Sauce Gardner came into the league with a ton of promise as the No. 4 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. He more than lived up to that draft pedigree in his debut season for the New York Jets. On the way to winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, Gardner allowed the lowest passer rating in primary coverage (53.9) and the fewest receptions (34), while forcing the highest percentage of incompletions (27%) among defenders targeted at least 70 times in 2022, per Pro Football Focus.
Sauce made a national name for himself in Year 1, earning first-team All-Pro honors and landing in the pole position of my top 10 cornerbacks list. But which CBs from the '22 draft class could be poised for a breakout campaign in Year 2? Here are 10 candidates:
Wait a second -- didn't the fifth-round pick already break out, making the Pro Bowl as a rookie? Yes, he very well could have made my list of the NFL's top 10 CBs. Woolen tied for first in the NFL with six interceptions (including one pick-six), ranked first in total takeaways with eight and tied for fourth with 16 passes defensed. Those stats are great for any cornerback, let alone a rookie. So why did I include him in this piece? Well, I anticipate Woolen will establish himself among the VERY BEST at the position in 2023. The 6-foot-4 freak is gonna break out again, joining Sauce Gardner as one of the league's young stars.
The thing that jumped off the screen to me was Woolen's make-up speed. His feet routinely rescued him and put him in position when his eyes were wrong. I called him "The Shadow" -- because his shadow is the only thing as fast as him.
P.S.: Woolen told me he likes the nickname.
McCreary started every regular-season game last season for a Titans team that collapsed down the stretch due to injuries. The second-round selection, who led all NFL cornerbacks in defensive snaps in 2022, showed promise and finished third on the team in tackles with 84. After spending the majority of his time out wide as a rookie, McCreary could continue to improve when sliding inside to the nickel position while Kristian Fulton and Sean Murphy-Bunting play outside this fall.
Bland started eight regular-season games for the Cowboys (including each of the final seven) and logged every defensive snap in the postseason, playing both inside and outside corner. He showed real ball skills, leading an opportunistic Cowboys defense (Dallas ranked first in the NFL with 33 takeaways) with five interceptions. The Cowboys should have one of the better cornerback trios in the league: Bland, Trevon Diggs and new addition Stephon Gilmore.
Bryant started just six games as a rookie but was a fixture defending the slot all year, compiling a nice stat line in the process with four passes defensed, four forced fumbles, four tackles for loss and two sacks. Most impressively, he racked up 52 solo tackles. There's a lot of talk about a potential Legion of Boom 2.0 with Tariq Woolen, Devon Witherspoon, Quandre Diggs, Jamal Adams and Bryant. I wouldn't put anything past this group.
Emerson played opposite Denzel Ward for much of the 2022 season, participating in 71 percent of the team's defensive snaps and making six starts in 17 games played. He really caught my attention in Week 12, when the Browns hosted Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. He looked like the best defensive back on the field with four PBUs, doing a fine job against the likes of Mike Evans, Breshad Perriman and Cameron Brate. His effort came up big in Cleveland's narrow victory. Emerson, who finished with 15 passes defensed (tied with Ward for most on the team), has clearly found a home opposite the two-time Pro Bowler in what should be an excellent secondary in 2023.
Gordon logged 14 starts as a rookie, playing 79 percent of the team's defensive snaps in those contests, and he seemed to improve as the year wore on. The second-round pick had three interceptions, six passes defensed, one forced fumble and 71 tackles. The Bears' defense struggled as a whole in 2022, allowing a league-high 27.2 points per game and finishing with a league-low 20 sacks (with safety Jaquan Brisker leading the team in that category with four). If the pass rush improves, Gordon should have no problem building on his rookie campaign.
I can't pinpoint the moment when Durant caught my attention in 2022. Maybe it was a key interception in his second NFL game against the Falcons. Or when he picked the Broncos twice -- taking one to the house -- on Christmas Day. He definitely made his presence felt in the final six games of the season. The former fourth-round pick looks poised to play in the slot this fall, but is capable of playing outside, which he did with excellent technique in 2022 when Jalen Ramsey slid inside to the "Star" position.
After missing six games early in the 2022 season with a hamstring injury, McDuffie became a major contributor to Kansas City's Super Bowl run. Logging seven passes defensed, one forced fumble and one sack in his rookie campaign, McDuffie was one of the Chiefs' top outside cornerbacks -- but he was also their best cover man in the slot, where he could use his size and instincts to win. Last season, he played 536 snaps out wide and 247 snaps in the slot, according to PFF. This season, I expect McDuffie to once again take a majority of his snaps outside opposite stud L'Jarius Sneed in Steve Spagnuolo's base defense, and I believe he'll have an even bigger impact.
Taylor was thrown into a much bigger role than anticipated in 2022, with Marshon Lattimore missing time due to injury. As a nine-game rookie starter for the Saints, the second-round pick recorded a team-high 11 pass breakups while defending some of the league's top wideouts, including Davante Adams in Taylor's second NFL start. I can see Taylor and Lattimore being a top-tier cornerback tandem on a defense that has good depth at the position.
Stingley had a solid start to his rookie season, recording one pick, one sack, five passes defensed and 43 tackles in nine games before injuries sent him to the sideline. Houston had a young defense that experienced some growing pains, but the unit should improve under new head coach DeMeco Ryans. I expect the talent that was apparent during Stingley's time at LSU to shine under Ryans, and that he'll have a strong second season.