10 NFL players who earned bigger regular season roles during the 2022 preseason

East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets wide receiver Denzel Mims (11) catches the ball before the game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Running back Dameon Pierce needed just a handful of touches to lock down the Texans' starting running back job, and he now looks ready to be a bell cow.

• Rookie Martin Emerson finished the preseason with a 90.2 coverage grade, standing out in a crowded Browns cornerback room.

New York Jets wide receiver Denzel Mims, looking for a bigger role, shined this preseason with 12 catches on 17 targets for 170 yards.

Estimated reading time: 5 mins

Player evaluation is an ever-changing process — even for teams themselves. The players we saw on college and NFL fields last fall are not the same ones who took snaps this preseason. Here are five rookies and five rookie contract players who showed out so much this preseason that they deserve a bigger role than previously anticipated.

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TE Isaiah Likely, Baltimore Ravens (Pick 139)

Tight ends are notoriously slow developers in the NFL. Kyle Pitts and Evan Engram are the only tight ends in the last 13 seasons to go for over 600 yards as rookies. Likely could change that, and he’s not even TE1 for the Ravens. He was a revelation this preseason, catching all 12 targets for 144 yards with seven broken tackles. His ability to work the middle of the field pairs perfectly with Lamar Jackson and will help build rapport quickly. The Ravens are a two-tight end offense by nature, meaning Likely isn’t going to come off the field much.

RB Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans (Pick 107)

This one is hardly a secret. It took Pierce all of 11 carries for the Texans to part ways with Marlon Mack (signed back to practice squad) and make the rookie the top dog in the running back room. On those 11 carries, he gained 86 yards — 67 of which came after contact — and broke four tackles. He looks ready for bell-cow status.

OT Zach Tom, Green Bay Packers (Pick 140)

How the Packers' starting offensive line shakes out in Week 1 depends on the health of both David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins. One thing is quite clear, however: Tom needs to be one of them. Whether that was at tackle or guard this preseason, Tom didn’t allow a single pressure on 75 pass-blocking snaps. That’s unheard of — not only for a rookie, but especially one drafted in the fourth round. Protecting Aaron Rodgers comes first, and Tom proved he can do so.

CB Samuel Womack, San Francisco 49ers (Pick 172)

You won’t find a player who had a better preseason than Womack. He picked off two passes, both in exceedingly impressive fashion, and broke up another that led to an interception.

He didn’t allow a single catch on his five targets. The slot job in San Francisco may have been a debate before camp, but it’s Womack’s now.

CB Martin Emerson, Cleveland Browns (Pick 68)

With a three deep of Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II and Greedy Williams, Emerson looked like a distant fourth option heading into the season. This preseason, however, he showed he provides a skill set that none of the others quite possess. At 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds, Emerson is a physical presence and got after wide receivers at the line this preseason, finishing with a 90.2 coverage grade. He can be a matchup weapon on bigger wide receivers for defensive coordinator Joe Woods.


OT Josh Jones, Arizona Cardinals (2020 Pick 72)

After two seasons of splitting time at right guard and right tackle for the Cardinals, Jones got a chance to prove himself this preseason at the left tackle position he played in college. The results were a player the likes of which we’d never seen prior. Jones was locking down rushers off the edge and allowed only two pressures on 127 pass-blocking snaps. He was simply too good to not see the football field in some capacity for Arizona or someone else via trade.

DL Ta’Quon Graham, Atlanta Falcons (2021 Pick 148)

We put “DL” here instead of DT or EDGE because Graham is capable of bridging that gap. He earned his 90.7 overall grade this preseason while playing four snaps aligned in the A-gap, nine snaps in the B-gap, six snaps over the tackle and four snaps out on the edge. His versatility at 6-foot-4, 294 pounds will be huge for a Falcons defensive line that has been searching for any sort of playmaking ability. Graham did just that this preseason and figures to not be coming off the field much.

EDGE Malcolm Koonce, Las Vegas Raiders (2021 Pick 79)

There’s obviously a log jam in front of Koonce to serious playing time, with Chandler Jones and Maxx Crosby unlikely to be coming off the field much. That being said, there shouldn’t be a third down or obvious passing situation where Koonce isn’t on the field. He was that good off the edge this preseason, tallying seven pressures on 45 pass-rushing snaps. His violent hands and bend are good starting points for a pass-rusher.

DT Trysten Hill, Dallas Cowboys (2019 Pick 58)

Hill has been much maligned over the course of his career with the Cowboys, but he may have turned a corner in a contract year. Dan Quinn still can’t put him on the field in any running situations, but Hill has some real juice as a sub-package rusher. He finished this preseason with a 79.9 overall grade.

WR Denzel Mims, New York Jets (2020 Pick 59)

Mims' inability to see the field hasn’t really been a talent issue. The confidence he played with this preseason was the first time in an NFL uniform that he looked like the player we saw at Baylor. He hauled in 12-of-17 targets for 170 yards and a score on 50 routes run. While the Jets are backed up with receivers at the moment, Mims’ explosiveness at 215 pounds is a skill set that no one else on the roster can match.


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