NFL News & Analysis

Top second-year breakout candidates for the 2023 NFL season

Lions wide receiver Jameson Williams celebrates his touchdown catch against the Vikings during the first half on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, at Ford Field. Lionsminn 121122 Kd 3855

• WR Jameson Williams, Detroit Lions: The Lions were cautious with the injured Williams during his rookie season. He still managed to flash on a limited workload, creating excitement for what should be his first full NFL season in 2023.

• OT Bernhard Raimann, Indianapolis Colts: Raimann settled down after a rough debut in 2022. From Week 12 onward, he earned a top-10 PFF grade (79.7) among all tackles.

• CB Marcus Jones, New England Patriots: Jones' movement skills give him the tools to mirror anybody in coverage and lock down opposing receivers, even in the slot. He allowed just an 83.7 passer rating as a rookie.

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There were some standout performances from the 2022 NFL rookie class this past season, but some players take a little more time to get up to speed in the NFL. Here are those who could break out in 2023.


WR Jameson Williams, Detroit Lions

The Lions treaded Williams’ rookie year almost like a redshirt season. Injured with Alabama in the national championship game, Williams was drafted 12th overall but didn’t make it back onto the field until Week 13, and then the team kept him on a strict pitch count in terms of workload. He didn’t clear 20 snaps in a single game and never saw more than three plays designed to get him the football. Even on that limited workload, you could see the explosive speed he brings to the table and how defenses were forced to adjust. Williams has too much ability not to be a major factor next season in a full-time role.

OT Zach Tom, Green Bay Packers

David Bakhtiari is a long-term concern given his knee injury — an issue that will need constant monitoring. He’s also tying up a lot of money at one tackle spot while the other has been in a constant state of flux. As a rookie, Tom excelled when filling in for Bakhtiari at left tackle, allowing just four pressures across five games while spending the majority of his time at the position. He earned elite PFF pass-blocking grades in all of those outings. A fourth-round draft pick out of Wake Forest, Tom already showed he can start and excel at the most important position on the offensive line.

TE Jake Ferguson, Dallas Cowboys

Dalton Schultz is an upcoming free agent and could be a player Dallas chooses to let walk to save some cash. Ferguson may help the Cowboys feel better about that move. In extremely limited action, Ferguson flashed clear ability, catching 20 of the 23 passes thrown his way for 208 yards and two touchdowns. He played 480 snaps in total, mostly as an extra blocker in the run game, but his work as a receiver was impressive. It wouldn’t be hard for the Cowboys to project that into a very successful season in 2023.

WR Treylon Burks, Tennessee Titans

Too much was asked of Burks as a rookie. With A.J. Brown traded away and Burks owning a comparable physical profile, many expected him to step in and seamlessly replace one of the best receivers in the game. Given the college system Burks was coming from, that was always unlikely, but he did flash plenty of big-play ability. He averaged only 1.75 yards per route run, but he averaged 5.4 yards after the catch and caught 58% of his contested targets. With a better situation and a healthy year in 2023, Burks could start to resemble Brown a little more.

OT Bernhard Raimann, Indianapolis Colts

Raimann had one of the more inauspicious debuts you’re going to see from an NFL offensive lineman. That came in Week 5 against the Denver Broncos, when he was flagged four times — constantly holding to try and avoid getting beaten. He still gave up five pressures in that game, and it looked like he was a long way from being ready. He quickly settled down, however, and from Week 12 onward he earned a top-10 PFF grade (79.7) among all tackles, allowing 13 total pressures in six starts.


EDGE Drake Jackson, San Francisco 49ers

There were a lot of underwhelming rookie edge rushers this past season, and Jackson barely cleared 300 snaps for the 49ers. He finished with just 16 pressures from 228 pass-rushing snaps, but he has rare physical ability for the position and the kind of textbook speed and bend around the edge NFL teams are searching for. Edge rusher is a position that can take a little time to adjust to, and the 49ers could still use a solid rusher in their rotation, so Jackson should get opportunities to show he can take a big step in Year 2.

CB Marcus Jones, New England Patriots

Jones just moves differently from almost any other player given his size and quickness. He’s such an electric athlete that he was returning punts and even taking snaps on offense for the Patriots as a rookie, but those movement skills also give him the tools to mirror anybody in coverage and lock down opposing receivers, even in the slot. Jones allowed an 83.7 passer rating as a rookie to go along with four pass breakups and two picks on 37 targets into his coverage.

EDGE James Houston IV, Detroit Lions

It feels easy to say Houston already broke out as a rookie after ending the season with eight sacks, but those sacks came on just 140 snaps of play and 92 rushes. Obviously, that rate of production is unlikely to continue on a much greater workload, but it does create real excitement for what he can achieve across more snaps. He finished with 17 total pressures on those 92 rushes, itself an outstanding pressure rate, and the Lions have an opening for a secondary threat opposite Aidan Hutchinson.

S Reed Blankenship, Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia boasts the best roster in the NFL, but change is inevitable for every team from year to year, and the Eagles could be looking at replacing multiple parts of their starting secondary. Blankenship saw time in 11 games as a rookie, logging 348 total snaps and five starts. He played well overall, earning above-average PFF grades in every facet of play and excelling against the run. Blankenship recorded 12 defensive stops and missed only two tackles from 42 attempts in 2022. He could step right in as a starter in Year 2.

LB Brian Asamoah, Minnesota Vikings

PFF’s Brad Spielberger recently highlighted linebacker Eric Kendricks as a potential surprise cut candidate for the Vikings. A new defensive scheme, Kendricks coming off a bad year on the wrong side of 30 and there being a lot of money on his contract starts to add up. That could open up a huge void of opportunity for a young, athletic linebacker like Asamoah, who made several plays in limited action as a rookie. His best play was a forced fumble where he simply took the ball away from an opponent, creating a turnover single-handedly. 


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