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2022 NFL Season: One rookie who could significantly impact each division race

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment spotlights eight newbies who could significantly shape the 2022 season ...

Every year, rookies enter the NFL and instantly impact division races across the league. Just look at last season, when Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja'Marr Chase fueled the Cincinnati Bengals' jump from worst to first in the AFC North while Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons helped the Dallas Cowboys run away with the NFC East title by three games.

With that in mind, which Year 1 players could help decide a division winner in 2022? Today, I'm spotlighting one intriguing candidate in each division.

AFC East

Kaiir Elam
Buffalo Bills · CB

DRAFTED: Round 1, Pick 23 | Florida

The Bills are widely expected to take a third straight AFC East title -- and potentially win the whole damn thing -- behind an explosive offense that will light up scoreboards and a stingy defense that has the capacity to suffocate high-powered aerial attacks within the conference. With Tre'Davious White set to miss at least the first four games while continuing to recover from the ACL tear he suffered last Thanksgiving, the pressure is squarely on Elam's shoulders to hold his own on the island. While stud safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer will certainly lean in Elam's direction to protect him over the top, the rookie will need to show opponents that he can handle top receivers in one-on-one matchups to deter quarterbacks from treating No. 24 like target practice.

AFC North

Tyler Linderbaum
Baltimore Ravens · C

DRAFTED: Round 1, Pick 25 | Iowa

If the Ravens are to re-emerge as title contenders in 2022, you have to imagine everything will revolve around the ground game overwhelming opponents week in and week out. Linderbaum is a key piece of the offensive puzzle, as a versatile pivot with outstanding instincts, awareness and technique. The Iowa product delivers pinpoint snaps and quickly controls defenders at the point of attack. The rookie's ability to neutralize defenders in the middle of the line could enable Lamar Jackson and Co. to run roughshod over defenses on an assortment of power plays that test the strength, toughness and discipline of their opponents. Given Baltimore's previous success in operating a run-heavy offensive attack, the insertion of a dynamic center is a scary thought for the rest of the AFC North.

AFC South

Nick Cross
Indianapolis Colts · S

DRAFTED: Round 3, Pick 96 | Maryland

The Colts are flying under the radar as Super Bowl contenders despite adding a former MVP to the quarterback room. Matt Ryan's arrival not only energizes an offense that needed leadership under center, but it very well could provide the defense with the luxury of routinely playing against opponents forced to chase points. Cross plays a critical role as a safety in Gus Bradley's umbrella scheme that emphasizes taking away the deep ball while also shutting down the running game. The rookie has shown the instincts, awareness and athleticism to play over the top, but also flashes enough "thump" and tackling skills to fill the alley as an extra run stopper. With Khari Willis' surprise June retirement creating a hole in the lineup, the Maryland product could emerge as a key piece of Indianapolis' defensive puzzle.

AFC West

George Karlaftis
Kansas City Chiefs · DE

DRAFTED: Round 1, Pick 30 | Purdue

In the wake of Tyreek Hill's departure, the Chiefs seem poised to transition from a high-octane, offense-dominated team to a more balanced squad that plays complementary football. For that to happen, though, the defense needs to step up its play in 2022. The front features superstar Chris Jones and a potentially resurgent Frank Clark, but the addition of a worker bee on the edge could help the unit become a disruptive force. Karlaftis is a high-energy defender with outstanding hand-to-hand combat skills and a knack for finding the ball. He adds toughness to a defense that needed some more fighters at the line of scrimmage. If Karlaftis can control the edges as a run defender and add some pass-rush production in Year 1, this defense could help Kansas City claim a seventh straight division crown.

NFC East

Tyler Smith
Dallas Cowboys · OL

DRAFTED: Round 1, Pick 24 | Tulsa

Dallas' offensive line just isn't what it used to be, especially with left tackle Tyron Smith now out until at least December. This puts the spotlight squarely on the team's talented -- but extremely raw -- first-round pick out of Tulsa. The initial plan for this season was to ease the 21-year-old into the pro game at left guard, with the long-term intention of grooming him as the left tackle of the future. But in the wake of Tyron Smith's avulsion fracture, the rookie could be forced to man the LT spot in Year 1. The Cowboys might sign Jason Peters, but at age 40, the veteran tackle isn't the Pro Bowl rock he used to be. (UPDATE: NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Monday that Dallas has agreed to terms on a contract with Jason Peters, who will start out on the Cowboys' practice squad as he works his way into the lineup.) Long story short: Tyler Smith will at least be starting at guard and very well could spend significant time protecting Dak Prescott's blind side. As a "handsy" pass protector with a propensity to grab and hold, the rookie will need to quickly refine his technique while learning on the job. Although offensive coordinator Kellen Moore could attempt to assist his rookie blocker by sliding extra pass protection to his side, Smith will eventually need to hold his own in one-on-one situations to enable Prescott to take full advantage of the weapons at his disposal.

NFC North

Quay Walker
Green Bay Packers · LB

DRAFTED: Round 1, Pick 22 | Georgia

The departure of All-Pro wideout Davante Adams will put more pressure on the Green Bay defense in 2022. Walker becomes a critical chess piece for coordinator Joe Barry to utilize on a star-studded unit that features a number of homegrown products. The ultra-athletic defender adds more speed, quickness and explosiveness to a front seven that is versatile, dynamic and disruptive. If Walker quickly emerges as a difference-maker, the Packers’ defense could play like a top-five unit.

NFC South

Chris Olave
New Orleans Saints · WR

DRAFTED: Round 1, Pick 11 | Ohio State

The Saints have assembled a cast of playmakers that will give defensive coordinators headaches when crafting schemes to slow the offense down. Olave will play a key role as a big-play threat with the speed, quickness and burst to run past defenders on vertical routes. With opponents forced to pay special attention to Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry and Alvin Kamara, the rookie speedster could feast on one-on-one coverage. Considering Olave’s résumé as a prolific point scorer at Ohio State (32 TDs in the last three seasons), the rookie could reprise his role as a touchdown machine in New Orleans.

NFC West

Drake Jackson
San Francisco 49ers · DE

DRAFTED: Round 2, Pick 61 | USC

The 49ers have been at their best under Kyle Shanahan when they are able to run the ball and play great defense. This year’s squad certainly has the ingredients to make a run at the Super Bowl, but it will take a dominant performance from the defense at the line of scrimmage. While most of the attention will revolve around the efforts of Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead, Jackson could become the X-factor up front. The former USC standout possesses the length, athleticism and first-step quickness to wreak havoc off the edges in a scheme that creates favorable one-on-one matchups across the board. If Jackson quickly adapts to the pro game as a pass-rush specialist, the 49ers could end up representing the NFC in Super Bowl LVII. 

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