Monday, August 8, 2022

NFL 2022 ‘Out of Nowhere’ Breakout Team: Bengals running back highlights five ready to surprise

In most instances, a breakout season for a specific player feels imminent. A strong Year 2 gives way to massive hype before Year 3 (see: Bills wide receiver Gabriel Davis). 

But sometimes, players break out seemingly out of nowhere. They’d been given minimal opportunities early in their careers, performed well, but there wasn’t enough volume to alert the massive of an impending breakout. 

Who could those players be this season? Here is the 2022 ‘Out of Nowhere’ Breakout Team:

Chris Evans, Bengals

Evans has the backstory tailor-made for the Out Of Nowhere Breakout Team. The No. 9 all-purpose back in the 2016 recruiting class, ahead of backs like Josh Jacobs, Evans averaged a seismic 7.0 yards per carry as a freshman at Michigan on 88 attempts but never quite reached his perceived potential over the course of his career, and he missed the entire 2019 campaign due to academic issues that led to a full-year suspension. 

The talent is undeniable with Evans. Check his combine workout, it’s first-round caliber, with 90-plus percentile broad and vertical jumps and blisteringly fast agility-drill times. Even after what was easily marked as a disappointing collegiate career relative to the recruitment and freshman year hype, the Bengals rolled the dice in the sixth round of the 2021 draft. Of course, Joe Mixon is Cincinnati’s feature back, and Samaje Perine is the locked-in backup, so Evans only saw 17 rushes during the regular season. He averaged 4.5 yards per pop, a respectable figure, and forced an encouraging five missed tackles on those attempts. Evans proved to be a formidable receiving option too, which is probably where the most value of his future lies. 

He averaged 10.1 yards per catch on 15 receptions and forced another five whiffs by defenders. He’s thick, bouncy, an effortless pass catcher. In short, he has the juice to threaten Perine for to be second in line for out-of-the-backfield touches on a dynamic Bengals offense. If he gets that opportunity — and I think he’ll get more action than he saw as a rookie — Evans will bust out in Year 2. 

Deonte Harty, Saints

Harty — formerly Harris — is right on the cusp. You can feel it. Owner of one of the most dazzling college highlight reels ever — maybe in the Mt. Rushmore of college highlight reels, actually — the former Assumption superstar was a first-team All-Pro returner as a rookie in 2019, when the led the league in punt return yardage. 

However, this Out of Nowhere Team nod is at wide receiver. In Year 3 a season ago, Harty coasted to 570 yards on 36 receptions — 15.8 yards per (!) — a stat line that largely went unnoticed on a Saints offense that had its quarterback collective (Jameis Winston, Trevor Siemian, Taysom Hill, and Ian Book) throw for 3,186 yards, the lowest total in football. 

Harty went 3-of-4 in contested-catch situations in 2021 and forced six forced missed tackles as a receiver. Yes, Chris Olave was added to the mix in New Orleans in the first round of the draft, and presumably Michael Thomas will be back to 100% after spending the vast majority of the last two seasons sidelined with injury. 

While Olave and Thomas will sap most of the targets for the Saints, which, in theory, limits Harty’s potential, I view the Thomas, Olave, and Harty as the consummate complementary trio at receiver — one possession, one downfield specialist, one ultra-twitchy slot.

Ryan Bates, Bills 

Bates was an easy Out of Nowhere Breakout selection, and much of that was due to his origin story in Buffalo. Part of a seemingly inconsequential August 2019 player-for-player trade, Bills GM Brandon Beane sent fringe-of-the-roster edge rusher Eli Harold to Philadelphia in exchange for Bates. 

And Bates served as the Bills’ swing tackle in Year 1, playing 78 snaps at left and right tackle, most of which came as the Bills rested their starters in the season finale. In 2020, his roles diversified. Bates logged 83 snaps at center, right guard, and left tackle. 

Last season, as Buffalo scrambled to find a competent left guard before the playoffs, Bates was given his chance as a starter starting in Week 16. From that point forward — five games, including the playoffs — Bates allowed four pressures, without a sack, on 232 pass-blocking snaps. Studly effort. 

Bates, a high-caliber athlete, has now filled out his 6-5 frame and the Bills re-signed him in March after the Bears tried to poach him as a restricted free agent. His strong audition late last season clearly had an impact on Buffalo’s front office and coaching staff.

Demetric Felton, Browns

Almost strictly a gadget-type receiving weapon in his first season with the Browns, as evidenced by his minute 0.2 average-depth-of-target, the half running back, half wideout thrived in a low-volume role with 18 catches for 181 yards and two scores on just 21 targets. 

One of the most unique skill-position prospects I’ve ever scouted, Felton spent three seasons as a receiver at UCLA before shouldering a full workload as a runner in 2020, a season in which he averaged 5.1 yards per tote. On his 132 carries that season as the Bruins’ feature back, Felton forced a hefty 36 missed tackles and averaged nearly 3.5 yards after contact per rush. He’s also unique in that on paper, the second-year Brown shouldn’t be so slippery, as he tested like an average-at-best athlete. On the field, he plays with much more suddenness than any workout in shorts would indicate. 

On a Browns team in dire need of offensive playmakers to step to the forefront, in the new-age “wideback” role, Felton will thrive in Year 2.

Thomas Graham Jr., Bears

If you’re a faithful Practice Squad Power Rankings reader, you’re well aware of my affinity for Graham, a highly productive collegiate player who somehow wasn’t picked until the sixth round in 2021. 

Graham was at or near the top of my PSPR rankings for nearly his entire rookie campaign then erupted in Week 16 with three pass breakups against the Vikings. A slot corner by size but an intimidating, in-your-face perimeter corner by play style, Graham is a magnet to the football. He had eight interceptions and 32 pass breakups in three seasons at Oregon. 

The Bears have invested heavily in their secondary of late and the infusion of talent in the secondary backfield will help to bolster Graham’s effectiveness as a multi-dimensional corner in his second NFL season. 

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