Most of the time, a breakout season for a specific player feels imminent. A strong sophomore season in the NFL gives way to massive hype before Year 3.
In rare instances, players break out seemingly out of nowhere. They had minimal opportunities early in their pro careers, and maybe even performed well, but there wasn't enough volume to alert the masses of an impending breakout.
Who could those players be this season? Here is the 2023 "Out of Nowhere" Breakout Team:
Howell's backstory qualifies him for the "Out of Nowhere" team. Once widely regarded as a future first-round pick -- heck, in some circles, he was bound to be the first pick in the 2022 NFL Draft -- a relatively down final campaign at North Carolina precipitated a plummet all the way to the fifth round of his respective draft.
Howell was the sixth quarterback picked last year, and he stayed in the shadows during his rookie campaign in Washington until the final regular-season contest. While far from a Mahomesian rookie year audition, Howell averaged nearly nine yards per completion in the win over the Cowboys at home in his only Year 1 action.
He's also an "Out of Nowhere" selection because of those natural gifts that were integral to the early draft buzz. Howell has a strong, live arm and plays with a propensity to push it downfield. He gets Eric Bieniemy as his offensive coordinator for his second professional season, and Terry McLaurin is, to me, a superstar wideout in terms of his individual, well-polished game. Expectations aren't high for Howell, so he very well could sneak up on most of his competition, particularly early. Howell isn't a freaky athletic talent but did run for more than 800 yards with 11 ground-game scores in 2021 for the Tar Heels. Beyond McLaurin, the Commanders aren't bursting with pass-game talent, yet second-year, former first-round pick Jahan Dotson is worth monitoring as the club's secondary receiver.
Do I think Howell has an enormous ascension up quarterback rankings, jumping many established, high-profile names in the process? No. But he is positioned for a Year 2 breakout that will leave no questions about who the future starter is in Washington, and that franchise hasn't had any prolonged stability at that position since the Robert Griffin III/Kirk Cousins days a decade ago.
The name "Shanahan" must mean "Running Back Whisperer" in a different language, because that's what Mike Shanahan was during his legendary coaching career, and his son, Kyle, has followed suit, cycling through backs just like his dad did. Now, some of said cycling has been provoked by a rash of injuries in San Francisco's backfield since Kyle became the club's head coach in 2017, but it hasn't slowed the run-game efficiency much for the 49ers.
Of course, there is elite back Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell ahead of Mason on San Fran's running-back depth chart, which we have to keep in mind. But Mason earned this nod because of the spectacular showing he put forth in his short audition as a rookie in 2022, averaging 6.0 yards per tote while forcing a stunningly good 10 missed tackles on his 45 attempts. Mason might be too good for Shanahan to simply shelf in 2023. Upping his carry total into the 60s or 70s wouldn't be unreasonable, and Shanahan knows he has an explosive insurance policy in the backfield if his top backs get dinged during the season.
Had Dean not spent the entirety of the pre-draft process rehabbing an injured shoulder -- which he played through during a national-title winning season at Georgia, by the way -- he would've been picked much earlier than the third round when the Eagles snagged him in last year's draft.
His film as the quarterback of the Bulldogs' epically stingy defense was first-round or early second-round caliber. Dean was explosive, specialized as a blitzer and made enough plays in coverage in his final season to indicate he could play sinking in space at the next level. We only saw Dean for 38 snaps in 2023. That's going to change this year, especially with T.J. Edwards gone from the middle of the defense.
Dean didn't miss a tackle on those 38 snaps and only allowed three catches for 12 yards into his target area. Philadelphia still boasts one of the league's deepest, most ferocious defensive lines, which always bodes well for second-level defenders. Before the season starts, I want to wish opposing guards and centers good luck attempting to climb to the second level through Fletcher Cox, Jordan Davis, Jalen Carter, and Milton Williams.
Now fully healthy, I expect Dean to play almost precisely how he did at Georgia: fast and ultra-active on seemingly every play. With familiar faces in front of him at defensive tackle, Dean will break out as a star on Philadelphia's high-caliber defense in 2023 after barely playing a season ago. Because he technically was a third-round pick, Dean's emergence will further fortify GM Howie Roseman's famed team-building philosophy to wait on linebackers in the draft.
Chiefs WR Skyy Moore
No way I'm ready to quit Moore yet. I had a, and felt he landed in a dream scenario in a Tyreek Hill-less Chiefs offense. But Kansas City put a lot on Moore's plate in Year 1. He aligned in essentially every receiver spot as a rookie, and he excelled in exactly none of them.
Moore was not the complete, dominant wideout he proved to be at Western Michigan across three seasons for the Broncos. With a year of experience in Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes' offense, along with a sudden need to replace chain-mover JuJu Smith-Schuster, the stars have aligned for a massive jump in Moore's productivity in a much more central role.
I found it to be exceptionally challenging to find a glaring hole in Moore's game as a prospect. He destroyed press coverage on a routine basis, flashed unshakable contact balance as a runner, exploded in and out of route breaks and caught everything in his general vicinity. I viewed him as a high-floor prospect, but maybe the leap from the MAC to the NFL was too significant for him to hit the ground running in his first professional season. In 2023, I expect Moore to be a 70-to-80 catch producer who'll play with a noticeable comfort on Sundays en route to becoming somewhat of a household name.
I have vivid memories of scouting Kazee at San Diego State. It was like he had special football-attracting magnets in his gloves -- 15 interceptions in his final two seasons for the Aztecs and 29 pass breakups across his four-year collegiate career. Frankly, those opportunistic ways have followed him to the NFL.
Kazee led football with seven picks as a rookie in 2017 with the Falcons and has 14 career picks on his professional resume to date, including two with the Steelers last season in just nine games. Playing alongside Minkah Fitzpatrick accentuates Kazee's ball-hawking tendencies, because so many defenses actively attempt to steer clear of the All-Pro. He also did not miss a tackle in his limited time on the field in 2022.
The Steelers only added Keanu Neal at safety this offseason,, signalling their confidence in Kazee as Fitzpatrick's running mate at safety. Expect more splash plays from the now 30-year-old in Pittsburgh's defense this season. When given a full-time opportunity in the NFL, he's been a steady producer and remains one of the most underrated safeties in football. Kazee will get more notoriety in 2023.