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The NFL is commonly referred to as a young’s man game. The reaction speed needed to produce at a high level is paramount for success. A player’s prime years are often shortly after their rookie season and before they approach 30 years old.
A star player’s athletic peak can only be maximized when their mental maturity and understanding of situational football has developed to a high level. Most rookies aren’t ready for a big role in Year 1 because they lack the experience to fall back on. The expectation is for that to change around their fourth or fifth season.
After digging through the 2021 season, we’ve found five young defensive players who are on the verge of stardom. Their 2022 season will be their time to shine after they showed significant growth at this point in their career. Not only do these individuals have the right mixture of physical and mental talent, but their surrounding cast is in place for their best skills to be highlighted on a consistent basis.
We expect each of these players to push for a Pro Bowl bid in 2022.
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2021 stats: 39 tackles, 9 sacks, 3 forced fumbles in 11 games
A first round pick in 2018, the first three years of Marcus Davenport’s career featured glimpses of the dominant physical upside that he had flashed in college and at the NFL Scouting Combine. His long, 6’6″, 265-pound frame always allowed him to be a force in the run game, but his pass-rush prowess was lacking the polish needed to justify extending Davenport long-term on a big contract. Davenport tallied just 12 bags in his first three seasons.
2021 brought much better results as Davenport flourished into his role as a primary pass-rusher. At 25 years old, Davenport’s hand usage notably improved as he engaged with blockers. His ability to create space and shed blockers became an asset and not just a byproduct of his immense strength and size.
The results were extremely encouraging in a limited sample. He racked up a career-high 39 tackles, nine sacks and three forced fumbles in 11 games. His ability to disrupt an offensive flow over the last portion of the season was undeniable.
Davenport earned a PFF grade of 88.8 in 417 snaps, largely thanks to his ability to beat blockers one-on-one. Just 29 percent of his pressures and sacks came unblocked, which landed him amongst the NFL’s premier names.
The biggest issue for Davenport is staying on the field. He missed four games to a shoulder injury after Week 1 and then missed two more games later in the season to another shoulder issue. He’s never played in more than 13 games.
If Davenport can stay on the field, he’s primed for stardom. It’s perfect timing financially as well, as Davenport is in the final year of his rookie contract.
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2021 stats: 112 tackles, 11 tackles for loss in 16 games
The Kansas City Chiefs entered the 2021 season with a perceived need for a linebacker. While veteran Anthony Hitchens was a productive member of the unit, his lack of athleticism stood out in sub-packages the year before. 2020 second round pick Willie Gay had yet to prove himself, and rookie Nick Bolton surely wouldn’t be the immediate answer for a Super Bowl-hopeful.
However, as the weeks passed and Bolton settled into his role, he blossomed. By the middle of the year, Bolton had a three-game stretch with 35 total tackles and five tackles for loss. He had played more than 72 percent of snaps in just one of those games.
His development peaked at the right time, as Bolton became a major reason the Chiefs’ defensive unit improved throughout the year. He remained a force throughout the Chiefs’ first two playoff games, as well.
Kansas City has retooled their defense this unit to be more athletic and versatile. With Hitchens gone in free agency, Bolton should now play close to every snap each week instead of being a part-time contributor. Look for him to realize his star status and be the heart of the Chiefs’ defense for a long time.
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2021 stats: 100 tackles, 4 INTs in 13 games
The Cincinnati Bengals had so many breakout performers in 2021 that it was easy to overlook certain individuals. We’d be given to not mention the contributions of linebacker Logan Wilson. His second season after being a third-round pick in 2020 saw a massive leap in comfort, and therefore a statistical jump, too.
Wilson played a huge part in the Bengals’ defensive efforts en route to their Super Bowl appearance.
His sideline-to-sideline range and comfort in coverage are what every team desires but often fails to find. The best part of Wilson’s game is he is an equal threat against the run thanks to his 6’2″, 241-pound frame. Most competent coverage linebackers are much lighter and therefore can’t hold up in the box against the run.
Most promising is that Cincinnati reinforced their defensive line this offseason. Adding DJ Reader as a replacement for the injured Larry Ogujobi will help open more lanes for Wilson to sprint downhill through. Reader is a bully in the trenches, as opposed to Ogunjobi being more of a pass-rusher who wants to beat his blocks.
Wilson’s contributions in the AFC North are especially notable. Their divisional foes tend to run the ball more than most divisional opponents, so the opportunity is there for Wilson to put up an incredible stat line. Watch for him to challenge for an AFC Pro Bowl nomination despite thick competition in the conference.
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2021 stats: 64 tackles, 4 INTs, 12 PDs in 16 games
There’s no question that the Arizona Cardinals secondary overachieved in 2021 compared to expectations. The unit featured fourth-round rookie Marco Wilson and 33 year-old Robert Alford starting on the outside and Byron Murphy in the slot. For much of the year, this unit was excellent before collapsing as teams took advantage of the limitations Wilson and Alford presented.
Murphy, however, put forth his best season yet. His presence in the slot played a large part in why Arizona still had the seventh-best passing defense in the NFL despite not boasting a well-known surrounding cast outside of Budda Baker in the secondary. The 24-year-old set a career high with four interceptions and 12 passes deflected.
Arizona’s 2022 defense lost Chandler Jones, but the internal growth from young linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins could help solidify the unit in front of Murphy. The Cardinals may ask Murphy to play more outside this season since they weren’t able to land a notable rookie or veteran at the position.
Either way, Murphy has to continue developing for Arizona to hit their best-case outcome. Last year was encouraging that he’ll continue ascending into a ballhawk playmaking.
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2021 stats: 69 tackles, 2 INTs, 10 PDs, 2.5 sacks in 16 games
The Miami Dolphins boast a young defense with several up-and-comers, including 2019 first-round pick Christian Wilkins and 2021 first-rounder Jaelan Phillips. Both set themselves up for a terrific 2022 campaign. But our selection of the next star on this Dolphins’ defense is safety Jevon Holland.
The 2021 second-round pick started 13 games and quickly became a jack-of-all-trades. He finished fifth on the team in total tackles and tied for third in interceptions and pass deflections. Holland should pick up where he left off in 2021 since Miami retained defensive coordinator Josh Boyer even after replacing head coach Brian Flores with Mike McDaniel.
Miami played with a different swagger with Holland on the field. He benefits from a deep pass-rush rotation and terrific cornerback group with stars Xavien Howard and Byron Jones. The freedom he has to roam means he’ll be able to achieve a full stat sheet that few safeties can compete with.