NFL Playoffs: 5 AFC Rookies Who Will Impact Postseason Race

Nov 27, 2022; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner (1) walks onto the field before the game against the Chicago Bears at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 27, 2022; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner (1) walks onto the field before the game against the Chicago Bears at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports /

The thick of the NFL season is among us, with the NFL playoffs beginning to come to the forefront. Strong quarterback play and elite coaching usually make the difference, but a slew of rookies may very well decide who wins the AFC. 

Many of the teams in the chase — like the Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans, and Buffalo Bills — came into the 2022 campaign with the NFL playoffs in mind, and they have positioned themselves to reach the postseason. The Cincinnati Bengals have turned things around after a shaky start to the season and are poised to go on another deep postseason run.

The Miami Dolphins and New York Jets have proven to be formidable foes, with each franchise laying claim to a playoff spot if the season ended today. The Baltimore Ravens wrap up the current group of squads with a seat at the table.

Teams on the cusp of the NFL playoffs, like the Los Angeles Chargers and New England Patriots, still have a great chance to shake up the field. The Chargers’ injury curse has been prevalent in 2022, and the Patriots just so happen to be in a division with three other teams above .500.

NFL Playoffs: 5 AFC Rookies Who Will Impact Postseason Race

Others — like the Indianapolis Colts, Las Vegas Raiders, and Denver Broncos — have imploded before our very eyes. Each fan base was sold on a new quarterback or head coach being the final piece of the championship puzzle, but they all look further away now than they did a year ago.

The Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers both believe they have a franchise quarterback in tow, but the rest of the roster needs time to develop. The Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans struck a deal for Deshaun Watson last offseason, and neither will be in the NFL playoffs picture in year one of their new era.

It looks as if there are nine teams in the AFC vying for seven playoff slots. That takes away some of the drama as the season draws to an end, but the field likely will not be solidified until week 18. I expect these five rookies to make a difference for their respective teams in the NFL playoffs chase.

1. Sauce Gardner, CB, New York Jets

Unless you live under a rock, you have witnessed Sauce Gardner become one of the best cornerbacks in the AFC (and the entire NFL) as a rookie. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft oozes confidence and is the type of guy that is incredibly easy to root for.

Sauce has never met a receiver that he doesn’t think he’d shut down. Similar to former Jets’ legend Darrelle Revis, Sauce Gardner can take away an entire half of the field with his man-to-man prowess. Look for the rookie to make some big plays down the stretch, helping propel the Jets to their first NFL playoffs appearance since 2011. Perhaps they make a run for the AFC East title as well.

2. Treylon Burks, WR, Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans will never be confused as a pass-happy squad. Mike Vrabel’s crew wins by asserting dominance at the line of scrimmage, allowing the best running back in the NFL to terrorize opposing defenses. Derrick Henry won’t win the MVP award, but no one is more valuable to their team than Henry is.

To make a long run in the NFL playoffs, though, the team must find a steady contributor in the wide receiver room. Veteran Robert Woods is beginning to look more like his old self, but rookie Treylon Burks is the one to get excited about. Upon returning from the IR, Burks exploded onto the scene over the last two weeks.

Against the Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals, Burks led the Titans in receptions and yards each game. Combined, the Arkansas Razorback product recorded 11 receptions for 181 yards and even found the end zone in the weirdest of ways. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound pass catcher has large shoes to fill after the AJ Brown trade; he is proving capable of doing so.

3. Skyy Moore, WR, Kansas City Chiefs

It is time for a double dose of rookie action from the Kansas City Chiefs. To the dismay of every AFC fandom, the Chiefs improved substantially as a roster, even after trading away arguably their best player Tyreek Hill. Patrick Mahomes is showing the NFL world that he can succeed regardless of who is catching passes.

Still, Mahomes has yet to find a new favorite target in the wide receiver room. However, if the past two games are any indication, a rookie is beginning to emerge as the No. 1 option. Skyy Moore, the No. 54 overall selection of the 2022 NFL Draft, is heating up. Moore has tallied five receptions in each game, including 12 combined targets in that span.

Thanks to some injuries in front of him, Moore is getting an opportunity to shine as the NFL playoffs approach. Kadarius Toney, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mecole Hardman, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling will all factor in, but Skyy Moore becoming the go-to target for Patrick Mahomes is a real possibility. (P.S. Quit putting Moore in to return punts).

4. Isiah Pacheco, RB, Kansas City Chiefs

Don’t look now, but Andy Reid may have finally found a consistent producer at running back. Seventh-round rookie Isiah Pacheco received at least 15 touches over the previous three weeks, with this sparkling stat line to show for it: 53 rushing attempts, 258 rushing yards, and a touchdown.

Pacheco is not the most traitsy guy, but he runs with a constant nasty streak, which makes up for the overall lack of high-end talent. Pacheco is quick when he gets momentum behind him, which should frighten the rest of the AFC. If Mahomes has a run game to lean on, with that stable of pass catchers, good luck keeping them below 35 points when the NFL playoffs begin.

5. Daxton Hill, DB, Cincinnati Bengals

The Cincinnati Bengals spent the offseason beefing up the offensive line, but perhaps their biggest additions came in the secondary on defense. Cam Taylor-Britt is an honorable mention and has actually been more impressive as a rookie starter, but Dax Hill is the trump card for the Bengals’ defense.

What makes Hill so special, and important for Cincy, is his ability to lineup all over the field. Hill has spent time as a deep safety, a slot cornerback, and even outside cornerback as a rookie. Injuries and inconsistent playing time have kept Hill from being a fixture in the starting lineup, but upping his snap count would benefit everyone on the defense.

Hill’s counting numbers are virtually nonexistent because of this, but looking deeper than the box score, the Michigan defensive back has made big plays on the year. The Bengals came up just short of hoisting the Lombardi trophy less than 12 months ago; these two rookies in the secondary could be what gets them over the hump.