Rookie wide receivers take over Thursday Night Football

Christian Watson and Treylon Burks both put on a show in front of a national audience Thursday night

In what was an exciting (if freezing cold) edition of Thursday Night Football, a national audience got to see a glimpse of the future from both the Green Bay Packers and Tennessee Titans, thanks to outstanding performances from both of their rookie wide receivers

Both Christian Watson and Treylon Burks have emerged as their teams’ respective No. 1 targets of late, and their progression was obvious Thursday night.

Watson has finally been healthy for the past two weeks, and he’s quickly living up to his lofty potential, racking up a ridiculous five touchdown catches over that stretch (which was only five days). He’s quickly turning into Aaron Rodgers’ top target, and a legitimate deep threat that the Packers hoped they were getting when they traded up to grab him at the top of the second round of the 2022 NFL draft.

Burks has been no slouch either, as he is also returning from injury, and has produced big numbers since his return, On Thursday night, the first-round pick out of Arkansas put up over 100 yards on seven catches, and roasted one of the top corners in the league in Jaire Alexander for a big play over the top to seal the game on the final drive.

These two rookies will be key moving forward for both teams, in the near and distant future, as they continue to develop into the No. 1 receivers both teams were banking on when they were drafted.

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Steelers QB Kenny Pickett hasn’t given the Saints much cause for draft-day regret

It’s early, but Kenny Pickett hasn’t given the Saints much cause for draft-day regret. The Steelers rookie is going into this matchup as the NFL’s most turnover-prone QB:

There were more than a few New Orleans Saints fans hoping their team would select Kenny Pickett in the 2022 NFL draft’s first round, bringing a promising quarterback prospect to a team that could use one. Instead, the Saints passed on Pickett twice, moving up to select wide receiver Chris Olave (who is making a strong case for his Rookie of the Year candidacy) at No. 11, then taking left tackle Trevor Penning (who just took a big step towards returning from the injured reserve list) at No. 19. Pickett wound up going to the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 20.

And there was plenty of smoke surrounding the situation. Pickett met with New Orleans ahead of the 2022 draft, and Saints head coach Dennis Allen recently said that he was their top-graded quarterback in the rookie class. Pickett’s college coach Pat Narduzzi even thought the Saints had selected Pickett on the night of the draft, when New Orleans was on the clock, and broke the bad news to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on a phone call.

But Pickett hasn’t exactly lit the NFL world on fire in his pro debut. He took the reins from Mitch Trubisky three and a half games into the season, and currently leads the league with an interception rate of 4.8%. Pickett has scored just 2 touchdown passes against 8 interceptions, also fumbling 3 times while scoring 2 touchdown runs. He’s been sacked 12 times across 5 games, going 1-3 as a starter. His 3.19 adjusted net yards per pass attempt (which accounts for touchdown passes, interceptions, and sacks) also ranks last in the NFL. Pickett’s longest pass completion has gained 30 yards.

So it’s not like the Saints are kicking themselves for passing on him. To be fair, neither Andy Dalton nor Jameis Winston have been effective this season, but while Pickett may have been an alternative he likely wouldn’t have been a better alternative. We’ll see how his career develops this week and in the future.

For his part, Pickett isn’t thinking about what-might-have-been. When asked this week if he carries a chip on his shoulder from having been passed over by teams like New Orleans, he responded: “No, man, I’m happy as hell to be here. You know, everything works out for a reason. Incredibly proud to be the quarterback of this team and go out there and play on Sunday.”

So it’s good to see the rookie is keeping his chin up amid a rough start to his NFL journey. He’ll be looking to get right against a Saints defense that has only intercepted a pair of passes all season, while New Orleans is hoping to take advantage of that same matchup versus a young turnover-prone quarterback. Something has to give.

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ESPN names Saints WR Chris Olave the NFL’s second-best rookie

ESPN names Saints WR Chris Olave the NFL’s second-best rookie. The Saints are trusting Olave to make plays, and he’s coming through for them:

It’s been a tough year of football for New Orleans Saints fans, but one consistent source of positive plays has been Chris Olave. The rookie wide receiver, selected at No. 11 overall in this year’s draft, already ranks among league leaders with 618 receiving yards — and the analysts at ESPN have been so impressed that they ranked Olave the second-best rookie around the NFL at the season’s midway point.

Here’s what ESPN’s Matt Bowen had to say about Olave’s year so far:

“Smooth in the route tree and showcasing the vertical stretch ability to float past defenders, Olave has impressed as a perimeter target early in his NFL career. The rookie has already logged seven explosive-play receptions this season, and his ability to separate opens up opportunities at the second level of the field, too.”

Additionally, ESPN’s Jordan Reid observed that Olave leads the entire rookie class with 14.9 air yards per target through Week 9, which demonstrates how the Saints are often asking their first-year pro to make a play deep downfield on passes with a high degree of difficulty. The Saints are trusting Olave to make plays, and he’s coming through for them.

So who’s ahead of him? None other than New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner, who has been just as effective against No.1 receivers in the NFL each week as he was covering them for the Cincinnati Bearcats in college. Those two are making their case for Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year recognition, and Olave’s contributions should help keep the Saints competitive for a long time.

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Ranking the Steelers rookies at the midway point of the season

Who has been the best Steelers rookie through eight games?

Over the course of the last half-decade, the Pittsburgh Steelers have relied more and more on rookies to contribute early. 2022 is no different as the Steelers have started multiple rookies this season and several others have been key reserves. With half the season in the books, here are our Steelers rookie rankings.

Dennis Allen gives positive update on Saints first-round pick Trevor Penning

#Saints HC Dennis Allen provided a positive update on first-round pick Trevor Penning, who is reportedly eyeing a possible early-November return, via @RossJacksonNOLA:

Through the first half of the 2022 NFL season, the New Orleans Saints have been wrestling with similar poor injury luck to last year. With several players having already missed multiple days of training camp and now regular season contests, it’s a gem to see good injury news. But that is what Saints head coach Dennis Allen had for New Orleans media Monday afternoon.

“He’s out of the boot now,” Allen said during his day-after press conference. “He’s started with some cardio stuff and on the treadmill and things of that nature. So, he’s progressing.” Penning had told media members recently that the walking boot he was wearing would come off soon. It looks like that timeline has moved as expected.

Some early reports following his surgery suggested that the Northern Iowa alum may be able to return in early November. As he progresses and that target date arrives, things are looking more optimistic by the day. While early November is unlikely to mark his return to the field, it could well be his return to practice. One Penning does get back on the practice field, he will have 21 days to work his way back to the active roster. If he cannot during that time, he will revert to season-ending injured reserve. But so far, all looks to be headed in the right direction.

Penning appeared in all three of the Saints’ preseason games taking 57 offensive snaps before suffering the turf toe injury that sent him to the injured reserve list against the Los Angeles Chargers. Over those 113 snaps (all at left tackle), he surrendered 6 pressures including 1 sack. He also added an impressive 91.8 run blocking grade per Pro Football Focus. Penning’s return could help to bolster a New Orleans run game that has already been highly productive this year. James Hurst has been serviceable at left tackle in his absence, but if Penning is healthy and practicing well he could be an upgrade.

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Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry absences prepping Chris Olave for life as Saints’ WR1

Extended absences for Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry are preparing Chris Olave for life as the New Orleans Saints’ WR1, for now and in the future:

Look, we’re all about finding silver linings. And there’s no doubting the storm clouds circling the New Orleans Saints right. Veteran wide receivers Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry are in the middle of extended absences due to injuries — Thomas is dealing with a foot issue, while Landry is still recovering from an ankle problem. If there’s an upside here, it’s that the time they’re missing creates a big opportunity for Chris Olave to adjust to life as an NFL team’s No. 1 wide receiver.

Now, this isn’t exactly a new experience for him. Olave was the best receiver at Ohio State for years, playing ahead of other future first-round talents like Garrett Wilson, Jameson Williams, and the phenomenal Jaxon Smith-Njigba. He’s been competing against the best defensive backs his teams can throw at him in practice and his opponents can line up against him in games since he was in high school.

And that’s not going to change any time soon. Thomas and Landry missing time now gives Olave more snaps in practice and on top of the wide receivers rotation in games. That will help him prepare for the No. 1 gig in the NFL on a full-time basis in the not-so-distant future. Landry is going to be a free agent in the spring, and Thomas carries a salary cap hit north of $28.2 million next season. One or both of them might not be in New Orleans anymore, leaving Olave alone at the top. He won’t lack for opportunities or targets in the Saints offense. He’s under contract through 2025 with a fifth-year team option for 2026. It’s a safe bet that he’ll see it through.

And he’s already exceeded the very high expectations set for him. Olave ranks among the NFL’s leaders in just about any receiving metric you can imagine. It’s a testament to his abilities and his impact on the Saints offense that it’s kept them in games without those two top receivers and while shackled to an ailing defense. Olave is the complete package: reliable on third downs, dangerous on vertical throws, and consistently open against tight coverage. It’s frustrating that Thomas and Landry are still unavailable, but Olave is justifying the efforts New Orleans put into adding him this year week after week.

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Did the rest of the NFL miss big on Bailey Zappe?

A fourth-round pick who was destined for backup duty, Bailey Zappe already looks like he could have started for quite a few teams

Back in April, there seemed to be a general consensus among NFL teams that there might not be a single quarterback prospect worthy of a first-round pick in this year’s draft.

Ultimately, only Kenny Pickett was selected in the first round, at No. 20 overall by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

117 picks later, the New England Patriots selected Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe in the fourth round.

Zappe was a record-setter in college, dropping over 5,900 passing yards and a ridiculous 62 touchdown passes in his only season with the Hilltoppers. He immediately clicked with his long-time coach from Houston Baptist, Zach Kittley, exploding in a system designed to spread teams out and rely on Zappe’s decision-making and understanding of the defense. He exceled in the diagnoses of defenses and understanding where mismatches were, and took full advantage of an advantageous offense.

The Patriots were apparently convinced by the numbers and the film, as they made a relatively rich investment in a would-be backup quarterback, just one year after spending their first-round pick on Alabama national champ Mac Jones.

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While the fourth round isn’t exactly the pinnacle of the quarterback marketplace, it was still a noteworthy spot for Zappe to land in New England. Zappe’s tape left a lot to question about raw arm strength, and an awkward throwing motion that would likely make tighter window throws down the field extra difficult. The throwing motion was at least fixable, though, and you can make adjustments for a quarterback with a less-than-ideal arm, as the football intelligence and decision-making were likely too tempting to ignore, especially from a backup standpoint.

Zappe has been thrown into the fire as a rookie, as injuries to both Jones and veteran Brian Hoyer forced the former third-stringer into action. Playing in three games and starting two, Zappe was able to win both starts, and barely lost in overtime to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field after being thrust into the lineup for the injured Hoyer.

During his limited playing time, Zappe has been the highest-rated rookie signal-caller in the league with a quarterback rating of 111.4, averaging a 72.9 completion percentage, and tossing four touchdowns to just one interception. While those aren’t the same gaudy numbers he put up in college, it’s impressive that he’s been able to come in and win right away, and speaks to his ability to pick things up quickly in a complicated offense.

While it seems highly unlikely that Zappe will remain the starter once Jones gets back to full strength, it is hard not to think he should have been taken much earlier in the draft, as the tape shows a lot of his skills from college have quickly translated well to the next level.

Hopefully, he’ll be able to develop and grow further in New England before ultimately getting a well-deserved shot at a starting job elsewhere.

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Tariq Woolen just keeps making the NFL look silly

At this point, the Seattle Seahawks have to wonder why they waited until the fifth round again to steal another superstar cornerback

When a cornerback does what Tariq Woolen did at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, he usually doesn’t stay on the board long once the draft rolls around.

But somehow, all 32 teams let the 6-4, 205-pounder with 4.2 speed fall all the way to the fifth round of the 2022 NFL draft, where the Seattle Seahawks finally scooped him up at No. 153 overall.

Woolen was the No. 58 overall player on our board, and through the first six weeks of his rookie season, even that is looking a bit low.

His latest performance, in Sunday’s win over the Arizona Cardinals, featured a leaping interception that helped seal the win late in the fourth quarter, as well as a fumble recovery earlier in the game.

The week before? An interception and a fumble recovery.

The week before that? A 40-yard pick-six.

Woolen has an interception in each of his last four games, showing off the kind of ball skills you’d expect from a converted wide receiver.

While many expected Woolen to require plenty of patience and development before having this kind of impact at the next level, the UTSA product clearly had other plans.

If any team knows how to pluck a superstar cornerback out of the fifth round, it’s the Seahawks. But at this point, even they have to be wondering why they waited that long to snatch up what could be the second coming of Richard Sherman.

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