Every Tuesday on the "With the First Pick" podcast, longtime Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and I talk about my top five rookie performances from the previous week. You can check out that segment below:
I thought it made sense to revisit that list here and spin it forward. Yes, these guys balled out in their regular-season debuts, but is it sustainable over the next four-plus months?
Let's take a look.
5. Bijan Robinson, RB, Falcons
Week 1 stat line: 10 rushes, 56 yards, 1 receiving TD
Robinson was the No. 8 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, and even though we're now living in an age where running backs are sorely undervalued, it's hard to argue that he's not worth it. In the brief glimpse we got of him in the preseason, it was hard not to be impressed. Well, Robinson was even better in Week 1 against the Panthers. Just like at Texas, Robinson is electric in space, has elite contact balance, and can run through arm tackles all day long -- all things we saw on this touchdown reception.
Is this sustainable?
Come on, y'all, what do you think? You saw Robinson at Texas, and there has been exactly zero dropoff in Atlanta in the limited preseason action and his Week 1 regular-season debut. He led the Falcons in receptions Sunday (six) and averaged 5.6 yards per carry. I'll reiterate what I said over the summer: After second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder, Robinson -- more than Kyle Pitts and Drake London -- is the most important person on this Falcons offense.
For more draft coverage, you can hear in-depth analysis twice a week on "With the First Pick" -- our year-round NFL Draft podcast with NFL Draft analyst Ryan Wilson and former Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. You can find "With the First Pick" wherever you get your podcasts: Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube, etc. Listen to the latest episode below!
4. Puka Nacua, WR, BYU
Week 1 stat line: 10 catches, 119 yards
Some Puka Nacua fun facts, courtesy of CBS Sports Research:
- Most receiving yards in NFL debut in Rams history
- Most receiving yards in NFL debut by player drafted in fifth round or later since Joey Clinkscales in 1987
This was the most surprising rookie development of Week 1 and I'm not even sure it's close. That said, credit to Nacua for taking advantage of a huge opportunity. Cooper Kupp is going to be sidelined with a hamstring injury, and the expectations for the Rams in Seattle were decidedly low. Nacua enters Week 2 tied for fourth in receiving yards after names like Tyreek Hill, Justin Jefferson and Brandon Aiyuk (Nacua is tied with teammate Tutu Atwell, who also had 119 receiving yards in the opener).
I looked back at my scouting report on Nacua coming out of BYU and here's what I noted: "He has yards-after-catch potential, shows good contact balance, and can take quick screens and turn them into chunk plays."
We saw a lot of that against the Seahawks. And while Nacua does need to refine his route running, he wore out the Seahawks defense on in-breaking routes. And then there was this corner route...
#Rams WR Puka Nacua in his NFL debut:— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) September 11, 2023
➡️ 10 catches
➡️ 15 targets
➡️ 119 rec yards
A source told @caplannfl his versatility made him pretty much a lock to make the roster and the rotation even if Cooper Kupp was healthy.
Sweet mercy, Matthew Stafford threw a dot and Nacua showed off his size, catch radius and footwork. One last note: on Nacua's final target of the afternoon, he stacked Tariq Woolen on a go route and just missed a big play. Just a reminder: Woolen ran sub-4.3 at the 2022 combine, while Nacua timed in the 4.5s this spring. Safe to say he plays faster than he ran at the combine.
Is this sustainable?
Almost certainly not, and no disrespect to Nacua. Justin Jefferson averaged just 97.5 receiving yards per game during his career, so anything approaching 119 yards seems extreme. That said, Nacua has proven that he's a reliable target and he's willing to run over the middle. If Atwell continues to shine alongside Van Jefferson and tight end Tyler Higbee, when Kupp returns from injury, this Rams offense will be much better than we expected coming into the season.
3. Christian Gonzalez, CB, Patriots
Week 1 stat line: 7 tackles, 1 sack, 1 TFL, 1 QB hit, 1 PBU
The knock on Gonzalez coming out of Oregon was that teams wanted to see him be a little more physical in run support. You never would have known it to see him against the Eagles, a team that loves to run the ball. And while he took some lumps in coverage -- that'll happen when you're matched up against AJ Brown and Devonta Smith -- Gonzalez's athleticism showed up play after play, whether he was blitzing off the edge and wrapping up quarterback Jalen Hurts, or using his long frame to break up a late fourth-down pass vs. Smith that gave New England a chance to win the game.
Is this sustainable?
I'll start here: Gonzalez played all 66 defensive snaps for the Patriots. If Bill Belichick didn't trust him, he wouldn't be out there. And he's only going to get better. Yeah, this is sustainable, and I expect Gonzalez to continue to make more plays as the season progresses.
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2. Brian Branch, DB, Lions
Week 1 stat line: 3 tackles, 1 pick-six
Brian Branch should've been a first-round pick. I regularly had him going there in my mock drafts, but a 4.58-second 40-yard dash time at the combine was the primary reason he slipped until Round 2. The other 31 teams' loss was the Lions' gain because Branch was so good during the preseason that the team had to rearrange the secondary to make sure he was on the field. And that decision paid dividends in the season opener. Not for the obvious reason -- the pick-six against Patrick Mahomes -- but for the way he played from start to finish. Yes, it looks like he missed an assignment on the Blake Bell touchdown just before halftime, but as far as debuts go, this ranked No. 2 for me.
Branch was the first player with a pick-six in his NFL debut since Mike Hughes did it in 2018.
Is this sustainable?
Without question. Branch is a wrap-up tackler in space, he can blanket receivers out of the slot, and as we saw above, he's always around the ball. Oh, by the way, another example of why we shouldn't let timed 40s determine where a player is drafted: Yes, Branch ran a 4.58, but as Next Gen Stats tweeted out at the time of his pick-six, "[Branch] reached a top speed of 20.74 mph on the play; only three defenders reached faster speeds on defensive scoring plays all of last season."
1. Jalen Carter, DL, Eagles
Week 1 stat line: 8 pressures, 7 hurries, 1 sack
Do you think the Bears wish they didn't talk themselves out of Carter with the No. 9 pick? Instead, they took right tackle Darnell Wright with the 10th selection and landed defensive tackle Gervon Dexter Sr. in Round 2. Wright started Sunday and is going to be a really good player, but after watching what Carter did to the Patriots (admittedly, New England was without its two starting guards and had rookies as replacements), it's hard not to wonder if Chicago would like to get its hands on a time machine.
I get it, there were off-field concerns and teams, certainly more than fans and some media, have to take that into consideration. The Eagles weighed the pros and cons, too, and for now, they look like geniuses. Carter certainly flashed in limited preseason snaps, and my man went off in New England. He was just about unblockable.
For example, this rep against rookie right guard Sidy Sow is something to behold. Fran Duffy, who covers the team for Eagles.com, does a great job breaking down the play:
#Eagles DT Jalen Carter (@BreadManJalen) found A LOT of ways to win in Week 1.— Fran Duffy (@EaglesXOs) September 11, 2023
Lot of success as a 3rd down disruptor vs a pair of fellow rookie guards.
Great first week - excited to see him continue to build off of it as he sees more vets! #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/O46L9G11re
Jordan consistently collapsed the pocket and on a defensive line full of studs, he might already be the most talented. And you might say, "Hey, easy on the hyperbole," and I would respond with this:
Is this sustainable?
Oh yeah. As long as he's focused on football he's going to dominate. He was the best pure football player in last year's draft class, and he showed why in Week 1.
You might notice that no rookie quarterbacks made the list this week, even though Bryce Young, CJ Stroud and Anthony Richardson all held their own in their first starts. Not to worry, though; Rick and I also rated their performances on the podcast this week.