Alex Highsmith was the most outstanding breakout player in 2022. He almost dragged the Steelers to the playoffs as he more than doubled his 2021 sack total, ending the season with 14.5. But defenders never grab the headlines and quarterbacks always garner more attention. Tua Tagovailoa had a breakout season of sorts in 2022. Working with Mike McDaniels really unlocked the potential that Brian Flores’ team couldn’t nurture. Concussion issues and other injuries ultimately put paid to his 2022 season as he wound up missing four starts. New coaches can revive a career in an instant, or so the Broncos are hoping. So who is poised to step up to the big time in 2023? Well, Jordan Love is the obvious breakout candidate, but both he and the Packers have no other option. Love hasn’t failed to grasp his opportunity; he’s just been sitting patiently waiting his turn.
A Long-Awaited Breakout – Laviska Shenault
Despite being called “Julio Jones, only bigger” whilst in college Shenault hasn’t recorded more than 691 yards from scrimmage in an NFL season. The wide receiver come running back gives off strong Deebo Samuel vibes. And like Samuel Shenault needs to be involved in the game as much as possible if he’s to be the Panthers’ spark plug. But not all coaches have the creativity to effectively involve their players like Shanahan does. Frank Reich appears to be the sort of coach who will notice the similarities though.
Shenault is 6”1’ and 227lbs, Samuel is 6”0‘, 215lbs, Shenault ran a 4.58 40 at the combine, Samuel a 4.48. Shenault is the Panthers best YAC receiver by almost two yards per reception(he is 12.2 yards per reception was 15th in the league). With a rookie quarterback throwing the passes a receiver who caught 84.4% of his targets last season will provide a much-needed safety blanket.
He can return kicks too, even though he averaged 27.3 yards per return in 2022 the Panthers only used him three times. 2022 was his first year in Carolina and he did suffer an injury, but he still played in 13 games. The 26% of offensive snaps he played for the Panthers last season was a career low though. He ended the 2022 season with an average of 7.22 yards per carry, so he definitely deserves more chances.
With rookie quarterback Bryce Young, a veteran running back in Miles Sanders alongside a tight end who played in the AFC Championship game last year in Hayden Hurst it seems unlikely the Panthers will adopt an “air raid” offence. But if Adam Thielen and DJ Chark attract a lot of attention from opposing defenses, Shenault should face weaker defenders.
Expect Reich to mix up the offensive looks, so they may not operate with three wide receivers often. There will probably be some 12 personnel. Bryce Young’s height means he will probably operate from shotgun formation a lot, at least until he’s up to speed. With so many new faces in Carolina, in terms of both players and coaches, it might take a game or two to click. Carolina’s offence is absolutely loaded with talent and should score plenty of points.
A Counterintuitive Breakout – Malik Davis
Unless something dramatic happens in the next few months there’s no Zeke in Dallas in 2023. Tony Pollard will step up to be the number one running back, but his breakout came last season. Pollard signed a one year, $10 million franchise tag deal. But someone needs to fulfill the role Tony Pollard played prior to last season. Malik Davis should be that guy.
Even as the third running back on the Cowboys’ depth chart last season Davis played in 12 games. Playing in 9% of the Cowboys snaps on offence and 52% of the special teams’ snaps. He was only used as a pass catcher seven times, but he caught six of his targets. Davis averaged 10.5 yards per catch so he could be used as a third down back this year. He had 38 rushing attempts too, scoring a touchdown and recording 161 yards on the ground. In total Davis averaged 5.1 yards per touch last year. With extra chances coming his way he should become very important in Dallas.
The Only Way Is Up – Clelin Ferrell
Raiders fans will tell you (loudly) Ferrell is a draft bust. But he could turn out to be the bargain of the offseason for the 49ers.
The defensive line has undergone somewhat of a reconstruction in San Francisco during the off season with four players leaving and three free agents arriving. John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan also drafted Robert Beal Jr who can play as a defensive end.
The departing Hassan Ridgeway, Samson Ebukam, Charles Omenihu and Jordan Willis made 12.5 sacks between them for the 49ers in 2022. New additions Javon Hargrave, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant made 13 between them last season. Alongside Hargrave, Arik Armstead and opposite Nick Bosa (who made 18.5 sacks on his own in 2022) Ferrell should become an important piece of a new, but still elite defensive front.
An Under The Radar Breakout – Peyton Hendershot
The ever-dependable Dalton Schultz left Dallas for Houston in free agency and that leaves a pretty big gap in the Cowboys’ offence. A gap they’re more than able to fill, but how they fill it will be fascinating. They drafted Luke Schoonmaker, but Jake Ferguson (who they drafted in 2022) was the next man up when Schultz wasn’t available last season. Hendershot (who they also drafted in 2022) is the more explosive athlete. Schoonmaker had a very good 2022 at Michigan catching 35 passes and averaging 11.9 yards per catch. In 2021 he only caught 17 passes for 165 yards so he’s far from a guaranteed starter in Dallas.
There’s a new offensive coordinator in Dallas too, Brian Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer was the last guy to get the best out of Russell Wilson. The Seahawks won 21 games in Schottenheimer’s first two seasons in Seattle. In his second year, when the Seahawks eventually lost out to the Packers in the Divisional round of the playoffs, tight ends accounted for 21% of Wilson’s targets. The Cowboys may well line with three tight ends on the field at once this season.
The Seahawks used five different tight ends that season so the Cowboys could fill the Dalton Schultz sized hole by committee, but Hendershot should be the most successful of the group.
Chubb Locked In
Technically Chubb had a breakout in his rookie season. He recorded 12 sacks which was 15th in the league in 2018 but that was on defense with Shaq Barrett and Von Miller. Aaron Donald ended that season with 20 so that rather put Chubb’s exploits into perspective.
In the intervening four years Chubb has been in and out of starting lineups and has only recorded 16.5 sacks. Miami haven’t added much in the way of pass rush in the offseason, instead focusing on the defensive backfield. They acquired Jalen Ramsey from the cash strapped Rams. Signed ex-Lion DeShon Elliott and drafted Cam Smith. They also signed nine defensive undrafted free agents, but it seems unlikely they will all make it to the 53-man roster. Miami have added Chubb’s former Broncos teammate Malik Reed. But the Dolphins biggest offseason acquisition is in the coaching team.
With Vic Fangio who was also in Denver with Chubb the Dolphins defense should have more bite than last season. Fangio played a huge role in Aldon Smith’s success as a pass rusher in his San Fransisco days. According to their respective combine performances Chubb is a superior athlete to Smith. Chubb was drafted fifth overall by the Broncos and Smith was a shock first round selection when the 49ers took him seventh in 2011. In 2012 when Fangio was the 49ers defensive coordinator and Smith was in his second year, he ended the season with 19.5 sacks.