NFL News & Analysis

10 breakout candidates based on the 2022 NFL preseason

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) celebrates his first touchdown pass to Miami Dolphins wide receiver DeVante Parker (11) at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, November 1, 2020. (ALLEN EYESTONE / THE PALM BEACH POST)

• Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, aided by a slew of pass-catching weapons, looked vastly improved this preseason under new head coach Mike McDaniel.

• Former first-rounder Zaven Collins performed as the Cardinals' best defender this preseason, excelling in all facets of linebacker play.

• Jeffrey Okudah missed almost all of 2021 after tearing his Achilles in Week 1, but if his preseason is any indication, he's back to being the shutdown college cornerback who was a top-five draft pick.

Estimated reading time: 5 mins

There is no set learning curve for a player adjusting to the NFL. Whether it's a top-five pick or a Day 3 choice — this list includes both — the proverbial light doesn’t always come on immediately. These are the players on rookie contracts who looked like they’ve taken a sizable leap in performance this preseason.

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QB Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins

There’s not a more polarizing quarterback in the NFL right now than the Dolphins' signal-caller. Knock his arm strength all you want, but he put the ball on the money consistently this preseason with an average depth of target over 10 yards downfield. He finished 12-of-15 for 179 yards and a touchdown, with one of those incompletions being a drop. Yes, it’s preseason, but his 88.8 grade represents a significant upgrade over where he was at the same point a year ago (75.9 preseason grade).

WR Josh Palmer, Los Angeles Chargers

The first thing that jumped out about Palmer this preseason was his target share. On only 21 routes, he saw eight targets. While that’s obviously without Justin Herbert or Mike Williams/Keenan Allen, that still means he’s a clear tier above the rest of the receiving corps. He also seemed to have added a bit of explosiveness to his game, as he hauled in a 41-yarder against the Cowboys. That was already longer than any catch he had as a rookie. There are a lot of mouths to feed in the Chargers' offense, but it looks like Palmer will eat when given an opportunity. 


TE Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears

Building rapport with a young quarterback is massive, and it looks as if Kmet has that already with Justin Fields. He ran just 18 routes this preseason yet was targeted on six of them. He turned those six into five catches for 67 yards and a score. For a third-year player who only just turned 23 years old this offseason, the arrow is pointing up.


OT Chuma Edoga, New York Jets

There’s a reason why the Cowboys were reportedly interested in trading for the Jets backup left tackle this offseason. It’s because Edoga looked like a different player than we’d ever seen from him in spot starts over his career. The former third-rounder in 2019 earned an 85.9 overall grade this preseason, including a 90.2 run-blocking grade. While it’s unlikely he gets traded at this point in the season, Edoga could still easily see the field should the nearly 37-year-old Duane Brown not be able to stay healthy across a full season.

OT Josh Jones, Arizona Cardinals

Jones has been moved all over the line since he got to Arizona. That is, except the left tackle position he played in college. He was back home there this preseason and looked like the player who excelled at Houston. He allowed only two pressures on 127 pass-blocking snaps and earned an 83.9 overall grade. It will be interesting to see where he ends up playing on the Cardinals line after that performance.


G Logan Stenberg, Detroit Lions

Stenberg is yet another offensive lineman who may not even have a starting role but looks ready to fill one. He was the same bully this preseason that we saw at Kentucky a few years ago. He led all offensive linemen with four big-time blocks this preseason. Stenberg finished with an 80.1 overall grade on 167 snaps — all at left guard.


EDGE Bryce Huff, New York Jets

Huff flashed early on in 2021 before an injury and now looks ready for an expanded role despite the Jets drafting Jermaine Johnson II at the same position in the first round. Huff earned an 88.6 pass-rushing grade this preseason with 12 pressures on only 45 pass-rushing snaps. And it wasn’t solely against backups — his tape includes wins against Jordan Mailata. After resoundingly outplaying the first-rounder, the former UDFA doesn’t look like he’s giving up his job anytime soon.


S Johnathan Abram, Las Vegas Raiders

The safety position is a catch-all for a number of different roles a player could be asked to assume. And it looks like what Abram will be asked to do in Patrick Graham’s defense is vastly different from what he did in Gus Bradley’s a year ago. For starters, it’s taken him out of as many pure match zone coverages where he has to read route concepts. That's most obvious when he's asked to blitz. Abram did that on nearly 10% of his snaps this preseason after doing so on only 2.2% of his snaps last year. The results so far have seen Abram playing faster and more downhill en route to an 84.8 overall grade this preseason.


LB Zaven Collins, Arizona Cardinals

A year after Collins could barely see the football field despite being a first-rounder, the former Tulsa linebacker looked like the Cardinals' best defender this preseason. He showed off the complete skill set of making plays as a blitzer, run stuffer and coverage defender. The four targets into his coverage resulted in a grand total of five yards this preseason. The second-year linebacker finished with an 84.0 overall grade after earning only a 53.6 mark last preseason.


CB Jeffrey Okudah, Detroit Lions

It’s been a while since we’ve seen the top-three pick at the top of his game. After one of the worst rookie seasons from a cornerback in recent memory, Okudah tore his Achilles in Week 1 last year. On 54 snaps in three preseason games this year, though, Okudah looked like the guy the Lions thought they were getting. He allowed only one first down on four targets and broke up a pass while guarding heralded Steelers rookie George Pickens. Okudah was physical at the line and in run support, as he made six tackles without a miss. This Lions defense will be a different animal in 2022.

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