Every year, Football Outsiders puts together a list of the NFL’s best and brightest young players … who have barely played. About 80% of draft-day discussions are about first-round picks, and 10% are about the players who should have been first-round picks but instead went in the second round. Particularly if they were quarterbacks.
This list is about that last 10%. It’s a stab in the dark at players who might just come out of the woodwork and surprise you this year.
This is a list of players who have a real chance to make an impact in the NFL despite their lack of draft stock and the fact that they weren’t immediate NFL starters.
Previous editions of the list have hyped George Kittle, Cooper Kupp, Mark Andrews and J.C. Jackson before they blew up. Last year’s list led off with Damien Harris, who scored 15 touchdowns during the 2021 season. It had Logan Wilson, who eventually started in the Super Bowl. It also had some solid starters and, well, some misses.
This is the 16th anniversary of the list. We’re still relying on the same things we always have: scouting, statistics, measurables, context, ceiling, expected role and what we hear from other sources. Here’s our full criteria for the top 25:
Drafted in the third round or later, or signed as an undrafted free agent.
Entered the NFL between 2019 and 2021.
Fewer than 500 career offensive or defensive snaps (except running backs, who are allowed just 300 offensive snaps).
Have not signed a contract extension (players who have bounced around the league looking for the right spot, however, still qualify for the list).
Age 26 or younger as of Sept. 1, 2022.
You’ll see a number of references to Football Outsiders stats on our list, in particular DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), which takes every play and compares its success to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You can read more about DVOA and other FO stats on this page. Many of the other stats, including blown blocks and success rate in coverage, come from Sports Info Solutions and can be found in our new book, Football Outsiders Almanac 2022.
Let’s start with the top prospect:
(Ages are current as of July 31, 2022)
Age 23 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 77 | 458 offensive snaps
A challenging prospect based on raw numbers, Palmer had fewer than 100 career catches at Tennessee as the team struggled to mount a passing offense. He had only 475 receiving yards for the 2020 Volunteers, which still led the team with almost twice the yardage of second-place Velus Jones Jr.
Palmer showed the ability to create on his own in a limited offense time and time again, but this lack of production was a main factor behind a pretty poor playmaker score projection — Palmer had just an 8.7% playmaker rating — and he didn’t show especially great splits in workouts. He ran an average 4.52-second 40-yard dash, and his most dominant physical characteristic was probably his 33-inch arm length.
He didn’t play enough to qualify for our main leaderboard as a rookie, but among wideouts with 10 to 49 targets, Palmer finished 14th in DYAR and 22nd in DVOA. However, by the end of the season Palmer began getting starts. He had three touchdowns in the last five weeks of Los Angeles’ season as Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler missed some time. Palmer wasn’t physically dominating, but he had a knack for doing work at the catch point. His production came despite finishing with the 13th-lowest amount of cushion according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
The extremely exciting part is that Palmer is dialed into one of the best offenses in the NFL. Allen might not be washed up yet, but he turned 30 in April and will eventually leave a target vacuum to be filled. Palmer has also already earned his quarterback’s confidence.
“This year it’s a different Josh Palmer out there. He knows exactly where he’s going. We throw a bunch after practice. I feel comfortable with him,” Justin Herbert told reporters in June.
If Palmer is the third wideout in the Chargers’ offense, he’s going to be a fantasy factor in a hurry.
Age 22 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 65 | 245 defensive snaps
Cisco had 18 passes defensed and seven interceptions as a freshman at Syracuse in 2018. He had another 10 pass breakups and five picks in his sophomore season before a torn ACL in a pregame collision ended his junior season prematurely. Cisco’s tackling technique was about the only thing scouts could pick up on as a weakness, but we also have almost no workout data for him because of the ACL injury.
Drafted by Urban Meyer’s Jaguars at the top of the third round, Cisco didn’t play because … well, because it was a dysfunctional environment. In fact, Meyer botched a direct question about it when asked. “Well, Cisco’s playing a little bit more, I believe,” Meyer said at the time. “I don’t have his numbers in front of me. But yeah, that’s a conversation.” Cisco at the time had played just 21 defensive snaps in the previous month.
After Meyer was fired, Cisco started getting major playing time. Both of his passes defensed came in the final month of the season. Cisco looks likely to beat out incumbent Andrew Wingard for a starting spot this season.
New defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell heaped praise on Cisco during minicamp.
“Smart. Smart. One thing about it, coachingwise, you put stuff in and he gets it quickly, able to take it out on the field, make calls, he communicates well which is huge for us. Just a smart, good … player.”
Age: 24 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 120 | 265 offensive snaps
Stevenson led Oklahoma in rushing during the abbreviated 2020 COVID-19 season with 665 yards in six games. Overall at OU, he averaged 7.2 yards per carry and scored 13 rushing touchdowns in 165 career carries.
Running a 4.63 40-yard-dash at his pro day helped build on the narrative that he didn’t have much explosion — Stevenson’s a big back at 231 pounds, and he bullies defenders.
Checking in with the No. 3 success rate in the NFL (59%) in his rookie season, Stevenson was a change-up behind last year’s No. 1 overall prospect Damien Harris. It was clear that Stevenson had some juice even if the fantasy football tastemakers and preseason watchers were a little ahead of their skis when they anointed him as someone who could make a difference in 2021. Stevenson finished in the top 20 in both rushing DVOA and rushing DYAR. He also had 0.53 rushing yards over expectation per NFL’s Next Gen Stats, a top-10 figure in the NFL. And he was behind Harris in all three categories.
Harris remains ahead of Stevenson on the depth chart heading into 2022. That doesn’t mean we can rule out Stevenson taking a bigger share of the backfield. With James White re-signed to play third-down back and rookie Pierre Strong Jr. behind him in that role, Stevenson is going to have to beat out Harris to get more than a share of the lead role in this backfield. He has the talent to make that happen, but some patience might be warranted on any kind of impending breakout just because of the competition.
Age 22 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 103 | 440 defensive snaps
South Carolina’s leading tackler in back-to-back seasons, Jones racked up 10.5 tackles for loss, 7 pass deflections, 2 picks and 183 total tackles in his final two years with the Gamecocks.
He has modern interior player length and burst, with an 80 1/8-inch wingspan and a 38.5-inch vertical jump, both 93rd percentile among NFL linebackers. Most of the dings against him from scouts were about coverage after a junior season that had no passes defensed.
However, Jones quickly proved to be an all-around player for the Rams. He became a starter on Halloween and played most of the snaps until a Week 16 high-ankle sprain left him just shy of our snap requirement. Jones started in the Super Bowl and sacked Joe Burrow. He had a run stop rate of 71% (sixth among qualifying linebackers) and allowed just 4.8 yards per pass in coverage (11th).
The Rams reeled in Bobby Wagner this offseason, but the plan seems to be to start Jones alongside the former All-Pro.
“He has all of the attributes of a great linebacker. If I could do anything to help, I will,” Wagner said of Jones in May. “I think he’s a very special player, and he has a chance to be really, really good.”
Age 22 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 102 | 333 defensive snaps
Only a one-year starter for Michigan, Thomas had three picks and seven passes defensed in 2019 before opting out of the 2020 season. He ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash at his pro day and, though a little short at 5-foot-11, was stout enough to play press successfully in the Big Ten. As a true outside corner with any kind of track record of pure success, he was in demand enough to go in the third round.
Injuries forced the 49ers to open Thomas down the stretch, and he was torched in his first few weeks before making adjustments. Starting in Week 16, over five games (including the playoffs) he allowed just 5.5 yards per pass in coverage with a 59% success rate. The playoff run in particular was wildly successful, as even though he was picked on often, he was up to the task. Matthew Stafford targeted him 10 times in the NFC Championship Game and gained only 47 yards on those targets.
He’ll have to beat out Emmanuel Moseley for the spot (or perhaps one of them will play nickel), but Thomas’ rapid improvement has us believing he has the inside track.
Age 23 | Drafted: 2020, Pick 160 | 214 offensive snaps
Harris finished first-team All-Pac-12 at Washington in his junior and senior seasons, with some snaps at right tackle and some at center. His size (6-foot-0, 302 pounds) is better suited to the inside in the NFL. His best trait from a scouting perspective was his 5.1-second 40-yard dash at the combine, which was in the 80th percentile of all offensive linemen. But his power was questionable, and so despite good college production, he slid into Day 3.
Through two years, Harris has a pair of spot starts and an extended relief appearance in 2020. He struggled in pass protection in 2020, blowing three blocks and allowing two sacks in 91 pass-blocking snaps. But he improved in 2021’s small start, with just one of each. The knock on him until he proves otherwise is going to be dealing with inside power in pass protection.
With Cleveland releasing JC Tretter, Harris has become the favorite for the starting center job for the Browns this offseason.
“The amount of reps that I’ve taken against top-tier talent out here against our defense has helped me tremendously,” Harris told Cleveland reporters in June. “Then getting those couple of games that I’ve played, playing against Green Bay, it made me feel like I belong. It felt good to be playing center, getting out there and doing what I do.”
Harris stands a good shot of beating out former Seahawks center Ethan Pocic in a competition that almost nobody is talking about because, well, there’s not a lot of air space in Cleveland right now.
Age 24 | Undrafted | 401 offensive snaps
Despite a huge senior bump in which he completed 73.1% of his passes at 10.9 adjusted yards per attempt for 19 touchdowns with just four picks, Huntley’s lack of ideal size for the position — 6-foot-1, 196 pounds — left him off most teams’ draft boards.
He also ran 389 times over three years as a more-or-less full-time starter, picking up 16 rushing touchdowns. That might have been a signpost that he could deal with NFL punishment, but if it was, teams besides the Ravens weren’t listening.
Huntley had to start down the stretch after Lamar Jackson was hurt last year. He finished with a 1.8% passing DVOA and 14 DYAR, completing 64.9% of his passes. He did take a ton of sacks (his unadjusted sack rate was 8.7%), and his tenure was one of being one play away from winning the game rather than actually winning the game. But all in all, it was a fairly successful debut. Any time a quarterback shows even the remotest sign of a pulse like this as a backup, it’s worth monitoring.
We don’t think Huntley is someone the Ravens should promote to starter unless there are dire circumstances, but he has played interestingly enough that the league’s truly quarterback-needy teams should consider him.
He’s not Kyler Murray. But Murray proved that small packages can sometimes yield more than expected in an NFL context, and Huntley could do the same if given a real chance.
Age 22 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 72 | 422 defensive snaps
Normally defensive tackles on this list make it here because they’re undersized — one of the biggest hits in the history of this list is Geno Atkins — and McNeill is very much not that.
The 6-foot-1, 317-pounder was explosive, but also a brawler at the point of attack at North Carolina State. McNeill had 17.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks inside, along with a surprising 10 passes defensed. His arm length was pretty short (32 5/8 inches), but otherwise his pro day was full of NFL-caliber measurements.
Playing behind Michael Brockers and Nick Williams in an inside rotation in 2021, McNeill led Lions interior players with two sacks and finished second with eight hurries. He also had the highest run stop rate (68%) among Detroit’s interior linemen. All of McNeill’s hurries came on first or second down.
The offseason depth chart has unfolded nicely for McNeill, as fellow rookie John Penisini’s abrupt retirement left a three-man rotation of McNeill, Brockers and 2021 second-rounder Levi Onwuzurike inside. McNeill figures to take over as a starter this year. The question about his value will simply be: Is he a very good nose tackle for run downs, or is he going to be able to play on passing downs?
Age 22 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 147 | 232 offensive snaps
Falling to the fifth round because of a lack of optimal size, the 6-foot-2, 247-pound Jordan has some tweener criticism in his draft profile and was also dinged for missing games to injury in every season at Miami. He also caught seven touchdowns in eight starts as a junior and ran a 1.59-second 10-yard split at his pro day that is 85th percentile among tight ends. Jordan is explosive.
His rookie season with Houston was a mixture of what you’d expect from that profile. Jordan was slowed by injuries at times but caught three touchdowns in an anemic Texans attack despite never really becoming a full-time starter. He was isolated at times as a read and did fairly well when targeted, finishing 26th in DVOA among tight ends. The Texans liked to pretend they could run the ball better with their run-blocking tight ends and Jordan wasn’t trusted with that despite not being a bad blocker on paper.
If we had confidence that Jordan was going to be targeted as a 1A option by the Texans behind Brandin Cooks — something that you could argue should be the case based on the résumés of their other wideouts — Jordan would be a candidate for the No. 1 overall prospect spot.
But Houston brought back Pharaoh Brown and Antony Auclair, then drafted Teagan Quitoriano in the sixth round to stack the depth chart. The Texans continue to make noise about being committed to a run-heavy game plan.
If Jordan makes a playing-time leap, he should be a fringe fantasy TE1. It’s just hard to foresee how things will shake out on this bizarre roster, even if new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton does have a penchant for using tight ends more often than predecessor Tim Kelly.
The tight ends who can help win your league. Breaking down three players with the traits, scheme fit and fantasy upside to outperform their current ADPs. Video by Matt Bowen
Age 22 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 69 | 0 defensive snaps
There was some real helium in Ossai’s stock leading up to the draft, so it was a bit of a surprise that he was still around for the Bengals at 69th overall. The former Texas edge rusher had 29.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in his final 22 games on the 40 acres, then ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. SackSEER gave him a rating of 89.2%, which puts him historically against prospects like Kyle Van Noy and LaMarr Woodley.
Ossai was supposed to be the extra pass-rusher the Bengals could go to on third down next to Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard (both fellow prospect list alums!), but instead went down with a season-ending torn meniscus in his first preseason game — he did have several great rushes and a sack of Tom Brady before the injury.
It looks likely that Ossai will be the No. 3 pass-rusher to start the 2022 season if he’s healthy, and the Bengals haven’t really added anybody who would push him. Reports were that Ossai would be ready for training camp and we have seen him on the field. As long as he hasn’t lost anything to the injury, he’ll have a chance to be a factor for the Bengals’ AFC title defense right away.
Age 24 | Drafted: 2020, pick 67 | 431 defensive snaps
A player who returns from last year’s list, Okwara was a highly effective situational pass-rusher for the Lions last year. He led all edge-rusher prospects in 2020’s draft with an explosion index of 1.4 per our SackSEER system. Coming off a broken leg in 2019, he missed the combine and then Notre Dame’s pro day was cancelled, so those numbers have to be taken with a bit of a grain of salt because we are using hand-timed numbers from Okwara’s own personal pro day. Okwara ran a 4.6-second 40-yard dash there, and said he ran a 4.53 before the injury. He had eight sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss in 13 games in his junior year.
Okwara finished second on the Lions in hurries (12) and sacks (five) in 2022 despite playing only 362 snaps. The average number of rushers on his pressures was just 4.3, so Okwara was winning one-on-one often in those situations.
Detroit has promised more of a hybrid role for Okwara this offseason after drafting Aidan Hutchinson and Josh Paschal early. They want him to play Sam linebacker on run downs and rush the passer as part of a third-down package. We’re not sure if he can hold up to all the modern linebacker responsibilities, but we’re already believers that he can get after the quarterback at a high level.
Age 23 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 101 | 243 defensive snaps
Yet another Syracuse product on the list, Melifonwu rolled into the 2021 draft with true outside cornerback traits and build: 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, with a 4.48 40-yard dash. He picked off three passes in three seasons at Syracuse but added another 26 passes defensed that point to a higher upside. He’s the second in this generation of top Melifonwu athletes — his brother, Obi, was a second-round pick by the Raiders in 2017.
While Melifonwu started the second game of the season against the Packers, a large amount of his playing time came during Weeks 16-18, where he played almost 100% of Detroit’s snaps. He allowed 7.2 yards per pass over 14 targets during those weeks, giving up a pair of touchdowns in coverage to DK Metcalf. He also gave up a bomb to Kyle Pitts, which is the kind of thing that will happen when you’re a raw rookie on a bad defense, but you are the one with the body type to match up to the NFL’s best.
Melifonwu, like a few other Lions, has been taken into OTAs as a versatility test case, and has been mentioned for a possible move to safety. “If we don’t do it now, you may not end up doing it,” Dan Campbell said. “The more that we can figure out about our players, the better off we are. I think that only helps us. … The more you guys that you have that have versatility, flexibility inside your scheme, man it really helps you.”
Frankly, it’s hard to believe that A.J. Parker and Jerry Jacobs are better options outside than Melifonwu would be physically, but with Jeff Okudah possibly back and Kerby Joseph also added to the secondary, Melifonwu may just be trying to find a spot to start.
Age 24 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 74 | 318 defensive snaps
A Canuck who played his college ball at Minnesota after transferring away from Michigan, St-Juste didn’t pick off any passes but had 13 passes defensed in two seasons. He also has true outside cornerback height and weight at 6-foot-3, 202 pounds.
St-Juste ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash at his pro day, which was disappointing but understandable given his size. He clearly showed some good change of direction, though, with a 6.63-second 3-cone drill time. He wasn’t regarded as anywhere near a finished product coming out, and that sent him tumbling to the Commanders in the third round.
St-Juste was immediately one of the most popular targets in the NFL in his rookie year, allowing 8.1 yards per pass and being targeted on a team-high 23.8% of his snaps. He was a big part of Mike Williams‘ breakout year in Week 1, but afterward rebounded a bit and didn’t allow another touchdown in coverage in his short stint as a starter. A long-term concussion forced St-Juste from the lineup after Week 8 and he didn’t play a single defensive snap for the rest of the season.
The confidence to throw St-Juste outside in Week 1 of last season and hang with him through his ups and downs likely tells us a lot about how much Washington believes in this third-round pick.
The Commanders didn’t draft another corner, nor did they bring in a backup plan other than last year’s solution, 2018 UDFA Danny Johnson. St-Juste will have every opportunity to make an impact in his second season, and if he can get coached up and cap some of his weaknesses, he could be a fixture outside in the NFL.
Age 25 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 70 | 480 offensive snaps
As Zach Wilson’s blindside protector at BYU, Christensen was a first-team All-American in 2020 and ran a blistering 4.89-second 40-yard dash at 302 pounds. His 32¼-inch arm length was the primary ding on him, as some offensive line coaches believe in a floor for the position that is higher than that. Despite being incredible in college, the arm length, his age and the lack of tape against top edge prospects had Christensen lasting until the beginning of the third round.
Often we tell stories here about how a guy shined in a small sample. Nobody shined on Carolina’s terrible offensive line last year, and Christensen was no exception. He was dreadful, blowing 19 blocks and allowing 4.5 sacks. Tampa Bay, in particular, had him in knots. Eight of his blown blocks came in two games against the Bucs. He also was forced inside at times to cover for injuries on the line, and his lack of versatility in college came home to roost.
It’s unclear how much reliability we can give to Matt Rhule’s narration at this point, but he has called Christensen “one of the best players on the team” this offseason, and the starting job at left tackle is still up for grabs as we go to press with a camp battle between Christensen and top-10 pick Ikem Ekwonu. The loser will likely play guard.
It’s possible that Christensen needs more seasoning to be good at the position. It’s also possible that he plays left tackle and is solid at it — and we rarely can squeeze a solid left tackle onto our top prospects list. Starting-quality tackles often start right away. The upside Christensen offers vaults him into the middle of this list despite the poor rookie season.
Age 24 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 71 | 268 defensive snaps
UCF’s (mostly) interior corner in 2019 and 2020, Robinson created 6.5 tackles for loss, 20 passes defensed and three picks over his final two years with the Golden Knights. A 4.38-second 40-yard dash lit his draft stock on fire, and while he’s small at 5-foot-11, 186 pounds, he played bigger in college. He also missed almost all of his 2018 season with a concussion that required him to be taken off on a stretcher.
Robinson had just two real starts last season: Week 13 and 14 while Adoree’ Jackson was hurt. He allowed 8.7 yards per attempt on nine targets during that stretch, mostly successful passes under the RPO Tua Tagovailoa offense. Robinson did allow only 5.6 yards per play on the season, though, and had the highest success rate on passes (58%) of any non-Jackson Giants defensive back.
With the late-offseason release of James Bradberry, Robinson currently is the best bet the Giants have at outside corner. It feels a bit like they’re shoehorning him in and that it could be a trial by fire with the lack of an established talent who actually has an outside corner build on the roster.
The opportunity is there in spades, but it’s an interesting trial because even if he’s not cut out for NFL outside duties, the Giants could still move him back inside.
Age 23 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 180 | 395 defensive snaps
USC’s starting strong safety from his freshman year on, Hufanga registered 16.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks and 12 passes defensed as he mostly stayed in the box. The main knock on him was a lack of elite speed, with a 4.63-second 40-yard dash mostly holding up on the tape in the eyes of most scouts and draftniks. He also dealt with injuries in both 2019 and 2020, and at 6-foot-even was regarded by some as a tweener.
But he wound up comfortably fitting a hybrid role in his first year in San Francisco, playing deep just as often as he played forward for defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. We had him with just four broken tackles in 392 snaps, and while he didn’t exactly dominate the passes defensed score sheet, he also had his yards per play allowed massively skewed by one 50-yard completion allowed to Christian Kirk in Week 9 — it’s the only pass play of more than 20 yards for which SIS had him in coverage all season.
With Jaquiski Tartt off to Philadelphia, Hufanga appeared to be winning the early competition with veteran George Odum to take over as one of San Francisco’s safeties. We do worry that the speed could be exposed, but as long as he’s not a single-high safety too often, the 49ers’ defense is a good fit for Hufanga’s skill set.
Age 23 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 73 | 456 defensive snaps
What can we say about Williams’ college career? He was a smoke show. He had 10 sacks and 19 tackles for loss inside in his last two seasons at Louisiana Tech. He then proceeded to put on an absolutely absurd pro day, running a 4.67 in the 40-yard dash at 284 pounds and running a sub-7-second 3-cone drill.
If there’s a player comparison that’s close to the workout numbers Williams put out in 2021, it might be Aaron Donald. (We are not saying he plays like Aaron Donald, please do not say that we said that.)
In his first season in Philadelphia, Williams was the third wheel to Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave. He mostly kept pace with Hargrave as a run stuffer but wasn’t quite as disruptive as a pass-rusher. That’s not to say Williams was bad — Hargrave was exceptional — but Williams produced 14 hurries and two sacks in his limited snap count. Twelve of the 17 plays on which he produced pass pressure came from Week 10 on.
The problem we had with putting Williams on this list is that the Eagles’ interior line is a fully loaded baked potato. Hargrave and Cox are back, and they added Jordan Davis at 13th overall in the 2022 draft.
The path for Williams to get a full-time job is nonexistent without multiple injuries in front of him. However, everything we’ve seen so far points to Williams being a worthy starter if he gets that chance.
Age 25 | Drafted: 2020, Pick 217 | 337 offensive snaps
A big possession receiver type, Jennings is exactly what you’d close your eyes and imagine the 49ers targeting in the draft. At 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, he led all FBS receivers with 30 missed tackles in 2019 en route to a 969-yard, eight-touchdown season for Tennessee.
Remember our Palmer write-up a few paragraphs ago? The Volunteers have been a brutal passing offense for years despite Jennings, Palmer, Jones and Marquez Callaway all getting drafted and/or producing in the NFL. Jennings’ lack of speed (4.72-second 40-yard dash at the combine) put him off the radar for a high NFL pick, and he slipped to the seventh round for the 49ers.
After spending most of 2020 on the practice squad, Jennings became the 49ers’ third wideout as the 2021 season wound down and Mohamed Sanu and Trent Sherfield were found lacking. Jennings caught two touchdowns against the Rams in the season finale to help San Francisco clinch the playoffs. He finished 19th in DYAR among receivers with between 10 and 49 targets, while he broke five tackles in just 24 touches. Jennings caught 10 of his 11 targets on third downs for the highest catch rate among receivers with 10 or more third-down targets.
Speaking about his third-year receivers — Jennings and Brandon Aiyuk — in OTAs, Kyle Shanahan said: “They’ve had as good an offseason as they’ve had since they’ve been in the league. And they’re as good as they’ve been right now. Both of them.”
The 49ers drafted Danny Gray in the third round this year, but Jennings has a window to fully establish himself as the main third wideout here. And should the Deebo Samuel situation turn sour again for whatever reason, there is a major upside here.
As you might imagine from his size, he’s also a major factor in the running game; he absolutely punished Jaguars safety Rayshawn Jenkins on a block in Week 11.
Matt Bowen breaks down the three wide receivers he sees climbing fantasy rankings quickly this season.
Age 23 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 228 | 112 defensive snaps
Graham went right into the starting lineup at Oregon as a freshman and eventually started 39 games before opting out ahead of the 2020 season. He broke up 40 passes and intercepted another eight over three seasons. He has a tweener body type between outside and slot at 5-foot-10, 192 pounds, and his pro day workout was a fairly big disappointment without a real standout result. This slid him all the way into the sixth round for the Bears.
Active as Chicago played out the string, Graham started in Week 15 against the Vikings and played major snaps in Week 16 versus the Seahawks. It’s not much of a sample size, and he allowed a 41-yard touchdown catch to DK Metcalf (who among us hasn’t?), but he held his other six targets to one catch for 10 yards.
With the great purge that was the Chicago roster this offseason, Graham has a real starting shot. All he has to do is beat out veteran Tavon Young to be the team’s starting nickelback.
“He is intent on being good, and we love what we see from him so far,” Bears defensive backs coach James Rowe said of Graham at OTAs.
Graham might not be someone who you want to trust on bigger-bodied receivers outside, but if the Bears are already burning it all down for the insurance money, they have every motivation to see if he can handle 1,000 slot snaps this year.
Age 25 | Undrafted | 255 defensive snaps
Hailing out of tiny Indiana State, Griffith was overlooked by most draftniks coming out. One thing you can’t say is that the college numbers were unimpressive: Griffith had 14 sacks, 28.5 tackles for loss and 382 total tackles in four years as a starter. By his senior season, opposing Missouri Valley teams had started trying to avoid him entirely.
Griffith ran a 4.62-second 40-yard dash at 250 pounds during his pro day, along with a 7.08 3-cone that pointed to his ability to operate in tight spaces. His 81 1/8-inch wingspan is great for a modern cover linebacker.
Undrafted, Griffith was dealt from the 49ers to the Broncos at last cuts in 2021 in a swap that ultimately netted a sixth-round pick for San Francisco. The Broncos stuck him on injured reserve but came back to him late in the season as a starter for the final four games. He posted a 71% success rate in coverage and a 72% stop rate on run plays, but didn’t play enough snaps to qualify for our rankings in either. Those would both be very good numbers in a bigger sample size.
The caveat is that the Broncos have tried to turn Baron Browning into an outside linebacker, and if they abandon that experiment, Griffith will have to face someone better in competition for the job. Either way, the early returns on the trade have been good for Denver and, worst-case scenario, Griffith is a good depth player and special-teamer.
Age 23 | Drafted: 2020, Pick 131 | 385 defensive snaps
Under the old rules of our list, where we defined our minimums with start count instead of snaps, Lawrence wouldn’t be eligible. That distinction says a lot about what Lawrence is: a pure run-stuffing, run-downs-only interior lineman.
Lawrence had 6.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss in his final two seasons at LSU, but he wasn’t considered by many to be a Day 2 prospect. He was a two-gapper with enough natural quickness to find his way into backfields occasionally.
In his second year in the desert, Lawrence ascended to 219 defensive snaps. He had nine run stops during that time, and his stop rate of 82% was second highest among Arizona’s interior linemen.
We don’t have him high up on this list because the value of a run-only defender is lacking and there’s not much question that Lawrence isn’t a pass-rusher at this point. But the Cardinals have shed a lot of defensive interior guys this offseason and Lawrence should benefit as a likely rotation piece alongside Leki Fotu and Zach Allen on the inside. Lawrence’s gap-soundness on first and second down can help the Cardinals get to those aggressive blitz schemes on third down.
Age 24 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 119 | 29 offensive snaps
You’re used to NFL success stories that were overlooked on stacked depth charts from, say, Alabama. How about David Montgomery and Breece Hall’s backup at Iowa State? Nwangwu caught eyes by running a 4.31 40-yard dash at the Cyclones’ pro day in 2020. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry in college and added 26.8 yards per kick return.
Somewhat of a surprise pick in the fourth round — some outside publications had him as a priority free agent — Nwangwu spent most of the year behind Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison. He did manage two kick-return touchdowns and averaged 4.6 yards per carry in his extremely limited 13-carry sample.
The path to playing time for Nwangwu is not cut-and-dried in 2022, but the path to playing time in Minnesota is very open in the long term. Cook’s cap hit balloons to $14 million in 2023, in his age-28 season, and if he becomes expendable, the Vikings will save cap space releasing him. This is in a front office led by new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who has an analytical background. Meanwhile, Mattison will be a free agent after the 2021 season.
Nwangwu has very little chance of making an offensive impact this year beyond injury chaos, but he’s so explosive with the ball that we couldn’t leave him off your radar.
Age 24 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 127 | 228 offensive snaps
Granson started at Rice, where he led the team in receiving yards as a true freshman with 381, and then transferred to SMU in 2019. Over 23 starts at SMU he had 1,257 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. But at 6-foot-1, 241 pounds, he fit squarely into a tweener zone as someone who might not be big enough to be a real tight end.
Frank Reich was very adamant that the Colts come away with him in the draft, telling Indy’s With The Next Pick series: “I like Granson a lot, he’s gonna play.” And from the same video, a Colts scout related: “Frank came into the draft room one day and was like ‘Hey, I watched this Granson kid, he can run … I really like this guy.'”
Granson spent his rookie season third on the depth chart behind Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox. He finished with a minus-15 DYAR but a 73% catch rate. He never drew more than two targets in a single game, and his playing-time high was just 32 offensive snaps in Week 16.
But with Doyle’s retirement, Granson now enters the season as the No. 2 tight end on the depth chart, and Matt Ryan is a quarterback who could be better suited (read: more willing) to take advantage of Granson’s skill set.
The selection of Jelani Woods in the third round in 2022 is a potential long-term roadblock for Granson, but Woods is likely to need a redshirt year as he is somewhat raw. Granson has a small window to establish himself as the Trey Burton of his draft class.
Age 24 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 115 | 9 defensive snaps
A North Dakota transfer who moved up to LSU for his senior season, Cox notched 6.5 tackles for loss, 3 picks and 8 passes defensed with 58 tackles for the Bayou Bengals. For his college career, he finished with 33 passes defensed including nine picks. At 6-foot-3, 232 pounds, there was some concern about his ability to take on more physical players at LSU.
What we didn’t get to see in 2021 was any kind of response to that criticism. Cox barely played before a right ACL tear ended his season in October. He did miss some preseason tackles pretty badly, but was more up-and-down than outright bad. Still, the major bugaboo for him is going to be whether he can deal with the run enough to be more than a spot player in the NFL.
With Leighton Vander Esch back in Dallas, Cox is currently set to be the third linebacker in base sets for the Cowboys. In an ideal world, Cox would seize Vander Esch’s passing-down duties since he never fully recovered his form in coverage prior to his neck injuries. To do that, he’s going to have to improve his play strength.
“I think he is coming along great. Should be a big plus for us this year,” Cowboys EVP Stephen Jones said in March. “Will fill right in where Keanu [Neal] left off. I think he has great coverage skills.”
Age 22 | Drafted: 2021, Pick 82 | 335 offensive snaps
Brown’s college game was winning early off the snap, creating big plays by leaving college cornerbacks in the dust. He averaged 20.0 yards per catch in both his 2019 and 2020 seasons at North Carolina with future Commanders quarterback Sam Howell, catching 20 touchdowns over that span.
He’s a shorter wideout for this skill set, 6-foot-0 at 189 pounds, and in that context only his 87th-percentile broad jump at his pro day was truly special compared to other wideouts of his size. The production, though, gave him an 84.7% playmaker rating that was eighth in his class.
Brown’s rookie season in Washington was something of a missed opportunity, with injuries limiting his effectiveness and a poor deep passing game keeping him from unlocking his best traits. He also was blanketed on many routes and will need to improve his ability to get open against NFL coverages and body types. As the Commanders season dwindled, Brown was a complete nonfactor, drawing only five targets from Week 7 on.
But the big leap for most players is Year 1 to Year 2, and the situation in front of Brown hasn’t exactly settled. Most of the reason to believe in him comes from his prospect profile rather than his first season in the NFL, but he still has a chance.
Tre Brown, CB, Seattle Seahawks
Camryn Bynum, S, Minnesota Vikings
Ben Cleveland, G, Baltimore Ravens
Drew Dalman, C, Atlanta Falcons
Divine Deablo, LB, Las Vegas Raiders
Chris Evans, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Demetric Felton Jr., RB/WR, Cleveland Browns
Zech McPhearson, CB, Philadelphia Eagles
Quincy Roche, LB, New York Giants
Trey Sermon, RB, San Francisco 49ers