Monday, October 3

NFL mandatory minicamp 2022: James Cook and other AFC rookies drafted after Day 1 who could earn key roles

Creed Humphrey and Trey Smith went from somewhat obscure non-Day 1 picks to key pieces of the Chiefs offensive line as rookies.

In 2020, Chiefs cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, Steelers receiver Chase Claypool, and Patriots blocker Michael Onwenu were AFC rookies who weren’t selected on Day 1 of the draft but sure as heck played like Day 1 selections during their debut season. 

The year before that, A.J. Brown, Diontae Johnson, and Gardner Minshew headlined those outstanding value selections. And you, NFL fan starved for football, know all about your favorite team’s first-round pick in the 2022 draft. Now it’s time to really get acclimated with the non-Round 1 selection who has the talent — and situation — to flourish as a rookie. 

Earlier this week I ran through who these players can be this season for each NFC team. Below is the AFC edition. 

AFC East

RB James Cook (Round 2, 63rd overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Averaged 6.5 yards per carry on 230 career rushes and 10.9 yards per catch on 67 receptions at Georgia

Cook is the “wide back” the Bills were looking for in free agency, and he’s faster down the field than J.D. McKissic. While not the most natural runner between the tackles, Cook plays and thrives on the perimeter, on handoffs and when he’s split out wide or in the slot. He runs routes like a receiver, and his 4.42 speed makes him a nightmare to cover for linebackers and most safeties. In Buffalo’s high-powered offense, he’ll be given more touches than many probably expect, as the Bills have wanted to feature more explosiveness out of the backfield for a while.   

CB Marcus Jones (Round 3, 85th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Six career return touchdowns at Houston

Jones is that player in Madden your friends don’t let you use on kick and punt returns because he’s so damn difficult to tackle. He’s, of course, a twitched-up slot defender, too. Had he been a few inches taller, Jones probably would’ve sniffed the first round. His film was that impactful. In a secondary that lost J.C. Jackson, Jones will have important job responsibilities instantly in New England. 

EDGE Cameron Goode (Round 7, 224th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Had a 39-inch vertical and 6.91 time in the three-cone drill at the California pro day

Goode popped on film as a classic 3-4 outside linebacker who seemingly dropped back into a short zone as frequently as he got after the quarterback. And what he showcased at his pro day absolutely translates to the field. His get-off was tremendous, and he’s flexible around the corner — two core elements to winning as an outside pass rusher in the NFL. Sure, the Dolphins have some bodies in front of him, but the edge-rusher group is one of the weaker spots on the roster, so opportunity awaits for the former Cal star. 

EDGE Micheal Clemons (Round 4, 117th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: 46 pressures on 328 pass-rush snaps at Texas A&M in 2021

As a first-round pick the Jets traded up to acquire, Jermaine Johnson II is going to get plenty of run as an edge rusher in Robert Saleh’s scheme opposite Carl Lawson. Clemons is a very similar prospect to Johnson in that he’s long, noticeably powerful at the point of attack and an explosive linear athlete. I even like Clemons’ array of pass-rush moves more than what Johnson has to offer right now. He’s a little heavier than Johnson, too. 

AFC North

CB Jalyn Armour-Davis (Round 4, 119th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Ran 4.39 in the 40-yard dash at nearly 6-1 and 197 pounds at the combine

Now, because Armour-Davis only started one full season at Alabama, that may lead to a steeper learning curve for him as a rookie. But, for him, the Ravens have a nice blend of need at outside corner and experience ahead of him who can get him up to speed rather quickly. Plus, the Ravens are going to play plenty of press man in Mike Macdonald’s defense, which is where the former big-time recruit excels thanks to his powerful feet and downfield speed. 

DL DeMarvin Leal (Round 3, 84th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: 25 tackles for loss and 13 sacks in 33 career games at Texas A&M

If the Steelers are getting 2020 Leal, they hit the jackpot in Round 3. If they get 2021 Leal, they’ll have a rather sizable hole in the depth of their defensive line after the retirement of Stephon Tuitt. But that retirement alone will force Leal into a substantial role as a rookie. He’s a legitimate tweener: not quite big and powerful enough to deal with the strength he’d see on the inside and around average in teams of athleticism and burst needed to win consistently around the corner. However, Pittsburgh has a long history of developing truly versatile defensive linemen, so I’m banking on that to get the most out of the undoubtedly talented Leal.  

CB Cam Taylor-Britt (Round 2, 60th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Five interceptions and 19 pass breakups in his final 31 games at Nebraska

Taylor-Britt is a savvy and also noticeably athletic outside corner with stellar instincts to routinely disrupt passes at all levels of the field. The Bengals got outstanding productivity from their mostly free-agent built secondary last season. Smartly, the Bengals added plenty of youthful reinforcement to that group, and Taylor-Britt should get time on the field if and when Eli Apple’s play dips from its high peaks in 2021. 

WR David Bell (Round 3, 99th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Averaged 101.5 yards per game across 29 career outings at Purdue

Bell’s athletic profile scares me. Everything — from his 10-yard split to his vertical to his three-cone — was below the 40th percentile at the receiver position. On the field, Bell is a crafty, what I call “pace” receiver. That means he seemingly understand he’s not going to win in his routes with pure explosion and speed, so he throttles up and down throughout the play to trick the cornerback into thinking he’s much slower than he is. Also, Bell catches everything and plays bigger than his size downfield in those rebound scenarios. Cleveland badly needed an injection of skill and talent at receiver, and while Bell doesn’t provide much athletic talent, he’s as skilled as the come. 

AFC West

CB Damarri Mathis (Round 4, 115th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Four interceptions and 16 pass breakups in his final 24 games at Pittsburgh

Mathis plays the game at 100 mph. No hesitation. All speed, all the time. He flies downhill to lay the hammer down against swing passes, screens, and crossers thrown late. He can run with receivers down the field thanks to 4.39 speed. The Broncos secondary is rather young. There aren’t four or five veterans totally locked into full-time roles. Mathis has the demeanor and athletic gifts to be an impactful contributor right away. 

RB Isaiah Spiller (Round 4, 123rd overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 545 career carries at Texas A&M

Spiller was tied with Ken Walker as my RB1 in the 2022 class. Outside of running like a track star, everything he does on the field as a back is excellent. Vision, cutting, contact balance, receiving ability — it’s all there. Now, the elephant in the room is that Austin Ekeler stands in Spiller’s way on the depth chart. It’s not that I believe Spiller will pass him on it; he’ll just scoot around him, because they should be utilized in different ways. Spiller can handle more “traditional” between-the-tackle duties with Ekeler gravitating toward more of a hybrid slot role now entering his sixth NFL season.  

CB/S Nazeeh Johnson (Round 7, 259th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: 18 pass breakups and six interceptions in his final 43 games at Marshall

Johnson was a full-time, four-year stud at Marshall. His 2021 film was an absolute blast. Whether it was from the nickel corner position, playing robber in the middle of the field, or ranging deep, Johnson was a magnet to the football. His vast experience allows him to play super fast, and his athletic traits are spectacular. Now, in a defensive backfield in Kansas City that’s undergoing vast renovations, Johnson has an opportunity to make his mark immediately. Even as a seventh-rounder, he will.  

OG Dylan Parham (Round 3, 90th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Allowed 10 pressures — including no sacks — on 545 pass-blocking snaps at Memphis in 2021

Denzelle Good will enter camp as one of the starting guards on the Las Vegas offense. I expect Parham to either take that job from him during camp and the preseason or take over during the season. He’s an athletic, well-balanced blocker who plays with an awesomely low center of gravity. The Raiders look dynamic on paper, but if the offensive line isn’t, the influx of talent on Josh McDaniels’ team won’t be accentuated. Parham can bring stability inside.

AFC South

LB Christian Harris (Round 3, 75th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Ran 4.44 in the 40-yard dash at nearly 6-1 and 225 pounds at the combine

Harris misses a lot of tackles. He also gets to the football on many more plays than most linebackers thanks to his lightning-quick feet and speed. The Texans have vets Kamu Grugier-Hill and Christian Kirksey penciled in at linebacker right now, but Harris is the more youthful, springy versions of both of those second-level defenders. 

CB Roger McCreary (Round 2, 35th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Six interceptions and 29 pass breakups in his final 35 games at Auburn

Purely based on talent, McCreary was a first-round-caliber prospect. Sure, he’s a little small and his arms are short, but you know what — those limitations didn’t stop him from making big play after big play after big play against the best competition college football has to offer over the past three seasons at Auburn. From Ja’Marr Chase to Jerry Jeudy to Jameson Williams, McCreary annoyed the hell out of the best SEC receivers from 2019 to 2021, and he enters a Titans secondary without many established, big-time contributors. Whether it’s out wide or in the slot, McCreary will be around the football. 

TE Jelani Woods (Round 3, 73rd overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Ran 4.61 in the 40-yard dash at 6-7 and 253 pounds at the combine

Woods has Mo Alie-Cox and Kylen Granson ahead of him on the Colts tight end depth chart. That’s it. And Woods is a phenomenal specimen. Early in his college career, he was a blocking specialist at Oklahoma State. At Virginia, he ran routes — sharp routes, by the way — out of the slot and got downfield on a regular basis. He averaged nearly 14 yards per grab with eight scores in 2021. Alie-Cox is really large. Hard to miss him over the middle if you’re Matt Ryan. Same is true for Woods. The rookie is talented in the right ways to hit the ground running in today’s NFL. While not a super-explosive tight end, Woods snaps out of his breaks running routes and catches everything. 

RB Snoop Conner (Round 5, 154th overall)

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  • Impressive stat to know: Averaged 5.2 yards per rush on 304 career attempts at Ole Miss

Conner joins a group of about 20 or so NFL running backs who dole out bruises when attempting to tackle them. At 5-10 and 222 pounds, Conner is both thickly built and constructed low to the ground, thereby naturally making him the low man in most head-to-head situations, and you know who wins in those scenarios on the field. Sure, there’s James Robinson and Travis Etienne in front of him, but in Philadelphia, Doug Pedersen never shied away from spreading the wealth in the backfield, and Conner’s dynamic burst and power are elements not found in spades in the games of the two runners in front of him. 





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