Day 3 NFL rookies on defense who could make an impact

TEMPE, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 24: Cornerback Clark Phillips III #1 of the Utah Utes reacts after an interception ahead of wide receiver Charles Hall IV #0 of the Arizona State Sun Devils during the first half of the NCAAF game at Sun Devil Stadium on September 24, 2022 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
TEMPE, ARIZONA - SEPTEMBER 24: Cornerback Clark Phillips III #1 of the Utah Utes reacts after an interception ahead of wide receiver Charles Hall IV #0 of the Arizona State Sun Devils during the first half of the NCAAF game at Sun Devil Stadium on September 24, 2022 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

As the NFL season inches closer and fans are riding the high of the NFL schedule release, many are dreaming of how the new additions to their favorite franchises could push their teams to playoff success. Unlike free agency, the players acquired through NFL Draft presents an unknown; and an unknown could be an irrational belief that your team has struck gold with every pick.

While that’s never the case, first-round picks are expected to be near instant contributors with Pro Bowl upside and Day 2 picks eventual starters who can provide key depth early on in their careers. Day 3 picks though? Generally they’re there to develop into reliable backups that can be special teams assets. Yet, every NFL Draft produces Day 3 picks that become something more, in part due to the inexact science of projecting prospects to the pros.

Over the last 10 NFL Draft classes (2013-2022), there have been 36 non-special teams Pro Bowlers selected on Day 3 with at least one from every class. Of those Day 3 Pro Bowlers, 21 are offensive players and 15 defensive players. Day 3 impact rookies on offense may be easier to find than on defense because the defensive side of the ball is so traits based with size and athleticism outweighing everything else. That’s a big part of the rationale behind Defensive Rookie of the Year contenders rarely being mentioned outside of the first-round picks.

Those freak show defensive players always go higher in the draft for a reason. But just last year, the 2022 NFL Draft produced Day 3 picks like Tariq Woolen, James Houston, and Malcolm Rodriguez on defense and they instantly made an impact as rookies. So, which defensive players taken on Day 3 of the 2023 NFL Draft have a chance to do the same?

Day 3 NFL rookies on defense who could make an impact

IDL: Adetomiwa Adebawore, Indianapolis Colts (Round 4, No. 110)

Indianapolis Colts GM Chris Ballard clearly values explosive athletes, because not only did he select the freakiest quarterback of all-time in Anthony Richardson at No. 4, but the vast majority of the teams other picks were some of the top testers in the 2023 NFL Draft. Among them was Adetomiwa Adebawore, an undersized interior defensive lineman who ran a 4.49 40-yard dash and hit a 37-inch vertical and 10-5 broad jump.

Needless to say, he’s a twitch up ball of power and he utilized Senior Bowl week to show what he could as a 3-tech; he played up and down Northwestern’s defensive line in college, but predominantly played on the edge. Despite being just 6-2, 282 pounds, Adebawore was expected to be a top-50 selection — some even thought a potential first-round pick — and his slide was peculiar, yet could pay off for him.

Joining a Colts defensive line with All-Pro DeForest Buckner and all-underrated Grover Stewart on the interior, there’s no pressure for Adebawore to hit the ground running. Instead, he can slowly work into the rotation and his versatility to play 3T, 5T, 4i, and edge should serve him well in Gus Bradley’s defense.

With his twitch, first step, natural leverage, and long arms, Adebawore is a terror converting speed-to-power and can provide interior pass rush to spell Buckner or Stewart. He also plays with a non-stop motor and has the quickness to shoot gaps as a penetrator. It may take some time for Adebawore to find a consistent role, but his athleticism, versatility, and effort will be an asset in Indianapolis.

Honorable mentions: Cameron Young, Seattle Seahawks; Colby Wooden, Green Bay Packers; Jaquelin Roy, Minnesota Vikings; Scott Matlock, Los Angeles Chargers

Edge: Isaiah McGuire, Cleveland Browns (Round 4, No. 126)

There’s a rich history of Day 3 pass rushers outplaying their draft slot. Matt Judon, Za’Darius Smith, Maxx Crosby, and Josh Sweat were all selected outside of the first three rounds and all of them had double digit sacks last season. Other Day 3 edge rushers include Carl Lawson, Deatrich Wise Jr., Samson Ebukam, and William Gholston.

Thanks to the combination of top tier edge talent and depth in the position group this year, there were quite a few talented Day 3 pass rushers taken in the 2023 NFL Draft. What separates Isaiah McGuire is both the team he landed with and the tools he possesses that should allow him to quickly translate as an NFL rookie.

McGuire has the size (6-4, 268) and explosiveness (36 1/2-inch vertical, 10-2 broad) to go with a deep pass rush repertoire. His heavy hands and ability to convert speed-to-power allow him to tap into a developed pass rush plan; his tape is littered with swipes, chop-rips, club-swims, rip n’ dips, and forklifts. The easiest way for a pass rusher to make a splash as a rookie is to either be an elite athlete or have active hands, McGuire’s got the latter.

In terms of landing spot, the Cleveland Browns have been trying to find a consistent threat opposite Myles Garrett since they selected him No. 1 in the 2017 NFL Draft. The JD Clowney experiment ended in flames and the team brought in Ogbo Okoronkwo to provide some pass rush juice after drafting Alex Wright in the third-round last year.

Along with his violent hands, McGuire’s way into the rotation should be his ability to play a 9T, 6T, 5T, 4i, and be an active run defender who sets a strong edge with his power at the point of attack. Look for him to spell Okoronkwo early as an NFL rookie in new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s defense.

Honorable mentions: Dylan Horton, Houston Texans; Nick Herbig, Pittsburgh Steelers; Nick Hampton, Los Angeles Rams; Ochaun Mathis, Los Angeles Rams

LB: Dee Winters, San Francisco 49ers (Round 6, No. 216)

No franchise has gotten more out of unheralded defensive players than the San Francisco 49ers. Every year other teams are handing contracts to defenders from the 49ers when they hit free agency.

One of those defenders was linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair, a former undrafted player out of FAU, who will be starting for the Tennessee Titans this season. With Al-Shaair gone, San Francisco has a hole at Sam linebacker to fill next to arguably the best 1-2 punch at linebacker in the league in Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw.

For now the job belongs to Oren Burks, a former third-round pick by the Green Bay Packers who has carved out a role on special teams last season. But in the sixth-round of the 2023 NFL Draft, the 49ers selected Dee Winters, who has a similar profile to Al-Shaair.

Like Al-Shaair, Winters makes up for his lack of size with his range and aggressive playing style. He’s a see-it, hit-it type of linebacker who flies around a million miles an hour with his 4.49 speed and throws his body into ball carriers, he’s also an explosive blitzer.

With the lack of linebacker talent in the draft this year, Winters has founded himself in a great spot to make an impact both with the opening at Sam and with San Francisco’s penchant for developing overlooked off-ball linebackers; Greenlaw was a fifth-round pick and signed a two-year $16.4 million extension last season.

Honorable mentions: Owen Pappoe, Arizona Cardinals; SirVocea Dennis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Zaire Barnes, New York Jets; Henry To’o To’o, Houston Texans

CB: Darius Rush, Indianapolis Colts (Round 5, No. 138)

Two of the most impressive Senior Bowl weeks were followed up by big-time NFL Scouting Combine performances and Indianapolis Colts GM Chris Ballard took note and stopped the fall of both Adetomiwa Adebawore and Darius Rush on Day 3 of the 2023 NFL Draft.

Like Adebawore, Rush was expected to go much earlier, but fell all the way to the fifth-round before landing in an ideal situation. Part of Rush’s fall could have had to do with him being a late bloomer, the former wide receiver became a starter at South Carolina in 2021, and the depth of the cornerback class.

Rush is a long (6-2 with 33 3/8-inch arms) cornerback who can use his size to smother receivers at the line of scrimmage, but has the foot quickness and fluid hips to turn and run in man coverage. With impressive ball skills and cover instincts, he frequently disrupts the catch point and puts himself in position to make plays on the ball. In Gus Bradley’s defense, his ability in Cover 3 will be coveted and his size and athleticism give him plenty of potential (he ran a 4.36 40-yard dash).

Rush’s talent is the reason to keep an eye on him, but the biggest reason he could make an impact in year one is because the path is clear for him to break into the Colts lineup. With second-round pick Julius Brents, another long and athletic corner, set to start on one side, Isaiah Rodgers Sr. is the other projected starter. Rodgers Sr. had his moments last season, but has started just 10 games in three seasons, so there’s no guarantee he’ll hold off Rush.

Honorable mentions: Jakorian Bennett, Las Vegas Raiders; Kelee Ringo, Philadelphia Eagles; Darrell Luter Jr., San Francisco 49ers; Kyu Blu Kelly, Baltimore Ravens

Nickel: Clark Phillips III, Atlanta Falcons (Round 4, No. 113)

No position had more players selected in the 2023 NFL Draft than the cornerbacks with 36 of them going over seven rounds. Given the talent at the top of the group and the depth throughout, it doesn’t come as a surprise that there were so many corners and nickels available on Day 3 who could quickly make an impact in the NFL.

One prospect you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who disliked their tape is Clark Phillips III. The Utah corner makes up for his lack of size and explosiveness with phenomenal technique and instincts. His route recognition allows him to play faster than he tested and his footwork helps him change direction with ease and close in an instant.

The knock on Phillips III will always be his length and the fact that at his size he’s not an elite athlete, but his superb balance, body positioning, and ball awareness help hide those issues. It also helps that he’s feisty as a run defender with surprisingly solid take on skills and triggers immediately downhill when a ball carrier is in front of him.

Landing with the Atlanta Falcons, a team with inconsistencies throughout its cornerback room, Phillips III should be able to find playing time as a rookie. His ability to play outside or inside at nickel will be an asset. With the team signing Mike Hughes and Tre Flowers, trading for Jeff Okudah, and already having Pro Bowler AJ Terrell on one side, it might take time for Phillips III to find his way onto the field, but when he does Atlanta will have a hard time taking him out of the lineup.

Honorable mentions: Chamarri Conner, Kansas City Chiefs; Kei’Trel Clark, Arizona Cardinals; Tre Tomlinson, Los Angeles Rams; Jerrick Reed II, Seattle Seahawks

SAF: Jason Taylor II, Los Angeles Rams (Round 7, No. 234)

This was not a good year to need a safety; it was a bad class, plain and simple. That was reflected by the fact that the first two weren’t off the board until the 45th and 47th picks (and even then both Brian Branch and Quan Martin are more nickels than they are safeties). Essentially only three true safeties went on Day 2.

While it wasn’t a particularly top-heavy safety class or high-end in the middle, the depth of the group is where it got interesting and quite a few Day 3 safeties could make a case to play as rookies. But when it comes to team situations, the LA Rams present the best opportunity for first year players to hit the field.

Currently, the Rams have 13 rookies on their two-deep for offense and defense (and their kicker, punter, and long snapper are all rookies) and should see at least six defensive rookies see the field early. One of them will be safety Jason Taylor II.

Taylor II is a classic two-deep safety with solid cover instincts, eyes in zone, and range. He’s also an explosive downhill closer whether it’s when he’s taking on ball carriers or looking to protect the middle of the field against receivers. With a solid frame, long arms, consistent take on skills, and suddenness, he’s impactful in run support too.

Currently Russ Yeast, a seven-round pick last year, is set to start opposite Jordan Fuller at safety; Taylor has a real shot to win his job. At worst, he’s going to be a backup who helps on special teams.

Honorable mentions: Daniel Scott, Indianapolis Colts; Antonio Johnson, Jacksonville Jaguars; Jordan Howden, New Orleans Saints; Anthony Johnson Jr., Green Bay Packers