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TWENTYMAN: Top rookies Lions will face in 2022

Atlanta's Kyle Pitts and Cincinnati's Ja'Marr Chase made immediate impacts for their respective clubs in 2021 as top five picks, earning Pro Bowl bids in their first season in the league. The Lions faced both rookies a season ago.

There were a number of rookies who made significant impacts for their teams a season ago. Who will emerge as the top rookies in the NFL this year? Could the Lions square off against them at some point in 2022?

Here's a look at some of the top rookies the Lions will face in 2022:

1. EDGE Travon Walker, Jacksonville

Drafted: No. 1 overall

Walker bio: Walker's athletic traits are off the charts, which is part of the reason the Jaguars selected him No. 1 overall. He's 6-foot-5, 275 pounds and ran a 4.51 40 at the Combine. He started all 15 games for the national champion Georgia Bulldogs in 2021, recording 37 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks with two pass breakups.

How it affects Lions: By this point in the season Walker should be settled into his role with the Jags. He'll certainly have a tough task trying to get by Detroit's talented tackle tandem of Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell.

When Lions face him: Week 13, Dec. 4 at home, 1 p.m.

2. CB Sauce Gardner, New York Jets

Drafted: No. 4 overall

Gardner bio: With a terrific blend of size (6-3) and speed (4.41), Gardner is expected to make an immediate impact in New York. He was the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year after recording 40 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss with three sacks, three interceptions and four pass breakups in 14 starts. Gardner didn't allow a receiving touchdown during his three-year college career.

How it affects Lions: The hope is that Lions rookie wide receiver Jameson Williams has been back in the fold for some time by this late-season matchup and gets a rematch after Gardner did a great job limiting Williams when the two matched up in the national semifinal game, a game Williams' Alabama squad won.

When Lions face him: Week 15, Dec. 18 at New York, 1 p.m.

3. EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux, New York Giants

Drafted: No. 5 overall

Thibodeaux bio: Thibodeaux missed time with an ankle injury in 2021, but was still named a first-team AP All-American and finalist for the Chuck Bednarik, Ted Hendricks and Bronko Nagurski Awards. He led Oregon with 12 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks among his 49 total tackles in 11 games (nine starts).

How it affects Lions: The Lions did their homework on Thibodeaux in the pre-draft process, but when Aidan Hutchinson fell to them at No. 2, Lions GM Brad Holmes couldn't get his card turned in fast enough. Could that be some extra motivation for Thibodeaux in this one?

When Lions face him: Week 11, Nov. 20 at New York, 1 p.m.

4. T Ikem Ekwonu, Carolina

Drafted: No. 6 overall

Ekwonu bio: The first offensive tackle taken in the draft, Ekwonu was a finalist for the Outland Trophy last year. He was credited with 154 pancakes and 47 knockdowns in his career in 31 starts at both left tackle and left guard.

How it affects Lions: This will be a great matchup between top rookie draft picks when Hutchinson finds himself lined up across Ekwonu. Carolina allowed the fifth most sacks (52) in the NFL last season. Ekwonu was brought in to help in that department.

When Lions face him: Week 16, Dec. 24 at Carolina, 1 p.m.

5. T Evan Neal, New York Giants

Drafted: No. 7 overall

Neal bio: A really versatile player upfront, Neal logged double-digit starts at three different positions at Alabama (left tackle, right tackle and right guard). He started 40 games over the last three seasons.

How it affects Lions: Neal is a mauler in the run game. The Lions' defense was very inconsistent against the run last year, allowing on average 135.1 yards per game on the ground. Can Detroit bottle up Saquon Barkley and the Giants run game with Neal leading the way?

When Lions face him: Week 11, Nov. 20 at New York, 1 p.m.

6. DT Jordan Davis, Philadelphia

Drafted: No. 13 overall

Davis bio: The Chuck Bednarik Award and Outland Trophy winner was one of the top defenders in the country last season. Davis started 14 games, posting 32 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss with two sacks.

How it affects Lions: Davis is a load in the middle at 6-foot-6, 336 pounds with terrific athleticism (4.78 in 40 and 123-inch broad jump). He'll be a great Week 1 test for Lions interior offensive linemen Frank Ragnow, Jonah Jackson and Halapoulivaati Vaitai.

When Lions face him: Week 1, Sept. 11 at home, 1 p.m.

7. WR Jahan Dotson, Washington

Drafted: No. 16 overall

Dotson bio: Led Penn State with 91 receptions for 1,182 receiving yards and tying for eighth in the country with 12 receiving scores in 12 starts. He's also got return ability on special teams.

How it affects Lions: Dotson can flat out fly, and he'll be a good early test for the Lions secondary. Can Amani Oruwariye, Jeff Okudah and the rest of the Lions secondary limit him on the stat sheet?

When Lions face him: Week 2, Sept. 18 at home, 1 p.m.

8. CB Kaiir Elam, Buffalo

Drafted: No. 23 overall

Elam bio: Elam missed three games with a knee injury in 2021, but still managed to start 10 games and finished with 29 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, one interception and five pass breakups.

How it affects Lions: All reports out of Buffalo are that Elam had a really good spring and showed off some good ball production in OTAs and minicamp. The Lions should have their full complement of receivers ready by this Thanksgiving matchup and will be looking to make a big impact on the national stage. Elam committed seven penalties last year, including four holds and two pass interference calls. Can the Lions take advantage of that?

When Lions face him: Week 12 (Thanksgiving), Nov. 24 at home, 12:30 p.m.

9. EDGE Jermaine Johnson II, New York Jets

Drafted: No. 26 overall

Johnson bio: The ACC Defensive Player of the Year tied for eighth nationally with 18 tackles for loss and also notched 12 sacks to go along with his 70 total stops with two pass breakups and two forced fumbles in 12 starts.

How it affects Lions: Johnson was one of my favorite players in the draft behind Hutchinson after watching him completely dominate the Senior Bowl. He's got a terrific spin move to go along with his advanced tool box of pass-rush moves. He's also a really good run defender. It's a great test for Decker and Sewell.

When Lions face him: Week 15, Dec. 18 at New York, 1 p.m.

10. WR Christian Watson, Green Bay

Drafted: No. 34 overall

Watson bio: Watson posted 43 receptions (62 targets) and 801 yards with seven touchdowns for the run-heavy Bison offense in 2021. He finished his collegiate career with 104 catches for 2,140 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging more than 20 yards per reception.

How it affects Lions: Watson has size (6-5, 208) and speed (4.3 40), and will get every opportunity to make an early impact in Green Bay with Davante Adams no longer with the Packers (traded to Las Vegas in the offseason). Watson had some issues with drops in college, but he's a big target with speed, and he's got one of the best in the business in Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball. Tracy Walker and the rest of the Lions safeties can't let this big target get behind them.

When Lions face him: Week 9, Nov. 6 at home, 1 p.m. & Week 18, Jan. 7 or 8 at Green Bay, TBD

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