Tue May 17 6:22pm ET
By DAVE CAMPBELL
AP Pro Football Writer
Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook laughs with his teammates as they take part in drills at the NFL football team's practice facility in Eagan, Minn., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter takes part in drills at the NFL football team's practice facility in Eagan, Minn., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Minnesota Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell directs his team in drills at the NFL football team's practice facility in Eagan, Minn., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Minnesota Vikings linebacker Za'Darius Smith takes part in drills at the NFL football team's practice facility in Eagan, Minn., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson takes part in drills at the NFL football team's practice facility in Eagan, Minn., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
EAGAN, Minn. (AP) Danielle Hunter became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 sacks, an athletic marvel for the Minnesota Vikings who was as durable as they come in this violent sport.
About 2 1/2 years later, with his gaudy sack total stalled out from consecutive injury-wrecked seasons, Hunter has found himself in sort of a reinvention mode.
After legitimate question about whether he'd return this year to the salary-cap-strapped Vikings, Hunter is not only back on the roster - and healthy - but flanked by a new pass-rushing pal on the opposite side of the defense in Za'Darius Smith.
''It kind of hurts just watching people play when you're not able to play, so I'm happy just to be back with my teammates,'' Hunter said Tuesday, after one of the 10 organized practices the Vikings are allowed this spring prior to mandatory minicamp.
The Vikings converted an $18 million roster bonus into a signing bonus to spread out the cap hit and thus lessen the burden of his contract this year, but there's another megadeal awaiting him as long as he doesn't succumb to more serious injuries. Whether that comes with the Vikings or another club has yet to be determined.
''He's a really great player, so you don't just move on from great players very easily,'' new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said in March.
Hunter befriended Smith, who was then with the rival Green Bay Packers, at the Pro Bowl after the 2019 season when they were teammates on the NFC squad. Their relationship goes back to the 2015 draft class as products of the mighty SEC, with Hunter out of LSU and Smith from Kentucky.
The Vikings made Smith, who is coming off a major back injury that limited him to one game in 2021, their top signing in free agency with a contract worth up to $47 million over three years.
''Just to be able to be here and have a chance to be on the opposite side of him is wonderful, man. I just can't wait,'' Smith said.
Hunter is officially an outside linebacker now, no longer listed as a defensive end as the Vikings switch their base scheme from a 4-3 to the 3-4 alignment Smith played in with the Packers.
As Hunter was quick to note Tuesday in his first interview session with reporters since last Sept. 29, the Vikings lined up in a 3-4 defense often at Arizona on Sept. 19 to try to contain dual threat quarterback Kyler Murray. Hunter had three sacks in that game. So he's not concerned about a significant transition, from working out of a three-point stance to standing up on the edge.
His primary focus these days is just relishing being back on the field again. After a herniated disk in his neck required surgery and sidelined him for the entire 2020 season, Hunter was back in his usual form until he tore a pectoral muscle during the Oct. 31 game against Dallas. After a three-month rehabilitation, he said, he was back to normal strength.
''Anything can happen out there while I'm playing, you know?'' Hunter said. ''I love the game of football. That's why I'm here. If I didn't like it, I wouldn't be here.''
Seattle Seahawks tight end Noah Fant was acquired this offseason as part of a blockbuster trade featuring superstar quarterback Russell Wilson. The former 2019 first-round pick was a highly touted prospect entering the league, given his athleticism and opportunity to be a downfield threat. While he showed flashes in Denver, his career-highs of 68 receptions, 670 yards and only four touchdowns left a lot to be desired. Recently described as having "the most spectacular camp of anybody" by head coach Pete Carroll, it's clear that Fant is making a strong impression with his new team. Despite the void left at quarterback, there will still be plenty of opportunity for Fant to emerge behind receivers DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett as a focal point for this offense, which could equate to a big year as a top-15 tight end in fantasy.
Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt struggled with injuries last season, limiting him to only eight games played. While still searching for a contract extension in an effort to remain a member of the Browns organization, it's good to know that health is no longer a concern for Hunt, who says "he feels 100%." Regardless of who ultimately ends up behind center, there are 181 vacated targets with minimal proven receiving options on the roster, creating a real opportunity for Hunt. After finishing as the RB10 in 2020 and RB8 in the first six games last season, Hunt has demonstrated his ability to produce and will again be a top-24 running back this year if he can stay healthy.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota was signed in free agency to be the team's new starter, replacing their long-time leader Matt Ryan. Mariota steps in after backing up Derek Carr for the Raiders the past two seasons, and he's hoping to regain his role as a starter in the NFL. Although his passing statistics were mediocre, he averaged 300-plus yards and three rushing touchdowns over his three seasons as a starter. While there has been concern about newly drafted quarterback Desmond Ridder, who the Falcons selected 74th overall, competing for the starting job, a recent report says Mariota is "far ahead" of Ridder and "injury would be the only way Ridder finds himself under center." This confirms the veteran's stranglehold on the role, which would make him an intriguing option as a streamer or second quarterback in two-quarterback/superflex leagues, given his rushing upside.
ESPN.com's Turron Davenport gives a 75% chance that Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Malik Willis sits all season behind Ryan Tannehill in 2022. Barring injury or some kind of catastrophic failure, Tannehill will take the bulk of the snaps this year. The Titans are taking a ground-up approach with Willis, first getting him used to calling plays in the huddle and working from under center. QB coach Pat O'Hara has also worked extensively with Willis to make adjustments to his mechanics to improve his accuracy. Tannehill has started every game since taking over as the starter in Week 6 of 2019, and the team is still in win-now mode. The Titans have loved what they've seen from Willis so far this offseason, but he remains a work in progress, so he should only be selected in dynasty/keeper drafts this fall.
Carolina Panthers rookie quarterback Matt Corral is unlikely to start in Week 1, as ESPN.com's David Newton gives him a 5% chance to start the season opener. The plan is to have a veteran, whether it be Sam Darnold or Baker Mayfield or someone else, start the year and keep Corral ready to take over if necessary. Corral is having to learn a completely different offensive language, and offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo said he'll be tough on Corral so he'll be ready when it's his time. With that said, there's a very good chance the 23-year-old won't sit all year, as Darnold hasn't proven much in four NFL seasons. Corral could get his chance early if Darnold struggles out of the gates, but with Carolina not having much receiving depth behind DJ Moore and Robby Anderson, it's hard to envision Corral being anything more than a low-end QB2 right away.
New England Patriots rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe will most likely be the team's third QB behind second-year man Mac Jones and veteran Brian Hoyer. It seems like a long shot that Zappe will challenge Hoyer for the backup job at this time, but Hoyer was also viewed in the same way back in 2009 when he was competing against Kevin O'Connell before winning the job. The Patriots took Zappe in the fourth round of this year's draft out of Western Kentucky. The 23-year-old threw for 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns in a historic senior season against weaker college competition. He's unlikely to be a difference-maker at the position because he lacks high-end arm strength and athleticism, but he could develop into a solid game manager because of his football IQ.
Washington Commanders rookie quarterback Sam Howell will enter the year as the team's No. 3 QB. Carson Wentz will be the starter, and the team considers Taylor Heinicke to be a high-end backup. But Heinicke is in the final year of his contract, so Howell has a chance to become the primary back in 2023. The Commanders also haven't had a quarterback start every game in a season since Kirk Cousins left after the 2017 campaign, and they've used at least three starters in each subsequent season. Howell slid to the fifth round of this year's draft after being a three-year starter for North Carolina. The 21-year-old won't wow anyone with his mobility, but he can make plays and should have some time to develop. Howell is unlikely to be on the fantasy radar in 2022, but he could be competing for a starting role sooner rather than later.
Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Cooper Kupp both pointed out second-year receiver Tutu Atwell's improvement this spring. Stafford said he's noticed that "everything" Atwell does "seems to be that much more intentional." The 22-year-old played only 10 offensive snaps last year but had a role on special teams before injuring his shoulder and being put on Injured Reserve in November. Kupp, Allen Robinson II and Van Jefferson are the Rams' top three receivers, but Atwell could play a role in his second NFL season after being drafted in the second round out of Louisville in 2021. Fantasy managers probably aren't taking Atwell, even in the late rounds of drafts, but he'll be one to watch this summer.
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jauan Jennings emerged as one of the team's most reliable targets on third down and in the red zone, but that didn't happen until late in the year. Jennings had 16 catches for 212 yards in the final five games, with 11 of those going for either a touchdown or a first down. He's carried that momentum into this offseason and has displayed an easy chemistry with quarterback Trey Lance that has made Jennings one of Lance's favorite red-zone targets. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said Jennings has had his best offseason since entering the league in 2020 as a seventh-rounder out of Tennessee. The 24-year-old finished last year with 24 receptions on 38 targets for 282 yards and five touchdowns in 16 games (one start). A third-year breakout could be coming, especially if San Francisco trades Deebo Samuel.
Seattle Seahawks former first-round defensive end/defensive tackle L.J. Collier has had an underwhelming start to his career, but defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said during organized team activities that Collier was having one of the best springs of any Seattle defender. Collier will be fighting for playing time in a defensive-line rotation that is crowded after offseason acquisitions of Shelby Harris and Quinton Jefferson, however. The 26-year-old former 29th overall pick in 2019 had his fifth-year option declined after recording just three sacks, 33 tackles (21 solo), five tackles for loss, 12 QB hits and three passes defensed in 37 games (16 starts) in his first three NFL seasons. Collier will be hoping to put some promising performances on tape this year for when he reaches free agency next March.
Dynasty | Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota has looked like the player who will be starting to begin the season Dynasty Analysis: Recent reports have been that rookie Desmond Ridder has been impressive but not enough to be under-center come week one. It's Mariota's job to lose but the veteran remains on a relatively team-friendly two-year contract, meaning there's little reason to expect the Falcons not to turn to Ridder if, or when, the team falls out of playoff contention. Found as DLF's QB36, it's obvious expectations for Marcus Mariota remain extremely low with little belief he's the answer beyond 2022.
Dynasty | Falcons rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder continues to impress this off-season Dynasty Analysis: While Ridder is checking all the boxes thus far, Marcus Mariota is still fully expected to be the starter come week one. Whether he can retain the job is another thing altogether as the veteran has a very team friendly contract which won't present much of a financial hurdle when the time comes to insert Ridder. Ridder is found as DLF's QB34, ahead of Mariota's QB36 ranking, showing that the full expectation that it's "when" and not "if" the rookie is starting at some point during the 2022 season.
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver T.J. Vasher, who was signed as an undrafted free agent last year, wasn't able to practice with the team due to a knee injury. However, he's put himself into the receiver conversation this offseason and got a lot of work in at organized team activities and minicamp. "He's made some really big-time flash plays, splash plays," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's had some really, particularly in the red zone, which you can see his ability down there. Big plays in scramble drills and things like that. I just think like any young player, particularly in his development, it's getting the details of the everyday situations." The 23-year-old has yet to play in an NFL game, and he'll need to continue to impress in training camp in order to win a spot on the 53-man roster.
New York Giants rookie fourth-round tight end Daniel Bellinger had plenty of opportunities with the first-team offense this spring and caught the ball well. Given the way he caught the ball and the way he was moving at organized team activities and minicamp, it's likely that he was underutilized at San Diego State. The Giants have an opening at the position, and Bellinger has a chance to make an impact in his first NFL season after making a strong impression this offseason. Ricky Seals-Jones and Jordan Akins are by no means proven at their position, so Bellinger could secure a pretty significant role eventually in 2022. It doesn't mean he's worth targeting late in drafts at the tight end position, but he's a player worth watching in training camp.
Philadelphia Eagles third-year wide receiver Quez Watkins made some splash plays this spring, including a 40-plus-yard touchdown catch during organized team activities from quarterback Jalen Hurts. The Eagles coaching staff has talked up Watkins every chance they get and believe he has the tools to be a highly productive receiver. However, finding consistent targets for him may be the only problem, with A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert all commanding looks in the offense. Watkins' fantasy appeal certainly took a hit when the team acquired Brown from the Titans, but he could be sneaky good with less attention from opposing defenses as the No. 3 wideout. The 24-year-old had 43 receptions on 62 targets for 647 yards and one touchdown in 17 games (12 starts) in his second NFL season in 2021.
Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell praised wide receiver Trinity Benson during minicamp as one of the players who is "having a hell of a spring." Benson has learned the team's playbook and elevated his confidence by adding speed to his skill set. The 25-year-old will still have to fight for a roster spot in training camp this summer alongside names like Kalif Raymond, Tom Kennedy and rookies Corey Sutton, Kalil Pimpleton and Josh Johnson. The Lions also signed DJ Chark Jr. in free agency and drafted Jameson Williams in the first round, so Benson will most likely be buried on the depth chart if he makes the team. Benson will probably need to stand out on special teams in order to make the 53-man roster.
Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Rashan Gary had as good a spring as anyone in an offseason in which the Packers did almost no full-speed 11-on-11 work. Gary looked lean and muscular and is coming off a career-best season in which he racked up 9.5 sacks and 28 quarterback hits. He was one of the few starters that stuck around through the end of organized team activities, saying, "I'm just here trying to get better." Green Bay exercised Gary's fifth-year option back in April after the 24-year-old stepped into a bigger role in 2021 due to Za'Darius Smith's back injury that kept him out nearly all season. Along with his 9.5 sacks, Gary had 47 tackles (27 solo) and two forced fumbles in 16 games played. He'll once again be asked to take on a big role with Smith now in Minnesota.
Minnesota Vikings rookie third-round linebacker Brian Asamoah's sideline-to-sideline speed was evident in non-contact practices this offseason, as was his confidence. He joked with an assistant coach that he wanted $5 every time he ran past someone. "I'm a rich man now," Asamoah said, "because I keep passing them." The 22-year-old was a two-year starter at Oklahoma, and he can play either linebacker or safety. It's not clear yet where he'll be used in Minnesota, but he probably won't be anything more than a rotational player on defense with versatility and speed to spare.
New Orleans Saints second-year defensive back Bryce Thompson earned his way onto ESPN.com's Mike Triplett's 53-man roster projection based on how often he flashed during organized team activities and minicamp practices, and how the Saints were working him into packages with both the first- and second-string defenses. Thompson had a strong summer as an undrafted rookie last year, but he started the year on Injured Reserve before appearing in two games on special teams. The 22-year-old's versatility as a safety/nickel/corner could earn him a role on the final roster out of training camp. At the very least, Thompson could provide some nice cornerback depth for New Orleans this season.
Arizona Cardinals running back Eno Benjamin has been taking advantage of his repetitions this offseason and has married his quickness, pass protection and receiving abilities into a player who could end up backing up James Conner in 2022. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury has raved about Benjamin this offseason. With Chase Edmonds leaving in free agency, Benjamin will be the front-runner to be Conner's backup when training camp starts at the end of July. The 23-year-old former seventh-rounder in 2020 will have to beat out Darrel Williams for the backup job, but if he does, he could be a valuable handcuff to Conner in fantasy. Benjamin didn't play at all in his rookie season, and he carried the ball just 34 times for 118 yards and a touchdown while adding six catches for 42 yards in nine games in 2021.