Fit and opportunity. It’s really that simple. So much of a player’s success in the NFL can be determined by being in the right place at the right time. Players who are miscast or buried on the depth chart in one system can become the star of the show in another.
Look at CB Rasul Douglas. After three seasons in Philadelphia to start his career, he played the 2020 season in Carolina. From there, he bounced from Las Vegas to Houston to Arizona (all in 2021, by the way) before landing in Green Bay in Week 5. Soon thereafter, he found himself in the starting lineup. Just as the Packers expected (wink), he picked off five passes (T-4th in the league), two of which were returned for touchdowns. He broke up 14 more and also forced a fumble in just 12 games. The front office then gave him 21 million reasons to stay another three years.
That case is illustrative of the multivariate equation that is the game of football. It’s true team nature makes each player in a given system dependent on the performance of the teammates next to, in front of, and behind him. Because of this mutual dependency, adding the right player(s) to the system, subtracting the wrong player(s) from the system, or changing the operator of the system, be it a play-caller or a quarterback, can allow already existing players who are lying dormant to erupt. While we can’t predict a Rasul Douglas Cinderella story, we can analyze cases of players who either changed systems or saw their systems changed this offseason to identify potential breakout candidates who will take the next step in 2022.
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka / OLB / Tampa Bay Buccaneers
One of the best-assembled rosters we’ve seen in recent history was that of the Super Bowl LV Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was loaded. Boasting formidable units both offensively and defensively, that team physically imposed its will on opponents, most memorably in a dominant performance against the Kansas City Chiefs to secure the Lombardi trophy. Part of what made that group special was its veteran core; from Brady to Evans to Jensen, from Suh to Barrett to David, the veteran leadership was the object of envy throughout the rest of the league.
As we all know, though, Father Time remains undefeated (Brady notwithstanding), and the roster turnover process has begun. This creates opportunities for recent draft picks to step into lead roles, and with unsigned OLB Jason Pierre-Paul’s future remaining uncertain, OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka should take center stage in his sophomore season.
The former Washington Husky had a lot on his plate in his rookie season as his alignments ranged from the three-tech to the seven-tech on the defensive line while also working as an off-ball linebacker. With the rookie jitters flushed from his system, the adjustment to NFL game speed made, and a more simplified role in the defense that will both increase snaps and decrease alignment alterations, Tryon-Shoyinka will settle into his home on the edge and become a productive player in both phases.
A forceful edge-setter in the run game, he leverages his long arms, skilled hand usage, and hot motor to defeat blocks and finish for negative plays. As a pass rusher, he will have the luxury of consistently aligning opposite OLB Shaquil Barrett, who will see the protection slide his direction, creating an abundance of one-on-one matchups for Tryon-Shoyinka to work his arsenal.
Read: Mike Tannenbaum Predicts 5 Players Who Will Make their First Pro Bowl in 2022, including Joe Tryon-Shoyinka
Tim Patrick / WR / Denver Broncos
In a blockbuster trade-intensive offseason, with superstars in WR Davante Adams, WR Tyreek Hill, and OLB Khalil Mack moving from the Midwest toward the coasts, the Broncos’ acquisition of QB Russell Wilson was the crème de la crème. This move made an immediate, seismic impact on both the future of the franchise and the competition within what is now, indisputably, the best division in the NFL. Of the many beneficiaries of this move in Denver, the one who could stand to gain the most is WR Tim Patrick.
Over the previous two seasons of enigmatic quarterback play in Mile High Stadium, Patrick has been a steady contributor in a talented group that features top-40 draft picks in WR Courtland Sutton and WR Jerry Jeudy. With the innovative Nathaniel Hackett now orchestrating the offense and the coverage attention defenses will pay to Sutton and Jeudy, Patrick figures to frequently find favorable matchups on which to capitalize.
Of course, the upgrade under center helps, too. It’s no secret that Wilson’s preference is to distribute the ball to the outside and deep areas of the field, where Patrick’s tough-to-cover combination of size and speed are particularly effective. His vast catch radius and physical play temperament will create opportunities for targets in the red zone, as well.
When Wilson was playing in Seattle, it took the addition of WR D.K. Metcalf in 2019 to finally push WR Tyler Lockett over the 1,000 receiving yards mark. With Mr. Unlimited now donning the navy blue and orange, don’t be surprised if Patrick can break out in a similar way in 2022.
Christian Kirk / WR / Jacksonville Jaguars
There has been much ado about the Jacksonville Jaguars’ superabundant spending spree this offseason. They made it rain. After shelling out for the likes of OG Brandon Scherff, TE Evan Engram, WR Christian Kirk, ILB Foyesade Oluokun, and DT Folorunso Fatukasi, the front office was slammed by critics who pointed to the cap ramifications of such a strategy, which is certainly good cause for concern. That said, if we can forget the money for a second, we can see that the team surrounded its franchise QB Trevor Lawrence with multiple starters at a pivotal juncture in his career.
Lawrence’s development through his first contract is the critical path to the success of the franchise, and if his growth doesn’t continue as planned, the financial planning for the future, quite frankly, is irrelevant. For this reason, the overall strategy has merit. In particular, the lavish signing of Kirk was a prudent decision for both sides.
Think about the top quarterbacks in the game right now, and consider the running mate(s) with which they were paired once they became starters. Rodgers had Jennings, Mahomes had Kelce and Hill, Brady had Brown, Herbert had Keenan Allen, Burrow had Boyd and Higgins before Chase, Watson had Hopkins, and Josh Allen lit it up once he had Diggs. It is truly vital for a young quarterback to have a go-to guy. In Kirk, this is what the Jaguars have provided their field general, and with how heavily Lawrence will lean on him, Kirk is primed to produce at the level his contract suggests.
From his threatening speed to his savvy separability to his excellent ball skills, Kirk owns all the tools to be a quarterback’s dream. As the featured receiver in this offense, his new contract may have started the conversation about him in 2022, but his production this season will continue that conversation for years to come.
Justin Reid / SAF / Kansas City Chiefs
It’s a rare defensive player who exudes that kind of tone-setting presence, that kind of contagious intensity that energizes his teammates and makes him the identity of his team. Since his arrival to Kansas City in 2019, Safety Tyrann Mathieu was that player for Steve Spagnuolo’s units. His positional versatility was also particularly valuable as it enabled the defense to be more flexible against certain personnel groupings and matchups. So, there was quite a void left in the back end when the Chiefs elected not to re-sign him this offseason. That void was quickly filled, however, when the team struck a deal with Safety Justin Reid.
Reid showed productive promise in his rookie campaign, registering 88 tackles, ten PBUs, and three INTs for the Texans. Due in part to schematic changes in Houston, his production dipped over the following three seasons. With a change of scenery and his excellent Kansas City scheme compatibility, we should anticipate a spike for Reid in 2022. His instinctive processing ability and tendency to gamble are a perfect match for Spagnuolo’s creative and aggressive style that deftly disguises coverages and lures opposing passers into traps.
Reid’s physical nature meshes well with Kansas City’s preference for defensive backs who want to defend the run and tackle. Given the fact that the Chiefs are typically playing with a lead, opposing offenses tend to be more aggressive through the air, which will provide Reid with ample playmaking opportunities. While he may lack the iconic Honey Badger nickname of his predecessor, Reid’s name should be as well-known when the 2022 season is all said and done.