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Beyond the NFL’s stars, many often overlook the No. 3 wide receiver, the rotational edge-rusher or the one-year starter in the secondary, but those reserves and budding playmakers may have a lot more to offer.
These are the league’s best-kept secrets, and for our purposes, it means they don’t have Pro Bowl or All-Pro accolades for their roles on offense or defense—but we included standout special teamers with those honors. Most of the selections have limited starting experience or haven’t been able to distinguish themselves at non-premium positions.
We’ve excluded first-round picks, because of the high expectations for them, and rookies, since they don’t have pro production (regular season or preseason).
Who deserves more buzz? Let’s shine a light on unheralded contributors across all 32 rosters.
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Jalen Thompson has flown under the radar while his teammate at safety, Budda Baker, has earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro accolades.
But just like Baker, Thompson plays a versatile role in the Arizona Cardinals secondary, logging snaps at center field, in the box and in the slot. Last year, he became a full-time starter and logged a team-leading 121 tackles (79 solo), three for loss, seven pass breakups and three interceptions.
The Cardinals selected Thompson as the only pick (fifth round) in the 2019 supplemental draft. On the depth chart, he’s surpassed safety Deionte Thompson, who went in the fifth round of the 2019 draft.
Most safeties generate little leaguewide buzz, though Thompson can command top dollar on the free-agent market next offseason if he has another productive year with high-level ball production.
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In 2021, Jaylinn Hawkins took the field for 49 percent of the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive snaps, though he made enough plays on the ball to earn consideration for an expanded role in the upcoming season. The 2020 fourth-rounder finished with 24 tackles, one for loss, three pass breakups and two interceptions through 14 games (four starts).
After a year with the Falcons, safety Duron Harmon signed with the Las Vegas Raiders, and Erik Harris will go into his age-32 campaign. As a second-rounder from the 2021 draft, Richie Grant has upside, but Hawkins showcased more of his potential last year.
At 6’1″, 208 pounds, Hawkins can play the deep safety role or line up in the box to supplement the run, which bodes well for his chance at a full-time starting position.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees sees a bright future for the upstart talent.
“I think we got two good young safeties who are going to get their opportunity now this year,” Pees said on 92.9 The Game (h/t SI.com’s Daniel Flick).
Hawkins has already shown that he’ll take advantage of more time on the field.
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Gus Edwards hasn’t started in more than six games in any of his four seasons, though he led the Baltimore Ravens in rushing for 2018 (718 yards) and accumulated at least 711 yards on the ground in each of his first three terms. He missed the entire 2021 season with a torn ACL.
Mostly as the No. 2 running back over the past two years, Edwards established himself in the Ravens backfield. Last year, he may have reached career-high rushing totals as a fill-in starter for J.K. Dobbins, who also tore his ACL during the 2021 offseason.
Instead, Edwards will look to bounce back from a lost season and maintain his consistency. Last June, he signed a two-year, $9 million extension, which shows the team values his contributions.
With that said, Edwards may not get a ton of praise because he’s not heavily involved in the passing game (18 receptions for 194 yards in three years). Furthermore, if healthy, Dobbins, who’s a 2020 second-rounder, will likely lead the backfield in carries and touches.
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Following wideout Gabriel Davis’ record-setting playoff performance against the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2021 AFC Divisional Round, he’s no longer a secret. Instead, we should pay attention to the Buffalo Bills’ subtle improvements to their run defense, which ranked 26th in touchdowns allowed last year.
This offseason, the Bills signed defensive tackles DaQuan Jones and Tim Settle. The former should be the front-runner for the starting spot. Yet the latter could eventually take over the lead role because of his upside as a pass-rusher.
In 2020 with Washington, Settle recorded 19 tackles, five for loss, five sacks and 10 pressures while on the field for 33 percent of the defensive snaps. Last season, his snap count dropped, and he had a nondescript campaign with just 13 tackles, four for loss and a pressure.
On the Bills’ depth chart, Settle could surpass Jones, who will turn 31 years in December. Regardless, the two defensive tackles will split snaps alongside Ed Oliver. If the coaching staff sees the upside in the 24-year-old Settle, he’s a potential three-down defender who could take the field for at least 50 percent of the defensive plays.
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The Carolina Panthers lost their 2021 sack leader in Haason Reddick, who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. Yetur Gross-Matos looks like the next man up opposite Pro Bowl defensive end Brian Burns.
Gross-Matos saw his defensive snap count drop from 48 to 38 percent between his rookie and second seasons. Behind Reddick, he became the primary backup off the edge. Now with an opening in the first unit, expect the third-year pro to take on a bigger workload.
Through 26 outings (nine starts), Gross-Matos has recorded 52 tackles, seven for loss, six sacks and 19 pressures.
According to The Athletic’s Joseph Person, the Panthers might add another veteran edge-rusher, though they may not sign someone right away, which gives Gross-Matos a chance to jump on the starting spot in the offseason program.
With Burns commanding a lot of attention on one end, Gross-Matos could take advantage of one-on-one scenarios and match Reddick’s pass-rushing production from the previous campaign.
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As the Chicago Bears transition to an even-man front, they need two primary linebackers who can pursue ball-carriers across the width of the field and cover in space for their nickel formation.
Linebacker Danny Trevathan, who turned 32 years old in March, missed 12 games because of knee issues last season and sat out 19 contests since 2019. The Bears released him and signed Nicholas Morrow.
Morrow missed the entire 2021 campaign because of an ankle injury, though he’s made a full recovery. Before his lost season, the versatile linebacker had his best year in 2020 with the Las Vegas Raiders, logging 78 tackles, eight for loss, nine pass breakups and an interception.
Morrow can play all three linebacker positions, and he’s a former collegiate safety from Greenville University. The Bears can use him in different spots across the formation on all three downs, which may allow him to top his 2020 numbers as the probable starter alongside Roquan Smith.
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Joseph Ossai tore his meniscus in the Cincinnati Bengals’ preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and didn’t play a down in his rookie campaign.
Before that, he logged seven pressures in exhibition action, per Pro Football Focus, and sacked Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady. Going into his second season, the 2021 third-rounder can become a reliable designated pass-rusher behind Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard.
Because of Ossai’s experience as an off-ball linebacker at Texas, he can play the strong-side linebacker position and take the field along with Hendrickson and Hubbard on obvious passing downs.
Though Ossai hasn’t played a regular-season snap, he showcased great potential in just one preseason appearance. If that’s a small sample of what’s to come, the 6’4″, 256-pounder could make a name for himself in 2022.
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Donovan Peoples-Jones has made big plays through his first two seasons. He hauled in 48 passes for 901 yards and five touchdowns during that span and saw a significant increase in his offensive snap count from 2020 (34 percent) to 2021 (77 percent).
Initially buried on the depth chart behind Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and Rashard Higgins through his rookie campaign, Peoples-Jones could open 2022 as a starter in three-wide receiver sets.
The Cleveland Browns released Beckham last November, and he signed with the Los Angeles Rams, who have yet to re-sign him as he recovers from a torn ACL. Landry and Higgins inked deals with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, respectively.
Peoples-Jones has an edge in experience over rookie third-rounder David Bell. He outproduced 2021 third-rounder Anthony Schwartz, who caught 10 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown last year. The 2020 sixth-rounder should start opposite Amari Cooper, whom the Browns acquired from the Dallas Cowboys in March.
With three-time Pro Bowler Deshaun Watson set to replace Baker Mayfield under center, Peoples-Jones could rack up steady numbers in the passing game because of the upgrade at quarterback.
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Randy Gregory signed with the Denver Broncos, which creates opportunities for a defensive end to take on an expanded role opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. Rookie second-rounder Sam Williams, 2021 third-rounder Chauncey Golston, Dante Fowler Jr. and Dorance Armstrong will all have a shot to carve out a consistent role on the edge.
Armstrong stands out because the Dallas Cowboys re-signed him on a two-year deal after they lost Gregory, and he’s coming off his best season, logging 37 tackles, three for loss, five sacks and 22 pressures.
With a year in defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s system, Armstrong could build on a solid 2021 in which he served as a rotational defensive end through 13 games (five starts).
Armstrong will face stiff competition from the recent early-round draft picks and Fowler, who played under Quinn with the Falcons, but he’s headed into his prime on a multiyear deal after a fairly productive campaign. The fifth-year pro seems like he’s on the rise.
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Despite former Denver Broncos quarterback Drew Lock’s struggles with accuracy (57.3 percent completion rate), KJ Hamler caught 30 passes for 381 yards and three touchdowns in his 2020 rookie season. Last year, he tore his ACL in Week 3.
On the mend but well ahead of schedule in his recovery, Hamler has big plans for his third campaign: emulating Seattle Seahawks wideout Tyler Lockett.
As Hamler prepares to team with quarterback Russell Wilson, he’s opened communication with the signal-caller’s former Seahawks teammate, per The Athletic’s Nick Kosmider.
“I’m a big fan of Tyler’s game, and me and him have talked a lot,” Hamler said. “I’ve just been picking his brain, like, ‘How does Russ handle these situations?’ It’s being a sponge, absorbing knowledge from two Pro Bowl guys. I put on Tyler’s film and I’m like, ‘OK, he did this and he did that.’ And then it’s, ‘OK, I can do all this.'”
With Wilson as the primary starter under center, Lockett racked up 1,054-plus receiving yards in each of the last three seasons. Hamler has the speed and versatility to line up in the slot or out wide to mirror Lockett’s role. He may not see comparable production behind Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick and Jerry Jeudy, though the latter could be out for an extended period as he faces second-degree criminal tampering with a domestic violence enhancer charge.
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Last year, Derrick Barnes saw an increase in his defensive snap count as the Detroit Lions moved on from linebacker Jamie Collins. The team released the latter in late September after unsuccessful attempts to trade him, per MLive.com’s Benjamin Raven.
In Week 3, Barnes made his first career start. He didn’t stick with the first-stringers for most of the season but maintained a solid role in the last two months of the campaign.
Though Barnes struggled in pass coverage, allowing an 86.4 completion rate and a 149.1 passer rating, he made several plays while moving toward the line of scrimmage, logging 67 tackles, four for loss, two sacks and two pass breakups.
Barnes may not develop into a reliable cover man on short-to-intermediate routes, though he could strengthen the Lions’ 28th-ranked run defense. He’s also a second-level defender who can supplement the pass rush because of his tendency to shoot gaps and close on the quarterback near the pocket.
Barnes has a shot to rack up 100-plus tackles as a starter alongside Alex Anzalone.
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Following the departure of two-time All-Pro wideout Davante Adams via trade to the Las Vegas Raiders, the Green Bay Packers don’t have a go-to pass-catcher. The receiver room could try to fill that void by committee.
Allen Lazard has an early advantage over Sammy Watkins, rookie second-rounder Christian Watson and rookie fourth-rounder Romeo Doubs because of his three full years of experience with quarterback Aaron Rodgers and in head coach Matt LaFleur’s system.
In 2021, Lazard logged career highs in catches (40), receiving yards (513) and touchdowns (eight). At 6’5″, 227 pounds, he’s a viable red-zone threat, though his growing rapport with Rodgers may result in some consistency on a down-to-down basis and a heightened volume in targets.
Randall Cobb is the only wide receiver on the roster who’s been teammates with Rodgers (nine) longer than Lazard (four).
Nonetheless, Lazard should open the 2022 campaign as a starter in three-wide receiver sets and have a chance to reach career highs. Keep in mind that Watkins has missed at least four games in three of the last four years. He’s not the most reliable in terms of availability.
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Because of his red-zone production in the previous season, Brevin Jordan could move up the depth chart and supplant Pharaoh Brown under a new coaching staff.
In 2021, Jordan hauled in three touchdown passes inside the 15-yard line; Brown has scored two touchdowns in the last three years.
As a 2021 fifth-round pick out of Miami, Jordan didn’t play in the first seven weeks of his rookie season, but he made an immediate contribution as a first-time starter in Week 8, catching three passes for 41 yards and a touchdown.
The Texans’ previous regime used multiple tight ends, with Jordan Akins and Antony Auclair also in the mix. The former signed with the New York Giants, and the latter doesn’t have much receiving production on his five-year resume (15 receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown).
If the Texans intend to develop a big-bodied pass-catching target for second-year quarterback Davis Mills, Jordan looks like the best bet to emerge in a featured role.
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In the Indianapolis Colts secondary, 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and Pro Bowl cornerback Kenny Moore II will garner the spotlight. Even though Isaiah Rodgers made strides through his second pro season, he’ll head into the 2022 campaign as an unheralded defender for a top-10 scoring unit.
Last year, Rodgers lined up primarily on the boundary and recorded seven pass breakups and three interceptions while allowing a 78.1 passer rating in coverage. In two terms, he made the jump from a high-end kick returner (24 returns for 692 yards and a touchdown in 2020) to a solid cover man on the perimeter who’s also a productive special teamer.
Though the Colts signed Brandon Facyson, who’s played under new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley with the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders, Rodgers should move into a full-time starting position (on the outside) in the nickel alignment following a productive year in coverage.
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The Jacksonville Jaguars can attack opposing defenses with a rotation of four wide receivers that includes Christian Kirk, Marvin Jones Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr. and Zay Jones.
The Jaguars’ new coaching staff could place Shenault on the trade block after the front office signed Kirk to a four-year, $72 million contract and added Zay Jones on a three-year, $24 million deal.
Based on the financial investment in Jones, the Jaguars may feature him in three-wide receiver sets after his strong finish to the 2021 season with the Las Vegas Raiders. He caught at least five passes in each of the last five regular-season games and logged a career-high 120 receiving yards against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 17.
Even though Jones has played five seasons split between the Buffalo Bills and Raiders, he’s still 27 years old and has upside. As a potential starter in three-wide receiver sets with the Jaguars, he could top his most productive campaign, which came in 2018 with the Bills (56 receptions for 652 yards and seven touchdowns).
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Mecole Hardman doesn’t have to replicate the skill set of All-Pro wideout Tyreek Hill, whom the Kansas City Chiefs traded to the Miami Dolphins, but he does have the speed (4.33-second 40-yard dash) to break away from defenders in open space.
As the No. 3 pass-catching option in the Chiefs’ aerial attack behind Hill and tight end Travis Kelce, Hardman caught 126 passes for 1,791 yards and 12 touchdowns with a 67.7 percent catch rate from the 2019 to 2021 campaigns.
Though the Chiefs signed wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Hardman has a faster gear than the former, and he’s a more reliable pass-catcher than the latter, who has a 49.8 percent catch rate. Rookie second-rounder Skyy Moore may need an adjustment period as he transitions from the collegiate ranks.
Meanwhile, Hardman’s rapport with quarterback Patrick Mahomes should pay immediate dividends. He’s arguably the most dynamic playmaker of the Chiefs wide receiver group because of his speed, big-play ability (averaged 20.7 yards per reception in 2019) and catch efficiency.
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Last December, Divine Deablo moved into the starting lineup in place of linebacker Cory Littleton, whom the Las Vegas Raiders signed to a three-year, $35.3 million deal in 2020.
Littleton had an underwhelming two-year run with the Raiders, and Deablo capitalized on an opportunity to fill a void in the middle of the defense. As a rookie, the latter started in five out of 17 games, logging 45 tackles, one for loss and a pass breakup.
Though Deablo didn’t make a ton of splashy plays, he did enough to hold on to the first-unit position late in the 2021 season and into the wild-card playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
With the inside linebacker spot next to Denzel Perryman up for grabs, Deablo will likely battle Jayon Brown for the position.
Though Brown comes over from the Tennessee Titans with 39 career starts, Deablo has collegiate experience in a hybrid linebacker-safety role at Virginia Tech, and he’s a long defender at 6’3″, 226 pounds. New defensive coordinator Patrick Graham may favor the 2021 third-rounder’s physical tools and attributes to solidify the second level of his defense.
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Sebastian Joseph-Day has a connection to Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley, who served as his defensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams during the 2020 season. They are reuniting in the same city as part of a different team, which bodes well for both sides.
Last season, the Chargers allowed the third-most rushing yards, and they desperately needed a run-stuffer on the front line of their defense. Under Staley with the Rams, Joseph-Day played nose tackle, logging 55 tackles (35 solo).
Midway through the 2021 season, the Rams placed Joseph-Day on injured reserve with a pectoral injury, but he made strides and showcased his ability to make an impact on all three downs, registering 38 tackles, three for loss and three sacks through seven outings.
In a familiar system, Joseph-Day could bolster the Chargers run defense and generate an interior pass rush to complement edge-rushers Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa for a breakout 2022 campaign.
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As a rookie last season, Ernest Jones didn’t crack the starting lineup until Week 8 but flashed immediately. In his first career start, he recorded nine tackles (seven solo), one for loss, an interception, a pass breakup and a half-sack.
From that point forward, Jones started in most of the games but went down with an ankle injury that sidelined him from Week 16 until the NFC Championship Game. In Super Bowl LVI, he returned to the starting lineup and logged seven tackles, two for loss, three quarterback hits and a pass breakup.
In 2022, Jones will line up alongside one of the league’s most accomplished off-ball linebackers in Bobby Wagner, who has eight Pro Bowls and six All-Pro campaigns. The 22-year-old should be able to learn from a probable future Hall of Famer and continue to see growth in a lead role.
Jones proved he could make an impact on all three downs, registering 61 tackles (36 solo), four pass breakups and two interceptions during his rookie campaign. Even if Wagner makes a short stop in Los Angeles before heading to Canton, Ohio, the Rams have a potential long-term answer at inside linebacker with Jones in the middle.
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Safety Brandon Jones and outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel have cases for being the best-kept secret on the Miami Dolphins, but the former had somewhat of a breakout 2021 (79 tackles, six for loss, five sacks and an interception). The latter has served in primarily a lead position for two seasons.
This offseason, the Dolphins signed Cedrick Wilson Jr., who started to blossom late in the 2021 campaign with the Dallas Cowboys, eclipsing 103 receiving yards in Weeks 12 and 18. He finished with 45 receptions for 602 yards and six touchdowns for the year.
Wilson will fall behind All-Pro wideout Tyreek Hill and 2021 first-round wide receiver Jaylen Waddle on the depth chart, but he may see a lot of open field at the top of his routes out of the slot as opposing safeties roll coverage over to his speedy teammates. The 26-year-old could rack up a lot of yards after the catch in 2022.
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In 2021, Irv Smith Jr. underwent surgery for a torn meniscus and missed the entire season. He’s likely to reclaim his starting position and see most of the targets at tight end following the departure of Tyler Conklin to the New York Jets in free agency.
Before Smith’s season-ending injury, he seemed primed for a solid year in a pass-catching role. Though the Alabama product didn’t see a significant increase in receptions or receiving yards from 2019 to 2020, he became a reliable target in the red zone, hauling in all five of his touchdowns within 15 yards of the goal line.
In 2022, Smith won’t have to share looks in the passing game with Conklin, who recorded 61 receptions for 593 yards and three touchdowns last season. The former should finish with similar receiving numbers in the upcoming campaign. He can challenge wideout K.J. Osborn for a role as the No. 3 pass-catching option behind wideouts Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
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Even the best offensive linemen fly under the radar because they rarely score touchdowns, so an upstart player at the position can easily go unnoticed (to the public) until the team has to decide whether to re-sign him.
Through two seasons, Mike Onwenu has played both guard positions and right tackle. As a rookie, he started in all 16 games but slid back into a reserve role for half of his appearances last season. In 2021, Onwenu only committed three penalties and gave up two sacks through 647 snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
For the upcoming season, Onwenu could move back into a full-time starting spot at guard following the departure of Ted Karras to the Cincinnati Bengals via free agency and Shaq Mason, whom the New England Patriots traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With rookie first-rounder Cole Strange likely to start at one interior position, Onwenu has a chance to showcase his skill set as one of the better pass protectors among the league’s young guards.
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Last season, Adam Trautman had a chance to provide a boost to the New Orleans Saints’ underwhelming group of pass-catchers. Yet he only hauled in 27 passes for 263 yards and two touchdowns—just a slight production increase from his rookie campaign (15 catches for 171 yards and a touchdown).
With that said, for a decent stretch, Trautman became a reliable pass-catcher with a high target volume. For three consecutive outings—Weeks 9 to 11—he had at least six targets and finished with four or more receptions in each of those contests.
In 2022, Trautman may see a lot of open field with two-time All-Pro wideout Michael Thomas set to rejoin the team (h/t NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport) and Jarvis Landry’s arrival. Perhaps rookie first-round receiver Chris Olave commands some attention in coverage as well.
If quarterback Jameis Winston finds his rhythm and spreads the ball, Trautman could benefit from an improved pass-catching group. Nonetheless, he may have to share looks in the aerial attack with a versatile playmaker in Taysom Hill, who, according to head coach Dennis Allen, will “focus” on a role at tight end.
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Clearly, the New York Giants hit on their 2021 second-round pick in Azeez Ojulari, who led the team in sacks (eight) and pressures (27) last year. But we shouldn’t overlook Quincy Roche, whom the team claimed off waivers before the start of the previous season.
Outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter missed three games between Weeks 8 and 11, and Roche took advantage of an expanded workload on the edge. The latter started in the absence of the former and logged 13 tackles, two for loss, three quarterback hits and a sack in that short stretch.
Despite Carter’s return, Roche still occasionally made impact plays at or behind the line of scrimmage and finished the campaign with 38 tackles, five for loss, 2.5 sacks and seven pressures while on the field for 42 percent of the defensive snaps.
Carter signed with the Atlanta Falcons, but the Giants selected Kayvon Thibodeaux with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2022 draft. Roche won’t see a significant increase in his snap count behind Ojulari and the rookie, though he can add another layer to Big Blue’s pass rush in a rotational role.
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The New York Jets have a stacked defensive line group. They added Jacob Martin, rookie first-rounder Jermaine Johnson II and rookie fourth-rounder Micheal Clemons. Carl Lawson will look to bounce back from a ruptured Achilles that cost him the entire 2021 season.
Even though defensive lineman John Franklin-Myers could play on the inside to free up some snaps for the edge-rushers, Martin, who played his first four seasons with the Seattle Seahawks (one year) and the Houston Texans (three years), will probably serve as a designated pass-rusher.
Even if that’s the case, Martin has produced with efficiency in a limited role. In three of his first four campaigns, he played fewer than 40 percent of the defensive snaps but still recorded at least three sacks in each of those terms.
Last year, Martin played 61 percent of the defensive snaps and saw a spike in quarterback pressures (19) compared to his previous years.
Martin isn’t going to lead the Jets in sacks for the upcoming campaign, but he’s a high-motor primary backup who can help the defense close out games with a layered pass rush.
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Quez Watkins made a significant leap between his rookie and second season, hauling in 43 passes for 647 yards and a touchdown after a nondescript 2020 campaign (seven catches for 106 yards and a touchdown).
Watkins has mostly lined up in the slot, though he can split out wide as well. Regardless, the 6’0″, 193-pound wideout can make big plays. In 2021, he led the Eagles in yards per reception (15.0) among pass-catchers with at least five receptions, and 25 of his 43 catches resulted in a first down.
The Eagles acquired wideout A.J. Brown from the Tennessee Titans, and he’ll pair with DeVonta Smith on the perimeter, which leaves Watkins and Jalen Reagor in contention for snaps in the slot.
Unlike Watkins, Reagor didn’t make a notable jump between the 2020 and 2021 terms. He saw a decline in his receiving yards total from 396 to 299.
According to ESPN’s Tim McManus, the Eagles would listen to trade offers for Reagor. On the other hand, general manager Howie Roseman said he expected the 2020 first-rounder to remain with the club. Nonetheless, a decent trade proposal from a receiver-needy team could change his mind.
Based on recent production, Watkins has the upper hand in a battle for primary slot duties in three-WR sets. He could match or eclipse his receiving yard totals from last season.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers may have hit on an underrated move when they acquired Ahkello Witherspoon from the Seattle Seahawks last September.
In 2021, Witherspoon missed eight of the first nine games but made steady contributions through the second half of the campaign. He started in three regular-season outings and the Wild Card Round matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. For the year, Witherspoon led the team in interceptions (three) and allowed a 35.1 passer rating in coverage.
Pittsburgh re-signed Witherspoon on a two-year deal, and he’ll have a shot to start Week 1 of the upcoming term with cornerback Joe Haden still available on the open market.
At 6’2″, 195 pounds, Witherspoon has the size to match up against bigger lead wide receivers and enough foot speed to mirror some of the twitchier pass-catchers on the perimeter. In line for a starting role, he’s a potential breakout candidate.
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Under head coach Kyle Shanahan, the San Francisco 49ers have featured multiple pass-catchers in the slot. As a rookie last season, Jauan Jennings split snaps between the inside and outside and started to build some momentum last December with multiple receptions in each of the final five regular-season games.
Between Weeks 12 and 18, Jennings had four touchdown receptions, three of those scores within the red zone. At 6’3″, 212 pounds, he could become a consistent threat in tight areas near the end zone.
Jennings isn’t going to command a ton of targets unless the 49ers trade Deebo Samuel, who’s at odds with the team, but he can carve out a role as the third wide receiver with the current group. Rookie third-round wideout Danny Gray could push him for a steady role, though.
In the upcoming campaign, Jennings will need to establish a rapport with Trey Lance, who according to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler (via Bleacher Report’s Tyler Conway) “got indications” that he’ll succeed Jimmy Garoppolo as the starter under center.
Jennings’ progress and development could hinge on his ability to build an early connection with Lance through the offseason.
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As a rookie, Alton Robinson had some bright moments through the 2020 season, logging 22 tackles, five for loss, four sacks and 11 pressures. Last season, he didn’t make much progress within a crowded group of edge-rushers.
This offseason, the Seattle Seahawks will transition to an odd-man front under Clint Hurtt, who will replace Ken Norton Jr. They haven’t re-signed Carlos Dunlap or Benson Mayowa, and Rasheem Green signed with the Houston Texans. Dunlap led the team in sacks (8.5) in 2021.
Though the Seahawks signed Uchenna Nwosu, who’s a probable starter, and selected Boye Mafe in the second round of the draft, Robinson may have a chance to make a significant impact behind Darrell Taylor as the primary backup edge-rusher.
Of course, if Mafe turns heads through training camp, he’ll take on a heavy workload right away, but Robinson’s experience should work in his favor and allow him to play more than about a third of the defensive snaps.
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Over the past two seasons, we’ve seen glimpses of Tyler Johnson’s playmaking ability in a reserve position. Behind Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski in the pecking order among quarterback Tom Brady’s pass-catching options, he didn’t get a consistent volume of targets.
Yet Johnson has converted 72 targets into 48 receptions for 529 yards and two touchdowns. Though the Buccaneers added wideout Russell Gage to the roster, Godwin is still in the early stages of his recovery from a torn ACL.
Godwin’s potential absence at the beginning of the 2022 campaign could allow Johnson to fill in as a starter for multiple weeks. Furthermore, Gronkowski remains undecided on a commitment to play another season.
Because of some question marks in the Buccaneers’ pass-catching group, Johnson could rack up receiving numbers with Brady under center. On the flip side, he’ll have to settle for leftover targets if Godwin and Gronkowski suit up for Week 1.
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Through three seasons, David Long Jr.’s production has trended in the right direction, but he hasn’t produced a full-scale breakout season yet.
Long has started in 14 out of 38 career games with nine of those first-unit appearances in the 2021 campaign. Last year, he missed several games because of a hamstring injury but still logged 75 tackles, four for loss, six pass breakups and two interceptions while allowing a 61 passer rating in coverage.
With the departure of linebacker Jayon Brown, who signed with the Las Vegas Raiders, Long doesn’t have much competition for the starting spot alongside Zach Cunningham unless second-year pro Monty Rice has an exceptional showing through the Tennessee Titans’ offseason program.
With a clean bill of health, Long seems primed for a standout year in the middle of the Titans defense. He’s a complete three-down defender who won’t have to come off the field in passing situations.
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New Washington Commanders quarterback Carson Wentz may have an underrated offensive weapon in John Bates, who filled in for tight end Logan Thomas in the starting lineup last year.
In 2021, Thomas only suited up for six games, recording 18 receptions for 196 yards and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, Bates opened eight out of 17 outings with the first unit and hauled in 20 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown.
While Bates accumulated low-scale receiving numbers, he showed the ability to contribute in the passing game as a rookie who didn’t log more than 22 catches in a single term on the collegiate level.
The Commanders could tap into Bates’ potential in a pass-catching role as Thomas goes into his age-31 term following an injury-riddled campaign, which may usher in a changing of the guard at the position.
Washington selected Bates with a fourth-round pick in the 2021 draft—an indication that the team thought he could develop into a decent contributor.
College statistics are provided by cfbstats.com.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.