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 NFC East teams subscribe to this. 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.
Dallas Cowboys – Terence Steele
One reason that allowed the Cowboys to let La’el Collins walk was Steele’s effective play at right tackle in 2021. In the nine games he played at least 10 snaps at right tackle, Steele earned a 73.1 overall grade with a stellar 81.7 run-blocking grade. He did not allow a sack across 341 pass-blocking reps. In the six games Steele played at least 10 snaps at left tackle, he struggled to a 56.4 overall grade with a 50.4 run-blocking grade.
In 2022, Steele will be the unquestioned right tackle. He should thrive in this role and expand upon his 2021 growth at the position. Steele was one of just three offensive linemen to play 300 or more snaps at multiple positions in 2021. Penei Sewell made a midseason switch from left tackle to right tackle while Steele and Darryl Williams flip-flopped between two positions. For both Steele and Williams, they were unable to establish a week-to-week rhythm at their best position.
Philadelphia Eagles – Milton Williams
Williams had a disastrous start to his rookie season. Through four games, Williams ranked 352nd out of 359 defensive players in PFF grade, and he was the lowest-graded defensive lineman. He also had zero pressures on 60 pass-rush snaps. He rebounded as the season went along, posting 68.0 or better grades six times while slipping below 50.0 just three times. In the final 13 games of the season, Williams had a much more respectable 57.2 overall grade with 19 total pressures.
Among defensive linemen, Williams was sixth in pass-rush grade and tied for 10th in pressures over this prolonged stretch (minimum of 200 snaps). On the season, Williams notched two passes defended, two sacks, and six tackles for loss. Williams was one of just four rookies to clear those three benchmarks. While he could get lost in a rotation with rookie Jordan Davis and incumbent star Javon Hargrave, Williams has the athletic profile to stand out and make plays regardless.
Washington Commanders – Benjamin St-Juste
St-Juste’s rookie season was a bit of a mixed bag. He played defensive snaps in just seven games. The bookends to his play were horrific (30.6 and 39.9 grades), but he posted five consecutive grades over 60.0 in between. In that span, St-Juste did not miss a tackle, and he earned an overall 69.1 grade, fourth-best among rookies who played 200 snaps from Week 2 to Week 7.
Moving into 2022, St-Juste projects to be Washington’s third outside corner. Kendall Fuller has extensive experience in the slot, but his best play in 2021 came on the boundary. William Jackson rarely plays in the slot. Playing time could be tough to come by unless he plays in the slot, but St-Juste did show promise as a rookie. If he gets an opportunity in 2022, expect him to be a competent option for the Commanders.
New York Giants – Azeez Ojulari
Ojulari had a strange rookie season. On one hand, he recorded 8.0 sacks (10 counted by PFF) and eight tackles for loss. He was one of three rookies to hit both of those milestones. On the other hand, a significant chunk of his production came in one game against the Carolina Panthers, and he had a 56.9 pass-rush grade for the season. Eight of his 42 pressures came on 32 pass-rush reps against the Panthers.
It is alarming that Ojulari only had 34 pressures on 403 pass-rush reps outside of the Panthers game, but Ojulari will operate as a No. 2 rusher rather than as the lead rusher in 2022. Rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux is expected to step in and lead the line, opening up the door for Ojulari. He will have the opportunity to refine his tool belt without having the pressure to be the top-flight edge. Expect Ojulari to exceed 50 or even 60 pressures in Year 2.
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