The NFL is a superstar-driven league, but not everyone reaches stardom immediately, and some players just need the opportunity to get healthy in order to take their game to new heights.
As teams begin reporting to training camps, it is only a matter of time before new players become household names and take their place among the NFL’s brightest stars.
According to multiple NFL front office executives, scouts and coaches, who spoke to Heavy on the condition of anonymity to discuss players on other teams, these six players have the best chance for breakout seasons.
Kwity Paye, EDGE, Indianapolis Colts
There’s a belief that the former Michigan standout who logged a 4.57 40-yard dash and ran a freakish 6.37-second unofficial three-cone drill, could be on the cusp of becoming one of the game’s premier pass rushers.
“Kwity had a pretty good year last year, but he got hurt early,” an NFC front office executive told Heavy. “I think if he stays healthy, playing in that defense, I think teams are going to have to throw the ball a lot in order to stay in games, and he’s a kid who can really surprise people this year.”
After producing 4.0 sacks in 15 games as a rookie in 2021, Paye might reach new heights along the Colts’ star-studded front seven in 2022.
“The cool thing about Kwity is he’s a real high-motor guy,” the executive said. “No one really is talking about him, but if he can play all 17 games, there’s no reason he can’t reach the high teens in sacks. If you put Kwity one-on-one with a tackle, or a chipping running back, he’s winning that battle every time.”
Davis Mills, QB, Houston Texans
The Houston Texans chose Mills in the third round of the 2021 draft while staring down the barrel at uncertainty in what would likely be a post-Deshaun Watson world.
Now that Watson is a Cleveland Brown, the Texans are Mills’ team, and there are some in the league who say he’s ready to rise to the moment in Houston.
“I think Davis Mills has a real chance to be something,” an NFC pro personnel director told Heavy. “He’s a really smart kid with excellent anticipation, and maybe most importantly, he protects the football.”
Mills appeared in 13 games last season, including 11 starts, and completed 66.8% of his passes for 2,664 yards with 16 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.
This season will likely serve as Mills’ audition to become the Texans’ franchise quarterback and beneficiary of all the draft capital Houston acquired from the Browns in the Watson blockbuster.
Houston’s bringing back wide receiver Brandin Cooks on a new contract extension, and picking wide receiver John Metchie in the second round of the 2021 draft, could put Mills in position to take a big step forward in his development.
Jaelon Darden, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
For Tom Brady, it’s potentially the case of the rich getting richer.
Jaelon Darden underachieved as a rookie last season, catching only six passes for 43 yards in nine games, but showing some promise in the return game, after being chosen in the fourth round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2021 draft.
However, according to multiple members of the Buccaneers’ coaching staff and front office, Darden was among the standouts during 2022 OTAs and minicamp.
“He really dove into the playbook this offseason and is playing really fast,” a high-ranking member of the Buccaneers front office told Heavy.
In an offense that already features All-Pro wide receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, opportunities may be tough to come by, but if Darden cracks the rotation, he has the skill set to make an impact.
“What I love about his game is he has instant speed and quickness,” a rival executive told Heavy. “He’s the type of player who could make a rapid improvement in Year 2.”
Caleb Farley, CB, Tennessee Titans
Had Caleb Farley been healthy when the 2021 draft began, there would have been little chance that he’d slide out of the top 10 selections and the Tennessee Titans likely would have had no chance to scoop him up with the No. 22 overall pick.
But Farley wasn’t healthy; he was dealing with an injured back. And the Titans likely walked out of the draft feeling they came away with one of the biggest steals.
However, Farley is just getting back on the field after suffering a torn MCL in Week 6 last season, ending his rookie campaign after just four games. At 6-foot-2 and 197 pounds, Farley has all the attributes of a top NFL cornerback.
“When you watch [Farley] it’s easy to see that he’s uber-talented,” an NFC scout told Heavy. “But the real shame is how injuries have derailed him. If he’s healthy, he has a really good chance to be really special.”
Michael Pittman Jr., WR, Indianapolis Colts
“[Pittman] is just an all-around receiver with the combination of rare size and athletic ability,” an NFC East scout told Heavy.
After catching 128 passes for 1,585 yards and seven touchdowns, many inside the league believe the best is yet to come, especially with Carson Wentz out and Matt Ryan in as the Colts’ quarterback.
Pittman’s 6-foot-4 and 223-pound frame gives him the chance to be Ryan’s best friend in Indianapolis’ offense and perhaps even more productive in the red zone, where he caught four of his eight touchdowns in 2021.
“There’s no question in my mind that a better quarterback is going to get Pittman the ball more often, and that could be exactly what that offense needs,” the scout said.
Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Expectations couldn’t have been higher for Akers entering last season. But disaster struck and he tore his Achilles during training camp last summer.
Somewhat miraculously, Akers returned for the Rams’ Super Bowl run, rushing for 172 yards and adding 74 receiving yards. Now, expected to be fully healthy, perhaps Akers’ postseason will serve as a mere appetizer for what’s to come as the versatile playmaker rejoins Los Angeles’ backfield alongside Darrell Henderson.
“He’s the definition of a dual-threat runner and receiver,” an AFC director of college scouting told Heavy. “In that offense, he’s going to get plenty of opportunities. I watch him, and I just see so much untapped ability and a lot of production sitting there for the taking.”