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6 sleeper players to watch in the NFL this year

Looking for a breakout star? These players are ready.

Chicago Bears v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Everyone loves a good sleeper. Whether you’re a fantasy player seeking the late round hidden gem that defines your season, or just a fan looking for the next guy ready to make a name for himself — sleepers really define the NFL.

Think about it: We knew Matthew Stafford and Aaron Donald were going to be good for the Rams, but it’s the breakout of Cooper Kupp that really told the story of Los Angeles’ Super Bowl success last season. So who is the next Cooper Kupp, or Joe Burrow ready to bust out and make everyone wonder how they went under the radar?

Travis Etienne, RB — Jacksonville Jaguars

You’re damn right I’m kicking this off with a Jaguars player, and I won’t apologize for it. First off, no, the Jaguars aren’t winning the Super Bowl. Hell, I’m hard pressed to even see Jacksonville as a playoff contender yet — but I’m confident Etienne will do big things.

After missing his entire rookie season due to a lisfranc injury, Etienne is back and will start for the Jaguars in 2022. We will finally get to see the Clemson handcuff the team banked on when they took Trevor Lawrence and Etienne in the first round of the NFL Draft in 2021, and now they’re both in a much better position to succeed.

A revamped offensive line will lead to more confidence under center for Lawrence, and better blockers for the team’s running backs. Also don’t underestimate the Doug Pederson effect. During Pederson’s time in Philadelphia he relied more and more on receiving out of the backfield, typified by Miles Sanders in 2019 when he finished with over 1,300 all-purpose yards, including 50 receptions. A dual-threat back, Etienne is in a position to flourish in his second season and I think he’ll turn heads.

Rashod Bateman, WR — Baltimore Ravens

Bateman showed huge flashes in 2021 when he returned from injury in Week 6, but this is really a case of production by omission. When the Ravens elected to trade Marquise “Hollywood” Brown during the NFL Draft it cemented Bateman as the team’s primary wide receiver.

Now the only significant player he’ll have to fight for targets with is tight end Mark Andrews. While that’s not exactly a good thing for Baltimore, it is a very good thing for Bateman’s production.

It puts the second year receiver in a bit of a sink or swim situation, and I think he’ll really thrive. He’s got a prototypical frame for the modern NFL, he’s a brilliant deep threat to offset Lamar Jackson’s running ability, and I think in 2022 he ascends to become the team’s most dangerous offensive weapon behind their star quarterback.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR — Kansas City Chiefs

It feels like a million years ago that Smith-Schuster broke out with a 1,426 yard season that led to unwavering expectations that he would follow in the mold of Antonio Brown, Hines Ward and Mike Wallace to become the Steelers next great wide receiver. That was only in 2018.

What followed was a precipitous fall from grace that saw his production vanish as Ben Roethlisberger aged, and finally fizzled out with a shoulder injury in 2021.

Now he’s back, and after signing a one year deal with the Chiefs, and in the age of giant receiver contracts I believe Smith-Schuster is going to be one of the best steals in the NFL with his $10.75M deal.

The door is wide open for JuJu to assert himself as a No. 1 receiver, and his skillset meshes perfectly with Patrick Mahomes. With Travis Kelce taking the pressure off over the middle and helping freeze safeties, I think we’ll see Smith-Schuster EAT on the outside and I have every faith he’ll return to being a 1,00 yard receiver immediately.

Cole Kmet, TE — Chicago Bears

Similar to the situation with the Ravens, I think Kmet is going to put up big numbers this year — and that’s not exactly a great thing.

If you’ve watched the Bears this preseason you’ll notice three things happening:

  1. Justin Fields is getting a lot better
  2. Justin Fields is running for his life every down between a Swiss cheese o-line
  3. Justin Fields has ZERO help at wide receiver

This is a formula for a huge tight end year, and Kmet is poised to benefit. Last year he caught 60 passes for 612 yards, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him catch over 80 passes this year and eclipse 1,000 yards.

It’s not dissimilar to what we saw with Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers when Greg Olsen went off for 1,000 yards on the regular. Olsen was the only safety net for Newton when he had no other pass catchers, or an offensive line that could keep him safe. The Bears are going to gain a lot of their yards on Fields rollouts, whether by design or running for his life — and it’s here I think Kmet can flourish.

Breece Hall, RB — New York Jets

Hall was one of my favorite players in the 2022 draft, and I think he’s poised to have a mammoth year — even as a rookie. The season ending injury to Zach Wilson, and the offense turned over to Joe Flacco really sets up a scenario where New York will run a more even-keeled, conservative offense than what Wilson brought to the table.

Hall is a big, fast, old-school running back akin to the players we saw dominate the league in the past. While the RB position in general has fallen out of favor, I think we’re destined to see a big comeback as teams look to balance out their passing attacks more and target opponents who have overloaded on defensive backs.

I’m going to stop way short of saying Hall is the next Derrick Henry, but he has that kind of potential.

Trey Lance, QB — San Francisco 49ers

It’s now the Trey Lance show in San Fran, and I think it’s going to be a damn good one. We’re already seeing promising returns from the second year quarterback as he becomes more comfortable in Kyle Shanahan’s system, and he has all the pieces to succeed.

If you look at the other second year passers they really all lack receivers. Jacksonville is still a work in progress, the Patriots are building their pass catchers, we’ve established that Justin Fields really has nobody — then you’ve got Lance who is walking right in to playing with Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. Pair all this with a solid offensive line and it’s an embarrassment of riches for a young quarterback that will lead to immediate returns.

I understand there being some skepticism, but I think Lance will silence the critics quickly and have a much better season than most expected.