Published: Aug 17, 2023 at 02:23 PM
With the NFL preseason in full swing, football is back! So, which players are poised to break through in 2023? Mike Band of the Next Gen Stats team provides his Making the Leap candidates for each AFC team.
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While preseason assertions from coaches can sometimes be exaggerations, Ravens pass game coordinator/secondary coach Chris Hewitt’s enthusiasm about Kyle Hamilton seems justified. Entering his second NFL season, Hamilton is pegged to transition from situational contributor to a “Pro Bowl-type player,” according to Hewitt. Analytical evaluations align with this sentiment. The 14th overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft entered the league with the highest overall draft score of any safety prospect over the last decade, according to the Next Gen Stats predictive draft model. Hamilton’s combination of elite size, plus athleticism and uber production has him primed for an every-down role in his second season on a talented defense.
Hamilton’s versatility was evident last season. Primarily utilized in nickel and dime packages, Hamilton took 49 percent of his snaps as a slot corner, 28 percent as a box safety and 23 percent as a deep safety. Even more notably, the first-year pro led all rookie defensive backs with seven quarterback pressures and posted five hustle stops during the regular season (hustle stops are defined as a successful tackle where the defender traveled 20 or more yards from the snap). His intense training camp battles with Pro Bowl tight end Mark Andrews in one-on-one drills further underscore his potential as a matchup-driven coverage defender.
Rousseau, who has generated 12 sacks over his first two seasons in the NFL, has his sights set on posting double-digit sacks in Year 3. An ankle injury suffered in Week 9 of last season put a damper on an otherwise productive campaign. The second-year pro finished tied with Von Miller for the team lead in sacks (eight each).
Rousseau will have to be efficient to reach the double-digit sack mark, based on the way the Bills deploy a full rotation of defensive linemen throughout games. The strategy keeps their pass rushers fresh, but limits the volume upside of any individual rusher. Last season, no Bills defensive lineman participated in over 77% of the defense’s snaps in a single game. Conversely, there were just six instances when a Bills defensive lineman played fewer than 20% of the defense’s snaps. Between Rousseau, Miller, Ed Oliver, DaQuan Jones, Leonard Floyd, A.J. Epenesa, Jordan Phillips and Tim Settle, the Bills’ defense sports one of the league’s deepest defensive line units.
Dax Hill, labeled as the most athletic safety in the 2022 class by the Next Gen Stats draft model, finds himself in an intriguing position. With key departures of safety stalwarts Jessie Bates (Atlanta) and Vonn Bell (Carolina) via free agency, there’s a void in the Bengals’ secondary, and Hill seems primed to fill it. Limited to just 135 defensive snaps in his first regular season (and 169 snaps on special teams), Hill’s role is set to expand significantly in his second NFL season.
Despite his limited time on the field, Hill was still responsible for the fastest recorded speed by a Bengals player last season (21.85 mph). In fact, Hill was responsible for three of the top eight speeds on the team (all of which came as a punt gunner). Considering Hill’s athletic prowess — and range in the secondary — there’s palpable excitement surrounding Hill’s potential in his second season.
Emerson was statistically one of the top cornerbacks in man coverage as a rookie last season. Across 111 snaps in man coverage, Emerson was targeted 28 times, allowing 10 receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns. When you dive deeper into the advanced NGS metrics, Emerson had less than one yard of separation from the receiver when the ball arrived on over half of those targets (53.6 percent), while forcing nine pass breakups, tied for the most in the NFL in man coverage last season.
If Emerson can build on his strong rookie season, expect the Browns to feature one of the top defensive back units in the league, with a starting five of Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II, Grant Delpit, Juan Thornhill and Emerson.
The big-play ability Dulcich showed at the college level was on display during his rookie year. While injuries limited him to 10 games last season, the former UCLA standout is expected to play a major role as a receiving tight end in 2023.
It’s Dulcich’s ability in the vertical passing game that is most intriguing in Sean Payton’s new offense (sans Jimmy Graham). Dulcich’s average target depth of 11.5 yards ranked second among tight ends with at least 50 targets last season. He was one of only four tight ends to be targeted more than 10 times on deep passes last season — Kyle Pitts (14), Darren Waller (12), Mark Andrews and Dulcich (11). Dulcich caught just four of those deep targets.
A contributor from Day 1, Pitre received notable honors from Next Gen Stats in our weekly Position Power Rankings, ranking second among rookie debuts based on his performance in Week 1, and fourth among safeties through the first three weeks of the season. Across the entire regular season, Pitre led all defensive backs in total tackles (147) and finished fifth in run stops (defined as a successful play for the defense) with 36. Only Christian Kirksey (1,103) played more snaps for the Texans defense than Pitre (1,054) last season.
Between two early draft picks in 2022 — Derek Stingley Jr. with the third overall pick, and Pitre with the 37th pick — the Texans turned a coverage unit that was one of the league’s worst in 2021 into a competitive young group in 2022. The Texans ranked last in defensive success rate (45.5 percent) against pass attempts in 2021; that number jumped to 50.9 percent in 2022 (20th best). Expect that number to improve again with veteran Jimmie Ward joining the group for 2023.
Raimann played only one full season at left tackle for Central Michigan (the team played just six games in 2020) before entering the 2022 NFL Draft at the age of 24. Yet, when the Colts were desperate for stability at left tackle, Raimann stepped in to start the final nine games last season, and did so admirably given the edge rushers he faced in that span. Between Weeks 9 and 18, Raimann graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st of 81 tackles with at least 100 pass blocking snaps. With rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson set to start in Week 1, Raimann is playing the crucial role of protecting the new face of the franchise.
One of Next Gen Stats’ hidden gems of the 2021 draft class, Cisco fell to third round in part due an injury suffered in September of his final season at Syracuse. Cisco went from situational contributor as a rookie (three starts in 2021) to full-time starter in his second NFL season (15 starts in 2022), and he would be worthy of making a Pro Bowl safety watch list in 2023 (if such a list were to exist). When targeted as the nearest defender in zone coverage last season, Cisco created -13.2 expected points added, the third-best mark among all safeties last season.
Reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes had high praise for Moore in his recent comments to NBC Sports’ Peter King. And with the departure of JuJu Smith-Schuster in free agency (who vacates 101 regular-season targets), Moore seems primed for a bigger role in the Chiefs’ offensive scheme.
Moore is entering his second season in Andy Reid’s offense after struggling to maintain consistent playing time as a rookie. Two weeks after running a season-high 26 routes in the AFC Championship Game against the Bengals (targeted seven times for three receptions, 13 yards), Moore was relegated to just four total routes in Super Bowl LVII (though his lone reception did result in a pivotal fourth-quarter touchdown).
Moore’s 1.46-second 10-yard split and 4.41-second 40-yard dash at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine were indicators of his initial burst and raw speed. That translated to most of Moore’s production coming after the catch as a rookie. Of Moore’s 267 receiving yards in the regular season and postseason, 180 came after the catch (67.4 percent, a top-10 mark among wide receivers with at least 25 targets last season). If Moore’s catch rate can regress closer to the mean (Moore caught 64.3 percent of targets versus 74.0 percent expected), opportunities to create after the catch will follow.
Deablo ranked among the top 10 in tackles (73) through the first eight weeks of last season. However, a broken arm abruptly halted his impressive sophomore campaign.
He has legitimate 4.4-speed, earning top marks by the NGS athleticism score as a hybrid linebacker/safety prospect out of Virginia Tech. The Raiders’ defense enters the season with Robert Spillane and Deablo as the primary off-ball linebackers. Spillane is more known for his prowess against the run than in coverage. In a division that features Travis Kelce, Greg Dulcich and Gerald Everett, Deablo will play a pivotal role in matchups against tight ends and bigger-bodied slot receivers. A sign of his growing influence on the field, Deablo was donning the green dot on his helmet this offseason, making him the defensive signal-caller in Patrick Graham’s scheme.
Alohi Gilman, a sixth-round pick in the 2020 draft, is entering his fourth NFL season (and a contract year). He has waited for the opportunity to be a fixture on the first-team defense, never starting more than five games in any of his first three NFL seasons. The retirement of incumbent starter Nasir Adderley leaves an opening at safety opposite Derwin James. James himself sees potential in Gilman, not just in a supporting role, but as a playmaker for the Chargers’ defense.
Phillips’ jump from situational pass rusher as a rookie to full-time starter in his second season was just the start of his NFL ascension. From Week 6 through Super Wild Card Weekend, just four pass rushers generated more pressures than Phillips (48): Micah Parsons (56), Nick Bosa (51), Myles Garrett (50) and Josh Allen (49). Over that same time frame, his 31 run stops (defined as a successful play for the defense) ranked second among edge rushers behind only Maxx Crosby (34). Phillips’ two best pass rushing performances of the season came in the last two games of the Dolphins’ season (eight pressures in Week 18 against the Jets, seven pressures in the Wild Card Round against the Bills).
If new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s defensive schemes can unlock even more of Phillips’ potential, a Pro Bowl appearance could well be on the horizon for the third-year pro.
The only player to make this list in consecutive seasons, Barmore showed flashes in 2022 of what made him an All-Rookie selection the year prior. However, injuries ended up affecting his overall output (Barmore missed seven games). He generated two or more pressures in each of his last four games, numbers that more closely resembled his rookie season production than his first six games of last year. The former second-round pick will share snaps with Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy. Nevertheless, Barmore is worth keeping an eye on as an ascending third-year talent.
Jermaine Johnson II is looking “awesome” entering his second NFL season, according to his own head coach. Across 14 games as a rookie, Johnson’s average play time percentage was 34 percent, never exceeding the 50 percent mark in any game. It wasn’t until the final regular season game when Johnson registered his first multi-pressure game (two; nine games with a single pressure).
Last week against the Panthers, Johnson generated two pressures on just nine pass rush snaps, according to Next Gen Stats. But what was more impressive from the limited sample size was his pass rush get-off (the average time it takes to cross the line of scrimmage after the snap). Johnson’s 0.70-second average get-off would have been his fastest mark in any game last season. His previous best was 0.78 seconds (on 15 pass rushes in Week 16 against the Jaguars).
Pickens stepped in as the No. 2 wideout in Pittsburgh right out of the gate as a rookie, totaling 52 receptions on 84 targets for 801 yards and four touchdowns over 17 games (12 starts). Entering Year 2, there is reason to believe he will improve on those numbers.
In his first NFL season, Pickens finished among the top 20 in total routes run (548), but was targeted on just 15.3 percent of those routes (compared to Diontae Johnson’s 25.3 percent target rate). When Pickens was targeted, the young receiver made the most of his opportunities, excelling in difficult situations. Pickens finished his rookie year ranked among the top five in deep receptions (13, tied for fourth), tight-window receptions (17, second) and receiving yards over expected on targets outside the numbers (+166, third). If the Steelers can draw up higher-probability looks for Pickens in the passing game, expect his receiving volume to increase without taking a hit in efficiency.
A 2022 NFL Scouting Combine standout, Okonkwo’s speed translated to big plays after the catch during his rookie year. Okonkwo’s average top route speed of 15.99 mph (from snap to catch) ranks first among 69 tight ends who ran 100+ routes last season. That speed translated to 2.9 yards per route as a rookie (450 receiving yards on 155 routes), a mark that trailed only Tyreek Hill (3.3 yards per route) among any player who ran more than 100 routes last season. The next tight end on the list ranked 14th overall (Travis Kelce at 2.4 yards per route).
The addition of DeAndre Hopkins could put a dent in Okonkwo’s total output in a run-heavy offense. Nevertheless, Okonkwo will be a valuable target in the passing game for Ryan Tannehill, should he hold onto the starting job, or one of the team’s recent draft picks at quarterback (Will Levis and Malik Willis).
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