Best Surprise Breakout players of the 2022 NFL season by Jake Austin
We are now just past the halfway point of another enthralling NFL season. Whilst you probably recognize most of the big stars making plays when you turn the TV on, you might have found yourself wondering; who is that opposing player that is balling out against your favourite team? Let’s clear up any of this confusion you might have! I have chosen to highlight some high performing players with names that you might not be aware of. But perhaps should be.
Geno Smith (biggest breakout surprise) – QB – Seattle Seahawks
Geno Smith has undoubtedly proved himself the biggest breakout surprise of the season so far. He has massively outperformed expectations with his progression from the off-season. Where he was in a Quarterback competition with Drew Lock to now being seen as arguably a potential MVP candidate. And the undisputed leader of a 6-3 Seahawks team that sits atop the NFC West.
Smith, a second round pick in 2013 had an eventful first two years in the league as a starter. Playing for the Jets before losing the role to Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2015 after an injury.
Since then, Smith has spent time with the Giants and Chargers, but has largely remained in a backup role. Only appearing in 15 games during the last seven seasons. This season, however, Smith has finally broken out and put the team on his back. Doing so he has led a Seahawks team from one that many foresaw would be one of the worst in the league. Instead moving them into playoff contention. He has also played himself into the MVP conversation with his efficient play. Leading the NFL in completion percentage at 73.1%. Plus he has produced at a high level. Currently ranking 6th in passing yards with 2,199, and is tied for 4th in passing touchdowns with 15.
Alex Highsmith – LB – Pittsburgh Steelers
As a 3rd round pick in 2020 out of Charlotte, Highsmith has largely flown under the radar for most of his football career. Now though he is making the most of his opportunities to breakout this year. Having a breakout season on the Steelers’ defensive line. Although his success has been buried under the team’s disappointing 2-6 record, Highsmith has produced at the highest level of his career.
He has seen his largely rotational role increase as the Steelers’ have sought to replace the production of the injured TJ Watt. Despite recording just 8 total sacks over his first two seasons of his career, Highsmith has reached another level this year. And leads the team in sacks (6.5), forced fumbles (2) and tackles for loss (7).
Tariq Woolen – CB – Seattle Seahawks
Rookie 5th Round pick Tariq Woolen headlines a stellar Seahawks rookie draft class. Alongside RB Kenneth Walker IIII, OT Charles Cross, OT Abraham Lucas and CB Coby Bryant. A group that have made immediate impacts for the franchise this year. The choice to highlight Woolen’s performance in particular, however, comes from how significantly he has outperformed the expectations that were set at the beginning of the season.
A former wide receiver at UTSA, Woolen is tied for second for interceptions at the midpoint of the season. In week he 6 became the only rookie in the last decade to record an interception in at least 4 consecutive games. Which earned him Defensive Rookie of the Month honours for October.
Talanoa Hufanga – S – San Francisco 49ers
After starting just 3 games during his rookie campaign last year, Hufanga has made his name known this year by making plays all over the field for a suffocating 49ers D that leads the league in total yards allowed. The former fifth round pick has been a critical breakout piece in helping the 49ers Defence to this mark. His position as the teams 3rd highest tackler helps to reflect that. On top of which he has been particularly threatening to offences when defending the pass.
Not only does Hufanga lead the team with 3 interceptions, including a highlight pick six against Matthew Stafford in week 4. But he has also racked up 6 passes defended as well as a sack for good measure. Despite drawing comparisons to the great Troy Polamalu because of his dynamic playstyle and flowing hair that trails out the back of his helmet, Hufanga is well on his way on carving out his own reputation. His is a name that should be on your radar.
Dameon Pierce (breakout rookie) – RB – Houston Texans
Despite being a member of a Texan’s team that is in pole position for the first overall pick in next year’s draft, Rookie RB Dameon Pierce has been a lone bright spot for a squad that has struggled to remain competitive so far this season. With one win, a draw, and six losses on the year it is no wonder that few eyes are focused on this Texans team. However, if you have been (un)lucky enough to catch a glimpse of any of their games this year, Pierce will have undoubtedly have caught your attention. A contender for Offensive Rookie of the year. Pierce has shown himself to be a stud running back with his bruising style proving difficult to slow down.
His highlight run against Jacksonville in week 5 where he ran through half of the Jaguars’ Defence, has proved that Pierce can be an explosive weapon. As well as these splash plays, Pierce has also been remarkably consistent throughout the year. The 4th round pick averages a respectable 4.6 YPC and leads all rookie running backs with 678 rushing yards. A total that ranks him 6th highest in the league. This despite opposing teams often loading the box against him due to the absence of a threatening Texans’ passing attack.
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Banner Image: Breakout star Geno Smith in action. Image from fieldgulls.com