free agency. It might not take Foskey long to overtake 2021 first-rounder Payton Turner, who has just three sacks in two seasons limited by injuries.

9. Kendre Miller, RB, Saints (third round, 71st overall)

If Alvin Kamara faces any kind of suspension this fall, it elevates the Saints' rookie running back from TCU into a key role behind veteran newcomer Jamaal Williams. Miller had a breakout 2022 season, rushing for 1,399 yards and 17 touchdowns, so while he's initially behind two proven NFL backs, New Orleans will find ways to get him involved. Kamara hasn't been healthy enough to play a full season since his rookie year.

10. YaYa Diaby, OLB, Bucs (third round, 82nd overall)

There's a good group of mid-round pass-rushers in the division, not only with Diaby but also the Falcons' Zach Harrison and the Panthers' DJ Johnson. The Bucs have Shaq Barrett returning from an Achilles injury and are hoping for a breakthrough season from 2021 first-rounder Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, but Diaby should be able to help spell those two, along with Anthony Nelson. Diaby emerged last year with nine sacks and 14 tackles for loss at Louisville, then ran the 40 in 4.51 seconds at the combine to show off his speed. His becoming the first Bucs player to wear No. 0 only adds to the mystique.

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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