It is a national tradition to pick breakout players before each NFL season. I have resisted the urge for most of my time here at ESPN, but now I have succumbed to temptation. Nothing is more fun than being right about players being good. Nobody likes being wrong, and it’s no fun predicting that players will fall off or decline. In August, before we actually have to see players prove themselves in meaningful football games, it’s the right time to be wildly optimistic.
Let’s run through 25 breakout candidates in 2022. I’ve split the players into five archetypical tiers, because this would otherwise be a list of first-round picks from 2020 and 2021. (I’ve excluded rookies.) There are a few highly drafted players from the past couple of years, of course, but I wanted to focus on a variety of guys from different backgrounds at different points in their careers.
These are my opinions, so while I’ve tried to use as much evidence as possible to make my choices, there are other players who didn’t make this list but could qualify for yours. In some cases, I might think players have already broken out, with many of those guys showing up on my All-Underrated Team from last November.
I’ll start with the most notable players in each tier and work my way down. I’ll begin with a long look at a quarterback who might be capable of making a bigger leap than anybody this season:
Jump to a tier:
Bench to Supernova
Pro Bowler to Stardom | Starter-to-Pro Bowl
Rotational to Starter | Post-Hype Candidates
Tier 1: Bench to Supernova
One player who barely played last season but might be an MVP candidate in 2022 belongs in a class of his own. He’s not like anybody else on this list, and he’s certainly not like the player he’s replacing in San Francisco …
There’s nobody in the league I’m more excited to see play 17 games than the new starting quarterback in San Francisco. We saw Lance take the field for 178 snaps a year ago with inconsistent returns, but I would essentially throw out those snaps in terms of what we’ll see going forward. The 49ers hadn’t committed to an offense with Lance, who was dealing with a broken finger on his right hand throughout the campaign while sitting behind Jimmy Garoppolo. The Patrick Mahomes we saw make a spot start at the end of the 2017 season for the Chiefs looked nothing like the guy who torched the league in a full-time role in 2018.
On the personnel side, Lance is the most extreme example of the versatility and plausible deniability coach Kyle Shanahan attempts to get on the field with his ball carriers. When everyone is healthy, Shanahan’s 49ers have five eligible players who can either catch a pass, block or carry the football as a running back. Everyone needs to be able to make plays with the ball in their hands.
We saw Deebo Samuel prominently feature in that role last season, but the 49ers have given George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk carries in the past. Kyle Juszczyk does a little bit of everything, with Shanahan scheming him up for big plays as a receiver. San Francisco hasn’t been able to keep a running back healthy long enough to count on him as a long-term option, but its biggest investment at the position was signing Jerick McKinnon, who had been a solid receiver with the Vikings, to a four-year, $30 million contact in 2018. When Samuel, Kittle, Aiyuk and Juszczyk were all on the field together in 2021, the 49ers generated .175 expected points added (EPA) per play, which would have comfortably been the league’s best offense over a full season.
The one position in which Shanahan didn’t have a player capable of threatening teams was quarterback, where Garoppolo was a conventional dropback pass. Garoppolo has his strengths, but he doesn’t threaten teams with his legs or create huge plays. From 2018 to ’21, no quarterback threw downfield less frequently; just 7.2% of his pass attempts traveled at least 20 yards downfield. Lance did so on 18.3% of his 71 attempts a year ago, which would have led the league over a larger sample.
Lance also gives the 49ers solutions for dealing with the changes defenses are making to slow the Shanahan offense. The 49ers have grown into a more diverse and power-focused ground game than the outside-zone-heavy approach his coaching tree is known for, but they still stretch teams horizontally with runs and motion before attempting to attack vertically uphill. They then create quarterback-friendly passing opportunities by using play-action and boot concepts to work away from the flow of the defense as they chase what they expect to be another run.
In the past, the weakside end (the defensive end away from the blocking strength of the offense) would chase down the line on run concepts and attempt to prevent the running back from attacking his cutback lane. The “boot” concept takes advantage of that aggressiveness and runs the quarterback in the opposite direction, taking the end out of the play as a pass-rusher. After seeing quarterbacks such as Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins and Baker Mayfield feast off play-action boot concepts and post career-best numbers in Shanahan-style offenses, defenses began to change their priorities.
Last year in particular, defenses got sick of getting bashed by booting quarterbacks. Instead of sending their weakside end down the line to try to stop the run, coordinators told their ends to run straight at the quarterback. They were happy to trade a few extra yards on the ground for the opportunity to take a free run at an exposed quarterback and either produce a sack or take away an explosive pass play.