Before exploring the candidates, one has to determine which teams are going to be in the playoff race equation. The Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets and New York Giants being a part of that conversation was a personal blind spot, but those teams and many others will be in the hunt as the season progresses.
*Note: Although this is a list of the five most impactful rookies down the stretch for potential playoff teams, only one player per team is allowed. Otherwise, the list would be almost entirely comprised of Seahawks.
Sauce Gardner, Jets
Gardner has just two interceptions compared to Seahawks rookie cornerback Tariq Woolen's five, but he has been lockdown on the boundary. Gardner ranks sixth in the NFL with an opposing completion percentage of 40.8, according to TruMedia. His 22.4 pass breakup percentage (22.4) is second to only safety Devin McCourty of the Patriots.
The rise of the Jets is certainly not solely on the shoulders of Gardner, but he has played a large role. There is no reason to think that would change in a potential playoff push or in the postseason.
Wide receiver Garrett Wilson was also a consideration for the Jets.
Kenneth Walker III, RB, Seahawks
Walker ranks in the top 20 in almost every statistical category despite never having more than eight carries in a game until Week 7. He has at least one touchdown in six of his last seven games. He has 37 avoided tackles this season, according to TruMedia, which ranks No. 12 in the league.
The decision for this list ultimately boiled down to Walker or Woolen for the Seahawks despite strong play from offensive tackles Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas. Woolen is second in the NFL with five interceptions. Impact is the ability to make game-changing plays without sacrificing consistency. Several Seahawks rookies are likely to be impactful, but the nod goes to Walker.
The Dolphins' success is more closely linked to the play of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the offense's ability to stress defenders horizontally with the speed of wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. However, neither of those receivers is a rookie, so attention turns to Kohou. Cornerback Byron Jones has not appeared in a game this season and Xavien Howard also missed a game. Kohou has stepped in to play any role asked of him and he has done it at a high level.
In terms of playmaking ability, Kohou will not rank highly, but his versatility is valuable.
Linderbaum was praised for his technical talents leading up to the 2022 NFL Draft, but many were concerned about how his size would hold up against the NFL's nose tackles. Other than quarterback Lamar Jackson, Linderbaum is the only player on the Ravens offense to touch the ball every play. Baltimore's offensive identity revolves around the run game and Linderbaum is literally front and center for the AFC contender. Baltimore averages 2.2 yards prior to contact, which is the second best mark in the league. They also rank second in yards per rush.
It is hard to justify any list within the context of playoff playoff without including a member of the Chiefs or Bills. McDuffie is a bit of projection based on how he fared in his Week 1 debut and his play over the past few weeks. He missed time in between due to an injury, but he is credited with having allowed only 59 yards on 10 targets this season, according to TruMedia.
Quarterbacks have the second-highest passer rating against Kansas City this season despite allowing the 12th-most passing yards. The Chiefs traded up to get McDuffie and fix those concerns.