With the NFL’s 2022 preseason poised to hit high gear, pressure is about to ratchet up on players throughout the league. And while August is the proving ground for fading veterans, rookies who were drafted on Day 3, bottom-of-the-roster youngsters who ricochet around the country and undrafted free agents, even recent first-rounders will feel the heat – though, in most of their cases, for the next few months.
One who received an unwanted (and temporary) reprieve was New York Jets O-lineman Mekhi Becton, the 11th overall pick in 2020 who was already in the midst of a position switch (left tackle to right) and will now likely miss the entire 2022 campaign after suffering another knee injury during Monday’s camp practice.
But while Becton may not face further pressure for another year, several quarterbacks once regarded as eventual faces of their franchise will be under intense scrutiny. Other former top-five selections could be fighting for their futures. Quite a few players picked in Round 1 in 2019 are about to embark on a contract year, their teams already opting against giving them lucrative guaranteed options for the 2023 season.
Here are 22 players taken in the first round since 2018 who enter the 2022 season with plenty to prove:
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QBs Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield, Carolina Panthers
The most compelling quarterback battle of the summer is being waged by two of the top three selections of the 2018 draft, though neither Darnold (third overall to the Jets) nor Mayfield (first overall to the Browns) remains with his original team. Each was initially due a fully guaranteed $18.9 million in the final year of his rookie contract, though Mayfield accepted a $3.5 million pay cut – he can earn it all back by hitting several incentives – to facilitate his trade from Cleveland just one year after Darnold was dealt to Carolina. They’re currently alternating first-team training camps every other day, each hoping to earn the QB1 gig from embattled coach Matt Rhule while trying to parlay the opportunity into major payday from the Panthers or another team in free agency next year. This could be the final shot for one or both passers to establish himself as an NFL starter – and limiting turnovers and poor decision making will be crucial for Mayfield and Darnold. But having a playmaking duo of RB Christian McCaffrey and WR DJ Moore should give each a fighting chance to excel. Darnold and the 2021 Panthers started 3-0 before losing “CMc” to hamstring and ankle injuries that cost him 10 games.
RB Saquon Barkley and QB Daniel Jones, New York Giants
Once forecast as cornerstones for the G-Men, neither is signed beyond this season after New York punted Jones’ 2023 option. Hobbled by an ankle injury last year after tearing an ACL in September of 2020, Barkley, the No. 2 pick in 2018 between Mayfield and Darnold, simply must prove he can be the game changer he was during his first two seasons (combined 3,469 yards from scrimmage). Over his past 15 games, Barkley has averaged 41.8 rushing yards and 3.5 per carry. For Jones, turnovers remain his bugaboo – he’s committed 49 in 38 NFL games – yet his athleticism translates into an Eli Manning-plus skill set when he gets going. It’s up to new head coach Brian Daboll, who’s widely credited with unlocking Josh Allen’s potential in Buffalo, to maximize Jones’ strengths and limit his mistakes – or else the Giants will be shopping for a replacement in the offseason.
QB Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
With the relative exception of New England’s Mac Jones, there will be ample attention focused on the starting quarterbacks taken in Round 1 a year ago. But of that group of five, Fields seems to have the highest barriers to success in 2022. He’s trying to impress a new regime that didn’t tab him nor provided significant resources to his supporting cast. If he’s as good as projected coming out of Ohio State, Fields will progress from a miserable rookie season and be under center when Chicago presumably begins building up this roster in a year. But if 2022 is a train wreck, it’s not inconceivable he could be headed for an early exit from the team that drafted him like recent first-round QBs Paxton Lynch, Josh Rosen and Dwayne Haskins.
LB Devin Bush, Pittsburgh Steelers
He’s the rare player coach Mike Tomlin and former GM Kevin Colbert traded up to get, the duo moving up 10 slots into the 10th position of the 2019 draft for the Michigan star. But Bush hasn’t progressed from a solid rookie season and was derailed by an ACL tear in 2020. His fifth-year option declined, he’s auditioning for the Steelers and 31 other teams heading into free agency next year.
CB Jeff Okudah, Detroit Lions
He was so highly regarded coming out of Ohio State in 2020 that Detroit picked him third overall. No cornerback in the common draft era (since 1967) has gone earlier. But Okudah has been highly ineffective while on the field – quarterbacks have a 128.0 passer rating when targeting him – and hasn’t been available all that often, already missing 23 contests. Okudah shouldn’t be hard to miss in 2022. He’s switched his jersey to No. 1 and could be the first guy offenses go after given he’s attempting to come back from a ruptured Achilles suffered in last season’s opener.
DE Clelin Ferrell, RB Josh Jacobs and S Johnathan Abram, Las Vegas Raiders
All three were picked in the first round of former GM Mike Mayock’s inaugural draft three years ago. Remarkably, the fifth-year options for the entire trio were declined this spring by the Silver and Black’s new management – meaning the Raiders may not have the five Round 1 players Mayock took between 2019 and 2020 after cutting WR Henry Ruggs III and CB Damon Arnette last season. Ferrell, whose selection at No. 4 overall was a shock to most draft observers at the time, has been the biggest bust, reduced to a rotational role and zero starts in 2021. Jacobs, a Pro Bowler in 2020, has been productive, averaging nearly 1,300 yards and 10 TDs from scrimmage over his first three seasons. But if the Raiders weren’t willing to bring him back for $8 million in 2023, good bet he’s showcasing himself to the remainder of the league.
WR N’Keal Harry, Bears
Bill Belichick’s latest draft whiff at wideout, Harry was selected ahead of players like Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, DK Metcalf, Diontae Johnson, Terry McLaurin and even Hunter Renfrow in 2019. Harry managed just 57 catches for 598 yards and four scores in three seasons with New England and was traded to Chicago this summer. But what seemed like a prime chance to challenge for significant snaps may already be slipping away after NFL Network reported Harry suffered a high ankle sprain over the weekend.
DE Marcus Davenport, New Orleans Saints
The Saints took a major gamble on the Texas-San Antonio product in 2018, trading two first-round picks in order to snare him 14th overall from what was then a fairly obscure program. Davenport has provided 21 sacks in four seasons, including a career-best nine in 2021, but has missed 17 games and generally failed to justify the team’s investment in him. He just came off the PUP list after having part of a pinkie finger amputated during the offseason and will likely need a major effort in his walk year if he’s to re-sign with a team that’s always scrambling to create cap space in March.
QB Tua Tagovailoa, OL Austin Jackson and CB Noah Igbinoghene, Miami Dolphins
Fins fans will be hyperfocused on Tagovailoa, no matter how good new WR Tyreek Hill says he is. Solid if unspectacular in his first two seasons, Tua has nevertheless lagged significantly behind draftmates Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert. It’s time for more big plays and merely stringing together wins against bad teams. Yet the spotlight on Tagovailoa has obscured the struggles of Jackson and Igbinoghene, also first-round picks in 2020. Neither has distinguished himself through two seasons, and Igbinoghene played more snaps on special teams than defense in 2021. An O-line that’s struggled in recent reasons, particularly while trying to establish some semblance of a ground game, would certainly benefit if Jackson can solidify the right tackle post.
CB C.J. Henderson, Panthers and DE/OLB K’Lavon Chaisson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Both were top-20 picks for the Jags two years ago, but Henderson didn’t even make it through his second season – traded to Carolina with a fifth-rounder last September in return for a Round 3 selection and journeyman TE Dan Arnold. Henderson should benefit from more reps while the Panthers’ Jaycee Horn continues recovering from a 2021 foot injury, but he probably projects no better than CB3 behind Horn and Donte Jackson. Back in Jacksonville, Chaisson, who has two sacks in 31 games, hasn’t shed pre-draft concerns about being underpowered and may not make the 53-man roster. He’ll likely struggle to earn snaps behind Josh Allen and 2022 No. 1 pick Travon Walker.
LB Isaiah Simmons, Arizona Cardinals
The eighth overall pick in 2020, his copious pre-draft buzz centered on his immense versatility at Clemson. Yet as I reported from that year’s combine, sometimes being a jack of all trades means you might be master of none. Simmons has continued lining up all over the field for the Cards, routinely deployed on the edge and slot in addition to his base backer duties yet hasn’t remotely approached the impact he had in college.
LB Jordyn Brooks, Seattle Seahawks
Part of this franchise’s recent string of first-round overreaches – DE L.J. Collier just became the latest to have his fifih-year option declined – Brooks hasn’t flashed during his first two seasons but did rack up 184 tackles in 2021 (second in NFL), albeit for a 28th-ranked defense. But expectations and opportunity will converge in 2022, when Brooks inherits the unenviable task of taking over for departed Bobby Wagner, who deserves a first-ballot induction into Canton. Good luck, kid.
WR Jalen Reagor, Philadelphia Eagles
He’s never going to live down the infamy of being selected one spot ahead of Justin Jefferson in 2020, obviously no fault of Reagor’s. But it is up to him to salvage his NFL career after coach Nick Sirianni admitted Reagor is in a battle for the No. 4 receiver job. Oy … but hardly a surprise for a player who’s averaged fewer than three catches and 25 yards per game to date.
DL Jerry Tillery, Los Angeles Chargers
Another guy positioned to reach free agency a year early because he hasn’t fulfilled expectations, Tillery was among the culprits of a defense that ranked 30th against the run in 2021 and failed spectacularly when a playoff berth was in play Week 18 at Las Vegas. The Bolts brought in veteran DL Morgan Fox, Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson this offseason, a strong indication Tillery’s two-season stint as a starter may be over.
QB Jordan Love, Green Bay Packers
He’s already etched a place for himself in NFL lore as the man who rekindled Aaron Rodgers’ career. Of course, Love would like an opportunity and team to call his own, and there’s probably no longer a scenario where that occurs in Wisconsin. A first-round pick in 2020, Love was inactive during his entire rookie season and hardly distinguished himself during preseason or spot duty, including a forgettable Week 9 start at Kansas City, in 2021. But given Rodgers’ recent history of sitting out preseason entirely, this month might be Love’s best chance to impress other teams looking for a low-risk quarterback option or maybe even someone with more potential beyond 2022 than, say, Jimmy Garoppolo should an emergency arise. Brett Favre had an impressive list of understudies (Rodgers, Kurt Warner, Matt Hasselbeck, Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks) who graduated to varying degrees of stardom. Maybe Love can start that kind of tree for Rodgers … but he better not wait much longer to sprout.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL news rosters 2022: 22 former first-round picks who are on thin ice