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5 NFL rookies who could be X-factors for Super Bowl contenders

Matt Fitzgerald

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Some NFL rookies are innately expected to come in and perform right away in the pros, especially if they’re selected near the top of the NFL Draft. However, each team has different plans for how they bring along their first-year prospects.

Now that the preseason is almost over, we have a clearer idea as to which late-round picks are exceeding expectations, and which presumed backups could actually be X-factors for championship teams. Check out our list of five NFL rookies who could help decide the Super Bowl this year.

Click here to find out which team we’re projecting to win Super Bowl LVI in our NFL playoff predictions

Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

5 NFL rookies who could be X-factors for Super Bowl contenders: Joe Tryon-Shoyinka
Jun 1, 2021; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Joe Tryon (9) during organized team activities at AdventHealth Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Starting with the last pick of the first round for the reigning Super Bowl champions: Joe Tryon-Shoyinka was an intriguing prospect out of Washington, albeit a tough evaluation. Like many of the top draft hopefuls, he opted out of the 2020 campaign, and used that time to completely transform his body, making him into a markedly different player.

Those physique tweaks were apparently all for the better.

Anyone should know better than to doubt the talent evaluation skills of Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Jason Licht by now, though. With such a loaded championship team returning for 2021, Licht opted to build upon a strength rather than address a potential weakness by selecting Tryon-Shoyinka No. 32 overall.

Well, reviews out of Tampa Bay’s training camp are painting quite a rosy portrait of how well Tryon-Shoyinka is faring. Even with Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul as clear starters, Tryon-Shoyinka is playing at such a high level that anyone on the team who speaks to the media envisions a big role as a situational pass-rusher for him.

Joe is going to be amazing. He’s doing stuff that I’m looking at and thinking, ‘Man, I wish I would of knew that when I was a rookie,'” Pierre-Paul said, per ESPN.com’s Jenna Laine.

We saw how terrorizing Barrett and JPP were screaming off the edge against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs in a 31-9 rout during Super Bowl LV. The fact that the Bucs appear to have another big-time player who can contribute there should frighten the rest of the league.

See where Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady place on our list of top 20 NFL QB rankings

Trey Smith, guard, Kansas City Chiefs

5 NFL rookies who could be X-factors for Super Bowl contenders: Trey Smith
Aug 9, 2021; St. Joseph, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs offensive guard Trey Smith (65) runs drills during training camp at Missouri Western State University. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of the Chiefs and their lackluster pass protection, their offensive line as a whole from 2020 needed a makeover. Kansas City saw Mahomes running for his life on the biggest stage, which was largely due to injury-induced absences from tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz.

The thing is, the Chiefs didn’t stop at addressing just the tackle spots, as Fisher faced a long road to recovery from a torn Achilles and Schwartz likely played his final down in the NFL.

They were proactive on the interior, too. Kansas City drafted Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey in Round 2, and Tennessee’s Trey Smith on Day 3. Then, there was the splash in free agency with ex-New England Patriots guard Joe Thuney.

But here’s why Smith makes this list over Humphrey: The center position wasn’t necessarily a problem a year ago with Austin Reiter in place. KC’s guard play clearly needed a boost.

According to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs’ offensive line ranked DFL in the NFL on power running success rate at just 51%. That’s part of the reason why first-round tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire failed to meet the hype.

Medical red flags dinged Smith’s draft stock, but Kansas City saw the obvious potential. Now, the sixth-round pick seems in line to start at right guard, with a self-described “violent” game and mauling run-blocking ability.

Edwards-Helaire should have more room to run, the Chiefs offense should be better balanced to complement Mahomes, and the best QB in the league won’t be forced into so many obvious passing situations as a result.

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Trey Lance, QB, San Francisco 49ers

5 NFL rookies who could be X-factors for Super Bowl contenders: Trey Lance
August 14, 2021; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance (5) and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) warm up before the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

We had to choose one quarterback. While Mac Jones is closer to starting for the New England Patriots than Trey Lance is for the San Francisco 49ers, there’s a sense that the Niners may be saving their No. 3 overall pick as a secret weapon of sorts.

Notice how, through two preseason games, San Francisco hasn’t unveiled any wild, designed run concepts to capitalize on Lance’s incredible skill set. Niners head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan has already said Lance will play this year, but it’s been strongly hinted that veteran incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo will still be the QB1.

That doesn’t mean Lance can’t make a considerable impact, though. We saw how much success Shanahan had dialing up plays for Robert Griffin III during his electrifying Rookie of the Year campaign in Washington. Lance hails from a pro-style offense at North Dakota State, unlike the spread system RGIII operated in college at Baylor.

All these factors should add up to — at the very least — Lance adding yet another explosive element to the Niners’ already-formidable rushing attack.

The NFC West is clearly the best division, which means San Francisco has its work cut out just to survive that gauntlet and make the playoffs. But Lance could be the ace in the hole who ultimately helps San Francisco rise to the top when it matters most.

Read our NFL power rankings now, which feature the 49ers and a pair of their rivals inside the top 10

Demetric Felton, SLASH, Cleveland Browns

5 NFL rookies who could be X-factors for Super Bowl contenders: Demetric Felton
Aug 22, 2021; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns running back Demetric Felton (25) runs with the ball as New York Giants running back Cullen Gillaspia (36) defends during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Expectations usually aren’t high for sixth-round picks, but as Smith is proving in Kansas City — and for that matter, as Cleveland Browns 2020 sixth-round receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones is proving, too — it’s not completely out of the question.

What makes Demetric Felton’s emergence in Browns training camp so stunning is that he’s been able to pick up the running back and wide receiver positions at the professional level in swift fashion. Felton is also getting looks as a return man because of his excellent elusiveness and open-field vision.

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In an offense that already features Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt as arguably the NFL’s best running back tandem, and boasts a receiving corps headlined by Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, Felton is still standing out.

Felton had four catches for 44 yards on six targets in the Browns’ preseason opener, and then carried the ball eight times for 25 yards last week. Even catching passes from QBs not named Baker Mayfield and running behind a second- and third-string offensive line, it’s clear Felton is a flat-out playmaker.

Mayfield acknowledged as much in speaking to the media recently, suggesting Felton, who played college football at UCLA under Chip Kelly, could be in for a lot of action:

There’s no reason to gas up an unheralded rookie like this unless it’s legit.

Felton is making it impossible for the Browns to ignore him, and it’s possible that he and Peoples-Jones both contribute in surprisingly big ways to lift Cleveland’s offense to another level in 2021.

Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Los Angeles Chargers

5 NFL rookies who could be X-factors for Super Bowl contenders: Asante Samuel Jr.
Aug 22, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. (26) celebrated after he intercepted a pass intended for San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk (11) in the first half of the game at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

We have to have at least one deep dark-horse Super Bowl contender on this list. The Los Angeles Chargers have their work cut out, but it’s undeniable that as long as new coach Brandon Staley isn’t a disastrous hire, which would be absolutely stunning, they’re a playoff team.

While first-round left tackle Rashawn Slater should help upgrade the Bolts’ previously putrid offensive line, reigning Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert proved in 2020 that even behind awful blocking, he can still play at a high level.

No, we’re going with cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., whose father was a star at the position in the NFL before him. For whatever reason, Samuel fell to Round 2, despite his obvious pedigree, serious ball skills, high football IQ and advanced coverage techniques.

Staley’s complex defense that helped the Los Angeles Rams rank No. 1 in the NFL last year was, no doubt, aided by Aaron Donald’s presence in the trenches. However, a huge reason that system worked so well was due to how great the Rams’ secondary was.

Samuel is a perfect schematic fit for the Chargers, and should start in Week 1. Even better, the team welcomes back All-Pro safety Derwin James, who missed all of 2020 due to injury. James’ experience and versatility, combined with Samuel’s readiness to contribute in Staley’s defense, should help the Bolts leap to a championship-caliber level.

Discover where Derwin James, Joey Bosa and the Chargers’ D stack up in our latest NFL defense rankings