There's insane parity in the NFL this season, but entering Week 17, we have about eight clubs either mathematically eliminated from playoff contention already or darn close to it.
Fans of those teams have rightfully turned their attention to next season, with free agency and the draft being the avenues by which new talent can be injected into the roster. However, it's vital for rebuilding clubs to identify the quality players already on the roster who need to be retained during said rebuild.
In this article, I've highlighted the relatively young, under-the-radar players on those clubs who should keep their jobs to begin the 2022 campaign. To be considered, the player had to have been picked in Round 3 or later and be 26 years old or younger.
Draft status: Round 5 (2021)
Keith Taylor has been an on-and-off starter on the outside in Matt Rhule's defense since October, and the former Washington Huskies standout has held his own with five pass breakups and just one touchdown allowed on 30 targets in his coverage area.
At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, he's a throwback-type perimeter cornerback who plays with deceptive wiggle in his lower half to stay with separators and of course has a large pass-disruption radius. Reliable outside cornerbacks don't grow on trees, and Taylor's unique size will set him apart from others playing the position on Carolina's roster.
Draft status: Round 6 (2021)
Thomas Graham Jr. was finally called up from Chicago's practice squad in Week 15, and he rocked against the Vikings with three pass breakups. He added another in the Bears' Week 16 win over the Seahawks. The primary zone cornerback plays bigger than his size and had 32 pass breakups along with eight picks in his three seasons at Oregon.
He is a 2022 opening day starter for the Bears, either on the outside or in the slot. He has nickel cornerback size, but experience and productivity playing near the boundary. Nice versatile piece for the Bears to have in their secondary.
Draft status: Round 6 (2021)
Khalil Herbert stepped in for an injured David Montgomery earlier in the season and showed out with 344 yards on 78 carries (4.41 yards per), which included two outings with a yards-per-attempt average over 5.0. And he forced 15 missed tackles in that four-game audition. That's a big number.
Quality running backs are relatively easily found in all rounds of the draft, and Herbert is one of the latest examples. He needs to be (a bigger) part of the Bears rushing attack moving forward.
Draft status: Round 4 (2021)
Amon-Ra St. Brown has settled into a serious possession slot receiver role over the past month in Detroit. Since Week 13, only Cooper Kupp (40) has more receptions than the Lions rookie (35), but the former USC star has only averaged 9.7 yards per grab.
However, in today's NFL, the passing game being an extension of the run game is becoming more popular, so a yards-per-grab average under 10 isn't exceedingly rare or an indication of bad receiver play. That's what St. Brown is: a smaller, reliable extension of the run game.
Draft status: Round 5 (2019)
Layup here. Amani Oruwariye has six interceptions in his second season, picks on passes from Lamar Jackson, Baker Mayfield, Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray, Andy Dalton, and Justin Fields. Sure, there was luck involved in a few of them, but that's the case with most high-volume interception seasons.
The Penn State alum has only allowed two touchdowns on 536 pass-coverage snaps to date. Has he been a nearly flawless, lockdown corner? No. But he has imposing size at 6-1 and 205 pounds, and his ball production speaks for itself.
Draft status: Round 3 (2020)
Jonathan Greenard is a legitimate high-quality edge rusher, not just a good young one. He's registered 26 pressures on 192 pass-rushing snaps entering Week 17, good for a respectable 13.5% pressure-creation rate. Sure, somewhat low volume, but anything approaching 15% means you're doing a lot of things right as a rusher.
At 6-3 and 263 pounds with a high motor, speed-to-power conversion that pops, and an advancing arsenal of pass-rushing moves, Greenard not only has experienced a breakout season but looks to be a defender who has his best football in front of him.
Draft status: UDFA (2018)
Tavierre Thomas didn't get included here simply by pick-sixing Justin Herbert last Sunday. The former undrafted free agent from Ferris State has quietly had a strong season in Houston.
He has four pass breakups and two interceptions to go along with 75 total tackles and has yet to allow a touchdown in his coverage area. We all know slot corners are starters in today's NFL, and Thomas has been a good one for the Texans in his second season with the team after beginning his pro career with the Browns.
Draft status: Round 5 (2021)
Brevin Jordan made his NFL debut in Week 8, and has flashed like did often as a member of the Miami Hurricanes. In that first professional game, Jordan had a touchdown and 41 yards on three receptions. Last week, in the upset over the Chargers, Jordan tied a career high with four grabs and set a career high with 56 receiving yards.
Jordan is so young and possesses the short-area quickness and YAC capabilities to be a productive move tight end for a long time.
Draft status: UFDA (2019)
Andrew Wingard was so fun on film at Wyoming, where he accumulated 25 tackles for loss and 10 interceptions in four seasons as a full-time safety for the Cowboys.
And he's become a steady third-level defender in the NFL as his role as increased on the Jaguars defense. He's almost played 1,000 snaps with 88 tackles, one pick, and one pass breakup. He misses tackles probably a tick more than coaches would like, but also pops in critical situations against the run and has no allowed a touchdown on 22 targets in his coverage area. At worst, he should be a useful third safety in the future in Jacksonville.
New York Giants
Draft status: UDFA (2020)
This selection is the most out of left field. Jarren Williams played his college ball at Albany and started his NFL career as 2020 undrafted free agent signee of the Cardinals. After a week in Arizona, he was released and has been with the Giants ever since.
Due to injuries at the position, Williams has started since Week 13 and more than just held his own. He has a pass breakup and 17 tackles. Plus, he's allowed just seven catches for 56 yards when the wideout he's covering has been targeted. Can the Giants upgrade from Williams? Sure. But he's a good baseline at a valuable position for a rebuilding club.
New York Jets
Draft status: Round 5 (2020)
Before he broke his ankle his final season at Virginia, Bryce Hall was about every draft analyst's favorite cornerback prospect. As a junior in 2018, he led the nation with 21 pass breakups. And at well over 6-0, he looked primed to be a lockdown outside cornerback in the NFL.
But his injury sunk his stock all the way to fifth round. Five touchdowns in his target area isn't exactly stellar, but Hall is back to his disruptive ways with 14 pass breakups. He's also chipped in against the run with 66 tackles.
Draft status: Round 5 (2018)
D.J. Reed was so feisty at Kansas State -- 16 pass breakups and three picks in 2016 and four interceptions with nine passes defended the following year. At 5-9 and 188 pounds, Reed has prototypical nickel cornerback size, and his instincts and bounce allow him to challenge almost every pass in his direction.
Over the past two years in Seattle, Reed has a grand total of 14 pass breakups with two picks, and he's eclipsed the 60-tackle mark in both seasons. Reed's a good one.