Seattle Seahawks 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Special Teams

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

Grade: B+

Conclusion

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

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

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC West

New York Giants 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Special Teams

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

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

Grade: B+

Conclusion

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

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC East

Carolina Panthers 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Special Teams

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

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

Grade: C+

Conclusion

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

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

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC South

San Francisco 49ers 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Linebackers

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

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

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

Grade: A

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Special Teams

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

Grade: C+

Conclusion

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

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

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC West

Baltimore Ravens 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Special Teams

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

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

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

Grade: A

Conclusion

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

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC North