Secret Superstars for Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season

·19 min read

There are all kinds of reasons that NFL players are underrated.

Perhaps they’re in systems that don’t best show their skills. Maybe they’re buried on a depth chart. Or, they’re in somebody’s doghouse, and their coaches can’t see their potential. Sometimes, young players haven’t quite put it all together, but there are enough flashes to make you sit up and take notice, and when it does work, it’s all good.

Week 1 of the 2022 regular season features players at every position who showed up and showed out despite their underrated statuses, and here at Touchdown Wire, it’s our job to point them out.

Here are the Secret Superstars for Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season.

Geno Smith, QB, Seattle Seahawks

(Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

All anybody wanted to talk about when Russell Wilson returned to Seattle for the first Monday Night Football game of the new season was… well, that. But it was Wilson’s replacement, veteran Geno Smith, who spoke with more authority in Seattle’s 17-16 win — not only on the field, but the extent to which his coaches and teammates had faith in his efforts. Smith hasn’t been the no-doubt starter for a team since he held that position for the 2014 New York Jets, but he looked against Denver’s defense like a guy who had been there all along.

Smith finished his night completing 23 of 28 passes for 195 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. In the first half, he completed 17 of 18 passes for 163 yards and both of those touchdowns, putting him on an all-time track for single-game efficiency. While the Broncos were busy taking the ball out of Wilson’s hands in the most crucial moment of the game, Pete Carroll couldn’t stop talking about the new guy — Smith seems to be exactly the “point guard” quarterback Carroll has wanted all along.

“Geno… I mean, he was 17 for 18 in the first half,” Carroll said after the game. “Who does that? Guys just don’t do that. Geno played like he was practicing. That’s what he’s been looking like. He didn’t look any different. That’s why we had the belief in him, and he was able to go out there and win the job, and win a Monday Night Football game.”

We don’t yet know if Smith is Seattle’s bridge quarterback until the 2023 draft, when they can unleash some of the picks they got in the Wilson trade. But at this rate, and given Carroll’s quarterback preferences, Smith is playing for more than the short term.

Davis Mills, QB, Houston Texans

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll get into Mills’ two touchdown passes to new tight end O.J. Howard in the O.J. Howard portion of our program, so I wanted to focus on a few other aspects of Mills’ performance against the Colts in a 20-20 tie that certainly wasn’t Mills’ fault. Mills was a better intermediate and deep passer than people thought he was in his rookie season, and this 14-yard comeback to Brandin Cooks shows how well he can get the ball out on time and with rhythm even when a defender (in this case, Indianapolis edge-rusher Ifeadi Odenigbo), is coming for his face.

Against a pretty game Colts defense, Mills completed 23 of 37 passes for 240 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. The 2021 third-round pick continues to look like a surprise franchise quarterback.

Leonard Fournette, RB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

(Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

Fournette had three up-and-down seasons with the Jaguars after Jacksonville picked him fourth overall out of LSU in the 2017 draft. Then, be became Playoff Lenny with the Buccaneers in 2020 on the way to the franchise’s second Super Bowl win. In 2021, he became Tom Brady’s new James White — the running back who can make things happen as a receiver out of the backfield. In the winning opener against the Cowboys, Fournette rushed 21 times for 127 yards, with 59 yards after contact and two missed tackles forced.

But the play everyone wanted to talk about was this block of Micah Parsons, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Parsons didn’t appreciate it, and Fournette couldn’t have cared less.

James Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

(Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)

In 2020, Robinson, the Illinois State alum, set a record for undrafted rookie backs with 1,414 yards from scrimmage. 2021 was not as great for Robinson as Urban Meyer (among his many failings) seemed to completely whiff on Robinson’s potential as a player. New Jags head coach Doug Pederson seemed to make the same mistake early in Jacksonville’s 28-22 loss to the Washington Commanders — Robinson has just three carries in the first half and gained 29 yards, while Travis Etienne was busy dropping catches in the end zone.

But in the second half, Robinson got the ball eight times, gaining 37 more yards, and you got so see how the Jaguars’ running back share should look. Etienne is a dynamic player, but Robinson has made it clear in three seasons with three different coaches that he should be the focus of the running game.

Perhaps the Jaguars have finally wrapped their heads around this. Robinson has always had that Jag in him; it’s up to the team to get it.

 

Isaiah Pacheco, RB, Kansas City Chiefs

(Syndication: Arizona Republic)

If we had any questions about how the Chiefs’ offense would look without Tyreek Hill (and I think we all did), Andy Reid’s team, albeit with some really weird schematic assistance from Vance Joseph’s Cardinals defense, put those worries to rest with a 44-21 thrashing of those Cardinals.

One thing that was different in this Chiefs offense was the number of two-back and two-tight end sets, and rookie Isaiah Pacheco benefited greatly from this. The Rutgers alum gained 61 yards and scored a touchdown on 12 carries, and 33 of those yards on eight carries came in two-back sets. 46 of Pacheco’s total yards came after contact, and he had three runs of 10-plus yards. The combination of Pacheco and Clyde Edwards-Helaire seems to give this offense a new look in the power game.

Christian Kirk, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

(Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports)

Remember when the Jaguars gave Kirk a four-year, $72 million contract with $37 million guaranteed despite the fact that Kirk never had a 1,000-yard season with the Cardinals, and we all thought that general manager Trent Baalke had lost his damn mind?

Well, Baalke might be out there brandishing receipts now. In Jacksonville’s opening loss to Washington, Kirk caught six passes on 10 targets for 117 yards and 50 yards after the catch. Kirk benefited from Jacksonville’s pass-heavy attack and Washington’s usual array of weird coverages, but it was also an impressive showing, as Kirk showed how well he could work in a different offense, adjusting to Trevor Lawrence in Doug Pederson’s set of schemes.

Our own Laurie Fitzpatrick was impressed.

Devin Duvernay, WR, Baltimore Ravens

(Syndication: The Record)

The Ravens went into the 2022 season as they usually do — with an overstuffed tight end group, and a wafer-thin receiver depth chart.

Or so we thought. Based on his performance in Baltimore’s 24-9 win over the New York Jets, Devin Duvernay — the third-year, third-round pick out of Texas — might be ready to ascend. He caught four passes on four targets for 54 yards and two touchdowns, and when you have this kind of chemistry with Lamar Jackson, you’re going to get the ball more often than not.

Last season, Duvernay caught just 33 passes on 47 targets for 272 yards and two touchdowns. He’s already tied the touchdown total, and he’s tied with three other players (Michael Thomas, Justin Jefferson, and Jahan Dotson) for the league lead. He might eclipse his receptions and yards from 2021 by the end of the month.

O.J. Howard, TE, Houston Texans

(Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports)

The Buccaneers selected Howard with the 19th overall pick in the 2017 draft out of Alabama, and for whatever reason, Howard was unable to validate that high pick with on-field production over the next five seasons. He finished his time there with 119 catches for 1,737 yards, and 15 touchdowns, and the Bucs were pretty much done after the that. The free agent signed with, and was cut by, the Bills this preseason, and the Texans picked him up after the.  Bengals passed in favor of Devin Asiasi.

Sometimes, you just need the right home, and Houston seems to be that for Howard, who caught two passes on two targets for 39 yards and both of Davis Mills’ two touchdown passes in the Texans’ 20-20 tie with the Colts.

Howard had a total of four touchdowns in his final three seasons with the Buccaneers. Is this sustainable? Who knows, but it certainly looked good to start.

Yosuah Nijman, LT, Green Bay Packers

(Syndication: Journal Sentinel)

In March, the Packers signed Nijman to a one-year, $765,000 contract as an exclusive-rights free agent, which proved to be an excellent decision. Green Bay’s offensive line is very much in flux as franchise left tackle David Bakhtiari returns to full health, and it was up to Nijman to handle Minnesota’s defensive line at Bakhtiari’s position, which he did with aplomb. Green Bay’s offense looked like an unmade bed in Minnesota’s 23-7 win, but that wasn’t Nijman’s fault — he allowed no sacks, no quarterback hits, and one quarterback hurry on 43 pass-blocking reps, and he was just fine in the run game.

On this play, the Vikings had an overload to Nijman’s side, forcing the guard and center to flare out and pick it up. Nijman (No. 73) was going to have a one-on-one with massive defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (No. 94), who was on the edge in a pretty diabolical package. As was the case throughout this game, Nijman shut down anybody in purple who was trying to hurt his quarterback.

Nijman subbed out a lot for Bakhtiari at left tackle last season, and the reps are clearly paying off.

Charles Leno Jr., LT, Washington Commanders

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Blocking for Carson Wentz is never easy. You don’t know whether Wentz will stay in the pocket when he should, his situational awareness is… well, average to be kind, and even if he’s clean in the pocket, he may barf up a helium ball for no good reason.

This was the test given to veteran offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. last Sunday. Of course, since Leno spent his first seven NFL seasons with the Chicago Bears, and he signed a one-year, $5 million contract with Washington in 2021, so he’s more than used to quarterback randomness. The Commanders signed Leno to a three-year, $37.5 million extension in January, and on Sunday against a Jacksonville defensive front that is all the way for real with edge-rushers Josh Allen and Travon Walker, Leno pitched a shutout — he allowed no sacks, no quarterback hits, and no quarterback hurries. No pressures of any kind on 52 pass-blocking snaps. and he had to deal with both Allen and Walker, depending on the situation.

Here, Wentz gets a deep boundary pass off to Antonio Gibson, but watch Leno (No. 72) on Walker (No. 44). Leno gets his hands out right away, sets the tone, and the 2022 first overall pick doesn’t stand a chance.

Jordan Phillips, DI, Buffalo Bills

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The Buffalo Bills’ defense went all Shark Week on Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams in the 2022 season opener, amassing seven sacks of Stafford without blitzing on any of them. It was a tour de force by Sean McDermott’s and Leslie Frazier’s defense, and Von Miller did indeed lead the way.

However, it would be a mistake to ignore the contributions of two lesser-known Buffalo defensive linemen, and Phillips is the first. The veteran who has never had more than 29 total pressures in a single season led all Buffalo defenders with six total pressures — two sacks, one quarterback hit, and three quarterback hurries.

On this sack, Phillips (No. 97) started head up over Joe Noteboom at left tackle, and then devastated left guard David Edwards with a killer spin move. Guys standing 6-foot-6 and weighing 347 pounds are not supposed to be able to do this, and it’s always nice to have at least one “Planet Theory” dude on your defensive line.

Alex Highsmith, EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers

(Sam Greene-USA TODAY Sports)

The Cincinnati Bengals spent their offseason re-doing an offense line that nearly got Joe Burrow killed last season, and the Pittsburgh Steelers tore that new line to shreds in a 23-20 defensive domination. Burrow was pressured on 19 of his 65 dropbacks and suffered seven sacks against a Pittsburgh front that had its way despite the loss of T.J. Watt to a torn pectoral muscle. Watt’s injury isn’t as serious as originally thought, but he’ll still be out for a number of weeks as opposed to the entire season, which means other guys will have to step up.

We think Alex Highsmith is ready to do just that. Highsmith was the Steelers’ most prolific pass-rusher last Sunday, tallying three of Burrow’s sacks, and six of Burrow’s 19 pressures. The third-year man from Charlotte had his best game as a pro.

Uchenna Nwosu, EDGE, Seattle Seahawks

(AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

The Seahawks signed Nwosu, the former Chargers edge defender, to a two-year, $20 million deal this offseason. Based on his tape with limited reps, I loved the deal — Nwosu popped off the tape as a player who could do a lot of things if given more of an opportunity.

In his first Seattle game, Nwosu lived up to every bit of that in a dominant performance. He had a sack, five total pressures, three stops, and a forced fumble. Not much more you can do in your first game in a new defense to prove your versatility.

The sack may have been his most impressive play. Nwosu (No. 10) dropped into coverage at the snap, and he was spying Russell Wilson through the play. Once Wilson bailed to the left sideline, it was all about who could get there first, and Nwosu wanted to answer that question with authority.

I asked Nwosu about his performance after the game, and it was clear — he wants more of this.

“It was only one sack, I thought I had two? I’ve got to dispute that one, we’ll get back to that one. Just come out here and try to do my part. You know they brought me here for a reason. I kind of feel like I was not perceived as the player I think I am, and I have to go out there and show it. As many times as I have to do it, I’ll do it. To be able to do it in a place like this, with the crowd behind you like that, it’s surreal and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

So far? So very good.

Dominique Robinson, EDGE, Chicago Bears

(Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports)

Robinson’s story is different than most. A high-school quarterback, he started at Miami of Ohio as a receiver, switching eventually to the defensive line. Robinson put up four sacks, 28 total pressures, and 16 stops in 2021, and the Bears took him in the fifth round of the draft. Robinson had a sack in his preseason debut against the Chiefs, and he put up some very solid pressure reps against the Seahawks in the next preseason game, insulting some in which he gave Seattle first-round left tackle Charles Cross all he could handle.

That got Robinson on my radar in the first place; his performance against the 49ers last Sunday ensured that he’ll stay there. Robinson had two sacks, three total pressures, four stops, and he’s already picking up killer moves from his veteran teammates.

A.J. Epenesa, EDGE, Buffalo Bills

(Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

Along with Jordan Phillips, Epenesa is the other Bills defensive lineman deserving of more praise after that shellacking of the Rams’ offensive line. The Iowa alum has shown potential in fits and starts through his first two NFL seasons, but busted right out of the gate against Sean McVay’s offense with two sacks (matching his season high in the last two years) and four total pressures. He was a serious problem for the Rams’ overmatched offensive tackles all game long, especially left tackle Joe Noteboom.

The sacks were nice, but Epenesa’s most impressive and impactful play may have been this pressure of Matthew Stafford, which forced an errant throw to Cooper Kupp, resulting in a Jordan Poyer interception.

It looks as if Epenesa is ready to become a force multiplier in that dynamite rotational front.

Christian Benford, CB, Buffalo Bills

(Photo by Joshua Bessex/Getty Images)

We’re not done with the Bills’ defense yet — nor should we be. Star cornerback Tre’Davious White is out for at least the first four weeks of the season as he continues to recover from the torn ACL he suffered last season, so it was decided that veteran Dane Jackson and rookie sixth-round pick Christian Benford would start at outside cornerback against the Rams’ ostensibly dynamic passing game.

Benford, a no-star recruit who was lucky to get an offer from Villanova, proved the doubters wrong in his first taste of real NFL action. He allowed three catches on five targets for 55 yards, 36 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, one pass breakup, an opponent passer rating of 97.9, and some super-sticky coverage when it was most needed.

Benford and first-round rookie Kaiir Elam both balled out at cornerback in this game, which bodes well while White is out, and even better when he returns and the Bills can use all that suddenly formidable depth at one of the game’s most important positions.

D.J. Reed Jr., CB, New York Jets

(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Reed’s first regular-season game with the Jets after two seasons in San Francisco and two more in Seattle came with some unexpected emotional weight — his father Dennis passed away, and Reed found out just before pre-game introductions as the Jets got ready to deal with the Baltimore Ravens.

“We are all fully aware, during the national anthem and all that stuff,” Jets head coach Robert Saleh said after the game. “Obviously very, very tough day for D.J., heart goes out to him and his family. D.J. is a pro’s pro, a man’s man. You never know what these guys are going through, especially, we know in the locker room, but outside in the stands, outside the building, nobody knows. So, we can be quick to judge but just give it time, give it a chance for a story to come out or whatever it is. D.J. went through a lot yesterday and it was an emotional roller coaster this entire week for him.”

But once Reed hit the field, he was all business. He was targeted six times by Lamar Jackson, allowing no catches, breaking up one pass, and taking an interception away from Jackson on this deep boundary pass to receiver Demarcus Robinson.

Two cornerbacks playing at least 50% of their defenses’ snaps in Week 1 allowed an opponent passer rating of 0.0 — Reed and Philly’s James Bradberry. Bradberry is not a secret, and Reed is on a fast track to well-known status. Reed’s Sunday story certainly deserves all kinds of attention.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire