Backup NFL Playmakers Most Likely to Blossom in 2022
The NFL is always evolving. The constant shuffling of reps in the preseason and training camp helps franchises get a quick glance at intriguing talent worth developing for a bigger role.
Front offices expect top-100 picks to become contributors early in their careers. But most Day 3 picks, undrafted free agents and free agents who sign one-year deals don't have the same pathway to playing time.
After scouring training camp reports and watching some of the early preseason action, we've identified six backup playmakers who are most likely to blossom into a meaningful role in 2022. Some of these backups are rookies making the most of their early opportunities, while a few others are simply coming into their own after several years in the league.
Let's jump into six of the most impressive backups thus far in training camp and preseason.
Zamir White, RB, Las Vegas Raiders
Just how impressive was the fourth-round rookie from Georgia in his debut? During the Hall of Fame Game against Jacksonville, White produced 52 yards on 11 carries. We weren't even sure if White would participate in the game since he had missed the first two days of training camp with an undisclosed injury.
Nevertheless, a running back controversy started earlier than expected for Las Vegas. Incumbent Josh Jacobs also performed well after surprisingly starting the first preseason game. But with the way head coach Josh McDaniels cycled through running backs in New England and the fact that Jacobs is in a contract year, White's performance stood out as a sign of what's to come.
Denying White more playing time will be impossible if he continues to average nearly five yards per carry. The rookie plays with more power than either Jacobs or backup Kenyan Drake. He fits McDaniels' gap rushing scheme perfectly thanks to his blend of size (6'1", 220 pounds), power and surprising explosiveness for his build.
It wouldn't be shocking if the Raiders were more motivated to trade either Jacobs or Drake if they can find a taker to open playing time for White.
Romeo Doubs, WR, Green Bay Packers
No rookie receiver in football has helped his stock more in training camp than Packers fourth-rounder Romeo Doubs. Doubs has earned rave reviews from both quarterback Aaron Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur before turning in a solid outing in his first preseason game. He caught three passes for 45 yards, including a 33-yard touchdown on a slot fade.
It shouldn't be too much of a surprise to see the 6'2", 204-pounder finding early success. Though he fell on draft day, Doubs was a stellar vertical threat in college. Playing with an excellent deep passer in Carson Strong, Doubs produced 3,322 yards and 26 touchdowns on 225 career receptions.
Second-round pick Christian Watson was expected to win a starting job, but he's dealt with knee issues that have kept him out of practice. Now, it appears Rodgers will still be throwing to a rookie receiver even with Watson out. Doubs has continued to make the most of his opportunities thanks to great burst off the line and ability to get separation on defenders.
Isaiah McKenzie, WR, Buffalo Bills
There was little press or excitement when the Bills re-signed speedster Isaiah McKenzie in March. Despite producing five touchdowns as a slot threat and occasional ball-carrier in 2020, McKenzie saw his playing time dip in 2021. The Bills brought him back on a modest deal, then seemingly signed his replacement in Jamison Crowder later in the offseason.
Buffalo's decision to retain McKenzie has started to look better since camp began, however. The 27-year-old has been showered with praise as a training camp star for his improvement. Quarterback Josh Allen praised his ability to make plays and make an impact in any phase of the game.
The Bills have a deep receiver room with 2021 sixth-rounder Isaiah Hodgins and 2022 fifth-rounder Khalil Shakir battling veterans Tavon Austin and Jake Kumerow for a role behind Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, McKenzie and Crowder.
McKenzie was at risk of falling to the side after the Bills lost offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to New York, but new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey must've liked what he saw in McKenzie when he was the quarterbacks coach under Daboll.
It remains to be seen whether McKenzie will be more than a gadget weapon in 2022, but he's certainly put in the work to earn an increase in playing time.
Dennis Houston, WR, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys opted to trim some of their receiving room depth this offseason in order to straighten their salary-cap situation. Thus far, swapping out Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson for Jalen Tolbert and James Washington hasn't worked out. Washington suffered a Jones fracture in his foot last week and could be out through October.
Also adding in Michael Gallup's own recovery from a torn ACL, the door is open for another rookie to emerge. Undrafted rookie Dennis Houston could be starting across from Tolbert and CeeDee Lamb come opening kickoff. The former Western Illinois playmaker has quickly entered a battle to start with veteran Noah Brown.
Houston has untapped potential as a 6'2", 205-pounder who ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at his pro day and produced 90 receptions for 1,015 yards and six scores as a senior. Quarterback Dak Prescott is one of the most accurate passers in the league, and if Houston can get open consistently, there's no reason to think Prescott won't take advantage of the talented playmaker's speed and size.
Collin Johnson, WR, New York Giants
Much of the NFL has moved away from featuring gigantic receivers who stand 6'5" or taller. The emphasis on shorter passes has made shiftier receivers more desirable than the contested-catch kings who rely on their frame and power. But eventually talent should overshadow archetype preferences.
Third-year Giants receiver Collin Johnson might be about to emerge in 2022. The 6'6", 224-pounder posted impressive numbers at Texas before being drafted in the fifth-round by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He finished his career with 188 receptions for 2,624 yards and 15 scores over four years.
Jacksonville cut him after he caught 18 passes for 272 yards and two scores in 2020. Johnson played sparingly with New York last year and was only targeted 21 times, but he came back to fight for a roster spot.
Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard have again missed time with injuries, and Johnson appears to be clutching the opportunity to rise on the depth chart.
His seven-catch, 82-yard performance in his first preseason game was encouraging. After this unit was ravaged by injuries last year and saw inconsistent play from Kenny Golladay, Johnson provides a similar vertical skill set that can be an insurance policy. If Golladay again disappoints or several projected contributors miss significant time, Johnson is already proving to be a fit in Brian Daboll's offense.
Jerome Ford, RB, Cleveland Browns
The Browns have the deepest backfield in the NFL. Already with two star-caliber rushers in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, the team also got 534 yards and three scores on 100 carries from backup D'Ernest Johnson in 2021 when Chubb and Hunt were injured.
General manager Andrew Berry didn't stop there. With Hunt and Johnson set to be free agents next offseason, he drafted former Cincinnati Bearcats star Jerome Ford in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL draft. Ford was an explosive presence in college, finishing 2021 with 1,319 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground.
Already in his first preseason game, Ford showed that same home-run ability. He ripped off an impressive 41-yard run and added a touchdown. Ford also caught four of five targets for 45 yards and an athletic touchdown reception.
With ESPN reporting Hunt has requested a new contract or a trade, the Browns could afford to move the veteran for an asset and simply replace him with Ford.