Ranking the Most Surprising Performances from NFL Preseason Week 1 Slate

Ian Wharton@@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVAugust 14, 2022

Ranking the Most Surprising Performances from NFL Preseason Week 1 Slate

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    Justin Berl/Getty Images

    The first week of the 2022 NFL preseason brought a refreshing set of games after a long offseason. Even though we barely saw starters participate in some games and a handful of teams opted to sit the majority of their regular-season roster, the NFL is back. Week 1's opening kickoff is now less than one month away.

    As with every preseason, there are breakout performers who can solidify their role or roster spot. Sometimes, the standout players are those who have taken a leap in their development since we last saw them. Whether they're working under a new coaching staff or benefiting from a full offseason or a revamped routine, there are notable risers across the NFL.

    We've identified and ranked the seven most surprising performances of Week 1 of the NFL preseason slate. Each player has the chance to start or earn a significant role this season. Continuing to produce as they did in Week 1 will give their coaching staff no choice but to reconsider their current place on the depth chart.

7. Dameon Pierce, RB, Houston Texans

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    The Houston Texans entered the preseason with one of the more uncertain backfields across the league. If free-agent signing Marlon Mack could get back to the explosive rusher he was in 2019 before tearing his Achilles the following season, he would presumably be the primary ball-carrier. But he hasn't been that player in two seasons, and the Texans just invested a fourth-round pick in Dameon Pierce.

    Pierce's breakout in 2021 at Florida featured 5.7 yards per carry and 19 receptions for 216 yards and three scores as a receiver. He accumulated just 329 rushes in four years and produced 1,806 yards and 23 touchdowns. His lack of usage left evaluators wondering about his potential like Alvin Kamara's lack of touches in college created uncertainty.

    Pierce isn't on the same level as Kamara athletically, but he showed he has what it takes to start for Houston in his first game. He carried the ball only five times but raced for 49 yards. His comfort on inside-zone and one-cut runs was clear as he squeezed through collapsing defenders.

    With Rex Burkhead likely to assume third-down pass-catching duties, it's possible the Texans favor Pierce's healthier body over Mack even as soon as Week 1. Mack was a flier of a signing, after all. Pierce may prove to be the latest Day 3 steal at running back if his first handful of carries are a sign of what's to come.

6. Brian Robinson, RB, Washington Commanders

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    When the Washington Commanders made their third-round selection in the 2022 NFL draft, few expected them to take a running back based on the depth already in the backfield. The roster lacked overall playmaking, so the Commanders added it where they found value. Surely, Washington liked the idea of the 6'1", 225-pounder bringing toughness to Ron Rivera's offense.

    There may be more opportunity within Washington's backfield than we originally thought. With starting running back Antonio Gibson fumbling on his second carry against the Carolina Panthers, Robinson immediately saw the field on the next series. Gibson struggled with fumbles last season, with five in his first 10 games and six overall on the year.

    Robinson offered more than just surer hands, though. He carried the ball six times for 26 yards and a touchdown and added two receptions for 15 yards. His strength through contact stood out as he bullied defenders on multiple occasions.

    It's possible the staff loses faith in Gibson at some point this season and elevates Robinson. Backups J.D. McKissic and Jaret Patterson are firmly imbedded as role players behind them. Watch for how often Robinson sees the field over the next two games to get a better feel for this rotation.

5. Boye Mafe, Edge, Seattle Seahawks

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    AP Photo/Matt Durisko

    While Boye Mafe had a solid collegiate career at Minnesota, Seattle selected him 40th overall this past draft in hopes he'd become a primary pass-rusher. His 15 sacks in 31 games were capped off by seven sacks as a senior in 2021. Mafe's excellent physical profile hinted at greater potential if his tools were paired with better fundamentals and hand usage.

    That upside has already started to show itself. Mafe produced two sacks and forced a fumble against the Pittsburgh Steelers. His quickness off the line and flexibility in limited space stood out on both of his sacks.

    His second sack against Kenny Pickett was a great example of his athleticism. On 4th-and-1, Pickett tried to outrun Mafe to the sideline as he bought time to throw. Mafe was too quick in pursuit of the first-rounder as he took Pickett to the ground to end the drive.

    The Seahawks have a desperate need for a star on the edge, and Mafe appears ready for prime time based on his first game action. Hopefully, he'll earn snaps with the starters over the next two weeks of play.

4. Drew Lock, QB, Seattle Seahawks

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    For the first 28 minutes Drew Lock played Saturday night, it looked like Geno Smith was losing his starting job. Lock put together an impressive set of drives, totaling 11 completions on 15 attempts for 102 yards, two touchdown passes and a two-point conversion. He showed more confidence and playmaking than he displayed in Denver before Seattle acquired him in the Russell Wilson trade.

    Playing through the second half, Lock led two touchdown drives on Seattle's first three possessions. Lock's ability to create chunk yards with his strong arm and mobility was a major factor. He had passes of 15, 17 and 39 yards.

    His night did end on a sour note, though.

    After helping the Seahawks eventually tie the Steelers at 25 apiece, Lock was strip-sacked with 1:07 left on the clock. The turnover gave the Steelers the ball on Seattle's 43-yard-line, and Pittsburgh promptly scored the winning touchdown.

    Lock accepted blame for the turnover, but this is the time to learn from mistakes. The Seahawks will be forced to give Lock more first-team snaps after this performance. The four-year veteran looked and performed better than Geno Smith, who finished 10-of-15 for 101 yards, zero touchdowns and an 85.7 passer rating.

3. Desmond Ridder, QB, Atlanta Falcons

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    With quarterback Marcus Mariota playing just one quarter and throwing two passes, the Atlanta Falcons weren't overly concerned about seeing their starter get a lot of action. But their first preseason game against the Detroit Lions was a prime opportunity to expose Desmond Ridder to NFL competition. The third-round rookie did not disappoint.

    Though Ridder's line of 10-of-22 for 103 yards isn't impressive, he dealt with a variety of drops that significantly lowered his numbers. What's more important is how Ridder left an imprint on this game. He tossed two touchdowns and added 59 yards on six rushing attempts.

    It was impossible not to notice how Ridder's confidence and accuracy helped move the Falcons offense. The fact that he ranked third in rushing after all preseason games prior to Sunday also speaks to his creativity. The Falcons may need to turn to Ridder at some point this season considering Mariota's history of injuries and inconsistent production.

    With two games remaining this preseason, the Falcons should consider playing Ridder for the majority of each contest once again. This is an opportunity that few teams seize with young passers. Live reps can't be replicated on the practice field.

2. Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    For a quarterback who's third on the depth chart, rookie Kenny Pickett sure turned in a solid performance in his first professional opportunity. Stuck behind free-agent signing Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph entering Week 1, Pickett has an uphill climb to playing time. But if the first-rounder can maintain the efficiency he displayed Saturday night, the Steelers must move him up their depth chart.

    Pickett showed the same accuracy on short passes that he mastered in his senior season at Pitt. He completed 13 of 15 attempts for 95 yards and two touchdowns. Most notable was his 24-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Vaughns that sealed Pittsburgh's win with only three seconds remaining.

    Pickett was obviously drafted to supplant both veterans in time. Giving Trubisky the nod for the regular season makes sense considering his experience and physical gifts. But there's little upside in Pittsburgh playing Rudolph over Pickett long-term, especially since the team opted to add two passers instead of handing Rudolph the job this season.

    We'll hopefully see an uptick in Pickett's involvement in Week 2. Getting him reps against better competition can give everyone a clearer picture of where he's at in his development.

1. Shemar Bridges, WR, Baltimore Ravens

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    Down several receivers because of injuries, the Baltimore Ravens are looking at a potential crisis once again at the position. Tylan Wallace became the latest player to suffer an injury when he had to leave the first preseason game against Tennessee with a sprained knee.

    James Proche, who has excelled in training camp, could be out for several weeks with a soft-tissue injury. Undrafted rookies Slade Bolden and Bailey Gaither are also dealing with injuries and didn't play against the Titans.

    Both Rashad Bateman and Devin Duvernay, No. 1 and No. 2 on the depth chart, respectively, have also missed practice this year because of injuries. Their need for depth has suddenly become apparent.

    There is a possible answer internally, as rookie Shemar Bridges capitalized on his opportunity against the Titans. He caught four passes for 62 yards and a touchdown. His 38-yard, acrobatic catch near the sideline highlighted his ball skills and ability to finish through contact.

    The 6'4", 207-pounder brings welcome size to a position with unproven playmakers. He has a clear path to playing time with several of his peers unavailable at the moment. One more solid outing and he could secure a rotational role for this Super Bowl hopeful.

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