Predicting Every NFL Team's Breakout Player for 2022

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVMay 16, 2022

Predicting Every NFL Team's Breakout Player for 2022

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    One of the hardest things to account for in any given NFL season is the progression or regression of a player. Development is rarely linear, so it's not as if the previous season ends and everyone is suddenly better on day one of the next season. This is especially true of younger players, who can take massive leaps midseason or a year after their expected jump.

    That won't stop us from projecting every NFL team's breakthrough player in 2022. Some second-year players are obvious picks for an increase in production since they're stepping into a more defined role or found their footing late in year one. Other breakthrough candidates are veterans who are now in more advantageous situations than they were in the past. 

    We're looking beyond the rookie class for our breakthrough candidates since they have no baseline of production established. Some of our selections were first-round picks. Others didn't play at all last year. Let's dive into our projections for every team's best breakout candidate.

Arizona Cardinals: Zaven Collins, LB

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    The number of off-ball linebackers who don't consistently log sacks that go in the first round of the NFL draft is low. For as impactful as the premier middle linebackers are, there are only a small handful who change the way a defense can operate. The Bobby Wagners, Darius Leonards and Fred Warners of the world have a gigantic gap in their capabilities compared to an average but productive linebacker.

    The only franchise operating on a different plane is the Arizona Cardinals. Despite a dearth of trench talent along the offensive and defensive lines, general manager Steve Keim took Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins in the 2020 and 2021 first rounds, respectively. Simmons enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign after a worrisome rookie year, and now Collins is in line to break out.

    Collins started six games and registered 25 tackles and three pass deflections as a rookie. Expect those numbers to grow significantly. The 6'4", 260-pounder was a quality pass-rusher at Tulsa, totaling 7.5 sacks, and he had four interceptions in his junior season. Arizona can have Collins in Jordan Hicks' former role, which led to four sacks from the veteran.

    Collins is fast and powerful. Now with Hicks gone, the role is wide-open for him to step in and prove to be an upgrade. The Collins-Simmons duo will be one of the most versatile and athletic in the NFL.

Atlanta Falcons: Olamide Zaccheaus, WR

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    It's rare to see a position of strength dissipate into a weakness as fast as the Atlanta Falcons' receiving corps did. Starting with the trade of Julio Jones and culminating with the suspension of Calvin Ridley and loss of Russell Gage to free agency, there was a ton of talent that was just suddenly gone. Thankfully, the Falcons have set themselves up to replenish the well effectively.

    Adding Drake London next to Kyle Pitts helped bring balance and define roles for the rest of the receiving room. The young pair of Olamide Zaccheaus and Auden Tate won't ring bells for more casual fans, but the towering duo of London and Pitts will open opportunities for them. Zaccheaus is the better breakout candidate.

    The slot receiver is perfectly built to thrive among the giants around him. At 5'8" and 193 pounds, Zaccheaus will slide into Gage's role. We've already seen promising results in 38 career games. But his first season with head coach Arthur Smith notably highlighted a valuable skill set.

    Of Zaccheaus' 31 receptions for 406 yards and three scores, 22 of his catches went for first downs. He's also caught 60 percent of passes thrown his way. Even if Marcus Mariota doesn't prove to be as precise of a passer as Matt Ryan was, watch for Zaccheaus to earn his trust as a chain-moving, consistent presence.

Baltimore Ravens: Odafe Oweh, Edge

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    If there's ever a position to bank on sheer athleticism in the NFL, it's the edge-rusher position. Large humans who quickly explode out of their stance are difficult to find. As much as evaluators love to see collegiate production, sometimes factors beyond an individual's control limit the raw stats.

    There's not a better example of a fantastic athlete being a better NFL player than collegiate one than Baltimore Ravens edge Odafe Oweh. Oweh infamously had zero sacks in seven games for Penn State in 2020. But the Ravens grabbed him 31st overall nonetheless.

    Baltimore knew that gambling on Oweh's immense upside was worth the risk. The 6'4", 257-pounder ran a jaw-dropping 4.37-second 40-yard dash, 6.9-second three-cone and 4.2-second short shuttle. He also posted an 11'2" broad jump and 39.5-inch vertical. 

    There aren't many athletes better in the NFL. The rookie rewarded Baltimore with five sacks and three forced fumbles despite only two starts in 15 appearances. PFF named him to its All-Rookie Team, as he led the first-year players with 49 quarterback pressures and 10 quarterback hits. 

    New defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald will rely on Oweh more than what Baltimore did in 2021 since veterans Pernell McPhee and Justin Houston have not re-signed. That could mean more snaps for Oweh. He could break out with a double-digit sack season in 2022.

Buffalo Bills: Ed Oliver, DT

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    The name that immediately came to mind as a breakout player for the Buffalo Bills was wide receiver Gabriel Davis. That would be for good reason. Everyone saw the second-year speedster produce 242 yards and five scores in two playoff games. 

    However, we'll go a different direction in order to keep things fresh. Former ninth overall pick Ed Oliver has quietly enjoyed a nice start to his career, notching 117 tackles and 12 sacks through three years. But a set of transactions Buffalo made this offseason set him up for a monstrous 2022 campaign.

    Adding edge-rusher Von Miller will help every individual across the Bills defense. Oliver often dealt with two blockers because the young Bills edge defenders couldn't demand the help. That led to combination blocks that overwhelmed the 287-pound Oliver.

    That will change with Miller threatening off the edge. Oliver will see more one-on-one opportunities in addition to more space to work with as Miller draws the tackle away from his teammates with his speed. 

    Factor in the hot streak Oliver enjoyed over his final five games of 2021 when he totaled 4.5 sacks and the impact Miller will have, and Oliver could double his career high of five sacks in 2022. Something clicked in the right direction that helped him finish pressures more effectively. Expect the growth to continue. 

Carolina Panthers: Yetur Gross-Matos, Edge

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    One of the scariest but rewarding propositions for any front office is to allow a productive veteran to depart in free agency. Proper drafting for future need means there should be a replacement on the roster when they're gone, but the bell tolls when the young player needs to play. Carolina is about to see whether 2020 second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos is ready to fill the role Haason Reddick left.

    Reddick cashed in with Philadelphia on a three-year $45 million deal after producing 11 sacks and 68 tackles in his lone season with the Panthers. Gross-Matos, a Penn State product, played in 14 games last year but only had two starts. He responded with 3.5 sacks.

    Carolina's defense is a favorable situation for Gross-Matos to grow into his starting role. He has a creative rusher in Brian Burns to open opportunities for him, and 2020 first-round pick Derrick Brown is a bullying presence next to him. Gross-Matos is more of a power-rushing, strong-side end than Reddick was thanks to his 6'5", 266-pound frame.

    Fair expectations are for Gross-Matos to be an effective run-stuffing end who can also contribute six or more sacks each year. There's room for a higher ceiling, but becoming a reliable contributor in his first year starting would answer a huge question mark for the Panthers.

Chicago Bears: Cole Kmet, TE

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    Few teams have as uninspiring of a receiving corps as the Chicago Bears have assembled for Justin Fields. Speedy downfield threat Darnell Mooney is the only talent with a noteworthy season on his resume. Expect the second-year quarterback to rely on Mooney and third-year tight end Cole Kmet as he tries to elevate the newcomers who must prove themselves.

    Kmet had a great sophomore season in 2021 despite the Bears offense being in shambles. He finished 12th in tight end receiving yards, catching 60 of 93 targets. As the Bears flushed their ineffective offense and expect growth from Fields, Kmet stands to benefit.  

    New offensive coordinator Luke Getsy is another key factor in Kmet's breakout season. Coming from Green Bay, he's learned principles from Matt LaFleur. LaFleur's background stems from Sean McVay, who often schemes his best playmakers into space so they can create after the catch.

    Kmet is a solid athlete for his size and will need to see a larger volume for this offense to succeed in 2022. He could reach the 900-yard mark with a starring role.

Cincinnati Bengals: Joseph Ossai, Edge

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    One of the biggest surprises of 2021 was just how well the Cincinnati Bengals defense played at the season's most critical moments. The unit played much better than expected thanks to several free agents breaking through and young draft picks developing. But the defense was overly reliant on their two starting edge-rushers because of the lack of depth.

    2021 third-round pick Joseph Ossai was supposed to fill the gaps when either Sam Hubbard or Trey Hendrickson needed a breather. Unfortunately, Ossai's season was over before it began as he suffered a torn meniscus in the first week of the preseason. Getting him back in 2022 is like adding an extra high draft pick from this most recent class.

    Ossai is a different type of rusher than Hubbard and Hendrickson. He's not as bulky and therefore is much faster around the corner. He's a perfect third-down weapon.

    Expect Ossai to get every opportunity to break through as a premier rotational rusher. They'll need him in the incredibly dangerous and deep AFC. 

Cleveland Browns: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB

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    We'll continue to see hybrid defenders entering the league as the NFL continues to evolve into a pass-happy league that requires more versatile defensive personnel. One of those players in the 2021 class was Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Owusu-Koramoah was good enough in coverage to play safety but also had the instincts against the run to play linebacker.  

    The 6'2", 221-pounder was a perfect fit for the Cleveland Browns and just happened to fall to them in the second round. He rewarded the Browns with a promising season as soon as he hit the field. Owusu-Koramoah finished second on the team with 76 tackles in just 14 games and 10 starts.

    The future is incredibly bright now that Owusu-Koramoah is an established starter moving forward. He has the blend of comfort in space and finishing ability to force turnovers and impact plays. Look for Owusu-Koramoah to improve upon his four pass deflections, two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks in 2022.

Dallas Cowboys: Jabril Cox, LB

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    The Dallas Cowboys suffered several key losses this offseason because of cap concerns. Some of those losses, like Amari Cooper and Randy Gregory, were at positions that Dallas was able to backfill. One of the least mentioned departures was linebacker Keanu Neal, despite Neal finishing the year fourth on the team in total tackles.

    Dallas tried to land star middle linebacker Bobby Wagner but ultimately couldn't match his asking price. Instead, Dallas set its price and walked away from negotiations. The team felt comfortable banking on 2021 fourth-round pick Jabril Cox.

    Cox suffered a torn ACL on October 31 last year. He fits the mold as a big-bodied but fast open-field runner. He was raw in college at shedding blocks but excelled in space. 

    Dallas will look to keep Cox as clean as it can. To go from someone who finished with 72 tackles to someone who had two total tackles last year is an incredible opportunity for Cox. The pathway is clear for him.

Denver Broncos: Dre'Mont Jones, Edge

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    Pass-rushing defensive linemen will always be valuable. We know 4-3 edge-rushers and 3-4 outside linebackers are premier talents, but 3-4 ends and 4-3 tackles who get after the quarterback are rare forces. The Denver Broncos have one of the finest pass-rushing linemen in the league in Dre'Mont Jones.

    After totaling 15.5 sacks in his first three seasons, Jones shoudl secure an extension. The former Ohio State Buckeye has shown excellent quickness at 281 pounds. In the loaded AFC West, he'll need to step up in a big way as the Broncos now have Super Bowl aspirations with Russell Wilson leading the team.

    He's more set up for success than ever before. Denver added big nose tackle D.J. Jones to take blockers' attention away from Dre'Mont. Losing Von Miller is tough for the unit, but that trade opened more opportunities for individuals to improve their own numbers. 

    He'll now have a full season as the best pure pass-rusher on the defensive front.

Detroit Lions: Amani Oruwariye, CB

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    There weren't many reasons to watch the Detroit Lions last season. But if you did catch one of their games starting at the midpoint of the season, you would have seen one of their young stars budding. 2019 fifth-round cornerback Amani Oruwariye developed into a forceful presence in the perfect scheme for his skill set.

    Oruwariye fit the mold as a tall, long and fast cornerback who fit the profile for a defense that relies on Cover 1 and Cover 3 coverages. At 6'2", 205 pounds, Oruwariye blazed a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. That speed and length paid off in 2021 when he notched six interceptions.

    His impact went beyond the splash plays, though. He allowed a passer rating of just 57.7, finishing ninth out of 130 qualified cornerbacks. The marriage of forcing turnovers and being sticky in coverage means Oruwariye is on the verge of pushing for a Pro Bowl in 2022.

    In some ways, Oruwariye already broke out with his production. But his reputation will grow as Detroit has drawn more attention after its late-season improvement last season. With more eyes on Detroit, it's time for Oruwariye to shine.

Green Bay Packers: Sammy Watkins, WR

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    The oldest player on our 2022 breakout list is Sammy Watkins. A first-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft, Watkins has had his fair share of success throughout his career. He averaged at least 14.6 yards per catch in five of his eight seasons, and those three other years came in Kansas City, where he was largely a decoy.

    There's no denying Watkins has the potential to be an impactful threat for Green Bay after the team traded Davante Adams. Watkins has fantastic straight-line speed and is a bully with the ball in his hands. His biggest weakness has been availability.

    Having missed at least two games in six of his eight years, Green Bay needs to balance maximizing Watkins' physical gifts and keeping him healthy. There's definitely a risk with Watkins missing significant time, but Green Bay needs his presence more than any team in recent years has relied on him.

    We'll bet on that desperation leading to a breakout season where Watkins feeds off Aaron Rodgers.

Houston Texans: Nico Collins, WR

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    Slowly but surely, the Houston Texans are starting to gather young and interesting offensive talent. They're giving quarterback Davis Mills the entire 2022 season to prove himself after an encouraging rookie season on a terrible team. One of the key playmakers Mills will need to grow with is Nico Collins.

    The former third-round pick moves extraordinarily well for being a 6'4", 215-pounder who never caught more than 38 passes in a single season at Michigan. Having just turned 23, Collins is coming off a rookie campaign with only eight starts. He caught 33 passes for 446 yards and one touchdown.

    Collins is the undisputed second receiver on the offense entering 2022, giving him a big advantage compared to where he was last year. He's not a precise route-runner yet, but he uses his frame to box out defenders and has strong hands. This breakout will be the culmination of several factors.

    Combining Mills' own development along with Collins' is one aspect. The other is how balanced the entire offense should be thanks to a healthy offensive line and additions of Marlon Mack and Dameon Pierce at running back. There's more talent around Mills and Collins, which will help them both shine together.

Indianapolis Colts: Kwity Paye, Edge

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    Continuing to invest into premium positions often pays off eventually with a star-level talent emerging. The Indianapolis Colts became obsessed with finding a Pro Bowl-caliber edge-rusher since Chris Ballard took over as general manager for good reason. Winning a Super Bowl without one is unprecedented.

    2021 first-rounder Kwity Paye was Ballard's most recent stab at developing a star. Paye was a raw but promising athlete out of Michigan. He quickly earned a featured role thanks to solid lower-body power and ability to hold up against the run.

    His pass rush left room for improvement, but there were promising results. Notching four sacks landed him fourth on the team, and PFF credited him with 39 quarterback pressures. The Colts must have liked their early returns, as Al-Quadin Muhammad was replaced with a trade for Yannick Ngakoue, but the Colts opted against adding more competition to the room.

    Expect Paye's workload to increase and for Ngakoue to become the rotational pass-rushing specialist. Paye played just 66 percent of snaps last year. Increasing that amount to 75 or 80 percent will naturally help his breakout, let alone his own individual development aiding his growth. 

Jacksonville Jaguars: Tyson Campbell, CB

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    While it's possible to be great in coverage regardless of what is happening around the cornerback, the defensive unit runs much smoother when pass-rushers are effective. After seeing the Jacksonville Jaguars heavily invest into their front seven this offseason, there's not a player on the team who is in a better place to benefit than second-year corner Tyson Campbell. The former second-round pick is coming off a promising season as a 21-year-old. 

    Campbell is a linear athlete with great top-end speed. His emergence as a rookie prompted the Jaguars to take a bigger leap of faith into his development as they traded former first-rounder C.J. Henderson to Carolina. Campbell then became a starter and forced the third-most combined incompletions and interceptions. 

    New defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell will hopefully pull upon his experience across four teams over the last decade to put together the most tailored scheme for the unit. Campbell is best in vertical zone assignments because he struggles to sink his hips and cut sharply. If Caldwell can account for this effectively, Campbell should see a major boost in his production. 

Kansas City Chiefs: Willie Gay Jr., LB

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    The Kansas City Chiefs already had one linebacker break out in 2021 when rookie Nick Bolton emerged as a potential star at the position. He finished the year with 112 tackles, leading the team by 36. His teammate, Willie Gay Jr., is now hoping to enjoy a similar emergence as a cornerstone for the defense.

    The physical talent is certainly there for Gay. The 24-year-old already showed growth from his first season, as he logged 48 tackles and snatched two interceptions in year two. But it was his playoff performance that caused the most reason for optimism for 2022.

    He quickly amassed 11 tackles in three games and made a big impact as a pass defender. He forced a fumble, made a tackle for loss and broke up two passes despite playing more than 66 percent of the game only once. Gay has made the most of his opportunities as he's become comfortable in the scheme.

    Having both Chris Jones and George Karlaftis in front of him should help create clearer lanes for Gay to thrive against the run. Kansas City needs to give him the opportunity to play in coverage as well. If they do, the Chiefs could quickly have one of the best two-way linebacker duos in the NFL.

Las Vegas Raiders: Trayvon Mullen, CB

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    Regime changes can mark one of the key turning points for any young player's career. Most new front offices want their own set of draft picks or free agents to be on the field even when the incumbent talent is capable of contributing. For Las Vegas general manager Dave Ziegler, adding competition to the team's most critical positions was more of a priority than sweeping changes.

    The Raiders' cornerback spot saw a good amount of turnover as veteran Casey Hayward was replaced with the combination of Anthony Averett and Rock Ya-Sin. The most notable addition, though, is 2019 second-round pick Trayvon Mullen. Mullen missed 12 games because of a toe injury that required surgery.

    If Mullen is able to fully recover, the 24-year-old is poised to thrive in Patrick Graham's physical scheme. His second season was filled with bright spots that pointed toward development into a reliable cover corner who is excellent against the run. Every production category continues to ascend.

    In his career, 115 of 134 tackles have been solo stops. He's also logged 28 pass deflections and four interceptions in 37 career games. The combination of tenacity against the run and ball production is the perfect recipe for Mullen to thrive after the Raiders have added Chandler Jones to allow the secondary to play aggressively.

Los Angeles Chargers: Jalen Guyton, WR

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    As the Los Angeles Chargers chased upgrades at cornerback, edge-rusher and right guard this offseason, we were waiting to see how they would address their receiving depth. Re-signing Mike Williams cost $20 million a year, and the signing of Gerald Everett wrapped up the team's focus on playmakers. The onus is now on the incumbent pairing of Jalen Guyton and Josh Palmer to improve.

    Guyton, an undrafted free agent from North Texas in 2019, is knocking at the door of a breakout. He's quickly established himself as a premier part-time player, averaging 16.3 yards per catch between 2020 and 2021. The growth as a reliable receiver increased in year three, though, as he caught 64.6 percent of targets compared to 50.9 percent in 2020.

    The 6'1", 212-pound burner should benefit from the Chargers' continued investment into the offensive line. Giving Justin Herbert more time to throw with more receivers on the field is one way to increase the upside to the offense. Guyton is primed to be a featured piece in this offense if given the opportunity.

Los Angeles Rams: Cam Akers, RB

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    For all that went right for the Los Angeles Rams' Super Bowl quest in 2021, their running game was certainly not a bright spot. Losing young running back Cam Akers to a torn Achilles injury appeared devastating at the time. He was expected to be the bell cow for an offense that had been dominant on the ground under head coach Sean McVay.

    Instead, Akers' absence highlighted how much the offensive line was struggling to create lanes for less dynamic backs. Los Angeles finished 25th in yards and yards per carry, with Sony Michel leading the team with 845 yards. Thankfully for the Rams, quarterback Matthew Stafford was up for the challenge of carrying the offense.

    Adding Akers back helps bring a new dynamic to the offense because he's more explosive as a rusher and receiver than anyone on the Rams roster. Michel left for Miami in free agency, leaving Akers as the clear lead back moving forward. Watch for him to find more success than his predecessors. 

Miami Dolphins: Nik Needham, CB

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    Choosing a breakout player on the Miami Dolphins was abnormally difficult. For one, they brought back almost every defensive contributor from 2021. There won't be a defensive individual walking into a bigger role, barring injury.

    The offense added a slew of new starters, but they were either stars like Tyreek Hill or rotational veterans like Chase Edmonds. That left us looking for an ascending young player who can feed off his teammates' improvement. Slot cornerback Nik Needham is the best breakout candidate.

    Needham has produced consistently over his first three seasons, totaling between 54 and 59 tackles each year and finishing with two interceptions every season. The most encouraging part of his development is that he finished in PFF's top-10 slot corner grades. His process is continuing to improve even if the results have remained steady.

    With the breakout of safeties Jevon Holland and Brandon Jones, plus the impactful play of Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, Needham is entering a more established version of this secondary than one year ago. He'll flourish more statistically in 2022 since he'll benefit from the increased effectiveness in everyone around him.

Minnesota Vikings: Cameron Dantzler, CB

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    In a make-or-break year in 2021, the Minnesota Vikings largely fell flat. The expectations of making the playoffs proved to be too much after a slew of injuries robbed Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen and Danielle Hunter of several games. Even defensive leaders Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith missed two games each.

    All of that led to an inconsistent team, and eventually the coaching staff was cleared out. A new regime could have come into this situation and flushed the old talent, but instead they inherited a solid culmination of talent. Minnesota needs to stay healthy and improve around the margins.

    One of the bright spots over the second half of the 2021 season was the growth of cornerback Cameron Dantzler. The second-year pro has had flashes throughout his career. From Weeks 11 through 17, he allowed the third-lowest passer rating when targeted.

    A healthy season from Dantzler, Hunter and newcomer Za'Darius Smith are needed for the Vikings to reach the playoffs in 2022. This team is talented on both sides of the ball. Dantzler must solidify his spot as a consistent starter for the defense to realize that upside, though.

New England Patriots: Ronnie Perkins, Edge

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    The New England defensive pass rush was basically a one-man show last year. Matt Judon earned a Pro Bowl nod with his 12.5-sack season, but the only other defender with more than three sacks was Kyle Van Noy with five. That needs to change in 2022 for New England to compete in a tough AFC East.

    Relying on a second-year player who didn't play their entire rookie campaign is a tough situation, but it's necessary for New England. Former Oklahoma pass-rusher Ronnie Perkins drew praise from defensive coordinator Steve Belichick for his development despite not earning playing time. He was eventually placed on injured reserve in Week 15 because of an ankle injury.

    Perkins will be relied upon to deliver this season in the same way he impacted Oklahoma. He brings a good blend of speed and power to a unit with only one other option to produce in Josh Uche. Unlike Uche, though, Perkins has a powerful base to rely on in the run game. He'll earn snaps over Uche on early downs and continue his breakout as he gains on-field experience in 2022.

New Orleans Saints: Pete Werner, LB

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    Watching your team's top draft pick play special teams for the majority of their rookie season can be a frustrating but necessary experience. The New Orleans Saints added former Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner 60th overall in 2021 despite having veteran linebackers Demario Davis and Kwon Alexander. Werner played just 394 of his 590 total snaps on defense.

    The results were good enough for the Saints to allow Alexander to walk in free agency and promote Werner to a starter. The athletic linebacker posted the second-best run grade from PFF last year with a 91. This highlighted an unusual polish while reading run keys and executing gap assignments as a rookie.

    Werner's coverage numbers were more concerning, as he allowed 21 of 28 attempts to his assignment to be completed. He didn't allow a touchdown, though, and coverage numbers can be erratic from year to year. A minor improvement in coverage can go a long way.

    New Orleans will put Werner in a good position to explode with a monstrous season. Starting all 17 games next to Davis is crucial since the veteran is one of the most stable presences in the NFL.

New York Giants: Julian Love, S

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    Some coaches are better than others when it comes to adjusting what they do best to the skill sets available to them. Others are able to churn talent through their system and find success regardless of the revolving door. New York Giants defensive coordinator Don Martindale was the latter in Baltimore.

    This can be great news for certain Giants players. Safety Julian Love has been a steady starter for the Giants over the last two-plus years, but he'll be highlighted more in Martindale's aggressive coverages. Love is similar to Ravens safety Chuck Clark, who totaled 80 tackles, two interceptions and 12 pass deflections in 2021.

    Each of those numbers would be a career high for Love as he enters a contract season. Love and Clark are more glue guys compared to the flashier and more physically gifted Xavier McKinney. Look for Love to embrace the dirty work and thrive in a role crafted for his skill set.

New York Jets: Ashtyn Davis, S

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    Mid-round draft picks who work out often have a development that includes a smaller role early such as special teams assignments. Those that show out in practice or in limited spurts then earn more opportunities as sub-package or role players. By year three, the hope is that mid-round picks become starters.

    Former third-round pick Ashtyn Davis has been on this precise path for the New York Jets. The rangy 6'1", 200-pounder started 10 games as injuries took a toll on their depth chart. He responded with 62 tackles, two interceptions and three forced fumbles. 

    It's critical for New York to force turnovers that put their young offense in advantageous situations. Davis, who will be supported by newcomers D.J. Reed, Sauce Gardner and Jordan Whitehead in the secondary, will now have more freedom to roam as a center fielder. This was one of his biggest strengths coming out of Cal in 2020. 

    The Jets secondary has become one of the most talented young units in the NFL. If they jell as their skill sets suggest they should, Davis is in for a big breakout year.

Philadelphia Eagles: Kenneth Gainwell, RB

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    Unlike the other running back on our list of breakout players, Cam Akers, Kenneth Gainwell is a backup. The Philadelphia Eagles have a uniquely built offense that revolves around their zone-running game. Once they realized this, the team ripped off a 7-3 stretch to end the regular season.

    One of the most efficient offensive playmakers was their fourth-string running back. Gainwell finished behind Jalen Hurts, Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard and Boston Scott in total rushing yards, but he was the best receiver of any back on the roster. He averaged an excellent 7.7 yards per reception.

    He was also as effective as Scott running, matching his yards per carry at 4.3.

    Howard is gone now, and Gainwell showed his value in Week 17 and the NFC Wild Card Game. He amassed 84 rushing yards on 13 carries and nine receptions for 58 yards in those two matchups. It's fair to expect him to hit the ground running in his sophomore season.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Ahkello Witherspoon, CB

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    One reason the Pittsburgh Steelers slipped from their AFC North throne in 2020 to second place in 2021 was the decrease in interceptions. They ranked first with 18 interceptions as they sprinted to a 12-4 finish, but the playmaking dropped off last season. They finished 15th in the league with 13 picks.

    They needed to add better cornerbacks in order to take advantage of one of the premier edge-rusher combos in the league. Of course T.J. Watt finished 2021 in the top five of pass rush win rate, but both he and Alex Highsmith were also top-eight run-stoppers for edge defenders. The problem was they had only one playmaking corner on the roster, Ahkello Witherspoon.

    Witherspoon started only three games and played in nine total last year but racked up three interceptions in his short time. He re-signed on a two-year deal and should compete for a starting job alongside Levi Wallace and Cam Sutton. But what makes Witherspoon different are his spurts of ball production.

    San Francisco wasn't able to maximize his ability to play the ball, but his 40 combined pass deflections and interceptions in 56 career games is far from bad. For comparison, Wallace had 36 combined breakups and interceptions in 52 games, all starts, for a defense that ranked much higher in pass rush win rate last year.

San Francisco 49ers: George Odum, S

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    Safety may not have been a position of major need for the Indianapolis Colts, but it had to sting to see special team ace George Odum crush his opportunity to start seven games in 2021. With just three starts in the three previous years combined, Odum seemingly maximized his shot by sticking as a gunner on punts. But Odum's seven starts propelled him to a career-high 55 tackles, an interception, two pass breakups and a forced fumble. 

    San Francisco quickly signed Odum in free agency to compete for the strong safety role left by Jaquiski Tartt. Odum has the aggressiveness you'd expect from a special teams star and looked more comfortable in coverage than expected for someone with limited experience. His adjustment will be aided by a talented secondary featuring Charvarius Ward, Emmanuel Moseley, Ambry Thomas, Jason Verrett, Jimmie Ward and Tarvarius Moore.

    The 49ers are hoping he can bring the same effectiveness Tartt had against the run while adding some more dynamic ball production. Odum produced more in a part-time role against the pass than Tartt did as a full-time starter. Tartt had 66 tackles but only one pass defense and no interceptions in 2021.

    Look for Odum to do more than his predecessor.

Seattle Seahawks: Darrell Taylor, Edge

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    Expected to be an immediate contributor in 2020 as a rookie after the Seattle Seahawks traded up in the second round to land him, edge defender Darrell Taylor was anything but. He suffered a setback coming back from a leg injury and ended up missing his entire season. Getting him back in 2021 was a needed boost to their lacking pass rush.

    Taylor didn't disappoint in his rotational role. He was tied for second on the team with 6.5 sacks. Entering 2022, his opportunity is even greater. Seattle allowed its two other leading edge-rushers, Carlos Dunlap and Rasheem Green, to leave.

    Taylor will now be flanked by Shelby Harris, Uchenna Nwosu and rookie Boye Mafe. He still has the advantage to produce more since he's the perfect fit into Seattle's infamous LEO edge-rushing position. This position highlights an undersized speed-rusher by slanting the defensive front and creating a better angle for them to succeed.

    Seattle would love to see Taylor get to double-digit sacks. His first year was more promising than expected, considering he hadn't played in 2020, and his physical traits include stellar quickness and hip fluidity through contact.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Anthony Nelson, Edge

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    Expectations are always going to be high for a first-round pick. At some point within their first three years, first-rounders need to be starting, or else most will be considered a bust. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka was a rotational player for Tampa Bay as a rookie but is expected to make another leap in 2022. 

    His competition will be tough since 2019 fourth-round pick Anthony Nelson outplayed him in relief of Jason Pierre-Paul. Nelson, just 25 years old despite entering his fourth season, is a massive 6'7", 251-pound edge threat. He hadn't played much until 2021 but finished third on the team with five sacks.

    He had a breakthrough moment against the New York Jets last year as he started for Pierre-Paul. Nelson finished with three tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss, a pass breakup and a deflection. He finished the year with 10 quarterback hits, the same as Tryon-Shoyinka, despite playing 202 snaps less.

Tennessee Titans: Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, WR

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    Most people would have looked at you sideways if you would have predicted Tennessee's second-leading receiver in 2021 would be Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. Both Julio Jones and Josh Reynolds were notable acquisitions after the Titans lost Corey Davis in free agency, but neither was able to make the most of the opening. Jones was released this offseason, and Reynolds was cut midseason last year.

    Westbrook-Ikhine, just 25 years old, somehow has less competition to earn targets this season. A.J. Brown was effectively traded for rookie Treylon Burks, and the Titans also added Robert Woods. Woods is still recovering from a torn ACL.

    What Westbrook-Ikhine showed in his second season as a former undrafted free agent was impressive. He caught 66.7 percent of his targets for an impressive 476 yards on 38 receptions. He averaged a solid 12.5 yards per catch and finished drives with four touchdowns. 

    The 6'2", 215-pounder has a rapport with Ryan Tannehill, which should benefit him early in the season while Burks develops and Woods gets back to full strength. It wouldn't be surprising to see him push the 800-yard mark since he can hit the ground running in 2022.

Washington Commanders: Benjamin St-Juste, CB

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    So much went wrong for a Washington Commanders team that was supposed to be an entertaining product in 2021. Losing Ryan Fitzpatrick obviously hurt since the gunslinger was supposed to change how the offense looked. However, the defense also underachieved as the secondary struggled with consistency.

    There's plenty of talent on Washington to have a top-10 defensive unit as soon as Chase Young returns from his torn ACL. This includes the secondary, which improved in the latter part of 2021. A depth chart led by William Jackson III, Kendall Fuller, Bobby McCain and Kamren Curl should be a top-10 unit. 

    Allowing Landon Collins to depart was the only notable move within the secondary. Washington will need to move bodies around to reconfigure the alignment. Expect to see McCain be more of a traditional safety than a slot defender and Kendall Fuller to flourish with more slot snaps.

    That opens a boundary corner job, and 2021 third-round pick Benjamin St-Juste is the only major investment on the roster.

    St-Juste is a massive 6'3", 200-pounder out of Minnesota. He started three games and played in nine total last year before missing the last half of the season with a concussion. The results weren't great, as he allowed 64.9 percent of 37 targets to be completed for 344 yards and two touchdowns.

    However, the entire defense was a mess until the latter part of the season. St-Juste was a raw rookie looking as lost as the veterans were. He'll benefit from a full offseason with Washington and coming back to a unit that returns four starters.