At least three things are certain in life: death, taxes and an NFL player on one of the 32 teams seemingly coming out of "nowhere" to have a breakout season that makes everyone take notice of what those around him already knew -- that he had the ability to take over professional football games. And while some can be predicted, more often than not, it's something that comes out of left field, which is one of the reasons football is so special.
As the calendar turns to mid-June and mandatory minicamps around the league, there are literally nearly 3,000 players working to make a roster for the fall, and the large majority are not franchise players with no worries, but instead guys hoping to earn playing time and/or having already proven the latter but simply trying to take their game to the next level.
So let's predict at least one player from each NFC team who has a chance to not only do the latter this coming season, but to possibly turn themselves into a headliner in the process.
You've heard a lot about the offseason shenanigans involving the loss of Randy Gregory and the near-loss of DeMarcus Lawrence, but what you might've missed is just how much potential exists in Gallimore to become a dominant interior defensive lineman -- which would make it easier on whomever rushes off of the edge on any given snap in Dallas going forward. After seeing most of his sophomore season derailed by a preseason elbow injury, Gallimore is again healthy, and having demonstrated in his return last season that he's capable of being an elite talent (something his rookie film promised), don't be surprised if, in 2022, he becomes a star at The Star.
Sure, it's difficult to view a former first-round pick at any position as someone flying under the radar, but considering Savage was given that nod in 2019, and we're now entering 2022, it's safe to say the coming circumstances for Savage position him well for a monster season. He has proven himself a capable starter, but not necessarily a star player, but the latter could change with potential contract talks ahead -- as his rookie deal begins to near its conclusion. It feels like a do-or-die moment for Savage, and players usually find an extra gear (or several) when that's the case.
OK, let's try this again, shall we? I named Akers a breakout candidate for 2021, but injury ahead of the season put an end to that, but credit to Akers for bucking the odds and returning to the field from a torn Achilles that would've kept most out the entirety of the year -- positioning him well for a healthy offseason in preparation for a mulligan in 2022. Akers has the ability to be one of the most dynamic backs in the league, in both the run and pass attack, and you can bet Sean McVay and Matthew Stafford are readying to make him a central point of their offense going forward.
As it stands, there is no Jason Pierre-Paul in Tampa, and that could be due, at least in part, to what newly promoted head coach Todd Bowles sees in JTS. Tryon-Shoyinka will have to step up his game in a big way in 2022, absent both JPP and Ndamukong Suh on the defensive line, but playing alongside Shaq Barrett will certainly aid in his efforts to become a star player for the Bucs. Similar to the aforementioned Savage, JTS is a former first-round pick who carries a ton of expectations but, unlike Savage this season, he's being tasked with possibly becoming a defensive staple in Year 2.
How's this for an under-the-radar guy? Thompson is a product of the NFL supplemental draft, scooped up by the Cardinals in 2019 and looked to as a developmental player who has proven himself to be quite a bit more. Overshadowed by the stellar existence of fellow safety Budda Baker, Thompson has quietly done his job -- to the tune of 12 starts in 2021 with three interceptions, seven pass breakups and a career-high 121 combined tackles -- and set himself up to become a star in the Arizona secondary, even if it is standing next to the comet named Baker.
Not entirely dissimilar to my stance on Akers, I listed Aiyuk as a possible breakout candidate for 2021 but, unlike Akers, it wasn't injury that kept Aiyuk from realizing his full potential last season. He upped his production mostly across the board, and that's a sign he's approaching top gear, something that would be aided by the current rift between Deebo Samuel and how the team chooses to use him. With Kyle Shanahan pointing out that Aiyuk "can do" what Samuel does, it's safe to take that as a hint that even if things get ironed out completely with the latter, that the former will see more work going forward.
It's your show now, Mr. Brooks. The decision to part ways with perennial All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner can not easily be quantified on the field, and can't be quantified at all in the locker room, but what's done is done; and the future Hall of Fame linebacker is now a member of the rival Los Angeles Rams. For Brooks, that means being tossed the crown and scepter in the linebacker room as defensive play-caller and de facto heart of the entire defensive unit. If anyone on this list is set up to become a potential star in 2022, it's Brooks, who has progressed impressively since his rookie season and, as such, likely played a part in the Seahawks' decision to let go of one of the best linebackers in NFL history.
If you're an Eagles fan, you have to like what you saw from Gainwell as a rookie. He showed ability not just on handoffs but particularly as a receiver out of the backfield. He set a solid foundation for himself that Nick Sirianni will look to build upon in 2022, and that could eventually make Gainwell the feature back in Philly, especially if Miles Sanders continues to battle durability issues. He would have to fight off veteran running back Boston Scott, however, but even if time is split between two of the three -- there's a huge opportunity here for Gainwell to make sure he's not the odd man out.
A former second-round pick of the Saints in 2021, Werner is about to get tossed into the flames, whether he's ready or not. With the exit of linebacker Kwon Alexander, Werner will get a chance to step in as starter for 2022. He logged eight starts in 15 games last season in which he was active, but left plenty of meat on the bone from a statistical standpoint. It feels as if Werner could potentially benefit from another year of preparation, but defensive coordinator-turned-head coach Dennis Allen will look to him as a key player in what the Saints' defense will look like going forward, and Werner does have the ability to be a quick study.
This is going to be an uphill battle to see happen, but that's kind of the fun here, now isn't it? After an unimpressive rookie season following a third-round nod in last year's draft, Davis absolutely has to hit the ground running for his new coaching regime. Mike Zimmer is out as head coach and Kevin O'Connell is in, the latter being a Super Bowl-winning offensive coordinator who might be able to coach Davis up in a manner Zimmer could not. And if that happens, the skill set that made him a unanimous All-American and the Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year at Ohio State could begin to shine.
It's been awhile since there has been a shutdown cornerback in Washington, but St-Juste is hoping to change that -- sooner than later. If not for a battle with concussions, it might've been a more dynamic 2021 season for him. Now presumably fully healthy and good to go, Ron Rivera will look for him to show them what they believe to be bubbling inside, and that's namely a great tandem piece to play alongside William Jackson III and Kendall Fuller. It won't be difficult for St-Juste to get enough reps to capitalize, as a player who can operate in the slot or on the outside, he just needs to make the best of what's given to him and the rest will take care of itself.
Another who couldn't realize his potential early on due to injury was Robinson, missing roughly half of his rookie year due to it, but his return was met with a lot of reps as he was looked upon to ramp up quickly due to injury to his defensive compatriots. It was a challenge to see exactly what Robinson can be at the NFL level, based upon the roller coaster that was his rookie campaign, but his collegiate tape helps provide perspective in identifying his potential -- of which there is aplenty. And with James Bradberry now gone, look for newly hired head coach Brian Daboll to turn to Robinson early and often, a plan that could lead him to a breakout season in 2022 or very near it.
At this point, you might be sensing a bit of a theme, in that several of these players were ready to hit the ground running until the ground hit back -- injury-wise. Jacobs falls into this category as well, but he was still able to make an early imprint on the brain of defensive-minded head coach Dan Campbell over the course of his nine starts in 13 games, including logging 34 combined tackles, seven pass breakups, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. That kind of production in a short period of time bodes well for what Jacobs might be able to deliver for Detroit in Year 2 and beyond.
Let's be honest in admitting that the Kansas City Chiefs probably wish Pringle was still on the roster, especially after having traded away All-Pro receiver Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins this offseason. Instead, Pringle is readying to suit up for the Bears and, as such, has a very real shot at becoming a (if not the) top receiving weapon for former first-round pick Justin Fields. No Allen Robinson means Pringle enters with a shot to earn the role of WR1, and his exit from Kansas City was laced with fireworks offensively -- finishing with career-highs in both receiving yards (568) and receiving touchdowns (5) while catching 72% of everything thrown his way since entering the league in 2019. When it comes to Pringle, once Fields pops, he won't be able to stop.
Julio Jones was sent packing in 2021, Russell Gage left in 2022 free agency for the rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Calvin Ridley won't be allowed to see the field until 2023, at the earliest, following an indefinite suspension stemming from gambling on NFL games. That leaves the primary receiving target as former first-round pick Kyle Pitts, a worthy one, but more is needed, and especially in the post-Matt Ryan era that will see Marcus Mariota attempt to do in Atlanta what he couldn't do for the Tennessee Titans or Las Vegas Raiders: prove he's a QB1. Edwards is in a tough spot, but one he should relish, because here's a chance to become a star beside Pitts.
Step right on up, YGM. With Haason Reddick taking his talents to the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency, there's now a huge void on the defensive edge in Carolina. This is exactly the situation the former second-round pick (2020) was brought into the Panthers' organization for, but he'll have to truly improve his overall ability to rush the passer if he wants to retain the starting role and go on to become an impact player for Matt Rhule. But, at a spry age of 24, Gross-Matos has plenty of spring in his step that could trampoline him toward stardom -- assuming he fully commits and becomes what the Panthers believed he could be when they were high on him coming out of Penn State.