NFL News & Analysis

6 potential NFC breakout candidates for the 2022 NFL season

Glendale, Arizona, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Eric Stokes (21) against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The flurry of transactions in any given NFL offseason leads to a shuffling of roles, some minor and some prominent. The Green Bay Packers, for example, won't have Davante Adams as their WR1 for the first time in almost half a decade after trading him to the Las Vegas Raiders. And less notably, the team let cornerback Kevin King test the free agency market, opening the door for Eric Stokes to take on more responsibility in 2022.

Such scenarios exist for every NFL team, and they pave the way for breakout seasons. Here are three NFC offensive players and three defensive players who have a chance to step up this upcoming season.

TE Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears

Kmet’s uptick in targets from his rookie season (46) to his sophomore campaign (89) was significant. He took on an elevated role in last year’s passing game, setting the stage for a 60-reception season and career-high 63.4 receiving and offensive grades. Now in Year 3, he has a chance to be a breakout star thanks in large part to questions at Chicago's offensive skill positions.

While second-year quarterback Justin Fields has the continued emergence of draft gem Darnell Mooney (74.7 grade in 2021) to look forward to, the Bears' offense is otherwise barren of proven weapons. However, Kmet’s 94.8 receiving grade on medium depth targets (10-19 yards downfield) perfectly plays to one of Field’s passing strengths (78.1 medium passing depth grade) and could be the basis for a breakout in 2022.

WR Jalen Tolbert, Dallas Cowboys

CeeDee Lamb is expected to solidify his WR1 standing this year in spite of a few unknowns around him in the Cowboys' receiving room. Michael Gallup may not be ready for Week 1 while still recovering from an ACL tear, leaving the position of Robin to Lamb’s Batman up for grabs.

Dak Prescott’s deep connection with Gallup (95.5 grade on deep passes in 2021) could be taken over by the rookie Tolbert, at least early on, or semi-veteran James Washington. Tolbert had five receiving touchdowns on 20-plus yard passes en-route to his career-high 98.2 deep receiving grade at South Alabama last season. The third-rounder boasts the upside to come in and hold down the WR2 position while remaining a mainstay in the Dallas passing offense once Gallup returns. 

WR Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers

Amid the unknown of Deebo Samuel’s status with the team, wide receiver touches are available to a variety of solid 49ers pass-catchers. Aiyuk was seemingly in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse at times last season, enduring a slow start to the year before returning to form as a solid receiving option. With second-year quarterback Trey Lance in line to start in 2022, Aiyuk will be expected to take the third-year leap as a valuable receiving option.

Aiyuk's 99.8 grade on intermediate targets (10-19 yards) in 2021 ranked second among all wideouts, and that's likely the range in which Lance will lean on him as a potential emergency WR1 without Samuel.

CB Paulson Adebo, New Orleans Saints

Adebo took his early-season lumps in 2021, as most rookie defensive backs do. By season's end, he had registered three 72.0-plus coverage grades in his final five matchups and tallied six forced incompletions and four pass breakups.

His second year as CB2 opposite Marshon Lattimore has a chance to be even better. Free agent signees Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye will only aid Adebo’s chances of success in the secondary. In 2020, Maye was one of the better zone coverage safeties in football, finishing with the second-highest PFF zone coverage grade among safeties (90.6). Maye’s range and Honey Badger’s versatility will allow Adebo to roam and be aggressive on the boundary to the tune of a breakthrough opportunity.

CB Eric Stokes, Green Bay Packers

The Kevin King cornerback experiment was a constant loop of disappointment for Green Bay. While he earned the highest PFF coverage grade of his career in 2021, he still allowed a career-worst passer rating (116.7) into his coverage and is now a free agent. The gradual inclusion of Stokes into the lineup was a theme throughout the year, and now it's his job to lose.

Stokes showed upside, earning a 66.3 PFF grade and allowing just 51% of his targets to be caught. Those figures ranked third and second, respectively, among 22 qualifying rookie cornerbacks in 2021. With Jaire Alexander and Rasul Douglas locked into starting roles on the outside and in the slot, respectively, Stokes will be expected to man the other boundary role and hold his own against solid competition. All indications are that he has the tools to do so.

LB Azeez Ojulari, New York Giants

The Giants have been slowly building up their pass-rush unit the past few seasons, including using a first-rounder on Oregon edge defender Kayvon Thibodeaux in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Last season, New York drafted Ojulari in the second round, and he didn't disappoint, putting up a 17.8% pass-rush win percentage and 28 total pressures on true pass sets. While his overall grade underwhelmed (58.3), he had three 80.0-plus game grades in 2021. Now accompanied by Thibodeaux on the opposite side, Ojulari can use his athleticism and bend on second-tier linemen, opening the door for a breakthrough Year 2.

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