NFL 2022: 49ers’ Trey Lance, Broncos’ Javonte Williams and more second-year players primed for breakout season

If an NFL player doesn’t show something, anything, by Year 2, there’s a problem. Particularly if that player was an early-ish-round selection. And patience wears thin by then because, nowadays, the stars emerge in their second season, if they didn’t already do so in Year 1.

These are the second-year pros primed to breakout in 2022. I didn’t include those who I deemed to have already emerged as stars as rookies, like Ja’Marr Chase, Micah Parsons, Jaylen Waddle, and Kyle Pitts. 

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I’m compelled to start with a layup. Got to. Trey Lance is the most naturally gifted quarterback Kyle Shanahan has ever coached — especially during his time as a head coach. From his designed-run capabilities to his monster arm talent, Lance exquisitely fits the mold of the modern-day franchise quarterback. That’s not to say he is a franchise passer just yet, but he ticks the physical boxes for what it takes to become one. 

Speaking of Shanahan, his track record with (lesser) quarterbacks is sterling. The play designs, the play calls, a scheme that accentuates YAC talent, Shanahan *always* fields a high-efficiency passer. As for the YAC talent around Lance, yeah, it’s incredible. Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk. Heck, even Jauan Jennings is a load to corral in the open field. 

Lance is in for a monster Year 2, even if all the mechanical and accuracy kinks are worked out along the way.

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Jaelan Phillips quietly had 39 pressures on 402 pass-rushing snaps as a rookie, good for a reasonable 10.9% pressure-creation rate. He’s a specimen who rocked at the Miami Pro Day in 2021, so there’s size and athleticism galore to be accentuated. Plus, the pass-rush move arsenal is far from barren. The Dolphins re-signed veteran Emmanuel Ogbah this offseason, so Phillips won’t have to be the alpha rusher immediately in Year 2. 

Situationally, the Dolphins should be better than they were during a roller coaster of a 2021 season that featured a seven-game losing streak and a winning streak of the same length, thereby giving Phillips more opportunities to rush the passer.

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As a rookie, Javonte Williams played a lot like he did at North Carolina: through tacklers’ faces. He averaged 3.42 yards after contact per rush, the 10th-highest figure in football among backs, and forced an astronomical 63 missed tackles on 203 attempts. Only Jonathan Taylor forced more during the regular season. 

He does have Melvin Gordon to contend with in the backfield, but let’s not view that as a negative. Williams absolutely can handle a “full” workload, yet if he’s not instantly thrown into a classic feature-back role and his carries are somewhat capped each game, it’ll lead to a fresher Williams later in the season. 

And I can’t overstate how vital Russell Wilson’s presence will be to the run game. The run game? Yes. Those extra defenders will be removed from the box far more frequently than they were a season ago. Williams will ascend to “elite back” status in 2022. 

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JOKer was an animal last season for the Browns but hardly garnered any Defensive Rookie of the Year hype. The ultra-fluid, impossibly athletic second-level defender was built for today’s NFL. He thrives in space, where many linebackers are uncomfortable. 

On just under 54% of the defensive snaps, Owusu-Koramoah registered 76 tackles, four pass breakups, three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. And he’s playing behind a solid defensive front that not only re-signed capable run defender Jadeveon Clowney but added two bodies in the middle round of the draft in Perrion Winfrey and Alex Wright. 

By year’s end in 2022, we’ll consider Owusu-Koramoah the best young pure off-ball linebacker in the game. He’s that special. 

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Josh Palmer is both talented and in a high-powered offense with a tremendously gifted quarterback. After a somewhat slow but not totally unsurprising start for a third-round rookie receiver, Palmer got more involved late in the year. In Weeks 14, 16, and 18, he averaged more than seven targets per game and had 14 total grabs with 154 total receiving yards. Palmer also scored a touchdown in each of those contests. 

A chippy, battle-through-contact type with deceptively good ball skills and route sharpness, the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder is set to be the No. 3 option for Justin Herbert, and there’s no Jared Cook, who saw 83 targets a season ago. 

Palmer is simply a complete wideout who may not be spectacular in any area but can win at all three levels while providing some after-the-catch juice and trustworthy hands (only one drop on 45 target last season). He’ll be one of the best No. 3 receivers in football in 2022. 

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As a draft analyst, I’m always looking for traits. And Ernest Jones oozes them. He’s incredibly explosive at around 6-1 and 230 pounds. What he shows on the field matches his combine, a vertical in the 88th percentile and a broad in the 90th percentile at his position. 

As a rookie, the high-energy second-level defender had 61 tackles, four pass breakups and two interceptions on fewer than 38% of the defensive snaps during the regular season. Injuries sidelined him for the first two playoff games, but by the Super Bowl, Jones was back to 100% and played nearly 100% of the snaps (93% to be exact). He was a force in Los Angeles’ title-clinching win, with seven tackles, three quarterback hits, two tackles for loss and a pass breakup.

And now, Jones is penciled in as a the starter next to…Bobby Wagner, a future Hall of Famer who, yes, has lost a step, but remains arguably the NFL’s best run-stopping linebacker and is rarely out of position. Jones will be like a sponge learning from Wagner, which will help spark a sizable Year 2 breakout. 

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After nearly an entire rookie season spent on the practice squad, the Bears finally took the advice of The Practice Squad Power Rankings ahead of their Week 15 game against Justin Jefferson and the Vikings and elevated Thomas Graham Jr.. It led to probably the most glorious outing in PSPR history

Graham had seven tackles and three pass breakups, all of which were of the highlight-reel variety, in his NFL debut.

Remember, this is a defensive back who registered eight picks and 32 pass breakups across three seasons at Oregon. If you’re that consistently productive at corner over three years in college, you know how to play the position. Throw the height/weight/speed metrics out the window. I’m serious. However, with Graham, his traits pop, too. He plays with the requisite aggression needed to be a smaller corner who lives on the perimeter. He never backs down from a challenge down the field and has phenomenal instincts in zone coverage that help him play faster than any combine drill would ever indicate. 

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