George Pickens, Nate Hobbs Among Stars to Watch in NFL Preseason

2022 NFL preseason: 10 breakout stars to watch out for originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

NFL training camp is the perfect time for players to make an early impression with their head coach. 

That goes for rookies getting their first taste of the pros, emerging players looking to climb the depth chart and players coming off disappointing or injury-riddled seasons. And, of course, for fringe players hoping to secure the 53rd and final roster spot. 

­With many teams set to kick off the 2022 NFL preseason, here are 10 players who have made strong impressions so far:

George Pickens, Pittsburgh Steelers, WR

The former Georgia wideout dropped in the 2022 draft after suffering a torn ACL last spring, falling into the second round at No. 52 overall. It didn't take long for him to show teams they might have made a big mistake. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound receiver has made a series of highlight-reel plays, none better than his one-handed catch in the end zone while being tightly covered.

"Definitely, George has stood out," Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky told CBS Sports. "The type of catches he's made, his ability to separate and go up and catch the football."

Gabriel Davis, Buffalo Bills, WR

Last time we saw Davis, he was setting a record for the most receiving touchdowns in an NFL playoff game, catching five in the epic showdown between the Bills and Chiefs in the divisional round. 

The third-year receiver, who had 35 receptions for 549 yards and six touchdowns in the regular season last year, picked up where he left off in the postseason. During Buffalo's recent scrimmage, he consistently got open against the Bills secondary and finished with five catches for 76 yards and two touchdowns.  

Nate Hobbs, Las Vegas Raiders, CB

The second-year cornerback has willingly accepted a challenge at training camp: lining up against star wide receiver Davante Adams. Hobbs, a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, has held his own against the Raiders' prized offseason acquisition, according to Vincent Bonsignore of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Highlights included Hobbs making a goal-line stop on Adams on one play and batting down a pass on another. Hobbs, who played slot cornerback last season, has been listed as one of two starting cornerbacks on the Raiders' depth chart so far. 

Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers, WR

The third-year wideout received high praise from his teammate on the opposite side of the ball. 

"I feel like he's having the best camp out of everybody on the team both offense and defense," 49ers safety Jimmie Ward said of Aiyuk. "Well, OK ... besides [Nick] Bosa. Bosa going to be Bosa. But I'm just saying, BA is taking his game to another level. It's crazy."

During training camp last season, Aiyuk fell out of favor with coach Kyle Shanahan. That carried into the regular season before the first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft saw an increase in targets midway through the season. He finished with 56 catches for 826 yards and five touchdowns.  

Romeo Doubs, Green Bay Packers, WR

The Packers sure could use a young wide receiver to step up following Adams' departure. Doubs seems up for it. The 22-year-old, who was selected by the Packers in the fourth round of the 2022 NFL Draft, has used his elite speed to make quite a first impression at training camp. He has even impressed the league's reigning MVP. 

"Every single day, there's been at least one 'wow' play from him. That's kind of rare for a young guy like that," Aaron Rodgers told reporters. "Now, we've had some guys over the years do that, but they're all in the top 10 in Packers receiving history." 

Isiah Pacheco, Kansas City Chiefs, RB

The rookie running back out of Rutgers seems to be working his way onto the Chiefs' depth chart and into the hearts and minds of fantasy football owners. As a seventh-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft after producing a 4.37 40-yard dash time, Pacheco has been getting reps with the starters and generating plenty of hype at camp.

“You’re guaranteed he’s going to run hard,” Andy Reid recently told reporters. “That’s what he’s going to do.”

With uncertainty in the Kansas City backfield due to Clyde Edwards-Helaire's inability to stay healthy and Ronald Jones’ one-year contract, Pacheco has the potential to shakeup the Chiefs' depth chart. He also has been handling kick-return duties in camp, which gives him an alternative route to a roster spot.   

Zion Johnson, Los Angeles Chargers, OG

The Chargers have invested plenty in pass protection for quarterback Justin Herbert. One year after selecting left tackle Rashawn Slater with the No. 13 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, they used the No. 17 pick in the 2022 draft to take Johnson, an interior lineman out of Boston College projected to be the Chargers' starting right guard. Johnson has had some solid reps in camp, drawing praise from his teammates on the line, per Jeff Miller of The Los Angeles Times

“He’s got a ton of raw talent,” veteran center Corey Linsley said. “You can see he’s already put a lot together. I’m excited to play next to him.”

Desmond Ridder, Atlanta Falcons, QB

Could there be a quarterback controversy in Atlanta? Ridder, the Falcons’ third-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, was the second quarterback selected behind Kenny Pickett, who was picked by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round. He has drawn early praise from coach Arthur Smith for quickly absorbing the playbook.  

“He’s light years ahead of most other young quarterbacks from the neck up,” Smith said.

It's from the neck down that Ridder will have to prove he is a starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL, with questions lingering about his arm strength, but he seems to have aced the mental portion of his first NFL offseason. We'll see if that's enough to steal the starting job from Marcus Mariota.  

Eno Benjamin, Arizona Cardinals, RB

The third-year running back seems to be closing in on the second spot on the Cardinals' depth chart behind James Conner and ahead of Darrel Williams. With Chase Edmonds having left Arizona to join the Miami Dolphins, opportunity knocked for Benjamin, a seventh-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. He didn't play his rookie season and had just 34 carries for 118 yards and a touchdown in nine games during his sophomore season.    

Nakobe Dean, Philadelphia Eagles, LB

The rookie linebacker already might be green-dot material. The helmet with the green dot, of course, is worn by the player with a headset to communicate with coaches. Big responsibility for a 21-year-old, who fell to the Eagles in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft despite being one of the anchors of a strong Georgia defense. 

"He’s already learning both the Mike and Will positions, and if all goes according to plan, his versatility and intelligence — and ability — mean he’s going to play most of the defensive snaps," wrote Reuben Frank of NBC Sports Philadelphia. "If Dean does start, he’ll be the Eagles’ youngest defensive starter since safety Joe Scarpati in 1964 — by about three months."

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