2023 NFL Season: Day 2 rookies on defense poised to start

Bills rookie linebacker Dorian Williams runs drills with the special teams unit.
Bills rookie linebacker Dorian Williams runs drills with the special teams unit. /

It’s easy to romanticize NFL rookies before they’ve even stepped foot on a professional football field. The reason the NFL Draft is so tantalizing is because it promises something more for fans of floundering franchises and the chance to reload and compete for the Lombardi for the cream of the crop. While first-round picks are often expected to make an impact as rookies and quickly become difference makers, Day 2 picks are frequently plagued with similar expectations from fans despite less than half of them usually becoming starters in their first season in the NFL.

Looking at the 2022 NFL Draft class, just 22 of 73 Day 2 picks were primary starters as rookies, that’s only 30%. So, theoretically only about 11 offensive rookies and 11 defensive rookies selected on Day 2 of the 2023 NFL Draft will start; however, there were less Day 2 picks this year with 71. (That’s not even taking into account the fact that kicker Jake Moody is a mortal lock to start for the San Francisco 49ers after they took him in the third-round!)

Last year, just nine of the 37 defensive players taken on Day 2 started as rookies and the group was dominated by defensive backs; seven of them started. Although there were less defensive players picked on Day 2 this year (35), there appears to be more opportunities for rookies to become primary starters at some point this season.

2023 NFL Season: Day 2 rookies on defense poised to start

Joey Porter Jr., CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Throughout the entire 2023 NFL Draft process, the Pittsburgh Steelers were connected to Joey Porter Jr. for three reasons: first, because his father is a legend in the Steel City; second, because nobody loves bloodlines as much as Mike Tomlin; and third, because he fills a legitimate need for the team. While Porter Jr. was expected to go in the first-round, the Steelers managed to take advantage of his slide and still make him a top-32 pick (which would normally take him out of Day 2 conversation, but the Miami Dolphins really wanted Tom Brady). Luckily for both Porter Jr. and the Steelers, this is a perfect landing spot and Pittsburgh didn’t need to pass on a premier offensive tackle and reach on the Penn State cornerback.

Instead, with him being a second-round pick, there’s less pressure for Porter Jr. to immediately start. The long and physical press corner can learn from future Hall of Famer Patrick Peterson and with veteran Levi Wallace there, there’s no reason to rush him into action in a division full of Pro Bowl passers. At 6-3 with vines attached to his torso (35-inch arms), Porter Jr. gives the Steelers the type of cornerback they’ve been lacking since the days of Ike Taylor — fittingly enough, Porter Jr. is wearing No. 24 in honor of Taylor — a smothering perimeter corner who can disrupt route timing with his jam.

Although his aggressive style can burn him at times with penalties and he’ll need to improve his footwork to stick with craftier route runners in the Steelers man-heavy scheme, Porter Jr.’s length and fluidity give him copious amounts of potential as a catch point disrupting press corner.

Derick Hall, EDGE, Seattle Seahawks

Despite a surprise run to the NFL playoffs last season behind the arm of Geno Smith, the Seattle Seahawks defensive line was a mess for much of the year. Adding to the trenches by bolstering the run defense was a must this offseason and GM John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll did just that through both free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft. While they passed on front seven players with their two first-round picks, they used the 37th selection on a ready-made run defender on the edge in Derick Hall.

Hall’s truly a wrecking ball of intensity with his non-stop motor, power, and maxed out frame of muscle; he looks like he was built in a lab to set the edge. While he isn’t the biggest edge defender (6-3, 254), his arm length (34 1/2 inches) and heavy hands allow him to control tackles while containing the run playside. His potential as an impact run defender is the reason he should quickly find a role in an edge room made up of explosive pass rushers (Uchenna Nwosu, Darrell Taylor, Boye Mafe).

The run defense will get him on the field early, but what will help him start opposite Nwosu is his pass rush potential. A supercharged power rusher, Hall’s go-to move is the long arm, where he can use that length, leverage, and burst to get under a tackle and walk them back into the quarterback; he’s also able to translate speed-to-power with his bull rush. If he can continue to develop his pass rush repertoire, Hall could be the next big rookie hit for the Seahawks.

BJ Ojulari, EDGE, Arizona Cardinals

There were nine edge rushers selected on Day 2 of the 2023 NFL Draft, most fan bases are expecting big things out of these players, but expectations should be tempered. Looking at the last five NFL Draft classes, 42 edge rushers have been selected on Day 2, as rookies they’ve averaged just 2.1 sacks, 2.7 TFLs, and five QB hits. It’s more likely than not that the nine from this class will have smaller roles than fans are expecting and a few will have little to no impact this season. However, every rookie class since the 2014 NFL Draft has had at least one player selected outside of first-round rack up six or more sacks in their first season, and BJ Ojulari is poised to continue the family tradition (his brother Azeez, the 50th pick in 2021, had 8 sacks as a rookie).

What will surely help Ojulari’s cause is the hellish roster he’s being dropped into in Arizona. The Cardinals have one of the ugliest depth charts in the NFL, and the defensive line group is one of the worst in football. Between his skill set and the players he’ll be competing with for snaps, Ojulari should see fairly immediate playing time. His top competition to start on the edge in Jonathan Gannon’s defense are a pair of 2022 Day 2 picks in Myjai Sanders and Cameron Thomas; even if he doesn’t beat those two out, coming from the Philadelphia Eagles, Gannon favors rotating his edge players.

What should really hammer home the importance of getting Ojulari on the field is his ability to harass quarterbacks with a deep pass rush plan that doesn’t just lean on his first step quickness and bend as a speed rusher, but includes violent hands and power. Set the over/under on sacks for Ojulari at 5.5.

Julius Brents, CB, Indianapolis Colts

Last season the absurdly explosive and long cornerback prospect who put on a show at the Senior Bowl somehow fell to the fifth-round, and boy were the Seattle Seahawks happy about it. Tariq Woolen ended up tying for the NFL lead in interceptions on his way to being named to the Pro Bowl and finishing third in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. This year the NFL seems to have gotten it right with the Indianapolis Colts selecting the condor at cornerback in the class, Julius Brents, with the 44th pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Not only is Brents entering a perfect situation to start Week 1, but he’s also a perfect fit for defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s single-high heavy Cover 1/Cover 3 defense.

Looking at the Colts current situation in the cornerback room, there’s almost no way that Brents isn’t starting the vast majority of the season. His current competition on the outside is 2022 undrafted free agent Dallis Flowers and fifth-round rookie Darius Rush, not to mention that the other projected starting outside corner, Isaiah Rodgers Sr., is expected to be dealing with a hefty gambling related suspension. But just because he was drafted on Day 2 and its a desolate cornerback room doesn’t mean Brents will be handed the job. The reason he’ll be playing so much is because his size and athleticism translate to on-field production.

While he’s big (6-3), he’s not clunky and possesses the fluid movement skills and loose hips to turn and run as a deep-third player in Cover 3. Playing Cover 1 man, he uses his length (34-inch arms) to slow receivers in press and has surprisingly nimble feet to mirror and change direction. As long as he improves his ability to find the ball in phase and cuts down on penalties, he’ll be the Colts top corner in no time.

Brian Branch, DB, Detroit Lions

Every NFL Draft cycle it feels as if there’s a player absolutely everybody loves on the field, but whether it be due to size, athleticism, or positional value, that player slides out of the first-round. Some recent examples include Jevon Holland and Antoine Winfield Jr., and like those two, Brian Branch is a Swiss Army knife in the secondary with top tier instincts and eye-popping physicality, but just so happens to play a devalued position (safety/nickel). The Detroit Lions and GM Brad Holmes cared not for positional value throughout the first two days of the 2023 NFL Draft, so it feels right that they landed Branch. It’s also perfect because Branch plays with the kneecap biting attitude that head coach Dan Campbell wants out of his football players.

After playing with a secondary that was in shambles at times last season, Holmes revamped the Lions backend through free agency on top of adding Branch with the 45th overall pick. It’s not a guarantee that Branch will start during the first half of the season with CJ Gardner-Johnson able to play nickel and Tracy Walker III returning from his torn achilles at the safety spot opposite rookie phenom Kerby Joseph. And while the Alabama product may not usurp Walker — or more likely have Gardner-Johnson take Walker’s spot and have Branch start at nickel — his ability around the line of scrimmage will surely lead to a key role.

Despite his size (6-0, 190), Branch has phenomenal take on skills that lead to big-time run stops and make him a terrifying blitzer. On top of his work as a line lurker, he’s capable of matching up with slot receivers or sitting in zone and making plays as a seam/hook defender. Get ready for defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn to have some fun with his new defensive chess piece.

Keeanu Benton, IDL, Pittsburgh Steelers

It might be bold to assume the Pittsburgh Steelers could start as many as three rookies this season, including two Day 2 picks on defense, given Mike Tomlin’s history. Yet, the Steelers may not have a choice and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Broderick Jones and Joey Porter Jr. are potentially massive upgrades at their respective positions. But don’t count Keeanu Benton out either, the 49th overall pick brings an intriguing mix of athletic upside and versatility to an interior defensive line group that looks to be one piece away from making some major noise.

With borderline Hall of Famer Cameron Heyward and the freshly re-signed Larry Ogunjobi manning the 5 and 3-tech spots, respectively, Benton should compete right away with Montravius Adams to start at nose tackle. Despite having the makeup of a penetrating 3-tech with his lateral agility, first step explosion, and quick hands, Benton spent the majority of his time playing nose tackle at Wisconsin. There, he showed he has the strength to anchor down and hold the point to clog up gaps while also offering the ability to stack and shed blockers to swallow lineman and work his way down the line to crash outside runs. That skill set as a run defender is perfect for a modern nose, and he also proved all Senior Bowl week that he’s got the pass rush chops to be more than a pocket pusher when given the opportunity.

Inserting his talent between two proven players like Heyward and Ogunjobi should quickly pay dividends for the Steelers. Approximately 29 IDLs have been selected on Day 2 of the NFL Draft over the last five classes and as rookies they’ve averaged 23.5 tackles, 2.1 TFLs, and 0.9 sacks; expect Benton to surpass those numbers.

Tyrique Stevenson, CB, Chicago Bears

Just last season the Chicago Bears started two Day 2 rookies in their secondary and saw mixed results with their trial by fire approach. Jaquan Brisker proved to be one of their most impactful players while Kyler Gordon was more down than up; both are slated to start once again. Luckily for Gordon, the addition of Tyrique Stevenson with the 56th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft could put him in a more advantageous position in his sophomore NFL season. By adding Stevenson, Chicago is gaining a big corner (6-0, 204) who spent time at nickel for Georgia before transferring to Miami because he wanted to play as an outside corner. That likely means Gordon will shift inside to nickel this season — a spot he looked comfortable at in college at Washington — and Stevenson will step into the starting role at corner opposite Jaylon Johnson.

Pairing Stevenson with Johnson on the outside gives head coach Matt Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams two physical press corners who are built to excel in their Tampa 2 heavy defense. Stevenson’s length will allow him to bully receivers at the line before gaining depth and settling into his zone where he can rely on his eye discipline and instincts to make plays in coverage. He also possesses underrated footwork and suddenness when asked to play man coverage.

The most important aspect of his game that Stevenson will need to clean up to ensure he’s starting all season long for the Bears is improving his take on skills. It’s not that he’s unwilling as a tackler, but he can be over aggressive and fly by ball carriers or look for the big hit rather than wrapping up to secure the tackle. Given the Bears started multiple undrafted rookies at corner last season, it’s hard to fathom the thought of Stevenson not starting Week 1.

Garrett Williams, CB, Arizona Cardinals

There’s a clear reason as to why the Arizona Cardinals have two Day 2 rookies who will likely start on defense this season, their roster is a flaming pile of unproven players. Outside of All-Pro Budda Baker, who has demanded a trade, there’s no consistently impactful players. That means, new blood will be deployed at some point this season, and it would do the new head coach-GM combo of Jonathan Gannon and Monti Ossenfort some good to find out sooner rather than later which young players can be useful. That’s good news for Garrett Williams, the 72nd pick out of Syracuse, who has an even clearer path than BJ Ojulari to playing time in Arizona.

If not for a torn ACL this past season, Williams would have had more pre-draft hype, but Ossenfort and the Cardinals front office trusted the tape and didn’t let the pro-ready corner slide, despite the injury. Not the biggest (5-10, 192) or most explosive corner, Williams relies heavily on sound technique to win in coverage. With patient feet, smooth hips, and quick diagnosing skills, he’s at his best playing off-zone coverage where he can rely on his cover instincts to read routes and react to quarterbacks. He’s also capable of mirroring receivers in man coverage and even moving inside to nickel as needed; Williams can struggle though to carry vertical routes and find the ball in phase. With Antonio Hamilton Sr. and Marco Wilson slated to start at cornerback in Arizona, Williams should be competing to crack the lineup.

Byron Young, EDGE, Los Angeles Rams

Good luck finding a more chaotic depth chart in the NFL than what the Los Angeles Rams have strung together. Not only do they have 13 rookies on their two-deep, but 10 of them were either Day 3 picks or undrafted free agents. There’s almost no way the Rams aren’t starting multiple rookies by mid-season, and they’re currently set to start two Day 2 rookies, including pass rusher Byron Young, the 77th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. On paper, the Rams have a historically bad defense with Aaron Donald, arguably the greatest defensive player in NFL history, being the only sure thing; what a juxtaposition. That makes it easy to call the shot that Young will start every game of his rookie season as long as he’s healthy.

In terms of what the sack artist out of Tennessee brings to the field, he’s a twitched up pass rusher who makes up for his lack of size (6-2, 250) with his explosion and leverage. He’s like a cannonball being fired with the way he gets off the snap and uses his athleticism to generate power and get underneath tackles to walk them backwards. He’s a one-trick pony right now with power being his go-to move, but that one trick was quite effective in the SEC; developing his hands is a must to win in the NFL.

It’s also worth noting that he plays pissed off with a motor that runs hot for four quarters, which leads to plenty of backside run stops with his effort. Playside he needs to be more disciplined as a run defender and get stronger as an edge setter, but the makeup is there for him to hold up in the NFL. Due to his usage, Young should top the average of 2.1 sacks set by Day 2 rookie edge rushers over the last five NFL Draft classes. If he comes off the field much, it’ll likely mean Day 3 rookies Nick Hampton or Ochaun Mathis are on it.

Daiyan Henley, LB, Los Angeles Chargers

Every single year the NFL world buys into the Los Angeles Chargers and every single year the team disappoints… even when they make the playoffs they lose in heartbreaking fashion, like blowing a 27-0 lead. But the reason there’s been consistent buy-in from NFL analysts around the country is because the Chargers always manage to have legitimate Pro Bowl talent all over the roster, thanks in part to GM Tom Telesco’s penchant for hitting on top-100 picks. One such pick he missed on was linebacker Kenneth Murray Jr., who the team took 23rd overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Entering his fourth season, it seems unlikely Murray Jr. is going to be long for the Chargers roster, which is why the team didn’t just sign former All-Pro Eric Kendricks, but also selected Daiyan Henley with the 85th pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.

With Kendricks slotted to start at one off-ball linebacker spot, Murray Jr. will likely begin the year beside him, however, Brandon Staley shouldn’t be shy about inserting Henley into the lineup. The third-round pick out of Washington State began his career as a receiver at Nevada before transitioning to safety and eventually linebacker. That receiver athleticism pops off the tape with his ability to turn his hips and run sideline-to-sideline as a run defender, but while the range is exciting, it’s his aggressive downhill style that should help him quickly make a name in LA.

Henley has impressive stopping power for a linebacker of his size (6-0, 225) and never shies away from taking on a pulling guard or a running back in the hole. He does need to be more consistent reading his keys, but who better to learn from than Kendricks. The quickest way for Henley to get on the field will be by showing he’s fluid and disciplined in coverage; something Murray Jr. has yet to do.

Dorian Williams, LB, Buffalo Bills

After falling short of their Super Bowl aspirations last season, the Buffalo Bills resisted making any splashy moves this offseason. Instead GM Brandon Beane focused on adding complementary players and re-signing some homegrown talent, and letting others walk in free agency. One such player the team opted not to sign to a long-term deal was linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who cashed in with the Chicago Bears. Now, head coach Sean McDermott will be tasked with getting the most out of a young linebacker.

With All-Pro Matt Milano back, third-round rookie Dorian Williams will compete with 2022 third-round pick Terrel Bernard to start beside him at Mike. Day 2 off-ball linebackers have been all over the map in the last five classes with the 32 of them averaging 47.6 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, and 1.6 passes defensed as rookies. Last season, Bernard showed little, which should open the door for Williams.

Selected with the 91st pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, Williams is undersized (6-1, 228), but a more natural Mike linebacker than the equally undersized Bernard (6-1, 224). It’s really a toss up which of the two will start Week 1, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Bills opt for veteran AJ Klein over the two young backers. What Williams has going for him is his car crash style of play that highlights both his speed and physicality. He’s a sudden athlete who tracks running backs well out of the backfield, can get depth dropping in zone to protect the seam, and has proven to be a weapon as a blitzer. What will give him the edge over Bernard and Kelin is if he can improve playing between the tackles and be more consistent stacking and shedding blocks.