PFF50: 10 rookies and second-year players who could make the list in 2024

2M7PMRN New York Jets wide receiver Garrett Wilson (17) in action against the Minnesota Vikings during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

• Seattle Seahawks CB Tariq Woolen: Woolen led all cornerbacks last season with six interceptions, and he added nine pass breakups to that tally.

• New York Jets WR Garrett Wilson: Wilson finished with more than 1,100 yards last year despite a disastrous quarterback situation.

• Baltimore Ravens S Kyle Hamilton: Despite some hiccups, Hamilton earned an 87.6 PFF grade in 2022 and looked comfortable in most spots on the field.

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

The 2023 PFF50 is up, highlighting the best players in the NFL heading into the 2023 regular season.

One of the ways the list differs from other PFF lists like the PFF 101 is that it is a forward-focused list where projection is important, not only evaluating the season that has just taken place.

While we may all expect improving players to keep on that trajectory, history has taught us that player development and growth are not always linear and that there is merit in waiting for the proof a player has arrived. That proof comes in the form of multiple impressive seasons rather than just assuming the first sign of elite play has announced a new superstar.

With that in mind, here are 10 rookies or second-year players who could force their way onto the list in 2024.

RB Bijan Robinson, Atlanta Falcons

By far the best rookie candidate to make this list, Robinson entered the draft hailed as one of the best running back prospects to come along in years — perhaps as far back as Adrian Peterson in 2007. He went to the run-heaviest team in football in Atlanta, so expectations should be that he contends for the rushing crown right out of the gate. If Robinson can achieve that — and potentially showcase some of his skills in the passing game — it will be difficult not to buy into that hype and keep him off the list.

EDGE Aidan Hutchinson, Detroit Lions

From Week 11 onward last season, the best-graded edge rushers in the NFL were Micah Parsons (90.3), Myles Garrett (90.2), Nick Bosa (87.5) — each of whom made the top 10 of the PFF50 — and Hutchinson. Last year’s No. 2 overall pick was a dominant force in the second half of the season and came into the draft with the kind of pedigree that put him in lockstep with the likes of Bosa and Garrett as prospects. If he picks up in 2023 where he left off, then Hutchinson won’t just feature on the PFF50 next year, but likely toward the sharp end. 

CB Tariq Woolen, Seattle Seahawks

The then-rookie Woolen led all cornerbacks last season with six interceptions, and he added nine pass breakups to that tally. Passes thrown his way generated just a 70.0 passer rating, and he did all of that as a fifth-round draft pick. What makes Woolen so intriguing is that he came into the league with unprecedented athletic gifts and measurables as a 6-foot-4 cornerback who ran a 4.26-second 40-yard dash time and posted a vertical leap of 42 inches. He is also relatively new to the position, having transitioned from receiver earlier in his college career. If this was just the beginning of what he can be, next season could be truly special.

CB Trent McDuffie, Kansas City Chiefs

With Sauce Gardner and Tariq Woolen drawing all the attention in their rookie season, McDuffie’s performance rather flew under the radar. But there was plenty there to suggest next season he could be among the NFL's elite cornerbacks. Injury limited McDuffie to just 14 games including the Super Bowl run, but from the get-go he was given difficult assignments on an island by the Chiefs. For the season, he posted a 75.1 PFF coverage grade and allowed 415 yards from those 14 games.

WR Garrett Wilson, New York Jets

One of the most popular narratives this offseason since the New York Jets traded for Aaron Rodgers was what that will do for Wilson's production in Year 2. Insane touchdown grabs early in training camp won’t do anything to cool the hype, either. Wilson trailed only Deebo Samuel last season in broken tackles among wide receivers, with 22, and finished with more than 1,100 yards despite a disastrous quarterback situation. If he and Rodgers can even come close to being on the same page, there’s no reason Wilson shouldn’t dominate in 2023.

C Tyler Linderbaum, Baltimore Ravens

Linderbaum was one of the best centers to enter the league in years, judging by PFF’s college grading. Though pass protection was a bit of a struggle at times during his first season — 29 total pressures allowed and a 53.5 PFF grade in that area — his run-blocking prowess was enough to show that he will be fine at this level. He finished with an 84.2 run-blocking grade, the fourth-best mark in the league. He has work to do in his second season to shore up that pass protection, but if he can, he has a good chance to make the list as a sophomore.

TE Dalton Kincaid, Buffalo Bills

Rookies need to be truly special to make the PFF50 after just one season of play in the NFL. Sauce Gardner is the only one to achieve it this year, so making the case for any rookie is likely betting on a long shot, but Kincaid brings some special traits to the table. He isn’t just an elite receiver, earning the highest PFF receiving grade in the nation last season at tight end, but he demonstrates an understanding of how to manipulate defenses and zones in a way most NFL receivers don’t. Going to a team like Buffalo that won’t need him to block much and has an elite passer to get him the football … there’s a chance.

CB Devon Witherspoon, Seattle Seahawks

Much like Kincaid, to even be in this discussion as a rookie you need to bring something special to the table. And Witherspoon plays with as much anticipation as any young cornerback to come into the league in a long time. Last season at Illinois, he allowed just a 25.3 passer rating into his coverage and earned the second-best PFF grade in the nation. He didn’t surrender a touchdown all season and broke up 14 passes on just 62 targets. That means he broke up or intercepted more than a quarter of the passes thrown his way. If that speed of reading the game translates to the next level, Witherspoon could be outstanding immediately.

WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Seattle Seahawks

This is, perhaps, a tougher sell than the previous two rookies on the list, but Smith-Njigba was exceptionally productive in college in the same offense as Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave — and at the same time. JSN has elite route-running chops and, despite a relatively pedestrian 40-yard dash time, a three-cone time of 6.57 seconds (98th percentile). With vertical threats to scare coverages and the Seahawks' offense crying out for somebody to work the middle of the field, he could have a field day right away.

S Kyle Hamilton, Baltimore Ravens

Hamilton had a tumultuous rookie season that ranged from being a full-time starter at free safety to a part-time player seeing as few as 14 snaps in a game to back to being a full-time player but largely deployed as a matchup weapon in the slot. There were hiccups along the way, but Hamilton earned an 87.6 PFF grade in the end and looked comfortable in most spots on the field. His final two games of the season, against the elite Bengals offense, were among his best performances all year. Hamilton could emerge as one of the best safeties in the game in his second season.


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