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 North 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.
Green Bay Packers – Jon Runyan
Runyan projects as the Packers’ starting left guard for 2022 and beyond. In 2021, he was serviceable across 1,105 snaps at left guard including the playoffs. Runyan made tremendous strides in his pass sets in 2021, allowing just 21 pressures across 672 available reps. He allowed just two sacks (both coming against the Washington Football Team), and had eight games with a 75.0 or better pass-blocking grade with only three landing below a 55.0.
Runyan has left something to be desired as a run blocker, earning just a 57.4 run blocking grade in 2021. He posted 11 games with a grade below 60.0 compared to just one above 75.0. However, Runyan has two major factors working in his favor. First, the Packers’ offensive line as a whole will be significantly better with the returns of David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins for the tackle spots. Second, Runyan will be in his second year as a starter alongside center Josh Myers. Cohesiveness will help Runyan ascend.
Minnesota Vikings – Ezra Cleveland
Cleveland is an inversion of Runyan. He had a strong year as a run blocker, posting a 71.9 run-blocking grade including a masterclass (92.1 grade) in Week 12. On the other hand, Cleveland had his struggles in pass protection, allowing 34 pressures on 695 pass-blocking reps. Only one of these turned into a sack, but 97.3 pass-blocking efficiency is less than ideal, particularly for a guard. To his credit, Cleveland did have five games with a 75.0 or better pass-blocking grade, but he also had seven grades below 50.0.
Moving into 2022, Cleveland should continue to assimilate to the left guard spot. 2021 was the first time he had played there at an NFL level, and he showed marginal improvement over his 2020 season at right guard. If he continues on the same trajectory, he could turn from mediocre guard to good guard in 2022 with Pro Bowl potential by the end of his rookie deal.
Chicago Bears – Thomas Graham
Graham played 112 defensive snaps in 2021, all coming in the last four weeks of the season. While there is a small sample size at play, Graham was a playmaker for the Bears’ defense. In just 59 coverage snaps, Graham had four pass breakups en route to a 90.6 coverage grade. His debut game against the Vikings belongs in the Louvre.
Graham will have a larger role in the revamped 2022 defense, profiling as a slot corner. He has the versatility to play on the outside, but the Bears have Jaylon Johnson and rookie Kyler Gordon in the cornerback room, as well. Gordon and Graham could end up splitting time, but Graham will get plenty of snaps in the young secondary. He might not have a 90.6 coverage grade again, but he will establish himself as one of the biggest steals of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Detroit Lions – DeShon Elliott
In a roster full of potential breakouts, Elliott rises to lead the pride (of Lions). A sixth-round pick in 2018 by the Baltimore Ravens, Elliott struggled with the injuries. He played just 1,494 defensive snaps on his rookie deal. He was a bit of a matchup piece as he spent at least 100 snaps on the defensive line, as a box safety, as a free safety, and as a slot corner. However, he profiles as the starting strong safety for Detroit.
Elliott may have been the primary free safety for the Ravens in 2020 and 2021, but his skill set is that of a strong safety. Tracy Walker will take the free safety role while Elliott will finally get to play his natural position. Elliott has been usable in coverage, but the best part of his game has been around the line of scrimmage. He is an effective tackler, and was even an effective blitz piece at times for the Ravens (15 pressures in his last 80 pass rushing reps). It is time for Elliott to shine.
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