6 NFL Players We Want to See in the Playoffs Next Year

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2022

6 NFL Players We Want to See in the Playoffs Next Year

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    It's not surprising that in the vast majority of cases, the NFL's best players play on the best teams. If a team is lucky enough to have a top-three talent at key positions, it's often heading to the postseason.

    But that isn't always the case, and at the end of the 2021 regular season, the outliers are notable.

    Statistically, the Los Angeles Chargers had the league's No. 2 quarterback, No. 2 running back and No. 2 defensive back. The Minnesota Vikings had a top-five wide receiver, an elite linebacker and a productive running back, all in a middling division. The Baltimore Ravens enjoyed a stellar season from the game's top tight end but couldn't overcome losing their franchise quarterback for five games.

    However, these same players, their team's brightest beacons of hope, can help turn everything around next season.

    Let's take a look at six players who, despite their stellar campaigns, won't be playing in the postseason this year but could be the key factors toward propelling their franchises beyond Week 18 next year.

Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

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    Life is good for the top five wideouts of the season as they and their teams prepare for the playoffs.

    Well, except for one of them.

    Minnesota's Justin Jefferson was statistically the fourth-best wideout in the league, behind Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel and Ja'Marr Chase and ahead of Davante Adams.

    Unlike the Rams, 49ers, Bengals and Packers, however, the Vikings won't be continuing on to the postseason. For all his talent, Jefferson will be watching from the couch.

    At 8-9, the Vikings were an average team in an average division. As a result, the team relieved coach Mike Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman of their duties. Of his myriad failings this season, one of Zimmer's biggest was his failure to maximize Jefferson's talent and help him put together a record-breaking campaign.

    In the final quarter of the team's final game of the season, Jefferson needed just 16 receiving yards to tie Randy Moss' single-season franchise record (1,632). He didn't get the chance.

    What Jefferson did do in 2021, however, was become Kirk Cousins' go-to weapon if he wasn't already, seeing 167 targets and averaging 15 yards per reception. He found the end zone 10 times, tied with teammate Adam Thielen, who got more looks in the red zone.

    It's hard to start talking about Minnesota's 2022 playoff chances when we don't know who will be calling the plays. But Jefferson, who's likely under contract through 2024, is a proven star, and he's dynamic enough to lead this offense to nine-plus wins in a bad division (that might also see archrival Green Bay lose Aaron Rodgers this offseason).

Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers

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    When the Las Vegas Raiders ended the Los Angeles Chargers' hopes of making the playoffs in Week 18, NFL viewers lost out on a tie that would have sent both teams to the playoffs (while shutting out the Pittsburgh Steelers), they lost out on a Scorigami, and they lost out on seeing an extremely talented quarterback lead his team in his first postseason.

    It's no secret why viewers, even outside Chargers fandom, have responded so positively to Herbert. In just his second season, he set or matched an array of NFL records, including tying Dan Marino's longstanding record for the most passing touchdowns through year two.

    When it mattered most, Herbert delivered. In Week 18, he passed for 383 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. He also went 6-of-6 for 106 yards and a touchdown on fourth downs, the very definition of clutch.

    Herbert's 5,014 yards and 38 touchdowns were the most in a Chargers season in both categories—more impressive when you consider Philip Rivers was there for 16 seasons.

    It was a disappointing end, but the balance of power is shifting in the AFC, and Herbert's Chargers stand to benefit. Plus, he has the help of the league's No. 2 running back, Austin Ekeler.

Myles Garrett, DE, Cleveland Browns

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    Many of the players on this list were fantasy football heroes, but defensively, Myles Garrett was one of Cleveland's linchpins in real life this season.

    He finished the regular season third in the league in sacks with 16, and his disruption continued in other ways with three passes defended and a strip-sack plus TD run.

    Indeed, everyone loves a big-man touchdown, and Garrett's delighted pretty much everyone not playing or rooting for the Baltimore Ravens.

    Garrett signed a five-year, $125 million contract with the Browns that will keep him in Cleveland through 2026, and he's absolutely essential to the team's playoff hopes after it went 8-9.

    With the team expected to stick with Baker Mayfield at quarterback, as cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot reported, and in possession of the No. 13 pick in this spring's draft, the team is positioned to make a push in 2022.

Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

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    Colts fans and players are still surely struggling to accept that their team isn't in the postseason. They were right at the doorstep, with the simplest of tasks ahead of them: beat the worst team in football, the 2-14 Jacksonville Jaguars, who averaged just 14.9 points per game.

    Alas, the Colts saw their playoff hopes slip away in a 26-11 shocker (with some help from the Pittsburgh Steelers defeating the Baltimore Ravens).

    However, Jonathan Taylor still carried his team in 2021, amassing 1,811 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground and adding another 360 and two, respectively, through the air. His 332 carries were also a league high.

    It was enough to earn him entry into the MVP conversation as the Colts won eight of 10 heading into Week 17.

    Taylor will be entering only his third season in 2022, and if he has another campaign similar to 2021, he can help get his team to the doorstep once again.

    Yet the Colts will need more consistent play from quarterback Carson Wentz, who coach Frank Reich said had "a lot of bright moments" but who also had two of his worst performances when it mattered most in the last two games.

    Still, the Colts have built their team around the ground game, and Taylor has responded beautifully.

Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers

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    The Chargers were this close to the postseason, and we've already discussed that Justin Herbert and Austin Ekeler were major forces in getting them to the doorstep.

    But the Chargers are built to excel on both sides of the ball, another reason we feel confident they'll see the postseason in 2022. In Derwin James, the team has one of the most talented defensive backs in football.

    James finished the season ranked No. 2 among defensive backs, as did Herbert and Ekeler at their respective positions.

    He helped out everywhere a defensive player can, racking up 75 tackles, two sacks, five passes defended, two picks and three forced fumbles. Not bad for a strong safety.

    For his part, James is feeling good about his club's chances to contend in 2022, telling the team's website: "I feel like we have a lot of great pieces. If you look around at every position, we had guys break records—had a quarterback throw for 5,000 yards, had two receivers over 1,000 yards, Ek [RB Austin Ekeler] had 20 touchdowns. There are a lot of great players that we have around here and a lot to build around. I can't wait for us to come back stronger next year."

Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens

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    Mark Andrews has the undesirable distinction of being one of the NFL's few players who finished the year at the top of his position and yet will not be playing in the postseason.

    The Ravens went 8-9 and lost six straight to end the year, but Andrews never faltered, regardless of whether it was Lamar Jackson, Tyler Huntley or Josh Johnson under center. He led the team in targets (154), receptions (107), yards (1,361) and touchdowns (nine) for an offense that averaged 22.8 points per game (17th).

    Jackson played just 12 games, and if he's healthy next season and paired with Andrews, Marquise Brown and Rashod Bateman (along with what will surely be a healthier running game), the offense should be much improved.

    Not to mention, the team picks 14th in the draft and has 10 selections overall, with nine in the top four rounds. With Andrews under contract through 2025, Baltimore's playoff hopes look bright in 2022 and beyond.


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