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 West 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.
Kansas City Chiefs – Lucas Niang
Niang and Andrew Wylie split time at right tackle in 2021, each playing over 500 snaps. Wylie took the job in the playoffs, but it projects to be an offseason competition for the job in 2022. Wylie had a shaky run in the postseason, so the pair ended with nearly identical PFF grades. Niang beat Wylie by just 2.3 overall points. Wylie had a fraction of a win in the run blocking column, and Niang was the better pass blocker by 2.9 points.
Niang is four years younger (to the day), so the Chiefs could opt for the long-term play. In addition to the Wylie-Niang competition, rookie Darian Kinnard makes for an interesting third wheel. However, Niang could have the inside track at the starting gig. 2021 was his de facto rookie season (after opting out of 2020), and he was the Week 1 starter for the Chiefs at right tackle.
Las Vegas Raiders – Trevon Moehrig
Moehrig is a bit of a chalky pick because he was a first round talent in the 2021 NFL Draft, but he slipped to the second. Moehrig had a strong rookie season, earning a 71.0 PFF grade, but the underlying metrics are encouraging. His biggest strength as a rookie was the floor he brought to the free safety spot. He did not have a game with an 80.0 grade, but he only had one game below 49.0.
Safety is a volatile position, but Moehrig brought normalcy to the equation. If his range of outcomes moves from 41.8-78.7 to perhaps 51.8-88.7, he could jump from solid safety to superstar safety. In 2021, he earned a 70.0 or better coverage grade four times. On the other hand, he had a 50.0 or lower grade just once. The high-end play will come, and when it does, the Raiders could have an All-Pro safety.
Los Angeles Chargers – Asante Samuel Jr.
A bit of an obvious pick here, but two factors work in Samuel’s favor. First, the 22-year-old is likely moving from boundary corner to slot/nickel corner. It could be a tough transition at the start, but Samuel is the prototype for a modern slot corner. Second, he will play in a loaded secondary with J.C. Jackson and Derwin James. Samuel remains a perfect scheme fit, and it only projects to get better as he enters year two.
Samuel was one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL through four weeks, but he hit a snag against the Cleveland Browns. He allowed a season-high in yards en route to a 28.1 PFF grade. He never regained his traction, and he eventually missed several weeks due to injury. With the rookie wall out of the way, expect Samuel to bounce back and be one of the best slot corners in the NFL.
Denver Broncos – Albert Okwuegbunam
Through two seasons, Okwuegbunam has 44 catches for 451 yards and three touchdowns. However, his main competition at the position (Noah Fant) is now a member of the Seattle Seahawks. Okwuegbunam will have competent quarterback play now that Drew Lock has been removed from the situation. Russell Wilson has only had one star tight end in his arsenal, Jimmy Graham. Okwuegbunam might not be on Graham’s level, but he is likely already the second-best tight end Wilson has played with.
The Wilson and Graham connection was not as potent as Drew Brees and Graham, but Graham did make a pair of Pro Bowls with Wilson. Predicting Okwuegbunam to make the Pro Bowl is pointless because the AFC features the likes of Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews, and Darren Waller, but he could play at a Pro Bowl-caliber level with the accompanying effective quarterback play. He should more than double his current production.
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