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. However, every team has one piece that fails to live up to the hype entering the new season. The NFC West teams are no different. “Bust” is a relative term. Not all of these players will be bad in 2022, but they could underachieve based on the expectations they have for the season. Rookies are ineligible and will not be included.
Check out the NFC West’s potential breakout stars here.
Los Angeles Rams – Cam Akers
Akers had a reasonable rookie season in 2020, but he missed the first 16 games of his second season with an Achilles injury. When he returned, he was wildly ineffective. On 72 carries, he posted only 175 yards and zero touchdowns. He fumbled twice in one playoff game, and he earned an ugly 39.6 rushing grade in five games. The underlying metrics bordered on egregious. Of the 60 running backs with 72 or more carries, Akers ranked last in yards per rush, offensive grade, and rushing grade. He was bottom five in yards per attempt after contact and breakaway yards percentage.
Akers will be better than that abysmal showing, but he has some lofty expectations in his first full season since getting injured. Unlike 2021, Akers will not have quite the same leash. Darrell Henderson and Kyren Williams are waiting in the wings, and the Rams were just in the top 10 in pass attempts. Sean McVay often rides the hot hand, and Akers could be “one of the guys” as opposed to “the guy” in 2022.
Arizona Cardinals – J.J. Watt
This is less about Watt and more about the surrounding talent in Arizona. Despite only posting one sack in seven games, Watt was still a generally productive player. He earned a 79.0 PFF grade and had 27 pressures in his first six games, good for a pace of 76.5 over a full season. While he had the lowest run-defense grade of his seasons with 200 or more snaps, he had a strong pass-rush grade.
Watt is another year older, and the Cardinals are banking on development from mid-round picks on their rookie deals. Leki Fotu and Zach Allen are slated to start on the interior, but neither has proven much at the NFL level. Markus Golden has a bit of an established presence, but he is 31 years old, and he is a streaky rusher. His pressure also took a sizable hit from 2020 to 2021. This leaves Watt to contend with an inordinate amount of attention in the trenches.
San Francisco 49ers – Jake Brendel
Brendel is set to take over for the recently-retired Alex Mack. Brendel has played 250 snaps across parts of four seasons for the Miami Dolphins and the 49ers. He has 83 career snaps at left guard, but he will be tasked with the full-time center role. Even if he has a solid season, the drop from Mack to Brendel will be felt on a play-to-play basis. Mack was a Hall-of-Fame-caliber player while Brendel will turn 30 before Week 1.
Brendel has started three games in his NFL, all of which came in the 2018 season. He held up well as a pass-blocker, surrendering two pressures on 104 reps. As a run-blocker, he had two solid starts before unfurling to the tune of a 33.5 run-blocking grade in his third start. In Mack’s 204 career starts, he did not post a grade below even 40.0 as a run-blocker. Brendel has comically large shoes to fill.
Seattle Seahawks – Jordyn Brooks
Brooks had a bit of a breakout season in 2021. He led the NFL in solo tackles, and he stood out as the best linebacker among the four taken in the 2020 first round. However, Brooks no longer will play alongside future Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner. Wagner swapped Seahawks’ blue for Rams’ blue, and Brooks projects to play with the likes of Cody Barton and Nick Bellore. Similar to Watt, Brooks might take a step back as the defense takes a step back as a whole.
Brooks is far from a flawless player anyways. Even the more conservative Pro-Football-Reference credited him with a 118.1 passer rating allowed. He allowed 865 yards in coverage on an 80.2% completion rate. He also allowed four touchdowns without intercepting a pass. PFF assigned him a 43.4 coverage grade. In fairness to Brooks, this was a 14-point improvement from his 2020 coverage grade, but Brooks will not have an easy task in 2022.
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