Surprise offseason standouts for 32 NFL teams: Players to watch

ByNFL Nation reporters ESPN logo
Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Throughout the NFL, there are rookies from the 2023 draft class looking to stake claims. There also are veterans who haven't had their taste of success and are looking to ascend, or maybe they have but appear ready for more than ever before.

Every team needs its players to make progress. Even the good ones. Teams improve when their average players become good and their good ones push toward being great.

We asked our NFL Nation reporters to pick a surprise offseason standout from each of the teams they cover. The answers vary from veterans to young players who haven't hit their ceilings to even an undrafted free agent looking to carry on a tradition out West.

All 32 of these players have caught the eyes of our reporters -- and their teams -- this offseason, showing they could play a bigger role than expected in 2023.

Jump to a team:




NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF



Buffalo Bills

WR Trent Sherfield

The ramifications of the Stefon Diggsminicamp drama could still be playing out, but a player who benefited from Diggs not taking part in OTAs and parts of minicamp was Sherfield, one of the Bills' acquisitions to add depth to the receiver room. Sherfield got increased opportunities as the Z receiver for quarterback Josh Allen with Diggs not present and made an impression in that time, with Allen saying of Sherfield during OTAs, "I've loved what I've seen from Trent so far; the dude works extremely hard. He's one of the hardest-working guys on the team. Doesn't complain about anything. He's rolling right now." -- Alaina Getzenberg

Miami Dolphins

RB Devon Achane

The rookie third-round pick has already looked like one of the Dolphins' more explosive offensive players -- although his practice production should be taken with a grain of salt until the pads go on. Even in non-padded team drills, Achane showed prowess as a pass-catcher and home run ability after the catch. It's a crowded running back room in Miami, but it may not be long before the rookie has a prominent role. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques

New England Patriots

LB/S Marte Mapu

It wasn't even certain the third-round pick from Sacramento State would be on the field as he recovers from a torn right pectoral muscle sustained in February. But Mapu practiced in a red noncontact jersey and played everywhere from linebacker to safety, and on one day intercepted backup quarterbackBailey Zappe and broke up multiple other passes. His versatility and instincts have been recognized by teammates. "He runs like a free safety, but he stands like a linebacker or an edge player. He can play on all three levels," outside linebacker Matthew Judon said. -- Mike Reiss

New York Jets

OT Max Mitchell

The 2022 fourth-round pick, who missed time last season with a knee sprain and a hereditary blood clotting condition, rebounded with a strong offseason. Mitchell, who started five games in 2022 at right tackle, will compete for that job in training camp. He was in the midst of a solid rookie year when clots were discovered in one of his lungs and his right calf, ending his season. He can manage the condition with medication, which will allow him to continue his career. -- Rich Cimini


Baltimore Ravens

WR Nelson Agholor

Agholor, a first-rounder in 2015, is on his fourth team in five years, but he has made a strong impression in his first offseason with the Ravens. "Nelly" -- as Lamar Jackson calls him -- has repeatedly stood out, whether it's a long touchdown grab or a nifty grab on a back-shoulder throw. Agholor is the clear-cut No. 4 wide receiver in Baltimore, but he's making a case for having a bigger role in the passing game.

"He has been on point," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's a talented guy. [He's a] former first-round pick; he looks it -- rangy, big catch radius." -- Jamison Hensley

Cincinnati Bengals

CB Sidney Jones IV

Jones finished the team's offseason workouts with a nice minicamp showing. Most notably, he was in position to intercept a pass intended for wideoutTee Higgins during a 7-on-7 period. It's a great sign for a Bengals secondary that signed Jones for veteran depth behind cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie, Cam Taylor-Britt and Mike Hilton. -- Ben Baby

Cleveland Browns

WR Marquise Goodwin

The Browns made a couple of noteworthy moves to upgrade their receiving corps this offseason, trading for Elijah Moore and drafting Cedric Tillman in the third round. Yet another under-the-radar addition, the 32-year-old Goodwin, dominated Cleveland's minicamp, flashing the downfield wheels that could make him an intriguing weapon for quarterbackDeshaun Watson.

When asked about Goodwin's speed, Watson said, "It opens up other guys underneath ... the run game and also the intermediate and short game." Goodwin won't be a primary option, but he could be an impactful one. -- Jake Trotter

Pittsburgh Steelers

TE/FB Connor Heyward

Entering his second season, the younger brother of Steelers defensive tackleCameron Heywardis primed for an even bigger role. He made the most of playing 15% of offensive snaps last season, catching 12 of 17 targets and hauling in a touchdown. His chemistry with quarterback Kenny Pickett continued through the spring, and with Derek Watt's departure, Heyward could fill the role as the team's primary fullback and see time as an undersized yet strong tight end. -- Brooke Pryor


Houston Texans

CB Derek Stingley Jr.

Stingley, the No. 3 overall pick in last year's draft,looks physically improved compared to his rookie year.His ability has jumped out consistently throughout the spring. He was drafted one spot ahead of the eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year Sauce Gardner, who was also first-team All-Pro. The comparison between the two won't stop, but if this momentum continues for Stingley, he can have a big year.-- DJ Bien-Aime

Indianapolis Colts

S Julian Blackmon

Blackmon was around the ball in OTAs, a sign he still possesses the playmaking ability the Colts drafted him for in Round 3 in 2020. But it also provides evidence that Blackmon's move from free safety to strong safety is well conceived. The Colts changed from a split safety to single-high safety concept last season, making Blackmon less impactful at his former position.

Indianapolis has moved him to strong safety, where his instincts and tackling ability might be seen on a more regular basis. The permanent move of Blackmon also allows the Colts to keep 2022 seventh-round pick Rodney Thomas II on the field (at free safety) after his surprising rookie season. -- Stephen Holder

Jacksonville Jaguars

LB K'Lavon Chaisson

With edge rusherJosh Allen skipping OTAs, Chaisson got a lot more work. The coaching staff noticed a difference in the 2020 first-round pick. Assistants Brentson Buckner (defensive line) and Bill Shuey (outside linebackers) said they're expecting Chaisson to be one of the most improved players on the team.

"I look forward to him having a big year this year," Buckner said. Chaisson has three sacks and seven tackles for loss in 40 career games. -- Michael DiRocco

Tennessee Titans

WR Treylon Burks

There's a different swagger with Burks, who reported to the facility with a noticeably leaner build. The 2022 first-round pick is playing at a different speed from his rookie season. Burks said the difference this season is he is in better shape, and the numerous plays he has made during OTAs/minicamp are evidence. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has faith to throw Burks' way regardless of whether he is wide open or in tight coverage. -- Turron Davenport


Denver Broncos

RB Jaleel McLaughlin

McLaughlin, an undrafted rookie who had more than 8,000 rushing yards in a five-year career at Youngstown State, showed speed, vision and decisiveness in the no-pads portion of the Denver offseason program. He's undersized -- 5-foot-7, 187 pounds -- but his potential as a runner is clear, especially if he shows that same one-cut, foot-in-the-ground decisiveness when the pads go on.

Yes, spring is the time folks in the NFL say they're in the best shape of their lives, but if McLaughlin flashes in training camp, he could be the leading candidate to keep the team's roll going with undrafted rookies. The Broncos have had an undrafted rookie make the cutdown to 53 players in 18 of the previous 19 years.-- Jeff Legwold

Kansas City Chiefs

RB Deneric Prince

Prince, a rookie undrafted free agent, took advantage of a thin running back depth chart and stood out as a receiver during offseason practice, making several difficult catches. With Isiah Pacheco recovering from offseason surgery, Prince has a chance to claim not only a roster spot but some playing time if he shows an aptitude for pass protection at training camp. -- Adam Teicher

Las Vegas Raiders

LB Divine Deablo

The third-year linebacker, a converted safety, has been granted the "green dot" on his helmet as the defensive signal-caller. This comes after he played just eight games last season due to a broken right arm suffered at Jacksonville. Still, his 74 tackles at the time of his season-ending injury led Las Vegas and were tied for eighth most in the league at the time.

"Honestly, it makes myself proud because when I was younger I played quarterback," said Deablo, who has noticeably bulked up. "So now, being the green dot is like quarterback of the defense, so it puts a smile on my face." -- Paul Gutierrez

Los Angeles Chargers

TE Donald Parham Jr.

The Chargers were expected to add a tight end in the draft, but after three days and seven picks, none was selected. Coach Brandon Staley at the time expressed confidence in the ability of Parham, who re-signed on a two-year, $1.4 million contract. Parham spent significant time sidelined last season because of a hamstring injury but flashed during 7-on-7 play at the Bolts' two-day minicamp, highlighted by a deep catch down the sideline from quarterback Justin Herbert.

"He moves so well for his height," Herbert said of the 6-foot-8 Parham. "He's been able to make plays over the past couple of years. It's always a bonus for your team when he's out on the field. His catch radius is huge." -- Lindsey Thiry


Dallas Cowboys

CB Eric Scott Jr.

The rookie sixth-round pick worked some with the first-team defense during the offseason with Trevon Diggs in and out of workouts and Nahshon Wright dealing with a minor knee issue. Scott impressed defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

"When you see a guy wanting the moment to go compete, like, you know, I'm balling my fists up and saying, 'I ain't leaving here,' that's what I'm looking for specifically for the rookies," Quinn said. "That kind of mindset and attitude is really what it takes for a young player to assert themselves into these moments because that responsibility is really to say, 'Hey, man, can we count on you when it's there?' Them learning to do that early on, that's a big deal, knowing that like the amount of work that goes into to say, 'I'm down for this challenge.' I've seen that from Eric so far." -- Todd Archer

New York Giants

TE Darren Waller

It took all of one play to see the difference Waller can make for this offense. On the first play of OTAs with the media in attendance, Waller blew by the nickel cornerback and caught a deep ball down the right sideline. It was the first of many plays in which Waller stood out because of his size and explosiveness. Most importantly, he looked healthy after two injury-plagued seasons. That's the key. The Giants acquired Waller for a third-round pick in March.-- Jordan Raanan

Philadelphia Eagles

LB Christian Elliss

The third-year player out of Idaho made several highlight plays this spring, including intercepting Jalen Hurts and returning it for a touchdown during 7-on-7 drills on the final day of OTAs. Having lost both starting linebackers in free agency this offseason, it would be a welcome development for the Eagles if Elliss can contribute along with current projected starters Nakobe Dean and Nicholas Morrow. -- Tim McManus

Washington Commanders

LB Khaleke Hudson

Hudson, a backup/special-teamer in his first three seasons, worked with the starters during the spring in part because Jamin Davis was recovering from offseason knee surgery and free agent signee Cody Barton was working with the backups as he learned the defense. Hudson impressed the coaches, however, building on a successful start in the regular-season finale. He played fast this spring -- as he did in the finale against Dallas. While Washington entered the offseason wanting to improve its linebacker depth, Hudson's one-game performance, as well as this spring, put that quest on hold. -- John Keim


Chicago Bears

CB Tyrique Stevenson

This shouldn't come as too much of a surprise given Stevenson was drafted in the second round, but the rookie quickly grabbed hold of first-team reps this spring and looks primed to start opposite Jaylon Johnson. The former Miami standout's confidence is "a little bit ahead" of that of a typical rookie, according to coach Matt Eberflus, which has helped solidify the Bears' secondary. The corner made a handful of plays, including an interception in OTAs, while impressing coaches with how fast he has picked up the defense.

"Really excited about how in two days he's kind of figured out some of the concepts we try to teach and understand those," cornerbacks coach Jon Hoke said. -- Courtney Cronin

Detroit Lions

S Ifeatu Melifonwu

Injuries have limited Melifonwu to just 17 total games in his first two seasons, but coach Dan Campbell says he has seen growth in the 2021 third-round pick. Melifonwu made the switch from cornerback to safety ahead of his second season, and entering Year 3, he is making serious progress in adapting to the position.

"So, this is one of the few times that we've had him for a significant amount of time, consistently, consecutively, and so that in itself is paying dividends right now," Campbell said during minicamp. "So, we see growth. ... He just needs time. He needs time on task, he needs reps, like a lot of young guys do." -- Eric Woodyard

Green Bay Packers

WR Romeo Doubs

While Christian Watson got most of the attention for his big plays late last season, Doubs has seemingly become quarterbackJordan Love's go-to guy -- at least in the offseason practices. Whether it's in scripted team periods or move-the-ball drills like the two-minute simulation, Doubs has been targeted time and again. Don't forget, it was Doubs who starred last preseason when Love got all the No. 1 reps in the games because Aaron Rodgers didn't play. And Doubs was off to a strong start last year as a rookie until a midseason ankle injury changed his trajectory. -- Rob Demovsky

Minnesota Vikings

DB Josh Metellus

The most interesting part of Metellus' spring was the clear effort the Vikings' new defensive staff made to find him a place to play. A backup safety and special teams ace in his first three seasons, Metellus worked extensively as the slot cornerback in the Vikings' nickel set. Harrison Smith and Cam Bynum appear set as the starting safeties, but Metellus looked comfortable at nickel, and it's clear the Vikings hope to see him on the field regularly this fall. -- Kevin Seifert


Atlanta Falcons

WR Josh Ali

In Atlanta's wide-open receiver room after Drake London, it is an almost-unknown player who has stood out. Ali, who was on the practice squad last season after suffering a knee injury late in his college career at Kentucky, worked a bunch in 2022 with Falcons starting quarterbackDesmond Ridder. That chemistry has shown, and Ali has gotten work with the veterans, usually a good sign for a player with 14 career snaps and one career target.

Will he make the team? It's unclear. Has he put himself in a potential position out of spring? Quite possibly. -- Michael Rothstein

Carolina Panthers

OLB Marquis Haynes Sr.

Nobody stood out more in Carolina's quest to find an edge rusher opposite Brian Burns than the sixth-year player. He constantly was in the face of rookie quarterback Bryce Young, who said Haynes has "been great." Carolina still likely will add a veteran edge rusher, but what Haynes has shown coming off a season in which he had a career-high five sacks has to make coach Frank Reich & Co. more comfortable. -- David Newton

New Orleans Saints

TE Foster Moreau

Moreau isn't exactly an unknown quantity after four seasons and 12 touchdowns with the Raiders. Nobody quite knew when Moreau would be returning to football, however, after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in the offseason. It would be impossible to know that detail based on his play in OTAs and minicamp. Moreau was a frequent target of quarterback Derek Carr throughout practice and participated in 11-on-11 drills without limitations.He worked with both the first and second team during OTAs and could compete with Juwan Johnson for snaps as the team's No. 1 or No. 2 tight end.-- Katherine Terrell

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

LB SirVocea Dennis

A rookie fifth-round pick known more for his pass-rushing ability than his coverage skills at Pitt, Dennis had two pick-sixes in offseason practices -- one in rookie camp, then one off Kyle Trask in minicamp. He's battling with K.J. Britt for the third inside linebacker job behind Devin White and Lavonte David. For a defense that has struggled to get interceptions, it certainly got my attention. -- Jenna Laine


Arizona Cardinals

WR Michael Wilson

The rookie third-rounder has impressed his coaches and teammates with his route running and talent. Wilson benefited from DeAndre Hopkins not taking part in any of the voluntary workouts before he was released and Marquise Brown not being involved much this offseason, either. That led to him getting a significant number of reps, which has helped him climb the depth chart to a point where he could be a factor in Arizona's offense from Day 1 of the season. -- Josh Weinfuss

Los Angeles Rams

WR Puka Nacua

Nacua, a fifth-round draft pick from BYU, earned steady praise from coach Sean McVay, quarterback Matthew Stafford and fellow wideout Cooper Kupp. Nacua seems to have picked up the offense quickly and has a knack for getting open, which bodes well for carving out a role in a receiving corps that lacks certainty behind Kupp. -- Dan Greenspan

San Francisco 49ers

WR Brandon Aiyuk

It's not really a surprise to say the team's leading receiver was a standout in the offseason program. But the extent to which Aiyuk seems ready to elevate his game might catch some people off guard. There's a good argument to be made he was consistently the best player on the field during OTAs and minicamp, as his performance left fellow wideoutDeebo Samuel marveling that "you can't cover that boy in a phone booth" and cornerback Deommodore Lenoir declaring that Aiyuk will be a top-five receiver in the NFL in 2023. -- Nick Wagoner

Seattle Seahawks

CB Mike Jackson

After a solid showing as a first-year starter in 2022, Jackson seemed destined for a backup role when the Seahawks spent the No. 5 overall pick on Devon Witherspoon. He's making a strong case to remain a regular on defense, however, perhaps as the third corner. With Tariq Woolen sidelined following arthroscopic knee surgery, Jackson has been working with the No. 1 defense and had the best spring of any Seahawk, according to coach Pete Carroll, who called him "almost dominant." -- Brady Henderson

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