NFL 2023 preview: Packers QB Jordan Love among season's top 10 breakout candidates

Last season, Jalen Hurts had his true breakout.

Hurts was a good quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles before last season. Then he became one of the best in the NFL. He almost won an MVP and nearly won a Super Bowl, too. He is now among the highest-paid players in NFL history.

Every NFL season, we see players emerge from obscurity to become top-end starters, and sometimes we see players take a big step to superstardom. Here are 10 breakout candidates for the 2023 NFL season:

Green Bay Packers QB Jordan Love (WR Christian Watson, too)

Let's double dip, because they're going to be connected. Love has looked very good this preseason and while that might not matter ... maybe it does? He is a former first-round pick that is in a brand-new role, and he seems to be taking to it well. Too many people have given up on Love prematurely. And if Love has a good season it's probably because Watson builds on his impressive big plays from last season and becomes a true No. 1 receiver.

Pittsburgh Steelers TE Pat Freiermuth

Freiermuth has been pretty good to start his career. Another step is coming. As a rookie, he had seven touchdowns with Ben Roethlisberger limping toward retirement. Last season, he had 732 yards with Kenny Pickett having his rookie struggles. Pickett could take a big step — he almost made this breakout list — and if he improves then Freiermuth will end the season as one of the NFL's best tight ends.

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth has put up good numbers despite subpar quarterback play the last two years. This season, he could really thrive. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth has put up good numbers despite subpar quarterback play the last two years. This season, he could really thrive. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Cleveland Browns WR Elijah Moore

Moore was good as a rookie, then things went sideways with the New York Jets. He didn't handle his lack of involvement in the offense well. The Jets traded Moore, and the Browns were happy to take him. This preseason, Cleveland has hinted it'll use Moore in some creative ways, which can only help him have a big season.

Miami Dolphins OLB Jaelan Phillips

Phillips' career is off to a fine start. He has 15.5 sacks through two seasons. He could come close to matching that total this season alone. Phillips continues to improve and should be a tremendous asset in new coordinator Vic Fangio's scheme. Phillips could make his first Pro Bowl.

Philadelphia Eagles RB Kenneth Gainwell

Gainwell finished last season strong as a big part of the Eagles' running game in the playoffs. Then Miles Sanders left in free agency. Gainwell wasn't handed a starting spot, because the Eagles signed Rashaad Penny and traded for D'Andre Swift. But Penny and Swift have had injury issues, and the coaching staff has trust in Gainwell. He could put up some nice numbers in an elite offense if he gets his chance to lead the running back rotation early in the season.

Jacksonville Jaguars CB Tyson Campbell

Hey, another elite NFL defender from the University of Georgia. Campbell went in the second round of the 2021 draft, but he looks like a steal there. He had a very good second season, though he didn't make the Pro Bowl. That might change this season as he'll get in the conversation as one of the NFL's best corners.

"I just love the way he came back [this season]," Jaguars coach Doug Pederson said of Campbell, via the team's site. "He really has embraced being in that conversation of one of the top corners in the league."

Carolina Panthers WR Jonathan Mingo

Mingo wasn't a first-round pick, so he doesn't have the buzz of a Jaxon Smith-Njigba or Jordan Addison. But he was an early second-round pick and was drafted to grow alongside top overall pick Bryce Young, the Panthers' new franchise quarterback. Mingo has the size and speed to make an immediate impact, and the Panthers' receiver room isn't that impressive. By the end of the season, some teams will regret not taking Mingo in the first round.

Chicago Bears RB Khalil Herbert

There is a lot of competition in the Bears' backfield. Still, Herbert's talent should shine through. He has worked as the Bears' starter in preseason and there's no reason to believe he'll give up that role. He looked good every time he had to fill in for David Montgomery in previous seasons. He looked explosive on a 56-yard touchdown off a short pass from Justin Fields in the Bears' preseason opener. D'Onta Foreman and rookie Roschon Johnson are talented backs, but Herbert is the one who will have the breakout season.

Tennessee Titans TE Chigoziem Okonkwo

All of Okonkwo's efficiency stats were tremendous last season. He had 2.61 yards per route run, per Pro Football Focus, which measures the number routes run by a pass-catcher and how many total yards they gain on those routes. Okonkwo led all tight ends in the category and did so as a rookie, and most rookie tight ends struggle. The Titans signing DeAndre Hopkins adds more target competition for Okonkwo, but the second-year tight end will still emerge as a star.

Baltimore Ravens S Kyle Hamilton

Hamilton was a great player at Notre Dame and a first-round pick, but got off to a slow start as a rookie. Then he was fantastic late in the season. He'll be a full-time starter after just four starts last season, and his versatility will be on display every week.

"He's ahead of the plays this year," Ravens pass game coordinator/secondary coach Chris Hewitt said, via the team's site. "He's ahead of the formations, down and distance. We'll see big things from Kyle. I expect this guy to be a Pro Bowl-type player."