The 2022 NFL season was filled with mixed results for rookies. Trevor Lawrence broke out into a superstar. Ja’Marr Chase, Micah Parsons, Patrick Surtain II, Creed Humphrey and Amon-Ra St. Brown built off superb rookie years.
But guys like Mac Jones, Odafe Oweh and Zach Wilson took major steps back. Trey Lance suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2 and lost his starting job to Brock Purdy. Look at the No. 16 to No. 22 picks, and we still don’t know what we have in either player.
Well, expect more of the same in the 2023 NFL sophomore class. While some second-year players will make the jump to stardom, others will disappoint and/or leave us mystified about what they’ll end up becoming.
With that said, let’s dive into five NFL sophomores that will break out in 2023, and five that will disappoint.
Break Out: Kenny Pickett
Though Pickett won seven of 12 starts last season, his stat line left a lot to be desired. He had seven touchdowns against nine interceptions and averaged just 184.9 passing yards per game for a QB rating of 76.7.
But Pickett did show immense improvement over his final three games, winning all of those starts while throwing three TDs against just one interception. Naturally, he’s only going to get better with experience.
Pickett is also well-equipped with big-time playmakers: Two-time 1,000-yard rusher Najee Harris, two stud wideouts in George Pickens and Diontae Johnson plus tight end Pat Freiermuth — who had 63 catches for 732 yards and two touchdowns in year two.
Pittsburgh’s mediocre o-line got a major upgrade with the first-round selection of Georgia tackle Broderick Jones, who didn’t allow a single sack in 470 pass-blocking snaps last year, per Pro Football Focus.
Pickett is also playing under a world-class coaching staff led by future Hall of Famer Mike Tomlin. This team hasn’t had a losing season since 2003, and you just know they’ll help unlock Pickett’s full potential in year two.
The Steelers are a Super Bowl darkhorse with that defense and all of those scary-good offensive weapons. If Pickett takes the next step, they’ll be a force in the AFC.
Disappoint: Drake London
The big-bodied wideout was one of football’s best rookies last season, hauling in 72 receptions for 866 yards and four touchdowns. So why is London placed on this list when he made such a good first impression?
It’s nothing to do with his skill-set, but rather the circumstances. For one, 2021 fourth overall pick Kyle Pitts is going to be the Atlanta Falcons’ main pass-catcher, but he missed seven games last year which opened the door for London to go off.
With Pitts about to reclaim his spot as the Falcons’ main option in the passing game, you just know London is going to get less targets.
On top of that, Atlanta used the No. 8 pick on prized Texas Longhorns running back Bijan Robinson. They already have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2022 rookie standout Tyler Allgeier, so to take Robinson that early? It seems obvious that the Falcons will use Robinson aplenty in the passing game as well.
Plus you have Allgeier and do-it-all weapon Cordarrelle Patterson. London is simply one of five skill position guys who can push for 1,000 yards of offense. London’s slice of the pie can only be so big, so expect him to take a step back here as a sophomore.
Doesn’t mean he won’t eventually reach super-stardom, though.
Break Out: Travon Walker
Many expected the Jacksonville Jaguars to play it safe and go with Aidan Hutchinson with the top pick last year, but they couldn’t help but bet on the sky-high upside of Georgia linebacker Travon Walker.
Everyone knew it would be a learning year for Walker, but he did show some flashes in the 15 games he suited up for. Walker had 3.5 sacks, 21 pressures, one interception, two pass defenses and five tackles for loss.
It’s important to note that Walker’s college stats never jumped off the chart, so the scoresheet doesn’t do justice. It’s his freakish athleticism that made him the top pick, and the Jaguars took Walker knowing they could help him develop into something better.
The vibes are good in Jacksonville after Doug Pederson coached the team to a surprise AFC South division title. Josh Allen, Tyson Campbell and Andre Cisco are getting the attention on that defense, but don’t overlook Walker’s talents.
Oozing with incredible speed, toughness, strength and confidence, Walker should break out this year as an All-Pro-level talent for the up-and-coming Jaguars.
Disappoint: Logan Hall
Even though the front seven was a strength in 2021, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were content to take Houston defensive end Logan Hall. In fact, GM Jason Licht had traded down from the 27th spot to No. 33 via the Jaguars.
Hall played 36 percent of Tampa’s defensive snaps last year, tallying 2.5 sacks in 17 contests. So Hall should suddenly break out as a sophomore now that he’s listed as a starter…right?
We’re not buying it. The Bucs’ fearsome pass rush still runs through Shaq Barrett and Vita Vea. 2021 first-rounder Joe Tryon-Shoyinka will enjoy a bigger role after a stellar sophomore year, and who says Todd Bowles won’t give this year’s first rounder, Calijah Kancey, significant playing time as well?
Longtime Buc William Gholston had a lackluster 2022 campaign but could very well bounce back, which would also mean taking away more playing time from Hall.
There was a lot of buzz around Hall after Tampa Bay drafted him. We’re not ready to deem him a bust, but the Bucs need to clear out some veteran players and make room for Hall to be a full-time starter to succeed. It just looks like they’re going to be patient with him again this year.
Break Out: Jordan Davis
The hulking run-stopping giant was drafted 13th overall by the Philadelphia Eagles last year. But like Travon Walker, it was well-known that this would be a learning year for Davis — who sat behind two of the game’s premier defensive tackles in Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave in 2022.
Hargrave went on to sign with the San Francisco 49ers, opening the door for the 6-foot-6, 340-pound monster to take his rightful place in the starting lineup. And he promises to make the very most of it.
Davis will work the interior line on a Philly defense that racked up 70 sacks last year. Working alongside Cox, Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat and Haason Reddick will do wonders for Davis, who can focus on his main strength — the run-stopping game — while Philly’s other guys get to the quarterback.
These Eagles coaches just know how to quickly unlock young guys into game-wrecking stars, and now it’s Davis’ time to shine. He’s got the physical tools and the ideal supporting cast around him to break out as one of the game’s elite interior defensive linemen in 2023.
Disappoint: Treylon Burks
Last year, the Tennessee Titans made the odd choice of trading proven star wideout AJ Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles. To replace Brown’s production, the Titans took Arkansas wideout Treylon Burks with the No. 18 pick.
Burks missed six games last season, but he simply wasn’t all that productive when on the field: 33 catches for 444 yards and only one touchdown. And that was with no legitimate game-changing pass-catchers for Burks to fight for reps with.
Now Burks joins a Titans offense which added five-time Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins. Hard to imagine Burks outshining D-Hop for the WR1 role. Not to mention Burks will be catching passes from either injury-prone and fading veteran Ryan Tannehill or unproven rookie Will Levis.
Also keeping in mind that the offense will continue to run through Derrick Henry, and it’s just hard to see how Burks will rebound from a tough rookie year. Not saying he won’t eventually grow into a star, but 2023 will not be his breakout year.
Break Out: Christian Watson
Watson missed three games last year but still finished with seven receiving TDs — tied with Jahan Dotson of the Washington Commanders for first among rookies.
The explosive 6-foot-5, 200-pound Watson averaged 14.9 yards per catch, offering glimpses of what’s to come in Green Bay. That is, the status of one of football’s elite deep threat artists and TD machines. Kind of like a younger Mike Evans, if you will.
Watson’s 611 receiving yards in 14 games don’t look great on paper, but don’t forget that he had a trio of 100-yard games last year. The big-play ability is there, and it’s going to start coming around in 2023.
We know, we know. Aaron Rodgers is no longer here, and his successor, Jordan Love, is unproven with only one NFL start to date. But Love doesn’t have to be that great when Watson is just going to burn opposing defenses for big catches on his own anyway, so we trust the North Dakota State product to stuff the boxscore anyway.
Also, the Packers’ prolific rushing duo of AJ Dillon and Aaron Jones will help set up play action, allowing Watson to again destroy defensive backs with his elite speed and contested catch skills.
Not sure how Love will fare as the starter this year, but we do know that Watson will cement himself as the next star wideout in Green Bay here in 2023. Book it.
Disappoint: Sam Howell
Howell was viewed as one of the top signal-callers in a lackluster QB draft class last year. Despite that, he wasn’t drafted until the fifth round — 144th overall — by the Commanders last year.
Howell didn’t see any action in his rookie year until a meaningless Week 18 game against the Dallas Cowboys last season. In that game, Howell completed 11 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown and an interception.
Ron Rivera loves Howell and has raved aplenty about him. But as lovable as “Riverboat Ron” is, he’s not exactly the best working with QBs unless it’s in-his-prime Cam Newton. Rivera’s endorsement doesn’t mean much.
We’re just having a tough time seeing how a second-year fifth-round pick will serve as an upgrade over Taylor Heinicke. The offensive line in DC is still shaky, and Howell plays in arguably football’s toughest division that featured three playoff teams a year ago.
Buy into Rivera’s hype on Howell all you want, but we’re not seeing it. It shouldn’t be long until a more-proven and more-established Jacoby Brissett takes over the offense.
Break Out: Kyle Hamilton
Just how good was Hamilton as a rookie for the Baltimore Ravens? He was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded safety last season. Indeed, Hamilton lived up to the whole “unicorn” label thing last season.
Though he’s listed as a safety, Hamilton lined up aplenty in the slot last year — where he absolutely flourished. He had five pass defenses and two sacks while allowing just 279 total receiving yards in coverage, according to Pro Football Reference.
As well, PFF had his run defense for the year down at an impressive 84.8. Hamilton was a lockdown defensive back, a dangerous pass-rushing weapon and a run-stopping force. Of course he’s only going to elevate his game from here.
Just how much? We’re excited to find out. Hamilton only started four games and saw just 53 percent of defensive snaps in the contests he played last year. Time for John Harbaugh and company to make him a full-time starter and to unleash the beast that is Kyle Hamilton.
His rookie year was spectacular, but now it’s time to make the jump to First-team All-Pro-level.
Disappoint: Breece Hall
Hall would have been in contention for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors if he didn’t suffer a torn ACL in the seventh game of the year. He had 463 rushing yards, four rushing TDs and 681 yards of offense in those contests.
So if healthy — key word “if” — Hall should go off and cement himself as a top-tier running back? Right? That time may come down the road, but certainly not here in 2023.
For one, we don’t know how sharp Hall will be and how much playing time he’ll get. Secondly, the Jets just signed a four-time Pro Bowler and 1K rusher in Dalvin Cook to bolster their ground game.
And third, the Jets had to run the ball a lot last year because of their horrendous quarterback play. Now they have a four-time MVP in Aaron Rodgers, who will gladly turn this New York offense into a pass-heavy unit.
Hall will still make his plays and rip off explosive runs, but the factors work against him in taking his game to a Pro Bowl level in 2023. So keep your expectations reasonable and don’t hold your breath on 2023 being his breakout year.
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