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With the Shrine Bowl and Senior Bowl getting underway -- and with it, the unofficial start of the NFL Draft season -- it's instructive to look back at the 2023 rookie class to see which players outperformed their draft expectations. 

It's helpful to see what we missed and why, and to try to avoid those mistakes in the evaluation process going forward. If nothing else, however, it just reinforces that no matter how much information you have -- whether you're in the media or work for an NFL team -- this is an inexact science. More than that, there's so much that goes into why a player fails or succeeds, and many of the variables -- like team stability, scheme, supporting case -- are out of their control. 

By the way, we talked about this topic last week on "With the First Pick," the podcast we co-host with former Vikings GM Rick Spielman.

Here are five rookies from the 2023 class who impressed us and outperformed expectations. (To be clear, this list is in no way exhaustive; it's more an opportunity to point out some of the players we really enjoyed watching during the season, especially when considering where they were drafted.)

1. CJ Stroud, QB, Texans (Round 1, No. 2 overall)

C.J. Stroud
HOU • QB • #7
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Yes, he was the No. 2 overall pick, but it's clear that not only was he the best player in this draft class, he was the best quarterback by a large margin. (Who knows what this story looks like if he had been drafted by the Panthers, but that's a conversation Texans fans needn't not entertain in this universe.) There's not a lot to say here because we've talked extensively about Stroud throughout the fall, both on and on "With the First Pick."

And while no one thought Stroud would be so dominant so quickly, perhaps we should've known he would be special based solely on how he handled Rick back at the combine in March:

Seriously, though, Stroud told Rick last February that he was "a game changer," and he somehow undersold it.

Meanwhile, the Texans have gone from a three-win outfit to a playoff team and not only the favorites in the AFC South heading into 2024, but one of the best young teams in football with a franchise quarterback and a great young coach in Demeco Ryans.

2. Puka Nacua, WR, Rams (Round 5, No. 177 overall)

Puka Nacua
LAR • WR • #17
REC YDs1486
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Nacua is an example of a player who didn't test particularly well -- he ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash at the combine -- and while he had a solid week at the Senior Bowl, he didn't stand out. But again, that's why it's so important to weigh everything, starting with how he played in college, to get an overall sense for who he is as a player. And the Rams did that.

It's not hard to argue that the Rams, who didn't have a first-round pick (again), had the best draft of any team. In addition to Nacua, a fifth-rounder who set the rookie reception and receiving yards record, they also drafted starting guard Steve Avila, edge rusher Byron Young (8 sacks) and defensive linemen Kobie Turner (9 sacks) with their first three selections. But Nacua was so good that he made you forget Cooper Kupp wasn't on the field when he missed time during the regular season with injuries. Was part of that scheme? Sure, but that's the point; finding value in the draft where other teams don't and using it to your advantage once you get the player into your system.

For more draft coverage, you can hear in-depth analysis twice a week on "With the First Pick" -- our year-round NFL Draft podcast with NFL Draft analyst Ryan Wilson and former Vikings general manager Rick Spielman. You can find "With the First Pick" wherever you get your podcasts: Apple PodcastsSpotifyYouTube, etc. Listen to the latest episode below!

3. Brian Branch, S, Lions (Round 2, No. 45 overall)

When we look back through our mock drafts from last fall, Branch, who played the star position for Nick Saban at Alabama, was regularly in the first round. And for good reason: He's a first-round talent. But as often happens, he was a victim of the pre-draft process; pecifically, he went to the combine, and while he looked smooth and effortless in drills, he ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash. To recap: two of the best rookies in the NFL ran a 4.57 and a 4.58; one set several rookie receiving records, the other was second among all rookies in interceptions (3) and third in passes defended (13). Like the Rams, the Lions aced the 2023 draft, landing both Branch and tight end Sam LaPorta in Round 2 after taking Jahmyr Gibbs and Jack Campbell with their two first-round picks. Branch played for the Lions this season like he did for the Crimson Tide: an enforcer from the slot who hit anything that moved in the run game, and who showed the ability to cover in the pass game. The Lions secondary has struggled at times this year, for sure, but not because of Branch.

4. Dontayvion Wicks, WR, Packers (Round 5, No. 159 overall)

Dontayvion Wicks
GB • WR • #13
REC YDs581
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Wicks went 18 picks before Puka Nacua, and like Nacua, he's a big wide receiver who had a solid Senior Bowl ... but didn't time well at the combine. He managed just a 4.62-second 40-yard-dash time at the combine and, fair or not, that's a problem for NFL teams thinking of taking a wide receiver with, say, a top 100 pick. But again, find the player that fits what you want to do -- and the Packers did that consistently with their rookie class of wide receiver and tight ends -- and put them in position to succeed. Wicks came from a college program that had inconsistent quarterback play, and when you couple that with the pedestrian 40 times, it's not hard to figure out why he lasted until the middle of Day 3. In terms of Expected Points Added per target, Wicks ranked second (0.52) among all rookies after only AT Perry of the Saints. He was second in explosive plays per target (31%) and first downs per target (50%!). In that Packers offense with Jordan Love under center, Matt LaFleur dialing up plays, and alongside Jayden Reed, Luke Musgrave, Tucker Kraft and Bo Melton (not to mention second-year standouts Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson), this offense appears set for the next few years. 

5. Tyrique Stevenson, CB, Bears (Round 2, No. 56 overall)

Getting off the bus, Stevenson looks like a first-round talent, the type of cornerback you might build in a lab. But at times last season for the University of Miami, he looked lost and, fair or not, that left a lingering impression on our evaluation of him. Well, he's been part of a solid 2023 draft class for the Bears and, along with first-round right tackle Darnell Wright, a mainstay in the lineup. Only first-rounders Devon Witherspoon (Seahawks) and Deonte Banks (Giants) played more snaps in the secondary, and Stevenson led all rookies in interceptions (4) and passes defended (16). Unlike some of the names above, there was no concern about Stevenson's straight-line speed; he ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at the combine, and at 6-foot, 198 pounds with 32 3/8-inch arms, he looks the part. His 3-cone time and 20-yard shuttle weren't particularly impressive, but again, it's just a piece of the overall evaluation puzzle. 

Other notable names (in random order)