In order for an NFL player to be considered an offseason surprise, he probably hasn’t met expectations to this point. Or, in the case of rookies from the 2022 draft class, they probably weren’t picked until at least the third round, maybe lower.
Every team needs its players to progress. Even the good ones. Teams improve when their average players become good, and their good ones push toward being great.
We asked our NFL Nation reporters to pick a surprise offseason standout from each of the teams they cover. The answers vary, from veterans who signed one-year contracts for new teams this offseason (wide receiver Jamison Crowder in Buffalo), to young players who haven’t hit their ceilings (wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. in Jacksonville) to Day 3 rookies who could make an early impact (offensive tackle Braxton Jones in Chicago).
All 32 of these players have caught the eyes of our reporters — and their teams — this offseason, showing that they could play a bigger role than expected in 2022.
While speedy Isaiah McKenzie appears to have an early lead in the battle to take over Cole Beasley‘s slot receiver role, Crowder looked solid during offseason work in his first offseason with the Bills. After finishing his time with the Jets dealing with injuries (despite having 833 receiving yards in his first season with the team in 2019), Crowder might have found a good fit in Buffalo. The competition between McKenzie and Crowder for playing time at slot receiver will be one to watch in training camp. — Alaina Getzenberg
Signed from the Cowboys as a free agent this offseason, Williams was initially slated to take over at left guard for the Dolphins in 2022. However, after cross-training at center, he established himself as the leader in the clubhouse as the team’s starter in said position. He will have to beat out incumbent starter Michael Deiter, but it appears to be Williams’ job to lose. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
WR Tre Nixon
The 2021 seventh-round pick caught two deep passes from Mac Jones — one of which he pinned to his chest with his right hand while covered tightly — to earn himself an unexpected trip to the post-practice interview podium. Nixon, who drove to the stadium each day last season with Jones as they took their COVID tests together before entering the facility, spent 2021 on the practice squad. He faces a crowded WR depth chart headlined by DeVante Parker, Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne and 2022 second-round pick Tyquan Thornton, but he has made an early case as a player to watch when training camp begins. — Mike Reiss
WR Jeff Smith
Known for special teams — specifically, a gunner on the punt team — Smith impressed with his production at wide receiver. He capped a strong offseason with a terrific, one-handed touchdown catch on a long pass by Zach Wilson. A former undrafted free agent, who began his college career as a quarterback, Smith is an improving receiver (26 career catches). He can play wideout in a pinch while continuing as a mainstay on special teams. — Rich Cimini
The fourth-round pick was the second tight end taken by the Ravens this year, but he has impressed this offseason with his ability to get open and his large catch radius. “Watch out for this guy,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “He’s gonna be really good.” Likely, who is from Coastal Carolina, was the star of the final day of minicamp, when he caught several touchdown passes during red-zone drills including a spectacular one-handed grab.
“It was a tremendous catch,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said. “So, the sky’s the limit.” — Jamison Hensley
The rookie undrafted free agent had an impressive offseason. The wide receiver even earned some first-team reps on offense. If Lassiter can work his way into the special teams rotation, he might have a shot at making the 53-man roster. — Ben Baby
The former second-round pick has battled injuries, including an Achilles tear his rookie season in 2020. But now a projected starter, Delpit has really surged this offseason, intercepting Deshaun Watson on more than one occasion in drills. In Delpit and John Johnson III, safety could prove to be a major strength for Cleveland this season. — Jake Trotter
It’s hard to be truly under the radar as Cam Heyward‘s younger brother, but the rookie Heyward impressed in offseason workouts and showed a chemistry with first-round quarterback Kenny Pickett in a nice snag during a two-minute drill in minicamp. Heyward, selected in the sixth round, figures to be in a hybrid tight end/fullback role in an offense that values versatility in its skill players. Because he has been working mostly with tight ends and receivers, Heyward probably won’t be competing for the fullback roster spot with Derek Watt, making it likely both find roles on the 2022 team. — Brooke Pryor
WR Nico Collins
Quarterback Davis Mills pointed to the second-year receiver as a player who has stood out this spring. Mills said Collins has a “good grasp of this offense” and “his talent is off the charts.” Collins had 33 catches for 446 yards and one touchdown last season, and Mills said Houston needs to “find ways to get [Collins] the ball” in 2022. — Sarah Barshop
Maybe, just maybe, 2022 is the season Campbell can stay healthy. He spent a good portion of offseason workouts working with the first unit, starting opposite of Michael Pittman Jr. as the second receiver while looking comfortable with quarterback Matt Ryan. The key for Campbell — as it has been since he was drafted in 2019 — is staying healthy. He has played 15 out of a possible 49 games in the first three seasons of his NFL career. If healthy, the Colts can use Campbell in a number of different ways, including in the slot and in motion. — Mike Wells
Shenault had a rough 2021 — he ranked second in the NFL with eight drops and had trouble with routes — but seems to have bounced back this spring. He has been sure-handed in the OTAs open to the media. His confidence is high despite the fact he’s on his fifth offensive coordinator in as many seasons (three with the Jaguars and two at Colorado). Shenault also has been working as a returner. The team asked him to try that with Jamal Agnew recovering from a hip injury. Special teams coordinator Heath Farwell has been impressed.
“He is dynamic,” Farwell said. “There is speed and power that you do not see from really across all positions, but especially the returner position.” — Michael DiRocco
The rookie fourth-round pick quickly picked up what the coaching staff asked of him and is already showing his versatility by lining up across the formation like he did in college at Maryland. Okonkwo caught a total of four touchdown passes in two days of minicamp practice. One of them was a diving catch in the corner of the end zone on a pass from Ryan Tannehill.
“Just physically,” Tannehill said. “To see his size, his strength, his speed, how he’s able to play through contact, he definitely gives us another weapon.” — Turron Davenport
You would he hard-pressed to find a player, this side of quarterback Russell Wilson anyway, who has drawn more praise than Ojemudia during OTAs and minicamp. Ojemudia, who got tossed into the starting lineup as a rookie because of injuries to others in 2020, played sparingly on defense last season after suffering a severe hamstring injury in the preseason. He quickly grabbed the attention of a new defensive staff and worked with the starters when the Broncos took a precautionary approach to Ronald Darby‘s shoulder injury in OTAs. The Broncos played Ojemudia in practices like he is CB4 after Pat Surtain II, Darby and K’Waun Williams. — Jeff Legwold
Thornhill is healthy perhaps for the first time since tearing the ACL in his left knee as a rookie in 2019 and was impressive during offseason workouts. The Chiefs will ask more of him now that Tyrann Mathieu is gone, and Thornhill said he will respond with an All-Pro season. “I’m committed to doing that,” he said. — Adam Teicher
The oft-maligned 2021 first-round pick, who was moved from right tackle to right guard after just four games last season, spent a lot of time back at right tackle this offseason. He was drafted to be a tackle and, as coach Josh McDaniels said, Leatherwood would be given every opportunity to win the gig back. So getting that much time on the outside should do wonders for his confidence, as well as put him on track to reclaim his old job. Whether that’s a positive development for the offensive line as a whole remains to be seen. — Paul Gutierrez
WR Jalen Guyton
Coach Brandon Staley didn’t hesitate when asked at the conclusion of the offseason program which player was a surprise standout. “Jalen Guyton was fantastic in the offseason,” Staley said. “This guy made a lot of big plays for us in the spring. He came in, physically, just in great shape. He’s moving great. I thought that he was able to move around. He really did a nice job on special teams.” A fourth-year pro, Guyton caught 59 passes for 959 yards and six touchdowns over the last two seasons. — Lindsey Thiry
WR T.J. Vasher
Signed as an undrafted free agent last year, Vasher did not practice because of a knee injury, but he has used this offseason to get himself into the receiver conversation. With Michael Gallup working through knee rehab and CeeDee Lamb, James Washington and Noah Brown missing time with minor injuries, Vasher got a lot of work in the OTAs and minicamp. “He’s made some really big-time flash plays, splash plays,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s had some really, particularly in the red zone, which you can see his ability down there. Big plays in scramble drills and things like that. I just think like any young player, particularly in his development, it’s getting the details of the everyday situations.” — Todd Archer
The rookie fourth-round pick got plenty of opportunities with the first team this spring and caught the ball well. It seems likely, given his hands and the way he was moving at OTAs and minicamp, he was underutilized at San Diego State. It bodes well for Bellinger’s chances to make an impact as a rookie. The Giants certainly have an opening at the position, and it appears Bellinger made a strong first impression. — Jordan Raanan
WR Quez Watkins
The third-year wideout made some splash plays this spring, including a 40-plus yard touchdown catch during OTAs that prompted quarterback Jalen Hurts to break out in dance. The bulk of the buzz on Watkins, though, is coming from the coaching staff and management. They talk him up every chance they get, believing he has the tools to be a highly productive receiver. Finding targets for him could be the biggest issue with A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert all needing the rock, but Watkins is going to be in the mix. — Tim McManus
Last year’s third-round pick has worked mostly in the slot in the nickel package. But, for a 6-foot-3 corner, St-Juste plays with good footwork, and that allows him to handle the slot duties. He has looked good going against rookie receiver Jahan Dotson. St-Juste also uses his length well. He was playing a lot last season until injuries — specifically concussions — became an issue and limited him to nine games. — John Keim
The fifth-round pick quickly emerged with the first-team offensive line at left tackle during spring practices and supplanted Teven Jenkins, who moved to right tackle with the second-team unit. Jones admitted he was “a little bit surprised” he was competing with the ones this early but understands the importance of the reps he has gotten, which have helped him create a pre-snap process, learn different cadences and move faster. — Courtney Cronin
After last season, Benson approached coach Dan Campbell directly during his exit meeting to ask for advice on how to come back better. So far, he has taken all of that advice as Campbell praised him during minicamp as one of the guys who is “having a hell of a spring.” Benson has learned the playbook and elevated his confidence by adding speed to his skill set. He’ll still have fight for a spot among a competitive receiving corps that has added talent. — Eric Woodyard
OLB Rashan Gary
In an offseason in which the Packers did almost no full-speed 11-on-11 work, no one was given much of an opportunity to stand out. Gary, however, had as good a spring as anyone. He looked lean and muscular coming off a career-best season with 9.5 sacks and 28 quarterback hits. And he was one of the few starters who stuck around through the end of OTAs, saying, “I’m just here trying to get better.” — Rob Demovsky
Asamoah’s sideline-to-sideline speed was plainly evident in non-contact practices, as was his confidence. He joked with an assistant coach that he wanted $5 every time he ran past someone. “I’m a rich man now,” he said, “because I keep passing them.” — Kevin Seifert
LB Nate Landman
This is admittedly a deep cut in terms of the Atlanta roster, but the undrafted rookie was active in 7-on-7 drills — the only heavy action in the OTA period — and seemed to have a knack for finding the ball. It’s probably still a tough road for Landman to make the roster as an inside linebacker, but he might have jumpstarted himself at least into being in the conversation if he builds on his OTAs during training camp. — Michael Rothstein
Last year was a struggle for the 2021 second-round pick, but running back Christian McCaffrey said he saw a “massive leap” in improvement from Marshall in OTAs and expects big things. Marshall spent most of OTAs a year ago working on the side as the Panthers nursed him back from a lower leg and foot injury at LSU. He had 17 catches and finished the season on IR. This year, the explosiveness appears back and he could be a player who emerges on a team without a lot of proven talent behind DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson. — David Newton
The second-year DB is the one player who earned his way onto my 53-man roster projection based on how often he flashed during OTA and minicamp practices — and how the Saints were working him into packages with both the first- and second-string defenses. Thompson also had a strong summer as an undrafted rookie last year, but he began the season on injured reserve before being signed to the practice squad and appearing in two games on special teams. His versatility as a safety/nickel/corner could earn him a role. — Mike Triplett
Thompkins, a rookie undrafted free agent, caught the eye of coach Todd Bowles, who singled him at the end of mandatory minicamp. “I would love to see what Thompkins does in training camp,” Bowles said. “He’s quick, he’s fast, he’s explosive off of the ball, and he’s made some good catches. So, we want to see how he continues to learn and how he does in training camp and preseason. I’ll be looking at him.”
At his pro day, he clocked a 4.35 40-yard dash and had the second-most receiving yards in college football with 1,704 yards and 10 touchdowns. But he faces tall odds to make the Bucs’ 53-man roster at 5-foot-7 and 155 pounds and at a position that already has Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Russell Gage. His ticket would likely come in the form of kick and punt returns, which hasn’t been a strong spot for the Bucs. — Jenna Laine
RB Eno Benjamin
The door has opened for the 2020 seventh-round pick to get the reps he needs to show what he can do, and he has been taking advantage of it. He has married his quickness, pass protection and receiving ability into a player who can end up being James Conner‘s backup. He caught the eye of coach Kliff Kingsbury, who has raved about Benjamin. With Chase Edmonds leaving in free agency, Benjamin, who said he feels like it has taken longer to see the field than he expected, will be the front-runner to be Conner’s backup when camp starts. It’ll be up to him to continue his offseason pace and keep the job. — Josh Weinfuss
WR Tutu Atwell
The 2021 second-round pick’s improvement this spring was pointed out by both quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Cooper Kupp during minicamp. Stafford said he’s noticed that “everything” Atwell does “seems to be that much more intentional.” Atwell played 10 offensive snaps last season but had a role on special teams before he injured his shoulder and was placed on injured reserve in November. The Rams’ top three receivers (Kupp, Allen Robinson II and Van Jefferson) are set to start the season, but Atwell could play a role in 2022. — Sarah Barshop
It wasn’t until Week 14 that Jennings began to emerge as an option in the Niners’ pass game last season, but once he did, he became one of their most reliable targets on third down and in the red zone. Jennings had 16 catches for 212 yards over the final five games with 11 of those receptions going for a touchdown or a first down. That momentum has carried into the offseason where Jennings and quarterback Trey Lance have displayed an easy chemistry that has made Jennings one of Lance’s favorite red zone targets. Coach Kyle Shanahan said Jennings has had his best offseason since he entered the league, a good sign his role will only continue to grow in 2022. — Nick Wagoner
DE/DT L.J. Collier
You usually don’t think of former first-round picks as surprise standouts, but Collier qualifies given the underwhelming start he has had to his career. Seahawks defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said during OTAs that Collier, the 29th overall pick in 2019, was having one of the best springs of any Seattle defender. Collier will be fighting for playing time in a defensive-line rotation that’s a little crowded after the offseason acquisitions of Shelby Harris and Quinton Jefferson. — Brady Henderson