With NFL training camps open and the preseason right around the corner, football is back! So, which individual players are poised to break through in 2022? Gregg Rosenthal provides his Making the Leap candidates for each AFC team. (Check back on Thursday for the NFC rundown.)
On Saturday, July 30, NFL Network will present Training Camp: Back Together Saturday. Beginning at 9 a.m. ET, more than 50 analysts, reporters and team correspondents will provide 13 hours of live coverage from training camps across the NFL — plus, check out NFL Films-produced wired sound of players and coaches in action.
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The Ravens asked a lot of Oweh as a rookie, and it took its toll with a season-ending foot injury followed by offseason shoulder surgery. I’ll take the purple-colored glasses approach: Oweh was productive in 655 snaps despite changing positions and apparently playing through injury. (The shoulder injury was never disclosed.) Oweh, who had 49 total pressures by Pro Football Focus’ count, is playing for an organization that specializes in churning out quality edge players. He’s the rare pass rusher that makes you miss. There were times his feet were so quick that opposing tackles barely touched him.
Oliver made a leap last year while no one was watching. He finished seventh among defensive tackles in pass-rush win rate and was in the top 20 in pressures and PFF’s pass-rush grade. With Von Miller aboard to ease Oliver’s incredibly high rate of double teams, look for more splash plays and Pro Bowl love this year.
Oliver’s power can overwhelm when he lines up over the center and he explodes like an edge rusher when he gets inside a guard on the way to a quarterback. The top-10 pick took time to develop, but GM Brandon Beane has already indicated he wants Oliver around long term and his price tag is only going up. He’s among my favorite Making the Leap picks in the entire league.
The Bengals wouldn’t have made the Super Bowl if not for Wilson. The best three-game stretch of his career came in the last three games of the season, including a fantastic Super Bowl performance. Now best known for a tenuous third-and-goal penalty on Cooper Kupp, Wilson’s coverage ability sets him apart. Every team is looking for an off-ball linebacker who can cover, and the Bengals found one. Speaking of which …
Every draft, a highly touted prospect falls way too far before enjoying a fine career, despite seemingly everyone knowing he’ll be great from the jump. JOK is that dude. The Browns know he can do everything and used him like it in 2021: He lined up as an off-ball linebacker, inside linebacker, middle linebacker, on the edge and in the slot. They even threw him out at cornerback a few times. Handling all of those roles didn’t affect his play speed. In fact, he anticipated holes so fast that he’d sometimes get there before the running back or run right past the ball, but those were the type of good mistakes a young Troy Polamalu made. Owusu-Koramoah has a real chance to be special.
This one isn’t logical. Jeudy’s play has been sloppier than expected in his first two seasons and there are a lot of mouths to feed in Denver. Russell Wilson wins on the outside, where Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick play, while Jeudy should be breaking ankles on the type of in-breaking routes Wilson rarely threw in Seattle. Yet I’m talking Jeudy anyway because Patrick Surtain II is too easy a layup and Jeudy just moves differently. This is my version of trusting my college evaluation too much and giving up a high pick in a trade for someone else’s disappointment. Except there are no repercussions.
Mills can play. He outperformed most of the first-round quarterbacks last season, and a sizzle reel of his 25 best plays would stun those who didn’t watch Texans games in 2021. The high-end flashes were there, as were the games in which he collapsed under the weight of an undermanned offense. I loved the way he got to his second read quickly and made quick decisions, finishing fifth among qualifiers in time to throw, according to PFF. He has a natural feel in the pocket that some quarterbacks never display. He has the arm strength to hit low-percentage throws and can change speeds, showing some deep touch. Meanwhile, his accuracy was average and he’s not going to create much, sometimes too cautious about testing tight windows.
His floor looks no worse than a quality long-term backup and he could be a mid-level starter, which would be a fantastic result for a third-round pick. His ceiling is higher than you think.
The sacks will come. Paye was third among rookies in pressures and pass-rush win rate, also finishing 26th out of 65 edge rushers with at least 500 snaps in PFF’s grading. In short, Paye looked like an average NFL starter as a rookie. He showed more power than expected and finished the season strong, unlike most of his teammates. New defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has a history of getting the most out of his pass rushers.
Even at the Jaguars’ darkest moments, Lawrence flashed brilliance. The 50-10 loss to the Patriots included three absolutely stunning throws that would fit on an Aaron Rodgers highlight reel. That set up Lawrence’s cleanest, most-composed performance all season the following week in a win over Indianapolis that knocked the Colts out of the playoffs.
Lawrence missed more open throws than I anticipated. But he was great at avoiding sacks and was hurt by drops more than any other quarterback. Not to mention, the spacing on so many Jaguars plays looked borderline unprofessional. Laquon Treadwell and Tavon Austin were often the recipients of his best balls. He’s a great thrower on the run. It’s going to get better, fast.
Money matters. The Chiefs gave MVS $30 million over three years because his deep speed created competition in free agency and because they had a role for him in the wake of Tyreek Hill’s exit. It’s not that Valdes-Scantling is upgrading that much at quarterback and play caller, just that he’s joining a pass-first attack that needs him. A career average of 17.5 yards per reception can’t be wrong.
Ya-Sin broke up Mac Jones’ final pass to help clinch a Colts victory last December. A few months later, former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels traded for him. Ya-Sin also gave Derek Carr fits in a Week 17 game against the Raiders and has become an increasingly reliable outside press corner. He may not be much of a tackler, but he allowed just 4.6 yards per pass last year, good for second in the league, per Football Outsiders. I admittedly struggled to find a Making the Leap candidate in Las Vegas, but both fourth-year starting corners Ya-Sin and Trayvon Mullen could thrive under new coordinator Patrick Graham.
I went back and forth between the two options above. My gut said Tranquill, who looks like the Chargers’ best linebacker if he just gets the opportunity to show off his rare coverage skills. He’d look great as the lone linebacker next to Derwin James in the box. Still, Samuel will see a lot of targets in the Bolts’ loaded secondary and has the ball skills to make a bunch of splashy plays, like a poor man’s Trevon Diggs.
So I separately texted the Chargers’ radio broadcast team of Daniel Jeremiah and Matt “Money” Smith for help. Jeremiah stumped for Samuel. Money went hard for Tranquill. The victor of this take-off will be declared the true Chargers expert at the end of the season, with Money possibly replacing Jeremiah as NFL Network’s lead draft analyst as a reward.
Tua has shown more than he’s been given credit for through two seasons. He’s already one of the NFL’s better quick-game quarterbacks. He’s accurate and accelerated his processing as a second-year pro in 2021, but still made too many frenzied decisions while under intense pressure. Tua doesn’t even need to play much better to make a big leap because the offensive line and running game should help so much more in coach Mike McDaniel’s system. Oh, and the Dolphins acquired Tyreek Hill to run alongside Jaylen Waddle, taking 7-yard slants 74 yards down the field, probably high-fiving around the 5-yard line.
The leap from college to the pros is usually difficult for defensive tackles. Not for Barmore, an elite interior rusher from Day 1 who looks like the best Patriots defensive draft pick since Chandler Jones and Dont’a Hightower in 2012. Only nine interior players had equal to or more pressures than Barmore in 2021, according to PFF. All nine are veterans playing on expensive long-term deals. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect more, but a rookie year that good at defensive tackle is often a sign of All-Pros to come.
Moore is sudden. As a rookie, he showed a veteran’s ability to time routes and get open, making him the type of player offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur can scheme up a variety of plays for. Moore’s best games came with Mike White and Joe Flacco under center, but he established himself as the Jets’ top receiver with Zach Wilson, too, before missing the the last five weeks of the season with a quad injury. I believe there’s a better chance of Moore out-gaining both Corey Davis and Garrett Wilson by a sizable margin than there is of someone else leading the Jets in receiving.
The Steelers have logical young candidates like Najee Harris, Alex Highsmith, Dan Moore and Chase Claypool, but I wanted to highlight their Myles Jack signing because it should be so crucial to their season. Jack got an All-Pro vote as recently as 2020 and has started 82 games over six seasons, but he’s somehow only turning 27 years old in September. Devin Bush just hasn’t gotten it done, so the Steelers made a rare free agency splash because they know Jack can hold up in coverage and pursue the ball while handling everything mentally that Mike Tomlin asks of an inside linebacker. Don’t be surprised if he has his best season yet with the Steelers.
Initially, this write-up was just going to be about Kristian Fulton, who could take an A.J. Terrell-like leap from a good cornerback to one everyone recognizes as great. Then I wanted to throw in slot corner Elijah Molden, a heady, do-everything type who allowed just a 47.7 percent completion rate after Week 6, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac (a great read!), which was third among qualifying slot corners. Since toolsy 2021 first-round pick Caleb Farley could still make a splash if he can get healthy, why not just make it the whole group? Around the NFL podcast producer Justin Graver believes the Titans could own “one of the best corner groups in the league,” which is going too far, but does earn him some pop in this article.
(But seriously: Fulton is the type of zone cornerback who doesn’t make mistakes and is always around the ball. He finished third among all cornerbacks in Football Outsiders’ coverage success rate and has Pro Bowl potential.)
Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.
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