Jets’ Gardner, Seahawks’ Walker lead NFL’s impact rookies

The Seahawks are also led 6-3 by a resurgent Geno Smith at quarterback and two standout rookies in running back Kenneth Walker III and cornerback Tariq Woolen.

Sauce Gardner was twisted when Stefon Diggs drove past him, a rare moment this season when the New York Jets cornerback looked like a rookie.

That 42-yard throw by Josh Allen on the first play of scrimmage Sunday had burned the #4 draft pick. But Gardner’s confidence never wavered.

“After that piece, I just said to everyone, ‘Relax, we’re going to be good,'” Gardner recalled. “And right after that, the interception happened.”

Jordan Whitehead took down Allen two games later. And then Gardner played like a veteran again, adding an interception of his own, not allowing another catch in man coverage for the rest of the game, and making the defensive play that sealed the Jets’ 20-17 win over Buffalo by scoring Desperation swept over Gabe Davis.

“He got beaten with that double on that first move, but he still stayed level and stayed in the game,” said Jets coach Robert Saleh. “He wasn’t even bothered by it.”

That’s been the theme of the first half of the season so far for the former Cincinnati star, already considered one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. Gardner is also the front-runner for AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

He was one of the main reasons behind the Jets’ surprising 6-3 start, and he’s not alone. Wide receiver Garrett Wilson and defensive end Jermaine Johnson, both first-rounders along with Gardner, and second-round running back Breece Hall — who is now out for the season with a cruciate ligament rupture — also made important contributions.

“When you have that vibrant youth, they just bring a lot of juice,” Saleh said. “It’s contagious, everyone gets it.”

Ditto in Seattle, where the Seahawks are also 6-3 and on a four-game winning streak, led by a resurgent Geno Smith at quarterback and two standout rookies in running back Kenneth Walker III and cornerback Tariq Woolen.

Standing in for the injured Rashaad Penny, Walker — with Hall on IR — has become the favorite for AP Offensive Rookie of the Year according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

Second-round pick Michigan State has 570 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, with the majority of its performance coming in its last four games since taking over as the Seahawks’ starter.

“He’s something now,” said Seattle coach Pete Carroll. “He shows us every time we go out. He has tricks, he has creativity. It comes from having this wonderful ability that he has and exploiting it because he’s so tough and so aggressive.”

Several teams can relate to this, with rookies making an instant impact across the league:

IKEM EKWONU, LT, Panthers — The sixth overall pick has given up three sacks but has settled in lately by allowing just five quarterback pressures in his last six games.

SAUCE GARDNER, CB, Jets — New York believes there could be the second coming of Darrelle Revis in Gardner, who was impressive in the first half and has Pro Football Focus’s second-best cover score.

AIDAN HUTCHINSON, DE, Lions — He finished second overall and quickly established himself as Detroit’s top pass rusher with 4 1/2 sacks and a team-leading 24-quarterback pressure. Hutchinson also got his first interception last Sunday when he picked off Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers in the end zone.

JACK JONES, CB, Patriots — The fourth-seeded Arizona State is part of New England’s defensive back rotation and is Pro Football Focus’s highest-rated cornerback despite only starting one game. Jones also excels on special teams and comes close to tipping a few kicks on the field goal block unit.

ROGER McCREARY, CB, Titans — A year after Tennessee defeated Caleb Farley in the first round, the Titans drafted another cornerback in the second round and had some headaches. While Farley struggled to get onto the field on defense, McCreary, Auburn’s 35th overall pick, has been a starter all season and intercepted Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes last Sunday night.

CHRIS OLAVE, WR, Saints — The No. 11 pick was the third wide receiver drafted but leads all rookies with 43 catches and 618 yards receiving to keep up with two TDs.

DAMEON PIERCE, RB, Texans — The fourth-round pick from Florida has become a key playmaker for Houston, who has rushed for at least 92 yards in four of his last five games and led NFL rookies with 678 yards rushing. He and Seattle’s Walker could end up in a close race for the honor of the offensive rookie.

KENNETH WALKER III, RB, Seahawks — He has a five-game touchdown streak, including two points in two of his last three games. Against Arizona last Sunday, Walker had 78 of his 109 yards in the second half, including 62 on Seattle’s last two possessions.

TRAVON WALKER, OLB, Jaguars — The No. 1 overall from Georgia has 2 1/2 sacks and five quarterback hits, while also showing flashes of the run-stuffing ability that got him flying up draft boards in the spring. He and his first-round linebacker Devin Lloyd are key building blocks in Jacksonville’s defense.

GARRETT WILSON, WR, Jets — He was the second wide receiver to be drafted 10th overall, two picks after Atlanta’s Drake London, but Wilson has developed a quick relationship with quarterback Zach Wilson. The former Ohio State standout has made 18 of his 42 team-leading receptions in the last three games.

TARIQ WOOLEN, CB, Seahawks — UTSA’s fifth-round pick was a pleasant surprise. She won the starting spot from training camp and consistently showed good coverage ability and tackling ability. Woolen’s four interceptions are the second most in the league. Jets’ Gardner, Seahawks’ Walker lead NFL’s impact rookies

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