Texans’ C.J. Stroud, Patriots’ Christian Gonzalez highlight early top rookie list


It takes about three games in the NFL before scouts can write a scouting report on a player and his potential impact as a playmaker. With three games in the books, it is the perfect time to take a look at which rookies are making their mark as difference-makers in Year 1.

After studying the tape and consulting with some scouting colleagues around the league, here are the top offensive and defensive rookies entering Week 4.

Offensive Rookie of the Year candidates

C.J. Stroud, QB, Houston Texans 


The second overall pick in the 2023 draft is shattering records on his way toward becoming the league’s next superstar at the position. Stroud is the first quarterback in NFL history with at least 900 passing yards and four touchdowns without an interception in his first three career starts.

Despite playing in front of a leaky offensive line featuring an assortment of substitutes and fill-ins in prominent roles, Stroud wades through the chaos to drop dime after dime to a collection of unheralded receivers on the perimeter. Considering how franchise quarterbacks elevate the play of everyone around them, Stroud’s production and performance as the team leader spurring a surprising franchise turnaround makes him a worthy candidate for the OROY award.

Bijan Robinson, RB, Atlanta Falcons

After watching Robinson set the league on notice in his first three games, the comparisons to Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson are valid. The spectacular playmaker has totaled 315 scrimmage yards and a score, displaying a versatile game that sets him apart from other runner-receivers out of the backfield.

As a dynamic weapon capable of producing big plays from various locations, Robinson forces defensive coordinators to play a game of “Where’s Waldo?” on every snap when defending the Falcons offense. With Robinson on track to finish with 1,800-plus scrimmage yards, Atlanta’s RB1 is making a case to earn All-Pro honors as an emerging superstar at the position.

David Helman analyzes Bijan Robinson, Falcons’ Week 2 win over Packers

David Helman analyzes Bijan Robinson, Falcons' Week 2 win over Packers

Puka Nacua, WR, Los Angeles Rams

The numbers speak for themselves regarding the Rams’ rookie pass-catcher: Nacua has the most catches (30) through his first three games of any player in NFL history. As an emergency fill-in for Cooper Kupp in the WR1 role, Nacua has quickly become Matthew Stafford’s favorite target, displaying the reliability and dependability of a 10-year veteran as a high-IQ possession receiver with superb route-running ability.

As Nacua continues to flourish between the hashes with Sean McVay designing clever concepts that place him in prime position to touch the ball, the rookie could top the 100-catch mark and cement his spot as the No. 2 option opposite Kupp in the Rams’ passing game.

[Related: How breakout Rams WR Puka Nacua is ‘seizing opportunity,’ gaining team’s trust]

Honorable Mention
Anthony Richardson, QB, Indianapolis Colts
Jordan Addison, WR, Minnesota Vikings
Zay Flowers, WR, Baltimore Ravens 
De’Von Achane, RB, Miami Dolphins
Tank Dell, WR, Houston Texans

Defensive Rookie of the Year candidates

Christian Gonzalez, CB, New England Patriots

The high standards for cornerback play established by Bill Belichick make it easy to recognize Gonzalez for his impressive work on the island. The mentor to Hall of Fame cornerbacks Ty Law and Darrelle Revis, not to mention 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, knows how to develop and showcase elite defensive backs, and the Patriots’ rookie corner exhibits similar qualities as a lockdown cover guy.

From his superb instincts and awareness to his flawless technique, the 6-foot-2, 209-pounder is the prototype that defensive coordinators covet in a CB1. Though his numbers do not jump off the stat sheet (16 total tackles, three passes defensed, an interception and a sack), Gonzalez has blanketed receivers like an All-Pro, and the league is buzzing about his talent and potential as a shutdown corner.

Brian Branch, DB, Detroit Lions

The ultra-versatile defensive back has upgraded the Lions defense with his talent, toughness and playmaking ability. Branch has shined in his role as a sub-package defender, exhibiting the instincts, awareness and ball skills that made him a coveted Swiss Army knife-like defender in the 2023 draft.

As Branch settles into his role as a “see ball, get ball” defender with blitz and coverage capability, Detroit defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn will add more to his plate as a hybrid defender on the second level. Given Branch’s production through three games (18 tackles, three tackles for loss, three passes defended and an interception), it is only a matter of time before he becomes a household name as one of the top safeties in the league.

Jalen Carter, DT, Philadelphia Eagles

If the league values quality over quantity, it is hard to ignore Carter’s impact as a destructive force in the middle of the Eagles defense. Despite being a role player in a deep and talented rotation, Carter has made his presence known with a pair of forced fumbles and six QB pressures through three games.

David Helman reacts to Eagles’ dominant victory over Buccaneers

David Helman reacts to Eagles' dominant victory over Buccaneers

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With the splash plays catching the attention of opposing quarterbacks and coaches, opponents are beginning to game plan around the big-bodied defender at the point of attack. As Carter overcomes extra blockers to wreak havoc as a run-stopper/pass rusher, the Eagles’ top pick will garner some votes as the top defender of the 2023 class.

Honorable Mention:
Will Anderson, Edge, Houston Texans
Emmanuel Forbes, CB, Washington Commanders 
Tuli Tuipulotu, Edge, Los Angeles Chargers 

Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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