NFL rookies are reporting for their first training camp as the preparation for the 2022 season kicks into high gear. While the 2022 NFL Draft class might not deliver the first-year superstars we saw in 2021, there should be plenty of rookies making an impact in 2022.
Making the leap from college football to the NFL is extraordinarily difficult. Even some of the best players in the NCAA a year ago will struggle at the pro level. The spotlight naturally falls on how first-round picks perform, but we see surprise Day 2 and Day 3 picks emerge every season.
Keeping that in mind, let’s examine five NFL rookies who could surprise in 2022.
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Dameon Pierce, running back, Houston Texans
Dameon Pierce never became a star at Florida, getting stuck in a running back by committee. Ordinarily, that would be concerning for a young player about to make the switch from the SEC to the NFL. However, Pierce flashed some of the best talents in his draft class.
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The 5-foot-10 runner knows how to stay upright, maintaining his balance through contact to pick up extra yards. Whether he breaks off a big run after getting hit near the line of scrimmage or stays on his feet for just a few extra yards, that’s a skill that translates to the next level. Pierce also demonstrated tremendous feel for the position and Florida and showed more than enough to suggest he can handle a three-down role.
While general manager Nick Caserio makes it clear that a featured role must be earned, Sarah Barshop of ESPN wrote in June that Pierce will have every opportunity to emerge as the lead back during the season. He is more valuable long-term to Houston than Marlon Mack and Rex Burkhead, too. Behind a decent offensive line, Pierce could have a lot more success in 2022 than many anticipate.
Nakobe Dean, linebacker, Philadelphia Eagles
There’s only one reason Nakobe Dean fell as far as he did. Some NFL teams had medical concerns regarding the Georgia linebacker, most notably worries regarding an ankle injury and a meniscus issue. As a result, he slipped to the 83rd overall pick with some anticipating a redshirt year for the 5-foot-11 defender. Philadelphia took advantage of a first-round talent sliding right into its lap.
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Dean was a full participant during rookie minicamp and he quickly won over the coaching staff with his football IQ and ability to lead a defense. The Eagles are so high on him that he could be a candidate to wear the green dot on his helmet, serving as the on-field defensive coordinator. This is an explosive athlete with veteran-like instincts, a relentless motor and he is a film junkie. Linebacker has been among the Eagles’ biggest needs for years and Dean could be one of the best defensive NFL rookies this season.
Desmond Ridder, quarterback, Atlanta Falcons
There’s no doubt that Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota will open the season. However, there’s a reason many viewed Desmond Ridder as the most pro-ready passer in the 2022 draft class. On a team with expectations this season centered on player development, the quarterback who might have a future in Atlanta will receive plenty of opportunities.
It’s a fairly ideal situation for Ridder. While Atlanta’s offensive line is one of the worst in the NFL, Arthur Smith’s system is quarterback friendly. The rookie will also have weapons at his disposal, including wide receivers Bryan Edwards, Drake London and tight end Kyle Pitts. Expectations aren’t high for a third-round pick and Ridder’s background at Cincinnati demonstrates why he can make the jump to the highest level with fewer hiccups than other NFL rookies.
While he’s certainly not a Rookie of the Year candidate, Ridder should make at least eight starts this season and we expect him to perform well.
Cameron Thomas, edge rusher, Arizona Cardinals
There are concerns regarding the Arizona Cardinals’ defense in 2022. Chandler Jones, their best pass rusher, is gone. Meanwhile, J.J. Watt is entering his age-33 season and the past few seasons have provided ample evidence of his decline. So, Arizona needs someone to step up as a pass rusher.
Thomas starred at San Diego State. The 6-foot-5 pass rusher racked up an FBS-leading 73 pressures last season and recorded the third-most tackles for loss (20.5). No one should consider Devon Kennard a legitimate threat to hold down the starting spot for long. If Thomas impresses in training camp and the preseason, he could see significant snaps and might even emerge as a surprise Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
Romeo Doubs, wide receiver, Green Bay Packers
Everyone is focused on Christian Watson, drafted nearly 100 picks before Romeo Doubs. However, it’s the wideout out of Nevada who could make the bigger impact this season. On a team desperate for offensive weapons who can contribute immediately, Doubs is flying under the radar nationally.
There is already buzz surrounding Doubs in Green Bay. Wes Hodkiewicz of Packers.com noted that Doubs caught the most passes during practices open to the media. While the rookie largely worked with the second-team offense, he showed outstanding vertical ability and made a strong impression on quarterback Aaron Rodgers early this summer.
Doubs is more NFL-ready than Rodgers and there is a clearer path for him to make an impact in 2022 as a vertical threat. That is an important chess piece in the Matt LaFleur offense, as Marquez Valdes-Scantling proved throughout his tenure. Among the wide receivers drafted outside the top-75 picks, Doubs could have one of the best rookie seasons statistically.