Unearthing Every NFL Team's Early Hidden Gem in 2022
The first three weeks of the 2022 NFL season has revealed plenty about each team and their roster.
While much of this intel isn’t surprising—many superstars are playing at high levels and plenty of end-of-roster backups are struggling—there have been a few shocking revelations during the month of September.
Every team has at least one unheralded player on their 53-man roster who has defied expectations by performing at a high level. With that in mind, let’s take a look at these hidden gems and what they have accomplished thus far:
Arizona Cardinals: WR Greg Dortch
Few would have expected Greg Dortch to emerge as a key member of the Arizona Cardinals receiving corps in 2022.
Dortch, a second-year pro out of Wake Forest, was a little-used member of the team last year. He caught just three passes for 15 yards across the entire 2021 campaign.
The 24-year-old already has already well surpassed those marks, posting 20 catches for 198 yards and a touchdown in just three games.
With the aging A.J. Green ineffective and Rondale Moore sidelined, Dortch has seamlessly picked up the slack.
While Marquise Brown and Zach Ertz both have more targets, with 34 and 25 respectively, Dortch’s 23 have clearly established him as the No. 2 wideout in DeAndre Hopkins’ absence. This is further established with no one else on the team than these three having more than 15 targets.
Dortch may slow down when Hopkins returns, but the Cardinals can at least be confident in their ability to withstand an injury or suspension thanks to his breakout performances.
Atlanta Falcons: LB Mykal Walker
The Atlanta Falcons have plenty of question marks dotting their rebuilding roster, but they may have found a linebacker worth building around in Mykal Walker.
After seeing action sparingly during his first two years in the league, the Fresno State product stepped into a full-time starting role this season.
He’s making the most of his expanded workload—Walker has played all 194 of Atlanta’s defensive snaps after logging just 193 in 17 games last year—by notching 22 tackles, two pass defenses, an interception and a sack.
Walker is also capitalizing on the opportunity he’s received to be a leader in this defense. Head coach Arthur Smith spoke about why decided to make the 25-year-old his on-field defensive play-caller (via Scott Bair of AtlantaFalcons.com):
"We had a lot of faith in him, the way he developed last year and the games that he had to play in there, especially stack linebacker behind the ball. Now, he has the green dot, he's continued to develop. I like his football IQ and he's making plays; he made a hell of a play [against the Rams] on the interception".
Walker should only improve with more experience. If the plays he’s made through the first three games of the season are any indication of the direction his career is going, the Falcons found a gem with their fourth-round pick in 2020.
Baltimore Ravens: WR Devin Duvernay
Following their decision to trade away Marquise Brown early in the offseason, the Baltimore Ravens appeared to have a glaring hole at the WR2 position. Despite this apparent issue, the front office opted to avoid drafting a prospect or bringing in a free agent.
The team instead trusted its in-house options to take over the role, something Devin Duvernay has admirably done in his third NFL season. The 25-year-old seems like a natural fit in this run-first offense, making the most of the limited amount of looks he gets each week.
Duvernay has become a bona fide scoring machine, already reeling in three touchdowns on just eight targets this year. He’s proving to be surehanded as well, catching all eight passes thrown his way.
Factor in his elite return abilities—Duvernay made the All-Pro team as a kick returner last year—and potential as a rusher—he saw two carries in Week 3—and you have a player who rapidly developing into one of the most versatile and dangerous weapons the league has to offer.
While he’s likely to remain the third option behind star tight end Mark Andrews and top wideout Rashod Bateman, the Ravens offense will surely be scheming up ways to get Duvernay the ball when points are needed.
Buffalo Bills: WR Isaiah McKenzie
Isaiah McKenzie wasn’t guaranteed a feature role within the Buffalo Bills offense this year, needing to beat out Jamison Crowder for the starting slot receiver job in training camp.
After accomplishing that feat, McKenzie has gone on to reward Buffalo’s faith by getting off to an impressive start to his 2022 campaign. The 27-year-old has caught 11 passes for 132 yards and two scores, emerging as the third-most targeted wideout on the roster with 15, behind Stefon Diggs and Devin Singletary who have 35 and 16 respectively.
While he hasn’t been perfect—McKenzie drew the ire of fans for not getting out of bounds on the final play of last week’s defeat to the Miami Dolphins—the Georgia product is looking like a strong contributor with the potential to get even better.
If he continues his current pace, McKenzie will shatter his previous career-highs of 30 catches for 282 yards and five touchdowns in a season.
It was never going to be easy to replace Cole Beasley in this passing attack, but McKenzie has done an admirable job and should only get better with more reps.
Carolina Panthers: LB Frankie Luvu
After spending his first three years in the league with the New York Jets, linebacker Frankie Luvu came over to the Carolina Panthers last offseason with little fanfare. The undrafted free agent only saw the field for 24 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in 2021, but has assumed a much larger role this season.
Luvu was upgraded to one of Carolina’s starting linebackers and has rarely left the field during the first three weeks. He’s logged nearly as many defensive snaps (207) this year as he did in 16 games last season (249) and is being extremely productive with them.
The 26-year-old has 21 tackles—including 19 solo and four for a loss—one pass defense and a key forced fumble that helped the Panthers pick up their first victory of 2022 last time out against the New Orleans Saints.
The Washington State product has been nicknamed “Uce” by his teammates, who weren’t surprised when he forced New Orleans Saints star back Alvin Kamara to cough up a game-changing fumble.
Defensive tackle Derrick Brown spoke about the play and the energy Luvu brings to the table (via Darin Gantt of Panthers.com):
"That's Uce. That's Uce Behavior at this point, man. No other name to describe it. All that high-energy stuff; high-energy isn't enough to describe it. It's Uce Behavior…"
"Uce is one of those guys; for the team, he does what he needs to. It doesn't matter if he's out there 20,000 plays or one; he's going to stand out.. It's not trying to do too much; it's trying to do his job."
If Luvu keeps bringing high energy and making game-altering plays like that, the Panthers will be set at the linebacker position.
Chicago Bears: RB Khalil Herbert
Khalil Herbert was one of the few bright spots during a trying 2021 Chicago Bears season. The running back averaged an impressive 4.2 yards per carry as a rookie and is improving upon that in his second season.
After starting back David Montgomery went down with an injury early in Week 3, Herbert shined in a feature role. He exploded for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 20 totes, bringing his average on the year up to an eye-popping 7.3 yards per carry.
The Bears have leaned heavily on their backfield to carry the offensive load this year. Although quarterback Justin Fields has attempted just 45 passes over the first three games, Chicago has still managed to win two out of three largely due to a rushing attack that averages a No. 2-ranked 186.7 yards per game.
It remains to be seen if the 5’9”, 212-pound Herbert will be able to shoulder a high-volume workload on a regular basis. He may get another chance to work as a feature back in Week 4, however, as Montgomery has yet to practice leading up to the Bears’ impending matchup with the New York Giants.
If Montgomery shows out against the G-Men, Chicago will have to find a way to get him on the field far more often even when the starter returns to action.
Cincinnati Bengals: TE Hayden Hurst
Hayden Hurst has taken an interesting path to become the starting tight end for the Cincinnati Bengals. He started his career as a first-round pick for the Baltimore Ravens back in 2018, but never found his footing with the organization.
After two trying years in Charm City, Hurst was dealt to the Atlanta Falcons. He put up career-high numbers in 2020, but dropped off again last year ahead of hitting the open market as a free agent.
Although Hurst has largely underwhelmed during his first two stops in the league, he’s quickly becoming an asset for the Super Bowl runners-up. The 29-year-old has drawn 21 targets and generated 14 catches in four games, putting himself on pace to reach career highs in both categories.
While he’s only accumulated 104 receiving yards and had failed to find the end zone until finally making a trip in Week 4, Hurst is rapidly becoming a key piece of this offense who should continue to improve his production with each passing week.
Cleveland Browns: QB Jacoby Brissett
Jacoby Brissett went from a projected third-string quarterback behind both Baker Mayfield and Deshaun Watson to the last proven signal-caller standing on a team with serious postseason aspirations.
After Cleveland parted ways with Mayfield and learned that Watson would have to serve a lengthy 11-game suspension, Brissett was elevated to a long-term starting role for the fourth time in his seven-year career.
The 29-year-old has handled his expanded duties with aplomb. He’s kept the Browns afloat early, leading the squad to two wins in the first three weeks.
He even performed well in Cleveland’s only loss—dissecting the New York Jets’ defense for 229 yards on 22-of-27 passing—but threw an interception on the final play of the game after Cleveland’s defense blew a 13-point lead with less than two minutes left in regulation.
Despite the heartbreaking defeat, the Browns are clearly going to remain a tough squad to beat with Brissett at the helm.
He may not have the Pro Bowl talent of Watson, but it’s likely Cleveland will be in the playoff hunt when the starter returns thanks to the shrewd decision to bring in a quality backup.
Dallas Cowboys: QB Cooper Rush
When Dak Prescott broke his thumb in the Dallas Cowboys’ season-opening loss, it appeared Dallas’ season may be over before it could even get off the ground.
Fortunately, not only is Prescott on track to return by mid-October, but the team has fared extremely well during his absence courtesy of some strong play by backup Cooper Rush.
Rush has proven himself to be an ideal second-string quarterback during his two-game stretch as the starter. He’s not only thrown 450 yards and a pair of scores, but he’s also avoided making any glaring mistakes and has yet to get picked off.
While Rush isn’t playing at a level that would warrant a quarterback controversy—Prescott will certainly assume his starting role as soon as he’s declared healthy enough to get back on the field—he’s performing better than many of the league’s first-stringers.
This is the second straight year that the 28-year-old has had to fill in for Prescott due to injury. In the three total games he’s started, Rush has completed 64-of-102 passes for 775 yards and four touchdowns against a single interception.
Rush has won all three of those contests, a showing that could ultimately get him a look as a potential starter when his contract expires this offseason.
Denver Broncos: S Caden Sterns
Already poised for a breakout year as the team’s dime cornerback and second-string safety, Caden Sterns has quickly assumed a larger role than expected for the Denver Broncos defense.
The second-year talent has been inserted into the starting lineup after Justin Simmons landed on injured reserve with a thigh injury suffered in the season-opener.
Sterns trialed as a starter while filling in for Kareem Jackson twice last year and made the most of his opportunities when he did see the field. He defensed five passes, snatched two interceptions and recorded a pair of sacks as a rookie.
The Texas product was one of just seven defensive backs to hit all those marks in 2021, needing the least amount of snaps to accomplish the feat.
Although Sterns hasn’t made as many big plays in 2022, the 22-year-old has improved in coverage—allowing a 57.1 percent completion rate compared to 77.3 percent last year—and has made 12 tackles in three games.
Detroit Lions: WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
Amon-Ra St. Brown made some waves last year for a string of impressive performances in the back half of his rookie season. The talented wideout was projected to build on that showing, but few would have predicted how much he would improve in 2022.
St. Brown is rapidly evolving into one of the NFL’s best overall receivers. After a commendable first-year stat line of 90 catches on 119 targets for 912 yards and five scores, the 22-year-old is already up to 23 catches on 33 targets for 253 yards and three touchdowns in three games.
The fourth-round pick is the top weapon on an up-and-coming Detroit offense that surprisingly ranks No. 3 in the league in yardage per game and No. 2 in scoring per game. He’s accomplishing all of this with Jared Goff under center, a quarterback who has struggled with consistency over the last few years.
It seems the sky is the limit for St. Brown. The 6’0”, 202-pound wideout hasn’t come close to reaching his ceiling and can add plenty of polish to his raw skills, a scary thought for opposing defensive backs.
Green Bay Packers: WR Romeo Doubs
After trading away Devante Adams early in the offseason, the Green Bay Packers made it a priority to find replacement pass-catchers to keep their offense afloat. Much of the focus was on Christian Watson, the wideout Green Bay picked at No. 34 overall in the 2022 draft, but the fourth-round selection of Romeo Doubs has been a much more impactful move.
Doubs has been the Packers’ breakout offensive rookie this year. After two solid but unspectacular games to open his career, the Nevada product put himself on the map in Week 3.
With both Watson and veteran pass-catcher Sammy Watkins sidelined for a high-profile clash with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Doubs stepped up and delivered the top performance of his fledgling career. The 22-year-old snared all eight passes thrown his way for 73 yards and a pivotal score to help guide Green Bay to a 14-12 victory.
It’s apparent that Doubs has earned the trust of reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers. The chemistry between the veteran signal-caller and young wideout is rapidly flourishing and could result in Doubs becoming the clearcut WR1 the team has been trying to find since dealing away Adams.
Houston Texans: WR Chris Moore
Chris Moore may be one of the more established players on the rebuilding Houston Texans rosters—he’s now in his seventh NFL season—but he’s rarely been called on to do more than provide depth during his first half-decade in the league.
That is changing in 2022, as Moore is becoming a key part of Houston’s passing game as their main slot receiver. The role was expected to belong to John Metchie III, but the second-round rookie was diagnosed with leukemia and is unlikely to suit up this season as he battles the illness.
With eight catches on 10 targets for 108 yards in three games, Moore is on pace to smash his previous career highs of 21 receptions and 248 receiving yards.
While Moore hasn’t reached the end zone this season after making two trips in 2021, it should only be a matter of time before the 29-year-old finds pay dirt based on the volume he’s seeing each week.
Indianapolis Colts: WR Ashton Dulin
The Indianapolis Colts have been struggling to find viable receivers to pair with star wideout Michael Pittman Jr.
Although the team used a second-round pick on Alec Pierce, it’s an unheralded fourth-year receiver who has stepped up to serve as the team’s No. 2 wideout this year. Ashton Dulin has come out of the gate strong and is well on his way to having the finest season of his career.
Dulin joined the Colts in 2019 as an undrafted free agent but did little outside of special teams his first two years in the league. He began contributing more on offense in 2021, catching 13 balls for 173 yards and his first two NFL touchdowns.
The Malone product is becoming much more involved in 2022, snagging nine of his 14 targets for 132 yards over the first three weeks of the season.
Dulin has been one of the few healthy receivers on the roster this year as Pittman and Pierce have each missed a game so far.
The consistency is helping Matt Ryan get adjusted during his first season in Indy. Dulin is quickly becoming one of the veteran quarterback’s go-to options, a key reason why he ranks second on the team in receiving yards.
Jacksonville Jaguars: DL DaVon Hamilton
After suffering through one of the most turbulent seasons in franchise history, the Jacksonville Jaguars have not only found stability under new head coach Doug Pederson, but also success.
The Jags are off to an impressive 2-1 start and are currently sitting atop the AFC South. One of the key reasons for this is their defense, particularly a run defense that rates as the league’s finest.
While first-round rookies Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd deserve much of the credit for transforming this defense into a juggernaut, lesser-known entities like Davon Hamilton have been instrumental in shoring up the trenches.
Hamilton’s stats may not jump off the page—he has just three tackles, one for a loss—but he’s been a key rotational member for rush defense that has allowed a meager 55.0 yards per game. It’s an even more impressive stat when you look at who the Jaguars have shut down to top the NFL in this category.
Jacksonville began the year with a ho-hum showing against the Washington Commanders, but turned a corner in Week 2 by limiting reigning rushing champion Jonathan Taylor to just 54 yards on the ground. The Jags followed that up by holding the Los Angeles Chargers to a ghastly 26 rushing yards.
Hamilton and the rest of the rotational members of a relentless Jacksonville front are putting the league on notice. This team has waves of defenders that can be swapped in and out situationally, making it one of the most dangerous units out there and one built for sustained success as the campaign wears on.
Kansas City Chiefs: LB Nick Bolton
The Kansas City Chiefs have lacked quality linebacker play for years. While that hasn’t stopped the club from making perennial deep playoff runs, it certainly hasn’t helped its Super Bowl chances either.
It appears that is finally changing with the emergence of Nick Bolton. He’s turning into the type of high-end interior linebacker that Kansas City has long coveted, and his development could not happen at a better time for the organization.
The Chiefs parted ways with Tyreek Hill this offseason and may need to rely on defense more than it has in previous seasons. Despite scoring 71 points over the first fortnight of the campaign, Kansas City came back to earth last week with 17 points in a loss against the Indianapolis Colts.
Bolton is becoming a force in the middle, notching an impressive 29 tackles—including 19 solo and two for a loss—in three games. He’s gotten better as a pass-rusher—recording two sacks after failing to get even one as a rookie—and in coverage.
The 22-year-old is most noticeable as a run-stopper, however, as the Chiefs are looking better than they have in quite some time against opposing ball carriers.
Kansas City is allowing only 86.7 yards per game on the ground, a marked improvement over the 117.6 rushing yards per game given up last year and the 122.1 per game the defense conceded in 2020.
Las Vegas Raiders: WR Mack Hollins
Although the Las Vegas Raiders are the only 0-3 team in football, it’s not all doom and gloom in Sin City.
Mack Hollins’ emergence has been a pleasant surprise for the club. Few would have predicted the 29-year-old would be the team’s leading receiver at this juncture, not after an offseason in which the club traded for Davante Adams and signed Hunter Renfrow to a contract extension.
While there was plenty of hype around the rekindled connection between collegiate teammates Derek Carr and Adams, Hollins has become the Raiders’ most productive receiver seemingly out of nowhere.
Hollins’ 20 targets are well behind Adams’ 34, but the sixth-year veteran has turned his looks into 14 receptions for 240 yards and a score. Adams has 189 yards and 17 catches with three touchdowns heading into October.
While Hollins’ breakout game—a scintillating eight-catch, 158-yard performance against the Tennessee Titans—came with Renfrow sidelined, he’s shown enough to earn a more prominent role when this passing attack is full strength.
Los Angeles Chargers: WR DeAndre Carter
Little was expected from DeAndre Carter this season. The journeyman joined the Los Angeles Chargers as a projected depth option but has quickly risen to prominence as one of the club’s few reliable pass-catchers.
Carter was coming off a career year but still had a relatively quiet 2021 campaign—he finished with 24 catches for 296 yards and three scores—with the Washington Commanders.
He’s never done much of note since trying to break into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2015, finally accomplishing the feat in 2018 with the Philadelphia Eagles. He’s now on his fourth team since then but finally seems to have found an important role.
The 29-year-old already has nine catches for 150 yards and a score, including a highlight 35-yard catch that came late against the rival Kansas City Chiefs. It was a play that shows he’s earned the trust of quarterback Justin Herbert.
Carter is helping make up for the disappointing play of Mike Williams, who signed a massive contract extension this offseason but has basically disappeared in two of Los Angeles’ three games this season.
The Sacramento State product may not develop into a superstar at this point of his career, but his development into a capable wideout is one of the better stories to come from the Bolts’ sluggish start to the 2022 campaign.
Los Angeles Rams: WR Ben Skowronek
The Los Angeles Rams have entered the 2022 NFL season with a much different looking receiving corps than the one they fielded last year, including missing two key wideouts from their Super Bowl run.
Odell Beckham Jr. is still working his way back from an ACL tear and remains a free agent. Van Jefferson hasn’t been able to suit up yet this year either as he rehabs from an offseason knee surgery that landed him on injured reserve last week.
That leaves Cooper Kupp and Ben Skowronek as the only two returning wideouts from the team’s championship roster. The latter has done an admirable job filling for Jefferson and taking on the largest workload of his young career.
Skowronek suited up for 14 games as a seventh-round pick last year but caught just 11 of his 20 targets for 133 yards. He had issues with drops—he had three despite his limited number of looks—and struggled to get on the same page as quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw an interception and had a 54.8 rating when targeting the rookie.
The 25-year-old has made significant improvements in his second season. He’s caught 10 of his 13 targets for 107 yards heading into Week 4 and has completely avoided drops so far. Stafford has a noticeably higher rating (100.5) when throwing to the Notre Dame product this year.
L.A.’s receiving corps should be in much better shape with a healthy Jefferson and a potential reunion with Beckham later in the year, but Skowronek's development is helping the club get through some lean weeks.
Miami Dolphins: S Brandon Jones
Jevon Holland may have been considered the only star safety on the Miami Dolphins’ roster heading into 2022, but Brandon Jones is playing well enough to break into the discussion.
Jones has a joint team-high 27 tackles, one sack, two pass defenses and a forced fumble through four games.
The 24-year-old is playing 75 percent of the defensive snaps this year, well above the 64 percent he logged last year and 37 percent he saw the field for as a rookie.
While Jones is clearly a hard-hitting tackle-machine, he’s also improving in coverage.
The third-round pick in 2020 is allowing just 52.6 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed, a massive improvement over the 80 percent-plus completion rates he conceded during his first two seasons.
If he continues improving at his current rate, the Dolphins may end up with one of the best starting safety duos in football by the time the 2022 campaign concludes.
Minnesota Vikings: TE Irv Smith Jr.
Irv Smith Jr. was a breakout candidate last year but unfortunately spent the entire season on injured reserve after undergoing surgery on his meniscus in early September.
Smith returned to the fold during training camp and now appears to be fully healthy and well on his way to a productive campaign. He is finally getting his chance to be a primary weapon and is making the most of it.
Smith has seven catches for 68 yards and a touchdown through three games. He’s third on the team in targets behind the star receiver duo of Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen and makes for an ideal red zone target due to his 6’2”, 240-pound stature.
The 2019 second-round pick injects plenty of athleticism into Minnesota’s tight end room. He has massive potential to make contested grabs over smaller defenders and then racks up yards after the catch.
At only 24 years old, there is plenty of potential for Smith to grow his game. He’s relying on his power and speed right now but could further improve by refining his route-running and mechanics.
New England Patriots: EDGE Deatrich Wise Jr.
Deatrich Wise Jr. may have been a part of the New England Patriots defense since they drafted him in the fourth round back in 2017, but he hasn’t ever played as critical of a role for this club as the one he is in 2022.
Mostly utilized as a rotational pass-rusher for the first half-decade of his career, Wise is spending more time on the field than ever this year. He’s logging 83 percent of the defensive snaps, a mark well above the 52 percent he logged last year and his prior career-high of 56 percent in 2020.
Wise is making the most of this increased workload. He’s up to a team-high four sacks on the season, just a half-sack off Alex Highsmith’s league-leading mark.
The 28-year-old already surpassed his sack total from last season and is now just one behind the career-high he set as a rookie with 14 games still to play.
New England will need Wise and the rest of the defense to step up in wake of Mac Jones’ injury. With the starting quarterback potentially out for a few weeks due to an ankle issue, the pressure will be on the Pats defense to make even more plays after a tough 1-2 start to the campaign.
New Orleans Saints: LB Pete Werner
After missing most of the training camp with a groin injury, Pete Werner didn’t seem rusty whatsoever upon his return to action in the 2022 season-opener.
The New Orleans Saints linebacker now leads the NFL in solo tackles with 24, recording at least six in all three of his team’s games.
Defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen praised the 24-year-old, noting that he’s playing at the level the club expected when drafting him in the second round last year (via Terrin Waack of NOLA.com):
“Yeah, he’s been pretty good, right? Pretty good, pretty productive. Look, it's good to see Pete. He got a little nicked up in camp and came back and had really good Game 1 and 2. This is what I think we all expected to see of this player, of Pete.”
The Ohio State product is well on his way to eclipsing his rookie numbers of 62 tackles (36 solo). He’s also added a forced fumble and pass defense this year after failing to record any in 15 games last season.
With this red-hot start, Werner has clearly established himself as a key part of New Orleans’ defense and should continue to be a force for years to come.
New York Giants: WR Richie James
Richie James went from being on the New York Giants roster bubble at the end of training camp to one of their leading receivers during the regular season.
The 27-year-old receiver spent the first three years of his career with the San Francisco 49ers before missing the entire 2021 campaign with a knee injury. He caught on with the G-Men this offseason and battled hard to earn his spot on the 53-man roster.
That perseverance has paid off as James has racked up 14 catches on 17 targets for 146 yards over the first three weeks. He has the most receptions of any Giants player and trails only Sterling Shepard in receiving yardage and targets.
While rookie Wan’Dale Robinson’s return from injury could lead to a diminished amount of looks, James has clearly earned Daniel Jones’ trust and established himself as a go-to weapon in a passing offense still attempting to sort out a pecking order heading into October.
New York Jets: TE Tyler Conklin
The New York Jets overhauled their tight end room by bringing in both C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin this offseason.
While Uzomah earned the bigger contract, Conklin has been the much more prolific pass-catcher during the first three games of the 2022 campaign.
Conklin has improved his production each week. After a strong eight-catch, 84-yard showing in Week 3, the 27-year-old is now up to 18 catches on 24 targets for 140 yards and a touchdown on the year.
In comparison, Uzomah has been targeted just once in the two games he’s been active for, securing the catch for five yards.
Although Conklin’s red-hot start has come with Joe Flacco under center—only rookie Garrett Wilson has seen more targets during the three games the veteran signal-caller has started—he’s done enough to continue getting a large number of looks when Zach Wilson returns for Week 4 and beyond.
Philadelphia Eagles: CB Avonte Maddox
With standout defensive backs like Darius Slay and James Bradberry around him, it’s no surprise quarterbacks are often going at cornerback Avonte Maddox when they play the Philadelphia Eagles.
Despite his lack of reputation and stature—Maddox stands just 5’9”, 184 pounds—the fifth-year corner has played well through the first three games of 2022. Maddox has already secured 16 tackles, two pass defenses and a leaping interception while helping lead the Eagles to an NFL-best 3-0 record.
Expect Maddox to continue to be challenged all year long, but the Eagles will be in great shape if he continues performing as well as he has in September.
Pittsburgh Steelers: RB Jaylen Warren
Jaylen Warren has surprisingly been the most effective running back on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster.
Despite the star sophomore Najee Harris drawing most of the totes, the rookie has been far more impactful with his touches out of the gate. Warren has carried the rock 11 times in 2022, generating an impressive 52 yards.
While Harris is still unquestionably Pittsburgh’s bell cow back, he’s only amassed 128 yards on his 40 carries. The 2021 first-round pick’s average of 3.2 yards per carry is well below the 3.9 YPC he posted last year.
Warren—an undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma—had his best showing in Week 3 when he put up 30 yards on just four carries. While he coughed up a fumble in the contest that seemed to limit his usage for the rest of the game, Harris also lost one in eventual defeat to the rival Cleveland Browns as well.
If the Steelers can’t turn things around soon following back-to-back losses, Warren could steadily earn more touches to try and jump-start this offense.
San Francisco 49ers: S Talanoa Hufanga
Talanoa Hufanga has seamlessly transitioned into the starting role left vacant by the departure of longtime safety Jaquiski Tartt. His emergence is a key reason why the San Francisco 49ers rank No. 2 in the league in total defense and No. 1 in passing defense.
Hufanga, a fifth-round pick last year, saw the field sporadically as a rookie. He finished 2021 with 395 defensive snaps under his belt but has seen a drastic uptick in work this year. The 23-year-old hasn’t come off the field during the first three weeks, playing all 181 defensive snaps in that span.
The USC product is shutting down everything near him. He’s only allowed four completions on 10 targets in coverage, giving up just 47 total yards. He’s tallied up 21 tackles—four for a loss—three pass defenses and an interception as well.
Legendary 49ers safety Ronnie Lott lauded Hufanga’s play this season (via David Bonilla of 49ersWebZone)
"The kid is phenomenal, and what I love is the timing, and the anticipation, and the feel [for the game]. What's great is that here's a guy that looks like he's moving faster than everyone else. And what I mean by that is his anticipation of understanding the moment.”
If Hufanga can continue performing at this level, the 49ers may have another superstar safety on their hands.
Seattle Seahawks: TE Colby Parkinson
Colby Parkinson may be the third-string tight end on the Seattle Seahawks depth chart, but the third-year veteran is still contributing at a high level given how little was expected from him in 2022.
Parkinson had done little over his first two years in the league, catching just seven passes for 49 yards in 20 games.
The 23-year-old is getting much more involved this season, having already caught all four of his targets for 87 yards and a touchdown. His lone score on the campaign was a critical one too, as it helped Seattle overcome the heavily favored Denver Broncos by a 17-16 margin in the season-opener
Parkinson has logged 60 snaps so far—representing 34 percent of Seattle’s offensive plays—which is a decent amount for a third-stringer at his position.
While he was kept off the stat sheet in Week 3, Parkinson could continue to see enough targets to make an impact most weeks.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: S Mike Edwards
Mike Edwards entered 2022 in a full-time starting role for the first time in his four-year career.
The 26-year-old has scored a superstar-like 85.0 PFF grade for his impressive string of performances in 2022. He’s already racked up 21 tackles—including 13 solo and one for a loss—two pass defenses and an interception that he returned for a score.
Edwards has done all this while never coming off the field. After playing just 57 percent of the snaps last year, the 2019 third-rounder has been out there for all 199 of Tampa’s defensive snaps over the first three weeks.
This emergence has come at a critical time for the Buccaneers. With a receiving corps gutted by injury, Tampa has limped out of the gate offensively. The club is averaging less than 300 yards of offense and is scoring a mere 17 points per game, a far cry from the 405.9 yards and 30.1 points it averaged last season.
Tennessee Titans: RB Dontrell Hilliard
The Tennessee Titans may have picked up Dontrell Hilliard up off the scrap heap midway through last season—one of a record 91 players they utilized last season—but they liked what they saw out of the veteran running back and kept him around for the 2022 season.
Hilliard has rewarded the club’s faith in his abilities by providing quality output for a backup running back, especially one stuck behind a superstar lead back in Derrick Henry.
While the 27-year-old has taken his four totes for 22 yards, he’s been even more effective in the passing game. Hilliard has caught four of his five targets, taking those receptions for 91 yards and two touchdowns.
It’s unlikely that Hilliard will continue to average 22.8 yards per reception, but the Tulane product has clearly established himself as a go-to weapon on passing downs. The 5’11”, 202-pound back also provides a great change-of-pace from the bruising Henry.
The 1-2 Titans may be off to a disappointing start, but the reigning AFC South champions seem to at least have their backup running back position set with Hilliard.
Washington Commanders: WR Curtis Samuel
Jahan Dotson was expected to be the Washington Commanders’ breakout playmaker this year. The rookie joined the team as a first-round pick this spring, but Curtis Samuel has surprisingly been the most dangerous weapon on the team’s offense during the month of September.
After showing glimpses of elite playmaking talent during his first four seasons with the Carolina Panthers, Samuel signed a three-year, $34 million contract with Washington last year but struggled to stay healthy.
Injuries had been the unfortunate story of Samuel’s career, limiting him to just 61 of a possible 81 games since he entered the league as a second-round pick in 2017. He only participated in five games in 2021 and never seemed close to 100 percent, catching just six passes for 27 yards on the year.
Samuel eclipsed those paltry numbers in the opener and has stayed hot since. He’s up to 181 yards and two scores on 22 receptions and has even contributed out of the backfield, piling up another 51 yards on eight totes.
The 26-year-old is unlocking the potential of Washington’s offense, which had relied too heavily on Terry McLaurin to move the chains in recent seasons. If Samuel can stay on the field, he’ll not only post some incredible personal numbers, but help keep the Commanders competitive in a winnable NFC East.