NFL News & Analysis

Ranking the 10 best Year 3 breakout candidates heading into the 2022 NFL season

Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (10) catches a long pass behind Atlanta Falcons cornerback Kendall Sheffield (20) during the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

While Year 2 is often associated with the biggest leap in NFL player performance over the course of rookie deals, Year 3 is a close second. Just ask the likes of Deebo Samuel, Jonah Williams, Maxx Crosby and Rashan Gary last season.

With the tape, PFF grading and the PFF database at my disposal, I tried to identify 10 such candidates for 2022. I tried to avoid any players who have legitimately broken out already, even if the media narrative on them has maybe not quite caught up (e.g. Andrew Thomas).

Here are the 10 biggest breakout candidates from the 2020 NFL Draft class.

1. WR Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos

Jeudy has been on the precipice of a breakout for seemingly his entire career. Between the quarterback play in Denver and a litany of injuries, we still haven’t gotten to see Jeudy make that leap. With Russell Wilson now throwing him the ball, that looks primed to change. 

Even without Wilson last year and dealing with an ankle injury for most of the season, Jeudy still averaged 1.85 yards per route — a figure better than five different 1,000-yard receivers in 2021. His skill set and route-running ability are very similar to the man who caught more passes from Wilson than anyone else: Doug Baldwin. After lining up primarily on the outside as a rookie, Jeudy went back to his college roots in the slot in 2021, where Baldwin also primarily operated over the course of his career. That’s a role that Wilson is obviously very comfortable pumping targets toward. 

2. EDGE Jonathan Greenard, Houston Texans

This one may be cheating, as Greenard was tremendous last season, but it was on limited time. He only played 414 snaps in 2021, earning an 89.2 pass-rushing grade. These weren’t fluke plays — he has some of the best hand usage of any young pass-rusher in the NFL. Greenard has a whole host of moves at his disposal to go along with nearly 35-inch arms. That’s a winning combination even if we didn’t get to see it over the course of a full season. 

3. S Kyle Dugger, New England Patriots

Hailing from a Division II university in Lenoir-Rhyne, Dugger was always a long shot to really be an impact player early. But the 37th overall pick in 2020 was drafted like someone who should be. We saw his insane athleticism, but not too much playmaking. 

Down the stretch in 2021, that started to change. He finished his second season with four picks and a pass breakup. Where you really started to see the game slow down for him last season was as a tackler. Over his final nine games in 2021, Dugger had 49 tackles with only three misses. Dugger looks primed to join the upper tier of safeties across the NFL in 2022. 

4. G Jonah Jackson, Detroit Lions

Jackson has played over 1,000 snaps in each of his first two seasons — a great glimpse of his career progression to date. We saw it full well in his grading profile, as he earned a 74.5 overall grade from Week 7 on in 2021. Over the course of a full season, that figure would have ranked 12th among all starting guards. Now entrenched on the left side next to veteran Taylor Decker for the entire season, expect Jackson to be in the Pro Bowl conversation at year’s end. 

5. EDGE Trevis Gipson, Chicago Bears

With Khalil Mack out of the picture, Gipson has a golden opportunity heading into Year 3. He already showed out with an 87.0 pass-rushing grade spelling Mack and Robert Quinn last fall. Coming out of Tulsa, Gipson was billed as a project after playing mostly head up over tackles in the Golden Hurricane defense. Still, he possessed elite bend for a 6-foot-4, 253-pounder that served as a great starting point for an edge rusher. That bend led to a ridiculous five forced fumbles on only 489 snaps last season. We can’t wait to see what he can do on a full complement of snaps. 

6. WR Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers

Aiyuk was everyone’s favorite breakout candidate in 2021. So much so that he was going ahead of teammate Deebo Samuel in fantasy drafts. While that looks absurd in retrospect, the production difference was more a function of usage and not necessarily indicative of talent. Aiyuk was a separation machine last season despite only finishing with 816 yards. He hauled in over 50% of his contested opportunities and broke 18 tackles on 56 catches. If Samuel is out any length of time over his contract dispute, Aiyuk should have no problem whatsoever filling that role in the offense. 

7. S Grant Delpit, Cleveland Browns

A fully healthy Delpit heading into Year 3 is a scary thought for opposing offenses. The safety had a rough go of it health-wise for a two-year stretch. He infamously played through a bum ankle his final year at LSU in 2019, causing him to fall to the second round of the draft. In training camp of his rookie year, injuries struck again when Delpit tore his Achilles.

Finally healthy enough to see the field in Year 2, Delpit had his “rookie” struggles early on and didn’t lock down a starting job until late in the season. By the time he did, though, Delpit was legitimately making an impact. As a full-time player the final five games of the season, Delpit earned an 83.1 coverage grade. Those missed tackle issues at LSU his final season were all but gone, with only three misses on 32 attempts over that span. If that continues into 2022, the Browns defense will be a force to be reckoned with. 

8. G Ezra Cleveland, Minnesota Vikings

There was a lot to like about Cleveland as a prospect coming out of Boise State back in 2020, but there were also a lot of reasons why he may not hit the ground running. He was a tackle-guard convert who tested out like an elite athlete yet hadn’t put up much in the way of elite tape. With two years of starting experience at both guard positions under his belt in the NFL, we’ve seen his physical capability start to shine as he earned a 75.4 overall grade over the second half of last season. Plus, he just turned 24 in May — you can see why there’s a lot to get excited about. For comparison, rookie first-rounder Cole Strange turns 24 at the end of July. Cleveland and Christian Darrisaw look like they’ll be holding down the left side of the Vikings line for a long time to come.

9. LB Isaiah Simmons, Arizona Cardinals

Much was made of Simmons' inability to see the field as a rookie, although to me that was overblown. Linebacker is the single most cerebrally demanding position on a defense. To add an entire new playbook on top of an entirely new position is a gargantuan ask for a rookie. So when Simmons didn’t look like Luke Kuechly early on in his career at a position he never played in college, many people freaked out. Now is the time to put up or shut up, though. He’s had a full season of playing time to digest what opposing offenses can throw his way. Now the flashes that we see of his position-changing athleticism can become the norm. After allowing fewer than 1.0 yard per coverage snap last season, Simmons should be able to play even faster in 2022.

10. CB Cameron Dantzler, Minnesota Vikings

Dantzler quietly had a stellar 2021 season, although it didn’t quite come with the splash plays to get him noticed. His one pick and six pass-breakups don’t jump out, but when you realize he only allowed 311 yards on 63 targets (33 completions) things start to look a little different. There’s also good reason to think that he would be a dynamite fit in Ed Donatell’s split field coverage-heavy defense. Dantzler only allowed four catches on eight targets for 40 yards with two forced incompletions on 64 snaps of quarters coverage variations last season.

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