While the NFL season is a fair distance away, it is never too early to predict the next wave of stars and superstars across the NFL. Every team has that one key cog that pops from relative unknown to key contributor the next season. The AFC East teams subscribe to this. However, there are two rules for these picks. First, rookies are ineligible to be selected. Second, former first-round picks are similarly ineligible. The goal is for these picks to not be chalky.
Buffalo Bills – Spencer Brown
A third-round pick last year, Brown had an up-and-down rookie season. The embodiment of that sentiment was his playoff performance. In the Wild Card Round, Brown played exceptionally and earned a spot in the Team of the Week. Days later, he surrendered six pressures as the Bills lost to the Kansas City Chiefs. Across 493 pass-blocking reps, Brown allowed 36 pressures. However, 18 of them came in just three games. Brown proved to be a sturdy run-blocker, earning a 70.6 grade.
Moving into 2022, Brown will be the Week 1 right tackle, a spot he manned for 732 snaps last year. He should continue to improve as a run blocker, and if he can keep the dam from bursting as a pass blocker, he could rocket up to being one of the top-10 right tackles in the NFL. The Bills may not run the ball much, but Brown makes it that much easier if they do decide to run.
New England Patriots – Christian Barmore
Barmore is as chalky as one of these picks will be. He was a first-round talent in 2021 that slipped into the second round because some NFL general managers switch their brains off from time to time. Either way, Barmore had an excellent rookie season. Barmore posted 51 pressures in 18 games, notching at least two in 16 games. He had his struggles in run defense, but his pass-rush production was spectacular. Among interior players with 400 pass-rush reps, Barmore ranked sixth in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity stat. The five ahead of Barmore were Chris Jones, Jonathan Allen, Aaron Donald, Javon Hargrave, and Kenny Clark.
Moving into Year 2, Barmore should play more snaps, and he should be better against the run. Even a moderate jump against the run (from a 44.7 run-defense grade to even a 60.0, for example) would be a major boon to the Patriots’ defense. Barmore was as impactful as a rookie interior has been in the last decade, and the future is bright for the former Alabama stalwart.
Miami Dolphins – Connor Williams
Williams was a second-round pick in 2018 for the Dallas Cowboys. In four years in Dallas, Williams played 3,700 snaps, mainly at left guard. Williams apparently has subscribed to the Kawhi Leonard method of improvement. His PFF overall grade, pass-blocking grade, run-blocking grade, and pass-blocking efficiency have each improved in each season. He was an average to slightly below-average guard in 2018 and 2019, but he has been a legitimately sturdy option in the past two seasons.
The issue for Williams in Dallas was his uneven playtime. Between Week 11 and Week 14 in 2021, Williams played just 18 snaps despite suiting up for each game. For the Cowboys, Williams felt more like a contingency plan rather than a true starter. Now with the Dolphins, Williams is the solution to the problem. With this more secure job, Williams could make the jump from good guard to Pro Bowl-caliber guard.
New York Jets – Michael Carter II
The Jets’ defensive backfield is more crowded than it was three months ago, but Carter still is projected to start in the slot. Carter hit a rookie wall of sorts after Week 8. In Week 8, Carter earned a spot in the Team of the Week. The wheels came off soon after. Before Week 9, Carter did not have a PFF grade below 57.6. In the last 10 weeks of the season, Carter only eclipsed 60.0 twice. Carter had a 72.5 overall grade before Week 9, earning solid marks as a run defender, tackler, and coverage player. After Week 9, Carter earned a 49.5 grade, weakened by an abysmal 32.8 run-defense grade.
The former fifth-round pick now has a bit of a simpler job. The Jets added D.J. Reed in free agency and Ahmad Gardner with the No. 4 pick in the draft. This could mean a dip in playtime for Carter, but he would be put in a better spot with more talent around him. Carter showed some positional flexibility in 2021, adding 140 snaps as a box safety to his 614 in the slot. The Jets do have Jordan Whitehead to serve that role, but having an additional chess piece will help the Jets.
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