5 breakout candidates for the 2022 NFL season

5 breakout candidates for the 2022 NFL season

Here are a few players who aren't household names, but could be by the end of the season

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Whether it was Cooper Kupp in 2021, Josh Allen in 2020, or Marlon Humphrey in 2019, breakout players have always been difficult to predict, but not impossible. Solid underlying stats, good coaching, and an obvious opportunity for increased usage are the three main characteristics we need to look at in order to identify which players are most likely to burst onto the scene in 2022. With that, here are five players who are going to erupt into stardom (maybe not superstardom just yet; I’m not going to go in that hard) this season.

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Seattle Seahawks RB Rashaad Penny

Seattle Seahawks RB Rashaad Penny

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Some of you might already consider Penny a star given what he was able to accomplish in the second half of last season. However, in 2022, Penny has an opportunity to become one of the top running backs in all of football. Entering his fifth season in the NFL, Penny has never played more than 14 games in a single season and never started more than six. He’s also never recorded 120 carries. Injuries have hampered Penny’s career, but in 2021, Penny showed us what he can do when healthy. In the final six games of the season, Penny rushed for 706 yards and six touchdowns.

Of course, there are still injury concerns with Penny. During the preseason, Penny struggled with COVID-19 as well as a minor groin injury. However, neither has affected his status for Week 1. The injury bug seems to be contagious in the Seattle backfield though as rookie second-round selection Kenneth Walker had to undergo “a procedure” on a hernia he’d been dealing with. As of today, there is still no timeline for Walker’s return to the field. He hasn’t been ruled out for Week 1, but there is no clear return date in sight. Even if Walker only misses two games, that could be enough time for head coach Pete Carroll to realize that Penny is the real deal. Since entering the league in 2018, Penny is third in the league in yards per carry of all halfbacks with at least 100 carries in that span. There isn’t a single player with more rushing attempts than Penny and more yards per carry. That’s a testament to his explosiveness.

With the addition of Charles Cross to that offensive line, Penny could see more holes than ever before. Plus, with Russell Wilson now out of town, it’s very likely that the Seahawks will lean on the run more than ever before. They’ve always been in the top half of the league in run play percentage, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Seattle becomes a top-5 run-heavy team this year.

Sure, with Seattle’s roster being one of the worst in the league as well as playing in one of the toughest divisions in football, there is a chance that more often than not, Penny will fall victim to game script. Penny doesn’t catch passes and if the Seahawks fall behind big early in games, then there would be no reason for Carroll to leave Penny in games where they’re trying to catch up. However, the Hawks are playing a fourth-place schedule and should have more than enough games where Penny will be a factor late. Those games will be where Penny shows us what he’s made of… as long as he doesn’t end up on the IR after Week 3 of course.

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Green Bay Packers WR Romeo Doubs

Green Bay Packers WR Romeo Doubs

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Fourth-round rookie Romeo Doubs is giving off enormous Kupp vibes. That might sound like a bold statement, but from everything I’ve seen in training camp, it certainly doesn’t feel like it. Going into the 2021 season, Kupp and Matthew Stafford often spoke about the incredible connection they’d developed over the offseason. Kupp described how they’d have breakfast together almost every day and talked football even outside of practice. They were inseparable during their first offseason together.

So, when I read about how Doubs and Aaron Rodgers have been getting lunch together one-on-one every day for most of training camp, I can’t help but feel a little excited.

Doubs has looked great in the preseason. He’s been far and away the best-looking receiver on the team, and with Davante Adams gone, his targets are going to have to go to someone else. While Allen Lazard might be the obvious selection, given that he already has a rapport with Rodgers, Lazard has never proven trustworthy. His hands are unreliable, and if there’s one thing we know about Rodgers, it’s that he’s not the most patient with receivers who constantly drop the ball.

Packers’ rookie second-round receiver Christian Watson has had a bad case of the drops during training camp as well. Sammy Watkins might be a valuable addition, but he’s never proven capable of providing WR1 production since his sophomore 2015 season. The preseason hype for Doubs has been enormous, and where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. That’s not always the case. Look no further than 2021 Terrace Marshall Jr., but more often than not, a preseason of Doubs’ caliber leads to production. I’m not expecting Davante Adams-level play right away, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Doubs solidifies himself as the Packers’ top receiving option very early in the season.

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Denver Broncos WR KJ Hamler

Denver Broncos WR KJ Hamler

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I would never wish injuries upon anyone. That said, I can’t help but look at the Broncos’ wide receiver room and feel excited for KJ Hamler. With a season-ending injury to Tim Patrick, Hamler has emerged as the team’s WR3 behind Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy. Over the past two seasons, Sutton has battled numerous injuries and played in only 18 games. Jeudy has struggled with injuries as well, appearing in only 26 games. Any injury to either receiver would open the door tremendously in Hamler’s favor. Given that new quarterback Wilson was capable of supporting two top-tier wide receivers for many years in DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, the top-two receivers in this Broncos’ offense could be due for huge performances!

That said, even if neither Sutton nor Jeudy gets hurt, Hamler still has a path to stardom. See, throughout his career, Wilson has never fed the ball to his slot receivers very often. He’s certainly looked in that direction more often in recent years. Hell, in 2021, Lockett lined up in the slot 60.4 percent of the time and was rather effective from that position. However, just because Wilson found success with Lockett in the slot last year doesn’t mean that he’s going to throw to the slot all the time again in 2022.

Last season, Jeudy lined up in the slot 87.7 percent of the time. He’ll likely keep that role this season. Denver’s new head coach, Nathaniel Hackett, has also never been fond of using slot receivers. In Green Bay last season, Allen Lazard was in the slot on 83.6 percent of his pass routes. He wasn’t very effective, and only saw 60 targets the entire season. Now, Jeudy is a much more talented receiver than Lazard, but the combination of Hackett’s offensive play-calling history and Wilson’s tendencies don’t bode well for Jeudy. He could definitely break these trends, but if he can’t, Hamler could be in for a massive increase in usage.

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Cincinnati Bengals DE Joseph Ossai

Cincinnati Bengals DE Joseph Ossai

 

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A season-ending injury stopped the 2021 third-round selection from playing his rookie season. He looked phenomenal during that preseason though. In 2022, with Ossai healthy once again, he seems to be picking up where he left off. He’s played most of training camp with the first team and has dominated in opportunities against top-end offensive line talent like Tristan Wirfs.

On top of all that, the Bengals did not add any pass-rushers in free agency or the draft, all but reassuring us that the team has confidence in Ossai. Last year, Ossai’s talents were ready to push Sam Hubbard to the interior defensive line. Putting him on the same line as DJ Reader, Hubbard, and Trey Hendrickson will only help him get to the quarterback more often. I don’t expect Hendrickson to record a sack in 11 straight games again. He’ll get a lot more attention from opposing coaches, leaving Ossai with far more one-on-one opportunities. That mistake will prove devastating for Cincinnati’s opponents.

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New Orleans Saints LB Pete Werner

New Orleans Saints LB Pete Werner

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Werner may not have been elite in any category as an off-ball linebacker last season, but he was above average in every single category. In coverage, Werner is surprisingly good for someone his size.

He’s no slot corner, but he only allowed a burn rate (percentage of plays where the receiver being covered gets at least five yards of separation) of 48.1 percent in 2021. The league average was 50.8 percent for linebackers last year. He’s also an incredible tackler, missing only 1.6 percent of his tackles last season. So, even if he gets burned more often in 2022, he’s more than capable of chasing down his man and making an open-field tackle to limit the yardage gained.

Coverage isn’t even Werner’s best area of expertise though. Where Werner excels is run defense. According to The Analyst, Werner ranked eighth in the NFL among linebackers with at least 50 run snaps played in run disruption percentage (a measure of how often a defensive player fills a hole that the halfback could potentially run through). Werner has incredible vision and with all the talent that he’s surrounded by on that Saints’ defense, I wouldn’t be shocked if he gets far more opportunity for tackles than he’s ever experienced before. We’ve already established how good he is at making tackles and if Demario Davis, Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, and David Onyemata can all force the running back into Werner, he could become a Fred Warner-level talent very soon.

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