The Schein Nine

Which NFL players will level up in '22? CeeDee Lamb, Pat Surtain, Jalen Hurts top my GUARANTEED risers

Spring is the season of renewal. And summer, at least in the NFL, is the season of hope. In the macro sense, every team's optimistic about the coming campaign. On the micro level, individual players are buzzing about their fall prospects.

Everyone's looking to level up, whether that means living up to draft pedigree, becoming an integral starter for a competitor or emerging as The Next Big Thing.

Indianapolis Colts WR Michael Pittman Jr. is on board with this mentality.

"I'm just trying to take the next step," Pittman recently said, per the Indy Star. "Last year, I said that I was going to double every single category, and I did that. This year, I'm trying to build on that and become that definite receiver No. 1 that everybody talks about."

I think Pittman's onto something -- and he's not alone. In the idealistic spirit of the season, I'm spotlighting nine players who are guaranteed to improve in 2022.

1
CeeDee Lamb
Dallas Cowboys · WR

Amari Cooper is off to Cleveland. And Lamb has the chops to be the unequivocal WR1 for "America's Team," conveniently wearing the Cowboys' iconic No. 88 jersey. Lamb has been really good his first two NFL campaigns -- racking up 74 catches for 935 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie and then posting a 79/1,102/6 line this past season -- but now he's in position to take his game to the next level. And Lamb's champing at the bit to seize this opportunity as Dak Prescott's go-to guy.


"I've been ready," the 23-year-old said last month. "That's just me and my competitiveness. That's in my nature. It's kind of how we grew up playing football. I'm always ready for my name to be called."


I hear that! In Year 3, I see Lamb eclipsing 100 catches and 1,300 yards. Double-digit touchdowns? Check! This cat has the hands, the size, the play-making ability and the mindset for the task. I can't wait to see him truly take the league by storm.


Prior to the 2020 NFL Draft -- where the Cowboys ultimately stole Lamb at No. 17 overall -- the wide receiver came on my SiriusXM Radio show and stressed how much he lives for the big moments. The stage is yours, CeeDee. Time to shine.

2
Patrick Surtain II
Denver Broncos · CB

The Broncos are back! Future Hall of Famer Russell Wilson changes everything for a franchise in the midst of a six-year playoff drought. The Randy Gregory signing gives the defense an established edge menace opposite Bradley Chubb. But I think Surtain's development into an upper-echelon cornerback can make this team complete.


Don't get me wrong: The No. 9 overall pick was a stud in Year 1, picking off four passes and earning a spot on the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team. But that was only the beginning. I think the world of Surtain. He can be a first team All-Pro sooner than later. There's a reason QB-needy Denver passed on Justin Fields and Mac Jones in favor of the highly pedigreed cornerback. Now they have Russ at QB1 and a polished technician at CB1. Surtain's ball skills -- he also had 14 pass breakups -- are special. In Year 2, he's going to become a true lockdown cover man, which will be crucial for the Broncos, given the high quality of quarterback play in the AFC West.

3
Jalen Hurts
Philadelphia Eagles · QB

I believe. I love the arm, the smarts, the athleticism. And now I love the talent around him, with A.J. Brown joining DeVonta Smith to comprise quite a 1-2 punch at wide receiver. Brown's catch-and-run ability and Smith's pristine route-running will mitigate Hurts' inaccuracy issues. And now that the quarterback has a full year's experience as an NFL starter -- as well as coaching continuity, with head man Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen back for Year 2 -- I think his clutch play will skyrocket.


Hurts is a winner and a natural born leader. This fall, I see him guiding the Eagles to an NFC East title. And you better believe this team will be a tough out in January.

4
A.J. Dillon
Green Bay Packers · RB

The Packers are always a Super Bowl contender because they employ the most talented quarterback in football history. You know, the back-to-back reigning league MVP? But in the wake of Davante Adams' exit, Aaron Rodgers' receiving corps is seriously lacking. Consequently, I see Matt LaFleur leaning more on his talented backfield. Aaron Jones has already established himself as a Pro Bowl-caliber back, but Dillon actually paced the 2021 Packers in rushing yards (803) and rushing touchdowns (five). And the 6-foot, 247-pounder also proved surprisingly proficient in the passing game last season, catching 34 balls for 313 yards and two more scores.


I get the sense Rodgers loves Dillon -- and particularly appreciates how the bruising back is built for stretch run, when Lambeau Field's climate becomes an increasingly bigger factor. Jones will continue to get his, because he's an all-around stud with a career average of 5.1 yards per carry, but I envision Dillon producing some big numbers. Can he flirt with 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns? Sure, I could see it. The winningest team in football over the past three years will continue to pile up Ws in 2022, and Dillon will be a big reason why.

5
Michael Pittman
Indianapolis Colts · WR

As covered in the intro above, Pittman's recent comments were the impetus for this edition of the Schein Nine. Fresh off his first 1,000-yard season in 2021, the third-year pro feels he's a legit No. 1 receiver, whether folks realize it or not.


"Everybody has their own definition," Pittman said. "I think I am that (No. 1 receiver). I've just got to go ahead and prove that to other people, with whatever they think it is, whether it's yards, touchdowns, whatever. I'm just trying to make that next jump."


I trust him to do so. After all, the man's been on this track to stardom for quite some time now. He has the NFL bloodlines. He understands the game. He arrived at USC as a highly touted recruit and left as a highly decorated All-American. Pittman is reliable in every aspect of the receiver position, a true pro's pro. And now he has a former MVP throwing him the football. Matt Ryan will take Pittman and the Colts to the next level.

6
Gabriel Davis
Buffalo Bills · WR

No Cole Beasley? No Emmanuel Sanders? No problem. It is Gabriel Davis' time to play Robin to Stefon Diggs' Batman. And shoot, sometimes the Boy Wonder will take the leading role. Remember the last time we saw these Bills in action? Davis posted a playoff-record four touchdown catches, finishing with eight total grabs for 201 yards in a narrow loss to the Chiefs. This guy's the truth, with 18 touchdowns in 37 career games (including the playoffs). He's a big-bodied deep threat with stellar hands. No wonder his quarterback loves him.


Whenever I interview Josh Allen, the star quarterback raves about Davis, describing the young wideout as "ultra-positive" and "impressive." I think the football world -- and especially the fantasy fiends -- will share in Allen's love for Davis this fall, when the 23-year-old's numbers skyrocket.

7
Evan Engram
Jacksonville Jaguars · TE

Many Giants fans call the former first-round pick a bust. Fair enough. While Engram did make a Pro Bowl, big drops and inconsistency plagued the speedy tight end throughout his five-year tenure with Big Blue. But I think this has all the makings of a classic change-of-scenery breakout, with Engram moving from the cauldron of New York City down to Duval County. In Jacksonville, Engram gets to play with Trevor Lawrence and for Doug Pederson -- that's a win for all parties involved.


Tight end is one of the slower-developing positions at the NFL level, and I think Engram is poised to realize his potential in his new locale. With legit 4.4 speed at 6-3, 240 pounds, the former No. 23 overall pick is the kind of mismatch specimen every team covets. A fresh start with Jags will treat him very well. The best is yet to come.

8
Marquise Brown
Arizona Cardinals · WR

There's a case to be made that the Ravens are the best organization, pound for pound, in the entire NFL. So when Eric DeCosta calls about a trade, maybe opposing teams should begin acting like it's John Schuerholz peddling a Braves pitcher or Jerry West pitching a Lakers swingman: Just hang up the phone! But I'll go against my better judgment here and say that Arizona's draft-day trade for Brown will pay off for the Cardinals.


Maybe Brown didn't live up to his first-round pedigree in Baltimore. But he still scored 21 touchdowns in three seasons and just eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark this past year. That was in the Ravens' run-first offense, to boot -- a system that obviously disenchanted the play-making wideout. I love his fit in Kliff Kingsbury's offense, which is similar to Lincoln Riley's Oklahoma attack that saw Brown and Kyler Murray make sweet music together back in 2018. Reunited in Arizona, these two Sooners could pick up right where they left off four years ago, when Murray won the Heisman Trophy.


Brown will have the opportunity to hit the ground running as the Cardinals' top receiving threat, with DeAndre Hopkins suspended for the first six games of the season. I think "Hollywood" takes a major step forward.

9
Andrew Thomas
New York Giants · OT

The No. 4 overall pick from the 2020 draft began his career looking like a turnstile at a New York City subway station. In a rough rookie season, Thomas gave up 10 sacks and 57 pressures by Pro Football Focus' count. But he bounced back in 2021, slashing those figures to two sacks and 18 pressures. And I believe he's poised to take significant strides under this new Giants regime. Brian Daboll is a superb offensive mind who put together a really strong coaching staff. He'll get the most out of the left tackle.


Will Thomas ever live up to the billing as the first tackle off the board in a draft that also included Tristan Wirfs, who just earned first-team All-Pro honors? Will anyone ever not scoff at him going two picks before Justin Herbert? Probably not. But under the watchful eye of Daboll, he'll continue to round into form as a solid starter on the blind side. I guarantee it.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter.

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