Stacking the top 10 rookies of the season: Who makes our final ranking?

The 2023 NFL rookie class has been memorable. This season, Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud set a single-game rookie passing record in Week 9. Rams receiver Puka Nacua set an NFL record for the most receiving yards in a season by a rookie. Two running backs rushed for more than 900 yards, and 18 defenders had three or more sacks. And an NFL-record 10 rookie quarterbacks recorded a start for their team.

Now that the regular season is over, we have arrived at our final top-10 rookie rankings. This ranking takes only the regular season into consideration, so anything that happened this past weekend in the playoffs is off limits and not factored into the top 10.

We polled five of our ESPN NFL experts — Matt Bowen, Jeff Legwold, Brooke Pryor, Matt Miller and Jordan Reid — for a consensus ranking of the top 10 rookies. They weighed in on each player who made the list, along with three players who fell just outside the list. Finally, they debated whether Stroud is a lock for Offensive Rookie of the Year, picked out the season’s second-half rookie MVP, identified an overperformer and an underperformer, and named someone who could break out in their sophomore campaign.

Let’s begin with the lone rookie QB who led his team to the playoffs.

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Top 10 | Just missed
Big questions

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Stats: 4,108 passing yards, 23 TD passes, 5 INT; 3 rushing TDs, 167 rushing yards
Drafted: No. 2 overall

2023 recap: Stroud is a skilled passer who displayed the poise of a veteran player in the pocket and the ability to create plays outside of structure. He was set up to attack all three levels of the field in Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik’s system, posting a league-leading 73.9 QBR versus zone coverage, while adding 66 explosive passing plays, the third most in the NFL.

Stroud led the NFL in passing yards per game (273.9) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (4.6). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first rookie to lead the NFL in touchdown-to-interception ratio (minimum 15 passing TDs). Stroud elevated the Houston offense to new heights, leading his team to the playoffs, and he is currently the favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

2024 outlook: Expect Stroud to put the Texans in position to compete for the AFC South title once again. With receiver Tank Dell healthy, back in the mix and boosting the playmaking ability of the Houston passing game, Stroud could post numbers that keep him on the MVP radar. — Bowen

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Stats: ​105 catches, 1,486 receiving yards, 6 TDs
Drafted: No. 177 overall

2023 recap: Nacua broke a 63-year record for receiving yards by a rookie, as he finished the regular season with 1,486 yards on his 105 receptions. That’s quite the value for a fifth-round pick who had struggled with injuries at times during his college career.

Nacua makes contested catches, and his routes are crisp. He is already one of the league’s best at the position, breaking tackles once he has the ball — 43% of his receiving yards came after first contact, a remarkable number given his high volume of work.

2024 outlook: Nacua’s physical style of play and intense practice habits will always put him at risk of injury. In college, he suffered his fair share of injuries that contributed to him being picked in the fifth round last April. But if healthy, there is no reason to believe he couldn’t follow up his elite rookie season with another great effort for the Rams next season. — Legwold

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Stats: 33 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 defensive TD
Drafted: No. 9 overall

2023 recap: At times, Carter has looked exactly like the player that the team traded up to select with the No. 9 overall pick. His first-step quickness and pass-rush repertoire are frequently too much for interior defenders. Carter somewhat cooled down during the final stretch of the season, but the results have still been noteworthy. His 15.7% pass rush win rate ranked second among rookies and 36th in the league.

2024 outlook: With Eagles veteran Fletcher Cox scheduled to become a free agent in the offseason, it’s fair to expect an expanded role for Carter during his second season if Cox doesn’t return. Carter is a clear building block for the Eagles moving forward and helps keep the team’s identity of being strong in the trenches intact. He is without question a disruptive force in the middle, but the flashes of positive play will need to become more consistent in a full-time role. — Reid

det

Stats: 86 catches, 889 receiving yards, 10 TDs
Drafted: No. 34 overall

2023 recap: From his first game, LaPorta established himself as a reliable part of the Lions’ offense, catching all five targets in his debut. He finished the season by setting the NFL record for most receptions in a season by a rookie tight end.

LaPorta led the league in third-down targets among tight ends (39) and in tight end receptions (10) and receiving yards (110) in tight-window targets, underscoring quarterback Jared Goff‘s trust in the rookie. LaPorta didn’t score his first touchdown until Week 3, but he finished with 10 scores and earned a Pro Bowl nod.

2024 outlook: Though he entered the playoffs with a knee injury sustained in Week 18, LaPorta picked right up where he left off in the regular season with a touchdown in Detroit’s first home playoff victory since the 1991 season. The Lions are an ascending team, and LaPorta will be a focal point of their future success. — Pryor

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Stats: 79 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 INT, 1 defensive TD, 12 pass breakups
Drafted: No. 5 overall

2023 recap: Witherspoon quickly lived up to his status as the first cornerback drafted with shutdown ability. He collected one interception, which he ran back 97 yards for a touchdown, while limiting opposing quarterbacks to a completion percentage of 60.5% with 16 passes defensed. Witherspoon emerged as not just the best rookie cornerback but also one of the best pure cover players in the league.

2024 outlook: We saw 2022 draftee Riq Woolen collect six interceptions in his rookie season before struggling at times in 2023, so there’s reason for caution as Seattle moves on from the Pete Carroll era defensively. That said, Witherspoon was my top-ranked corner in the ’23 draft class for good reason. He has the agility, toughness and instincts to become one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks in his sophomore season. — Miller

hou

Stats: 45 tackles, 7 sacks
Drafted: No. 3 overall

2023 recap: Anderson’s pass rush win rate of 25.8% ranked third in the league, behind only Micah Parsons and Myles Garrett. Anderson plays a disruptive role for DeMeco Ryans’ defense and currently is one of the top candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year. His first-step quickness, power and active hands put him in a position to attack the pocket. He’s a developing force with a high ceiling.

2024 outlook: Since Anderson is playing in a defensive system that will create pass-rush matchups from multiple fronts, I fully expect him to produce double-digit sacks in ’24. Ryans can set him up on schemed one-on-ones, while also maximizing his traits off twists and stunts to generate hits on the quarterback. — Bowen

det

Stats: 182 carries, 945 rushing yards, 10 rushing TDs; 52 catches, 316 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD
Drafted: No. 12 overall

2023 recap: David Montgomery led the Lions in rushing, but it was Gibbs who left many eager for more. Gibbs consistently flashed his speed and explosiveness — 14.8% of his carries went for 10-plus yards, and his 18.98 mph max speed when crossing the line of scrimmage while running the ball was the 10th best measured this season, per NFL Next Gen Stats.

But Gibbs didn’t consistently get a large volume in the Lions’ attack. He had six games with fewer than 10 carries and had just one game with more than 15 — his 26-carry, 152-yard effort in Week 8 against the Raiders. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry, and his 10 rushing touchdowns ranked 10th in the league.

2024 outlook: Gibbs is always going to be a difficult matchup for defenses because of his quickness and top-end speed. It will be about how the Lions carve out opportunities for him, especially if offensive coordinator Ben Johnson moves on to be a head coach elsewhere. There might be room in the passing game for a little more work, given Gibbs had seven games this season with four or fewer receptions. — Legwold

atl

Stats: 214 carries, 976 rushing yards, 4 rushing TDs; 58 receptions, 487 receiving yards, 4 TD catches
Drafted: No. 8 overall

2023 recap: Robinson entered his first season in the NFL with major expectations. Despite an unclear role and inconsistent involvement in a stagnant Falcons offense, his rookie year involved plenty of flashes. He concluded the season as a candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year and has proven he has the potential to be a lead back. Robinson has an uncanny ability to break tackles to create new opportunities even if runs aren’t always blocked cleanly.

2024 outlook: Entering a new offense during his sophomore campaign, Robinson has a skill set that translates in any scheme and the talent to make a major sophomore leap. He’s also capable of being used frequently in the passing game. — Reid

min

Stats: 70 catches, 911 receiving yards, 10 TD catches
Drafted: No. 23 overall

2023 recap: With Justin Jefferson‘s injury, Addison stepped into a big role as a rookie and was more than ready for the moment. He was 89 yards shy of a 1,000-yard season and recorded 10 touchdowns. With the Vikings’ offensive woes and quarterback carousel after Kirk Cousins was injured, Addison didn’t put up big numbers consistently, but he had a couple of breakout games with two 100-yard performances, including one in a Week 7 win against the 49ers.

2024 outlook: While Addison showed he could have an impact regardless of the quarterback, a big part of his outlook hinges on who will be throwing the ball for Minnesota in 2024, and how that quarterback will distribute touches between Addison, Jefferson and tight end T.J. Hockenson. — Pryor

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Stats: 103 carries, 800 rushing yards, 8 rushing TDs; 27 catches, 197 receiving yards, 3 receiving TDs
Drafted: No. 84 overall

2023 recap: The Dolphins’ third-rounder was one of the league’s most electric players when healthy, averaging 7.8 yards per carry. Achane also acquitted himself nicely as a receiving option out of the backfield, tying Robinson for the most receiving touchdowns by a rookie back (three).

2024 outlook: Staying healthy will be the key for the speedy Achane in Year 2. The Dolphins missed his explosiveness during his six-game absence, and with Raheem Mostert‘s contract expiring after next season, we could see Achane, who is on an inexpensive rookie deal, take over a larger role in the offense. A 1,000-yard season in Mike McDaniels’ offense seems like a lock, and a 1,400-yard all-purpose year with double-digit touchdowns is realistic. — Miller

Just missed

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Byron Young, OLB, Los Angeles Rams

It’s safe to say the Rams crushed the third round in last April’s draft with Young and Kobie Turner. Young was a constant in the Rams’ defense, tallying 61 tackles, eight sacks, 19 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles. He really came out of the gate strong with 11 of those quarterback hits in the Rams’ first six games. — Legwold

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Kobie Turner, DT, Los Angeles Rams

When you tie Aaron Donald‘s rookie sack record (nine) as Turner did this season — including 2.5 against the Giants in Week 17 — you’ve done something right. Turner, who usually played on the nose in the Rams’ defense, had eight sacks from Week 9 on. — Legwold

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Tank Dell, WR, Houston Texans

Dell’s season ended with a fractured fibula suffered in the Texans’ Week 13 win over the Broncos. Still, Dell finished third on the team in receptions (47) and second in receiving yards (709) and touchdowns (seven). The Texans had two of the 21 qualifying players who averaged more than 15 yards per reception this season — Nico Collins at seventh (16.2 yards per catch) and Dell at 20th (15.1 yards). — Legwold

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Best rookie performance of the second half?

It’s hard to make an argument against Stroud for this one. He had 14 passing touchdowns in the final eight games of the regular season, including a whopping five touchdowns against the Buccaneers in Week 9 in a game in which he threw for 470 yards. He threw three picks two weeks later against the Cardinals, but he hasn’t thrown any since. Stroud hasn’t shown any signs of hitting a rookie wall, instead accelerating through to the postseason. — Pryor


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Who will break out in his 2024 sophomore season?

Lukas Van Ness, OLB, Green Bay Packers. Playing in a rotational role on the Green Bay defensive line, Van Ness flashed in his rookie year, registering four sacks, 15 pressures and 32 total tackles. With his 6-foot-5, 272-pound frame, he can set an edge versus the run, plus he has the physical tools to elevate his pass-rush production in ’24. And you can see the positive signs of his development on the tape. — Bowen


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Is there any scenario where Stroud doesn’t win Offensive Rookie of the Year?

I don’t see one. Nacua’s season was remarkable and historical, but quarterback comes with a degree of difficulty other positions don’t face, especially rookie quarterbacks who are tossed into the deep end from the start.

Stroud showed how he could be QB1. His accuracy (especially deep-ball accuracy), throwing ease, in-game calmness and processing ability were clear from Week 1. And he led his team to a division title in his first season. — Legwold


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Who overperformed in 2023?

Ivan Pace Jr., ILB, Minnesota Vikings. As an undrafted rookie in the middle of Brian Flores’ defense, Pace exceeded expectations. He quickly overtook the starting middle linebacker spot after a training camp battle entering the season and never looked back. He finished the regular season with 97 tackles, one interception and 2.5 sacks.

Pace’s aggressive and physical nature fit perfectly in the Vikings’ attacking scheme that relies heavily on generating pressure by blitzing second-level defenders. Pace is one key cog the team can pencil in as a starter in the middle in 2024. — Reid


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Who underperformed in 2023?

Bryce Young, QB, Carolina Panthers. The reasons the No. 1 overall pick struggled in 2023 are obvious — a lack of supporting cast at wide receiver, an offensive line dealing with injuries and a lack of development by a coaching staff fired midway through the season. That doesn’t completely erase Young’s struggles, as he threw 10 interceptions to just 11 touchdowns with a QBR of 33.4 — which was good for 29th in the league. Year 2 will need to be a bounce-back season for Young, or the Panthers might be looking at quarterbacks again in the 2025 NFL draft. — Miller

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