• Braxton Jones on the rise: The fifth-round rookie started for the Bears and was the only player on the offense to play every single snap in 2022.
• Dallas' Jake Ferguson is the next man up: With the departure of Dalton Schultz, second-year tight end Jake Ferguson is projected to start for the Cowboys and should have plenty of opportunities to impress while rookie Luke Schoonmaker gets used to the speed of the NFL.
• Rashid Shaheed to pick up where he left off: Over the last eight weeks of the season, Shaheed averaged 2.40 yards per route run to rank eighth out of 105 qualifying receivers.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
As we enter the summer months, we turn the page from the NFL draft to preview pieces for the 2023 season and beyond. We've already identified the top 25 players under the age of 25 and followed that up with our top 30 players over the age of 30. Today, we'll look at potential breakout players ahead of 2023.
These players have either flashed potential on a limited number of snaps and should have bigger roles in 2023, or they have played well already but have yet to catch the attention of the general public and media.
JUMP TO A TEAM:
ARZ | ATL | CAR | CHI | DAL | DET | GB | LAR
MIN | NO | NYG | PHI | SF | SEA | TB | WSH
ARIZONA CARDINALS: EDGE Cameron Thomas
The Cardinals are looking for help at the edge defender position after J.J. Watt‘s retirement, highlighted by their decision to draft BJ Ojulari in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
However, one key player might already have been on the roster, as 2022 third-round pick Cameron Thomas flashed potential when he got on the field last season. Thomas earned a PFF overall grade of 69.9 in his rookie campaign and ranked 42nd out of 133 qualifying edge defenders in pass-rush grade.
ATLANTA FALCONS: LB Kaden Elliss
Last season, Elliss played a significant number of snaps for the first time in his career. He took hold of the Saints' starting job in the second half of the season, which led to the Falcons signing him this offseason.
The former seventh-round pick can draw attention if he keeps up his 2022 play for a new team over a whole season, as he finished last year with an 81.5 PFF grade, seventh among all linebackers in the NFL.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: LB Frankie Luvu
Similarly to Elliss, 2022 was the first season Luvu played more than 500 snaps, and he managed to turn some heads with his play. His 74.8 overall grade ranked 16th among linebackers, while his 90.1 run-defense grade was good for third at his position. If Luvu manages to take a step forward in coverage in 2023, he can be among the best linebackers in the league.
CHICAGO BEARS: LT Braxton Jones
The fifth-round rookie started for the Bears and was the only player on the offense to play every single snap in 2022. Jones didn't just handle a big workload, but he also played well, earning a 75.4 PFF grade that ranked 19th among players at the position. His 78.8 overall grade from Week 10 ranked ninth among left tackles.
DALLAS COWBOYS: TE Jake Ferguson
With the departure of Dalton Schultz, second-year tight end Jake Ferguson is projected to start for the Cowboys and should have plenty of opportunities to impress while rookie tight end Luke Schoonmaker gets used to the speed of the NFL.
Ferguson saw limited playing time in 2022, but he did earn a receiving grade of 75.2, 11th among tight ends. He was also targeted on 21.8% of his routes, seventh among 58 qualifying players at the position.
DETROIT LIONS: EDGE James Houston IV
Rookie edge defender Aidan Hutchinson got most of the attention in 2022, but classmate James Houston IV had a very impressive season, too. The sixth-round pick had to wait until Week 12 to get on to the field, but he finished the season strong, ultimately posting a pass-rush grade of 88.2 that would have ranked seventh among edge defenders had he played more snaps.
Over the last seven weeks of the season, he produced pressure on 18.5% of his pass-rushing snaps, eighth among 121 qualifying edge defenders.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: RT Zach Tom
Tom showcased his versatility as a rookie in 2022, as he recorded snaps at every position along the offensive line except center. He did play better when he played outside at either left tackle or right tackle — a promising sign, considering that he is projected to start at right tackle for the Packers in 2023.
He recorded a pass-blocking grade of 82.4 in games where he played primarily at tackle, tied for eighth among offensive tackles last season.
LOS ANGELES RAMS: CB Cobie Durant
Durant didn't play much until late in his rookie season, but he will be thrust into a starting position with the departure of Jalen Ramsey.
The former fourth-round pick did flash potential when he got onto the field, and he ended the season with a 75.2 PFF grade that ranked 18th among cornerbacks. He was especially good in a nationally televised Christmas Day game against the Broncos, where he picked off two passes and returned one for a touchdown.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: DI Khyiris Tonga
The Vikings brought the third-year defensive lineman back on a team-friendly one-year deal, but he is expected to play a big role on the Minnesota defense as a starting interior defender.
While he only played 300 snaps for the Vikings in 2022, he carved out a role as their top interior run defender. His 73.3 run-defense grade ranked 16th among interior defenders, and the former seventh-round pick can take another leap in his first full season as a starter in 2023.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: WR Rashid Shaheed
Injuries at the receiver position allowed Shaheed to get on the field for the Saints — and he did not disappoint. The undrafted free agent started to play a bigger role from Week 11, and over the last eight weeks of the season, he averaged 2.40 yards per route run to rank eighth out of 105 qualifying receivers.
NEW YORK GIANTS: WR Wan’Dale Robinson
Robinson’s rookie season was cut short by an injury, and 220 of his 229 offensive snaps came in a five-game stretch between Week 6 and Week 11. However, over that span, he was targeted on 22.8% of his snaps to lead Giants receivers and rank 18th among receivers in the NFL.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: S Reed Blankenship
The Eagles lost both starting safeties in Marcus Epps and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in free agency, so former undrafted free agent Reed Blankenship should play a major role on the Philadelphia defense in 2022.
Blankenship made an impact last year when he got more playing time during Gardner-Johnson’s injury, as his 76.2 PFF grade ranked 21st at the position over the last seven weeks of the season.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: EDGE Drake Jackson
Jackson’s rookie season did not go the way he or the 49ers envisioned, as he ended up being a healthy scratch on most gamedays toward the end of the campaign.
However, the departures of Samson Ebukam and Charles Omenihu will give him an opportunity to prove himself again. Jackson did pick up three sacks in his first six games in the NFL, showing what he can be capable of.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: RT Abraham Lucas
Seattle’s rookie offensive tackle duo received a lot of praise during last season. However, while left tackle Charles Cross’s performance tailed off a bit, Lucas finished the season strong with an overall PFF grade of 68.4, 39th among offensive tackles.
He allowed pressure on 5.1% of his pass-blocking snaps, 28th out of 96 offensive tackles.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: S Ryan Neal
Neal started the 2022 season as a backup for the Seahawks but became a starter due to Jamal Adams’s injury and poor performances from Josh Jones. He was PFF’s highest-graded safety (91.1) between Week 7 and 15, and he finished as the seventh highest-graded safety in the league over the whole campaign.
Projected to start from Week 1 in the Bucs' defense, Neal has a chance to be among the league's top safeties by the end of the season.
WASHINGTON COMMANDERS: S Kamren Curl
Similarly to Neal, Curl’s breakout would be him being able to play an entire season at the level he’s shown before. Curl was PFF’s second-highest-graded safety in 2022 (82.9), but he has yet to play more than 900 snaps in a season and ranked 58th among safeties in snaps played in 2022 (727).