All 32 NFL teams have officially reported to training camp and padded practices are underway.
Here’s one intriguing player from each team to keep an eye on as things ramp back up around the league:
JUMP TO A TEAM:
One of the biggest questions in Arizona is how the offense will function without wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for the first six weeks of the season. Second-year receiver Rondale Moore is the name that keeps on coming up. And with Christian Kirk now in Jacksonville, there’s a clear path for Moore to take on an increased role.
“He feels like he can step into Christian’s role and play at a really high level inside there, and we do too,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury recently said. “I just think the confidence is high right now and he knows he’s got a big opportunity coming up.”
Moore showed flashes early last season with 11 catches for 182 yards and a touchdown over the first two weeks of the season. He took a bit of a step back from there, but with a season under his belt at the NFL level, the team is expecting big things as he enters Year 2.
Terrell was one of the biggest breakouts of the 2021 season, earning the highest coverage grade of any cornerback in the NFL (90.1). He allowed just 29 catches for 200 yards and surrendered a league-low 47.5 passer rating into his coverage. Atlanta signed his good friend and mentor Casey Hayward Jr. this offseason, creating a nasty duo. Terrell entered “star” territory last season, but he still feels underrated. He’s eligible for a new deal next offseason, and it’s safe to assume he’ll get paid handsomely if he continues his stout play.
It’s a small sample size, and it’s happening without pads, but the fourth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina has blown away coaches and teammates since arriving in Baltimore. Likely has shown an ability to find space and get separation, and he’s been flashing a large catch radius, coming down with most of the balls thrown his way. He caught 133 passes for 2,050 yards and 27 touchdowns during his college career and earned a 93.3 PFF grade last season. Ravens players have been raving about him.
Safety Tony Jefferson: “Watch out for this guy. He's going to be really good.”
Tight end Mark Andrews: “He's got a natural, kind of knack-feel for the game. “He's really fluid. When he sees something open, he takes it. He's got a little bit of me in him, for sure.”
Rousseau started all 17 games for Buffalo as a rookie, earning a 70.2 overall PFF grade — the best mark among rookie edge defenders. He also made his presence felt against the run, totaling 32 defensive run stops, which was tied for the most in the NFL among all edge defenders. The 6-foot-6 Rousseau added about six-to-seven pounds of muscle this offseason, which is noteworthy for a player who was considered “lanky” during the pre-draft process. The Bills signed future Hall-of-Famer Von Miller this offseason, and he’s already taken the 22-year-old under his wing, telling reporters that working with Rousseau is “like polishing a diamond.”
The Panthers allowed Haason Reddick to leave in free agency and didn’t do much to replace him. That should open the door for Yetur Gross-Matos, the team's second-round pick in 2020. The Penn State product finished last season with 18 solo tackles, 3.5 sacks, and five tackles for loss — all career highs.
“One of his biggest problems in the last two years has been his health,” defensive coordinator Phil Snow said. “That's my biggest concern with him. If he stays healthy and can practice every day and play every week, then I think his future is really bright here.”
Gross-Matos missed four games in 2020 and three in 2021 as he dealt with various injuries. If he can stay healthy, Carolina believes he could take a step forward.
Outside of Darnell Mooney, the Bears' wide receiver room is very much a toss-up. The third-round rookie out of Tennessee has been playing all over the field during camp and has been building a good rapport with Justin Fields. “They’re moving me from Z, F, X. They want me to know everything, so it’s been really fun getting to work with my QBs and stuff like that,” Jones said. “But they know my abilities. They know the reason why they drafted me. I am really good with the ball in my hands. Wherever they need me to be, I’m just going to be there and execute.”
Jones possesses elite speed and showed real playmaking ability in his final year at Tennessee. He’s also electric in the return game, and he could ultimately win that job.
The biggest weakness of Cincinnati’s magical 2021 team was the offensive line. In comes Alex Cappa, La’el Collins and Ted Karras this offseason. Karras is probably the lowest-profile name of the three, but he’s been the main guy when it comes to bringing the offensive line group together and helping accelerate the process.
“Ted is going to be a coach someday,” Zac Taylor said. “That's what I see from him. He's not only a really good football player who's won a lot of championships and knows what it takes. But he maintains a very high standard for himself and others and that's really exciting.”
Karras, who is expected to be the Bengals' starting center this season, earned a 72.2 PFF grade last season in New England.
The former second-round pick has battled injuries, including an Achilles tear in his rookie 2020 season. He'll now be coming off his first full and healthy offseason, and so he’s poised to take a big step forward. The team believes he could handle assignments as a deep safety or playing closer to the line of scrimmage, and he showed signs of that at the end of last season, earning a strong 75.8 PFF grade in his final five games.
Kearse enjoyed a breakout 2021 season as a full-time starter in Dallas, earning a career-high 76.8 grade while playing over 1,000 snaps. He led the team in tackles (101) and recorded the league's lowest missed tackle rate. Perhaps nobody was more under-appreciated on the Cowboys than Kearse. Expect him to continue to be a major contributor, and maybe we’ll start hearing his name more nationally.
Griffith, acquired before the start of last season in a trade, made a strong impression during his limited playing time a year ago, totaling 46 tackles, four tackles for a loss and two quarterback hits en route to a 69.1 PFF grade and a 75.1 run-defense grade. The Broncos' second linebacker job is up for grabs, and there’s a belief Griffith will come away with it if he has a strong training camp and preseason.
DETROIT LIONS: EDGE Charles Harris
The new Lions regime led by general manager Brad Holmes has been adding building blocks to this roster through the draft over the past couple of years as it looks to finally bring a consistent winner to Detroit.
The front office might’ve found another building block via free agency in Charles Harris, who was a first-round pick of the Dolphins back in 2017. Labeled a bust, Harris broke out last season with eight sacks, 52 pressures and a 78.7 PFF pass-rushing grade. He signed a two-year, $14 million contract to return this offseason. The team believes 2021 was no fluke, and Harris is now poised to become one of the true feel-good stories around the league.
Gaining quarterback Aaron Rodgers‘ trust is a big deal, and rookie Romeo Doubs seems to have done so early in camp.
“Romeo Doubs has had a really nice start to the camp,” Rodgers said. “He’s been getting a lot of attention based on some of the plays he’s made. I like the approach. Very understated kid, very humble kid.”
Doubs, who produced back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons at Nevada while leading the FBS with 11 catches and eight touchdowns of 40-plus yards, was selected in the fourth round by the Packers. “It’s surprising how many teams passed on him,” Rodgers added. “Whatever reason it was, we all feel really good about Romeo and the start he’s gotten off to.”
Every year there’s a wide receiver taken outside the first round who surprises in the regular season. Last year, it was Lions’ fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown. Another fourth-round pick in the NFC North will be looking to do the same this season.
Some have tried to connect 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to Houston, but the Texans truly believe Davis Mills is the guy for this season, at the very least. He was a five-star recruit and the top quarterback in the 2017 recruiting class. Injuries limited him to 11 college starts, but general manager Nick Caserio still made Mills his first-ever draft pick, and he had some moments in 2021, completing 66.8% of his passes for 16 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
While his PFF grade (58.5) isn’t phenomenal, we have to remember he was dealing with a poor situation. The Texans promoted Pep Hamilton to offensive coordinator under new head coach Lovie Smith, and that’s only going to help Mills in his development. Hamilton played a big role in developing Andrew Luck and Justin Herbert, and will now look to do the same for Mills.
A first-round pick last year, Paye battled through some injuries as a rookie but made an impact both as a run defender and a pass rusher. His pass-rushing grade (71.3) was the highest of all Colts edge rushers, and he racked up the second-most pressures on the team (39). He did all that despite playing just 66% of the defense's snaps last year. Paye’s numbers should only increase in 2022 with a Pro Bowl-caliber edge rusher on the opposite side after the Colts traded for Yannick Ngakoue this offseason.
Etienne missed his entire rookie season due to a Lisfranc injury, but there’s excitement in the Jaguars building for his debut in 2022. Etienne was the single best big-play threat at the running back position in college football — and that’s something the Jaguars' offense desperately needed last season. The chemistry is already there with Trevor Lawrence from their days together at Clemson. New head coach Doug Pederson got a bird's-eye view of the league last season, and he might look to use Etienne in several ways to maximize his potential.
Smith-Schuster was the first of a few receivers the Chiefs added this offseason to help replace Tyreek Hill. Head coach Andy Reid had actually been trying to get JuJu since last offseason when he was texting him pictures of the Lombardi Trophy during the free agency process. Smith-Schuster still decided to return to Pittsburgh, but Kansas City finally got him this offseason on a one-year contract that's heavy on incentives. Schuster has $7.5 million in total incentives: receptions (65 = $1.5M), yards (900 = $1.5M), playing time (65% = $1.5M), making the Pro Bowl ($1M) and team playoff success ($2M).
Nobody wants to admit it but JuJu Smith-Schuster has a legitimate chance of leading the Kansas City Chiefs in targets in 2022:pic.twitter.com/V9DtLlLQfo
— Moody (@EricNMoody) July 29, 2022
The Raiders acquired Ya-Sin this offseason from the Colts in a trade for Yannick Ngakoue. The former second-round pick had his best season as a pro in 2021 with a 69.9 PFF grade and a 72.4 coverage grade. There’s still work to do, but the Raiders believe he has the tools to be a top cover cornerback. Las Vegas general manager Dave Ziegler was with the Patriots when Ya-Sin was coming into the league and came away impressed with him back then:
“Ya-Sin was a guy who I did some work on in New England before the draft and went out to Temple and spent time with him there,” Ziegler said. “I really got to know the person and the football player. We've watched him from afar, watched him develop, watched him grow and he's still a young, ascending player.”
Many people skipped over the Chargers' selection of Zion Johnson in the draft because it happened right when the Titans and Eagles made their blockbuster A.J. Brown trade. Viewed by scouts as an immediate plug-and-play starter, Johnson posted an 84.4 PFF grade last season, allowing just six total pressures. The Chargers made drastic improvements in the 2021 offseason with the additions of Rashawn Slater and Corey Linsley. Johnson could help elevate them to one of the best offensive lines in the league.
Everyone loves talking about the Rams' “F them picks” method, but the reality is they actually value their picks. They just prefer to stock up on mid-to-late-round picks with hopes of finding young, cheap talent. And that plan has worked. Greg Gaines is another great example.
Picked in the fourth round in 2019, Gaines became a key player for the world champs last season. While playing alongside Aaron Donald, he tallied 55 tackles, four tackles for a loss, 38 total pressures, 26 hurries and 4.5 sacks. All of Gaines’ playing time came after Sebastian Joseph-Day got injured, and he essentially won over the coaching staff during that period, making Joseph-Day expendable in free agency this offseason.
Gaines built a close bond with Von Miller during their short time together last year that Miller even invited him to his pass-rush academy in Las Vegas this offseason. He’s proved to be a very good pass rusher for a guy who lines up over the center, and he's solid at plugging up holes in the run game, as well. The Rams are stoked with his development and believe they have another mid-round building block on their roster.
The Dolphins' offensive line has struggled mightily over the past couple of years, but Hunt has been one of the more stable pieces — earning PFF grades above 65.0 in both seasons since entering the league as a second-round pick. More importantly, Hunt stands to benefit from new head coach Mike McDaniel’s outside zone scheme, as it resembles the scheme he played in college under Billy Napier at Louisiana-Lafayette.
Miami also added All-Pro left tackle Terron Armstead this offseason, and he has already taken a leadership role, helping Hunt and the rest of the offensive line group:
“He’s out there at practice working with some guys. He’s in the meeting room telling us what we can do, what he’s seen,” Hunt said. “He’s been doing this for a while so what he says, we definitely take heed and we listen to it because he’s done it. He’s been an All-Pro, he’s been to Pro Bowls, he’s been everything that we want to be in life pretty much. Everything Terron says, we take it in and we listen.”
The Vikings had high hopes for Smith last season, but a meniscus injury in late August kept him out for the entire year. The former second-round pick out of Alabama has 66 catches for 676 yards and six touchdowns over his first two NFL seasons and finished 2020 with a 70.0 PFF grade. Now fully healthy, Smith returns to an offense that will likely shift to a pass-first approach under new head coach Kevin O’Connell. Expect Smith to be featured in a unit that is already stacked with talent. Better yet for Smith, he’s entering the final year of his contract and could be bound for a payday if he has a successful season.
Acquired this offseason in a pick-swap with Miami, Parker brings a different element to the Patriots' offense as a big-bodied receiver who can go up and get the ball. In fact, Parker has led the NFL in contested catches over the past two seasons (35), and that’s despite missing nine games. And with so much of the Patriots' offense geared toward the middle of the field, Parker has the potential to make an immediate presence for contested passes near the boundary.
Essentially, New England expects Parker to become what they thought N'Keal Harry could be when the team drafted him in the first round in 2019. Parker has already been making an impact at camp while growing chemistry with quarterback Mac Jones.
Selected in the third round last year, Adebo showed some promise with four pass breakups and three interceptions. He registered three 72.0-plus coverage grades in his final five games and recorded six forced incompletions. With the additions of Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye on the backend, Adebo has a chance to be even better as he lines up across Marshon Lattimore.
Toney endured an up-and-down rookie year but showed flashes of how special he could be with the ball in his hands. The hire of Brian Daboll as head coach and Mike Kafka as offensive coordinator will be key this season. Toney was away from the team during the early portion of voluntary workouts but eventually showed up and has since connected well with this new coaching staff. The goal is simple: Maximize his immense talent and make life easier for Daniel Jones. Don’t be surprised if we see Toney getting the ball early and often this season.
Conklin quietly put together a strong season last year in Minnesota with 61 receptions, 593 yards, a 70.4 receiving grade and just one drop. His signing with the Jets went a bit under the radar, especially since the team also added CJ Uzomah, but the pair will be used a ton in two-tight end sets.
Conklin has quickly built a bond with quarterback Zach Wilson, getting most of the work at OTAs while Uzomah and rookie Jeremy Ruckert were sidelined with injuries. Conklin and Wilson also went down to Nashville for George Kittle’s “Tight End University” and continued to get work in there. Another positive for Conklin: He’s familiar with the Jets’ scheme, having been a part of a West Coast offense the past three years in Minnesota.
Watkins broke out last season with 43 catches, 647 receiving yards and a 73.6 receiving grade in his first year under coach Nick Sirianni. With A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert taking up most of the attention, the speedy Watkins could have a chance to thrive in a ton of one-on-one opportunities this season.
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert officially retired after April’s draft, and he left the team with two rookie receivers: second-round pick George Pickens and fourth-round pick Calvin Austin. If history tells us anything, it’s that Colbert knows how to find capable receivers outside of Round 1: Chase Claypool (2nd round, 2020), Diontae Johnson (3rd round, 2019), JuJu Smith-Schuster (2nd round, 2017), Martavis Bryant (4th round, 2014), Emmanuel Sanders (3rd round, 2010), Antonio Brown (6th round, 2010), Mike Wallace (3rd round, 2009).
Pickens (and Austin) have the potential to join that list. Pickens slipped into the second-round due to some injury and maturity concerns, but his talent was first-round worthy. He’s already made some impressive catches over his first few practices in a Steelers uniform and has been so good that Mitchell Trubisky already trusts him:
“I’m getting to the point where I really trust him throwing him the ball,” Trubisky said. “He’s made some great grabs and he’s going to be a great player for us.”
Center Alex Mack‘s retirement this offseason leaves Brendel as the projected starter in 2022. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has emphasized the importance of a center in his system, calling the position “the heartbeat of an offense.” Shanahan’s zone-blocking scheme requires extra communication between the linemen, and the center often has to play the middle man in all the pre-snap exchanges. In the passing game, the center usually handles all the checks and protections at the line, freeing up the quarterback to focus on the secondary instead.
Brendel, meanwhile, has played a grand total of six offensive snaps over the past three seasons. He’ll have to prove to Shanahan that he can be the “heartbeat” of the offense.
The Seahawks moved on from future Hall of Fame linebacker Bobby Wagner this offseason, mainly because of his contract and the belief that Brooks is ready to slot in. Head coach Pete Carroll has told reporters that Brooks will be taking over Wagner’s role as the team’s defensive play caller. Brooks made great strides in coverage in 2021 compared to his rookie season and has been solid in run defense. Keep an eye out for him growing into a leadership role entering his third year.
Gage in Tampa Bay is a fascinating situation because one of the main reasons he even ended up there was Tom Brady. After unretiring, Brady made a number of calls to players about returning/joining the Buccaneers, and Gage was among them. The Bucs' front office ultimately went after him and agreed to a three-year, $30 million deal. Gage should have opportunities to contribute, especially with the team expected to take a slow approach in bringing back Chris Godwin as he continues to recover from an ACL injury.
Buccaneers wide receivers ranked fifth in total targets and third in routes over the past two seasons. That should lead to a hefty workload for Gage, who now gets to play with the GOAT.
Acquired in a trade with the Rams, the 30-year-old Woods is the Titans’ projected No. 1 receiver with A.J. Brown now in Philadelphia. He’s still making his way back from a torn ACL suffered last season. Tennessee will be able to line him up outside, in the slot, and the team could manufacture touches for him in the run game, which is something we saw the Rams do. A bigger element, and an underrated part of Woods’ game, is his ability as a blocker. In nine seasons, Woods has posted a run-blocking grade of 70.0 or better seven times and 80.0 or better three times. Expect Tennessee to use that to its advantage.
A third-round pick out of UNC in 2021, Brown caught just eight passes in his rookie year. He reported this offseason with a “new attitude” and had the opportunity to run with the first-team offense for the majority of the offseason program while star receiver Terry McLaurin was away due to contract negotiations. All those extra reps with Carson Wentz have gone a long way for the second-year receiver. His combination of size and speed is something Washington lacks, and for a vertical type of quarterback like Wentz, Brown could see some opportunities in the offense.