One of the hardest things to account for in any given NFL season is the progression or regression of a player. Development is rarely linear, so it's not as if the previous season ends and everyone is suddenly better on day one of the next season. This is especially true of younger players, who can take massive leaps midseason or a year after their expected jump.
That won't stop us from projecting every NFL team's breakthrough player in 2022. Some second-year players are obvious picks for an increase in production since they're stepping into a more defined role or found their footing late in year one. Other breakthrough candidates are veterans who are now in more advantageous situations than they were in the past.
We're looking beyond the rookie class for our breakthrough candidates since they have no baseline of production established. Some of our selections were first-round picks. Others didn't play at all last year. Let's dive into our projections for every team's best breakout candidate.
Arizona Cardinals: Zaven Collins, LB
The number of off-ball linebackers who don't consistently log sacks that go in the first round of the NFL draft is low. For as impactful as the premier middle linebackers are, there are only a small handful who change the way a defense can operate. The Bobby Wagners, Darius Leonards and Fred Warners of the world have a gigantic gap in their capabilities compared to an average but productive linebacker.
The only franchise operating on a different plane is the Arizona Cardinals. Despite a dearth of trench talent along the offensive and defensive lines, general manager Steve Keim took Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins in the 2020 and 2021 first rounds, respectively. Simmons enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign after a worrisome rookie year, and now Collins is in line to break out.
Collins started six games and registered 25 tackles and three pass deflections as a rookie. Expect those numbers to grow significantly. The 6'4", 260-pounder was a quality pass-rusher at Tulsa, totaling 7.5 sacks, and he had four interceptions in his junior season. Arizona can have Collins in Jordan Hicks' former role, which led to four sacks from the veteran.
Collins is fast and powerful. Now with Hicks gone, the role is wide-open for him to step in and prove to be an upgrade. The Collins-Simmons duo will be one of the most versatile and athletic in the NFL.
Atlanta Falcons: Olamide Zaccheaus, WR
It's rare to see a position of strength dissipate into a weakness as fast as the Atlanta Falcons' receiving corps did. Starting with the trade of Julio Jones and culminating with the suspension of Calvin Ridley and loss of Russell Gage to free agency, there was a ton of talent that was just suddenly gone. Thankfully, the Falcons have set themselves up to replenish the well effectively.
Adding Drake London next to Kyle Pitts helped bring balance and define roles for the rest of the receiving room. The young pair of Olamide Zaccheaus and Auden Tate won't ring bells for more casual fans, but the towering duo of London and Pitts will open opportunities for them. Zaccheaus is the better breakout candidate.
The slot receiver is perfectly built to thrive among the giants around him. At 5'8" and 193 pounds, Zaccheaus will slide into Gage's role. We've already seen promising results in 38 career games. But his first season with head coach Arthur Smith notably highlighted a valuable skill set.
Of Zaccheaus' 31 receptions for 406 yards and three scores, 22 of his catches went for first downs. He's also caught 60 percent of passes thrown his way. Even if Marcus Mariota doesn't prove to be as precise of a passer as Matt Ryan was, watch for Zaccheaus to earn his trust as a chain-moving, consistent presence.