NFL midseason All-Rookie team: Jets’ Sauce Gardner, Ohio State WR duo highlight impact first-year players


The midway point of the 2022 NFL regular season is here, well, kind of. Technically, it’s halftime of Week 9, so feel free to read this article then. The selections won’t change based on first-half play Sunday. 

This is your first-half-of-2022 All-Rookie team. The 2022 draft class wasn’t lauded for its strength at quarterback, and that’s absolutely played out on the field thus far. 

We’re running “11 personnel” — one back, one tight end, and three receivers — offensively, and a nickel look — two linebackers, five defensive backs — on defense, the most common personnel packages on each side of the ball in today’s NFL

Zappe’s play in his relief appearances of Mac Jones had Patriots fans buying Zappe Hour shirts and conjuring Bledsoe-to-Brady storylines in their heads. Individually, Zappe wasn’t tremendous in those starts, but the New England offense got a jolt of energy every time he stepped onto the field. There are clear limitations to his game — average arm and mobility — but there’s minimal timidness, which I respect for a rookie passer. Don’t be surprised when we see Zappe later this season. 

Pierce was the seventh running back and second Pierce (!) picked in the 2022 draft. (No relation to Colts wideout Alec Pierce, by the way.) And the rugged runner has been the best, most consistent ball-carrier from his class to date. Kenneth Walker III in Seattle is closing in, but Pierce’s 540 yards lead all rookies as do his 41 forced missed tackles. Pierce is a thunderous back has lightning-quick feet. 

Alabama isn’t the only marquee college program pumping out first-round pick receivers. Ohio State gets two members on this team, and they were the shoo-ins. And the first half of Olave’s NFL career has been bananas. He was thrust into a No. 1 wideout role with Andy Dalton throwing him passes — not exactly what New Orleans envisioned when the club traded up to get the long-time Buckeyes star — and he’s produced, leading his draft class in receiving yards (547). He’s also made a few spectacular grabs in traffic. 

Wilson, the springier of the duo, has managed the second-most rookie receiving yards (430) despite less-than-stellar quarterback play. He’s forced 11 missed tackles on 34 receptions. That’s staggering. 

Wide receiver: Alec Pierce, Colts

Pierce sneaks onto the list because of his steadiness in another offense held back by its quarterback. He’s third in rookie receiving yards and first in yards-per-reception, and maybe the latter statistic shouldn’t surprise us — Pierce is 6-foot-3 with 4.41 speed and a 40.5-inch vertical.

Bellinger’s currently dealing with a nasty eye injury, yet the former San Diego State phenom whom the Giants picked in the fourth round has been a focal point of the Giants’ low-volume passing offense during the team’s surprising 6-2 start. He has 16 catches for 152 yards with two scores, and his 6.4 yards-after-the-catch-per-reception average leads all qualifying rookie tight ends. 

Playing the “five best” blockers is a common coaching adage, and I’m following it here, with four tackles and a center for this list. They’ve all earned it. Linderbaum hasn’t been quite as dominant as he was in the Big 10 at Iowa. However, he’s playing well beyond his years in Baltimore’s offense.

Offensive line: Abraham Lucas, Seahawks

The two tackles in Seattle are a damn problem. Lucas wants to punish every defender on run plays and of course is a polished pass protector after his long, illustrious career in Washington State’s pass-obsessed offense.

Jones was a fifth-round pick out of Southern Utah, and although the raw and advanced statistics aren’t incredibly kind right now, in watching his film, I see a long, physical, decently balanced left tackle getting better essentially every week, and Chicago isn’t offering him loads of help on the outside.

Cross and Ekwonu, the two blue-chip tackle prospects in the 2022 class, took a week or two to settle in, and now they’re flourishing, particularly when asked to protect their respective quarterback. They’re both calm, athletic blockers. Ekwonu has been studly of late, Cross has been more consistent from the start of the season. 

If you’ve overlooked Ebiketie’s production, you won’t be faulted, because the Falcons defense as a whole has been brittle in the first half of the season. But the second-round pick from Penn State has demonstrated all the traits and refined skills that led to him flying up boards during the pre-draft process. He’s registered the third-most pressures (19) on the fourth-most pass-rush snaps among rookie edge rushers entering Week 9.

As for Thibodeaux, he’s started to come into his own after an injury delayed his NFL debut. Run-stopping, quick pass-run wins — we’re beginning to see the Thibodeaux who shined for three seasons at Oregon. He has multiple pressures in his past five outings. 

Believe it or not, Davis is second among all rookie defensive tackles in pressures (seven) at the midway point of the season. He’s been as expected as a rock against the run for Philadelphia’s stout defense, too. 

Lost in the Buccaneers’ disappointing start has been a sneaky-good start for Hall. No, he hasn’t lit the world on fire, yet the early second-round selection has looked the part as a versatile pass-rushing specialist on Tampa Bay’s defensive line. He leads all interior rushers with seven quarterback pressures to date.

Rodriguez was an afterthought on the third day of the draft, a lowly sixth-round pick by the Lions. But on a brutal Detroit defense, the former Oklahoma State stud has been a man on a mission. He’s missed just 8.2% of his tackle attempts — a low figure — with a pass breakup, a forced fumble, four pressures and a sack as one of his club’s full-time linebackers. 

Lloyd gets the slight nod over Quay Walker in Green Bay mostly due to his ball production in coverage. Lloyd has missed tackles at a higher rate than Walker, yet leads all rookie linebackers in tackles (68) and pressures (eight).

Gardner is the odds-on favorite to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. His 12 pass breakups lead the entire NFL. Despite his lanky frame that typically leads to slower short-area quickness, Gardner’s twitchiness and length help him disrupt passes on a regular basis.

Cornerback: Tariq Woolen, Seahawks 

Woolen is another length-based outside corner with blistering 4.26 speed, and frankly, his coverage instincts are much further ahead than anyone — including the Seahawks — probably expected. He has four interceptions to date.

Cornerback: Jack Jones, Patriots

Jones didn’t play early in his rookie season, but then burst onto the scene with a textbook pick-six of Aaron Rodgers a few weeks ago. He had another pick against the Lions. Although he’s missed plenty of tackles, the Arizona State product has been everywhere in New England’s defense.

Yes, a second Lions defender on this list, which feels insane given how porous Detroit’s defense has been. Joseph was incredibly rangy at Illinois in college and has played like that eraser on the back-end during the first half of his debut campaign for the Lions. He has a pass breakup and two forced fumbles, and teams have shied away from him down the field. Joseph has allowed three catches on just eight targets in his coverage area to date. 

Brisker was a ferocious, constantly involved defender at Penn State. That style has carried over to Chicago in his rookie season with the Bears. He leads all rookie safeties with 51 tackles and pressures (four). His interception against the Patriots was of the highlight-reel variety. Brisker is a DUDE. 





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