Predicting Every NFL Team's Most Surprising Star of the 2022 Season
Every year there are breakout stars in the NFL. Oftentimes, we don't see them coming.
As an example, Cordarrelle Patterson hadn't gained more than 500 yards from scrimmage since 2014 going into the 2021 season. He ended the year with 1,166 to go with 11 total touchdowns as he became a dual-threat star for the Atlanta Falcons.
Other times, it's an under-the-radar rookie who breaks through unexpectedly. Amon-Ra St. Brown was an unheralded fourth-round pick coming out of USC. He nearly eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in his rookie year and averaged 8.5 catches and 93.3 yards over the last six games of the season.
Here, we'll take a shot at predicting who the most surprising star for each NFL franchise will be this season. We'll be avoiding any Pro Bowlers, first-round picks from the 2021 or 2022 drafts or players who have already enjoyed a breakout season.
Arizona Cardinals: CB Trayvon Mullen
Getting traded for a seventh-round pick is not the typical start to a breakout season, but that's within the range of possibilities for Trayvon Mullen in Arizona.
As the Las Vegas Raiders worked to cut their roster down to 53 players, they dealt Mullen for the late pick. It was the latest in a line of moves to renovate their cornerback room that also included letting talented corner Casey Hayward walk in free agency.
Hayward wasn't necessarily a fit in Patrick Graham's defense. The same could be said for Mullen.
Talent was certainly not an issue. The former second-rounder had 31 starts in the Silver and Black and missed 12 games of the 2022 campaign with a toe fracture.
Mullen is working on getting healthy, and he is still "day-to-day" as we approach Week 1. However, when he fully recovers, he should become a starter. Current starter Marco Wilson surrendered six touchdowns last season.
Mullen has proved to be a physical corner capable of disruption with 24 passes defended in his first two seasons. He'll regain his form and take the next step after getting traded.
Atlanta Falcons: QB Marcus Mariota
Marcus Mariota is widely viewed as a bridge quarterback since he signed a two-year, $18.8 million contract this offseason with an out for the 2023 season.
After serving as the Raiders' backup the last two seasons, it's fair to give him that designation. But there's a chance the Hawaiian is being overlooked too hastily.
"Star" might be a bit much, but there's reason to believe that Mariota will do better than expected.
The last time we saw Mariota as a starter he did a good job of protecting the football. He had just two interceptions to seven touchdowns before losing his job to Ryan Tannehill in 2019.
He was also throwing to a rookie A.J. Brown and Corey Davis as his top two receivers. Drake London is a better prospect than Brown was at that point, and Kyle Pitts is a much better receiver than Corey Davis.
Add in Cordarelle Patterson's unique skills as a receiving back and Mariota has better weapons around him in this offense.
The offensive line is still a major question, but Mariota's athleticism gives him a chance to negate some of its flaws. The 28-year-old is going to exceed expectations in Atlanta.
Baltimore Ravens: TE Isaiah Likely
This feels a little bit like cheating because of the sheer volume of preseason hype Isaiah Likely has already gotten. However, it will still be surprising if Likely actually turns out to be a key player in the Ravens' offense.
The fourth-round pick has been one of the biggest winners throughout training camp and the preseason. Coming out of Coastal Carolina, expectations were low, but he's already raised them.
Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic noted the tight end is, "the closest thing" the Ravens have to a third option in the passing game. There's plenty of opportunity there as Lamar Jackson still doesn't have a new contract and could be looking to show he's capable of putting up MVP numbers again.
Tight ends typically have a steep learning curve in the league because they not only have to learn how to get open and run an NFL route tree, but they also have to block. However, Mark Andrews' presence is going to cut Likely's responsibilities in half.
Expect him to play more of a big-slot role and be the most productive rookie from the fourth round.
Buffalo Bills: DT Jordan Phillips
If the Buffalo Bills' season-opener against the Los Angeles Rams is any indication, Von Miller is going to be like a rising tide that lifts all boats on the defense.
The Bills feasted on Matthew Stafford to the tune of seven sacks and three interceptions. The dominant defense was supported by an offense that put pressure on the Rams to keep scoring.
Jordan Phillips was a beneficiary of Von Miller's presence on the outside. It opened him up for one-on-one situations, where his explosiveness allowed him to get 1.5 sacks in his return with the Bills.
Phillips has always had some potential as a pass-rusher. He registered 9.5 sacks with the Bills in 2019. However, when he left for the Arizona Cardinals in 2020 and 2021, he only had five sacks across two seasons.
Back with the Bills, Phillips could be in for his best season, and topping his sack total from 2019 is not out of the question.
The Bills are going to have plenty of leads that force teams to throw the ball and give even more opportunity for Phillips to rush the passer.
Carolina Panthers: WR Terrace Marshall Jr.
Terrace Marshall Jr.'s rookie season was abysmal for a second-round receiver. Despite being on the field for 48 percent of the snaps, he was only able to come up with 17 receptions for 138 yards and no touchdowns.
In an age in which some rookie receivers are putting up big numbers, it's enough to start throwing around the word "bust."
That's not fair to Marshall, though. The pass game was bleak as a whole for the Panthers. The revolving door of quarterbacks that included Sam Darnold certainly did him no favors. While his catch rate was 56.7 percent simply based on targets, it was actually 81 percent when accounting for uncatchable balls, per PlayerProfiler.
Baker Mayfield's presence should raise the ceiling for Marshall. The former Browns quarterback isn't perfect by any stretch, but he's a more willing deep passer than Darnold was, which should open up the offense for all receivers.
Combine that with Marshall getting another year to develop as an NFL player and he could become a solid No. 2 behind D.J. Moore.
Chicago Bears: RB Khalil Herbert
David Montgomery has been the king of the Chicago Bears backfield the last two years, but that doesn't mean that the Khalil Herbert breakout season isn't coming.
First, Montgomery is in the final year of his rookie deal, and the new front office headed by Ryan Poles doesn't have any allegiance to him. Montgomery has put up decent production, but his efficiency hasn't been great.
Last year, he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and 5.9 yards per target.
Herbert was slightly better in both categories and had a higher rate of runs against a loaded box, per PlayerProfiler. The website also credited Herbert with a 28.2 percent juke rate compared to David Montgomery's 24 percent.
So Herbert is the more explosive and elusive back playing for a coaching staff and front office that have no reason to be loyal to Montgomery. Expect this backfield to be much more evenly split, and don't count out Herbert to take the job outright by season's end.
Cincinnati Bengals: LB Logan Wilson
The Cincinnati Bengals' offense gets a lot of the credit for the team's breakout season in 2021. But the defense's improvement played a pivotal role as well.
The defense didn't go from good to elite, but they moved the needle from bad to average. They were 28th in yards allowed per play in 2020. They finished 20th in 2021.
That improvement mirrored that of the man in the middle of the defense, Logan Wilson.
The third-year linebacker was a rotational player as a rookie. He played 43 percent of the snaps and made 33 tackles. In 2021, he stepped into a starting role and recorded 100 stops with four interceptions and five tackles for a loss.
It's a respectable stat line but not one that would send him to the Pro Bowl.
In 2022, the Bengals' defense has the potential to be even better, and Wilson is one of the reasons why. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo has been impressed with his ability to get the defense into the right call and make adjustments on the fly.
Another step forward could earn him his first Pro Bowl trip.
Cleveland Browns: TE David Njoku
The Cleveland Browns' decision to franchise tag David Njoku—who has not had more than 475 yards in any of the last three seasons—was a baffling one.
It's going to make more sense by the end of this season.
Njoku is entering his sixth NFL season and still has yet to live up to the potential the Browns saw when they made him a first-round pick in 2017. His best year came in 2018 when he racked up 56 catches for 639 yards and four touchdowns.
The last two seasons he's been stuck behind Austin Hooper, but Hooper is now a Tennessee Titan. He's also one of the few Browns who might benefit from Jacoby Brissett playing in 11 games while Deshaun Watson serves his suspension.
The last time Jacoby Brissett was a full-time starter was 2019. He loved his tight ends, targeting Jack Doyle 72 times and Eric Ebron 52 times. Njoku is a better receiver than both of them.
The Browns are going to need playmakers in the passing game. After Amari Cooper, the receiving corps is young and unproven. That could lead to a ton of targets for Njoku and a huge year for him.
Dallas Cowboys: WR Jalen Tolbert
Jalen Tolbert is a relative afterthought when considering the 2022 draft class of wide receivers. When the Cowboys took him with the 88th selection, he was the 16th receiver off the board.
He's going to finish way higher than 16th among rookie receivers this season.
The South Alabama alum has turned in a solid preseason and locked up a starting role. Part of that has been aided by injuries. James Washington suffered a fractured foot in camp, and Michael Gallup is still recovering from his torn ACL.
But Tolbert has also earned the opportunity. Jordan Schultz of The Score reported the Cowboys love the receiver and believe that Dak Prescott already trusts him.
CeeDee Lamb is obviously going to be a target hog, but Prescott is going to have to find a No. 2 receiver he can trust. Tolbert was a deep-play threat in college. That's exactly what they'll be missing while they wait on Gallup to return.
By then, Tolbert will have earned the right to continue seeing deep targets.
Denver Broncos: Edge Baron Browning
Baron Browning had a respectable rookie season for a third-round pick in 2021. He started nine games and made 58 tackles from his inside linebacker position.
As it turns out, he might have been playing the wrong position.
This offseason, the Broncos moved the 6'3", 240-pounder to outside linebacker, where he will primarily rush the passer. They may have unleashed a secret weapon.
He's made several splash plays in preseason action, including a strip-sack in which he picked up the fumble and took it to the house.
The Broncos figure to have a good rotation of pass-rushers. With Randy Gregory and Nik Bonitto joining Bradley Chubb, the Broncos suddenly have a deep stable of pass-rushers.
However, they traded Malik Reed, which clears up enough snaps for Browning to get on the field. James Palmer of NFL Network noted the Broncos traded Reed in part because they believe Browning can become a "force rushing the passer."
If they're right, then Browning will be one of the biggest surprise stars of the season.
Detroit Lions: LB Malcolm Rodriguez
It's a feat for sixth-round picks to even see the field as rookies, much less become stars on their team.
Yet Malcolm Rodriguez is in line to do just that. The Oklahoma State linebacker was a tackling machine in the college ranks. He used his athleticism to rack up 408 stops in his five-year career. Sixteen of those were for losses.
Throughout training camp and the preseason, it's looking like that kind of production is going to translate to the league.
Rodriguez is undersized. According to his athletic profile from Kent Lee Platte of Pro Football Network, his height of 5'11" and weight of 232 pounds are well below average.
However, he makes up for it with elite speed, great agility and explosiveness. He earned a relative athletic score of 9.48 in his pre-draft testing.
The rookie has already made a big impression on fans. Team president Rod Wood said that Rodriguez's jersey is the second-most requested after he showed his personality and skills on Hard Knocks.
Rodriguez is already second on the depth chart behind Chris Board. However, his athleticism should get him on the field, and there's a good chance he will be a big producer when that happens.
Green Bay Packers: OG Jon Runyan Jr.
In a season in which the Green Bay Packers struggled to stay healthy along the offensive line, Jon Runyan Jr. was rock solid. He started 16 games and played in all 17 at a relatively high level.
Runyan was able to stay healthy and rarely made mistakes. According to Sports Info Solutions, he boasted a 1.3 percent blown block rate but did give up four sacks in pass protection.
Bleacher Report offensive and defensive line scout Brandon Thorn called Runyan and Detroit Lions guard Jonah Jackson two of the most underrated guards in the league. He then went on to provide examples of Runyan clearing lanes in the run game and stonewalling defensive tackles in pass protection.
The third-year player has arguably already broken out, but there's another level he can get to if he cuts down on the sacks, and that should lead to more recognition.
Houston Texans: Edge Ogbonnia Okoronkwo
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo comes to the Houston Texans as a Super Bowl champion from the Los Angeles Rams, but you'd be forgiven for not even remembering the signing happening.
Okoronkwo came to the Texans on a one-year, $3.3 million contract. It's a decent amount of money for a player who only registered two sacks and saw 28 percent of the defensive snaps last season.
But even though it was a small sample size, Okoronkwo flashed the abilities of an emerging pass-rusher. He posted a pressure rate of 11.3 percent, per Sports Info Solutions. Von Miller's was 11.6.
Early returns have shown that Okoronkwo's pressure rate was no fluke. According to Next Gen Stats, he was tied for most quarterback pressures through the first two weeks of the preseason.
Right now, Okoronkwo has 34-year-old Jerry Hughes and 35-year-old Mario Addison ahead of him on the depth chart. Given their age and the possibility that Okoronkwo can win on a larger scale, that shouldn't last.
Indianapolis Colts: TE Mo Alie-Cox
The idea of a Mo Alie-Cox breakout is not new. But breakouts have been known to take longer than expected sometimes.
The former VCU hooper has always had tantalizing upside given his 6'4", 262-pound frame and athleticism. It's impressive that he's carved out a role for himself without playing college football, but he's not been able to take the next step yet.
With only Jack Doyle to compete against for tight end targets, he had just 24 catches for 316 yards and four touchdowns last season.
That might look bad on first glance, but that was with Carson Wentz at quarterback. According to PlayerProfiler, Alie-Cox was 27th in catchable targets and target quality rate among all tight ends.
Matt Ryan is now the quarterback and has a history of getting his tight ends involved. He had Kyle Pitts last season, so that's not a great comparison, but even with Hayden Hurst in 2020, Ryan fed him 88 targets, which led to a career-high 56 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns.
The target distribution after Michael Pittman Jr. is a bit of a mystery right now. Alie-Cox is primed to play a much larger role with a better quarterback this season.
Jacksonville Jaguars: OG Ben Bartch
The Jacksonville Jaguars did a lot this offseason to put more skill around Trevor Lawrence. However, the offensive line looks similar to the 2021 version, and the team will need to bank on seeing major progression from multiple starters.
Ben Bartch is a sneaky candidate to make a huge jump.
The St. John's product faced a steep learning curve coming into the NFL as a fourth-round pick from a Division III school. He still played in 13 games and made one start as a rookie. In 2021, he got the starting nod in 11 games, giving up three sacks and only drawing two penalties, per PFF.
Bartch had to battle with veteran Tyler Shatley to earn the starting left guard position this summer. Offensive coordinator Press Taylor was impressed with how he worked his way up the depth chart with his play.
Growth in the NFL isn't always linear. With Bartch coming in from the small-school scene, it would make sense that he could see exponential growth as he settles into the league.
Kansas City Chiefs: CB L'Jarius Sneed
Charvarius Ward's exit this offseason leaves the Chiefs in need of a No. 1 cornerback. Rookie Trent McDuffie will have high expectations but will endure the typical ups and downs of a first-year defensive back.
Sneed has had two seasons to figure out how to be an elite player in the league.
This needs to be the season he puts it all together. He certainly has the athleticism to be special. He came out of Louisiana Tech with a 9.55 relative athletic score, including a 4.37 40-yard dash and a 41-inch vertical.
He put those traits to use a full-time starter last season. There were growing pains, though. He gave up a 68.8 percent completion percentage and surrendered 7.3 yards per target.
If the Chiefs didn't feel like Sneed was ready to make a leap, they would have worked to bring in another starting corner. Instead, they seem ready to see the Year 3 breakout from their 2020 fourth-round pick.
Las Vegas Raiders: CB Anthony Averett
Anthony Averett gave up the ninth-most yards (768) of anyone in coverage with the Baltimore Ravens last season.
He was also among the most targeted corners in the league. Teams threw at the 27-year-old 101 times last season.
Without context, it looks like Averett was a liability. In reality, he did fairly well with all things considered. The Ravens blitzed at the sixth-highest rate in the league, yet they were 24th in pressure rate.
Essentially, they were sending additional rushers who weren't getting home. That leaves the secondary in a tough spot.
A more effective pass rush would have meant that Averett didn't see as many targets and gave up fewer yards. He did hold quarterbacks to a 55.4 completion percentage and 77.5 passer rating.
With new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham having Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones at his disposal, the pass-rush should be better in Vegas for Averett. That means his talent will have the chance to truly blossom.
Los Angeles Chargers: WR Joshua Palmer
Joshua Palmer's rookie year was nothing special. He had a role in the Chargers' offense, but it didn't amount to much. He caught just 67.3 percent of his 49 targets and had 353 yards receiving despite playing in 17 games and starting in five.
That doesn't mean the breakout isn't coming, though. The third-round pick is in a great position to surprise a lot of people in 2022.
For one, he's the next man up if either Keenan Allen or Mike Williams were to miss major time. Allen is entering his age-30 season and has been fortunate to only miss two games over the last five seasons. Meanwhile, Williams has been prone to getting dinged up.
Fantasy Sharks gives him a 93 percent chance of being injured in 2022 for at least two quarters.
Even if the dynamic duo stays healthy, it's possible that it's more of an electric trio this season. Justin Herbert let fantasy managers know in an appearance on NFL Network that Palmer was going to see "a lot of targets" in 2022.
Los Angeles Rams: RB Darrell Henderson
From Weeks 1 to 8 last season, Darrell Henderson was seventh in the league in rushing. The Rams back had 507 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in seven games and was well on his way to his first career 1,000-yard rushing campaign with double-digit touchdowns.
Then he tailed off, dealt with injuries that caused him to miss four of the final six games of the season and watched as Cam Akers took over down the stretch.
It was assumed that Akers would be the Rams' lead back heading into 2022. Then Sean McVay threw a curveball. Henderson dominated the workload in the season-opener. He saw 13 carries and five targets while playing 82 percent of the snaps.
Meanwhile, Akers only played 18 percent of the snaps and took his three carries for zero yards.
The Rams aren't going to play the Bills every week. When the offensive line gave Henderson room to run, he looked explosive.
Instead of the Akers breakout campaign, we could be in store for Henderson to pick up where he left off in Week 8 last season.
Miami Dolphins: S Brandon Jones
Brandon Jones already has one elite skill. He led all defensive backs with five sacks last season and can be a terror coming on blitzes.
However, the coaching staff believes there's more to Jones' abilities than just blitzing.
“He’s athletic, he’s fast, he’s smart,” safeties coach Steve Gregory said, per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. “There’s no reason why he can’t do all the different things a DB needs to do on a down in, down out basis."
His ability to disrupt the passing game and allow defensive coordinator Josh Boyer to dial up blitzes will keep him on the field.
If Jones is able to elevate his coverage game and get some ball production, he could be a Jamal Adams-like presence in the Dolphins secondary. With Jevon Holland continuing to develop, the Dolphins have a potentially rock-solid safety tandem on the back end.
Minnesota Vikings: S Camryn Bynum
There's not much reason to know who Camryn Bynum is at this point.
He was a fourth-round pick last year who made the transition from cornerback to safety as a rookie. He recorded one interception and made three starts while primarily serving as a backup.
He's going to be expected to step into a much larger role in 2022, though.
The Vikings lost Xavier Woods in free agency. While they drafted Lewis Cine in the first round this year, Bynum is still listed as the starter on the team's initial depth chart.
While many would expect that he's simply a placeholder until Cine is ready to break into the starting lineup, there's a good chance that the second-year safety ends up being a cog in the defense himself.
If he can prorate that out to a full-time role he's going to be a surprise stud in the new-look Vikings secondary.
New England Patriots: LB Mack Wilson
You'd be forgiven if you completely missed the offseason trade that sent Chase Winovich to the Cleveland Browns for linebacker Mack Wilson. It was a trade of two players who played less than 25 percent of their team's defensive snaps.
Wilson completely fell out of favor with the Browns. He saw a diminishing role in each of his three seasons since being drafted in the fifth round in 2019.
After joining the Patriots, he should get the fresh start he needs to unlock his potential. Linebackers coach Steve Belichick is excited about both Wilson and Raekwon McMillan in the middle of the defense.
"They're definitely going to be a big part of the defense," Belichick told reporters. "Excited to have both those guys, and they've made some plays for us in the preseason. I'm excited, and I know they are, too."
Wilson cut his missed tackle percentage from 20.4 percent to 2.3 percent in 2021. With that kind of tackling and his ability in coverage, he has the tools to thrive in New England.
New Orleans Saints: CB Alontae Taylor
The New Orleans Saints wouldn't have felt comfortable trading away Chauncey Gardner-Johnson if they didn't feel comfortable with the depth they have in the secondary.
It also speaks volumes about how the Saints feel about second-round pick Alontae Taylor. The Saints view themselves as a contender right now. That's why they traded future draft picks to Philadelphia to get an additional first-rounder this year.
Taylor dealt with a hip issue in the preseason and didn't suit up. But before the injury, he was impressing teammate Paulson Adebo as the two put in extra work together after practice.
"He's teaching me some stuff, too," Adebo said, per John DeShazier of the team's website. "He's a great athlete, smart, instinctive, good ball skills. Some things I teach him, some things he teaches me as well."
The Saints have a good track record when it comes to drafting defensive backs. Adebo was a third-round pick last year and ended up being a starter for 17 games.
Taylor's athleticism and instincts are going to help make him an immediate impact player in their secondary.
New York Giants: WR Wan'Dale Robinson
Wan'Dale Robinson was a second-round pick for the Giants, so it's hard to call him a surprise. But the rookie spotlight for Big Blue has been focused on Kayvon Thibodeaux and Evan Neal, and Robinson hasn't generated the same buzz as fellow second-round receivers like George Pickens or Skyy Moore.
But Robinson shouldn't be slept on.
With Joe Schoen now general manager and Brian Daboll taking over as head coach, the Giants have no reason to be loyal to holdovers from the previous regime, which includes Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney and Sterling Shepard.
We know the front office liked Robinson because they took him with the 43rd overall selection.
Daboll has already shown they will get creative in the way they give Robinson the ball during preseason action. With offensive coordinator Mike Kafka coming from the Kansas City Chiefs, they have the coaching to utilize a player with his talents.
Based on the fact the Giants kept Toney when he would have been a tradeable asset and they took Robinson in the second round, expect both of them to be targeted heavily and be a surprisingly effective receiver duo.
New York Jets: Edge John Franklin-Myers
When people think of the Jets' defensive line, they are likely to think of huge 2021 free-agent acquisition Carl Lawson, former third-overall pick Quinnen Williams or maybe 2022 first-round pick Jermaine Johnson.
Who they should be thinking about is John Franklin-Myers.
The former fourth-round pick from Stephen F. Austin has been on an upward trajectory from the time he entered the league and continues to improve. In 2020, he was a rotational pass-rusher who chipped in three sacks. In 2021, he was a full-time starter and registered six sacks.
If he continues to show that kind of improvement, he could be in for a big season.
For one, he was better than his sack total would indicate last season. He was among the highest-ranked players on the team by PFF last season. He was their 16th-ranked edge defender in part because of his stout run defense.
Now, he gets to play alongside a healthy Lawson, with Jermaine Johnson serving as the rotational pass-rusher.
That should mean more opportunities for him to get after the quarterback and a much higher sack total in 2022.
Philadelphia Eagles: S Marcus Epps
The Philadelphia Eagles' offseason has been defined by several high-profile additions, but it's a developing starter who could be the surprise breakout star of 2022.
The Eagles brought in Jaquiski Tartt and reupped with Anthony Harris in free agency this year. Then when it came to cut down the roster to 53 players, they ended up parting ways with both of them and trading for Chauncey Gardner-Johnson.
The moves at safety signify a huge stamp of approval on fourth-year safety Marcus Epps. That shouldn't come as a surprise given the way the coaching staff has talked about him.
"We have a lot of leaders on that defense," Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said, per Mike Gill of ESPN 97.3. "Marcus Epps has taken a little bit of a leadership role, more than last year because he's playing more, and his production is high, and he does everything right."
Epps comes from humble beginnings. He was a sixth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 2019 and was eventually cut. Now he gets to play center field for a defense that should force some bad throws with a rebuilt front seven and a good outside corner duo in Darius Slay and James Bradberry.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Edge Alex Highsmith
If there's one thing the Steelers have been elite at as an organization it's drafting and developing front-seven players.
From T.J. Watt to James Harrison, the Steelers have found ways to identify and build excellent pass-rushers. Alex Highsmith hasn't reached the heights of a star pass-rusher just yet, but his trajectory is on course.
As a rookie in 2020, he played just 43 percent of the snaps and was a rotational piece behind Watt and Bud Dupree. Last year, the Steelers liked Highsmith enough to watch Dupree walk in free agency and insert him into the starting lineup.
He became a starter and was solid in 16 games, racking up six sacks and 26 total pressures opposite Watt.
Unfortunately, a rib injury has slowed Highsmith, but Mike Tomlin likes what he's seen when Highsmith has been active.
“I expect grown man, varsity ball, and he’s given us that thus far,” Tomlin told reporters before the injury. “He’s highly motivated and highly conditioned. He’s excited about taking the next step.”
Assuming Highsmith can bounce back from the injury, the pieces are there for him to make another leap in his third season.
San Francisco 49ers: DT Javon Kinlaw
In general, it's hard to call former first-rounders "surprise" stars, but it fits in the case of Javon Kinlaw. The 24-year-old has endured a disastrous start to his career.
The former South Carolina lineman struggled to make an impact in his first season. He started 12 games and appeared in 14 contests but only had 1.5 sacks and three tackles for loss.
The 2021 campaign went even worse. He failed to make any impact in four games before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
Going into Year 3, it would be easy to write off the former 14th pick. He hasn't shown much, but there's reason to believe Kinlaw will finally live up to his potential in 2022.
For one, he's in a great situation with Nick Bosa on the edge and Arik Armstead playing next to him on the inside. Both are tremendous pass-rushers who will command game plan attention.
Kinlaw has reportedly slimmed down and feels healthy after struggling with injuries early in his career.
“I wasn’t able to train every day all crazy like I did this year,” Kinlaw said, per Jennifer Lee Chan of NBC Sports. “I feel like a totally different player. I’ve been laboring on that thing for a long, long time. It’s been a minute.”
The 49ers' big investment into Kinlaw could finally pay off in 2022.
Seattle Seahawks: Edge Darrell Taylor
Darrell Taylor is still a relative unknown around the league. That's to be expected when you only play 46 percent of the defensive snaps on a team that goes 7-10.
But what Taylor did in that small sample size was one of the few bright spots of the 2021 campaign. It's been four seasons since the Seahawks had a player get 10 sacks or more (Frank Clark in 2018).
The 2020 second-round pick could change that this year.
Taylor was efficient in limited action last season. He collected 6.5 sacks while playing as a part-timer, earning a 12.1 percent pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions.
That's the same percentage as Haason Reddick and Chandler Jones. Both were highly sought-after free agents coming off 11- and 10.5-sack seasons respectively.
With Rasheem Green, Kerry Hyder and Carlos Dunlap no longer in Seattle, the door is open for Taylor to take more snaps and wind up as a double-digit sack kind of player in 2022.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TE Cameron Brate
Cameron Brate is set to start his ninth season with the Tampa Buccaneers, and he's never surpassed 660 yards in one season. That could change in 2022.
Brate has been relegated to a part-time role in each of the last four seasons. With Rob Gronkowski and O.J. Howard on the roster, Brate has played less than 50 percent of the snaps every year since 2018.
But now, Gronk is retired, and Howard left in free agency before getting cut by the Buffalo Bills. The Bucs signed Kyle Rudolph, but he saw a sharp decline in production with the Giants in 2021.
Tom Brady has already shown he has a good amount of trust in Brate. He was second on the team last season in red-zone targets with 20. For context, Mike Evans saw 18. Chris Godwin saw the most with 25, but he is coming back from an ACL tear.
Even with an influx of new receivers in Julio Jones and Russell Gage, Brate is a candidate to have a big season as the team's top tight end.
Tennessee Titans: WR Kyle Philips
The Titans receiving corps is going to look a lot different in 2022. They traded away A.J. Brown, who led the way in targets with 105 last season, and they watched Julio Jones leave in free agency.
The most notable addition was Treylon Burks, the team's first-round selection, and veteran wide receiver Robert Woods. Both should aid in helping replace Brown's production, but they should get help in the form of fifth-round pick Kyle Philips.
It isn't often that a fifth-round receiver enters the year with truly high expectations, but that's what the slot receiver created with his camp.
An unnamed Titans defender told Jeremy Fowler of ESPN that they, "haven't quite figured out a way to cover him yet" early in camp.
Burks has had an up-and-down offseason that included conditioning issues early during OTAs. Woods is 30 years old and coming off an ACL tear, and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine isn't exactly a proven commodity.
There are going to be opportunities for Philips to carve out a role, and he could be in store for a surprisingly productive campaign.
Washington Commanders: S Kamren Curl
Entering his third year as a starter for the Washington Commanders, former seventh-round pick Kamren Curl has already been tremendous value for the franchise.
The potential is there for him to be an even bigger steal, though. From a pure box-score perspective, Curl did not show much growth in his second year. He had no interceptions after picking off three passes as a rookie, and he had fewer tackles for loss and sacks.
He did improve in coverage, however. As a rookie, he gave up 7.2 yards per target and a 73.6 completion percentage. In 2021, he only gave up a completion on 59.3 percent of the targets he saw and 5.9 yards per target.
With Landon Collins out of the picture now, Curl is the Commanders' best box safety and an asset in run defense.
He cut his missed tackle rate by 10 percent from his rookie to sophomore year. If he continues that level of play in the run game and adds a few turnovers, he's going to be a surprise Pro Bowl candidate.
Curl did suffer a thumb injury that required surgery, but he's hopeful to play in Week 1, so it shouldn't be an issue moving forward.
Advanced stats via Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.