By Bucky Brooks
FOX Sports NFL Analyst
The NFL season is only a few weeks old, but it is never too early to identify the breakout performers who could become blue-chip players by the end of the year.
Although the early season “flashes” that catch the eyes of evaluators need to be a part of a 17-game résumé littered with consistent performance and production, I have been advised by old-school scouts that flashers are often potential stars waiting to happen.
Given some time to pore over a little film from the first few weeks of the season, I have identified a handful of players who appear to be on the verge of taking their game to the next level. Here are some standouts to keep an eye on this season.
Perhaps Tagovailoa is a product of a system and supporting cast that is propping him up this season, but it is hard to dismiss the growth in his game. The third-year pro has continued to improve his accuracy and efficiency from the pocket while showing better-than-advertised deep-ball range.
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While the jury is still out on whether Tagovailoa can carry a franchise to a title, he has started to silence some of the skeptics questioning his ability to thrive as a starter. With an A-plus supporting cast around him and a system that accentuates the strengths of his game, the Dolphins’ quarterback is starting to play like the highly touted prospect who sparked a “Tank for Tua” campaign in South Florida.
Most players make the biggest jump in their development between their first and second seasons. Bateman falls into that category after exploding onto the scene as the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver as a sophomore. The former first-rounder is averaging 27.8 yards per catch as the designated big-play threat on the perimeter. Although Bateman’s targets and touches fall well below the standard for WR1s, the Ravens’ young pass-catcher is making the most of his opportunities as the team’s top wideout.
It is not a coincidence that Philly has embraced an underdog few evaluators viewed as a long-term starter. Hurts has quietly emerged as a top-flight starter for the Eagles by utilizing his unique combination of athleticism and playmaking ability to add a lethal dimension to a ground-and-pound offense with big-play potential.
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The 6-foot-1, 223-pounder has torched opponents as a dual-threat quarterback with underrated passing skills to complement his dynamic running ability. Now that the team has added a star wideout (A.J. Brown) to a lineup that already featured an emerging WR1 (DeVonta Smith) and a dependable tight end (Dallas Goedert), Hurts looks like a franchise quarterback.
It is hard to call a running back with more than 2,100 scrimmage yards in two-plus seasons a breakout player, but Swift deserves a mention based on his jump into the ranks of the elite. The Lions’ RB1 is averaging 10 yards per carry as the workhorse back for an offense that is lighting up scoreboards around the league. With Swift displaying RB1-WR2 skills as a runner-receiver out of the backfield, the Lions might have an emerging superstar in No. 32.
It is not easy replacing the production of a legend, but Highsmith might have a chance to fill the void created by T.J. Watt‘s injury. The third-year pro has teased evaluators with his talent and potential, but he has failed to put it together for an extended stretch.
This year, things are different for No. 93 as he settles in as the team’s primary rusher with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year on the shelf. Highsmith posted a “hat trick” in the season opener and has followed up with a workmanlike effort on the edges. Although the Steelers have failed to create many long-yardage situations that tilted the field for pass rushers, Highsmith and the young defenders have flashed in each game, and that is enough to earn a spot on this list.
There is nothing like watching a tackling machine gobble up runners and receivers all over the field. Bolton has keyed a resurgent Chiefs defense with his fast-flowing skills and exceptional instincts. The second-year pro is hitting everything in sight as a sideline-to-sideline enforcer for a defense that feasts on opponents who are forced to chase points to keep up with the Chiefs’ high-powered offense. Considering that the K.C. defense is thriving with Bolton notching at least 10 tackles in each game, the team’s playmaking linebacker is one of the breakout stars of the 2022 campaign.
The 49ers might have snagged a hidden gem a year ago in the fifth round when the team selected Hufanga out of USC. The 2020 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year pushed for playing time immediately as an instinctive playmaker with a nasty disposition.
Hufanga is not only an old-school enforcer with a knack for drilling wideouts who venture across the middle, but he is a natural box defender with a great nose for the ball. As an enforcer with ball skills and range, the 49ers standout could push for All-Pro honors as a core defender for an elite defensive unit.
Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He regularly appears on “Speak For Yourself” and also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.
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