Secret Superstars for Week 1 of the 2022 NFL preseason

·15 min read

Those party-poopers who tell you that “It’s only the preseason” have never tried to make an NFL team, or grab a starting role, by the skin of their teeth. For more players than not, the three-game stretch before the regular season begins is their best way to prove that they belong on an NFL roster once things get “real.”

Now that Week 1 of the 2022 preseason is in the books, here are the players we think have done the most to create — or enhance — those favorable impressions when they matter the most.

The players on this list are not the obvious names — there are no first-rounders, or players who came into the new season with advanced amounts of hype based on their collegiate or previous NFL exploits. These guys are either trying to stake their claims, or save their careers.

So, let’s take a look at the Secret Superstars of Week 1 of the 2022 NFL preseason.

(All metrics courtesy of Pro Football Focus unless otherwise indicated).

Bailey Zappe, QB, New England Patriots

(Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

The Patriots took Zappe with the 32nd pick in in the fourth round out of Western Kentucky, and in his NFL debut against the Giants, Zappe certainly showed that he wasn’t afraid to throw the deep ball. Zappe zipped eight attempts of 20 or more air yards, completing three for 88 yards and a touchdown — this 20-yard dart with pressure to Lil’Jordan Humphrey.

Zappe wasn’t always on — he completed 19 of his 32 passes for 205 yards, one touchdown, and one interception — but he certainly showed flashes.

Desmond Ridder, QB, Atlanta Falcons

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Like Zappe, Ridder was a relative afterthought in s much-maligned quarterback class — the Cincinnati alum was selected with the 10th pick in the third round by the Falcons, and that allowed him to put himself in the middle of a quarterback battle with veteran Marcus Mariota. In his first NFL game, against the Lions, Ridder did enough to make the battle interesting.

Our own Mark Schofield did a comprehensive piece on Ridder’s big day, in which he completed 10 of 22 passes for 103 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. There were times when Ridder missed stuff downfield, but he had more than his share of deep attempts, and when things were defined for him, he was decisive to make the throws he needed to make.

Dameon Pierce, RB, Houston Texans

(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

If you’ve read Touchdown Wire for a while, you probably know that we had Florida’s Dameon Pierce as the top running back in the 2022 draft class. You had to look to find his best reps, as former head coach Dan Mullen had Pierce in a misbegotten committee situation, but when he did get on the field, Pierce proved to be incendiary — specifically against Georgia’s historic defense.

Pierce looked just as sharp against the Saints on Saturday, gaining 49 yards no five carries, including this impressive scamper.

There’s no reason to believe that Pierce won’t continue to make life difficult for opposing defenses. It’s just what he does at any level.

Antonio Williams, RB, New York Giants

(Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports)

The Bills signed Williams as an undrafted free agent out of North Carolina, and Williams was unable to crack a depth chart in need of some power running. But Williams looked very good for Giants head coach and former Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll against the Patriots, rushing nine times for 61 yards. Williams showed both contact balance, and the ability to explode downfield.

Julius Chestnut, RB, Tennessee Titans

(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The list of NFL players out of Sacred Heart University is not long, but Chestnut is doing everything he can to bring honor to the Pioneers. Against the Ravens, he ran seven times for 44 yards, and while he did give up a fumble, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound back also showed the kind of power and acceleration that is a hallmark of the Titans’ offense.

Shemar Bridges, WR, Baltimore Ravens

(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

Bridges was an under-the-radar receiver prospect out of Fort Valley State in the 2022 draft class — while he did make waves at the inaugural HBCU combine and Legacy Bowl, he was ignored by a lot of public scouting services. So, he had his first chance to prove the doubters wrong when the Ravens faced the Titans, and he did everything possible to make the receiver-light Ravens consider him for the regular season roster. At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, Bridges was bodying Titans cornerbacks all over the place, proving that he has a role in the league. Bridges caught all four of his targets for 62 yards, and Ravens quarterbacks throwing him the ball had a 158.3 rating — the highest possible.

Romeo Doubs, WR, Green Bay Packers

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Speaking of receiver-light teams with preseason stars out of nowhere… the Packers rook Doubs out of Nevada in the fourth round, and from the start of training camp, everybody from quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love to Doubs’ fellow receivers wouldn’t keep quiet about how impressive he was.

Doubs took that to his first preseason game against the 49ers, catching three passes on seven targets for 45 yards and a touchdown. While Love’s passes to Doubs were not always on target, Doubs showed that when the ball got to his area, things were generally going to turn out well.

Lance McCutcheon, WR, Los Angeles Rams

(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

The Rams have already succeeded with an FCS receiver as few other teams have; that Cooper Kupp guy from Eastern Washington is pretty good. Based on the efforts of Montana State alum Lance McCutcheon against the Chargers, Sean McVay’s team may have hit the jackpot again.

The UDFA rookie caught five passes on six targets for 87 yards and two touchdowns. And at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, McCutcheon made it clear that winning the contested catch battle is no problem at all.

Kristian Wilkerson, WR, New England Patriots

(Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports)

Wilkerson scored his first NFL touchdown for the Patriots in Week 17 of the 2021 season, and the team responded by signing him to a reserve/future contract later in January. If his game against the Giants is any indication, the future might be now. The undrafted free agent from Southeast Missouri State caught eight passes on 12 targets for 99 yards, and he was a big part of Bailey Zappe’s aforementioned success with the deep ball.

Cam Jurgens, C, Philadelphia Eagles

(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

The Eagles selected Jurgens in the second round of the 2022 draft, and “Beef Jurgens” (so named for his penchant for manufacturing jerky) looks like the ideal prototype for Philly’s offense. The Eagles like their centers to be agile and mobile, and Jurgens, as he showed during his time at Nebraska, can certainly handle that.

Veteran Jason Kelce has already vowed to help Jurgens in every way possible, and there are few better centers in NFL history to provide tutorials on this style of center play.

Abraham Lucas, OT, Seattle Seahawks

(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

As part of a rebuilding effort that showed itself in both good and bad ways in their preseason opener against the Steelers, the Seahawks selected two offensive tackles in the 2022 draft — first-rounder Charles Cross, whose qualifications were obvious, and third-rounder Abraham Lucas, whose bonafides were a bit more hidden. Lucas may have been dinged by the Draft Industrial Complex because the assumption was that as a Washington State alum, he spent all his time blocking in Air Raid concepts, and would struggle with power concepts.

I think we can put that idea to bed now.

Lucas was solid in pass pro for the most part, but he really showed up in the run game — not only with examples of pure bullying, but also in the techniques required to seal the edge, get to the second level, and open up lanes for anyone with the ball. Basically, Lucas blocks like the Slayer fan he is.

Well, Lucas was my fifth-ranked offensive tackle in this class, and that happened without the benefit of his outstanding musical taste. That’s just a bonus.

Boye Mafe, EDGE, Seattle Seahawks

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Perhaps I liked Mafe’s Minnesota tape more than some — I had him ranked as our sixth-best edge-rusher in a stacked 2022 draft class, and he reminded me a lot of Michael Bennett, who was basically unblockable for the Seahawks a few years back. The Seahawks seemed to agree, selecting Mafe with the eighth pick in the second round. The word on Mafe was that he would need some time for his technique to catch up to his athleticism, and that his relatively short arms might be a problem.

Mafe had two sacks, a quarterback hurry, and three stops against the Steelers, so maybe all that was just so much noise.

Mafe also showed up on special teams, which is a great way to get more starting reps, regardless of position.

Victor Dimukeje, EDGE, Arizona Cardinals

(AP Photo/Jeff Dean)

The Cardinals took Dimukeje in the sixth round of the 2021 draft out of Duke, and he had just 113 snaps in his rookie season. If his game against the Bengals is any indication, the second-year man is about to break out on the roster this season. With two sacks, four quarterback hurries, and two stops, Dimukeje proved to be a real problem, indeed.

Isaiah Thomas, EDGE, Cleveland Browns

(Syndication: Florida Times-Union)

The Browns are still trying to figure out the optimal edge defender — or combination of edge defenders — to bookend All-World pass-rusher Myles Garrett. Thomas, the seventh-round rookie out of Oklahoma, made his case in rather definitive fashion against the Jaguars. Thomas had two sacks, a quarterback hurry, and three stops, and he impressed with speed and heavy hands along the formation. At 6-foot-4 and 266 pounds, Thomas brings some nice gap versatility to the table.

Travis Jones, IDL, Baltimore Ravens

(Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports)

A lot of people who watched Jones’ Connecticut tape wondered why and how he fell all the way to the 76th overall pick in the third round, which is where the Ravens absolutely stole him. At 6-foot-4 and 325, Jones fits the prototype of the modern interior disruptor required for defenses wanting to go with lighter boxes and more complex coverages. That seems to be what Baltimore’s defense will look like under Mike Macdonald, and Jones was a wrecking ball in limited snaps in his NFL debut against the Titans. Jones had a sack, a quarterback hurry, and two stops on just 23 reps. As his participation increases, so should his rate of disruptions.

The big man can get out and run, too!

DeMarvin Leal, IDL, Pittsburgh Steelers

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Losing Stephon Tuitt for the entire 2021 season put a big hex on the Steelers’ interior defensive line. Future Hall of Famer Cameron Heyward did the best he could, but when Heyward was also out… well, that run defense fell apart. With Tuitt’s retirement, the Steelers needed to find depth inside, and they did so everywhere — in free agency with the addition of former Bengals and Browns stud Larry Ogunjobi, and with the third-round selection of Texas A&M’s DeMarvin Leal. Leal was thought to be a bit is a tweener at 6-foot-3 and 283 pounds, so his new team asked him to add some weight, and things look pretty good now. Against the Seahawks, Leal had two pressures, a near-sack, and a hunger to be on the opponents’ side of things.

The Steelers next play on Saturday, August 20, against the Jaguars, who have been duly warned.

Samuel Womack III, CB, San Francisco 49ers

(AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)

“Yeah with Womack, I think for him, throughout this entire camp, I’ve seen progress. Each day I’ve seen progress. I like the way he is in man coverage; he’s been sticky, he’s been challenging. A lot of contested throws there, PBUs. So he’s headed in a really good direction, just continues to get better. I’m excited where he is and it’s exciting to see his growth and his continued development.”

That’s what 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said of San Francisco’s fifth-round pick out of Toledo on August 10, two days before Womack’s NFL debut against the Packers. Womack proved Ryans to be practically psychic, as the rookie came away with two interceptions, and no catches allowed, on two targets.

Womack is a smaller (5-foot-10, 187-pound) cornerback who plays bigger than he looks, and he’s obviously made an impression on the 49ers’ coaching staff — and Green Bay’s quarterbacks.

Martin Emerson, CB, Cleveland Browns

(Syndication: Florida Times-Union)

Yes, the Browns have the Deshaun Watson dumpster fire of their own making to deal with, but that nightmare tends to overwhelm the fact that this team is pretty deep just about everywhere — including the secondary. They added to that depth with the third-round selection of Emerson out of Mississippi State, and like Isaiah Thomas, Emerson didn’t look like a rookie out there against the Jaguars. He allowed two catches on five targets for 40 yards, but he made up for the occasional vulnerability in deep coverage with this right-place-right-time pick six.

Jaquan Brisker, S, Chicago Bears

(Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports)

I had Brisker as my third-best safety in this class behind Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton and Georgia’s Lewis Cine, and while both of those guys were taken in the first round by the Ravens and Vikings, respectively, Brisker had to wait until the 16th pick in the second round to hear his name called. Given the NFL’s need for do-it-all safeties, passing on Brisker to that degree could prove to be a mistake for a lot of teams. Brisker will be of great benefit to the Bears, who had one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses last season, especially against the deep ball.

Brisker was debited by some as merely a box safety based on his time at Penn State, but I saw him as more than that — he proved to be an estimable deep defender in two-high looks, which new head coach Matt Eberflus prefers. And it’s easy to see Brisker’s early impact in the Bears’ preseason opener against the Chiefs.

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Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire