Updated: Sep 6, 2022
Highlighting One Breakout Candidate at Every Position
Written by: Aaron Ussery
The first batch of preseason games have come and gone, and the NFL regular season draws ever near. Now is a perfect time to look ahead to some of the potential breakout players for the 2022 season. Look below for a list of players I've got my eye on to join the folds of NFL stardom in 2022.
QB - Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars
I wish I could go in a less obvious direction here, but c'mon... it's Trevor Lawrence. The man was the resounding number one overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft for a reason. And of course, his rookie season didn't go as planned (that'll happen when your head coach is a sociopath who doesn't want too actually be there.)
Count me among those who believe the arrival of Doug Pederson will help Lawrence ascend into the type of player we all know he can be. With a more stable presence at the wheel, the second year QB will be able to focus more on what's happening on the field as opposed to off of it. I suspect that alone would be enough to propel him squarely into the upper echelon of NFL starters, but Pederson's QB friendly offense could help give the second year pro an extra boost. If that's the case, a high-functioning Lawrence could help lift the team's laundry list of unproven or middle-tier offensive players - such as Travis Etienne, Christian Kirk, and Laviska Shenault.
RB - Kenneth Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles
The tea leaves throughout training camp have been strongly indicating an emergence for Gainwell, as the second-year pro has made himself more than a few fans with his dynamic play (including his own coach). With a chance to earn more snaps on field, behind an offensive line that was one of the best run blocking units in the league last season, he's a strong breakout candidate for this upcoming season.
The Memphis product showed flashes as a rookie, displaying some silky-smooth open field elusiveness and penchant for making plays as a receiving target. That could help him gain a leg up on starter Miles Sanders, who has been plagued by drops in recent seasons. Even if he can't wrench away the starting job outright, Gainwell is likely in store for an expanded role in 2022 as the team looks for ways to grow the passing game.
WR - KJ Osborn, Minnesota Vikings
Osborn is someone casual fans may not know a ton about. With guys like Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen in front of him on the depth chart, it's easy to see how he'd get overshadowed. But Minnesota's WR3 proved he play a little ball himself in 2021. He hauled in 50 catches for 655 yards and an impressive 7 touchdowns last season.
The former 5th round pick has developed nicely the past few seasons, blossoming into a very skilled route runner. Osborn's crisp feet and sharp separation instincts have been giving the team's defensive backs fits thus far in training camp.
Justin Jefferson is a top five receiver in the NFL right now, so nobody is going to be eating into his targets. But Adam Thielen will be 32 when the regular season starts, hasn't logged over 1,000 yards since 2018, and only played in 13 games last year. If age catches up with the longtime vet even more in 2022, the WR2 spot next to Jefferson will be up for grabs. Osborn looks like the guy to take it.
TE - Tommy Tremble, Carolina Panthers
Tremble was my third favorite tight end prospect in the 2021 draft class, behind Kyle Pitts and Pat Freiermuth. He was always going to be a work in progress as a receiver, and that largely held true in his rookie season as he only received 35 targets on the year. This season, however, I think he's in line to wrestle the starting job away from Ian Thomas (despite the oversized extension he received at the start of free agency).
Tremble is a superior blocker and at this stage possesses more athleticism than the former Indiana prospect. With the state of the QB room, I expect Carolina to favor a running offense this season. That will give the 6'4" 250 lbs. Tremble more opportunities to get on the field, where I think he will inevitably also find more targets. He may not necessarily set the stat sheet ablaze, but I wouldn't say a Dawson Knox-like 50 receptions, 600-yard, 7 touchdown season is out of the question.
OT - Joe Noteboom, Los Angeles Rams
Andrew Whitworth ain't walking through that door ... and that may be okay?
Noteboom has been tabbed as the guy to replace the longtime vet and future Hall of Famer. And while those are devastatingly large cleats to fill, the organization seems to have complete confidence in him. It won't be the first time they've gotten a look at him lining up on the far left side, as Noteboom stepped in as a starter for two games last season and for seven games back in 2020. Every time he's come in, he's looked solid.
While I don't expect him to meet the standard that Whitworth set -- (few ever could -- I could see Noteboom establishing himself as a reliable starting left tackle this season (in the mold of a Russell Okung or a Dion Dawkins.)
IOL - Danny Pinter, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts allowed Mark Glowinski to walk in free agency, granting Pinter a prime opportunity to seize the right guard spot this upcoming season. Injuries forced him into starting action in three games last year, albeit at center as opposed to guard. Still, in those three starts the former fifth round pick earned a 78.7 grade in run blocking from PFF last season and didn't allow a single sack or QB hit.
Pinter is in a great spot to continue his rise in 2022, as he'll be bracketed by Pro Bowlers along the rest of the Colts O-Line and blocking for the one of the best running backs in the NFL in Jonathan Taylor. He won't turn into a "star" (that's a tough thing to do when you play interior O-Line), but I can definitely see him developing into a plus-level starter this upcoming season.
EDGE - Charles Omenihu, San Francisco 49ers
Omenihu might be an unfamiliar name to some, as the now fourth year pro spent the first few seasons of his career going relatively unnoticed for the Houston Texans. He's always been a solid player, but things really started clicking for him in 2021 after an in-season trade to the San Francisco 49ers. Omenihu came away with an 81.8 pass rush grade per PFF, by far the highest mark of his NFL tenure thus far.
Now, with a full offseason of training with Niners D-Line coaching extraordinaire Kris Kocurek, Omenihu is poised for a breakout campaign. He has always had the talent, but now that he's playing for a team that historically gets the absolute best out of its defensive lineman, I'm really excited to see what he can become.
IDL - Tim Settle, Buffalo Bills
Settle was seen as a low-floor/high-ceiling IDL prospect coming out of Virginia Tech back in 2018. When Washington selected him in the same class as starting NT Daron Payne, Settle was primarily relegated to backup/rotational duties while he developed. However, he has shown steady improvement in every single season thus far - earning a two-year, $9 million deal with the Bills this offseason.
That number likely means Settle will be seeing a lot more starting snaps than he did in D.C. He likely will see a lot of action in five-man fronts for the Bills, joining Oliver in the 2i/3/4i responsibilities while Jones handles the nose tackle spot. With all the talent around him on the defensive line, I expect Settle will see a lot of one-on-one matchups as well - and make no mistake, despite his 330 lb. frame he has the pass rushing savvy to be able to take advantage of those kinds of matchups. Don't be surprised if he winds up posting anywhere between 6 to 8 sacks this season.
LB - Pete Werner, New Orleans Saints
Werner proved himself as a worthy running mate to star middle linebacker Demario Davis. In 172 snaps, he had a missed tackle percentage of just 5% on the season - one of the lowest marks among linebackers in the league. He was a vacuum, showing exceptional technique and veteran-level instincts and awareness.
He still has some room to grow in pass coverage, but that area of the game was a strength for him at Ohio State - so I very much expect to see him improve in that regard. Dennis Allen is likely going to put more on Werner's plate this year, as Davis will be 33 years old and entering his 11th season. I won't be surprised if his name is being mentioned as one of the very best young linebackers in the NFL come this time next year.