NFL Analysis


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7 Potential Breakout Players for 2024 NFL Season

Indianapolis Colts QB Anthony Richardson (5) works through passing drills duing mandatory minicamp at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center in Indianapolis.

It’s always easy to focus on rookies this time of year. The draft was just completed, and the new team fits are fresh on the mind. It’s fun to imagine and talk about what’s new. 

But let’s not forget the players already on rosters who can bring something new, whether a more significant role or increased production.

Considering that, we will look at a few players who could break out during the 2024 season. There will be no rookies on this list, but there will be plenty of promising young players.

2024 Breakout Candidates

Khalil Shakir, WR, Buffalo Bills

Khalil Shakir led Buffalo Bills’ receivers in yards per route run after Joe Brady became the offensive coordinator. Shakir was on the field for 75 percent of the team’s dropbacks after the change (though he only saw 11.6 percent of the team’s targets), and he should have a more prominent role in the offense following the trade of Stefon Diggs.

The Bills had a few plays with Shakir to create explosives, both near the line of scrimmage and down the field.

Shakir killed zone coverage (2.54 yards per route run with Brady) and did some of his best work from the slot. Since Shakir, Curtis Samuel and Keon Coleman might all be at their best from the slot, Buffalo could have a bit of a logjam inside. We could also include TE Dalton Kincaid there.

When lined up outside, Shakir had just one target on 46 routes under Brady. That’s less than ideal if you’re trying to project him as a top option in a passing game, but those snaps were often designed to go somewhere else. 

Shakir has the traits to win outside; he just wasn’t asked to do so during his two NFL seasons. If he can consistently win there, Shakir could emerge as a high-volume target for a Buffalo offense that desperately needs one.

Seattle Seahawks CB Devon Witherspoon (21) celebrates after the defense made a play against the Arizona Cardinals during the second half at Lumen Field. (Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports)

Devon Witherspoon, DB, Seattle Seahawks

A Devon Witherspoon “breakout” is about going from good to great. That’s in the realistic range of outcomes for the second-year defensive back in his first year under Mike Macdonald.

As a rookie, Witherspoon was an immediate impact player. He played corner on 87 percent of his defensive snaps — 47 percent in the slot and 40 percent outside. As a cornerback, Witherspoon was 36th in adjusted yards allowed per coverage snap among 150 corners with at least 100 coverage snaps. He added 16 passes defensed, tied for first among rookies.

While his coverage was a plus, his work moving around the defensive formation was some of his most fun. Witherspoon had 10 pressures and three sacks while as a dynamic blitzer. He should get those opportunities under Macdonald, with the added layer of being a pass rusher on simulated pressures.

We can look at Kyle Hamilton’s usage last season with Macdonald in Baltimore. Hamilton and Witherspoon play different primary positions, but they were in coverage at about the same rate, around 94 percent of their pass snaps. 

They both moved around near the line of scrimmage and had similar pressure rates when rushing the passer. Hamilton had a few more opportunities as part of a four-man rush, which created some free rushes for the defensive back. If Witherspoon’s pass rush effectiveness gets a boost on top of his coverage, watch out.

Indianapolis Colts QB Anthony Richardson
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Anthony Richardson (5) runs with the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

Anthony Richardson, QB, Indianapolis Colts

Anthony Richardson is almost a rookie because his 2023 season lasted just 98 dropbacks. Two separate injuries forced Richardson to miss time: a concussion in Week 3 and a shoulder injury in Week 5 that required surgery and knocked him out for the season.

When on the field, there were some ups and downs in consistency. His accuracy remained a relative weakness, and there were some misses sprayed among his throws. He could also run himself into pressure, but many of his dropbacks appeared to be in control — rarely rattled by pressure.

There were also some special throws throughout Richardson’s small sample, including a wild deep pass against the Rams with Aaron Donald in his face.

His injuries came on two run plays, which could be a concern, but they were more freak accidents than Richardson putting himself in danger. He was electric as a runner with four rushing touchdowns.

Richardson will return to an offense formed by coach Shane Steichen to fit the skill set of Gardner Minshew in Richardson’s absence. That highlighted Steichen’s ability to morph his style and play-calling to the quarterback. 

That should continue with an offense molded to Richardson. The unit has more speed with rookie WR Adoani Mitchell and will get a full season of development from Josh Downs.

Los Angeles Rams LB Ernest Jones (53) reacts after a defensive play against the Washington Commanders during the second half at SoFi Stadium. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Ernest Jones, LB, Los Angeles Rams

If you pay close attention to the Los Angeles Rams’ defense, Ernest Jones is hard to miss. He’s everywhere. 

If you wanted to suggest Jones’s third season was already a breakout, you probably could. The 2021 third-round pick started 15 games, had 145 tackles (14 for loss) and made a tackle on an insane 27.9 percent of his run defense snaps. Only one other player of the 62 with at least 100 tackles had more than 25 percent (Azeez Al-Shaair at 25.9 percent).

After those numbers, the fourth-year “breakout” might be more about the general public knowing who he is.

There’s a chance Jones’ game has another level, and he’ll be in a perfect defense to get there. New Rams DC Chris Shula was the linebackers coach in 2021 when Jones was drafted. Shula also played a part in the scouting and drafting process for Jones. He’s been a significant piece in Jones’s development throughout his career.

Jones added something to his game each season. He became a tackling machine at the second level and near the line of scrimmage. He’s been a plus in coverage, ranking 19th among linebackers in yards allowed per coverage snap last season.

His most recent addition was as a pass rusher. In his three seasons, Jones's pass rush rate has gone from 9.5 percent to 6.6 percent to 22.6 percent in 2023. On those plays last season, he had 33 pressures and 4.5 sacks. 

If Jones continues to build his repertoire, he could break through into the top tier of linebackers — or at least get a Pro Bowl nod. 

Denver Broncos EDGE Nik Bonitto (42) celebrates after getting a sack against the Las Vegas Raiders during the second quarter at Allegiant Stadium. (Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

Nik Bonitto, EDGE, Denver Broncos

In his second year, Nik Bonitto played 46 percent of the Denver Broncos’ defensive snaps. That includes a missed two-game stretch near the end of the season. But his performance should be worthy of a play-time increase in Year 3.

Bonitto was one of the league’s most productive pass rushers on a per-snap basis. However, he only had 261 pass rush snaps on the year. Among players with at least 250 pass rush snaps, only Micah Parsons, Bryce Huff, Myles Garrett and Josh Allen had a higher pressure rate than Bonitto’s 18.0 percent. 

Every other pass rusher in the top seven of pressure rate had at least 10 sacks — Bonitto had eight.

No pass rusher had a higher rate of quarterback hits on pass rush snaps than Bonitto at 7.7 percent. Allen, Huff and T.J. Watt were the only players to hit at least 7.0 percent. Overall, Bonitto tied for 30th in quarterback hits with 20.

The Broncos intended to have a veteran pass rush last season, with Randy Gregory and Frank Clark penciled in as starters. Gregory was in the second year of a five-year contract but was traded to the 49ers after four games and one sack. Clark appeared in two games and was released after two tackles and no sacks.

That led to a need for younger pass rushers, including Bonitto, Jonathan Cooper and Baron Browning, to step into bigger roles. The Broncos are rolling with that group as the outside rushers heading into the season. 

If Bonitto stays at his pace of getting to the quarterback, it will be hard to keep him off the field. 

Green Bay Packers WR Jayden Reed (11) motions during a game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. (Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

Jayden Reed, WR, Green Bay Packers

When the Green Bay Packers offense found its groove during the second half of the season, Jayden Reed was its best receiving option. The second-round pick was a big-play threat and one of the best vertical options from the slot. 

His 18 targets and 361 yards from the slot on throws of 20 or more air yards were the most in the league.

Reed started as the jet guy in Green Bay’s offense, and he grew in that role, making it a more dynamic position. By the end of the season, the Packers were taking traditional jet plays — like the jet wheel teams are featuring heavily since Tyreek Hill and the Kansas City Chiefs used it to get more momentum for his speed — and breaking them off into the middle of the field.

From Week 10 on, Reed was 19th among wide receivers in yards per route run (2.43) — though two teammates, Bo Melton, and Dontayvion Wicks, were above during that span. However, 116 receivers had at least 100 routes in that span, and Reed was one of 12 to eclipse 2.0 yards per route run against man and zone coverage. Overall, he was 24th in yards per route run on the season.

Reed could become the most versatile option in the Green Bay passing game, which could take another step forward with Jordan Love. 

If that’s the case, Reed should blow past his 94 targets and 793 yards as a rookie.

Pittsburgh Steelers CB Joey Porter Jr. (24) reacts against the Cincinnati Bengals during the fourth quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Pittsburgh won 34-11. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Joey Porter Jr., CB, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers slow-played their second-round pick in 2023. Joey Porter Jr. played seven snaps in Week 1. He didn’t play more than 25 defensive snaps until Week 7. Once he got on the field in a full-time capacity, he was an instant game-changer.

While he only made one interception, he had 10 pass breakups and allowed 46.4 percent of targets against him to be completed, the third-lowest rate in the league.

During the season's first six weeks, the Steelers had one of the highest rates of man coverage at 28 percent. That bumped up to 30 percent once Porter began starting in Week 7.

If there’s one way to respect a cornerback, it’s to avoid him in coverage. Porter had the seventh-lowest rate of targets per coverage snap among corners, which is partly why his raw production numbers aren’t awe-inspiring. It’s a sign of good coverage, not a lack of production.

Porter will go into Year 2 as the clear top corner for the Steelers' defense on a pass-coverage unit that was improved this offseason. 

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