With training camps getting underway this week and next, the 2023 NFL season is pretty much officially here. Because it's here, we've got to start thinking about what will actually happen on the field -- not just the theory of what teams can be after their various trades and signings and draft picks.
With that in mind, we're going through the entire league and identifying the most likely breakout player for each of the 32 teams. Let's do it.
After three years of playing him out of position at linebacker, the Cardinals are moving Simmons back to his more natural role as a playmaker in the slot. He moved all over the formation when he was at Clemson and was able to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. The Cardinals, unfortunately, have a bit of a history of not getting the best out of versatile playmakers until it's seemingly too late (like with Haason Reddick); hopefully that's not what happened with Simmons.
It feels weird to be picking Pitts as a potential breakout player, but after the way last season went, it makes sense. He followed up a 1,026-yard rookie campaign with an injury-plagued sophomore year during which he caught just 28 of 59 passes thrown his way for only 356 yards and two scores. But look a little deeper: Pitts was targeted on 28% of his routes run, the 12th-highest mark among 334 players who ran at least four routes per game. Those targets were just wildly inaccurate because Marcus Mariota ranked second in the NFL behind only Zach Wilson in off-target throw rate (17.7%), according to Tru Media. It would be almost impossible for Desmond Ridder to be similarly inaccurate, so Pitts has a chance to smash if he can stay healthy.
Bateman has managed to play in just 18 of 34 possible games during his two NFL seasons due to injury issues, and he's totaled 61 receptions for 800 yards and three scores during that time. These are famous last words, but if he can just manage to stay healthy, he has a chance to explode as Lamar Jackson's No. 1 receiver in new offensive coordinator Todd Monken's offense.
Rousseau got off to a hot start to last season, but a midseason injury followed by Von Miller going down for the year meant his productivity slowed down the stretch. Still, he finished the season having generated pressure on 15.2% of his pass-rush snaps, per Tru Media, the 13th-best mark among 143 players who rushed 250 or more times. A full season of rushing across from Miller, with the pair staying healthy, and Rousseau seems like a mortal lock for his first double-digit sack season.
Brown finished tied for eighth in the NFL in run stops last season, per Pro Football Focus, and third among interior defenders in run defense grade. (Only Dexter Lawrence and Chris Jones finished ahead of him.) With Ejiro Evero coming in to coordinate the Panthers defense, it seems likely that several players will be able to take a step forward. Brown has a ton of talent, and could become even more disruptive.
Brisker showed the ability as a rookie to line up all over the field: He played 371 snaps in the box, 289 as a deep safety, 150 on the defensive line, 100 in the slot and 43 as a wide cornerback, according to PFF. If he can cut down on the missed tackles that plagued him at times last year (14.7% missed tackle rate), he has the ability to be a very versatile, multi-level safety for a Bears defense that badly needs playmakers.
The Bengals need Hill to take a big step forward. After losing both Jessie Bates III and Vonn Bell in free agency, Cincinnati will turn to the combination of Hill and Nick Scott. With Lou Anarumo at the controls of the defense once again, we know Hill would be put in position to succeed. He has the athleticism and ball skills to make plays.
Moore fell out of favor with the Jets last season and ended up slumping to a 37-446-1 receiving line. Now in a situation where he should be one of the clear top passing-game options, he should have a chance to tap into what makes him such a dynamic player. Cleveland should get him lined up in the slot more often than he was in New York (39% of routes) and let him create in open space. With improved quarterback play relative to what he had with the Jets, Moore should be in better position to make defenses pay than ever before.
Dallas Cowboys: Sam Williams
Williams had a limited role last season because the Cowboys just have so many pass-rushing threats. He played only 27% of the team's snaps, but he still managed four sacks and 22 pressures. According to Tru Media, his 13.9% pressure rate ranked 26th out of 221 players who rushed the passer at least 150 times -- one spot ahead of teammate Demarcus Lawrence. If Williams simply gets more opportunities to fly off the edge across from Lawrence and Micah Parsons (who finished fourth among the same group of players), he's going to ruin some tackles' Sundays.
Three spots ahead of Williams on that same list at 14.2%? That would be Browning, who was able to find success as a pass rusher despite the Broncos losing Randy Gregory to injury and later trading Bradley Chubb. Browning also had the fifth-fastest time to pressure (2.27 seconds) among that group of players, indicating just how quickly he can get off the line. (Williams was tied for eighth at 2.30 seconds.)
We were going to use Aidan Hutchinson here, but he already racked up 9.5 sacks as a rookie despite not generating pressure at all that high a rate (9.9% of pass-rush snaps). Williams has to sit out the first six games of the year due to a gambling suspension, but upon his return he should find the perimeter wide receiver depth chart somewhat easy to climb. In Ben Johnson's offense, with Amon-Ra St. Brown drawing attention underneath, there is room for a speedy deep threat to emerge and collect a lot of targets. Williams has the talent to be that guy.
The Packers better hope Love is the guy who breaks out. Otherwise, the offense is in deep trouble.
Stingley was overshadowed by fellow rookie cornerbacks Sauce Gardner and Tariq Woolen, but he also only managed to play nine games and allowed a 67.3% catch rate and 12.5 yards per reception. He didn't yield a single touchdown, though, and broke up four passes while intercepting one. He has the size, agility, athleticism and coverage skills to be a No. 1 guy. With DeMeco Ryans now his head coach, we're betting he starts to show that this year.
Blackmon's been up and down through his first few NFL seasons, and has missed 15 games due to injury. But he's been terrific in run defense, flying down from the top of the formation to make tackles in and around the backfield. With defensive coordinator Gus Bradley staying on under new head coach Shane Steichen, Blackmon should be more comfortable in the system and better able to navigate his way in pass coverage.
Two of these next three names might sound weird off the bat, but I'm gonna need you to trust me on this. I know, Lawrence made the Pro Bowl last year. But I'm thinking the step he takes this season is significant. Throw out the year he played under Urban Meyer, which barely counts as a football season, and think of 2022 as his rookie year. Why can't he be this year's version of a Year 2 breakout QB, but in the third year of his career? The addition of Calvin Ridley could take the offense to new heights and help Lawrence cement himself among the game's great passers.
Over the past two seasons, 147 wide receivers have run at least 250 routes. Among that group, only the following five players have been targeted more often on their routes than Toney (27.6%): Cooper Kupp (30.0%), Davante Adams (29.9%), Tyreek Hill (29.5%), Drake London (28.0%) and Chris Olave (27.7%). Now, Toney is entering the season as Patrick Mahomes' No. 1 wide receiver and will have had a full offseason to get a handle on the offense. If he can stay healthy, look out.
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Herbert has as much physical talent as any quarterback in the league. He just hasn't been allowed to show it off within the confines of Joe Lombardi's condensed offensive system. Enter new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and rookie wideout Quentin Johnston. Herbert should finally be able to make defenses cover every blade of grass on the field, and if Moore gets him to be a bit more aggressive, there is room for such a higher ceiling than he has shown to date.
This is a team of three stars (Kupp, Aaron Donald, Matthew Stafford) and not all that much else, so we're going with a late-round rookie receiver whose college numbers were pretty outrageous. There is not much competition on the depth chart beyond Kupp, with only Van Jefferson, Ben Skowronek and Demarcus Robinson in the way. If Nacua shows out in training camp like he apparently did in OTAs, he's got a shot to begin the season as a starter in three-receiver sets.
With Josh Jacobs apparently set to hold out for all of training camp (or longer), White seems most likely to pick up the slack in the backfield. Ameer Abdullah is more of a complementary, third-down type of back. White has good size (6-0, 215 pounds) to handle a larger workload, but it's worth noting that he averaged only 12.2 carries per game across his final two seasons at Georgia and caught only 15 total passes during that time. Still, the opportunity is there for him if Jacobs really decides to sit out for any length of time.
Phillips generated pressure in 15.6% of his pass-rush snaps last season, per Tru Media, a rate that ranked behind only that of Josh Uche (more on him in a minute), Micah Parsons, Nick Bosa, Brandon Graham, Trey Hendrickson, Za'Darius Smith, Myles Garrett, Haason Reddick, Jerry Hughes and Von Miller. That's 11th out of 143 players who had at least 250 pass-rush snaps. Now, he gets to play across from Bradley Chubb for a full season, in a defense coordinated by Vic Fangio, and which also added Jalen Ramsey this offseason. Wheels up.
Mattison has been given only six opportunities to start in his career, but during those games he's averaged 23.3 touches for 115.5 total yards per game, and he's scored five total touchdowns. That's the equivalent of nearly 2,000 total yards and 14 scores across a full season. If he achieves even 60% of those figures, that counts as a breakout campaign for a player whose career highs are 719 total yards and seven end zone trips.
Uche seemingly broke out with 11.5 sacks last year, nearly three times as many as he had during his first two NFL seasons combined. But he can do even more. Uche played just 38% of New England's defensive snaps. With his league-leading pressure rate, he just needs more opportunities on the field to keep racking up quarterback takedowns.
Johnson has taken on more responsibility in the passing game with each successive season. He had just four receptions for 39 yards as a rookie, then 13 for 159 and four touchdowns in Year 2. Last season, he jumped to 42-508-7, on only 65 targets. His catch rate keeps rising and his drop rate keeps falling. He can stretch the field up the seam and his size makes him a great red-zone weapon. Derek Carr loves throwing to his tight end, and Johnson should be a top target this year.
New York brought in Darren Waller to give Daniel Jones a better option in the passing game. But Waller has played just 20 of 34 possible games over the past two seasons. What if he can't be counted on to stay healthy anymore? In that case, Hodgins looks like the best game in town. He brought in 33 receptions for 351 yards and four scores in just eight games with the Giants last season. Extrapolate that to 17 games and it's a 70-746-8.5 receiving line. For a former sixth-round pick who was waived in the middle of last season after mostly being on the practice squad prior to that, it would be a heck of a come-up.
Hall was in the midst of a superstar breakout during his rookie season when he went down with a torn ACL. After playing just 57 snaps across New York's first two games, Hall racked up 67 carries for 390 yards, plus 12 catches for 170 additional yards in his final four-plus contests. With Aaron Rodgers elevating the team's quarterback play, Hall should be in better position to succeed than he was last year.
Yes, Philly brought in both Rashaad Penny and D'Andre Swift this offseason. But Penny has been persistently injured throughout his career and his contract contains just $600,000 in guaranteed money. Swift, meanwhile, was acquired for a swap of seventh-round picks and a future fifth-rounder two years down the line. Amazingly, the Eagles have probably invested more in Gainwell than either player. And we already know he has the trust of the coaching staff based on how he was used last season -- especially in the playoffs. His career highs are just 68 carries and 101 touches, but if things break right he could double that this year. Given how efficient he's been (especially as a pass-catcher), that would lead to a nice bump in production.
Najee Harris simply has not been efficient enough to justify his workloads through the first two years of his career. Warren averaged 4.9 yards per carry and more than two targets per game last season despite playing only 31% of Pittsburgh's offensive snaps. Warren also bested Harris in yards after contact per attempt, avoided tackle rate, explosive run rate, negative run rate and success rate. If he remains the more efficient back than Harris, the Steelers should make this more of a committee backfield.
Jackson picked up three sacks as a rotational rushman last season. With Charles Omenihu now in Kansas City, he looks like a locked-in starter across from Nick Bosa. The attention devoted to Bosa, Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave should afford Jackson plenty of opportunities for one-on-ones and matchups against overmatched offensive tackles. With Steve Wilks scheming things up, there will be a bunch of chances for him to make plays in the backfield.
It was tough to come up with an answer for the Seahawks. Geno Smith broke out last year. DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are already stars. Kenneth Walker III rushed for over 1,000 yards as a rookie. Tariq Woolen finished second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting. So we're going with JSN, who should settle in immediately as the slot threat this offense needs to take things to the next level. His ability to work short and intermediate areas of the field and snap off routes at a moment's notice makes him an excellent complement to the two incumbent wideouts, and he should be an immediate success.
I'm not sure how much I believe in this one, but given the construction of Tampa's offense, it sure seems like White is going to get a whole lot of touches. Perhaps he can do more with them than he did a year ago.
Okonkwo finished his rookie season with 32 receptions for 450 yards and three scores, but almost all of that productive was packed into the second half of the season. He had just five catches for 52 yards and a score through the Titans' first seven games. From Week 9 through the end of the season, only Travis Kelce, T.J. Hockenson, George Kittle and Evan Engram had more receiving yards than Okonkwo among all tight ends leaguewide. And among the 48 tight ends who ran 100 or more routes during that time, Okonkwo led them all in yards per route run. Even with DeAndre Hopkins on board and Treylon Burks likely to have a larger role than last year, there is plenty of room for Okonkwo to take a significant step forward and be one of the focal points of the passing game all year.
Football nerds and tape-watchers already know about Curl. He finished last season as PFF's second-highest-graded safety, as well as one of only three (along with Minkah Fitzpatrick and Kyle Hamilton) to register at least an 80 grade against both the run and the pass. If the Commanders' defense can finally live up to its talent level, perhaps he'll become more of a household name.