For the most part, NFL stars aren’t dropped fully formed into the league. As good as the highest levels of college football are, there’s still a sizable learning curve when it comes to making the adjustment from college to pros.
That means long-term projects and hyped prospects alike can take years to properly find their footing in the NFL. De’Vondre Campbell had been in the league five years before signing a bargain contract to join the Green Bay Packers, then broke out en route to his first All-Pro selection last fall. Stefon Diggs had some very good seasons in Minnesota but had to move to Buffalo to join the league’s elite. Cameron Jordan had only one sack in his rookie season before developing into a perennial Pro Bowl candidate in the decade that followed.
Every year is the backdrop to players making the leap from role player to star. Some are more obvious than others; former high-value draft picks who’d showed signs of brilliance in past seasons. Others come out of nowhere thanks to the confluence of opportunity and a coaching system that fits them just right.
There are several players who fall into either category with 2022 looming. Who are the most likely veteran candidates to make a leap toward stardom this fall? Here’s a best guess for every team in the NFL.
Arizona Cardinals: Marquise "Hollywood" Brown
It’s a cop-out to suggest a player with 1,000 receiving yards last season could break out. But the Cardinals sent a first-round pick Baltimore’s way because they believe in Brown, who’ll go from the Ravens to an offense that threw the ball less in 2021 (611 pass attempts versus 591) but much more effectively (7.2 yards per attempt in Arizona versus 6.5 in Baltimore).
Brown will be the unquestioned WR1 in the first six games of the season while DeAndre Hopkins sits out a PED suspension. Given head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s propensity for hot starts, he could find himself among the league leaders at wideout one month into the season.
Atlanta Falcons: Isaiah Oliver
Oliver has struggled to live up to expectations as a former second-round pick but was showing signs of a breakthrough before his 2021 season ended after four games due to a knee injury. His move into the slot gave him the chance to his use explosiveness to break up passes near the line of scrimmage, and his 4.9 yards per target and 89.3 passer rating allowed were both career bests — albeit in a small sample size.
Atlanta signed Casey Hayward to man the other outside corner role across from AJ Terrell, which should free Oliver up to thrive as a nickel back attacking the slot and, hopefully, leading to a revival in the Falcons’ secondary.
Baltimore Ravens: Devin Duvernay
The Ravens have a pair of high-profile former first-round picks who could meet their potential after disappointing starts (Odafe Oweh, Patrick Queen). Duvernay, on the other hand, will benefit from a healthy Lamar Jackson — in what could be a contract year! — and a depth chart where the only player firmly in front of him is Rashod Bateman.
The All-Pro punt returner will have a chance to step into the starting lineup in a full-time role and be Baltimore’s short target/run-after-catch specialist. With only one drop in 73 NFL targets, he could be a useful security blanket for Jackson in a passing offense that badly needs playmakers.
Buffalo Bills: Greg Rousseau
Rousseau made 17 starts as a rookie last season but played fewer than half of Buffalo’s defensive snaps. Despite this, his 24 quarterback pressures still ranked in the top 50 percent of all NFL pass rushers last season. The Bills swapped out Jerry Hughes for Von Miller at the other EDGE spot, which should help sew the kind of chaos the 6’6 Rousseau is more than capable of cleaning up. Expect a significant increase over last season’s 4.0 sacks.
Carolina Panthers: Jaycee Horn
Horn was the reason why the Panthers didn’t draft a cornerback in 2021 (Justin Fields and Mac Jones were both available when they made their selection at No. 8). He only played in three games before breaking his foot, but he looked every bit a shutdown corner. His 39.6 passer rating allowed is the equivalent of a quarterback firing every single pass in a game into the turf. Horn allowed just two completions on seven targets and showcased the range to be a menace near the line of scrimmage or running downfield with the league’s fastest deep threats.
Chicago Bears: Cole Kmet
Darnell Mooney is great. Who behind him is going to catch passes in this offense? Kmet showcased useful improvement in 2021 and will be even higher up Justin Fields’ wish list if for no other reason than the rest of his targets are underwhelming role players other teams didn’t want. The Bears are primed for a free agency spending spree next offseason; a big year from Kmet could convince the team to make a high-value contract extension one of its top priorities.
Cincinnati Bengals: Germaine Pratt
Pratt has played second fiddle to Logan Wilson in the middle of the Cincinnati defense, but he’s facing a prove-it year in the final season of his rookie contract. The former third-round pick has slowly, but steadily, improved as both a tackler and in coverage in his three seasons in the league. Continuing that trend — and adding a little extra pass rush help on the rare occasions he’s asked to blitz — could set him up for a lucrative trip to free agency next spring.
Cleveland Browns: Grant Delpit
Donovan Peoples-Jones is building toward a possible breakthrough, but the continual flux behind center in Cleveland could stunt his growth. Instead, let’s turn to Delpit — a player who slid to the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft, missed that season due to injury and came along slowly last fall.
He wasn’t particularly impressive in his first year on the field but has the size (6-foot-2, 220 pounds) to be a thumper near the line of scrimmage and the range (24 passes defended at LSU) to be a deterrent in the passing game. He’s got a path to start alongside John Johnson this fall and could deliver on his pre-draft potential in 2022.
Dallas Cowboys: Dorance Armstrong
Randy Gregory’s departure and DeMarcus Lawrence’s advancing age creates an opportunity for Armstrong to step into the spotlight. He had five sacks and a dozen quarterback hits despite only playing 56 percent of the Cowboys’ defensive snaps last season. At only 25 years old, he may be primed to claim the mantle of Dallas’ most effective edge rusher.
Denver Broncos: Jerry Jeudy
Jeudy suffered through injuries and some underwhelming quarterback play and still managed to lift his catch rate from 46 percent as a rookie to nearly 68 percent last fall. Now he gets to play with Russell Wilson as part of a high-powered receiving corps that will limit the amount of double-teams he sees. It’s time for the former 15th overall pick to reward the Broncos’ faith in him.
Detroit Lions: Penei Sewell
Sewell was good as a rookie. He’s capable of greatness — and throwing the fastest and strongest edge rushers to the turf like tackling dummies. Another season of pro experience, this time with an offense with a few extra playmakers, could propel him to stardom (as much as an offensive tackle can hope for, at least).
Green Bay Packers: Rashan Gary
Gary is coming off a breakthrough season but could vault from pretty good to undeniable if he keeps up this growth. The former No. 1 overall high school prospect had 9.5 sacks last season, but ranked seventh in the league with 28 quarterback hits and tied for fourth place with 47 pressures. Despite a soundly impressive season on the edge, he was snubbed in Pro Bowl voting. Don’t expect that to happen again in 2022.
Houston Texans: Roy Lopez
There aren’t a lot of great candidates among Houston’s latest crop of misfit toys. Lopez outperformed expectations as a rookie and could be a building block for a team in desperate need of young, reliable talent.
He’s a dense, difficult-to-move nose tackle who jams up rushing lanes and can bring additional value as a kinda/sorta pocket crumpler on passing downs. He may not shine on the stat sheet, but he makes life easier for his teammates — and things will be plenty hard for the Texans this fall.
Indianapolis Colts: Dayo Odeyingbo
Odeyingbo tore his Achilles midway through his senior season at Vanderbilt, but that didn’t deter the Colts from spending a second-round pick on him in 2021. He played sparingly last fall while getting back to full strength and will challenge Yannick Ngakoue for snaps at the second defensive end slot across from fellow sophomore Kwity Paye.
Odeyingbo is big, athletic and versatile, capable of winning with power and leverage on the inside or speed on the outside. He was frequently a problem for SEC offenses despite being the first guy opposing coordinators gameplanned against for some uneven Commodore teams.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Dan Arnold
Between Arnold and Ben Bartch, the Jaguars lead the league in prospective starters from D-III colleges. Arnold will have to out-play Evan Engram, which sounds daunting at first until you realize he’s arguably the worst Pro Bowler of the modern era, has dropped 17 passes over the past two seasons and is general anathema to an emerging young quarterback (as Daniel Jones can attest).
Arnold remains unremarkable as an in-line blocker due to his relative lack of size (though he’s bulked up from 220 pounds to a more reasonable 240 the past two years) but is a dynamic receiver at tight end. Between Weeks 5 and 9 last season, he put up 25 catches for 286 yards after being traded to Jacksonville — roughly an 85-catch, 970-yard pace over a full 17-game season. Another year of experience with a team led by an actually-competent head coach could unlock the next stage of his evolution.
Kansas City Chiefs: Creed Humphrey
This is a bit of a cheat, since Humphrey was a star in his NFL debut last season — even finishing third in offensive rookie of the year voting. But he was snubbed by both Pro Bowl and All-Pro voters despite being an absolute beast last fall. Pro Football Focus gave him a 91.4 blocking grade and attributed just one sack to him in 1,185 offensive snaps.
Even if he remains the exact same player as he was in 2021, he’s going to attract a lot more eyeballs. Expect Humphrey to make waves when it comes to All-Pro consideration next winter.
Las Vegas Raiders: Derek Carr
The Raiders aren’t loaded with breakout candidates — defensive backs Trayvon Mullen and Trevon Moehrig qualify, but believing anything positive about the Las Vegas secondary is generally a recipe for heartbreak. Instead, let’s roll with Carr, who has been reunited with Fresno State teammate Davante Adams (at a significant cost) and has quietly been a top-15 quarterback during the last three seasons, despite a depleted receiving corps (and the cavalcade of bizarre front office decisions around him).
Carr has recently flipped the switch from low-impact checkdowns to take more chances downfield. He’ll likely up his target distance even more with Adams leading a receiving corps that also features the sure hands of Hunter Renfrow and the explosive playmaking of Darren Waller at tight end. While his blocking is a concern, there’s a chance the veteran quarterback finally reclaims the MVP-adjacent status he vacated in 2016 thanks to a broken leg.
Los Angeles Chargers: Jerry Tillery
Tillery is headed into the final season of his rookie contract — the Chargers declined his fifth-year option — and the pressure is on to create a seller’s market in free agency next season. He’ll have extra backup with Khalil Mack adding pressure from the edge alongside Nick Bosa. He’ll also have to do less in the run game thanks to the DT additions of Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson.
While missed tackles are a problem, he gets to the quarterback enough to create problems in the trenches (14 quarterback hits each of the last two seasons) and clean up the mess created by Mack and Bosa on the outside.
Los Angeles Rams: Joe Noteboom
Noteboom has big shoes to fill when he replaces Andrew Whitworth at left tackle this fall. He’s capable of rising to the occasion. He allowed only two sacks in 633 offensive snaps in 2020, where he made nine starts at multiple positions — including seven at the blindside after Whitworth was lost late in the season due to injury.
Los Angeles signed him to a three-year, $40 million extension this offseason because the team sees him as a vital piece of its offense. He can live up to those expectations by keeping an offense that allowed Matthew Stafford to be sacked only 30 times in 631 dropbacks rolling.
Miami Dolphins: Tua Tagovailoa
It’s gotta be Tua, or else things are going to get very awkward in Florida. The Dolphins brought him a new left tackle, All-Pro wide receiver and an offensive-minded head coach in hopes of unlocking the potential that made him a candidate to be the top overall pick before a hip injury ended his final season at Alabama.
Tagovailoa has been a useful, if unexceptional, short-range passer as a pro. Now he needs to prove he can consistently make throws downfield if he’s going to be the franchise cornerstone Miami hopes he can be.
Minnesota Vikings: Irv Smith
Smith couldn’t capitalize on the modest momentum he’d built in 2020 thanks to a knee injury that cost him the 2021 campaign. Now he’s staring down a contract year before hitting free agency next spring. Fortunately for the young pass-catcher, he’ll have a tremendous opportunity to stake his claim as a top-15 tight end. There’s little competition in a depth chart that features Johnny Mundt and Ben Ellefson.
The transition from Mike Zimmer to Kevin O’Connell at head coach should help push Smith’s numbers to career highs. His 8.5 yards per target in ’20 ranked sixth among full-time tight ends, providing evidence O’Connell could spring him on unsuspecting defenses this fall.
New England Patriots: Rhamondre Stevenson
Ja’Whaun Bentley will have a bigger spotlight than ever before at linebacker in the middle of a depleted corps, but Stevenson could be a breakout star thanks to his place in the Patriot offense. His 2.7 yards after contact as a rookie ranked fourth among all running backs thanks to a 227-pound frame that made him the thunder to Damien Harris’s lightning.
Harris remains in the tailback rotation — along with hopefully healthy James White and rookie Pierre Strong — and this is a Bill Belichick setting, which means his touches could be limited. Even so, expect Stevenson to have the opportunity to claim RB1 distinction, especially with Harris headed toward free agency in 2023.
New Orleans Saints: Marcus Maye
Maye was quietly very good in New York despite ceding headlines to Jamal Adams early in his career and then missing the bulk of a franchise-tagged 2021 thanks to a torn Achilles. He may be overlooked again in New Orleans after the team signed Tyrann Mathieu.
There’s a viable scenario in which the Honey Badger’s presence clears a path for the best season of Maye’s career. Mathieu combines some of the hard-hitting strong safety usefulness Adams brought to the table while being considerably better in coverage. This should allow more latitude for the former Jet to focus on making big plays and proving an asset for a reloaded Saints defense.
New York Giants: Kenny Golladay
New head coach Brian Daboll has one year to figure out if Daniel Jones can be his franchise quarterback or if the Giants will have to blow it up. He played a major role in facilitating Josh Allen’s growth, in large part by riding WR1 Stefon Diggs to a career-best in his first season as a Bill.
New York will turn to a hopefully-healthy Golladay to lead the offense as Daboll institutes a QB-friendly system likely to rely heavily on veteran help to minimize weaknesses. Jones had flashes of competence way back in 2019, and if he can intermittently regain that form, he and Golladay could make the Giants’ passing game watchable again.
New York Jets: DJ Reed
2021 was Reed’s second season as a full-time starter for the Seahawks and, not coincidentally, his best as a pro. The fifth-year veteran played more snaps and saw more targets than ever before and responded by allowing fewer than 48 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed.
Now he’ll join a Jets secondary with a potential lockdown rookie in Sauce Gardner and a growing young nickelback in Michael Carter. This group could shine, even against the AFC’s best quarterbacks — and it could be Reed providing the leadership at corner who gets them there.
Philadelphia Eagles: Kyzir White
White might get overlooked as an off-ball linebacker, but he joins a Philly team in dire need of his services in the middle of the field. The former Charger limited damage in the passing game and was targeted downfield much less often that he had been in a difficult 2020, suggesting his pass defense is on the rise. Even better, he had a career-low 5.3 missed tackle rate in 2021 and recorded a pressure, quarterback hit or sack on 11 of his 31 blitzes last fall.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Chase Claypool
Claypool is a 240-pound wideout with 4.4-second 40-yard dash speed, but his average target distance in 2021 was only 11 yards downfield — roughly two yards shorter than his impressive rookie 2020 number. Why? Because Ben Roethlisberger couldn’t throw downfield.
His quarterback situation is still troubling, but both Mitchell Trubisky and Kenny Pickett have the arm strength to go above and beyond Roethlisberger’s meager 18 deep completions last fall. “Mapletron” is a playmaker who thrived in unique situations at his best in his first two years as a Steeler. Now he’ll have a chance to shine in a more traditional downfield manner.
San Francisco 49ers: Talanoa Hufanga
Hufanga is a bit of a reach, but the rangy safety is capable of making plays and has the inside track to start alongside Jimmie Ward in 2022. He made three starts as a rookie fifth-round pick last fall and mixed underwhelming performances (allowing three catches on three targets alongside two missed tackles versus the Cardinals) with promising ones (not allowing a single completion versus the Rams).
Jaquiski Tartt remains a free agent and the only other major move general manager John Lynch made to address the safety position was to sign Colts special teams standout George Odum. That suggests there’s some trust in San Francisco that Hufanga can get the job done.
Seattle Seahawks: Uchenna Nwosu
Nwosu was typically more effective as a pass rusher than his sack numbers suggested as a Charger. While he only had 15 sacks in four seasons, he had 45 quarterback hits. His 30 pressures in 2021 matched Von Miller’s number.
He’ll likely be the top pass rusher in a depleted Seattle linebacker corps, and while that could lead to extra blockers, it should also help his counting stats trend upward to match what advanced stats believe he’s capable of.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Russell Gage
Tom Brady would very badly like to add a third WR to the all-star duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin atop his passing game flowchart. In 2021 this was Antonio Brown, who had nearly nine targets per game despite walking off the field in the middle of one of them.
Brown is obviously gone, but Gage has arrived to earn some of the targets he’s left behind. The former Falcon has improved his per-game numbers in each of his four seasons as a pro and now will go from an Atlanta offense where he had to play de facto WR1 — and deal with all the extra coverage that comes with it — to Tampa, where Evans and Godwin will earn most of the defensive spotlight.
Tennessee Titans: Kristian Fulton
In 2021, Fulton was targeted, on average, three yards deeper downfield than he had been as a rookie. Despite this, he allowed two fewer yards per target than he had in 2020.
While his tackling is a work in progress, Fulton displayed the range that paints him as a potential shutdown cornerback across from a hopefully-healthy Caleb Farley. He gave up just a 71.3 passer rating in coverage in a season where Mike Vrabel’s young defense filled in for an underwhelming offense and lifted the Titans to the AFC’s top playoff seed.
Washington Commanders: Jamin Davis
Washington doesn’t have a ton of great veteran breakout contenders, so let’s roll with the team’s 2021 first-round pick. Davis underwhelmed as a rookie, making only eight starts and struggling against both the pass and the run as an off-ball linebacker. But he’s capable of much more. He flashed strong sideline-to-sideline speed at Kentucky, where he averaged more than 10 tackles per game in 2020, and was capable in coverage.
At 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds, he’s big enough not to get out-muscled by tight ends and fast enough (4.47s 40 time) to run with them or slot wideouts. Last fall was a bump in the road; the pressure is on Davis to live up to his Day 1 pedigree in Year 2.