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 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.
Los Angeles Rams – Joseph Noteboom
Noteboom has started 18 NFL games including one playoff game last season. However, this season, he will begin the year as the starter at left tackle for the Rams. Long-time stalwart Andrew Whitworth retired in the offseason. A former third-round pick with experience everywhere but center, Noteboom had a solid season as a swing piece for the Rams in 2021. He posted an overall 77.7 grade with an 81.6 pass-blocking grade.
The cause for excitement is Noteboom’s terrific game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round. On 42 pass-blocking snaps, Noteboom allowed one pressure – a hurry. He earned an excellent 86.3 pass-blocking grade. The previous week, Noteboom had a strong all-around performance with a 74.0 run-blocking grade and a 69.9 pass-blocking grade. If Noteboom plays at that level for a full season, he will quickly replace Whitworth’s Pro Bowl-caliber player.
Arizona Cardinals – Eno Benjamin
Benjamin debuted in 2021 after the Cardinals selected him in the 2020 NFL Draft. He had 40 touches including one rushing touchdown. The Cardinals have jumbled the depth chart in front of Benjamin, but he should have the chance to be the No. 2 running back even over Darrel Williams. Benjamin won’t usurp James Conner, but he should use his versatile skill set to find more snaps in 2022.
Benjamin flashed some upside as a receiving threat in limited action in 2021. Including the playoffs, Benjamin caught eight of nine targets for 68 yards. He gained 80 yards after the catch, forcing four missed tackles. He also gained six first downs. Conner has been a competent pass catcher, but Benjamin could take many of Chase Edmonds’ 53 targets from 2021. Either way, Benjamin should have a larger role in 2022, giving him the chance to pop.
San Francisco 49ers – Talanoa Hufanga
Hufanga did have a moment in the playoffs, recovering what became the game-tying touchdown against the Green Bay Packers. However, the regular season before the big play was a step in the right direction. A fifth-round pick in 2021, Hufanga played in 15 games as a rookie. He started three weeks in a row during the middle of the season, but he was mainly a rotational piece. He played at least 15 defensive snaps in nine games.
Hufanga is a bit of a do-it-all safety. In 2021, he posted solid grades across the board finishing as a 68.4 graded run defender and a 61.6 grade cover player. He was a reliable tackler, missing just three on the season. Hufanga did play two dozen snaps as a slot corner, but his long-term fit is almost certainly as a safety. In 2021, he played more free safety than box safety, but he has the versatility to fill both roles at times.
Seattle Seahawks – Darrell Taylor
In his de facto rookie season, Taylor posted a solid 6.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss, a pass deflection, and a forced fumble. On the advanced side, he earned a 62.1 pass-rush grade and posted 36 pressures. Despite never having more than 30 pass-rush snaps in any game, Taylor was shut out pressure-wise in just one game. He had 11 multi-pressure games including a pair of divisional matchups.
Taylor did not have the most dominant season, but even as a rookie, he was able to influence the play. He kicked off the season with two 90-plus pass-rush grades in his first three games before settling into the 60s for much of the season. Taylor was mainly a one-trick pony in 2021 as he struggled in run defense (47.1 grade) and missed a whopping 33% of tackles. However, improvement here should come with time. As a pass rusher, Taylor could make the jump to 50 or 60 pressures given more opportunities.
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