The list of NFL superstars who really drive their team’s success isn’t terribly long, and virtually every player on that list is a quarterback. But even the best quarterbacks can have a hard time overcoming significant roster deficiencies, as evidenced by the 2021 Chargers, who couldn’t parlay Justin Herbert’s elite season into a playoff spot.
Star talent at the top of the roster is a prerequisite for a Super Bowl run. But a talented second tier can be just as important. With that in mind, we’ve identified 10 non-superstars who could shape their team’s 2022 campaigns and be the difference between a disappointing year and a deep playoff run. Let’s start with the team that has the best odds to win it all in February.
Gabriel Davis, WR, Bills
Davis has been the subject of a heated debate in the fantasy football community over the past month because his average draft position is skyrocketing. Those who support that trend believe his four-touchdown performance against the Chiefs in the playoffs was evidence that he just needed an opportunity after being stuck in a crowded receiver room during his first two NFL seasons. The skeptics seem to think that performance was an aberration, and point to his underwhelming overall production as definitive proof.
The Bills didn’t give Davis a ton of snaps last season, and he’s been targeted just over 120 times in two seasons. He also dropped 15.9 percent of his targets in 2021, per Sports Info Solutions, which was the third-worst mark among receivers with at least 50 targets. That’s bad! But this isn’t: Davis finished 28th in the NFL in expected points added per target (and led the Bills), he finished second in explosive play rate, and he led the league in first-down percentage. So even with all the drops, the 23-year-old’s targets were an efficient source of production for Buffalo.
Davis’s film also matches with that conclusion. In that Kansas City game, Davis showed some impressive route-running chops for a man of his stature. The first of his two crunch-time touchdowns came after he dropped a Chiefs cornerback with a quick hesitation move:
On the second, he used his large frame to lean into his defender before cutting in the opposite direction, instantly creating enough separation for Josh Allen to find him for the go-ahead score with 13 seconds left:
Earlier in the game, Davis deployed his speed and beat Juan Thornhill, who ran a 4.4 at the 2019 combine, in a race downfield. Allen took care of the rest:
That performance gave Buffalo’s front office enough confidence to move on from Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders this offseason and elevate Davis to the no. 2 spot in the wide receiver pecking order. But there isn’t a whole lot of depth behind him—and that puts even more pressure on the third-year pro to make the leap. Isaiah McKenzie and Jamison Crowder form a nice pair of slot weapons but can’t play outside in two-receiver sets, something the Bills will use more of now that they have a second tight end in O.J. Howard. And the two perimeter options behind Davis are Khalil Shakir, a fifth-round rookie, and Jake Kumerow, who owns just 23 career catches as he enters his age-30 season.
The Bills will go as far as Allen and the passing game takes them. And if Davis has a down year, they might not have enough to get through a loaded AFC.
Marcus Peters, CB Ravens
Of all the injuries the Ravens suffered last season, losing Peters to an ACL tear in training camp may have been the most significant. Baltimore missed his playmaking in the secondary, as the team finished with just nine interceptions in 2021. But more than that, his absence made former defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s aggressive brand of man coverage a lot harder to play.
This offseason, Martindale left to take the Giants DC job, and he was replaced by his former assistant and 2021 Michigan DC Mike Macdonald. Macdonald won’t be nearly as blitz-happy as his predecessor—in Ann Arbor, he preferred to show heavy blitz looks before the snap and then drop into more sound coverages after it. But he’ll still want to play a lot of man coverage, and he’ll need Peters to be at his best for the Ravens to do so at a high level. Without him last season, Baltimore finished 22nd in EPA per play allowed when in man coverage, per Sports Info Solutions. With Peters and Marlon Humphrey both on the field in 2020, the defense ranked eighth in the same metric.
Peters’s return will not only make Macdonald’s life a lot easier, but it should also have the same effect on Humphrey, the superstar of the secondary. Without another reliable corner across from him, the Ravens had to move Humphrey around a lot in 2021, which coincided with his worst season as a starter. Now that Peters is back, he should have a more consistent role.
After drafting do-it-all safety Kyle Hamilton in April and adding center-field safety Marcus Williams in free agency, the Ravens should have the best secondary in the NFL—if Peters rebounds to his pre-injury form, that is. And if a healthier offense, led by a sneaky MVP candidate in Lamar Jackson, bounces back, Baltimore will be a legit threat to Kansas City and Buffalo at the top of the conference.
Tyler Boyd, WR Bengals
Even after breaking out in 2021 and leading a charge to the Super Bowl, the Bengals offense has to evolve. That’s Joe Burrow’s take, at least. Last week, the third-year quarterback said the offense would have to be more consistent on a down-to-down basis after relying so heavily on explosive plays last season.
“Teams are going to be playing two-high [safeties] and making us check the ball down and all that,” Burrow said. “So we’ve got to be able to sustain drives and run the ball and take what the defense gives us all the way up and down the field.”
The numbers back up Burrow’s analysis. While the Bengals ranked 11th in EPA per play last season, they finished a mediocre 17th in success rate. Fortunately, the defenses they faced in 2021 didn’t use the two-high approach much, meaning Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins got plenty of one-on-one matchups—and they took advantage. The two combined for 783 yards and six touchdowns on 65 targets against Cover 1.
But the Bengals won’t get a lot of those looks in 2022, and that’s why Boyd, one of the better slot receivers in the league, will be so important. While his targets dropped last season, Boyd became extremely important when defenses dropped a second safety deep. Burrow completed 71.8 percent of his passes when targeting Boyd against two-high coverages, with a 56.4 percent success rate, according to Sports Info Solutions. Those plays didn’t often result in explosive gains, but they kept the chains moving and prevented defenses from just selling out to stop Chase and Higgins.
Defenses will likely continue to give up that space over the middle this year in order to slow down the two star receivers. And if Boyd can produce—and force defensive adjustments in the process—he’ll become the key to finding a balance between down-to-down consistency and chunk plays.
DeVante Parker, WR Patriots
The Patriots’ late-season offensive slump can be summed up with one image:
No, that wasn’t a fourth-and-short situation. Nor was it a late-game scenario in which the Pats were trying to burn the clock. It was a first-down play in the first half of a Week 16 loss to the Bills.
Buffalo, like many of New England’s opponents late in the season, felt comfortable crowding the line of scrimmage knowing the Pats had no way of making them pay. Nelson Agholor and N’Keal Harry certainly weren’t forcing defensive coordinators to take any precautions deep. So this offseason, New England’s priority was finding a receiver who could fill that role.
After missing out on the handful of star wideouts who switched teams via trade, the Patriots swung a deal for Parker and then drafted Baylor speedster Tyquan Thornton in the second round. Thornton will need a year or two of seasoning before he’s able to step into a full-time role—so that puts tremendous pressure on Parker to emerge as a true WR1 in 2022.
You don’t have to go too far back in history to find evidence that Parker can be that guy. In 2019, he racked up 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns, with an impressive end-of-season performance against a New England defense that led the league in DVOA that season. In that matchup, Parker bullied eventual Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore when they were locked in one-on-one coverage, which might partially explain Bill Belichick’s pursuit of the 2015 first-round pick.
Parker is 6-foot–3 with a 36.5-inch vertical jump and he runs a 4.45 40-yard dash. That’s a tough matchup for any corner to undertake on his own, so when Parker gets going, he demands safety help over the top. If second-year QB Mac Jones can form an early connection with his new wideout, that should get defenses to back off and provide some much-needed breathing room for the rest of the Patriots receiving corps.
Jalen Hurts, QB Eagles
There isn’t a tougher QB evaluation in the NFL right now. Hurts in 2021 was a decent starter whose athleticism allowed him to overcome obvious limitations in the dropback passing game. But that version of Hurts was also far better than the one we saw during his rookie season in 2020, and leagues better than his final college season, before which he wasn’t even seen as a legitimate pro prospect. The question, though, is when will his development level off?
I consider myself a Hurts centrist. While there are red flags all over his film—he left a lot of big plays on the field last season due to poor field vision and spotty accuracy—there is plenty to like, as well. Even in his ugly playoff debut in Tampa, Hurts made some difficult throws to help keep the game competitive.
Hurts was given some pre-snap responsibility last season, which suggests he’s picking up Nick Sirianni’s offense just fine, but the Eagles did simplify their play-calling in order to make his life easier after the snap. They ran a lot of RPO and option run concepts on early downs—anything to stay out of obvious passing situations that allowed the defense to throw complex looks at the young quarterback. And it mostly worked: Philadelphia quietly ended the season ranked 11th in offensive DVOA, just one spot behind the high-powered Bills.
But if the Eagles are going to contend in 2022—and they certainly have the talent across the roster—then Hurts will have to play better when opponents knock him off schedule. Just attacking the middle of the field more often might be enough to elevate this offense a tier or two.
And in DeVonta Smith, A.J. Brown, and Dallas Goedert, the Eagles have the pass catchers to dominate that area of the field. They just need their quarterback to fill in some of the gaps in his game.
Joseph Noteboom, LT Rams
When the Rams selected Noteboom on Day 2 of the 2018 draft, many assumed he would eventually replace the then-36-year-old Andrew Whitworth as starting left tackle. Now, after four years of waiting, the time has finally come. Whitworth retired this offseason, and Noteboom has been promoted into the role of Matthew Stafford’s blindside protector.
Filling Whitworth’s Canton-bound shoes is a daunting enough task, but Noteboom is attempting that while also manning an essential position within Sean McVay’s offense. Only the Jets called more straight dropback passes from the gun than the Rams did in 2021, and only the Bengals produced a better EPA per dropback on those plays, per Sports Info Solutions. To work, those calls require an extra second or two in the pocket, which obviously makes the offensive line’s job harder. If Noteboom is unable to hold up on his own at left tackle, and requires help that Whitworth didn’t need, it could force McVay to stray from some of the concepts that worked so well for L.A. during its Super Bowl run.
Through the first four seasons of his career, Noteboom has played several positions across the line and was never really able to focus on his development as a left tackle. He did fill in for Whitworth for a seven-week stretch during the 2020 season, and the results were pretty good: He finished 30th among all offensive tackles with a 76.7 pass-blocking grade, per Pro Football Focus. But Noteboom didn’t fare so well as a run blocker, and that’s obviously a big deal in McVay’s scheme, which is built around runs that attack the perimeter of the line. From the little we’ve seen of the 27-year-old on film, he looks like a passable starting left tackle. But he’ll need to be more than that if the Rams offense is going to finish near the top of the statistical charts for a second consecutive season.
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, OLB Buccaneers
Tryon-Shoyinka was relegated to a third-down role during his rookie season, and for good reason: The dude just couldn’t make tackles. The first-round pick missed 27.3 percent of his tackle attempts, per Pro Football Focus, which ranked ninth from the bottom among qualified edge rushers. Todd Bowles basically didn’t have a choice but to cut his snaps last season, especially with more reliable options elsewhere on the depth chart.
Now that Jason Pierre-Paul is gone, though, Bowles will be forced to give the young edge rusher more chances in 2022. And what Tryon-Shoyinka does with those snaps will ultimately dictate the ceiling off this defense. If he can replicate JPP’s early-down run defense while improving on his late-down pass rushing productivity, the unit should look similar to what we saw in 2020, which was obviously good enough to help the Bucs win a Super Bowl. If not, and teams are able to move the ball effectively and stay out of third-and-long situations, when Bowles is at his most devious, then this group won’t be nearly as intimidating as it has been in recent years.
De’Vondre Campbell, OLB Packers
Even the most optimistic Packers fans weren’t predicting an All-Pro season for Campbell when he was signed late last offseason. The former Falcon had proven to be an effective run-and-chase linebacker during his time in Atlanta, but he was a streaky performer who wasn’t convincing as a run defender. His arrival in Green Bay changed that. Campbell was the rock of the Packers defense throughout the 2021 season, and coordinator Joe Barry had enough trust in Campbell’s run defense to often leave him as the lone linebacker in the box.
Green Bay’s run defense wasn’t particularly good last season, but the sacrifices made in the box allowed Berry to get more defensive backs on the field and mitigate the loss of star cornerback Jaire Alexander, who made just four starts in 2021. Alexander will be back healthy this fall, and the Packers drafted linebacker Quay Walker and defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt, both from Georgia, to bolster the run defense. Heading into 2022, the Packers are a trendy pick to be the NFL’s best defense—but that hype is contingent on Campbell following up his breakout season with another stellar campaign.
Sebastian Joseph-Day, DT Chargers
Joseph-Day to the Chargers was the most telegraphed free-agent signing of the offseason. In his first season as Chargers head coach, Brandon Staley watched his run defense get shredded on a weekly basis. A year earlier, Joseph-Day had been a key cog for Staley, who was then coordinating the Rams’ league-leading defense.
Sebastian Joseph-Day is such a useful player for how the Rams like to play up front. pic.twitter.com/TSeuC6PkOM— Robert Mays (@robertmays) September 15, 2021
With plenty of salary cap space to work with and a massive need at defensive tackle, the Chargers were long rumored to be going after Joseph-Day. And sure enough, he signed a three-year deal worth $24 million on the second day of free agency.
L.A.’s Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson acquisitions have, understandably, received the most attention this offseason, but those two will mostly play on the edges of the defense, and this team’s problems last year started in the middle. Jerry Tillery and an aging Linval Joseph just weren’t good enough. But if Joseph-Day does what he did for Staley back in 2020, that will shore up the Chargers defense on early downs and allow Mack, Jackson, and Joey Bosa to make plays when it matters most.
Chiefs defensive rookies: CB Trent McDuffie, OLB George Karlaftis, S Bryan Cook, and LB Leo Chenal
OK, so I cheated here by picking four players, but give me a break. It’s been a long offseason.
After using free agency to reshape its offense, Kansas City spent its draft capital on the defense. The Chiefs added McDuffie, an undersized corner out of Washington, and George Karlaftis, a high-effort edge rusher from Purdue, on Day 1 , then took Cincinnati safety Bryan Cook and Wisconsin lineback Leo Chenal on Day 2. Given the current state of the defensive depth chart, all four should play significant snaps in 2022.
If I had to rank those four in order of their importance to Kansas City’s success this season, Karlaftis would be at the top of the list. Karlaftis is the most obvious replacement for Melvin Ingram, whose presence last season allowed Chris Jones to play more snaps inside, where he’s at his most disruptive. If the rookie isn’t ready to contribute, the defense could struggle in the same ways it did early last season. But, really, Kansas City needs at least two of these guys to play well if the defense is going to finish in the top half of the league, as it did during the team’s Super Bowl run in 2019.