Ten under-the-radar rookies who could be difference-makers in 2023, including a Ravens RB

Now that NFL cutdown day has come and gone, it’s time to highlight the underrated youngsters ready to contribute to the respective teams they made this summer.

Let’s highlight the rookies, who went either undrafted or were selected on Day 3 of the 2023 NFL Draft, you’ll want to keep tabs on throughout the season. They’ll make an impact.

Jaleel McLaughlin, RB, Broncos
McLaughlin could be the next Pierre Thomas. Remember him, an undrafted runner out of Illinois who snuck his way onto Sean Payton’s Saints roster way back in 2007 who ultimately became a reliable checkdown, screen, and swing-pass option for the Super Bowl-winning Saints.

McLaughlin isn’t nearly as sizable as Thomas was — he is more explosive. After a dazzling career at FCS powerhouse Youngstown State with a bulky career yards-per-carry average of 6.4 across more than 530 attempts with 30 scores and countless highlight-reel jukes and hurdles in space, McLaughlin was a nifty, twitched-up stud this preseason for the Broncos with 113 yards on 21 rushes with three ground-game touchdowns and 33 extra yards on seven catches. Javonte Williams and Samaje Perine are built like traditional feature and No. 2 backs. McLaughlin can be the third-down lightning bug when needed, and you better believe Payton — one of the early adopters of the running back-by-committee approach — will creatively use him in 2023.

Ivan Pace Jr., LB, Vikings
Pace was the talk of Vikings camp, and his ultra-aggressive style at inside linebacker translated to splash plays in the preseason. On just 46 snaps, the former Miami of Ohio and Cincinnati star made eight tackles and had a pressure of the opposing quarterback. The thing with Pace is, he’s short. Not small. Just short with limited length. There aren’t many off-ball linebackers who stand less than 5-foot-11 in today’s NFL.

On film, Pace plays like he’s 6-foot-3. And at 231 pounds, he has plenty of mass to deal with enormous blockers climbing to the second level. He attacks those blocks with authority and sheds like he has 34-inch arms. He’s a deft mover in coverage as well. It felt like Pace locked up a roster spot after the second preseason outing, an extreme rarity for a rookie undrafted free agent. And new defensive coordinator Brian Flores — who was hyper-aggressive calling the shots in Miami — must be enamored with Pace’s blitzing capabilities. At Cincinnati in 2022, Pace generated 55 pressures on 180 pass-rush snaps (almost all as a blitzer), which equates to a gargantuan pressure-creation rate of 30.5%.

Kaevon Merriweather, S, Buccaneers
Merriweather had a middling combine. He still had no business going undrafted. Zero. While he wasn’t a high-volume stat-sheet filler at Iowa, he was efficient and rarely out of position. Merriweather had seven interceptions in his final two seasons in Iowa City and at 6-foot and 205 pounds with nearly 32 inch arms, he entered the league with serious NFL safety size.

In the preseason, Merriweather played 84 snaps, registered eight tackles while only missing one, moved the quarterback off his spot twice, recovered a fumble, and had a pass breakup. That’s the type of player he was at Iowa. When he had an opportunity, he was around the football. The Buccaneers have budding star Antoine Winfield Jr. at one safety spot. Newcomer Ryan Neal is penciled in as the other safety starter. But now Tampa Bay has three heady, instinctive back-line defenders given the emergence of Merriweather this summer.

Ronnie Bell, WR, 49ers
Bell is a classic, “what if?” case in the NFL Draft. What if he didn’t tear a knee ligament in Michigan’s season opener back in 2021? Where would he have been selected in the 2022 draft? Instead, Bell rehabbed for a year and came back with the same urgent-play style that lends itself to tremendous yards-after-the-catch skill, which is likely the reason Kyle Shanahan gravitated toward Bell on Day 3 in April.

Then with plenty of opportunity to showcase himself in the preseason, Bell rocked for San Francisco — 11 touchdowns for 185 yards and a collection of ricochets off tacklers in space to accumulate extra yardage. Of course, the 49ers are loaded at the skill positions. Yet it’s vital as a legitimate Super Bowl contender to have capable depth at those positions. Bell demonstrated he can be a weapon on short, underneath throws in which the 49ers coaching staff hopes YAC will be accentuated.

JL Skinner, S, Broncos
Skinner went in the sixth round almost purely due to medical concerns. He had, at worst, late Day 2 talent and production at Boise State. Heck, before the 2022 season, Skinner had serious first-round buzz after a 92-tackle, seven tackle-for-loss, two-interception, three pass-breakup junior season for the Broncos.

At 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds, Skinner is not only an intimidating presence at safety but possesses the size teams are looking for today to match the proliferation of super-talented, pass-catch specialists at tight end across the league. While not someone who was dominant in the preseason, Skinner proved on 84 snaps he belongs. He had five tackles and only allowed one catch on three targets in his coverage area. The Broncos have plenty of new faces on defense, and Skinner can be a specific matchup type strong safety/linebacker hybrid for Vance Joseph’s defense.

Keaton Mitchell, RB, Ravens
Just like Gus Edwards in 2018, the Ravens uncovered another undrafted free agent gem at running back in Mitchell. At East Carolina, the tiny runner was seemingly impossible to corral on the first attempt, and importantly at his size, tested like an NFL-caliber back with 4.37 speed and a 38-inch vertical. Lesser competition be damned — in college, Mitchell averaged 6.5 yards per tote, including a ridiculous 7.2 in his final season for the Pirates.

Of course he has J.K. Dobbins and Edwards in front of him on the roster, two thick, highly capable runners. However, both have dealt with injuries early in their careers, and Mitchell has fresh, 21-year-old legs. In the preseason, he averaged 6 yards per carry on seven attempts and had a long run called back on a holding penalty. By November, Mitchell will be the hot name to add on waiver wires in fantasy leagues all over the country.

Antoine Green, WR, Lions
Green is the outside wideout the Lions need on their offense given the loss of D.J. Chark and the suspension of 2022 first-round pick Jameson Williams. At a shade under 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Green has prototypical X receiver frame and flashed his boundary receiver skill along with serious breakaway speed this preseason. He had a 70-yard touchdown which came on a deep in-breaking route in which he caught in stride, flipped on the afterburners and was gone. I actually had a higher grade on him than fellow North Carolina wideout Josh Downs, who went four rounds earlier.

Green too was a pesky YAC option who consistently absorbed contact like a much more compact receiver through his Tar Heels career. For as fun as the Detroit offense should be, the receiver group is relatively thin, which should provide Green with ample opportunity as a seventh-round rookie to prove he should’ve been picked much higher in April.

Jason Brownlee, Xavier Gipson, WR, Jets
Take your pick here. While vastly different in size, at least one of these pass catchers will make a difference for the Jets in 2023. Yes there’s Garrett Wilson, Randall Cobb, Allen Lazard and Mecole Hardman. I’m not sure if any of those beyond Wilson are high-volume, incredibly consistent options for Aaron Rodgers.

There’ll be room for others to contribute to New York’s aerial attack in 2023. Gipson is a dynamic, speedy return-man type who can run away from defenders underneath and down the field. I’ve described Brownlee like this since the pre-draft process — he is who we all thought/wished Laquon Treadwell was in the 2016 NFL Draft. He’s long and spindly, and attacks the football in the air like an All-NBA rebounder. Both flashed in camp and the preseason with a collective total of 19 catches for 199 yards.

Eli Ricks, CB, Eagles
Possibly the headliner of my currently only existing in my head No Business Going Undrafted Team, Ricks enjoyed a stellar start to his college career at LSU before transferring to Alabama and defending four passes in nine games for the Crimson Tide.

The former five-star recruit was lockdown in the preseason after a noteworthy camp — on 102 snaps, he had five tackles, a pick six, and four other pass breakups. The appeal with Ricks beyond his natural mirroring capabilities, he possesses that built-in-a-lab look at outside corner — 6-foot-2 and 188 pounds with nearly 33-inch arms.

Philadelphia boosts two rock-solid veteran cornerbacks in Darius Slay and James Bradberry. Ricks will pop in as a rookie on occasion to remind everyone he’s the future at one of those spots.

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