NFL Players With the Most To Prove In 2022 Preseason

Alex KayContributor IAugust 6, 2022

NFL Players With the Most To Prove In 2022 Preseason

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    The 2022 NFL preseason is officially underway following Thursday night's Hall of Fame Game.

    While the results of these games won't count in the standings, there will be plenty of meaningful insights to discern from the upcoming action.

    Some of the most important revelations from these exhibition contests and training camps involve players with something to prove.

    Whether this is because they are engaged in contested positional battles, want to prove they were worth their draft position or are in a contract year with money on the line, these players will be using the preseason to prove their worth and earn their team's trust.

    With that in mind, here are five players—listed alphabetically—with the most to prove during the 2022 preseason.

Devin Duvernay, WR, Baltimore Ravens

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    The Baltimore Ravens' receiving corps is going to look much different this year. With Marquise Brown—their incumbent No. 1 option—getting traded on draft night and veteran Sammy Watkins departing in free agency, the team will be leaning on several young talents to shoulder the pass-catching load.

    Rashod Bateman will be stepping into the role Brown vacated, but the pecking order behind the team's 2021 first-round draft pick is still unclear.

    Devin Duvernay is one of the leading candidates to work as Baltimore's No. 2 WR. The 24-year-old earned an All-Pro nod as a return man last year, but he has yet to truly cut his teeth as an NFL receiver, reeling in only 53 receptions for 473 yards and a pair of touchdowns over his first two professional seasons.

    That should change in 2022 after the Ravens opted not to make any major WR additions. Duvernay will be competing with the likes of James Proche II, Tylan Wallace, Jaylon Moore and Binjimen Victor for targets behind Bateman and star tight end Mark Andrews.

    Because of the lack of proven talent amongst the WR2 candidates, Duvernay—a third-round pick in 2020—has the inside track to be the team's third option in the passing game. He possesses blazing speed and quickness that will allow him to burn slower defenders, but he still must show he can win contested balls and run crisp routes.

    If Duvernay struggles, the Ravens could be in trouble. The club already deploys one of the most run-heavy offenses out there and could be forced to rely even more on the ground game to succeed if it can't unearth a steady wideout to support Bateman and Andrews during the preseason.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Carolina Panthers

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    Baker Mayfield is running out of chances to show he can be a franchise quarterback in the NFL.

    After falling out of favor with the Cleveland Browns, who showed a lack of trust in the signal-caller by trading for Deshaun Watson, Mayfield languished on the roster for months. The Carolina Panthers eventually emerged as a trading partner, offering the disgruntled QB a chance to rehabilitate his career with a change of scenery.

    Mayfield isn't guaranteed a starting job with the Panthers, though. The organization only gave up a conditional Day 3 pick and is paying less than $5 million in salary for the final season on the 27-year-old's deal.

    Given Mayfield is coming off the worst campaign of his professional career—one in which he was severely injured but pushed through to the detriment of both himself and the Browns. He also still has to beat out Sam Darnold, a fellow early pick from the class of 2018 who landed in Carolina after flaming out with his original franchise.

    With Mayfield and Darnold fighting not only for a starting job, but also the right to turn around their respective careers, the Panthers could be playing host to the fiercest positional battle of the preseason.

    Mayfield has had slightly more individual success than Darnold over their first four years in the NFL. He's only a season removed from leading the Browns an 11-5 record and their first playoff win since 1994.

    Darnold has yet to make the postseason, and his best showing was a 7-6 record as a starter with the New York Jets in 2019. The 25-year-old went just 4-7 last year—his first campaign with the Panthers—before going down with a shoulder injury.

    If Mayfield can show he's back to his 2020 form during the preseason, the Panthers job should be his to lose. If not, Darnold will likely begin the 2022 campaign as Carolina's QB1.

Bernhard Raimann, OT, Indianapolis Colts

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    Bernhard Raimann was widely regarded as one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the 2022 class. Despite many experts believing the Central Michigan product would come off the board on Day 1, he slipped all the way to the third round before the Indianapolis Colts stopped his fall.

    Part of the reason for Raimann’s drastic draft-day drop is his relatively raw skill set. The Austria native started his collegiate career as a tight end before getting moved to left tackle in 2020, getting just six games of experience during a shortened campaign.

    While he did log 12 starts on his way to being named to the All-MAC first-team last year, Raimann still must prove he's ready to take on top-flight defenders. That could be difficult with veteran Matt Pryor hungry to earn Indy's up-for-grabs starting left tackle gig in a contract year.

    Pryor has been working with the first team during training camp despite being inexperienced at the position. Jake Arthur of SI.com noted the 2018 sixth-round pick has logged just 172 of his 1,294 career offensive snaps at left tackle.

    While Pryor is currently atop the depth chart at LT, Raimann has reportedly impressed Colts brass with his early progress while practicing at several offensive line positions.

    The 6'6", 303-pound rookie has the physical tools to become a franchise left tackle for an offensive line that direly needs to find a stalwart there. Indianapolis kicked the tires on Eric Fisher last year to mixed results, but still hasn't found stability following Anthony Castonzo’s retirement after the 2020 season.

    If Raimann can put together a strong preseason and show he's their left tackle of the future, the Colts may just fast-track him into the starting lineup as a rookie.

Drew Sample, TE, Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Cincinnati Bengals may be coming off a remarkable run to a Super Bowl, but the franchise still has several question marks at key positions as it looks to defend its AFC crown.

    One of the spots undergoing a notable change from last year is tight end. Cincinnati elected to let veteran C.J. Uzomah walk in free agency following seven years of service with the club.

    With the incumbent TE1 out of the picture, the pressure will be on Drew Sample to perform this season. The Bengals are clearly putting their trust in the fourth-year veteran to emerge as a top tight end following the departure of Uzomah.

    Sample has been an intriguing talent since he was taken No. 52 overall in 2019. He showed flashes in his second year when he notched a career-best 40 receptions for 349 yards, but he was phased out of the offense last year and caught just 11 passes for 81 yards.

    The Washington product's offensive workload dropped from 868 snaps in 2020 down to just 459 last year despite appearing in one more game in 2021.

    Sample, whose rookie contract is coming to an end after the upcoming campaign, is now getting his best chance to prove himself, but the 26-year-old will still need to beat out Hayden Hurst for snaps. Hurst, a first-round pick in 2018 who failed to meet expectations for the Baltimore Ravens and Atlanta Falcons, is also fighting to get his career on the right track.

    A scary training-camp leg injury could set Sample back in his quest to become the starter—he was already working with the second-string offense before the injury—but there should be plenty of opportunity for Sample to usurp Hurst atop the depth chart in the preseason if he can stay healthy.

Michael Thomas, WR, New Orleans Saints

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    AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

    Michael Thomas may have been close to unstoppable in 2019, but the New Orleans Saints' superstar receiver has basically been invisible in the wake of his record-breaking season.

    Thomas has only appeared in seven games since racking up 149 receptions for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns in 2019, logging just 345 offensive snaps across seven games in 2020 and missing all of last year as he recovered from a nagging ankle injury.

    The Saints' aerial attack has struggled without Thomas in the lineup—they had the league’s worst passing offense in 2021—but the club appears ready to turn a corner with or without the three-time Pro Bowler in the lineup.

    There are plenty of mouths to feed in the Big Easy now, competition that could cut into Thomas' workload if he's not at his best.

    Not only was fellow Pro Bowler Jarvis Landry picked up in free agency, but the Saints also landed prized rookie Chris Olave with the No. 11 pick. They also have Taysom Hill locked in as a pass-catching tight end instead of flirting with the QB position.

    Jameis Winston, who was putting up elite efficiency numbers last year before an ACL tear cut his season short, returned to the fold on a two-year deal, ending New Orleans' uncertainty under center.

    Thomas turned 29 back in March, and it's far from certain he'll return to his All-Pro form even with a clean bill of health. He only caught 40 passes for 438 yards and zero touchdowns in 2020 and has a lot of rust to knock off after being sidelined so long.

    At his best, the wideout will represent a massive upgrade for the Saints' receiving corps. During the lead-up to the 2022 season, the team will be hoping he can showcase the skills that made him one of the game’s greatest at his position, but Thomas has a long way to go to prove he's still that player.

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