Predicting Every NFL Team's 2022 Surprise Rookie Gem
One of the best storylines each NFL season is watching which rookies emerge as surprise contributors. Within months, we'll know who fell further in the draft than what they should have.
It's no surprise that some fall through the cracks, as setting expectations for rookies can be difficult. The physical adjustment from college to the pros is tough enough for most, but the difference in mentality and schemes add an unknown factor. We also must consider the team's depth chart and priority placed on developing young players.
Players taken in the first two rounds are often counted on to play in some form in their initial season. But as the draft progresses into Round 3 and beyond, teams are looking at likely redshirting the rookie or asking them to play on special teams.
Some first-year players will break through when they've earned the opportunity, and those late-round gems are easy to root for. We've sifted through every draft pick and depth chart to find one surprise rookie for each team.
All of these players were taken in the third round or later. Most aren't even close to the top of their depth chart but have the talent to ascend in time.
Arizona Cardinals: Myjai Sanders, Edge
The Arizona Cardinals took a utilitarian approach to their draft class. They entered with needs at receiver, defensive end and along the offensive line. Leaving with wideout Marquise Brown (via trade), tight end Trey McBride, defensive ends Cameron Thomas and Myjai Sanders, and two guards helped fill those holes.
The edge help is especially notable after Chandler Jones departed this offseason. For Arizona to improve upon its surprising 11-6 season, the team will need its rookies to produce. The 6'5", 270-pound Thomas has a bigger frame that should earn him snaps along the defensive line, whereas Sanders fits the profile as a pure edge-rusher.
He can earn his spot in a rotation with veterans Markus Golden and Devon Kennard. He totaled 13.5 sacks over his final three years at Cincinnati thanks to his speed. At 6'5" and 255 pounds, Sanders is an ideal sub-package threat.
If he can get six or more sacks, the Cardinals' defensive ceiling will rise. The secondary is solid, and J.J. Watt will anchor an athletic front seven. Finding that creative pass-rusher to complement Watt is the final piece.
Atlanta Falcons: Tyler Allgeier, RB
The Atlanta Falcons have low expectations as they enter the post-Matt Ryan era and reset their cap sheet for 2023, but their one clear position of strength is their running back depth.
Veterans Cordarrelle Patterson and Damien Williams are fine stopgaps to help the offense avoid disaster early in the season. Patterson enjoyed a career year in 2021 with 1,166 yards from scrimmage and 11 scores. But at some point, Atlanta should look to give fifth-round rookie Tyler Allgeier touches instead of riding the 31-year-old Patterson as losses mount.
Allgeier was a battering ram at BYU, totaling 2,899 yards and 36 touchdowns on the ground despite starting only two years. The 220-pounder has surprising quickness for his size and can make defenders miss. He's not a flashy athlete like Patterson and Williams, but his ability to consistently drive the ball forward is needed.
There's enough upside for Allgeier to become more than just a touchdown vulture and short-yardage back.
Baltimore Ravens: Tyler Badie, RB
A lot went wrong in 2021 as the Baltimore Ravens suffered a slew of injuries that changed their season. Their running back depth was lost before the campaign even began, and the franchise hoped that quarterback Lamar Jackson's presence would open opportunities for lesser talents. Unfortunately, the Ravens learned the hard way that older backs who lack explosiveness couldn't sustain success.
Gone are Devonta Freeman, Latavius Murray and Le'Veon Bell. Baltimore added Mike Davis from Atlanta on top of welcoming back J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill off injured reserve. And yet, our pick to become a rookie gem is sixth-rounder Tyler Badie.
The former Missouri playmaker has great explosiveness and ability to impact the offense as a receiver. He totaled 3,889 yards from scrimmage and 34 scores throughout his career despite only being the primary rusher in his senior season. Watch for his quickness and receiving ability to make a difference as he climbs the depth chart while Baltimore rotates backs in its run-heavy offense.
Buffalo Bills: Matt Araiza, P
How could we not include the Punt God? The Buffalo Bills snatched up Matt Araiza with the first pick in the sixth round. Shockingly, the San Diego State product wasn't the first punter taken despite his ability to boom kicks over 80 yards.
He likely won't often see the field as a rookie. After all, Buffalo tied for the sixth-fewest punts in the league last year with 53. Nevertheless, the Bills upgraded from Matt Haack to Araiza.
His rare ability to flip the field may lack polish of punters who are masters of pinning offenses inside their 10-yard line, but the dynamic he brings is so much more valuable. Araiza can force opposing offenses to travel an extra 10 or more yards on every punt from within their 30-yard line. No other team has that luxury.
What can make him a surprise is the actual impact that occasional punts can bring. Unsurprisingly, the farther an offense has to travel to score, the less likely they are to do so. Even a 5 percent improvement in Buffalo's scoring defense last year may have been the difference between advancing to the Super Bowl and losing to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round.
Carolina Panthers: Brandon Smith, LB
Dating to when Ron Rivera was head coach, the Carolina Panthers have generally made wise decisions at linebacker. Their latest pick at the spot, fourth-rounder Brandon Smith, fits the athletic mold that has thrived on this unit.
Last year's third-leading tackler was undersized linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. (6'1", 225 lbs). Carolina clearly wanted more of an impact from the position, as it signed veterans Damien Wilson and Cory Littleton in addition to drafting Smith. With Shaq Thompson as the star of the front seven and Wilson locking down the middle linebacker role, the strong-side spot would be perfect for Smith.
At 6'3" and 240 pounds, he's an ideal "Sam" linebacker thanks to his great length and range. His outstanding speed gives him the upside to develop into a quality coverage threat as well. Look for him to earn opportunities over Littleton thanks to his tantalizing gifts as the season progresses.
Chicago Bears: Velus Jones Jr., WR
The Chicago Bears had an interesting draft haul, as they added several older prospects to a rebuilding roster. One of those is third-round receiver Velus Jones Jr. The 25-year-old possesses 4.31-second 40-yard dash speed and can produce in multiple ways. He was a second-team All-SEC kick returner and posted 807 yards and seven scores as a receiver.
Chicago's lack of playmaking at receiver outside Darnell Mooney entering the draft was worrisome. Jones has a similar athletic profile to Mooney's and could complement free-agent addition Byron Pringle with his downfield speed. A few deep completions and solid kick returns would help this team tremendously.
The Bears need Justin Fields to have speed around him to maximize the quarterback's ability to create big plays outside the pocket. So while his age isn't ideal, Jones has the talent to be helpful in 2022 and beyond. Look for him to be given every opportunity to carve a role on this young offense.
Cincinnati Bengals: Zachary Carter, DT
One of reasons the Cincinnati Bengals outlasted their fellow AFC heavyweights and almost stole the Super Bowl from the Rams is their defense is loaded with depth.
The one group that could use a supersub is the defensive line, though. Cincinnati bolstered the unit by signing DJ Reader and re-signing B.J. Hill. But it's third-round rookie Zachary Carter who brings the perfect third-down pass-rush skill set.
Carter split time between end and tackle at Florida and produced well. The 285-pounder picked up 17 sacks and 26 tackles for loss over his career. He has a quick first step, as you'd expect from an underweight 3-technique.
His presence could be key against top AFC foes who go pass-happy in waning moments. Expect to see defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo sub Reader out for Carter in obvious passing downs, as he needs speedier interior rushers to penetrate the pocket. It's a big opportunity for the rookie.
Cleveland Browns: Perrion Winfrey, DT
On paper, the Cleveland Browns have one of the NFL's most dangerous rosters. They have elite playmakers all over the field on both sides of the ball. This is especially true for their young, promising defense that has been revamped over the last four years.
One of the most fascinating prospects added this offseason was former Oklahoma defensive tackle Perrion Winfrey. The Browns wisely re-signed Jadeveon Clowney but opted against investing heavily into tackle. They entered the draft knowing they needed to add depth at tackle because of the absence of a proven playmaker.
Now, Wimbley joins a young rotation with Taven Bryan and 2021 fourth-round pick Tommy Togiai. Bryan was a first-round bust for Jacksonville, which opens the door for Wimbley to win the job as a rookie. He totaled 5.5 sacks in his breakout 2021 season.
Cleveland would be thrilled to get anything near that type of production. Wimbley should earn the workload to reach impressive numbers relative to his draft status thanks to the lack of clear competition.
Dallas Cowboys: Jalen Tolbert, WR
Coming off a 12-5 season that featured the NFL's top offense, the Dallas Cowboys bet on themselves when they let high-priced veterans go. With receivers Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson Jr. and lineman La'el Collins headlining their offensive departures, it's fair to wonder who will fill the void. The Cowboys' rookie class has immense pressure on them.
Incumbent receivers CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup will be joined by third-rounder Jalen Tolbert. He will see a big step up in competition after playing at South Alabama, but he has the skill set to make the jump. He dominated the Sun Belt Conference, totaling 178 receptions for 3,140 yards and 22 touchdowns with an eye-popping 17.6-yard per-catch average over his career.
Tolbert's silky game projects well as a replacement for Cooper. The 6'1" wideout should also see extra targets early since Gallup is recovering from a torn ACL. Look for him to be a Rookie of the Year candidate if the volume of targets remains steady all season.
Denver Broncos: Damarri Mathis, CB
The Denver Broncos roster is stacked with a bevy of young talent, making it hard for any rookie to break into their lineup. But that might not stop fourth-round cornerback Damarri Mathis from earning a larger role than expected.
He is behind veterans Patrick Surtain II and Ronald Darby. Surtain is a star, and Darby played well in his first campaign in Denver last year. That being said, Darby has played a full season just once in his career.
Mathis will be ready should Darby miss a handful of games. The Pittsburgh cornerback ranked third in completion percentage allowed since 2019, per ESPN Stats & Information. The 5'11", 195-pounder is long and fast and physical in coverage, making him an absolute steal for general manager George Paton.
Detroit Lions: Malcolm Rodriguez, LB
The Detroit Lions knocked their draft class out of the park. Headlining acquisitions Aidan Hutchinson and Jameson Williams ensured their status as an immediate draft winner. Looking deeper into their class reveals other possible starters, though.
Sixth-round linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez is a perfect fit for this coaching staff that values toughness, instincts and effort. He joins a position group that racked up tackles but offered little other impact. The starting trio of Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Alex Anzalone and Derrick Barnes combined for just three sacks, one interception and 13 pass deflections in 46 appearances.
Rodriguez is just 5'11" and 232 pounds but flies around the field making plays. He led an excellent Oklahoma State defense over the last four seasons, capping his career with 129 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2021. Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn should unleash Rodriguez much like how Cleveland used Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as a Swiss Army knife who could flow to the ball and thrive in space.
Green Bay Packers: Romeo Doubs, WR
Don't be surprised if the Green Bay Packers' fourth-round rookie receiver outperforms their second-round receiver in 2022. Nevada's Romeo Doubs was a four-year contributor in a vertical passing offense that highlighted his downfield speed, solid body control and comfort fighting through contact. The Day 3 pick is a gamer who averaged 14.8 yards per catch and 6.5 touchdowns per year throughout his career.
His competition is less refined and comes from a lower level of competition. Second-rounder Christian Watson is an incredibly impressive athlete but lacked polish at North Dakota State. It's fair to expect him to be slowly integrated into an offense that requires precision to earn trust from veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Doubs isn't as fast as former Packers receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, but he had just four drops in 2021 and won 60 percent of his contested-catch opportunities, per Pro Football Focus (via FanNation's Bill Huber). He's more reliable than his predecessor in tough situations. Expect Rodgers to love his toughness at the catch point and for Doubs to earn a big role early.
Houston Texans: Dameon Pierce, RB
There may not be a Day 3 rookie in a better position to produce than new Houston Texans rusher Dameon Pierce. The team should have a much better offensive line in 2022 after adding first-round guard Kenyon Green and free-agent A.J. Cann to a unit that gets back a healthy Laremy Tunsil. Houston also has no clear starting running back in place.
Pierce never saw a full workload at Florida but made the most of his touches. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry throughout his career and racked up 16 total touchdowns in 2021. His ability to make defenders miss for a 218-pound back is especially notable, as he finished his senior campaign second among Power Five rushers in missed tackles forced per attempt, per PFF College.
Veteran Marlon Mack is the biggest threat to Pierce since he was a home run hitter before his torn Achilles in the 2020 season opener. However, Mack never earned consistent playing time in 2021 after his return and was a mere flier for the Texans. Pierce can show up on Day 1 and earn the lion's share of snaps for this young offense.
Indianapolis Colts: Bernhard Raimann, OT
Having an elite offensive line coach is a wonderful advantage when developing talent. The Indianapolis Colts could have panicked this offseason when veteran Eric Fisher hit free agency, but instead they stayed patient into the third round of the draft. At pick No. 77, the Colts landed their potential left tackle for the present and future in Bernhard Raimann.
The former tight end has only two years of tackle experience, but the Colts will rely on line coach Chris Strausser to get him into starting form. Raimann is a tenacious run-blocker who has great strength and finishing ability. His large 6'6", 303-pound frame is nimble, making him a premier athlete worth investing in.
That he played at Central Michigan and lacked extensive experience showed in his tape. But with his main competition for the starting job being Matt Pryor, an unproven talent himself, Raimann has a golden opportunity to block Matt Ryan's blind side. With Strausser, who has helped the development of Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly and Braden Smith since taking the job in 2019, it's fair to expect to see Raimann flourish by the end of his rookie campaign.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Luke Fortner, C
The Jacksonville Jaguars haven't had a great offensive line in years, but that wasn't because of longtime center Brandon Linder. His surprise retirement opened a hole on a line that was getting a face-lift this offseason. With the first pick in the third round, Jacksonville addressed its need with Luke Fortner.
The versatile interior blocker from Kentucky was a shrewd pickup. Experienced at both guard and center during three seasons, Fortner has a skill set that will allow him to succeed early. His play style is similar to Linder's despite being slightly smaller.
Expect to see the 6'6", 300-pound Fortner rely on his strength as a rookie. He's a solid run-blocker who finishes plays through the whistle. Jacksonville added a lot of nastiness to its offensive line this offseason between Fortner and guard Brandon Scherff.
Kansas City Chiefs: Leo Chenal, LB
Sometimes the athletic numbers paint a significantly different picture than the film, which puts evaluators into a bind. That's the case for 2021 breakout star Leo Chenal. The leader of the Wisconsin Badgers defense had elite production, including 115 tackles and eight sacks, but looked more like a straight-line athlete than what his offseason testing suggested.
The 6'2", 261-pounder showed he's not just powerful as he raced to a 4.53-second 40-yard dash and leapt to a 40.5-inch vertical and 10-foot, 8-inch broad jump. He also pumped out 34 reps on the bench and ran a 6.84-second three-cone drill at Wisconsin's pro day.
He tested as arguably the most athletic pass-rusher in the class.
Kansas City appears to have the perfect role for Chenal at strong-side linebacker. At worst, if he isn't comfortable in coverage, he can use his strength and power at the point of attack against the run or proceed to rush the passer. Being surrounded by top-notch athletes Nick Bolton and Willie Gay Jr. will protect him from having to drop into coverage too often.
Chenal should be on the field as a pass-rusher early in his rookie season. Look for him to outperform some of his higher-drafted peers thanks to the unique traits he displayed at the combine and his pro day.
Las Vegas Raiders: Dylan Parham, OG
The Las Vegas Raiders came out of left field with a terrific offseason. Not only did they acquire All-Pro receiver Davante Adams and reunite him with quarterback and college teammate Derek Carr, but they also added star pass-rusher Chandler Jones. As such, the Raiders opted against investing heavily into their woeful offensive line.
A new coaching staff may prove to be all the difference the unit needs to improve. To ensure the front office didn't completely overlook the line, the Raiders snatched guard Dylan Parham in the third round with their first selection in the draft. The Memphis product can fight for the starting left guard spot.
New head coach Josh McDaniels will have options to fill holes at guard and right tackle. He coached Jermaine Eluemunor with the Patriots and pulled solid play from him at right tackle. That would open the door for Parham to start next to star left tackle Kolton Miller and across from 2021 first-round pick Alex Leatherwood.
Parham is an ideal left guard prospect. He's more smooth than powerful and gets to the second level of defenses quickly. He has experience at both guard positions and right tackle.
Los Angeles Chargers: Isaiah Spiller, RB
After the Los Angeles Chargers added defensive stars Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson, the team continued to bolster its depth throughout free agency and the draft. One of those players was fourth-rounder Isaiah Spiller. The impressive Texas A&M running back should immediately challenge for snaps behind Austin Ekeler.
Adding depth behind Ekeler was crucial. Not only has the 27-year-old never started for a full season, but the backup tandem of Joshua Kelley and Larry Rountree III failed to produce at an efficient level last year. Kelley averaged just 3.1 yards per carry on 33 touches, and Rountree was worse with 2.4 yards on 36 carries.
Spiller will push one of the backups off the roster. He showed excellent hands as a receiver and is an efficient runner between the tackles. If Ekeler goes down, watch for Spiller to take a rare opportunity for a rookie to produce on a championship-level team.
Los Angeles Rams: Logan Bruss, OG
Lacking a first- or second-round pick, the Los Angeles Rams had to get down to business in a hurry during the draft. The one area that almost cost the team the Super Bowl last year was an offensive line that had degraded after multiple personnel changes in recent years. The Rams couldn't run the ball, but they could pass block.
With the addition of third-rounder and former Wisconsin guard Logan Bruss, it's clear that head coach Sean McVay wants more balance for quarterback Matthew Stafford. The Rams ranked 25th in rushing yards and yards per carry. With Cam Akers back from his torn Achilles, reestablishing the run is more possible with Bruss and a star ball-carrier.
Bruss fits the typical Wisconsin offensive lineman mold. He's powerful and technically refined enough to start immediately. He also has excellent short-area quickness to go with his power, making him a potential diamond in the rough for general manager Les Snead.
Miami Dolphins: Channing Tindall, LB
With just four selections in the 2022 draft and two of them coming in the seventh round, the Miami Dolphins were mostly observers during the three-day event. However, they nabbed an impressive athlete from the nation's top defense last year at a position of need. Dolphins general manager Chris Grier must have been ecstatic when Georgia's Channing Tindall was still on the board with his first pick.
The third-rounder can take early snaps on Miami's woeful run defense. His range is fantastic from sideline to sideline, and he's a sure tackler in the open field. He also has upside in coverage thanks to his long 6'2" frame and movement ability at 230 pounds.
Miami already has an established starter in Jerome Baker but could use more athleticism next to him. Elandon Roberts is a downhill hammer but is stiff in the open field. Tindall can earn a considerable role if his coverage ability and pass-rush impact develop throughout the preseason.
Minnesota Vikings: Esezi Otomewo, DL
The Minnesota Vikings' new coaching staff inherited solid veteran talent on both sides of the ball but is making schematic changes on defense. That means churning personnel and opening the door for young players who can thrive in a specific role.
Fifth-round defensive lineman Esezi Otomewo was a relatively unheralded prospect after he notched just 7.5 career sacks in four seasons for the Minnesota Golden Gophers but has a great opportunity in front of him.
At 6'5", 282 pounds, Otomewo is better suited as a 3-4 end and 4-3 under tackle than a base 4-3 end who rushes the passer. He has ready-made NFL strength and keeps blockers off his frame thanks to his length. Otomewo is stiff so he's not a stand-up edge threat, but the positive is he doesn't have to compete with Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith for snaps.
Instead he'll play in relief of Harrison Phillips and Armon Watts. Phillips just came over from Buffalo but has posted limited career production. It's possible Otomewo can beat out a player with 1.5 sacks in four years, and the best case for the Vikings is they landed a rookie starter in the fifth round.
New England Patriots: Kevin Harris, RB
The one positional group that fantasy football players rarely want to invest into is the New England Patriots backfield. They've rotated running backs on a weekly basis at times throughout the years, frustrating those who were relying on Damien Harris, James White or whichever talented back has cycled through Foxborough. It appears as though 2022 will continue that trend.
The Patriots shockingly drafted two rushers this year. Fourth-round pick Pierre Strong Jr. and sixth-round pick Kevin Harris have drastically different styles. Strong is the more impressive raw athlete but is not ready to help in the passing game, making him more likely to redshirt for 2023. However, Harris has a pro-ready skill set.
Kevin Harris was a dominant rusher at South Carolina before a back injury derailed his collegiate career and drastically hurt his draft stock. He's similar to incumbent starter Damien Harris. Considering Damien Harris missed two games in 2021 and that he's a free agent after this season, the door is open for his replacement to earn a solid workload.
If Kevin Harris' final collegiate game (182 rushing yards and one touchdown) was any indication of his health, the Patriots have another impactful starter for the foreseeable future.
New Orleans Saints: D'Marco Jackson, LB
The New Orleans Saints only had two selections after the second round, but that doesn't mean we didn't choose between talented players. New Orleans has done an excellent job of identifying talented athletes on the defense under general manager Mickey Loomis, making fifth-round linebacker D'Marco Jackson especially noteworthy. Jackson is the only FBS player this century to produce 120 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, six sacks and six pass breakups.
The key for the 6'1", 230-pound Appalachian State product to post similar production is to keep him moving downhill or from side to side. He has range and solid speed but is stiff in the hips and uncomfortable in coverage. He has to see what's happening to be effective.
Jackson is joining a linebacker corps with two standouts in Demario Davis and Pete Werner. It's unlikely he'll start, but in bigger formations with three linebackers, head coach Dennis Allen can get Jackson exposure by having him on the field. Ideally, Jackson will develop into a replacement for Davis.
New York Giants: Daniel Bellinger, TE
While the New York Giants have a deep, talented receiving corps that features a variety of effective skill sets, their tight end room is lacking proven playmakers. New head coach Brian Daboll got the most out of Dawson Knox in Buffalo last year, and he likely looks at fourth-round pick Daniel Bellinger as a potential difference-maker. His other options, Ricky Seals-Jones and Jordan Akins, have had limited success.
Bellinger could be the rare rookie tight end who puts up solid numbers if he's featured enough. At 6'5", 253 pounds, Bellinger is a big target for quarterback Daniel Jones to hit up the seams. Despite producing only 68 career catches for 771 yards and five scores at San Diego State, Bellinger showed strong hands and great post-catch effort. He opened eyes with his 4.63-second 40-yard dash at the combine.
A willing blocker and possibly untapped athlete, Bellinger needs opportunities to develop for this offense to reach its ceiling. With defenses more concerned about Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, Darius Slayton and Sterling Shepard, Bellinger should get plenty of advantageous looks. Watch for the Day 3 pick to earn steal status quickly.
New York Jets: Jeremy Ruckert, TE
The New York Jets built an impressive draft haul thanks to their aggressive maneuvering. Still, with only three selections after the second round, our options are limited for their surprise gem candidate. The best one may not accumulate impressive stats because of the stacked depth chart at his position, though.
Third-round tight end Jeremy Ruckert joins a loaded offense that has invested heavily into playmakers over the last two years. He'll join Ohio State teammate Garrett Wilson as one of Zach Wilson's pass-catchers. Considering the Jets just signed veterans C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin, Ruckert may be reserved for more blocking assignments than pass routes.
Ruckert can still be a surprise gem even in a reduced role. He finished each of his last three seasons at Ohio State in the 77th percentile or higher in PFF's run-blocking grades for tight ends and dropped just two passes in his career (h/t Jet X's Michael Nania). He's used to making the most of his opportunities in a small-volume role and will be in a similar position to start his NFL career.
Philadelphia Eagles: Grant Calcaterra, TE
One mark of a great general manager is finding key backups on Day 3 of the draft. The value in paying a rookie contract for a reliable role player is huge. Looking at the Philadelphia Eagles' depth chart, it appears sixth-round rookie Grant Calcaterra is in line to fight for the second tight end spot in 2022.
Calcaterra was a dynamic receiving tight end in SMU's pass-happy offense. He's fast off the line for a 6'4", 240-pounder and should feast against the zone coverages that Jalen Hurts draws as a scrambling quarterback. The Eagles didn't rely on a second tight end much in 2021 behind Dallas Goedert, but expect a bigger emphasis on the passing game after receiver A.J. Brown was added to help Hurts' development.
One possibly underrated usage of Calcaterra is as a slot receiver, with Brown and DeVonta Smith flanking him. Since both Brown and Smith are screen threats, Calcaterra could find advantageous matchups against smaller slot defenders or big linebackers who don't expect him to be targeted. Watch for head coach Nick Sirianni to have fun with this chess piece.
Pittsburgh Steelers: DeMarvin Leal, DL
Two things open doors for rookies more than anything else: injuries and contract disputes. Pittsburgh Steelers star defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt missed the 2021 season due to a knee injury and opted against showing up to OTAs last week. Departing general manager Kevin Colbert said the two sides have been in contact, but it's possible Tuitt returns a different player after a major injury. He's also entering the final year of his deal in 2022.
Pittsburgh already has a potential replacement should Tuitt get off to a slow start in 2022. Third-round pick DeMarvin Leal is a big-bodied athlete who profiles as an ideal 3-4 end. His 6'4", 290-pound frame has surprising quickness out of his stance and has powerful hands that can disarm blockers.
Leal needs to show consistency to earn trust, but the talent is there for him to take Tuitt's job in 2022 and beyond. He'll at least work into the rotation as the Steelers evaluate his ability to assume a larger role.
San Francisco 49ers: Spencer Burford, OG
It's not uncommon for offensive tackles to transition to interior line positions in the NFL. The tackle position has specific arm-length standards that disqualify most collegiate starters. Former UTSA standout Spencer Burford passed the preferred threshold of arm length at 34.375 inches but the 6'5", 300-pounder is ripe for a transition to guard for the San Francisco 49ers.
With the 49ers already possessing star veteran tackles in Trent Williams and Mike McGlinchey, moving Burford inside to help cover the loss of Laken Tomlinson makes sense. The fourth round pick had above-average relative athletic scores that project even better to an interior lineman's role. Guards who can explode off the snap with quality lower-body strength fare well in the NFL, and Burford cleared every barrier that could raise a red flag.
Kyle Shanahan's zone-based offense requires athleticism and a certain nastiness to succeed. Burford is the perfect fit for his scheme and will immediately challenge to start at guard. The former UTSA bulldozer is competitive and seems to enjoy finishing plays with emphatic strength.
Seattle Seahawks: Coby Bryant, CB
The "other" Cincinnati Bearcats cornerback in this class is still a talented force. Although Coby Bryant went three rounds after teammate Ahmad Gardner, Bryant is a candidate to start for the Seattle Seahawks. The 6'1", 193-pounder wins with instincts, disciplined eyes and excellent self-awareness.
Seattle saw D.J. Reed depart in free agency but kept Sidney Jones and added nickel corner Justin Coleman to its young unit. Bryant will compete with a bevy of recent additions, including veteran Artie Burns, 2021 fourth-rounder Tre Brown and 2022 fifth-rounder Tariq Woolen. But none of those players have shown the consistent technique to beat out Bryant.
With nine career interceptions and 35 pass deflections, Bryant checks the boxes as a long zone corner Seattle has always coveted. His long-term potential may not be as tantalizing as Woolen's due to his lack of clear athletic upside, but corner is a position more dependent on mindset than outright speed. There were times he was more impressive than even Gardner in college, so he has the talent to emerge as an NFL starter.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cade Otton, TE
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers avoided the potential disaster of losing quarterback Tom Brady this offseason, but it's unclear whether Rob Gronkowski will return for 2022. If Gronk hangs up his cleats again, then there will be a massive hole behind Cameron Brate at the second tight end spot. O.J. Howard already bolted in hopes of finding greener pastures in Buffalo.
Enter fourth-round pick Cade Otton. He is nowhere near the athlete Gronk is, but he is a massive 6'5", 247-pounder with a huge catch radius. He's tough through contact and has strong hands to finish plays with defenders draped on him. Don't expect him to make many guys miss or to create much separation, but Brady is the perfect quarterback to get the ball to where it needs to be for Otton to come down with it.
Brate produced just 245 yards but four scores behind Gronk in 2021. Otton can achieve those numbers, especially if star receiver Chris Godwin's recovery from a torn ACL spills into the season. The rookie will also help Tampa's run game as he's a willing in-line blocker.
Tennessee Titans: Kyle Philips, WR
The Tennessee Titans turned over almost their entire receiving corps in one year's time. A.J. Brown is gone. 2021 draft picks Dez Fitzpatrick and Racey McMath couldn't help the team despite a need last year, opening the door for 2022 fifth-round pick Kyle Philips to earn a role. The slot receiver looks to be a pro-ready complement next to Treylon Burks and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine while Robert Woods rehabs from his torn ACL.
Philips isn't especially fast and is on the smaller side at 5'11", 189 pounds. He has good quickness and fluidity to his motions, though, much like Hunter Renfrow of the Raiders. Trying to guard him one-on-one in space proved difficult for UCLA's opponents.
He may prove to be a red-zone and third-down specialty weapon, but even that is a great role for a fifth-round investment. Tennessee has snaps to fill, and Philips has the most dynamic and reliable skill set of their candidates.
Washington Commanders: Christian Holmes, CB
Washington Commanders head coach Ron Rivera has had success developing late-round and undrafted cornerbacks throughout his coaching career. He favors a scheme that keeps corners protected from too many over-the-top deep throws and keeps their eyes in the backfield without losing their assignment. This allows less gifted players to thrive, since their list of responsibilities is reduced.
Former Oklahoma State cornerback Christian Holmes had solid measurables to be a quality boundary NFL cornerback. He's 6'1", 205 pounds with 4.54-40 speed and a 39-inch vertical, and there's not many receivers who will be a clearly better athlete. He's stiff in the hips while turning to run but not bad enough to be a major liability.
Yet, he went in the seventh round because of his lack of ball production. With just three interceptions and 28 pass deflections over his career at Missouri and Oklahoma State, he's not a big playmaking threat. This shouldn't stop him from fighting for playing time in Washington.
The Commanders are razor thin at the boundary corner spot. They could easily slide Kendall Fuller to the slot and have 2021 third-rounder Benjamin St-Juste battle Holmes for the starting job across from William Jackson III. Considering St-Juste's struggles as a rookie, it's possible Holmes could start early in his career.