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2023 NFL season: Day 3 rookies who could compete for starter snaps in Year 1

Most players picked on the third day of the NFL draft (when Rounds 4 through 7 are held) are typically expected to contribute as a reserve and/or on special teams in their rookie season.

Last year, however, 16 of 158 Day 3 selections started eight or more contests in their first year in the league, two more than the 2021 class produced. Braxton Jones (fifth round, Bears) and Jamaree Salyer (sixth, Chargers) were among the offensive linemen answering the bell as rookies, while running backs Isiah Pacheco (seventh, Chiefs) and Dameon Pierce (fourth, Texans) and tight ends Daniel Bellinger (fourth, Giants) and Cade Otton (fourth, Buccaneers) also made names for themselves on offense. Cornerback Tariq Woolen (fifth, Seahawks) and Malcolm Rodriguez (sixth, Lions) were standout first-year defenders despite being picked on Day 3.

A rookie's talent certainly factors into how quickly they see the field at the next level, but injuries to veterans and the relative strength of their position group also often determine draftees' playing time. Here are 12 Day 3 picks from the 2023 NFL Draft who could be in line to start immediately, ranked in order of the likelihood they will take advantage of potential opportunities.

Drafted: Round 4, 113th overall

Phillips was one of the top defenders in college football during his Utah career. His size (5-foot-9, 184 pounds) and average speed (4.51-second 40-yard dash) predictably pushed him into the fourth round, but I expect him to make plays from the slot in training camp and preseason games, reading routes and the eyes of quarterbacks to earn the nod as the starting nickel back. 

Josh Whyle
Cincinnati · TE

Drafted: Round 5, 147th overall

Whyle should be a regular in the Titans' two tight end sets in 2023, challenging linebackers and safeties with his bulk and athleticism. If he continues to mature as a route-runner, receiver and blocker, it would be easy to envision Tennessee coaches maximizing his potential early on.

Drafted: Round 4, 108th overall

The Seahawks started two rookie offensive tackles last season and they could start Bradford to replace Gabe Jackson at right guard in 2023. He is a fluid mover in space at 332 pounds and packs a punch, moving defenders off the line of scrimmage. If Bradford does not win the starting job out of camp, I’d expect him to be in the mix for first-string snaps as the season progresses. 

Nick Hampton
Appalachian State · OLB

Drafted: Round 5, 161st overall

Three Rams draft picks made this list because the team might need to lean on young talent given its lack of depth at some positions. Hampton fits the bill as a strong-side rush linebacker, holding the line against the run and attacking the quarterback when fellow rookie Byron Young and others force the action his way.

Kei'Trel Clark
Louisville · CB

Drafted: Round 6, 180th overall

The Cardinals have moved 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Simmons around on defense and declined the fifth-year option on his contract. It’s not entirely clear what Simmons’ role will be this season after he spent most of his time at cornerback and linebacker in 2022. Clark could step into the slot immediately, as the young corner is aggressive despite lacking size (5-10, 181).

Cameron Young
Mississippi State · DT

Drafted: Round 4, 123rd overall

Young moved up on my list with Al Woods recently joining the Jets after starting 30 games for Seattle over the past two seasons. Even if the Seahawks sign a different veteran defensive tackle, the rookie could still work his way into the starting lineup during the season. He'll stand his ground against double teams and shed single blocks to stop inside runs but he can also get down the line a bit to track down plays inside the box. 

Roschon Johnson
Texas · RB

Drafted: Round 4, 115th overall

The Bears signed D'Onta Foreman to a one-year deal in March, but the veteran has started more than three games in a season only once (nine in 2022 with the Panthers). Johnson's combination of power and strong second-level cuts should earn him carries early in the year, and starts later on.

Nick Saldiveri
Old Dominion · G

Drafted: Round 4, 103rd overall

Saints guard Andrus Peat has long struggled to stay healthy and missed 17 games over the past two seasons. The team’s other starting guard, Cesar Ruiz, missed the end of the 2022 season with a foot injury and had the fifth-year option on his contract declined. Saldiveri looked quite capable of playing guard during the week of practices at the Reese’s Senior Bowl, where his size, explosive power and length was on display. I suspect he'll get the call if either veteran is unable to go.

Zach Evans
Mississippi · RB

Drafted: Round 6, 215th overall

Cam Akers led the Rams in rushing last season, but he missed nearly the entire 2021 season due to injury and decision-makers were fielding trade calls for him last year before Akers and the team appeared to get back on the same page. I viewed Evans as a third-round talent, with the power and speed to be an excellent pro. He'll earn carries as a rookie and could eventually push Akers for the top job. 

Scott Matlock
Boise State · DT

Drafted: Round 6, 200th overall

I projected the Chargers to select Matlock in advance of the draft because he's a perfect fit on the defensive line. His power and underrated quickness will earn him a spot on the field, and I expect his snap scout to increase at 5-technique as the season wears on. 

Puka Nacua

Drafted: Round 5, 177th overall

Nacua gets open with physicality and crafty route running. He uses his frame to box out defenders and makes grabbing passes thrown outside his frame look easy. Matthew Stafford will love looking outside to Nacua on third down. 

Nick Herbig
Wisconsin · LB

Drafted: Round 4, 132nd overall

Three-time All-Pro T.J. Watt missed time with injuries last year, so Herbig's pass-rush moves and quick get-off might be used to spell Watt even if the veteran stays healthy all season. In addition, Herbig’s football intelligence and toughness should help him win gaps inside if free-agent signees Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts can't go at some point during the year.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter.

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