We are just four days away from seeing some live NFL game action. With the 2022 NFL pre-season getting underway on Thursday night with the Hall of Fame Game, I decided to look ahead to explore some players who may become household names this season.
In sports, there is nothing better than witnessing a player breakout. A big play on national television of a few key moments in the early stages of a season can take someone from an unknown to a celebrated name in a matter of days. Nowhere do we see that more often than at the wide receiver position where just one big play can change the way we view a player.
So below, I’m going to look at five wide receivers who may be on the periphery of the national conversation (yes, you may already know all about them if you play fantasy football) that I think could emerge as well-known studs by the end of the season.
Michael Pittman Jr., Indianapolis Colts
Pittman Jr. is one of the aforementioned players who is certainly well-known to the fantasy football crowd but has not yet fully emerged into the national discourse as a top-flight wide receiver. In his second NFL season last year, he caught 88 passes for 1,082 yards and six touchdowns, which may not seem like a tremendous year, but he did it with Carson Wentz at quarterback and the team feeding carries to Jonathan Taylor any chance they could get .
Pittman Jr. played 87.5% of the Colts’ snaps, accounted for 25.6% of the team’s targets, and was targeted on 24.6% of routes run, which shows just how big a part of the passing game he was.
At 6’4″ and 225 pounds, Pittman Jr. is a big target who has shown sure hands in his brief NFL career. He also is far and away the most talented receiver on the Colts roster, which is good news with new quarterback Matt Ryan in town, since the veteran has a long track record of peppering his top receiver with targets. While Pittman Jr. may not be Calvin Ridley, Julio Jones, or Roddy White (yet), it should be a safe bet for him to top his 88 targets from last year and push towards 100.
If the Colts also get him a little more involved in the red zone, we could see the type of weekly stat lines that catch fans’ attention.
Gabriel Davis, Buffalo Bills
Some might argue that Gabriel Davis already broke out with his performance against the Kansas City Chiefs in the playoffs, and they wouldn’t really be wrong. However, despite catching eight passes for 201 yards and four touchdowns in that playoff loss, Davis operated as the Bills’ fourth receiver for much of the 2021 season, finishing with 35 receptions for 549 yards and six touchdowns.
With Emmanuel Sanders no longer with the Bills, Davis will slot into the starting spot opposite Stefon Diggs and the expectations for the third-year pro are high. So far in training camp, he has been turning heads left and right, with his new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey saying that Gabe Davis is as “great mentally, as smart as any receiver I’ve been around and works his tail off. So I think that’s why you see that trajectory with him continue to get better and better and better each year because he’s never complacent.”
While Davis did have a role for Buffalo last year, he played only 47.6% of the team’s snaps over the course of the season. Meanwhile, Sanders played 62.3%. If you consider that Davis is likely to take many of Sanders’ snaps, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Davis play close to 75% of snaps (Diggs only played 81% because the Bills rotate receivers).
With an expanded role in one of the pass-heaviest offenses in football and a proven track record of big play ability, Gabriel Davis has to be a favorite to be one of the breakout players of the 2022 season.
Darnell Mooney, Chicago Bears
Now we’ll turn our attention to a much less exciting offense. Last year, the Bears gained just 5,225 yards (24th in the NFL) and threw for just 3,635, which was almost 800 yards fewer than the Bills. Yet, while the Bears will not be the kind of explosive offense the Bills are, they have a budding star of their own in Darnell Mooney.
Despite the struggles of the Bears’ offense, Mooney was still able to produce 1,055 yards and four touchdowns on 81 catches. He averaged 13 yards per reception but had only a 57.9% catch rate thanks to poor quarterback play. Darnell Mooney dropped just 4.1% of his catchable targets, which means he should have done a lot more than he did with his 140 targets but too few of them were thrown accurately.
With Justin Fields entering his second season, and his first one as the clear starter, there is hope in Chicago that last year’s first-round pick can show clear improvement and help elevate Mooney’s game in the process.
At 5’11” and 175 pounds, Mooney is not the biggest target, but he has elite speed. Considering how often he’s on the field in Chicago (87.7% of snaps last year) and how much he’s targeted (26.6% of team targets and 35.5% of team air yards), it’s likely that Mooney will start hitting on these big plays. Give him even an average number of catchable passes, and we could see Mooney push for 1,400 receiving yards and 7-8 touchdowns, which would certainly garner him some national attention.
Rondale Moore, Arizona Cardinals
A second-year wide receiver out of Purdue, Rondale Moore finds himself in an intriguing situation in Arizona with DeAndre Hopkins suspended for the first six games and AJ Green seemingly fading at this stage of his career.
The Cardinals also brought in Marquise Brown in a trade with the Ravens, but Brown has split snaps between the slot and outside receiver positions, while Moore played 303 of his 390 snaps in the slot last year. As a result, it’s highly likely that both young speedsters are on the field at the same time, which gives Kyler Murray two big home run threats.
Moore only caught 54 passes for 435 yards and one touchdown last season, but he showed dynamic ability after the catch, registering 8.2 yards after the catch, which is elite for a wide receiver. While Moore only saw 11.5% of the Cardinals’ targets, he was targeted on 22.5% of his routes run, which shows how the team schemed ways to get him the ball. He also had an 84.4% catch rate, which is a good indication of his solid hands on him.
Last year, the Cardinals only attempted 591 passes, which was good for 18th in the league, so they will attempt to be a balanced offense, but they passed for 4,619 yards, which was 8th-most in the league, and shows both the efficiency and big-play potential of this passing game. With fewer obstacles standing in his way, Rondale Moore could put together a strong start to the season which makes him near impossible to take off the field.
Kadarius Toney, New York Giants
Many New York football fans already know how dynamic a talent Kadarius Toney is, but the Giants’ ineffectiveness, and Toney’s injury history, has kept that from the larger public. Perhaps that won’t be the case after this season.
Last year, Toney was limited to just ten games due to various injuries and finished with 39 catches for 420 yards and no touchdowns. He was also used primarily as a short-yardage option for Daniel Jones, averaging only 7.4 yards per target. The fact that he averaged 10.8 yards per catch is thanks in large part to averaging a strong 6.1 yards after the catch.
A large part of the faith in Kadarius Toney is centered on an improved Giants offense under new head coach Brian Daboll. When he was the offensive coordinator in Buffalo, Daboll created an offensive scheme around the strengths of his quarterback, Josh Allen, so there is optimism he can do that for Daniel Jones. Much of that will involve finding ways to get Kadarius Toney the ball.
In Buffalo, Daboll used star receiver Stefon Diggs all over the field, often moving him around to create mismatches with the opposing defense. He had just as much faith sending Diggs deep as he did using Diggs on quick comebackers or slants over the middle. While Kadarius Toney is not Diggs, he is the Giants’ best option to fill those shoes. Kenny Golladay continues to disappoint in training camp, Darius Slayton is best served as a deep threat, and Sterling Shepard has, unfortunately, never been able to stay healthy as a pro.
If Toney can avoid his own injuries and this Giants offense can find a little bit more life under Daboll, we could be seeing Toney highlights across television screens for much of the 2022 NFL season.
Honorable Mention: Rashod Bateman (Ravens), Courtland Sutton (Denver Broncos), Allen Lazard (Packers), Chase Claypool (Steelers), Donovan Peoples-Jones (Browns), Amon-Ra St. Brown (Lions)