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 South 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.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Ke’Shawn Vaughn
Vaughn is likely the worst pick of all 32 teams for a breakout candidate. Tragically for the Buccaneers, almost every player on the roster falls into one of three categories. Many of the players have already broken out (such as Antoine Winfield Jr.). Similarly, some obvious examples (namely Joe Tryon-Shoyinka) are former first-round picks. Finally, perhaps the most likely breakout candidate (Cade Otton) is ineligible because he is a rookie. This leaves Vaughn as one of few options.
A third-round pick in 2020, Vaughn has 289 yards and two rushing touchdowns on 62 carries so far. The efficiency (4.7 yards per carry) is excellent. However, Vaughn has been a largely ineffective pass-catcher in two seasons. He has a crippling 35.7% drop rate with five drops on 16 targets. This does mean that Vaughn has room to grow here. If he improves as a pass-catcher, he will likely play more. He already grades out as a good pass-blocker (grades of 84.3 and 78.8), so he could be a challenger to some of Leonard Fournette’s touches.
New Orleans Saints – Paulson Adebo
Adebo had a mixed rookie season. He recorded three interceptions and four pass breakups, but the spread of them was worrisome. In his NFL debut, he intercepted Aaron Rodgers. However, he allowed touchdowns in each of the next three weeks before recording his second interception in Week 5. Adebo allowed a Week 9 touchdown before a strong run of play to end the season. He had a PBU in Weeks 14, 15, 17, and 18, and he had an interception in Week 18.
All told, Adebo ended with an average rookie season. Grade-wise, he had five games with a grade below 50.0 in contrast with five games above 70.0. He finished with a 60.3 overall grade and a 61.4 coverage grade. Entering Year 2, Adebo will be asked to do even more on the opposite side of Marshon Lattimore. Adebo could be in store for a big breakout campaign if he plays with better consistency and affects a handful of extra passes.
Atlanta Falcons – Mykal Walker
Walker has played all 33 NFL games since he was drafted, but he has been more of a special teamer than a defender so far. In 2020, he played 36% of defensive snaps before slipping to 17% in 2021. The Falcons have changed the calculus of their linebacker corps, removing Foyesade Oluokun and adding Rashaan Evans and Troy Andersen. All Walker needs to do is be the second-best linebacker on the roster, and he will get enough playing time to justify the breakout selection.
In 2021, Walker played more than 10 defensive snaps in just five games. He fared poorly in three of the five including the two games he played 20 or more snaps. However, Walker tends to make splash plays. In five snaps against the New York Giants, Walker registered a pass breakup and had a 92.7 PFF grade. In Week 14 against the Carolina Panthers, Walker played five snaps, had a 66-yard pick-six, and earned a ridiculous 99.3 grade. Granted, the 90-plus PFF grades are not sustainable, but he may only need more opportunities to become a good linebacker. He has earned seasonal grades above 71.0 in both seasons.
Carolina Panthers – Brady Christensen
With the Panthers drafting Ikem Ekwonu in the first round, Christensen will almost certainly be sliding inside to play guard. Christensen played all four spots other than center in 2021, but he mainly played at left tackle. As a whole, he played 480 snaps, earning an overall grade of 61.6. He was better as a pass protector (63.2 grade) than as a run blocker (56.2), but neither facet was abysmal.
Christensen ended the season with two of his three best games of the season. In both Week 17 and Week 18, Christensen earned an overall grade above 70.0 with a run-blocking grade above 60.0 and a pass-blocking grade at 75.0 or higher. In some ways, this salvaged his overall grade, but it also showed that the former third-round pick was developing at a healthy clip. If he turns those 60s and 70s into 70s and 80s, Christensen will be well on his way to being a solid NFL guard.
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