Breakout Candidates for Every NFC Team in 2022
It happens every year.
NFL players go from either unknown or underrated to superstardom.
Who are the candidates this year? Lucky for you, we’ve detailed every NFL team’s potential breakout candidate in 2022 below.
Dallas Cowboys: Tony Pollard
Yes, Ezekiel Elliot is still established as the Cowboys’ starting running back, but his grip on the job has been loosening over the past few seasons while his backup, Tony Pollard, has flashed elite playmaking ability in his reserve role.
Pollard is clearly the more athletic back, however, he’s never been given a lead-back role while with Dallas. That probably won’t change in 2022, but there’s a chance that Pollard’s opportunities will rise. And if he’s able to prove that he’s the better back then he might eventually flip roles with Zeke. If that happens, watch out.
Philadelphia Eagles: Jalen Hurts
Jalen Hurts is the epitome of a boom-or-bust player. The Eagles have stocked up on offensive talent his offseason by adding A.J. Brown to an already strong cast of pass catchers that includes Dallas Goedert, DeVonta Smith and Quez Watkins, among others. That gives the former second-round pick out of Alabama no room for excuses.
Behind a top-tier offensive line, Hurts should continue to improve in his third year in the league. He’s already one of the elite running quarterbacks in the NFL and if he can become a more consistent passer — which he should with the weapons around him — then Hurts can potentially become a Pro Bowl QB and fight off the narrative that the Eagles should replace him next year.
Washington Commanders: Jamin Davis
Washington’s first-round pick a year ago was supposed to join the Commanders and immediately make an impact and perhaps win the coveted Defensive Rookie of the Year. That clearly didn’t happen as Jamin Davis struggled to assimilate to the NFL. But now with a year under his belt, and Chase Young back in action, Davis should be able to bounce back and in his sophomore season.
Look for him to improve in Year 2.
New York Giants: Kadarius Toney
Washington wasn’t the only team to not get enough out of their 2021 first-round pick. The Giants’ top pick Kadarius Toney struggled mightily to stay on the field due to a litany of issues. But when the former Florida Gator was on the gridiron, he was downright dynamic.
Toney might not be your typical big-bodied receiver, but that’s OK because he moves differently than almost any other player in the league. He’s a big play waiting to happen.
Although the G-Men cleaned house in the offseason, Toney is still a coveted asset for an offense that desperately needs playmakers.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Toney be the Giants’ top receiver in 2022 … if he can stay on the field.
Green Bay Packers: Allen Lazard
Aaron Rodgers (jokingly) called Allen Lazard a future Hall of Famer in a recent interview and who are we to argue with him?
The former undrafted receiver has some big shoes to fill now that Davante Adams has taken his talents to Las Vegas, but the back-to-back NFL MVP doesn’t seem too concerned. He trusts Lazard to be the team’s primary receiver. Will that backfire or will Lazard be the next great Packers receiver?
Minnesota Vikings: Irv Smith Jr.
Despite missing last season with a torn meniscus, Irv Smith Jr. is still just 24 and one of the most fascinating tight end prospects in the NFL.
The former Alabama tight end was on the verge of a big year in 2021 before tearing his meniscus, but now that he’s healthy, he should get right back on track to stardom.
Smith isn’t expected to be the team’s No. 1 receiver. That’s Justin Jefferson’s job. But Smith should still see his fair share of targets in a Vikings offense that should see an increase in pass attempts and is pretty consolidated outside of Smith, Jefferson and Adam Thielen.
If the former second-rounder is fully healthy, he should be a big red-zone weapon for Kirk Cousins and the Vikes.
Chicago Bears: Justin Fields
Unfortunately for Bears fans (and Fields), there aren’t a lot of candidates on the Bear’s bareboned roster.
That could spell bad news for Fields in his second season as he’s dealing with a talent-deficient roster — especially on offense. But if the former Ohio State passer can overcome all the problems around him in the Windy City then Fields will be on his way to superstardom.
He’s already shown flashes of brilliance in his rollercoaster rookie year. If he can survive this season and the Bears lean into what can make Fields great then it should be arrow up in his this season.
Detroit Lions: Julian Okwara
As we head into the campaign, the Lions are one of the more fascinating teams in the league. Detroit has infused their team with talent on both sides of the ball and should have dominant offensive and defensive lines along with some fun skill players such as D’Andre Swift, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jameson Williams. But the team will live and die with the defensive line.
Julian Okwara notched five sacks a year ago and now with the No. 2 pick in the draft, Aiden Hutchinson, coming to town, the former Notre Dame pass rusher should be able to improve with more talent around him.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Okwara hit double-digit sacks if the Lions are as improved as everyone thinks they are.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Joe Tryon-Shoyinka
The Buccaneers’ first-rounder in 2021 joined the team with plenty of hype, but failed to live up to expectations in his first season in Tampa.
The former Washington pass rusher recorded four sacks in 2021, and he should easily up those numbers as he’s expected to take over for Jason Pierre-Paul. Tryon-Shoyinka is another player who could flirt with double-digit sacks if he can improve in Year 2.
New Orleans Saints: C.J. Gardner-Johnson
Criminally underrated his entire career, Gardner-Johnson — who is still just 24 — is the next Tyrann Mathieu. He’s a hybrid safety/slot corner who just makes plays. But to fully realize his potential as the next “Honey Badger,” Gardner-Johnson will need to improve on forcing turnovers. He did that last season, tallying a career-high three interceptions.
The Saints' defense is still one of the best in the NFL and if they can continue that then CJGJ should finally get the recognition he deserves.
Atlanta Falcons: Drake London
The Falcons are another team without a clear breakout candidate. Kyle Pitts and A.J. Terrell made the leap a year ago and have become arguably the franchise’s best players. Sadly, that disqualifies them from making the list this year, so we’ll go with Pitts’ new running mate.
Drake London was the first receiver off the board in the 2022 NFL Draft after dominating at USC. If he can team up with Pitts to be a dominant receiver then the Falcons' rebuild will be on the right track. He should see plenty of targets on an offense desperate for talent.
Carolina Panthers: Jaycee Horn
Jaycee Horn was well on his way to breaking out as a rookie for the Carolina Panthers a year ago before suffering a season-ending foot injury.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, they don’t have a franchise QB, but if the South Carolina product is fully recovered then Carolina has a lockdown corner on their roster.
Los Angeles Rams: Joe Noteboom
A third-round pick in 2018, Joe Noteboom was flirting with bust status as he struggled with injuries early in his career. But the former TCU tackle rebounded with a vengeance last year as a solid presence on the Rams’ Super Bowl champion offensive line.
He’ll now be tasked with taking over for Andrew Whitworth as the team’s left tackle. If last year is any indication, then he shouldn’t have a problem filling the future Hall of Famer’s shoes.
Arizona Cardinals: Rondale Moore
Following a frustrating rookie season, Rondale Moore is enjoying some offseason hype. And we believe it.
The diminutive receiver might not be your typical over-the-middle receiver, but he should excel in the Cardinals’ uptempo offense.
For that to happen, the Cardinals will have to trust Moore to actually run routes past the line of scrimmage. If Arizona gives him the opportunity then Moore should be able to help hold down the fort until DeAndre Hopkins returns from his six-game suspension.
San Francisco 49ers: Azeez Al-Shaair
It’s rather enticing to pick a player such as Trey Lance or Brandon Aiyuk, but we really want to highlight the underrated players. There might not be a more underrated player in the NFL than Al-Shaair.
The undrafted linebacker took over for the injured Dre Greenlaw last year and the Niners defense didn’t miss a beat. In fact, they improved with Al-Shaair next to Fred Warner. At times last year, Al-Shaair was the best linebacker on the field for the Niners. That’s high praise for the former undrafted player and for San Francisco’s talent development.
The Niners’ linebacker group is arguably the best in the NFL and a big reason is Al-Shaair.
Seattle Seahawks: Poona Ford
It could be a long year in Seattle, but don’t sleep on the Seahawks’ improved defense. That starts with Ford.
Undrafted out of Texas in 2018, the short but girthy defensive tackle has been a playmaker for the Seahawks. He’s only racked up 4.5 sacks in his career, but he’s a penetrating defensive lineman who gives teams headaches. He should build off of an already impressive start to his career.
Follow Lance Cartelli on Twitter
Photo: Getty Images