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 12-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 non-guarantee, 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 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 flier. 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 backup 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 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

New York Jets 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For over a decade, the Jets have been stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of rebuilding, drafting a quarterback high, failing, tearing it down, firing everyone involved, and rebuilding again. Dating back to the 2006 NFL Draft, no team has drafted as many quarterbacks in the first two rounds than Jets, who have drafted six in that timespan, none of whom have had any prolonged success, Kellen Clemens, Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Christian Hackenburg, Sam Darnold, and Zach Wilson. 

It hasn’t just been the quarterback position that has been a problem, but the Jets currently have the NFL’s longest active playoff drought, dating back to their last appearance in the 2010 season, and their only two playoff appearances since Chad Pennington’s final season with the team in 2007 came in back-to-back years in 2009-2010 when Mark Sanchez was carried by defenses that ranked 1st and 3rd in efficiency. Outside of years when they have had elite defenses, the Jets have not qualified for the post-season, with their quarterbacks routinely doing nothing to positively affect the outcome of this team.

The Jets are going into year two of attempt six to replace Chad Pennington with a franchise quarterback, also year two of former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh as head coach, and so far things are not going well. Wilson, the #2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, finished his rookie season with 55.6% completion, 6.09 YPA, 9 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 4 rushing touchdowns, 185 rushing yards, and 29 carries (6.38 YPC) in 13 starts, missing time with injury, and ranking just 34th among 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF, on a Jets team that finished 25th in offensive efficiency, 30th in overall efficiency, and went just 4-13, their 6th straight losing record (3-10 in Wilson’s starts).

The team’s lack of success was not only the fault of their quarterback play last season, as they ranked 31st in defensive efficiency and had problems around Wilson on offense, but Wilson will need to be significantly better in year two for the Jets to even be able to think about competing to end their playoff drought, in a loaded AFC, especially since some of the issues on this roster still remain. It’s very possible Wilson could take a big step forward in his second season in the league, but even a big step forward might not make him an average starting quarterback and he entered the league as a raw boom or bust prospect, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he ultimately never panned out.

The Jets bring back both of the backups who started games in Wilson’s absence last season, Joe Flacco and Mike White, who will compete to be Wilson’s backup this season, with a possibility of the Jets keeping all three on the roster. Flacco is an experienced veteran with 176 career starts in 14 seasons in the league, but he is going into his age 37 season having completed just 61.7% of his passes for an average of 6.72 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in just 22 starts over the past four seasons and his days of being even a low end starter are almost definitely behind him at this point. 

Flacco is not a terrible backup, but he’s nearly the end of the line. White on the other hand, is a 2018 5th round pick who made the first 3 starts of his career last season, showing promise with 66.7% completion, 7.22 YPA, 5 touchdowns in those starts, but who ultimately probably has a long way to go to be a consistent backup option, as evidenced by his 8 interceptions. It’s an underwhelming quarterback room overall, barring an unexpected breakout from Wilson.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Jets accumulated a significant amount of future resources as part of their most recent rebuild and they have cashed in a lot of those resources in the past few off-seasons, with the Jets making 7 picks in the first 36 picks of the draft in just the past two years and spending significantly to give them the 10th most expensive roster in the league in terms of combined average annual salary, which correlates heavily with winning percentage. However, the jury is still out on many of those draft picks, especially the four early picks they had this year, and many of their free agent additions have not panned out thus far.

One of those additions who has disappointed thus far is wide receiver Corey Davis, who signed a 3-year, 37.5 million dollar deal with this team last off-season to potentially be their long-term #1 receiver. Davis still averaged an impressive 1.74 yards per route run average in 2021, but that was down from a 1.95 yards per route run average in his final three seasons with the Titans prior from 2018-2020, and Davis was also limited to 450 snaps in 9 games by injury, leading to him posting just a 34/492/4 slash line in his first season with the Jets. 

Durability has been a concern for Davis throughout his career, as he has played in every game just once in five seasons in the league, while missing 16 games total over that stretch, but he’s also only going into his age 27 season and has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay relatively healthy. He’s not a true #1 wide receiver, but he should be an above average wide receiver who has a good chance to lead this team in receiving totals if he can play all or most of the season.

The Titans also added wide receiver Elijah Moore last off-season, selecting him in the 2nd round of the draft, and the Jets also should get more out of him this season, after he impressed with a 1.75 yards per route run average as a rookie, but was limited to just 476 snaps in 11 games because he began the season as a backup and then missed significant time with injury down the stretch, after taking over as a starter mid-season. He might not be quite as efficient in a larger role, but he has a good chance to break out as at least a solid starter in 2022.

Moore isn’t the only wide receiver the Jets have used a high pick on recently either. In the 2020 NFL Draft, the Jets selected Denzel Mims in the 2nd round, though he’s shown very little thus far, playing just 718 total snaps and averaging just 1.13 yards per route run. He didn’t play a big role in 2021 and is not expected to be anything more than a backup this season, after the Jets used another high pick on a wide receiver in the 2022 NFL Draft, selecting Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson 10th overall. 

Wilson figures to start in three wide receiver sets with Davis and Moore and, while he might have some growing pains as a rookie, he has the upside to be a #1 receiver long-term and could easily make at least some immediate impact. With Davis and Moore likely to be healthier, Moore going into his second season in the league, and Wilson being added, the Jets suddenly have a top-3 wide receiver group with a lot of upside and one that should be a noticeable upgrade over a year ago, even if they don’t reach their full potential.

The Jets also re-signed Braxton Berrios to a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal to give them depth at the wide receiver position, beyond Mims. Berrios hasn’t played much on offense in his career, with 765 offensive snaps in 4 seasons in the league, including a career high 390 last season, but he’s averaged an impressive 1.84 yards per route run average in his limited action and was worth keeping as depth in case injuries strike ahead of him on the depth chart again, especially since he also doubles as a talented return man. The 5-9 190 pounder is a slot specialist who has played 73.5% of his career snaps on the slot, but he also can play outside a little bit as well, if needed.

The Jets also spent money to upgrade their tight end group this off-season, letting go of veterans Ryan Griffin (583 snaps) and Tyler Kroft (363 snaps), who contributed very little with yards per route run averages of 0.98 and 0.93 respectively, and replacing them with CJ Uzomah and Tyler Conklin, who signed deals worth 24 million over 3 years and 20.25 million over 3 years respectively to join the Jets this off-season. They probably won’t be significant upgrades though.

Both Uzomah and Conklin are coming off career best seasons, but they managed just slash lines of 49/493/5 and 61/593/3 respectively, despite being their team’s primary tight ends, and both are unlikely to match those totals in 2022, since they will be the Jets 1A and 1B starters, rather than either one being a true primary tight end like they were last season. They also managed yards per route run averages of just 1.07 and 1.24 respectively last season, barely up from career averages of 1.03 and 1.14 respectively. 

Uzomah and Conklin are probably upgrades by default over what the Jets had at tight end last season, but neither is more than a middling starter and the Jets paid quite a bit to get both of them. The Jets also added a Jeremy Ruckert in the 3rd round of the draft, although it’s unclear if he’ll have much of a role as a rookie, likely to be the 3rd string tight end at best, barring injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. The Jets’ top-2 tight ends are underwhelming, but they are part of an overall much improved receiving corps, even if that is an improvement over being one of the least effective receiving corps in the league a year ago.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Jets’ running game was actually impressive on a per play basis last season, as they ranked 13th in the NFL with an impressive 4.39 YPC average, led by 4th round rookie Michael Carter, who rushed for 4.35 YPC and 4 touchdowns on 147 carries, while averaging 1.48 yards per route run on passing plays, 16th among eligible running backs. However, the Jets also finished dead last in the NFL with 380 carries as a team last season, frequently trailing and needing to pass more often to keep pace. 

With the idea in mind of playing more competitive games and running more often in 2022, clearly the Jets felt they needed to reinforce their backfield, making Iowa State’s Breece Hall the first running back off the board in this year’s draft when they selected him 36th overall at the top of the second round. Hall has three-down potential and caught 82 passes in three collegiate seasons, but he’ll likely rotate with Carter, with both young backs seeing significant action on passing downs and running downs. 

The Jets also brought back Tevin Coleman and Ty Johnson, who finished 2nd and 3rd on this team in carries last season with 84 and 61 respectively, and they’ll provide depth behind Carter and Hall. Coleman is a somewhat proven back with 4.24 YPC on 777 career carries in 7 seasons in the league and a career 1.27 yards per route run average, and he has years of experience in the Jets’ style of offense with the 49ers and Falcons, but he’s averaged just 3.65 YPC on just 112 carries over the past two injury plagued seasons and now heads into his age 29 season, so he isn’t much more than good depth. 

Johnson impressed as the Jets’ primary passing down back last season, averaging 1.45 yards per route run, but the 2019 6th round pick has an average of just 1.07 yards per route run in his career and, while his career 4.30 YPC average is decent, he’s never surpassed 63 carries in a season and has just 178 carries total in three seasons in the league. He’s more of a bottom of the roster type than anything, but it’s unlikely he has much of a role in 2022 anyway. How the split works out between Carter and Hall remains to be seen and they’re inexperienced players, but they give the Jets a lot of potential at this position, with good depth behind their top-2 backs as well.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The biggest free agent signing the Jets added this off-season was guard Laken Tomlinson, who comes over from the 49ers on a 3-year, 40 million dollar deal. A first round pick by the Lions in 2015, Tomlinson was a bust in Detroit and was sent to the 49ers for a late round draft pick after just two seasons, but they proved to be giving up on him too soon, as he has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 5 seasons since the 49ers acquired him, making 80 of a possible 81 starts and finishing as PFF’s 8th and 11th ranked guard over the past two seasons respectively. He’s now going into his age 30 season, so he could start to decline soon, but he also has a good chance of remaining an above average starter for another year, remaining in the same blocking scheme with the Jets that he had success in with the 49ers. He should be an obvious upgrade for a team that had a weakness at right guard in 2021.

With Tomlinson being added, the Jets now can start five offensive linemen who have been added either on a big free agent deal or in the first round of the draft at some point in the past few off-seasons. The biggest disappointment of the bunch so far is probably 2020 1st round pick Mekhi Becton, but he had an impressive rookie season, finishing 32nd among offensive tackles on PFF in 13 starts at left tackle, and could easily still develop into an above average starter long-term. 

The reason Becton has been disappointing is because he missed all but one game with a knee injury last season and reportedly the team felt he did not do enough to stay in shape during the injury, ultimately leading to him not returning all season from what was expected to be about a 6-week injury. However, that injury seems to be behind him now and, while his conditioning and durability have been a consistent issue for him throughout his career, dating back to his collegiate days, he still has the potential to live up to his first round draft status.

With Becton out for most of last season, right tackle George Fant moved to the left side, leaving capable veteran Morgan Moses to start on the right side. In 2022, Moses is no longer with the team and Becton could retain his left tackle job, moving Fant back to right tackle, but the Jets could also opt to keep Fant on the left side and move Becton to the right side, after Fant had a solid season on the blindside in 2021, finishing an above average 39th among offensive tackles on PFF in 15 starts.

Signed to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal in free agency two off-seasons ago, Fant was a risky signing because he struggled mightily in his lone season as a starter prior to signing with the Jets, finishing 83rd out of 86 eligible offensive tackles on PFF in 10 starts as an undrafted rookie in 2016, but he showed more promise in a reserve role in 2018 and 2019, on snap counts of 371 and 472 respectively, and the Jets bet on that promise and that he was just forced into action too early as a rookie. 

Fant wasn’t a great value after being just a marginal starting right tackle in year one in 2020 (14 starts), but, after the best full season of his career in 2021, he looks like a much better value now. Unfortunately, he’s now going into his age 30 season and is unlikely to repeat the best season of his career again in 2022, but he should remain at least a capable starter with upside, regardless of whether he ultimately plays left or right tackle.

The other recent first round pick on this offense was 2021 1st round pick Alijah Vera-Tucker, who earned a slightly above average grade from PFF across 16 rookie season starts at left guard in 2021. He has the potential to be one of the best guards in the league someday and, while development is not always linear, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he took a big step forward in year two and, at the very least, I would be surprised if he wasn’t at least a solid starter again.

Center Connor McGovern remains locked in as the starter, going into the final year of a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal that he signed with the Jets after spending the first four seasons of his career with the Broncos, who drafted him in the 6th round in 2016. McGovern was PFF’s 9th ranked center in his final season in Denver and had started 31 of 32 games over the previous two seasons, but he was a one-year wonder in terms of being more than an average starter for a full season and he was a bit of a disappointment in his first season with the Jets in 2020, finishing 26th out of 39 eligible centers on PFF in 16 starts, not what the Jets were expecting after making him the 9th highest paid center in the league in average annual salary on his new contract. 

McGovern bounced back in a big way in 2021 though, finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked center in 15 starts. He’s definitely been inconsistent in his four seasons as a starter, but he’s still in his prime in age 29 season and could easily have another solid season again in 2022, even if he may be unlikely to quite repeat the season he had last year. The Jets also added depth on the offensive line this off-season. They signed ex-Eagle Nate Herbig, who has been an above average spot starter at both guard positions over the past two seasons (17 starts total) and who could easily start for an extended period of time if needed, and drafted Max Mitchell in the 4th round, who could push underwhelming swing tackle Chuma Edoga, a 2019 3rd round pick in his own right, for the swing tackle job. With Tomlinson being added and Becton returning, this could easily be an above average offensive line this season.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned earlier, defense was actually more of a problem for the Jets than offense last season, as they ranked 31st in defensive efficiency. Part of that was injuries, as they were even more banged up on defense than on offense, having the most adjusted games lost on defense in the NFL. Probably the most impactful injury absence they had was edge defender Carl Lawson, a big off-season addition for them, signing a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal, but then missing his entire first season in New York with a torn achilles that he suffered before the season even began.

That means Lawson is another big free agent signing by the Jets who has not lived up to his contract, but that doesn’t mean he can’t live up to it going forward. Durability has been a continued issue for Lawson, who has now missed 30 games total in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s shown himself to be a consistently above average pass rusher when on the field, totaling 20 sacks, 60 hits, and a 14.3% pressure rate in 51 career games. He’s not much of a run defender, but that didn’t stop him from finishing 16th among edge defenders across 723 snaps in his last healthy season in 2020, when he had 5.5 sacks, 24 hits, and a 14.6% pressure rate. 

Lawson might have a tough time repeating that in his first season back from the injury and he could also miss more time, given his injury history, but he should remain an above average pass rusher when on the field, only going into his age 27 season, which should make him a big asset for a team that got very underwhelming play from most of their edge defenders in Lawson’s absence last season. The Jets also used a first round pick on edge defender Jermaine Johnson, who should also play a big role as a rookie. He might not make as much impact as Lawson in his first season in the league, but he has a big upside and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade on most of the edge defenders who played for the Jets last season. 

The only Jets edge defender who earned an above average grade from PFF last season was John Franklin-Myers, who finished as PFF’s 15th ranked edge defender across 717 snaps, playing the run well and adding 6 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate as a pass rusher, saving an otherwise terrible position group in 2021. Franklin-Myers also had 3 sacks, 10 hits, and a 14.4% pressure rate while ranking 36th at his position on PFF across 500 snaps as an interior defender in 2020 and, with Lawson returning and Johnson being added, it’s fair to wonder if the 6-4 288 pound Franklin-Myers will line up inside a lot more often in 2022, especially in passing situations, which would allow the Jets to get their three best pass rushers on the field at the same time. 

Franklin-Myers was a 4th round pick by the Rams in 2018 who was surprisingly not kept after his rookie season, despite a 11.7% pressure rate in limited action, but his loss proved to be the Jets’ gain, given how he’s played over the past two seasons. Extended on a 4-year, 55 million dollar deal, Franklin-Myers has a good chance to be worth that, still only in his age 26 season and signed through 2025. Wherever he lines up most of the time in 2022, he figures to be tough for opposing defenses to stop, especially with Lawson and Johnson to worry about now as well. 

The Jets also added more edge defender depth in free agency when they signed Jacob Martin to a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal. Martin was a little overstretched as a starter with the Texans last season (700 snaps), but he was better in a reserve role in his first three seasons in the league (273 snaps per season) and has a career 11.2% pressure rate overall. He should continue being a useful rotational player and reserve. 

Martin will compete for reserve snaps with another rookie, 4th round pick Michael Clemons, as well as their top returning reserve edge defender Bryce Huff (338 snaps), who has been middling at best in similar snap counts in two seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2020. He’s unlikely to be significantly improved in 2022, but he won’t be needed much at a position group that looks much better than a year ago with Johnson being added and Lawson returning.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Another reason why Franklin-Myers could see significant action on the interior is because they lost Foley Fatukasi in free agency without really replacing him, a significant loss after he earned a slightly above average grade from PFF across 558 snaps last season, prior to signing in Jacksonville on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal this off-season. The interior defender position was already underwhelming for the Jets last season, prior to the loss of Fatukasi, so there are definitely concerns at this position, but, in addition to Franklin-Myers potentially moving inside, there is also reason to believe the Jets could get significantly better play from their holdovers.

The Jets’ top interior defender Quinnen Williams was PFF’s 43rd ranked interior defender in 2021 across 613 snaps, holding up against the run and adding 6 sacks, 5 hits, and a 9.4% pressure rate, but that’s a significant drop off from a 13rd ranked finish among interior defenders across 587 snaps in 2020, when he had 7 sacks, 9 hits, and a 10.3% pressure rate. Williams was the 3rd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and played pretty well as a rookie across 512 snaps as well, so he still has a lot of upside and could easily bounce back in a big way in 2022, still only his age 25 season. Even if he doesn’t bounce back, he should remain at least a solid starter, but the upside for much more is there as well.

The Jets are also hoping for more out of Sheldon Rankins, a free agent signing on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal last off-season who was a big disappointment in his first season with the team, finishing 125th out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF across 643 snaps. Rankins has had better years in the past and is a former first round pick who is still only in his age 28 season, but he also hasn’t been the same since a torn achilles during the 2018 playoffs and he has missed 18 games total with injury in 6 seasons in the league. He could easily be better in 2022 than he was in 2021, even if only by default, after 2021 was the worst season of his career, but it’s unlikely Rankins will approach the season he had in 2018 before the injury, when he finished 25th among interior defenders in 642 snaps.

Reserve Nathan Shepherd is the least impressive of the three holdovers. The 2018 3rd round pick earned above average grades from PFF in his first two seasons in the league, but he’s finished below average in each of the past two and has never been more than a rotational player, with the 495 snaps he played last season being a career high. There is opportunity for him to again have a similar snap count and he has a little bit of bounce back potential, but he’s unlikely to be more than decent depth and would likely struggle if forced into a starting role by injuries. He was a free agent this off-season, but had a cold market and returned to the Jets on a near minimum deal.

Shepherd will compete with the Jets’ lone free agent acquisition at the position, Solomon Thomas, who was added on a 1-year, 2.25 million dollar deal, but isn’t guaranteed a significant role. Thomas was the 3rd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft by the 49ers, with whom he played four years under new Jets head coach Robert Saleh, but he proved to be a massive bust, earning below average grades from PFF in three of four seasons with the 49ers, before finishing a career worst 138th out of 146 eligible interior defenders across 554 snaps with the Raiders in 2021. 

Thomas is still relatively young in his age 27 season, he has the versatility to line up both inside and outside, and he could benefit from moving back into a familiar scheme, but he hasn’t gotten consistent pass rush regardless of where he’s lined up in his career (7.1% pressure rate) and he’s unlikely to have significant untapped potential at this point in his career. He adds to a position group that is underwhelming outside of top interior defender Quinnen Williams, but Williams could have a big bounce back year, and would elevate an otherwise mediocre group significantly if he did that.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The off ball linebacker position was a big weakness for the Jets in 2021 and, without major changes made to this group this off-season, that should remain the case again in 2022. Mosley signed a 5-year, 85 million contract with the Jets in free agency three off-season ago, but he has been a massive bust thus far, missing all but 114 snaps with injury in his first season with the team, opting out of the 2020 season, and then struggled mightily in his first extended action with the Jets in 2021, finishing 81st out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF across 874 snaps. 

Making matters worse, because Mosley opted out in 2020, his contract rolled forward, which means his final year with guaranteed money, which would have otherwise been last season, is now this season, which meant the Jets didn’t have a choice but to give him another chance, even at a 16 million dollar salary for 2022. Unless he bounces back in a big way this season, which is very unlikely, Mosley will almost definitely be let go this off-season, to avoid paying him another 17 million in 2023.

Mosley may have some bounce back potential in 2022 and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be better, even if only by default, but he now heads into his age 30 season, so his best days are almost definitely behind him at this point, and, even at his best, he was never worth the contract the Jets gave him. In five seasons with the Ravens, he maxed out as PFF’s 16th ranked linebacker, which was way back in 2016, but he still got a contract from the Jets that even three years later is the 3rd most expensive in the league for an off ball linebacker, in terms of average annual salary. Mosley is likely to remain a liability, now three years removed from his last good full season, and, even if he bounces back some, he’s still very unlikely to be worth his salary.

Quincy Williams was the Jets’ other starting off ball linebacker in 2022, playing 881 snaps total, but he struggled mightily in the first extended starting action of his career, finishing 75th out of 94 eligible among off ball linebackers on PFF, after showing little promise in smaller roles early in his career (583 defensive snaps between 2019 and 2020). As a result of his poor play last season, he won’t be guaranteed a starting role, even if the Jets don’t have a clearly better option. Williams was a third rookie pick, so he may still have some untapped upside, but, going into his 4th year in the league, he’s running out of time to make good on that upside.

Del’Shawn Phillips (161 snaps), Jamien Sherwood (139 snaps), and Hamsah Nasirildeen (60 snaps) were their top reserves a year ago and will be the primary competition for Williams’ starting role in 2022, but Nasirildeen was just a 6th round pick in 2021, Sherwood was just a 5th round pick in 2021, Phillips went undrafted in 2019 and none of them showed much promise in the first limited action of their careers in 2021, so they’re likely to remain backup caliber players at best going forward.

Nasirildeen and Sherwood may have untapped upside, going into their second year in the league, but, most likely, they’ll remain reserves in 2022 and would likely also struggle if given a starting role. The Jets also added Marcell Harris in free agency from the 49ers and he knows the scheme, but the converted safety has been underwhelming in his career regardless of where he plays and has never played more than 358 snaps in a season. He’s another underwhelming option at a very underwhelming position group that desperately needs CJ Mosley to have an unlikely bounce back year.

Grade: C

Secondary

Cornerback is another position that was a huge weakness for the Jets in 2021, but they did a good job overhauling this position, adding Ahmad Gardner with the 4th overall pick, who has long-term #1 cornerback upside and could make a big impact even as a rookie, and signing DJ Reed to a 3-year, 33 million dollar deal. Along with Bryce Hall, their top cornerback a year ago and their only cornerback to earn even an average grade from PFF in 2021, Gardner and Reed will be the Jets’ top cornerbacks in 2022, at what should be a much improved position group.

Gardner definitely has the most long-term upside, but Reed was PFF’s 10th ranked cornerback last season and has a good chance to be the Jets’ best cornerback in 2022. The 2018 5th round pick is only a one-year starter, making just 10 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league, prior to starting all 14 games he played last season, but he always showed promise as a part-time player, including a 2020 campaign in which he finished 19th among cornerbacks on PFF across 560 snaps, so he has a good chance to continue playing at a high level in 2022 and beyond, still only in his age 26 season.

Bryce Hall wasn’t bad as the Jets’ top cornerback in 2021, earning a middling grade from PFF, but he would definitely be a better fit as the 3rd cornerback, behind Reed and Gardner. A 5th round pick in 2020, Hall also earned a middling grade across 547 rookie year snaps. He should be at least a solid #3 cornerback, with the potential to develop further, still only in his age 25 season and his third season in the league. Reed, Gardner, and Hall should be at least a solid top-3 cornerback group.

Michael Carter (777 snaps), Javelin Guidry (487 snaps), and Brandin Echols (762 snaps) all saw significant action last season with Hall, but all struggled in their first significant career action, after entering the league as a 2021 5th round pick, 2020 undrafted free agent, and 2021 6th round pick respectively, and all will be much better served as depth in 2022, rather than being forced into significant action. This group of reserves might have a little upside, but it’s likely they all end up as reserves at best going forward.

At safety, the Jets lost Marcus Maye this off-season and he has been a high level player for them in the past, but he had a down year across 362 snaps in 6 games last season before missing the rest of the year with a torn achilles, so he won’t really be missed that much and the Jets did a good job replacing him, signing Jordan Whitehead from Tampa Bay to a 2-year, 14.5 million dollar deal. That should be a good value, even if Whitehead doesn’t repeat his 2021 performance, when he was PFF’s 17th ranked safety, as the 2018 4th round pick has earned at least an average grade from PFF in three of four seasons in the league (55 total career starts), including each of the past two seasons, and still only heads into his age 25 season in 2022.

Third year player Ashtyn Davis will likely remain the other starter, but the 2020 3rd round pick has been marginal at best while starting 16 of 23 games played over the past two seasons, including a 61st ranked finish among 98th eligible safeties in 2021, across 10 starts in 13 games. Davis is still young and could be better in his third season in the league in 2022, but he’s also likely to face competition from veteran LaMarcus Joyner, who was retained on a 1-year deal this off-season, after missing most of his 1-year deal with the Jets in 2021, going down for the season with an elbow injury after just 9 snaps in week 1.

Joyner is going into his age 32 season, coming off of a serious injury, with a concerning injury history (at least one game missed 7 of 8 seasons in the league), and hasn’t earned even an average grade from PFF for a full season since 2018, but that’s in large part due to the fact that he was playing out of position as a slot cornerback in his two seasons with the Raiders from 2019-2020. As a starting safety with the Rams in 2017 and 2018, Joyner started all 27 games he played and finished with season long grades from PFF that ranked 2nd and 28th among safeties in the two seasons respectively. It’s very unlikely he shows that kind of form in 2022, given his age and injury history, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had another decent season in him as a starter and, if not, he should still provide good depth, in a secondary that should be much better with Whitehead, Reed, and Gardner being added this off-season.

Grade: B

Special Teams

As bad as the Jets were on both offense and defense last season, their special teams was a saving grace, actually ranking 2nd in special teams DVOA. It’s tough to have that kind of season two years in a row, but there are reasons to expect this to remain a well above average group. Braxton Berrios, PFF’s 3rd ranked returner in 2021, will remain their top return man, while their two best core special teamers a year ago, Hamsah Nasirildeen and Del’Shawn Phillips, also return, after both finished among the top-50 in special teams grade on PFF a year ago.

The Jets changed up their kicking specialists, but should still get solid play out of them. Thomas Morestead, the Jets’ best punter a year ago, is no longer with the team, but they’ll get Braden Mann back after he lost most of his 2021 season to injury, giving them a solid punting option, while new kicker Greg Zuerlein could prove to be an upgrade on the trio of Eddy Piniero, Matt Ammendola, and Alex Kessman, who were the weakness of this special teams unit a year ago. It’s tough to expect them to have a dominant special teams unit for two years in a row, but this should remain a well above average group.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Jets added a lot this off-season. They had four picks in the first 36 of the draft, including three first rounders, and all four figure to start or at least contribute significantly at positions of need in year one. They also had a good free agency haul, most notably adding guard Laken Tomlinson, safety Jordan Whitehead, and cornerback DJ Reed, who all figure to be above average starters and upgrades, while only losing one player of note, Foley Fatukasi, from last year’s team. 

The Jets also figure to be significantly healthier this season, after having the 2nd most adjusted games lost to injury last season, with edge defender Carl Lawson, wide receiver Corey Davis, offensive tackle Mekhi Becton, and safety LaMarcus Joyner being the most notable players to return after missing all or at least a big chunk of last season with injury. They also could easily get a significantly better year out of interior defender Quinnen Williams, interior defender Sheldon Rankins, and off ball linebacker CJ Mosley on defense, without any key players who seem likely to decline significantly, on a defense that was absolutely terrible a year ago.

All of this being said, the Jets have a huge hole to climb out of, after finishing last season 30th in the NFL in efficiency, despite a dominant special teams unit. Even if they are much better in many areas, that doesn’t mean they suddenly have a great supporting cast and they will need to get at least solid quarterback play out of Zach Wilson in year two, which would be a huge leap from a terrible rookie season, in order to even contend for a playoff spot in the loaded AFC. I don’t expect that to happen, even if they should be a lot more competitive 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 AFC East

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Buccaneers got a scare early in the off-season when Tom Brady shockingly announced his retirement in February, after he had helped bring the Buccaneers their best two-year stretch in franchise history, going 24-9 in the regular season and leading the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory in his first year, followed by a narrow 2nd round exit against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Rams last season. Normally it wouldn’t be shocking for a quarterback to hang them up ahead of his age 45 season, but Brady still played at an elite level in 2022, he had spoken of playing as long as he could, and he had given no indications that retirement was on his mind until he made his announcement, so the retirement came as a total surprise to many.

Theories ranged from Brady being forced to hang them up by his wife to Brady being likely to change his mind later in the off-season to Brady’s retirement being part of a power play to get out of Tampa Bay and go elsewhere. Those theories only intensified when Brady announced just a little bit more than a month later on the eve of free agency that he was not going to be retiring and would return to the Buccaneers, which was followed a couple weeks later by head coach Bruce Arians surprisingly retiring and joining the front office, leaving defensive coordinator and former Jets head coach Todd Bowles as the head coach in Arians’ absence.

It’s impossible to know what really happened behind the scenes and we may never know, but it’s not hard to put together that Brady retired with the intention of ultimately forcing the Buccaneers to trade him or to give him concessions for the 2022 season. When free agency was about to begin and the Buccaneers had yet to find a clear replacement for him, meaning forcing a trade later in the off-season would be an unlikely option, Brady then returned to Tampa Bay for the final season of his contract, under the condition that Arians, with whom Brady was rumored to not see eye-to-eye on some things, and who was likely planning on retiring in the next couple years anyway, step aside this off-season, leaving Brady and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich in charge of the offense and Todd Bowles’ duties not changing much from the head coach of the defense role he has served in over the past three seasons.

It was a tumultuous off-season, but the Buccaneers will happily take another year of Tom Brady at the end of it, after he completed 67.5% of his passes for an average of 7.40 YPA, 43 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions last season, while finishing as PFF’s #1 ranked quarterback, his 11th season in the top-5 among quarterbacks on PFF in 15 healthy seasons in PFF’s history. There’s always a possibility his abilities completely fall off and we’re in completely uncharted territory with a quarterback playing at this high of a level at this advanced of an age, but he really hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down physically and the mental aspect of his game seems to improve every year, so I would be surprised if he wasn’t again one of the better quarterbacks in the league, even if he’s not quite as good as he’s been at his best in his career.

The Buccaneers drafted Kyle Trask in the 2nd round in 2021 to potentially be Brady’s long-term replacement, but it’s unclear if the Buccaneers would have actually let him start in 2022 if Brady retired and it’s a concern he has yet to beat out veteran backup Blaine Gabbert (72.4 QB rating in 48 career starts) for the #2 quarterback job. Trask could do so with a strong training camp, but it seems likely he will spend his second straight season to begin his career as a 3rd string quarterback, inactive on game days, after not attempting a pass as a rookie. 

Brady hasn’t missed a game with injury since his 2008 ACL tear, the only stretch of missed starts due to injury in his career, so it probably doesn’t matter who his backup is, but that doesn’t mean he’s invincible and the Buccaneers would obviously see a huge dropoff if either Gabbert or Trask had to start for an extended period of time this season. The Buccaneers aren’t without concerns at the quarterback position, but Brady also could just win another MVP at age 45.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

In addition to his rumored rift with Bruce Arians, another reason why Brady might have wanted out of Tampa Bay is because the salary cap is making it increasingly difficult for them to keep all of the talent that attracted Brady to Tampa Bay to the first place, supporting talent that was the reason why Brady was able to win so quickly upon his arrival. The Buccaneers did a pretty good job keeping a high level team around Brady this off-season though, being aggressive in making moves around him after he announced he was returning. The result of that is the Buccaneers are already more than 50 million over next year’s salary cap, even with Brady not under contract beyond 2022, but if Brady extends his career beyond this season, it’s likely to be elsewhere, set to hit free agency next off-season without the option of a franchise tag, so their long-term cap concerns are not his problem.

The Buccaneers’ offensive line has been a big strength for them the past two seasons and they’ve essentially had the same five players start every game with minimal injuries (4 total starts missed by the five starters in two seasons combined), but it was a concern for them heading into the off-season, with center Ryan Jensen and right guard Alex Cappa both set to hit free agency, after finishing 13th among centers and 15th among guards on PFF respectively in 2021. Things then got even worse when left guard Ali Marpet, PFF’s 7th ranked guard last season, surprisingly retired in his prime, passing on the final 20.625 million over two years remaining on his contract to hang them up ahead of what would have been his age 29 season.

The Buccaneers were able to bring Jensen back on a 3-year, 39 million dollar deal though and, while Cappa signed in Cincinnati on a 4-year, 35 million dollar deal, the Buccaneers replaced him and arguably upgraded on him by acquiring veteran Shaq Mason from the Patriots for a 5th round pick. They didn’t replace Marpet and will likely get worse left guard play this season as a result, but the Buccaneers do have 2021 3rd round pick Robert Hainsey waiting in the wings as a starting option, as well as 2nd round rookie Luke Goedeke, and they also bring back their talented offensive tackle duo of Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs, so this could easily remain a well above average offensive line.

Jensen’s deal might have been a little bit of an overpay, making him the second highest paid center in the league in average annual salary, but it was an understandable move for a team with aspirations of winning another Super Bowl in 2022, before Brady leaves and their window shuts. Jensen hasn’t been a consistently high level center in his career, maxing out as PFF’s 2nd ranked center in 2019, but otherwise never finishing higher than 11th at his position for a season, and he now heads into his age 31 season and could start declining, but he’s been an average or better starter on PFF in four of five seasons as a starter in his career, while making all 81 starts over that stretch, and, even if he declines a little bit, I would expect him to remain at least an average starter again in 2022.

Mason, on the other hand, was a steal for just a 5th round pick and the remaining 16 million over 2 years remaining on his contract, after finishing 4th among guards on PFF last season and in the top-6 among guards on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons, while starting 88 of a possible 97 games over that stretch. Still only in his age 29 season, he has a good chance to be an upgrade on both Cappa and Marpet, though obviously the Buccaneers’ offensive line figures to take a hit from starting an inexperienced player at left guard, with Goedeke being a rookie and Hainsey playing just 31 rookie year snaps.

As good as the Buccaneers’ interior offensive line was last season, their offensive tackle duo of Tristan Wirfs and Donovan Smith were probably the biggest strength of this offensive line, as they finished last season 6th and 10th respectively among offensive tackles on PFF in 2021. Both have a chance to be just as good again this season, particularly Wirfs, a 2020 1st round pick (13th overall) who also finished 12th among offensive tackles as a rookie in 2020 and who is still only going into his age 23 season, with a sky high upside. He could easily be one of the best right tackles in the league for years to come.

Smith might have a harder time repeating last season’s performance, as it was the best season of the 7-year veteran’s career, with his previous best finish being 33rd among offensive tackles on PFF, but he’s still only in his age 29 season and has finished above average on PFF in five straight seasons (79 starts), including three straight finishes in the top-39. Smith might not be quite as good as he was in 2022 again in 2021, but he should remain at least an above average left tackle.

Overall, the Buccaneers’ starting five offensive linemen probably won’t be quite as good as they’ve been the past two seasons and depth is a concern if injuries strike because career backups Josh Wells, who has struggled in 17 career starts, Aaron Stinnie, who has struggled in 1 career start, and Fred Johnson, who has struggled in 8 career starts, are their only reserve options aside from the loser of the left guard battle, who will be inexperienced, but this offensive line still has a good chance to be one of the best in the league, as long as they don’t have too many injuries.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

One of the reasons why the Buccaneers couldn’t return to the Super Bowl last season was their receiving corps, as they had a trio of talented wide receivers in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown, all #1 caliber receivers in their own right, when they won it all in 2020, but then last season they lost Godwin for the season to a torn ACL in week 15 and had to cut Brown for disciplinary reasons after week 17. That left them without a consistent wide receiver on the depth chart behind Evans. Brown won’t return and Godwin is questionable for the start of the season and might not be 100% in his first season back, so the Buccaneers had to be aggressive in free agency to get Brady another pass catcher, signing ex-Falcon Russell Gage to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal, their biggest external free agent signing this off-season. 

Gage has flown under the radar in his career with the Falcons, with his playing time and targets often being limited by the presence of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, but the 2018 6th round pick has had slash lines of 72/786/4 and 66/770/4 respectively over the past two seasons in larger roles and he has a solid 1.57 yards per route run average for his career, including 1.71 over the past two seasons. He figures to have a significant role in the Buccaneers’ offense and, now playing with an elite quarterback, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he surpassed his career high in receiving yardage.

Godwin’s status is a little up in the air for the start of the season and might not be at his best when he returns, but even at less than his best, he should be an asset for this team whenever he returns. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Godwin has averaged 2.02 yards per route run for his career with a 99/1310/8 slash line per 16 games over the past three seasons, while finishing in the top-22 among wide receivers on PFF in all five seasons in the league, maxing out at #1 in 2019. The Buccaneers clearly are still confident in him long-term, making him the 9th highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary on a 3-year, 60 million dollar deal this off-season, after franchise tagging him for the 2021 season and, with Godwin still only going into his age 26 season, he should still have a very bright future, despite the injury.

Evans is the longest tenured member of this wide receiver group, with 8 seasons in the league since being drafted with the 7th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and he’s impressively topped 1,000 yards receiving in all 8 seasons, by far the longest consecutive streak like that to begin a career. Not only has he played at a consistently high level, despite differing quarterback play, but he’s remained remarkably healthy as well, never missing more than 3 games in a season and only missing 7 games total in his career. 

Evans’ production has actually dropped the past two seasons since Brady came to town, because he’s more of a deep threat, while Brady prefers shorter to immediate routes, so they have been using Evans more often as a decoy downfield to open things up for Godwin and Brown, leading to Evans’ yards per route run average dropping to 1.72 over the past 2 seasons with Brady, from 2.18 in his first 6 seasons, but that’s still an impressive average. Still only going into his age 29 season, with Godwin coming off injury and Brown no longer with the team, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Evans saw a slight uptick in targets this season and, even if he doesn’t, he still has a good chance at a 9th straight 1,000 yard season, barring a fluke injury.

Depth is still a concern for the Buccaneers outside of their top-3 receivers though, which is a problem because Godwin has a good chance to miss at least some time this season. Tyler Johnson, a 2020 5th round pick, played a significant role last season due to injuries ahead of him on the depth chart (612 snaps), but he managed just a 0.92 yards per route run average, 9th worst among eligible wide receivers, after a 1.04 yards per route run average in a limited role as a rookie in 2020. 

Scott Miller, a 2019 6th round pick, has seen some action as a reserve in three seasons in the league, but he’s been underwhelming with a career 1.35 yards per route run average and probably doesn’t have much untapped upside. They took Jaelon Darden in the 4th round in last year’s draft, but he played just 89 rookie year snaps and is almost a complete mystery at the NFL level. Their best reserve receiver might be veteran Breshad Perriman, who they signed late last season and re-signed this off-season. 

Perriman was a member of the Buccaneers in 2019 and posted a 36/645/6 slash line, but that was a career best for the 7-year veteran and he averaged just 1.44 yards per route run that season, only slightly ahead of his 1.39 career yards per route run. Perriman is still only in his age 29 season and was decent in limited action down the stretch for the Buccaneers last season, after bouncing from the Lions to the Bears without catching a pass for either team earlier in the season, but he’s been very inconsistent in his career and would be an underwhelming option in the somewhat likely scenario he’ll be forced into action as the 3rd receiver in place of an injured Godwin early in the season.

The Buccaneers could run more two-tight end sets early in the season to take some pressure off the wide receiver group, but that assumes that expected starting tight end Rob Gronkowski returns to the team for his age 33 season, not a guarantee, considering he’s been mulling a second retirement this off-season and remains a free agent (note: this was written before Gronkowski announced his second retirement in mid-June, a significant loss for this team, unless he happens to unretire and return mid-season, as his agent suggested he might). If he does play in 2022, it almost definitely will be for the Buccaneers, but he’s at least making the Buccaneers wait and probably has a price in mind for his return, which the Buccaneers will likely ultimately end up paying, at the expense of more future cap space.

Gronkowski won’t be what he once was even if he does return, averaging 2.44 yards per route run and finishing in the top-3 among tight ends on PFF in each of his first 8 seasons in the league after being selected in the 2nd round in 2010, including 7 straight seasons as PFF’s #1 overall tight end from 2011-2017, dominating as Tom Brady’s most deadly weapon in New England. However, Gronkowski’s 1.79 yards per route run average in three seasons since then is still well above average and he remains a solid blocker as well. 

Gronkowski will be another year older in 2022 and his history of injuries is well noted, costing him 34 games in 11 seasons and causing his first retirement, costing him the 2019 season, but he should still be an asset when he likely returns to this team. The Buccaneers did not retain OJ Howard (365 snaps), but he struggled mightily, finishing 57th out of 58 eligible tight ends on PFF and averaging just 0.92 yards per route run, so he won’t be missed, and they still have veteran Cameron Brate, an experienced starter who will be the #2 tight end if Gronkowski returns and Gronkowski’s replacement if he ultimately does not return. 

Brate would be a good #2 tight end, but he would probably be overmatched as the starter. He had slash lines of 57/660/8 and 48/591/6 as the starter in 2016 and 2017 respectively, but he’s taken a backseat with Gronkowski and Howard being added over the past few seasons and has just a career 1.23 yards per route run average overall. Heading into his age 31 season in 2022, he’s unlikely to get any better at this point and his best days are almost definitely behind him. The Buccaneers are probably hoping he doesn’t have to play a significantly expanded role this season.

The Buccaneers also used a 4th round pick on University of Washington tight end Cade Otton, who won’t see much action as a rookie unless Gronkowski doesn’t return, but he gives them some insurance for that scenario and a long-term option, with both Gronkowski and Brate being on the wrong side of 30. Gronkowski still is not on the roster, Chris Godwin is a bit of a question mark coming off of a significant injury, and Antonio Brown is gone, but Brown missed most of last season with injury, they’ve added a solid option in Russell Gage, Gronkowski is likely to return, and, with Mike Evans also still around, this looks likely to be one of the best receiving corps in the league again in 2022.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Buccaneers also figure to continue using their running backs in the passing game regularly, something Tom Brady has done throughout his career. The Buccaneers used a 3rd round pick in 2020 on potential passing down back Ke’Shawn Vaughn (29 catches in his final collegiate season) and then signed veteran passing down back Giovani Bernard (1.42 career yards per route run) as a free agent last off-season, but it was still lead back Leonard Fournette who was their primary passing down back last season. 

Fournette was unspectacular in that role, averaging just 1.26 yards per route run, but he still finished with a 69/454/2 slash line because of the volume he got. He also had 812 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground on 180 carries (4.51 YPC), leading the team in all three categories. Ronald Jones was their #2 back last season, rushing for 428 yards and 4 touchdowns on 101 carries (4.34 YPC), but he did very little in the passing game and was not retained as a free agent this off-season. 

Jones’ departure could open up more carries for Fournette, but the Buccaneers still have Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who could have untapped upside, despite just 71 career offensive touches, and they added another good collegiate receiving back Rachaad White (43 catches in his final collegiate season) in the 3rd round of this year’s draft, who, like Vaughn, is an options for carries and a threat to Fournette’s passing game work. Even though they utilized him heavily in that capacity last season, Fournette has never been a particularly effective or efficient passing down option, averaging 1.23 yards per route run for his 5-year career, so he could be upgraded.

Fournette also only has a career 4.04 YPC average on 943 carries, although a lot of that is because he had poor blocking early in his career in Jacksonville. Fournette’s 24th ranked finish overall among running backs on PFF in 2021 was the best of his career and led to him getting a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal from the Buccaneers this off-season to stay in town, but he’s been inconsistent in the past and might not repeat the best season of his career. He has a path to a big role in this offense, but it’s unclear how many of the touches he’ll get exactly, with White and Vaughn around as young options and Bernard still around as a veteran passing down back, albeit in his age 31 season. This isn’t a bad backfield, but it’s a little bit of an unsettled group.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

From their Super Bowl winner in 2020 to their 2021 team, the Buccaneers were amazingly able to retain all 22 starters, leading to them having another strong season, finishing 2nd in efficiency in the regular season, actually a slight improvement from the year before when they were 4th in efficiency in the regular season. That was impossible for the Buccaneers to pull off in two straight years though. I already got into some of their offensive losses and how they tried to replace them, but they had defensive losses as well. Fortunately, most of the players they lost on that side of the ball are pretty easily replaceable and, in fact, the Buccaneers could easily have found upgrades for them. 

One of those players is interior defender Ndamukong Suh, who has been one of the best players in the league at his position for years and who led this position group with 718 snaps played last season, but who struggled mightily in that significant action, finishing 107th out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF. The Buccaneers opting not to retain him for his age 35 season could prove to be addition by subtraction, especially since they did a good job replacing him, using the 33rd overall pick at the top of the second round on interior defender Logan Hall and then signing veteran Akiem Hicks.

Hicks is getting up there in age as well, but he’s a couple years younger than Suh, going into his age 33 season, and seemed to have more left in the tank last season, finishing in the 85th percentile among interior defenders on PFF, albeit across just 304 snaps in 9 games in an injury plagued season. Hicks also finished in the 57th percentile among interior defenders across 795 snaps in a healthier season in 2020 though. He did miss 11 games with injury in 2019 too and while he’s highly unlikely to bounce back to his prime form, when he finished in the 73rd percentile among interior defenders on PFF in three straight seasons as healthy every down player from 2016-2018, he could easily still remain a starting caliber player for the Buccaneers in 2022 and an upgrade on Suh, who appeared to have almost nothing left in the tank last season.

Hall’s addition is good because Hicks is aging and only on a one-year deal, but Hall could also have a big rookie year role too. He can at least take over the 252 snaps vacated by veteran base package run stuffer Steve McLendon, but he could also push middling rotational players William Gholston (507 snaps) and Rakeem Nunez-Roches (415 snaps) for their snaps. Both are plenty experienced, going into their 10th season and 8th season in the league respectively, but both have also never been more than a solid rotational player and both are getting up there in age, going into their age 31 and age 29 seasons respectively. Both should still have roles, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the rookie Hall finished with more snaps played than them.

With Suh gone, 2018 1st round pick Vita Vea is likely to lead this group in snaps played and could see a slight uptick from the 608 snaps he played last season, which should be a further boost for this team, as Vea is one of the best players in the league at his position, finishing 42nd, 15th, and 17th among interior defenders on PFF in 2018, 2019, and 2021 respectively, while ranking 2nd among interior defenders through 5 games in 2020 before missing the rest of the regular season with injury. 

Not just a big run stuffer at 6-4 347, Vea is a freakish athlete for his size and has added 11.5 sacks, 20 hits, and a 10.7% pressure rate in 50 career games. His best full season came in 2019, when he played 749 snaps, played the run at a high level, and added 2.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had a season like that again in 2022. With Hall and Hicks replacing the struggling Suh, an already solid position group should be even better this season.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Like Suh on the interior, the Buccaneers also let go of veteran Jason Pierre-Paul on the edge this off-season, after he played 601 snaps in 2021, but finished as PFF’s 121st ranked edge defender out of 129 eligible. Like Suh, Pierre-Paul being gone could be addition by subtraction, ahead of what would have been his age 33 season, but, unlike Suh, they didn’t do anything to replace him. They did prepare for this by using a first round pick on Joe Tryon-Shoyinka in the 2021 NFL Draft and he figures to take over Pierre-Paul’s starting role, albeit after struggling as a rookie, finishing 114th out of 129 eligible edge defenders on PFF across 560 snaps (9.6% pressure rate), but, even if Tryon-Shoyinka is significantly better in year two, depth will be a concern behind him and fellow starter Shaq Barrett.

Anthony Nelson (359 snaps) is their top returning reserve and the 2019 4th round pick figures to have a bigger role in 2022. He’s a good run defender, finishing in the 87th percentile or higher among edge defenders in run defender in all three seasons in the league, and he should be effective an early down role, but he’s also never played more snaps in a season than the limited role he saw last season, so he’s a projection to a larger reserve role, and, as good as he’s been as a run defender, he’s struggled mightily as a pass rusher, with just a 8.3% career pressure rate. The Buccaneers also don’t have much depth behind Nelson, making them likely to turn to either 2020 undrafted free agent Cam Gill (123 career snaps) or rookie 7th round pick Andre Anthony for deep reserve snaps.

Fortunately, top edge defender Shaq Barrett is one of the better players in the league at his position and doesn’t need to come off the field much, averaging 53.9 snaps per game in 46 games over the past three seasons since joining the Buccaneers as a free agent. In those three seasons, Barrett has totalled 37.5 sacks, 40 hits, and a 15.0% pressure rate and he’s coming off of a season in which he was PFF’s 11th ranked edge defender overall across 768 snaps.

Barrett was a reserve earlier in his career in Denver prior to joining the Buccaneers three years ago, but he always showed promise in limited action, finishing in the 73rd percentile or higher in all four seasons with the Broncos from 2015-2018 on an average of 30.4 snaps per game in 63 games, totaling 14 sacks, 23 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate, while playing the run at a high level as well. Barrett is now going into his age 30 season so he will start to decline soon, but he hasn’t shown any signs yet and he’s proven himself over many years as a highly effective edge defender, regardless of his role. He’ll almost definitely remain an above average every down player in 2022 and elevates an otherwise underwhelming position group.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Buccaneers do bring back both of their starting off ball linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David. White has been among the league leaders in tackles over the past three seasons, since entering the league as the 5th overall pick in 2019, but he’s also struggled mightily in coverage, he’s missed among the most tackles in the league, and he has a below average depth of tackle. As a result, he has earned a below average grade from PFF both in run defense and in coverage grade in each of his first three seasons in the league.

The one aspect he has been above average in is blitzing, totaling 15 sacks, 25 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate in his career. Last season, he blitzed on 21.6% of his pass defense snaps and he could see a similar rate again in 2022, given how much this defense likes to blitz and given how much better White is at blitzing than he is in any other aspect of his game. He’s also still only in his age 24 season, so it’s possible his run defense and pass coverage could improve going forward, though that’s not a guarantee.

David, on the other hand, is probably on the way down, heading into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t really shown many signs of decline yet, still finishing the 2021 season as PFF’s 8th ranked off ball linebacker, his 5th straight season in the top-11 at the position and 6th in 10 seasons in the league since being drafted by the Buccaneers in the 2nd round in 2012. He could easily start to decline this year though, which would be a blow to this defense, even if he would probably still be at least a solid every down player even at less than his best.

Depth is a concern at this position group because veteran backup Kevin Minter (331 snaps) wasn’t retained this off-season. That’s not that important unless White or David get hurt because they hardly come off the field when healthy, but their top reserves are a pair of inexperienced second year players, 2021 5th round pick KJ Britt (28 rookie year defensive snaps) and 2021 7th round pick Grant Stuard (26 rookie year defensive snaps). White has a lot of room for improvement and David could easily decline in a significant way, so there are concerns here beyond their lack of depth, but David could hold off Father Time for another year and White has the upside to take a significant step forward, so there is upside here as well.

Grade: B

Secondary

The most important player the Buccaneers lost on defense this off-season was safety Jordan Whitehead, who was PFF’s 17th ranked safety on 795 snaps last season, prior to signing a 2-year, 14.5 million dollar deal with the Jets this off-season, but the Buccaneers have a good internal replacement in Mike Edwards, a 2019 3rd round pick who has flashed in limited action in his career, including a 22nd ranked finish among safeties on PFF across 532 snaps in 2021, and the Buccaneers also signed a pair of veteran starters in free agency, Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal, to give them depth and another option in case Edwards struggles in his first season as a full-time starter.

Edwards is a projection to a larger role, having never played more than 614 snaps in a season, but he could easily be at least a solid starter, with the upside to be a consistently above average option for years to come, still only in his age 26 season. Ryan is an experienced player with 115 starts in 140 games in 9 seasons in the league, seeing action at both cornerback and safety, and, though he’s going into his age 31 season, he still earned an average grade from PFF as a 15-game starter at safety, so he gives them a great depth option, especially when you consider his versatility.

Neal is also versatile, spending last season at linebacker after spending the first 5 seasons of his career at safety with the Falcons, but he struggled mightily at his new position in 2021, finishing 86th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF across 579 snaps in his lone season as a full-time linebacker in Dallas, and he will be moved back to safety in Tampa Bay. Neal was a first round pick in 2016 and looked on his way to a great career, finishing 21st and 17th among safeties in his first two seasons in the league, before leg injuries cost him almost all of the next two seasons (203 snaps total) and seemed to sap his athleticism upon his return.

Neal still earned an average grade from PFF in his first season back from injury in 2020 as a 14-game starter at safety, before being moved to linebacker in 2021, so he could bounce back and be a solid safety option in 2022, still only in his age 27 season, another year removed from the injury. He and Ryan will probably just be versatile depth behind Edwards, but they’re both good enough to start for some teams around the league, so this is a very deep position group.

The Buccaneers also still have Antoine Winfield as the other starting safety and he was their best safety a year ago. In fact, he was one of the best safeties in the league, finishing 2nd at the position on PFF, despite only being in his second season in the league. The 2020 2nd round pick was also a solid starter as a rookie and, while he might not quite be as good again in 2022 as he was in 2021, given that he’s still unproven as a consistent player at that level, he’s also still only in his age 24 season and looks like he could be on his way to being one of the best safeties in the league for years to come long-term, even if development is not always linear and a little regression this season is possible.

The Buccaneers also bring back their top-4 in terms of snaps played at the cornerback position from a year ago, Carlton Davis (639 snaps), Jamel Dean (685 snaps), Sean Murphy-Bunting (462 snaps), and Ross Cockrell (475 snaps), and will hope to have better health, with Dean, Davis, and Murphy-Bunting missing 2 games, 7 games, and 8 games respectively last season, forcing the veteran Cockrell into a much larger role than expected as the #4 cornerback. Dean and Davis staying healthy is most important, as they are their two best cornerbacks and their two starters outside.

Dean was a 3rd round pick in 2019 and has finished in the 85th percentile or higher among cornerbacks on PFF in all three seasons in the league, but he really just became a full-time starter last season and still has just 23 career starts, so he’s a little unproven. He’s also still only in his age 26 season though and could easily remain an above average starter across a full season, if he can manage to make it through a full season without missing time with injury for the first time in his career (7 games missed in 3 seasons).

Davis has also missed time with injury in every season in the league (13 games missed in 4 seasons in the league), but the 2018 2nd round pick has also developed into a consistently above average player, finishing in the 70th percentile or higher among cornerbacks on PFF in each of the past three seasons, while making 38 starts over the past three seasons. The Buccaneers kept him on a 3-year, 44.5 million dollar deal this off-season, a reasonable value for a player still in his prime in his age 26 season.

Murphy-Bunting was a 2nd round pick in 2019 and should be a slot specialist when everyone is healthy, but he hasn’t been nearly as good as Davis or Dean, never earning more than a middling grade from PFF thus far in three seasons in the league. He may still have untapped upside in his age 25 season, but it’s also possible he remains a marginal slot option at best. It’s also possible he could face competition for his primary slot cornerback role from Logan Ryan, as the Buccaneers could use three safety sets more frequently in 2022, given their depth at the position.

Still the #4 cornerback, Ross Cockrell is another experienced veteran who has mostly been a solid player across 49 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s also going into his age 31 season, so his best days are probably behind him and he’s probably best as a depth option at this stage of his career, having not started more than 4 games in a season since 2019. The Buccaneers also used a 5th round pick on cornerback Zyon McCollum, though he probably won’t see much action as a rookie, in a deep secondary with a lot of talent.

Grade: A-

Special Teams

Special teams was the Buccaneers’ Achilles heel last season, as they ranked 2nd in offensive efficiency and 7th in defensive efficiency, but just 27th in special teams DVOA. I don’t expect them to be significantly better this season. They added a new punter in the 4th round of the draft, taking University of Georgia’s Jake Camarda, but incumbent punter Bradley Pinion was not the weakness in this group, Camarda is no guarantee to be an upgrade as a rookie, and not much else has changed in this special teams unit. 

The return unit could get more out of second year returner Jaelon Darden, after he struggled mightily as a rookie, but, if they don’t, they don’t seem to have a better option. Kicker Ryan Succop will also likely continue to struggle, and no additions were made to their core special team group, which didn’t have a player finish in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF in 2021 and could easily not have one in 2022 either. They might not be quite as bad as a year ago, but this still figures to be a weakness for this team.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Buccaneers are starting to lose talent from their Super Bowl winner, but they have done a good job of keeping most of their key players and replacing key players who have departed, giving them a roster that is still among the league’s best. This is probably their final year in contention, with Tom Brady unlikely to return as a free agent next off-season and the Buccaneers already more than 50 million over the 2023 cap, and there is always the risk that Brady gets hurt or drops off significantly, now in his age 45 season, but this is also a team that could easily contend for another Super Bowl. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC South

Miami Dolphins 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Three off-seasons ago, the Dolphins undertook an aggressive rebuilding strategy. After years of mediocrity, somehow winning between 6 and 8 games in 9 of the previous 10 seasons, the Dolphins rapidly parted ways with players, either for financial reasons and/or to acquire future draft assets, with the intention of playing young players, accumulating significant draft capital, rolling forward significant amounts of cap space to the future, and probably picking up high draft picks of their own over the next couple seasons, with a roster that lacked established players. Among others who went out the door, the Dolphins traded away long-time starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill and even traded away recent first round picks Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick for future first round picks, to help them accumulate as many future assets as possible in order to try to build a consistent contender a few years down the line.

Now, three years later, the results have been a mixed bag. The Dolphins have actually done more short-term winning than expected, going 5-11, 10-6, and 9-8 over the past three seasons, narrowly missing the post-season in back-to-back years and having their first back-to-back winning seasons in two decades. However, all three of those teams were not as good as their record suggested. Their 5-win team in 2019 won all of its games by 8 points or fewer, with an average margin of defeat of 19.3 points per game in their 11 losses, leading to them finishing dead last in point differential and 30th in overall efficiency.

In 2020, the 10-win Dolphins benefited from a very easy schedule, as well as an unsustainably high turnover margin (+11), opponent’s field goal percentage (3rd lowest at 73.91%), and 3rd/4th down conversion rate allowed (33.02%), which was actually lower than the 34.07% conversion rate they allowed on 1st/2nd down (4th highest in the NFL). They were significantly improved in efficiency rating from the year before, but still finished slightly below average, 21st in the NFL, even before schedule adjustments were taken into account.

Last season, the Dolphins started just 1-7 before getting an easy stretch of games that featured 5 teams that finished 5-12 or worse, a team starting a 4th string quarterback, and a team playing on a short week after an overtime game, a 3-25 ATS cover spot all-time. Even with that stretch of wins, the 9-8 Dolphins still finished with a negative point differential at -32 and a negative overall efficiency, ranking 25th in the NFL. Their defense was impressive, ranking 11th in efficiency, but their offense continued to have significant problems, ranking 26th.

On top of that, the Dolphins made the curious decision to fire the head coach who had for the past three seasons gotten the most out of underwhelming rosters, replacing Brian Flores with unproven 49ers offensive assistant Mike McDaniel. Flores’ Dolphins teams always exceeded their talent level and got significantly better as the season went on, but there was reportedly a disagreement between Flores and ownership/front office over quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, with Flores preferring the team go in another direction this off-season, ultimately leading to Flores being let go and Tagovailoa being kept.

The Dolphins did continue to cash in the future assets they accumulated in their rebuild this off-season though, adding to this roster in a significant way, particularly on offense. In free agency, they signed a pair of above average starting offensive linemen in Terron Armstead and Connor Williams, several running back options in Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert, and Sony Michel, and a starting wide receiver in Cedrick Wilson. They didn’t have a draft pick in the first two rounds of this year’s draft, but that’s because they traded both picks for Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill, giving him a 4-year, 120 million dollar extension in the process and making him the highest paid wide receiver in the league.

The Dolphins could afford to not have an early pick in this year’s draft because they had nine picks in the first two rounds in 2020 and 2021 combined and are slated to have another two first round picks next year, as a result of all of the draft capital they accumulated during the their rebuild, and all of the cap space they rolled forward during their rebuild allowed them to add Hill on a massive contract, in addition to giving significant contracts to Armstead (5 years, 75 million), Williams (2 years, 14.035 million), Wilson (3 years, 22.05 million), and Edmonds (2 years, 12.1 million), among other minor contracts.

All in all, the Dolphins have done a good job supplementing their young core with veteran free agent additions and now rank 4th in the NFL in average annual salary of their roster, which correlates heavily with a team’s winning percentage, but questions still remain, particularly around the 2020 and 2021 draft classes, including, most notably, Tua Tagovailoa, the 5th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft and the quarterback whose questionable long-term projection led to the internal disagreement that resulted in a coaching change.

Originally billed as a can’t miss #1 pick and the kind of quarterback the Dolphins might be interested in outright tanking for, Tagovailoa suffered a serious leg injury late in his final collegiate season and fell to the Dolphins at 5th overall, after they accidentally won more games than expected in 2019. The Dolphins eased Tagovailoa in as a rookie behind veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, but Fitzpatrick drastically outplayed Tagovailoa, completing 68.5% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while Tagovailoa completed just 64.1% of his passes for an average of 6.26 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, with the same supporting cast, while finishing 33rd out of 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF.

In 2021, Tagovailoa began the season as the starter, got a new #1 wide receiver in rookie 6th overall pick Jaylen Waddle, and played a little bit better himself, but he still completed 67.8% of his passes for an average of just 6.84 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while ranking 25th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF. He outplayed backup Jacoby Brissett, who completed just 62.7% of his passes for an average of 5.70 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in 5 starts in place of an injured Tagovailoa, but more missed time with injury doesn’t help ease the durability concerns that Tagovailoa entered the league with and, even when on the field, he has yet to establish himself as even an average starting quarterback. He’s also shown a lack of mobility, averaging just 3.04 YPC on 78 career carries, something that was a strength of his in college before the injury and something that may never return.

The Dolphins are hoping that with an offensive minded coaching staff and an above average supporting cast, two things he has lacked in the past, Tagovailoa will be able to put it all together in year three, still only his age 24 season, and there’s a good chance he at least takes a step forward statistically even if he doesn’t improve significantly just because of the additional help he has now, but if he doesn’t make noticeable improvements himself, it’s hard to see this team legitimately contending for anything beyond a wild card spot.

The Dolphins are claiming this is Tagovailoa’s team, but they did hedge that claim a little bit by adding another experienced veteran to replace Jacoby Brissett as the backup, signing veteran journeyman Teddy Bridgewater to a 1-year, 6.5 million dollar deal. Bridgewater’s contract suggests he’s a true backup, but he’s completed 66.5% of his passes for an average of 7.26 YPA, 71 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions in his career, while starting 63 games in 8 seasons in the league, so he at least gives them a good replacement in the somewhat likely event Tagovailoa gets hurt and it’s possible Bridgewater could even prove to be an upgrade or potentially take Tagovailoa’s job down the stretch if he struggles. Tagovailoa at least has potential and they have a good backup for him, but there’s a good chance the Dolphins get below average quarterback play again.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

I mentioned earlier that Jayden Waddle was Miami’s #1 wide receiver in his first season in the league in 2022, after being selected 6th overall by the Dolphins in the 2021 NFL Draft. Waddle needed 140 targets (11th in the NFL) to barely surpass the 1,000 yard mark with a 104/1015/6 slash line (1.75 yards per route run), but he still averaged 7.25 yards per target on an offense that otherwise averaged 6.15 yards per pass attempt and he was PFF’s 19th ranked wide receiver overall. 

In a better receiving corps in 2022, Waddle probably won’t see the same target share, but he’s likely to become more efficient on a per target basis, with less attention from the defense and another year of experience under his belt. He looks like he’ll be well worth the high draft pick the Dolphins invested in him and could easily develop into one of the best wide receivers in the league long-term, even if development is not always linear.

The Dolphins didn’t bring back any of the other three wide receivers (Devante Parker, Mack Hollins, Albert Wilson) who played more than 200 snaps for them last season, opting to wipe the slate clean, which makes sense, as they found upgrades at the position and only let go of one wide receiver who played more than 200 snaps and averaged more than 1.04 yards per route run last season, Parker (539 snaps, 1.48 yards per route run), who they received an equivalent of a 5th round pick in draft compensation for when they traded him to the New England Patriots.

Tyreek Hill is an obvious upgrade on all of them, even if the Dolphins are paying an enormous price between salary and draft picks to make him their #1 receiver. There’s some concern that he’s not going to be playing with Patrick Mahomes anymore, with whom he averaged a 91/1294/11 slash line per 16 games, but Hill averaged a similar yards per route run average in 2 seasons with Alex Smith (2.32) as he did in 4 seasons with Mahomes (2.30) and he’s finished in the top-17 among wide receivers on PFF in all 6 seasons in the league, so he should continue to produce with Tagovailoa, albeit probably not at quite the same level, especially with Waddle still likely to get a big target share. Hill will also probably start to decline in the next 2-3 seasons, which makes acquiring him even riskier, but he’s only in his age 28 season, so I wouldn’t expect that drop off to come this season.

Cedrick Wilson was more of an under the radar signing, but he could prove to be a good value and is likely locked in as the #3 receiver behind Hill and Waddle. Wilson was just a 6th round pick by the Cowboys in 2018 and was mostly buried on the depth chart to begin his career, but he got to play more in 2021 when injuries struck and finished the season with a 45/602/6 slash line and an above average 1.74 yards per route run, bringing his career average up to 1.56. Wilson is a projection to a season long starting role, but the Dolphins won’t need much from him behind Hill and Waddle and he should at least be a capable #3 wide receiver.

To replenish depth, the Dolphins used a 4th round pick on Texas Tech Erik Ezukanma, who has upside, but probably would be overstretched if forced into a significant rookie year role. The Dolphins also still have holdover Preston Williams, who only played 175 snaps last season, but has a decent 1.36 yards per route run average in three seasons in the league and has been kept from significant action by injuries more than anything, playing just 24 of a possible 49 games in his career, since going undrafted in 2019. He’s not a reliable option because of his durability issues, but could easily provide solid depth.

The Dolphins also have a good receiving tight end in Mike Gesicki. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Gesicki struggled in his first two seasons in the league, averaging just 1.04 yards per route run, but he’s improved significantly in the past two seasons, posting slash lines of 53/703/6 and 73/780/2 respectively on 1.60 and 1.45 yards per route run respectively, while finishing 7th and 13th among tight ends on PFF in pass catching grade. Gesicki will probably have a smaller target share this season with the Dolphins having more wide receiver talent, after he ranked 3rd among tight ends in targets last season with 112, but he should remain an above average receiving option. 

The Dolphins obviously view Gesicki still as a big part of their offense going forward, keeping him as a free agent on the 10.931 million dollar franchise tag, a number they’ll likely need to exceed annually on an extension to keep him around long-term. He’s not much of a blocker, but he’s still an asset to this team. The Dolphins also brought back a pair of blocking tight ends Durham Smythe (717 snaps) and Adam Shaheen (371 snaps). Neither do much in the receiving game, with career averages of 1.10 yards per route run and 1.11 yards per route run respectively, and neither excel as blockers either, but both are at least solid blockers who figure to remain involved in this offense. 

The Dolphins also used a 3rd round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on tight end Hunter Long, but he could only get on the field for 90 snaps as a rookie, buried on the depth chart, and that could remain the case for him again in 2022, with the same three tight ends still ahead of him. This looks like a much improved receiving corps, with Tyreek Hill elevating this group significantly and forming arguably the best wide receiver duo in the league with Jaylen Waddle, with tight end Mike Gesicki as a more than capable 3rd option.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Dolphins also had problems at the running back position last season, which was part of the reason why they finished 31st in the NFL with 3.55 YPC, along with terrible blocking by their offensive line. Like at the wide receiver position, the Dolphins cleaned the slate at the running back position this off-season, bringing back lead back Myles Gaskin, but not retaining any of the five other running backs who had at least a carry for this team last season, and then bringing in three veterans in free agency in Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert, and Sony Michel to compete with Gaskin for roles in a very unsettled backfield.

Gaskin struggled in the lead back role, averaging just 3.54 YPC on 173 carries, and the 2019 7th round pick has just a 3.79 YPC on 351 carries for average for his career, but his blocking has at least been a big part of the problem, with 64.4% of his rushing yardage coming after first contact. He’s also was their primary passing down back last season and has been decent as a receiver in his career, as his 1.20 career yards per route run average is about average for a running back, but with three newcomers being added, it’s unclear how much usage Gaskin will get, either as a runner or a pass catcher.

Edmonds was the highest paid of the trio of newcomers on a 2-year, 12.1 million dollar deal and is probably the favorite to lead this position group in carries and receptions. Size is an issue for a 5-9 208 pounder who has never surpassed 116 carries or 159 offensive touches in a season, but he’s averaged 4.66 YPC and 1.19 yards per route run in four seasons in the league since being drafted by the Cardinals in the 4th round in 2018 and has a good chance to get a career high usage, even in a crowded backfield.

Michel and Mostert, meanwhile, came in on cheap 1-year deals, worth 1.75 million and 2.125 million respectively, but both are still candidates for significant roles. Michel is only an early down runner, with 0.84 yards per route run as a receiver in his career, but he has a 4.22 YPC average on 743 carries in four seasons in the league, with 64.8% coming after contact, and the 5-11 220 pounder could be a good power complement to the smaller, speedier Edmonds.

Mostert is kind of the wild card of the group, with the 2015 undrafted free agent starting his career as a special teamer and totaling just 7 carries in his first three seasons in the league, but then breaking out with a 5.65 YPC average on 275 total carries in a part-time role with the 49ers from 2018-2020, before missing almost all of 2021 with injury. Mostert should be healthy for 2022 and is a decent pass catcher as well as an early down option (1.25 yards per route run in his career), but he comes with durability issues at 5-10 195, he still has just 284 career carries, and now he heads into his age 30 season. 

Mostert’s impressive play in limited action with the 49ers can’t be ignored, nor can his connection with new Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel, who was with Mostert in San Francisco, so he could have somewhat of a role and could be very effective in it as well, but he’s not really a lead back candidate. Most likely, Edmonds and Michel will be the two primary backs as a speed and power complement, with Edmonds being the primary passing down back and Mostert and Gaskin mixing in occasionally and providing depth in case of injury. However, roles are up for grabs in this group and probably won’t be decided until the pre-season. Regardless of how it shakes out, this should be a better group than a year ago.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, poor blocking was a big part of the reason why the Dolphins struggled on the ground last season, as the Dolphins were PFF’s 31st ranked team in run blocking grade. It wasn’t just run blocking though, as they also ranked dead last in PFF pass blocking grade and in pass block efficiency, while allowing the most pressures of any team in the league, and it wasn’t just last season either, as offensive line play has been a big weakness of this team for years. 

The Dolphins didn’t completely clean house upfront this off-season, but they added a pair of big upgrades on significant contracts in Terron Armstead and Connor Williams, and have some recent high draft picks that could be better in 2022. Armstead has the higher upside of the two additions, having finished in the top-8 among offensive tackles on PFF in 4 of 9 seasons in the league and in the top-17 in 6 of 9 seasons, but he’s also going into his age 31 season and has had durability problems throughout his career, missing at least some time every season and missing 48 total in 9 seasons in the league. 

Armstead hasn’t really shown significant signs of decline yet, but he played just 468 snaps in 8 games last season due to injury and, while he finished 28th among offensive tackles on PFF in his limited action, that was his worst finish since his rookie season. He could bounce back and be healthier in 2022, but the Dolphins are taking a big risk signing him to a 5-year, 75 million dollar deal that makes him the 18th highest paid offensive tackle in the league in average annual salary and effectively guarantees him 46.37 million over the next 3 seasons. He should still be a big upgrade even if he declines significantly, but how much he’ll actually be on the field is always a question with him.

Williams comes much cheaper on a 2-year, 14.035 million dollar deal, but he should still be a huge upgrade for the Dolphins and could be easily a steal on that contract. A 2nd round pick by the Cowboys in 2018, Williams was at least an average starter in all four seasons in Dallas, making 51 starts total, mostly at left guard, and he especially played well over the past two seasons, finishing 12th and 10th among guards on PFF across 16 starts and 14 starts respectively.

Still only in his age 25 season, Williams should remain at least an above average starter for years to come and may even have further untapped upside still. Where Williams will play is a bit of a mystery, as he has only ever played at guard at the professional level, but is being given reps by the Dolphins at center this off-season. He could translate to the center position well, but the Dolphins would probably be better served leaving him at the position where he has already been successful. 

If Williams stays at left guard, incumbent Michael Deiter would stay at center. A 3rd round pick in 2019, Deiter struggled mightily as a starting guard as a rookie, finishing 85th among 89 eligible guards on PFF in 15 starts, and then spent 2020 as a reserve, playing just 23 snaps, before moving to center in 2021 and making 8 starts, missing a significant chunk of the season due to injury. Deiter was unspectacular in those 8 starts, but he was significantly better than he was at guard as a rookie and he was significantly better than backups Greg Mancz and Austin Reiter. He’s an underwhelming starting option, but he could be a capable starter and he would allow Williams to stay at his natural position.

If Williams moves to center, the Dolphins would either stick with incumbent left guard Austin Jackson or they could move Jackson to right tackle and start Liam Eichenberg, their left tackle last season and a candidate to play the right tackle spot this season, at left guard. Eichenberg was a 2nd round pick in 2021 and has a good chance to remain a starter somewhere on this offensive line in 2022, despite a dismal rookie season in which he was PFF’s 85th ranked offensive tackle out of 88 eligible in 16 starts (14 at left tackle, 2 at right tackle). Eichenberg still has upside though and could prove to be a better fit somewhere other than the blindside, so it’s possible he could be a useful starter for them somewhere this season.

Jackson is also a young recent high draft pick who hasn’t shown much yet, going 18th overall in the first round in 2020, but finishing 87th out of 93 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie on PFF, before spending most of his second season at guard and not faring much better there, finishing 82nd out of 90 eligible guards on PFF. He’s made 28 of 33 possible starts in two seasons in the league, but isn’t guaranteed a role this season and is probably behind Eichenberg in terms of his chances to be a week 1 starter for this team somewhere in 2022, especially if Williams is kept at guard. Jackson still has theoretical upside in his third season in the league and it wouldn’t be hard for him to take at least a little bit of a step forward if he remains a starter, but even in that circumstance he could easily remain a liability.

Right guard Robert Hunt is probably the only Dolphins offensive lineman locked into the same position on this offensive line as a year ago, although the 2020 2nd round pick played right tackle as a rookie and theoretically could be moved at some point if the Dolphins are still struggling to find an offensive line combination that works. Hunt has played pretty well at both positions, finishing in the 43th percentile among offensive tackles on PFF as a rookie in 11 starts and the 58th percentile among guards in 17 starts last season, so it shouldn’t affect him much where he plays and, now going into his third season in the league, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he had his best season yet.

This is still an unsettled group, but Armstead and Williams are big upgrades, Jackson, Hunt, and Eichenberg are recent high draft picks with the upside to be improved in 2022, and Deiter could be a decent starting option or a high end reserve, depending on how things shake out. Depth is a bit of a concern besides that, with their other likely reserves being 2020 4th round pick Solomon Kindley, who has been underwhelming in 15 career starts at guard, and Greg Little, a 2nd round pick of the Panthers in 2018 who has made just 6 starts at tackle in 4 seasons in the league due to injury and ineffectiveness, and both Armstead and Williams come with some risk because of Armstead’s age and injury history and because Williams might be moving to a new position, but this is still a much improved offensive line from a year ago, even if they’re not quite one of the better groups in the league.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

Unlike on offense, the Dolphins didn’t make any big additions on defense this off-season, but they didn’t really have to, as they ranked 11th in defensive efficiency last season and retained all of their top-15 in terms of snaps played from a year ago. That doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be as good this year as they were last year though, in part due to the loss of defensive minded head coach Brian Flores, but also in part due to the fact that they had the healthiest defense in the league last season in terms of adjusted games lost, something that is unlikely to continue going forward. With that in mind, the Dolphins needed to add depth this off-season and did so in some key spots.

One of the depth players they added was veteran Melvin Ingram, who they signed on a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal. Ingram is going into his age 33 season and isn’t the every down player was in his prime anymore, but he was still effective in a rotational role with the Steelers and Chiefs last season, playing 590 snaps, totaling 2 sacks, 11 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate, and earning PFF’s 5th highest run defense grade among edge defenders as well. He has an impressive 12.7 % pressure rate for his career and, while he easily could decline in 2022, he also could easily remain an effective part-time player.

Ingram’s addition is one reason this could be a better edge defender group in 2022, but the Dolphins are also hoping for more out of 2021 1st round pick Jaelen Phillips after a rookie season in which he played 603 snaps and had 8.5 sacks, but struggled against the run, pressured the quarterback at just a 9.7% rate, and finished as PFF’s 109th ranked edge defender out of 129 eligible overall. He might not suddenly break out as an above average overall player in 2022, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to take a significant step forward and he has the upside to be one of the better pass rushers in the league long-term.

The Dolphins didn’t add any big outside free agents on defense this off-season, but they did keep edge defender Emmanuel Ogbah on a 4-year, 65.4 million dollar deal and he figures to remain in a significant role, after finishing as PFF’s 22nd ranked edge defender on 755 snaps in 2021. Ogbah originally joined the Dolphins as a free agent two off-seasons ago, but he greatly overperformed his 2-year, 15 million dollar deal and his raise was much deserved, as he totalled 18 sacks, 28 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate in 33 games over the past two seasons combined.

Ogbah struggled early in his career with the Browns (7.8% pressure rate across his first three seasons), but the 2016 2nd round pick built off a solid 10.7% pressure rate as a part-time player with the Chiefs in 2019 to break out as a consistently above average pass rusher with the Dolphins over the past two seasons. Ogbah’s run defense remains inconsistent at best, but he’s now proven himself over two full seasons as top pass rusher and, still only in his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect that to change significantly in 2022.

Ingram being added and Phillips likely taking a step forward in year two will probably eat into the playing time of Andrew Van Ginkel the most, after he led Dolphins edge defenders with 801 snaps a year ago. Van Ginkel was just a 5th round pick in 2019 and had played snap counts of just 197 and 479 respectively in two seasons in the league prior to last season, but he showed promise in those limited roles and held up pretty well in an every down role last season, earning average or better grades from PFF as both a run defender and pass rusher. That’s mostly been the case for him throughout his career as well, playing the run well and totaling 10.5 sacks, 26 hits, and a 11.1% pressure rate as a pass rusher. He should remain effective in what should be a smaller role in a deeper position group in 2022.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Dolphins didn’t make any additions at the interior defender position this off-season, but this should still be a good group, led by 2019 1st round pick Christian Wilkins, who has gotten better in every season in the league and broke out as one of the best players at his position in 2021, finishing 77th, 46th, and 5th among interior defenders on PFF in the past three seasons respectively. He’s a good run defender, but also contributes significantly as a pass rusher, with a career 7.2% pressure rate, including 4.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 8.1% pressure rate last season. 

Now in his 4th season in the league, in the middle of his prime in his age 27 season, Wilkins should remain at least an above average starter, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was a year ago, with an upside among the best in the league at his position. The Dolphins made the obvious decision to pick up his 5th year option this off-season, guaranteeing him 10.753 million for 2023, and will now work to lock Wilkins up on a long-term deal, which figures to pay him among the best in the league at his position.

As good as Wilkins was last season though, fellow Dolphins interior defender Zach Sieler actually finished with a higher grade from PFF, ranking 3rd among interior defenders overall, albeit on a smaller snap count of 518. A 7th round pick by the Ravens in 2018, Sieler barely played in his first two seasons in the league, first with Baltimore and then Miami, before a surprise breakout year in 2020, when he was a middling run defender at best, but added a 7.9% pressure rate as a situational pass rusher, while playing 532 snaps total overall. 

The Dolphins wisely locked him up long-term last year on a 2-year, 7.63 million dollar extension that takes him through 2023 and that proved to be a steal when Sieler improved even more in 2021, boosting his pressure rate to 9.8% and showing dramatic improvement as a run defender, ranking 6th among interior defenders in run defense grade on PFF, leading to his high overall grade. Even though he’s a well-rounded player, Sieler might never see significantly more than the snap counts of 532 and 518 he’s played over the past two seasons and he might not be as effective if he ever did see a higher snap count, but he’s shown himself as a high level rotational player over two straight seasons now and it would surprise me if he didn’t continue that into 2022, with the upside for potentially more.

The Dolphins are also hoping for more out of 2020 2nd round pick Raekwon Davis, who looked on his way to promising career when he earned a slightly above average grade from PFF across 538 snaps as a rookie, but hurt his knee 5 snaps into his 2021 campaign, missed 3 games, the only significant extended injury absence this Dolphins’ defense had last season, and then upon his return was not nearly the same, finishing the season as PFF’s 143rd ranked interior defender out of 146 eligible across 424 snaps. 

It’s not hard to see how Davis could be significantly better in year three if healthier and, even if he doesn’t bounce back to his rookie year form, he should still improve enough to have a noticeable effect on this defense. It’s also possible he could have the best season yet of his career, still only in his age 25 season, with a big athletic ceiling, which would obviously be a big boost for this defense. He’ll likely be backed up again by veteran run stuffer John Jenkins, who is in his age 33 season, but who has consistently been a solid situational nose tackle in his career and who still showed something left in the tank in 2021, albeit across just 176 snaps.

Adam Butler also remains as a sub package interior pass rusher. He’s been decent as a pass rusher in 5 seasons in the league, totaling 17 sacks, 12 hits, and a 6.8% pressure rate in 80 career games, but he struggles so much against the run that he has finished below average overall on PFF in all 5 seasons in the league. The Dolphins would probably rather him be closer to the 452 snaps per season he played with the Patriots before joining Miami on a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal last off-season, rather than the 592 snaps he played last season. He wasn’t a bad free agent signing, but he’s not a particularly useful player, even in a situational reserve role. Fortunately, they should be able to get his snap count down a little bit in a deep position group overall.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Dolphins bring back starting off ball linebackers Jerome Baker and Elandon Roberts, a good thing because they were a solid duo last season. Baker has been inconsistent against the run in his 4-year career, but he’s earned an average or better coverage grade from PFF in all 4 seasons, he plays almost every snap, 60.8 per game in 48 games over the past 3 seasons, he adds value as a blitzer, with 17 sacks, 19 hits, and a 14.6% pressure rate in 64 career games, and he’s finished average or better overall on PFF in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, including a 35th ranked finish across 971 snaps in 2021. Still only in his age 26 season, I would expect more of the same from the 2018 3rd round pick this season. The Dolphins clearly value him, locking him up long-term on a 3-year, 37.5 million dollar extension last off-season, making him the 7th highest paid off ball linebacker in the league in terms of average annual salary.

Roberts, on the other hand, has been inconsistent in coverage in his career, but has earned at least an average grade from PFF as a run defender in all 6 seasons in the league and won’t have to play much more than a base package role this season, playing just 620 snaps in 17 games as the other starting off ball linebacker last season, with the Dolphins frequently using three safeties in sub packages with one as a coverage linebacker to mask Roberts’ inabilities in coverage. I would expect Roberts to remain a capable, if unspectacular base package player in 2022, with a chance of matching his snap count from a year ago even though it’s a slight career high (372 snaps per season in his first 5 seasons in the league prior to last year).

The Dolphins have veteran Duke Riley as depth, but he’s played just 292 snaps per season in 5 seasons in the league, including just 227 snaps played last season, and has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season, so they used a 3rd round pick on University of Georgia linebacker Channing Tindall to give them another depth option and a potential long-term starting option if he develops. Tindall probably won’t have much of a rookie year role unless injuries strike and he could struggle if forced into action, but he’s not bad depth to have at a decent overall position group.

Grade: B-

Secondary

As I mentioned, the Dolphins frequently used three safeties together in sub packages last season, those safeties being Jevon Holland, Brandon Jones, and Eric Rowe, with the latter two both having the ability to drop down and some coverage linebacker at 6-0 206 and 6-1 208 respectively. Holland and Rowe began the start as every down starters, with Jones as the 3rd safety, but Jones and Rowe flipped roles fairly early on in the season, with Jones ending the season with slightly more snaps played than Rowe, 644 to 638.

Jones is the younger option, being selected in the 3rd round in 2020, but he struggled in the larger role last season, finishing 86th out of 98 eligible safeties on PFF, after playing 385 nondescript snaps as a rookie. Rowe is going into his age 30 season and has never been more than a middling starter in 7 seasons (50 starts in 86 games) in the league, so he probably won’t get his starting job back and Jones has a good chance to be better in his 3rd season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee, so Jones could easily remain a liability.

Holland is also a young safety, going in the 2nd round in 2021, but he had an incredible rookie season and looks on his way to being one of the best safeties in the league for years to come, finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked safety across 893 snaps in 16 games. Development isn’t always linear and he could easily regress a little in 2022 even if he is on his way to being one of the best safeties in the league long-term, which would have a negative effect on this defense, but it’s hard to see him not at least being a well above average starter again, if not one of the best players in the league at his position again, still only in his age 22 season.

The Dolphins also bring back their top-3 cornerbacks Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, and Nik Needham. Howard and Jones are among the highest paid cornerbacks in the league, ranking 6th and 9th respectively among cornerbacks in average annual salary, on contracts of 5 years, 90 million and 5 years, 82.5 million respectively, with Howard being one of the few homegrown talents from before the Dolphins rebuild, a 2016 2nd round pick who they locked up long-term, and with Jones being a big free agent addition two off-seasons ago from the Dallas Cowboys.

Howard gives up his share of big plays and has missed big chunks of 2 of his 6 seasons in the league, missing 25 games total in his career, but he’s a ballhawk with at least four interceptions in all four healthy seasons in his career and he’s finished in the top-25 among cornerbacks on PFF in 3 straight healthy seasons, maxing out as PFF’s #2 ranked cornerback in 2020. Still in his late prime in his age 29 season, Howard should remain at least an above average starter this season and, when at his best, his upside is as good as any cornerback in the league.

Jones, on the other hand, has been a bit of a disappointment as a free agent signing, earning middling grades from PFF in two seasons since joining the Dolphins, after ranking 7th and 17th among cornerbacks on PFF in his final two seasons in Dallas. Jones now heads into his age 30 season, so it’s fair to wonder if his best days are behind him or if he may even continue declining in 2022. I would expect him to be at least a solid starter again, but he might not have much upside anymore and his age is definitely becoming a concern. With Jones owed a non-guaranteed 14.1 million in 2023 and the rest of this roster getting more expensive, this could easily be Jones’ final season in Miami, barring a big bounce back year, which would be a surprise at this point.

Needham had a solid season as the 3rd cornerback last season, playing 608 snaps, primarily on the slot (66.9%), earning a slightly above average grade from PFF. He’s a former undrafted free agent though and finished below average on PFF in each of his first two seasons in the league in 2019 and 2020 on snap counts of 743 and 617 respectively, including a 112nd ranked finish among 136 cornerbacks on PFF in 2020, prior to improving in his 3rd season in the league in 2021. It’s possible he’s permanently turned a corner and will remain a capable slot cornerback, but he could also easily regress and become a liability, which is probably more likely, given that he wasn’t drafted.

The Dolphins do have 2020 1st round pick Noah Igbinoghene as a reserve option, but he’s been a massive bust to this point in this career, playing just 364 snaps total in his career, struggling mightily in that limited action, and spending much of his career as a healthy scratch, unable to get on the field, presumably because of poor play behind the scenes. Last season, he played just 78 defensive snaps, with the Dolphins opting to play mediocre veterans Justin Coleman and Jason McCourty ahead of him. 

Coleman and McCourty are no longer with the team and the Dolphins don’t have another good option to keep Igbinoghene from being the 4th cornerback, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t struggle if forced into significant action. There are some flaws with this secondary, but it’s a strong group overall, led by top cornerback Xavien Howard and top safety Jevon Holland, who both have the upside to be among the best in the league at their respective positions in 2022 and who elevate this position group significantly by themselves.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

Special teams was also a big weakness for the Dolphins in 2021, as they finished 29th in special teams DVOA. Unlike most of their big needs this off-season, the Dolphins did little to address their special teams this off-season, but they do replace struggling punter Michael Palardy with a more reliable veteran in Thomas Morestead, which is a slight upgrade, and they could get more out of Jaylen Waddle in his 2nd season as their primary returner, after he led one of the worst return units in the league last season. Solid kicker Jason Sanders remains, as do their two best core special teamers Duke Riley and Cethan Carter, so, overall, there is potential here and, even if they don’t achieve their full potential, they should still be improved over a year ago. 

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Dolphins significantly improved their roster this off-season, but they’re starting from a lower base point than their records in recent years would suggest, as they have consistently overperformed their talent level and their efficiency rating (25th in overall team efficiency in 2021), something that is tough to do consistently anyway and something they’re especially unlikely to continue doing without head coach Brian Flores, who consistently got the most of out this group, but was still controversially let go this off-season.

The Dolphins’ concentrated their off-season additions on the offensive side of the ball which could lead to that unit improving to average from being 26th in offensive efficiency last season, but they still have a significant question at quarterback and, while their defense should remain solid, after ranking 11th in defensive efficiency a year ago and adding some talent this off-season, they’re also unlikely to be as healthy as they were a year ago and could regress without Flores’ leadership. 

The Dolphins could still be a solid team on both sides of the ball and they would be a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the not totally out of the question scenario that Tua Tagovailoa breaks out as a legitimate franchise quarterback in year three, given all the talent they have around him, but if that doesn’t happen and this is only a solid team, they could find it tough to even qualify for the post-season in the loaded AFC. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC East

Los Angeles Rams 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For years, the Rams have pursued an aggressive team building strategy, frequently trading away premium draft picks to acquire stars in trades and giving expensive contracts to the acquired players, their own homegrown players, and, with the money they had left over, other team’s players in free agency. The result was a top heavy cap structure, which can be a dangerous strategy, especially if stars underperform or get hurt as they age, but the Rams bet on their coaching staff’s ability to find and develop non-premium draft picks and under-the-radar free agents to fill in around their expensive stars. 

The Rams haven’t selected in the first round since 2016 and have made just one pick in the top-50 in their past six drafts, but they’ve still made 8.8 draft picks per year over that stretch and have found good values in the middle and late rounds, with 11 of their 22 players who played 500 snaps on offense or defense on last year’s team being drafted by the Rams in the second round or later in the past six drafts. The strategy finally paid off in a Super Bowl Championship in the 2021 season, with quarterback Matt Stafford coming over from the Lions last off-season in a blockbuster trade and proving to be their missing piece, but the Rams will find it a juggling act to keep enough talent under the cap to consistently contend year after year going forward, still not possessing a first round pick until 2024. 

Making it tougher to keep all of their talent under the cap long-term, the Rams had to give Stafford a top of the market deal and a big pay raise, making him the 6th highest paid quarterback in the league in average annual salary on a 4-year, 160 million dollar extension ahead of what would have been the final year of his contract in 2022. I often bring up that since the start of the salary cap era in 1994, just 5 of 28 Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback whose cap hit was more than 11% of the salary cap and all of those quarterbacks are Hall of Fame caliber players, as a cautionary to teams paying non-elite quarterbacks elite quarterback money, which makes it it’s very tough to surround a non-elite quarterback with enough talent to win if that quarterback is taking a significant percentage of the cap. 

Stafford is right on that Hall of Fame borderline in my opinion and he was right on that 11% borderline last season, but it’s going to be increasingly harder to keep his cap number close to that proportion going forward, so they may need an even better performance from Stafford, to justify his new deal and keep this team as consistent contenders, after his cap hit starts to jump significantly in 2024 and beyond. Stafford didn’t have an elite regular season last year, finishing 11th among quarterbacks on PFF in overall grade and completing 67.2% of his passes for an average of 8.13 YPA, 41 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions, but he played well enough to lead a talented team to 12 wins (9th in offensive efficiency and 5th in overall efficiency) and then he was able to elevate his play a little in the post-season, to help the team secure the title.

For Stafford, it was his 8th season in the top-13 among quarterbacks on PFF in 11 straight seasons as a healthy starter and, in the first 10 of those seasons when he was in Detroit, he completed 63.3% of his passes for an average of 7.36 YPA, 263 touchdowns, and 123 interceptions, despite underwhelming supporting casts. However, he’s also only finished in the top-10 among quarterbacks on PFF in 3 seasons, so there’s an argument to be made that he hasn’t been a consistently elite quarterback in his career and that the Rams are overpaying him slightly. They also didn’t really have a choice though, after he just led them to a Super Bowl victory, and it’s possible he could play well enough to justify his salary and keep this team consistently in Super Bowl contention for the next several seasons, still only going into his age 34 season.

The Rams will obviously need Stafford to stay healthy and on the field, something he’s done a good job of in his career, making every start in 10 of the past 11 seasons. If Stafford did happen to miss time in 2022, the Rams would have to turn to career backup John Wolford, who is a smart quarterback who has been in the system since 2019, after the 2018 undrafted free agent showed promise in the now suspended AAF, but he also has just 42 career regular season passes and has been inconsistent at best in limited action. He would likely struggle if forced into significant action, but there’s a good chance that doesn’t happen and that Stafford again is an above average starter for at least most of the season.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Rams did a pretty good job keeping talent around Stafford this off-season, even if they had to already go over the 2023 and 2024 cap to do so, but they couldn’t keep everyone and their most affected group is their offensive line. There was nothing the Rams could do about Andrew Whitworth retiring, ahead of his age 40 season, but he was owed a reasonable 11.5 million for 2022 and was PFF’s 5th ranked offensive tackle in 2021, so his retirement definitely hurts this team, especially since they had to pay even more (3 years, 40 million) to keep replacement Joe Noteboom in free agency, even though Noteboom has not yet established himself as close to the same caliber of player as the potential Hall of Famer Whitworth.

A 3rd round pick in 2018, Noteboom was originally drafted to be Whitworth’s replacement and it’s a testament to Whitworth’s longevity that Noteboom isn’t taking over until his 5th season, but, as a result, Noteboom is very unproven, with just 17 career starts to his name. The first 8 of those starts came at guard, 6 of them in 2019 and 2 in 2020, but Noteboom struggled at the position, finishing 88th out of 89 eligible guards on PFF across 376 snaps in 2019, before going down for the season with a ACL, and then looking on his way to a similar start in 2020, before suffering another injury and being moved back to left tackle upon his return, when Whitworth suffered an injured of his own.

Noteboom played pretty well in his first 7 starts at left tackle in 2020 in place of Whitworth, especially in pass protection, finishing as PFF’s 19th ranked offensive tackle in pass protection from week 10 on, but he returned to the bench upon Whitworth’s return in 2021, making just 2 starts. He was again impressive in those 2 starts, but he’s still very inexperienced and has struggled as a run stopper, so the Rams are taking a big chance paying him like an established above average starting left tackle. The upside is there, but he’s a projection to a season long starting role and his injury history is concerning as well.

Noteboom’s contract also likely made it so the Rams couldn’t retain right guard Austin Corbett, who was PFF’s 27th ranked guard as a 17-game starter for the Rams in 2021, but signed a 3-year, 26.25 million dollar deal with the Panthers this off-season. Either of the options to replace him figure to be a significant downgrade, as Logan Bruss is a 3rd round rookie who would probably struggled if forced into a significant role in his first season, while Bobby Evans is a 2019 3rd round pick who has not yet developed, making just 8 career starts and earning a below average grade from PFF in all three seasons in the league. 

Still only in his age 25 season, Evans may still have some upside and is probably the favorite for the starting job, but he’s not guaranteed to win it and could easily continue to struggle if he does win it. With Noteboom replacing Whitworth and Bruss/Evans replacing Corbett, the Rams figure to get significantly worse play at both left tackle and right guard this season. The Rams could also get worse play at center as well, as Brian Allen was PFF’s 5th ranked center in 15 starts in 2021, but the 2018 4th round pick is a complete one-year wonder, struggling in 9 career starts prior to 2021.

In the only starting experience of his career prior to last season, Allen was PFF’s 26th ranked center out of 36 eligible in 2019. It’s very possible Allen has permanently turned a corner as at least a solid starter, but, even if that’s the case, there is no guarantee at all that he repeats the best season of his career again in 2022. Fortunately, the Rams didn’t have to overpay to keep him in free agency, re-signing him on a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal that is very reasonable even if he does decline.

Left guard David Edwards and right tackle Rob Havenstein also return and both are more proven players that have a good chance to at least come close to repeating last season’s performance, when they were PFF’s 42nd ranked guard in 17 starts and PFF’s 15th ranked offensive tackle in 15 starts respectively. Edwards was just a 5th round pick in 2019, but he’s been an average or better starter on PFF in all three seasons in the league (41 starts), including a 15th ranked finish in 2020. Still only in his age 25 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he took another step forward and had the best season of his career in his 4th season in the league in 2022. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’ll be due a big pay raise in the next year.

Havenstein probably has the highest upside of any of their offensive line, finishing in the top-16 among offensive tackles on PFF in three of the past four seasons, but he’s now going into his age 30 season, so he could start to decline, and he’s been a bit inconsistent in his career, finishing below average in 2019 and finishing outside of the top-30 offensive tackles on PFF in 4 of his 7 seasons in the league in total. He could remain one of the best right tackles in the league, which he has been somewhat regularly lately, but it’s also very possible that age or his history of inconsistency lead to him having a significantly worse season in 2022 as well.

Depth is also a concern for a unit that is promoting a pair of key reserves into the starting lineup to replace departed starters. Assuming Evans beats out the rookie Bruss to be the starter, the Rams will have just one reserve who has ever started a game in the NFL, with 2018 undrafted free agent center Coleman Shelton just making the first two starts of his career last season and showing himself to be an underwhelming option across 238 career snaps.

The Rams don’t even have highly drafted prospects in the pipeline who look ready for reserve roles, with Shelton at center, Bruss likely to be their top reserve guard, and their swing tackle likely to either be 2021 undrafted rookie Alaric Jackson (61 underwhelming snaps as a reserve as a rookie) or 7th round rookie AJ Arcuri. They could still be an above average starting five, but they’re not likely to be as good as a year ago and depth is a big concern if injuries strike multiple starters.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

For years, having a talented wide receiver group has been a fixture of Sean McVay’s Rams, dating back to when they traded a first round pick for Brandin Cooks, giving them a trio of Cooks, Robert Woods, and Cooper Kupp who played together for two seasons (2018 and 2019) and who all had 1,000 yard seasons at different points in that span, as well as it other points in their careers. Cooks was traded for a second round pick after 2019, but the Rams replaced him with 2nd round rookie Van Jefferson and, when Jefferson got off to an underwhelming start to his career, the Rams added another former multi-time 1,000 yard receiver Odell Beckham in a mid-season addition in 2021.

Beckham’s addition coincided with Robert Woods going down for the season with a torn ACL, just a few days after Beckham’s addition, so Jefferson was still involved in the offense even after Beckham’s addition and both Beckham and Woods are now gone, but the Rams added another multi-time 1,000 yard receiver Allen Robinson on a 3-year, 46.5 million dollar deal in free agency and are expected to be interested in bringing back Beckham, who is now dealing with his own ACL rehab. For now, Kupp, Robinson, and Jefferson are the Rams top-3 wide receivers, but Jefferson could ultimately take a back seat to Beckham, who could be healthy enough to play by mid-season.

Kupp took advantage of a receiving corps that was in flux behind him and he also built great chemistry with Matt Stafford, en route to leading the league with 191 targets, which he took for a 145/1947/16 slash line on 3.12 yards per route run, which also all led the league, making him just the 4th receiving triple crown winner since the merger. Kupp probably won’t be quite as good as he was a year ago, just because no one ever does that two seasons in a row, but the 2017 3rd round pick averaged 2.05 yards per route run and a 85/1058/7 slash line per 16 games in four seasons in the league prior to 2021. Kupp also did that despite playing with an inferior quarterback in Jared Goff, so, even if he does regress this year, he has a good chance to still exceed his pre-2021 averages, still in his prime in his age 29 season. He might not lead the league in receiving again, but he’s likely to at least be among the league’s leaders.

Kupp is also still the clear #1 receiver on this team, even with Robinson being added on a big contract. Robinson’s contract suggests the Rams think his very disappointing 2021 campaign, in which he had a 38/410/1 slash line in 12 games and averaged 1.13 yards per route run, was mostly the result of being on a bad passing offense in Chicago and that he can bounce back in 2022, still only in his age 29 season, on a much better passing offense. 

Robinson has actually never been on a great passing offense with a great quarterback, but, despite that, from 2015-2020, prior to last year’s down year, he averaged 1.82 yards per route run and a 84/1118/8 slash line per 16 games. He was also PFF’s 5th ranked wide receiver as recently as 2020, when he finished with a 102/1250/6 slash line and averaged 2.06 yards per route run, despite playing on a mediocre passing offense. He comes with a lot of downside because of how he played last season, but he comes with plenty of upside as well.

Van Jefferson would then be the #3 receiver behind Kupp and Robinson and, though the Rams have been hesitant to commit to him in a significant role thus far in his career, he has a decent 1.44 yards per route run average in two seasons, actually a higher figure than the 1.27 yards per route run that Odell Beckham averaged in half a season with the Rams in 2021. Jefferson is already going into his age 26 season though, so he might not have much further upside and, while he could be a solid #3 receiver, the Rams may still think Beckham has a higher upside, if he can be something resembling his old form (2.25 yards per route run in his first seven seasons in the league prior to the first ACL tear), in his age 30 season, after back-to-back seasons ended by torn ACLs. 

A major bounce back for Beckham is probably wishful thinking, but I would still consider the Rams the favorites to ultimately re-sign Beckham this off-season. The Rams also have Tutu Atwell, who they selected in the 2nd round in 2021, but he played just 10 snaps with zero touches on offense as a rookie, focusing primarily on being a return man before missing much of the season, and it’s unclear what role, if any, they have planned for him on offense in 2022. He has blazing speed, but is very undersized at 5-9 165 and may be limited to gadget plays and situational deep threat work.

Given how much wide receiver talent they consistently have, the tight end position is not heavily featured in this passing game, but veteran Tyler Higbee, a 4th round pick by the Rams in 2016, has been a solid starting tight end for them over the past three seasons, averaging 1.65 yards per route run and a 62/645/5 slash line per 16 games, both above average for a tight end, while also providing value as a blocker. He’s an unspectacular player, but he’s still in his prime in his age 29 season and should remain a solid starter in 2022.

Higbee sees significant action (50.8 snaps per game over the past 5 seasons), but the Rams rarely use multiple tight end sets and their leading reserve tight end in terms of snaps played last season was Kendall Blanton with 149. Even despite his limited role, the 2019 undrafted free agent Blanton struggled mightily and, given that last season was the first action of his career, he should not be locked into any sort of role in 2022, with competition likely coming from 2020 4th round pick Brycen Hopkins and 2021 4th round pick Jacob Harris, who have played just 61 snaps and 17 snaps in their careers and are almost complete unknowns at the professional level. The Rams won’t need much from their reserve tight ends though, unless Higbee gets hurt, given that they have a talented wide receiver group and a solid starting tight end.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Rams used a 2nd round pick on running back Cam Akers in 2020 and he led the team in yards and carries as a rookie, rushing for 625 yards and 2 touchdowns on 145 carries (4.31 YPC), but his 2021 season looked over before it started, tearing his achilles in an off-season workout in July. Somewhat miraculously though, Akers returned to the lineup in week 18, less than six months after the injury, and, even more incredibly, he was their lead back throughout their post-season run. However, he was highly inefficient, averaging 2.43 YPC on 72 carries in total between week 18 and the post-season.

Akers should be close to fully healthy by week 1 though and, still only going into his age 23 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Akers had the best season of his career in his third season in the league in 2022. How much work exactly that Akers is going to get remains to be seen though. In his absence last season, Sony Michel, who they traded for as a replacement when Akers got hurt, led the team with 208 carries and 845 yards (4.06 YPC), but Darrell Henderson was also heavily involved as the #2 back, averaging 4.62 YPC on 149 carries, and was their primary passing down back. 

A 3rd round pick in 2019, Henderson was also heavily involved in Akers’ rookie season in 2020, averaging 4.52 YPC on 138 carries, while again being the primary passing down back. He could retain the same role in 2022, but Akers outcarried Michel and Henderson combined by a margin of 67 to 30 in the Rams’ post-season run, while taking the majority of the passing down snaps as well, even though Akers was coming off of an injury, which could be a sign of things to come this season. Henderson could remain involved, but it’s very possible Akers takes over as more of a true feature back this season. 

The Rams also used a 5th round pick in this year’s draft on Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams, who could see carries as a rookie, but he might be more of a threat to Henderson’s role than Akers, especially since he showed a lot of potential as a receiver in college (77 catches in his final two collegiate seasons). Despite being the primary passing down back, Henderson has actually provided very little in the passing game, with a career 0.80 yards per route run average, which is significantly less than even than Akers’ 1.16 mediocre career average. Most likely, all three backs will see passing down work, with Akers as the clear lead back in early down situations and Williams having the most receiving upside of any of the three options. It’s not a bad backfield, with Akers having breakout potential in a feature back role.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The Rams were one of the most balanced teams in the league last season, ranking 9th in defensive efficiency, same as they did in offensive efficiency, leading to an overall efficiency that was 5th best in the NFL in the regular season. They did lose some key players this off-season on defense as well though, most notably edge defender Von Miller, who proved to be a difference maker in their Super Bowl run, after being acquired as a half-year rental in a trade deadline deal in which they sent a second and third round pick to the Broncos. 

Including his play in Denver, Miller finished last season as PFF’s 7th ranked edge defender overall in the regular season and, in 12 games with the Rams between the regular season and playoffs, Miller had 8 sacks, 6 hits, and a 15.2% pressure rate, before signing a 6-year, 120 million dollar deal with the Bills this off-season. The Rams also lost key reserve Ogbo Okoronkwo, who only played 255 snaps last season, but flashed a lot of potential in limited action, finishing 17th among edge defenders on PFF, playing the run well and pressuring the quarterback at a 12.7% rate.

The Rams didn’t really replace Miller or Okoronkwo either, meaning they will be expecting significantly more snaps out of their holdovers. It would be hard for them to get more out of Leonard Floyd, who has played snap counts of 917 and 932 respectively in two seasons since joining the Rams, and he figures to have a similar season in 2022 as he did in 2020 and 2021, when he finished above average on PFF for the third and fourth straight season overall and combined to total 20 sacks, 15 hits, and a 10.2% pressure rate in 33 games. He’s not anywhere near the same level as Miller though, never finishing higher than 34th among edge defenders on PFF in six seasons in the league.

Terrell Lewis (367 snaps) and Justin Hollins (222 snaps) are their other holdovers who played at least some action last season and both figure to have a significantly expanded role in 2022. Lewis was a 3rd round pick in 2020 and could have a little bit of a breakout year in his third season in the league, but he also hasn’t shown much on 491 career snaps thus far, so he would be a big projection to being even an average player in a significant role. The upside is there, but he could easily prove to be overstretched in a larger role. 

Hollins, meanwhile, was a 5th round pick in 2020 and has been a solid run defender thus far in his career, but he also has a miniscule 6.5% pressure rate off the edge for his career and he has never played more than 349 snaps in a season. He’s also a projection to a larger role and, while he could continue playing the run well in a larger role, he figures to continue being a major liability if he has to take on a bigger pass rush role. Hollins will have to see at least a somewhat expanded role this season, for lack of a better option, with their other choices being 2021 7th round pick Chris Garrett (4 rookie year defensive snaps) and 2022 7th round pick Daniel Hardy, who will compete for deep reserve snaps. This is now a very underwhelming position group.

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

The Rams also lost Sebastian Joseph-Day to a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal with the Chargers, but, while he was a solid interior defender for them, he was limited to just 340 snaps in 7 games last season anyway, so he won’t be that big of a loss. The Rams do bring back their top-3 in terms of snaps played at the position last season, although, without any replacements for Joseph-Day, depth is a significant concern. Fortunately, one of those top-3 is Aaron Donald, who is not only hands down the best defensive player in the NFL, but he never comes off the field either, playing 89.3% of the Rams defensive snaps in the regular season and leading all defensive linemen regardless of position with 1,040 snaps.

That’s nothing new for a player who has played 127 of a possible 129 games in 8 seasons in the league, while averaging 55.1 snaps per game and finishing in the top-2 among interior defenders on PFF in all 8 seasons in the league, including seven straight #1 finishes. Also a dominant run defender, Donald has totaled 98 sacks, 130 hits, and a 15.0% pressure rate in his career as a pass rusher, despite almost exclusively rushing the passer from the interior and seeing more double teams than any defensive lineman in the league. 

Donald is now going into his age 31 season, so it’s possible we could start to see a little decline from him, but we haven’t seen it yet, as he was PFF’s #1 ranked interior defender and had 12.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 13.1% pressure rate last season, and, even if he does start to decline in 2022, he would still be one of the top players in the league at his position even if he’s not quite at his best. The Rams gave him a new contract this off-season that not only makes him the highest paid defensive player in the league, that also gives him 40 million in new money without adding any years to his deal, a significant amount added to what was already originally a 6-year, 135 million dollar extension. It’s hard to argue he’s not worth it though and it sounds like Donald legitimately considered retirement if he didn’t get that money, so it’s understandable why the Rams paid up.

Fellow returning defensive linemen Greg Gaines (780 snaps) and A’Shawn Robinson (517 snaps) are also coming off good seasons, finishing 32nd and 21st among interior defenders on PFF. Robinson is primarily a nose tackle at 6-4 322 and has mostly been a solid run defender in his career, but he does get a little bit of pass rush too, with a 5.8% pressure rate in his 6-year career. Gaines, meanwhile, broke out as an every down player last season, holding up against the run and totaling 4.5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 8.0% pressure rate in passing situations, after the 2019 4th round pick played just 384 snaps in his first two seasons in the league. Gaines flashed potential in limited action early in his career though and, while he’s unproven, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he remains an above average, well-rounded starter.

Robinson will play almost all of the base package snaps between Donald and Gaines, who will both have significant roles in base packages and sub packages, so depth isn’t needed that much at this position, but injuries could strike, which would expose their lack of experience behind their top-3 on the depth chart. The Rams are hoping for more from 2021 4th round pick Bobby Brown (22 rookie season snaps) and 2021 5th round pick Earnest Brown (0 snaps), because their only other options aside from undrafted rookies are 2020 undrafted free agent Michael Hoecht (110 snaps), 2020 undrafted free agent Jonah Williams (97 snaps), and 2019 undrafted free agent Marquise Copeland (108 snaps), whose minimal action last season was a career high in snaps. The Rams’ lack of depth is a concern, but they have a great top-3, with Donald obviously elevating this group significantly by himself.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

While the Rams did lose some key players this off-season, they did make one key signing, adding off ball linebacker Bobby Wagner, a 10-year veteran of their division rival Seahawks, on a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal. Troy Reeder (682 snaps) and Kenny Young (384 snaps) both played significant roles for the Rams last season and are no longer with the team, but they finished 72nd and 59th respectively out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF and Wagner should be an obvious upgrade.

Wagner comes with some risk, going into his age 32 season, which is a big part of the reason why the Seahawks cut him ahead of a 16.6 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, but Wagner’s new contract is a much better fit for the contending Rams than his old salary was for the rebuilding Seahawks and Wagner hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down yet, playing 70.6 snaps per game in 16 games last season and finishing as PFF’s 16th ranked off ball linebacker, his 8th finish in the top-16 in 10 seasons in the league, while averaging 63.8 snaps per game in 151 games (out of 161 possible). A top-4 off ball linebacker on PFF in 5 seasons in his prime, Wagner’s best days might be behind him, but he could easily remain an above average every down linebacker in 2022.

Ernest Jones is the Rams’ top returning linebacker, with the 2021 3rd round pick playing 440 snaps as a rookie, and, even with Wagner being added, Jones has the opportunity to earn a bigger role in year two, without much competition for snaps and likely to be healthier, after missing 6 games as a rookie and playing 40 snaps per game when healthy. Jones is still unproven, but he showed promise as a rookie, finishing slightly above average on PFF, and he won’t have to play quite every down, with the Rams frequently using three safeties in sub packages in obvious passing situations, with one operating as a de facto linebacker. 

Depth is a concern behind Wagner and Jones, with 4-year veteran special teamer Travin Howard looking like their top reserve, despite playing just 205 career defensive snaps, but he showed a little bit of promise on those snaps, so he might not be a horrible option if forced into a larger role. Wagner elevates the whole group by himself and is a big addition to this defense, even if he isn’t quite what he used to be, but Jones is also a promising player as well and their lack of depth is their only significant concern.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Rams also lost starting cornerback Darious Williams in free agency to the Jaguars on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal and he was a solid starter in 2021 (13 starts), but the Rams are replacing him with a familiar face in Troy Hill, who they originally lost to the Browns on a 2-year, 9 million dollar deal last off-season. Hill looked like a steal on that contract, after finishing 13rd among cornerbacks on PFF on 538 snaps in 2019 and 18th among cornerbacks on 974 snaps in 2020, but Hill was middling at best on 533 snaps in his lone season in Cleveland, leading to the Browns drafting his replacement and trading him for a 2023 5th round pick to get out of the 4.5 million he’s owed in 2022. He’s now going into his age 31 season and has been somewhat inconsistent in his career, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was at least a solid option on the slot for another season, especially now that he’s back in the Rams’ defensive system.

Hill probably won’t take over all of Williams’ departed snaps though, so Rams are also hoping to get more out of at least one of their young cornerbacks, David Long (517 snaps) and Robert Rochell (233 snaps). Long was a 3rd round pick in 2019, but he barely played in his first two seasons in the league, before finishing 94th out of 134 eligible cornerbacks in his limited role last season. Long is only in his age 24 season, so there could easily still be untapped upside here, but he could also continue struggling if forced into a larger role. 

Rochell, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick in 2021 and was nondescript as a rookie in his very limited action, but he could take a step forward in year two. It’s possible he’s a better option than Long, but both are unproven projections who could end up struggling as season long starters. The Rams also used a 4th round pick on South Carolina State’s Decobie Durant, but he probably won’t see much action as a rookie and, if he does, he would likely struggle in his first season in the league.

Fortunately, the Rams still have top cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who is one of the stars on this roster and arguably the top player in the league at his position. It was a risky decision to acquire him from the Jaguars during the 2019 season for a pair of first round picks (2020 and 2021), even though he was a recent high draft pick (5th overall in 2016) and had an elite season on his resume (2nd among cornerbacks on PFF in 2017), because he was less impressive in his other two full seasons (24th among cornerbacks in 2016, 31st in 2018), he was off to a slow start in 2019, and he was expecting to be made one of the highest paid cornerbacks in the league long-term, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2020.

The move paid off though, as Ramsey rebounded from his slow start in 2019, ranking as PFF’s 3rd ranked cornerback from week 11 on and he didn’t look back from there, finishing 7th and 1st among cornerbacks on PFF in 2020 and 2021 respectively, justifying the 5-year, 100 million dollar deal the Rams gave him that currently makes him the 3rd highest paid cornerback in the league in average annual salary, while locking him up through the next four seasons, over which time his average annual salary will continue to fall down the rankings. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, I don’t expect anything different on the field from Ramsey in 2022 or any time soon.

Not much changes at the safety position, where Taylor Rapp and Jordan Fuller made 17 starts and 16 starts respectively last season and Nick Scott saw 415 snaps as the 3rd safety, frequently coming in for a linebacker in obvious passing situations. Rapp and Fuller remain locked into their starting roles, coming off solid seasons, going into just their age 25 and age 24 seasons respectively. A second round pick in 2019, Rapp was a part-time player as a rookie (823 snaps) and then was limited to 365 snaps by injury in 2020, but he earned solid grades from PFF for his play in that limited action, so it wasn’t a surprise he was able to put it together for a full season, finishing as PFF’s 45th ranked safety. Now in his 4th season in the league and his 2nd full season as a starter, it’s very possible he could take a step forward and have the best season of his career in 2022.

Fuller, on the other hand, was only a 6th round pick in 2020, but he has proven to be a steal and has already surpassed Rapp in impact, earning a middling grade from PFF across 12 starts as a rookie and then taking a step forward in year two and finishing 20th among safeties on PFF as a full-year starter. He’s still a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he regressed a little this season, but he’s also young enough that he could keep getting better and, even if he doesn’t, he could easily remain an above average starting safety for years to come. He and Rapp should again make a solid young duo in 2022.

Scott, however, struggled mightily in his limited action last season, finishing 93rd out of 98 eligible safeties on PFF in the first significant action of the 2019 7th round pick’s career (208 defensive snaps played in his first two seasons in the league), and he could easily lose that job to 2020 3rd round pick Terrell Burgess. Burgess hasn’t done much in two seasons in the league, struggling on just 141 career snaps, but he still has theoretical upside, only in his age 24 season, and it wouldn’t be hard to be an upgrade on Scott, even if Burgess also proved to be a liability himself. This isn’t a perfect secondary, but it’s at least an above average group.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Rams also had a strong special teams unit last season, ranking 5th in special teams DVOA, one of the few teams in the league to be above average in all three phases of the game, a big part of the reason why they were able to win it all. The Rams probably won’t be quite as good in 2022 though. The biggest reason why is they lost their two best core special teamers Troy Reeder and Jamir Jones from a year ago, without replacing them, leaving them without a single core special teamer who finished in the top-50 at the position on PFF in 2022. 

The Rams also downgraded at punter, losing long-time above average punter Johnny Hekker and replacing him with either mediocre veteran Riley Dixon or undrafted rookie Cameron Dicker, both of whom would be considerable downgrades. The Rams do still have kicker Matt Gay, who was one of the better kickers in the league last season, but he’s been inconsistent in the past, now on his 3rd team in four seasons in the league. The biggest bright spot is still return man Brandon Powell, who is consistently among the best in the league, but this looks like a much more middling group than a year ago, which could hurt this team somewhat significantly.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The road back to another Super Bowl Championship for the Rams won’t be easy, but it never is for any team and the Rams did a good job keeping most of their talent and adding replacements this off-season, especially given their financial constraints. Already over the cap in 2023 and 2024, it’s going to keep getting tougher for the Rams to keep everyone together forever, which would be a problem if they can’t consistently keep finding starters in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft, something that is very tough to do long-term, but their Super Bowl window is still very much open in 2022. 

The Rams weren’t the best team in the league in the regular season last year, but they still did finish 5th in efficiency and were the only team in the league to finish in the top-10 on offense, defense, and special teams, so it’s not terribly surprising they went on to win it all in the post-season. Even if they’re not quite as good in 2022, they should remain a contender and one of the best teams in the now weaker NFC. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC West

Kansas City Chiefs 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Chiefs struck gold with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, selecting franchise quarterback Patrick Mahomes. It was a risky move at the time because, not only was Mahomes considered a raw prospect, but the Chiefs had to give up a pair of first round picks to acquire the pick they used on Mahomes and did so at a time in which they were coming off of three playoff appearances in four seasons with veteran quarterback Alex Smith, opting to take their quarterback of the future rather than using those draft picks to build around their existing quarterback to try to win right away.

Mahomes proved to be well worth the wait though, after Alex Smith was traded the following off-season, as Mahomes immediately won MVP in his first season as a starter and took the Chiefs to a 12-4 record and a play away from a Super Bowl appearance, despite a defense that ranked 28th in the NFL in efficiency. In Mahomes’ second season as a starter, the Chiefs’ defense was much improved and Mahomes led them all the way to a Super Bowl victory. 

Mahomes and the Chiefs followed that up with a similar season in 2020, actually improving their regular season record to 14-2 after going 12-4 the year prior, before ultimately losing in the Super Bowl when their offensive line injuries became too much for them. Last season, the Chiefs didn’t make it back to the Super Bowl, but won 12 games again, led the league in offensive efficiency, and only lost the AFC Championship game in overtime again after blowing a late lead. 

The Chiefs had to pay big to keep Mahomes long-term, signing him to a 10-year, 450 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago that shattered records at the time, but that could look like a steal a few years down the line. The extension hasn’t even technically started yet and already Mahomes’ contract is third in average annual value behind Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson and, while Mahomes is unlikely to play the entire 10-year contract without a new extension, that likely won’t come for at least 5-6 seasons and by that point Mahomes’ average annual salary might not even be in the top-10 at his position anymore, given the rising costs of locking up a franchise quarterback long-term.

I often bring up that since the start of the salary cap era in 1994, just 5 of 28 Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback with a cap hit that was more than 11% of the salary cap and all of those quarterbacks are Hall of Fame caliber players, as a cautionary to teams paying non-elite quarterbacks elite quarterback money, because it’s very tough to surround a non-elite quarterback with enough talent to win with if that quarterback is taking a significant percentage of the cap. That doesn’t apply to Mahomes though, as he looks on his way to a Hall of Fame career, even only heading into his age 27 season.

In total, Mahomes has arguably had the greatest first four seasons as a starting quarterback ever, not only leading the Chiefs to consistent team success, but also consistently being one of the top individual quarterbacks in the league, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 8.10 YPA, 151 touchdowns, and 36 interceptions in 62 starts over the past four seasons. He’s actually coming off his worst season as a starter, with defenses adjusting to the Chiefs’ offense and taking away their deep passes more effectively, but he still finished with 66.3% completion, 7.35 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. Barring a fluke injury, I see no reason to expect Mahomes to drop off any time soon.

If Mahomes does suffer an unfortunate injury, he would be replaced with backup Chad Henne. Henne is best known for his play closing out a playoff victory over the Browns in 2020 after Mahomes suffered a concussion, but he’s made just one start in the past seven seasons, he has just a 76.2 career QB rating, and now he’s heading into his age 37 season, so it’s safe to say he would be a big liability if he had to play for an extended period of time. Mahomes has only ever missed two starts in his career though, so he hasn’t shown any propensity for getting injured and, assuming that remains the case in 2022, he should remain among the league’s best quarterbacks and an MVP candidate.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Even if Mahomes’ contract is a relatively great value for a player of his caliber, it still does hamper the Chiefs’ ability to keep talented players at other positions long-term and the first casualty of that came this off-season when the Chiefs traded Mahomes’ long-time #1 wide receiver Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins for a first and second round pick, with Hill going into the final year of his contract and ultimately signing a 4-year, 120 million dollar extension with the Dolphins. 

Hill averaged 2.31 yards per route run since joining the Chiefs as a 5th round pick in 2016 and he’s had a 91/1294/11 slash line per 16 games since Mahomes’ first season as a starter in 2018, while finishing in the top-17 among wide receivers on PFF in all six seasons in the league, so he’ll obviously be missed, but Mahomes is a talented enough quarterback that he can overcome the loss of a key player like that. In fact, in four games without Hill in 2019, Mahomes averaged 8.97 yards per attempt with 8 touchdowns to 0 interceptions, while leading the Chiefs to a 3-1 record in their only extended action without Hill.

It’s a small sample size, but historically we’ve seen elite quarterbacks like Mahomes lose their top receiver and be fine without them, even if it caps the upside of the offense a little bit. Beyond that, the Hill trade made sense for a few other reasons. One was just the amount the draft capital they got back for Hill, picks 29, 50, and 121 in this year’s draft and a 4th and 6th round pick next year. Hill is also going into his age 28 season and, while I don’t expect him to suddenly fall off a cliff abilities wise, his new contract takes him through his age 32 season and wide receivers in their age 32 season are about 70% less likely to surpass 1000 yards receivers than a wide receiver in his age 27 season. Hill also might decline quicker than most receivers, given his reliance on his athleticism and speed.

The Mahomes/Hill connection also was less effective last season than it had been previously, resulting in 7.79 yards per target, after averaging 10.01 yards per target from 2018-2020. That was almost definitely the result of teams playing the Chiefs with two high safeties on more plays than ever in 2021, forcing Hill to become more of an underneath receiver, which led to Mahomes having the worst season of his career, at least in a relative sense. The Chiefs figured to continue seeing that kind of coverage against Hill going forward, neutralizing his blazing speed a little bit, so they decided to trade Hill at the peak of his value ahead of the final year of his contract and revamp Mahomes’ receiving corps without Hill.

The Chiefs did a pretty good job replacing Hill, signing Marquez Valdes-Scantling to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal, signing JuJu Smith-Schuster to a 1-year, 3.25 million dollar deal, and using a 2nd round pick on wide receiver Skyy Moore. The Chiefs also didn’t bring back Byron Pringle (42/568/5) and DeMarcus Robinson (25/264/3) this off-season, so this is a completely revamped group, with Mecole Hardman (59/693/2) being their only notable returning wide receiver. Hardman will compete for roles with the three newcomers.

Smith-Schuster is the most intriguing of the three new additions and has the most upside of the three in 2022. A 2nd round pick by the STeelers in 2017, Smith-Schuster burst onto the scene with slash lines of 58/917/7 and 111/1426/7 respectively in his first two seasons in the league, while averaging 2.12 yards per route run between the two seasons and finishing 24th and 15th among wide receivers on PFF. However, Smith-Schuster has seen that production drop off dramatically in the three seasons since, averaging just 1.30 yards per route run over that stretch.

One way to look at it was Smith-Schuster was able to play at a high level early in his career because he faced constant single teams opposite the Steelers’ actual #1 wide receiver Antonio Brown, but then Smith-Schuster couldn’t hold up against tougher coverage once Brown left. Another way to look at it is Smith-Schuster’s significant drop off in production coincided with an equally significant drop off in his quarterback play, with Ben Roethlisberger missing most of the 2019 season and then not nearly being the same upon his return in 2020 and 2021. 

Either way, Smith-Schuster is only going into his age 26 season and could easily benefit from a fresh start, but it especially helps matters that he’ll have elite quarterback play again. His recent injury history is a concern (16 games missed in the past 3 seasons) and the Chiefs are going to spread the ball around more in 2022, so Smith-Schuster won’t be a true #1 wide receiver, but he would be my pick to lead this wide receiver group in receiving yardage this season. He figures to be a steal on a cheap one-year contract. Rookie Skyy Moore also has upside, but it’s unclear how much he’ll be able to give them as a rookie, even if he could develop into an above average starter long-term. Moore will have a role in this offense, one that could grow as the season goes on, but I wouldn’t expect a huge rookie year contribution from him. 

Hardman will probably play ahead of Moore, having shown a lot of promise across the first three seasons of his career (1.68 yards per route run) and having finished second among Chiefs wide receivers in receiving yards last season. The Chiefs have been hesitant to give the 2019 2nd round pick every down snaps, but his target total has increased in every season in the league (41, 62, 83) and his skill set most closely resembles Tyreek Hill out of any of the Chiefs’ options and he’s only in his age 24 season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him have a career high in touches and targets with Hill gone.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling was my least favorite of the Chiefs’ off-season additions, just because I thought he was a little overpaid at 10 million annually, but he’s not a bad addition. Valdes-Scantling was never overly productive in Green Bay, despite playing with Aaron Rodgers, but he played a valuable role as a deep threat (17.5 yards per catch in his career) and can play that same role in Kansas City with Mahomes. 

Valdes-Scantling has only caught 49.7% of his career targets and has had problems with drops in the past, but he didn’t drop a single target last season and still averages 8.72 yards per target for his career, because of his big play ability. His career 1.37 yards per route run average is underwhelming considering the offense he played on, but that has jumped to 1.46 over the past two seasons and I would expect him to be around that in 2022 in a similar role with his new team. 

Tight end Travis Kelce will of course remain a fixture of this offense, especially with Hill gone. He probably won’t see an uptick in target share, just because he already had 134 targets (2nd in the NFL among tight ends) last season and because the Chiefs figure to spread the ball out to their wide receivers more. It’s also concerning that Kelce dropped off a little bit last season, especially since he is now heading into his age 33 season. Kelce still averaged 1.84 yards per route run and finished 4th among tight ends on PFF in overall grade last season, but for Kelce those were both his worst since 2015. Even at less than his best, Kelce is still one of the best tight ends in the league, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he dropped off even more in 2022 and his best days are probably behind him at this point.

The Chiefs don’t have a good long-term replacement for Kelce yet, with the closest thing they have being 2021 5th round pick Noah Gray, who struggled mightily on 289 snaps as a rookie, finishing 63rd out of 65 eligible tight ends on PFF. He was a decent blocker, but averaged a microscopic 0.27 yards per route run. He at least has upside though, which is not true of their other backup tight end option Blake Bell, a 7-year veteran with just 58 catches and a 0.85 yards per route run average in 97 career games, who saw 321 snaps for the Chiefs last season. 

Bell has developed into an above average blocker and will likely remain useful in that role in 2022, even in his age 31 season, but he gives them no receiving upside. This receiving corps doesn’t have the high end talent it used to, with Tyreek Hill gone and Travis Kelce on the decline seemingly, but this is also a deeper receiving corps than they’ve had in years and it’s one that Patrick Mahomes should continue to be highly effective with, even if this offense probably doesn’t have the same upside it used to.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

I mentioned the Chiefs’ offensive line was what held their offense back in their Super Bowl loss to the Buccaneers during the 2020 season. The Chiefs underwent a complete overhaul of this group last off-season after that loss, with several big investments leading to five new starters upfront in 2021, and the results were impressive, a big part of why the Chiefs’ offense was able to be the most efficient in the league in the regular season in 2021.

In some ways, the Chiefs made a direct choice between improving the offensive line long-term and keeping Tyreek Hill. The Chiefs traded a first round pick in 2021 to get left tackle Orlando Brown from Baltimore and used a second round pick on University of Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey, draft picks they essentially got back in the Tyreek Hill trade. The Chiefs also gave left guard Joe Thuney a 5-year, 80 million dollar deal in free agency (3rd highest paid guard in average annual salary) and will need to pay a big price to keep the currently franchised Orlando Brown long-term, which made it very tough for the Chiefs to give Hill the money he wanted.

It’s probably a better use of resources for the Chiefs, as the three aforementioned linemen were all among the best in the league at their respective positions last season, with Brown finishing 30th among offensive tackles on PFF, Humphrey finishing 1st among centers, and Thuney finishing 8th among guards. They might not be quite as good in 2022, but they should all play at a high level again. Humphrey is relatively unproven, only in his second season, but he has a sky high upside long-term, while Brown and Thuney are both proven over multiple seasons, with Brown finishing in the top-30 among offensive tackles on PFF in 3 straight seasons and Thuney finishing in the top-14 among guards in 5 straight seasons. Thuney is in his age 30 season, which is a mild concern, but he hasn’t shown any signs of dropping off yet and Brown is still very much in his prime in his age 26 season.

The Chiefs also found a steal in the 6th round of last year’s draft, taking Trey Smith, who finished his rookie season as PFF’s 16th ranked guard as a rookie. Smith fell because of concerns about a medical condition, which could still be a concern long-term, but he didn’t show any ill-effects from it as a rookie and he could easily remain an above average starter, with the talent to be a first or second round pick aside from the medical concerns. Right tackle Lucas Niang completes this offensive line, with the 2020 3rd round pick returning to the starting lineup for the second straight season, after sitting out his rookie season during COVID. 

Niang was limited to 9 starts by injury in 2021, but when on the field, he proved to be an asset, earning middling grades from PFF as a starter. Niang still hasn’t played a lot in two seasons in the league, between opting out as a rookie and missing time with injury last season, but he still could remain at least a solid starter going forward and he has the upside to be even more than that. Niang could face competition from veteran Andrew Wylie, who was decent in Niang’s absence last season and generally has been a capable starter in five seasons in the league (42 starts), but Wyle will most likely be the swing tackle, giving them excellent depth at the position, while having the ability to move inside to guard if needed as well. 

The Chiefs also brought back former starting center Austin Reiter as a backup this off-season and, while he struggled in his lone season in Miami last season, finishing 39th among 41 eligible centers on PFF in 5 starts, and would undoubtedly be a big drop off from Humphrey if he had to fill in for him, but he wasn’t a bad starter for the Chiefs in 2019 and 2020, finishing 22nd among centers on PFF in 16 starts and 10th among centers on PFF in 12 starts respectively, so he’s a good reserve option too. With a talented starting five and good depth, this is one of the best offensive lines in the league.

Grade: A

Running Backs

After winning the Super Bowl, the Chiefs used the 32nd overall pick to upgrade their backfield, taking running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but he has been a disappointment thus far in his career, as often happens with first round running backs. Edwards-Helaire has missed time with injury in both seasons, playing 3 games and 7 games respectively in 2020 and 2021 and, even when on the field, he has neither established himself as a true feature back, nor has he been overly efficient. As a rookie, Edwards-Helaire averaged 13.9 carries per game and 4.2 targets per game, but he averaged just 4.44 yards per carry and 5.50 yards per target and, in his second season in the league, he saw even less usage, with 11.9 carries and 2.3 targets per game, while continuing to average just 4.34 yards per carry and 5.61 yards per target.

With Edwards-Helaire missing significant time, primary passing down back Darrel Williams actually led the Chiefs with 144 carries last season, as opposed to 119 for Edwards-Helaire, but 90 of those came in the seven games Edwards-Helaire missed and, though Williams was a decent pass catcher (1.30 yards per route run), he struggled as a runner, averaging just 3.88 YPC. Williams is also no longer with the team, but the Chiefs replaced him with Ronald Jones, who is probably even more of a threat to Edwards-Helaire’s early down role, as Jones has an average of 4.45 YPC on 488 carries in four seasons in the league.

In many ways, Jones is a similar back to Edwards-Helaire, an early down runner who provides minimal in passing situations (1.13 yards per route run for his career). Even if he’s a redundant player though, he was still worth signing on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal, as Edwards-Helaire has not seized the lead back job yet, despite every opportunity to do so, and so the Chiefs need competition for him for carries, as well as insurance in case he misses more time with injury. Jones is also a 2018 2nd round pick who is still only in his age 25 season, so he has plenty of talent and upside. How the carry split will work out remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was close to 50/50.

With both Edwards-Helaire and Jones not offering much on passing downs, the Chiefs’ primary passing down back figures to be Jerick McKinnon, who has been decent in that role in his career, averaging 1.28 yards per route run if you exclude his rookie season. He’s never been much of a runner though (4.05 YPC for his career) and he had his career detailed by a major knee injury, costing him all of 2018 and 2019 and limiting him to totals of just 114 touches and 25 touches over the past two seasons respectively. 

McKinnon is now in his age 30 season and probably won’t see a significantly bigger workload in 2022, but he won’t be needed much as a runner anyway and could give them 30-35 catches as their primary receiving back, with Jones and Edwards-Helaire also mixing in a little in passing situations. This isn’t a great backfield, but it’s a decent one at the very least and their two top lead backs both are young with upside.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

With the Chiefs’ offense ranking 1st in efficiency last season, their weakness was their defense, which regressed after solid seasons in 2019 and 2020 to finish 29th in defensive efficiency in 2021, more comparable to their defense in 2018. The Chiefs’ defense got better as the season went on though, a big part of why they won 9 of their final 10 regular season games after starting just 3-4. There are several reasons why they got better on defense in the second half of the season, including simply that defensive performance tends to be more inconsistent and unpredictive week-to-week than offensive performance, but one big reason was the addition of veteran edge defender Melvin Ingram in a trade with the Steelers.

Not only did Ingram play well in his own right (10.4% pressure rate, PFF’s 2nd ranked edge defender in run defense grade from week 9 on), but his addition allowed them to move Chris Jones back to the interior, which he played at a much higher level. Ingram did not re-sign with the Chiefs this off-season though, ahead of his age 33 season, so the Chiefs were once again in need of edge defender help, which they found in the first round of the draft, using one of their first round picks to select edge defender George Karlaftis. He’s a raw prospect who will likely have growing pains as a rookie, but he has a very high upside and should still be able to make an impact in year one.

The Chiefs are hoping Karlaftis can form a talented edge defender duo with Frank Clark, but that would require Clark to play at a level that he hasn’t played at consistently for the whole season since 2018, which was his final season in Seattle before the Chiefs sent a first and second round pick to for the right to extend him on a 5-year, 104 million dollar deal. Clark hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t been worth that kind of money and draft compensation, earning mostly middling grades from PFF and totaling 18.5 sacks, 31 hits, and a 10.2% pressure rate, down from 33 sacks, 28 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in his final three seasons in Seattle.

Clark is also coming off arguably the worst season of his career. He wasn’t bad as a pass rusher, even though his position leading 4.5 sacks are not impressive, as he added 12 hits and a 10.8% pressure rate, but he struggled mightily against the run and finished as PFF’s 106th ranked edge defender out of 129 eligible in overall grade. Originally owed 19.5 million this season, Clark had to take a pay cut down to 9.175 million to stay on the roster. Even though he’s only in his age 29 season, a significant bounce back would be a surprise at this point.

Even with Karlaftis being added, there isn’t much depth at this position though, so both Clark and Karlaftis figure to play big snap counts, with Clark likely to be around the 657 snaps he played last season and Karlaftis possibly being around there as well, despite being raw, for lack of a better option. Michael Danna, a 2020 5th round pick, is their top returning reserve (534 snaps) and he’s a decent run stopper, but he hasn’t shown much at all as a pass rusher in his career (7.2% pressure rate) and is no guarantee to be any better in 2022. The Chiefs also have 2021 4th round pick Joshua Kaindoh, who is expected to take on a bigger role in year two, but he played just 46 snaps as a rookie and is a total unknown in a significant role. This is still an underwhelming position group with depth concerns.

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned, the biggest impact that the mid-season addition of edge defender Melvin Ingram had was that it allowed Chris Jones to move to his natural position on the interior, where he finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked interior defender from week 9 on, after struggling by his standards to begin the season on the edge. That was a huge boost for an interior defender group where every other significant contributor finished the season with a below average grade from PFF.

That high level of play is nothing new for Jones either, as he finished in the top-8 among interior defenders on PFF in four straight seasons prior to last season. Also a solid run stopper, Jones excels as a pass rusher, with 49.5 sacks, 71 hits, and a 12.8% pressure rate in 90 career games, despite primarily rushing from the interior, where it is much harder to consistently get to the quarterback. Still only in his age 28 season, with just 7 games missed in 6 seasons in the league, there is no reason to expect him to fall off in 2022. Having him on the interior for a full season should be a big benefit to this defense.

With Jones spending almost half the season on the edge, Jarran Reed led this position group with 711 snaps played last season and he’s no longer with the team, but he struggled mightily, finishing 122nd out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF and won’t be missed, especially with Jones expected to stay on the interior all season this year. Derrick Nnadi (449 snaps) and Tershawn Wharton (501 snaps) both return and should see similar roles, with Nnadi re-signing on a 1-year, 2.75 million dollar deal this off-season. Both Nnadi and Wharton finished below average overall on PFF in 2021, but both are at least decent in one aspect of the game, Nnadi as a run defender and Tershawn Wharton as a pass rusher, and they work pretty well in tandem together, with Wharton usually coming in for Nnadi in sub packages in passing situations.

Wharton has a career 7.4% pressure rate in two seasons since going undrafted in 2020, but has struggled mightily against the run, especially in 2021, when he finished as PFF’s 133rd ranked interior defender out of 146 eligible in overall grade, despite his pass rush ability. Meanwhile, Nnadi has just a 5.2% career pressure rate, but finished in the 66th percentile or higher among interior defenders in run defense grade on PFF in each of his first three seasons in the league, prior to a down season in 2021. Only in his age 26 season, Nnadi was a 2nd round pick back in 2018 and has a good chance to bounce back as an early down run stuffer in 2022, with Wharton rotating in as a decent interior pass rusher in sub packages. 

The only addition the Chiefs made to this group this off-season was Taylor Stallworth, who joins the Chiefs as a free agent on a near minimum deal, after averaging just 249 snaps per season in four seasons in the league, with a career high of 331 in a season. He’s been okay in that role, with his best season coming last season, when he played that career high in snaps and finished in the 57th percentile among interior defenders on PFF in overall grade, especially providing value as a pass rusher, with 3 sacks, 10 hits, and a 10.1% pressure rate in a limited role, but he finished 126th among 139 interior defenders on 253 snaps in 2020, so he’s not a proven player, and he figures to face competition from Khalen Saunders for reserve snaps. 

Saunders is a wild card who isn’t a lock for the final roster, but he could theoretically still have upside. He’s been limited to 521 snaps in three seasons in the league, in part by injuries that have limited him to 22 games total over that stretch, but he also hasn’t been terribly effective even when on the field and won’t be guaranteed a role in 2022. With a full season of Jones on the interior and Nnadi likely to bounce back as an above average run stopper, this group should be better than a year ago and Jones is an elite player who elevates an otherwise middling group by himself.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Along with the addition of Melvin Ingram, another reason why this defense got better as the season went on is that their linebacker play improved significantly. At the beginning of the season, 2020 2nd round pick Willie Gay missed the first four games of the season with injury, leaving raw rookie 2nd round pick Nick Bolton and mediocre veterans Ben Niemann and Anthony Hitchens as their top linebackers. In week 5, Gay returned, which coincided with an improvement by the rookie Bolton, and pushed Hitchens and Niemann into smaller roles, especially when Gay took on a bigger role after week 7 (39.3 snaps per game in week 7 on).

Gay wasn’t incredible or anything, but he held up pretty well against the run and in coverage and was a significant upgrade on Niemann and Hitchens, who ultimately finished the season 67th and 76th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF across 558 snaps and 597 snaps respectively. Bolton was actually probably their most impressive linebacker, even if he didn’t play in a lot of coverage situations, ranking as PFF’s 9th ranked overall off ball linebacker and their 5th ranked off ball linebacker in run defense grade in week 5 on (35.5 snaps per game). 

Hitchens and Niemann are no longer with the team, which isn’t really a problem, but it does mean they’ll be counting on the young guo of Gay and Bolton for much bigger roles this season, with depth concerns behind them. Both have a lot of upside and have shown a lot of promise on the field thus far in their careers, with Gay also flashing a lot of potential on 269 snaps as a rookie before last season’s solid performance, so it’s possible they could both break out as above average starters in an every down capacity or close to it, which would obviously make this a position of strength for the Chiefs, but they’re also a projection to a larger role and depth is a concern if either struggles or gets injured.

The Chiefs signed veteran Jermaine Carter in free agency and he will compete with 3rd round rookie Leo Chenal to be the third linebacker in base packages, coming off the field in sub packages for an extra defensive back. Carter struggled as an every down player with the Panthers in 2021, finishing 79th out of 94 eligible off ball linebackers on 852 snaps, but the 2018 5th round pick was better on snap counts of 261 and 284 in 2019 and 2020 respectively and might not play much more than that with the Chiefs, unless something happens to Gay or Bolton. Chenal, meanwhile, might be too raw to contribute as a rookie, but projects as a solid run stuffer long-term and could be useful as a base package player in year one. This isn’t a bad group, but they’re relying on a largely unproven young group, albeit one with a high upside.

Grade: B

Secondary

Another reason why their defense got better as the season went on is their secondary was healthier than it was to begin the season, with top safety Tyrann Mathieu missing week 1 and top cornerback Charvarius Ward missing weeks 3-6. Both of those players signed elsewhere this off-season though, so the Chiefs needed to replace them, as well as cornerback Mike Hughes, who only played 509 snaps in 17 games last season as a part-time player, but finished as PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback across those snaps. 

Mathieu is being replaced in the starting lineup by free agent Justin Reid, who signed a 3-year, 31.5 million dollar deal this off-season. It’s a surprising amount of money for a player who has finished below average on PFF in back-to-back seasons, including a 91st ranked finish out of 98 eligible in 2021, falling off significantly after ranking 27th and 14th in his first two seasons in the league. Reid is only in his age 25 season though, so the Chiefs are betting on the 2019 3rd round pick having significant bounce back potential, now away from the Texans’ terrible defense. He might not be quite as good as he was in his first two seasons in the league, but I would expect him to have a good chance to at least be a solid starter in 2022.

The Chiefs also used a 2nd round pick on safety Bryan Cook, who could take over for Reid if Reid continued struggling in a significant way, but Cook was likely mostly drafted as a long-term replacement for their other starting safety Juan Thornhill, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2022. The Chiefs could also use three safety packages regularly to mask their lack of depth at linebacker, something they did somewhat frequently last season, when 3rd safety Daniel Sorensen played 699 snaps on the season. Sorensen was PFF’s 95th ranked safety out of 98 eligible last season though, so they should be able to use three safety sets more effectively this year, with Reid, Cook, and Thornhill. 

A 2nd round pick in 2019, Thornhill has mostly been a solid starter in his career, finishing 32nd among safeties on PFF in 2019 and 31st in 2021, though he did tear his ACL at the end of 2019, which seemed to limit him into 2020, when he fell to 84th out of 99 eligible safeties. Another year removed from that injury, without any other significant injury history and still in his prime in his age 27 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Thornhill had the best year of his career in 2021, but the Chiefs don’t seem to think they’ll be able to afford to keep him long-term.

To replace their two departed cornerbacks, the Chiefs used their other first round pick on cornerback Trent McDuffie and will also likely give a bigger role to 2019 6th round pick Rashad Fenton, who has shown a lot of promise as a part-time player the past two seasons, finishing 31st and 5th among cornerbacks on PFF the past two seasons respectively. The Chiefs also have 2020 4th round pick L’Jarius Sneed, who was solid on 918 snaps last season in his first season as a starter, after finishing 20th among cornerbacks across 410 snaps as a rookie. He figures to play a similar role as he did last year, playing the slot in sub packages and outside in base packages, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took a step forward in year three. 

DeAndre Baker remains as a depth option, after flashing potential on 212 snaps last season. Baker was a first round pick by the Giants back in 2019, but he struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 121st out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on 970 snaps as a rookie, and his career was derailed by off-the-field problems, getting cut by the Giants and barely playing for the Chiefs down the stretch (45 snaps) in 2020. Baker is still only in his age 25 season and, though he hasn’t proven much, he still has upside, so he’s a good reserve option to have. 

The Chiefs also acquired another reclamation projection this off-season, acquiring Lonnie Johnson from the Texans for a conditional 2024 7th round pick. Johnson originally came into the league with a lot of upside as a 2nd round pick with great physical tools, but he struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing dead last among 135 eligible cornerbacks across 531 snaps. The Texans moved him to safety for his second season in the league and, when he earned a middling grade from PFF across 702 snaps it seemed like the Texans had found a position for him long-term. 

However, Johnson ended up struggling so much at safety in 2021, again finishing dead last at his position on PFF, that he was moved back to cornerback down the stretch in a futile attempt to get something out of him, before the Texans traded him for minimal compensation this off-season. Johnson is already in his age 27 season, so he’s running out of time to make good on his upside, so he’s nothing more than a pure flier and is not guaranteed a role or even a roster spot, regardless of if he ends up at cornerback or safety. The Chiefs have lost some key players in this secondary from a year ago, but they did a good job replacing them and this still looks like a solid group overall.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Chiefs had great special teams play last season, ranking 3rd in special teams DVOA, which was a significant part of why they were successful as a team. That was nothing new for the Chiefs either, as they have finished in the top-10 eight times in nine seasons since Andy Reid’s first season in Kansas City, in large part due to the presence of special teams coordinator Dave Toub and the organization’s overall emphasis on having a good special teams unit. Toub also consistently coached high level special teams units in his 9 seasons with the Bears, prior to joining the Chiefs.

The Chiefs did lose a trio of players who all finished in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF last season, Armani Watts, Ben Niemann, and Dorian O’Daniel, in free agency this off-season, but they added Deon Bush, who was also in the top-50 last season, and they still have Noah Gray and Marcus Kemp, who were top-50 special teamers a year ago, so they still have a good group of core special teamers, even if they aren’t as good as a year ago. On top of that, they’ll bring back the same kicker Harrison Butker, the same punter Tommy Townshead, and, while they lost kick returner Byron Pringle, punt returner Mecole Hardman should be able to pull double duty and could even prove to be an upgrade. I would expect this to be at least a top-10 special teams unit again.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Chiefs’ offense will decline a little without Tyreek Hill and with tight end Travis Kelce getting up there in age, but they ranked 1st in offensive efficiency last season, so even if they decline, they should still remain one of the top offenses in the league. Meanwhile, their defense, which ranked 26th in efficiency last season, should be better this season, in part because defensive performance tends to be much less consistent and predictive long-term than offensive performance and in part because their defense got significantly in the second half of last season, after getting healthier and moving Chris Jones back to the interior. 

They probably won’t be any better than a middling defense, but they won’t need to be great to be a complementary enough unit to the Chiefs’ offense for this team to remain among the best in the league. The division rival Chargers have taken a big leap this off-season and look like one of the best teams in the league, which is a concern for the Chiefs, but even if they have to go back to the post-season as a wild card, they should remain a contender in the AFC. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC West

New England Patriots 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Patriots made it back to the post-season last season for the first time in the post-Tom Brady era, doing so with a rookie quarterback in Mac Jones who was by far the best of the five quarterbacks selected in the first round in 2021. Their 10-7 record wasn’t spectacular, but they were competitive in most of their losses and many of their wins were blowouts, leading to them finishing the regular season 3rd in point differential at +159. In terms of overall efficiency, which is even more predictive than point differential, the Patriots also ranked 3rd, with their offense ranking 7th and their defense ranking 5th. 

The Patriots didn’t face the toughest schedule, but even when schedule adjustments are taken into account, this was still one of the better teams in the league in the regular season. However, their season ended in embarrassing fashion, getting blown out by their division rival Bills in a 47-17 loss in the first round of the playoffs. It was an especially bad performance for their defense, who allowed the Bills to pick up a first down on 51.8% of their plays and to score a touchdown on every single drive aside from the end of the halves.

The common opinion is that the Patriots’ defense wasn’t actually that good because of what the Bills did to them in the post-season, but in reality, good offense just beats good defense every time in the modern NFL, which is a part of why offensive performance is so much more predictive week-to-week and year-to-year than defensive performance, and the Patriots just happened to run into a very good offense on a particularly good day. We saw a similar thing happen the following week in Kansas City when the Bills, who finished the regular season by far #1 in defensive efficiency, allowed 42 points and a 40.0% first down rate in a loss to the Chiefs, well out of line with what they had been allowing in the regular season.

With that in mind, the bigger priority for the Patriots this off-season was upgrading this offense, which was effective last season, but lacked the big play ability to keep up with elite offenses when their defense was overmatched. To try to keep things simple for Mac Jones in his first season in the league, the Patriots had the 5th most non-quarterback carries in the NFL and attempted a pass more than 20 yards in the air at a below average 11.1% rate. In his second season in the league, it looks like the Patriots are planning on opening things up significantly, to keep up with the other elite offenses in the loaded AFC.

Jones still threw 13 interceptions, but he had among the worst interception luck in the league and finished the season 6th in adjusted interception rate, while posting an above average 67.6% completion percentage and 7.30 YPA. He only threw 22 touchdowns, but he had 2 touchdowns vultured by trick plays and even more vultured by rushing plays, with the Patriots finishing the season with the 2nd most rushing touchdowns of any team in the league with 24. Overall, Jones finished the season 12th among quarterbacks on PFF and looked well beyond his years. He might not have a huge upside, but he could easily develop into one of the better quarterbacks in the league for years to come and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he took a step forward in year two, which would be much needed for this team as they transition into a new offensive style. 

The Patriots also drafted a quarterback in this year’s draft, taking Bailey Zappe in the 4th round, but he was drafted as a replacement for long-time backup Brian Hoyer, rather than as competition for Jones. Hoyer is valued as a veteran leader and an extension of the coaching staff, but he’s going into his age 37 season with just two starts over the past four seasons and even in his prime he was only a low end starter at best, with a career 82.9 QB rating. 

It wouldn’t be a surprise if Hoyer kept the backup job for one more season, but it’s clear the Patriots see Zappe as the future backup. Some saw it as a questionable use of a 4th round pick, but the Patriots clearly value having a cheap backup on a rookie contract who will be in the system for several years and Zappe has the traits the Patriots like in a quarterback because of his intelligence and accuracy. Either way, the Patriots would likely be in trouble if Jones missed significant time this season, but this isn’t a bad quarterback room, led by a very promising young starter.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The biggest area of improvement for the Patriots from 2020 to 2021 that got them back into the post-season after a one-year hiatus was their receiving corps. The 2020 Patriots had arguably the worst receiving corps in the league and understandably they made it a focus of their off-season spending spree last off-season. Some of their big additions didn’t pan out in their first season in New England, but some of them did and contributed to this offense in a big way, specifically wide receiver Kendrick Bourne and Hunter Henry, who joined top holdover Jakobi Meyers as Mac Jones’ top receiving options.

For Bourne, 2021 was the best season of his 5-year career and he proved to be a steal on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal. He was only third on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver (572) and second in targets (70), but he led Patriots wide receivers with 1.99 yards per route run (14th in the NFL among wide receivers) and 11.4 yards per target, leading to a 55/800/5 slash line, despite a relatively limited role. Bourne is definitely a one-year wonder to this point in this career, as the 2017 undrafted free agent averaged 1.37 yards per route run in his first four seasons in the league with the 49ers prior to last season, so he probably won’t be quite as efficient again in 2022, but he had a decent 1.49 yards per route run average in his final season in San Francisco and he should remain at least a solid option. 

Henry, on the other hand, is a more proven player, but also was not nearly as good of a value, as the Patriots had to give him a 3-year, 37.5 million dollar deal that makes him the 6th highest paid tight end in the league to sign him as a free agent last off-season. Henry proved to be worth his price tag though, finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked tight end overall last season, his 5th finish in the top-18 at his position in 5 healthy seasons in the league. Also a solid run blocker, Henry’s 1.50 yards per route run average last season (50/603/9 slash line) was both above average (13th among tight ends) and in line with his 1.63 yards per route run career average. He should continue his above average play into 2022.

Meyers, meanwhile, is going into his 4th season with the Patriots, making him the only homegrown talent the Patriots have in the receiving corps. Even though he went undrafted in 2019, he was a contributor right away as a rookie and overall has a 1.73 yards per route run average for his career, with a career best 83/866/2 slash line in the most action of his career in 2021. Still only in his age 26 season, I would expect Meyers to remain at least a solid receiving option.

The two big additions who did not pan out in the first season in New England were tight end Jonnu Smith and wide receiver Nelson Agholor, who signed on deals worth 50 million over 4 years and 22 million over 2 years respectively. Their inability to live up to expectations was a big part of the reason why this offense was limited in terms of big play ability last season and the Patriots are stuck paying them significant money either way in 2022, but both have at least some bounce back potential and the Patriots haven’t stopped adding to their receiving corps either, trading for veteran DeVante Parker and using a 2nd round pick on Baylor’s Tyquan Thornton, so this group should be much deeper than a year ago. 

Agholor was supposed to be the Patriots’ deep threat last season, after averaging 18.7 yards per catch and 10.9 yards per target with a 48/896/8 slash line with the Raiders in 2020, but a repeat of that was probably wishful thinking, as Agholor had averaged just 11.2 yards per catch in five seasons in the league prior to his impressive 2020 campaign. Agholor was used similarly in 2021 in New England to how he was used with the Raiders, with his average depth of target only dropping from 15.7 to 14.7, but Agholor saw his yards per catch average drop to 12.8 and averaged just 1.15 yards per route run, while finishing with a 37/473/3 slash line. 

Agholor has a 1.39 yards per route run average when you look at the past five seasons as a whole though so, while he’s been inconsistent, he has a good chance to be significantly more effective than he was a year ago, even if only by default, if he can just be as good as he’s been on average in recent years. He probably won’t be a huge asset to the Patriots or play well enough to justify his salary, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if they get better play from him than they did a year ago, especially since he should be more comfortable in the scheme.

Smith on the other hand, actually averaged 1.86 yards per route run, but was limited to a 28/294/1 slash line overall because the Patriots mostly utilized him as a blocker (66.7% of his snaps), which was a strange decision, because Smith struggled mightily in that aspect, ranking dead last among eligible tight ends on PFF in run blocking grade. With the Patriots’ offense set to become more pass heavy in 2022, I would expect Smith’s role to change significantly and his per route run average in 2021 was not totally out of line with the 1.64 yards per route run average he had in his final two seasons in Tennessee prior to last season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he remained a similarly efficient receiving option even in an expanded role.

Parker comes over after 7 seasons in Miami to give the Patriots much needed depth at the wide receiver position, for a team that figures to run more three and four wide receiver sets this season. Parker was inconsistent throughout his tenure in Miami and was often injured, missing 20 games total, including 7 last season, but he averaged an above average 1.66 yards per route run throughout his tenure in Miami, despite questionable quarterback play, and had a 72/1202/9 slash line in 2019 in the only season he ever stayed healthy all year. Parker is still only in his age 29 season and cost the Patriots just 6.25 million in salary and the equivalent of a 5th round pick in draft compensation, so he was a worthwhile addition.

Parker isn’t a true #1 receiver and none of the Patriots’ wide options are but, even if raw rookie Tyquan Thornton barely plays as a rookie outside of being a situational deep threat (4.28 40 yard dash at 6-2 181), the Patriots still have a very deep receiving corps, with Myers, Bourne, Parker, and Agholor all being at least capable options at wide receiver and a pair of good receiving tight ends in Henry and Smith, so their lack of a #1 receiver might not matter much, as they can spread it around to a number of different players and run different personnel grouping for different matchups. 

How the targets get split up remains to be seen and it definitely is a crowded group where it’ll be tough for any one receiver to have a big target total, but the Patriots also figure to pass significantly more this season, which opens up more targets and could lead to players like Hunter Henry (75 targets) and Nelson Agholor (64 targets) still seeing similar target totals, with efficient, underutilized players like Kendrick Bourne (70 targets) and Jonnu Smith (45 targets) still seeing bigger target totals, and newcomer DeVante Parker still having a role of his own. 

Bourne should also continue seeing a role as a ball carrier on end arounds, after rushing for 125 yards on 12 carries last season, and Smith, who lines up at fullback on occasion, also figures to continue seeing carries, after rushing for 40 yards on 9 carries last season and 8.13 YPC on 15 carries for his career. The only one who might struggle to match last year’s target total is Jakobi Meyers, whose 126 targets were 22nd in the NFL, but he should still have a big role, possibly still as the team’s leader in targets, and he could be more efficient than he was a year ago, so his production probably won’t drop significantly. This is an above average group overall. 

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Patriots are also deep at the running back position and, while they probably won’t run as much as they did a year ago, their running backs still figure to be a big part of this offense, including in the passing game, which has been a staple of the Patriots’ offense for years. James White has been their passing down back for years, averaging 1.88 yards per route run and a 65/566/4 slash line per 16 games over the past seven seasons, but he missed most of last season with injury and was replaced by fellow veteran Brandon Bolden, who averaged 1.94 yards per route run and posted a 41/405/2 slash line.

Bolden is no longer with the team and White is set to return from injury, but it’s concerning that he’s going into his age 30 season, coming off of that injury, and, even with Bolden gone, White returns to a much more crowded Patriots backfield in terms of receiving options. The Patriots might have drafted White’s long-term replacement in the 4th round of this year’s draft when they took Pierre Strong, while 2021 4th round pick Rhamondre Stevenson showed a lot of promise in a limited passing game role as a rookie, averaging 1.54 yards per route run, and could easily take over a bigger passing game role in 2022 and beyond. 

Lead back Damien Harris isn’t much use on passing downs (1.15 yards per route run in his career) and is primarily just an early down back, but he’s shown himself to be a high level runner over the past two seasons, averaging 4.78 YPC with 17 rushing touchdowns on 339 carries over that time period, with 59.8% of his yardage coming after contact, while ranking 3rd and 5th among running backs on PFF in rushing grade and 19th and 18th among running backs in carry success rate (53% and 54%) in those past two seasons respectively. 

Selected in the third round in 2019, Harris could be entering his final season in New England, with the Patriots unlikely to give him what the market would pay him on a long-term deal to keep him beyond the final year of his rookie deal in 2022, and it’s likely the Patriots view Rhamondre Stevenson as his long-term replacement. However, for now, the Patriots have both Harris and Stevenson, who should once again form a talented rushing duo, as Stevenson also impressed as a runner as a rookie, in addition to impressing on passing downs. Stevenson averaged 4.56 YPC on 133 carries, with 71.4% of his yardage coming after contact, ranked third in the league in carry success rate at 59%, and finished the season as PFF’s 13th ranked running back in overall grade. 

Stevenson was already narrowing the gap in carry total between him and Harris down the stretch last season and, as talented as Harris is, it wouldn’t be a surprise if there was something close to a 50/50 split in carries between these two backs in 2022, with Stevenson likely having more touches overall because of his passing game usage. Adding to the likelihood that this is Harris’ final season in New England is the Patriots also using a 6th round pick on a running back, University of South Carolina’s Kevin Harris, in addition to selecting Strong in the 4th, to make this a very crowded backfield and to give the Patriots another running back option long-term. 

Kevin Harris might not even make the team as a rookie, but the Patriots clearly valued him enough to draft him in the 6th round, so it’s possible they keep five running backs or even that they let go of the veteran White, if he underwhelms in training camp his return from injury and other running backs establish themselves in passing game roles. White was re-signed as a free agent this off-season, but his new “2-year, 5 million dollar” contract guarantees him just 500k, so he’s not locked into a roster spot. The Patriots lack a true feature back, but this is a deep backfield and Stevenson looks like he has the upside as a runner and receiver to potentially be that feature back at some point in the future.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Patriots offensive line was a big strength for them last season and should remain one this season, but they strangely overhauled the guard position this off-season, even though Ted Karras (13 starts) and Shaq Mason (15 starts) finished as PFF’s 18th and 4th ranked guard respectively on PFF last season. Karras not being brought back as a free agent wasn’t that surprising, but the 3-year, 18 million dollar deal he signed with the Bengals would have been totally reasonable to bring him back on and, making matters worse, the Patriots then traded Mason to the Buccaneers for just a 5th round pick, despite his contract having just 16 million over the next two seasons remaining on it, a great value for an elite player, still in his prime in his age 29 season.

The Patriots had a ready-made starter to fill in at one spot, as 2020 6th round pick Michael Onwenu has excelled in two years as a versatile spot starter, making 24 starts in two seasons and finishing in the 93rd percentile of offensive linemen on PFF in both seasons, but plugging him into the starting lineup thins their depth considerably and the Patriots had to use their first round pick to fill the void at the other guard spot, taking Cole Strange 29th overall in the first round, rather than being forced to turn to career backup interior lineman James Ferentz (521 snaps and 6 starts in 8 seasons in the league). Strange and Onwenu have the upside to be a great guard duo for years to come, but it would be hard for them to be an upgrade on Karras and Mason in 2022 and they both come with some downside, with Strange only being a rookie and Onwenu never having been a full-time starter.

The rest of this line remains the same from a year ago, with David Andrews at center and Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown as the tackles. Despite going undrafted, Andrews has been the Patriots’ starting center since his rookie season in 2015, with the exception of the 2019 season he missed with medical problems, finishing above average in overall grade on PFF in five straight healthy seasons (75 starts), including a 7th ranked finish among centers in 17 starts in 2021, his second finish in the top-10 at his position in his career. Andrews is going into his age 30 season, but has shown no signs of slowing down and could easily remain an above average starter for at least another season.

Wynn and Brown are also coming off of above average seasons, finishing 32nd and 20th among offensive tackles on PFF, but both are durability concerns. Brown has finished above average on PFF in five straight seasons and is still only going into his age 29 season, but he’s also only played in 51 of a possible 81 games over those five seasons, including just 9 starts in 2021. Wynn is also coming off multiple above average seasons on PFF, dating back to his first season of action in 2019, after the 2018 first round pick missed his whole rookie season with a torn achilles, but Wynn hasn’t been able to put the injury bug behind him, making just 33 of a possible 49 starts since returning. 

Wynn did make 15 starts last season and he’s only in his age 26 season, but it’s likely he misses at least a little bit of time again, as is likely the case for Brown as well. Both will likely remain above average starters again while on the field, even if it’s unclear which one will play which side, which both having the capability to play left and right tackle, but their durability concerns are made even worse by the Patriots’ lack of depth behind them at tackle, with Onwenu moving inside permanently. 

Justin Herron, another 2020 6th round pick, is likely to be the swing tackle, but he’s been underwhelming in 10 career starts and likely would struggle if forced into significant action, as is the case with Ferentz on the entire. This could be one of the league’s best offensive lines, if not the best offensive line in the league if everyone stays relatively healthy, but they lack depth and at least a couple of their starters have concerning injury histories.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

The Patriots’ made their biggest investment in the receiving corps last off-season, but they also made big investments at other positions as well. Their most impactful signing was Matt Judon, who was not cheap on a 4-year, 54.5 million dollar deal, but who is a steal when you consider that he’s only the 27th highest paid edge defender in the NFL, which will only drop as Judon goes into the remaining three years of his deal. Judon has never been much against the run, but he had 12.5 sacks, 13 hits, and a 15.0% pressure rate in 17 games last season, after 22.5 sacks, 54 hits, and a 13.1% pressure rate in 46 games in his final 3 seasons in Baltimore prior to joining the Patriots last off-season.

Judon has also shown the ability to drop into coverage when needed, which the Patriots ask their edge defenders to do more than most teams. He’s going into his age 30 season, but has shown no signs of slowing down and should remain at least an above average pass rusher, even if declines a little bit. His pass rush ability and versatility to drop in coverage more than make up for his deficiencies as a run defender. He was a big part of the reason why the Patriots were among the better defenses in the league last season.

Deatrich Wise is a more traditional edge defender, not dropping in coverage once on 521 snaps last season and only dropping seven times in five seasons in the league, but that’s because the 6-5 275 pounder is mostly a base package run stopper. The 17 sacks, 46 hits, and 10.3% pressure rate he has in 78 career games aren’t terrible, especially considering he somewhat frequently rushes the passer from the interior, where it’s tougher to consistently reach the quarterback from, but his primary competency is his run defense, which has been average or better on PFF in three of the past four seasons. The 2017 4th round pick is an unspectacular player, but he’s a useful role player and should remain in that same role this season.

Off ball linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins all saw action as edge defenders in passing situations last season as well, combining for 7.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 15.1% pressure rate, but the Patriots didn’t bring any of them back, needing to get faster on defense to compete with faster offenses and opting to go with younger, more prototypical off ball linebackers who don’t move to the edge often. The Patriots didn’t replace any of them though, instead hoping to get more out of unproven young players, with 2020 2nd round pick Josh Uche, 2020 3rd round pick Anfernee Jennings, and 2021 3rd round pick Ronnie Perkins all candidates for significant edge defender roles.

Uche has the most upside of the bunch and has shown a lot of promise in two seasons in the league, defending the run well, pressuring the quarterback at a 12.0% rate, and even dropping into coverage well on occasion, but he’s been limited to just 424 snaps total, in part due to injuries that have cost him 12 games between the two seasons. He’s obviously a projection to a larger role, but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had a mini breakout season and became an above average starter, only in his age 24 season in his third season in the league.

Perkins and Jennings are even less experienced, with Perkins having a true redshirt rookie season, spending most of the year as a healthy scratch and not playing a snap on defense, and Jennings also not playing a snap last season, missing the year with injury, after playing 293 nondescript snaps as a rookie. Both will likely see rotational roles in 2022 and, while they’re inexperienced, they have the upside to be decent in a limited role, as long as they aren’t forced into a starting role, which they wouldn’t be without multiple injuries ahead of them on the depth chart.

None of the Patriots’ edge defenders will drop in coverage as much as Hightower, Van Noy, and Collins did last season, with none of them being the true hybrid player those three players were, but they will still be expected to do so more often than they would in most defensive schemes though, with the exception of Wise. This is a very inexperienced position group behind Judon and Wise, but Judon elevates the group significantly by himself and their young prospects at least have significant upside, all being recent draft picks in the third round or earlier.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The Patriots also made a pair of key additions on the interior of their defensive line last off-season too, signing Davon Godchaux to a 2-year, 15 million dollar contract in free agency and using a second round pick on Christian Barmore, who were both above average starters in 2021, finishing 42nd and 49th among interior defenders on 641 and 599 snaps respectively. Godchaux has never been much of a pass rusher, with a 4.8% pressure rate in 5 seasons in the league, but he was PFF’s 27th ranked interior defender in terms of run defense grade last season and he’s finished above average in run defense grade in all four healthy seasons in the league. 

Godchaux is still in his prime in his age 28 season and should remain an above average run defender, but he also is unlikely to have any untapped upside as a pass rusher. Barmore, on the other hand, struggled against the run as a rookie, but excelled as a pass rusher, with 1.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 12.1% pressure rate, despite almost exclusively rushing the passer from the interior. Barmore might not be quite as good as a pass rusher again in 2022, but he also could be significantly improved as a run defender in his second season in the league and he profiles as a consistently above average interior defender long-term, still not even turning 23 until later this off-season.

The Patriots also added Henry Anderson in free agency last off-season, but he was limited to 35 snaps by injury. Anderson could play a significant role in 2022, but he’s going into his age 31 season and is owed just 2 million in the final year of a 2-year deal, so he’s not guaranteed a role. Anderson has mostly been a solid player in 7 seasons in the league, finishing average or better on PFF in 6 of 7 seasons, holding up against the run and pressuring quarterbacks at a 8.0% rate, but he’s also always been an injury prone player, missing 35 total games in his career, and it’s unclear if he can be anything more than a solid reserve at this point in his career. Long-time Patriot Lawrence Guy will likely remain in his base package role (532 snaps), so Anderson’s best path to playing time will be competing with deep reserve Carl Davis (277 snaps), who was also primarily a base package player in 2021.

Davis has never played more than 300 snaps in a season in 7 seasons in the league and struggled in his limited action last season, so Anderson would be an upgrade on him easily, but Guy is at least a solid player, not only a consistently above average run stopper, but also pressuring the quarterback at a 7.5% rate in his career. His age is a concern in his age 33 season and he earned his worst PFF season grade since 2014 last year, but he was still PFF’s in the 63th percentile among ranked interior defenders on PFF and the Patriots have enough depth at this position for this to be a solid group even if Guy continues declining.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Like at the edge defender position, the Patriots will be replacing departed hybrid players Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, and Jamie Collins with mostly young, unproven off ball linebackers. The Patriots did retain Ja’Whaun Bentley (694 snaps) in free agency and he’s been a solid starter over the past two seasons, while earning average or better grades from PFF in all four seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 5th round in 2018. It’s surprising the Patriots were able to keep him on just a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal, as he was PFF’s 21st ranked off ball linebacker last season and is only in his age 26 season, so he was a great value signing. He should remain in a similar role and he should remain at least an average starter.

The rest of this group is much more unsettled though. Two of the players who could replace the veterans who left didn’t play a snap at all last season due to torn ACLs, but both do have upside. Cam McGrone could have been a 2nd or 3rd round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft before the injury and only fell to the 5th round because he was hurt. He’s a complete unknown at the NFL level, but off-season reports have been good and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he ended up as a solid starter long-term.

For Raekwon McMillan, it was his second torn ACL on different knees in five seasons in the league, with the 2017 2nd round pick missing his entire rookie season as well. McMillan still developed into a great run stopping linebacker in a part-time role with the Dolphins in 2018 and 2019, finishing 10th and 11th respectively among off ball linebackers on PFF in run defense grade, but he struggled mightily in coverage, leading to middling overall grades from PFF in both seasons. He then got traded to the Raiders for his contract year in 2020 and played just 170 snaps, before missing all of 2021. McMillan is still only in his age 26 season and has only missed three games aside from the two injuries, so there’s a good chance he can be a useful early down run stopper for this team, but he comes with a lot of uncertainty.

The Patriots also acquired 2019 5th round pick Mack Wilson from the Browns in a trade, but he would probably be overstretched if forced into a significant role. Mack was PFF’s 93rd ranked off ball linebacker out of 100 eligible in 942 snaps as a rookie in 2019 in the only extended action of his career, though he has been better in more limited action in the past two seasons (snap counts of 372 and 193) and might deserve another chance at a bigger role, still only in his age 24 season. It’s possible he could prove to be a valuable linebacker for this defense, but I wouldn’t expect an every down role for him either way.

The Patriots also frequently used three safeties in sub packages, with one serving as a linebacker, to mask their lack of capable coverage players at the position last season, with Kyle Dugger (6-2 220) and Adrian Phillips (5-11 210) frequently serving in that capacity, and they could do that even more this season, with another hybrid safety/linebacker Jabrill Peppers (5-11 215) being added in free agency on a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal. Having safeties able to play linebacker at a relatively high level in sub packages elevates this otherwise underwhelming group.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Adrian Phillips was probably the Patriots’ best safety last season, finishing 7th at his position on PFF across 883 snaps, in part because of how he played when serving as a de facto linebacker. It was the best the 8-year veteran has ever been for a full season, but it wasn’t that surprising, as he has finished average or better on PFF in all but one season in the league and was PFF’s 5th ranked safety through 282 snaps in 7 games before getting hurt in 2019, in his final season with the Chargers. 

Phillips only was 38th among safeties in his first season in New England in 2020, but he always was a good fit for the Patriots’ defense because of his versatility, so it’s not a surprise he was able to take a big step forward in his second season in the system. Now going into his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to repeat the best full season of his career, but he hasn’t shown any signs of decline and should remain an above average starter for at least another season.

Devin McCourty (1,020 snaps) and Kyle Dugger (734 snaps) also played at a high level last season, ranking 15th and 26th respectively among safeties on PFF. McCourty has been playing at that level seemingly forever, finishing in the top-20 at his position in 9 of 12 seasons in the league, and he hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down, even though he’s now going into his age 35 season. At his age, a significant overnight drop off is always a possibility and I wouldn’t expect him to be as good as he was last season, even if he doesn’t drop off significantly, but it’s possible he could remain a solid starter and the Patriots have good enough depth with Peppers being added that McCourty won’t have to play as big of a role as usual if he starts to decline.

Dugger, on the other hand, is a young up and upcoming player, going into his third season in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2020, Dugger was solid on 520 rookie year snaps as a part-time player, before a mini breakout season in 2021. He’s still relatively unproven, but he also has a significant upside and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had the best season of his career in 2022. Even if he never improves significantly, he’s likely to be a consistently above average starting safety for years to come, with the versatility to move to linebacker in sub packages if needed.

Peppers is coming off of a torn achilles, which is probably a big part of the reason why the Patriots were able to get him on a cheap one-year deal, but the 2017 1st round pick earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of his first four seasons in the league, across an average of 58.0 snaps per game, before being limited to 229 snaps in 6 games by injury last season, with his career best season coming when he was PFF’s 23rd ranked safety in 2018. That 2018 season also happens to be the only season he’s ever played without missing a game with injury, with his durability concerns being a consistent issue throughout his career. He’s still only in his age 27 season and has bounce back potential even if he’s not at his best in his first year back, especially since he’ll be a good fit for the Patriots defense, similar to Adrian Phillips.

Cornerback is the position group where the Patriots had their most significant defensive loss this off-season, with JC Jackson signing with the Chargers on a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal that makes him the 9th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary, after finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked cornerback in 2021. The Patriots have some intriguing options to play outside at cornerback, but it’s highly unlikely any of them are close to as good this season as Jackson was last season. 

Jalen Mills (915 snaps) is their top returning outside cornerback and is probably locked into a starting role for the second straight year, after signing with the Patriots on a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season, but he’s never been more than a solid #2 cornerback and he has been inconsistent in his 6-year career, finishing below average on PFF in half of those seasons. He was PFF’s 37th ranked cornerback last season, but he’s no guarantee to even be that good in 2022 and could prove to be a liability, as he has been in the past.

The Patriots also added veteran outside cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Terrance Mitchell in free agency this off-season and could also give promising 4th round rookie Jack Jones a look, even if he would probably be overstretched in his rookie season. For Butler, his 2-year, 5 million dollar deal with the Patriots is a homecoming, as he spent the first four seasons of his career in New England, before leaving for a big contract with the Titans. It’s also a return to the NFL for Butler, who missed all of 2021 with personal reasons, after being released by the Titans and signing with the Cardinals on a one-year deal.

Butler never lived up to the 5-year, 61.25 million dollar deal he signed with the Titans, posting a lower PFF grade in all three seasons in Tennessee than he did in any of his three seasons in New England as a starter, and he’s now going into his age 32 season, but he was at least a solid starter in all six seasons from 2015-2020 (83 starts) and it’s possible he could turn back the clock a little in back in New England, where he fits the scheme well and finished in the top-25 among cornerbacks on PFF in two of his three seasons as a starter. It’s also possible he could completely fall off though, given his age and the fact that he didn’t play last season, in which case the Patriots would need to try another option.

Mitchell has experience, with 51 career starts in 7 seasons in the league, including 29 starts over the past two seasons, and he’s generally been a solid starter, but he’s coming off of a season in which he finished 118th out of 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF and now heads into his age 30 season, so he would be an underwhelming option if the Patriots were forced to start him. He wasn’t a bad depth signing though, on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal. Whoever replaces Jackson as the starter opposite Mills figures to be a significant downgrade on Jackson.

Fortunately, the Patriots do get slot cornerback Jonathan Jones, after a shoulder injury ended his 2021 season after 224 snaps in 6 games. Jones had been an above average slot cornerback in terms of PFF grade in four straight seasons prior to last season, with a career best 4th ranked finish among cornerbacks on PFF across 730 snaps as recently as 2020, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy, still in his prime in his age 29 season. He might not quite repeat the best season of his career from 2020, but he should have another above average season. 

It’s possible the Patriots could play Jones a little more outside this year than normal, but 69.4% of his career snaps have come on the slot and that is where he’s at his best, so that will remain his primary position. The Patriots also used a 3rd round pick on cornerback Marcus Jones, who lacks the size (5-8 174) to play outside, but could be an option as a reserve on the slot. Most likely his primary contributions will come on special teams, where he was arguably the best returner in the draft, but he gives them depth on the slot as well. The Patriots will need their safety play and slot cornerback play to mask their issues at the outside cornerback position.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Patriots have had consistently good special teams throughout most of Bill Belichick’s tenure as head coach, with Belichick having a background as a special teams coordinator and valuing the position highly, but they had an uncharacteristically middling special teams unit in 2021, finishing 18th in special teams DVOA. Long-time special teams stalwarts Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel are getting older, going into their age 37 and 32 seasons respectively, and both have seen their play drop off, leaving Cody Davis as their lone core special teamer to finish in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF. The Patriots didn’t make any notable additions to their core special team group this off-season, so I would expect much to change in that aspect.

The Patriots did likely find an upgrade at returner in Marcus Jones, with the Patriots using a 3rd round pick on the diminutive slot cornerback primarily for what he can do on special teams, after a collegiate career in which he scored nine times on special teams. He could turn a return unit that was a bit of a weakness last season into a strength. Aside from Jones’ aside though, this is essentially the same group as a year ago, with kicker Nick Folk and punter Jake Bailey returning as well. I would expect them to be better than a year ago and for them to be an above average unit, but they probably won’t be as elite as they’ve been in some years.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Patriots’ defense probably won’t be as good as it was a year ago, in part due to off-season losses and in part due to defensive performance being much less consistent and predictive year-to-year than offensive performance, but their offense, which was already one of the more efficient in the league last season, has a good chance to take a step forward in 2022, with Mac Jones in his second season and an improved receiving corps. 

The Patriots are starting from a higher base point than their 10-7 record suggests, with many of their losses being close (3-5 record in games decided by 10 points or fewer), and, while they’ll face a tougher schedule in a tougher overall AFC in 2022, they have a decent chance to still make it back to the post-season, even if they have to get a wild card, with the Bills seemingly locked in atop the division, barring fluke injuries. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC East