These are my top 10 breakout players -- who are in Year 2 or Year 3 -- for the 2023 NFL season, and they're ranked by likelihood of breaking out, with No. 1 being the player in which I'm most confident.
Honorable Mention: Malik Willis, QB, Titans
Willis gets the Honorable Mention nod here for obvious reasons -- he's not the Titans starter entering Week 1! That will change. Ryan Tannehill has enjoyed a stellar career resurgence in Nashville, and somehow, Tennessee is always either in the playoffs or contending in the final weeks of the regular season despite not fielding a club loaded with superstars outside of Derrick Henry.
In 2023, the Titans will realize it's time for more upside, more natural playmaking ability at the game's most vital position inside a ridiculously talented AFC. Willis won't be able to run the offense as methodically as Tannehill, yet he can make many throws the veteran cannot, and the scrambling prowess of the former Liberty star will create a brand new dynamic for the Titans offense. After the 2023 campaign, we'll realize Willis was picked too late in the third round of the 2022 draft and, oh yeah, what is Tennessee going to do with Will Levis on the roster?
10. Levi Onwuzurike, DL, Lions
Onwuzurike missed his entire second season with a serious back injury. And it's amazing how he had surgery and is now back playing at full strength. Back surgeries are no joke. This is one of the most uniquely built defensive lineman in the game at a shade under 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds with noticeable explosiveness and slippery yet powerful hands at the point of attack.
A lot of teams say they'll utilize their defensive linemen in varying positions up front. Many of them don't actually do that. As a rookie in 2021 and in the 2023 preseason, Detroit did truly deploy Onwuzurike everywhere, from one technique all the way out to a seven technique, well outside the offensive tackle. And he can win anywhere because of his size, length, strength, and carefully planned pass-rush moves. The Lions defensive front seven is absolutely loaded, and Onwuzurike will be an integral part in Detroit controlling the line of scrimmage in most contests.
9. Nik Bonitto, EDGE, Broncos
Bonitto is going to help usher in a new era of assertive, consistent pass rushers in Denver. With Bonitto, I'm not talking Von Miller 2.0 here -- I'm not crazy. But with the Miller and Bradley Chubb duo now completely gone, the Broncos are looking for two outside rushers to anchor the defensive line. Randy Gregory is a DUDE, and Bonitto low-key has impeccable pass-rush capabilities. His rookie season was decent. He's now had a full year to add power to his arsenal, which should give him a complete skill set as an outside rusher. Bonitto had six pressures on 30 preseason attempts to sack the quarterback, and his bend, burst, and karate-style hand work will get him to the opposing passer early and often in Year 2.
8. Sam Howell, QB, Commanders
Yessir, I have boarded the Howell Hype Train. Not many other passengers here, and I'm cool with that. Do I think he wins MVP. No, no. There will be significant strides made in Year 2. Then again, we only saw him throw 19 passes as a rookie, so no one is really quite sure how good he really is yet. I think many don't believe in Howell because of his fifth-round draft position.
The draft analyst in me is looking at traits over said draft position. Howell has a plus arm and enough athleticism to sneak out of some precarious situations. As for what's around him -- Terry McLaurin has superstar receiver talent -- three straight back-to-back seasons with the assortment of average-to-awful quarterbacks he's had is very Andre Johnson-like. Jahan Dotson was a fun underneath, touchdown-scoring weapon as a rookie and Logan Thomas and John Bates have the size and athleticism to be matchup nightmares at tight end. The offensive line, yeah, it worries me a little, hence the lower ranking. I do love Eric Bieniemy's presence on the sideline and in the headset for Howell during what will be a blast of a second season for the former North Carolina star.
7. Derek Stingley Jr., CB, Texans
How swiftly reputations change in the NFL never ceases to amaze me. Precisely a year ago, Stingley was the rookie cornerback everyone was eagerly awaiting to watch on Sundays, and many expected him to garner serious Defensive Rookie of the Year attention. But in 2022, everything came up Sauce Gardner, and now it feels like the 2022 No. 3 overall selection has drifted into the shadows.
Let me tell you -- Stingley's brilliant mirroring ability and veteran-like ball skills didn't simply vanish during his rookie season when he was mostly miscast as an off-man and zone corner. New head coach DeMeco Ryans will deploy him the right way -- predominantly in man. With better talent around him in the secondary and rookie Will Anderson Jr. likely boosting the pass rush, Stingley is primed to play like someone who went in the top five at the cornerback spot a little over one year ago.
6. Skyy Moore, WR, Chiefs
Now, Moore is ready. He clearly wasn't ready for the litany of roles the Chiefs asked him to assume as a rookie. That full year to familiarize himself with Andy Reid's system will go a long way in regaining the trust of his head coach and quarterback in Year 2. Moore doesn't need the ball in gadgety situations. He can win off the line of with lightning-quick releases, equally as rapid hand work and sharp routes. Plus, he has strong hands in combat-catch scenarios and is a running back after the catch. This is the year the Chiefs incorporate more of Moore into their methodical, quick-strike offense, and he plays like he did when he was a dominant wideout at Western Michigan.
5. Justin Fields, QB, Bears
Fields has the goods athletically and an improved supporting cast to make the Year 3 jump. Maybe not Josh Allen Year 3 jump. But approaching that territory. We know he's an elite-level scrambler. There's plenty of progress to be made as a passer, and D.J. Moore's presence, plus a sturdier offensive front, Cole Kmet, and two field-stretchers in Darnell Mooney and rookie Tyler Scott will give Fields options at all three levels of the field. The youthful backfield doesn't boast a household name but is a diverse, well-rounded ground game that will be plenty good enough in the modern NFL and take just enough attention off Fields to help aid in the quarterback's emergence onto the national scene.
4. Drake London, WR, Falcons
London experienced a sneaky-good rookie season on the most run-obsessed team in the NFL. The Falcons only attempted 415 passes as a team, and London managed 72 receptions for 866 yards with four touchdowns. And he only dropped two passes on his 114 targets. The quarterback play should be better in Atlanta this season, and while the Falcons are going to be run-heavy again given the first-round investment in Bijan Robinson, let's not forget London was the No. 8 overall pick in 2022 and has supreme physical traits as a towering force on the perimeter. The run game and a healthy Kyle Pitts will snack on London's breakout to a certain degree, but I expect the former USC superstar to eclipse 1,000 yards and near 10 touchdowns in his second season. He was only targeted nine times inside the 10 a season ago; that will be well into double-digits in 2023.
3. Kenny Pickett, QB, Steelers
Pickett isn't outrageously special physically like some of the other young, unproven quarterbacks on this list. But he's in the best situation in Pittsburgh with George Pickens, Diontae Johnson, Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Jaylen Warren, a bolstered offensive line, and Allen Robinson scampering around as the fourth or fifth option.
Pickett looked calmer down the stretch in 2022, and that light turning on late in a rookie season is typically an indicator for an impending breakout. The Steelers should field one of the game's most ferocious defenses, particularly up front, meaning Pickett shouldn't feel as pressured to fit the ball through tight windows as frequently as he did as a rookie. And taking what the defense gives him will yield mostly positive dividends for Pickett given the talent around him.
2. James Houston, EDGE, Lions
Houston's story ... incredible. Former inside linebacker turned full-time edge rusher at Jackson State and sixth-round pick who was unblockable in the final seven games, when he finally got an opportunity, in 2022 -- 17 pressures on 92 pass-rush attempts. Houston's productivity carried over into the 2023 preseason. I don't care that he isn't even 6-foot-1 and weighted in at 244 pounds as a prospect. He has lengthy 34-inch arms, elite-level explosiveness and bend and converts speed to stunning low-center-of-gravity power. At first, the Lions will slow-play Houston into a full-time role because of his draft position and Aidan Hutchinson and the Okwara brothers in front of him on the depth chart. By October, Detroit will realize Houston needs to be close to an every-down player because of his dynamic skill set and natural ability to beat blockers in a hurry to disrupt the pocket.
1. George Pickens, WR, Steelers
Pickens was comfortably a first-round-caliber prospect in my scouting gradebook in 2022. For my thoughts on Pickens, here's a snippet from my pre-draft report on him: "Tall, good-framed outside wideout with athleticism galore ... knows how to beat press at the line and has the length/quicks combination to become outstanding in that area eventually. Lean on vertical routes, will separate down the field and plays with reckless abandon when trying to find the football ... snaps out of his breaks at the intermediate level. Huge catch radius and a flair for the highlight-reel grab."
Oh and I finished with "a lot to like about his game ... flaws are few and far between." Now, history would tell us that contested-catch win rate is not stable year over year. With Pickens, it will be. He's that unbelievable tracking the football. And at around 6-3 and 200 pounds, he has the ideal, super-sleek frame to become an intimidating boundary option with Pickett throwing him the football in 2023. Johnson and Freiermuth will draw some coverage away from Pickens initially. By the end of 2023, Pickens will move very close to the "elite" wideout tier.