6 potential AFC breakout candidates for the 2022 NFL season

Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) signals from the field against the New York Jets during the first half at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC will feature a number of new faces for the 2022 NFL season, most notably longtime NFC standouts Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and Davante Adams — just a few of the players who will be moving conferences this season.

Then, there are the intraconference moves: Former New England Patriot J.C. Jackson became a Los Angeles Charger, and a shell-shocking offseason trade between the Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins sent star wide receiver Tyreek Hill to South Beach.

Every NFL team endures turnover in an offseason, and those moves pave the way for breakout seasons. Here are three offensive players and three defensive players who have a chance to step up in 2022.

QB Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins

It wasn’t the smoothest sailing for Tagovailoa during his first two NFL seasons with defensive-minded head coach Brian Flores. And while Tagovailoa's passing numbers did improve from his rookie season to his sophomore campaign, his overall and passing grades still failed to hit 70.0.

Season Dropbacks PFF grade Grade rank
2021 428 67.3 22 of 39
2020 326 63.9 33 of 42

Through two seasons, the Alabama product has struggled to hit enough big plays to nullify the number of mistakes he's made. In 2021, Tagovailoa’s turnover-worthy plays (22) outweighed his big-time throws (10), and he finished with a higher turnover-worthy play percentage (4.8) than big-time throw percentage (2.4) for a second consecutive season.

However, the Dolphins have now created a much better environment for their young quarterback, most notably by bringing in wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

Hill has mastered the ability to thrive as a vertical threat while prospering in the intermediate game, and he can provide Tua with the outlet he needs to take the next step. The 28-year-old speedster leads the NFL in virtually every deep receiving stat — including receptions (65), yards (2,574) and touchdowns (27) — since 2017, and his 75 combined first downs and touchdowns tied for the third-most among wide receivers last season. 

While Tagovailoa has always been knocked for his undersized frame and limited arm strength, he has never had the elite separators he now has in Hill and second-year speedster Jaylen Waddle. In a scheme predicated on getting top-level playmakers open and into space, Tua looks much better equipped for success in Year 3 of his NFL career.

WR Gabriel Davis, Buffalo Bills 

Last year had the makings of a potential breakout campaign for Gabriel Davis, but then the Bills signed Emmanuel Sanders to tag-team with Cole Beasley as the secondary options in the receiving corps. 

Davis showed some flashes in 2021, recording career-highs in targets (74), receptions (45), receiving yards (791) and PFF grade (81.5) over the year, but the highlight of his sophomore year came in the team’s final postseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs when he hauled in 8-of-10 targets for over 201 yards and four scores, good for a 92.5 PFF receiving grade in the eventual loss.

Davis has always thrived as a deep threat: His 500 receiving yards from deep passes is a top-30 mark among NFL wideouts over the last two seasons, and he ranked fifth in the nation in deep yards in his final season in college (620). What he hasn’t been able to control throughout his young career has been the target distribution. His 74 targets were a career-high this past year, but it still trailed the top three pass-catchers on the 2021 Bills roster.

Last season, Stefon Diggs saw a decline in passing targets and receptions, though both surpassed the century mark for the second consecutive season. While he continues to get all the attention on the opposite side of the field, the door opens for pass-catching opportunities elsewhere. It’s now or never for Davis to have a breakthrough as a budding NFL star receiver. What better way to build upon his career-high overall grade (81.5) and receiving grade (80.0) than as the clear-cut WR2 in 2022.

WR Treylon Burks, Tennessee Titans

The Titans didn’t want to pay A.J. Brown top-of-the-market money, so they replaced him with another big, physical and athletic rookie wide receiver in Burks. In doing so, they thrust the first-year pass-catcher into the WR1 role for the upcoming campaign.

The 6-foot-2, 225-pound wide receiver averaged 8.6 yards after the catch per reception and broke 24 tackles on 115 receptions across the past two college seasons, grading above 80.0 in each of those two years. Gifted with an otherworldly size-speed combination, he will offer value vertically and on schemed touches underneath. 

With Brown's 110 targets from last season now up for grabs, Burks will have every opportunity to showcase his talent down in Tennessee. 

S Kyle Hamilton, Baltimore Ravens

Hamilton fell into Baltimore's lap in the middle of the first round, most likely because his slower-than-expected 40-yard dash tanked his stock.

However, the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder has absurd length and fantastic eyes in coverage, and he is still one of the most explosive athletes in the class. He recorded 22 combined pass breakups and interceptions in his three-year college career — and only five Power Five safeties have recorded more than 15 over that span.

Hamilton was a true playmaker at Notre Dame, and he now joins a Ravens secondary that recently added safety Marcus Williams and already has Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters.

CB Asante Samuel Jr., Los Angeles Chargers

Outside of Derwin James, no Chargers defensive back registered a coverage grade over 70.0: Veteran Chris Harris Jr. was a colossal Chargers flameout who wasn’t re-signed, while Michael Davis finished a turbulent season as CB1 with a career-low 54.4 coverage grade.

Samuel suffered two concussions in his rookie season, limiting him to just 12 games and 693 snaps, but he still managed to rank 10th among 123 qualifying cornerbacks in forced incompletion percentage. The next step for him is to limit the big plays, as he gave up 12 explosive plays of 15 or more yards a season ago. 

EDGE Kwity Paye, Indianapolis Colts

Paye registered a 77.5 pass-rushing grade in true pass sets last year, a top-35 mark among all pass-rushers. He also recorded a 20% win rate while totaling 20 hurries, three hits and four sacks on those reps — all in his first NFL season.

Paye’s pass-rushing grade was the highest of all Colts edge rushers, and he racked up the second-most pressures on the team (39). With the pre-draft addition of Yannick Ngakoue into the fold, Paye’s numbers could increase this year with a bookend edge rusher on the opposite side. 

Paye’s rookie impact went under the radar because he didn’t have the sack numbers of a Micah Parsons. However, he has the potential to build upon that in 2022, and a change in scheme with added reinforcements can elevate him into a prime AFC breakout candidate.


Unlock the 2023 Fantasy Draft Kit, with League Sync, Live Draft Assistant, PFF Grades & Data Platform that powers all 32 Pro Teams

$31 Draft Kit Fee + $8.99/mo
$89.88/yr + FREE Draft Kit