Seattle Seahawks 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Seahawks struck gold in the 3rd round of the 2012 NFL Draft, now over a decade ago, selecting Russell Wilson, who made an impact right away as a rookie and would go on to become a franchise quarterback for the Seahawks, winning the Super Bowl in his second season in the league in 2013 and keeping the Seahawks consistently in contention in almost every season. It’s hard enough finding a franchise quarterback in the draft, but finding one outside of the first two rounds is even tougher, as the last 20 NFL draft classes have produced just five quarterbacks who were not first or second round picks who went on to make multiple Pro Bowls (Wilson, Tony Romo, Kirk Cousins, Matt Schaub, Dak Prescott), with Wilson being the only one of those five to win the Super Bowl as the starting quarterback. 

While the Seahawks did remain in contention most seasons after their Super Bowl victory, they never made it back to the Super Bowl after Wilson’s third season in the league, where they came a goal line interception away from winning back-to-back. Wilson continued to play well, completing 65.0% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 292 touchdowns, and 87 interceptions, with 5.54 YPC and 23 touchdowns on 846 carries across the 10 seasons, while finishing in the top-10 among quarterbacks on PFF in 7 times, but, when the Seahawks won their Super Bowl, Wilson was on a cheap rookie contract, which made it easier to keep talented players around him, which was no longer the case as Wilson became higher paid as he got later into his career.

Along with Wilson’s contract increasing significantly, the Seahawks also failed to find cheap replacements for expensive veterans in the draft, resulting in the Seahawks consistently being good, but not good enough, losing in the first or second round in each of their last five post-season appearances, despite consistently high level play from Wilson. This off-season, rather than running it back another season, the Seahawks decided to go through a full rebuild, tear everything down and start over, with the intention of competing 2-3 years down the line, when they will have a cleaner cap situation and will hopefully have accumulated more talent in the draft.

As part of that rebuild, the Seahawks somewhat surprisingly traded Russell Wilson, sending him to the Broncos for a package of picks centered around a pair of first and second round picks, as well as three players, Shelby Harris and Noah Fant, who were starters in Denver in 2021, and Drew Lock, a young quarterback who the Seahawks view as a potential replacement for Wilson, even though he was a backup for the Broncos last season.

On some level, the decision makes some sense, as Wilson was heading into his age 34 season and would likely be on the decline by the time the Seahawks could realistically build a Super Bowl caliber roster around him, while being the 8th highest paid quarterback in average annual salary, on a 4-year, 140 million dollar extension. The Seahawks traded Wilson likely at the highest his value would ever be again and they did it after a disappointing season in which Wilson missed time with injury and in which the Seahawks finished below .500 (7-10), the first time either of those had occurred throughout Wilson’s tenure with the team. 

On the other hand, Wilson’s injury was a fluke thing for a player who is otherwise incredibly durable, otherwise never missing any time in his career, and he somewhat miraculously was able to return from a 6-8 week hand injury after only three games missed. Wilson struggled in his first three games after returning, but, aside from those three games, he completed 67.7% of his passes for an average of 8.24 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions last season, while earning PFF’s 10th highest grade among quarterbacks over those games. 

I often mention that it’s really tough to win with a quarterback with a high cap number unless he is a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback, as all quarterbacks have been that have won the Super Bowl while accounting for more than 11% of the salary cap, but Wilson played at that Hall of Fame level throughout his tenure as the Seahawks starter, so I don’t think he was overpaid, especially since he’s only owed 51 million remaining on contract over the next two seasons, with much of the money paid out upfront.

The Seahawks were also better than their record in 2021, even with Wilson missing three games and being limited in three others, finishing with a +29 point differential and ranking 16th in overall efficiency. Their 7-10 record was underwhelming, but they went 2-5 in games decided by one score and 1-5 in games where Wilson was out or not at his best, so it wasn’t hard to see how the Seahawks could bounce back and make their 9th playoff appearance in 11 seasons in 2022 if they had opted to bring back Wilson and most of their core. A rebuild was probably needed, but quarterbacks like Wilson don’t grow on trees and it could take them several years to find one close to as good as Wilson, while Wilson could easily remain at least an above average starting quarterback over that same time period.

The Seahawks passed on several opportunities to add another quarterback this off-season, not adding a quarterback at all in the draft and most recently passing on the opportunity to add Baker Mayfield for the price of a future mid round pick and a backup quarterback’s salary, so, while it’s possible they could still add a quarterback like Jimmy Garoppolo if he becomes available at the right price, they seem at least somewhat committed to Drew Lock at least for 2022, after specifically requesting the 2019 2nd round pick from the Broncos in the Wilson trade. 

Lock has made just 21 starts in three seasons in the league and has mostly struggled, completing 59.3% of his passes for an average of 6.68 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, finishing 35th among 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF in his lone season as a full-time starter (13 starts) in 2020 and struggling in three starts in 2021, when he was the clear backup to Teddy Bridgewater and completed just 60.4% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in 3 starts as an injury replacement down the stretch. However, Lock is still young, in his age 26 season, and the Seahawks clearly thought highly of him when he was coming out of the draft three years ago, enough to believe they can develop him into a starting quarterback. 

Whether or not that is true remains to be seen, but Lock has shown some promise and talent thus far in his career, and he will at least get a chance in 2022. The Seahawks retained Geno Smith, their backup for the past three seasons, this off-season and are nominally calling this a quarterback competition, but they clearly believe in Lock somewhat and, while Smith knows the playbook and is a solid backup, he has just a 75.7 QB rating in 34 career starts, with just 5 starts in the past 7 seasons combined, so starting him would do nothing to clarify the Seahawks’ long-term quarterback situation, with Smith in his age 32 season. 

It’s possible Smith would be the better short-term option, but Lock at least has some upside and, if he struggles, he would probably give them a better draft pick than starting Smith would have, which would put the Seahawks in position to take one of the top quarterbacks available in a much better quarterback draft class in the 2023 NFL Draft, armed with extra draft picks from the Wilson trade to move up if needed. If Lock does take a big step forward and develop into a solid starting quarterback, the Seahawks would have to pay probably somewhat significantly to keep him as a free agent next off-season, but that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad problem to have as long as they don’t overpay him. This is one of the worst quarterback rooms in the league, but there is at least a possibility Lock takes a step forward in his 4th season in the league.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

With this team going through a rebuild, Lock doesn’t have much support around him even if he does take a step forward and develops into at least a capable starter, as the Seahawks have the 4th lowest average annual salary of any team in the league, which correlates heavily with winning percentage, and that shows up when you look at this roster. However, one thing that Lock does have going for him is a talented wide receiver duo of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, who have been one of the better wide receiver duos in the league since Metcalf was drafted in the 2nd round in 2019.

Lockett broke out back in 2018, averaging a 78/1063/9 slash line with a 1.97 yards per route run average over the past four seasons and finishing 23rd, 21st, 32nd, and 14th among wide receivers on PFF overall grade. Metcalf, meanwhile, had a solid rookie season, with a 58/900/7 slash line and a 1.69 yards per route run average, and then has taken it to another level over the past two seasons, with a combined 2.01 yards per route run average and slash lines of 83/1303/10 and 75/967/12 respectively, while finishing 18th and 15th among wide receivers on PFF in overall grade.

There was some speculation that Metcalf would be gone as part of the rebuild this off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, with other high level wide receivers getting big extensions and/or being traded for several high picks this off-season, but the Seahawks appear unwilling to move him, even turning down a package from the Jets that included the 10th overall pick in this year’s draft. Metcalf has yet to sign an extension, but he’s still only in his age 25 season and is the kind of piece you rebuild around, rather than trading away, so I would expect them to eventually work something out, even if it comes next off-season and after a franchise tag. Metcalf will be hurt statistically by a downgraded quarterback situation, but could take another step forward in his own right, just barely entering his prime.

Tyler Lockett, on the other hand, could have made sense to trade, now heading into his age 30 season, owed another 46.5 million over the next 4 seasons, and likely to return at least a decent draft pick in a trade, after yet another 1,000 yard year in 2022. Instead, the Seahawks brought him back as an aging, highly paid #2 wide receiver, with Metcalf emerging as a true #1 opposite him. Lockett has a good chance to remain an above average wide receiver, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he started to decline and he is likely to be hurt more by Wilson’s departure than Metcalf, who is a good fit as a deep threat with the gunslinging Drew Lock, even if Lock ends up throwing more than a few interceptions on those passes.

None of the Seahawks other wide receivers did much last season though, with Metcalf and Lockett being their only wide receivers to even average 1 yard per route run. Freddie Swain played 592 snaps as the #3 receiver, but averaged just 0.94 yards per route run and had just a 25/343/4 slash line, finishing dead last among 110 eligible wide receivers on PFF in the first significant action of the 2020 6th round pick’s career. 

The Seahawks drafted Dwayne Eskridge in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft to be the #3 receiver, but he struggled so much on the field and behind the scenes that he couldn’t even get on the field ahead of Swain, playing just 187 snaps, averaging 0.59 yards per route run, and finishing with just a 10/64/1 slash line. Eskridge still has the potential to develop into a starting caliber player long-term and, even if that doesn’t happen this season, it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade on Swain, but, even if he is an upgrade on Swain, he’s unlikely to be that productive in this offense, well behind Metcalf and Lockett in the pecking order, with Drew Lock as his quarterback. Swain would also likely struggle if he had to be the #3 receiver again.

The Seahawks did acquire Noah Fant in the Wilson trade and he is likely to be their #3 option and could be an upgrade as the primary receiving tight end, a role in which free agent departure Gerald Everett was decent last season, averaging 1.34 yards per route run. Fant has averaged 1.56 yards per route run in three seasons in the league since the Broncos selected him in the first round in 2019 and he’s still only in his age 25 season, so he should be a significant upgrade for the Seahawks as a receiver, which will be a boost for this offense, even if he’s not as good as a blocker.

However, Everett only played 649 snaps and had just a 48/478/4 slash line last season, despite a decent yards per route run average, because the Seahawks also using backup tight end Will Dissly somewhat significantly, playing him 512 snaps last season, and, given that the Seahawks re-signed Dissly for 24 million over 3 years this off-season, Dissly is likely to continue playing a significant role, even with Fant in town, which would limit Fant’s statistical upside.

Dissly looks like an overpay on that contract. He has a career 1.53 yards per route run average, but has averaged just 1.15 and 1.18 yards per route run respectively over the past two seasons, while being an underwhelming blocker, after suffering significant leg injuries in each of his first two seasons in the league, limiting him to 10 games combined over those two seasons. Dissly was a 4th round pick and showed a lot of promise early in his career, but his injuries could have permanently sapped his athleticism and, now going into his 5th season in the league, he’s running out of time to make good on his potential. 

With Fant ahead of him on the depth chart, two great wide receivers, and an underwhelming quarterback, Dissly is unlikely to come close to being productive enough to justify his contract, just like he hasn’t been thus far in his career, although it’s possible we see the Seahawks run more two-tight end sets this season to compensate for their lack of wide receiver depth. This is a talented receiving corps because Metcalf, Lockett, and Fant are a good top-3, but they are a bit of a top heavy group, with questionable depth, especially at wide receiver, which hurts their overall grade.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Seahawks were almost always a run heavy team with Russell Wilson under center, in part because Wilson took off and ran on his own a significant amount, averaging 84.6 carries per season, but they still had a below average pass/run split last season, even with Wilson running less than he ever had, with just 43 carries. Even with position of strength in the receiving corps, I would expect this team to remain run heavy with the inexperienced Drew Lock under center, especially with Lock also athletic enough to take off and run from time to time as well, with rushing stats that extrapolate to 217 yards and 4 touchdowns on 55 carries (3.96 YPC) per 16 starts in his career.

Running backs obviously will also continue having a big role in this offense, although it’s unclear how the carries will be divided. Chris Carson was their lead back from 2018 through the first four games of last season, averaging 4.58 YPC and scoring 24 touchdowns on 720 carries in 45 games, while finishing 6th, 9th, and 17th among running backs in overall grade on PFF in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively. However, he suffered a potentially career ending neck injury that cost him all but those four games last season and that has him very questionable for 2022 and beyond.

Alex Collins was the first running back to get a chance to replace Carson, but he struggled with 3.81 YPC on 108 carries and is no longer with the team. Rashaad Penny took over as the starter for the final 6 games of the season and was a significant improvement, averaging a ridiculous 6.92 YPC with 6 touchdowns on 102 carries in those 6 games, finishing as PFF’s 11th ranked running back in overall grade on the season, albeit in limited action.

To that point in his career, Penny had been a bust, selected in the first round in the 2018 NFL Draft, but struggling to stay on the field, with just 178 carries in 31 games in three and a half seasons in the league prior to taking over as the starter down the stretch last season. He always flashed potential in limited action though, with a 4.87 YPC average on those 178 carries. He chose the perfect time to play his best football, as it came right before he was set to hit free agency this off-season, with the Seahawks understandably declining his 5th year option prior to last season. 

Penny wasn’t cheap to retain in free agency, receiving a 1-year, 5.75 million dollar deal, and, still only in his age 26 season, he has the upside to be worth that kind of money if he can stay healthy, but his injury history is significant and he got a lot of his yardage last season on a few long runs, with is not usually sustainable, with 52.3% of his rushing yards coming on 13 carries of 15+ yards and a 47% carry success rate that ranked just 38th out of 50 eligible running backs. 

It’s likely Penny gets hurt and/or regresses significantly in terms of YPC this season, especially with this offense as a whole taking a hit without Wilson, but he does have a good chance to open the season as the starter, barring a miraculous return from Carson. The Seahawks also used a 2nd round pick in this year’s draft on Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker, who provides good insurance with both Penny and Carson having concerning injury histories and who could be involved in this offense even if Penny and Carson both happen to be healthy. It actually wouldn’t surprise me if Walker ultimately proved to be their best running back, given that Carson may never play again and that Penny is not proven as a full season lead back.

The Seahawks never threw to their running backs much with Russell Wilson and that’s unlikely to become a significant part of their offense this season, with Penny and Carson averaging 0.80 yards per route run and 1.04 yards per route run respectively in their professional careers and Kenneth Walker having just 19 catches in his collegiate career. DeeJay Dallas and Travis Homer actually led this backfield in passing snaps played last season, but, with Walker being added, there may only be room for one of them to have a role this season. 

Homer should be the favorite for the job in that case, as the 2019 6th round pick has averaged 5.92 YPC on 64 carries with 1.45 yards per route run in his career, while Dallas, a 4th round pick in 2020, has averaged just 3.67 YPC on 67 carries with 1.28 yards per route run. Homer likely won’t play a huge role though, even if he wins the job, in a backfield that is unsettled, but that has some promising options, even if Carson is ultimately unable to return to action from his neck injury.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Avoiding a historically bad quarterback class entirely, the Seahawks opted to use the first round pick they got from the Broncos on offensive tackle Charles Cross, selected 9th overall. That made a lot of sense, not only because taking a quarterback would be a reach, but because offensive tackle was arguably an even bigger need than quarterback, with last year’s starters Duane Brown and Brandon Shell both not being retained or replaced this off-season. 

It’s possible the Seahawks could still reunite with Brown, who remains unsigned as a free agent and who had a solid season as PFF’s 37th ranked offensive tackle last season, a reunion that would move Cross to right tackle but, going into his age 37 season, Brown could easily not be as good again, nor would it be a good fit for either side for Brown to be on a rebuilding team at his age, so it’s unlikely a reunion happens and that Cross will likely begin his career as the immediate starter on the blindside.

The Seahawks also used a 3rd round pick on another offensive tackle Abraham Lucas and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he started at right tackle, giving them two rookie tackles, which could easily be a problem. Lucas actually should probably be considered the favorite for the right tackle job if the Seahawks don’t add a veteran tackle at some point, as Lucas’ biggest competition for the job is Jake Curhan, a 2021 undrafted free agent who was the swing tackle as a rookie and made five starts at right tackle in place of an injured Brandon Shell, but predictably struggled, finishing 82nd out of 88 eligible offensive tackles on PFF. He’s no guarantee to be any better in 2022 and he’s a pretty underwhelming option even as a swing tackle.

The Seahawks let go of free agent center Ethan Pocic, who was solid last season, but who missed 6 games with injury and was replaced by Kyle Fuller, who finished 40th out of 41 eligible centers on PFF across 447 snaps. Fuller could actually be the starter in 2022 though, as Austin Blythe, the veteran the Seahawks brought in to replace Pocic, is a downgrade from Pocic and is not a guarantee to beat out Fuller, even if Blythe would likely be the better option. Blythe was a capable starter from 2018-2020 with the Rams (47 starts), but last season he was a reserve who played just 12 snaps with the Chiefs and now he’s heading into his age 30 season and could easily be on the decline.

Guard is the position of strength on this offensive line, at least by default, with starters Damien Lewis (13 starts) and Gabe Jackson (16 starts) being their only two remaining starters on this offensive line from a year ago, having both earned middling grades from PFF in 2021. Lewis was a 3rd round pick in 2020 and was even better in 16 rookie year starts, finishing 16th among guards on PFF, meaning he could easily bounce back and be an above average starter in 2022 and beyond, still only in his age 25 season. Jackson, on the other hand, is on the way down, now going into his age 31 season and his best days are almost definitely behind him, not finishing higher than 40th among guards on PFF in any of the past three seasons, after finishing no worse than 33rd among in every season from 2015-2018, back when he was in his prime. 

However, Jackson isn’t totally over the hill yet, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he remained at least a capable starter, even if he’s getting to the point where a significant decline is becoming more likely. The Seahawks also have decent depth at guard, with top reserve Phil Haynes being a 2019 4th round pick who has flashed potential thus far in his career, albeit on just 137 career snaps. He’ll be a primary reserve in 2022, along with the loser of the Lucas/Curhan and the Blythe/Fuller position battles, on an offensive line with a very concerning starting five, which could easily feature a pair of rookies and that seems to lack any high level players.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

The Seahawks’ rebuild has also left them without a lot of talent on defense as well, losing numerous key players on defense this off-season, meaning they are likely to be significantly worse in 2022 than they were in 2021, when they already weren’t a particularly good unit, finishing 18th in defensive efficiency. One big loss was Carlos Dunlap, who only played 482 snaps last season and left something to be desired against the run, but also led the team in sacks with 8.5, while adding 6 hits and a 11.3% pressure rate. Going into his age 33 season, he understandably did not fit into their rebuild.

The Seahawks also didn’t bring back fellow veterans Rasheem Green (847 snaps), Benson Mayowa (510 snaps), and Kerry Hyder (508 snaps), who all struggled and could be addition by subtraction, but losing those three along with Dunlap leaves them very thin at the position. Their biggest free agent acquisition at the position was ex-Charger Uchenna Nwosu, who they signed to a 2-year, 19.055 million dollar deal, before using a 2nd round pick on edge defender Boye Mafe, who has a high upside and could make an upside as a rookie, even if he’s likely to have some growing pains in year one.

Nwosu was a 2nd round pick back in 2018 and flashed potential on an average of 328 snaps per season in his first three seasons in the league, before earning a middling grade from PFF on 781 snaps in his first season as a starter in 2021. He should remain at least a solid starting option, with the potential to maybe take a step forward, still only in his age 26 season. Nwosu and Mafe will compete for roles with Darrell Taylor (545 snaps) and Alton Robinson (371 snaps), who are their only returning edge defenders.

Taylor and Robinson have potential, but they have struggled thus far in their careers, with Robinson, a 2020 5th round pick, being middling at best across 707 total snaps thus far in his career, and Taylor, a 2020 2nd round pick, missing his entire rookie season with injury, before finishing 99th among 129 eligible edge defenders on PFF in 2021. Taylor especially could still develop into a solid starter, but that’s far from a guarantee, and Robinson is more likely to be a reserve long-term. This is a young group, lacking a clear top edge rusher without Carlos Dunlap, who will be missed, but there is at least upside here.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The interior defender position is one that actually will be a position of strength for them in 2022 and that is actually likely to be better than a year ago, adding Shelby Harris to the mix from the Russell Wilson trade. Harris finished in the 59th percentile among interior defenders on PFF across 564 snaps in 2021, which was actually his lowest finish in five seasons, ranking 35th, 10th, 19th, and 8th among interior defenders in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively. Also a solid run defender, Harris has totaled 21.5 sacks, 25 hits, and a 8.2% pressure rate in 75 games over those five seasons combined. He’s now going into his age 31 season and could already be on the decline, so his best days might be behind him, but he could easily still be a solid starter.

Harris joins a group that already had a pair of players who played significant roles and finished above average on PFF in 2021, Al Woods and Poona Ford. Al Woods isn’t much of a pass rusher, with a career 4.3% pressure rate and a 5.8% pressure rate a year ago, but he plays the run at a high level, finishing in the top-17 among interior defenders on PFF in three of his past four seasons, on an average of 502 snaps per season, including a 4th ranked finish in run defense grade and a 14th ranked finish in overall grade on 620 snaps in 2021. He’s going into his age 35 season and could easily decline significantly in 2022, but with Harris being added, Woods will likely play a much smaller snap count as purely a base package run stuffer, a role he could easily continue being useful in.

Poona Ford, on the other hand, has developed into a three down player. Undrafted in 2018, Ford flashed a ton of potential as a rookie, playing just 231 snaps, but finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked interior defender, including 5th in run defense grade, to go with a 6.4% pressure rate. He hasn’t graded quite as highly since, but he has seen his snap count increase in every season, from 506 to 670 to 802 in 2021, while finishing 29th, 12th, and 19th among interior defenders on PFF over the past three seasons respectively. The 5-11 310 pounder is still at his best against the run, but he has 4 sacks, 12 hits, and a 7.2% pressure rate as a pass rusher over the past two seasons as well. Still in his age 27 season, I wouldn’t expect anything different from him in 2022 and the Seahawks were smart to bring him back on just a 2-year, 12.345 million dollar deal this off-season.

The Seahawks also brought back a familiar face for depth purposes, signing Quinton Jefferson, a 2016 5th round pick by the Seahawks, who spent his first four seasons in Seattle, prior to spending 2020 in Buffalo and 2021 in Las Vegas. Jefferson leaves something to be desired against the run, but he’s been an effective pass rusher over the past four seasons, finishing average or better on PFF in all four seasons, totaling 14 sacks, 36 hits, and a 9.1% pressure rate in 63 games. He’s played 592 snaps per season over the past four seasons, but will probably play a smaller role as a situational pass rusher in a deep position group in Seattle.

Bryan Mone (395 snaps) and LJ Collier (219 snaps) both saw action at the interior defender position last season and both are still on the roster, but it’s unclear what, if any, role they will have this season. Mone went undrafted in 2019 and has been underwhelming thus far in 712 career snaps, the majority of which came last season. Collier, meanwhile, was actually a first round pick in 2019, but he has not come close to living up to where he was drafted. After playing just 152 snaps as a rookie, Collier was PFF’s 87th ranked edge defender out of 124 eligible across 559 snaps in his second season in the league, before being moved to primarily an interior role in his third season in the league in 2021.

Collier struggled mightily as a pass rusher in 2020, with just a 6.3% pressure rate, and, while he was much better on the interior in 2021, with a 9.6% pressure rate, that came in a very limited role and it came at the expense of his run defense, which was horrible on the interior. Collier has the size of a hybrid player at 6-2 292, but hasn’t been able to establish himself at either position thus far and he’s running out of time, in his age 27 season and his 4th season in the league. His easiest path to playing time might be moving back outside, with the Seahawks having a strong interior defender group.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Another key defender who was let go this off-season as part of the Seahawks rebuild was linebacker Bobby Wagner, the last remaining member of their Super Bowl defense, joining the team in the same draft as Wilson in 2012 and being let go almost immediately after Wilson was traded this off-season, saving the Seahawks 16.6 million in cash and cap space and officially signaling the beginning of the rebuild. Wagner has declined in recent years and was heading into his age 32 season, but he was one of the best players in the league at his position in his prime and he was still PFF’s 16th ranked off ball linebacker in 2021, so he’ll definitely be missed.

Likely anticipating letting go of Wagner at some point as he aged, the Seahawks used a first round pick in 2020 on linebacker Jordyn Brooks, but he hasn’t come close to developing into the same player as Wagner. He flashed potential on 367 snaps as mostly a base package run stuffer as a rookie, but he struggled in coverage and those struggles in coverage continued into his first season as an every down player in 2021. He finished 2nd in the NFL in tackles and earned PFF’s 15th ranked grade among off ball linebackers in run defense, but his coverage struggles led to him finishing just 40th overall among off ball linebackers on PFF, slightly above average, but not nearly the same level Wagner has performed at in his career. 

Brooks could be better in his third year in the league, but he likely still won’t be as good as Wagner even if that happens and he was already playing every down on this defense, so he’s not really even a replacement for Wagner, which will be left to another two young linebackers Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven, who are both close to complete unknowns at the NFL level and could easily struggle in the first significant action of their careers. Barton was a 3rd round pick in 2019, but has played just 456 defensive snaps in three seasons in the league, in part because he’s been buried on the depth chart in a relatively talented position group, but he also hasn’t shown much in his limited action to justify a larger role. He’ll have to play one either way this season, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he was a liability. 

Burr-Kirven, meanwhile, has even less experience on defense, being selected in the 5th round in 2019 and playing just 15 defensive snaps in 2019 and 2020 combined, before missing all of last season with a torn ACL. He’ll probably have to see at least some role in this linebacking corps, with all of the Seahawks other linebacker options being undrafted free agents or special teamers. Even if cutting Wagner made sense as part of their rebuild, his absence will leave a big hole in this linebacking corps, which is now a below average group that lacks experienced players.

Grade: C+

Secondary

In addition to losing their top pass rusher Carlos Dunlap and their top linebacker Bobby Wagner this off-season, the Seahawks also lost top cornerback DJ Reed, who finished as PFF’s 11th ranked cornerback as a 14-game starter in 2021 and then signed a 3-year, 33 million dollar deal with the Jets this off-season. Unlike the aging Dunlap and Wagner, Reed was only heading into his age 26 season, so bringing him back would have made some sense, but if there is one position where the Seahawks are confident in their ability to find and develop players it’s cornerback, so it’s somewhat understandable the Seahawks wouldn’t want to pay a significant price to keep a former 5th round pick who they found on waivers two years ago and coached up into an above average starter.

That being said, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Seahawks will be able to get the same kind of season that Reed had in 2021 out of any of their cornerbacks in 2022, and this is a very unsettled position group in Reed’s absence. Sidney Jones is their top returning cornerback (730 snaps, 11 starts) and figures to remain a starter, after finishing 28th among cornerbacks on PFF last season, but he’s been very injury prone in his career, limiting him to 25 starts in 47 games in 5 seasons in the league. 

Jones was a 2nd round pick by the Eagles back in 2017 and has always had talent, so it’s not a surprise that the Seahawks were able to get the best year of his career out of him in his first season with the Seahawks in 2021, but he never finished higher than 37th among cornerbacks on PFF, nor had he ever played more than 321 snaps in a season prior to last season, so there is no guarantee Jones has the same kind of season in 2022 as he did in 2021. He’s still only in his age 26 season and the upside is there for him to be an above average starter if he can stay healthy and continue developing, but those could be big ifs and he’s a shaky option as the Seahawks’ de facto top cornerback.

Ugo Amadi also played a significant role last season (692 snaps), but he finished as PFF’s 132nd ranked cornerback out of 134 eligible so, even with Reed leaving and an unsettled position group, Amadi should not be locked into a role. The good news is Amadi was at least a middling player in the first significant action of his career in 2020 (552 snaps) and, as a 2019 4th round pick who is still only in his age 25 season, he has the upside to bounce back and be a useful contributor in 2022, even if it’s in a part-time role. That’s far from a guarantee though and, considering how badly he played last season, he should have to earn back any playing time he gets.

The Seahawks did add several cornerbacks to the mix this off-season, but Artie Burns and Justin Coleman are just veteran flyers, while rookies Coby Bryant and Tariq Woolen were just 4th and 5th round picks. The Seahawks are hoping they can coach up at least one of these players into a steal, which is a possibility, but far from a guarantee. Burns might have the best chance of having a surprise year, as he was a first round pick by the Steelers in 2016 and earned slightly above average grades from PFF in his first two seasons in the league, before his career got derailed.

Burns fell out of favor with the Steelers coaching staff, despite his solid play in his first two seasons in the league, actually being limited to just 375 snaps total in the next two seasons, before the Steelers let him go as a free agent following the 2019 season. Burns then signed in Chicago, but tore his ACL before his first season with the team in 2020 and didn’t get on the field until week 12 of 2021. Burns played well in limited action last season though, earning his way into the starting lineup and ranking 9th among cornerbacks on PFF from week 12 through the rest of the season, across 254 snaps. He definitely comes with a history of inconsistency, but he’s still only in his age 27 season and it wouldn’t surprise me if he was able to continue his solid play from down the stretch last season into 2022 in his new home in Seattle.

Coleman’s addition, on the other hand, is actually a reunion for the Seahawks and they are hoping he can bounce back to the level he played at in his two seasons in Seattle in 2017 and 2018, when he finished 31st and 46th among cornerbacks on PFF as the Seahawks primary slot cornerback, playing snap counts of 654 and 672, before finishing below average in the past three seasons with the Lions and Dolphins since leaving Seattle, across an average of 601 snaps played per season. Coleman definitely has had an inconsistent career, but he’s still only going into his age 29 season and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was at least a capable slot cornerback for them in 2022.

The Seahawks also have a pair of recent draft picks that didn’t see significant roles last season, but could earn more playing time in an unsettled group in 2021. Tre Brown was a 4th round pick in 2021 and was decent on 255 snaps as a rookie, suggesting he could deserve a larger role, though he’d obviously be a projection to that larger role. Marquise Blair is less promising, even though he was a 2nd round pick, as he’s now heading into his 4th season in the league and has done next to nothing thus far in his career, playing just 412 snaps in three seasons in the league. 

That’s in part due to injuries, limiting him to 22 career games and just 8 in the past two seasons, and, if he can stay healthy, there could be untapped potential for a player who is still only going into his age 25 season, but that’s a big if. He’s also not a candidate to play outside cornerback, as a slot cornerback/safety hybrid. His versatility could actually help him make this final roster, but, even if he does make the roster, he could easily spend another season as a deep reserve who sees limited action. Most likely, Jones, Burns, and Coleman will be the Seahawks top-3 cornerbacks in 2022, with the young players providing depth behind a top-3 that all have significant concerns, but this is a very wide open cornerback group.

Things are much more settled at safety, where the Seahawks opted to keep free agent Quandre Diggs as part of this rebuild, making him the 9th highest paid safety in the league in terms of average annual value on a 3-year, 39 million dollar deal, even though he’s heading into his age 29 season and will likely start to decline in the next couple years, while the Seahawks are going through their rebuild. Diggs also has never finished higher than 18th among safeties on PFF so, while he has been an above average starter for most of the past four seasons (49 starts) and while he’s unlikely to start to decline just yet in 2022, the Seahawks probably overpaid him a little bit.

Diggs will start next to Jamal Adams, another safety the Seahawks have put a lot of resources into, sending the Jets two first round picks, almost as much as they got from Denver for Russell Wilson, just for the rights to acquire Adams, who would then need a 4-year, 70.58 million dollar extension (2nd among safeties in average annual value) to be kept long-term. Adams was the 6th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and had developed into one of the best safeties in the league, finishing 3rd and 4th among safeties on PFF in his final two seasons with the Jets before being sent to Seattle, but, upon being acquired by the Seahawks, Adams did the opposite of what most defensive backs do when they join the Seahawks and regressed significantly, finishing the 2020 season as PFF’s 47th ranked safety.

The Seahawks still believed in his upside long-term and that he would bounce back from his down year, giving him that massive extension even after struggling in 2020, instead of letting Adams play out the final year of his rookie deal in 2021, but Adams did not bounce back, again finishing just 66th among safeties on PFF, even worse than the prior year. Adams is still only in his age 27 season and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he bounced back at least somewhat going forward, but, at this point, it’s starting to look like he might not find his early career form again. He at least has upside, but, most likely, Adams and Diggs will again only be a solid, but unspectacular safety duo, one that gets paid like an elite duo. Even with questions at cornerback, this isn’t necessarily a bad secondary, with a solid safety duo and some promising cornerbacks, but there are definitely concerns in this group.

Grade: B

Special Teams

Special teams were a strength for the Seahawks last season, ranking 5th in special teams DVOA, and not much looks different this season, with Jason Myers, Michael Dickson, Freddie Swain, and DeeJay Dallas all likely to return as kicker, punter, kickoff returner, and punt returner respectively. The one concern is that their top core special teamer from a year ago, Cody Barton, is now likely to have to play a bigger role on defense, in the absence of Bobby Wagner and, as a result, is unlikely to play much on special teams. This should still be an above average group, but they probably won’t be quite as good as a year ago.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Seahawks are obviously going through a complete rebuild, but there are reasons to expect them to be a little better than most are expecting them, giving them tied for the 3rd lowest over/under win total in the NFL at 5.5 wins. For one, they were better than their record last season, even with Russell Wilson missing time and being limited in several other games, so they are starting from a higher base point than most realize. 

The Seahawks also have done a pretty good job finding low-cost talent in free agency and have a coaching staff led by Pete Carroll that had coached up underwhelming rosters before. The difference is he doesn’t have Russell Wilson anymore, which is why they aren’t likely to make the post-season, but they could be more competitive than many are expecting. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC West

New York Giants 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Three years ago, the Giants used the 6th overall pick on a quarterback they were hoping would be their long-term replacement for Eli Manning, an aging quarterback on the verge of retirement, who Jones would replace in the starting lineup in week 3 of the 2019 season. However, the results have not been good so far, with Jones completing just 62.8% of his passes for an average of 6.62 YPA, 45 touchdowns, and 29 interceptions. He has averaged 5.81 YPC with 5 rushing touchdowns on 172 carries, so he has added value in that way, but he hasn’t been nearly as productive as you would want a highly drafted quarterback to be, he has just a 12-25 career record, and he hasn’t shown significant signs of progress.

It hasn’t all been Jones’ fault though, as he’s had to deal with just about everything that can work against a young quarterback. He’s had two different head coach/offensive coordinator combinations who were both ineffective and have both since been let go. He has also had underwhelming talent around him and his PFF grades suggest that he has been held back significantly by his supporting cast and offensive scheme, ranking 26th, 17th, and 22nd among quarterbacks on PFF over the past three seasons respectively, not great, but better than his numbers suggest.

That’s despite the fact that Jones has suffered significant injuries in all three seasons in the league, not only missing 10 games since becoming the starter, but also being limited in several others. It’s understandable that the Giants wouldn’t want to pick up his 5th year option, which would guaranteed him 22.384 million for 2023, but it’s still possible Jones could become a capable starter in 2022 if he can stay healthy, if he can take a step forward, still only in his age 25 season, if the new coaching staff under ex-Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll implements a better scheme around him, and if his supporting cast is significantly improved. Those could be big ifs, but there is at least more upside here than his numbers have shown.

The Giants also did a good job upgrading the backup quarterback position, a necessity given how injury prone Jones has been and how horrendously his previous backup Mike Glennon played in his absence last season, losing all four starts he made and finishing as PFF’s lowest ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible, while completing just 53.9% of his passes for an average of 4.73 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. Third string quarterback Jake Fromm was somehow even worse in his two starts, completing 45.0% of his passes for an average of 3.50 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions, leading to the Giants losing all six games started by backup quarterbacks in 2021.

Glennon and Fromm are no longer with the team and backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor is one of the better backup options in the league, with significant experience as a low end starting quarterback,, making 53 starts in 11 seasons in the league, completing 61.3% of his passes for an average of 6.96 YPA, 59 touchdowns, and 25 interceptions, while rushing for 5.54 YPC and 19 touchdowns on 361 carries. He doesn’t have a big arm, but he avoids mistakes and can extend plays with his legs.

Even with Jones being underwhelming thus far in his career, it’s unlikely Taylor is a true threat to his starting job, as it’s unclear what the Giants would gain by starting Taylor, in his age 33 season, rather than giving the younger Jones every opportunity to prove himself. If Jones struggles, this team will likely finish with yet another high draft pick and, in what is expected to be a strong quarterback draft in 2023, the Giants would likely target his replacement. 

If Jones plays well enough to keep his job for another year, the Giants would then have the franchise tag available to keep him next off-season, which wouldn’t be that much more expensive than if they had taken the risk and guaranteed his salary for 2023. Jones playing well enough for the Giants to justify bringing him back for 2023 is a possibility, but a lot has to go right and, overall, this is an underwhelming quarterback room, compared to the rest of the league.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The biggest problem with Daniel Jones’ supporting cast has been his offensive line, which has not only contributed to his poor play, but also has contributed, in part, to the number of injuries Jones has suffered thus far in his career. The Giants weren’t a bad run blocking team last season, ranking 21st in team run blocking grade on PFF, but they ranked 30th in pass blocking grade, after ranking dead last the year before, so this was obviously a position of need coming into the off-season. 

With a pair of top-10 picks, as a result of a trade down with the Bears the year before, most expected the Giants to use one of those picks on one of the several offensive line prospects who were projected in the top-10 and that’s exactly what the Giants did, selecting University of Alabama’s Evan Neal with the 7th overall pick. Neal will start immediately at right tackle, where it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade, even as a rookie, over last year’s starter Nate Solder, who finished slightly below average on PFF and was not retained this off-season, ahead of his age 34 season. Neal could have some growing pains as a rookie, but he has the upside to be one of the better tackles in the league long-term, even if it takes him a few years to reach his potential.

Neal isn’t the only highly drafted young tackle on this offensive line, as left tackle Andrew Thomas was selected 4th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft and, despite the problems with this offensive line as a whole, Thomas has panned out thus far, being the only Giants starter to earn an above average grade from PFF last season, actually finishing 18th among offensive tackles in 13 starts, after earning a middling grade in 15 starts as a rookie. Thomas is still young and unproven and development is not always linear so, even if he does ultimately end up as one of the better left tackles in the league, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he did take a little bit of a step back in 2022, but he also could easily continue improving and the duo of him and Neal long-term has a ton of potential, even if they don’t reach that potential right away.

The Giants also signed Mark Glowinski in free agency to start at right guard and he could be a great value on a 3-year, 18.3 million dollar deal. A bit of a late bloomer, Glowinski was underwhelming early in his career with the Seahawks, who selected him in the 4th round in 2015, but he became a consistently solid starter with the Colts when he joined them in 2018, stepping into the starting lineup in week 6 of the 2018 season and finishing average or better on PFF in all four seasons since, including 7th, 26th, and 22nd ranked finishes among guards on PFF in 2018, 2020, and 2021 respectively.

Glowinski is going into his age 30 season and will start declining soon, but he has missed just three starts in four seasons since entering the starting lineup with the Colts and he could easily remain a solid starter for at least another season. It also wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade on last year’s starting right guard Will Hernandez, who finished slightly below average on PFF and then signed with the Cardinals this off-season, opening the opportunity for Glowinski to replace him.

The Giants’ other veteran free agency acquisitions aren’t quite as promising, but Jon Feliciano and Max Garcia weren’t expensive, signed to 1-year deals worth 3.25 million and 1.2725 million respectively, and will compete to start at left guard and center, where both players have experience and where both players could potentially be an upgrade. Billy Price wasn’t terrible in 15 starts as their primary starting center last season, but he finished slightly below average on PFF and was not retained this off-season, while their primary starting left guard, Matt Skura, finished 80th among 90 eligible guards on PFF in 14 starts and would be an easy player to upgrade, with Skura also not being retained this off-season.

In addition to their veteran additions, the Giants also used a 3rd round pick on Joshua Ezeudu and a 5th round pick on Marcus McKethan, who both played tackle and guard in college and who could potentially compete the starting left guard job in year one, although they are more likely to be versatile depth behind a veteran option with more experience. Feliciano has experience, with 39 starts in 7 seasons in the league, 34 at guard and 5 at center, and while he’s never been more than a middling starter, he’s never been that bad either, so he could be a capable starter for them at either left guard or center. He’s heading into his age 30 season though and would be an underwhelming option, even if he could be an upgrade by default.

Garcia, meanwhile, also has experience at both guard (48 career starts) and center (4 career starts), but is also on the wrong side of 30, in his age 31 season, and he hasn’t been more than a middling starter since 2016, so, like Feliciano, he would be an underwhelming option, even if he was an upgrade by default. Feliciano is getting paid more, so he probably has a better chance to lock down a starting job, but it’s possible both Feliciano and Garcia could both start in 2022. The Giants are also likely getting Nick Gates and Shane Lemieux back from injuries that knocked them out for the season early in the year in 2021 and they were originally supposed to start at center and left guard respectively, a theme for a team that had the third most adjusted games lost to injury of any offense in the league in 2021. 

Gates and Lemieux are not locks to get their jobs back, as they were not great options prior to suffering serious injuries, but they’ll certainly be in the mix to be starters, competing with Feliciano, Garcia, and potentially the rookies Ezeudu and McKethan, with the losers slotting in as reserves. Gates would seem to have the better chance of being a capable starter in 2022, with Lemieux struggling mightily in 9 rookie year starts in 2020, finishing dead last among 92 eligible guards on PFF, which, given that he missed all but 1 start in 2021, is the only extended starting experience of his career. 

It’s possible Lemieux was just forced into action too early in his career, but he was only a 5th round pick, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never panned out. Gates was underwhelming as a 16-game starter at center in 2020, the only extended starting experience of his career, and he went undrafted back in 2018, but he was better in 2020 than Lemieux was, even though he only finished 30th among 39 eligible centers. If Gates earns a starting role in 2022 it would likely be at center, but he also has limited experience as a guard earlier in his career, which at the very least makes him useful as a reserve. 

Left guard and center are still unsettled positions, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were better at those spots in 2022 than they were a year ago and they figure to be better at right tackle and right guard as well, adding Evan Neal and Mark Glowinski, which gives them a more complete offensive line than a year ago, when left tackle Andrew Thomas was their only impressive starter. This is not a great offensive line, but it’s better than it’s been.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The Giants also got an underwhelming performance from their receiving corps and, unlike their offensive line, whose struggles were unsurprising, given their issues upfront the year prior and that they didn’t address the group significantly last off-season, the Giants’ issues in the receiving corps were surprising. This receiving corps wasn’t horrible the year prior and then they signed ex-Lion Kenny Golladay to a big 4-year, 72 million dollar deal in free agency and added Kadarius Toney in the first round of the draft, 20th overall, after trading down with the Bears.

Like at quarterback and on the offensive line, injuries were a big part of the problem in the receiving corps, including injuries to newcomers Golladay and Toney. Toney at least was effective when on the field, leading the team with 2.14 yards per route run and showing the promise that made him a first round pick, but he only played 302 snaps in 10 games, so he didn’t have a huge impact and he would be a projection to a larger role in his second year in the league, even if he has the talent and upside to be an above average starter in 2022 and beyond.

Golladay, on the other hand, only missed three games, but he did not appear to be the same receiver upon his return, seemingly limited by the knee injury he suffered in week 5 for most of the season, averaging just 1.23 yards per route run, down significantly from 1.94 in his first four seasons in the league with the Lions, including 2.01 from 2018-2020. Golladay averaged 1.97 yards per route run in four weeks prior to the injury and has bounce back potential if healthy, but his durability is becoming a concern, as he was also limited to 225 snaps in 5 games by injury in 2020. He’s still in his late prime in his age 29 season, but, two years removed from his last good healthy season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if his best days were behind him. Still, the Giants should get more out of both Golladay and Toney in 2021.

It wasn’t just the newcomers who got hurt either, as long-time Giants receiver Sterling Shepard also was limited to 344 snaps in 7 games by numerous ailments, including a torn achilles suffered in week 15 that not only ended his season, but has him questionable for the start of 2022. Even if he does miss the start of the season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he played more than a year ago, but he also might not be the same right away and he has a concerning injury history overall, with 25 games missed in 6 seasons in the league. Shepard has a solid 1.58 yards per route run average over the past five seasons, but he probably won’t show that form for the whole season in 2022 and he might not show it all season, depending on how he bounces back from such a significant injury.

Golladay, Shepard, and Toney were supposed to be their top-3 wide receivers last season if healthy and, not only did they miss significant time, but #4 wide receiver Darius Slayton struggled in a significant role, averaging just 0.94 yards per route run and posting just a 26/339/2 slash line. That was a surprise because Slayton had played significant roles in 2019 and 2020 as well and had slash lines of 48/740/8 and 50/751/3 respectively, with yards per route run averages of 1.57 and 1.37 respectively, in the first two seasons of his career.

Slayton could bounce back in 2022, but he probably doesn’t have a high upside, he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal, and the Giants seem to be phasing the former 5th round pick out of the offense, making another significant investment at the wide receiver position this off-season, adding Wan’Dale Robinson in the 2nd round of this year’s draft. Robinson is undersized at 5-8 178, but he has great speed and will at least play a role as a gadget player as a rookie, with the possibility that he could beat out Slayton for the #4 receiver job, which would mean he would be the #3 receiver to begin the year if Shepard was unable to return for week 1.

The Giants could use 3 and 4 wide receiver sets somewhat regularly in 2022, especially when Shepard returns, not just because of their depth at the wide receiver position, but also because they don’t have much at the tight end position. The Giants didn’t get much out of their tight ends in 2021 either, with Evan Engram (723 snaps) and Kyle Rudolph (501 snaps) playing significant roles, but averaging just 0.89 yards per route run and 1.19 yards per route run respectively. 

Engram and Rudolph weren’t retained this off-season, but the Giants didn’t really find replacements, signing a pair of underwhelming veterans in Jordan Akins and Ricky Seals-Jones and using a 4th round pick on Daniel Bellinger. Those three will compete for playing time this season, as the only real options the Giants have at the tight end position, with the other tight ends on their roster being undrafted free agents or bottom of the roster caliber talents.

Akins and Seals-Jones have experience, but they have only started 23 of 58 games played and 15 of 54 games played in their career respectively, while averaging just 1.17 and 1.18 yards per route run respectively and not being particularly good blockers. Going into their age 30 and age 27 seasons respectively, it’s unlikely they have any untapped potential, making them very underwhelming starting options. Bellinger might be too raw for a big role as a rookie, but he might have to play one anyway, given their other options. It’s unlikely any of these options play a big role in the passing game, which should be focused on the wide receiver group. This isn’t a bad receiving corps, assuming they are healthier than a year ago, which shouldn’t be that hard.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Giants are also hoping for a healthier year out of Saquon Barkley. Barkley only missed 4 games with his ankle injury last season, but he was already working back from a 2020 torn ACL when he got hurt in week 5 and, as a result, he ended up having a very disappointing season even when on the field, averaging 3.66 YPC on 162 carries and 1.02 yards per route run, while finishing as PFF’s 60th ranked running back out of 64 eligible. Devontae Booker, the Giants’ other running back last season, wasn’t much better, with 4.09 YPC on 145 carries and 1.06 yards per route run.

Barkley missed all but 67 snaps in two games with his torn ACL in 2020, but he was one of the better running backs in the league when healthier in his first two seasons in the league in 2018 and 2019, missing just three games to injury, ranking 4th and 24th among running backs on PFF, and averaging 4.83 YPC with 17 touchdowns on 478 carries across the two seasons, with 1.37 yards per route run and slash lines of 91/721/4 and 52/438/2. Durability will remain a concern for him going forward, but he’s another year removed from his torn ACL and the former #2 overall pick is still only going into his age 25 season, so he has plenty of bounce back potential. At the very least, it would be a surprise if he was as bad as he was a year ago again.

The Giants limited Barkley’s touches even before he got hurt again in 2021, as he averaged 15.6 touches per game, down from 21.4 touches per game in his healthy seasons in 2018 and 2019, so there was some question of how the new coaching staff would view him, especially with Barkley now in the final year of his rookie deal. There was some speculation that the Giants would try to trade him before the draft or to draft his replacement, but they didn’t do anything other than replace Booker with another backup Matt Breida, suggesting they view Barkley as someone still capable of being a feature back like he was to begin his career.

Breida is better than Booker, averaging 4.89 YPC and 1.40 yards per route run in his career, but he has never had more than 153 carries in a season, with an average of 93 carries per season over the past 5 seasons, including just 85 total carries over the past two seasons combined, so, even though he’s an upgrade on Booker, he’s still a more of a true backup than a real threat to Barkley’s feature back role. If Barkley stays healthy, he could easily have a bounce back year, which would be a big boost to this offense. However, if Barkley missed more time, Breida would likely split carries with 2021 6th round pick Gary Brightwell, who had just 1 carry as a rookie. It’s a concerning situation when combined with Barkley’s injury history.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Giants’ offense will almost definitely be better than a year ago, likely to have better health and better offensive line play, but they were 31st in offensive efficiency last season, so they’re starting from a very low base point and could easily be a below average offense again, so if they are going to have a serious chance at competing for a playoff spot, they will need more from their defense, which was decent, but unspectacular a year ago, ranking 14th in defensive efficiency. The Giants made some additions on defense this off-season, but they also lost some talent and, overall, this doesn’t look like a noticeably better group and, in fact, could be worse.

Arguably the biggest addition they made on defense is 5th overall pick Kayvon Thibodeaux, an edge defender from the University of Oregon. He could have some growing pains in year one, but he has a huge upside and could easily make an impact as a rookie, as a potential upgrade on veteran free agent departure Lorenzo Carter (617 snaps), a solid, but unspectacular player who signed in Atlanta this off-season. With Carter gone, Thibodeaux will start opposite Azeez Ojulari, a young player in his own right, selected in the 2nd round in 2021.

Ojulari led this team with 8 sacks as a rookie, which is a decent total, but that was largely due to volume, leading the position with 781 snaps played, and his peripheral pass rush numbers were underwhelming, with 7 hits and a 9.7% pressure rate. He also struggled against the run, leading to him earning a below average grade from PFF. He has the upside to be better in year two though, even if it’s not a guarantee that he takes a step forward. It might benefit Ojulari if he didn’t have to play quite as many snaps, after ranking 21st among edge defenders in snaps played a year ago, but depth is still a concern with this group, so both Ojulari and Thibodeaux could both play around that snap count. They have the upside to be an above average edge defender duo, but it also could prove to be too much of a workload for the young players.

Quincy Roche ranked 3rd among Giants edge defenders with 401 snaps played, even though he was just a 6th round rookie and didn’t even make the final roster of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team who drafted him just a few months prior. The Giants claimed him on waivers and played him in a significant role and he predictably struggled, faring decently against the run, but managing just 2.5 sacks, 1 hit, and a 6.6% pressure rate in his part-time role. He could continue to have a role in 2022, for lack of a better option, and, while he could be a little better in his second season in the league, that’s far from a guarantee and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into even a useful reserve.

The Giants could get more out of 2021 4th round pick Elerson Smith, who played just 107 rookie year snaps, though he also is not a guarantee to be a useful reserve and it’s concerning he couldn’t get on the field in a thin position group as a rookie. Oshane Ximines was a 3rd round pick in 2019 and was decent across 502 snaps as a rookie, but injuries have limited him to just 293 snaps in 13 games total over the past two seasons. If healthy, he could earn a reserve role and, still only in his age 26 season, he could still have upside, but durability is a significant concern with him and he’s an unproven player even if he stays healthy.

The only notable veteran the Giants added to this group this off-season is Jihad Ward, who has averaged 338 snaps per season since entering the league as a 2nd round pick in 2015, but who has finished below average on PFF in 4 of those 6 seasons, including a 110th ranked finish out of 124 eligible edge defenders across 455 snaps last season. This group has upside because of Olujari and Thibodeaux, but both are unproven and depth is a serious concern behind them.

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

Depth is a concern at the interior defender position as well, as the Giants let go of all of the interior defenders who played a snap for this team last season aside from starters Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams and, while the departed players weren’t a great group of reserves, the players they brought in to replace them look likely to be liabilities, adding underwhelming veterans Jalyn Holmes and Justin Ellis, as well as 5th round draft pick DJ Davidson, who is likely to be too raw to contribute in a positive way as a rookie.

Holmes was a 4th round pick in 2018, but has played more than 200 snaps in a season just once in his career, when he finished 109th among 124 eligible at his position across 617 snaps in 2020, and he would likely struggle again in a significant role. Ellis, meanwhile, was at least a solid player earlier in his career, but he’s going into his age 32 season, having not earned an average or better grade from PFF in a season in which he’s played significant snaps since 2017, and he finished the 2021 season as PFF’s 108th ranked interior defender out of 146 eligible across 381 snaps, so he too is likely to be a liability.

Fortunately, Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams are one of the better starting duos in the league and have no problem playing significant snap counts, playing 759 snaps and 890 snaps respectively in 2021 and finishing 30th and 26th respectively among interior defenders on PFF, which is in line with how they’ve played in the past. Lawrence was selected by the Giants 17th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft and he immediately broke out as an above average starter, finishing 21st and 19th across snap counts of 701 and 655 in 2019 and 2020 respectively prior to last season. Not just a big run stuffer at 6-4 342, Lawrence has also added 9 sacks, 22 hits, and a 8.6% pressure rate in 48 career games. Still only in his age 25 season, it’s possible he has further untapped upside and, even if he doesn’t, he’s already established himself as a consistently above average interior defender and should remain one going forward.

Williams was also a first round pick, selected 6th overall by the Jets in 2015, and he has been an above average starter in each of his seven seasons in the league, while missing just one game ever and averaging 840 snaps played per season. Also a solid run stopper, WIlliams has totaled 35.5 sacks, 116 hits, and a 10.1% pressure rate in 112 career games, despite primarily being an interior rusher, and his best overall seasons came in 2015, 2016, and 2020, when he finished 23rd, 10th, and 18th respectively among interior defenders on PFF.

The Giants acquired Williams midway through the final year of his rookie deal in 2019 for a 3rd round and a 5th round pick, franchise tagged him at 16.126 million for the 2020 season, and then the following off-season, after initially franchise tagging him again, they re-signed him on a 3-year, 63 million dollar contract, making him the 3rd highest paid interior defender in the league in average annual salary. The Giants have given up a lot to acquire and keep him, but you could argue he’s been good enough to justify that and, still only in his age 28 season, he could easily remain worth it going forward. He and Lawrence should remain one of the better interior defender duos in the league for years to come, though depth is an obvious concern behind them this season, which hurts their overall grade at the position.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Giants didn’t make any significant additions to their linebacking corps this off-season, but they’ll get every down linebacker Blake Martinez back from a torn ACL that ended his 2021 season after week 3, which is basically like a free agent addition. Martinez might not be quite as good in his first season back from his injury in 2022 as he was in 2020, when he finished 7th among off ball linebackers on PFF, but he also finished 18th among off ball linebackers in 2018 and had finished average or better on PFF in four straight seasons prior to last year, while making all 64 possible starts and averaging 64.3 snaps played per game. Still only in his age 28 season, he has a good chance to remain at least a solid starter in his first year back.

Martinez’s re-addition will be big for this defense, but they didn’t have an unusually high amount of injuries on defense like they did on offense, ranking 16th in defensive adjusted games lost, and injuries are part of the game, so they can’t assume they’ll have perfect health on defense. Even if Martinez plays all or most of the season, someone else significant could easily miss an extended period of time instead. Martinez’s return also won’t push his replacement Tae Crowder out of the starting lineup, even though he was horrendous in Martinez’s absence last season, finishing dead last among 94 off ball linebackers on PFF across 1099 snaps.

Only a 7th round pick in 2020, Crowder was also horrendous in 403 snaps as a rookie, finishing 93rd out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF, and he’s unlikely to take a significant step forward in his third season in the league, but the Giants don’t have another option to start next to Martinez. Benardrick McKinney (181 snaps), Reggie Ragland (474 snaps), and Jaylon Smith (154 snaps) all saw action last season as the starter next to Crowder, but they were an underwhelming bunch and are no longer with the team. 

The Giants drafted a pair of off ball linebackers who will be at least in the mix for reserve roles, taking Micah McFadden and Darrian Beavers, but they were just 5th and 6th round picks and would almost definitely struggle in a significant rookie year role. They also have a pair of recent late round picks, Cam Brown and Carter Coughlin, who were taken in the 6th and 7th round respectively in the 2020 NFL Draft, but they’ve been mediocre at best in limited action in their careers thus far, playing just 106 defensive snaps and 233 defensive snaps total in their respective careers. Blake Martinez’s return elevates this group, but he might not be the same in his first year back and depth is still a huge concern, with arguably the weakest linebacking corps in the league outside of Martinez.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The biggest losses on this defense this off-season were in the secondary, especially at cornerback, where they lost James Bradbery, a 16-game starter as an outside cornerback, and Logan Ryan, 15-game starter as a slot cornerback/safety hybrid. Both only earned middling grades from PFF, but the Giants also didn’t add any proven options to replace them and will be relying on getting significant contributions from unproven young players, behind Adoree Jackson, their incumbent top cornerback and the only returning starting cornerback on this defense.

Jackson at least gives the Giants one above average cornerback option, but that would require him to be on the field, which has been a problem for him over the past 3 seasons, missing 22 games. A first round pick in 2017, Jackson is still only in his age 27 season and has finished 36th, 30th, 16th, and 18th among cornerbacks on PFF in his last four relatively healthy seasons respectively, limited to 3 games in 2020 in between, but durability is becoming a significant concern for him and, making matters worse, the Giants have very questionable depth behind him.

Aaron Robinson was a third round pick by the Giants in 2021 and looks likely to be the #2 cornerback opposite Jackson, but he played just 268 nondescript snaps as a rookie and is a projection to a larger role. He could prove to be a solid starter in extended action, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if he struggled. Darnay Holmes is also a young cornerback and the 2020 4th round pick probably has even less chance of success in a larger role, struggling across snap counts of 442 and 282 respectively in his first two seasons in the league in 2020 and 2021. 

The Giants might not have much of a choice but to make Holmes their #3 cornerback though, with their only real off-season addition at the cornerback position being 3rd round pick Cor’Dale Flott, who also likely would struggle if forced into significant action this season. The Giants would really benefit from adding even a low end veteran to the mix before the season starts, but there’s no guarantee they do, as they may prefer to let their young cornerbacks play in a trial by fire.

Depth is also a concern at the safety position, where Logan Ryan played part-time and where Jabrill Peppers, who also departed this off-season, played 229 snaps in 6 games before tearing his ACL last season. Without Ryan and Peppers, Julian Love, who played 612 snaps in a part-time role last season, will likely become an every down starter, with their only alternative options being 4th round rookie Dane Belton and career reserve/special teamer Henry Black. 

Love was a 4th round pick in 2019 and flashed potential on 408 snaps as a rookie, finishing above average on PFF, but he’s struggled in bigger snap counts over the past two seasons, finishing 84th out of 98 eligible safeties on PFF last season and 75th out of 99 eligible safeties on 722 snaps on PFF in 2020. Only in his age 24 season, he could easily still have untapped upside, but he also just as easily could struggle, now in the biggest role of his career.

Fortunately, their other starting safety Xavier McKinney is coming off of a well above average season, finishing as PFF’s 16th ranked safety. McKinney is technically a one-year wonder, but that’s because he is only in his 2nd season in the league and missed most of his rookie season with injury. Highly talented, selected 36th overall at the top of the second round in 2020, McKinney also flashed potential with an above average grade in four rookie year starts, after returning from injury, so it wasn’t that surprising that he was able to carry that into 2021 and he could easily continue it going forward, still only in his age 24 season, with the upside to be even better going forward and develop into one of the better safeties of the league. McKinney and Adoree Jackson elevate an otherwise underwhelming secondary.

Grade: B

Special Teams

The Giants’ special teams were solid last season, ranking 11th in special teams DVOA, primarily due to kicker Graham Gano, who made 87.9% of his field goals and 100% of his extra points, while finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked kicker. Gano might not be quite as good in 2022, but he’s made 84.0% of his field goals and 95.3% of his extra points in his career, while finishing in the top-11 among kickers on PFF in four of his past six healthy seasons, so he definitely could have another comparable season and the rest of the Giants’ special teams looks likely to be better than a year ago.

Punting was their biggest special teams weakness last season and they have swapped out incumbent punter Riley Dixon for Jamie Gillan, who might not be great, but who has a good chance to be an upgrade by default. The Giants also didn’t have a single core special teamer finish in the top-50 on PFF in special teams grade last season and they added Henry Black from the Packers this off-season to give them at least one. Their return game is still likely to be a weakness, with CJ Board remaining the primary kickoff returner and an unsettled punt returner situation, but this special teams unit could be even better than a year ago and is likely to be at least above average again.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Giants should have better health, better coaching, and better offensive line play on offense, which should bring them out of the basement on that side of the ball, after ranking 30th in offensive efficiency a year ago, but they’re still likely to be a below average offense, while their defense could be slightly worse than a year ago, when they ranked 14th in defensive efficiency, in which case their defense would also likely be below average this season. Their special teams should be above average and, overall, this team should still be more competitive than a year ago, but it’s hard to see them seriously competing for a playoff spot in 2022. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC East

Carolina Panthers 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The 2020 Panthers were a middling team across the board, ranking 17th in offensive efficiency, 20th in defensive efficiency, and 20th in overall efficiency, but they fared poorly in close games, going 3-8 in games decided by one score or less, leading to them finishing just 5-11 on the season. A team’s record in one-score games is not predictive year-to-year, so there was some hope the Panthers would win noticeably more games in 2021. 

Going into 2021, the Panthers made improvements on defense, but, on offense, they made the risky decision to swap out the reliable, but unspectacular Teddy Bridgewater for unproven young quarterback Sam Darnold, while neglecting an offensive line that lost several starters from the year prior. As a result, both the Panthers’ offense and defense went in drastically different directions in 2021. Their defense improved significantly, finishing the season 4th in the NFL in efficiency, but, on offense, Darnold struggled and then got hurt, leaving backups Cam Newton and PJ Walker to start six games, during which they also struggled. 

The Panthers’ team quarterback rating fell from 87.5 in 2020, 23rd in the NFL, to 68.5 in 2021, dead last in the NFL, while their offensive efficiency rank plummeted to 29th in the NFL. The only thing that was similar for the Panthers is they once again won just 5 games, going 5-12, again doing so primarily because of a metric that is not predictive year-to-year, having the NFL’s 2nd worst turnover margin at -13, not just turning the ball over at a high rate on offense (29 turnovers, 2nd most in the NFL), but also managing just 16 takeaways, 5th fewest in the NFL, despite an otherwise great defense. 

If the Panthers’ defense is as good in efficiency rating again in 2022, they will almost certainly force more takeaways, which could make their turnover margin closer to zero, even if their offense continues struggling and continues turning the ball over at a high rate. However, it’s not that simple, as defensive performance tends to be much less consistent and predictive on a year-to-year basis than offensive performance. In terms of overall efficiency, which weights offense higher than defense and also takes into account the Panthers mediocre special teams, the Panthers ranked just 23rd last season, still a little better than their record, but worse than the year prior and not a sign of a team about to make a big leap.

Making matters worse, the Panthers didn’t have much flexibility this off-season. When they acquired Sam Darnold, not only did they give up a 2nd round pick to downgrade the quarterback position, but they also guaranteed his 18.858 million dollar salary for 2022 when they picked up his 5th year option. Darnold’s salary would make it tough to add another highly paid quarterback to the mix this off-season and, in addition to giving away their 2nd round pick for Darnold, the Panthers also gave away their 3rd and 4th round picks in separate trades, meaning they wouldn’t have the draft capital to add one of the top quarterbacks in the draft or to trade for a top quarterback unless they also gave away at least their first round pick.

The Panthers sat out the early off-season quarterback carousel and also passed on reaching for a quarterback with the 6th overall pick, only trading away their 4th round pick and a future 3rd round pick to get back into this year’s 3rd round to select Matt Corral, who looked like he would be competing with Darnold for the starting job in 2022, in what was almost definitely the worst quarterback room in the NFL. However, a gift fell into the Panthers’ lap when the Browns messed up the Baker Mayfield situation so much that they not only ate most of his salary, leaving the Panthers to pay him just 4.85 million for 2022, but also gave him away for just a 5th round pick in 2024.

Mayfield comes with some warts, which is why he was available so cheaply, but he undoubtedly would have returned more in a trade if the Browns had moved him earlier in the off-season, when Carson Wentz went for a pair of third round picks. He’s a legitimate NFL starting quarterback, which is not something you could say about the Panthers’ options previously, even if he is only a one-year rental, going into the final year of his rookie deal and likely to be due a steep raise as a free agent if he bounces back in 2022.

Mayfield struggled in 2021, completing just 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, while ranking 30th among quarterbacks on PFF, which led to the Browns wanting to move on from him ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2022, but Mayfield wasn’t healthy for most of last season and he performed better in the past when healthy, completing 61.3% of his passes for an average of 7.38 YPA, 75 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions across his first three seasons in the league from 2018-2020, while finishing 11th, 17th, and 14th among quarterbacks across those three seasons respectively.

Mayfield is also only going into his age 27 season and his 5th year in the league, so the former #1 overall pick could have further untapped upside. Even if he doesn’t, he should at least be comparable to Teddy Bridgewater, who led this offense to a decent finish in 2020. The Panthers will nominally hold a quarterback competition with Darnold and Corral in the mix as well, but Darnold has a career 76.9 QB rating, while Corral is a raw player who would likely struggle as a rookie, so, with all of training camp to win the job, Mayfield should be considered to be close to a lock to be the week 1 starter. This definitely isn’t a great quarterback room, but it’s a lot more passable than it was before acquiring Mayfield.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The addition of Baker Mayfield is the biggest reason to expect the Panthers to be better offensively this season, as they would have had a hard time even being passable on offense with either Sam Darnold or Matt Corral as the starter, but they would have been at least a little better even without Mayfield. The biggest reason for that is their offensive line, which was also significantly worse in 2021 than it was in 2020, and figures to be noticeably improved in 2022. 

In 2021, just two primary starters on this offensive line finished above average on PFF, right tackle Taylor Moton and center Matt Paradis. Paradis wasn’t retained this off-season, after finishing 17th among centers on PFF in 2021, but he was limited to just 9 games by injury and was replaced with free agent acquisition Bradley Bozeman, who is one of three new starters added on this offensive line this off-season, along with expected left tackle Ikem Ekwonu and expected right tackle Austin Corbett.

If Bozeman plays like he did a year ago, he should be an upgrade on Paradis, as he was PFF’s 11th ranked center. It’s possible Bozeman could be that good again, but last season was the first season of his career at center and he was a much more middling guard in three seasons at that position before moving to center, maxing out as PFF’s 38th ranked guard in 2019. It’s possible he’s just a better fit at center and will remain a consistently above average center going forward, still only in his age 28 season, but that’s not necessarily a guarantee. Still, he should be at least a solid starter, as he has been throughout his career, and he was a great value on a 1-year, 2.8 million dollar deal.

Corbett was more expensive, signing for 26.25 million over 3 years, but he should be a solid addition as well. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Corbett didn’t do much in the first couple years of his career, but he’s broken out as an above average guard over the past two seasons, finishing 14th and 27th among guards on PFF in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Unlikely to regress to his previous form at this point and in his prime in his age 27 season, I would expect more of the same from him in 2022.

Ekwonu was added through the draft, taken 6th overall with the pick the Panthers wisely didn’t waste on a quarterback. He could have some growing pains as a rookie, but he also could have an immediate impact as an above average starter and he has the upside to be one of the best tackles in the league long-term. The Panthers are hoping he can form a great long-term duo with Taylor Moton, who was by far their best offensive lineman in 2021, finishing 21st among offensive tackles on PFF. That was no fluke either, as he was PFF’s 16th, 15th, and 13th ranked offensive tackle in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively as well, while making all 65 possible starts over the past four seasons. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, I would expect more of the same from him in 2022.

The one questionable spot remaining on this offensive line is left guard and it might not even be a weakness if 2021 3rd round pick Brady Christensen proves to be a capable starter in his first full year on the job, after earning a middling grade from PFF across 480 snaps as a rookie, seeing action at both tackle and guard. Christensen could see competition from Cameron Erving (589 snaps), Michael Jordan (703 snaps), Pat Elflein (534 snaps), and Dennis Daley (573 snaps), who all saw significant action last season and who all have the ability to play guard, but who all don’t currently have a clear starting role. 

Erving and Daley also both have the ability to play tackle as well, while Elflein can play center.

All of them are underwhelming starting options though, with them combining to have one above average season on PFF (Pat Elflein in 2019) between the four of them in 18 combined seasons in the league, so Christensen is still the favorite to start at left guard. Those players aren’t bad depth though, and all those guys being reserves just shows you how much better this offensive line should be than a year ago. 

Grade: B+

Running Backs

In addition to improved quarterback and offensive line play, the Panthers offense should also benefit from a healthier season from feature back Christian McCaffrey, who was limited to just 272 snaps (136 touches) in 7 games in 2021. McCaffrey also had an injury plagued 2020 season, playing just 171 snaps (76 touches) in 3 games, but, prior to his recent injuries, McCaffrey was one of the best running backs in the league, ranking 8th and 3rd among running backs on PFF in 2018 and 2019 respectively, while averaging 4.91 YPC across 506 total carries and adding 1.77 yards per route run through the air, and there are good reasons to think he can bounce back, even after two injury plagued years.

For one, McCaffrey is still very much in his prime, even for a running back, in his age 26 season. He’s also remained effective when on the field over the past two seasons, averaging 4.22 YPC on 158 carries and a ridiculous 2.45 yards per route run through the air, and he didn’t have any significant injury history prior to 2020, not missing a game in his first three seasons in the league from 2017-2019, despite position leading snap counts of 966 and 1,039 in 2018 and 2019 respectively (729 touches between those two seasons).

The Panthers probably won’t play him that much again in 2022, just to keep him fresh, but he is by far their best playmaker at the running back position, so he probably won’t come off the field more than a few snaps per game just to get a breather. The Panthers did upgrade their depth behind him a little bit this season though, after watching 2021 4th round pick Chuba Hubbard struggle mightily as the feature back in McCaffrey’s absence last season, rushing for 3.56 YPC on 172 carries, ranking 45th out of 50 eligible running backs in carry success rate at 44%, and managing just 0.98 yards per route run through the air, making him a clear downgrade over McCaffrey in every aspect.

Hubbard could be better in his second year in the league, but he’ll also face competition for the #2 job from free agent acquisition D’Onta Foreman. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Foreman flashed promise as a rookie, averaging 4.19 YPC across 78 carries, but then suffered a torn achilles that derailed his career for effectively three seasons, during which time he spent stretches out of the league and had just 29 carries total. However, Foreman was able to catch on with the Titans last season and showed his rookie year form again as the lead back when Derrick Henry got hurt, averaging 4.26 YPC on 133 carries and ranking 24th in carry success rate at 52%.

Foreman has never been used much in a passing down role, but he’s actually averaged 1.81 yards per route run for his career in very limited experience in passing situations. McCaffrey’s prowess as a passing down back will likely ensure he will play in almost every passing situation, but he could be split out wide or lined up in the slot on occasion and the Panthers will probably want to limit his carries in early down situations more than they have in the past to keep him fresh, so both Foreman and Hubbard could see at least some role behind McCaffrey. If McCaffrey can stay healthy, he is one of the best players in the league at his position, but that’s far from a guarantee, given how the past two seasons have gone, and their backups would still be a huge drop off from McCaffrey if he missed time.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The Panthers’ quarterback and offensive line play should be significantly improved in 2022 compared to 2021, and could even be better than 2020, when they were a decent offense, even without Christian McCaffrey healthy for most of the season. With McCaffrey likely healthier in 2022, to go with an improved offensive line and quarterback situation, there is definitely reason for optimism on this offense, but it’s not quite that simple, as the Panthers’ receiving corps, which was their biggest strength in 2020, is now a position of concern.

In 2020, despite middling quarterback play at best, the Panthers had three wide receivers with impressive slash lines, with DJ Moore (66/1193/4) and Robbie Anderson (95/1096/3) being one of two wide receiver duos (DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett) to both surpass 1,000 yards receiving and Curtis Samuel (77/851/3) surpassing 1,000 yards if you include his 200 rushing yards on 41 carries. Not only did those three all post impressive receiving totals, but they also averaged 2.23, 1.99, and 1.94 yards per route run respectively, while ranking 26th, 41st, and 31st respectively among wide receivers on PFF.

In 2021, Moore continued being a #1 receiver, posting a 93/1157/4 slash line, his 3rd straight 1,000 yard season, but Samuel had signed with Washington, while Anderson regressed mightily, managing just a 53/519/5 slash line, despite actually playing more passing snaps in 2021, averaging just 0.83 yards per route run and ranking 96th among 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF. It was a career worst year for Anderson, so he should be better in 2022, still only in his age 29 season, but 2020 was a career best year, so it’s unlikely he bounces back to that level and his 1.53 yards per route run average over the past five seasons is middling at best. 

Moore will remain the #1 receiver and, as a highly talented former first round pick who is only in his age 25 season and who is now probably getting the best quarterback he’s had in his career, a career best year would not be a surprise in the slightest. For a player that has already consistently surpassed 1,000 yards receiving, that career best year could put him among the league’s leaders in receiving, especially without a ton of competition for targets.

Terrace Marshall was drafted in the 2nd round of the 2021 NFL Draft as a replacement for Curtis Samuel, but he struggled mightily as a rookie, averaging just 0.50 yards per route run, while finishing as PFF’s 113rd ranked wide receiver out of 118 eligible across 422 snaps. Marshall’s struggles led to Brandon Zylstra, a 2017 undrafted free agent, playing a career high 334 snaps as, splitting time with Marshall as the #3 receiver. Zylstra averaged a decent 1.39 yards per route run average in 2021, but he has played just 549 total offensive snaps total in five seasons in the league and would be a very underwhelming #3 receiver if Marshall can’t take a step forward and lock down the #3 receiver job in his second year in the league.

Marshall could also face competition from veteran free agent acquisition Rashard Higgins. Higgins has mostly been a depth receiver in his career, but he’s surpassed 450 snaps played in four of six seasons in the league, while averaging 1.19 yards per route run, including 1.48 over the past four seasons, when his quarterback happened to be Baker Mayfield. He would be a middling #3 option at best, but his familiarity with Mayfield makes him at least worth noting. Marshall taking a big step forward in year two would be their best option at the #3 receiver spot, but that’s not a guarantee and, even if he does lock down the job, he could easily struggle, so it’s possible Higgins or Zylstra end up playing a significant role.

The Panthers also didn’t get much out of their tight ends last season, with Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble playing 703 snaps and 522 snaps respectively, but averaging just 0.63 yards per route run and 0.65 yards per route run respectively. Thomas was a 3rd round pick in 2018 and came into the league with upside, but he hasn’t developed into anything more than a solid blocker, averaging just 0.63 yards per route run for his career. Now going into his age 26 season, Thomas is unlikely to have further untapped upside. Tremble at least has upside, selected in the 3rd round just a year ago in 2021, and he certainly has the ability to take a step forward in his second season in the league, but, even if he does, he could remain an underwhelming option. 

Outside of DJ Moore and pass catching running back Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers lack reliable pass catching options, although it wouldn’t be hard for this group to be better than a year ago by default, with Anderson and Marshall struggling mightily and McCaffrey missing most of the season. Still, it’s unlikely this group approaches their 2020 level of play, which hurts the Panthers’ chances of being significantly better on offense than their middling 2020 unit, even with McCaffrey likely to be healthier than 2020 and a quarterback and offensive line that both could be better than 2020.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

Any way you look at it, the Panthers offense figures to be significantly better in 2022 than it was in 2021 and they’re likely to be around a middling unit, similar to their 2020 offense. The 2021 Panthers finished 4th in defensive efficiency and, if you combined their 2020 offense and their 2021 defense, you would likely get a playoff team, but it’s not that simple, as it is unlikely the Panthers will be as good as they were defensively a year ago and it’s possible they could regress significantly. 

Part of it is just that it’s tougher to consistently play at a high level on defense than it is on offense. While an elite offense is largely quarterback driven, which usually remains steady year-to-year, an elite defense usually needs 7-9 players playing at an above average level and with defensive players leaving in free agency, getting hurt, or regressing on a regular basis in the NFL, it becomes very tough to maintain that high level of play every year. That should especially be true for the Panthers, who lost several key defenders from a year ago and now have a defense that much more closely resembles their mediocre 2020 unit than their dominant 2021 unit.

Their biggest loss is probably edge defender Haason Reddick, who signed with the Eagles on a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season, after spending only one season in Carolina. Reddick’s run defense left something to be desired, but he led this team with 11 sacks in 2021 and backed it up with good peripheral pass rush stats, with another 11 quarterback hits and a 10.0% pressure rate, so he was a big part of the reason for their defensive improvement in 2021 and he’ll be a big loss, especially since the Panthers didn’t really do much to replace him, not adding any notable veterans in free agency and unable to address the position in the draft until the 6th round, as a result of their lack of draft picks.

That sixth round rookie, Amare Barno, could see action as a rookie, which tells you how thin this group is now, but mostly the Panthers will be hoping for more from a pair of holdovers, Yetur Gross-Matos and Marquis Haynes. Gross-Matos has the higher upside, selected in the 2nd round in 2020, but he’s been middling at best across snap counts of just 377 and 349 respectively thus far in his career. It’s possible he could take a big step forward in his 3rd year in the league and he’ll have plenty of opportunity to start and earn a big role, but he’s a projection to that bigger role and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he struggled in it.

Haynes, on the other hand, doesn’t have much of an upside. He was selected in the 4th round in 2018, but hasn’t been more than a rotational reserve in his career, averaging 274 snaps per season over the past three years and maxing out at 390 snaps played in a season. Now in his 5th season in the league, Haynes has an obvious path to the biggest role of his career and he has been decent as a reserve, but he’s already in his age 29 season, meaning he’s unlikely to have any untapped upside, and he could easily struggle when forced into the biggest role of his career.

Fortunately, the Panthers still have Brian Burns, a 2019 1st round pick who has developed into a high level edge rusher over the past two seasons, totaling 18 sacks, 25 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate. Burns leaves something to be desired against the run, but he’s still only in his age 24 season and has a sky high upside, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he improved against the run going forward, or even if he improved further as a pass rusher, with the upside to be one of the best edge rushers in the league for years to come. However, the Panthers’ defense will be hurt by not having both him and Reddick rushing the passer off the edge in 2022 and depth is a big concern behind Burns.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

The Panthers also lost a pair of significant contributors at the interior defender spot this off-season, with both DaQuan Jones (640 snaps) and Morgan Fox (561 snaps) signing elsewhere this off-season, after being useful in their lone year with the Panthers, signing last off-season and helping this defense improve significantly from 2020 to 2021. Jones was an above average player against the run and as a pass rusher (7.1% pressure rate), finishing as PFF’s 39th ranked interior defender overall, while Fox struggled against the run, but also was an effective pass rusher, with a 7.7% pressure rate, leading to him finishing with a middling overall grade from PFF despite his issues against the run.

The Panthers added Matt Ioannidis in free agency this off-season and he’s a solid starter, finishing average or better on PFF in four straight healthy seasons, including a 40th ranked finish among interior defenders on PFF across 608 snaps last season, but he can only replace one of Jones or Fox. Ioannidis is a better pass rusher than either Fox or Jones, with 24.5 sacks, 32 hits, and a 11.5% pressure rate in 73 career games, but he does consistently struggle against the run. He’s not a bad starter, but, without any other additions made at the position this off-season, the Panthers have very questionable depth behind him.

Bravvion Roy is their top returning reserve from a year ago, but he struggled across just 341 snaps, finishing 115th among 146 eligible interior defenders, after ranking 128th among 139 eligible interior defenders across 419 snaps as a rookie in 2020. He could be better in his third year in the league in 2020, but he was just a 6th round pick, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he never developed into even a useful rotational player and he’s likely to prove to be overstretched if he has to play a larger role in 2022 than he has in his first two seasons in the league. 

Roy will likely have to play that larger role though, with their next best reserve option probably being 2021 5th round pick Daviyon Nixon, who only played 82 snaps as a rookie and is basically a complete unknown at the NFL level. He may have more untapped upside than Roy, but only by default. Both Nixon and Roy are likely to struggle in extended reserve action and would almost definitely be significant weaknesses if they had to step into the starting lineup in place of an injured starter.

One thing that could happen in 2022 that would compensate for their lack of depth would be a breakout season by Derrick Brown, who was selected 7th overall in 2020 and now heads into his third season in the league. Brown has been steady, if unspectacular thus far in his career, earning slightly above average grades from PFF across snap counts of 742 and 631 respectively, holding up against the run and playing at his best as a pass rusher, with 5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 7.1% pressure rate in 32 career games, and he still has the upside and talent to make a big impact in year three if he can put it all together. 

That’s far from a guarantee, but it’s definitely a possibility and I would expect Brown to have his best year yet either way, even if he doesn’t happen to have a big breakout year and is only a little bit improved. He and Ioannidis should be an above average starting duo, but depth is very questionable. Reserves Bravvion Roy and Daviyon Nixon would likely struggle in significant action, while Brown and Ioannidis could get worn down if they have to play a huge snap count as the starters. That brings down the overall position grade somewhat significantly.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Panthers also lost every down off ball linebacker Jermaine Carter in free agency. That could have been addition by subtraction, as Carter was PFF’s 79th ranked off ball linebacker out of 94 eligible across 852 snaps in 2021, but the players the Panthers replaced him with are not necessarily going to be upgrades, as newcomers Damien Wilson and Cory Littleton also  finished just 77th and 64th respectively among off ball linebackers on snap counts of 866 and 663 respectively in 2021. Wilson has never been much better than that in 7 seasons in the league, finishing below average in 6 of those seasons and especially struggling last season when forced into a significant role. Littleton at least has some upside, but he’s not a guarantee to reach it and could easily struggle again. 

A starter for the past four seasons, Littleton was PFF’s 36th and 6th ranked off ball linebacker in his final seasons with the Rams in 2018 and 2019, while playing 964 snaps and 1,039 snaps respectively, before struggling mightily with the Raiders over the past two seasons, finishing below average in both seasons on snap counts of 849 and 663 respectively, having his role gradually scaled back and eventually getting released 2 years and 23.6875 million into a 3-year, 35.25 million dollar deal, leading to him winding up in Carolina on a much cheaper 1-year, 2.6 million dollar deal this off-season. Littleton was a worthwhile flyer at that price and could bounce back somewhat, but he also could easily struggle and, even if he does bounce back, it’s unlikely he comes close to playing like he did in his best season in the league in 2019.

Littleton and Wilson could both see significant roles as starters in this linebacking corps, playing in base packages with Shaq Thompson, who is the likely to be the only true every down linebacker in this group. Littleton and Wilson come with concerns, but the biggest concern for this group would be if Shaq Thompson regressed significantly, which is a possibility, as he ranked 15th among off ball linebackers in 2021, but only 31st in 2019 and 71st in 2020 in his first two seasons as an every down player. 

Thompson was better earlier in his career as a part-time player, but he hasn’t been a high level every down linebacker in any of his other six seasons in the league, so it’s very possible he isn’t as good in 2022 as he was in 2021, even if only a little bit. Thompson still elevates an otherwise very underwhelming linebacking corps, but it would hurt this defense if he was noticeably worse than a year ago, especially if he happened to regress to his 2020 form, when he was a below average player, a big part of the reason why they were just a middling defense that season.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Panthers also lost cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and AJ Bouye this off-season and, while neither of them played huge snap counts in 2021, playing 304 snaps and 401 snaps respectively, they were their top two cornerbacks in terms of coverage grade on PFF in their only season in Carolina, making an impact on a defense that was much more middling the year before. Gilmore especially played well, finishing 9th among cornerbacks in coverage grade, and the Panthers didn’t really replace either of them. 

They did retain Donte Jackson, who was also a free agent this off-season, bringing him back on a 3-year, 35.18 million dollar deal, but there’s a very good chance he isn’t worth that contract, which makes him the 17th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary. Jackson was PFF’s 30th ranked cornerback in 2020, but that was the best season of his career and it came on just 599 snaps, with Jackson being middling at best across snap counts of 895, 726, and 717 in 2018, 2019, and 2021 respectively, including a slightly below average finish last season. Jackson was a 2nd round pick in 2018, but hasn’t consistently put it together, in part due to injuries, and, now in his age 27 season, I wouldn’t expect him to suddenly be worth being paid like a #1 cornerback, even if that is what he may be on this defense by default.

Without any significant replacements added for Gilmore and Bouye, the Panthers will be counting on getting more out of some young players. One young player who almost definitely will give them more is Jaycee Horn, the 8th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, whose career looked off to a promising start, before his rookie season was ended after 142 snaps in 3 games by an injury. He’s a bit of a wild card and an unknown commodity at the NFL level, but he showed a lot of promise in limited action last season and has the upside to be a consistently above average starter long-term, even if it takes him a couple years to reach his potential.

CJ Henderson is also a recent top-10 pick, but, compared to Horn, he is much less certain to give them significantly more than he did a year ago, even if all he gave them last year was 282 mediocre snaps. Henderson was actually originally drafted by the Jaguars, but struggled in 474 rookie year snaps with them and lasted two games into his second season in the league in 2021 before he was traded to the Panthers for a 3rd round pick and tight end Dan Arnold, a trade the Jaguars appear to have won thus far, even though they were selling low on a top-10 pick. Henderson still has upside, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he didn’t put it together and continued struggling, now likely expected to take on a larger role in his second season with the team.

Keith Taylor, a 2021 5th round pick, is also in the mix for a role, even though he was pretty mediocre on 448 snaps as a rookie and isn’t necessarily a guarantee to develop into a useful starter, given that he wasn’t highly drafted. Myles Hartsfield is a slot/safety hybrid option who could see a role at cornerback in sub packages, but the 2020 undrafted free agent struggled in the first extended action of his career across 472 snaps in 2021, finishing in just the 5th percentile among defensive backs on PFF. He’s no guarantee to be any better going forward and looks like a bottom of the roster talent.

Hartsfield probably doesn’t have much opportunity to earn a role at safety this season, as safety is the one position the Panthers actually upgraded on defense this off-season, signing Xavier Woods, who should be a good value on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal. Woods has never been a top level safety, but he’s made 61 starts over the past four seasons, while finishing average or better on PFF in all four seasons, maxing out as their 28th ranked safety in 2019, so he should at least be an average starter, with the upside to be more. He should be an upgrade on Juston Burris and Sean Chandler, who played 420 snaps and 538 snaps respectively at safety last season and were pretty mediocre, as they have been throughout their careers. They will now be reserves with Woods coming in, roles they are much better fits in.

Woods will start opposite Jeremy Chinn, who remains as the other safety. A 2nd round pick in 2020, Chinn had a solid rookie season and then quickly developed into one of the Panthers’ best defensive players in his second season in the league in 2021, finishing as PFF’s 27th ranked safety. Still only in his age 24 season, it’s possible he has more untapped upside and he should at least remain an above average starter going forward. He leads a secondary that is decent, but unspectacular overall.

Grade: B

Special Teams

The Panthers had a below average special teams unit last season, ranking 24th in special teams DVOA, but there are some reasons for optimism in 2021. They added punter Johnny Hekker and returner Andre Roberts, who have been among the best players in the league at their positions in their respective careers, finishing in the top-7 at their position in 6 of 9 seasons and 4 of 8 seasons respectively in which they were the primary option at their position. Both would be significant upgrades at their respective positions if they played at that level in 2022.

However, the flip side of that is both Hekker and Roberts are going into their age 32 and age 34 season respectively and coming off of down years, finishing 11th and 37th respectively at their positions on PFF. On top of that, they didn’t have a single core special teamer finish in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF in 2021 and didn’t add any this off-season, while kicker Zane Gonzalez is unlikely to repeat a career best year, finishing 6th among kickers on PFF, after never finishing higher than 9th in any of his first four seasons in the league prior to last season. This is likely to be a below average group again, even if they may be slightly improved.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Panthers improved their offensive line earlier in the season and they were always likely to get a healthier season out of Christian McCaffrey, but, prior to their trade for Baker Mayfield, this looked likely to be another lost season for the Panthers, with the worst quarterback situation in the league and a defense that looks likely to be significantly worse than a year ago. Mayfield gives them a legitimate starting caliber quarterback, even if only a low-end one, and he comes at the price of a backup and a mid-round draft pick two years from now. 

The Panthers’ defense is still highly unlikely to be as good as a year ago and could be similar to their middling 2020 unit, but they probably won’t be bad on defense and they’re unlikely to be bad on offense, with an improved quarterback situation and more talent around the quarterback than a year ago. Ultimately, it’s still unlikely this team can earn a wild card spot in the NFC, but they will at least be a more competitive team than they would have been if they had to start Sam Darnold or Matt Corral all season. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC South

San Francisco 49ers 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2019, the 49ers made it all the way to the Super Bowl and came within a blown 4th quarter lead of winning the whole thing, after a regular season in which they finished 13-3 and had the league’s 4th best efficiency rating. The 49ers brought back most of their core for 2020, but had a significant amount of key injuries, having the most adjusted games lost in the league, with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo being among the injured, missing 10 games and being limited in others. They still ranked 11th in efficiency rating, but they had a -11 turnover margin and a -4 return touchdown margin, which led to them going just 6-10.

Fortunately, adjusted games lost to injury and turnover margin are relatively unpredictive metrics on a year-to-year basis and, with most of their same core returning again in 2021, the chances for a bounce back season looked good. Injuries remained a problem, as the 49ers had the 4th most adjusted games lost to injury in 2021, but they still ranked 6th in overall efficiency rating. They still had a negative turnover margin at -4 and went just 3-5 in games decided by 7 points or fewer, leading to them barely sneaking into the post-season at 10-7, after winning 7 of their final 9 regular season games, getting healthier as the season went on, but they were able to carry that into the post-season, where they came within a blown 4th quarter lead of making it back to the Super Bowl. 

Despite their recent success, the 49ers still made the decision to move up from #12 to #3 in the 2021 NFL Draft, giving away their 2022 and 2023 first round pick in the process, to select quarterback of the future Trey Lance. Garoppolo still started most of the 2021 season, with Lance making his only two starts as an injury replacement, and Garoppolo actually ranked 2nd in the NFL with 8.64 YPA, giving him 8.43 YPA since he joined the 49ers during the 2017 season, best in the NFL over that span and a big part of the reason for the 49ers’ success over that time span. 

However, Garoppolo has benefitted from having a lot of talent and a great scheme around him, especially last season, he has missed 25 games over the past four seasons due to injury, and he’s consistently struggled with turnovers, ranking 7th in adjusted interception rate among eligible quarterbacks in 2019 and 4th in 2021, in his only two full relatively healthy seasons since joining the team, a big part of the reason why the 49ers have had consistent turnover problems in recent years. When you add in the fact that Garoppolo is highly paid (25 million in 2021, 25.55 million in 2022), it was understandable that the 49ers would want to find a quarterback of the future, even if they paid a steep price to acquire a quarterback who was too raw to be the starter as a rookie.

Lance still averaged 8.49 YPA in his limited action as a rookie though, further evidence that Garoppolo benefits significantly from his supporting cast, as is the fact that his previous backups (CJ Beathard and Nick Mullens) had a 7.74 YPA average in Garoppolo’s absence in their tenures as his backup. It’s a limited sample size, but Lance also had a comparable interception rate (2.8% vs. 2.7%), while adding another dimension on the ground, averaging 4.42 YPC on 38 carries, and he’s reportedly impressed as the starter this off-season, with Garoppolo recovering from off-season shoulder surgery and unable to throw until training camp. In fact, Lance has reportedly been told behind the scenes that he is expected to be the starter this year, in his second season in the league.

Still only in his age 22 season, with a high sky upside, Lance probably doesn’t have as low of a floor as Garoppolo, but he undoubtedly has a higher ceiling and he has a good chance to be more durable than Garoppolo has been, even if Lance is likely to take significantly more hits because he’s a dual threat quarterback. Garoppolo is still on the roster as of this writing, but he’s very much in limbo, owed way too much money to be a backup, but with none of it guaranteed, meaning they can keep him up until final cuts and not pay him a dime. His current injury also complicates matters, especially when coupled with his overall injury history.

The 49ers probably still could have traded Garoppolo earlier this off-season if they had a more reasonable asking price, but they seem to have overplayed their hand and, at this point in the off-season, the only few teams left with an unsettled quarterback situation do not seem willing to give anything up for a quarterback that they believe they could sign for cheaper, without draft compensation, if and when the 49ers ultimately release him, rather than paying him about four times more than any other backup quarterback in the league. 

It’s possible a team could lose their quarterback to a serious injury before the season begins and would then be desperate enough to trade for Garoppolo at his current salary, but most likely, the closer we get to the start of the season, the harder it will be to trade Garoppolo. Given that, a release at some point or another is probably the most likely outcome, unless Garoppolo agrees to a significant pay cut to facilitate a trade elsewhere, or to remain with the 49ers as a backup, a possibility if he doesn’t think he has a starting spot elsewhere.

Assuming Garoppolo is elsewhere this season, current 3rd string quarterback Nate Sudfeld would likely be Lance’s backup, although it’s possible they could add another veteran to the roster once Garoppolo is no longer with the team. Adding a veteran would be a good idea, as Sudfeld would be a very underwhelming backup, especially given the inexperience of the starter Lance. A 2016 6th round pick, Sudfeld has just 37 career pass attempts and no starts in 6 seasons in the league, posting a very underwhelming 77.3 QB rating and showing no signs of being the kind of quarterback who you’d be comfortable with starting for an extended period of time if the Lance were to suffer an injury. It’s a situation of concern if Garoppolo is not on this final roster, but Lance has the upside to be a noticeable upgrade on Garoppolo as the starter.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The biggest reason why both Garoppolo and Lance averaged a high YPA last season was their top trio pass catching trio of Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Brandon Aiyuk, who finished with slash lines of 77/1405/6, 71/910/6, and 56/826/5 on yards per route run averages of 2.98, 2.35, 1.68 respectively. That led to the 49ers ranking 2nd in the NFL in yards per pass attempt, a big part of the reason why they finished the season 1st in yards per play and 6th in overall offensive efficiency. All three of those pass catchers are expected to return for 2022 and, even with the uncertainty that comes with Lance replacing the more proven Garoppolo, the 49ers have a good chance to continue being among the best offenses in the league because of their supporting cast around the quarterback. 

Prior to ranking 2nd among wide receivers in yards per route run, 5th in total receiving yards, 2nd in total yards after catch, and 6th in overall PFF grade in 2021, Samuel only had slash lines of 57/802/3 and 33/393/1 in his first two seasons in the league,. That makes last season look like something of a fluke, but he didn’t play a big snap count in either of those first two seasons, being eased in as a rookie and then missing 9 games with injury in 2020. 

When he was on the field, Samuel showed a lot of potential in his first two seasons in the league and even had some stretches of dominance, averaging 2.11 yards per route run between the two seasons, so his 2021 campaign didn’t come out of nowhere and there is a good chance he can continue playing around that level or close to it going forward, still only in his age 26 season, with a career 2.51 yards per route run average since being selected 36th overall early in the second round by the 49ers in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Kittle is also proven beyond last season, actually averaging a higher yards per route run average from 2018-2020 (2.93 yards per route run) than he did in 2021. With Samuel looking like the focal point of this passing game going forward, Kittle is likely to be closer to his 2021 average than his 2018-2020 average in 2022, but that average still was the best among tight ends last season, so he is obviously still a big part of this passing offense, even with Samuel emerging. 

Also a dominant run blocker, Kittle finished last season as PFF’s 2nd ranked overall tight end last season, after ranking 1st, 1st, and 4th in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively. Still only in his age 29 season, Kittle is unlikely to drop off significantly in 2022. Injuries have been a concern for him throughout his career, as he has missed 14 games in five seasons in the league, with time missed in all but one season, but, when healthy, he’s the best all-around tight end in the NFL.

Aiyuk hasn’t been quite as productive as Samuel or Kittle, but he is a former first round pick who is only going into his third season in the league and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a step forward and develop into a high level wide receiver long-term, after averaging 1.70 yards per route run across his first two seasons in the league. He could be a #1 option for more than a few teams around the league, but, with the 49ers, he probably won’t be any better than the third option, behind Samuel and Kittle in a very talented position group.

Given who their top-3 were, the 49ers don’t need much from their other pass catchers, but they don’t have bad depth in this group. Jauan Jennings (340 snaps), Mohamed Sanu (240 snaps), and Trent Sherfield (266 snaps) all saw action at wide receiver behind Samuel and Aiyuk last season, but Jennings was by far the best (1.41 yards per route run, vs 1.04 for Sanu and 0.77 for Sherfield) and was basically their full-time #3 receiver in the second half of the season, playing 296 snaps in the final 9 games, after playing just 44 snaps in his career prior, as just a 7th round pick in 2020. 

Given how well he played and that Sanu and Sherfield were not retained this off-season, Jennings has a great chance to remain the #3 wide receiver in 2022, with his top competition probably being 3rd round rookie Danny Gray, a raw option as a rookie. Jennings is still pretty unproven and wasn’t highly drafted, but he’s not a bad #3 wide receiver and the 49ers won’t need a big target share out of him, given their other pass catching options.

Charlie Woerner (249 snaps) and Ross Dwelley (196 snaps) saw action as the backup tight ends last season, but they have averages of just 1.01 yards per route run and 0.97 yards per route run in their careers and are mostly just blocking options. They’re at least solid blockers though, especially Woerner, who was selected by the 49ers in the 6th round in 2020, and the 49ers also have fullback Kyle Juszczyk, a unique player who lines up all over the formation and serves as a de facto #2 receiving tight end, averaging 1.40 yards per route run in his career, better than a lot of starting tight ends.

A 4th round pick in 2013, Juszczyk plays significantly more snaps than any other fullback, averaging 548 snaps per season since his second season in the league in 2014, including 610 snaps played in 2021. In addition to being a receiving threat, Juszczyk is also a solid run blocker and can carry the ball a little bit too, especially in short yardage, with 4 touchdowns and 3.58 YPC on 50 career carries. Juszczyk is now in his age 31 season, so he could decline a little bit, but he should still remain a useful asset as one of the more unique players in the NFL and a perfect fit for the kind of offense the 49ers want to play. The 49ers once again have a great receiving corps, with little changing from a year ago.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As effective as the 49ers’ passing game was last season, they could not have done so without a solid running game (16th in the NFL last season with 4.34 YPC) because this is still very much a run first team, ranking 6th in the NFL in carries in 2021, while ranking just 29th in pass attempts, which makes life much easier for their passing game because opposing defenses tend to focus on stopping the run when they face the 49ers. With Trey Lance under center this year, I would expect an even more run-heavy split, with Lance likely to take off at least a few times per game on his own, in addition to all of the carries the 49ers give their running backs.

Elijah Mitchell was only a 6th round rookie last season, but he still was an effective lead back for this team, rushing for 4.65 YPC on 207 carries and finishing 22nd among running backs on PFF in rushing grades. It’s definitely not uncommon for the zone blocking scheme that the 49ers utilize under head coach Kyle Shanahan to get big seasons out of unexpected running backs and Mitchell could see even more action in 2022, having the 13th most carries in the league last season despite missing 6 games with injury, but it’s also not uncommon for running backs like Mitchell to suddenly regress within this blocking scheme or to lose their job to another back who impresses within the scheme.

The 49ers do have other talented running back options who could push Mitchell for carries if they impress behind the scenes. Trey Sermon was actually drafted three rounds higher than Mitchell last year, selected with the 88th overall pick, but he had a disappointing and injury plagued first year in the league, averaging just 4.07 YPC on 41 carries in 5 games. He could still be better in year two and beyond though, and the 49ers also added another running back in the 3rd round of this year’s draft as well, taking LSU’s Tyrion Davis-Price. 

Veteran Jeff Wilson could also be in the mix for carries, after having 79 carries as the #2 back last season, although all but two of those carries came in the five games he played when Mitchell was out and he averaged an underwhelming 3.72 YPC. His career YPC average of 4.24 is better than his 2021 season average and the 2018 undrafted free agent understands the blocking system well, having spent his whole career in it, but he’s also totaled just 298 carries in his career, with a maximum of 126 carries in a season, and he’s not guaranteed a roster spot, with another young running back being added to the mix this off-season.

Deebo Samuel also saw 59 carries last season and was their best runner on a per carry basis, averaging a ridiculous 6.19 YPC with a team leading 8 rushing touchdowns, in addition to what he did as a receiver, not only getting the ball on end arounds like he did in his first two seasons in the league (8.41 YPC on 22 carries), but also lining up as a true running back from time-to-time. Lining your top wide receiver up as a running back regularly is probably not a feasible idea long-term though, as it exposes him to further injury, while wearing him out and taking him away from his natural position. 

On top of that, Samuel understandably doesn’t seem to want to continue in the hybrid role going forward, risking further injury in the process, and a disagreement about his role led to Samuel demanding a trade this off-season and claiming he would not sign with the team long-term, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. The 49ers have no interest in trading him and have the franchise tag to use if they can’t come to an agreement with Samuel before next off-season, but, with another true running back being added in the draft and wanting to keep Samuel happy long-term, it’s likely he will go back to his 2019-2020 usage as a ball carrier, being used sparingly on end arounds, rather than being a true running back option. He’s too good in the open field not to be given the ball on manufactured touches from time-to-time, but it’s understandable he doesn’t want to effectively have to play two different positions.

The 49ers have plenty of early down options, but none of the four running backs I have mentioned thus far do much in the passing game. Mitchell, Sermon, and Davis-Price were all underwhelming receivers in college, Mitchell and Sermon averaged just 0.91 yards per route run and 0.63 yards per route run respectively as rookies, and Wilson has just a 0.91 yards per route run average for his career. Mitchell still saw a significant passing down role last season, despite struggling in that aspect, leading 49ers running backs in pass snaps played, even with 6 games missed due to injury, but the 49ers also had to utilize JaMycal Hasty as a passing down specialist, playing 80.8% of his 156 snaps on a pass play. 

Hasty averaged 1.43 yards per route run in a limited role last season, which isn’t bad, but the 2020 undrafted free agent is still highly inexperienced and, for him to make this final roster, the 49ers would almost definitely have to get rid of either Jeff Wilson or Trey Sermon to make the numbers work and make room for an inexperienced passing down specialist who is unexpected to make an impact as a runner (3.93 YPC on 55 career carries). It’s possible they could retain Hasty as a passing down specialist, but, either way, Mitchell is likely to get another significant opportunity in passing situations by default. He’ll probably struggle in that role, but the 49ers don’t utilize running backs in the passing game much anyway and Mitchell should remain a good early down option. If not, the 49ers have decent insurance behind him, in a solid overall backfield. 

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Starting Trey Lance should free up even more room for running backs in this offense because defenses will have to worry about his ability to take off and run himself, but that’s doesn’t necessarily mean life will be even easier for 49ers running backs this season, as they are unlikely to get the same offensive line play in 2022 as they did in 2021. In fact, if there is a reason this 49ers offense could be significantly worse in 2022, it’s most likely to be their offensive line more so than anything else, even the quarterback position.  The 49ers were PFF’s 1st ranked run blocking and 6th ranked pass blocking offensive line in 2021, so, even if they do decline significantly, they would almost definitely still be above average in both aspects, but a noticeably worse offensive line will have a negative effect on this offense.

The biggest loss upfront for the 49ers this off-season was left guard Laken Tomlinson, who was PFF’s 11th ranked guard and played every snap in 2021, before signing a 3-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Jets this off-season. The 49ers used a 2nd round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on Aaron Banks, who is a ready-made replacement for Tomlinson at left guard, but he’s highly inexperienced, after getting into just 5 snaps as a rookie, and, even if he has a solid first season as a starter, it would be a surprise if he was close to as good as Tomlinson was. 

On top of that, promoting Banks into the starting lineup thins their depth, a problem since the 49ers also have to replace center Alex Mack, who opted to hang them up this off-season, ahead of what would have been his age 37 season in 2022. Mack still finished 12th among centers on PFF in his final season in the league in 2021, so he’s not a small loss, and, if they had kept Tomlinson, they could have moved starting right guard Daniel Brunskill to center, where he has some experience, and then plugged Banks into Brunskill’s old spot.

Brunskill has been a capable, if unspectacular starter over 40 starts in the past three seasons, regardless of where he plays (27 starts at guard, 8 at center, 5 at tackle), and will likely continue that in 2022, regardless of where he plays, still only in his age 28 season. However, now if Brunskill is moved to center, the 49ers would have to turn to either 2021 5th round pick Jaylon Moore (145 rookie year snaps), 2020 5th round pick Colton McKinvitz (371 career snaps), or 4th round rookie Spencer Burford at right guard.

All three of those players are underwhelming options, but any of them may be better than the alternative, which would be to keep Brunskill at guard and start the only true center on their roster, veteran Jake Brendel, who has been in the league for six seasons, but has made just three career starts, while never playing more than 176 snaps in a season. The definition of a career backup, now in his age 30 season, Brendel would be a very underwhelming starting option if forced into the first extended starting role of his career.

The 49ers get starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey back from an injury that knocked him out for the season in week 9 last year, but his backup Tom Compton actually excelled in his absence, finishing as PFF’s 4th ranked offensive tackle in 7 starts, actually making him a significant upgrade on McGlinchey, who ranked 44th at the time he went down. Compton is no longer with the team, which thins their depth and, while McGlinchey has been a solid starter throughout his 4-year career, since being selected 9th overall by the 49ers in the 2018 NFL Draft, he’s never played as well as Compton did down the stretch last season, maxing out as PFF’s 20th ranked offensive tackle in 2020, so the 49ers will miss Compton too, as well as Tomlinson and Mack.

Aside from McGlinchey, left tackle Trent Williams is the only returning starter locked into the same position he played last season. He also happens to be by far their best offensive lineman, as he was PFF’s 1st ranked offensive tackle by a wide margin in 2021. However, that also means he doesn’t have anywhere to go but down and that it wouldn’t be hard for him to regress, even if only a little, especially now that he’s heading into his age 34 season. 

Williams has had a Hall-of-Fame caliber career, finishing in the top-20 among offensive tackles on PFF in each of his past ten seasons, including six seasons in the top-7 and four #1 overall finishes (2013, 2016, 2020, and 2021), so, even if he did regress, he would likely still remain one of the best left tackles in the league, but if he’s only one of the best instead of the best, it could have a noticeable effect on this offensive line, a problem for an offensive line that already lost several key players this off-season. This is still an above average group, but I wouldn’t expect them to be nearly as good upfront as a year ago.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

As much talent as the 49ers have on offense, their defense has actually been the better unit in recent years, finishing 2nd, 4th, and 6th in defensive efficiency over the past three seasons respectively. When they made the Super Bowl in 2019, their defense was led by a dominant defensive line that had four players, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead who could all wreak havoc, especially on passing downs. 

Ford is not expected to remain on the roster in 2022 after a couple injury plagued seasons and Buckner was traded to Indianapolis for a first round pick ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2020, with Buckner going on to sign a 4-year, 84 million dollar deal with the Colts that makes him the 2nd highest paid interior defender in terms of average annual salary, but the 49ers’ defensive line has remained a strength over the past two seasons and should remain a strength in 2022, albeit not on the same level as 2019.

The 49ers sought to replenish talent on this defensive line by using the first round pick they got from the Colts on Javon Kinlaw, an interior defender they viewed as a long-term replacement for Buckner at a cheaper salary, but Kinlaw actually hasn’t been the reason for their continued success over the past two seasons, finishing 100th among out of 139 eligible interior defenders across 547 snaps in a disappointing rookie year and then missing all but 149 snaps in 4 games in 2021 due to injury. Kinlaw obviously still has upside and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he took a big step forward or even broke out in a significant way in his third year in the league in 2022, but that’s far from a guarantee and he hasn’t made much of a positive impact thus far in his career.

When Kinlaw went down last season, the 49ers moved hybrid edge defender/interior defender Arik Armstead from a primarily edge role to a primarily interior role and he finished the season as PFF’s 12th ranked interior defender, while playing 820 snaps total. Armstead has proven he can be effective lining up anywhere, finishing 29th, 3rd, and 19th at his position on PFF as primarily an edge defender in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively, on snap counts of 608, 776, and 750 respectively. As tough as their decision to part with DeForest Buckner was, trading him not only got them a first round pick, but it also freed up the money for the 49ers to re-sign Armstead on a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal that he has proven to be well worth in two seasons since.

The 6-7 290 pound Armstead is a little better as a pass rusher on the interior and a little better as a run stopper on the edge, but he has earned above average grades from PFF in both aspects in each of the past four seasons, regardless of his position, playing the run consistently well and adding 22.5 sacks, 28 hits, and a 10.6% pressure rate as a pass rusher, impressive production when you consider how often he rushes the passer from the interior. A former first round pick who is still only in his age 29 season and who hasn’t missed a game since 2017, I see no reason to expect anything different from Armstead in 2022, regardless of where he lines up.

Where he lines primarily will likely depend on which other players can earn roles at either the edge defender or interior defender spot. Kinlaw will return to play a role on the interior, but this is still an unsettled group, both on the edge and on the interior. DJ Jones was PFF’s 17th ranked interior defender across 550 snaps last season, but he signed with the Broncos this off-season. Kentavius Street also played a significant role last season (352 snaps) and is no longer with the team, though that could easily be addition by subtraction, after Street finished 127th among 146 interior defenders on PFF last season.

Kevin Givens (230 snaps) is their top returning interior defender in terms of snaps played from a year ago aside from Armstead and he was decent in that role, after being decent on 387 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2020. Givens will likely continue being decent in a similar rotational role this season, but the 2019 undrafted free agent probably doesn’t have much untapped upside and would probably be overstretched in a larger role. 

The 49ers added Hassan Ridgeway in free agent, but he has never played more than 442 snaps in a season, nor has he ever been more than a middling rotational player, and he’s coming off of a 2021 campaign which was the worst of the 2016 4th round pick’s career, finishing 142nd out of 146 eligible interior defenders across 373 snaps. He could have a role, but isn’t more than a snap eater in a rotational role at best. It’s also possible 6th round rookie Kalia Davis could be in the mix for a role, even if he would be unlikely to be effective in that role in year one.

The 49ers are also hoping for more out of Maurice Hurst, a 2018 5th round pick who earned above average grades from PFF on 472 snaps and 522 snaps respectively in the first two seasons of his career, but then was limited to 277 snaps in 11 games by injury in 2020, leading to the Raiders releasing him. Claimed on waivers by the 49ers, Hurst had the opportunity to earn a significant role with his new team in 2021, but injuries again limited him to just 41 snaps. The 49ers retained him in free agency this off-season, albeit on a cheap one-year deal, and he’s still only in his age 27 season, so if he can stay healthy, he should be effective for the 49ers in a rotational role, like he was with the Raiders early in his career, though that’s not a guarantee. Also a solid run stopper, Hurst has a 7.7% pressure rate for his career, above average for an interior player.

Charles Omenihu and Kerry Hyder also have some experience on the interior in their careers, although they are hybrid players who are more likely to be edge defenders for the 49ers in 2022. Omenihu played both inside and outside with the Texans in the first two and a half seasons of the 2019 5th round pick’s career, but he played almost exclusively on the edge after the 49ers acquired him midway through last season, playing 136 snaps in 9 games with the 49ers and posting a 11.8% pressure rate. 

In his hybrid role with the Texans prior to joining the 49ers, The 6-5 280 Omenihu had a 9.5% pressure rate, while playing 34.5 snaps per game. He’s never been much of a run stopper regardless of where he has lined up, but, still only in his age 25 season, he should remain a useful rotational pass rusher in 2022. He will also likely see his snap count increase from his limited role down the stretch last season, most likely playing exclusively on the edge, but possibly also playing on the interior if needed.

Hyder, meanwhile, is a 8-year veteran, who has primarily played on the edge in his career, but the 6-2 270 pounder has seen at least some action on the interior in every season, with the exception of 2020, which happened to be his lone season in San Francisco, when he played almost exclusively on the edge. He played a career high 722 snaps total and had a career best pass rushing season that year, finishing with 8.5 sacks, 10 hits, and a 12.6% pressure rate, so I would imagine the 49ers are bringing him back after a 1-year hiatus with the idea of playing him in that same role. 

Hyder could easily remain an effective rotational player regardless of where he lines up, but I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good as he was two years ago, unlikely to repeat a career best year, now in his age 31 season. In fact, he’s now coming off arguably a career worst year, finishing 2021 as PFF’s 100th ranked edge defender out of 124 eligible across 508 snaps. I wouldn’t expect him to be that bad again, but he doesn’t have a huge ceiling and could very well be on the way down.

Hyder is one of many options at an unsettled interior defender group. Most likely, Hyder and Omenihu will play mostly outside, with Kinlaw, Hurst, and Givens as the top pure interior options and Arik Armstead splitting time between the edge and the interior, playing outside primarily in running situations and playing inside primarily in passing situations. It’s an unsettled group, but Arik Armstead elevates their grade a little bit by himself, even though he isn’t likely to play inside every down.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

I already mentioned Armstead, Omenihu, and Hyder in the interior defender section. Among pure edge defenders, Nick Bosa is obviously the best of the bunch and he’s the other dominant defensive lineman remaining from the 2019 defense. Bosa was actually a rookie in 2019, but he was the 2nd overall pick and produced in a big way, finishing as PFF’s 11th ranked edge defender and totaling 9 sacks, 19 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate. 

Bosa lost almost his entire 2020 season to a torn ACL, but came back and had another strong season in 2021, finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked edge defender and totaling 15.5 sacks, 17 hits, and a 14.3% pressure rate. As long as he can stay healthy, I see no reason to expect anything other than another comparable year in 2022 and, only in his age 25 season, another year removed from the injury, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he took another step forward and had the best year of his career in his fourth year in the league. He has the potential to win a Defensive Player of the Year award someday and should be on the short list for pre-season DPOY candidates.

The 49ers lost Arden Key this off-season and, even though he played just 375 snaps and struggled mightily against the run, he excelled as a situational pass rusher, with 6.5 sacks, 15 hits, and a 13.8% pressure rate, despite a part-time role. The 49ers used a second round pick to replace him though, taking USC’s Drake Jackson, who could have an immediate role. Jackson might not be as productive in year one as Key was last season, but, with Bosa playing opposite him, Jackson should see plenty of single teams and should get the opportunity to clean up a lot of Bosa’s disruptions.

The 49ers also still have Samson Ebukam, who played 554 snaps in a rotational role last season as well. Ebukam was underwhelming, but he’s been a solid rotational player throughout his 5-year career, averaging 505 snaps per season, playing decently against the run, and totaling 18.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate in his career, since being selected in the 4th round by the Rams in 2017. I would expect more of the same from him in 2021, a low floor, but also a low ceiling.

The wild card of the bunch is Kemoko Turay, a 2018 2nd round pick who flashed a lot of talent in limited action (14.6% pressure rate) in four seasons with the Colts, but was limited to just 783 snaps in 38 games over those four seasons combined, due to injury. The 49ers only signed him to a 1-year, 1.7 million dollar deal, but he could prove to be a very worthwhile flyer if he can stay healthy and contribute in a rotational role. Bosa and hybrid player Arik Armstead elevate this position group significantly and they have some intriguing depth options as well.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Another key player on this defense over the past few years is linebacker Fred Warner. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Warner instantly became an every down player on this defense and hasn’t looked back, playing 62.4 snaps per game, missing just 1 game total across four seasons, and finishing above average on PFF in every season, including 1st and 12th ranked finishes among off ball linebackers in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Warner is one of the best true every down off ball linebackers in the NFL and, still only in his age 26 season, he should have several years left of his prime.

Warner isn’t the 49ers only talented off ball linebacker though. Dre Greenlaw was limited to 113 snaps in 3 games by injury last season, but Azeez Al-Shaair played pretty well in his absence, finishing as PFF’s 26th ranked off ball linebacker across 730 snaps. Greenlaw was a solid player across snap counts of 725 and 700 in 2019 and 2020 and showed signs improving further in 2021 before getting hurt, so he should reclaim his old role now that he’s healthy again, despite how Al-Shaair played in his absence. 

Al-Shaair should will likely still see a role in 2022 though, similar to the 335 snaps Marcell Harris played as the 3rd linebacker with Greenlaw hurt last season and, while the 2019 undrafted free agent is a one-year wonder as an above average every down linebacker, he also showed promise on 305 snaps in 2020 and should be more than qualified to be at least a solid 3rd linebacker in 2021. He should be a significant upgrade over Harris, who was PFF’s 66th ranked off ball linebacker out of 94 eligible in his limited role in 2021. Harris is no longer with the team and depth is a concern outside of their top-3, but they have arguably the best off ball linebacker in the league in Fred Warner and, with Greenlaw returning, they have arguably the best trio of off ball linebackers of any team that runs a 4-3 defense.

Grade: A

Secondary

The position group on this defense that had the biggest problem with injuries last season was the 49ers’ secondary. Jason Verrett was their top cornerback in 2020, finishing as PFF’s 9th ranked cornerback, and the 49ers were hoping he could do the same in 2021, but his season was ended by a torn ACL in week 1. That shouldn’t have been that surprising, as Verrett has somehow missed 90 of a possible 129 games in 8 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 1st round by the Chargers in 2014, but it was a damaging loss nonetheless. 

Emmanuel Moseley would have been a starter even if Verrett hadn’t gotten hurt, but he became even more important without Verrett and ended up missing six games of his own. K’Waun Williams was relatively healthy compared to Moseley and Verrett, but he still missed three games. With their top-3 all missing significant time, expected #4 cornerback Josh Norman led the position group in snaps played with 765 and he was horrible, finishing as PFF’s 125th ranked cornerback out of 134 eligible. Rookies Ambry Thomas (3rd round) and Deommodore Lenoir (5th round) also were both forced into action and struggled, on snap counts of 334 and 238 respectively. 

Going into 2022, the 49ers are hoping for better health. Josh Norman is gone, but that should be addition by subtraction, given how much he struggled a year ago. K’Waun Williams is also gone, but he was middling at best across his 647 snaps. Verrett and Moseley both return and are expected to be starters alongside free agent acquisition Charvarius Ward, who signed on a 3-year, 40.5 million dollar deal. That would leave youngsters Thomas and Lenoir as reserve options, with 5th round rookie Samuel Womack as a deep reserve.

In addition to his strong 2020 campaign, Verrett was also PFF’s 2nd ranked cornerback in the lone other relatively healthy season of his career and has overall played at a pretty high level when on the field in his career, but that other healthy season came all the way back in 2015 and he’s now in his age 31 season, with as concerning of an injury history as any player in the league, so it’s hard to expect him to both stay healthy and play around the level he has played at in the past. He’s a boom or bust player and his history has been more boom than bust, given how often he has gotten hurt.

Moseley doesn’t have the same upside as Verrett, but he’s a more reliable player, even if only by default, having missed 10 games over the past 2 seasons. Moseley played in every game in 2019 in the first season of his career in which he saw starting action (9 starts), and he has earned an above average grade from PFF in two of the three seasons since, but the 2019 undrafted free agent has been a bit inconsistent in his career and has never put together a full, healthy season as a starter, given that he didn’t enter the starting lineup until midway through 2019. Still only in his age 26 season, Moseley has the upside to be an above average starter, but he comes with a history of inconsistency and injury.

Charvarius Ward is the 49ers’ most reliable cornerback option, which is a good thing, given how much money they gave him, making him the 13th highest paid cornerback in the NFL. Ward has never played at that level, with the 2018 undrafted free agent’s best single season grade from PFF coming when he finished 40th among cornerbacks back in 2019, but he has made 41 starts over the past three seasons, while earning an average or better grade from PFF in all three seasons, so he should be a useful addition to this team, even if the 49ers did overpay a little bit. He’s also only in his age 26 season, so he could have further untapped potential and, at the very least, he is unlikely to decline significantly any time soon. Ward, Mosley, and Verrett could be a solid top-3 if they’re all healthy, but that is far from a guarantee and if one were to get hurt, the 49ers would be relying on an unproven young player in this absence.

Safety Jimmie Ward was their best defensive back a year ago and could remain their best defensive back in 2022. A first round pick in 2014, Ward was very inconsistent early in his career, in part due to injuries, which cost him 29 games over the first five seasons of his career combined, but he’s proven to be a little bit of a late bloomer, turning into a consistently high level safety over the past three seasons, finishing 7th, 16th, and 13th among safeties on PFF over the past three seasons respectively. 

Ward is in his age 31 season, meaning he is likely to begin declining soon, and, even though he has only missed six games over the past three seasons, he still only has played in every game just once in 8 seasons in the league, so he is likely to miss at least a little bit of time in 2022. However, he should remain at least an above average starter and, barring a major injury, he should be a significant asset for this secondary, even if he’s not as good as he has been in recent years.

The other starting safety spot is up for grabs after the 49ers opted not to retain the capable, but underwhelming and injury prone Jaquiski Tartt in free agency, ahead of his age 30 season in 2022. The most likely option is promoting 2nd year player Talanoa Hufanga, who was decent in limited action as a rookie, but he was just a 5th round pick and only played 395 snaps as a rookie, so he’s a big projection to a starting role and won’t be guaranteed to win the job. 

His biggest competition will be George Odum, a 2018 undrafted free agent and career backup who was decent in 472 snaps last season, but has made just 10 career starts, and Tavarius Moore, a 2018 3rd round pick, who was decent across 336 snaps per season in his first three years in the league, before missing all of 2021 with injury. All of their options are underwhelming, but Hufanga at least has some upside. This isn’t a great secondary overall, but it’s not a bad unit either and they should be significantly healthier than a year ago.

Grade: B

Special Teams

Special teams was the 49ers’ achilles heel in 2021, ranking 26th in special teams DVOA. They should be a little better in 2022, but they have a good chance to still be below average. Robbie Gould and Mitch Wishnowsky remain as the starting kicker and punter respectively. Ray-Ray McCloud was added as the primary return man, which should be a slight upgrade. George Odum was a big addition because he was a top-50 special teamer on PFF in 2021 and the 49ers didn’t have any top-50 core special teamers a year ago. However, overall this is still an underwhelming group.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The 49ers were one of the better teams in the NFC last year, ranking 6th in overall efficiency, going 10-7 despite a 3-5 record in one-score games and a -4 turnover margin, and coming within a blown 4th quarter lead of making it back to the Super Bowl. They did lose some talent this off-season, particularly on the offensive line, but they still have one of the more talented and complete rosters in the league. The question mark is going to be the quarterback position and whether or not first year starter Trey Lance can be an upgrade on Jimmy Garoppolo, who was productive in his tenure as the 49ers’ quarterback, but who also was injury prone, turnover prone, and benefited significantly from the talent around him. 

If Lance can break out as a top-15 quarterback, this could be a very dangerous team, but I don’t think I would project that from such an inexperienced quarterback. Even still, they should compete for a playoff spot and for the division, which looks like a two team race between them and the Rams. I have the Rams a little bit ahead of them for now and the 49ers won’t be guaranteed a wild card spot either, but this should still be an above average team. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC West

Baltimore Ravens 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Ravens had a very strange 2021 season, in many ways. First, they were ravaged by injury, starting even before the season began and continuing throughout the regular season, losing their top-3 running backs Gus Edwards, JD Dobbins, and Justice Hill and top cornerback Marcus Peters to season ending injuries during the pre-season and going on to have the most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league, by a significant margin.

Despite that, the Ravens began the season 8-3, the best record in the AFC at that point in the season, and they did so despite a -7 turnover margin, which is usually a good sign, as turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week basis and not predictive of future turnover margins. However, the Ravens needed a 6-1 record in one score games to get to that 8-3 record and then their injury situation went from bad to worse when they lost Lamar Jackson for the season with an ankle injury early in their week 14 game.

The Ravens’ turnover margin did stabilize somewhat going forward, as they were just -4 in their final 6 games, despite starting a backup quarterback for most of that stretch, and backup Tyler Huntley actually did a pretty decent job, completing 64.9% of his passes for an average of 5.75 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, adding 6.26 YPC and 2 touchdowns on 47 carries, and finishing the season as PFF’s 25th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible, not great, but certainly not bad for a backup.

However, the Ravens’ luck in close games completely flipped down the stretch, leading to them dropping each of their final 6 games of the regular season to fall from the #1 seed to out of the post-season entirely, with their only loss by more than one score during that stretch coming against the Bengals in a game started by third string quarterback Josh Johnson. With Huntley playing decently, the Ravens still finished last season 11th in offensive efficiency, but their defense was a problem for most of the season, ranking 28th in defensive efficiency, in large part due to injuries.

The Ravens once again excelled on special teams, leading the league in special teams DVOA, but they still finished just 14th in overall efficiency on the season suggesting, all things considered, the Ravens weren’t much better than their 8-9 final record in 2021. However, the Ravens were 14-2 in 2019 while ranking 1st in overall efficiency and 11-5 in 2020 while ranking 9th in overall efficiency, both much healthier seasons, so it’s not hard to see how they could bounce back in a big way in 2022 if they can stay even remotely healthier, after being arguably the most injury effected team in the league last season and still coming out of it with a slightly above average efficiency rating.

Jackson had a down year by his standards even before getting hurt, falling from 3rd among quarterbacks on PFF in 2019 to 15th in 2020 to 24th in 2021 prior to his injury, while seeing his QB rating drop from 113.3 to 99.3 to 87.0, but that probably is because of how much pass-heavier this offense got last year with their running backs hurt and their defense struggling. In 11 games he started and finished before his injury, Jackson averaged 34.4 pass attempts per game, up significantly from 26.7 in 2019 to 25.1 in 2020, to the point where Jackson actually had more pass attempts in those 11 games in 2021 (378) than he did in 15 starts in 2020 (376). 

Jackson also continued to be just as involved as a runner, averaging 11.9 carries per game in those 11 games, actually up from 11.7 carries per game in 2019 and 10.6 carries per game in 2020, giving Jackson a ridiculous usage total between pass attempts, sacks, and carries that extrapolates to 844 over a full 17 games (compared to 600 in 2019 and 564 in 2020), which would have led the league by a mile and could have, in part, led to Jackson suffering that injury, handling a monumental workload for a team that had significant issues around him. Jackson wasn’t quite as effective as a runner as he had been in the previous two seasons, but he still averaged a ridiculous 5.77 YPC, down from an even more ridiculous 6.60 YPC across 2019-2020 combined.

Expecting to be healthier at running back and on defense, the Ravens are likely to transition back to their run heavy 2019-2020 offensive scheme and they made some changes to the roster to that end this off-season, which I will get into in a little bit. Jackson may never be as incredible as he was in his MVP season in 2019 again, even if he goes on to have a great NFL career, but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see Jackson and this Ravens team bounce back to their 2020 level of play.

Jackson’s playing style will always make him more susceptible to suffering an injury than an average quarterback, but he had missed just one game due to injury prior to last season and he’s still only in his age 25 season, so I don’t expect him to suddenly become an injury prone quarterback. If he does happen to miss a little bit of time, the Ravens probably wouldn’t be in huge trouble, with Huntley having proven he can step in and be a B- version of Jackson in the same offensive scheme if needed. Huntley went undrafted in 2020 and might not have a huge ceiling long-term, but he’s also only in his age 24 season and fits what the Ravens want to do on offense. With one of the better quarterbacks in the league and a solid backup, the Ravens are in a pretty enviable quarterback situation.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, the Ravens made moves this off-season with the goal of making this offense more like their 2019-2020 versions. One of those moves was trading away #1 wide receiver Marquise Brown, which wasn’t really their choice because Brown wanted a big contract extension and to play in a pass heavier offense, both of which conflicted with the Ravens’ team building strategy, leading to him demanding a trade, and the Ravens still got a first round pick out of it, which they used to fortify the interior of their offensive line.

That leaves the Ravens with a very thin depth chart at wide receiver, but the Ravens’ #2 and #3 wide receivers on their dominant 2019 team were Willie Snead and Seth Roberts, who finished with slash lines of 31/339/5 and 46/584/7 respectively, while their 2020 offense had significant snap counts played by Snead (33/432/3), Miles Boykin (19/266/4), and Devin Duvernay (20/201/0), behind Brown as the #1 receiver. Both years, the tight end position was more important to their passing game than wide receivers, which figures to be the case again in 2022, especially after the Ravens used a pair of 4th round picks on tight ends Isaiah Likely and Charlie Koler.

The Ravens are hoping Brown’s #1 wide receiver role can be replaced by second year wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who was underwhelming with a 1.26 yards per route run average in 12 games in a generally injury plagued first year in the league, but who also was a first round pick a year ago and still has the upside to be a high level wide receiver long-term. Brown only averaged 1.69 yards per route run across his three seasons with the Ravens, so, while Brown did lead Ravens wide receivers in yardage in all three seasons, it wouldn’t be that hard or that surprising for Bateman to be similarly effective in 2022 and beyond, assuming he can be healthier than he was as a rookie.

That leaves holdover wide receivers Devin Duvernay (602 snaps) and James Proche (211 snaps) to be their #2 and #3 receiver behind Bateman, with 2021 4th round pick Tylan Wallace (85 snaps) likely to see a bigger role in year two. Duvernay has averaged just 0.83 yards per route run since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2020, while Proche is a 2020 6th round pick with a career 1.20 yards per route run average in very limited action, so this is a very inexperienced and underwhelming group behind Bateman, but there is at least some upside.

With this offense being pass heavier than recent memory in 2021, top tight end Mark Andrews exploded for a 107/1361/9 slash line, 6th most receiving yards in the NFL and most among tight ends, with a target total of 153, 9th most in the NFL. That’s up significantly from having target totals of 50, 98, and 88 that led to slash lines of 34/552/3, 64/852/10, and 58/701/7 in his first three seasons in the league from 2018-2020 respectively, but, even with this offense being run heavier this season, I could still see Andrews having another big receiving yardage year, with the focus back on the tight end position in this offense and Andrews, now in his age 27 season and very much in his prime, being by far their best receiving option at the position. 

Even if his raw total isn’t as big again this year, he’s been a highly efficient player throughout his career, averaging a dominant 2.25 yards per route run which, along with his solid run blocking, has led to him finishing 6th, 2nd, 5th, and 1st among tight ends on PFF in his four seasons in the league respectively, since being drafted by the Ravens in the 3rd round in the 2018 NFL Draft. Extended on a 4-year, 56 million dollar deal last off-season, making him the 4th highest paid tight end in the league in average annual salary, Andrews is likely to be well worth that going forward, especially as other tight ends get paid and push him down the average salary ranking.

The addition of Likely and Koler in the 4th round of the draft signals a shift back to a more tight end focused offense, but the return of veteran Nick Boyle from an injury plagued 2021 campaign is probably more important in the short-term than either draft pick and Boyle is likely to be the #2 tight end over the rookies as long as he’s healthy. Boyle’s health may still be a question mark though, with his injury going back to the middle of the 2020 season, costing him the final half of that campaign and limiting him to just 94 underwhelming snaps in 5 games in 2021.

That was a huge loss because Boyle is one of the top run blocking tight ends in the league when healthy, finishing in the top-12 among tight ends in run blocking grade on PFF in every season from 2018-2020 prior to getting hurt, and he can contribute a little bit as a receiver as well, with a decent 1.17 yards per route run average for his career. Even if he’s not at his best, Boyle has a good chance to remain an above average run blocking tight end, which would make him a useful part of the Ravens’ run heavy offense. 

One of Likely and Koler could still be involved though, as #3 tight end Hayden Hurst was in 2019 when this offense was at its best, playing 457 snaps, mostly as a blocker, but also averaging an impressive 1.69 yards per route run and making this offense very difficult to defend, with most teams around the league unequipped to deal with a team with a dominant running game, a dual threat quarterback, a strong offensive line, and the ability to effective pass out of multiple tight end sets. The Ravens are banking on that continuing being the case in 2022, given that they have one of the thinnest wide receiver groups in the league.

Grade: B

Running Backs

With essentially their entire running back depth chart wiped out by injury before the season even began, the Ravens were forced to turn to signing a pair of veterans looking for work late in the off-season in Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray and giving them 133 carries and 119 carries respectively. Both backs were pretty effective, averaging 4.33 YPC and 4.21 YPC respectively, while having carry success rates of 59% and 58% respectively, 3rd and 9th among eligible running backs respectively, but they benefited from Lamar Jackson’s dual threat ability keeping defenses honest against the run and the Ravens are expecting more out of this group in 2022 now they’re healthier.

How the carries will be broken out remains to be seen, but JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards had a 128/105 carry split in the final 11 games of the 2020 season and they were likely to see a similar split as their two primary backs before getting hurt last season, so something around there is what I would expect to see in 2022. Dobbins was a 2nd round pick in 2020 and averaged an impressive 6.01 YPC average on 134 carries as a rookie, so he has a lot of upside long-term, even if his torn ACL dampens his outlook somewhat and could limit him in his first year back.

Edwards, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2018, but was effective as part of a tandem in 2018-2020 prior to getting hurt, averaging 5.20 YPC with 10 touchdowns on 414 carries and being a perfect fit for this offense because of his ability to run between the tackles at 6-1 238, with defenses frequently bringing in smaller, more athletic linebackers to try to defend Lamar Jackson sideline to sideline. Edwards probably won’t see a significant uptick on the 138 carries per season he had in the three years prior to his injury and he might not be 100% right away in his return from a torn ACL, but he has a good chance to remain an effective between the tackles runner. Both he and Dobbins will continue to benefit significantly from defenses having to worry about Jackson’s dual threat ability.

Also returning from a serious injury, Justice Hill probably won’t see a significant role in 2022 and could even be on the roster bubble. He might have been on the bubble last year even before getting hurt, with the 2019 4th round pick showing very little on just 83 touches in his first two seasons in the league, and now he has a torn achilles on his resume, and the Ravens have added further depth to this position, with veteran Mike Davis being signed in free agency and a 6th round pick being used on Tyler Badie, who has some long-term potential.

Davis will probably have a role in the passing game even if he doesn’t see a significant amount of carries, as neither Edwards (0.69 career yards per route run) nor Dobbins (0.55 career yards per route run) do much in the passing game, while Davis has experience as a passing down back and has at least a decent 1.05 yards per route run average in his career. The Ravens don’t utilize their running backs much in the passing game anyway, with just 49, 47, and 62 catches by Ravens running backs over the past three seasons respectively, but Davis could have a 30-40 catch season and will provide insurance as a runner, likely to be better than the mediocre 3.70 YPC he has averaged on 550 career carries, in an offense that is very conducive to impressive running back production. As long as they stay remotely healthy, this should be a better position group than a year ago.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Ravens are also getting a key player back from injury on the offensive line, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley set to return after missing essentially a season and a half, including all but 68 snaps in 2021, with an ankle injury. Stanley is only in his age 28 season was a huge part of their offensive success in his last full season in 2019, finishing 3rd among offensive tackles on PFF, after finishing 29th, 21st, and 15th in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively, and before being PFF’s 19th ranked offensive tackle in 2020 at the time of his injury. He might not be quite at his best in his first year back, but he should still be a welcome re-addition for a team that replaced him with veteran Alejandro Villanueva last year, a was a middling starter who opted to hang them up this off-season ahead of what would have been his age 34 season in 2022.

The offensive lineman that the Ravens selected with the first round pick they got out of the Marquise Brown trade was Tyler Linderbaum, who will replace free agent departure Bradley Bozeman at center. Bozeman was PFF’s 11th ranked center in 2021, so he won’t be a small loss, but Linderbaum is one of the better center prospects of the past decade and could easily be an above average starter as a rookie and for years to come. The Ravens also added veteran Morgan Moses on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal and he figures to take over as the starting right tackle.

With Villanueva playing at left tackle for most of the year, that pushed Patrick Mekari into action at right tackle and he was solid, earning an average grade from PFF across 762 snaps, but Moses could be a little bit of an upgrade, having finished average or better on PFF in 7 straight seasons, while making 112 of a possible 113 starts at right tackle over that stretch and finishing in the top-20 among offensive tackles on PFF three times, including a 15th ranked finish as recently as 2020. Moses is now in his age 31 season and could decline a little bit, but he hasn’t shown any signs of decline yet and has a good chance to remain at least a solid starter even if he declines a little.

Moses being added will likely send Mekari to the bench, where he gives them a versatile reserve who can play anywhere on the offense line, who is only in his age 25 season, and who has generally held up well in 25 career starts in three seasons in the league (3 at guard, 10 at center, 12 at tackle). It’s possible Mekari could be a candidate to start at left guard, but that’s the only position up for grabs on this offensive line and Mekari seems like a long shot, with other good candidates in the mix as well. 

Ben Powers earned a middling grade from PFF across 12 starts at left guard last season, after earning a middling grade from PFF at right guard in the first 7 starts of his career 2020, so he is likely to remain the starter, but he could face competition from 2021 3rd round pick Ben Cleveland, who played 367 nondescript snaps as a rookie, and Tyre Phillips, a hybrid guard/tackle who has struggled on 807 career snaps since being drafted in the 3rd round by the Ravens in 2020. Powers is likely the favorite for the job, which would leave Cleveland and Phillips as useful reserves with upside, along with Mekari and 4th round rookie tackle Daniel Faalele.

The only offensive lineman locked into the same position where he saw significant action in 2021 is right guard Kevin Zeitler, who was PFF’s 12th ranked guard in his first season in Baltimore last season. Zeitler is now going into his age 32 season and will start to decline soon, but he’s never finished worse than 32nd among guards on PFF in 10 seasons in the league, while starting 151 total games and finishing in the top-15 among guards on PFF seven times, so, even if he does decline, he has a good chance to still be a solid starter, barring a significant dropoff, which isn’t likely. This should be an above average offensive line in 2022 and one with good depth.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned, injuries were a problem for the Ravens on defense last season as well, a big part of the reason why their defense regressed significantly from the previous two seasons, finishing 28th in defensive efficiency, after finishing 7th in both 2019 and 2020. One key injury was to veteran Calais Campbell, by far their top interior defender. Campbell technically only missed two games with injury, but there were three other games where he was active, only to play just 42 snaps combined across the three games.

Campbell still fared well when on the field, earning above average grades against the run and as a pass rusher and finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked interior defender overall across 615 snaps, but he was also limited to just 410 snaps in 12 games by injury in 2020 and now heads into his age 36 season, so it’s very likely his best days are behind him and a significant dropoff is definitely a possibility at this point. Campbell has finished in the top-10 at his position 7 times in the past 8 seasons, so, even if he isn’t anywhere near his best, he could still be an above average starter, but I wouldn’t expect him to be as effective as he was a year ago and he could easily miss more time with injury.

Fellow interior defender Brandon Williams also missed four games with injury in 2021, but he struggled when on the field, finishing 109th out of 146 eligible interior defender across 447 snaps, and was not retained this off-season, as was the case for fellow struggling veteran Justin Ellis, who finished the 2021 season as ranked 108th among interior defenders across 381 snaps. The biggest veteran replacement for Williams and Ellis will be Michael Pierce, a familiar face who spent his first four seasons in the league with the Ravens (2016-2019) and who figures to be a significant upgrade on Williams and Ellis, but who also has a concerning history of injuries and durability problems.

In Pierce’s four seasons in Baltimore, he was an effective run stopper at 6-0 340 who finished 14th, 11th, 4th, and 44th among interior defenders on PFF in run defense grade in the four seasons respectively, while also adding a 6.9% pressure rate as a pass rusher. Pierce never played more than 594 snaps in a season though, averaging 460 per season across his four years in Baltimore. He only missed four games total, but his size/conditioning make it tough for him to play a bigger every down role, leaving him at a snap count of 30.6 per game with the Ravens, even though has the ability to be effective both as a pass rusher and a run stopper. 

Despite his conditioning issues, Pierce still signed a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal with the Vikings following his tenure in Baltimore, but he opted out of the 2020 season and was limited to 251 snaps in 8 games by injury in 2021, before being released this off-season and coming back to Baltimore on a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar deal. Pierce was effective in his limited action in Minnesota, ranking as PFF’s 11th ranked interior defender in 2021 when he was on the field, but he is now heading into his age 30 season and is unlikely to be able to play a bigger role than he did in his last stint in Baltimore. Barring a significant drop off or significant time missed with injury, he should still be a highly effective rotational player for them, but he comes with some risk given his history of injury and durability issues.

Aside from the aging Campbell and Pierce, the Ravens are otherwise going with a youth movement at the position. They used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on Travis Jones, who could have a rookie year role, and they also have third year players Justin Madubuike and Broderick Washington who could both take on larger roles in 2022, now that Williams and Ellis are both gone. Madubuike already had a snap count of 482 last season and was decent, if unspectacular in that role, after flashing potential on 259 snaps as a rookie. A 3rd round pick in 2020, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had a little bit of a breakout year in 2022, and, even if that’s not a guarantee, he’s likely to be able to remain a solid player even in a larger role. 

Washington, on the other hand, struggled on 161 snaps as a rookie, but was better on 293 snaps in 2021 and could be a useful rotational player in a bigger role, even if that’s not a guarantee. The Ravens also brought back another familiar face in veteran Brent Urban, who has been a useful rotational player throughout most of his career, including his first five seasons in the league with the Ravens from 2014-2018, but he’s missed 57 games in 8 seasons in the league with injury, he’s coming off of the worst PFF grade of his career, and he now heads into his age 31 season, so it’s unclear how much, if any, he has left in the tank. He won’t be guaranteed a roster spot in what looks like overall a better position group, with dead weight veterans Brandon Williams and Justin Ellis being cleared for promising young players, as well as the re-addition of Michael Pierce in free agency.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Ravens are also going with a youth movement at the edge defender position as well, opting not to bring back veterans Justin Houston (577 snaps) and Pernell McPhee (234 snaps), who were effective in their roles last season, but who are now heading into their age 33 season and age 34 season respectively. Starters Odafe Oweh (615 snaps) and Tyus Bowser (832 snaps) are both younger players and both remain starters in 2022, while David Ojabo was added in the 2nd round of the draft, but Bowser is coming off of a torn achilles suffered in week 18 of 2021, which could easily limit him in the beginning of the year, while Ojabo is also coming off of a torn achilles that he suffered in the pre-draft process, which will likely cost him most of his rookie year, so depth is going to be needed at the position.

The young player with the biggest opportunity to step up and be the depth they need at the position is 2021 5th round pick Daelin Hayes, who played just 4 snaps in a disappointing and injury plagued rookie season, but who still has the upside to develop into a useful player long-term and who has the opportunity to earn a significant role, especially early in the year, with Bowser and Ojabo on the mend. The Ravens also added cheap veteran reinforcements in Vince Biegel and Steven Means, but both would be underwhelming options, even in a limited role.

Biegel at least has some upside, as the 2017 4th round pick earned a slightly above average grade from PFF across 627 snaps in his third season in the league in 2019, faring well as run defender and pass rusher (10.7% pressure rate), before tearing his achilles, missing all of 2020, and struggling to work back into the rotation in 2021, playing just 7 snaps total. Biegel is still only going into his age 29 season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he bounced back to 2019 form, now another year removed from his injury, but 2019 is also the only season of his career in which he’s played more than 121 snaps, so he’s a complete one-year wonder in terms of even being a solid player in a significant role. He’s not a bad depth option, but he definitely comes with some downside.

Means, on the other hand, comes with almost no upside, spending most of his first seven seasons in the league as a special teamer (48 defensive snaps played per season from 2013-2019), being forced into snap counts of 645 and 693 respectively over the past two seasons respectively on a terrible Falcons defense, and struggling mightily in those significant roles, finishing 91st out of 124 eligible edge defenders and 127th out of 129 eligible edge defenders respectively, with a horrendous 5.0% pressure rate combined between the two seasons. Even in a relatively thin position group, Means shouldn’t be guaranteed a roster spot.

With Bowser and Ojabo working back from injury, Oweh is likely to lead this position group in snaps played and, given that he was a first round selection in 2021, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him take a step forward in year two, after earning a slightly above average grade from PFF as a rookie. Bowser doesn’t quite have the same upside as Oweh, but he was a 2nd round pick in 2017, he’s still in his prime in his age 27 season, and he’s coming off of a career best year in 2021, prior to getting hurt, finishing as PFF’s 26th ranked edge defender, playing the run well, leading the team with 7 sacks, while adding 8 hits and a 11.8% pressure rate, and even showing the ability to drop into coverage well, something he did on 39.2% of his pass defense snaps last season, playing kind of a unique role on this defense.

Bowser had never played more than 540 snaps in a season prior to 2021, so he’s a one-year wonder at that level and, of course, his injury situation adds more concern, but he earned an above average grade from PFF in 2020 across that snap count, as he did in 2019 across 389 snaps, so he had shown plenty of potential prior to his mini-breakout year in 2021. He probably won’t be 100% in the first half of the season, but he could be back to normal by the second half of the season and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he continued being an above average starter going forward. Ojabo, meanwhile, is unlikely to see much action as a rookie, but he could have been a top-10 pick prior to the injury, so he obviously has a lot of upside long-term as well. Depth is a concern behind the top-3 of Oweh, Bowser, and Ojabo, especially concerning given that Bowser and Ojabo are both coming off torn achilles tendons, but their top-3 does have a significant upside.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Off ball linebacker was also a position of weakness last season, but injuries weren’t really the culprit. The Ravens used a first round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on linebacker Patrick Queen, who has played 858 snaps and 826 snaps respectively for the Ravens over his first two seasons in the league, but he has mostly struggled, finishing 98th out of 99 eligible and 78th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF over the past two seasons. 

Queen is an above average blitzer and got better against the run in year two, earning a middling run defense grade from PFF, but the 42 tackles he’s missed over the past two seasons are the most in the NFL regardless of position over that stretch and he has consistently struggled in coverage as well. Only in his age 23 season, Queen still has a high upside and time to improve on the aspects of his game that need improvement, but even if he takes another step forward in year three, he could still remain a below average every down option.

At the other off ball linebacker spot, the Ravens had a trio of players see at least somewhat regular action in Josh Bynes (537 snaps), Chris Board (337 snaps), and Malik Harrison (171 snaps). Bynes mostly played an early down role, but he excelled in that role, finishing in the top-14 among off ball linebackers on PFF in overall grade for the third time in the past four seasons, finishing in the top-14 among off ball linebackers on PFF in run defense grade in each of those three seasons as well. Bynes is heading into his age 33 season, so some regression is definitely possible in 2022, even if he could still remain a useful base package player.

Board is no longer with the team, after posting a middling grade on PFF in his limited action last season, a departure which, combined with Josh Bynes’ age, should open up a bigger role for Malik Harrison, who was selected in the 3rd round in the same draft as Queen. Harrison struggled to get on the field thus far in his career though, despite an underwhelming depth chart, playing just 436 snaps in two seasons in the league, while showing very little promise even in that limited role. 

Harrison still has upside and is only in his age 24 season, but he may be running out of time to develop into a useful role player and could easily struggle in 2022 if forced into a significant role. He’ll be their top reserve by default, with none of their other off ball linebackers locked into a roster spot. With Queen struggling thus far in his career, Bynes being an aging role player, and questionable depth, this is a position group with some significant concerns.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The secondary was definitely the Ravens’ most injury plagued defensive unit last season. With Marcus Peters already out for the year with a torn ACL before the season began, the Ravens were hoping to have a top cornerback trio of Marlon Humphrey, Tavon Young, and Jimmy Smith, but Humphrey and Smith were limited to 746 snaps in 12 games and 293 snaps in 10 games respectively by injury and, while Young played all 17 games, he struggled, finishing the year as PFF’s 84th ranked cornerback out of 134 eligible across 550 snaps. 

Anthony Averett, expected to be the 4th or 5th cornerback back before all of the injuries, led all Ravens cornerbacks in snaps played with 807 and finished as PFF’s 107th ranked cornerback out of 134 eligible. On top of that, starting safety DeShon Elliott was lost for the year after six games, leaving Brandon Stephens to start and struggle in his absence, finishing the season as PFF’s 87th ranked safety out of 98 eligible across 742 snaps.

Humphrey and Peters should return as the top-2 cornerbacks in 2022, with the Ravens signing free agent Kyle Fuller to a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal to replace the aging Jimmy Smith as the #3 cornerback and then using 4th round picks on Jalyn Armour-Davis and Damarion Williams for depth purposes, with Tavon Young and Anthony Averett also not being retained this off-season. DeShon Elliott is another player who wasn’t retained this off-season, but the Ravens aimed higher at the safety position to replace him, making ex-Saint Marcus Williams the 8th highest paid safety in the league in average annual value on a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal in free agency and then using the 14th overall pick on Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton. 

The Ravens also still have safety Chuck Clark, who has started 44 games over the past three seasons, including 32 of a possible 33 over the past two seasons, and who has played pretty well in those three seasons, finishing above average or better on PFF in all three seasons, including top-30 finishes in 2019 and 2020. Only in his age 27 season, Clark is still very much a starting caliber safety, giving the Ravens a trio of starting caliber safeties. 

How exactly the Ravens plan to use their safeties remains to be seen, but it’s very likely they use three and even four safety sets with regularity in sub packages to mask their lack of depth at linebacker and cornerback, with Brandon Stephens being an option as the 4th safety. Stephens struggled in 2021, but he was only a 3rd round rookie and still has the upside to be a useful player long-term, with the versatility to play safety, linebacker, and slot cornerback.

Clark and Hamilton also have slot and linebacker versatility as well, while Marcus Williams is a pure prototypical deep safety. The Ravens paid Williams handsomely, but he’s been one of the best in the league in that role over his five seasons in the league, finishing above average on PFF in all five seasons, including four finishes in the top-8 among safeties, while starting 76 out of a possible 81 games over that stretch. He’s also still very much in his prime in his age 26 season, coming off an 8th ranked finish among safeties on PFF on the franchise tag in 2021, so he has a very good chance to live up to his contract or to even prove to be a bargain, as other safeties get paid over the next few years and push him even further down the average annual value rankings.

Assuming they’re healthy, Humphrey and Peters should both be big re-additions, particularly Peters, who they didn’t have at all last season. Peters will be more than a full year removed from the injury by week 1, so he has a better chance than most players coming off of a torn ACL of being 100% in their first year back, but he also has been very inconsistent in his career even when healthy, finishing in the top-16 among cornerbacks on PFF in three of his six healthy seasons in the league, but finishing outside of the top-50 in the other three seasons, so it’s unclear exactly what the Ravens will get from Peters in 2021. He’s still relatively in his prime though, in his age 29 season, and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over the players who struggled in his absence last season.

Humphrey, on the other hand, did play the majority of the season last year before a shoulder injury ended his year, but he actually had a career worst year, even if he still did finish 49th among cornerbacks on PFF, slightly above average. Humphrey finished a career best 13th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2020 and is a former first round pick who is still only in his age 26 season, so has obvious bounce back potential in 2022. He and Peters have a good chance to be an above average cornerback duo, even with Peters’ history of inconsistency, which would be a huge boost for the Ravens at a position of significant weakness a year ago.

Fuller’s outlook isn’t as optimistic though, which explains why he was available so inexpensively this off-season. Fuller was one of the better cornerbacks in the league in his prime, finishing 29th and 8th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively, but he only earned middling grades from PFF in 2019 and 2020 in his final two seasons with the Bears and then struggled mightily in his lone season in Denver in 2021, finishing 127th out of 134 eligible cornerbacks across 719 snaps. 

Now heading into his age 30 season, Fuller is highly unlikely to ever bounce back to his prime form and could easily continue struggling, even in a #3 cornerback role, which is a concern, because the Ravens only have inexperienced young players behind him on the depth chart. The Ravens have three good safeties and two good cornerbacks, but several of those players are coming off significant injuries and depth is still a concern behind them, which hurts their overall grade for this position group. Still, it’s hard not to see how they’ll be significantly better in this group compared to last year’s injury plagued group, and that improvement will have a big effect on this defense as a whole.

Grade: A-

Special Teams

Special teams was the Ravens’ biggest strength in 2021, leading the league in special teams DVOA and doing it by a wide margin. That’s not all that surprising, as the Ravens have a head coach in Jim Harbaugh with a special teams background and have consistently invested in their special teams throughout his tenure with the team, leading to consistently good special teams results, including 10 straight above average seasons in special teams DVOA. 

Uncoincidentally, that 10-season stretch dates back to the addition of kicker Justin Tucker as an undrafted free agent in 2012, with Tucker having one of the best kicking careers in NFL history over the past decade. In total, Tucker has made 326/358 field goals in his career, giving him the highest field goal percentage of all-time, and 382/386 extra points, despite playing most of his career after they changed the extra point distance, while finishing in the top-3 among kickers on PFF seven times, with five finishes as the #1 overall kicker, including during the 2021 season, a big part of their overall special teams success last season.. Tucker is unlikely to decline significantly in 2022 and the same is true of the rest of this special teams unit. 

The Ravens did lose long-time talented punter Sam Koch to retirement this off-season, and he still finished as PFF’s 8th ranked punter in his final season in the league in 2021, but the Ravens used a 4th round pick to replace him with Jordan Stout, who should be at least a solid option as a rookie. Devin Duvernay returns as the primary return man, a role he played pretty well last season, so only key player the Ravens lost and didn’t replace on this defense was Chris Board, who, along with Tylan Wallace, were the Ravens’ two top core special teamers in 2021, with both finishing in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF. Board will be missed, but Wallace still remains and overall this still looks like one of the best special teams units in the league.

Grade: A

Conclusion

In 2021, the Ravens fell to 8-9 and 14th in overall efficiency, after a 2019 season in which they were 14-2 and ranked 1st in efficiency and a 2020 season in which they were 11-5 and ranked 9th in efficiency, but it’s not hard to see how injuries were the primary culprit, affecting their defense, their running backs, their offensive line, and, most importantly, costing quarterback Lamar Jackson almost six games. Likely to be much healthier in 2022, the Ravens have a good chance to get back into the post-season, even in a deeper AFC. Their dominant 2019 campaign is probably out of reach for this team, but they could easily have a performance similar to 2020. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC North

Green Bay Packers 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Two off-seasons ago, the Packers made the decision to move up in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft to select a potential franchise quarterback of the future in Jordan Love, rather than adding a supporting player around Rodgers or a defensive player, after falling short in the NFC Championship game the prior year. If the Packers thought Rodgers was on the decline, the move made sense, going into Rodgers’ age 37 season in 2020, but if the Packers thought that, they thought wrong, as Rodgers as bounced back with back-to-back MVP campaigns, having arguably the best two-year stretch of his Hall of Fame campaign, completing 69.8% of his passes for an average of 7.98 YPA, 85 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions combined across the two seasons, while going 26-6 in the regular season and finishing 1st and 4th among quarterbacks on PFF in the two seasons respectively.

Normally, Rodgers’ high level of play would be a good thing, but the Packers have failed to get it done in the playoffs in either season and the decision to select Rodgers’ replacement led to a rocky relationship between him and the front office, leading to Rodgers demanding a trade and threatening retirement last off-season, putting the team in a very tough position. Making matters worse, Jordan Love has failed to develop behind the scenes, leaving the Packers without a viable replacement if they had accommodated Rodgers’ request. Rodgers ultimately returned in 2021, but with the understanding that he would get future concessions this off-season, including potentially the accommodation of his trade request.

It seemed like Rodgers might request a trade to an organization where he felt he had a better chance to win, especially with #1 wide receiver Davante Adams seemingly likely to be elsewhere long-term, unhappy with being franchise tagged by the Packers. However, instead the only concessions Rodgers got out of his holdout was more money, becoming the highest paid quarterback in the league in terms of average annual average on a 3-year, 150.815 million dollar extension that is functionally fully guaranteed, keeping him in Green Bay for the foreseeable future. That’s despite the fact that Adams was traded to the Raiders for a first and a second round pick, with Adams preferring to play with his college teammate Derek Carr long-term over Rodgers, who is now in his age 39 season and has openly contemplated retirement.

Overall, it doesn’t seem like Rodgers got much out of his staring contest with the front office outside of more money and, while Adams may have left either way, Rodgers’ perpetual wishy-washiness about his future probably in some way contributed to Adams feeling that he would be off better elsewhere long-term. Rodgers still should remain one of the better quarterbacks in the league, but at his age, he probably won’t quite match his level of play from the past two seasons, even though he would probably need to elevate his level of play for this offense to be as good as they have been the past two seasons (5th and 4th in efficiency rating), to make up for the loss of his top receiver.

Jordan Love remains as the backup, but he doesn’t seem to have any long-term future in Green Bay and likely would have been traded this off-season if the Packers could have gotten a good offer for him. Love made his first career start in Rodgers’ absence last season and played the second half of their meaningless week 18 game against the Lions, but he didn’t show much, completing just 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.63 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, leading the Packers to two of their four losses all season. 

Love could still have untapped upside and could be a better backup this season, but with Rodgers now under contract significantly longer than Love, it’s likely that if Love ever gets a chance to be a full-time starter it will be elsewhere. Rodgers has also stayed mostly healthy throughout his career, only missing multiple games twice in 14 seasons as a starter. Needless to say, Rodgers continuing to stay healthy is key to the Packers’ ultimate goals this season, though Love could potentially hold down the fort for a few games if needed if he takes a step forward as a quarterback.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

It wasn’t just Davante Adams leaving this off-season, after finishing 1st among wide receivers in overall grade on PFF and totaling a 123/1553/11 slash line with 2.82 yards per route run, as the Packers also lost fellow starter Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who only had a 26/430/3 slash line, but that’s largely due to the fact that he missed 6 games with injury and he still averaged a decent 1.43 yards per route run. The Packers also didn’t find any obvious replacements for Adams this off-season, only taking a veteran flyer on Sammy Watkins and adding a trio of wide receivers in the draft, 2nd round pick Christian Watson, 4th round Romeo Doubs, 7th round Samori Toure, who have varying upside, but are not necessarily likely to contribute in a big way right away.

Those four newcomers will compete for roles with a few holdovers, Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard, who saw significant roles last season, and Amari Rodgers, a 2021 3rd round pick who couldn’t break into a weak depth chart as a rookie, playing just 103 offensive snaps, but who still has upside long-term. Cobb has by far the most experience playing with Aaron Rodgers in this offense, spending the first 8 years of his career in Green Bay from 2011-2018, before spending a year each in Dallas and Houston and returning to the Packers in the 2021 season. 

Cobb averaged 1.68 yards per route run in his first stint in Green Bay and 1.49 yards per route run last season, but he only had a 28/375/5 slash line last season because he only played 371 snaps last season as a slot only option who missed 5 games with injury. Cobb also now heads into his age 32 season, having missed 19 games over the past 4 seasons combined, so he’s not a reliable option and probably won’t be more than a role player in this offense, even with plenty of opportunity opening up with Adams and Valdes-Scantling departing.

Lazard finished second on this team in receiving last season, with both Valdes-Scantling and Cobb missing significant time with injury, and the 2018 undrafted free agent is now heading into his 5th year with the team, after being re-signed this off-season. He has a good chance to take on a much bigger role this season, but he also only re-signed for 1-year, 3.986 million, so he isn’t locked into a role and he hasn’t been all that impressive thus far in his career, with his 40/513/8 slash line last season being a career high in receiving yardage. Lazard also averaged just 1.19 yards per route run to get to those totals in 2021 and, while his career average of 1.47 yards per route run is better, it’s still middling at best. Last season was also the biggest role of his career, with just 716 snaps played and 60 targets both being career highs, and he’s a projection to an even larger role.

Most likely, Lazard will compete for the primary outside receiving roles with Christian Watson, the highest drafted and most talented of their draft picks, and Sammy Watkins, with Cobb as the primary slot receiver and Amari Rodgers and the other young receivers providing depth with upside. Watkins also only signed a 1-year, 1.85 million dollar deal this off-season though, which suggests he’s also not guaranteed a role. 

Watkins once looked like was going to be one of the best wide receivers in the league for years to come, getting drafted 4th overall in 2014 and averaging 2.29 yards per route run with a 66/1016/7 slash line per 16 games in his first three seasons in the league. He missed 11 games between his 2nd and 3rd season in the league though, including 8 with a broken foot during his 3rd season in 2016, and he hasn’t been the same since, getting traded before the 2017 season, and averaging just 1.32 yards per route run in 5 seasons since, despite playing on some great offenses with the Rams, Chiefs, and Ravens. Injuries have remained a problem as well, missing at least some time in all five of those seasons, meaning his last full season was his rookie year.

Watkins is also coming off the worst season of his career from a receiving yardage standpoint, averaging 1.45 yards per route run, managing just a 27/394/1 slash line in 13 games, and getting phased out of the offense down the stretch, with his last catch coming in week 13. Watkins is still only going into his age 29 season, but it’s unlikely he has any upside remaining at this point. He could be productive due to volume in a wide open position group, but the Packers also are likely to spread the ball around to a bunch of receivers and Watkins is unlikely to be all that efficient either way.

With an unsettled group at wide receiver, the Packers could lean more on the tight end position in 2022, but their options are underwhelming at tight end as well. Robert Tonyan had a 52/586/11 slash line as Rodgers’ primary receiving tight end in 2020, averaging 1.58 yards per route run, but the 2017 undrafted free agent was a one-year starter and he was not in the middle of the same kind of season (1.06 yards per route run) when he suffered a torn ACL last year, ending his season and reportedly having him questionable for the start of this season. Even if he is ready for week 1, the chances of him bouncing back to his 2020 form are slim, having only shown that level of play for a full season once in his career, coming off of a significant injury.

Josiah Deguara was their primary receiving tight end in Tonyan’s absence last season and would remain in that role if Tonyan missed more time. Deguara was a 3rd round pick in 2020, so he also could see a role even if Tonyan is able to return for the start of the season, but Deguara wasn’t overly impressive in the first significant action of his career last season, averaging just 1.13 yards per route run and finishing as PFF’s 35th ranked tight end out of 44 eligible across 367 snaps. He could be better in year three, but I wouldn’t expect him to suddenly break out as a starting caliber tight end.

Veteran Marcedes Lewis also had an expanded role in the passing game without Tonyan last season and was actually decent, averaging 1.45 yards per route run, but that is his highest single season average since 2010, so it’s unlikely to happen again. Lewis is also heading into his age 38 season, though the big 6-6 270 pounder has yet to show many signs of declining further over the past few seasons, showing little pass catching ability, but remaining one of the better blocking specialists in the league. 

A significant drop off for Lewis is always a possibility considering his age, which would be a blow to this offense because they don’t have a good alternative run blocker, but Lewis also could just as easily remain a good blocking specialist. This is a very unsettled receiving corps, but there is some upside here and, even without anything resembling a true #1 receiver, Aaron Rodgers will probably make the most out of this group, spreading the ball around to multiple receivers.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Running backs also figure to be a big part of the Packers’ passing game, possibly even more so than a year ago, when they attempted 106 passes to running backs, converting them into 79 catches. Aaron Jones was the Packers’ feature back in 2019 and 2020 and was their primary pass catching back in 2021, playing the majority of the passing snaps and totaling a 52/391/6 slash line with 1.24 yards per route run, but their other running back AJ Dillon was actually the one who led this team in carries (187 vs. 171 for Jones) and he had a significant passing game role as well, averaging 1.57 yards per route run, significantly more efficient than Jones, while totaling a 34/313/2 slash line.

Jones was re-signed by the Packers as a free agent last off-season on a 4-year, 48 million dollar deal that makes him the 7th highest paid running back in the league, after averaging 5.17 YPC on 651 carries and averaging 1.21 yards per route run across his first four seasons with the team that drafted him in the 5th round in 2018, but Dillon was a 2nd round pick in 2020 and, while he was drafted at a time when Jones’ long-term future with the team was in doubt, he has more than earned at least an equal share of the carries with Jones. Dillon’s 4.30 YPC was below Jones’ 4.67 YPC average in 2021, but Dillon consistently ran in tougher running situations and kept the offense on schedule more often, leading the league with a 63% carry success rate, with Jones ranked 32nd at 50%.

Overall, Dillon finished his second season in the league as PFF’s 3rd ranked running back, while Jones ranked 6th in his own right, his 3rd season in the top-6 among running backs on PFF in five seasons in the league (top-15 all in all 5 seasons). Dillon didn’t have much of a role as a rookie and is still relatively inexperienced, but he was highly efficient as a rookie as well and his lack of touches thus far in his career could help him stay fresher long-term, especially with Jones still around to split the workload with him. This tandem should be very effective together this season and it wouldn’t be a surprise if Dillon took over a larger workload, especially on passing downs, where he showed a lot of promise last season.

Depth isn’t a huge need at this position because either Jones or Dillon are capable of being the feature back for a few games if the other is injured, but the 3rd running back job is likely to go to either 2021 7th round pick Kylin Hill, who had 10 carries as a rookie, or 2020 undrafted free agent Patrick Taylor, who had the first 23 carries of his career last season, making them the only other running backs on this roster with any NFL experience. Still, this is one of the best backfields in the league, given the two backs atop the depth chart.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

If there is a good reason to expect the Packers to remain as good on offense as they were last season even without Adams, it’s the Packers’ offensive line, which was a weakness last season, primarily due to the fact that they were arguably the most injury plagued offensive line in the league. Already without center Corey Linsley from the year before, replacing the departed free agent and PFF’s #1 ranked center in 2020 with a 2nd round rookie Josh Myers, the Packers also were without left tackle David Bakhtiari for most of the season while he recovered from a torn ACL that he suffered before last year’s playoffs, limiting him to only 27 snaps in a meaningless week 18 game in 2021, struggling so much in that game that he was inactive in the post-season, despite being a top-11 offensive tackle on PFF in the previous 4 seasons, including three finishes in the top-2.

On top of that, Josh Myers missed most of the season with an injury of his own, limited to 293 snaps in 6 games, forcing expected starting guard Lucas Patrick to move to center, where he finished 33rd out of 41 eligible at the position, while fellow expected starting guard Elgton Jenkins moved to left tackle in Bakhtiari’s absence and had been excelling, ranking 12th among offensive tackles on PFF in 8 starts, prior to suffering a torn ACL of his own, which puts his status for the start of 2022 in doubt. With right tackle Billy Turner missing four games of his own this season, the Packers routinely started 3-4 players every week that they were expecting to be backups or that they were expecting to start at a different position.

Jenkins, Bakhtiari, and Myers all should see more action this season than the year before, but this is still an unsettled group. Bakhtiari and Myers will likely go back into their starting roles at left tackle and center respectively. Bakhtiari is unlikely to be as good as he has been in the past, coming off of a significant injury, now heading into his age 31 season, but his return should still be a big boost for this offense, while Myers showed some potential as a rookie and could develop into a solid full-time starter in his second season in the league, which would made him an obvious upgrade on Lucas Patrick, who struggled for most of last season and is no longer with the team.

Whenever he returns, Jenkins could kick back inside to guard, where he finished 20th and 25th at the position across 14 starts and 16 starts in the 2019 2nd round’s first two seasons in the league respectively, or he could stay at tackle where he was having the best year of his career pre-injury and move over to the right side, replacing departed free agent Billy Turner, who earned a slightly above average grade from PFF across his 13 starts. Wherever Jenkins ends up, he should be at least an above average starter, but he could miss time and it’s very possible he isn’t 100% when he returns. 

If Jenkins moves back inside, Yosuah Nijman, who made 8 starts at left tackle last season when Baktiari and Jenkins were both out, would likely then be the right tackle. Nijman was decent in his starts last season, but he is still just a 2019 undrafted free agent who had never made a start in his career prior to last season, so he would be a projection to a full-time starting role, even if he could still ultimately wind up as a capable starter. If Jenkins stays outside, the starting guards will likely remain Royce Newman and Jon Runyan, who both made 16 starts at guard last season, with Jenkins moving to left tackle and getting hurt and Lucas Patrick moving to center.

Runyan, a 2020 6th round pick, earned a slightly above average grade from PFF in his first full season as a starter and will likely remain a starting guard in 2022 regardless of what happens elsewhere on the line, with Newman being much more likely to move to the bench if Jenkins moves back inside than Runyan is. Runyan is still unproven and wasn’t drafted highly, so he might not have a huge upside and could regress a little in 2022, but he also could remain a solid starter long-term. Newman also has some upside, but the 2021 4th round pick struggled as a rookie, finishing 70th out of 90 eligible guards on PFF, and would probably be best as a backup.

The Packers also added Sean Rhyan and Cameron Tom in the 3rd and 4th round of this year’s draft and, while Rhyan was a collegiate tackle and Tom played both tackle and center in college, both could project best as guards long-term. It’s unlikely either seriously pushes for a starting job as a rookie though, barring injuries or significant struggles ahead of them on the depth chart, but they could still provide valuable, versatile depth, much needed on an offensive line with several key players coming off of injury. This should be a much better group by default than last year, just as a result of their improved health, even if they probably still don’t have the same upside as a unit as they had in 2020.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Packers were healthier on defense than offense in 2021, having the 7th fewest adjusted games lost to injury on defense, as opposed to the 8th most on offense, mostly concentrated on the offensive line. However, the few injuries the Packers had on defense impacted some of their best players, including edge defender Za’Darius Smith, who was PFF’s 15th ranked edge defender in 2020 and their 2nd ranked edge defender in 2019, but played just 18 snaps last season before going down for the season with a back injury.

The Packers actually got good play in his absence though, with Rashan Gary and Preston Smith finishing 5th and 13rd respectively among edge defenders on PFF across 681 snaps and 688 snaps respectively, playing well enough that the Packers decided to part ways with Smith this off-season, releasing him ahead of a 15.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for his age 30 season in 2022. Some of that money went towards extending Smith on a 4-year, 52 million dollar deal, ahead of what would have been the final year of his contract in 2022, while some will likely eventually go to Gary, a 2019 1st round pick in the final cheap year of his rookie deal, owed 10.892 million guaranteed in 2023 and then likely due a significant raise on a long-term extension beyond that.

Both players could struggle to repeat their 2021 season though, given that they were the highest finishes of their careers on PFF. Smith is an experienced player, playing 748 snaps per season in 7 seasons in the league and earning an average or better grade from PFF in 6 of his 7 seasons in the league, but his previous best finish among edge defenders came when he finished 22nd in 2018, he’s now going into his age 30 season, and he actually had the worst season of his career as recently as 2020, when he was PFF’s 108th ranked edge defender among 124 eligible, so I would expect him to regress in 2022, possibly significantly, even if he is still likely to remain at least a solid starter, as he has been for most of his career.

Gary has a higher upside, as a recent high upside first round pick who is only in his age 26 season, but he’s much less proven, earning more middling grades from PFF on snap counts of just 244 and 456 respectively in his first two seasons in the league prior to last season’s breakout year. It’s possible he’s permanently turned a corner and will remain an elite edge defender or possibly even improve further, but he also could regress a little and find last season’s performance tough to repeat. He’s still likely to be an above average player either way though and he and Smith still made a good duo, even if they’re not likely to be as good together as they were a year ago.

Depth becomes the concern with Za’Darius Smith gone. Jonathan Garvin (396 snaps) and Tipa Galeai (152 snaps) were their top reserves a year ago, but they were just a 7th round pick and undrafted free agent respectively in 2020 and did not show much in the first notable action of their careers in 2021, so they are underwhelming options if one of their starters gets hurt. Without better options, however, those two will likely remain the top reserves, along with possibly Kingsley Enagbare, a 5th round rookie who would likely be too raw to see significant action in year one. With the starters likely to not be as good as a year ago and the reserves being a questionable bunch, this isn’t an elite position group, but Smith and Gary are still at least a solid edge defender duo with a high upside.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Packers lost reserve interior defenders Tyler Lancaster (318 snaps) and Kinglsey Keke (393 snaps) this off-season and Lancaster was a solid base package run stopper, while Keke was a solid sub package rusher, totaling 6.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 8.6% pressure rate in a part-time role in 27 games over the past two seasons, so those aren’t insignificant losses. However, the Packers have done a good job adding replacements for them this off-season and probably have a more talented position group overall as a result. 

The biggest addition they made was first round pick Devante Wyatt, who has a huge upside and should have a significant role immediately as a rookie. The Packers also signed veteran Jarran Reed to a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal in free agency and he figures to have a significant role as well. Reed has been a solid pass rusher through his 6-year career, with 24.5 sacks, 49 hits, and a 7.1% pressure rate in 89 career games, but his run defense has always left something to be desired, he’s never finished higher than 71st among interior defenders on PFF for a season, he’s now going into his age 30 season, and he’s coming off of a down 2021 campaign, in which he continued struggling against the run, but also managed just a 6.2% pressure rate and finished as PFF’s 122nd ranked interior defender overall out of 146 eligible across 711 snaps. 

Last season was the worst season of Reed’s career and he’s not necessarily going to be that bad again in 2022, but his best days are almost definitely behind him, and he isn’t much more than a decent rotational player at this point in his career, unlikely to see that same snap count in a deeper position group with the Packers. The Packers could also get more in 2022 out of 2021 5th round pick Tedarrell Slaton, who played 255 nondescript snaps in his rookie season as a reserve and who could be better in year two, even if his snap count remains around the same.

The Packers’ off-season additions most likely come at the expense of Dean Lowry’s playing time, with Lowry probably unlikely to see the 652 snaps per season he’s seen over the past four years. Lowry hasn’t been bad over that 4-year stretch though, holding up against the run and consistently rushing the passer, totaling 11 sacks, 10 hits, and a 7.7% pressure rate in 67 games, while earning at least an average grade from PFF in all four seasons, with his best years coming in 2018 (46th) and last season (36th). Still only in his age 28 season, having only ever missed one game due to injury in his career, Lowry figures to continue being a useful player in a rotational role in 2022, which could be his final season with the team, set to hit free agency next off-season, with the Packers seemingly drafting his long-term replacement in Devante Wyatt.

Kenny Clark was the Packers’ leader in snaps played at the position was 781 last season and he should have a similar snap count in 2022, even in a deeper position group, as he is one of their best overall defensive players and is too valuable to take off the field regularly. A first round pick in 2016, Clark became a starter in his 2nd season in the league and has not looked back, finishing 10th, 9th, 13th, 30th, and 15th among interior defenders across the past five seasons respectively on an average of 730 snaps per season, playing the run at a high level at 6-3 315 and also adding 22.5 sacks, 27 hits, and a 10.7% pressure rate in 73 games over that stretch. Still only in his age 27 season, with minimal injury history (8 games missed in 6 seasons in the league), I see no reason to expect anything different from him in 2022. He leads a position group that overall looks more talented than a year ago and could have a big upside, depending on how much of an impact the rookie Devante Wyatt has in year one.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The most surprising part of this defense last year and the biggest reason they were able to have a similar defensive performance in 2021 as they did in 2020 (16th in defensive efficiency in 2020, 17th in 2021) was the addition of De’Vondre Campbell, who was only signed to a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal in free agency, but who wound up playing at a high level as an every down player at a position that was a big weakness the year prior, finishing 3rd among off ball linebackers on PFF across 987 snaps.

That performance really came out of nowhere as it’s not as if Campbell was some unproven young player. Selected in the 4th round in 2016, Campbell had started 70 of the 75 games he played in his first 5 seasons in the league prior to last season, but he never finished higher than 31st among off ball linebackers on PFF in any of those seasons, doing so way back in 2017, while finishing 73rd out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers across 880 snaps as recently as the 2020 season, before suddenly breaking out as one of the best players in the league at his position in his 6th season in the league.

Given that, it’s reasonable to be skeptical that Campbell can repeat that performance or even come close to it in 2022, now in his age 29 season, but there’s no denying he’s earned the opportunity to continue playing every down and there’s a good chance he remains at least a solid player in that role, even if he is very unlikely to have an elite level season again. The Packers clearly agree he can be an every down player for them for at least the next couple years, giving him a huge raise ahead of free agency this off-season, making him the 11th highest paid off ball linebacker in the league in average annual salary on a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal that effectively guarantees him 21.5 million over the next two seasons.

With Campbell being unlikely to match last season’s performance, the Packers will need more from the rest of this linebacking corps, which remained a weakness last season, with Krys Barnes (526 snaps) and Oren Burks (206 snaps) finishing 62nd and 55th respectively among 101 eligible off ball linebackers as their top off ball linebackers after Campbell. However, the Packers addressed that need in a big way this off-season, using their other first round pick on Quay Walker, who figures to start and play a significant role opposite Campbell. 

Walker could have some growing pains as a rookie, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade on Barnes, a 2020 undrafted free agent who also struggled as a rookie (86th out of 99 eligible on 421 snaps) and now will be a reserve, and Walker has a sky high upside long-term as well. Campbell probably won’t be as good as a year ago and depth is still a concern beyond the starters, but Campbell and Walker are one of the few starting off ball linebacker duos who both could be above average in an every down role.

Grade: B+

Cornerbacks

Along with Za’Darius Smith, another key player who missed significant time with injury on this defense in 2021 was top cornerback Jaire Alexander, who was limited to just 219 snaps in 4 games by a shoulder injury. Like Smith, Alexander was one of the best players in the league at his position prior to the injury, being selected in the first round in 2018, finishing 32nd and 26th among cornerbacks on PFF in his first two seasons in the league, and then breaking out with a #1 finish among cornerbacks in 2020. Alexander also looked on his way to a similar season in 2021 before his injury, ranking 8th among cornerbacks on PFF at the time he got hurt.

Unlike the aging Smith, who the Packers moved on from this off-season, Alexander is still in the prime of his career, going into his age 25 season, so he obviously wasn’t going anywhere this off-season, in fact being kept long-term on a 4-year, 84 million dollar extension ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2022. That contract makes Alexander the highest paid cornerback in the league in average annual value, but he’s proven to be an elite cornerback when healthy and he has only missed 4 games in 3 seasons aside from last season, so he could easily prove to be a good value on that contract, especially as other top cornerbacks get paid and push him down the average annual value list.

The Packers actually got pretty good play in Alexander’s absence last season from another unlikely source, Rasul Douglas, who, like De’Vondre Campbell, had a breakout season out of nowhere. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Douglas had mostly been a part-time player throughout his career, earning mostly middling grades from PFF and finishing as PFF’s 71st ranked cornerback out of 136 eligible across a career high 821 snaps in 2020, before breaking out as PFF’s 19th ranked cornerback across 680 snaps in Alexander’s absence last season.

Douglas is only in his age 27 season and has a better chance to just be a late bloomer than Campbell, but there’s also a good chance he regresses significantly from a year ago. He could still be a useful player though and was not a bad re-signing on a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal. With Alexander returning, Douglas is more of a replacement for Chandon Sullivan, who struggled across 826 snaps last season, finishing 110th out of 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF, meaning Douglas is likely to be an upgrade. 

Second year cornerback Eric Stokes also remains and will start outside opposite Alexander, to give the Packers a top-3 of Alexander, Stokes, and Douglas. Stokes was a little inconsistent as a rookie, but the 2020 1st round pick still earned a slightly above average grade overall from PFF and has the upside to be a high-level cornerback long-term. Development is not always linear, but it shouldn’t be a surprise at all if he takes a significant step forward in year two.

The Packers should have a good top-3 cornerback trio, but depth looks like a big concern, with fellow experienced players Isaac Yiadom and Kevin King following Chandon Sullivan out the door this off-season. None of those players showed much last season, but they were at least experienced, which is more than you can say about the Packers’ reserves this season, with their top reserve candidates being 2021 5th round pick Shemar Jean-Charles, who played just 38 snaps as a rookie, primarily at safety, and Keisean Nixon, a 2019 undrafted free agent who has played just 273 snaps in three seasons in the league and who was only added this off-season after being waived by the Raiders. It’s a concerning situation with Alexander coming off of a significant injury and Douglas having a history of inconsistency.

At safety, Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage remain as the starters, both having been starters since joining the team before the 2019 season. Amos was a free agent acquisition and has proven to be a great value on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal, only being the 10th highest paid safety in the league in average annual value as of this writing and finishing 17th, 2nd, and 19th among safeties on PFF, continuing the high level of play he showed in his final two seasons in Chicago prior to signing with the Packers, when he finished 3rd and 10th respectively among safeties on PFF. Still only in his age 29 season, having shown no signs of slowing down and having only missed 4 games in 7 seasons in the league, Amos seems likely to continue his usual level of play in 2022.

Savage, on the other hand, was a first round pick and has given the Packers mixed results, starting all 46 games he has played in three seasons in the league, but going from a middling grade as a rookie, to a 10th ranked finish among safeties in what seemed like a breakout year two, to a career worst 69th out of 98 eligible safeties in his third season in the league in 2021, when he allowed a career high in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, while recording a career low amount of run stops. Savage is only in his age 25 season and still has time to develop into a consistently above average safety long-term, so I would expect him to be better than a year ago, but it’s possible he’s only better by default and doesn’t approach his 2020 level of play in 2022. 

Depth is also a concern at safety, with top reserve Henry Black, also an occasional coverage linebacker in sub packages, signing with the Giants this off-season, leaving Vernon Scott, a 2020 7th round pick who has played just 90 career snaps, and 7th round rookie Tariq Carpenter as their top reserve options, with hybrid cornerback/safety Shemar Jean-Charles also a candidate for a reserve role, all of whom would almost definitely struggle if an injury pushed them into the starting lineup for an extended period of time. The Packers have a good starting five in the secondary, but depth is a concern across the board, which hurts this group’s overall grade.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

Special teams was the Packers’ biggest problem a year ago, ranking dead last in special teams DVOA, and, while they could be a little better by default this season, things don’t look noticeably different. In fact, one of the few changes to this group this off-season was the departure of their top core special teamer Henry Black, their only core special teamer to finish in the top-50 at his position on PFF and someone who was not replaced this off-season.

Punter Corey Bojorquez has been replaced with Pat O’Donnell, but that is a lateral move, as O’Donnell has underwhelmed throughout his 8 seasons in the league with the Bears, including a 24th ranked finish out of 35 eligible punters on PFF last season. Mason Crosby returns after being one of the worst kickers in the league in 2021, finishing 31st among 36 eligible kickers on PFF. He’s been better in the past, with last year being his lowest PFF grade of his 15-year NFL career, but he’s also in his age 38 season now and could continue to struggle. The Packers’ return game was also an issue a year ago and, without better supporting play, that is likely to continue to be the case in 2022, unless second year returner Amari Rodgers can take a big step forward this season. Any way you look at it, this is likely to be one of the worst special teams in the league again this season.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Packers were likely to see their win total regress regardless in 2022, needing to go 6-3 in games decided by 8 points or fewer to go 13-4 last season, finishing with just a +79 point differential (10th in the NFL) and a 11th ranked overall efficiency. A high winning percentage in close games is tough to sustain long-term, with even Aaron Rodgers winning just 56.6% of the games he has played in his career which have been decided by 8 points or fewer. However, on top of that, the Packers will be dealing with the loss of Davante Adams on offense, while Rodgers is now going into his age 39 season and would have been unlikely to repeat two of the best seasons of his Hall of Fame career even if Adams didn’t leave.

The Packers will get key players like David Bakhtiari and Jaire Alexander back from injury, while Elgton Jenkins will likely return at some point, even if not week 1, but they also have players like De’Vondre Campbell, Preston Smith, and Rasul Douglas who could struggle to repeat by far the best season of their careers. This is still a strong team on paper, with a quarterback who is likely to be one of the best in the league even if he isn’t quite MVP caliber again, but their Super Bowl chances seem worse than a year ago. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Last year was the end of an era for the Steelers, the 18th and final season of Ben Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career in Pittsburgh, with the long-time starting quarterback opting to hang them up ahead of what would have been his age 40 season in 2022. Roethlisberger had a legendary career, but a change at quarterback was needed, as Roethlisberger’s performance had been a serious problem for this team the past couple years. After suffering an elbow injury that cost him most of the 2019 season, Roethlisberger was not the same in 2020 and 2021, completing 65.0% of his passes for an average of just 6.22 YPA, 55 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, while finishing 25th out of 42 eligible and 37th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF in the two seasons respectively.

The Steelers have still made the post-season with records of 12-4 and 9-7-1 respectively over the past two seasons, but they ranked 3rd in defensive efficiency in 2020, while going 7-2 in one-score games, and then in 2021 they went 8-2-1 in one-score games to sneak into the post-season despite a -55 point differential. Despite their records, their offense has struggled in both seasons, ranking 28th and 30th in offensive efficiency respectively, with Roethlisberger’s underwhelming play being a big part of the problem. Both seasons also ended in largely uncompetitive first round losses in the post-season, with the offense being a big problem in both games.

Even if Roethlisberger had returned, the Steelers almost definitely would not have the same success in close games, as that tends to be very unpredictable year-to-year, and, without that close game success, it would have been very tough to make it make to the post-season in 2022 without a significant improvement from their offense, which would have been very unlikely with Roethlisberger at the helm. Given that, it’s understandable that the Steelers seemed to be moving on from Roethlisberger one way or another this off-season, with Roethlisberger hinting that his “retirement” was not entirely mutual and that he would have played again for the Steelers in 2022 if they had wanted him.

The Steelers might not have found a significant upgrade for Roethlisberger though. This year’s draft was considered historically bad at the quarterback position, but the Steelers still opted to take the plunge and select University of Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett 20th overall, the only quarterback selected in the first two rounds of the draft and the latest first quarterback selected since 1997. Pickett was the most NFL ready quarterback in the NFL, but probably would have been a 3rd or 4th round pick in most drafts and would have been a 6th or 7th round pick a year ago, before a breakout senior season. He had a great final collegiate season and could be a low end starter in the NFL, but ultimately projects more as a backup long-term, even if he ultimately might still end up being the best quarterback in this draft class.

While the draft was not a promising route to find a quarterback this off-season, the veteran market, especially by trade, was much more active than usual, but the Steelers opted to sit out of the Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo, etc. trade market and only added a veteran by free agency, signing disappointing former Bears first round pick Mitch Trubisky to a 2-year, 14.285 million dollar deal with incentives if he starts a significant amount of games.

Trubisky was probably the best the Steelers could do in the free agent market this off-season and the former 2nd overall pick could still have some upside, as he is only in his age 28 season, he wasn’t totally terrible in Chicago despite being in a poor offensive scheme, and he spent last year sitting and learning on the bench behind Josh Allen in a much more successful offensive scheme in Buffalo, but there’s a reason why he wasn’t a starter anywhere last season.

In total, Trubisky completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 6.72 YPA, 64 touchdowns, and 37 interceptions in 50 starts with the Bears, while adding 5.33 YPC and 9 touchdowns on 203 carries on the ground and earning mostly middling overall grades from PFF. He would probably be a low-end starter if he won the starting job, but he at least has some upside and off-season reports are that he’s the heavy favorite to win the job, even if that might say more about the supposedly NFL ready Kenny Pickett than it does about anything Trubisky is doing at a high level.

Long-time Ben Roethlisberger backup Mason Rudolph is also technically in the mix for the starting role and he does know the system better than anyone, but that’s about all he has going for him, as the 2018 3rd round pick struggled mightily in the only extended starting experience of his career when Roethlisberger was hurt in 2019, completing 62.2% of his passes for an average of 6.24 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while finishing 37th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF. 

It’s possible Rudolph was just forced into action too early and he could be better if given a second chance to start, but Trubisky and Pickett still both look like stronger options and, with his 3 million dollar salary not guaranteed, it’s not a sure thing that Rudolph is even kept on the final roster as a third quarterback, even in an unsettled position group. Most likely multiple quarterbacks will see starts for this team in 2022, with Trubisky being the early favorite and Pickett likely to see action down the stretch unless Trubisky surprisingly plays well enough to keep the job all year.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Poor quarterback play hasn’t been the Steelers only problem on offense over the past couple years though. Another issue has been their offensive line, which was decent in pass protection in 2021, ranking 15th in pass blocking grade on PFF, but also struggled in run blocking, ranking 24th. That figures to remain the case in 2022, as not much has changed on this unit. They gave a 3-year, 25 million dollar deal to former ex-Bear James Daniels, who is only in his age 25 season and has finished above average on PFF in all four seasons of his career, including a career best 20th among guards in 2021, but he’s mostly a replacement for free agent departure Trai Turner, who played right guard for the Steelers last season and was PFF’s 23rd ranked guard as a 17-game starter. 

The Steelers also gave a 3-year, 15.75 million dollar deal to Mason Cole to at least compete with 2021 3rd round pick Kendrick Green at center, after he finished his rookie season 35th out of 41 eligible centers across 15 starts, but Cole isn’t necessarily going to be a significant upgrade. Cole was a 3rd round pick in 2018 by the Cardinals and started 16 games as a rookie, but he finished his rookie season 36th out of 39 eligible centers on PFF and was sent to the bench for his 2nd season, only playing 211 snaps. 

Cole found his way back in the starting lineup in 2020, making 14 starts, but again struggled, finishing 34th out of 39 eligible centers on PFF, leading to the Cardinals trading him to the Vikings for a 6th round pick prior to the 2021 season. Cole was a reserve in Minnesota, but played pretty well in limited action on 471 snaps, suggesting it’s possible he could still develop into a solid starter, only in his age 26 season. That’s far from a guarantee though and he could easily continue struggling in 2022. It’s possible Green ends up making starts at center again if Cole struggles.

Whichever of Cole or Green ends up as the starter, the other will provide depth across the interior, with Green and Cole both having the versatility to kick to guard if needed. Kevin Dotson remains locked in as the starter at left guard and, if he can be healthier in 2022, after being limited to 565 snaps in 9 games by injury last season, that should be at least somewhat of a boost for this group, as he was their best offensive lineman when healthy last season, even if only by default, earning a slightly above average grade from PFF. 

A 4th round pick in 2020, Dotson also finished his rookie season 29th among guards on PFF, albeit across 358 snaps. Run blocking has been a problem for him, but he has excelled as a pass protector, finishing 1st and 5th among guards on PFF in pass protection grade in the past two seasons respectively, and, even though he’s inexperienced and a projection to a full-season role, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had his best season yet and broke out as at least an above average full season starter in his third season in the league in 2022.

Tackles Dan Moore and Chukwuma Okorafor remain on the left and right side respectively, with the latter returning after the Steelers kept him on a 3-year, 29.25 million dollar contract in free agency this off-season. Okorafor isn’t terrible, but that’s a rich contract for a player who has finished 78th among 93 eligible offensive tackles and 60th among 88 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in the past two seasons respectively, the only two seasons of his career as a starter. Okorafor was a 3rd round pick by the Steelers in 2018 and is still relatively young in his age 25 season, so the Steelers are probably betting on him becoming better going forward, but that’s not necessarily a guarantee and he could easily remain a mediocre starter at best.

Moore, meanwhile, was a 4th round rookie last season and predictably struggled, even more than Okorafor, finishing 75th among 88 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in 16 starts. The Steelers didn’t add any competition for him, so they seem to still believe in him long-term, but there’s also a good chance he struggles again in his second season in the league, even if he does ultimately develop into a solid starter long-term. I’d expect him to be a little better in year two, but not noticeably. 

Veteran Joe Haeg remains as the swing tackle behind Moore and Okorafor and also has the versatility to kick inside to guard if needed. A 5th round pick in 2016, Haeg wasn’t bad as a starter in his first two seasons in the league with the Colts (29 starts), but he’s settled in as more of an above average, versatile reserve over the past four seasons, making just 11 starts total. He’s still only in his age 29 season though and has earned an above average grade from PFF for a season 4 times in 6 seasons in the league, so he should remain at least a good reserve option this season and could easily hold his own as a spot starter for an extended period of time if needed. This is still a mediocre offensive line overall though.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Steelers’ running game wasn’t that effective last season, ranking 29th in the NFL with 3.85 YPC, in large part due to their run blocking issues. First round rookie Najee Harris was the feature back last season and had 307 carries, 2nd most in the NFL, but he averaged just 3.91 YPC on those carries, in part because of run blocking problems and in part due to his own unspectacular play, finishing 36th among 64 eligible running backs in rushing grade, good, but not great. Harris also played a significant passing down role, but also was not efficient in that aspect of his game, averaging just 1.00 yards per route run.

Harris has a lot of talent and would probably be more effective in a smaller role, especially with better blocking, but his blocking situation doesn’t look significantly better this season and the Steelers didn’t add any running back help behind him this off-season, meaning Harris is likely to see just as big of a role as he did last season, when his 978 snaps played were most in the NFL among running backs by a significant amount, with no one else playing more than 808. He could possibly see even more carries, with the Steelers likely wanting to be more run-heavy this season, after ranking 4th in the NFL in pass attempts with 664 and just 28th in carries with 411 last season. Harris is likely to be among the league’s leading rushers, but he probably won’t be all that efficient in the process.

Benny Snell only played 110 snaps last season, with only 36 carries, but that still made him their #2 back, a role he will likely continue serving in this season. Snell was a 4th round pick in 2019, but has shown nothing in three years in the league, averaging just 3.50 YPC on 255 carries, as well as just 0.52 yards per route run as a passing down back. The only other running backs on their roster with any experience at all are 2020 4th round pick Anthony McFarland, who has a 3.22 YPC on 36 career carries, and 2017 undrafted free agent Trey Edmunds, who has just 31 carries in five seasons in the league.

Without a better option than Snell for the #2 running back role, depth would be a big problem if Harris were to get hurt, which has a greater than average possibility, given the huge workload he is expected to have for the second straight year. Harris is also likely overstretched in that workload and would probably be more effective if he had another capable back behind him. It’s surprising they didn’t add to their backfield at all this off-season, aside from undrafted free agents.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The Steelers’ receiving corps has been a relative strength for the Steelers over the past two seasons, but it was still a position of need this off-season, as the Steelers opted not to retain three wide receivers that saw at least somewhat significant roles at the position last season, JuJu Smith-Schuster (222 snaps), who began the year as a starter before getting hurt in week 5, as well as James Washington (479 snaps) and Ray-Ray McCloud (536 snaps), who saw significant roles in Smith-Schuster’s absence last season. None of them produced much, all averaging fewer than a yard per route run, but the only notable replacements the Steelers added were rookies, 2nd round pick George Pickens and 4th round pick Calvin Austin.

Both have upside, especially Pickens, but they might not be that reliable in year one. The Steelers don’t really have a choice but to rely on one at least one side of them for a significant role though, with no other good options on the roster, as their veteran options Miles Boykin, Gunner Olszewski, Anthony Miller, and Steven Sims totaled just 9 catches between the four of them last season. It wouldn’t be hard for the Steelers’ rookies to be an upgrade on the wide receivers who the Steelers let go of this off-season, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be efficient or effective.

With questionable depth behind them, the Steelers will rely heavily on their two top wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. Johnson was Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite target the past two seasons, ranking 8th in the NFL in targets in 2020 with 144 and 2nd last season with 169. He’s posted good slash lines, 88/923/7 and 107/1161/8 respectively, but those are actually underwhelming considering how many targets he has gotten.

Over the past two seasons, Johnson has ranked 27th and 10th in the NFL in receiving yardage, which is good, but much lower than his rank in targets, while averaging 1.83 yards per route run and 6.66 yards per target over the two seasons total. Roethlisberger definitely loved targeting him, but it’s unclear if whoever the Steelers’ new quarterback is will have the same preference. Johnson will probably still be the team’s leader in targets, but if that’s more like 120-130 than 150-160, that will have a noticeable effect on his production.

Claypool would probably be the primary beneficiary of Johnson seeing a smaller target share and he’s been the more efficient player of the two over the past two seasons, since being selected in the 2nd round in the 2020 NFL Draft, averaging 8.10 yards per target, as well as a 1.84 yards per route run average, despite not seeing nearly the same target share as Johnson (109 targets and 105 targets respectively). Only going into his age 24 season with a huge athletic ceiling, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Claypool had a bigger passing game role and broke out in his third season in the league in 2022.

Tight end Pat Freiermuth is also a candidate for a larger passing game role, after averaging 1.26 yards per route run as a 2nd round rookie in 2021, a decent average for a tight end, and posting a 60/497/7 slash line in close to an every down role. Also a good blocker, Freiermuth finished his rookie season as PFF’s 9th ranked tight end in overall grade and he has the upside to develop into an above average starting tight end for years to come long-term. I would expect an uptick on the 79 targets he had last season and for him to be a more effective player as well.

The Steelers also still have #2 tight end Zach Gentry, who played 473 snaps last season and wasn’t a terrible pass catcher (1.04 yards per route run), but who is mostly just a blocking tight end, a role he will remain in this season, and who probably wouldn’t produce much if he had to start to Freiermuth’s absence. Johnson, Claypool, and Freiermuth are solid options, but this is largely an unspectacular group, with depth concerns.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Steelers’ defense has a big drop off from 2019-2020 to 2021, falling from 3rd in defensive efficiency in both 2019 and 2020 to 20th in 2021. Given the Steelers’ issues on offense and that they are highly unlikely to continue winning close games at the rate they have been the past two seasons, the Steelers are going to need their defense to perform at a level much closer to their 2019-2020 defense than last year’s defense. Part of the reason for their decline is simply that elite defensive performance tends to be very hard to maintain year-to-year, compared to elite offensive performance. 

While an elite offense is largely quarterback driven, which usually remains steady year-to-year, an elite defense usually needs 7-9 players playing at an above average level and with defensive players leaving in free agency, getting hurt, or regressing on a regular basis in the NFL, it becomes very tough to maintain that high level of play every year. For the Steelers, all three happened to some of the key players on their dominant 2020 defense.

Two key players who got hurt were interior defenders Stephon Tuitt, who missed the whole season, and Tyson Alualu, who was limited to just 57 snaps in 2 games. In 2020, Tuitt played an every down role in 15 games (779 snaps), struggling against the run a little, but still earning PFF’s 23rd highest overall grade among interior defenders and their 13th highest pass rush grade among interior defenders, adding 11 sacks, 15 hits, and a 14.5% pressure rate, despite almost exclusively rushing from the interior. Alualu, meanwhile, played a smaller role (488 snaps), but excelled as a situational run stopper, finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked interior defender overall and their 7th ranked in terms of run defense grade.

Alualu is expected back in 2022, but he’s now in his age 35 season and, while he could remain a useful situational player, he’s unlikely to repeat his dominant 2020 season, now two years and a major injury later, so he’s not a real difference maker upfront for this group. Tuitt could have been, but he opted to hang them up this off-season, retiring early for injury and personal reasons, ahead of what would have been his age 29 season. 

This still wasn’t a bad group in 2021 though, as long-time dominant interior defender Cameron Heyward remained and played at his usual level, finishing in the top-7 among interior defenders on PFF (2nd) for the 4th time in 5 seasons, and Chris Wormley did a good job of stepping into the starting lineup, finishing as PFF’s 31st ranked interior defender across 729 snaps, after playing just 148 snaps as a sparingly used reserve in 2020. The Steelers also added further to this group this off-season, adding DeMarvin Leal in the third round of the draft and veteran Larry Ogunjobi in free agency.

Heyward hasn’t shown any signs of decline yet, but age is still a big concern for him, as he’s heading into his age 33 season and is a candidate for a big drop off, which would make it very tough for this defense to return to their 2020 form. Heyward would still probably be a well above average every down player even if he wasn’t his usual self, but it would have a noticeable effect on this defense if he wasn’t as dominant as usual, as he has totalled 65.5 sacks, 87 hits, and a 10.6% pressure rate in 134 games from the interior over the past 9 seasons, while playing at a high level against the run as well.

Wormley has a decent chance to repeat last season’s performance. It was the best year of his career and by far his highest snap total, but, before hardly playing in his first season in Pittsburgh in 2020, Wormley earned slightly above average grades from PFF in the previous two seasons with the Ravens on snap counts of 401 and 446 respectively and he was a former 3rd round pick, back in in 2017. A pretty consistent run defender, Wormley has also had a 7.7% pressure rate for his career and, only in his age 29 season, has a good chance to remain at least a solid starter, if not a significantly above average one.

Ogunjobi will also see a big role and he might seem like a steal on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal because he originally agreed to a 3-year, 40.5 million dollar deal with the Bears earlier this off-season before a failed physical, but that was a massive overpayment, an overpayment so bad that negative fan reaction to the move might have actually led to the Bears pushing for Ogunjobi to be failed medically, recovering from a foot injury that needed surgery.

Ogunjobi has been mostly healthy in his career, missing just 3 games in 4 seasons in the league, while averaging 769 snaps per season, and he has an impressive sack total over those 4 seasons with 20.5, but that’s largely due to volume, as his peripheral pass rush stats aren’t great (7.3% pressure rate over that stretch) and he has generally struggled against the run, leading to him earning middling at best overall grades from PFF in every season in his career except his rookie campaign in 2017 when he was a reserve. That includes a 103rd ranked finish out of 146 eligible interior defenders across 724 snaps in 2021.

Ogunjobi’s addition at least gives the Steelers better depth in 2022, along with the return of Alualu and the draft selection of Leal, which is important because their reserves behind Heyward and Wormley didn’t show much last season, with Isaiahh Loudermilk (288 snaps) Montravius Adams (171 snaps), Henry Mondeaux (244 snaps), and Isaiah Buggs (227 snaps) all seeing action, but none of them earning more than an average grade from PFF. All but Buggs return for 2022, but none are expected to have significant roles barring injury and none are roster locks. 

Loudermilk was a 5th round pick so he probably has the best chance of the bunch to carve out a role, but that’s only by default, as Adams is a career reserve who has averaged just 176 snaps per season in 5 seasons in the league, while Mordeaux is a 2020 undrafted free agent who struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career in 2021. Led by Heyward and Wormley, this is a solid position group, with Ogunjobi, Leal, and Alualu being added or returning from injury to at least serve in situational roles as reserves, which was a problem area a year ago, but they don’t have nearly the same upside as they had in 2020 when they still had Stephon Tuitt and when Alualu and Heyward were earlier in their 30s.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Another key player from the Steelers’ 2020 defense that they didn’t have in 2021 was edge defender Bud Dupree, who earned an above average grade from PFF across 609 snaps in 2020, prior to signing in Tennessee as a free agent last off-season. The Steelers replaced Dupree by signing veteran Melvin Ingram in free agency to rotate with 2020 3rd round pick Alex Highsmith, who flashed a lot of potential on 440 snaps as a rookie, finishing 27th in overall grade on PFF among edge defenders in his limited role, and who had definitely earned more playing time.

Ingram was pretty good to start the season, but was unhappy with his limited role and demanded a trade, which he got when the Steelers sent him to Kansas City mid-season, after 246 snaps. That led to Alex Highsmith taking on an even larger role, but he was underwhelming across his 851 snaps in his 2nd season in the league in 2021, playing the run pretty well, but managing just a 7.7% pressure rate. Highsmith showed more pass rush potential as a rookie (9.7% pressure rate) and could be better in year three, but that’s not a guarantee and he’ll have to play an every down role again because the Steelers are even now thinner at this position than they were after moving on from Ingram last off-season, parting ways with all reserve edge defenders who played any snaps for this defense last year except one and not replacing them.

That one player is Derrek Tuszka, who finished last season with 248 snaps played and earned a significant role by mid-season, despite joining the team only after being a final cut of the Broncos, who selected him in the 7th round in 2020, but only gave him 27 rookie year snaps and then gave up on him before his second year. Tuszka was decent in his limited role last season and has earned a continued role, but he would obviously be a projection to a larger role if an injury happened ahead of him on the depth chart and it’s concerning that the Steelers don’t have any other good reserve options aside from him, with their next best option being Genard Avery, a hybrid edge/off ball linebacker who has played just 302 snaps per season between those two positions in 4 seasons in the league.

Fortunately, depth won’t be needed that much at this position because the Steelers’ top edge defender is probably the top edge defender in the league, TJ Watt, who almost never comes off the field aside from occasional breathers, playing 55.7 snaps per game over the past four seasons, while playing 62 of a possible 65 games. Watt missed two games last season and was limited in others, but that still didn’t stop him from tying the all-time single season sack record of 22.5, leading to him winning his first NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Watt added 14 hits and a 15.0% pressure rate last season, but he’s such a dominant player that last season was actually his lowest pressure rate of the past three seasons, despite his incredible sack total. 

In 2019, Watt had 14.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 15.9% pressure rate and then he followed that with 15 sacks, 27 hits, and a 15.2% pressure rate in 2020, while also playing the run at a high level and being the only edge defender in the league to finish in the top-4 among edge defenders on PFF in each of the past three seasons. Still very much in his prime in his age 28 season, I see no reason to expect anything different from him in 2022 and he could easily win another Defensive Player of the Year award or two at some point before his career ends. He significantly elevates an otherwise underwhelming position group, one with significant depth concerns. They can’t afford to lose Watt for any significant period of time if they are going to have a chance to play well enough defensively to even make the post-season in 2022.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The biggest free agent addition made on this defense this off-season was ex-Jaguar Myles Jack, who signed a 2-year, 16 million dollar deal, but he’s mostly just a replacement for fellow ex-Jaguar Joe Schobert, who was okay in his lone season in Pittsburgh in 2021, earning a middling grade from PFF across 921 snaps as an every down player, but not playing well enough to justify being brought back for a non-guaranteed 9.25 million, especially with Jack being cheaper and a possible upgrade.

Jack struggled mightily in his final season in Jacksonville, finishing 84th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF across 917 snaps, but he has obvious bounce back potential, still theoretically in his prime in his age 27 season, having finished in the 65th percentile or higher among off ball linebackers on PFF in three of the previous four seasons prior to last season, including a 15th ranked finish among off ball linebackers on PFF across 931 snaps as recently as 2020. A big bounce back is not a guarantee for him, but it’s certainly a strong possibility and I would expect him to at least be more passable than he was a year ago, the worst season of the 2016 2nd round pick’s career.

Devin Bush remains as the other starting off ball linebacker, also playing every down (762 snaps in 14 games in 2021) and also having a strong chance to bounce back after a down 2021 season, finishing 89th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF. The 10th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Bush struggled in a big way early in his rookie season, but turned it around quickly, ranking 19th on PFF among off ball linebackers from week 4 on. He seemed to be carrying that into year two in 2020, but a torn ACL ended his season after 278 snaps in 5 games and he did not seem to be at all the same player upon his return in 2021, leading to his terrible season, as well as another 3 games missed due to injury.

Still a first round talent, only going into his age 24 season, Bush has obvious bounce back potential, another year removed from the injury, and could still develop into an above average starting off ball linebacker long-term. It’s a possibility that 2022 is the best overall season of his career, if he can stay relatively healthy and show his pre-injury form for most of the season, something he never got to do before he got hurt early in his second season in the league.

Also returning is top reserve Robert Spillane, who has been a solid player on snap counts of 347 and 379 respectively over the past two seasons, holding up against the run and in coverage. He probably wouldn’t be a great starting option if forced into significant action, but he could probably hold down the fort for a few weeks if needed. Bush and Jack come with a lot of risk and downside, but the upside is there for them to be at least a solid starting linebacker duo and it wouldn’t be hard for them to be an upgrade over last season, when Schobert was middling at best and Bush was one of the worst off ball linebackers in the league, almost definitely still dealing with the effects of his 2020 injury.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Another key reason for the Steelers’ defensive decline from 2020 to 2021 was a significant decline in play by safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who had previously been one of the Steelers’ most important impressive players, finishing 11th and 7th among safeties on PFF in the 2019 and 2020 respectively, but who had a down year in a big way in 2021, only earning a middling grade overall from PFF. Especially struggling by his standards in coverage, Fitzpatrick allowed more catches and yards than he did the previous two seasons combined and saw his interception and pass deflection totals fall from 9 and 11 in 2019 and 2020 combined to just 2 and 4 in 2021.

Fitzpatrick is 2018 first round pick who is still only in his age 26 season, so he has a great chance to bounce back and be at least significantly better than he was a year ago, even if he doesn’t quite reach his 2019-2020 level of play, but a full rebound is certainly a possibility as well, which would have a very strong, positive effect on this defense as a whole. The Steelers still clearly believe in Fitzpatrick, making him the highest paid safety in the NFL in terms of average annual salary on an extension this off-season, adding on 4 years, 73.6 million to what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2022. It’s a lot of money, but if bounces back and proves to be a consistently high level safety, he will be worth it.

Fellow starting safety Terrell Edmunds also got a new contract this off-season, albeit a much cheaper one, re-signing in Pittsburgh on a 1-year, 2.385 million dollar deal. Edmunds was also a first round pick in 2018, but, as evidenced by his new contract, his career hasn’t gone nearly as well as Fitzpatrick’s, never finishing higher than 21st among safeties on PFF in four seasons as a starter (60 starts), including a 66th ranked finish among 98 eligible safeties on PFF in 2021. Edmunds is only in his age 25 season though and he’s never been a terrible starter in four tries, so it’s surprising he had to settle for this cheap of a one-year deal on the open market. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he took a step forward in 2022 and, even if he doesn’t, he should remain at least a capable starter, with the upside for more.

The Steelers also upgraded their safety depth this off-season, signing experienced veteran Damontee Kazee, who will almost definitely be an upgrade on last year’s #3 safety Tre Norwood, a 7th round rookie who was PFF’s 92nd ranked safety out of 98 eligible in limited action (388 snaps). Kazee was a 5th round pick in 2017 and seemed to have a breakout second season, finishing 22nd among safeties on PFF in 2018, but he hasn’t been better than middling in any of his other four seasons in the league, proving that 2018 campaign to be something of a fluke. Still, he’s a proven, experienced player with 49 starts in 69 career games and he’s good enough to be starting somewhere, so he’s good depth for the Steelers to have. He also has the versatility to play slot cornerback, as does Tre Norwood, which could be where Norwood moves full-time now with Kazee supplanting him as the 3rd safety.

At cornerback, the Steelers really missed departed free agents Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton from their 2020 defense, when they finished as PFF’s 44th ranked and 34th ranked cornerback respectively, across 908 snaps and 464 snaps respectively. Without them, the Steelers had problems at cornerback for most of the season, with players like Arthur Maulet (380 snaps) and James Pierre (415 snaps) seeing significant roles, especially early in the season, and struggling mightily, finishing 97th and 101st respectively out of 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF.

Things got better down the stretch when the Steelers inserted Ahkello Witherspoon in a big role, playing 366 snaps in 8 games from week 11 on after playing just 2 snaps all year prior to that, having only been acquired from Seattle by Pittsburgh right before the start of the season for a 5th round pick. Witherspoon was PFF’s 13th ranked cornerback from week 11 on, giving the Steelers a solid trio of cornerbacks with Witherspoon, Joe Haden, and Cameron Sutton, the latter of whom also had decent 2021 campaigns as starters. 

The Steelers retained Witherspoon as a free agent on a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal this off-season, but there’s a reason he was available for only a 5th round pick and a 1.5 million dollar 2021 base salary prior to last season and why he wasn’t expensive for the Steelers to retain this off-season, as the 2017 3rd round pick has been highly inconsistent and injury prone since entering the league, so there’s a very strong chance Witherspoon struggles to keep up the level he played at down the stretch last season for a full year.

Witherspoon has earned an above average grade from PFF in 3 of his 5 seasons in the league, but he’s played in just 56 of a possible 81 games, he’s never started more than 12 games in a season (36 total career starts), and he’s never played more than 700 snaps in a season. Still only in his age 27 season, with a lot of talent, it’s possible he could be a solid starter for a full 17 games in 2022, but his history would suggest something is going to go wrong at some point, whether an injury or a stretch of inconsistent play.

Cameron Sutton also returns as a starter and, while Joe Haden was not brought back this off-season, that was because Haden was going into his age 33 season and the Steelers found a younger replacement in Levi Wallace, signing him to a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal in free agency. Wallace went undrafted in 2018, but signed with the Bills, took over as a starter in week 10 of his rookie year, and hasn’t looked back since, making 52 starts in 4 seasons in the league. Wallace hasn’t developed into more than a solid starter, never finishing higher than 43rd among cornerbacks on PFF for a full season, but he’s also never had a bad season and is still only in his age 27 season, so he was a good, cheap signing for the Steelers at a position of need.

Sutton hasn’t developed into more than a solid starter either. Sutton was a 3rd round pick in 2017 and showed promise in limited roles in the first four seasons of his career (293 snaps per season, 8 total starts), but only earned an average grade from PFF in the first season of his career as a starter in 2021 (16 starts). He’s not a bad starter and he’s only in his age 27 season, so he should remain a capable starter, but he probably doesn’t have more untapped upside. Witherspoon seems like the only one of their top-3 cornerbacks who could be a significantly above average player in 2022, but he comes with a significant downside too. Depth is also a concern at the position, especially given Witherspoon’s injury history, as Arthur Maulet and James Pierre return and could be their top reserves behind their top-3. 

Maulet is a 2017 undrafted free agent who has never played more than 415 snaps in a season or earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season, while Pierre is a 2020 undrafted free agent who is very inexperienced aside from last season’s poor play, seeing just 30 snaps as a rookie. Tre Norwood could also earn a reserve role at cornerback, but he probably wouldn’t be much better there than he was at safety. Justin Layne was a 3rd round pick by the Steelers and still theoretically has upside and could be in the mix for a reserve role, but he hasn’t developed at all, playing just 151 career snaps with just 29 snaps last season, unable to get onto the field even in a position group that has been underwhelming at times. The Steelers should get better safety play this season with Minkah Fitzpatrick likely to bounce back in a big way from a down year, but cornerback play is a concern, especially if Ahkello Witherspoon can’t keep up his strong play from down the stretch in 2021.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Steelers finished right in the middle of the pack with a 17th ranked special teams DVOA last season and things are likely to remain similar in 2022. Kicker Chris Boswell and punter Pressley Harvin both return, as do core special teamers Ulysses Gilbert, Miles Killebrew, Robert Spillane, who were all among the top-50 on PFF in special teams grade. The only big difference for this group is they are swapping Ray-Ray McCloud, a solid return man, for Gunner Olszewski, also a solid return man. I would expect a capable special teams unit again.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Steelers’ defense will probably be better than a year ago, but I don’t expect them to be as good as they were from 2019-2020, when they were one of the best defenses in the league. Meanwhile, their offense looks likely to continue being one of the worst in the league, so, even if their defense is better, the Steelers are still unlikely to win as many games as they did a year ago, as they are highly unlikely to have the same record in close games. In a loaded AFC, it’s hard to see this team making the post-season, with a roster that ranks just 26th in average annual salary and looks that way on paper, with a team’s average annual salary of their roster correlating heavily with winning percentage. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC North

Minnesota Vikings 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into the 2021 season, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was firmly on the hot seat. He had made the post-season in 3 of his 7 seasons in Minnesota, including an NFC Championship appearance, and he overall had a winning record throughout his tenure, but head coaches usually don’t make it as long with team as Zimmer did without building a consistent winner or making a Super Bowl, so, going into his 8th season as head coach in 2021, having missed the playoffs the year prior, a second straight missed post-season would likely spell the end of Zimmer’s tenure following the 2021 season.

There were reasons to be optimistic about the Vikings going into last season though. The Vikings were a middling overall team in 2020 at 7-9, but they had an offense that ranked 3rd in offensive efficiency, with the team struggling to consistently win games as a result of their 28th ranked defense and their 31st ranked special teams, which are both less predictive year-to-year than offensive performance. The Vikings also figured to be significantly healthier and more talented on defense in 2021, as they were set to get key players back from injury after having the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury on defense in the league in 2020, and they were also adding some additional talent in free agency.

Things did not go as planned, however. The Vikings were barely healthier and barely better on defense, ranking 27th in defensive efficiency and 19th in adjusted games lost to injury on defense, with many of the same key players missing time again in 2021. Meanwhile, the Vikings’ offense fell off significantly, despite very similar personnel, in large part due to a significant downgrade at the offensive coordinator position, with Klint Kubiak struggling mightily to fill in his father Gary Kubiak’s shoes following the long-time coordinator’s retirement last off-season. The Vikings again finished out of the playoffs at 8-9 and Zimmer was predictably let go, along with the rest of his coaching staff.

As teams often do after firing a head coach, the Vikings found basically Zimmer’s opposite, replacing an older, stricter, defensive minded head coach in Zimmer with a younger, more innovative, offensive coach in Kevin O’Connell, who is just 37 years old and spent the past two seasons as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Rams. O’Connell never called plays with the Rams, but he did in his one year as the offensive coordinator in Washington, so he has varied experience, despite his young age, and the recent track record of hires from the McVay coaching tree has been positive, with Brandon Staley, Matt LaFleur, and Zac Taylor all having success away from the Rams. 

O’Connell brings former Rams tight end coach Wes Phillips with him from Los Angeles as his offensive coordinator, but O’Connell is expected to call the plays himself for what figures to be a much different, more innovative, pass heavy, and up tempo offensive scheme in 2022. Whether that leads to better results remains to be seen, but it would be hard for the Vikings to get less out of their talent on offense than they did a year ago, when they had a mediocre efficiency rating despite some very talented players who led this team to an elite efficiency rating just the prior year.

Along with almost everyone, quarterback Kirk Cousins saw his play decline from 2020 to 2021, with his completion percentage falling from 67.6% to 66.3%, his YPA average falling from 8.27 to 7.52, and his total passing yard total falling by 4, despite the fact that he threw 45 more passes. Cousins remained an above average starter though, as he has been since his first full season as a starter in 2015, completing 67.7% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 205 touchdowns, and 72 interceptions over that stretch, while finishing average or better on PFF in all 7 seasons, including 4th finishes in the top-10. 

Cousins has also never missed a game with injury over that stretch, although a late season COVID absence last year led to backup Sean Mannion starting and struggling in a key game in his absence, which had an effect on their season long efficiency. Cousins is only going into his age 34 season though and, barring another fluke absence, has a good chance to remain an above average starter and play the full season again in 2022.

The biggest problem with Cousins is his contract, which pays him like an elite quarterback even though he doesn’t regularly perform like one, which prevents the Vikings from having the financial flexibility needed to get all the talent around Cousins that he needs to be successful and potentially lead this team to a Super Bowl, with Cousins set to make 70 million over the next two seasons. At the same time, it’s hard to find a good starting quarterback and, while the Vikings tried to find a cheaper long-term replacement for Cousins when they selected Kellen Mond in the 3rd round in the 2021 NFL Draft, he reportedly struggled behind the scenes as a rookie and didn’t even get on the field over career backup Mannion when Cousins was out.

Mond still has potential, but he doesn’t look like a long-term starter at this point and could easily fail to win the #2 quarterback job for the second straight year, with Mannion still around. Mannion has attempted just 110 passes in 7 seasons in the league, on which he has just a 66.2 career QB rating, so he is a very underwhelming backup option, meaning it would be very telling if Mond couldn’t beat him out for the second straight year. The Vikings should get good quarterback play from Cousins again, but they would be in trouble if he happened to suffer a significant injury for the first time in his career as a starter.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Along with Cousins, almost all of the Vikings’ skill position players were less efficient in 2021 than in 2020. Top receiver Justin Jefferson saw his slash line jump from 88/1400/7 to 108/1616/10, but he also saw 42 more targets and ran significantly more routes on a pass-heavier offense, with his yards per target dropping from 11.2 to 9.7 and his yards per route run dropping from 2.66 to 2.59. Jefferson is still an elite receiver any way you look at it though, finishing 2nd and 3rd among wide receivers on PFF over the past two seasons, and still only going into his age 23 season. It would be an upset if he wasn’t one of the top wide receivers in the league for years to come and he should be considered to be among the favorites to lead the league in receiving, serving in the Cooper Kupp role on this offense.

In addition to worse coaching with a new offensive coordinator, the Vikings also weren’t as healthy on offense in 2021 as they were in 2020, falling from 5th in adjusted games lost to injury on offense in 2020 to 21st in 2021. One key player who missed time in 2021 after staying mostly healthy the year before is wide receiver Adam Thielen, who fell from a 74/925/14 slash line in 15 games in 2020 to a 67/726/10 slash line in 13 games in 2020, with his efficiency declining as well, going from 8.6 yards per target and 1.86 yards per route run in 2020 to 7.6 and 1.63 respectively in 2021.

Thielen was one of the best wide receivers in the league in his prime, averaging a 91/1205/6 slash line per season from 2016-2018 with 2.13 yards per route run, but that has fallen to 1.77 yards per route run with no thousand yard seasons over the past three seasons, a stretch in which he has also missed 11 games with injury, after not missing any previously in his career. Now going into his age 32 season, Thielen’s best days are almost definitely behind him and he’s much more of a secondary receiver than a primary receiver at this stage in his age career, but it’s possible he could remain an above average #2 receiver for at least another couple seasons. I wouldn’t expect him to drop off completely this season, even if he does continue declining.

Another key player who was hurt last season was tight end Irv Smith, a 2019 2nd round pick who averaged 1.30 yards per route run in 2020, while flashing potential in run blocking as a part-time player in his first two seasons in the league. Smith was set to take on a much larger role in 2021 with veteran Kyle Rudolph no longer with the team, but Smith didn’t play a snap all year due to a knee injury. Instead it was former #3 tight end Tyler Conklin who was forced into the primary tight end role, despite being a former late round pick who struggled in minimal action in his first three seasons in the league prior to last season. 

Conklin wasn’t horrible and had a decent 61/593/3 slash line, but he did that mostly on volume, as he wasn’t efficient, with 1.24 yards per route run and 6.8 yards per target, and he struggled as a run blocker as well. He’s no longer with the team after signing with the Jets this off-season, so Irv Smith will get the chance to be the starter this season that he missed last season and, still only in his age 24 season, it’s very possible he could have a mini-breakout year and be a solid starter, assuming he can stay healthy.

Depth is a big problem behind Smith though, with their reserve options being 2021 5th round pick Zach Davidson, who spent his rookie year on the practice squad, 7th round rookie Nick Muse, who is very raw, Ben Ellefson, who has just 1 career catch, and, probably the most likely option to win the job, Johnny Mundt, who has spent the past five seasons with the Rams with McVay, but has never played more than 213 offensive snaps in a season and has averaged just 0.93 yards per route run. Mundt has experience in the system, but the former undrafted free agent doesn’t bring much else to the table, as a pass catcher or run blocker. It would be a big problem if Smith missed time again.

With Smith and Thielen missing time last season, the Vikings involved #3 wide receiver KJ Osborn more than they were probably expecting to, giving the 2020 5th round pick 82 targets, even though he didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Osborn wasn’t particularly effective though, averaging just 1.30 yards per route run, and, while it’s possible he could keep his job and be better in his second full season in the league in 2022, he’s also likely to face competition from 2021 5th round pick Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who only played 86 snaps as a rookie, but flashed potential with 1.73 yards per route run. 

Even if Smith-Marsette doesn’t win the starting job, he should be a good #4 wide receiver, with veteran Albert Wilson also around as a low end depth option, in his age 30 season with a 1.34 yards per route run average for his career. Justin Jefferson elevates this group significantly by himself, but they could be better behind him this season, with Irv Smith and Adam Thielen probably being healthier and KJ Osborn possibly being better now with another full year under his belt. This is an above average group overall. 

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Vikings were also not as effective on the ground in 2021 as they were in 2020, falling from 4th in the NFL with 4.88 YPC to 19th in the NFL with 4.30 YPC. Feature back Dalvin Cook saw his effectiveness fall off a little bit, from 4.99 YPC to 4.65 YPC, but the bigger problem was that Cook was one of the Vikings’ key players who missed time with injury in 2021, carrying the ball just 249 times in 13 games, after carrying the ball 312 times in 2020. That forced backup Alexander Mattison into significant action, in which he struggled mightily, averaging just 3.66 YPC on 134 carries and driving the team average down significantly, while finishing as PFF’s 57th ranked running back out of 64 eligible on the season in overall grade.

Cook has been the Vikings feature back for the past three seasons, totaling 4.75 YPC and 35 touchdowns on 811 carries, but durability has been a problem for him throughout his career, as he’s never surpassed 14 games played in a season and has missed 25 games total in 5 seasons in the league, and it’s unlikely to get better going forward, with Cook getting up there in age and usage for a running back, going into his age 27 season with 1200 career touches. I wouldn’t expect him to drop off suddenly this season and he should remain a true feature back, but he’ll probably miss at least a little time with injury again. 

Cook also might not have quite as many carries per game on a pass-heavier offense in 2022, but he could compensate for that with increased usage in the passing game. Cook has been pretty good in the passing game in his career, with a 1.37 yards per route run average in total, but that surprisingly fell off to 0.85 last season. He might not bounce all the way back as a pass catcher, but I would expect him to be more involved and more effective in that aspect than a year ago, in a pass-heavier system.

Mattison also didn’t do much in the passing game last season, averaging 1.16 yards per route run, in line with the 1.19 yards per route run he has averaged in three seasons in the league, since being selected by the Vikings in the 3rd round in 2019. Mattison also hasn’t been effective as a runner either in his career. His career 4.20 YPC average on 330 carries isn’t horrible, but he has finished dead last out of 45 eligible, 37th out of 47 eligible, and 43rd out of 50 eligible in carry success rate in his three seasons in the league, on rates of 38%, 47%, and 44% respectively, meaning he hasn’t consistently kept this offense on schedule when given opportunity (for comparison, Cook is at 49%, 56%, and 47% over the past three seasons).

Mattison will likely remain the #2 back and still may have untapped upside in his age 24 season, but he’s mostly in that role for lack of a better option, as 2021 4th round pick Kene Nwangwu is more of a return specialist than a running back and had just 17 rookie year touches, while 5th round rookie Ty Chandler has upside and could replace Mattison as the #2 back in 2023 and beyond, with Mattison heading into the final year of his rookie deal, but is unlikely to make a significant positive impact as a rookie. Dalvin Cook is one of the better running backs in the league, but he has durability issues and the Vikings have depth issues behind him.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Another key player who missed time on this offense last season was left tackle Christian Darrisaw, their 2021 first round pick and a replacement for long-time left tackle Riley Reiff, who was a big part of their offensive success in 2020, finishing 40th among offensive tackles on PFF in 15 starts. Darrisaw proved to be a solid replacement when on the field, finishing his rookie year as PFF’s 35th ranked offensive tackle, but an off-season injury delayed the start of his career and limited him to just 10 starts total. Now healthier and going into his second season in the league, Darrisaw is an obvious candidate to take a step forward and should remain at least a solid starter even if he doesn’t improve. Just having him healthy for all or most of the season will help this offense.

Most of the rest of this group was the rest from 2020 to 2021 and will remain that way in 2022, with Ezra Cleveland remaining at left guard, Garrett Bradbury remaining at center, and Brian O’Neill remaining at right tackle. Bradbury missed 4 games with injury last season, but his return won’t be a big deal, as the 2019 1st round pick has been a mediocre player since entering the league, making 45 starts over the past three seasons, but finishing 31st out of 41 eligible centers, 28th out of 39 eligible centers, and 29th out of 36 eligible centers respectively on PFF.

It’s possible Bradbury could have some untapped upside and have his best year yet in his 4th season in the league in 2022, but he was an old rookie and is already in his age 27 season, so it looks unlikely he’ll ever develop into more than a capable starter. The Vikings understandably declined his 5th year option for 2023, which would have guaranteed him 13.202 million, so this could easily be his final season in Minnesota. He’ll remain the starter for lack of a better option, but I don’t expect much from him, even if he can stay healthier than a year ago.

Cleveland and O’Neill, meanwhile, made every start in their position last season and both had comparable seasons in 2021 as opposed to 2020. Cleveland was just a 2nd round rookie in 2020, but finished as PFF’s 29th ranked guard in 9 starts and then ranked 30th last season. Only in his age 24 season, Cleveland should remain at least a solid starter going forward and he has the ability to develop into a consistently above average starting guard long-term. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he took a step forward in his third year in the league.

O’Neill is probably the Vikings’ best offensive lineman, having finished 34th, 24th, and 32nd among offensive tackles on PFF across 48 of a possible 49 starts over the past three seasons and still only going into his age 27 season. A 2nd round pick in 2018, O’Neill was extended on a 5-year, 92.5 million dollar deal last year, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, which makes him the 2nd highest paid right tackle in the league. It’s a steep price, but he’s one of the best players in the league at his position, so it’s not a bad contract.

The only new starter on this line will be at right guard, which is a good thing because that was a huge position of weakness in free agency. The Vikings signed experienced veteran Jesse Davis in free agency, who has made 72 starts in the past five seasons, seeing action at both guard and tackle, but they’re probably hoping out of their young guards can step up and take the job, as Davis hasn’t been more than a marginal starter in his career, regardless of where he plays, and now heads into his age 31 season. He would be best as a versatile reserve.

Those young guards are 2021 3rd round pick Wyatt Davis and rookie 2nd round pick Ed Ingram. Ingram looks like a future starter, but might not necessarily play well as a rookie, while Davis didn’t play a snap as a rookie and the selection of Ingram in this year’s draft is not a good sign for his long-term future. Right guard could easily remain a position of weakness, but they at least have some young players with upside and it wouldn’t be hard for whoever starts to be an upgrade on last year’s starter Oli Udoh, who was PFF’s 72nd ranked guard among 90 eligible across 16 starts. 

Whichever guards lose the right guard competition will be their primary reserves, along with Udoh, who can also play some tackle if needed, albeit probably not at a high level, with the 2019 6th round pick struggling mightily in the first extended starting action of his career in 2021. It’s a bit of a concerning depth situation, but they don’t have a bad starting five and, if they can stay relatively healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were an above average unit.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned, the Vikings have had a lot of defensive injuries over the past two seasons and by far the most important player who has missed significant time for them over those two seasons is edge defender Danielle Hunter, who missed all of 2020 with a back injury and then had his 2021 season ended by a torn pectoral after 384 snaps in 7 games. That was a huge loss because, prior to 2020, Hunter had been a top-19 edge defender on PFF in 3 of the previous 4 seasons, playing the run well and adding a total of 48.5 sacks, 28 hits, and a 13.5% pressure rate, while playing all 64 games (49.1 snaps per game) over those 4 seasons, including a career best 2019 season, finishing 7th among edge defenders and totaling 14.5 sacks, 11 hits, and a 15.7% pressure rate.

Hunter still showed some of that form in 2021 before getting hurt again, ranking 12th among edge defenders at the time of his injury and totaling 6 sacks, 3 hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate as a pass rusher, despite missing more than half of the season, and he’s still only in his age 28 season, so he has a good chance to bounce back if he can stay on the field in 2022. That’s far from a guarantee and he probably won’t be quite as good as his career best year in 2019, but he should be at least an above average every down option on edge as long as he’s on the field.

Opposite Hunter, the Vikings added a free agent who is also coming off of a serious injury, but who also has a high upside if he can stay healthy, ex-Packer Za’Darius Smith, who joins the Vikings on a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal. That could prove to be a steal, as Smith finished 41st, 2nd, and 15th among edge defenders on PFF in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively, totaling 34.5 sacks, 56 hits, and a 13.2% pressure rate in 48 games, in addition to holding up against the run, but Smith also comes with a lot of risk, given that he missed all but 18 snaps last season with a back injury and now heads into his age 30 season. 

He doesn’t have much of an injury history outside of last season (6 games missed in his 6 seasons in the league prior to last season) and he’s not totally over the hill yet, so he has a good given to remain an above average player when on the field, even if he’s highly unlikely to match his career best year from 2019 and even if he has durability concerns. He and Hunter have a ton of upside as an edge defender duo, but they also come with a lot of downside because of their recent injury history.

With Hunter missing most of last season, DJ Wonnum led this position group with 951 snaps last season, but he was terrible, finishing 117th among 129 edge defenders and managing just 8 sacks, 5 hits, and a 7.2% pressure rate, despite getting all of that action, and, with Hunter retain and Smith being added, Wonnum is expected to be the 3rd edge defender at best, barring injury ahead of him on the depth chart. An injury is certainly possible, but if Hunter and Smith stay relatively healthy, this edge defender group should be better not just because of the performance of Hunter and Smith, but because it pushes Wonnum into a smaller role, where the 2020 4th round pick could prove to be more effective. 

Wonnum also struggled with only a 8.1% pressure rate in a part-time role as a rookie and he could continue to struggle in 2022, but he’s still only in his age 25 season and, even if doesn’t take a step forward, he almost definitely won’t have to play as much as he did a year ago. He’ll compete for reserve roles with a pair of second year players Patrick Jones and Janarius Robinson, who only played 99 snaps and 0 snaps respectively as rookies, despite a need at the position, but who still have the upside to take a step forward in year two in 2022. This should be a much more talented edge defender group than a year ago, barring the absolute worst case scenario where both Hunter and Smith miss most of the season again.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Another key defensive player who didn’t play much for the Vikings over the past two seasons was interior defender Michael Pierce, who opted out of the 2020 season and then was limited to just 251 snaps in 8 games last season by injury in 2021. The Vikings cut him this off-season ahead of a 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in 2022, even though he was still PFF’s 11th ranked interior defender in his limited action last season, but they did a good job replacing him with free agent addition Harrison Phillips, who comes to Minnesota on a 3-year, 19.5 million dollar deal, after spending his first four seasons in the league with the Bills, who drafted him in the 3rd round in the 2018 NFL Draft.

As a rookie, Phillips was a solid run stuffer, but only played 389 snaps in a pure base package role and he had just a 4.5% pressure rate. Then in his second season, he tore his ACL after 77 snaps in three games and did not appear the same upon his return in 332 snaps in 12 games in 2020. Phillips looked a lot healthier a year later though, finishing the 2021 season as PFF’s 13th ranked interior defender, playing the run well and also posting a career high 8.6% pressure rate. 

Phillips is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level and it only came on a snap count of 473 total snaps, which is still a career high for the 4-year career, but he’s still in his early prime in his age 26 season and he at least has a good chance to remain an above average starting interior defender, or at least a high level rotational player. With Pierce missing a lot of last season, Phillips is more of a replacement for capable starter Sheldon Richardson (688 snaps) than anything, but he should be an upgrade on Richardson and more durable than Pierce.

Phillips figures to start opposite another recent free agent acquisition, ex-Giant Dalvin Tomlinson, who was signed to a 2-year, 21 million dollar deal last off-season and finished as PFF’s 15th ranked interior defender across 641 snaps in his first season in Minnesota, playing the run well and adding 2.5 sacks, 5 hits, and a 5.8% pressure rate as a pass rusher. That’s in line with how the 2017 2nd round pick played in his first four seasons in the league, when he finished 22nd, 31st, 17th, 25th among interior defenders on PFF and totaled 8 sacks, 11 hits, and a 6.0% pressure rate, while playing 617 snaps per season. Still only in his age 28 season, having missed just 1 game in 5 seasons in the league, I don’t see any reason to expect anything different from him this season.

Armon Watts also returns after playing a significant role last season (669 snaps) and figures to see a significant role again. A 6th round pick in 2019, Watts showed promise on snap counts of 121 and 392 respectively in his first two seasons in the league, before earning an average grade from PFF in his first significant role in 2021, struggling against the run, but earning PFF’s 31st highest pass rush grade among interior defenders on PFF, while totaling 5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 8.0% pressure rate. Watts is now going into his age 26 season and, while he might not have a big upside, he has a good chance to remain at least a solid rotational player on 500-600 snaps, with Phillips and Tomlinson also to likely be around similar snap counts, as long as everyone is healthy.

James Lynch also saw a limited role at the interior defender position for the Vikings last season, but the 2020 4th round pick struggled mightily, finishing as PFF’s 114th ranked interior defender out of 146 eligible across 304 snaps, after also struggling on 59 snaps as a rookie. Only in his age 23 season, it’s possible he could be better in 2022, but even if he’s better, that doesn’t mean he’ll even be a passable rotational player. He probably isn’t guaranteed a role, with his top competition likely to come from Jaylen Twyman, a 2021 6th round pick who missed his rookie season with injury, but who is now healthier and still has upside. This is a solid overall position group.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Every down off ball linebacker Anthony Barr also missed a lot of time over the past two seasons, limited to just 2 games and 11 games in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Barr had been a good starter for the Vikings for several seasons and was still PFF’s 32nd ranked off ball linebacker across 783 snaps in 2021, but he was going into his age 30 season in 2022 and the Vikings opted not to bring him back as a free agent, replacing him with another player in his age 30 season who the Vikings are hoping will be more durable, Jordan Hicks, signing as a free agent on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal this off-season.

Hicks had injury problems early in his career, with the 2015 3rd round pick missing 21 games across his first four seasons in the league, but he hasn’t missed a game in three years since. His age is a concern and he hasn’t been the same player in recent years as he was early in his career, when he finished 11th, 3rd, and 13th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2015, 2016, and 2018 respectively, but he was still PFF’s 27th ranked off ball linebacker in 2021 across 61.9 snaps per game as a 17-game every down starter with the Cardinals and, even if he’s unlikely to ever return to his top form, he could definitely repeat that same season in his new home in Minnesota, not totally over the hill yet.

Hicks will start alongside another every down player Eric Kendricks. Kendricks hasn’t missed as much time over the past two seasons as other key Vikings defenders, but he did miss 5 games in 2020 and 2 games in 2021, which was a significant absence for this defense. Kendricks fell to 37th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2021, after finishing 1st and 4th in 2019 and 2020 respectively, and now heads into his age 30 season, but he’s still earned an above average grade from PFF in 6 straight seasons and could easily do so for the 7th straight season in 2022, even if his best days are also likely behind him at this point. If Kendricks and Hicks can stay relatively healthier, they have a good chance to be at least a solid every down linebacker duo, an upgrade for a group that had #3 linebacker Nick Vigil play 718 snaps and finish 80th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF last season, with Barr and Kendricks both missing significant time.

Vigil is gone, which should be addition by subtraction, but the Vikings don’t really have an experienced replacement for the #3 linebacker role. Blake Lynch was solid on 218 snaps last season, but he went undrafted in 2020 and struggled on 77 rookie year snaps, so he would be a projection to a larger role who could easily struggle if forced to play significant snaps. The Vikings also used a 3rd round pick on off ball linebacker Brian Asamoah, who will compete for a role, after using a 3rd round pick in 2021 on Chazz Surratt, who didn’t play as a rookie because of a neck injury, but who still could develop into a useful player. Troy Dye, a 2020 4th round pick, could also be in the mix, but he’s struggled in 255 career snaps in two years in the league thus far. Depth is a bit of a concern, but as long as Hicks and Kendricks are healthy, none of their other linebackers would have to play other than base packages, with Hicks and Kendricks likely to be a solid every down duo.

Grade: B

Secondary

Injuries were also a problem for the Vikings at the cornerback position last season. Patrick Peterson and Cameron Dantzler were both solid starters when healthy, but they both missed four games each with injury, leaving Mackenzie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland to play 689 snaps and 675 snaps and struggle mightily, finishing 133rd and 127th respectively on PFF among 134 eligible cornerbacks. Alexander and Breeland are both gone though, while one or both of Peterson and Dantzler could easily be much healthier this season, and another talented cornerback, Andrew Booth, was added in the second round of the draft. Booth comes with his own injury issues, missing significant time in college with multiple ailments, but he probably would have been a first round pick if not for his injury issues, so he comes with obvious upside.

Booth isn’t necessarily a guarantee to see significant snaps as a rookie, with the Vikings also adding veteran slot cornerback Chandon Sullivan in free agency and likely to start him as the #3 cornerback, at least at the beginning of the season. Sullivan has been underwhelming on snap counts of 729 and 826 respectively over the past two seasons though, including a 110th ranked finish out of 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF last season, and he only was signed for 1-year, 1.75 million, so he’s not a lock to be the primary slot cornerback all season. The Vikings also added another young cornerback in the draft, taking Akayleb Evans in the 4th round, but he’s unlikely to see much rookie year action.

As the starters outside, Dantzler and Peterson are in different stages of their career, with the 2020 3rd round pick Dantzler on the way up and Peterson on the way down, now in his age 32 season. Dantzler still has only made 17 career starts and has missed time with injury in both seasons in the league, but he’s also earned an above average grade from PFF in both seasons, ranking 28th and 21st respectively, and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he stayed healthier and make his biggest impact yet in his third season in the league in 2022, even if he isn’t quite as good on a per play basis as he has been thus far.

Peterson made the Pro-Bowl in 8 straight seasons to begin his career from 2011-2018, after being the 5th overall pick, but he hasn’t made one in three seasons since and, in those three seasons, he hasn’t finished higher than 43rd among cornerbacks on PFF. He hasn’t been bad, but he’s definitely not the same player he was in his prime. He could remain a solid starter in 2022, but it’s possible he declines further, in which case he could be a liability. He didn’t have a big market in free agency this off-season, re-joining the Vikings on a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal, after joining them on a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal last off-season.

The Vikings also used a high draft pick on the safety position, taking Lewis Cine 32nd overall in the first round, as a replacement for Xavier Woods, a solid starter in 17-games last season. The Vikings could have used Camryn Bynum as a replacement for Woods, after the 2021 4th round pick flashed a ton of potential on 211 rookie year snaps, earning a grade from PFF in the 91st percentile among safeties, albeit in a very limited role, but the Vikings also are likely viewing Cine as a replacement for long-time veteran Harrison Smith, who now enters his age 33 season, and adding Cine also allows them to continue to have good depth at the position with Bynum as the primary reserve.

Smith’s age is a concern, heading into his 11th season in the league, but he hasn’t shown many signs of dropping off yet and, even if he does in 2022, he could still remain a well above safety. His 15th and 12th ranked finishes among safeties on PFF over the past two seasons are a decline from a 3rd ranked finish in 2019 and four career finishes in the top-5 at his position for a season, and he could decline further from there, but that likely would still make him a very valuable player for this defense. I don’t expect them to completely drop off suddenly, even if that is a possibility. He might still be the top defensive back in what should be a better group than a year ago, with Dantzler and Peterson likely to be healthier and several depth options added to replace Mackenzie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Vikings had a slightly above average special teams in 2021, ranking 13th in special teams DVOA, and they should be similar this season, with largely the same personnel. The strength of their special teams was their kick return game with rookie running back Kene Nwangwu, sparingly used on offense, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns and ranking as PFF’s highest ranked return man overall. He should continue being highly effective in 2022. 

KJ Osborn will likely take over as the primary punt returner and could be a decent replacement for the middling Dede Westbrook, who is no longer with the team. Aside from Westbrook though, the rest of their key special teams return, bringing back their two top core special teamers Troy Dye and Ryan Connelly, a pair of top-50 special teamers on PFF a year ago, as well as mid-level kicker/punter duo Greg Joseph and Jordan Berry. This should be a solid group again.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Vikings have finished just 7-9 and 8-9 over the past two seasons, but missing key personnel on defense has been a big part of the problem, particularly Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Anthony Barr, and Cameron Dantzler. Hunter and Dantzler could easily be healthier in 2022 though, while Pierce and Barr have been replaced by comparable talents and healthier players in Harrison Phillips and Jordan Hicks, with edge defender Za’Darius Smith also being added in free agency, a potentially huge addition if he too can stay healthy.

Age is a bit of a concern for this defense with five likely starters (Smith, Hicks, Patrick Peterson, Harrison Smith, Eric Hendricks) all set to be 30 years or older, with the possibility of a couple of them dropping off significantly, but they still have a solid defense on paper. Meanwhile, their offense figures to be better in 2022 with better coaching getting more out of all their talent. In a weaker NFC, the Vikings have the talent to compete for a wild card spot, even if they’re likely to remain behind the Packers again in the division. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC North

Buffalo Bills 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2020, the Bills had the best offense in the league, leading the league in efficiency rating, but their defense, which only ranked 17th in efficiency rating, was a bit of a weak spot and ultimately the Bills’ season ended with an AFC Championship loss in Kansas City. There were reasons to be very optimistic about them going into 2021 though, especially when you consider that the Bills finished the 2020 regular season 1st in the league in overall efficiency, despite a middling defense. 

Elite offensive play is much easier to consistently maintain from year-to-year than elite defensive play, meaning their offense, led by budding superstar quarterback Josh Allen, would likely continue to perform at a high level in 2021, especially since minimal changes were made around him on offense. Meanwhile, their defense was more talented than their efficiency rating in 2020 and had a good chance to bounce back at least somewhat to their 2019 form, when they ranked 4th in the NFL in efficiency rating.

It looked likely the Bills would be one of the better teams in the league on both sides of the ball in 2021 and that was true in a big way, with their defense being dominant throughout the regular season, not only leading the league in efficiency, but doing so by over 3.5 points over the 2nd ranked Saints. Their offense wasn’t as good as the year before, but they still ranked 5th in efficiency, leading to the Bills again finishing the regular season #1 in overall efficiency, this time by a huge margin (5.5 points) over the 2nd ranked Buccaneers. The Bills “only” had a 11-6 record, but that was despite a 0-5 record in one-score games, which is not something that is likely to continue. None of their wins came by fewer than 12 points and just one of their losses came by more than 7 points, giving them a league best +194 point differential.

In the post-season, the Bills had an incredible offensive performance in the first round, scoring a touchdown on every meaningful drive in a blowout 47-17 victory over a New England team that finished the regular season 3rd in efficiency, 3rd in point differential, and 5th in defensive efficiency. However, the Bills’ season then ended in the second round in a similar way to the year before, on the road in Kansas City. The Bills ran into a Chiefs team that led the league in offensive efficiency in the regular season and, not surprisingly, the Bills’ #1 ranked defense couldn’t hold up, but the Bills’ offense performed well enough to win the game, which they likely would have done had they won the coin toss and gotten possession first in overtime. 

Even though the Bills didn’t make it back to the AFC Championship game last season, in many ways they were closer to the Super Bowl than the previous year, when they lost by 14 to the Chiefs in a largely uncompetitive game. Having barely lost to the Chiefs, who barely lost to the AFC winning Bengals, the Bills can rightfully argue they are right there in terms of being the top team in the AFC. With much of the same core of the past two seasons returning, the Bills have as good of a chance as any to make it out of a loaded AFC.

Obviously the most important core player for the Bills is Josh Allen. A classic boom or bust pick taken #7 overall in 2018, Allen looked closer to the latter in his rookie season, completing 52.8% of his passes for an average of 6.48 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, but he took a big step forward in year two, completing 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.70 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, and a bigger step forward in year three, emerging as one of the top quarterbacks in the league over the past two seasons, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.35 YPA, 73 touchdowns, and 25 interceptions combined in 33 starts, while finishing 5th and 6th among quarterbacks on PFF in the two seasons respectively. 

In addition to developing into a great passer, Allen is also a big threat on the ground and has been since he entered the league, rushing for 2,325 yards and 31 touchdowns on 422 carries (5.51 YPC) in his career. The extra hits expose him to greater risk of injury, but he hasn’t missed time since his rookie season and, at 6-5 240, Allen is built to take hits well. He hasn’t won an MVP yet, but he’s only going into his age 26 season and his future is as bright as any quarterback’s in the league, so at least one, if not multiple MVPs are almost definitely in his future.

In case Allen does miss time, the Bills sent a late round pick to the Browns for veteran backup Case Keenum this off-season. Keenum would still obviously be a huge drop off, but he’s one of the more accomplished backups in the league, with a 85.4 QB rating in 64 career starts, and he’s not washed up yet in his age 34 season. With a good roster around him, Keenum could hold down the fort if needed for a few games, without the Bills falling out of contention in a serious way. Allen is still obviously the key to this team’s ultimate goals though.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Bills were also a very effective rushing team last season, ranking 6th in the NFL with 4.79 YPC, but that was largely an extension of Josh Allen and the passing game, with Allen having a ridiculous 794 usage total (pass attempts, carries, sacks). Not only did Allen rush for 6.25 YPC on his own 122 carries, but his combination of rushing ability and deep passing ability creates a lot of running room for running backs because defenses have to play deep and defend the quarterback run as well. Devin Singletary, who averaged 4.63 YPC on 188 carries as the lead back, wasn’t a bad runner in his own right, ranking 17th among running backs on PFF in rushing grade, but he definitely benefited from having easy running situations. 

Top backup Zack Moss, who had 96 carries as the #2 back last season, did not take advantage of those easy running situations, averaging 3.59 YPC, and hasn’t shown much since the Bills took him in the 3rd round in 2020, averaging 3.99 YPC and just 0.84 yards per route run, even though pass catching was supposed to be a strength of his coming into the league. Singletary has consistently averaged a high YPC (4.71 for his career) and earned at least an average grade from PFF in all three seasons since being selected in the 3rd round in 2019, but the 188 carries he had last season were a career high, he’s averaged just 0.71 yards per route run in his career, and he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal. 

With Moss underwhelming thus far and Singletary potentially gone in a year, the Bills added another young running back to the mix this off-season, using a second round pick on Georgia running back James Cook, who has the potential to contribute both as a runner and a receiver out of the backfield. The latter has been sorely needed in Buffalo in recent years, but the Bills did add Duke Johnson this off-season and the veteran could easily be their primary pass catching back, over any of their three young backs. 

Johnson has never surpassed 104 carries in a season in 7 seasons in the league (4.27 YPC) and is unlikely to have much of a role as a ball carrier, but he does have a career 1.55 yards per route run average, with 5 seasons of 40 catches or more. He might not quite reach that number in 2022, but he has a good chance to be involved in this offense. The Bills lack a true feature back, but Devin Singletary is a good early down option, the rookie James Cook has potential, free agent addition Duke Johnson could be a solid passing down back, and the thus far underwhelming Zack Moss is now on the roster bubble, even if he still potentially has untapped upside, so, overall, this is a solid backfield and one with good depth.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Even though the Bills ran well last season, that had much more to do with Josh Allen’s dual threat abilities, as well as to a lesser extent Devin Singletary’s abilities as an early down runner, as the Bills actually didn’t have good run blocking, finishing 27th on PFF in team run blocking grade. They were better in pass protection, ranking 14th, but that was also down from the year before, when they ranked 9th and 13th in pass and run blocking grade respectively. Inferior offensive line play was probably the biggest reason why the Bills’ weren’t quite as good on offense in 2021 as they were the prior year.

The Bills did a good job retooling this group this off-season though and could have as many as three new starters on what looks like an overall deeper and more talented unit than a year ago. The Bills did lose Daryl Williams, who earned an above average grade from PFF, while making all 17 starts and seeing action at both right guard and right tackle, as well as Jon Feliciano, who was decent in 6 starts at guard, but they added a pair of proven veteran starting guard options in Rodger Saffold and Greg Van Roten, as well as a starting right tackle option in David Quessenberry.

Quessenberry will compete for the starting job with Spencer Brown, a 3rd round pick in 2021. Brown wasn’t bad in 10 rookie year starts at right tackle, earning an average grade from PFF and playing well enough to push Williams inside and keep the right tackle job for the rest of the season, and it’s possible he could take a step forward in year two, but Quessenberry might still be their best starting option, considering he was PFF’s 16th ranked offensive tackle as a 17-game starter at right tackle with the Titans last season. It was surprising he couldn’t get more on the open market this off-season, settling for just a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal in Buffalo.

Quessenberry has had an incredible career path, being drafted by the Texans in the 6th round in 2013, but being diagnosed with cancer early in his career and not making his first career start until 2020, when he started 6 games and was a middling player, before surprisingly taking a huge step forward in 2021. He’s already in his age 32 season in 2022 and he’s a complete one-year wonder so last season is likely to be the high point of his career, but he could easily remain at least a solid starter and may have earned the right to start, even with Spencer Brown also being a capable option with upside.

At guard, Rodger Saffold is the by far the more experienced of the two new veteran additions and is much more likely to be locked into a starting role, having made 92 starts at left guard over the past 6 seasons (out of 97 possible), with an above average grade from PFF in all 6 seasons. He came relatively cheap this off-season on a 1-year, 6.25 million dollar deal, but that’s because he’s going into his age 34 season and could easily decline significantly sometime soon. That hasn’t happened yet, as he still made 15 starts and finished 24th among guards on PFF in 2021 with the Titans, and it might not happen in 2022, but it’s a strong possibility. He’s likely locked in as the starting left guard either way, at least to begin the season.

Greg Van Roten, on the other hand, has only made 50 starts in 9 seasons in the league, but they’ve also all come in the past four seasons (out of 65 possible) and he’s earned at least an average grade from PFF in all four seasons, including a 34th ranked finish among guards in 10 starts with the Jets in 2021. Van Roten also getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season, and his contract (1-year, 1.2725 million) is much less than Saffold’s and doesn’t lock him in as a starter, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he locked down the right guard job and was at least a decent starter for at least most of the season.

The Bills also retained young reserves Ryan Bates (294 snaps, 4 starts), Ike Boettger (636 snaps, 10 starts), and Cody Ford (485 snaps, 7 starts) who all saw action last season at guard with off-season departures Daryl Williams and Jon Feliciano, and who all could conceivably push to start at right guard opposite Saffold in 2022. Ford is the highest drafted of the bunch, going in the 2nd round in 2019, but he’s largely been a bust in his career, making just 29 starts in 3 seasons in the league, switching between guard and tackle on several occasions, and finishing below average on PFF in all 3 seasons, including a 86th ranked finish out of 90 eligible guards across 485 snaps in 2021. It’s possible he still has untapped upside, but he could also easily struggle if forced into starting action again.

Boettger wasn’t drafted in 2018, but he’s been a much better player in his career than Ford, making 17 starts over the past two seasons and earning at least an average grade from PFF in both seasons, including a 35th ranked finish among guards in 7 starts in 2020. Bates also wasn’t drafted back in 2019 and he showed some promise down the stretch last season as well, but he’s much less proven than Boettger, having never started a game in his career prior to last season. Boettger is the most likely of the bunch to win a starting job and, even if he doesn’t, he gives the Bills another good depth option. He was another good value signing, being brought back for near the league minimum as a free agent this off-season.

Left tackle Dion Dawkins and center Mitch Morse are the only players on this offensive line locked into the same position as a year ago and Dawkins is the only one of the eight offensive linemen who started a game for this team last season to finish well above average on PFF, earning their 21st highest grade among offensive tackles as a 16-game starter. That’s nothing new for Dawkins, who has started 64 of a possible 65 games on the blindside for the Bills over the past four seasons, with four straight above average grades from PFF, including three straight seasons in the top-23 at his position. Still only going into his age 28 season, without much history of injury, I see no reason to expect anything different from him in 2021.

Morse is the only starter on this offensive line who started all 17 games in the same spot last season. He wasn’t bad, but he did only finish 25th among 41 eligible centers on PFF, his worst finish since 2017, after finishing 20th, 17th, and 16th in the prior three seasons respectively. He has some bounce back potential, but he’s never been an elite center, maxing out at 14th among centers in 2016, and, while he’s plenty experienced (96 career starts in 7 seasons in the league), he’s now heading into his age 30 season and his best days are almost definitely behind him at this point. I wouldn’t expect him to suddenly drop off completely and he should remain a capable starter at least, but a significant drop off is at least somewhat of a possibility. This is still a deeper and more talented group than a year ago though, even if Morse doesn’t have a bounce back year.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The 2020 Bills had arguably the best receiving corps in the league, trading their first round pick for Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs to give them a legitimate #1 receiver in a receiving corps that already had a pair of solid veteran receivers in John Brown and Cole Beasley, who had finished the 2019 season with slash lines of 72/1060/6 (1.97 yards per route run) and 67/778/6 (1.64 yards per route run) respectively in their first season in Buffalo as free agent acquisitions, a big part of the reason why Allen was able to take a significant leap that season from his rookie year in 2018. 

Things went probably even better than the Bills could have expected when they acquired Diggs, as Diggs led the league in receiving in his first season in Buffalo with a 127/1535/8 slash line, while ranking 6th in yards per route run (2.51) and finishing as PFF’s 4th ranked wide receiver overall, and he did so without taking a lot away from Brown and Beasley. Brown was limited to just 9 games, but he had a solid 33/458/3 slash line and 1.60 yards per route run average in those 9 games, while Beasley had a career best 82/967/4 slash line with a career best 2.10 yards per route run average.

This group wasn’t quite as good in 2021 though, another reason why the Bills offense as a whole wasn’t as good as they were when they were the league’s best in the regular season in 2020. Diggs still finished 7th in the league in receiving yardage, but he ranked just 22nd in yards per route run with 1.91 and finished as PFF’s 12th ranked wide receiver in overall grade, as his 103/1225/10 slash line was still a big drop off from the previous year, despite an almost identical amount of targets (166 in targets in 2020, 164 in targets in 2021).

Brown wasn’t brought back for 2021, but he was replaced by another veteran Emmanuel Sanders, who was mediocre, with a 42/626/4 slash line and a 1.23 yards per route run average. Beasley, meanwhile, declined significantly, falling to 82/693/1 despite an uptick in targets (102 in 2020, 107 in 2021) and averaging just 1.38 yards per route run. Both veterans were let go this off-season, which frees up a young player with the potential to be a significant upgrade to take over as the new #2 receiver behind Diggs.

That young receiver is 2020 4th round pick Gabriel Davis, who has technically been the #4 receiver over the past two seasons, but has still seen snap counts of 799 and 572 respectively, while showing a lot of potential, with 1.29 yards per route run average as a rookie and a 1.64 yards per route run average in his second season in the league in 2021. He’s a projection to a larger role, but he’s also only going into his age 23 season and has good upside long-term. After finishing as PFF’s 38th ranked wide receiver in a part-time role last season, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he ended up being an above average starter as the #2 receiver this season. 

Diggs also has some bounce back potential because, as well as he played in 2020, that actually wasn’t a one-time thing for him, as he actually averaged a higher yards per route run average the previous season in 2019 (2.69) and he has a 2.06 yards per route run average for his career, above his average in 2021. Diggs’ best slash line in five seasons with the Vikings prior to joining the Bills was his final season, when he had a 63/1130/6 slash line, but he didn’t see a huge target total in Minnesota, on a run-heavy offense, as the 1B receiver to Adam Theilen’s 1A, and was always efficient on a per play basis. Since coming to Buffalo, Diggs has been among the most targeted pass catchers in the league and has produced among the best as well, something that figures to continue in 2022, still only in his age 29 season.

The Bills signed veteran Jamison Crowder to give them a replacement for Beasley on the slot and he’ll serve as the #3 wide receiver behind Diggs and Davis. It was a good, cheap signing on a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal, a much better value than the 3-year, 28.5 million dollar deal the Jets signed him to three off-seasons ago. Crowder was always overpaid on that contract, but he has a solid 1.53 yards per route run average in seven seasons in the league and, only in his age 29 season, could easily be a solid slot option. He’s been somewhat injury prone in his career, missing 17 games in 7 seasons in the league, with 9 of those missed games coming in the past two seasons, and he’s a slot only option at 5-9 177, with 75.7% of his career snaps coming on the slot, but he still could be a useful player if he can stay on the field.

For depth purposes, the Bills retained Isaiah McKenzie on a 2-year, 4.4 million dollar deal and used a 5th round pick on Khalil Shakir. McKenzie has averaged a middling 1.35 yards per route over the past three seasons with the Bills, but that has come on an average of just 326 offensive snaps played per season and the 5-8 173 pounder is more of a gadget player and return man, so, even though he’s getting paid a little more than Crowder, I would still consider Crowder the favorite for the primary slot job, as long as he’s healthy. 

McKenzie has also contributed as a ball carrier in his career, with 4.61 YPC on 38 carries in 5 seasons in the league, and I would expect that to continue this season. Shakir, meanwhile, has some long-term potential, but would probably struggle if forced into rookie year action. He’s unlikely to have to play a significant role though, with a talented top-4 ahead of him on the depth chart, led by Stefon Diggs and promising #2 receiver Gabriel Davis.

The Bills also added to their tight end group this off-season, adding needed depth behind Dawson Knox, who played the 6th most snaps in the league among tight ends last season with 917, while top backup Tommy Sweeney only saw 267 snaps. Knox wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t particularly effective in all that action, averaging just 1.16 yards per route run and posting just a 49/587/9 slash line, underwhelming considering how much he played on a great passing offense. 

That average is in line with the 1.15 yards per route run average Knox has throughout his 3-year career, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2019. Also a decent blocker, Knox has earned an average grade from PFF in all three seasons in the league, but hasn’t shown much upside. His touchdown total was impressive a year ago, but that’s something that is likely to regress, as high touchdown rates almost always do. Going into his age 26 season, he could remain a decent starter, but he’s running out of time to become more and the Bills probably want to bring his snap count down a little bit.

Given that, it makes sense that they signed someone like OJ Howard to a cheap deal in free agency, but his 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal isn’t much more than a flyer. Howard was a first round pick by the Buccaneers in 2017, the first tight end off the board that year, and his career got off to a good start, as he averaged 2.05 yards per route run as a part-time player in his first two seasons in the league, but he suffered a serious ankle injury late in his second season and didn’t look the same upon his return, averaging just 1.22 yards per route run in 2019.

Howard’s yards per route run average jumped back up to 2.39 the following season in 2020, but it was in a limited sample size, as he went down for the season for a torn Achilles after four games, and then he again did not seem the same upon his return in 2021, averaging 0.92 yards per route run. Not much of a blocker, Howard will need to bounce back as a pass catcher to be a useful player, after finishing last season as PFF’s 57th ranked tight end overall out of 58 eligible across 365 snaps. Now in his age 28 season, Howard is running out of time to establish himself as a consistent starter and it’s very possible injuries have permanently sapped his athleticism.

It wouldn’t be hard for Howard to do more than Tommy Sweeney though, as the 2019 7th round pick struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career last season. He’ll now be the 3rd tight end at most. This isn’t a significantly upgraded group from a year ago, but it’s still an above average group overall, led by Stefon Diggs, who has some bounce back potential after a bit of a “down” year in 2021, and Gabriel Davis, a promising young receiver who has a good chance to be an upgrade on the declining veterans he is replacing.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Bills might not quite repeat the dominant defensive performance they had a year ago, just because of how hard it is to be that good defensively in back-to-back years, but they bring back most of their key players on defense from a year ago and look like one of the most talented defenses in the league yet again. A couple key players the Bills lost this off-season were edge defenders Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, who played 557 snaps and 481 snaps respectively and were productive pass rushers, with 9 sacks, 5 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate combined, but they weren’t great against the run, they’re going into their age 34 and age 35 season respectively, and the Bills upgraded on them by signing talented edge defender Von Miller in free agency, a much more well-rounded player who can rush the passer and defend the run at a high level.

Miller didn’t come cheap, signing a 6-year, 120 million dollar deal that makes him the 7th highest paid edge defender in the league and guarantees him 45 million over the next two seasons, even though Miller now heads into his age 33 season. Miller hasn’t shown many signs of decline though. With the Broncos and Rams in 2021, Miller finished the season as PFF’s 7th ranked edge defender on PFF, dominating against the run and adding 9.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate. 

Miller’s best days are probably behind him, as he was a top-5 edge defender on PFF in eight straight seasons in his prime from 2011-2018, and he could decline further in 2022, but, even if he does, he’s still likely to be better than most edge defenders. A true every down player with no weaknesses, Miller has averaged 55.7 snaps per game in 150 games in his career, while totaling 115.5 sacks, 129 hits, and a 15.7% pressure rate. He figures to be a big upgrade and was an aggressive signing for a team that is very much in win now mode, with Josh Allen’s cap hit set to increase significantly in 2023 and beyond, when Allen’s 6-year, 258.034 million dollar extension will kick in.

The Bills are also expecting to get more out of a trio of young edge defenders who they have a lot of draft capital invested in, 2020 2nd round pick AJ Epenesa, 2021 1st round pick Greg Rousseau, 2021 2nd round pick Carlos Basham. All three have shown promise in limited action thus far. Epenesa has earned middling grades from PFF across snap counts of 291 and 331 respectively, while totaling a 9.8% pressure rate. Rousseau finished his rookie season as PFF’s 37th ranked edge defender across 531 snaps, showing well against the run and as a pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 6 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate. Basham was limited to 200 snaps as a rookie, in part by injury, but he was decent and had a 10.3% pressure rate. 

All three have significant upside and the opportunity to earn an expanded role in 2022, particularly Rousseau, who has the upside to develop into at least an above average starter long-term. The Bills also signed veteran Shaq Lawson in free agency, reuniting with their 2016 first round pick, who spent the first four seasons of his career with the Bills, before spending 2020 with the Dolphins and 2021 with the Jets. 

Lawson struggled with the Jets last season though, finishing 95th out of 129 eligible edge defenders across 534 snaps. He might have bounce back potential, only in his age 28 season, having earned an average or better grade from PFF in four straight seasons prior to 2021, on an average of 483 snaps per season, but he’s not guaranteed a role, with only 150k guaranteed on his contract and Von Miller and the trio of high draft picks ahead of him on the depth chart, in a position group with a lot of depth and upside.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

The Bills kind of overhauled the interior defender position this off-season, but that’s not really a bad thing because the interior defender position was the relative weakness of this defense. Four of the five interior defenders who played at least 200 snaps for the Bills last season are no longer with the team, but three of them earned below average grades from PFF, with Harrison Phillips, who finished 13th among interior defenders on PFF across 473 snaps, being the only one who will be tough to replace, after signing a 3-year, 19.5 million dollar deal with the Vikings this off-season.

Incoming is a trio of veterans, DaQuan Jones, Tim Settle, and Jordan Phillips, on contracts worth 14 million over 2 years, 9 million over 2 years, 5 million over 1 year respectively and all three figure to play significant roles. Jones is plenty experienced, starting all 109 games he has played over the past 7 seasons (40.3 snaps per game), earning average or better grades from PFF in each of those seasons, playing the run well at 6-4 322, but also adding decent pass rush production, with a 5.9% pressure rate. However, he’s going into his age 31 season so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he declined a little bit, even if he would likely still be at least a capable starter in that circumstance, after finishing last season 39th among interior defenders on PFF.

Tim Settle has only ever been a reserve, maxing out at 348 snaps in a season in four seasons in the league, since being selected in the 5th round in 2018 by Washington, but that was mostly because of having a lot of talent ahead of him on the depth chart in a talented position group. Settle played well in limited action, earning above average grades from PFF in each of the past three seasons, he’s only in his age 25 season, and he could easily break out in a bigger role on his second contract, even if he’s a projection to a larger role. Not only a big run stuffer at 6-3 328, Settle also has 7 sacks, 5 hits, and a 8.8% pressure rate over the past three seasons, despite a limited role.

Jordan Phillips is the least impressive of the three. He’s a decent pass rusher, with 18 sacks, 20 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate in 79 games over the past 6 seasons, but he surprisingly struggles against the run at 6-6 340 and has finished below average on PFF overall in four of those six seasons. He’s also going into his age 30 season and has missed 17 of a possible 33 games over the past two seasons. Even if he’s healthy in 2022, he’s no guarantee to be more than a decent sub package player, though he would at least provide a little bit of value in that role. He’s unlikely to have to play a significant snap count either way.

The only one of their top interior defenders from a year ago who returns is Ed Oliver, which is a good thing because he’s the best of the bunch, having developed into one of the best interior defenders in the league, since being drafted 9th overall by the Bills in 2019. In total, he has 12 sacks, 22 hits, and a 9.2% pressure rate in his career, including 4 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.0% pressure rate in 2021, and he’s a decent run defender as well, good enough to finish as PFF’s 27th ranked overall interior defender across 622 snaps in 2021. Still only in his age 25 season, having never missed a game, Oliver could have further untapped upside and looks likely to be one of the better interior defenders in the league for years to come, at least as a pass rusher. He leads an overhauled group that isn’t spectacular, but that is still at least a solid group, with a solid trio of veteran additions being made behind Oliver.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Arguably the biggest reason for this defense’s improvement from 2020 to 2021 was the return of Matt Milano from an injury plagued season in which he played just 335 snaps and was not at his best even when on the field. Milano had been a big part of their defensive success prior to 2020 and was a big part again in 2021, finishing 17th among off ball linebackers on PFF on 915 snaps, after finishing 11th across 741 snaps in 2018 and 32nd across 893 snaps in 2019, especially excelling in coverage. Assuming he can stay healthy, Milano should continue playing at an above average level as an every down player in 2022, still only in his age 28 season.

Tremaine Edmunds is also an every down linebacker for this defense, as he has been since the Bills drafted him 16th overall in the 1st round in 2018. He’s put up a lot of tackles in that role and is a consistently solid run defender, but he’s also consistently struggled in coverage. He’s still only in his age 24 season though, entering the league very young, so he still has the upside to get better going forward, even if that’s not necessarily a guarantee. At the very least, I would expect more of the same from him, but there’s the potential for more.

The Bills also used a 3rd round pick on Terrel Bernard, who has a good chance to be the 3rd linebacker this season. He might be too raw to make a big contribution as a rookie, but last year’s #3 linebacker AJ Klein only played 277 snaps last season in 11 games in a base package role, so Bernard would only have to see significant action in case of an injury and they don’t have a better option as the 3rd linebacker anyway, with the rest of the position group being career special teamers with minimal defensive experience and undrafted free agents. With Edmunds going into the final year of his rookie deal, the Bills may view Bernard as a long-term starting option, but, for now, he’s just a situational option and a depth option at a position group that is above average overall, elevated significantly by talented every down player Matt Milano.

Grade: B+

Secondary

As good as the Bills’ defense was as a whole last season, it was the secondary that was their best unit. This is in large part due to their safety duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, which might be the best safety duo in the league and has been for some time. Hyde and Poyer came to the Bills as free agents together before the 2017 season and both proved to be steals on deals worth 30.5 million over 5 years and 13 million over 4 years respectively, with Hyde finishing 8th, 8th, 12th, 28th, and 6th among safeties on PFF in five seasons with the team and Poyer finishing 9th, 49th, 22nd, 12th, and 9th, earning them both significant raises on their extensions, worth 19.25 million over 2 years and 19.5 million over 2 years respectively. 

Poyer and Hyde are going into their age 31 season and age 32 season respectively, so age is becoming a concern, but both have been durable, each only missing two games over the past five seasons, and both have yet to show any signs of decline yet. Even if it’s likely one of them regresses this season, a regression that would have a noticeable impact on defense, whichever one regresses would likely still be at least a solid starter and they should remain at least one of the better safety duos in the league. 

Depth is a big concern at the safety position if one of Poyer or Hyde was to get hurt, but the Bills have had at least a little bit of an eye on the future, using 6th round picks in 2019 and 2021 respectively on Jaquan Johnson and Damar Hamlin, who figure to be the backups in 2022. They haven’t gotten to see much action behind Hyde and Poyer, playing 201 snaps and 50 snaps respectively in their careers, so it’s unclear what they would bring to the field if they were forced into significant action, but it’s likely they would struggle, given that they’re inexperienced former late round picks, and they would almost definitely be a huge drop off from Poyer or Hyde.

The Bills #1 cornerback Tre’Davious White was also one of the best players in the league at his position last season, as he has been for years, but his season was ended after 630 snaps in 11 games due to a torn ACL, which now has him questionable for the start of 2022 and could limit him upon his return. White has finished in the top-17 among cornerbacks on PFF in three of five seasons in the league, with his best finish being 5th and a career QB rating allowed of 66.3, but he may struggle to reach that level in his first season back, even if he is ready for week 1.

The Bills also lost their other starting outside cornerback Levi Wallace in free agency to the Steelers and he was a solid starter, so cornerback was a big need for them this off-season, one they addressed in the first round of the draft with University of Florida’s Kaiir Elam, who is likely to replace Wallace opposite White. He could have some growing pains as a rookie, but he also could easily be an above average starter and has great upside long-term. 

Elam’s only competition for the starting job is Dane Jackson, who has been decent on 675 snaps (8 starts) as the 4th cornerback over the past two seasons, after being drafted in the 7th round in 2020. Jackson started in White’s place last season when White was hurt and would likely continue doing so if needed in 2022. He’s a projection to a larger role though and an obvious downgrade from White, so the Bills need White to get back and be close to 100%. 

Taron Johnson remains locked in as the slot cornerback, a role he has served in for four seasons, since being drafted in the 4th round in 2018, playing 651 snaps per season over that stretch, with 83.9% of them on the slot. He hasn’t shown a huge upside, but he’s been an average or better starter in all four seasons in the league and should remain a solid slot option in 2022, in his age 26 season, after being extended on a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal in the final year of his rookie deal last off-season. With White coming off injury and Hyde and Poyer on the wrong side of 30, this group probably won’t be as good as a year ago, but they’re coming down from such a high base point that this is still a strong group overall.

Grade: A-

Special Teams

Special teams was a bit of a weakness for the Bills in 2021, as they finished 19th in special teams DVOA, but they upgraded their biggest weakness this off-season, replacing Matt Haack, 33rd among 35 eligible punters on PFF last season, with 6th round pick Matt Araiza. Araiza isn’t a guarantee to be an above average option, but he won’t need to be in order to be a significant upgrade on Haack, which will have a significant effect on this special teams as a whole. The rest of this group stays largely the same, with talented young kicker Tyler Bass, proven return man Isaiah McKenzie, and their two top core special teamers Siran Neal and Tyler Matakevich all returning. They probably won’t be an elite unit this year, but they have a good chance to be above average.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Bills have been one of the top overall teams in the league the past two seasons since Josh Allen broke out as an elite quarterback, finishing 1st in overall efficiency in both seasons, leading the league in offensive efficiency in 2020 and then defensive efficiency in 2021. They haven’t broken through yet to make a Super Bowl yet, but they still have mostly the same core as the past two seasons and they’re arguably the most well-rounded, balanced team in the league coming into the 2022 season, so they’ll be right there with the top teams in the AFC again and a Super Bowl appearance or victory would not surprise me at all. 

The Bills went “just ” 11-6 last season, but figure to have better luck in close games in 2022 after going 0-5 in one-score games last season, 0-6 if you include their crushing overtime loss to the Chiefs in the post-season, a game that likely would have gone the other way had they won the opening coin toss in overtime. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC East

New Orleans Saints 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For years, the Saints were aggressive with the salary cap in an attempt to keep as many talented players as possible around an aging Drew Brees, trying to maximize their Super Bowl window before Brees opted to hang them up. It led to the Saints having a 49-15 record from 2017-2020, the best regular season record in the league over that stretch, but, because of a combination of poor playoff performances and bad luck, none of it resulted in even a Super Bowl appearance, before Brees opted to hang them up following the 2020 season.

At that point, it would have been understandable if the Saints opted to go through a full rebuild, parting ways with highly paid players now to clean up their salary cap situation a couple years down the line, but, instead, they continued their aggressive strategy, bringing back most of the 2020 team’s core, in order to try to continue competing with new quarterback Jameis Winston, an up and down starter for 5 years with the Buccaneers (86.9 QB rating total) who had impressed the Saints’ coaching staff behind the scenes in his one season as Brees’ backup in 2020.

The 2021 season got off to a pretty good start for the Saints. Despite some early injuries to key players, they began the year 5-2. Winston wasn’t the primary reason for their early success, as the Saints once again had one of the best defenses in the league, finishing 2nd in defensive efficiency, and they were one of the most run heavy teams in the league, finishing the season 4th in the NFL in carries and just 30th in pass attempts, with Winston attempting just 25.2 passes per game over his first 6 starts, but Winston did a good job managing the game, completing 59.0% of his passes for an average of 7.27 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions during that 5-2 start, while ranking 19th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF.

Unfortunately, Winston tore his ACL midway through that seventh game, ending his season. Injuries were a theme for the Saints last season, as they had the 8th most adjusted games lost to injury in the league, especially on offense, where they had the 2nd most adjusted games lost to injury, a big part of the reason why the Saints finished the season just 28th in offensive efficiency. Winston wasn’t their only quarterback to get hurt either, as they ended up having to start three different backup quarterbacks, Trevor Siemian (88.4 QB rating), Taysom Hill (75.4 QB rating), and Ian Book, a 4th round rookie who was completely overmatched in his only start.

Despite all of this, the Saints still finished 9-8 and just outside of a playoff berth, carried by a dominant defense, but they had yet another tough cap situation ahead of them going into this off-season and things got worse when long-time head coach Sean Payton decided he didn’t want to be around for the post-Drew Brees era and retired, at least temporarily. This seemed like another good opportunity for the Saints to hit the reset button and go through a rebuild to clear their long-term cap.

However, the Saints instead continued their aggressive strategy, bringing back most of their key players again, at the expense of next year’s cap situation, which has them a league worst 65 million over as of right now. The Saints also acquired an additional first round pick in this year’s draft from the Eagles, at a cost of their third round pick, their 2023 1st round pick, and a 2024 2nd round pick, an odd move considering the Saints didn’t know who would be available in the middle of the first round when the Eagles’ pick was.

There wasn’t much the Saints could do about their quarterback situation, without the financial flexibility to add a high priced quarterback in a trade, so they opted to bring back Winston on a 2-year, 28 million dollar deal, paying him like a low end starter and hoping that, with better health and talent around him on offense, he can lead a more effective offense than he did a year ago. Winston may also still have further untapped upside, as a former #1 overall pick entering his age 28 season. Even still, the Saints will need their defense to continue playing at a dominant level for this team to be true contenders this season, which could easily not happen, not only because the Saints have key defenders who are over 30, but also because elite defensive play is much harder to maintain year-to-year than elite offensive play.

Winston should be ready for week 1, but the Saints still wanted to upgrade their backup quarterback situation this off-season, letting Trevor Siemian go, moving Tayson Hill to tight end, and signing Andy Dalton to be the #2 quarterback, giving them a long-time experienced veteran to turn to if needed. Dalton wasn’t great in his 9 seasons as a starter in Cincinnati, but he was a serviceable starter for them for 133 games (87.5 QB rating) and has turned into a high end backup over the past two seasons since leaving Cincinnati, with a 83.0 QB rating in 15 starts with the Cowboys and Bears.

Dalton probably wouldn’t be a huge dropoff from Winston if he had to make starts, even if he is in his age 35 season. The Saints also kept Ian Book as a developmental prospect, not wanting to give up on the 2021 4th round pick after just one bad start. Unless he flops in training camp and the pre-season, he should make the active roster as a 3rd string quarterback. Both Winston and Dalton are likely to be low end starters, so this is not an overly impressive quarterback room, but it’s passable enough that the Saints could make the post-season if enough things go well on other parts of this team.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

One area that is definitely improved around Winston this season is the receiving corps, which was among the worst in the league in 2021, limiting their passing game significantly. The Saints had six different wide receivers play over 200 snaps for them last year and most of them showed very little. Lil’Jordan Humphrey and Deonte Harty averaged 1.83 yards per route run and 2.69 yards per route run respectively, but both only played just 217 snaps and 298 snaps respectively and would be projections to a larger role, especially Harty, a undersized 5-6 170 gadget type player. Aside from Humphrey and Harty, their leader in yards per route run was Marquez Callaway, who saw significant action and led the team in receiving, but he did so with just a 46/698/6 slash line, averaging a middling 1.53 yards per route run. After Callaway, none of the other receivers averaged more than 1.25 yards per route run.

In 2022, the Saints are expecting to get Michael Thomas back after he missed all of last season with an ankle injury, which also affected him significantly in 2020, limiting him to a 40/438/0 slash line in 7 games and 2.14 yards per route run, down from 119/1400/8 per 16 games and a 2.50 yards per route run average his first four seasons in the league prior to 2020, finishing 8th, 3rd, 2nd, and 3rd among wide receivers on PFF in those four seasons respectively, after being selected by the Saints in the 2nd round in 2016.

Thomas has been through a very significant ankle injury and he won’t have the benefit of playing with Drew Brees in a pass heavy offense anymore, but he’s still relatively young, in his age 29 season, and has the potential to bounce back in a big way if he can stay healthy this season, even if he’s not the player or the statistical producer he was in his prime. The Saints also used one of first round picks on wide receiver Chris Olave, after trading up again, and then signed veteran Jarvis Landry in free agency, to give the Saints at least a solid top-3 at the position. Olave might not have a huge impact right away, but he figures to be a good #2 receiver option as a rookie and could easily end up as the team’s #1 receiver long-term.

Landry has been a #1 option before, averaging a 96/1086/5 slash line in 5 seasons from 2015-2019, while not missing a game due to injury, but he’s missed the first 6 games of his career due to injury over the past two seasons, while seeing his slash lines fall to 72/840/3 and 52/570/2 respectively, and now heads into his age 30 season. Landry’s production was capped by a conservative passing game in Cleveland over the past two seasons though, with his 1.96 yards per route run average in those two seasons actually being a slight increase from the 1.91 yards per route run he averaged in the previous 5 seasons. Injuries and age are becoming a concern, but Landry has never been reliant on athleticism, mostly thriving as an underneath possession receiver. He should be a good fit in New Orleans, where he won’t need to be the primary option.

The Saints also retain Marquez Callaway, who gives them good depth with some upside, having averaged 1.51 yards per route run over the first two seasons of his career since going undrafted in 2020. Deonte Harty, also a former undrafted free agent, remains as well and should play the same gadget role, which he has excelled at in three seasons in the league, averaging 2.10 yards per route run, albeit on a total of just 533 offensive snaps over that stretch. Tre’Quan Smith was even brought back as a free agent and, even though the 2018 3rd round pick hasn’t shown much in his career, averaging 1.14 yards per route run, he’s still only in his age 26 season and gives them further depth at a much improved position group.

The Saints still don’t have much at the tight end position though, so tight ends figure to not be a big part of this offense, with the wide receivers being a much bigger focus. Adam Trautman was the nominal starter and he was a 3rd round pick by the Saints in 2020, but he hasn’t developed into more than a solid blocker yet, averaging just 1.10 yards per route run as a pass catcher. He’s still only going into his age 25 season and still has time to develop as a pass catcher, but I wouldn’t expect a huge leap out of him in year three.

Behind Trautman, Nick Vannett is also mostly a blocking specialist (1.14 yards per route run in his 6-year career) and a mediocre one at that, so he would be a very underwhelming option as the #2 tight end. Juwan Johnson, a 2020 undrafted free agent, will likely remain in the mix as a rotational passing down specialist, but he has averaged just 0.81 yards per route run in two seasons in the league and isn’t much of a blocker.

The wild card of the tight end group is Taysom Hill, who was Sean Payton’s long-time pet project at quarterback and now will focus mostly on the tight end position, with Sean Payton gone and Hill underwhelming as a passer in 9 career starts (84.6 career QB rating). Hill isn’t going to be a normal tight end though, as he’s undersized at 6-2 225, won’t block much, and will also likely continue seeing action in the backfield in a variety of roles, including as a short yardage back and potential wildcat quarterback. Hill has averaged 5.35 YPC with 16 touchdowns on 221 career carries, which is more than he’s done as a receiver (34 catches for 388 yards and 7 touchdowns), so making him a true tight end wouldn’t make the best use of his abilities, as he is at his best in the open field. 

Hill’s age is a concern, as he’s already going into his age 32 season and could start to decline athletically in the next couple years. The 4-year, 40 million dollar extension the Saints gave him during last season now looks like a big mistake with Payton gone, especially since there isn’t an easy way for the Saints to get out of the contract until 2024, at which point he’ll have made 20 million over the next 2 seasons to be primarily a gadget player. With a much more talented group of wide receivers, the Saints issues at tight end aren’t as big of a deal.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Top running back Alvin Kamara figures to be heavily involved in the passing game again this season, as he has been since entering the league as a 3rd round pick in 2017. Kamara did not match the 82/706/4 slash line and 2.15 yards per route run he averaged in his first four seasons of his career, falling to 47/439/5 and 1.62 yards per route run in 2021, but that was predictable with this passing offense as a whole taking a step back without Brees, and Kamara still finished 8th in the NFL among running backs in yards per route run and 7th in total receiving yardage.

Kamara also saw a career high in carries with 240, up from an average of 168 and a max of 194 in a season across his first four seasons in the league, on a much run heavier Saints team than he had played on in the past, actually having that career high despite missing four games with injury and playing a career low 13 games. Kamara wasn’t particularly effective on those carries though, dropping drastically from a 4.97 YPC across his first four seasons in the league to a 3.74 YPC last season.

Kamara might have been given too many touches, but his underwhelming efficiency wasn’t really his fault, as he averaged 2.80 YPC before contact, 74.7% of his rushing total and not far off from his career average of 3.03. Kamara also lacked long runs last season, with just 6 carries over 15 yards representing just 14.5% of his rushing yardage total, as opposed to 45 such carries and 30.9% of his rushing yardage total in his first four seasons in the league, which tends to vary more due to randomness than anything. He could easily bounce a few more long runs this season.

All of this suggests Kamara should have a good chance at a bounce back year in 2022, still only in his age 27 season, even if he’s unlikely to produce at the same level he did when Brees was his quarterback. One potential problem is an off-the-field situation which, depending on how and when it is resolved, could lead to Kamara being suspended, either in 2022 or in 2023. As of right now, 2023 seems more likely, with the legal process slow to play out and the league unlikely to issue a suspension until legal proceedings have completed, but there is a possibility Kamara has to sit at least a few games of this season with a suspension, which would be a big loss for the Saints’ offense.

The Saints are likely to remain run heavy in 2022, even with an improved receiving corps, so depth behind Kamara is going to be very important, even if he doesn’t end up missing time. Kamara isn’t the biggest back at 5-10 215 and, with a huge role on passing downs, the Saints wisely try to avoid overloading Kamara on running downs. Last season, the Saints tried several different running back options behind Kamara, but ultimately settled on reacquiring an old friend, bringing back veteran Mark Ingram in a trade with the Texans.

Ingram spent the first 8 seasons of his career in New Orleans, through the 2018 season, and averaged 193 carries for 909 yards (4.71 YPC) and 8 touchdowns per season in his final 5 seasons in town, overlapping with Kamara for two years and forming a highly effective running back tandem. Ingram then left for a bigger workload and more money from the Ravens, had an effective season as the lead back there in 2019, rushing for 1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns on 202 carries (5.04 YPC), but was limited to 72 carries in 11 games and a 4.15 YPC average in 2020 and was ultimately let go by the Ravens the following off-season, now on the wrong side of 30. 

Ingram spent the first half of last season doing little with the Texans, but then the Saints traded for him and he wasn’t bad the second half of the season. With the Saints, Ingram had 68 carries in 7 games, making 3 starts in Kamara’s absence, and averaged 3.82 YPC with 3.12 yards per carry after contact, as well as 1.31 yards per route run, which was in line with his career average of 1.25 yards per route run. Ingram now heads into his age 33 season and is a reserve caliber running back at this stage of his career, but he could remain decently effective in a limited role, as long as Kamara remains on the field.

Tony Jones finished 3rd among Saints running backs with 54 carries, but turned those into just 2.63 YPC, necessitating the addition of Ingram. The Saints were high on Jones going into last season, but he went undrafted in 2020 and probably will continue struggling going forward. The Saints also didn’t really add competition for him, with their 4th running back likely to be undrafted rookie Abram Smith, who has impressed the Saints this off-season, but ultimately could end up like Jones. Their depth situation isn’t really a problem as long as Kamara is on the field, but with a potential suspension looming for him, this depth situation could quickly become a problem, with Ingram being close to the end and only a pair of unproven undrafted free agents behind him.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Even with the Saints being aggressive with the salary cap, they couldn’t bring back all of their key free agents this off-season. On offense, their biggest loss was left tackle Terrom Armstead. He was an elite tackle for stretches through his 9 seasons with the Saints, but he missed at least some time with injury in every season and he now heads into his age 31 season, after a 2021 season in which he finished 28th among offensive tackles on PFF, but was limited to just 468 snaps in 8 games by injury, so it was understandable the Saints wouldn’t match the 5-year, 75 million dollar deal Armstead was given by the Saints this off-season.

The Saints replaced Armstead with their other first round pick, selecting Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning, a high upside player who is an incredible athlete for his size, but who comes into the league very raw, playing at a lower level of competition and showing consistent problems with penalties throughout his collegiate career. He’s unlikely to be as good as Armstead in year one and is not even a lock to be the week 1 starter, with swing tackle James Hurst earning a middling grade from PFF in 13 starts last season and having a history of being a reliable spot starter (64 starts in 8 seasons in the league). He’s a low upside option, especially now in his age 31 season, but he would probably give them a lower floor at the position than Penning. Most likely, Penning will start for at least most of the season and Hurst will remain a reserve, but Penning will have to at least earn the job.

Penning is one of four recent first round picks on this offensive line and the other three have had mixed results. By far their best selection has been Ryan Ramczyk, who was selected 32nd overall in the 2017 NFL Draft and immediately became one of the league’s best right tackles, finishing 8th, 7th, 1st, 14th, and 7th among offensive tackles on PFF in five seasons in the league. After only missing 1 game in his first four seasons, Ramczyk missed 7 last season, part of the Saints’ overall injury problems on offense, but he’s still only going into his age 28 season, so he’s a safe bet to bounce back and be healthier again in 2022. He’s arguably the best player in the league at his position.

Their other two first round offensive linemen, guards Andrus Peat and Cesar Ruiz have not been nearly as good. Peat was selected 13th overall all the way back in 2015 and his career got off to a good start with three straight above average grades from PFF, but even then he had injury problems, which since seem to have gotten the best of him, leading to him finishing below average in PFF in four straight seasons, following those three straight above average seasons. 

In total, Peat has missed 29 games with injury in 7 seasons in the league, with at least some time missed in every season, including a 2021 season in which he played just 303 snaps in 6 games and finished 75th out of 90 eligible guards on PFF. He’s only in his age 29 season, but I wouldn’t expect much different from him in 2022. He’s very overpaid on a 5-year, 57.5 million dollar that makes him the 7th highest paid guard in the NFL in terms of average annual salary, but Saints have regularly restructured his contract to borrow from future cap space, so they don’t have an easy way out of it any time soon.

Ruiz, on the other hand, is only going into his third season in the league, but he’s finished below average on PFF in each of his first two seasons in the league, including 60th ranked finish out of 90 eligible guards in 2021, as the Saints’ only offensive lineman to be healthy enough to make all 17 starts. Ruiz could be better in year three, even if only by default, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he will develop into an above average starter long-term.

Center Erik McCoy is the only starter on this offensive line who isn’t a former first round pick, but they did give away a future 2nd round pick to move up from later in the 2nd round to select him in the 2019 NFL Draft, so they have a lot of draft capital invested in him too. His career got off to a great start, when he finished as PFF’s 4th ranked center as a rookie, but he fell to 11th in his second season and 24th last season, when he also missed the first 5 games of his career. He’s only in his age 25 season and still has a lot of upside long-term, so he could easily bounce back and be at least somewhat improved in 2022 compared to 2021, but his future doesn’t look nearly as bright as it did a couple years ago. The Saints will have to make a decision on his long-term future soon, heading into the final year of his rookie deal without an extension.

James Hurst gives them good depth, with the ability to move inside and play guard as well if needed, but he was their only reserve to earn even an average grade from PFF last season, out of the eight who saw action, and the Saints didn’t make any significant additions this off-season, hoping to potentially get better play if needed out of 2020 undrafted free agent guard Calvin Throckmorton (938 snaps) and 2021 6th round pick offensive tackle Landon Young (67 snaps), who both struggled mightily when forced into action due to injuries last season, with Throckmorton actually making the 3rd most starts on this offensive line and finishing as PFF’s 88th ranked guard out of 90 eligible.

Hopefully the Saints won’t need their reserves nearly as much as a year ago, when their offensive line was arguably the most injury plagued in the league. They’ll miss free agent departure Terron Armstead, but he was a declining, aging player who only played 8 games last season and they did a decent job replacing him with Trevor Penning. This group should be better this season even without Armstead purely because players like Calvin Throckmorton are unlikely to have nearly the role they did a year ago. Guard is still a weakness, but overall this should be a pretty good overall offensive line if they can stay relatively healthy.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Saints’ had a dominant defense last season and they have consistently had an above average defense throughout the past few seasons, but, as I mentioned, there are reasons to expect them to fall off at least somewhat on defense this season. One of those reasons is simply the fact that elite defensive play is much harder to maintain year-to-year than elite offensive play, but, on top of that, the Saints have some key players on the wrong side of 30 who could drop off significantly.

One of those players is edge defender Cameron Jordan, who has been one of the best players in the league at his position for years, finishing in the top-18 among edge defenders on PFF in 7 straight seasons, playing the run at a high level and adding 78 sacks, 80 hits, and a 11.9% pressure rate in 112 games over that stretch. Jordan is going into his age 33 season though and, while a big drop off isn’t guaranteed for Jordan in 2022 and he could continue playing at a high level, at this point in his career, it would not be a surprise if he declined significantly and I would at least expect him to decline a little bit. 

Jordan has been very durable in his career, somehow never missing game with injury in 11 seasons in the league, even though he’s played an average of 58.1 snaps per game over the past 10 seasons, and that durability probably helps his chances of aging better than most elite edge defenders, but I wouldn’t expect him to be as good as he was a year ago. He’s likely to remain at least an above average every down player, but any noticeable decline by Jordan is going to have a noticeable effect on this defense.

The Saints are probably hoping to offset any potential decline from Jordan by getting more out of his counterpart Marcus Davenport, another former first round pick, selected 14th overall in 2018, after the Saints gave up a future first round pick to move up from later in the first round to acquire him. It’s not hard to see how they could get more out of Davenport this year, as he’s played at a high level for most of his four seasons with the team when on the field and just needs to stay healthy, but that’s easier said than done for a player who has averaged 440 snaps per season in four years in the league, while missing 17 total games and never playing more than 13 games or 533 snaps in a single season.

When on the field, Davenport has earned an above average grade from PFF in all four seasons in the league, including three straight finishes in the top-28 among edge defenders and a career best 6th ranked finish in 2021, actually earning a higher grade than Jordan, albeit across just 437 snaps in 11 games. Also a high level run defender, Davenport has 16.5 sacks, 22 hits, and a 14.1% pressure rate in 35 games over the past three seasons, while averaging 36.3 snaps per game, showing the talent that made him a first round pick in the first place. Only in his age 26 season, he could be in for a huge year in 2022 if he can stay healthy, but that’s a huge if, considering his history.

The Saints are also hoping to get more out of another first round pick, Payton Turner, who went 28th overall a year ago. It would be hard for them to get less out of him, after he played just 144 middling snaps in 5 games as a rookie, mostly due to injury. He probably won’t play a huge role behind Jordan and Davenport unless one of them gets hurt, but he’s good insurance to have and still has the upside to be an above average starter long-term, even if it’s unlikely that happens this season. If Turner shows well, he could earn a significant sub package role, as the Saints could use their top-3 defensive ends together in obvious passing situations, with one of the three lined up on the interior, likely either Jordan (6-4 288) or Turner (6-6 270).

With Davenport and Turner missing time with injuries last season, Carl Granderson actually ranked 2nd among Saints edge defenders with 448 snaps played and he was pretty decent across that snap count, after also showing some promise on a snap count of 291 the year before. The 2019 undrafted free agent would probably be overstretched in a big role for an extended period of time, but he would need multiple major injuries ahead of him on the depth chart for that to happen, going into the season as no higher than the 4th edge defender, behind a trio of former first round picks.

The Saints also have experienced veteran reserve Tanoh Kpassagnon, who has a good chance to be healthier than a year ago, when he was limited to 220 snaps in 8 games, and who could continue playing a reserve role in 2022. He’s been an underwhelming player in 5 seasons in the league though, finishing below average on PFF in three of five seasons in the league, across an average of 381 snaps per season. He’s not guaranteed to have a role though, in a deep position group. Cameron Jordan could decline, given his age, which would have an obvious negative effect on this position group, but they have a pair of former first round picks with upside to do more this season, which could easily offset any decline from Jordan.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

The Saints also should get more out of their top interior defender David Onyemata, who was suspended for the first 6 games of last season, limiting him to 11 games (430 snaps). Onyemata continued to excel when on the field though, both as a run stopper and as a pass rusher, with 2 sacks, 8 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate, finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked interior defender overall, his 3rd season in the top-23 at the position over the past 4 seasons, a stretch in which he has totalled 16 sacks, 26 hits, and a 9.5% pressure rate in 57 games, including back-to-back top-9 finishes among interior defenders on PFF.

Onyemata is another player who is going to be on the wrong side of 30, going into his age 30 season this year, so he’ll start to decline in the next few years, but he hasn’t shown any signs of that yet and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued to play at the same level for at least another year. Even if he does regress a little bit, he should be able to offset that by playing more games, which will almost definitely be the case, barring a fluke injury, with just two games missed due to injury in 6 seasons in the league.

Aside from their depth at the edge defender position, another reason the Saints could use three defensive ends together regularly in sub packages is to mask their lack of depth at the interior defender position, behind Onyemata. The Saints had five reserve interior defenders play between 115-315 snaps for them last season, but three of them are no longer with the team, and the two remaining, Malcolm Roach (194 snaps) and Albert Huggins (219 snaps), both struggled mightily in their limited action last season and are both former undrafted free agents (2020 and 2019 respectively) with no track record of success. They could compete for reserve roles in 2022, but only out of a lack of other options.

Shy Tuttle is a solid starter in base packages, finishing as PFF’s 11th ranked interior defender against the run in 2021, but he is only a base package player, pressuring the quarterback at just a 4.3% rate in his career, including 2.6% last season, leading to him being limited to 387 snaps per season in three seasons in the league, and just 494 last season. The 2019 undrafted free agent should remain a good run defender, but Tuttle isn’t a real sub package option. To get their best four pass rushers on the field, the Saints will have to line one of their top-3 edge defenders inside next to Onyemata in passing situations. 

The Saints added a pair of veterans, Jaleel Johnson and Kentavius Street, in free agency, but both are very underwhelming options who shouldn’t be guaranteed a role, even as a reserve. Street was a 3rd round pick by the 49ers in 2018, but he played just 38 snaps in his first two seasons in the league, due to injury and ineffectiveness, since then, and he’s finished 127th out of 146 eligible and 138th out of 139 eligible interior defenders over the past two seasons respectively as a reserve, across snap counts of 380 and 352 respectively. He’s only in his age 25 season, so there may be theoretical upside here, but he’s just as likely to not make this team as he is to carve out a role and be useful, signing for just 300k guaranteed.

Johnson is more experienced, averaging 411 snaps per game over the past four seasons, but it hasn’t been good experience, as he’s finished below average on PFF in all four of those seasons, including a 129th ranked finish out of 146 eligible across 322 snaps with the Texans last season. Johnson was a 4th round pick back in 2017, but he hasn’t developed into even a useful reserve and, now in his age 28 season, that’s unlikely to change. 

The Saints also used a 6th round pick on interior defender Jordan Jackson, but he’s unlikely to have a positive impact if forced into action as a rookie, even if he does have some upside long-term. Onyemata and Tuttle are good starters in base packages, Onyemata is a sub package player as well, and the Saints could use three defensive ends together in sub packages to mask their lack of depth at the interior defender position, but their lack of depth is still a big concern, especially if an injury were to strike, as none of their reserves inspire any confidence.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Another key player on this defense over 30 is their top off ball linebacker Demario Davis, who heads into his age 33 season. Like Cameron Jordan, Davis hasn’t shown much sign of decline yet and has been very durable in his career, never missing a game due to injury in 10 seasons in the league, while finishing in the top-25 among off ball linebackers in 5 straight seasons, on an average of 1,009 snaps per season. Even if he does drop off from a 15th ranked finish among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2021, which is not a guarantee, Davis should remain at least a solid every down off ball linebacker in 2022, but, if he’s not his normal self, that will have a noticeable impact on this defense.

Fortunately, the Saints do seem to have a budding young linebacker in Pete Werner, a second round pick a year ago, who only played 394 snaps as a rookie, but flashed in a big way, finishing 10th among off ball linebackers on PFF, showing a lot of promise both in coverage and against the run. In 2022, he has a clear path to a much bigger role, with middling veteran Kwon Alexander (535 snaps) being let go this off-season, and, while Werner is a projection to a larger role, he could easily be an above average every down option in 2022 and beyond. He might not end up as good as Davis long-term, but he seems like a good long-term replacement for him and, even if Davis declines noticeably in 2022, he and Werner should still be a great linebacker duo.

Depth is a little bit of a concern at the position with Alexander gone, but they do have a pair of intriguing young linebacker options in Kaden Elliss (192 snaps) and Zack Baun (194 snaps), who both saw limited action last season. Elliss was only a 7th round pick in 2019 and had played just 5 snaps in his career prior to his limited role last season, but he showed a lot of promise in his limited role in 2021. However, he’s still an obvious projection to a larger role, he wasn’t highly drafted, and, while Baun hasn’t shown much in two seasons in the league, struggling across just 276 total snaps, he was a 3rd round pick and could wind up ahead of Elliss on the depth chart on the basis of a higher upside. Regardless of who wins the third linebacker job, they are unlikely to see a significant role unless Davis or Werner get hurt.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The two biggest losses for the Saints on defense this off-season were their two starting safeties, with Marcus Williams signing with the Ravens on a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal as a free agent and Malcolm Jenkins opting to hang them up, ahead of what would have been his age 35 season. Jenkins was past his prime, but he was still a solid starter last season, while Williams was one of the best safeties in the league, finishing 8th among safeties on PFF, so they won’t be an easy duo to replace.

The Saints signed a couple new safeties in free agency, adding Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye on a pair of 3-year deals worth up to 22.5 million and 28.3 million respectively, and they could be a solid duo, but it’s very unlikely either of them will be as good as Williams was a year ago and both come with a significant issue. For Mathieu, the issue is just that he’s now going into his age 30 season, making him another key player over 30 on this defense. 

Mathieu was one of the better safeties in the league in his prime, finishing in the top-21 at his position on PFF in 4 of his first 7 seasons, including back-to-back years in 2018 and 2019, but he’s only earned slightly above average grades from PFF over the past two seasons since then, including a 40th ranked finish with the Chiefs in 2021, so it looks like his best days are behind him at this point. He could remain a solid starter, but I wouldn’t expect a big bounce back from him and it’s possible he could continue declining further.

Maye is a couple years younger, only going into his age 28 season, but he’s coming off of a torn achilles that ended his 2021 season midway, and could easily struggle to return to form in his first year back. Maye was also in the middle of a down year before getting hurt, ranking slightly below average across 362 snaps, down from finishes of 4th and 21st the previous two seasons. Maye also ranked 11th among safeties the year before that in 2018, but again missed significant time to injury, playing just 393 snaps total, so his durability issues aren’t new. Maye has a higher ceiling than Mathieu, if he’s healthy and can bounce back from his poor start to 2021, but that’s not a guarantee.

The Saints also brought back top reserve safety PJ Williams, a versatile player who can also line up as a slot cornerback. Williams fared well in a reserve role last season, earning an above average grade across 545 snaps, but that’s kind of uncharacteristic for him, as he’s finished below average in three of the past five seasons overall, on an average of 634 snaps per season as a reserve. He could continue being a solid part-time player and reserve, but he’s been inconsistent in the past, so he could also struggle.

With Marcus Williams gone, the Saints’ best defensive back is clearly their top cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore was PFF’s 13th ranked cornerback last season, but he’s been a bit inconsistent in the past, as last season was his best finish since his dominant rookie season in 2017, when the 11th overall pick was PFF’s 8th best cornerback and allowed just a 45.3 QB rating. However, in the following three seasons, he allowed a 95.6 QB rating and never finished higher than 29th among cornerbacks. He bounced back in 2021, but still allowed a 99.7 QB rating, making up for it by deflecting a career high 18 passes, most in the NFL. He’s still early in his prime in his age 26 season, but his history of inconsistency is concerning and he could easily not have as good of a season in 2022 as he had in 2021.

The rest of the Saints cornerback depth chart is unsettled, but that’s not because they lost any key players or had key players who struggled last season. Paulson Adebo (851 snaps) and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (627 snaps) were their #2 and #3 cornerback last season and both remain after earning middling grades from PFF last season, but the Saints also have other options. I already mentioned that PJ Williams can play the slot from time to time, which could also be paired with Gardner-Johnson seeing some action at safety, where he has played in the past, but the Saints also have veteran Bradley Roby, their #4 cornerback last season, who was surprisingly kept after taking a pay cut this off-season, and they used a 2nd round pick on cornerback Alontae Taylor, who also figures to compete for a role this season.

Adebo is still likely to keep his starting job opposite Lattimore though, as the 2021 3rd round pick got a lot better as his rookie season went on, after understandably going through growing pains early in the season. Even though he was only a middling cornerback overall on the year, Adebo was PFF’s 26th ranked cornerback from week 10 on. He’s only shown it for about half a year, but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Adebo continued his above average play into 2022 and beyond and became a good long-term starter.

Gardner-Johnson also has a good chance to keep his job, as the primary slot cornerback. He’s been inconsistent against the run in his career, but has earned an average or better coverage grade from PFF in all three seasons in the league, playing both slot cornerback and safety, and is still only going into his age 25 season. He’s not an option to play significant snaps as an outside cornerback, but he’s still a versatile player who should remain a solid slot coverage option.

Bradley Roby’s return to the team was a surprise, as was acquired from the Texans before last season only when the Texans were willing to eat 7.6 million of his 10 million dollar salary and, when he only played 395 snaps as the 4th cornerback for the Saints in 2021, it seemed unlikely he would be brought back, owed 9.5 million non-guaranteed in 2022, but Roby was willing to take a big pay cut down to 3.5 million, surprising because he’s been a consistently solid cornerback for most of his career and, even in his age 30 season, likely could have started for several teams around the league. 

Roby has earned an average or better grade from PFF in 7 of 8 seasons in the league, with an average of 673 snaps played per season, including a 25th ranked finish among cornerback across 10 starts as recently as 2020. Even with Gardner-Johnson and Adebo being solid options ahead of him on the depth chart, it wouldn’t surprise me if Roby was able to earn a regular role in this secondary. He and Alontae Taylor will most likely be the primary reserve outside cornerbacks behind Lattimore and Adebo, with Gardner-Johnson and PJ Williams as their slot/safety options, and Maye and Mathieu starting at safety. They’ll miss Marcus Williams, but this is still a talented secondary.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Saints had a middling special teams unit in 2021, but they have a good chance to be a lot better this season, with kicker Wil Lutz returning from injury after missing all of last season, giving them a big upgrade at by far their biggest special teams weak spot last season. Replacement kickers combined to hit just 81.6% of their extra points and 83.3% of their field goals in 2021, a big drop off from the 97.3% and 86.6% that Lutz hit over the previous five seasons, consistently finishing as one of the best kickers in the league, ranking in the top-14 among kickers on PFF in all healthy five seasons, with three seasons in the top-6. His return will be a big boost for this team.

Aside from the kicker spot, the rest of this special teams unit was pretty good last season. Punter Blake Gillikin was decent and Deonte Harty did a solid job as both a kickoff and punt returner, with Aesop Winston also giving them another punt return option behind Harty. In terms of their core special teamers, the Saints had four players in the top-50 at the position on PFF, Kaden Elliss, JT Gray, Dwayne Washington, and Andrew Dowell, who are all expected to return this season. With Lutz coming back to give this already capable unit a big boost, this could easily be a top-10 special teams unit in terms of DVOA, which they were in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Saints contended for a playoff spot in 2021, despite an offense that ranked 28th in efficiency, because of an elite defense that ranked 2nd in efficiency. They’ve kept most of their key players, borrowing significantly from future years’ cap space to do so, and their offense should be significantly better this season due to better health, after having the 2nd most adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season. They’re still unlikely to have a better than average offense, but their special teams should also be better and, if they get dominant defensive play again, they could definitely make the post-season, in a weaker NFC than a year ago. 

Another dominant defensive performance is not a guarantee, given the relative non-predictiveness of defensive performance, as well as the fact that the Saints have several key defenders in their 30s who could drop off suddenly, but, on paper, the Saints do still have one of the best defenses in the league, so another strong performance is certainly a possibility, even if they’re not quite as dominant as a year ago. Overall, there is definitely enough here that I could see a post-season berth, but they’ll need enough things to go right and, once in the post-season, they’re unlikely to have the offensive upside to go on a deep run. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC South