Former Cal players occupy three tiers in the NFL during the 2022 preseason, and it is that second tier that is the most intriguing.
In Tier 1 are veterans who are acknowledged starters, the ones who won’t play much in preseason games and are just getting themselves ready for the regular season. This group includes Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen, Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, Jaguars wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr., Lions quarterback Jared Goff, Steeler defensive lineman Tyson Alualu and Cowboys punter Bryan Anger.
Tier 3 is the group of ex-Cal players on preseason rosters who are just hoping to make a regular-season roster. That tier includes Raiders quarterback Chase Garbers, Eagles tight end Richard Rodgers II, Cardinals tight end Stephen Anderson, Dolphins linebacker Cameron Goode, Bears safety Elijah Hicks, Falcons linebacker Kuony Deng, Raiders receiver Jordan Veasy and Commanders defensive back Josh Drayden. Giants quarterback Davis Webb probably belongs in this group as well because he is listed as a third-team player on the depth chart.
But in between is Tier 2, a group of former Cal players who don’t have to worry about making the 53-man roster, but are competing to land starting jobs in 2022. This group includes Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins, Seahawks offensive lineman Jake Curhan, Vikings safety Camryn Bynum, Ravens offensive lineman Patrick Mekari, and Jets safety Ashtyn Davis.
Let’s take a look at these five players:
All indications are that Hawkins will be a starting safety this season after starting four games and recording two interceptions in 2021, his second season as a pro.
Yardbarker said this about the Falcons safeties recently:
On the back end, safeties Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins have been given an opportunity to start and are running with it. Grant has thrived in coverage situations while Hawkins has shown range and pursuit ability to limit run after the catch.
But CBS Sports offered this cautionary note two weeks ago:
Hawkins is the frontrunner to start at free safety for Atlanta, D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.
It was assumed that last year's starter at the position, Erik Harris, had a leg up on Hawkins because he has four more years of NFL experience to bank on. It's not likely that the Falcons re-signed Harris this offseason just for the 32-year-old to play mentor to his junior Hawkins, so it's most reasonable to expect the two to rotate reps even if the latter ends up being the starter.
Curhan made the Seahawks roster as a free agent last year and ended up starting five games as a rookie.
ESPN cited Curhan’s bid to be the starting right tackle this season as the team’s biggest battle during the preseason, saying this:
While ninth overall pick Charles Cross is a lock to start at left tackle barring injury, it's a three-man race to be his bookend. Jake Curhan has been getting most of the first-team reps so far in camp after starting the final five games there last season, but Abraham Lucas’ ' status as a third-round pick suggests he'll get serious consideration, as will tone Forsythe. If Lucas wins the job this summer and Cross stays healthy, Seattle would be only the third team since 1970 to start a pair of rookie tackles in Week 1, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. .
Davis started six games as a rookie in 2020 and made 10 starts in 2021, but injuries have hurt his progress, and it’s uncertain whether he will earn a starting berth this year.
He was outstanding in the Jets’ June Organized Team Activities (OTAs), putting him in good position to be a starter, but he reportedly has been less impressive since then. Lamarcus Joyner, a 31-year-old veteran who has made 59 NFL starts but played just one game last year before suffering a season-ending injury, and Jordan Whitehead, who signed a two-year contract with the Jets in March, seem to have the edge as the starting safeties at the moment. Davis also faces competition from Jason Pinnock and Elijah Riley, so not only is Davis competing for a starting job, he is also competing for a roster spot. It is unlikely he will be released, but it’s not impossible.
It was assumed that first-round draft pick Lewis Cine would occupy a starting safety spot alongside Pro Bowler Harrison Smith, but Bynum, who started three games last year, is still running with the first string.
ESPN noted this safety battle as the biggest competition in the Vikings camp, saying this:
Lewis Cine was the No. 32 overall pick of the draft, a place that can produce immediate starters, and there has been an opening ever since veteran Xavier Woods departed via free agency. But through the first two weeks of camp, the Vikings have not pushed Cine ahead of second-(year) player Camryn Bynum.. While Cine has performed well, and his hitting ability has been on display since full pads came on, Bynum has taken most of the first-team reps alongside Harrison Smith.
On March 28, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said Patrick Mekari would be the team’s starting center in 2022. On April 28, the Ravens drafted center Tyler Linderbaum in the first round, and he immediately became the Ravens starting center, apparently moving the versatile Mekari to a backup role anywhere along the offensive line.
An offensive tackle at Cal, Mekari started 13 games at center in 2019 and 2020 combined, then started 12 games at tackle this past season. He is generally listed as a guard, and could play all five offensive line positions, which is why he was signed to a three-year contract extension at the end of last season. The other issue is that Linderbaun is currently sidelined with a foot injury, which is not considered serious but could lead to Mekari getting playing time at center again.
Cover photo of Jaylinn Hawkins by Jason Getz, USA TODAY Sports
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