6 NFL Players Who Need to Show out in 2022 Preseason to Earn Starting Jobs
The results of the NFL's preseason aren't predictive of a team's regular-season success, but that doesn't mean there isn't any value to the games played. Some of the league's biggest Super Bowl contenders have key positional battles that must be played out on the field.
Whether it's a young up-and-comer trying to take a veteran's job or a new starting role available for an open competition, the stakes are high across the league. We've identified a few players who need to show out in the 2022 preseason in order to secure their starting job.
Each of these playmakers are stuck in a difficult battle they may not win right away. They must overcome the adversity in front of them in order to take control of the situation.
Let's dive into how six key players can win their positional battle with just three weeks left before the season starts.
James Cook, RB, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills running back room is seemingly impossible to get a good read on, and the organization has continued to invest draft assets into the position as they search for a three-down back. According to Joe Buscaglia of The Athletic, this could be a three-headed backfield instead of one star getting the bulk of work.
Neither Devin Singletary (a 2019 third-round pick) nor Zack Moss (a 2020 third-rounder) has latched hold of the job, opening the door for second-round rookie James Cook. Singletary is coming off his best season, but consistency has been an issue. Moss, meanwhile, hasn't proven he's more than a role player.
Cook's pass-catching ability could tip the scale in the rookie's favor. He showed excellent contact balance and explosiveness throughout his time at Georgia. He looks more of the part of a lead back physically but has to prove his gifts translate to the NFL field.
The Bills RBs accounted for just 73 catches and 520 receiving yards in 2021, both in the bottom 10 among running back units. If Cook can prove he can be a solid pass-protector and a dynamic factor in the Bills' pass-first offense, he could carve out a sizable place for himself in Year 1.
Rhamondre Stevenson, RB, New England Patriots
While the New England Patriots still need to sort out their messy cornerback situation, a new area of concern was created when veteran RB James White announced his retirement from the NFL.
White suffered a serious hip injury last season, and New England likely knew there was a decent chance the 30-year-old would hang up his cleats. Now, the staff can use the rest of training camp and the preseason to determine who will take over as the club's pass-catching running back.
The leading candidate for that role may be veteran Ty Montgomery, who signed a two-year, $3.6 million deal with the Patriots in March. Montgomery has the skill set to thrive as a third-down back in New England's offense as a former receiver turned RB. But so too does rookie Pierre Strong Jr., who flashed as a receiver at the East-West Shrine Bowl before the Patriots selected him in the fourth round.
New England could also choose to put more on Rhamondre Stevenson's plate in his second NFL season. Nominal starter Damien Harris is not a receiver in any sense of the word—he has just two career games with at least three targets.
Stevenson only earned 18 targets in his rookie campaign, but he profiles as a back who could handle more passing-game work if the Patriots don't want to rely on Montgomery or Strong.
Nakobe Dean, LB, Philadelphia Eagles
Inside linebacker was a weakness for the Eagles last season, and while the position stabilized a bit after Edwards grew into his role as a starter, general manager Howie Roseman clearly didn't feel comfortable with just Edwards. The team addressed their issue of depth this offseason, signing White from the Chargers and drafting Dean in the third round.
Kyzir White and Edwards are the early incumbents, but that could change. White emerged as a valuable starter in Los Angeles last fall, sliced his missed tackle rate, improved in coverage compared to 2020 and still signed a bargain one-year, $3 million contract with Philly following a relative lack of free-agent interest.
Edwards has improved since joining the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2019 but has struggled against the pass in stretches. He could be vulnerable to a roster shakeup if his growth stagnates, even as he works through his best training camp to date.
Fortunately for White and Edwards, there's not much proven NFL talent behind them. Dean slipped to late on Day 2 as questions swirled about his health. He's been practicing early in training camp but also spending time with the second-and third-team units, suggesting it may take a little while for the prodigious talent he displayed at Georgia to manifest in the big leagues.
Devin Duvernay, WR, Baltimore Ravens
Tight end Mark Andrews is the Baltimore Ravens' de facto top pass catcher, and Rashod Bateman will lead the WR corps. And after trading Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals during the draft, Baltimore is looking for at least one more complementary receiver.
Devin Duvernay recently returned to practice after missing five days with a thigh issue, and he's listed as the No. 2 receiver on the Ravens' depth chart. A third-round pick out of Texas in 2020, Duvernay received 47 targets a season ago, third-most among Baltimore's remaining weapons behind Andrews and Bateman.
His main competition appears to be James Proche II, an SMU product drafted three rounds after Duvernay in 2020. Proche has had an excellent camp, according to Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic, who notes the 25-year-old is typically the first player to arrive for practice and among the last to leave.
If neither Duvernay nor Proche separates themselves in the preseason, Baltimore could conceivably rotate its tertiary receiving options.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Green Bay Packers
It seemed as though the Green Bay Packers were set to have a fierce training camp battle for the No. 2 receiver job, but 2022 second-rounder Christian Watson and free-agent signing Sammy Watkins both quickly landed on the PUP list. Then, rookie Romeo Doubs took advantage of his opportunity to shine, garnering considerable praise for his play in camp.
Doubs has struggled with drops despite his dazzling plays, letting four passes hit the ground between the team's first two preseason contests. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers recently criticized the team's young pass-catchers for their drops, seemingly paving the way for veterans to earn his trust.
As we found out during Rodgers' threats to retire, who he trusts matters as much as the natural talent around him.
This bodes well for Watkins, who was listed ahead of Doubs on the Packers' initial depth chart despite not playing nearly as much. He'll have to prove his impact ability to stave off the rookie's efforts.
Watkins hasn't been a solid contributor since 2019 due to various injuries and a limited role within his team's offense.
Jeff Okudah, CB, Detroit Lions
The Detroit Lions have one outside corner locked into a starting job, but it's not the former No. 3 overall pick on their roster. Amani Oruwariye will start on one side of Detroit's defense as he enters a contract year. On the other side, Jeff Okudah is competing with converted safety Will Harris for the other CB role.
Okudah hasn't been able to live up to his draft billing through two NFL campaigns. His rookie year was an unmitigated disaster both from a performance and injury standpoint, and he subsequently missed almost all of 2021 after tearing his Achilles. Instead of serving as the lockdown corner he was meant to be, Okudah is just trying to hang onto a starting position.
The good news is that Okudah has already earned praise for his performance throughout camp. If he proves to be the dominant talent he was thought to be out of Ohio State, the Lions' cornerback situation will be quite impressive.
Harris is moving to corner after spending the first three seasons of his career at safety. The Lions listed Harris ahead of Okudah on their unofficial depth chart, and they are opposed to the idea of a timeshare. The loser of this battle could theoretically play nickel, but that may not work out given that AJ Parker is expected to man the slot in Detroit.