Predicting which players will burst in any given NFL season is a difficult exercise.
New stars can come from anywhere. Highly drafted recruits can quickly justify their selection, while others who have endured a less linear path to the top tier often emerge from the desert to become household names.
But, for players who have already benefited from league experience, Stats Perform can look at the data to judge who is in a position to make the leap to stardom.
Such climbs are regularly a product of situation. Here we look at three attacking players and three defenders who find themselves in hot spots for a potential breakout year in 2022.
Jalen Hurts – Philadelphia Eagles
Hurts making the jump to his third season in the league depends largely on how his skills are used by the Eagles.
Playing behind an excellent offensive line that ranked fifth in pass block win rate last season and with a host of playmakers including AJ Brown, Hurts looks set for success in 2022.
But for that success to materialize, the Eagles need to adapt their offense to what it does well. In 2021, where Hurts clearly excelled was in action gaming. Hurts produced a fair pitch on 80.4 percent of game pass attempts, averaging 16.78 air yards on those throws.
Despite averaging 9.2 yards per play when they played, the Eagles only passed on 13.07% of their plays. In contrast, they executed straight passing plays on 39.21% of snaps, but averaged just 7.35 yards per play. Philadelphia went fast play on 21.57% of snaps averaging 5, 31 yards per game.
After acquiring Brown, who thrived playing in an intense game offense with the Tennessee Titans, the Eagles need to lean more into action play to give Hurts the best chance to improve a quietly effective 2022.
It wouldn’t be a seismic shift in their offensive approach, but with the level of talent on their roster, it’s one that could propel the Eagles into a deep playoff run and allow Hurts to end questions about his legitimacy. as a long-term starter.
Brandon Aiyuk – San Francisco 49ers
Drafted from the star receiver class of 2020, Aiyuk hasn’t produced to the same level as Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb and Tee Higgins.
That’s partly the product of the many mouths there are to feed in the San Francisco offense and partly the result of his falling from favor with head coach Kyle Shanahan early last season.
However, Aiyuk has once again become a focal point of the Niners’ offense in 2021, producing a string of key plays as they build into the playoffs.
Aiyuk produced a big play on 40.8% of his 98 targets last season – fourth among wide receivers with at least 50 targets in 2021. Delivering a burn, which is when a receiver wins their game with a defender on a play where he’s being targeted, on 65.3 percent of his targets, his 16 receptions for 20 or more yards were tied for 12th in the NFL.
His numbers in that regard look likely to improve as the 49ers move from Jimmy Garoppolo to Trey Lance at quarterback. Only one quarterback with a minimum of 50 attempts last season – Drew Lock (10.20) – has averaged more passing yards per attempt than Lance (10.10). Garoppolo’s 7.38 per attempt was below the league average of 7.99.
Aiyuk is a great road runner who brings yards after the catch and has already shown signs of establishing a rapport with Lance, catching four passes for 94 yards in the third overall pick’s second start of 2021 against the Texans. of Houston.
If that ratio is bolstered with a quarterback who should greatly improve the on-field threat posed by San Francisco’s passing offense, 2022 could be the season in which Aiyuk establishes himself as another gem in a league. class of recipients who have already lived up to their billing.
David Njoku – Cleveland Browns
The Browns have been waiting for an escape from Njoku since drafting him in the first round in 2017, and they’re apparently counting on that for the near future.
Cleveland signed Njoku to a four-year, $56.75 million extension this offseason after initially placing the franchise tag on the former Miami Hurricanes tight end. These moves were made despite Njoku hitting a career-high 639 receiving yards, which was in 2018.
Njoku has struggled with injuries – never starting more than 14 games a season – but there is evidence to suggest this will be the year he puts it all together. Last season, Njoku had a mediocre burn rate of 57.7%, but Rob Gronkowski (12.87) and Dallas Goedert (12.39) were the only tight ends with at least 25 targets to average more yards. burned by target.
He was tied for 10th in yards burned per haul (2.3) and 14th in high play rate (29.9%) and, assuming he remains healthy, will likely be the second target behind Amari Cooper for the Browns in 2022.
The Browns’ offense has recently been built around the running ability of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, but Deshaun Watson (if and when he’s cleared to play) offers the passing game a significantly higher ceiling.
With the Browns’ wide receiver options beyond Cooper’s lack of experience, Njoku stands to benefit greatly from that added advantage through increased target share and efficiency numbers from 2021 paint the picture for a player who will take advantage of its additional opportunities.
Christian Barmore – New England Patriots
New England suffered a self-inflicted talent drain in the secondary, but the impact of losing JC Jackson and Co. could be minimized if the Patriots can get more from the defensive front.
The Patriots finished seventh in rush pass completion rate last year, so it’s fair to wonder how many more jumps they can make in that regard. But Barmore is the one who can fuel such a leap.
New England’s 2021 second-round pick had just 1.5 sacks last season. However, he ranked eighth in defensive tackles with at least 100 one-on-one encounters with a stunt-adjusted win rate of 38.34%.
He finished in the top 10 in this metric despite being blocked 127 times by a double team. Only seven defenders have been paired up more often.
Converting those pass-rush wins into sacks will be the goal in 2022 and, if he continues to dominate his matchups in his sophomore year and the Patriots get the consistency of rushers Matthew Judon and Josh Uche to reduce the number of double shifts, Barmore’s production should see a marked improvement.
Pete Werner – New Orleans Saints
Off-ball linebackers might not move the needle like they once did, but Werner should play a starting role alongside Demario Davis in a Saints defense that should still be among the best in the NFL.
Werner allowed a burn on 13 of his 27 targets in coverage, and his ratio of 48.1 percent was above the league average for linebackers with at least 25 targets (50.8).
His average yards burned per target of 8.08 yards was 18th for players in his position to reach that threshold. Werner allowed a big play on 17.4% of his targets, putting him comfortably on the right side of the ledger for that metric as well (the average was 19.8%).
On top of that, his 12.1% run disruption rate was eighth among all linebackers with a minimum of 50 snaps on run defense.
In a hugely encouraging rookie year, Werner proved he was ready to step into the starting role.
Playing on a skillfully stacked defense up front and in the secondary, he is in a position to make a huge impact for a unit that may have to carry the charge if the Saints are to return to the playoffs in 2022.
Rashad Fenton – Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs suffered an understated loss in free agency when cornerback Charvarius Ward left for San Francisco. Ward allowed a burn on just 39.8% of targets in 2021 – the fourth-best rate among corners with at least 50 targets.
His departure will likely see Fenton and L’Jarius Sneed start at the corner this season, although the Chiefs added Trent McDuffie to their secondary in the draft.
The numbers indicate that Fenton will rise to the challenge. He was second in yards burned per target (7.71) and third in yards burned per slam (1.22) allowed last year (min. 50 targets).
He gave up a big play on just 15.2% of targets – the third-best ratio in the league for the position. Fenton’s consistency in producing tight coverage should fuel optimism he can guarantee Ward’s exit won’t cause secondary difficulties.
Fenton has just two interceptions and 18 pass breakups to his name in three seasons. Another year of stingy coverage combined with more production on the ball for a Chiefs side likely to go again in January would raise the profile of an under-the-radar but highly talented corner.