1 NFL Player at Each Position Who Will Explode into Stardom in 2022
The NFL is like a great white shark—constantly on the move. Part of that perpetual motion machine is when new players take the place of old ones. For every player who is released or retires, another claims his spot on a roster.
It's as true for big names as it is for players fighting for roster spots. For every future Hall of Famer like Ben Roethlisberger who decides that it's the end of the line, a youngster like Justin Herbert or Joe Burrow is ready to claim the title of superstar.
For the players in this column, "superstar" might be pushing it. After all, you have to walk before you can run.
But every young player listed here has the talent to be a star in the NFL—and a situation that should afford him the opportunity to show what he can do.
So commit the names of these players to memory
As we move through the 2022 season, you'll be hearing them a lot more.
QB: Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers
Among the potential stars on this list, no one is under more pressure to take a big step forward than San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance.
Lance is the young quarterback the 49ers mortgaged their future to trade up for. The face of their franchise for the next decade. The signal-caller who will do what Jimmy Garoppolo could not and lead the team to a championship.
Lance played sparingly as a rookie, making two starts and attempting 71 passes. But from all indications, when the Niners take the field in Chicago in Week 1, he will lead the offense. General manager John Lynch told reporters in February he expects Lance to shine in his second pro season:
"This guy's focus, his work ethic, he'll have a plan, and it will be a comprehensive one. When you have the talent and that ability, and what he showed me in the moments, and there were few, when he had the opportunity to go play, I saw that competitive greatness that you look for in people that are going to lead your organization. However brief it was, I saw it. It gives me a lot of belief that it's there, and he is exactly who we thought he was when we picked him, and we're really excited about that."
There's no questioning Lance's talent. His cannon of a right arm. His athleticism and scrambling ability. When you combine that talent with an impressive array of skill-position talent (headlined by wide receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle) and arguably the best offensive mind in the game in 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, it's a recipe for a breakout season.
And the birth of a new star at football's most important position.
RB: J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
A year ago, plenty of articles like this pegged J.K. Dobbins of the Baltimore Ravens as the next big thing at running back. As a rookie in 2020, the former Ohio State star averaged six yards a carry and scored nine rushing touchdowns on just 134 carries. A second-year breakout was a fait accompli.
At least, until Dobbins tore his ACL in Baltimore's last preseason game and missed the entire 2021 season.
Still, Adam Schein of NFL.com believes Dobbins' ascension to stardom was delayed rather than canceled, tabbing the 23-year-old as his pick for Comeback Player of the Year.
"I love this cat. I thought Baltimore stole him late in Round 2 of the 2020 NFL Draft, and spent much of that offseason gassing him up. Then he went out and averaged a robust 6.0 yards per carry as a rookie, only furthering my infatuation.
"Thus, I was crushed for him, the Ravens and football fans in general when he tore his ACL last August in the Ravens' preseason finale. But I think he bounces back with a monster season in 2022. As I've said time and again, the 5-foot-10, 212-pounder was put on Earth to run the rock for the Ravens. Dobbins was a part of Baltimore's hellacious injury toll in 2021. In 2022, he and the rest of the team get back to playing Ravens football."
If the trade that sent wide receiver Marquise Brown to Arizona is any indication, the Ravens are headed back to their run-heavy ways in 2022. With a healthy Dobbins likely to lead the team in carries, that big season so many saw coming may just be a year late.
And don't worry—the Ravens reportedly are unlikely to play Dobbins in the preseason.
WR: Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos
When the Denver Broncos made Jerry Jeudy the 15th overall pick in 2020, the thought was that he would become the latest in a long line of Alabama wideouts who have excelled in the pros. In each of his last two years with the Crimson Tide, Jeudy surpassed 1,100 receiving yards and posted double-digit receiving touchdowns.
He flashed that talent as a rookie. Despite subpar quarterback play, Jeudy posted a 52/856/3 line that included two outings with over 100 receiving yards and a score. But his second season was marred by injuries and COVID-19—he missed seven games, caught just 38 passes and didn't find the end zone.
Now, Jeudy is healthy and has a new quarterback in the Mile High City. Per Troy Renck of Denver7, he said his goal has been learning whatever he can from Russell Wilson:
"Every detail matters with him. You learn a lot, just how hard he works and how focused he is when he's on the field and on the board. You realize how locked in he is. I've learned a lot. He's a great quarterback. I'm excited to play with him. I mean it's going to be very exciting. I feel like we are going to be a very explosive team. I feel like we've got all the pieces we needed, so we've just gotta put it together. And I am excited that is going to happen."
Veteran safety Justin Simmons told reporters he expects Jeudy to explode in 2022:
"Jerry is going to be dangerous. The way that they've been using him and the way we've had to really key in on him in just OTAs. Training camp is obviously going to be amped up more. Jerry is going to have a heck of a year; I can't wait to watch him play and just to be let go. Just run free and do what he does best. He's one of the best route runners I think I've consistently gone up against over and over."
Between Jeudy's considerable talents and the huge bump in quarterback play he'll benefit from, a patented third-year wideout breakout could easily be in the offing.
TE: Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers
On some level, Pat Freiermuth of the Pittsburgh Steelers already had a breakout. As a rookie last year, the former Penn State standout hauled in 60 of 79 targets for 497 yards and seven touchdowns. That final number was the sixth-most among tight ends and more than George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers, Kyle Pitts of the Atlanta Falcons and T.J. Hockenson of the Detroit Lions.
Not bad for a guy who opened the year as the No. 2 tight end.
As Jeff Kerr wrote for CBS Sports, it was one of the better debut seasons a young tight end has ever had—and the stage is set for bigger and better things in 2022:
"His seven receiving touchdowns were tied for the fourth-most by a rookie tight end in NFL history and he's the fifth tight end with 60 receptions in his rookie season.
"Freiermuth's second season should reward him with plenty of targets in the middle of the field for Kenny Pickett or Mitchell Trubisky, becoming the security blanket for either quarterback."
It's not just that Freiermuth is the unquestioned No. 1 tight end (with the target bump that goes with that status). Or that his 20 red-zone targets in 2021 were one shy of Diontae Johnson's team-leading mark. With JuJu Smith-Schuster now catching passes in Kansas City, quite a few targets over the middle are up for grabs.
Freiermuth should get a sizable percentage of those targets. Whether it's Trubisky or Pickett out there against the Cincinnati Bengals to open the regular season, Pittsburgh needs a safety-valve, checkdown option.
Freiermuth could be that guy—and work his way into the Pro Bowl conversation.
OL: Christian Darrisaw, OT, Minnesota Vikings
Outside of quarterback, no position on offense is more coveted than offensive tackle. Of the top 10 picks in the 2022 draft, three were tackles—more than any other offensive position.
Christian Darrisaw wasn't as highly touted. The 6'5", 322-pounder fell outside the top 20 in last year's draft, landing with the Minnesota Vikings at No. 23 overall. In his scouting report for Darrisaw, Bleacher Report's Brandon Thorn lauded his potential—while maintaining that it may take time to realize it:
"He needs to be more consistent at bringing his feet and hips at the point of attack in the run game and could play with better focus on every play. Darrisaw's physical tools and skill set are ready to make an impact right away at tackle, while his effort will need to be more consistent to fulfill his considerably high ceiling."
Sure enough, while the youngster showed flashes over 12 games as a rookie, he also allowed five sacks in 652 snaps. He told reporters he is working on improving both the level and consistency of his play:
"I'm trying to improve in the pass game and the rush game and just watching film from last year and taking away those things that I didn't do well. Just like staying square on my pass sets and just like playing one play at a time. I kind of got frustrated sometimes last year when I had a bad play or whatever, so I'm just like throwing all that stuff out and taking one play at a time, attacking it."
It's hardly unusual for even the best tackle prospects to struggle to acclimate to the NFL. With a year's experience under his belt and talent and athleticism to burn, Darrisaw is a prime candidate to improve markedly in his second season.
Edge: Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It can be argued that no position is more difficult for young players to master in the NFL than edge-rusher. More often than not, rookie pass-rushers struggle to adapt. While their best pass-rush move worked regularly in college, NFL linemen scoff at it. The learning curve can be steep.
When viewed through the lens of that reality, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka didn't have a bad first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In 560 snaps spread over 17 games (and six starts), the team's first-round pick in 2021 tallied 29 total tackles, five tackles for loss and four sacks. The 6'5", 259-pounder also posted 10 quarterback hits and 17 hurries.
His performance gave the Buccaneers enough confidence in the youngster to part ways with veteran edge-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul. Tampa head coach Todd Bowles told reporters Tryon-Shoyinka should take a big step forward in his second pro season:
"He's very athletic. Obviously, we took him in the first round. Going into year two, we expect him to have the nuances down with a lot of the things he did last year and expect him to come into his own. I don't expect him to be [Jason Pierre-Paul], I expect him to be Joe. He has a skill set all on his own that he could be a good player."
In addition to his considerable talents, Tryon-Shoyinka should benefit both from playing opposite Pro Bowler Shaquil Barrett and from the positive game scripts the Buccaneers generate with regularity.
A 10-sack season is definitely on the table. A dozen sacks isn't out of the question.
DL: Ed Oliver, Buffalo Bills
Heading into the 2019 NFL draft, Ed Oliver was a highly regarded prospect. Then-Bleacher Report analyst Matt Miller called him "one of the most athletic interior linemen in the last decade."
That's heady praise. In fairness to the 6'1", 287-pounder, the Bills liked what they saw from the first three seasons of his career enough to pick up his fifth-year option for 2023.
But statistically speaking, Oliver hasn't made the dent that some expected. He has averaged 39 tackles and four sacks per year. When Ben Linsley of Pro Football Focus ranked the league's top 25 interior linemen last month, Oliver didn't make the cut.
Per Katherine Fitzgerald of the Buffalo News, Oliver is well aware he hasn't made the statistical impact some expected. But he intends for that to change come 2022:
"I'm looking to start off where I finished last year, and just kind of build off on that, and go out there and make plays, help the defense and just come into my own.
"Just start the way I finished, dominating – whether that be tackles for loss, sacks, things like that. Being a factor even when I’m not making the play, helping other guys make the play – whether that be cutting the ball off or rushing, things like that. Say I don't get the sack, but I funneled the quarterback to somebody else – as long as we're getting off the field.
"So just when I'm out there, you know I'm out there."
Oliver should benefit this season from both the arrival of edge-rusher Von Miller and the possibility that fellow edge Gregory Rousseau could be headed for a breakout of his own. With that pair to draw attention outside, it will be hard for opponents to focus on Oliver inside.
If ever there was a year for the big man to wreak havoc, this is it.
LB: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Cleveland Browns
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah of the Cleveland Browns had a rookie season that was neither great nor terrible. Slowed at times by injuries, the former Notre Dame standout played in 14 games, making 10 starts. He posted 76 total tackles, adding 1.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles.
Now, Owusu-Koramoah is healthy. He has a year of experience. And per Chris Easterling of the Akron Beacon Journal, defensive coordinator Joe Woods is ready to ramp up responsibilities for second-year players, including the young linebacker:
"At this point, I feel like we can do more so I installed more defense this offseason. I told the guys that. We are going to put more on their plate. We will see what they can handle once we get through mandatory minicamp and there will be a few additional things that if they can handle it I will add during training camp."
Owusu-Koramoah is ready for whatever the Browns decide to task him with:
"I feel like that is the thing to say, like, 'Oh yeah, we don't want to throw too much on the rookie,' but we're in the NFL, they're paying you to do a job. And it's about team and what we throw at you or what we put on you, is not something that is too burdensome at all. And it never is, because it's your job, it's what you do. So if you just change your perspective of it, like you said, this year it'll probably go up in terms of roles and things like that, but I'm just doing what I can to give to the team."
Owusu-Koramoah is a rangy but somewhat undersized linebacker who lined up all over the formation in college. His skill set is a perfect fit for Woods' scheme, which uses nickel as its base formation.
Provided he can stay healthy in 2022, he is a good bet to lead the Browns in tackles—and have a coming-out party as one of the NFL's rising young off-ball linebackers.
CB: Jaycee Horn, Carolina Panthers
Jaycee Horn entered the NFL as one of the most well-regarded cornerbacks in his draft class. In terms of draft slot, the 6'1", 200-pounder was "the guy" at his position last year—the Carolina Panthers made him the first cornerback selected when they drafted Horn eighth overall.
However, Horn barely got a chance to show what he can do in the NFL. Just three games, five tackles and an interception into his rookie season, he suffered a broken foot that ended his campaign.
He is healthy again and eager to get back on the field. He told Ashley Stroehlein of WCNC Charlotte that the time away from football gave him that much more appreciation for the game:
"You know, it gave me a bigger love for the game.You know, I love football, but when I had to sit out for a year, that was the first time I had a major injury. When I came back, like this time now, it's just showing me how much more I love the game. It helped me appreciate it more. It's helped me take it more seriously. So, it's a blessing."
Horn also said his goals haven't changed—and those goals are lofty:
"For me, I want to be the best to ever do it at the cornerback position, you know, that's my goal. That's been my goal since you know, I started playing corner and just to go down as one of the greats, you know, win some Super Bowls along the way. Everybody dreams, so, I'm just trying to conquer all that."
Horn admittedly didn't play much. But when he did, he looked the part of a top-10 pick, allowing a passer rating against of just 39.6. He could be on the cusp of a breakout season.
S: Kyle Dugger, New England Patriots
As the New England Patriots demonstrated in a big way this year with their selection of Chattanooga guard Cole Strange at No. 29 overall, Bill Belichick isn't averse to using an early draft pick on a player from a smaller program.
It was a similar story in 2020 when the Patriots used the 37th overall pick on Kyle Dugger, a safety from tiny Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina.
To be fair, the Dugger pick wasn't as surprising as the Strange one—the only knock on Dugger was the school where he played. The 6'2", 220-pounder with 4.49-second speed has all the physical traits NFL teams could want in a safety prospect.
As a rookie, he was thrown into the proverbial deep end, piling up 64 tackles over 14 games (with seven starts). He allowed 72.7 percent of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed with a passer rating against of 92.6.
Last season, however, the light bulb well and truly came on. Playing in 77 percent of New England's defensive snaps, Dugger surpassed 90 stops. Perhaps more importantly, he was stellar in coverage. Among defenders last year, his passer rating against of 66.7 ranked in the top 25. Among safeties, it ranked inside the top 10.
As good as that season was, veteran safety Devin McCourty (who knows a thing or two about playing defensive back in the NFL) thinks the best is yet to come with Dugger, telling reporters last month:
"I love Dug. The way he's able to not care about what people are saying about him, what he's done in the past — being a D-II player — he doesn't care about any of that. Dug shows up, can do everything, can play in the deep part of the field, can cover.
"Obviously, if you watched any of our games, you know he can knock your head off. I just love watching him grow. I think sky's the limit for him."
The New England secondary has created numerous stars, whether it's McCourty or cornerbacks like Malcolm Butler and J.C. Jackson.
Dugger is about to become the latest name on that list.