Packers QB Jordan Love, Steelers WR George Pickens lead NFL breakout candidates

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In the NFL world, it takes evaluators about three seasons to determine whether a player is a career role player or a potential star in the league. Although a player’s talent and skills ultimately determine his fate, the situation and circumstances around the player matter if he is to maximize his potential. 

Whether it is a coaching change, a new system or a change of scenery, the stars must align for most players to unleash their greatness in the football world. 

As a young scout for the Carolina Panthers, I learned this lesson while watching Steve Smith develop into a Hall of Fame-caliber receiver after entering the league as a return specialist. Despite earning All-Pro recognition as a rookie as a kickoff/punt returner with three return scores, Smith was not viewed as a potential WR1 or WR2 around the league until new head coach John Fox inserted him into the lineup as a designated big-play specialist during Smith’s second season. 

Fox believed that Smith’s explosive traits as a returner would make him a unique offensive weapon if he received consistent playing time and more touches on the perimeter. With more opportunities and a clearly defined role, Smith emerged as a blue-chip player, five-time Pro Bowler and a rare “Triple Crown” winner (league leader in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns) at the position. 

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Watching Smith’s evolution into a perennial Pro Bowler taught me that a “flasher” can become a star in the right situation. After surveying the league this summer following the opening of NFL training camps, a handful of players are poised to leap from key contributors to breakout stars this season. 

Here are five guys to watch in 2023: 

Jordan Love, QB, Green Bay Packers 

After serving a three-year apprenticeship under a four-time MVP, Love is ready to enter the spotlight as the Packers’ franchise quarterback. The fourth-year pro has shown gradual improvement throughout his time with the squad, and now it’s his time to shine in an offense built around his talents as a mobile playmaker. With Matt LaFleur expected to implement a movement-based passing game with bootlegs and play-action featured prominently in the game plan, Love should hit the ground running in his first season as a starting quarterback. 

How will Jordan Love’s first season as a starter play out?

How will Jordan Love's first season as a starter play out?

George Pickens, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers 

The freakishly talented pass-catcher displays WR1 skills as a big-play specialist on the perimeter. Pickens’ superior size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds), athleticism and leaping ability make him a tough matchup for a cornerback without elite physical dimensions and skill. The second-year pro has shown flashes as a complementary weapon, but after nearly posting a 1,000-yard season as a rookie, he could be in line to overtake Diontae Johnson as the featured pass-catcher in the Steelers offense. 

Drake Jackson, edge, San Francisco 49ers

There is not another breakout candidate in a better position to post big numbers as a sack artist than Jackson. The second-year pro is surrounded by Pro Bowl-caliber playmakers (Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave) on a frontline that will play in attack mode under new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. As Jackson feasts on the one-on-one matchups opposite Bosa & Co., the high-motor pass rusher could total double digits as a quarterback hunter this season. 

Byron Murphy Jr., CB, Minnesota Vikings 

The marriage between new defensive coordinator Brian Flores and the up-and-coming cornerback could result in the Vikings producing an All-Pro defender on the island. Murphy’s intelligence, instincts and technical skills should enable him to flourish as a CB1 in Minnesota’s ultra-aggressive scheme. With Flores willing to throw the kitchen sink at quarterbacks while showcasing creative coverage behind the pressures, Murphy could emerge as one of the league’s premier ball hawks this season. 

D’Andre Swift, RB, Philadelphia Eagles 

A change in scenery might help Swift maximize his potential as a dynamic runner and receiver with electric skills. After teasing the football world throughout an up-and-down three-year tenure in Detroit, Smith has a chance to explode in the Eagles’ option-based offensive attack with opponents forced to pay close attention to QB Jalen Hurts in the backfield. If Swift can avoid the injury bug that has plagued him throughout his career, the Eagles could have their new RB1 in the fold. 

Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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