With the NFL preseason in full swing, football is back! So, which players are poised to break through in 2023? Keegan Abdoo of the Next Gen Stats team provides his Making the Leap candidates for each NFC team.
The Cardinals lost a ton of production this offseason with the departures of J.J. Watt (retirement), Markus Golden (Steelers) and Zach Allen (Broncos), who combined to generate 50 percent of the team’s pressures last year. To help fill their shoes, new coach Jonathan Gannon has been expanding Collins’ responsibilities to include more work off the edge – an area where he played just 16 percent of his snaps during his first two seasons. Collins already has prototypical height for an edge player (6-foot-4) and has added weight this offseason in anticipation of the change. The praise coming out of camp suggests the former first-rounder is adapting quickly to the role change. The Cardinals will need him and 2023 second-round pick BJ Ojulari to develop quickly on the edge if the team is going to hang with the prolific offenses in the NFC West.
The Falcons have invested heavily in their skill positions during the Arthur Smith regime, using top-10 picks in three consecutive drafts on tight end Kyle Pitts, wide receiver Drake London and running back Bijan Robinson. London became the focal point of the Falcons’ aerial attack as a rookie, earning a target on 30.8 percent of his routes in 2022, the second-highest target rate by a rookie wideout in the Next Gen Stats era, trailing only Tyreek Hill’s debut in 2016. However, with inaccurate quarterback play last season, London failed to reach 1,000 receiving yards – unlike his fellow 2022 draftees Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson – and had 24 incomplete targets that were attributed to the quarterback, tied for fourth-most in the league, per Pro Football Focus.
If Desmond Ridder can provide a steadier presence under center in his second pro season, this offense has the potential to be among the best in the league. If the end of last season is any indication, London could be the one to profit most from Ridder taking the reins full-time. Once Ridder was given the keys to the offense in Week 15, London was targeted at least eight times per game and cleared 70 yards in three of his final four contests.
The first offensive tackle off the board in the 2022 NFL Draft looks to build off an impressive rookie season where he played every snap. According to Pro Football Focus, Ekwonu allowed a pressure on just 5.2 percent of his pass-blocking snaps, the third-lowest in a season by a rookie left tackle in the last decade. Despite Carolina bringing in a new coaching regime, Ekwonu will have continuity in his position room, as new head coach Frank Reich retained the offensive line coach from the last regime, James Campen. Campen praised his left tackle recently saying Ekwonu is “way ahead of where he was last year." Continued development for Ekwonu will be crucial for protecting the blindside of the Panthers’ undersized quarterback of the future, Bryce Young.
The former Penn State safety was identified as a Next Gen Stats Day 2 standout from the 2022 NFL Draft, and Brisker delivered on that evaluation, playing the second-most snaps (913) on one of the youngest defenses in the league. The versatile defensive back aligned all over the field, taking at least 10 percent of his snaps at edge defender, outside linebacker, slot corner and deep safety. Brisker proved to be a Swiss Army knife, contributing in pursuit, coverage and as a pass rusher for the Bears. He ranked in the top 10 among NFL safeties in tackles (104, 10th), sacks (4.0, tied for second) and receptions allowed over expected (-5.3, third).
The Cowboys had the most dominant pass rush in the NFL last season, generating a league-high 34.9 percent pressure rate, and return all seven players who had double-digit pressures. However, Dorance Armstrong Jr. and Dante Fowler Jr. are set to become free agents after this season and DeMarcus Lawrence is entering his 10th year in the league. Sam Williams could see a larger role in his second season as the Cowboys look to the future.
Williams possesses an impressive athletic profile for his size, as he was one of seven edge defenders to weigh at least 260 pounds and clock a sub-4.5-second 40-yard-dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine over the last two decades. That translated into a hyperefficient rookie campaign as a backup, achieving a 16.3 percent pressure rate on 141 pass rushes. The list of other rookies to achieve at least a 16 percent pressure rate as a rookie since 2016: Micah Parsons, Uchenna Nwosu, Nick Bosa and Josh Allen.
Despite being the only member of the Lions’ 2022 draft class who did not make the initial 53-man roster, James Houston hit the ground running when he was finally promoted to the active roster in Week 12 last season. The sixth-round pick sacked Josh Allen two times on just three pass rushes in his explosive debut on Thanksgiving Day. He would go on to become the first player since Terrell Suggs to record a sack in each of his first four games. In fact, Houston finished the season with eight sacks in just seven games, second only to teammate Aidan Hutchinson among rookies.
Beyond the sacks, Houston terrorized quarterbacks on a consistent basis, generating a pressure on 20.7 percent of his pass rushes, the second-highest rate of any player last season (min. 75 pass rushes). His playtime more than doubled on third down (66 percent) compared to early downs (24 percent), allowing Houston to pin his ears back as a situational pass rusher. If he can continue his efficiency in a larger role this season, the Lions could have one of the best young edge duos in the league going forward.
It's been 30 years since the Packers began a season with a starting quarterback not named Favre or Rodgers. After taking a backseat during his first three seasons, Love will finally have his time to shine. The Packers liked enough of what they saw from the young quarterback in practices and limited game action to extend him through 2024. It is hard not to be excited for the situation that Love steps into. He will suit up behind one of the best and deepest offensive lines in the league, armed with an intriguing young receiving corps, a two-headed backfield and a creative coaching staff. If Love can prove himself as the quarterback of the future in Green Bay, the NFC North is wide open for the taking.
The Rams have operated through a strategy of combining NFL stars with youth and inexperience when it comes to roster construction under GM Les Snead. Even after seven consecutive drafts without a first-round pick, it is hard to argue with the results. They did win a Super Bowl after all. But two years after taking home the Lombardi Trophy, the Rams’ roster is still searching for promising young talent.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the secondary. With the departures of Jalen Ramsey, Troy Hill, Taylor Rapp and Nick Scott, the Rams are the only defense to enter the 2023 season with a roster that returns less than 40 percent of snaps in the secondary from last year. A second-year cornerback out of South Carolina State, Cobie Durant played at least 40 percent of the team’s defensive snaps in each of the final six games of the 2022 season, including 70 percent or more in Weeks 16-18. He showed flashes with more opportunities last season, including a two-interception performance on Christmas Day, and is in position to have a much bigger role this fall.
Christian Darrisaw enters his third season looking to solidify his status as the franchise left tackle in Minnesota. After an up-and-down rookie season, Darrisaw showed very promising development in 2022, allowing two fewer pressures despite playing 161 more pass-blocking snaps, according to PFF. He ranked seventh among left tackles with a 3.7 percent pressure rate allowed, right behind perennial Pro Bowler Terron Armstead. If he can manage to stay healthy (he hasn’t played more than 14 games in a season), don’t be surprised if Darrisaw makes his first Pro Bowl and cashes in with a lucrative contract extension.
The Saints’ 2022 second-round pick was thrust into a starting role in Week 7 last season after Marshon Lattimore and Paulson Adebo sustained injuries in consecutive weeks. Taylor’s performance may have flown under the radar compared to fellow rookie corners Tariq Woolen and Sauce Gardner, but he blanketed opposing receivers and allowed fewer than half of his targets to be caught. He had standout production across the board, ranking second among all defenders with at least 50 targets in completion percentage (45.3 percent), yards per target (4.5) and tight-window target rate (34.4 percent). If Taylor can beat out Adebo for the starting spot opposite Lattimore this season, don’t be surprised if he begins to earn recognition as one of the top young corners in the league.
When asked about his rookie season during training camp, Thibodeaux said last year's film "disgusts" him and gives him a “cringe feeling." Everyone is their own worst critic, I guess. Surface-level stats show that Thibodeaux managed to take down the quarterback just four times in 2023. However, traditional metrics don't tell the whole story here. For instance, per Next Gen Stats, Thibodeaux tied for the 10th-most QB pressures (22) among edge rushers from Weeks 12 to 18 last season, helping him to finish the year with the second-most pressures (40) of any rookie (Aidan Hutchison was first with 45). With an offseason to study and improve his game, those pressures should translate into sacks sooner than later.
Entering the league with a freakish combination of size and athleticism, the only real question with Davis as a prospect was availability. In his rookie season, the 341-pound behemoth did not exactly put those concerns to rest, missing five games due to injury. However, when Davis suited up, he made his presence felt. The Eagles allowed just 3.8 yards per carry with Davis on the field, compared with 4.9 yards per carry without him. With Fletcher Cox entering the twilight of his career and Javon Hargrave now on the 49ers, the Eagles will be relying on the development of Davis and his college teammate, rookie first-rounder Jalen Carter, to solidify the interior of their defensive front going forward.
The 49ers’ pass rush lost the fifth-highest share of last year’s pressures (44 percent) after the departures of Charles Omenihu and Samson Ebukam this offseason. Drake Jackson now steps into the starting role opposite reigning DPOY Nick Bosa a year after recording three sacks as part of the rotation in 15 games as a rookie. The young and bendy pass rusher focused his offseason on adding bulk to his frame – one of the key areas for development identified in his pre-draft profile.
The Seahawks' investment in their offensive line during the 2022 draft paid off handsomely last season, with two quality starting tackles emerging from among the team's first four picks. Although Charles Cross (No. 9 overall) did not have gaudy pass protection stats like fellow first-round LT Ikem Ekwonu, his play earned him the trust of Pete Carroll & Co. Cross, who played in an Air Raid system in college, was tasked with pure pass protection on 445 plays that had at least a five-step dropback, per Pro Football Focus. Only Rashawn Slater had more pass pro snaps as a rookie left tackle over the last five seasons. By continuing to develop in Year 2, Cross will have a legit shot at earning his first Pro Bowl nod.
Earning the starting job in Week 10 last season while still splitting carries with Leonard Fournette, Rachaad White compiled 481 yards and one touchdown on 129 carries as a rookie. But with the departure of Fournette this offseason, the keys to the backfield have been handed to White. The second-year back is in line for a big role this fall, and the Bucs will have to improve their dismal running game from 2022 – finishing last in the NFL in attempts and yards -- if they want to keep the offense afloat without Tom Brady under center. Hopefully, White can get better blocking up front, as Tampa’s running backs were hit behind the line of scrimmage on 46.9 percent of their carries last season, the third-highest rate in the NFL.
A hamstring injury forced Jahan Dotson to miss five games during his rookie season, but he made quite the impact when healthy. The play-making receiver scored a team-high seven touchdowns on just 35 receptions. Dotson also served as a field stretcher for the Commanders offense, averaging the fourth highest average depth of target (14.7 yards) in the NFL (min. 50 targets). If Dotson can stay on the field this year, he and Terry McLaurin should make for a dynamic duo on the perimeter of the Commanders' offense.
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