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 North teams subscribe to this. However, there are two rules for these picks. First, rookies are ineligible to be selected. Former first-round picks are similarly ineligible. The goal is for these picks to not be chalky.
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Cincinnati Bengals – Cameron Sample
Sample was more of a rotational piece in his rookie season, playing 33 percent of available snaps in his 14 games. In this relatively limited run, Sample posted 1.5 sacks, 14 total tackles, and 16 pressures. Including the playoffs, Sample earned below-average grades across the board including a 49.9 overall grade. His pass-rush grade of 49.6 was quite appalling. While he only had one game with a grade below 40.0, he only had two games with a grade above 70.0, both settling below 75.0.
Moving into 2022, Sample will be a key cog in a talented defensive front. He will not be a starter, but he should have plenty of snaps behind Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard. Sample should factor in on more running downs than he did as a rookie. In 2021, nearly three-quarters of Sample’s snaps were pass-rush reps. He was a generally competent run defender, so a boost in snaps should help him establish more of a rhythm.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Levi Wallace
The Steelers signed Wallace away from the Bills this offseason, after he had four solid years in Buffalo as a UDFA out of Alabama. Wallace picked off six passes and had 30 total pass deflections. In the playoffs, he tacked on a sack, a forced fumble, and an interception. While his PFF grade has regressed as he gained more playing time, he has allowed just an 86.9 passer rating across 267 targets.
Wallace played in a defense that he did not have to be the focal point in while he in Buffalo. The Bills had a pair of All-Pro caliber safeties, as well as Tre’Davious White. The Steelers do not have quite the same cast, but they do have a former All-Pro safety in Minkah Fitzpatrick as well as a solid cornerback in Ahkello Witherspoon. Wallace will have ample opportunity to make the jump from decent corner to star corner in a talented Steelers defense.
Cleveland Browns – Nick Harris
Harris is a total unknown for the Browns entering 2022. Cleveland had previously employed J.C. Tretter since 2017. While he did not make a Pro Bowl or any All-Pro teams, Tretter was a stalwart, missing just one game in his Browns career. He did not miss a snap save for one game missed with COVID. In that game, Harris filled in, having a solid performance against a tough Green Bay Packers front.
Harris has large shoes to fill, but his job will be made easier by the guards standing next to him. To his left, Joel Bitonio has made four straight Pro Bowls and was an All-Pro in 2021. To his right, Wyatt Teller is a 2021 Pro Bowler, and he was named to the second All-Pro team in each of the last two seasons. There is no better guard tandem in the NFL, and Harris gets to be wedged in between them.
Baltimore Ravens – Tylan Wallace
The Ravens have several receivers who could fit this spot, but Wallace takes the cake over Devin Duvernay and James Proche. Rashod Bateman would be the obvious pick, but former first-round picks are ineligible for this list. Wallace, a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2021, caught just two passes for 23 yards in 2021. Both Duvernay and Proche have been more productive at the NFL level, but Wallace might be the best fit of the three as a deep threat replacement to Marquise “Hollywood” Brown.
Wallace is certainly not Brown, as shown by his 4.48-second 40-yard dash. However, he was a devastating deep threat for the OK State Cowboys in college. Wallace runs deep routes with tremendous savvy, stacking cornerbacks at will while using his body to prevent pass breakups at the catch point. He averaged 16.8 yards per catch in college, and he had eight games with four or more catches and a 21.0 yards per reception mark. Duvernay has better straight-line speed, and Proche has better hands, but Wallace might already be the best deep route runner on the team.
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