With NFL training camps open and the preseason right around the corner, football is back! So, which individual players are poised to break through in 2022? Gregg Rosenthal provides his Making the Leap candidates for each NFC team.
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This is mostly a pick based on opportunity and the lack of options I liked in Arizona. Allen made steady progress last year, especially as a run stopper. The cupboard is bare on the Cardinals' defensive line, and Allen's made improvements as a pass rusher, too. A quality season could set him up for a decent second contract as a free agent.
I'd like to thank Pitts for keeping his stat line in check as a rookie so this selection doesn't feel like a felony. Pitts' impact went beyond his numbers last season, with the tight end regularly making winning plays late to help the Falcons win tight games. Every defense needs to have a plan for him -- and some weeks, it's just not going to matter, because Pitts is bigger and stronger than your cornerbacks. His hands are as advertised.
If not for Horn's early foot injury last season, the Panthers wouldn't have made their panicked trade for C.J. Henderson. Horn starting training camp on PUP with the same foot injury that knocked him out last year is a concern, but those three games Horn played to start his career stand out too much to ignore. At a position where first impressions are often telling, Horn didn't just look like he belonged -- he looked like a star.
It's hard to imagine Mooney getting more than the 140 targets he did in 2021, although he has even less competition around him now. Expect this year's targets to lead to more efficient, explosive production. Matt Nagy had Mooney running way too many curls and flats, which didn't take advantage of his deep speed. Mooney is a perfect match with Justin Fields' skill set and their timing should prove better than a year ago.
Odighizuwa recorded five pressures in four straight games early in his rookie season before fading, but don't sleep on his production. He still finished in the top 25 in pressures among interior players, per Pro Football Focus, ahead of players like Grady Jarrett and Quinnen Williams. Odighizuwa is fast enough to get pressure looping outside on stunts or even lined up at end, but he also won plenty with inside rip moves on guards. The run defense needs to improve, but they don't pay for run defense!
Consider it a great sign that the Lions had a lot of options for Making the Leap, including second-year OT Penei Sewell. The line play on both sides should be outstanding, but this blurb's dedicated to the defensive front. Second-year pros Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill provide beef in the middle. The younger Okwara brother (Julian) is hitting his third season. While a pair of rookies (including No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson) don't quite fit the parameters of this exercise, the Lions are rolling 8-to-9 deep in quality up front. The D-line can go from one of the league's worst to a top-10 unit quickly.
I was leaning Lazard, and then Aaron Rodgers' joke that he's going from "Hall of Famer to Hall of Famer" with Lazard replacing Davante Adams sealed the deal. Rodgers knows the value of a callback; I can already imagine a Week 17 postgame press conference celebrating the team's NFC North title, with Lazard's winning score getting him over 1,200 yards and Rodgers quipping: "I told you he was a Hall of Famer." Comedy is all about timing -- and so are random monster seasons from role players like Lazard, whom Rodgers has been gassing up all offseason as his WR1 because there are no other options. This may not always be the case, but believe Rodgers here.
Not every team has a top-shelf Making the Leap candidate. The Rams have two, in Jones and Joe Noteboom, that I'd put in my top 15 overall picks. Noteboom is the safer pick, but I'm admitting to recency bias here. Jones gets the nod because he played the game of his life in the Super Bowl. Also, he sounds like an incredibly sharp, emotionally intelligent leader who fully appreciates just how lucky he is to learn from Bobby Wagner.
Vikings fans and fantasy heads have been waiting for Smith to break out for a few years now. Kyle Rudolph got in the way in 2020, and a torn meniscus sidelined Smith for the entire 2021 season, but there’s no reason he can’t thrive now. New offensive coordinator Wes Phillips was a tight ends coach in Los Angeles, and the offense the Vikings want to run asks a lot of the position. Smith profiles as a souped-up receiver who can take passes in stride and rack up yards after the catch.
Werner is trending toward becoming yet another Saints pick that was questioned heavily on draft night before turning out to be an excellent selection. He was in the right place at the right time so often as a rookie that it became clear it wasn’t by accident. Werner was particularly good in coverage; he just needs to prove it with a full complement of snaps now that Kwon Alexander is gone.
Toney is going to gain 1,000 yards or do very little; there is no in-between. I feel great about the chances of the former happening. Very few humans have the short-area explosion that Toney showed as a rookie. His stop-and-start ability often made NFL cornerbacks look unathletic. His routes weren’t as unrefined as draft analysts feared and many of his best wins were on the outside, in contested-catch situations. He still would be better off moving around the formation and playing often in the slot, which should happen this year. It’s hard to overstate what a better fit Brian Daboll’s offense will be for Toney compared with Jason Garrett’s. There is superstar potential here.
Imagine if Lamar Jackson had A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith to throw to in 2019. While Hurts is not quite the runner or passer Jackson is, the Eagles’ offensive line and scheme give Hurts similar advantages. Make no mistake: Hurts is an exceptional ball carrier. Judging by explosive plays and first downs per run, the only runner at any position more effective than Hurts in 2021 was Josh Allen.
Hurt has to diagnose and make quicker decisions. He is great at buying time to throw, but he can hold the ball way too long. Still, I don’t think he was given enough credit for the amount of big-time throws he made or the quickness and power he showed as a runner last season. The situation around him is so favorable that Hurts doesn’t even need to play much better to produce like a top-10 quarterback and a top-three fantasy option.
Post-hype all-stars was one of my corners when I wrote for Rotoworld. If you have reason to believe in a breakout evaluation, stick with it an extra year. It feels like Aiyuk took a step back last season, but he finished 12th among all receivers with 570 yards after Week 10, per Next Gen Stats. His routes and YAC ability are next level, and he could benefit from Trey Lance’s ability to throw deep. It sounds like Kyle Shanahan’s evaluation of Aiyuk hasn’t changed much since he made him a first-round pick in 2020, despite a brief trip to the doghouse last summer.
There’s quite a crop of versatile off-ball linebackers in this year’s Making the Leap class. Brooks stands out as the biggest boom-or-bust choice. He flies into the backfield with ferocity and already is one of the best pursuit linebackers in football. He can also look lost in coverage for games at a time. The Seahawks have a chance to be fun this season, with the high end of a Brooks breakout season as part of their best-case scenario.
The game was moving too fast for Tryon-Shoyinka as a rookie. He was so concerned about his play strength not holding up in the running game that it appeared to slow him down as a pass rusher, too. His first step could be Robert Quinn-like, and he will get a truckload of snaps replacing Jason Pierre-Paul. When Todd Bowles believes in a pass rusher, I do, too.
This is cheating, because Sweat has already produced at a high level the last two seasons. But this is a veteran Commanders roster without a lot of promising young talent, and Sweat has another level to reach. The combination of his first-step speed and ability to stuff the run is elite. Pigeonholed as the No. 2 edge rusher behind Chase Young, Sweat has the explosive ability to be a Pro Bowl-caliber player in his own right.
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