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2022 NFL season: Best/worst-case projections for notable defensive rookies

With the start of the 2022 NFL regular season just around the corner, NFL Media analyst and former scout Daniel Jeremiah projects the best- and worst-case scenarios for 13 intriguing defensive rookies.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 1 overall

Best-case scenario: Walker dominates against the run from the jump and the opportunity to settle in at one position accelerates his development as a pass rusher. He pairs with Josh Allen to form one of the best young edge-rushing duos in the league.

Worst-case scenario: I have zero doubt he’ll hold up against the run, but it might take some time for Walker to evolve as a pass rusher. The Jaguars aren’t good enough to consistently play with a lead, which could limit his pass-rush opportunities.

Projected stats: 50 tackles and seven sacks.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 2 overall

Best-case scenario: Hutchinson’s combination of energy and athleticism helps spark a defensive turnaround in Detroit. He shows the versatility to win with both speed and power.

Worst-case scenario: I view Hutchinson as a high-floor player. Even if the sack numbers don’t jump off the page, he’ll find ways to impact games with his motor and natural instincts.

Projected stats: 45 tackles and 8.5 sacks.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 3 overall

Best-case scenario: We see the version of Stingley that we saw during his freshman year at LSU. He makes everything look easy. He gets his hands on a lot of footballs, shows marked improvement as a tackler and emerges as one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks in Year 1.

Worst-case scenario: We see the inconsistency that we saw last year prior to the foot injury that limited him to three games. There are flashes of brilliance, but tackling and durability remain concerns. 

Projected stats: 40 tackles and five interceptions.

Sauce Gardner
Cincinnati · CB

Drafted: Round 1, No. 4 overall

Best-case scenario: Sauce’s size, length and speed allow him to match up with the top receivers in the AFC. He’s part of a youth movement that turns the league’s 32nd-ranked defense into an above-average unit. He has a chance to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie.

Worst-case scenario: I don’t know how many passes will be thrown in his direction. We’ve already seen teams avoiding him in the preseason, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that carried over to the regular season.

Projected stats: 45 tackles and three interceptions.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 5 overall

Best-case scenario: Thibodeaux comes back fully recovered from the MCL injury he suffered in the Giants' second preseason game. He gets a chance to show off a complete skill set in terms of pass-rush repertoire and becomes a force off the edge. 

Worst-case scenario: The MCL injury turns out to be a nagging issue and limits him. The inconsistency we saw from him at times during his Oregon career follows him into the league.

Projected stats: 35 tackles and 6.5 sacks.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 13 overall

Best-case scenario: Davis eats up blocks against the run and flashes upside as a pass rusher. He shows his ability to win not only with power but with quickness in joining one of the deepest defensive lines in the league.

Worst-case scenario: I think Davis will make an impact, but his numbers might not be all that great because of the rotational role he’ll play. Veteran DTs Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox are elite players.

Projected stats: 30 tackles and 3.5 sacks.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 14 overall

Best-case scenario: Hamilton carves out a role in a deep secondary, putting his size and range on display in sub packages. I believe he could be a dominant special-teams player while he’s earning more playing time on defense.

Worst-case scenario: He struggles in man coverage and playing time is difficult to come by in a deep group.

Projected stats: 55 tackles and two interceptions.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 21 overall

Best-case scenario: One of the more consistent players in college football last season, McDuffie’s traits translate to the NFL. He shows he can find and play the ball, and he displays the versatility to play outside or inside.

Worst-case scenario: Perhaps his size (5-foot-11, 193 pounds), which wasn’t much of an issue in college, shows up against some of the bigger wideouts in a division loaded with potent passing games.

Projected stats: 40 tackles and three interceptions.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 22 overall

Best-case scenario: Walker leads all rookies in tackles and uses his athleticism to make plays against the pass. He becomes a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.

Worst-case scenario: It’s hard to envision Walker not being successful given his skill set and the talent around him in Green Bay. Maybe he starts off really strong but fades a bit late in the year. He’s going to be playing a lot of snaps.

Projected stats: 60 tackles, two sacks and one interception.

Kaiir Elam
Florida · CB

Drafted: Round 1, No. 23 overall

Best-case scenario: Elam’s height, weight, speed and physicality translate well to the NFL. His presence allows the Bills to take their time in bringing back CB Tre’Davious White from the ACL tear he suffered last November.

Worst-case scenario: He struggled with some tightness in college, which gets exposed against the likes of Tyreek Hill, Elijah Moore and Nelson Agholor when the Bills face their division rivals. One way or another, we’re going to quickly learn a lot about Elam because I expect him to be tested early and often.

Projected stats: 35 tackles and one interception.

Jermaine Johnson II
Florida State · DE

Drafted: Round 1, No. 26 overall

Best-case scenario: Johnson picks up where he left off as the ACC Defensive Player of the Year at Florida State. His length and athleticism are a major asset against the run and pass.

Worst-case scenario: The Jets have built some quality depth on the defensive line, and coordinator Jeff Ulbrich has said he wants to limit playing time to no more than 30 to 35 snaps per player. What’s good for the group might not necessarily be great for Johnson’s production.

Projected stats: 40 tackles and 5.5 sacks.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 27 overall

Best-case scenario: Even though Lloyd has yet to play in the preseason due to a hamstring injury, he hits the ground running in the regular season and shows why he was one of my favorite players in the draft. He’s a perfect scheme fit in Mike Caldwell’s attacking front seven. By the end of the year, he’s drawing comparisons to Shaquille Leonard.

Worst-case scenario: It takes Lloyd a while to get up to speed in the regular season after missing valuable prep time due to the hamstring injury. That said, I believe he’s too blessed with instincts and athleticism to really struggle if he’s healthy.

Projected stats: 75 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions.

Drafted: Round 1, No. 30 overall

Best-case scenario: Karlaftis is going to get a lot of opportunities to rush the quarterback playing in the Chiefs’ high-scoring offense. I think we’re going to see his production far exceed what he posted at Purdue (4.5 sacks last season). His power is real, and he’s one of my top candidates for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Worst-case scenario: As much as I love his game, his production in college never quite reflected his full ability. Maybe that carries over to the NFL and he provides more disruption than production.

Projected stats: 50 tackles and 10 sacks.

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