NFL
June 23, 2022
BY Lance Cartelli

9 NFL Breakout Candidates in 2022

It happens every season. 

Young or formerly inconsistent players make the leap to superstardom. 

But who will it be this year in the NFL? 

We've picked our nine favorite candidates who could transform their careers before it's too late. 

1. Trevor Lawrence

There could be multiple second-year QBs who make the leap in 2022. Trey Lance, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields all have a chance, but I’ll take Trevor Lawrence as the one who could make the biggest leap. He was extremely underwhelming in his rookie year, but he now has a professional coaching staff and upgrades – albeit expensive ones – on offense. 

Lawrence showed flashes of his special talent last season. He just needs to be more consistent and make better decisions. If he doesn’t break out this year, or come close, then I’ll start to get worried about the once generational talent. 

2. Mac Jones 

Speaking of second-year QBs, Mac Jones has a real shot to become a top-12 QB this season. He was already a league average QB as a rookie, and by far the best rookie passer. If he can continue to get better, which might be a stretch due to his limited athleticism and Matt Patricia being his offensive coordinator, then Jones has a shot to be one of the better QBs in the league. 

Will he ever be a top-five QB? Probably not. But teams could do a lot worse than the Mac Daddy. 

3. Rashod Bateman

With the loss of Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, the Ravens have a big opening at No. 1 receiver. And 

despite playing in just 12 games last season due to injuries, Rashod Bateman looks to be the heavy favorite to become Lamar Jackson’s go-to receiver. 

The Ravens should revert back to being a run-heavy offense, and Mark Andrews will remain Jackson’s favorite target in the passing game, there’s plenty of opportunity for Bateman to breakout as long as he stays healthy. 

I know fantasy football managers are banking on Bateman bouncing back. 

4. Brandon Aiyuk

Bateman isn’t the only receiver on a run-first team that could bust out. 

Just last season, Brandon Aiyuk was expected to make the leap to superstardom. Unfortunately, the former Arizona State receiver hurt his hamstring and was subsequently relegated to Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse for the first half of the season. 

But when Aiyuk was healthy toward the end of the year, he was one of the most dangerous pass-catchers in the league. He thrives on gaining separation. And if Deebo Samuel somehow does get traded then Aiyuk assumes the WR1 spot in San Francisco. 

Not to mention, Aiyuk has been training with new 49ers starting QB Trey Lance the past two offseason so they should have strong chemistry to start the season. 

5. Michael Pittman Jr. 

Another third-year receiver who I think could make the leap to top-10 status is Colts pass-catcher Michael Pittman Jr. 

Pittman finished last season with more than 1,000 yards so you could make the argument he’s already broken out, but he should take another step in his development this year – especially with the upgrade under center for the Colts. 

Matt Ryan should elevate Pittman’s game and make him a clear-cut WR1 in 2022. 

6. Travis Etienne

If Lawrence breaks out this season, it’ll be due to his upgraded weapons — and the return of his college teammate Travis Etienne, who missed his rookie season with a foot injury. 

With James Robinson still recovering from tearing his Achilles, Etienne should get plenty of opportunities to prove why he was a first-round pick last year. 

The former Clemson star should be a threat on the ground and in the air. 

7. AJ Dillon

Etienne isn’t the only running back to keep an eye on. Packers reserve running back A.J. Dillon – and his thunderous thighs – could be the next version of Derrick Henry. 

Dillon is a load to bring down and is surprisingly good in the passing game. The only thing stopping him from completely breaking out is Aaron Jones, the Packers starting running back. But the two should be able to co-exist and put up respectable fantasy football seasons. However, if both are healthy, then their ceilings are capped. 

But if something happened to Jones then Dillon becomes a league-winner and the next breakout running back in the NFL. 

8. David Njoku

The Browns certainly think the David Njoku breakout is here after signing the former first-round pick to a contract extension this offseason. 

Njoku has always shown glimpses of why he was a first-rounder, but he’s never been able to fully put it together. But it notoriously takes tight ends longer to acclimate to the NFL game, so perhaps Njoku is just a late bloomer. 

If Deshaun Watson is somehow able to play this season then it could be wheels up for Njoku. If not, he might have to wait another year to truly realize his potential. 

9. Irv Smith Jr. 

Another tight end who should flourish is Irv Smith Jr., who is returning from a knee injury that decimated his second season. 

Turning just 24 in August, Smith is likely to be the third option in the Vikings’ passing game, which should see an uptick in pass attempts. That’s a recipe for success for Smith. 

While we don’t expect Smith to surpass Justin Jefferson or Adam Thielen, the former Alabama pass-catcher should be a red-zone threat in an underrated offense. 

Photo: Getty Images