Every NFL Team's Best-Kept Secret for 2022
Given this age of hundreds of websites dedicated to the sport, 24-hour sports networks and even the NFL's own television channel, secrets are a relative term in 2022. If a player is any kind of contributor (or expected to become one), odds are someone has talked them up.
However, that doesn't mean that there aren't players who are secrets after a fashion. Some are youngsters or rotational players who are about to step into a larger role. Others are young players or veterans who just haven't been given the accolades they deserve. And others still might be known to hardcore local fans, but not to the greater football fandom.
You won't find any Pro Bowlers in this article. The only first-round picks included are already on their second teams after disappointing starts to their NFL careers.
But what you will find is a collection of players whom not enough folks are familiar with—the players with the potential to change that this year.
Arizona Cardinals: S Jalen Thompson
When the NFL's top safeties are discussed, Budda Baker of the Arizona Cardinals is mentioned fairly often. But it wasn't Baker who led Arizona's safeties in tackles last season.
As a matter of fact, not only did Jalen Thompson pace the Arizona secondary in stops, but the fourth-year veteran led the entire team in both total tackles (121) and solos (79).
Per Jose Romero of the Arizona Republic, Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury lauded Thompson's progress from supplemental draft pick in 2019 to full-time starter in 2021.
"Coming in that late, just going right to training camp and then emerging as one of our better players on the team, it's been tremendous," Kingsbury said. "But then you watch him day in, day out, the work ethic, the preparation, one of the best open field tacklers in the league, and he's just been a tremendous help for our defense."
Thompson's coverage stats weren't great last year, highlighted by also having a slightly worse completion percentage than Baker in 2021 (67.2 percent to 68.8). If Thompson can clean those up a bit and eclipse 100 total tackles again, he'll have to be mentioned among the league's best at the position.
Atlanta Falcons: LB Mykal Walker
The Atlanta Falcons are overhauling their roster in more spots than not on both sides of the ball in 2022. That includes at inside linebacker, where the team lost Foyedsade Oulokun to free agency and appear set to move on from veteran Deion Jones.
The Falcons have taken steps to overhaul the unit both in free agency and the draft, signing Rashaan Evans and Nick Kwiatkoski and drafting Montana State's Troy Andersen on Day 2 of the 2022 draft. But the player who could be set to make the biggest impact for the team at the position this season is holdover Mykal Walker.
Per Scott Bair of the team's website, Walker has impressed inside linebackers coach Frank Bush, both with his conditioning and his growth as a player.
"Mykal has had a really good spring. He came back in tremendous shape. There's a certain level of maturity that has shown up in the building this year. He physically looks the part, and he's embracing the role of trying to be the guy who can be on the field all the time. He has done a great job and has had a really good spring. We have high expectations for him and, so far, he has lived up to them."
Walker has eight starts and 80 total stops over two years in Atlanta, and while he's not as experienced as Evans and Kwiatkoski, his range is better. There's a very real possibility that Walker opens the season as a three-down linebacker for a defense that will spend a lot of time on the field.
And if that's the case, he's going to open some eyes.
Baltimore Ravens: WR James Proche II
There's been no shortage written about the wide receiver position in Baltimore after the Ravens traded away Marquise Brown. Or about Rashod Bateman's breakout potential as the new No. 1 wideout for the team.
But as Clifton Brown wrote for the team's website, heading into his third season wide receiver James Proche ll is determined to show that he can be a valuable contributor on offense as well.
"I just love football," Proche said. "I love my job. I love what I do. This is my nine-to-five, plus some overtime. Some people are at desks and cubicles or whatever they want to do. Salute to you all, but I need to play football. That's not going to change. I'm super grateful, I'm super blessed. I wouldn't want to be doing anything [else] in the world right now."
Proche was ridiculously productive at SMU, posting 204 receptions over his last two collegiate seasons. But in the pros it has been a much different story—Proche has just 17 catches over two seasons and has never played more than 212 snaps in a season.
That could be about to change, though. Per Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic, Proche has shined at OTAs, leading to speculation that his offensive role could increase significantly in 2022. If Proche does emerge as a viable option on third downs, the 5'11", 193-pounder will smash new career bests across the board.
Buffalo Bills: OT Spencer Brown
The Buffalo Bills may well have the most loaded roster from 1-53 in the entire NFL. It's a roster dotted with first-round picks on both sides of the ball. But one of the most important players in Buffalo's offensive line was a Day 2 pick who was drafted more as a project than an immediate impact player.
Things didn't go as planned for the Bills last year up front—after Cody Ford struggled at right guard, the team was forced to move Daryl Williams inside and insert that Day 2 rookie at right tackle. And as Sean Murphy and Matt Warren wrote for Buffalo Rumblings, once Spencer Brown hit the field, it didn't take long for the team to realize it had something.
"He brings a certain nastiness to the line that guard Jon Feliciano brought, only with more consistent and effective blocking to boot," they said. "For a while there, it looked like Brown was the linchpin to the entire offensive line, as the Bills’ protection definitely improved once he began to play."
Brown admittedly wasn't flawless, and he missed several games because of injury and a stint on the COVID-19 list. But all told, the small-school standout from Northern Iowa played better than most expected, and with a full offseason under his belt entrenched as a starter, Brown should be that much better in 2022.
Carolina Panthers: CB CJ Henderson
Back in 2020, CJ Henderson was a top-10 pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars. The sky was the limit for the former Florida standout. Thrust into the starting lineup off the jump, Henderson made 36 total tackles and intercepted one pass over eight games as a rookie.
But by the midway point of his second season, Henderson found himself in uncharted waters for a top-10 pick—shipped away to Carolina in a trade.
Per Darin Gantt of the team's website, veteran corner Donte Jackson said that he thinks with a full offseason under his belt in his new home, Henderson is finally settling in.
"CJ is a student of the game. He wants to be great," Jackson said. "He asks a lot of questions, and he'll do everything you ask him to do. Getting acclimated last year, it was probably a trade he didn't expect. Now he's more comfortable, he's smiling, laughing a lot more. But definitely, CJ's a student of the game. He loves to ball; he loves to compete. That's one thing we feed off in that room; everybody wants to compete and be great. We want that for each other."
Jackson is the team's elder statesman at corner, but in Henderson and Jaycee Horn, the Panthers have a pair of young and athletic cover men.
Henderson may be third on the depth chart, but given how much times NFL teams spend in the nickel, he'll be on the field quite a bit this season.
Chicago Bears: TE Cole Kmet
There is substantial pressure on Justin Fields to take a major step forward as the quarterback for the Chicago Bears in 2022. Given the passing-game talent at his disposal, that's not going to be easy—there's not much on the roster behind Darnell Mooney at wide receiver.
That means that third-year tight end Cole Kmet is going to have to step up this season.
Per NBC Sports Chicago's Josh Schrock, Kmet told reporters at OTAs that he thinks he can thrive in Luke Getsy's new offense after seeing what other players have done in similar schemes.
"You kind of see how the tight ends involve in the run scheme and off of that, the play-action movements and all those type of things can be really advantageous for tight ends," Kmet said. "You see guys around the league in similar offenses, whether it was (Robert) Tonyan a couple years back with Green Bay. Or you look at what George (Kittle) has done in San Francisco. You even look at some things with Minnesota and how they've used tight ends the past five years or so. You see those things and you can see how tight ends can get really involved in this offense."
Kmet was already a sizable part of the passing game last year—his 93 targets, 60 receptions, and 612 receiving yards were all second on the team behind Mooney.
Bigger and better things should be in store in 2022.
Cincinnati Bengals: ILB Logan Wilson
The offense gets most of the run in Cincinnati—and with good reason. It's a unit choked with talent, and given the improvements the team made along the line, the Bengals could have the most dangerous offense in all of the NFL in 2022.
But the Bengals are an underrated defensive team, and one of the most underrated components of the defense is third-year linebacker Logan Wilson.
A third-round pick out of Wyoming, it didn't take Wilson all that long to work his way into a prominent role in the Queen City. After playing sporadically as a rookie, Wilson won the job as the team's middle linebacker in his second season. In 13 games (all starts) for the Bengals in 2021, Wilson piled up 100 total tackles, the most for the team.
Wilson is unfortunately best known for the holding penalty that set up the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl LVI, but for the most part, he was capable in coverage as well, posting a passer rating against less than 90.
Wilson isn't likely to make a ton of splash plays, but his role as Cincinnati's defensive play-caller makes him a vital part of the Bengals defense.
If he can stay healthy for all 17 games in 2022, 130 tackles and a trip to the Pro Bowl are a real possibility.
Cleveland Browns: S Grant Delpit
In 2020, Grant Delpit was one of the most polarizing defensive back prospects in his class. The 2018 version of Delpit looked like a first-round pick. The 2019 version missed a boatload of tackles and looked like a late-rounder. But the Cleveland Browns saw enough they liked to take the 6'3", 213-pounder with the 12th pick of Round 2.
Unfortunately, the 2019 Jim Thorpe Award winner saw his rookie season end before it began after an Achilles' tear in camp. He finally saw an NFL field in 2021, playing in 15 games (with seven starts) while amassing 66 tackles with a sack and an interception.
Petr Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon-Journal, head coach Kevin Stefanski said that Delpit is taking full advantage of an offseason that doesn't involve rehabbing a major injury.
“Grant has been really good," Stefanski said. "He has done a very nice job. I think he has a really good understanding of what we are trying to do, which is half of the battle. You can play fast when you know what you are doing. He looks really smooth in and out of his transitions. You saw him make a play on the ball (for an interception) so he is doing a really nice job.”
Talent has never been the issue with Delpit. In 2022 the opportunity to start is there as well.
And If Delpit can recapture past form, a breakout campaign will follow.
Dallas Cowboys: S Malik Hooker
There was a time when it appeared the last thing Malik Hooker was going to be was a secret. Back in 2017, the Indianapolis Colts made the rangy safety from Ohio State the 15th overall pick.
Unfortunately, what came after that was a long list of injuries. The ACL tear that ended his rookie season after seven games. A foot injury in 2018. And a torn Achilles in 2020 that spelled the end of his time with the Colts.
Last year, Hooker signed with the Cowboys, and while his stats (44 tackles, one interception) weren't especially impressive, as Conor Orr wrote for Sports Illustrated, Hooker was quietly a difference-maker on the field:
"Hooker was one of Dallas’s best run defenders last year, accounting for almost 50 yards saved versus an average position player. The Cowboys gave up almost half an extra yard on carries in which Hooker wasn’t on the field. He was, essentially, an additional, rangy linebacker in certain formations but also had the ability to swoop down and drop the hammer from the free safety spot whenever he was up top. As a pass defender, he also improved significantly. Hooker saw the most direct targets of his career last year but dropped his opposing QB completion percentage by almost 25% from his career best."
Hooker's play last year earned him an $8 million, two-year extension from the Cowboys, and at just 26 years old, there's still time for a star turn.
Denver Broncos: WR K.J. Hamler
Last year was supposed to serve as a coming-out party for Denver Broncos wide receiver K.J. Hamler. The youngster was going to build on the flashes he showed as a deep threat in 2020.
Instead, just three games into the season Hamlet suffered a devastating injury that included an ACL tear and dislocated hip. Per Jon Heath of Broncos Wire, Hamler is ahead of schedule in his rehab, and the gusto with which he has attacked it has impressed new Denver head coach Nathaniel Hackett.
“He’s done a really good job,” Hackett said. “I give him so much credit for [having] the injury that he had. To be able to come out here and do the RVAs and the individual [work] that he’s doing is awesome. It’s great to see him in that training room [and] how hard he works. He always talks about how he doesn’t have any fear, so I think that’s why he’s been able to progress the way that he has. He runs like nothing else matters and he’s just working every single day, so I really respect him for that.”
The arrival of Russell Wilson in Denver has given a massive jolt to the passing game, and even if Hamlet is healthy for Week 1, he's fourth on the depth chart behind Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Tim Patrick.
But Hamler's specialty is hurting defenses over the top, and as it happens, Wilson is one of the best deep-ball passers in the league.
Hand, meet glove.
Detroit Lions: CB Amani Oruwariye
Not a lot has gone right for the Detroit Lions in recent years. The team has lost double-digit games in four straight seasons. However, the cornerback position has the look of potential strength for the team in 2022—and former top-five overall pick Jeff Okudah isn't the biggest reason why.
Okudah may have been the big investment for the team in terms of draft capital, but it's fourth-year veteran Amani Oruwariye who has been the team's best player at the position of late. As a matter of fact, Bleacher Report's own Ian Wharton singled Oruwariye out as a potential first-time Pro Bowler in 2022:
"Oruwariye fit the mold as a tall, long and fast cornerback who thrives in a defense that relies upon Cover 1 and Cover 3 schemes. At 6'2", 205 pounds, Oruwariye blazed a 4.47-second 40-yard dash. That speed and length paid off in 2021 when he notched six interceptions.
His impact went beyond the splash plays, though. He allowed a passer rating of just 57.5, finishing ninth out of 130 qualified cornerbacks, per PFF. The marriage of forcing turnovers and being sticky in coverage means Oruwariye is on the verge of pushing for a Pro Bowl in 2022."
For as well as Oruwariye played last year, he's a relative unknown to many NFL fans. If he can put together another season anything like 2021, that's going to change this year.
Green Bay Packers: WR Allen Lazard
The Green Bay Packers are facing some major questions in 2022, but the largest is easily how the team will replace the passing-game production when Davante Adams was traded to the Las Vegas Raiders.
The team signed veteran free agent Sammy Watkins in free agency and spent a second-round pick on a small-school standout. But Aaron Rodgers has long been a quarterback who prefers targeting wideouts with whom he has a rapport.
Enter fifth-year-pro Allen Lazard.
Lazard has never posted big numbers—his 60 targets, 40 receptions, 513 receiving yards and eight scores last season were all career highs. But Rodgers himself told reporters at OTAs that he's confident that Lazard can step into a much larger offensive role in 2022.
“Excited about Allen Lazard,” Rodgers said. “He’s been our dirty-work guy for most of his career here. Now he’s getting an opportunity to be a No. 1 receiver. So, I’m not worried at all about him stepping into that role. I talk to him a lot. I know how he takes care of his body. I know he’ll be ready when he’s here.”
Lazard isn't just going to duplicate Adams' production—that's not a realistic expectation. But if Lazard really does become Rodgers' top passing-game weapon, doubling his receptions and yardage from a year ago is well within reason.
Houston Texans: QB Davis Mills
Davis Mills is something of a unicorn among the players included in this article—the only quarterback listed. It's hard to consider any starting quarterback a "secret"—there isn't a higher-profile gig in sports.
But a funny thing happened during Mills' rookie season in 2021—something that went almost completely unnoticed.
Mills wasn't bad.
For the season, Mills had a higher completion percentage than Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert. Mills had more passing yards than Tua Tagovailoa. He had more yards per attempt than Ben Roethlisberger, Trevor Lawrence and Jared Goff. And his passer rating was higher than Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson.
Was Mills great as a rookie? No. But while he may not have been the best rookie quarterback, he also wasn't the worst. And per Drew Dougherty of the team's website, Mills made it clear he's only getting started.
"I still have a lot to prove," Mills said. "Got to go out there and win the job each and every day and put my best foot forward each and every day out here at practice. It's exciting and I want to keep proving that to the guys."
Mills certainly believes in himself.
Maybe it's time more of us did the same.
Indianapolis Colts: OT Braden Smith
Notoriety isn't easy for an offensive lineman to achieve. Plenty of quality linemen spend most of their career toiling in the trenches in relative obscurity. That isn't the case for Indianapolis Colts guard Quenton Nelson—in five professional seasons he has become regarded by many as the best O-lineman in the league.
Teammate Braden Smith may not be quite that good. But the 26-year-old deserves inclusion on any list of the better young right tackles in the league.
Drafted originally to play guard, it didn't take the Colts long to realize the 6'6", 315-pounder was better suited on the end of the line. And as Nate Atkins wrote for the Indianapolis Star, Smith deserves a fair amount of credit for Jonathan Taylor's massive season in 2021.
"Taylor is special," Atkins said, "but the reason he's able to break the long runs to earn the rushing title is tied to guys like Smith. Smith's right tackle position generated 5.09 adjusted line yards per rushing attempt last season, good for third among all NFL teams, according to Football Outsiders."
According to Pro Football Focus, the Colts have the 10th-best line in the league this season, and Smith is the anchor of the right side of that line.
Jacksonville Jaguars: CB Tyson Campbell
Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Tyson Campbell was thrown in the proverbial deep end as a rookie—after the Jags traded CJ Henderson, the second-rounder from Georgia was thrust into a full-time role.
As a whole, the results were mixed—Campbell allowed exactly two-thirds of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed with a passer rating against of 94.0. But as James Johnson wrote for Jaguars Wire, as the 2021 season wore on, Campbell's play improve markedly:
"Campbell initially struggled, but after the bye week, it started to click for the rookie. He registered five performances with grades higher than 70.9, according to Pro Football Focus, and snagged his first two career picks, too. When adding that with the incompletions he caused (10) he was second among rookie cornerbacks in causing incompletions and interceptions."
Heading into his second season, Campbell should be able to focus on getting better on the outside, as the Jaguars signed Darious Williams in the offseason to man the slot.
Given the improvement that Campbell showed as a rookie and a full offseason to continue his progression, Campbell has a real chance of playing a major role in an improved Jacksonville defense in 2022.
Kansas City Chiefs: C Creed Humphrey
It didn't take Creed Humphrey long to make his way into the starting lineup for the Kansas City Chiefs. The 6'5", 309-pounder from Oklahoma wound up starting all 17 games as a rookie, allowing just a single sack in almost 1,200 snaps.
However, when ESPN's Jeremy Fowler polled NFL executives, coaches and players for a list of the top-10 interior offensive linemen, Humphrey didn't make the cut—although he was included in the "honorable mention" section:
"A stellar rookie season has Humphrey poised for next year's top 10. 'He's coming,' a prominent NFL coach said. Humphrey ranked tops among centers in Pro Football Focus rating (91.8) and pass block win rate (97.7%), and his run block win rate (71.8%) was fifth. 'Really came on late in the year,' an NFL personnel evaluator said. 'He presented a lot of problems for us.' But one NFL vice president says Humphrey is good but 'a little overrated' and wants to see more."
Take that divergence of opinion and add the relative anonymity that goes part and parcel with manning the inside of the offensive line, and Humphrey remains something of an under-the-radar player outside Kansas City.
But if his 2022 tape looks anything like 2021, he'll be known coast-to-coast soon enough.
Las Vegas Raiders: LB Divine Deablo
Making the jump from college to the NFL is hard enough for a young player. Doing so while also learning a new position is another matter altogether. But that's the challenge that faced Divine Deablo in 2021—after playing safety at Virginia Tech, the 6'3" 226-pounder was moved to linebacker as a rookie in Las Vegas.
Per Jairo Alvarado of Raider Maven, Deablo credited playing close to the line of scrimmage in Blacksburg with helping ease that transition.
"(It) did make it easier to transition to linebacker playing in a box a lot more at Virginia Tech, because I got a feel for the lineman, how they move when they pull, what gap I need to fit in so when I got here, it wasn't necessarily hard," Deablo said.
Deablo's stats as a rookie weren't especially impressive—45 total tackles and a fumble recovery. But by the end of his first season, Deablo had supplanted Cory Littleton as a starter opposite Denzel Perryman.
2022 brings more challenges, whether it's Patrick Graham's new scheme or competition to start from veteran Jayon Brown.
But Deablo showed more enough in his first season to merit a substantial defensive role this season.
Los Angeles Chargers: S Nasir Adderley
The Los Angeles Chargers have big-time aspirations in 2022. But to fulfill those aspirations, a defense that struggled at times a season ago is going to need to step up both its level of play and consistency. Per Cory Kennedy of the team's website, head coach Brandon Staley indicated from OTAs that one player who has been doing just that is third-year safety Nasir Adderley.
"I really like how he is every day, right now," Staley said. "He comes into the facility and there's an energy where you can tell that he's enjoying working at his game and I think that that's been fun for us is that he's a ball guy. When things don't go well he can respond quickly which is just so much of just being a competitor and being able to overcome things quickly and keep it moving."
It's not just the coaches who have noticed Adderley either—fellow safety Derwin James said that Adderley is a much more confident and assertive player in 2022.
"You could tell by his body structure, his confidence," James said with a smile on his face. "He's making calls before I can even get them out sometimes, so that's a good sign. Like I said man, I'm very excited for Nas. He works hard every day, man."
Adderley was quietly third on the team in tackles last year with 99. If he can take a step forward in coverage this year, he and James could combine to form one of the most potent safety duos in the league.
That's going to come in very handy in a division filled with big-name quarterbacks and loaded passing attacks.
Los Angeles Rams: WR Van Jefferson
When folks talk about the wide receiver corps for the Los Angeles Rams, the conversation usually starts with superstar Cooper Kupp. Then it moves to the newly acquired Allen Robinson II. Or even to the question of whether or not the team will bring back Odell Beckham Jr.
That's all well and good. But Justin Melo of The Draft Network thinks a bigger percentage of the conversation should center on third-year-pro Van Jefferson:
"Jefferson is an underrated receiver that’s fully capable of producing a 1,000-yard campaign. The Brentwood, Tennessee native is a slippery and smooth route runner that can effectively work the intermediate and deep areas. Snead and McVay have routinely made splashes since taking charge of the Rams and may prefer to pair Kupp and Robinson with Beckham as they attempt to secure back-to-back Super Bowl victories. Much remains undecided, but Jefferson possesses every trait necessary to experience a successful campaign in 2022."
Jefferson has already shown he can make a dent in the stat sheet—after making just 19 catches as a rookie, he posted a 50/802/6 stat line on 89 targets in 2021. Jefferson's eight targets in Super Bowl LVI trailed only Kupp among Rams players.
Given all the single coverage Jefferson's going to see playing with Robinson and Kupp in 2022, it won't take that big a bump in target share for that 1,000-yard season Melo mentioned to become a distinct possibility.
Miami Dolphins: S Brandon Jones
The fact Miami Dolphins made one of the biggest splash moves of the offseason in trading for star wideout Tyreek Hill is hardly a secret. But there's another fact about the Dolphins that many casual fans don't realize—Miami has quietly gone about putting together a stout defense to go along with that new offensive firepower.
And box safety Brandon Jones is an underrated component of that defense.
In addition to amassing 79 total tackles last year and adding an interception, Jones tallied five sacks. That number ranked fourth on the Dolphins, but it led every defensive back in the entire National Football League.
Jones may have already established himself as one of the best blitzing safeties in the league, but he told reporters at OTAs that his goal in 2022 is to become known as a more complete safety.
“My goal is to obviously kind of branch away from being labeled as this guy can only blitz, this guy can't cover, this guy can't do this," Jones said. "Just trying to be and find the best way for me that I could be well rounded.”
Even if Jones achieves that goal, it isn't likely that he would receive the sort of press as Jamal Adams of the Seahawks or Derwin James of the Chargers.
But he could have a similar impact for Miami—for a fraction of Adams' salary.
Minnesota Vikings: TE Irv Smith, Jr.
The secret was already supposed to be out on Minnesota Vikings tight end Irv Smith Jr. The former Alabama standout was a trendy breakout pick last season after posting a 30/365/5 line in 2020.
But after shining in camp. Smith suffered a season-ending meniscus tear in the preseason, and just like that, the party was over. But as Will Ragatz of Inside the Vikings wrote, Smith's ascension to stardom may well have just been postponed for a year:
"(Kyle) Rudolph departed before last season, and now Tyler Conklin is gone too. Smith stands alone as the only tight end on the Vikings' roster with more than ten career receptions. In a contract year, he's expected to be a crucial piece in O'Connell's passing game this year. I'm a big believer in Smith's ability and the matchup problems he can cause as a 6'2", 240-pound pass-catcher with 4.6 speed. After flashing potential as a young player, this is the year Smith emerges as a dynamic weapon with Pro Bowl upside."
With Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen both commanding significant attention outside, opposing defenses will have little recourse but to use single-coverage on Smith most of the time. Given his combination of size and speed, that should create plenty of mismatches for Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins to exploit.
New England Patriots: S Kyle Dugger
Over the first two seasons of his professional career, Kyle Dugger is probably best known for hailing from tiny Lenoir-Rhyne University. But if the 2021 season was any indication, by the time the 2022 campaign has come and gone, Dugger will be known as one of the league's top young talents at safety.
After making seven starts as a rookie, Dugger saw a larger role in 2021, playing on 77 percent of New England's defensive snaps. He made the most of the increase in playing time, finishing the season tied for second on the team with 92 tackles, first in solos with 70 and tied for second in interceptions with four.
Veteran safety Devin McCourty knows a thing or two about playing defensive back in the NFL, and per Dakota Randall of NESN, he thinks that Dugger is only scratching the surface of what he's capable of in the pros.
“I love Dug,” McCourty said. “The way he’s able to not care about what people are saying about him, what he’s done in the past—being a D-II player—he doesn’t care about any of that. Dug shows up, can do everything, can play in the deep part of the field, can cover. Obviously, if you watched any of our games, you know he can knock your head off. I just love watching him grow. I think sky’s the limit for him.”
If Dugger can add a similar number of big plays to 100-plus tackles in 2022, the Pro Bowl is very much in play.
And that will blow what's left of his secret status right out of the water.
New Orleans Saints: LB Pete Werner
As a rookie with the New Orleans Saints in 2021, linebacker Pete Werner played 40 percent of the team's defensive snaps, making 62 tackles across 15 games. From Week 10 on, however, the youngster made just two starts. It was an up-and-down inaugural season.
However, Werner is hardly the first young player to take some time acclimating to the NFL, and as Corey Rholdon reported for WBRZ-TV, new head coach Dennis Allen sees a player in Werner who is much more comfortable and confident heading into his second season.
“I just see a more confident player. Confidence in what we're doing schematically, you know, he's kind of he's kind of stepped into that starting role at the Will linebacker spot,” Allen said. ”One year under the belt, things start to slow down and becomes a little bit easier. You can pick up on certain tendencies played a little bit faster, understand what's coming rather than kind of reacting in certain situations,”
Demario Davis is the unquestioned No. 1 linebacker in New Orleans, but he isn't getting any younger and the team needs someone to step up opposite him in the nickel.
Werner has the talent to be that player—and to do bigger and better things in 2022.
New York Giants: CB Aaron Robinson
The New York Giants have questions galore on both sides of the ball. That includes the defensive backfield, where the team is precariously short on experience at cornerback behind Adoree' Jackson after the release of James Bradberry.
However, one man's lack of experience is another's opportunity to shine for young players. One of those young players is second-year cornerback Aaron Robinson, and new Giants DC Wink Martindale expects him to take a major step forward after playing in nine games (with two starts) as a rookie.
“I think that from what I’ve seen, my evaluation with it is the game is slowing down for him, like any rookie going into his second year,” Martindale said, via Ed Valentine of Big Blue View. “But when you put him outside, I think it slows it down even more from being inside. It’s like walking in middle of the street when you’re inside, compared to the outside, you’re just standing on the sidewalk and you see things a lot better, a lot easier.”
It's difficult to read too much into Robinson's rookie year—he was on the field for under 300 snaps. But if a veteran defensive coordinator like Martindale is giving Robinson the first crack at replacing Bradberry, he might have seen something he likes from the 6'1", 193-pounder.
And that potential is enough to land Robinson on this list.
New York Jets: DL John Franklin-Myers
It might seem odd to call a player that tied for his team lead in sacks and led his squad in pressures and quarterback hits a "secret." But despite that career year, John Franklin-Myers of the New Jets is probably the least well known of the four starters on a front that (on paper at least) looks pretty formidable in 2022.
Myers tallied six sacks, 14 hits and 43 pressures in 2021, but per Caroline Hendershot of the team's website, the fourth-year veteran feels like he can do much better in the final season of his rookie contract.
"Everybody wants to talk about how well I did and how I had a career year, but there's so much meat left on the bone in the sense that I could've had 10 sacks," he said. "I could have done more, and at the end of the day, hindsight is 20/20, but it is just something I look forward to next season. Something I can get better at is running to the ball. I can get better at playing consistent during that five-game stretch that I didn't have a sack in. Those are things I beat myself up about in the offseason and I think it's important to."
With a healthy Carl Lawson, rookie Jermaine Johnson and veteran Vinny Curry outside and Quinnen Williams and Solomon Thomas on the interior, the Jets are both deep and talented along the defensive line. That should mean Franklin-Myers (who can play end and tackle) seeing lots of single blocks.
That 10-sack season Franklin-Myers spoke of may just be achievable after all.
Philadelphia Eagles: OT Jordan Mailata
This secret comes with an expiration date—if Eagles tackle Jordan Mailata has another season in 2022 like last year, that will be that. He'll be named to the Pro Bowl. He's already been talked up as one of the league's best tackles.
Frankly, the former should have already happened—because the latter may already be true.
When the Eagles gave Mailata a four-year extension last year, some eyebrows went up. After all, $16 million per season was a lot to give a player who had started just 10 games. But as it turns out, Howie Roseman knew exactly what he was doing—one year later, PFF's Brad Spielberger called Mailata's deal the single best contract in the entire NFL:
"Mailata earned an 87.4 overall grade with an 83.3 pass-blocking grade and 87.8 run-blocking grade, a true dancing bear with tremendous footwork for his size and lack of experience. Mailata already generated the second-most Wins Above Replacement among all tackles in 2021, behind only San Francisco 49ers tackle Trent Williams, and there’s still more room for him to grow."
Mailata is a secret that absolutely shouldn't be one—because in the span of a year, he went from swing tackle to one of the best in the league at what he does.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Edge Alex Highsmith
When you play opposite the best pass-rusher in the NFL, it's a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that you don't have to sweat many double-teams. The curse is that it's rather difficult to make a name for yourself.
In Pittsburgh, the job of being "the other guy" opposite the great T.J. Watt falls to third-year pro Alex Highsmith, who tallied 74 total tackles and half a dozen sacks in his first season as a full-time starter in 2021. Per Alex Kozora of Steelers Depot, Highsmith said he plans to jack that second number up—and perhaps even double it.
“I gotta hit those double-digit sack markers,” Highsmith said. “And so I’m just gonna do whatever I can. I’ve been working my butt off this offseason. Just be the best player that I can be. I’m in great shape right now. Feel great. I know the goal that I’ve had for this year is that 10-to-12-sack mark and just continuing to make plays in the run game.”
Given the tremendous amount of attention Watt commands from opponents after tying the single-season sack record a year ago, Highsmith's situation is about as favorable as a pass-rusher could ask for. He also plays for a team that annually ranks at or near the top of the league in sacks.
The ingredients are there for Highsmith to become the latest in a long list of edge-rushers in Pittsburgh who have had breakout seasons.
San Francisco 49ers: Edge Samson Ebukam
The good news for San Francisco 49ers edge-rusher Samson Ebukam is that the sixth-year veteran has been consistent. Dating back to his last two years with the Los Angeles Rams, Ebukam has tied his career high in sacks in each of the past three seasons.
The bad news for Ebukam? That career high in sacks is just 4.5.
However, with a year on a new defense under his belt, Jennifer Lee Chan of NBC Sports Bay Area singled the 6'3", 245-pound Ebukam out as a potential breakout candidate for the Niners in 2022.
There are a few reasons to believe that Chan could be onto something with Ebukam. Between fellow edge-rusher Nick Bosa and tackles Arik Armstead and Javon KInlaw, Ebukam is all but an afterthought on San Francisco's front. No one is game-planning for the 27-year-old. He also has a skill set that meshes well with the "Leo" weak-side end spot in San Fran's defense—a spot that accentuates speed and agility over brute strength.
Ebukam will likely remain a rotational piece in San Francisco. He played just over 50 percent of the team's defensive snaps in 2021. But even in that role, Ebukam could record 6-8 sacks and definitively finish second on the team in that category.
Seattle Seahawks: LB Cody Barton
It's the dawn of a new era for the Seattle Seahawks. After Russell Wilson was traded to the Denver Broncos and Bobby Wagner was released, the last vestiges of the team's Super Bowl heyday are gone.
In the latter regard, the Seahawks hope that former first-round pick Jordyn Brooks will step into the void at middle linebacker. Of course, that opens another hole at weak-side linebacker—and that's where fourth-year pro Cody Barton comes in.
After notching 95 total tackles over his first three seasons, Barton will be asked to play full-time in 2022. Per John Boyle of the team's website, Seattle defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt believes that Barton is more than up to the task.
"His effort and energy (stand out)," Hurtt said. "He's really, really good in the pass game, he's always had a great awareness for that—he's got background being a safety growing up, and then obviously working his way down into the box. So you see some of those things where there's awareness and picking up pass routes, and communication with guys on the back end. I'm really excited for him for the opportunity for him it's just the opportunity being there. The effort and the attention to detail for Cody has always been a part of it, but now he has a great opportunity, and he's really had a really nice spring so far."
Playing in an every-down role at "Will" linebacker last year, Brooks racked up 184 total tackles—second-most in the entire NFL. Asking Barton to do that isn't reasonable.
But he should have more stops in 2022 than in his first three NFL seasons combined.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TE Cameron Brate
From all indications, unlike Tom Brady when Rob Gronkowski says he's retired, he actually means it.
OK, the second time, he actually means it.
While former Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians knows that you can't just replace Gronk, he believes that veteran tight end Cameron Brate is capable of picking up a lot of the slack.
"It's a step back, that's for sure—because (Gronk's) a Hall of Fame player," Arians said, via JoeBucsFan.com. "But I really like the room right now. I love the young kids we've got in there and Cam Brate's a good veteran player that Tom really trusts. Now, he's not Gronk. That size and what he brings as a blocker and receiver I think is unmatched. You don't replace that guy."
Now that we have established that Brate isn't Gronkowski, here's another fact about the ninth-year veteran—he's not cat food, either.
Back in 2016, Brate was targeted 81 times, catching 57 passes for 660 yards and eight touchdowns. Brate eclipsed 500 receiving yards the following season and caught six touchdown passes in both 2017 and 2018.
Over his eight seasons with the Buccaneers, Brate has hauled in 33 touchdown grabs. This leaves the former Harvard man fifth on the all-time list, with Mike Evans still out in front on 76
Brate is going to play a bigger role for the Buccaneers offensively in 2022 than many expect.
Tennessee Titans: LB David Long Jr.
The Tennessee Titans won 12 games last year and were the No. 1 seed in the AFC. But as the team tries to get back to the postseason, there are some major changes afoot. That includes at linebacker where veterans Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans both departed in free agency.
If there's a bright side, it's that David Long Jr. didn't go anywhere, and as the 2021 season wore on, it was Long who took over as the team's top inside linebacker. Not only did Long lead all Tennessee off-ball linebackers with 675 snaps, but he also placed second in total tackles with 75.
Adam Rank of NFL.com thinks that Long will not just build on that performance, but he tabbed Long as the Titans' breakout star this season:
"Long is one of those guys who has always risen to the occasion. After initially redshirting at West Virginia, he eventually emerged to become Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. And despite being the 188th overall player—and second David Long—selected in the 2019 draft, the 'backer has been a factor, making some key plays in his young career. If he stays healthy—I know, always the caveat—Long could be a big-time leader for the Titans this season."
The Titans fashion themselves a Super Bowl contender, and Long's a good bet to pace the team in tackles.
Add the two together, and you get a lot of things.
A secret isn't one of them.
Washington Commanders: WR Curtis Samuel
The Washington Commanders have a new quarterback in Carson Wentz, and per Julie Donaldson of the team's website, Wentz has already been at work building a rapport with wide receiver Curtis Samuel.
"He's explosive," Wentz said. "When you see the ball in his hands and how quickly he's making a guy miss or he's getting down the field, it's impressive. I've only played with a handful of guys who have that kind of quick-twitch ability that he has. It's been fun to build that chemistry and see what he does well."
That Samuel has potential has never been in question—the former Ohio State standout was a second-round pick of the Carolina Panthers in 2017, and there have been flashes of the game-breaking talent that Samuel displayed in Columbus.
But there have also been injuries—plural. Samuel's first professional season was cut short by an ankle injury, and he's played in all 16 games just once in five years. Last year, Samuel was limited to six catches for 27 yards over five games by a lingering groin injury.
However, Commanders head coach Ron Rivera still thinks Samuel can be a difference-maker on the field.
"I know who Curtis is," he said. "We drafted him in Carolina and saw the success he had. So, we believe his skill fits what we want to do. We believe it fits very well."
If Samuel can stay healthy, perhaps he'll finally fulfill all that potential and become the player Washington thought they were signing. But for now, Samuel is relegated to the shadows—and secret status.