It's time for a public service announcement, the likes of which I feel obligated to issue every year around this time: Beware of reports about how great any football player looks in May, especially those who have yet to fulfill their promise to this point.
We are about to enter peak OTA periods. And with no real football going on, far too much will be made in many instances about faux football. Legions of players, we will come to find, are in the best shape of their life. They have put the past behind them. They look primed for a big step forward. The buzz is almost palpable.
Of course, this is difficult enough to discern in July and August, when full-padded practices and exhibition games can often end up looking like fool's gold when it comes to breakthrough players. Players going from busts to bursts. Rotational players about to win prominent starting positions. All of that good stuff. Yes, there are certainly situations around the league of some individuals who have shed extra weight, transformed their bodies, and who might be trending upward, but when it comes to actual production and projections and making determinations about who might be on the come, we are so far removed from anything resembling actual football that I find myself cringing about some receiver who caught 10 passes in a glorified walkthrough, or which running back looked more elusive than ever dancing through defenses that can't touch him if they tried.
But that doesn't mean that there aren't some players I will be watching very closely over the summer to gauge their progress. There are undoubtedly a handful of emerging players, still early in their careers, who I believe could be poised for much bigger things in 2022. Not because of anything they might do in shorts and cleats in the month of May or June, but more because of what they have flashed to this point and the circumstances around them this season that could turn in their favor.
Here are a few:
Gabriel Davis, Bills
Who didn't like what this kid put on film in the playoffs? How about putting up over 200 yards and four touchdowns against the Chiefs? That will go a long way to building up more currency and volume in targets from Josh Allen. You cannot defend everyone in this offense and Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders moving on should work in his favor, too. Davis looks like the No. 2 receiver to me, someone who can make strides on the outside and is more than a one-game wonder.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Browns
A "hybrid" defender can end up sounding better in theory than in practice quite often in this league. Jack of all trades, but master of none. An off ball linebacker/safety who doesn't make enough plays on the ball – in flight or in someone else's hands – to merit where he was selected or how much he was paid. But JOK is the real deal. When healthy, his impact was significant for a defense still in need of game-changers.
Kwity Paye, Colts
Sure, the 2021 class of draft pass rushers was not nearly as deep or robust as the options at the top of this year's draft. But Paye was the best of that bunch ("Kwity Paye and then hope and pray," is how one evaluator put it to me leading up to that draft). I believe new coordinator Gus Bradley will cut Paye loose more this season and I can see him making a more consistent impact after flashing some good stuff as a rookie.
Irv Smith Jr., Vikings
I was super high on this young man making the leap a year ago and he was well on his way until a season-ending injury wiped it all out before it began. He was starting to form a bond with Kirk Cousins. He was putting his hands and athleticism together. He remains the only real tight end on the roster, and he will have a chance to feature in what should be a very explosive offense. I believe new coach Kevin O'Connell will help him tap into his potential.
Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins
I love the track team assembled around him. I buy that this young QB is in fact the same kid who set records at Alabama and had teams tanking for him. The madness of playing under dueling offensive coordinators -- or mystery coordinators or whatever the hell Brian Flores was trying to do on the offensive staff -- is behind him. It's a fresh start under Mike McDaniel. The pass-catchers will get a ton of YAC. The offensive line is much improved. They will run the ball. Tua won't have to be super flashy to be very effective. I like the fit.
Rashod Bateman, Ravens
He is in position to be the lead dog of this receiving group by a large margin. Trading Hollywood Brown will prove to be addition by subtraction in part because of Bateman's superior frame, hands, strength and catch radius. Lamar Jackson does his best work with bigger targets and Bateman will have every chance to shine in the red zone. Even if Baltimore does lean back into more 13 personnel (like they did in Jackson's MVP season of 2019), this kid will be on the field in all critical situations. Don't get caught up in the yardage (the Ravens will run the ball more than anyone else); I could see double-digit TD totals.