We are nearing the bitter end of "breakout season," the roughly four-month period in the offseason when everyone -- including myself -- handpicks players they believe will break out starting in September. You aren't cool unless you write a breakout players article between May and the first few days of September.
And I try to prove I'm cool every year by going overboard during breakout season. This summer alone, I selected second-year breakouts, third-year breakouts, contract-year breakouts and even "out of nowhere" breakouts.
All of the time spent deciding who to pick and writing each of those articles has culminated with this, my master list of breakouts right before the start of the season.
These are my top 10 breakout players -- who are in Year 2 or Year 3 -- for the 2022 NFL season, and they're ranked by likelihood of breaking out, with No. 1 being the player in which I'm most confident.
10. Pete Werner, LB, Saints
This year's Saints team perplexes me. Hardest team to peg in football. I feel they're closer to needing to rebuild than anything else, while many others have them as Super Bowl contenders. Wide disparity in opinion on New Orleans. Regardless of how the Saints season materializes, Werner will be hit with the young star label in 2022. A freaky athlete with old-school size and deceptive coverage skills, Werner will not only range from sideline to sideline to corral running backs, but he's too athletic for him not to make plays on the football in coverage like he did often at Ohio State.
It's felt like decades, but Cameron Jordan and Demario Davis are still on the Saints defense. Incredible longevity for those two. But this will be somewhat of a torch-passing season on that side of the ball. Werner, now in his second year learning from the multi-faceted Davis, will emerge as someone worthy of a sizable contract extension in the coming years.
9. Elijah Moore, WR, Jets
It's all about Garrett Wilson, the team's initial first-round pick in April, on a Jets offense many believe is primed to be considerably better this season. Do not for a second forget about Moore, the selection the Jets made early in the second round a year ago. I had a first-round grade on Moore, and when he finally was featured in the offense starting in late October, he looked like one, averaging nearly six catches and over 75 yards per game until an early December injury derailed his promising rookie campaign.
Moore is small and ultra-quick but plays with a mindset that he's 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds. He will win 50-50 balls, he runs through weak arm-tackle attempts, and his shiftiness finds space when it's not there. Moore will be the dude for the Jets passing attack this season.
8. Ernest Jones, LB, Rams
Jones gets to play next to Bobby Wagner and behind Aaron Donald. Quite the luxury for a young linebacker. He's a little lower on this list because of all the established stars who'll be in the limelight around him to start the season. But as the year progresses, the super-charged linebacker from South Carolina will garner more and more attention because of the athleticism he shows as a blitzer, against the run and, most vitally, in coverage on what should be a strong Rams defense.
Jones had 61 tackles, four pass breakups, and two interceptions on fewer than 38% of the defensive snaps during the regular season. After returning from injury, he was an unheralded star in the Super Bowl with seven tackles, three quarterback hits, two tackles for loss and a pass breakup. From his physical capabilities to the environment he's in, Jones has all the makings of blossoming into a legitimate star in Year 2.
7. Kadarius Toney, WR, Giants
Toney was born to play in the era of offensive football the NFL has just entered into -- the YAC era. He quietly had one of the best college wide receiver highlight reels in the modern era, forcing 42 missed tackles on 110 career catches as a gadget-type at Florida. That forced missed tackle rate (38.1%) is patently absurd, and we saw glimpses of it in Toney's injury-plagued rookie season, like when he went for 189 yards on 10 grabs against the Cowboys or 78 yards on six grabs with plenty of forced missed tackles against the Saints the week before.
The Giants offensive line will be better. It can't be much worse than it's been during the Daniel Jones era. That improvement up front will allow the quarterback to get it to his playmakers more efficiently. We'll see the Florida Gator Toney this season.
6. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB, Browns
Because of all the (justified) negative PR surrounding everything Deshaun Watson this offseason and his 11-game suspension, it's like the Browns have become the most forgotten team in football. Even the Jaguars have gotten more positive pub this offseason. Once the games start, media attention means nothing. And there are still quality players on this Cleveland roster. In 2022, we'll realize Owusu-Koramoah is absolutely one of them.
A lightning-fast second-level defender with lightning-quick instincts and coverage ability reminiscent of a safety, he'll build on the sneaky good rookie campaign and become one of the game's best young linebackers. Owusu-Koramoah had 76 tackles, four pass breakups, three tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks on just over 53% of the snaps last season. The "JOKer" will be a be a household nickname in Cleveland and the surrounding towns in Northeast Ohio after the 2022 Owusu-Koramoah has.
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5. Jevon Holland, S, Dolphins
Holland was the best rookie safety in 2021. He'd be higher on this list if Brian Flores was still calling the shots in Miami, because his plan to utilize Holland in every role imaginable last season accentuated the widespread talents of the former Oregon star. Holland plays with his hair on fire, but the flame doesn't burn so hot that it's out of control. In a secondary with Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, Holland will have plenty of opportunity to freelance in the middle of the field, fly to outside run plays and pin his ears back as a blitzer.
We'll all realize Holland will eventually reset the safety contract market after the season he has in 2022.
4. Josh Palmer, WR, Chargers
Palmer has Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and perpetual pass-game weapon Austin Ekeler in front of him in the pass-game pecking order with the Chargers, which is why he's not higher on this list. At Tennessee, Palmer won underneath after the catch, with route sharpness at the intermediate level and as a deceptively good (and fast) downfield option. I saw those flashes during his rookie season. Justin Herbert has raved about Palmer all summer.
And the Chargers offense is going to be explosive. Again. Part of the rationale for this pick borrows from a fantasy philosophy. Draft players on high-powered offenses, even if they aren't the first or second option. And I am all in on Herbert. In his second season a year ago, the Chargers had the league's fourth-best passing offense by Football Outsiders pass DVOA. Plenty of splash plays from Palmer are imminent in 2022. Think 16-plus yards per reception and eight-plus touchdowns.
3. Gabe Davis, WR, Bills
The Davis hype born in last year's divisional round matured all offseason -- through training camp and the preseason -- and is bursting at the seams today. The 6-foot-2 third-year pro has had a palpable connection -- especially on sideline throws and in the red zone -- with Josh Allen since his rookie season, with 18 of his 84 career grabs to date (including the playoffs) going for touchdowns.
Buffalo should again be one of the league's pass-happiest -- particularly on first down -- teams in football, and with likely less designed runs for Allen, Buffalo's Herculean quarterback could very well throw it 600-plus times in the regular season (again). And it feels like Davis could see 100-plus targets, doesn't it? If that's the case, considering defenses first need to plan to stop Stefon Diggs, pencil-in Davis for 1,000-plus yards and double-digit touchdowns.
2. Javonte Williams, RB, Broncos
As a rookie last season, Williams was stuck in a timeshare reminiscent of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry early in the career of the Titans superstar. Slightly frustrating to say the least. On the surface, it feels like the 2021 Broncos were justified in a perfectly balanced carry split between Williams and Melvin Gordon (both had 203 rush attempts). Williams averaged 4.3 yards per tote, Gordon 4.4. But Williams avoided 24 more tackles (!) and averaged more yards after contact per rush (3.42 to 3.12).
Williams' collegiate film foreshadowed NFL stardom. He ran like a man possessed at North Carolina with high-level cutting skills, burst and balance through contact. In theory, the Broncos may want the running back timeshare to continue. I'll be surprised if it's close to an even split by midway through October. I will also not be surprised if Williams finishes at fantasy RB1. All the attention and defensive focus will be on Russell Wilson and the Broncos receiving options this season. Wilson's presence alone -- and deep-ball prowess -- will keep that pesky extra defender out of the box for Williams, and the Broncos offensive line is sneaky solid. Huge year ahead for Williams in Denver.
1. Trey Lance, QB, 49ers
Lance is going to erupt in Kyle Shanahan's offense this season. Yes, this feels like a layup, but it's right in front of us and can't be overthought. All Shanahan has done his entire coaching career to date is elevate lesser-talented quarterbacks to competent levels, and when he's had a high-caliber talent -- see: Robert Griffin III and Matt Ryan -- Shanahan laid the groundwork for RG3's Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign and Ryan's finest NFL season en route to an MVP award.
Lance is the most physically impressive quarterback Shanahan's ever coached. Plus, there's star power everywhere around Lance. The NFC West likely being down compared to recent years will help Lance's arrival on the scene, too. I'm aware of the recent Jimmy Garoppolo safety-net extension. I'm ignoring it. Lance will be the NFL's biggest breakout star in 2022.