With NFL organized team activities (OTAs) set to get underway this week, fans are about to get their first real glimpses of what’s to come in 2024.

While many of the top spring and summer storylines will involve incoming rookies, veteran additions and potential breakout players, it’s worth keeping an eye on those who took their first steps into the spotlight a year ago.

After all, while some breakthrough campaigns prove to be a blip on the proverbial radar, sometimes, they’re only a sign of things to come.

Here, we’ll examine some of the biggest breakout players of the 2023 season—those who earned their first Pro Bowl nod or had statistical career years—who could actually be even better in 2024.

Factors like supporting cast, offseason roster movement, projected role and player upside were all considered here. Players are listed in alphabetical order.

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Tight end was a fourth-round pick in 2022 and was largely an afterthought in the Dallas Cowboys offense as a rookie. However, he stepped into a significant role last season, following the departure of Dalton Schultz.

After tallying just 174 receiving yards in 2022, Ferguson finished his sophomore campaign with 761 yards, five touchdowns and his first career Pro Bowl nomination. The 25-year-old believes that his stardom is only beginning.

“To me, I think I’m not even scratching my surface,” Ferguson said, per ESPN’s Todd Archer. “There’s so many things that I want to get better at and I know I can get better at.”

Ferguson may be right. He coming off his first year as a starter and should still have plenty of room for growth. Additionally, some of Dallas’ offseason changes could lead to an even bigger offensive role.

The Cowboys parted with starting running back Tony Pollard in free agency and did little to replace him, aside from bringing back an aging Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas could lean even more heavily on the pass this year, and without a lot of proven receiver depth behind CeeDee Lamb and Brandin Cooks, Ferguson could be even more involved.

Plenty will hinge on how well rookie linemen Tyler Guyton and Cooper Beebe protect Dak Prescott—and whether 2023 second-round pick Luke Schoonmaker develops enough to challenge Ferguson for playing time—but 2024 could be an even more productive year for the Cowboys’ newest star pass-catcher.

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Last season marked the start of the Green Bay Packers’ post-Aaron Rodgers era. By the end of it, new starting quarterback Jordan Love had Packers fans far more focused on the future than the past.

While Love had his early ups and downs in 2023, he finished the year with 4,159 passing yards, 32 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 96. 1 passer rating. Most importantly, he put Green Bay in the postseason and even recorded his first playoff win.

Sophomore slumps are common in the NFL, but fans shouldn’t expect one from Love. For starters, he’ll enter 2024 with a full year of starting experience, meaning he’ll have a better grasp on both the offense and his preseason preparation.

Secondly, Love only began building chemistry with young pass-catchers like Romeo Doubs, Jayden Reed, Tucker Kroft and Luke Musgrave down the stretch. Their rapport should be even stronger by the end of training camp, meaning Love and the Packers will hit the ground running.

Another sluggish start to the season is highly unlikely.

There are a couple of factors that could limit Love, of course. Rookie left tackle Jordan Morgan might not provide the instant stability Green Bay is seeking on Love’s blind side, and new running back Josh Jacobs does have a history of injuries and inconsistent production.

If all goes well, though, Love should be eyeing his first Pro Bowl campaign, and perhaps even a spot in the MVP conversation.

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Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Trent McDuffie played a significant role as a rookie in 2022, but by the end of last season, he was a bona fide star. He earned a first-team All-Pro nod for his efforts in the regular season, then was somehow even better in the playoffs.

With three tackles, two quarterback hits and three passes defended, McDuffie was one of Kansas City’s heroes of Super Bowl LVIII.

“He’s an) integral part of our defense,” linebacker Nick Bolton said of McDuffie, per Nick Shook of NFL.com. “He just showcased some of his talent.”

McDuffie will have a prime opportunity to step further into the spotlight this season because the Chiefs traded away No. 1 cornerback Charvarius Ward earlier this offseason. Kansas City didn’t add corner depth in the draft, either, until taking a sixth-round flier on Tennessee’s Kamal Hadden.

This means that McDuffie will become Kansas City’s top cover corner moving forward. While this means he’ll spend a lot more time locking up with opposing No. 1 receivers, it also means he should have more playmaking opportunities.

And if new offensive additions like Marquise Brown and rookie Xavier Worthy help Patrick Mahomes and the offense improve their scoring—Kansas City ranked 15th in points last season—McDuffie could have a lot of chances to make game-altering plays.

While McDuffie was fantastic in 2023, especially in the playoffs, he recorded just seven passes defended and is still searching for his first career interception.

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Pittsburgh Steelers receiver George Pickens showed plenty of potential as a rookie in 2022, but he really broke through last season. Despite getting some very inconsistent quarterback play out of Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph, Pickens exploded with a 63-catch, 1,140-yard, five-touchdown season.

Pickens also led the NFL with an 18.1 yards-per-carry average.

While Pickens didn’t make the Pro Bowl for his efforts, his production might be too great to ignore in 2024. This is because the Steelers, on paper, improved their quarterback situation significantly.

First, the Steelers signed veteran and nine-time Pro Bowler Russell Wilson to a one-year deal. They then traded for 2021 first-round pick Justin Fields. While Wilson is expected to enter training camp as the starter, Fields will get his opportunities.

“Fields, expect him to get a lot of reps,” ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler said on SportsCenter (n/t Nick Kosko of On3). “The Steelers, I’m told they love to get their backup quarterbacks reps, sometimes the first team, second team, scout teams, they’re gonna move Fields all over to get him a lot of throws early on.”

Wilson has seemed to lose a bit of the long ball in recent years, so Pickens’ yards-per-catch average could dip if Wilson holds off Fields. However, it’s hard to envision Pittsburgh’s QB situation being less consistent than it was last year—when it ranked 25th in yards and 20th in net yards per attempt—which should increase Pickens’ opportunities.

While rookie wideout Roman Wilson will be competing for targets, Diontae Johnson was traded, which leaves Pickens as the clear-cut top option.

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While Cam Taylor-Britt didn’t get nearly as much national recognition as McDuffie, he was just as impactful for the Cincinnati Bengals as McDuffie was for the Chiefs.

Taylor-Britt, who appeared in 10 games as a 2022 rookie, broke out as a 12-game starter for the Bengals last season. He did spend time on injured reserve with a quad injury, but he also snagged four interceptions while allowing an opposing passer rating of only 78.0 in coverage.

This year, Taylor-Britt should have even more chances to make big plays in big moments. Cincinnati’s offense was hampered by quarterback Joe Burrow’s injuries—first, a lingering calf ailment, then a season-ending wrist injury—which left opponents frequently attacking the Bengals with the run.

Cincinnati faced the ninth-fewest passing attempts against in 2023.

At the same time, Taylor-Britt may benefit from upgraded safety help. Cincinnati brought back Vonn Bell while adding former Baltimore Ravens Geno Stone. If the Bengals defense is better on the back end—the team ranked dead-last in net yards per pass attempt allowed—Taylor-Britt should be able to play a bit more aggressively.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Burrow will stay healthy after finishing two of his four seasons on injured reserve. There’s also no guarantee that the Bengals defense, which ranked 31st overall, will experience a sizeable turnaround.

However, Taylor-Britt is a rising star who should be even more productive in Year 3.

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Los Angeles Rams running back Kyren Williams became a star in 2023, which is impressive, considering he was on the same team as rookie standouts Kobie Turner and Puka Nacua.

After recording just 215 scrimmage yards as a rookie in 2022, Williams racked up 1,350 scrimmage yards and 15 combined touchdowns in just 12 games last season. It was enough to earn Williams a Pro Bowl nod and help send L.A. back to the postseason.

However, Williams is capable of a whole lot more. He missed time with an ankle injury last season, which prevented him from reaching his statistical potential. However, he was heavily utilized when healthy, averaging 21.7 touches per game.

Last month, the Rams used a third-round pick on former Michigan running back Blake Choir,. While Corum is likely to cut into Williams’ workload a bit, that could benefit him over the course of the year.

L.A. won’t need to lean on Williams as frequently, which should, in theory, keep him fresher from Week 1 to Week 18. Even if he sees fewer touches each game, playing a full slate should raise his production and efficacy.

In addition, the Rams made moves to solidify their offensive interior, re-signing Kevin Dotson and adding Jonah Jackson. Nacua, Cooper Kupp and Matthew Stafford will still lead a potent passing attack, but Williams should find easier running room.

There is some risk of Corum cutting into Williams’ production too heavily—and of Stafford battling injuries for the third straight season—but Williams could be primed to make the jump from Pro Bowler to All-Pro.

*Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference

2024-05-19 12:50:46
#NFL #Breakout #Stars


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