Kansas City Chiefs 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Special Teams

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

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

Grade: A-

Conclusion

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

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

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC West

New England Patriots 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Special Teams

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

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

Grade: B+

Conclusion

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

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

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC East

Washington Commanders 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

During the off-season before the 2018 season, Washington opted not to keep starting quarterback Kirk Cousins on a big money long-term contract, after franchise tagging him in back-to-back years. It might have been smart to avoid paying a non-elite quarterback like Cousins a top level contract, but Washington really has had a tough time replacing Cousins since he left, starting ten different quarterbacks over the past four seasons. They’ve tried everything from trade acquisitions (Alex Smith, Case Keenum), free agent signings (Ryan Fitzpatrick), to first round draft picks (Dwayne Haskins, RIP), with a bevy of backups mixed in and none have had any prolonged success while in Washington.

Arguably the most effective quarterback who has played for Washington over that stretch is career backup Taylor Heinicke, who made 15 starts last season, most by a Washington starting quarterback since Cousins’ final season in 2017. Heinicke performed surprisingly decent for a journeyman who had previously been with four teams in five seasons and made just one regular season start, finishing the 2021 season with 65.0% completion, 6.92 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions, but he had the 2nd most dropped interceptions in the league with 12, led the league in adjusted interception rate, and finished 33rd out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF.

Heinicke proved himself to be a solid backup, but Washington was in the market for another quarterback this off-season and found one by once again going the trade route, sending a pair of third round picks to Indianapolis for Carson Wentz and taking his 28.3 million dollar salary for 2022. In hindsight, it looks like a panic move for a Washington team that added Wentz right at the start of the off-season, only to see a slightly cheaper and better quarterback in Matt Ryan go for just a single third round pick in a trade and a much cheaper and comparably talented quarterback in Baker Mayfield become available for minimal draft compensation.

Wentz seemingly broke out as a long-term elite quarterback in his second season in the league in 2017, when the 2016 2nd overall pick finished as PFF’s 6th ranked quarterback, but that season was ended by a torn ACL and it proved to be the peak of his career. Wentz had another two solid seasons in 2018 and 2019, finishing 14th respectively among quarterbacks on PFF in both seasons, but again saw those two seasons ended by injury and then he bottomed out in 2020, finishing 34th among 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF, leading to him being traded to the Colts for a first and a third round pick, before his 4-year, 128 million dollar extension with the Eagles had even technically begun.

With the Colts, the idea was that Wentz would bounce back with his former offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who was with Wentz in 2017 and then left to become the Colts head coach following that season. However, the Colts proved to totally overpay for Wentz in that trade, as he didn’t bounce back in a meaningful way, finishing 23rd among 39 quarterbacks on PFF, and the Colts were lucky to get back the draft compensation that they did for Wentz this off-season, while also not having to eat any of Wentz’s contract. In total, Wentz completed 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.91 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions in his lone season in Indianapolis.

Now in Washington, Wentz is on his third team in as many seasons in the league, having worn out his welcome with the previous two in the locker room, as well as on the field, and, now going into his age 30 season, it’s becoming increasingly less likely he’ll have bounce back to his previous above average form, whether for physical or mental reasons. Wentz isn’t a bad starting quarterback, but the Commanders are giving up a lot of resources between salary and draft picks for a quarterback that they should be hoping can be an average starter. 

Heinicke remains as the backup and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him make more starts in 2022, whether by Wentz getting hurt or struggling and getting benched. The Commanders also used a 5th round pick on North Carolina’s quarterback Sam Howell, who will compete to make this roster as the third quarterback. Washington is probably hoping he can be a developmental starting option long-term, with Wentz’s contract not getting any cheaper any time soon, but they’d probably be lucky for Howell to end up as a long-term backup and he shouldn’t supplant Heinicke as the #2 quarterback this season. It’s an underwhelming quarterback room overall.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

Terry McLaurin once again led this team in receiving (77/1053/5) in 2021, something he has done in all three seasons he’s been in the league since being selected in the 3rd in 2019, surpassing 900 yards receiving in all three seasons and 1,000 yards receiving in back-to-back seasons, despite suspect quarterback play. However, McLaurin once again was also Washington’s only wide receiver with more than 500 yards receiving for the third straight season. In fact, you have to go back to 2017 to find a wide receiver other than McLaurin with more than 600 yards receiving in a season for this team.

That has a good chance to change this season, in part because the Commanders used the 16th overall pick on Penn State wide Jahan Dotson, who has a good chance to make an immediate impact, but also because they should get a healthier season out of Curtis Samuel, who was signed to a 3-year, 34.5 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season to upgrade this receiving corps, but wound up playing just 85 underwhelming snaps in 5 games in a lost season due to injury in 2021. Samuel is reportedly healthier now and, still only in his age 26 season, has a good chance to bounce back and be a useful receiver for this team, starting in 3-wide receiver sets with McLaurin and Dotson.

Samuel was PFF’s 31st ranked wide receiver in 2020, finishing with a 77/851/3 slash line and 1.94 yards per route run, despite being the third most targeted wide receiver on a middling passing offense. He also added another 200 yards and 2 touchdowns on 41 carries (4.88 YPC), to push him over 1,000 yards from scrimmage for the season, despite a relatively limited role. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Samuel averaged just 1.14 yards per route run with just 31 carries in the first three seasons of his career prior to 2020, so he’s a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played at in 2020 and he is far from a guarantee to bounce back, especially coming off of a significant injury, but he’s developed significantly since his rookie season and could easily be at least a solid starting option if healthy.

The Commanders drafted Dotson to pair with Terry McLaurin long-term, but there’s a possibility that he ends up replacing McLaurin, who is going into the final year of his rookie deal and wants to be paid among the highest wide receivers in the league, which would mean a minimum of 25 million annually. It’s hard to argue McLaurin doesn’t deserve it, given how productive he’s been, despite all the different quarterbacks he’s played with, averaging 1.90 yards per route run, while finishing 5th, 28th, and 19th among wide receivers on PFF in the three seasons respectively.

Washington will have the franchise tag available next off-season if it comes to that and it’s still more likely than not that McLaurin ends up signed long-term in Washington, but McLaurin is putting pressure on the front office to get a deal now by skipping minicamp and, if a deal can’t be reached before the start of the season, it wouldn’t be a shock to see McLaurin be the latest top wide receiver to change teams in the NFL. Most likely, McLaurin will be headlining a promising three wide receiver package with Dotson and Samuel, but there’s at least a possibility something changes here.

Veterans Adam Humphries and DeAndre Carter were their de facto #2 and #3 receivers last season and both were very underwhelming, but they’re no longer with the team, leaving Cam Sims and Dyami Brown, also underwhelming players, as their top depth options if something happens to one of their top-3 receivers. Brown was a 3rd round pick in 2021 and still has upside long-term, but his 0.82 yards per route run average as a rookie suggests he has a long way to go before he can be a viable starting option. 

Sims, meanwhile, was an undrafted free agent in 2018 and has a mediocre 1.19 yards per route run average in his career, with a total of just 49 career catches in 37 career games. Both Sims and Brown would likely be liabilities if forced into significant action, so the Commandeers need McLaurin to end his holdout, Dotson to make a positive impact as a rookie, and Samuel to stay healthy, because their other options are very underwhelming.

Along with the mediocre play Washington got from their other receivers besides McLaurin in 2021, they also didn’t get much out of the tight end position, but that could change in 2022, with starting tight end Logan Thomas expected to return after an injury plagued 2021 season. A converted college quarterback, Thomas was a late bloomer who didn’t have more than 16 catches in a season before breaking out with a 72/670/6 slash line in his 7th season in the league in 2020, but he seemed to his way to a similar season in 2021, catching 18 passes for 196 yards and 3 touchdowns in 5 healthy games, which extrapolates to a 61/666/10 slash line over 17 games.

Thomas is not an efficient target, averaging just 6.09 yards per target and 1.10 yards per route run in his only full season as a starter 2020, and he figures to have a smaller target share than he’s seen over the past two seasons, with Washington now having better wide receiver talent, so I would expect his statistical production to go down from what he’s averaged per game over the past two seasons. Also a limited blocker, Thomas is going into his age 31 season, coming off of a torn ACL, and could start to slow down significantly soon, but his return should still be at least a little bit of a boost for a team who got minimal receiving production from the tight end spot in Thomas’ absence last season.

John Bates played the best of any of Washington’s other tight ends last season. He only averaged 1.19 yards per route run, but that’s not terrible and the 2021 4th round pick was PFF’s highest graded blocking tight end on a per snap basis, so he has a good chance to win the #2 tight end job in 2022. That’s primarily a blocking role, which he should excel in, and it’s possible he has some further untapped potential as a receiver, now in his second season in the league. Bates could see starts if Thomas is not ready for the start of the season, recovering from his torn ACL.

Bates’ primary competition for the #2 tight end job is 5th round rookie Cole Turner, but Bates likely has the edge on the unproven rookie, by virtue of the talent he showed in limited action last season. This isn’t a great wide receiving corps, but they could be above average and they should be much improved from a year ago, with Samuel and Thomas returning from injury and Dotson being added in the draft, to give them other reliable pass catching options besides McLaurin. This would once again become a position of weakness if McLaurin ended up getting traded though, which is at least a possibility right now.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Along with pass catchers missing significant time with injury last season, Washington also had serious injury problems on the offensive line last season, with three of their expected week 1 starting five missing at least 6 games with injury each. They should have better injury luck upfront in 2022, but the best of the three players who missed time last season won’t be returning to the team this season, with Brandon Scherff signing a 3-year, 49.5 million dollar contract with the Jaguars this off-season, making him the highest paid guard in the league. 

Scherff only played 11 games last season, but he was PFF’s 14th ranked guard when he was on the field, so he’ll obviously be missed. The Commanders also made their other starting guard Ereck Flowers a cap casualty this off-season. Flowers was PFF’s 19th ranked guard last season in 16 starts at left guard, but he was set to make 10 million this season and they were able to find a pair of comparable guards in free agency for significantly cheaper, signing Trai Turner (1 year, 3 million) and Andrew Norwell (2 years, 10 million), one of whom will be their replacement for Scherff.

Turner and Norwell have been teammates before, actually entering the league together with now Commanders head coach Ron Rivera’s Carolina Panthers in 2014, where they started opposite each other for four seasons until Norwell’s departure in 2017. Turner and Norwell were one of the best guard duos in the league together, including a 2015 season in which they both finished in the top-10 among guards on PFF for a Panthers team that went 15-1 and made the Super Bowl, but there’s a good chance they’re not as good together this time around.

Norwell is the older of the two, going into his age 31 season, and he’s coming off the worst season of his career, finishing a middling 45th among guards on PFF after finishing in the top-25 in each of his first seven seasons in the league prior to last season, leading to the Jaguars releasing him ahead of the 13 million he would have been owed in the final year of the 5-year, 66.5 million dollar deal Norwell signed with Jacksonville after leaving Carolina. It’s possible Norwell could bounce back a little bit in 2022 and he’s not totally over the hill yet, but he could also continue declining, in which case he’d likely be a below average starter.

Turner is a couple years younger, in his age 29 season, but he’s had a lot of injuries, missing 16 games in 4 seasons from 2017-2020, and those injuries have caused his play to decline from the high level he played at earlier in his career, when he had top-16 finishes among guards on PFF in 2015 and 2017. Turner’s worst season came in 2020, when he played just 536 snaps in 9 games with the Chargers and finished as PFF’s 90th ranked guard out of 92 eligible. 

Turner finished average or better on PFF in every season prior to 2020 though, despite injuries, and he bounced back nicely in 2021 with the Steelers, making every start for the first time since the 2016 season and finishing 23rd among guards on PFF, his best finish since 2017. Turner is still relatively young, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had a comparable season to last season again in 2022, but he comes with some risk and his best days are probably behind him, even though he’s not 30 yet.

The Commanders also have veteran Wes Schweitzer, who has started 54 games in 6 seasons in the league and played well in the absence of Brandon Scherff last season, and he could also be in the mix for a starting role. Last season was the highest single season PFF grade of Schweitzer’s career, but he’s also finished above average on PFF in 4 of the 5 seasons in which he’s seen action in his career, including a 19th ranked finish among guards on PFF as a 13-game starter as recently as 2020. Still relatively young in his age 29 season, Schweitzer could probably start for at least several teams in the league and, even if he can’t win a starting role in Washington, he should provide great depth for them at guard, while also having the ability to kick to center in a pinch if needed.

Center Chase Roullier also missed significant time with injury last season, breaking his leg in week 8 and missing the rest of the season, a big loss because he was in the middle of the best season of his career, ranking 5th among centers on PFF through week 8. Rouiller isn’t a one-year wonder though, making 61 starts in five seasons in the league since being drafted in the 6th round in 2017 and finishing above average on PFF in every season in the league. In 2020, he made all 16 starts and was PFF’s 6th ranked center. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had a similar season again in 2022, even coming off of a serious injury, and it would be a huge boost to this offensive line for him to be out there for all or most of the season.

Expected right tackle Sam Cosmi is also coming off of an injury plagued season, making just 9 of a possible 17 starts, but, despite being a rookie, the 2021 2nd round pick was not overmatched in his limited action, actually earning an above average grade from PFF, finishing as PFF’s 32nd ranked offensive tackle overall. He’s still unproven, but he showed a lot of promise as a rookie and, if he can avoid injuries, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he developed into an above average starting option long-term. Having him healthy for all or most of the season should be a boost to this offensive line.

Left tackle Charles Leno is the only offensive lineman to start all 17 games for this team last season, coming off a very impressive season in his first season in Washington, finishing 12th among offensive tackles on PFF, making him a great value on the 1-year, 4 million dollar deal he signed last off-season after being released by the Bears ahead of a non-guaranteed 9 million dollar salary for 2021. Leno was on the wrong side of 30, but he was still PFF’s 30th ranked offensive tackle in 2020, while making all 16 starts, so it was a surprise the Bears did not bring him back at that salary and their loss was Washington’s gain.

The Commanders had to pay up to keep Leno beyond 2021, extending him on a 3-year, 37 million dollar deal, which is somewhat risky because of his age, now in his age 31 season, but he’s finished above average on PFF in 6 of 7 seasons as a starter (110 starts) and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, based off last year’s strong performance. He might not repeat the best PFF grade of his career again in 2022, especially since he’s on the wrong side of 30, but it would be a surprise if it wasn’t at least an above average starter.

As much as Washington missed the key offensive linemen who they were without due to injury last season, they actually had a pretty deep offensive line and got reasonable play from their backups. The Commanders will be hoping they can be healthier upfront in 2022, but they should have good depth again in case they can’t. I already mentioned Wes Schweitzer, who is talented enough to start for a lot of teams, but swing tackle Cornelius Lucas also finished above average last season in 7 starts as a fill-in for Cosmi and Lucas has generally been a solid starter when forced into action in his career (31 starts in 8 seasons in the league). He’s going into his age 31 season, but should remain at least solid depth. He could also probably start for several teams.

Replacement centers Keith Ismael and Tyler Larsen also weren’t bad either, in place of Rouiller when he went down for the season last year. Larsen is a 8-year veteran who has mostly been a reserve in his career (21 career starts), but he’s generally been decent when forced into action. Ismael, meanwhile, was a 5th round pick in 2020 and was PFF’s 20th ranked center on 382 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2021. He’s still unproven, but he’s a good backup option to have and he has the upside to potentially develop into a future starter down the line. With a solid starting five and good depth, this is an above average offensive line, even if they will miss Brandon Scherff, who has been their best offensive lineman for years.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Washington’s running game wasn’t bad last season, but lead back Antonio Gibson was underwhelming, averaging just 4.02 YPC on 258 carries, with 7 rushing touchdowns. Gibson played through leg injuries for most of 2021 though and the 2020 3rd round pick was a lot better as a rookie, averaging 4.68 YPC on 170 carries and finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked running back in rushing grade, before falling to 52nd out of 64 eligible in 2021, so Gibson could easily bounce back in 2022 if he’s healthier.

Gibson is unlikely to have the same workload as a year ago though. Already ceding passing down snaps to converted wide receiver JD McKissic, having averaged a middling 1.26 yards per route run average for his career, Gibson now will have to compete with third round rookie Brian Robinson for early down work and, while Robinson is probably not a threat to Gibson’s starting job, he could easily take a significant amount of carries from Gibson, with head coach Ron Rivera comparing the duo to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart from his Carolina days.

In addition to showing promise as a runner, Robinson also caught 35 passes in his final season at the University of Alabama in 2021 and could easily take even more passing game work away from Gibson, but McKissic is likely to remain the primary passing down back either way, re-signing on a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal this off-season, originally committing to an identical deal with the Bills and then spurning them at the last second to return to Washington. McKissic has just 221 carries with a season high of 85 carries in six seasons in the league, but he has an impressive 1.50 yards per route run average for his career, including 1.81 yards per route run in 2021, and he is likely to remain an asset in the passing game again in 2022. He’s part of a solid, but unspectacular trio of backs in a crowded backfield.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

In 2020, Washington’s strength was their defense, which was one of the best in the league, finishing 2nd in defensive efficiency, but they fell off in a big way in 2021, finishing just 26th in defensive efficiency. Part of that is just that elite defenses tend to have a much harder time repeating that performance the following season than an elite offense does, but Washington also had key players miss significant time with injury in 2021, most notably their edge defender duo of Chase Young and Montez Sweat, which was arguably the best in the league in 2020, who only played 477 snaps in 9 games and 483 snaps in 10 games respectively in 2021 due to injuries. 

Young’s injury is the bigger concern because he tore his ACL in week 10 of last season, but he should be back in the lineup for week 1 and, even if the highly talented 2020 2nd overall pick doesn’t quite play at the level he’s played at thus far in his career, he’s played well enough that even slightly less than his best could make him one of the better players in the league at his position. Young was PFF’s 6th ranked edge defender as a rookie in 2020 and was on his way to another strong season in 2021 before getting hurt, ranking 23rd among edge defenders on PFF through week 10. Still only in his age 23 season, Young has the potential to develop into one of the best defensive players in the league long-term, even if his long-term projection is clouded by last season’s torn ACL. Even if he’s not 100%, his return should still be a big boost for this defense.

Sweat, on the other hand, mostly missed time last season with a broken jaw and, having not missed a game at all in his career prior to last season, the 2019 1st round pick has a great chance to play all or most of the season in 2022, barring a fluke injury. Sweat is a better run stopper than pass rusher, finishing 3rd and 6th among edge defenders in run defense grade on PFF over the past two seasons, but he’s also added 14 sacks, 20 hits, and a 10.5% pressure rate in 26 games, while finishing 12th and 24th among edge defenders over the past two seasons respectively. Still only in his age 26 season, I would expect his play to be at around the same level and for him to be significantly more available.

Making the absences of Young and Sweat worse was the fact that Washington didn’t have good depth at the position behind them, with none of their other edge defenders finishing even average on PFF. That’s not surprising because they went into the season with a pair of 2020 7th round picks with minimal experience in James Smith-Williams and Casey Toohill as their top reserves and they predictably struggled when forced into larger roles, finishing 102nd and 121st respectively among 129 edge defenders on PFF across 388 snaps and 361 snaps respectively. 

The Commanders didn’t add any edge defenders of note this off-season, so Smith-Williams and Toohill will likely remain the top reserves, though they could face competition from a pair of 2021 7th round picks Shaka Toney and Will Bradley-King, who played just 117 snaps and 59 snaps respectively as rookies, but could potentially still be better options than Smith-Williams or Toohill. However the reserve roles shake out, the Commanders are obviously hoping that they don’t need them as much as they did a year ago, with Young and Sweat expected to return from injury. Young and Sweat have as much potential as any edge defender duo in the NFL, but their lack of depth is still a notable concern, as it was going into last season.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Commanders also have a pair of former first round picks starting on the interior of their defensive line as well, as they actually used a first round pick on a defensive lineman in four straight drafts, taking interior defenders Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne in 2017 and 2018 respectively, before taking Sweat and Young in 2019 and 2020 respectively. Like Young and Sweat, both Allen and Payne have panned out, with Allen actually coming off probably the best season of his career in the absence of Sweat and Young, finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked interior defender and dominating as a pass rusher from the interior, with 9 sacks, 15 hits, and a 13.7% pressure rate. 

Allen was more of a middling player earlier in his career, but he was also PFF’s 15th ranked interior defender in 2020, while totaling 2 sacks, 12 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate, and he’s still only in his age 27 season, so he should remain a high level player again in 2022. Payne, on the other hand, is more of a middling player, but he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in all four seasons in the league. The 6-3 319 pounder is at his best against the run, but has also added 14.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 6.7% pressure rate as a pass rusher in 64 career games. He’s never finished higher than 46th among interior defenders on PFF overall, but that came last season and he’s only going into his age 25 season, so it’s possible he could have more untapped upside. He and Allen should remain a talented starting duo.

Depth is also a concern at the interior defender position though and that wasn’t the case last season, prior to losing Matt Ioannidis (608 snaps) and Tim Settle (210 snaps) this off-season, after a 2021 season in which they finished 40th and 29th among interior defenders on PFF. The Commanders did use a second round pick on Alabama’s Phidarian Mathis and he’ll play a key reserve role, but he’s just a rookie and their only other player at the position with any experience is Daniel Wise, a 2019 undrafted free agent who was underwhelming on the first 139 snaps of his career in 2022. Just as is true with Young and Sweat on the edge, the Commanders badly need Allen and Payne to stay healthy on the interior.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Washington also used a first round pick on a linebacker recently, taking Jamin Davis 19th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. Cole Holcomb was still their top off ball linebacker in 2021 though, playing almost every snap in the 16 games he played, averaging 63.8 snaps per game. Holcomb was only a middling starter, but the 2019 5th round pick finished 11th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2020 on 50.5 snaps per game and has finished with at least an average or better grade in all three seasons in the league. He’ll remain a starter in 2022, going into the final year of his rookie deal. He’ll be due a significant raise within the next year.

Davis was actually limited to 581 snaps as a rookie, despite playing in 16 games, but that’s because safety Landon Collins played a lot of linebacker in sub packages and he’s no longer with the team, leaving Davis to play every down in 2022. Collins mostly struggled in his sub package role last season, but Davis had a tough season of his own, finishing his rookie year 71th among 94 eligible off ball linebackers. He obviously has the upside to be a lot better going forward and could easily take a big step forward in year two, but he has a long way to go before even being a solid starting linebacker.

With Collins gone, veteran David Mayo is expected to be their top reserve, for lack of a better option. He’s been a solid run stopper when called on in his 7-year career, but he’s not as good in coverage and has only once played more than 200 snaps in a season in his career. He would almost definitely be overstretched if forced into a larger role, but their only other option is 2020 5th round pick Khaleke Hudson, who has played just 76 defensive snaps in two seasons in the league. Both would likely be a big liability if they had to take over for an injured starter. Holcomb and Davis could be a solid starting duo, but Davis is still a raw player and their depth is questionable.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Getting rid of Landon Collins also thins them out at safety a little bit, he struggled last season and the Commanders still have good depth without him. Bobby McCain and Kamren Curl return as the starters after finishing 30th and 33rd respectively among safeties on PFF as the starters last season. For Curl, it was his second straight season around there, with the 2020 7th round pick finishing 30th among safeties on PFF as a 11-game starter as a rookie. Still only in his age 23 season, he could have more untapped upside and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he had his best season yet in 2022. He was a steal as a 7th round pick, even if he never develops beyond being a solid starter.

For McCain, it was his best season since 2017 and the second best season of his 7-year career. He’s been mostly a capable starter in his career though, first at cornerback and now at safety since making the position change following the 2018 season, and, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was a year ago, he shouldn’t be a liability as a starter. The Commanders also have Jeremy Reaves as a reserve option and, while he’s only played 571 snaps and made 8 starts in 4 seasons in the league, he’s shown some promise in limited action and is only in his age 26 season. On top of that, the Commanders added a Percy Butler in the 4th round of the draft to give them additional depth, along with 2021 5th round pick Darrick Forrest (26 rookie year snaps).

At cornerback, the Commanders have a pair of highly paid veterans, with William Jackson and Kendall Fuller on contracts worth 40.5 million over 3 years and 40 million over 4 years respectively. Jackson had a down year in his first season in Washington in 2021 though, finishing 91st among 134 eligible cornerbacks while being limited to 748 snaps in 12 games by injury, after finishing above average on PFF in three of four healthy seasons in Cincinnati, including a 26th ranked finish in 2020. Jackson is going into his age 30 season with a concerning injury history, having played in every game once in six seasons in the league, while missing 26 games total over that stretch, but he was PFF’s 17th ranked cornerback from week 10 on in 2021 (6 games) and has a good chance to bounce back and at least be better than he was a year ago. 

Fortunately, Kendall Fuller picked up Jackson’s slack in 2021, finishing as PFF’s 6th ranked cornerback. Last season was Fuller’s best finish since 2017, when he was PFF’s 2nd ranked cornerback, but he’s also finished average or better on PFF in five straight years, so he’s a reliable starter at the very least and, still only in his age 27 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had another above average season, even if he isn’t quite as good as a year ago. Fuller may regress a little, but Jackson has a good chance to be better, so they’re at least a solid cornerback duo.

Depth was a problem at the cornerback position last season though and figures to be a concern again in 2022. Benjamin St-Juste (318 snaps) and Danny Johnson (336 snaps) were their top reserves last season, but St-Juste finished 115th out of 134 eligible cornerbacks and, while Johnson was decent, he’s a 2018 undrafted free agent who had barely played in his first three seasons in the league (141 defensive snaps total), so it would be hard to rely on him in a bigger role. St-Juste was a 3rd round pick in 2021 and he has a good chance to be better in year two, so he’s probably the favorite for the #3 cornerback job, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued struggling. It’s a concern for an otherwise solid secondary.

Grade: B

Special Teams

The Commanders are coming off a 12th ranked season in special teams DVOA, but they lost DeAndre Carter in free agency without replacing him and he was PFF’s 7th ranked return man last season, so they’ll likely struggle more in that aspect than they did a year ago. Options to replace Carter include Jahar Dotson, who returned 25 punts and scored a 81-yard touchdown in his collegiate career, Brian Robinson, who returned 11 kicks in his collegiate career, and veteran Alex Erickson, who has experience as a kickoff and punt returner, but who also has been underwhelming, has returned just 10 kicks in the past three seasons, and would require the Commanders to carry an extra receiver who likely would not contribute much on offense.

The Commanders do bring back their best kicker from a year ago Joey Slye, a capable punter in Tress Way, and their two best core special teamers Khaleke Hudson and David Mayo, who were both top-50 special teamers on PFF, so this probably won’t be a bad group, but they are likely to struggle in the return game and Slye has a history of inconsistency, now on his fifth team in four seasons in the league. I would expect them to be below average, but probably only slightly.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The quarterback position is still a probably for the Commanders, but this is a pretty solid overall roster, with an upgraded, healthier receiving corps, an offensive line that is likely to be healthier, a likely improved running game, and a healthier defense, particularly their two star edge defenders Chase Young and Montez Sweat. They’re still behind the Cowboys and Eagles in the division, but they’ll likely win at least a couple more games than a year ago and compete for a wild card spot, which it wouldn’t surprise me if they ultimately got, playing in the weaker of the two conferences in the NFC. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC East

Tennessee Titans 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

For many years, the Titans were in quarterback limbo. From 2006-2019, the Titans had 13 different quarterbacks make starts for them in 14 seasons, with 11 of those quarterbacks starting multiple games. The Titans used top-10 picks on the position in 2006, 2011, and 2015, but Vince Young, Jake Locker, and Marcus Mariota all failed to live up to their billing. The 13th of those quarterbacks was Ryan Tannehill, who took over for the underwhelming and oft-injured Mariota after week 6 of the 2019 season, ending Mariota’s run as the Titans starting quarterback for good after 61 starts, the most by any Titans quarterback over that 14-year stretch.

Tannehill’s insertion into the lineup made an instant impact, as a 2-4 team that averaged 16.3 points per game to start the season went 7-3 the rest of the regular season, while averaging 30.4 points per game, and ultimately went on a run that eventually took them to the AFC Championship game, where they lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. Tannehill didn’t do everything on his own, but he played well enough for the rest of this roster to shine and his 117.5 regular season QB rating was the best in the league that season, as he completed 70.3% of his passes for an average of 9.59 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions and finished as PFF’s #1 ranked quarterback on the season.

As great as Tannehill’s breakout was for the Titans, it put them in a tough spot, as Tannehill was set to hit free agency the following off-season and would not be cheap to keep, after he made just 2 million from the Titans in 2019. There is a reason that Tannehill was available for that price and the price of a mid-round draft pick in a trade with the Dolphins, as Tannehill was a largely middling starting quarterback throughout 88 starts in 7 seasons in Miami, completing 62.8% of his passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 123 touchdowns, and 75 interceptions, and he had become increasingly injury prone in recent years, missing 24 games across his final three seasons in Miami. 

The Titans would have to decide if Tannehill was worth paying like the quarterback he seemed to be in 2019, or if his seven years in Miami was more indicative of his level of play. To Tannehill’s credit, he rarely had a good supporting cast or coaching staff in Miami, but in Tennessee, he had a supporting cast and coaching staff that would likely not be able to stay together long-term as players started to get paid and coaches got opportunities elsewhere. For Tannehill to be worth the kind of money he would command as a free agent, he would need to be the kind of quarterback who can elevate a team even when everything is not going well around him, not just one who produces at a high level with a high level of talent around him. 

Since the start of the salary cap era in 1994, just 5 of 28 Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback with a cap hit that was more than 11% of the salary cap and all of those quarterbacks are Hall of Fame caliber players. It’s close to impossible to win with a highly paid starting quarterback unless he is an elite player under center, as it becomes very tough to surround a non-elite quarterback with enough talent to win with if that quarterback is taking a significant percentage of the cap. The Titans opted to take a chance on Tannehill, lacking a better option, and paid up handsomely on a 4-year, 118 million dollar deal that effectively guaranteed him 91 million over the next three seasons, a huge guarantee for any player, especially one with Tannehill’s limited track record of success. 

The contract didn’t look bad from the start. Tannehill’s production fell back to earth a little in 2020, but he still finished in the 5th in the NFL in QB rating at 106.5, while leading an offense that ranked 4th in offensive efficiency for a team that went 11-5. Tennessee sputtered out in the post-season once again, but the season wasn’t a disappointment overall, especially for a franchise not used to having a consistent signal caller over the past decade and a half. However, in 2021, Tannehill regressed even further, as the supporting cast around him declined significantly. 

Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who took over the play calling job in Tannehill’s first season in Tennessee, went to Atlanta to become the head coach. Their aging offensive line continued to decline. Pass catchers Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith went elsewhere in free agency and the trade for Julio Jones to give them another talented receiving option did not pan out as well, as Jones looked old and was injury prone for most of his single season in Tennessee. And, perhaps most importantly, top playmakers Derrick Henry and AJ Brown both missed time with injury.

The result was Tannehill’s worst season since his Miami days, as he completed 67.2% of his passes for an average of 7.03 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, with another 10 interceptions dropped (2nd most in the league), on an offense that ranked just 19th in offensive efficiency. The Titans still went 12-5, but that was in large part due to a 6-2 record in one-score games and a +4 return touchdown margin, two things that would be tough to maintain long-term. Both Brown and Henry were back for the post-season, but it didn’t matter, as Tannehill’s 3 interceptions led to the Titans losing to the Bengals in their first playoff game.

Now going into 2022, things could arguably be even worse this season. The Titans lost left guard Rodger Saffold and right tackle David Quessenberry in free agency and both were solid starters on the offensive line last season. The Titans traded for veteran wide receiver Robert Woods to replace Julio Jones, but he’s going into his age 30 season and coming off of an ACL tear, and, most importantly, Woods won’t have AJ Brown lined up opposite him, as the Titans made the draft day decision to send him to Philadelphia for a package centered around the 18th overall pick, which the Titans used to select Treylon Burks from Arkansas to be Brown’s potential long-term replacement.

It’s hard to illustrate how much Brown will be missed by the Titans, but his three seasons in Tennessee, during which he averaged 2.50 yards per route run, lined up with the emergence of Tannehill and the rest of this offense. During those three seasons, Tannehill averaged 10.15 yards per attempt targeting Brown, as opposed to 7.28 yards per attempt targeting everyone else. In six games without Brown, Tannehill is just 3-3 over those three seasons with a QB rating 17.1 points lower than his QB rating with Brown (104.6). His 87.5 QB rating over those 6 games without Brown is actually about the same as his QB rating in 7 seasons with the Dolphins (87.0). I’ll get into Tannehill’s supporting cast more later, but, with Brown gone, this group should undoubtedly be worse than a year ago, even if they get more than expected from certain players.

This illustrates the reason why non-elite, highly paid quarterbacks have such a hard time winning the Super Bowl. If Tannehill had not been set to make 56 million over the next two seasons, it would have been easier to keep Brown on the 4-year, 100 million dollar extension he eventually got from Philadelphia. Quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers also lost their top receivers this off-season for similar reasons, but those quarterbacks are talented enough to compensate for the loss of that top receiver. Tannehill is unlikely to have the same success without AJ Brown.

The Titans are perhaps realizing their mistake with Tannehill a little bit, at least bringing in another potential long-term option, using a third round pick on Liberty quarterback Malik Willis, a raw quarterback prospect with a high ceiling, who would be a significantly cheaper option if he could develop into a starting caliber player ahead of Tannehill’s 27 million non-guaranteed salary in 2023, or the end of his contract in 2024.

I am not as bullish on Willis’ chances of taking Tannehill’s job at some point as some are, because, if the Titans had liked him more, they wouldn’t have let him fall to the middle of the third round before trading up to draft him, but, at the very least, Willis gives them long-term potential on a cheap rookie contract and, in the short-term, a better backup, which the Titans haven’t had the past two seasons, with the inexperienced Logan Woodside as the #2 option. Willis’ addition upgrades this quarterback room, but this is likely Tannehill’s job for at least one more year and his struggles from last season could easily continue, given what has happened with his supporting cast.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

I will get into the receiving corps and what the Titans are doing to replace AJ Brown shortly, but the Titans will also be retooling their offensive line this season, after losing starting left guard Rodger Saffold and starting right tackle David Quessenberry this off-season, without doing much to replace either of them. The Titans’ offensive line has been better in the past, but they were still a solid group last season, with Saffold and Quessenberry finishing 24th and 16th respectively on PFF at their respective positions. Without them, they figure to take a big step back.

On top of that, two of their three offensive linemen who remain from last year’s solid group are on the wrong side of 30, with left tackle Taylor Lewan and center Ben Jones heading into their age 31 season and age 33 season respectively. Both still earned above average grades from PFF last season, with Lewan ranking 41st among tackles and Jones ranking 8th among centers, and both have earned above average grades from PFF in throughout most of their career, with Jones finishing above average in 9 of 10 seasons in the league and Lewan doing so in 7 of 8 seasons in the league, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if one or both dropped off noticeably this season, which would be a problem for an offensive line that already figures to decline regardless this season.

Quessenberry will likely be replaced by 2021 second round pick Dillon Radunz, but he struggled in 124 rookie year snaps and the Titans seemed to hedge their bet with him a little bit by selecting Nicholas Petit-Frere in the third round of this year’s draft. With Lewan aging, it’s possible the Titans view Radunz and Petit-Frere as their long-term bookend tackles, but, in the short term, both are raw and inexperienced players who will be competing to start at right tackle, with Radunz being the early favorite. The Titans could get solid play out of one of the young tackles, but they both come with significant downside and it would be hard for either to be as good as Quessenberry was last season.

Saffold, meanwhile, will be replaced by either 2020 undrafted free agent Aaron Brewer, who was underwhelming across 508 snaps as a versatile reserve in 2021, after playing just 152 snaps as a rookie, or by free agent acquisition Jamarco Jones, a 2018 5th round pick who struggled across 672 snaps in four seasons with the Seahawks. Brewer is likely the favorite as a result of his familiarity with the offense, but it’s likely neither will be a good option and both will probably end up seeing starts at some point, one way or another. The Titans could also potentially kick Radunz inside to left guard if they want to start Petit-Frere at right tackle.

Right guard Nate Davis is the only returning starter under 30 and the 2019 3rd round pick has developed into an above average player. Davis was overmatched as a 12-game starter as a rookie, finishing 87th among 89 eligible guards on PFF, but he’s improved significantly since then, finishing 18th as a 16-game starter in 2020 and 27th as a 14-game starter in 2021. Still only going into his age 26 season, Davis should continue being an above average starter in 2022 and beyond and may even have more untapped potential. He’s a bright spot for an offensive line with significant questions and concerns.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, AJ Brown had a huge impact on this offense in his three seasons in Tennessee. Overall, Brown finished 9th, 3rd, and 9th among wide receivers on PFF, all before his 25th birthday. The Titans also let go of Julio Jones this off-season, but he had just a 31/434/1 slash line in 10 games, so he won’t be missed much, which means that, with Treylon Burks and Robert Woods coming in this off-season, the Titans are essentially replacing Brown with two players, but even that is easier said than done, as neither have Brown’s top level ability.

Woods was a great receiver across his first three seasons with the Rams from 2017-2019, averaging a 86/1166/5 slash line per 16 games and 2.01 yards per route run, but he started to slow down a little bit even before his injury, with a 90/936/6 slash line on 1.60 yards per route run in 16 games in 2020 and a 45/556/4 slash line on 1.74 yards per route run in 9 games in 2021 prior to getting hurt. Now going into his age 30 season, it would be a surprise to see him revert to his old form, especially in his first season removed from the injury. 

Woods has been mostly durable throughout his career, missing just 12 games across his first 8 seasons in the league prior to last seasons injury, and could still be a solid #2 receiver at this stage of his career, but it’s not surprising the Rams essentially salary-dumped him on the Titans for a 6th round pick, given that he is owed 10 million in 2022. Burks, meanwhile, comes with a big upside that some are comparing to AJ Brown’s, but he’s far from a guarantee to ever reach the same heights as Brown and, even if he does, that doesn’t mean it will happen in year one.

With Jones missing much of last season, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine was the Titans’ de facto #2 receiver for most of the season, finishing 2nd on the team with a 38/476/4 slash line. He earned a middling grade from PFF and averaged an underwhelming 1.40 yards per route run, in what was the first significant action of the 2020 undrafted free agent’s career, but he’s not a bad fit as the third receiver. He would probably be overstretched if he had to spend significant time as the #2 receiver again though, either because of injury or because of rookie year struggles from Burks. The Titans also have questionable depth with 2021 4th round pick Dez Fitzpatrick (five career catches), 2021 6th round pick Racey McMath (two career catches), and 5th round rookie Kyle Phillips likely to be their top reserve options.

With Jonnu Smith gone, tight ends were not much of a factor in Tennessee offense last season, being targeted on just 20.5% of pass attempts and combining for just 18.1% of their receiving production, with none of their top-3 tight ends (Geoff Swaim, Anthony Firkser, and MyCole Pruitt) averaging more than 1.11 yards per route run. To try to improve the position, the Titans added veteran Austin Hooper in free agency and will plug him in as the starter. Hooper was released by the Browns, but he was always overpaid on a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal and is a much better value at a 6 million dollar salary in 2022, rather than the 9.5 million he was scheduled to make before the Browns released him.

Hooper had fewer receiving yards in two seasons in Cleveland (46/435/4 and 38/385/3) combined than he had in his final season in Atlanta in 2019 (75/787/6), but much of that had to do with going from a pass oriented to a run oriented offense and not getting the same amount of opportunity to run routes, with his 1.29 yards per route run average over the past two seasons not being a huge drop off from his 1.65 average in his final season in Atlanta. His 1.39 career yards per route run average is pretty solid for a tight end, especially compared to what the Titans had at the position last season, and he’s a decent blocker as well, so you could do worse than him as your starting tight end. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, he figures to be an upgrade for this team.

Geoff Swaim is the only one of the Titans’ top tight ends from a year ago to return and he figures to be the #2 tight end. Having never surpassed 242 yards receiving in seven seasons in the league, Swaim isn’t a bad #2 tight end, but he has averaged just 1.05 yards per route run for his career and isn’t more than a middling blocker either. It’s possible he could be pushed for the #2 tight end job by 4th round rookie Chigoziem Okonkwo, but he’s not a guarantee to be better. This was a top heavy receiving corps last season, led by AJ Brown, but, even though they might be deeper this season, there is no replacing the impact that Brown had on this offense.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

I haven’t mentioned Derrick Henry much, but obviously he’s been a big part of the Titans’ success over the past few seasons and he was missed in a big way when he was out last season. Unfortunately, just because of the nature of his position, it’s fair to wonder if we’ve seen his best days. Henry rushed for 4,626 yards and 45 touchdowns on 896 carries (5.16 YPC) in 3 straight 1000+ yard seasons from 2018-2020, including 2000+ yard season in 2020, and he was on pace for almost 2000 yards again in 2021 before he got hurt, but his YPC average fell to 4.28 YPC in 2021 (2nd lowest of his career) and his 2000 yard pace was largely as the result of an unsustainable workload, on pace for an absurd 465 carries in 17 games. Given that pace and the 681 carries he had in 2019 and 2020 combined, it’s not all that surprising he got hurt and his efficiency seemed to be dropping off even before he got hurt, which was not all that surprising either.

Henry had an incredible season in 2020, rushing for 2,027 yards and 17 touchdowns on 378 carries (5.36 YPC), becoming just the 8th player to rush for more than 2000 yards in a season and just the 22nd player to even rush for 1700 yards. The history of those 22 running backs shows that it’s very tough to do again though and that they usually fall off drastically as soon as the following season. Only 7 of those 22 running backs ever surpassed that total again in their career, only one of them repeated it a third time, only 3 surpassed that total again the following season, and only 2 improved their rushing total the following season.

In total those 22 running backs rushed for an average of 1,867 yards on 367 carries (5.09 YPC) and 15 touchdowns in their seasons with more than 1,700 rushing yards, but the following season, they saw their YPC fall by 13.9%, their carries fall by 23.7%, their rushing yards fall by 34.3%, and their rushing touchdowns fall by a whopping 41.8%. Applying those percentages to Henry’s 2020 production gets you 1,332 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 288 carries (4.62 YPC) and Henry didn’t even match that, rushing for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns on 219 carries (4.28 YPC).

On top of that, running backs don’t usually bounce back after a big drop off like that. Of 33 running backs who have had 200+ carries in a season in back-to-back years who drop off by more than 1 YPC from one season to the next season, just one of them ever returned to his previous YPC average. This doesn’t mean that Henry is about to drop off completely, but it’s much more likely that he’ll just be one of the best runners in the league, rather than the league’s best runner by a wide margin like he’s been in the past. It also won’t help that his offensive line is not what it’s been in recent years.

Henry will also likely continue to drop off in the next few seasons, as elite running backs tend to do around age 29-32. On average, a 28-year-old running back like Henry is about 4 times as likely to surpass 1000 yards in a season than a 31-year-old running back, a huge drop off over just three seasons. The Titans somewhat prepared for Henry’s future by using a 4th round pick in this year’s draft on Hassan Haskins, but that was also a necessary move for short-term depth purposes.

Dont’a Foreman was their top running back in Derrick Henry’s absence last season, but he’s no longer with the team. Jeremy McNichols was their passing down back last season, which is a necessary role even when Henry is healthy because Henry is only ordinary at best on passing downs (0.98 yards per route run), but McNichols is also no longer with the team. The Titans are unlikely to want to give Henry an expanded passing down role, wanting to preserve him for passing downs, but Haskins was not much of a receiver in college, so he’s not a great fit for that role either.

Instead, the Titans will likely turn to Dontrell Hillard, their top returning reserve running back (56 carries), in passing situations. Hillard hasn’t played much in his career (119 career touches in 38 games in 4 seasons in the league), but he does have a 1.20 yards per route run average in limited passing down action and he gives them a little bit of running ability as well, with a 5.73 YPC average for his career, albeit across just 78 carries. He and Haskins will compete to be Henry’s backup and would likely split carries in his absence if he were to get hurt, but both are questionable options, so the Titans will obviously need Henry to stay healthy all season this year. Even if he does, he’s unlikely to return to his 2020 form.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

Not much changes on the Titans’ defense in 2021, for a team that finished 16th in defensive efficiency in 2022. Interior defender Jeffery Simmons was one of the leaders for this group and his 8.5 sacks are a very impressive total for an interior defender. A 2019 1st round pick in 2019, Simmons only had 3 sacks in 2020, but he’s not a one-year wonder, as that 2020 campaign was arguably a better year overall than his 2021 campaign, even though his sack total wasn’t impressive. 

What Simmons lacked in sacks in 2020, he made up for with 11 hits on the quarterback, as opposed to just 7 in 2021. His overall pressure rate went up from 7.6% to 9.6% from 2020 to 2021, but his run defense was significantly better in 2020 and, overall, he “fell” from 11th among interior defenders in 2020 to 23rd among interior defenders in 2021. Still, any way you look at it, Simmons, who also flashed on 315 snaps as a rookie, despite coming off a torn ACL, is coming off back-to-back strong seasons and, not even turning 25 until later this off-season, his best days could still be ahead of him. The 19th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Simmons could have been a top-5 pick if not for the ACL injury he was coming off of.

The rest of this position group, however, is not nearly as good. Naquan Jones (328 snaps), Teair Tart (334 snaps), Larrell Murchison (200 snaps), and Kyle Peko (157 snaps) all saw action at the position as well and all four struggled, especially as pass rushers, combining for just 3.4% pressure rate. All four players are also recently late round picks or undrafted free agents who played career highs in snaps last season and have no history of superior play. With the exception of Peko, all return to the Titans this season, but I wouldn’t expect any of them to be significantly improved or to play significantly more action. They’ll primarily compete for run stopping roles in base packages, but would likely be overmatched even in that limited role.

With none of those four providing much pass rush, the Titans frequently relied on edge defender Denico Autry lining up as an interior defender in sub packages. Fortunately, opposing offenses had a hard time blocking Autry regardless of where he lined up, leading to him finishing with 9 sacks, 10 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate. However, there is reason for concern that he won’t keep up that level of play into 2022, as a player coming off of a career best year and now going into his age 32 season. 

Autry has consistently been an above average pass rusher in his career, but his 8.4% pressure rate from his previous four seasons prior to last season is a big drop off from last season’s rate, and, getting up there in age, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he regressed to the mean or even regressed lower than the mean this season. He’s also left something to be desired against the run in his career, regardless of whether or not he’s playing outside or inside. He should still be a useful player for the Titans in passing situations, but I wouldn’t expect him to be even close to as good as he was a year ago.

The one addition the Titans made to this group this off-season was signing ex-Texan DeMarcus Walker, another hybrid player who could serve as Autry’s backup and play a similar role. A second round pick in 2017 by the Broncos, Walker didn’t do much at all in his first two seasons in the league, but he’s developed into a useful rotational player in the past three seasons, averaging 354 snaps per season and pressuring the quarterback at a 9.1% rate as a hybrid player who plays on the interior and on the edge. He should play a similar role, now with a new team.

The Titans also took a flyer late last season on ex-Lion Da’Shawn Hand and he has a chance to carve out a rotational role as well. A 4th round pick in 2018, Hand flashed a lot of potential on 455 rookie year snaps, especially as a pass rusher, totaling a 9.5% pressure rate. However, injuries have completely derailed his career, limiting him to a 3.6% pressure rate and 556 snaps total in the past three seasons and ultimately leading to the Lions releasing him late last season, with the Titans then adding him to their practice squad and playing him 6 snaps in their final regular season game. If he’s healthy, he could prove to be a useful rotational player and sub package interior pass rusher, but he could just as easily get hurt again or not make the final roster. Jeffery Simmons elevates this position group significantly in a big way, but the rest of this group is much more questionable.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The Titans are better at the edge defender position, as, not only is Denico Autry an effective pass rusher, but they also got a big pass rushing season from edge defender Harold Landry, who led the team with 12 sacks and added 14 hits and a 12.1% pressure rate. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Landry has never shown much against the run and is a one-year wonder in terms of being the pass rusher he was last season, but he’s still in the prime of his career, going into his age 26 season, so it’s not surprising the Titans paid expensively this off-season (87.5 million over 5 years) to keep him long-term, given the premium teams pay for edge rushers.

Landry has had decent sack totals in the past, with 9 sacks in 2019 and 19 sacks total in his first three seasons in the league, but his peripheral pass rush numbers have never been nearly as good as they were last season, with a 9.5% pressure rate across his first three seasons. Given that, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he regressed in 2022, but, unless he regresses significantly, he should still remain an above average pass rusher. The Titans also have another highly paid edge defender, signing ex-Steeler Bud Dupree to a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season. 

Dupree was not worth that contract at all in year one though, struggling across 398 snaps in 11 games in an injury plagued season. Dupree was a risky and questionable signing from the start at that price, so it’s not all that surprising that the contract has looked like a big mistake thus far.

A first round pick by Pittsburgh in 2015, Dupree broke out with 11.5 sacks in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, after totaling just 20 sacks across his first four seasons in the league, but the Steelers were rightfully skeptical of Dupree’s ability to continue producing at that level long-term, franchise tagging him for the 2020 season, rather than paying up on a big money extension. 

Not only was Dupree a one-year wonder in terms of having double digit sacks in a season, but his peripheral numbers during that double digit season weren’t much better than his peripheral numbers in the past, as his 9.5% pressure rate in 2019 was underwhelming and was in line with his 9.4% pressure rate from his first four seasons in the league, suggesting that his big sack total in 2019 was mostly the result of playing on a dominant defense and getting to clean up after more consistently disruptive pass rushers, rather than being a consistently disruptive pass rusher himself.

Dupree was not bad on the franchise tag in 2020, totaling 8 sacks, 10 hits, and a 11.8% pressure rate in 11 games, but he suffered a torn ACL late in the season, which made him an even more questionable signing on a big, long-term contract. Rather than forcing Dupree to settle for a one-year prove it deal on which he could rehab his value for another trip to free agency, the Titans decided to give him the big money contract the Steelers wouldn’t and, thus far, they have not been rewarded, with Dupree dealing with lingering leg injuries for most of 2021 and, as a result, being ineffective even when on the field. 

Dupree has a good chance to be better and healthier in 2022, another year removed from the injury, but he’s only earned two above average grades from PFF in seven seasons in the league, so his bounce back potential isn’t as high as his contract would suggest. It’s very possible Dupree will be a cap casualty after the season unless he bounces back in a big way, as his 17 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2023 would be very tough to justify if he doesn’t improve drastically, especially with Landry also commanding significant money.

Landry, Dupree, and Autry figure to play the vast majority of the snaps on the edge, but they also bring back Olasunkanmi Adeniyi as a reserve, after he played 207 middling snaps last season. The 2018 undrafted free agent has never had a snap total higher than last season and has mostly been underwhelming in his limited career action, but he could remain decent in a similar role in 2022. The Titans could also give an expanded role to 2021 4th round pick Rashad Weaver, who played just 12 snaps as a rookie, but has the potential to develop into a useful player going forward. Even with Landry and Autry coming off career best years that they might not repeat, this is still a talented group, especially if Dupree can give them more this season.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Titans’ off ball linebackers are probably the position group that has changed the most for the Titans next last season, with a pair of contributors in Jayon Brown (421 snaps) and Rashaan Evans (445 snaps) no longer with the team and effectively being replaced by Zach Cunningham, a long-time Texan who played the final four games of the season with the Titans last season, after Houston cut him mid-season for disciplinary reasons. He’ll play close to every down and start in base packages opposite David Long, a 2019 6th round pick who finished as PFF’s 23rd ranked off ball linebacker last season in the first significant action of his career, albeit in just 10 games in an injury plagued season.

A consistently above average off ball linebacker across his first four seasons in the league, including a 22nd ranked season among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2019, Cunningham struggled for most of last season in Houston, but he bounced right back to being an above average player after joining the Titans. Despite his strong close to last season, the Titans were still able to get Cunningham to agree to a pay cut for 2022, but he’ll still make good money at 8.5 million, even if it’s down from his previously scheduled 10.5 million. Only in his age 28 season, Cunningham should continue being at least a solid every down starting linebacker for the Titans. Claiming him on waivers from a division rival was a wise move for this franchise.

The Titans also have 2021 3rd round pick Monty Rice, who played 179 snaps as a rookie, but he was middling at best across those snaps and he should enter the season behind David Long on the depth chart, even if Long is still an unproven player who has not played a full season as a starter yet. Long has a good chance to have at least another decent season, but Rice isn’t bad insurance to have if Long regresses or if injuries strike. This isn’t an elite linebacking corps or anything, but it’s a solid group overall.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Titans used the first round pick they got from Philadelphia for AJ Brown on Brown’s replacement, Treylon Burks, but, with their own pick, originally 26th overall, the Titans traded down and drafted Auburn cornerback Roger McCreary with the 35th overall pick, at the top of the second round. This comes after the Titans used the 22nd overall in the 2021 NFL Draft on cornerback Caleb Farley, as well as using a third round pick in 2021 on Elijah Molden and a second round pick in 2020 on Kristian Fulton. This is a very young cornerback group with a lot of upside, but the potential downside and lack of experience is obvious as well.

Veteran Janoris Jenkins led this group with 862 snaps played last season and wasn’t bad, but the Titans opted not to bring him back at a 7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and will instead go with a youth movement at the position. Farley has the most talent of the bunch and could have been a top-10 pick if not for durability concerns, but those durability concerns continued into his rookie year and limited him to just 60 snaps in 3 games, before a torn ACL ended his season. Farley should be healthy for the start of the 2022 season and still has the upside to develop into a #1 cornerback long-term, but his long-term outlook is clouded by his lack of durability and experience.

Farley will compete with the other three young cornerbacks for playing time. Molden played 632 nondescript snaps as a rookie, while Fulton played 738 nondescript snaps last season, after struggling on 203 rookie year snaps, so neither have proven much yet, but they both have the upside to take a step forward in 2022. McCreary also has a lot of upside, but he could struggle through some growing pains as a rookie.

The only veteran cornerback the Titans have is Buster Skrine, who is going into his age 32 season and his 11th year in the league. It’s impressive that Skrine has lasted this long in the league, but he has never been more than a middling cornerback. He provided some stability to this secondary as a mid-season signing last year, playing 218 regular season snaps and earning an average grade from PFF, but he could easily struggle if forced into significant action again in 2022.

The strength of the Titans’ defense last season was their safeties, with Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker finishing 1st and 5th respectively among safeties on PFF. For Byard, a season like this was nothing new as, even though he has been somewhat inconsistent in his career, he’s still finished in the top-8 among safeties on PFF in three of the past five seasons. Going into his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect a sudden dropoff from him, although it’s possible that he isn’t able to maintain his high level of play across the whole season, which has been the case for him in some years.

Hooker, meanwhile, had a breakout year last season, after the 2019 4th round pick flashed as a reserve on 335 snaps and 470 snaps in his first two seasons in the league. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being the high level safety he was last season and even last season he only made 12 starts because of injury, but he should remain at least an above average starter and could develop into one of the best safeties in the league for years to come, still only going into his age 24 season. 

Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Hooker figures to get a top of the market deal at some point, whether from the Titans or from another team on the open market. Depth is a bit of a concern, but the Titans’ have arguably the best safety duo in the league. Their cornerbacks are not nearly as proven, but they have the upside to take a step forward as a group in 2022, though that’s far from a guarantee.

Grade: A-

Special Teams

The Titans finished last season ranked 23rd in special teams DVOA and there’s a good chance they struggle in this aspect again this season. The Titans didn’t make any significant positive changes to this group, keeping punter Brett Kern and kicker Randy Bullock, losing top return man Chester Rogers without a replacement, and losing their top core special teamer Nick Dzubnar, leaving them without a player who finished in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF last season. This looks like it’ll be a below average unit again this season.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Titans finished last season at 12-5, with the AFC’s best record and #1 seed by virtue of tiebreakers, but they ranked just 19th in team efficiency, benefiting from a 6-2 record in one-score games and a +4 return touchdown margin, two things that would be tough to maintain long-term. They especially struggled without AJ Brown last season, which is a problem because they traded him this off-season and, while they have Robert Woods and Treylon Burks to replace him, they still figure to miss Brown significantly. On top of that, they lost a pair of starting offensive linemen and, while Derrick Henry will probably be healthier this season, he figures to not be nearly as productive as he’s been in the past, given his age, workload, and the declining talent and blocking around him on this offense. 

If the Titans had just brought back last year’s exact team, they would be unlikely to match last year’s 12 wins, given that they benefited from things statistically they won’t be able to rely on going forward, but the Titans are also noticeably less talented on paper than a year ago, so they could easily be worse in efficiency this season than they were last season. If that happens, it’ll be tough for the Titans to make the post-season this year, in the loaded AFC. It helps that they play in the weakest division in their conference and their easiest path back to the post-season is by winning that division, but the Colts looked noticeably better right now, having upgraded their quarterback situation this off-season, while the Titans have seen their roster decline.  I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC South

Philadelphia Eagles 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s really impressive the way the Eagles have retooled without going through a true rebuild. After three straight playoff appearances from 2017-2019, including a 2017 Super Bowl Championship, the Eagles fell all the way to 4-11-1 in 2020. Making matters worse, the Eagles did so despite having the third highest combined average annual salary of their roster and, after years of expensive rosters, lacked significant financial flexibility to add to the team in free agency. And yet, just a year later, the Eagles are coming off of another post-season appearance and the arrow seems to be pointing up into 2022 and beyond.

How the Eagles have transformed their situation so quickly is complex, but a lot of it can be traced to the trade of Carson Wentz, a trade in which the Eagles were somehow able to get a 2022 first round pick and a 2021 third round pick for a declining quarterback who was owed 103 million over four years on the remainder of his contract. At this point, the Eagles could have used their first pick on a quarterback to replace Wentz, picking 6th in a loaded quarterback class, a draft slot where the Eagles could have chosen between Justin Fields and Mac Jones if they had stayed put.

Instead, the Eagles decided to bet on 2020 2nd round pick Jalen Hurts, who was highly raw, but showed flashes in a 4-game stint as the starter down the stretch in his rookie season. Rather than taking a quarterback at 6, the Eagles traded down with the Dolphins, accumulating another 2022 first round pick in the process, and ultimately selected wide receiver Devonta Smith to give Jalen Hurts someone to throw to. With three first round picks scheduled for 2022, the Eagles would have plenty of draft capital to try to acquire or trade up for another quarterback if Hurts had struggled as the starter in 2021.

Hurts wasn’t spectacular in 2021, but he showed his dual threat ability, completing 61.3% of his passes for an average of 7.28 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while rushing for 784 yards and 10 touchdowns on 139 carries (5.64 YPC), and he played well enough, along with the rest of this team, for the Eagles to finish in a wild card spot in the NFC. Overall, he finished as PFF’s 14th ranked quarterback across 15 starts and, while he didn’t prove to be a clear long-term franchise quarterback, he did more than enough to justify keeping his job into 2022, especially since he is still on a cheap rookie deal.

Hurts will be eligible for an extension next off-season, so the Eagles will have to make a decision on his future at some point, but, when they do, they will be doing so having seen even more of him on the field. The Eagles seem to have somewhat hedged their bet on Hurts, trading out of one of their first round picks this year to get another first round pick next year, picking up an extra 3rd in 2022 and an extra 2nd in 2024 from the Saints in the process. With two first round picks scheduled in a better quarterback draft a year from now, the Eagles could have options if they decide that Hurts isn’t worth paying long-term.

The Eagles also used one of their first round picks this year to get Hurts even more help, trading for Titans’ wide receiver AJ Brown, a dominant young wide receiver who the Titans were unwilling to sign to the kind of extension the Eagles were willing to give him, locking him up long-term on a 4-year, 100 million dollar deal immediately after acquiring him. I’ll get into Brown more later, but, with Brown in the mix, and full season as the starter under his belt, it’s well within the realm of possibility that Hurts takes another step forward in year three, especially as a passer.

The Eagles also have a solid backup quarterback for Hurts in Gardner Minshew, who fared well in two starts in place of Hurts last season, completing 68.7% of his passes for an average of 7.32 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and an interception. When the Eagles acquired Minshew from the Jaguars for a late round pick last off-season, many felt Minshew was being acquired to add competition for Hurts, after he showed some promise in 20 starts in two seasons in Jacksonville (93.1 QB rating), but Hurts played well enough in 2021 that Minshew is not a legitimate threat to his starting job. 

Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Minshew could find himself as a starter elsewhere in 2023, but, for now, he will remain in Philadelphia as an above average backup capable of leading the team without a significant drop off in Hurts’ absence. In addition to being a capable passer, Minshew also has some athleticism, albeit not as much as Hurts, averaging 4.93 YPC on 105 career carries. Hurts continuing to improve is the key to the Eagles taking a step forward in 2022, but they will be able to get by with Minshew for a few weeks if needed. This is a solid quarterback room and an inexpensive one at that.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

AJ Brown comes over from Tennessee after three seasons with the Titans, who took him in the 2nd round in 2019. In those three seasons, Brown has surpassed 1000 yards twice and has averaged a 69/1114/9 slash line per 16 games, all before his 25th birthday, but even that doesn’t tell the whole story of why Brown is such a good acquisition, as Brown did that despite playing on a run heavy offense, which makes him a perfect fit for the Eagles, who also have a run-heavy offense. On a per route run basis, Brown has been among the best wide receivers in the league throughout his career, averaging 2.61 yards per route run, second most by a wide receiver over the past three seasons, only behind Davante Adams. Brown has also finished in the top-9 among wide receivers on PFF all three seasons, the only wide receiver in the league to do so.

If he played on a more pass-heavy offense, Brown likely would be among the league’s leaders in receiving on an annual basis, but, even in a run heavy offense, he’s shown he can be a true #1 wide receiver and surpass the thousand yard mark consistently. He’s also never complained about playing on a run-heavy offense and willingly serves his role as a run blocker as well, so he’s really a perfect fit in Philadelphia. The Eagles may open their offense up more with Brown being added, but having a quarterback like Jalen Hurts who takes off and runs a lot on his own will always limit the amount of passes a team has per game.

Brown’s addition moves Devonta Smith into the #2 wide receiver role, but he has the upside to be a #1 caliber wide receiver long-term, as he posted a 64/916/5 slash line as a rookie, despite playing on a run-heavy offense, and ranked 25th among wide receivers on PFF in overall grade. The 10th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, it’s not hard to see how Smith has the potential to take a step forward in year two. He might not get as many targets with Brown in town, but he’ll face more single coverage and should be a more effective and efficient target in his own right. Brown and Smith could be one of the best wide receiver duos in the NFL for years to come.

The Eagles also have a talented tight end in Dallas Goedert. A 2nd round pick in 2018, Goedert always showed a lot of promise early in his career, both as a receiver and as a run blocker, finishing 10th, 5th, and 6th among tight ends on PFF in overall grade in the first three seasons of his career respectively, but he never posted big receiving totals (33/334/4, 58/607/5, 46/524/3) because he was the #2 tight end behind established starter Zach Ertz. However, Ertz was traded midway through the 2021 season, the final year of his contract, and Goedert took off, totalling 41 catches for 614 yards and 2 touchdowns in 10 games, which extrapolates to 66/982/3 per 16 games. 

Not only did Goedert’s raw totals increase, but he also became more efficient, with his yards per route run average jumping from 1.59 over the first three seasons of his career to 2.34 in 2021, 2nd best in the league among tight ends, only behind George Kittle. Goedert also remained a strong run blocker and finished as PFF’s 3rd ranked tight end overall. Like Ertz, Goedert was also going into the final year of his contract last season, but the Eagles kept him on a 4-year, 57 million dollar extension. It makes him the third highest paid tight end in the league in terms of average annual value, but he’s only going into his age 27 season and has shown a tremendous upside, so he should be worth what the Eagles paid him.

With Brown, Smith, and Goedert all likely to dominate targets on a run heavy team, the Eagles likely won’t have many targets left over for other receivers. The Eagles have actually given up a first round pick to acquire a wide receiver in three straight years, taking Jalen Reagor in the first round in 2020, before taking Smith in the first round in 2021 and trading for Brown this year, but Reagor has been a massive bust, averaging just 0.93 yards per route run in two seasons in the league, while totaling just 64 catches in 28 games. Reagor may still have theoretical upside, but he’ll likely be no better than the 4th receiver entering the year, with fellow 2020 draftee Quez Watkins likely the favorite for the #3 receiver job.


Watkins was just a 6th round pick and he was actually the third wide receiver the Eagles took in 2020, but he has been by far the best wide receiver they took that year, posting a 43/647/1 slash line as the de facto #2 wide receiver last season and averaging a decent 1.54 yards per route run average in his career. Even if he doesn’t have more untapped upside, Watkins should be a solid #3 wide receiver. He might not get a lot of targets, but he should be a relatively efficient option. The Eagles also have Zach Pascal, a mediocre veteran player who was signed this off-season after averaging an uninspiring 1.15 yards per route run in four seasons with the Colts. He will compete for playing time in this receiving corps and may also be ahead of Reagor on the depth chart.

After Ertz was traded last season, undrafted free agent rookie Jack Stoll moved into the #2 tight end role, but he wasn’t used much in the passing game, catching just 4 passes for 22 yards. He did play 331 snaps, so he had a somewhat significant role, but he was only a capable blocker at most. He could improve a little bit going forward, but I wouldn’t expect much to change for him in year two and he’s likely to continue not having much of a role in the passing game. He could also face competition from veteran Richard Rodgers, who has a decent 1.19 yards per route run average for his career, but is going into his age 30 season and played just 69 snaps total in 3 games last season. There’s not likely to be much need for depth tight ends and wide receivers on a run-heavy offense with a talented trio of top options.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The Eagles’ offensive line was a big part of the reason for this team’s turnaround from 2020 to 2021. The 2020 Eagles’ offensive line led the league in adjusted games lost to injury, with just one of their expected starting five offensive linemen playing more than 9 games, but better health wasn’t the primary reason for their improvement in 2021. In fact, of the four expected starters who missed significant time in 2020, only one of them was still with the Eagles as a regular starter in 2021.

That one offensive lineman is right tackle Lane Johnson though and he was a big part of the reason for their turnaround, even if he’s only one player. Johnson has had durability problems throughout his career, missing 29 total across the first 8 seasons of his career from 2013-2020, and, after a relatively down year across just 405 snaps in 2020, it was fair to wonder if he was breaking down physically and on the decline, now on the wrong side of 30. 

However, Johnson turned the clock back a little bit in 2021, finishing 11th among offensive tackles on PFF, his 7th finish in the top-23 in nine seasons in the league. He still missed 4 games and, now going into his age 32 season, there are still concerns that he could start to decline and/or miss more time with injury. Even if he does decline, he has a good chance to remain at least an above average starter when healthy, but there’s a good chance he doesn’t have quite as good of a season as he did a season ago.

Fortunately, the Eagles have a good swing tackle who can fill in for Johnson if needed in Andre Dillard. Dillard was actually a first round selection by the Eagles in 2019 and was expected to be their long-term left tackle, but he spent his rookie year mostly on the bench behind veteran Jason Peters and then, when he was expected to take over for Peters, he was one of the many expected starters on the 2020 Eagles’ offensive line to miss significant time with injury, actually missing the entire season.

In his absence, Jordan Mailata established himself as the long-term left tackle, finishing above average on PFF in 10 starts, leaving Dillard with a bench role again in 2021. Dillard has hardly played in his career, playing just 677 total career snaps, but he’s held up pretty well in limited action and would likely start for several teams around the league, so he’s a good backup option to have. He could probably hold down the fort for an extended period of time if need be.

The Eagles locked Mailata up with a 4-year, 64 million dollar extension last off-season, with the 2018 7th round pick heading into the final year of his rookie deal, even though he only had been a starter for one season, and it proved to be a forward thinking extension, with Mailata improving even more in his second season as a starter, finishing as PFF’s 3rd ranked offensive tackle, an improvement that was as big of a reason as any for the Eagles’ improved offensive line from 2020 to 2021. Mailata is a one-year wonder in terms of being an elite level offensive tackle and he’s not a guarantee to repeat the best season of his career, but he’s also only going into his age 25 season, may have further untapped upside, and could develop into one of the best offensive tackles in the league for years to come.

Center Jason Kelce also had a much better year in 2021 compared to 2020, another reason for this offensive line’s improvement. Kelce was the only Eagles starting offensive lineman who didn’t miss time with injury in 2020, actually playing all 16 games, but he was just PFF’s 12th ranked center, a big drop off for a player who had finished #1 among centers on PFF in three straight seasons prior to 2020. Kelce was also getting up there in age so, like Johnson, it was fair to wonder if his best days were ahead of him, but, instead, he bounced back with a 3rd ranked finish among centers on PFF, while making every start, for the 7th straight season.

Kelce is now heading into his age 35 season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he declined, but he also still has a good chance to remain an above average starter even if he does. Going into the final year of his contract, Kelce could easily be entering his final season in the league, having contemplated retirement in recent off-seasons, but the Eagles have prepared for the future by drafting Cam Jurgens in the 2nd round of this year’s draft to be their center of the future. He would also fill in if Kelce happened to miss significant time or if he dropped off consistently and needed to be benched.

The Eagles also used a 2nd round pick on an offensive lineman in the 2021 NFL Draft, taking Landon Dickerson, who fared pretty well in 13 rookie year starts, primarily at left guard, finishing slightly above average on PFF, another part of the reason why the Eagles were improved upfront last season. He could take another step forward in 2022 and, even if he doesn’t, he should remain at least a solid starter, now locked in as the starting left guard long-term.

The only position unsettled on this offensive line is right guard. Nate Herbig made 17 starts for the Eagles over the past two seasons as an injury replacement, mostly at right guard, and he held up pretty well, but he’s no longer with the team. With Herbig gone, the Eagles will be hoping for a healthier season from Isaac Seumalo, who not only missed significant time in 2020 (7 games missed) when most of the Eagles’ offensive linemen did, but also missed another 14 games with injury last season.

Prior to his last two injury plagued seasons, Seumalo was PFF’s 19th ranked guard in 16 starts in 2019 and the 2016 3rd round pick has mostly been a solid starter when healthy in 43 starts in 6 seasons in the league, so, still only going into his age 29 season, he has a good chance to be a solid starter if healthy this season, but that could be a big if, given his recent history. Seumalo will be pushed for his starting role by 2020 4th round pick Jack Driscoll, who will likely settle in as a backup, but he held up pretty well in nine starts last season and could be a capable starter long-term. The Eagles could also give Cam Jurgens a look at guard, while he’s waiting to take over for Kelce at center long-term. Even with an unsettled situation at right guard and a couple key players getting older (Kelce and Johnson), this is a talented offensive line with plenty of depth.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Eagles had a great running game last season, finishing 4th in the NFL with 4.94 YPC and leading the league with 2,715 total rushing yards, but that was primarily because of quarterback Jalen Hurts, as, not only he did lead the team in carries, yards, and touchdowns, but also his ability to take off and run makes it harder for the defense to play the run straight up and opens up more running lanes for running backs, which was especially the case for the Eagles, given their talented offensive line. The running backs themselves were not bad though, with Miles Sanders, Boston Scott, and Kenneth Gainwell all earning average or better grades from PFF.

Sanders led the group with 754 yards on 137 carries (5.50 YPC), despite being limited to 12 games. A 2019 2nd round pick, Sanders has never surpassed 179 carries in a season and has benefitted from being in some good running situations, but his career 5.08 YPC average is impressive and he should continue being effective, still in a good running situation. Scott was Sanders’ direct backup and had 87 carries on the season, but 47 of those came in four games when Sanders was out, meaning if Sanders is healthier in 2022, Scott likely won’t have much of a role. He has a 4.35 YPC average for his career, but he also has just 228 career carries and the 87 carries he had last season were a career high.

Gainwell was the Eagles’ least effective runner last season in terms of PFF grade, but he wasn’t bad, with a 4.28 YPC average on 68 carries and he was also the most effective of the bunch in passing situations, with a 1.39 yards per route run average. His passing game success was not surprising, considering he had 51 catches for 610 yards in his final season at the University of Memphis, before the Eagles took him in the 5th round in 2021. Sanders and Scott also had a passing game role, but neither one was as effective as Gainwell, averaging 0.81 and 1.00 yards per route run respectively. 

Sanders had a 1.61 yards per route run average as a rookie in 2019, but he has seen that drop drastically to 0.72 over the past two seasons, while Scott has just a 1.00 yards per route run average over the past two seasons, so Gainwell should continue having a big passing game role, possibly even a bigger role, now in his second season in the league. He could also have an expanded role as a runner and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him overtake Scott as the #2 on the team for carry opportunities. This isn’t the most talented backfield, but the Eagles have some solid options.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

The two fixtures on the Eagles defensive line for years have been edge defender Brandon Graham and interior defender Fletcher Cox, first round picks in 2010 and 2012 respectively, who have been with the Eagles their entire careers. Both are on the decline, however, now on the wrong side of 30. I will get into Fletcher Cox later, but Graham is coming off of mostly a lost season due to a torn achilles, playing just 50 snaps in two games before the injury last season.

It’s a tough injury to come back from for a player going into his age 34 season, but, even if Graham isn’t as good as he was in his prime, he could still be an above average rotational player for the Eagles in 2022. In total, Graham had 56 sacks, 82 hits, and a 14.8% pressure rate from 2012-2020, while playing at a high level against the run, only missing one game total in nine seasons, and finishing in the top-11 among edge defenders on PFF in seven of those nine seasons.

The Eagles have prepared for life after Graham and even made Graham take a pay cut down to 7.5 million on a restructured contract, so Graham won’t be expected to play as big of a role as he has in the past. Josh Sweat, a 4th round pick in 2018, has broken out in Graham’s absence and the Eagles added Haason Reddick in free agency as well, bringing him in on a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal. Sweat had shown potential in the past prior to last season, but he had only played 842 snaps in three seasons, with his highest snap total only being 422 in 2020. 

In 2021, with Graham out, Sweat got a chance to start and play a bigger role (654 snaps) and he responded with the best year of his career, finishing 23rd among edge defenders on PFF and totaling 7.5 sacks, 7 hits, and a 11.1% pressure rate as a pass rusher. Sweat is a one-year wonder in terms of being an above average starter, but he’s also only going into his age 25 and has the upside to be even better going forward. The Eagles clearly believe in his long-term potential, locking him up on a 3-year, 40 million dollar deal just a few games into last season, which was the last year of his rookie deal. 

Reddick, meanwhile, was a 1st round pick of the Cardinals in 2017. He entered the league with a lot of potential and versatility, but took until his 4th season to find his best position at the NFL level, finishing 24th among edge defenders on PFF in 2020, after being middling at best early in his career. He especially played well as a pass rusher in 2020, with 12.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 13.6% pressure rate. Reddick was still met with a cold market last off-season as a free agent and had to settle for a one-year deal with the Panthers worth just 6 million, but Reddick proved it again in Carolina, with 11 sacks, 11 hits, and a 10.0% pressure rate, leading to a much bigger deal from the Eagles this off-season. Reddick is a middling run defender at best, but, still in his prime in his age 28 season, he should continue his effectiveness as a pass rusher with his new team.

The Eagles also brought back Derek Barnett as a free agent and he’ll give them the depth the Eagles have always liked on the defensive line. Barnett was a first round pick in 2017, but hasn’t developed into more than a solid rotational player. He’s at his best against the run, but is underwhelming as a pass rusher, with 21.5 sacks, 52 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate in 64 games in his career, which is why he had to settle for just a 3-year, 15.21 million dollar deal from the Eagles in free agency this off-season. He will almost definitely play a smaller role than the career high 718 snaps he played last season, with Graham returning from injury and Reddick being added. The Eagles also have 2021 6th round pick Tarron Jackson, who showed some potential on 253 snaps as a rookie. This is once again a deep and talented edge defender group.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

While Brandon Graham had to take a pay cut in order to stay on the roster for 2022, Fletcher Cox was actually released this off-season and tested the open market, before returning to the Eagles on a reduced deal. He’ll still make 14 million this season, but he’s set to hit the open market again next off-season, so this could easily be his final season in Philadelphia, and, going into his age 32 season, Cox has shown significant decline in recent years. 

Cox has still been an above average starter, but he’s dropped off significantly since finishing in the top-8 among interior defenders on PFF in every season from 2015-2019, excelling against the run and totaling 35.5 sacks, 66 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate over those four seasons. His pressure rate has dropped to 9.3% over the past two seasons and his run defense dropped off significantly as well. He could still have another couple solid seasons left in the tank, but he could also continue declining and his best days are almost definitely behind him.

With Cox’s days with the team likely coming to an end soon one way or another, the Eagles used a first round pick on Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis. The Eagles also have Javon Hargrave, who is a solid starter next to Cox, so Davis will begin his career as a reserve, but the Eagles rotate linemen regularly and with, Hargrave also heading into a contract year, there should be an opportunity for Davis to become a starter in 2023 one way or another. Hargrave has struggled against the run since joining the Eagles on a 3-year, 39 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, but he’s excelled as a pass rusher, with 12 sacks, 14 hits, and a 11.0% pressure rate in 31 games. 

Hargrave has also been a better run stopper in the past and has an impressive 10.5% pressure rate for his career, so he has the upside to be a more well-rounded player in 2022, which will be his age 29 season. The Eagles also have 2021 3rd round pick Milton Williams as a reserve option with upside, but he struggled as a rookie, finishing 110th out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF, and he is no guarantee to be significantly improved in his second season in the league in 2022. With Cox, Hargrave, and Davis atop the depth chart, Williams won’t have a big role, as the Eagles have a locked-in top trio of interior defenders, even if Davis is a rookie and Cox is an aging player on the decline.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Alex Singleton led the Eagles in tackles each of the past two seasons, with 257 combined tackles total over that stretch, but he went elsewhere as a free agent this off-season and the Eagles are arguably better off without him. Singleton was a solid run stuffer, but he struggled mightily in coverage and has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season as a result. Meanwhile, Singleton’s replacement, Kyzir White, is a more complete player. 

A 4th round pick in 2018 by the Chargers, White was an average or better linebacker in all four seasons in Los Angeles, with his best year coming last year, when he finished 27th among off ball linebackers in overall grade on PFF and played the 17th most snaps in the league by an off ball linebacker with 979. He might not be quite as good in 2022, but he should still be at least a solid starter, so he was a great value on just a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal.

The Eagles also added Georgia’s Nakobe Dean with a third round pick, but he’s unlikely to have a big role as a rookie, with incumbent every down linebacker TJ Edwards very likely to be ahead of him on the depth chart, playing roughly the same role as a year ago. Edwards had almost as many tackles as Singleton last season (137 vs. 130), but was the much better overall player, finishing 11th among off ball linebackers on PFF in overall grade. 

Undrafted in 2019, Edwards played a career high in snaps last season, but he also was PFF’s 23rd ranked off ball linebacker across 492 snaps in 2020, after flashing on 112 snaps as a rookie, so he’s not a complete one-year wonder. Even if he doesn’t match the best season of his career again in 2022, he should still form a solid linebacker duo with White, with Dean serving as depth and a third linebacker in obvious running situations. A potential first round pick before injury concerns, Dean profiles as a future starter long-term, but will have to wait his turn, with Edwards and White both hitting free agency next off-season. 

The Eagles also have 2020 3rd round pick Davion Taylor, who theoretically has upside, but he’s struggled mightily across 283 career snaps and the addition of Dean is not a good sign for his long-term chances. Taylor probably has a better chance of not making the Eagles’ final roster than he does of carving out a consistent role in this defense. This is a solid linebacking corps, with a pair of solid starters in Kyzir White and TJ Edwards and a promising third option in Nakobe Dean.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Cornerback was arguably the position where the Eagles were most improved from 2020 to 2021. The Eagles acquired long-time Lions #1 cornerback Darius Slay two off-seasons ago to upgrade their secondary, giving up a third round and a fifth round pick and paying Slay near the top of the cornerback market on a 3-year, 50.05 million dollar extension, but he struggled through a career worst year in his first season in Philadelphia, while the rest of the Eagles’ cornerbacks were given worse. 

In 2021, things were much better, in large part to a bounce back year from Slay, who finished 7th among cornerbacks on PFF, his 6th season in the top-28 at his position over the past 8 seasons. Slay is now going into his age 31 season, so there is some concern that he may decline, especially since he’s not long removed from his down 2020 season, but he has a good chance to remain at least an above average starter for another season.

The Eagles also benefited from signing veteran cornerback Steven Nelson to a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. Nelson was a consistently average or better starter in his years with the Chiefs and Steelers, but was available at a reasonable price last off-season after the cap strapped Steelers let him go ahead of the final year of his contract, which would have paid him 8.25 million. Nelson didn’t have the best season of his career in Philadelphia, but was still a solid starter across 16 starts, which gave the Eagles a much needed #2 cornerback. Nelson was only on a one-year deal though and signed elsewhere this off-season, so the Eagles were in the market for a replacement this off-season. 

They found one in James Bradberry, who was in a similar situation as Nelson last off-season, owed 13.5 million non-guaranteed from the Giants and forced to settle for 7.25 million on a one-year deal as a free agent. Bradberry wasn’t as good of a value as Nelson, but he could be an upgrade. A 2nd round pick in 2016 by the Panthers, Bradberry has been a bit inconsistent in his career, but he’s been at least an average starter throughout his career (91 starts in 92 games), with his best season coming in a 7th ranked finish on PFF in 2020. Still only in his age 29 season, Bradberry should remain at least a solid starter in his first season in Philadelphia.

Avonte Maddox was the Eagles’ #3 cornerback last season and he also was a big part of why this cornerback group improved from 2020 to 2021, as Maddox struggled mightily in 2020, finishing 132nd out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF across 509 snaps, before finishing the 2021 season as PFF’s 22nd ranked cornerback across 729 snaps. A 4th round pick in 2018, Maddox was never more than a middling cornerback in his first three seasons in the league and only played about half the snaps, so he’s a one-year wonder, but he’s still only going into his age 26 season and it’s possible he’s permanently turned a corner and will remain an above average cornerback going forward. If Maddox slips up or any of the Eagles’ cornerbacks suffer an injury, they have 2021 4th round pick Zech McPhearson waiting in the wings and he showed promise on 179 snaps as a rookie in a similar reserve role.

Safety was one of the Eagles’ weaker position groups last season, with middling veterans Rodney McLeod and Anthony Harris being the starters. McLeod signed with the Colts this off-season for his age 32 season, but the Eagles probably won’t miss him much and his likely replacement, 2019 6th round pick Marcus Epps, could easily prove to be an upgrade, after earning above average grades from PFF on snap counts of 365 and 505 in 2020 and 2021 respectively. He has the upside to be an above average starter and should hold off his top competition for the role, 2020 4th round pick K’Von Wallace, who has struggled across 386 career defensive snaps.

Harris remains as the other starter, for his age 31 season. Harris had a couple years in his prime when he was one of the best safeties in the league, finishing 5th among safeties on PFF in 2018 and 2nd in 2019, but he hasn’t come close to playing at that level in any of his other five seasons in the league and he’s fallen off pretty quickly in two seasons since his last dominant year, finishing the 2021 season as PFF’s 57th ranked safety out of 98 eligible. Harris could remain a capable starter and may even have some bounce back potential, but he could also easily continue declining and struggle for most of the season. Slay and Maddox might not repeat last year’s strong performances and Harris could be a weak spot in this secondary, but both Epps and Bradberry could prove to be an upgrade on the player they are replacing and, overall, this is still a solid secondary.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Eagles had a middling special teams last season, ranking 15th in special teams DVOA, with their biggest strength being kicker Jake Elliott, who was among the best in the league at his position. Elliott returns for 2022, but their special teams were otherwise underwhelming last season and they didn’t make any significant changes to any part of this unit. If Elliott can continue his elite play, this should remain a solid overall special teams unit, but they would likely struggle if he happened to regress.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Eagles weren’t good enough to win the division or to get out of the first round of the playoffs last season, but they have a good chance to do one or both of those things this season, primarily due to the addition of AJ Brown, who is a perfect fit for their run heavy offense, which he should elevate significantly by giving them a legitimate #1 receiver to go with talented complementary pass catchers Devonta Smith and Dallas Goedert, as well as a talented offensive line and running game. The Eagles also added Haason Reddick, Kyzir White, and James Bradberry this off-season, who should all be above average starters for them on defense. This team doesn’t have any real weaknesses now and should be among the better teams in the league. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC East

Indianapolis Colts 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Colts thought they were set for the foreseeable future under center with former #1 overall pick Andrew Luck, who made three Pro Bowls in his first five seasons in the league from 2012-2016. However, Luck missed all of 2017 with injury and, while he returned in 2018 to make another Pro Bowl and win Comeback Player of the Year, Luck opted to retire after the 2018 season at the age of just 29, citing years of nagging injuries. That led to a quarterback carousel that has seen the Colts start a different quarterback week 1 every season, dating back to Luck’s missed season in 2017.

Luck was first replaced by backup Jacoby Brissett in 2019, but he proved to be a low upside option and was replaced by aging future Hall of Famer Philip Rivers, who played well enough in 2020 to make the post-season, but the Colts didn’t make any noise once they were there and Rivers hung them up after his lone season with Indianapolis. The Colts then traded a first and third round pick to the Eagles last off-season for Carson Wentz, a reclamation project who the Colts thought could discover his old form, reunited with former Eagles offensive coordinator and current Colts head coach Frank Reich.

Wentz was better in 2021 than he was in his final season in Philadelphia, when he finished as PFF’s 34th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible, but Wentz still only finished 23rd out of 39 eligible quarterbacks and was a limiting factor that kept one of the best rushing teams in the league out of the post-season. The Colts also paid Wentz 21.3 million for 2021, in addition to giving up a first and third round draft pick, so they clearly overpaid for a year of middling at best quarterback play.

Fortunately, the Colts were able to play the quarterback market perfectly this off-season, taking advantage of unprecedented movement at the quarterback position. They traded Wentz at the very beginning of the off-season, getting back a pair of third round picks for him from Washington, who also took on the rest of his contract, and then they waited out the quarterback market to get Matt Ryan from the Falcons for just a single third round pick. 

Not only did the Colts secure an extra third round pick in the exchange, helping them recoup draft capital from their original trade for Wentz, but the Colts also got an upgrade at the quarterback position, at a salary lower monetary cost (28.3 million to due Wentz in 2022 vs. 24.7 million for Ryan). Ryan is quite a bit older, going into his age 37 season, and he’s shown some decline in recent years, but he has still been at least a solid starting quarterback.

Over the past three seasons, Ryan has completed 66.0% of his passes for an average of 7.22 YPA, 72 touchdowns, and 37 interceptions, while finishing 18th, 11th, and 16th among quarterbacks on PFF, which is solid play, but it’s also a pretty noticeable drop off for a quarterback who finished in the top-10 among quarterbacks on PFF in 9 of his first 11 seasons in the league prior to the last three seasons. It’s always possible his play completely falls off at his age, but he should have a good chance to remain at least a solid starter, similar to Rivers in 2020. The Colts did well to maneuver to get Ryan as a replacement for Wentz under center this off-season, picking up an extra third round pick in the process.

The Colts also added veteran backup Nick Foles, reuniting him with Frank Reich, with whom he won a Super Bowl in Philadelphia. Reuniting Wentz with Reich might not have saved his career or brought back his old form, but it did get better play out of him and it could conceivably do the same for Foles, who has completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of just 6.12 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions in 12 starts in three seasons since leaving the Eagles. Foles is now going into his age 33 season, but he does give the Colts some upside as a backup, given how well he’s played in certain stretches of his career. Ryan is rarely out of the lineup (3 games missed in 14 seasons in the league), but if he does miss time, Foles could perform well in his absence for a few games.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the Colts had a dominant running game last season, ranking second in the NFL with 5.09 YPC and second in the NFL with 2,540 total rushing yards. The vast majority of that production came from feature back Jonathan Taylor, who led the NFL with 1,811 rushing yards (Nick Chubb was 2nd with 1,259) and 18 rushing touchdowns (no one else had more than 15) on 332 carries (Najee Harris was 2nd with 307). 

Taylor’s 5.45 YPC average was among the best in the NFL and the advanced metrics loved his performance as well, as he ranked third with 3.83 yards per carry average contract, led the league with 66 broken tackles, and ranked 13th with a 56% carry success rate, while also leading the league with 23 carries of 15 yards per more. This comes after a rookie season where the 2020 2nd round pick rushed for 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns on 232 carries (5.04 YPC) and finished as PFF’s 6th ranked running back.

Unfortunately, Taylor plays a position where it’s very hard to dominate like that two years in a row. In fact, there is almost no history of a running back producing like Taylor did last season and then repeating it the following season. Of the 23 running backs ever to rush for more than 1,700 yards in a season, only 7 of them ever surpassed that total again in their career, only one of them repeated it a third time, only 3 surpassed that total again the following season, and only 2 improved their rushing total the following season.

In total those 23 running backs rushed for an average of 1,872 yards on 367 carries (5.10 YPC) and 15 touchdowns in 30 total seasons with more than 1,700 rushing yards, but the following season, they saw their YPC fall by 13.9%, their carries fall by 24.3%, their rushing yards fall by 35.0%, and their rushing touchdowns fall by a whopping 41.8%. Applying those percentages to Taylor’s 2021 production gets 1,178 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 251 carries (4.69 YPC), which are still good numbers, and Taylor’s youth, only going into his age 23 season and his third year in the league, gives him a better shot to exceed those numbers than if Taylor were in the middle of his career, but it would still be a surprise to see him be quite as good as he was last season again. He should remain one of the best running backs in the NFL, but if he’s only good, instead of incredible, that will have a noticeable effect on this offense.

Taylor is unspectacular in the passing game, with a 1.32 yards per route run average in his career, and Nyheim Hines frequently spells him in obvious passing situations, a role he has thrived in throughout his 4 seasons in the league, averaging a 52/378/2 slash line per 16 games and a 1.48 yards per route run average, including 1.69 yards per route run over the past two seasons combined. Hines also averages about 70.5 carries per season and should see a similar total in 2022, even though he’s been pretty ineffective overall, with a 4.15 YPC average.

The Colts took a flyer on veteran free agent Phillip Lindsay this off-season and he could also compete for carries. Undrafted in 2018, Lindsay burst onto the scene with back-to-back thousand year seasons with the Broncos to begin his career, totaling 2,048 yards and 16 touchdowns on 416 carries (4.92 YPC) combined across the two seasons, but he’s completely fallen off since, totaling just 751 yards and 2 touchdowns on 206 carries (3.65 YPC) as a member of three different teams over the past two seasons. 

Lindsay is somewhat young still, only in his age 28 season, but he’s undersized at 5-8 190 and has not shown the same burst over the past two seasons. He could prove to be a worthwhile flyer and compete to be the #2 back on this offense, but he could also just as easily end up off the final roster. He doesn’t show much in the passing game either, with a career 0.95 yards per route run average. This is a deep backfield and it’s also led by one of the top running backs in the league.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Another thing that should hurt the Colts’ running game, and their offense as a whole, is their declining offensive line. From 2018-2020, the Colts had probably the best offensive line in the NFL and they had rare continuity, with the same starters in all three seasons and no significant injury absences. However, the cracks started to show last off-season when long-time left tackle Anthony Castonzo retired and, while he was replaced by veteran Eric Fisher, he was a downgrade and he is also now no longer with the team, with no clear replacement being added. Also gone now is right guard Mark Glowinski, who signed with the Giants this off-season and also was not replaced in any sort of meaningful way. The rest of the group remains, but the Colts have clear weak spots at left tackle and right guard now.

Career backup Matt Pryor will likely take over one starting spot. The 2018 6th round pick has made 15 career starts with the Eagles and Colts in four seasons in the league, 2 at left tackle, 7 at right guard, and 6 at right tackle and he has shown some promise, but he is a projection to a season long starting role and could easily struggle. The Colts signed veteran journeyman Dennis Kelly this off-season and he’s mostly been solid in his career when counted on to play, but he’s mostly played on the right side in his career, with 36 career starts at right tackle, 11 at left tackle, and 4 at right guard, and he’s going into his age 32 season, so he would be a shaky season-long starting option as well.

The Colts also used a 3rd round pick on Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann, a versatile offensive line prospect who could earn a starting role somewhere by the end of the season. Also in the mix for playing time are a pair of recent draftees, 2020 5th round pick Danny Pinter and 2021 7th round pick Will Fries. Pinter has shown some promise in two years in the league, but he is still very unproven with just 329 career snaps played and he’s mostly seen action at center, while Fries played just 22 snaps as a rookie and did nothing to suggest he profiles as a long-term starter. Whoever wins the starting left tackle and right guard jobs will likely be a liability for the Colts’ offensive line.

The good news for the Colts’ offensive line is they have a good chance to get better play from left guard Quenton Nelson and center Ryan Kelly, who both dealt with injuries for much of last season and, as a result, they struggled by their standards. Kelly only missed three games, but struggled when on the field, finishing 34th out of 41 eligible centers on PFF, after the 2016 1st round pick finished in the top-14 at his position of PFF in each of the previous three seasons. Going into his age 29 season, Kelly could bounce back, but durability has been a concern for him throughout his career, as he’s missed 17 games in 6 seasons and has been limited in several others.

Nelson, meanwhile, missed four games, but also did not look anywhere near his top form when on the field. He still finished 26th among guards on PFF, but that was a steep drop off for a player who finished 5th, 2nd, and 4th in the first three seasons of his career from 2018-2020. Nelson had never missed a game prior to last season and is only in his age 26 season, so he has obvious bounce back potential. Thus far in his career, only injuries have kept the 2018 6th overall pick from being one of the top offensive linemen in the entire NFL. 

Right tackle Braden Smith was also selected in the 2018 NFL Draft, 37th overall at the top of the second round, and he has also developed into one of the best players in the league at his position. Smith missed six games last season, but played at his top level when on the field, finishing 16th among offensive tackles on PFF, after finishing 29th, 9th, and 17th in the first three seasons of his career respectively. He hasn’t always been the most durable player, missing time in three of four seasons in the league, but he has a good chance to play more than the 11 games he played last season. The Colts will need Kelly, Nelson, and Smith to be at their healthiest and best to compensate for their weaknesses at left tackle and right guard.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Colts’ receiving corps was a weakness last season, with Michael Pittman topping 1000 yards receiving, but their 2nd leading receiver finishing with a 38/384/3 slash line and no other wide receivers averaging more than 1.50 yards per route run. Their second leading receiver was Zach Pascal, who averaged just 0.78 yards per route run. Pascal is no longer with the team, which should be addition by subtraction, and the Colts have also yet to retain TY Hilton, who still had a decent 1.48 yards per route run average last season, but missed 7 games with injury and now heads into his age 33 season.

The Colts could still opt to bring Hilton back for what would be his 11th season with the Colts, assuming he even wants to play, after reportedly flirting with retirement for much of the off-season, but, for now, the Colts are going with a youth movement at wide receiver. Pittman will return as the #1 receiver and the 2020 2nd round pick is still only in his 3rd season in the league, while 2nd round rookie Alec Pierce and inexperienced 2019 2nd round pick Parris Campbell are expected to be the other starters in three wide receiver sets. 

Pierce comes with a lot of upside, but could be overmatched in a large role in year one, while Campbell’s inexperience comes primarily as a result of injuries, which have limited him to just 436 snaps in 15 games in three seasons in the league, making him a complete wild card in terms of what he can contribute in his 4th season in the league. The Colts also lack depth at the position, with their top reserve options being Keke Coutee, Ashton Dulin, and Dezmon Patmon. 

Coutee has shown promise with 1.49 yards per route run in his career, but the 5-11 180 pounder is a slot only option and played just 33 snaps for the Colts last season after the Texans made him a final cut last off-season, following three injury plagued seasons in Houston (25 of a possible 48 games missed). Dulin and Patmon, meanwhile, have shown very little in limited action since joining the Colts as a 2019 undrafted free agent and a 2020 6th round pick respectively. 

Given the state of the rest of the Colts wide receiver group, the Colts will once again rely heavily on Pittman, who ranked 16th in the NFL last season with 129 targets and took them for a 88/1082/6 slash line, while averaging 1.95 yards per route run and finishing as PFF’s 21st ranked wide receiver. Pittman was not an elite #1 receiver and is still a one-year wonder, after averaging just 1.37 yards per route run in a limited role as a rookie, but he also has the talent and the potential get better going forward and could easily develop into a #1 caliber wide receiver for years to come. The Colts will have to hope he can do so again this season, given their other options, and they are probably expecting him to take another step forward, with another year under his belt and a likely upgrade under center.

The Colts’ also didn’t get much out of their tight ends last season. Mo Alie-Cox led the way with a 24/316/4 slash line and a 1.28 yards per route run average, while splitting playing time with Jack Doyle, who finished with a 29/302/3 slash line and a 1.14 yards per route run average, Doyle retired this off-season, ahead of what would have been his age 32 season, and the Colts will turn to some young players to replace him. 

Kylen Granson played 227 snaps as the third tight end last season and, while he was underwhelming in his limited action, the 2021 4th round pick still has the upside to be better going forward. The Colts also used 3rd and 6th round picks on tight ends in this year’s draft, first taking Virginia’s Jelani Woods and then taking Youngstown State’s Andrew Ogletree. They’ll likely open the season as the 3rd and 4th tight ends, but they have the potential to carve out a role by the end of the season, with Woods being the more likely of the two to develop, due to his higher draft status.

With young, inexperienced players behind him on the depth chart, Mo Alie-Cox will continue to have a big role. Undrafted in 2017, Alie-Cox showed potential early in his career, averaging 1.88 yards per route run through the 2020 season, albeit in limited action. He couldn’t continue that into a larger role in 2021, but he wasn’t bad as a receiver and he had his best year as a blocker. Now going into his age 29 season, he probably doesn’t have any untapped upside, but has a good chance to be at least a capable starter. This looks like an underwhelming receiving corps again, one that will be very reliant on Michael Pittman again, but they at least have some young players with some upside and it wouldn’t be hard for this group to be better than a year ago, at least by default.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

The Colts made a rare player-for-player trade with no draft compensation involved this off-season, swapping cornerback Rock Ya-Sin for Raiders edge defender Yannick Ngakoue. Ya-Sin was a promising young cornerback, earning an above average grade from PFF on 592 snaps in 13 games last season, and was set to make just 2.54 million for his age 26 season in 2022, the final year of his rookie deal, while Ngakoue is set to make a considerable amount more, owed 13 million in the final year of a 2-year, 26 million dollar deal he signed with the Raiders last off-season, so he’ll have to make significantly more impact than Ya-Sin would have and I’m not sure he will.

Ngakoue is still relatively young, in his age 27 season, and has fared well as a pass rusher in recent years, totaling 47.5 sacks, 68 hits, and a 11.8% pressure rate in 79 games over the past five seasons combined, but his run defense is horrendous and it’s concerning that he’s now on his 5th team (Jaguars, Vikings, Ravens, Raiders, and Colts) in three years, moving for the third time by trade. Last season was his worst season against the run, when he finished dead last among edge defenders on PFF in run grade, likely a big part of the reason why the Raiders moved on from him for the more well-rounded Chandler Jones, who wasn’t even that much more expensive (51 million over 3 years).

Ngakoue should remain an effective pass rusher, but his run defense will hurt the Colts and he’s not nearly as good of a value as Ya-Sin would have been in the final year of his rookie deal. The Colts also have already committed a lot of draft capital to the edge defender position in recent years, most recently using their first two draft picks in 2021 on Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo, so adding someone like Ngakoue at a high salary didn’t seem necessary. 

Odeyingbo didn’t make his debut until week 8 because he was coming off of a torn achilles, but he could have been a first round pick if he was healthy during the draft and, even though he only was about average on 173 snaps as a rookie, he has the upside to be a lot better in year two, now another year removed from his injury. Paye, meanwhile, played 638 snaps as a rookie and held up pretty well, finishing in the 68th percentile among edge defenders on PFF. Like Odeyingbo, he also has a good chance to take a step forward in year two. Odeyingbo is the bigger of the two edge defenders and somewhat frequently lined up on the interior in passing situations, something he could continue to do in 2022. 

The Colts also brought back 2018 2nd round pick Tyquan Lewis on a 1-year, 2.545 million dollar deal and he also has played a hybrid edge/interior role in the past for the Colts. Lewis hasn’t shown much overall since being drafted high, never topping 415 snaps in a season and totaling just a 8.9% pressure rate for his career, which is why he had to settle for a cheap one-year deal back with the Colts as a free agent, but he was in the middle of the best year of his career last season before a knee injury ended it after 311 snaps in 8 games, with 2.5 sacks, 3 hits, and a 10.4% pressure rate, while playing well against the run. 

There’s no guarantee Lewis can keep that up over a full season, but he probably won’t have as big of a role with Ngakoue coming in and Odeyingbo expected to be healthy, and he has a good chance to be a useful rotational player. Lewis’ injury last season more or less coincided with Odeyingbo’s return, so the Colts didn’t have both available at the same time much last season. Both could continue seeing action on the interior in passing situations in 2022, as the Colts are not as deep at that position as they are on the edge. 

The Colts also have 2019 2nd round pick Ben Banogu as an option on the edge, but he hasn’t shown much of anything in three years in the league and is competing for a roster spot more than anything, after playing just 440 snaps in 3 seasons in the league and averaging just a 8.9% pressure rate, while struggling as a run defender as well. Even if he makes the final roster, he’s unlikely to see much action in a deep position group, albeit one that lacks an established every down player, with Ngakoue being a huge liability against the run and Paye and Odeyingbo only being in their second years in the league and yet to break out.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned, the Colts are thin at the interior defender position and they’ll be even thinner with key reserve Taylor Stallworth (331 snaps in 2021) now in Kansas City. The Colts used 5th and 6th round picks on Cincinnati’s Curtis Brooks and Missouri State’s Eric Johnson and it’s possible one or both have to play significant roles in year one, but both would likely be overmatched if they did. The Colts signed RJ McIntosh this off-season, but the 2018 5th round pick hasn’t played a snap in two seasons, after playing 179 nondescript snaps across the first two seasons in the league in 2018-2019. 

Without established depth on the interior, it’s not hard to see how the Colts could use Dayo Odeyingbo and Tyquan Lewis on the interior regularly. DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart both return as the starters and both will likely have to play big snap counts again, after playing 843 snaps (7th in the NFL among interior defenders) and 643 snaps respectively last season. Both played well on those big snap counts too, finishing 23rd and 20th respectively among interior defenders on PFF. 

For Buckner, last year’s performance was nothing new and, in fact, was something of a down year by his standards, as he finished with his worst grade from PFF since his rookie season in 2016. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, Buckner was PFF’s 4th ranked interior defender as recently as 2020, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was closer to that level in 2022, as compared to his 23rd ranked finish in 2021. Also a talented run defender, Buckner has totaled 45 sacks, 81 hits, and a 9.8% pressure rate as almost exclusively an interior defender in 95 games in his career, while missing just two games total and averaging 54.0 snaps per game.

Stewart, on the other hand, had a career best season in 2021. The 2017 4th round pick was also solid on snap counts of 627 and 581 respectively in 2019 and 2020 and has essentially gotten better in every season of his career. The 6-4 333 entered the league as purely a situational run stuffer and he’s still at his best against the run, but has developed into a capable pass rusher as well, with a 6.3% pressure rate over the past three seasons. He might not repeat the best season of his career in 2022, but he’s still only in his age 29 season and I see no reason he wouldn’t at least be a solid starter, while playing a similar snap count to the past three seasons. He and Buckner remain as a talented starting duo at a position with questionable depth.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Along with DeForest Buckner, the Colts’ other top defensive player is off ball linebacker Darius Leonard, who has been one of the best players in the league at his position since he entered the league as a 2nd round pick in 2018, finishing in the top-10 among off ball linebackers on PFF in all four seasons, while playing 58 of 65 games and averaging 62.2 snaps per game as a true every down linebacker. The Colts locked him up on a 5-year, 98.5 million dollar extension last off-season ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal, making him the highest paid off ball linebacker in the league, and he’s still worth every penny, even at that place. Only in his age 27 season, without a serious injury history, there’s no reason to expect any drop off from Leonard any time soon.

Bobby Okereke also played an every down role in this linebacking corps last season, playing the 7th most snaps in the NFL by an off ball linebacker with 1,072, and, while he obviously wasn’t as good as Leonard, he held up pretty well in his big role, finishing in the 57th percentile among off ball linebackers on PFF. A 3rd round pick in 2019, Okereke has only been an every down player for one season, but he flashed in limited action as a part-time player in the first two seasons of his career and he could easily remain a solid player in 2022 and beyond, still only in his age 26 season.

EJ Speed, a 2019 5th round pick, and Zaire Franklin, a 2018 7th round pick, return to reserve roles, after playing 146 snaps and 201 snaps respectively last season. Both players are very inexperienced and would be a big question mark if forced into larger roles, as last season’s small snap totals were actually the highest of their careers for a single season. Leonard and Okereke are one of the better linebacker duos in the league, but the Colts’ depth is questionable.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Colts opted not to retain cornerback Xavier Rhodes this off-season, which was understandable, as he was going into his age 32 season and coming off of a season in which he was mediocre in 13 starts. Rock Ya-Sin would have been an obvious candidate to take on a larger role in Rhodes’ absence, but he was sent to the Raiders in the Ngakoue trade, so the Colts had to give out a big contract in free agency to add a cornerback, giving Stephon Gilmore a 2-year, 20 million dollar deal, in addition to having to pay significant money for Ngakoue himself. That is money that could have been spent on other parts of the roster.

Gilmore is also heading into his age 32 season, but he’s coming off of a much better season than Rhodes and has a much higher ceiling. Gilmore was probably the best cornerback in the NFL from 2018-2019, finishing 1st and 6th among cornerbacks on PFF in those two seasons respectively, winning a Super Bowl and a Defensive Player of the Year award with the Patriots, and he still showed a high level of ability last season, when he finished as PFF’s 14th ranked cornerback with the Panthers. However, he played just 304 snaps and, in total, injuries have cost him 14 of a possible 33 games over the past two seasons. Given his age and recent injury history, it’s likely his best days are behind him and he could easily decline further or miss more time with injury in 2022. He comes with a lot of upside, but significant downside as well.

Gilmore will be the Colts’ top outside cornerback, while Kenny Moore will remain their top slot cornerback. Moore had a down year by his standards in 2021, but still earned a slightly above average grade from PFF, his 4th straight season as a starter in which he’s earned an above average grade from PFF (56 starts in 59 games), with his best year coming when he finished as PFF’s 15th ranked cornerback, just two seasons ago in 2020. Not only a slot cornerback, Moore can also hold up outside, despite being just 5-9 190. Still only going into his age 27 season, Moore should remain an above average cornerback again in 2022, playing both outside in base packages and on the slot in sub packages.

Isaiah Rodgers will likely be the third cornerback, playing outside opposite Gilmore in sub packages when Moore moves to the slot. A 6th round pick in 2020, Rodgers has shown a lot of promise in 576 snaps in two seasons in the league and could easily have a solid season in a larger role in 2022. His primary competition will come from reserve backup Brandon Facyson, who has made just 13 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has never been more than a mediocre cornerback, including a 2021 season in which he finished 120th among 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF on 602 snaps (9 starts) with the Raiders. The free agent acquisition is likely to remain a reserve and would likely struggle if forced into extended action.

Safety was a position of weakness for the Colts in 2021, as they had four safeties play at least 376 snaps, but none of them earned even an average grade from PFF. Khari Willis and Julian Blackmon were the Colts’ week one starters at the position, but they were limited to 11 games and 6 games respectively, with Blackmon suffering a torn Achilles in week 6, and neither were particularly effective, even when on the field. 

Willis was PFF’s 36th ranked safety on 620 snaps in 2019 and the 17th ranked safety on 842 snaps in 2020 though, so the 2019 4th round pick has obvious bounce back potential, now in his 4th season in the league. Blackmon, meanwhile, was a middling player at best in 14 starts as a 3rd round rookie in 2020 and now his future is clouded by a serious injury, but he still has a good chance to remain the starter and, even coming off of an injury, he could have the upside to take a step forward in his third season in the league.

The Colts added competition at the position this off-season by drafting Nick Cross in the 3rd round and signing veteran Rodney McLeod from the Eagles. Both would be best as backups though, as Cross could be overmatched in a big role in year one, while McLeod is a long-time starter (123 starts in nine seasons since 2013) who has mostly earned average or better grades from PFF, but who is now going into his age 32 season and who is coming off of his lowest graded season from PFF since 2013. The Colts have a good chance to be better at safety by default this season, while their cornerback group should benefit from Gilmore being an upgrade on Xavier Rhodes and a possible bounce back year from Kenny Moore.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Colts finished last season slightly above average with a 14th ranked special teams DVOA. Kicker Michael Badgely and punter Rigoberto Sanchez were both middling players and their kickoff and punt return teams were both mediocre, but they did have five core special teams players who all finished in the top-50 special teamers on PFF. George Odum and Matthew Adams are gone from that group, signing with the 49ers and Bears respectively this off-season, but EJ Speed, Ashton Dulin, and Zaire Franklin all remain, with Armani Watts being signed from the Chiefs to give them a 4th top-50 player from a year ago. On top of that, the Colts will get kicker Rodrigo Blakenship back from injury, which should be a slight upgrade. They’ll likely continue struggling in the return game, but this should still be a solid special teams unit overall.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Colts upgraded the quarterback position this off-season, which should help a team that almost made the post-season a year ago, but they also probably won’t get quite the same level of production from Jonathan Taylor, their receiving corps is still very questionable, and their offensive line is continuing to shed talent. Their offense should still be solid and their defense has a good chance to be a solid unit as well, but they don’t stack up with the other top teams in the AFC and, while they should be considered the favorites to win the AFC South, the weakest division in the AFC, they’re unlikely to go on a long playoff run once they get there and if they slip up in the division, it’s going to be tough for them to get a wild card spot. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC South

Dallas Cowboys 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The 2019 Cowboys ranked 2nd in offensive efficiency, 11th in defensive efficiency, and 5th in overall efficiency, but finished just 8-8 and out of the playoffs, in large part due to a 0-5 record in one score games, with their +113 point differential also being among the best in the league, ranking 6th. That suggested the Cowboys had a good chance to take a big step forward in 2020, as their record in close games would inevitably even out in the long-term (the 2018 Cowboys were 9-3 in one score games). However, the Cowboys’ 2020 season was completely derailed by injuries with their quarterback Dak Prescott (11 games missed) and their top-3 offensive linemen Tyron Smith (14 games), La’El Collins (16 games), and Zack Martin (6 games) all missing significant time, among others, leading to the Cowboys dropping to 6-10.

The 2021 Cowboys were healthier though and, perhaps not surprisingly, had a good season on both sides of the ball, ranking 8th in offensive efficiency, 15th in defensive efficiency, and 7th in overall efficiency, similar to their 2019 campaign, only this time their record in one-score games was 5-3 and their overall record improved to 12-5. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for the Cowboys to avoid going out in the first round of the playoffs and things have only gotten worse for them since then, as they have lost arguably the most talent of any team in the league this off-season and did not have the cap flexibility to do much of anything to replace them.

Part of the reason for the Cowboys’ lack of cap flexibility is the 4-year, 160 million dollar deal they gave to franchise quarterback Dak Prescott last off-season. The Cowboys got creative with the structure of the deal and his 2022 cap hit of 19.73 million is manageable, but eventually all of that money will hit the cap, which is something the Cowboys had to be mindful of when making making moves this off-season, when they chose to trade wide receiver Amari Cooper for a late round pick (20 million dollar salary), to cut right tackle La’El Collins (10.7 million), and to not match contracts given to left guard Connor Williams (14.035 million over 2 years) and edge defender Randy Gregory (70 million over 5 years). All four of those players were above average starters last season and their absence will be noticeable on the field this season.

Prescott’s cap hit is set to jump to 49.13 million in 2023 and, while the Cowboys can push some of that forward by restructuring the contract, it’s going to get increasingly harder to keep Prescott’s cap number at a manageable number. That’s relevant because, since the start of the salary cap era in 1994, just 5 of 28 Super Bowls have been won by a quarterback with a cap hit that was more than 11% of the salary cap and all of those quarterbacks are Hall of Fame caliber players. Prescott has played well throughout his 6-year career, finishing above average on PFF in every season, and he is coming off arguably the best season of his career, finishing 8th among quarterbacks on PFF in 2021, but he hasn’t quite shown himself to be the caliber of quarterback who could win a Super Bowl with a big cap hit number. 

In total, Prescott has completed 66.6% of his passes for an average of 7.64 YPA, 143 touchdowns, and 50 interceptions in 85 career starts, including 68.8% completion for 7.46 YPA, 37 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions last season. The ankle injury that wiped out most of Prescott’s 2020 season seems to have limited his athleticism, as he had just 48 carries for 3.04 YPC last season, after averaging 5.07 YPC on 259 carries prior to the injury, but he’s only missed one other game with injury and his career and it’s possible some of his athleticism returns now another year removed from the injury, even if he doesn’t return to his old form as a runner.

The injury hasn’t affected him as a passer clearly, but, with his supporting cast starting to decline, Prescott will need to elevate his play to an elite level to compensate and to keep the Cowboys consistently competitive as key players leave around him. It remains to be seen if he can do that though and the smart money is on the Cowboys declining in 2022 compared to 2021. If he misses any time this season, Prescott would be again replaced by Cooper Rush, who made his first career start in place of Prescott last season when he missed a game with a shoulder injury. 

Rush performed pretty well in that game, completing 24 of 40 for 325 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception in an upset victory, but he’s still a former undrafted free agent with one start in five seasons in the league, so he’s still very unproven and would almost certainly be a big downgrade from Prescott if he had to start for an extended period of time. Even if Prescott isn’t quite an elite quarterback this year, he should still be one of the better quarterbacks, so the Cowboys’ quarterback room is in a relatively enviable position from a talent standpoint.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

With the Cowboys lacking financial flexibility to replace the key players they lost this off-season, they mostly turned to the draft to fill holes and, with a pair of offensive line starters from a year ago no longer with the team, it’s not surprising the Cowboys opted to use their first round pick on an offensive lineman, taking Tulsa’s Tyler Smith 24th overall, their 4th selection of an offensive lineman in the first round in the past 12 drafts. Smith was penalty prone in college and, despite his physical tools, could take some time to adjust to the NFL game from the small school level, but the Cowboys need him to make an impact right away, as departed left guard Connor Williams was PFF’s 10th ranked guard last season, while departed right tackle La’El Collins was PFF’s 13th ranked offensive tackle. 

Smith was a left tackle at the collegiate level, but is expected to begin his career at left guard, rather than right tackle, likely locking in Terence Steele as the starter at right tackle. An undrafted free agent in 2020, Steele has been the swing tackle for the Cowboys over the past two seasons, but they’ve had so many absences at tackle in that time that Steele has still made 27 starts over the past two seasons, despite technically being a reserve, with 6 of those starts coming on the left side and 21 coming on the right. Steele struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 89th out of 93 eligible on PFF, but he was a middling starter in year two and, while he probably doesn’t have a huge ceiling, he could easily remain a capable starter long-term.

The other option would be to play Smith at right tackle and start Connor McGovern at guard, where he has shown promise in 14 career starts since the Cowboys drafted him in the 3rd round in 2019, but it seems like the most likely option is Smith at left guard, Steele at right tackle, and McGovern beginning the season on the bench. It’s also possible McGovern could push for the starting center job, as incumbent Tyler Biadasz has been middling at best in 21 starts over the past two seasons, since the Cowboys drafted him in the 4th round in 2020. The Cowboys have seemed hesitant to move McGovern to center though, despite the fact that he played there in college, and it’s also possible that Biadasz could be better in his third season in the league, so the most likely outcome is McGovern being a reserve.

With the rest of the offensive line being unsettled, the Cowboys will need big seasons from their two best offensive linemen, long-time starters and perennial Pro Bowlers Zack Martin and Tyron Smith who, along with Tyler Smith and retired All-Pro center Travis Frederick, were the four offensive linemen the Cowboys have selected in the first round in recent drafts. Zack Martin and Tyron Smith have been great players for a long time, but they are both going into their age 32 season and both have become increasingly injury prone in recent years, so it’s no guarantee they continue playing at the same level.

Tyron Smith still finished the 2021 season as PFF’s 2nd ranked offensive tackle, his 5th season in the top-7 at his position over the past 9 years and 8th season in the top-15, but he missed 6 games, bringing his total missed games to 33 over the past 7 seasons, a stretch in which he has never played more than 13 games in a season. If he can stay on the field, he has a good chance to remain an above average starter, but I wouldn’t expect him to quite play at the level he played at last season. It’s possible the Cowboys drafted Tyler Smith to eventually replace Tyron Smith at left tackle, though the Cowboys have also taken Josh Ball in the 4th round in 2021 (zero rookie year snaps) and Matt Waletzko in the 5th round this year as developmental long-term options.

Martin, meanwhile, was PFF’s 1st ranked guard last season, his 8th straight season in the top-5 at the position, but he’s missed seven games over the past two seasons, after missing just two in the previous six seasons. He hasn’t shown as many signs of breaking down as Tyron Smith, but he will almost definitely begin to decline over the next few seasons. I wouldn’t expect either of them to drop off significantly in 2022 and both could still remain among the best players in the league at their positions, but they’re shakier options than they have been in recent years. It’s a concern for an offensive line that will struggle to replace a pair of key starters from a year ago, even with a first round pick being used on the unit.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Losing Amari Cooper will hurt for the Cowboys, but he’s not coming off of his best season, finishing 41st among wide receivers on PFF, averaging 1.65 yards per route run (down from his 1.85 career average), and posting a 68/865/8 slash line. On top of that, if there was one position where the Cowboys could afford to lose a player like Cooper it was wide receiver, with recent first round pick Ceedee Lamb looking like a long-term #1 receiver and Michael Gallup capable of being a solid #2 receiver at a cheaper price than Cooper, re-signing on a 5-year, 57.5 million dollar deal this off-season, with 23 million guaranteed over the first two seasons.

Like on the offensive line, the Cowboys used an early pick on a wide receiver to replace Amari Cooper, taking South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert in the 3rd round. He’ll compete with veteran free agent acquisition James Washington for the #3 wide receiver job behind Lamb and Gallup. Washington was a 2nd round pick by the Steelers in 2018 and was given plenty of opportunity in Pittsburgh, but his best slash line was a 44/735/3 in 2019 and he averaged just 1.14 yards per route run over his four seasons in Pittsburgh, including just 0.85 yards per route run in 2021, a season in which he finished as PFF’s 109th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. 

Washington may be the starter in three wide receiver sets early in the year, but the Cowboys are probably hoping Tolbert takes his job sooner rather than later. It’s also possible both Tolbert and Washington could have to play in three wide receiver sets at the beginning of the season because Gallup is coming off of a torn ACL suffered in early January, which means he’ll be just 8 months removed from the injury in week 1, making him a question mark for the start of the season. 

Gallup also dealt with a calf injury earlier last season, and, between the two injuries, he was limited to just a 35/445/2 slash line in just 9 games total. Cedrick Wilson played well as an injury replacement last season, averaging 1.74 yards per route run and totaling a 45/602/6 slash line, despite opening the season as the #4 receiver, but he signed with the Dolphins this off-season and both Tolbert and Washington are unlikely to be as good as Wilson was last season, so the Cowboys will have to hope Gallup doesn’t miss too much time.

Despite his recent injuries, the Cowboys obviously still believe in Gallup, as evidenced by the fact that they gave him a big long-term contract. He’s taken on more of a complementary role over the past two seasons due to the addition of Ceedee Lamb, but he still had a 59/843/5 slash line in 2020 in Lamb’s first season in Dallas, despite not having his starting quarterback for most of the season, and he finished with a 66/1107/6 slash line in 14 games when he was the #2 receiver in 2019, with he and Amari Cooper being one of just five wide receiver duos in the league to both surpass 1000 yards that season. 

Gallup also only missed two games in his first three seasons due to injury, prior to last year’s injury plagued season. A torn ACL clouds his future and he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a 1000+ yard receiver, but the 2018 3rd round pick is still only going into his age 26 season and has the upside to be an above average wide receiver for years to come if he can put his recent injuries behind him. It might take him a year to return to form and he probably won’t play all 17 games this season, but he could still make a significant impact, especially in the second half of the season.

With Cooper gone, Ceedee Lamb is officially the #1 receiver on this offense and it’s impressive what he’s been able to do despite not being a true #1 receiver thus far in his career, as he posted a 74/935/5 slash line with 1.81 yards per route run as a rookie in 2020 on 111 targets (24th most in the NFL) and then posted a 79/1102/6 slash line with 2.06 yards per route run last season on 120 targets (24th most in the NFL again), finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked wide receiver for the 2021 season in the process. Still only going into his age 23 season, Lamb could easily take another step forward and has the potential for a massive statistical performance in his third year in the league.

Trading Cooper also allowed the Cowboys to keep tight end Dalton Schultz on the franchise tag, after his breakout 2021 campaign. Schultz finished last season with a 78/808/8 slash line and was PFF’s 7th ranked tight end overall, but the 2018 4th round pick is a one-year wonder in terms of producing at that level, posting a 63/615/4 slash line in his first season as the starter in 2020 and averaging a 1.08 yards per route run average in his first three seasons in the league, before that average jumped to 1.47 in 2021. The Cowboys were smart to make him prove it another time, set to pay him 10.931 million on the franchise tag for 2022, rather than keeping him on a big long-term extension. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him do it again though, if he’s permanently turned the corner as a player. 

Depth is a bit of a concern at the tight end position though. Blake Jarwin was solid as the backup last season when he played, but he was limited to just eight games in 2021 and is expected to miss the entire 2022 season with injury. That leaves Sean McKeon, a 2020 undrafted free agent who has played 183 mediocre snaps in his career, Jeremy Sprinkle, a blocking specialist with 37 catches in 76 career games, and 4th round rookie Jake Ferguson to compete for the #2 tight end role. Whoever wins the job is unlikely to have much of an impact. This is still a talented receiving corps, though they’re not as good as a year ago and could have significant depth problems if Gallup misses an extended period of time to begin the season.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

One player the Cowboys brought back this off-season was running back Ezekiel Elliott, but the Cowboys wouldn’t have gotten any cap relief from letting him go this off-season, because of past restructures of his contract, so they really didn’t have a choice but to bring him back at a 14.12 million dollar price tag. They didn’t restructure his contract this off-season though, so they’ll be able to get some cap relief by moving on from him next off-season, ahead of 12.62 million owed in 2023. I would expect that to happen. 

Elliott has been the Cowboys feature back since they drafted him 4th overall in 2016, with his career lows being just 237 carries and 979 yards in a season, but his efficiency has dropped off significantly over the past two seasons (4.12 YPC vs. 4.62 in his first four seasons in the league), as his salary has increased, while backup Tony Pollard has proven to be a better option (5.08 YPC over the past three seasons on 317 total carries). Pollard, a 4th round pick in 2019, is set to hit free agency next off-season and, barring an unexpected bounce back year from Elliott, the plan is likely to let go of Elliott to free up money to bring back Pollard as the long-term feature back. 

Pollard has also been by far the more effective option as a receiver over the past three seasons, with Elliott averaging 0.82 yards per route run and 5.05 yards per target and Pollard averaging 1.42 yards per route run and 6.00 yards per target, though the Cowboys do still prefer Elliott’s pass protection to Pollard’s. Elliott still had 284 touches to Pollard’s 169 last season, but those numbers could be more even in 2022. Pollard looks like the clearly better option, but he’s a projection to a larger role, so it’s good to have Elliott around as well, at least for another season. This is a talented backfield overall.

Grade: A

Edge Defenders

The Cowboys also lost edge defender Randy Gregory in free agency, after he finished as PFF’s 18th ranked edge defender overall in 2021, especially playing well as a pass rusher, with 6 sacks, 12 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate. Like at wide receiver and on the offensive line, the Cowboys turned to the draft for a replacement, using their 2nd round pick on Mississippi’s Sam Williams. They also took a flyer on veteran Dante Fowler, signing him to a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal. 

Williams and Fowler will compete for roles with holdovers Dorance Armstrong (507 snaps), Tarell Basham (627 snaps), and Chauncey Golston (414 snaps). The Cowboys should also get a healthier season from expected starting defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, after he played just 271 snaps in seven games last season, and All-Pro caliber linebacker Micah Parsons lines up as an edge defender with regularity in sub packages. 

I’ll get into Parsons more in the linebacker section, but his biggest impact last season was as an edge defender, with 13 sacks, 15 hits, and a ridiculous 21.8% pressure rate, while leading the league with a 38.7% pass rush win rate. He probably won’t be quite as good this season, just because no one is ever that good two years in a row, but it’s clear the 2021 12th overall pick is here to stay as an elite edge rusher for years to come.

Lawrence was also still a very effective player when on the field last season, totaling 3 sacks, 4 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate, while defending the run at a high level and earning PFF’s 3rd highest overall grade among edge defenders during the weeks he was active. That’s nothing new for Lawrence, who now has five straight seasons in the top-13 among edge defenders, dating back to 2017, a stretch in which he has 39.5 sacks, 48 hits, and a 13.8% pressure rate in 71 games, while also excelling against the run. 

Lawrence also didn’t miss a game from 2017-2020, before last year’s foot injury, so he’s not an overly injury prone player. The Cowboys still made him take a pay cut to stay on the roster, originally set to make 19 million non-guaranteed for his age 30 season in 2022, but his contract is for 40 million over 3 years with 30 million guaranteed, so they clearly still value him and he could easily have at least another couple above average seasons left in the tank, even if he does begin to decline. If they can get a healthier season out of him, the Cowboys should still have a strong edge rush with him and Parsons, even with Gregory gone.

When Parsons plays linebacker in base packages, Dorance Armstrong is probably the favorite to start opposite DeMarcus Lawrence, after being re-signed on a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal this off-season. A 4th round pick in 2018, Armstrong struggled throughout his first three seasons in his career, earning below average grades from PFF on an average of 301 snaps per season, but he earned an above average grade on 507 snaps in 2021. 

Armstrong has always been a better run stopper than a pass rusher and his career pressure rate is just 8.3%, but he was better both against the run and as a pass rusher in 2021, with that pressure rate jumping to 11.0%, and the role the Cowboys are likely to play him in is primarily a base package run stopper role, so his pass rush ability isn’t as important as it would be if he was going to play in more sub packages. Armstrong could regress a little after the best season of his career, but he’s not a bad option for the role the Cowboys are going to play him in and, still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he has some untapped potential.

Fellow holdovers Chauncey Golston and Tarell Basham are coming off mediocre seasons and will not be guaranteed to have roles because, while they will miss Gregory’s high end pass rush ability, they are a deeper group overall this season. Golston is a 2021 3rd round pick with the upside to be better going forward though, while Basham is a veteran in his age 28 season who has had better years in the past, so both could have better seasons this year than they did a year ago.

Newcomers Sam Williams and Dante Fowler could also see rotational roles. Williams enters the league pretty raw, but he has a lot of potential as a pass rusher and could contribute in that role immediately. Fowler, meanwhile, has at least some bounce back potential, though he’s coming off of two straight down years with the Falcons, finishing 117th among 124 eligible edge defenders on PFF in 2020 and 103rd among 129 eligible edge defenders in 2021.

Fowler was never as good as the 11.5 sacks he had in 2019 suggested, as he had the benefit of playing on a great Rams defense and his peripheral pass rush stats were not as good as his sack total, but he still has a decent 10.4% pressure rate for his career, even with the past two seasons included, and he’s also still only in his age 28 season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him carve out a rotational role and to see him be effective in that role. The Cowboys will miss Randy Gregory, but they have a very talented edge rush duo in DeMarcus Lawrence and Micah Parsons and some intriguing depth options, so this is still a good position group overall.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

The interior defender position was the Cowboys’ biggest weakness last season. They had six different players see at least 150 snaps, but none were better than middling on PFF, with several struggling mightily. The Cowboys didn’t make any additions to this group this off-season, aside from using a 5th round pick on Arkansas’ John Ridgeway, so they’re clearly expecting to get more this season out of a very young position group. The Cowboys should also get healthier seasons out of Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill, who missed 12 games and 11 games respectively last season.

Hill was a 2nd round pick by the Cowboys in 2019 and has shown some upside, but he spent most of his rookie year as an inactive, playing just 121 snaps in 7 games, and then he tore his ACL midway through the 2020 season, limiting him to just 212 snaps in 5 games in 2020 and then just 171 snaps in 6 games in 2021, meaning he’s played just a total of 18 out of a possible 49 games, while playing just 504 total snaps in three seasons in the league. 

Hill could be an effective rotational player for the Cowboys if healthy, but he’s a complete wild card at this point. Gallimore, meanwhile, is a 2020 3rd round pick who struggled on 416 snaps as a rookie, finishing 109th out of 139 eligible interior defenders on PFF, before struggling through 164 snaps in five games last season, only returning late in the season after missing most of the season with an elbow injury suffered in the pre-season.

With Hill and Gallimore missing significant time last season, a pair of rookies saw significant action, with 2021 3rd round pick Osa Odighizuwa leading the group with 614 snaps played. He struggled mightily though, finishing 113rd out of 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF, and 6th round rookie Quinton Bohanna was even worse, finishing dead last out of 146 eligible interior defenders across 222 snaps. Both could be better in year two and Odighizuwa in particular has a lot of upside and could benefit from playing a smaller role this season, but Bohanna has a long way to go to even be a useful rotational player and neither look like good starting options.

Carlos Watkins is the relative veteran of the bunch and played 437 snaps last season, but the Houston Texans 2017 4th round pick has never earned more than a middling grade from PFF for a season. He might have to play a significant role again out of necessity, but he’s an underwhelming option. Given the state of this position group, it’s possible the rookie Ridgeway sees action in year one, but he probably would be overmatched in a significant role. The Cowboys don’t have any true starting caliber interior defenders and will hope to get by with a heavy rotation of several different players, so this once again figures to be a position of weakness, even if they do have some upside as a result of their relative youth.

Grade: C

Linebackers

I mentioned Micah Parsons’ rookie year dominance as a pass rusher. He was much more ordinary in coverage and struggled against the run at times, but he still finished as by far PFF’s top ranked off ball linebacker in overall grade, including his pass rush grade, which was the best in the NFL regardless of position. As I said, he might not be quite as good again as a pass rusher in 2022, but he should still be one of the best edge rushers in the league for years to come and the other aspects of his game could develop further, making him a more complete player.

Parsons isn’t the only linebacker the Cowboys have used a first round pick on recently, taking Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall in the 2018 NFL Draft. Vander Esch also had a great rookie season, almost as great as Parsons’ rookie year, finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked off ball linebacker on 785 snaps, while playing all 16 games, but injuries limited Vander Esch to just 19 total games between 2019 and 2020 and he was middling at best even when on the field. 

Vander Esch did play every game in 2021 though and, while he wasn’t quite as good as his rookie year, he still finished as PFF’s 30th ranked off ball linebacker on 661 snaps. Given that, it’s surprising that he had to settle for a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, but teams are very cautious of his injury history, with his neck problems dating back to his collegiate days. He could easily miss more time in 2022, but he could just as easily have another above average season, possibly even better than last season, as a first round talent who is still only in his age 25 season.

The Cowboys didn’t retain Keanu Neal this off-season and he was PFF’s 86th ranked off ball linebacker out of 94 eligible last season, so he could be addition by subtraction, but he played 579 snaps even with Vander Esch healthy last season and the Cowboys don’t have any proven depth options to replace him. Instead, they will likely rely on 2021 4th round pick Jabril Cox as their third linebacker. He has the upside to be a useful player, but he also only played 9 snaps as a rookie, so he is a mystery as an NFL player. The Cowboys also added more young linebacker depth in this year’s draft, taking Damone Clark in the 5th round and Devin Harper in the 6th round, but it’s likely they’d struggle if forced into a significant role in year one. Depth is a concern for the Cowboys at the linebacker position, but they’re in good shape with their top two.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Trevon Diggs is the other young Cowboys player who captured the attention of NFL fans, leading the league with 11 interceptions, the most interceptions in the NFL since Everson Walls in 1981. Diggs was the ultimate boom or bust player though, leading the league with 1,016 receiving yards allowed, the most yards allowed by a cornerback since the 2016 season. PFF gave Diggs a middling grade for 2021 and, while I think that underestimates the value of his interceptions, it’s clear that his interception total doesn’t tell the whole story, when you take into account how many yards and big plays he allows.

Diggs also gave up a lot of yards as a rookie in 2020, as the 2nd round pick allowed the 21st most yards in the league (650), despite playing just 68.4% of his teams snaps. Only one player played fewer snaps than him and allowed more yards and, on top of that, Diggs only managed to pick off three passes, earning another middling grade in the process. He’s only going into his age 25 season and should remain a ball hawk, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if his interception total got cut in half, given the volatility of interception stats and his yardage allowed will likely remain among the most in the league either way.

Fellow starting cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis also received middling grades from PFF last season. Lewis was PFF’s 116th ranked cornerback out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in 2020, but that was mostly because he was a poor fit for their defensive scheme that season and, prior to 2020, he started his career with three straight seasons of above average grades on PFF, including a career best 41st ranked finish in 2019. Brown, on the other hand, has never been more than a middling starter, but he’s experienced, with 57 starts in 82 games in six seasons in the league, and he is still relatively young, in his age 29 season. 

All three of the Cowboys’ top-3 cornerbacks played 16 of 17 games last season, so there wasn’t much need for depth behind them, but the Cowboys have good alternatives if injuries strike, as they have 2021 2nd round pick Kelvin Joseph and 2021 3rd round pick Nahshon Wright waiting in the wings. Joseph showed a lot of promise on 165 rookie year snaps and could push to start at some point in year two and, while Wright struggled on his 92 snaps, he still has the upside to develop into a contributor long-term. It’s a deep position group.

At safety, the Cowboys brought back Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker on deals worth 10 million over 2 years and 7 million over 2 years respectively and they will compete with fellow holdover Donovan Wilson for the two starting safety jobs. Kearse was a starter for most of 2021, starting every game from week 1 to week 17, and he finished as PFF’s 14th ranked safety on the season. He had just 12 career starts in five seasons in the league prior to last season and had never surpassed 503 snaps played in a season, so he’s a one-year wonder in terms of being an above average season long starter, but he always flashed potential as a reserve, so it wasn’t too surprising that he broke out in a larger role and he has a good chance to remain at least a solid starter, even if he isn’t as good as he was a year ago. Kearse should be considered a heavy favorite to keep his job. 

Hooker, on the other hand, only played 445 snaps in a rotational role last season, but he’s been an above average starter before and, only going into his age 26 season, he has the potential to bounce back and be an above average starter once again, now another year removed from the torn achilles that ended his 2020 season after just two games. Durability has always been a concern for Hooker, who has missed 30 games in five seasons in the league since being drafted in the first round in 2017 by the Colts, but early in his career he showed some of why he was drafted highly, earning average or better grades from PFF in all three seasons, including a career best 18th ranked finish in 2018. He’s never played more than 15 games in a season and he’ll almost definitely miss some time at some point this season, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise if he won the starting job and bounced back to being at least a solid starter.

That likely leaves Wilson as the third safety, but he’ll have a fair shot at a starting job, with neither Hooker nor Kearse signed to a big contract, and, given Hooker’s durability concerns, there is a good chance Wilson ends up making some starts this season one way or another. Selected in the 6th round in 2019, Wilson finished above average on PFF in the first significant action of his career in 2020, playing 673 snaps total, but he saw that role scaled back to 338 snaps in 2021 and, when on the field, his play was also more middling than it was the prior year. He’s not a bad third safety though and should be able to provide a reliable option as a short-term replacement if needed. Trevon Diggs isn’t as effective of a cover cornerback as his interception total suggests, but this is not a bad unit and they have good depth overall.

Grade: B

Special Teams

The Cowboys also had a good special teams unit last season, ranking 6th in the league in special teams DVOA. They lost one of their best core special teamers Corey Clement this off-season, but talented punter Bryan Anger remains, Tony Pollard and Ceedee Lamb remain locked in as the primary kickoff and punt returner respectively, after averaging 28.8 yards per kickoff return and 9.9 yards per punt return respectively last season, and their one weak spot last season, kicker Greg Zuerlein, is no longer with the team, replaced with undrafted rookie Jonathan Garibay, who has a good chance to be an upgrade even as a rookie, making 85.2% of his collegiate kicks, including 15 of 16 with a long of 62 yards in 2021. They might not be quite as good on special teams in 2022, but they should at least remain an above average unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Cowboys were one of the better teams in the league last season, finishing 12-5 with the 7th highest efficiency rating in the league, but they suffered significant losses on both sides of the ball this off-season and figure to be a noticeably worse team as a result. They should still compete for a playoff spot in the weaker NFC, but their division rival Eagles got significantly better this off-season and now look like the favorites for the division, which would leave the Cowboys fighting for a wild card spot. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC East

Cincinnati Bengals 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bengals went all the way to the Super Bowl last season, coming within one score of victory, in a run that was surprising in more ways than one. For starters, it was surprising to see the Bengals even make the playoffs, given the 4th worst playoff odds to do so in the NFL by sportsbooks before the season, behind the Texans, Lions, and Jets. Then once the Bengals got to the post-season, few expected them to make it all the way to the Super Bowl, coming off of a solid, but unspectacular 10-7 regular season. The Bengals’ efficiency in the regular season didn’t suggest they were about to go on a long playoff run either, as they finished 17th in mixed efficiency. 

On top of that, the Bengals weren’t overly efficient during their playoff run either, which makes it even more surprising. In their three wins, which came by a combined 13 points, the Bengals didn’t win the yards per play battle or the first down rate battle once. The primary reason they won those close games is because they won the turnover battle by a combined +5 across those three games. The Bengals also won the turnover battle by two in the Super Bowl, to make that game closer than it could have been, bringing their overall post-season turnover margin to +7.

Turnover margin is highly inconsistent week-to-week and year-to-year, however, especially compared to efficiency metrics. Case in point, the Bengals had an even turnover margin in the regular season last year, showing no real propensity for forcing or avoiding turnovers until the post-season. Their post-season turnover success is unlikely to continue into 2022, so the Bengals will have to become a more efficient team on both sides of the ball (15th ranked offensive efficiency, 21st ranked defensive efficiency) if they want to have a chance to make it back to the Super Bowl, especially with the AFC becoming even more loaded this off-season.

The biggest reason for more optimism that the Bengals will be more efficient at least on offense this season is the improvements they’ve made on their offensive line to better protect franchise quarterback Joe Burrow. I’ll get into the specific additions later, but the Bengals took full advantage of having their franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie deal and used their financial flexibility to address by far their biggest need from a year ago. Burrow was sacked a league-leading 51 times last season, with the Bengals allowing the 3rd most sacks in the league, and, in addition risking injury to their most important player, having that many negative plays really has a big impact on an offense’s overall efficiency. 

That high sack total also came despite the fact that Burrow had the 4th highest percentage of passes thrown in less than 2.5 seconds last season. Burrow was effective on both quicker throws and longer developing plays, completing 70.4% of his passes for an average of 8.87 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in the regular season, while finishing as PFF’s 2nd ranked quarterback, but he was especially effective on longer developing plays, not surprising due to his arm strength and his talented receiving corps.

On passes thrown after more than 2.5 seconds last season, Burrow saw his yards per attempt average jump from 7.98 to 10.29 and his quarterback rating jump from 106.1 to 112.6. In fact, that YPA and QB rating led all quarterbacks in the league on throws after 2.5 seconds, with that QB rating being more than eight points higher than any other quarterback in the league on those types of throws. Better offensive line play should allow the Bengals to call more longer developing plays, which should result in more plays down the field.

Burrow is still a year one wonder in terms of being the elite quarterback he was last season, but the 2020 1st overall pick came into the league with a massive upside and he had a solid rookie season as well before a torn ACL ended his season, ranking as PFF’s 19th ranked quarterback. He could easily be one of the best quarterbacks in the league for years to come and, even if he isn’t quite as good as he was a year ago, his supporting cast should be better, thanks to improvements on the offensive line.

Burrow will be backed up by Brandon Allen for the second straight season, after the veteran journeyman won the backup job by outplaying Ryan Finley in Burrow’s absence in 2020. Allen still struggled for a lot of his stint as Burrow’s replacement though, completing 63.4% of his passes for an average of 6.51 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, good for a QB rating of just 82.0, and his career QB rating of 77.5 is even worse. The Bengals would obviously see a major drop off if Allen had to play for a significant period of time.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

To improve their offensive line, the Bengals made a trio of additions, signing Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’El Collins to reasonable contracts worth 18 million over 3 years, 35 million over 4 years, and 21 million over 3 years respectively. None are elite players at their positions, but they all should be upgrades on the players they’re replacing. Karras is coming off the best season of his career in 2021, when he played almost exclusively at guard and finished 18th among guards on PFF, but he’s expected to move back to center with the Bengals in 2022. He might not be as good back at center, but he still was a capable starter across 31 starts at center from 2019-2020, so he should easily be an upgrade on Trey Hopkins, who finished last season ranked 37th among 41 centers on PFF and was not retained as a free agent this off-season.

La’El Collins will take over at right tackle, where Riley Reiff was a solid starter across 12 starts last season, but then went down for the season with injury and was replaced by Isaiah Prince, a 2020 7th round pick, who struggled the rest of the way in the first significant experience of his career, including the Bengals’ playoff run. Reiff was not retained ahead of his age 34 season this off-season and Collins gives them a younger, more talented option. 

Collins missed all of 2020 with injury and served a 5-game suspension last season, which were big factors in the Cowboys releasing him this off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 10.7 million dollar salary, but he made 47 of 48 starts from 2017-2019 and he’s played at a high level when on the field recently, finishing 4th and 13th respectively among offensive tackles on PFF in his last two healthy seasons in 2019 and 2021 respectively. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, Collins should continue to play at a high level in 2022 and doesn’t have an overly concerning injury history.

The only player who might not be an upgrade is Alex Cappa. Cappa will take over at right guard, which was a position of weakness last season, and he’s in the prime of his career, in his age 27 season, coming off three straight seasons as an above average starter in Tampa Bay (46 starts), including a 19th ranked season among guards on PFF in 2020 and a 15th ranked season in 2021. However, Cappa will effectively be replacing left guard Quinton Spain, who was PFF’s 16th ranked guard last season, across 16 starts, before not being retained as a free agent this off-season, ahead of his age 31 season. Cappa will be a solid starter and is a younger long-term option, but might not be noticeably better than Spain was last season.

Hakeem Adeniji and Jackson Carman were the starters who struggled at right guard last season and they’ll have to move to left guard this season to earn their way into their starting lineup. Carman already moved there towards the end of last season and the 2021 2nd round pick should be considered the favorite for the starting job by virtue of his draft status and his slightly better play last season, finishing 64th among 90 eligible guards on PFF, while Adeniji, a 2020 6th round pick, finished 84th and didn’t play much better on 233 rookie year snaps in 2020 either. Carman needs to take a step forward to be even an average starter, but he has the upside to do so. If he can, the Bengals would be without a clear weak spot on the offensive line, a huge change from last season.

Left tackle Jonah Williams was the Bengals’ best offensive lineman last season and could easily be their best again this season. A first round pick in 2019, Williams missed his entire rookie season with injury, but he finished 43rd among offensive tackles in 10 starts in 2020 and 24th among offensive tackles in 16 starts in 2021. Only going into his age 25 season, his best play could still be ahead of him. The Bengals made the obvious decision to pick up his 5th year option this off-season, guaranteeing him 12.604 million for 2023. The Bengals will almost definitely try to extend him long-term sometime in the next year and he should end up with a top of market deal whenever he ultimately signs. Depth is a concern on this offensive line, without any proven backups, but this starting five should be an above average group as long as they’re healthy, which would be a drastic change from last season.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

I mentioned earlier than the Bengals have a talented receiving corps, but that might be underselling it, as they have arguably the top receiving corps in the league and a trio of wide receivers who would all be #1 wide receivers for many teams across the league. JaMarr Chase led the way, as the 2021 5th overall pick had one of the best rookie seasons ever by a wide receiver, transitioning seamlessly from dominating the SEC as Joe Burrow #1 receiver at LSU to dominating the NFL as Joe Burrow’s #1 receiver with the Bengals.

Chase finished with a 81/1455/13 slash line and was the NFL’s 4th leading receiver last season, despite his 128 targets ranking just 19th in the NFL. Chase benefitted from having Burrow throwing him the ball and having a lot of talent around him on offense, but he also finished as PFF’s 11th ranked wide receiver in his own right and was especially dangerous after the catch, ranking 5th among wide receivers with 8.1 yards per catch coming after the catch. He should remain one of the best wide receivers in the league for years to come, still only going into his age 22 season.

Tee Higgins also surpassed 1000 yards last season, totaling with a 74/1091/7 slash line in just 14 games, while finishing as PFF’s 8th ranked wide receiver. That came after the 2020 2nd round pick posted a 67/908/7 slash line, despite inconsistent quarterback play, as a rookie, when he also finished as PFF’s 35th ranked wide receiver. Still only going into his age 23 season, Higgins’ best years could still be ahead of him and he’d be a #1 wide receiver for at least half of the league, if not more. Higgins and Chase have a good chance to both surpass 1000 yards again next season and for years to come, something only two other wide receiver duos in the league did last season (Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams).

Tyler Boyd has a pair of 1000-yard receiving seasons on his resume, but he’s only the third wide receiver on this season behind Chase and Higgins. Despite that, he still finished last season with a 67/828/5 slash line, his 4th straight season surpassing 800 receiving yards. It was also his 4th straight season finishing in the 60th percentile or higher among wide receivers on PFF. He doesn’t quite have the top end athleticism and ability of Higgins and Chase, but he’s still a very reliable possession receiver who excels in the slot and who would be many teams’ top wide receiver if he was elsewhere. Still only going into his age 29 season with just four games missed over the past four seasons, I don’t see any reason to expect a drop off this season.

With the three wide receivers that they have, the Bengals understandably don’t have much use for the tight end position in this offense, but CJ Uzomah was not a bad 4th option last season (49/493/5 on 63 targets) and, while he signed with the Jets in free agency, the Bengals replaced him with a comparable player in Hayden Hurst. Hurst is an unspectacular player who has not been an above average pass catcher or run blocker in his career, but his 1.21 yards per route run average for his career is higher than the 1.07 yards per route run that Uzomah averaged last season and Hurst obviously won’t be relied on for a big role in this offense, likely serving mostly as a check down option if nothing develops downfield.

Backup tight end Drew Sample will see a significant role, likely to see around the 458 snaps in 17 games he had last season. Sample was a surprise 2nd round pick in 2019 because of his lack of receiving production in college and he hasn’t proven to have untapped receiving ability at the next level, averaging a pitiful 0.82 yards per route run throughout his career, but he’s at least a solid blocker, which is mostly what he’ll be used for. He caught just 11 passes in the regular season last season and could easily fail to exceed that total in 2022.

The Bengals likely won’t use a lot of two tight end sets, given the wide receiver talent they have, but they do have a bit of a concerning depth situation behind their top-3 wide receivers. While they didn’t need depth last season because Boyd, Higgins, and Chase missed a combined four games, they did have a reliable 4th option in Auden Tate if they needed him and he’s no longer with the team, leaving them without a reliable 4th option. If one of their top-3 wide receivers suffers an injury, this offense will feel the effect in a noticeable way. At full strength though, it’s hard to find a team with better passing game weapons.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Featured running back Joe Mixon also is involved in the passing game, taking 48 targets for 42 catches, 314 yards, and two touchdowns last season, in addition to ranking 3rd in the NFL with 292 carries. Mixon has played a similar role for the Bengals over the past four seasons, averaging 285 carries and 43 catches per 16 games over that stretch, and, while he is not an elite running back, he has fared pretty well with his heavy workload, averaging 4.25 yards per carry and 1.11 yards per route run over those four seasons, while finishing in the top-16 among running backs in three of those seasons. The 2017 2nd round pick is still only in his age 26 season and should remain an above average starter for at least another couple seasons.

Running backs are more susceptible to injury than any position though and, while Mixon has mostly been durable, he did miss 10 games in 2020. If that happened again in 2022, the Bengals would be in a lot of trouble, as backup Samaje Perine is an underwhelming replacement option. He has averaged 4.64 yards per carry over the past two seasons, but he has done so on carry totals of 63 and 55 and he averaged 3.45 YPC in the one season in his career in which he saw significant action, carrying the ball 175 times as a rookie in 2017. 

The Bengals like to use Perine to give Mixon a rest in obvious passing situations, but he is underwhelming in that role as well, averaging 1.00 yards per route run and 6.09 yards per target over the past two seasons. The Bengals also have 2021 6th round pick Chris Evans and 2019 6th round pick Trayveon Williams, but they are both very inexperienced, with career carry totals of 17 and 41 respectively, so they are unlikely to make much of an impact, even if they do make the final roster. This remains Joe Mixon’s backfield and he should be one of the better running backs in the league again.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

The Bengals will have a lot of continuity on defense this season, returning 14 of their 15 defenders who played at least 250 snaps last season. Their one loss could actually prove to be addition by subtraction, as Larry Ogunjobi finished 103rd among 146 eligible interior defenders on PFF across his 724 snaps last season. The Bengals drafted Florida’s Zachary Carter in the third round and he will likely have a rotational role as a rookie, but BJ Hill will be the one to take Ogunjobi’s place in the starting lineup, which should be a good thing for this defense, as he was significantly better than Ogunjobi last season, despite his more limited snap count at 502. 

Hill was PFF’s 28th ranked interior defender in 2021 and actually earned above average grades from PFF in each of his first three seasons in the league prior to last season as well. Despite that, he fell out of favor with the Giants, seeing his snap count drop from 642 to 486 to 375 across his three seasons there before they traded him to the Bengals for reserve offensive lineman Billy Price last off-season, a move that proved to be a steal for the Bengals. Cincinnati kept him on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal this off-season and he should prove to be an above average starter now that he gets a chance to see more every down starter, in his age 27 season. Also good against the run, Hill also has 13 sacks, 13 hits, and a 7.9% pressure rate in 64 career games, despite a relatively limited role.

DJ Reader will start opposite Hill and he was one of the biggest reasons for the Bengals’ surprising performance on defense last season, returning to action after being limited to 259 snaps in five games by injury in 2020 to finish as PFF’s 8th ranked interior defender on 590 snaps in 2021. Reader also finished 7th among interior defenders on PFF in 2019, as well as top-35 finishes in 2017 and 2018, and he’s never had much of an injury history outside of 2020, playing at least 14 games in 5 of 6 seasons in the league. A dominant run stuffer at 6-3 347, Reader is also a surprisingly efficient pass rusher for a big interior defender, with a career 7.7% pressure rate, albeit with just 8.5 actual sacks (25 quarterback hits) in 81 games. Still only going into his age 28 season, there is no reason to expect a drop off from Reader in 2022.

Josh Tupou also returns as a reserve, after playing 410 snaps last season, and he should have a similar role this season. Tupou has been a solid run stuffer as a rotational player in the past, but he struggled in that aspect in 2021 and has never provided much pass rush, with a 4.9% pressure rate for his career. Tupou also sat out the 2020 season, so his last solid rotational season came in 2019 when he played 465 snaps, which is a career high for him. He could bounce back and be a solid run stuffer, but that’s not a guarantee and even that isn’t much of an upside, even for a reserve. He could be pushed for playing time by both Zachary Carter and 2021 4th round pick Tyler Shelvin, who struggled across 49 rookie year snaps. Depth is a concern at the interior defender position for the Bengals, but DJ Reader is a well above average starter and Hill should be a solid starter as well.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Not much changes for the Bengals at the edge defender position this season, though they figure to get at least some contribution from 2021 3rd round pick Joseph Ossai, who missed his whole rookie season with injury. How much contribution they get remains to be seen, but they have the opportunity for him to carve out a significant reserve role, as top reserves Cameron Sample and Wyatt Ray struggled across 310 snaps and 219 snaps respectively. 

Sample was a 4th round pick in 2021 and has the upside to be better in 2022, while Ray is a 2019 undrafted free agent who had played 72 snaps prior to last season. Ossai and Sample figure to be higher on the depth chart this season than Ray, who is not a lock to make the final roster and who will likely never develop into a useful rotational player. The Bengals also have 2020 5th round pick Khalil Kareem, who has shown a little bit of promise thus far in his career, albeit across just 369 career snaps in two seasons in the league.

Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard will remain the starters. Hendrickson is one of a few great free agent signings the Bengals have made on defense over the past few off-seasons, including DJ Reader. Hendrickson is only the league’s 19th highest paid edge defender on a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal, but he finished his first season in Cincinnati as PFF’s 11th ranked edge defender in terms of pass rush grade, while totaling 14 sacks (5th in the NFL), 15 quarterback hits, and a 16.5% pressure rate. 

Hendrickson was somewhat of a risky signing because he was a one-year wonder, with 13.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hits, and a 13.3% pressure rate in his contract year in 2020, after the 2017 3rd round pick totaled just 6.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 10.3% pressure rate across the first three seasons of his career combined, but Hendrickson has proven to be a late bloomer and, still only going into his age 28 season, he should continue being one of the better edge rushers in the league. His run defense has always left something to be desired, but he has still finished in the top-29 among edge defenders in overall grade on PFF in back-to-back seasons.

Hubbard, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick by the Bengals in 2018. He isn’t nearly as good as Hendrickson, but he has consistently earned middling grades from PFF across his first four seasons in the league, so he’s a consistent player who you could do worse than. He had 7.5 sacks last season, though that was largely on volume, as he finished 6th among edge defenders with 877 snaps played and had an underwhelming 10.3% pressure rate overall. A better run stopper than pass rusher, Hubbard’s pressure rate last season is mostly in line with his career average of 10.0%. 

Hubbard is still only going into his age 26 season, but I wouldn’t expect much more than he’s shown so far, even if he does happen to have the best season of his career. He would likely benefit from playing a smaller role, but the Bengals will need one of their young reserve edge defenders to step up for that to happen. Trey Hendrickson elevates this position group significantly by himself, but they otherwise are an underwhelming bunch.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Not much changes in the linebacking corps for the Bengals either, although that’s not really a good thing, as this was an underwhelming group a year ago. Top linebacker Logan Wilson earned a middling grade from PFF across 707 snaps, but their second linebacker Germaine Pratt struggled across 692 snaps, finishing 69th among 94 eligible linebackers on PFF. Wilson and Pratt are about recent third round picks, Wilson being drafted in 2020 and Pratt being drafted in 2019. Wilson also was a middling player across 343 rookie year snaps and should continue being at least a capable starter going forward, but Pratt has mostly struggled throughout his career.

Pratt could be pushed for his job by Akeem Davis-Gaither and Markus Bailey, also recent draft picks (4th and 7th round respectively in 2020), who both flashed in limited action last season, across 207 snaps and 256 snaps respectively. Both are very unproven though, as Markus Bailey played just 44 rookie year snaps prior to last season, while Davis-Gaither struggled on his 314 rookie year snaps in 2020. With no off-season additions made to this group, they should be very similar to last season’s underwhelming group, barring one of their young linebackers taking a big step forward.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Bengals’ biggest weakness on defense last season was probably cornerback Eli Apple, who received a below average grade from PFF across 15 regular season starts, before ultimately surrendering the game winning touchdown in the Super Bowl to Cooper Kupp. Apple isn’t as bad as internet memes might suggest and it’s not all that surprising that the Bengals brought him back as a free agent this off-season, but he’s never earned more than a middling grade from PFF across 6 seasons in the league (63 starts) and the Bengals needed to at least add competition for him, which they did when they used their second round pick on Nebraska cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. Apple is probably the favorite to open the season as the starter, but Taylor-Britt will likely be starting sooner rather than later and, while he could struggle in his first NFL action, he also possesses an upside that Apple does not.

Whoever wins the battle between Apple and Taylor-Britt will start opposite Chidobe Awuzie, another one of the Bengals’ great free agent signings from recent off-seasons. A 2nd round pick by the Cowboys in 2017, Awuzie showed promise early in his career, including a 27th ranked season among cornerbacks on PFF as a 16-game starter in 2019, but he saw his play drop off significantly on the Cowboys’ miserable 2020 defense, led by overmatched defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, resulting in Awuzie finishing 101st among 136 eligible cornerbacks in PFF, right before he was about to hit free agency.

Given the circumstances, Awuzie would have been wise from a financial standpoint to take a one-year deal somewhere last off-season, with the intention of trying free agency again this off-season after rehabbing his value. Instead, Awuzie signed a 3-year deal with the Bengals worth up to only 21.75 million total, which proved to be a huge steal for the Bengals. Out of Nolan’s system, Awuzie put it all together in 2021 and had the best season of his career, finishing as PFF’s 2nd ranked cornerback on the season. 

Given how well he played and that he is still only going into his age 27 season, Awuzie likely would have commanded at least 30 million guaranteed over the first two years of a new contract as a free agent this off-season, but, instead, the Bengals have him locked in for the next two years at just 12.5 million total. He might not repeat the best season of his career again in 2022, but he’s very much in the prime of his career and should have another high level season this year.

The Bengals also got a good value with ex-Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton last off-season, signing him to a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal to be their slot cornerback. Hilton consistently earned above average grades throughout his four seasons in Pittsburgh, not only covering at an above average level, but also providing value as a run stopper and a blitzer, so it was surprising he didn’t have more of a market, but his lack of size and ability to play outside at 5-9 185 probably had something to do with it. With the Bengals, he played 84.2% of his 803 snaps on the slot and yet again finished above average on PFF, ranking 23rd among cornerbacks at season’s end. He should continue that into 2022 and beyond, still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season.

In addition to the selection of Taylor-Britt in the second round, the Bengals also used a 2022 first round pick on the secondary, taking Michigan’s Daxton Hill. While their selection of a cornerback early was not surprising, the selection of a safety was because safety was not a weakness for the Bengals last season. However, starting safeties Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell are both not signed long-term, with Bates being franchise tagged ahead of free agency this off-season and Bell going into the final year of his contract, and the Bengals must not be confident in their ability to sign them both long-term. 

A 2nd round pick in 2018, Bates likely wants to be paid at the top of the safety market, currently at least 17.5 million annually, and, while he has shown top level ability in 2018 and 2020, finishing 12th and 1st respectively among safeties on PFF in those two seasons, he has also earned middling grades from PFF in both 2019 and 2021, so his lack of consistency is probably giving the Bengals some pause on paying him what he wants. He’s an incredible coverage safety at his best, but he’s also missed among the most tackles by any safety in the league over the past four seasons combined, with 65 total. He has obvious bounce back potential, which would be a huge boost for this defense, but he’s been very inconsistent in the past.

Vonn Bell, meanwhile, has proven to be a steal on the 3-year, 18 million dollar deal the Bengals gave him two off-seasons ago and he will be due a big raise on his next contract. A 2nd round pick by the Saints in 2016, Bell was mostly a middling starter in New Orleans, but he did finish 26th among safeties on PFF in 2018 and he’s shown that form more consistently in Cincinnati, ranking 20th and 21st among safeties on PFF in his two seasons with the team. He should continue his above average play into 2022.

Unless either Bates or Bell are traded, which is a possibility given their contract situations, Hill will likely start the season as a reserve, but he could see some action on the slot as a 4th cornerback and the Bengals could use more three safety looks this season to try to mask some of their lack of linebacker depth and, ultimately, he figures to be a starter on this defense long-term one way or another. This is a more talented group than a year ago after the Bengals used their first two draft picks on defensive backs and, while Chidobe Awuzie might not play as well as a year ago, any regression from him could easily be offset by a bounce back season from Jessie Bates, so this is a strong group overall.

Grade: B+

Special Teams

The Bengals finished last season 8th in special teams DVOA, in large part due to the high level of play of rookie kicker Evan McPherson. The Bengals were underwhelming aside from McPherson though, with punter Kevin Huber being middling at best, below average punt and kick return units, and just one player (Mitchell Wilcox) who finished in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF last season. The Bengals kept pretty much everything the same this season, so they’ll need McPherson to have another high level year for this to remain an above average unit. McPherson could be one of the best kickers in the league for years to come, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he struggled a little bit more in year two than he did as a rookie and, if that’s the case, this would be more of a middling special teams unit.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Bengals finished last regular season ranked 17th in efficiency and needed a +7 turnover margin in their four playoff games to come as close to the Super Bowl as they did, something they showed no propensity for in the regular season (+0 turnover margin) and something they won’t be able to rely on going forward into 2022. For that reason, the Bengals needed to get better this off-season if they were going to have a chance to make it back to the Super Bowl, but they did a great job of addressing their needs this off-season, especially on the offensive line, turning a big position of weakness into a strength. 

In fact, on paper, the Bengals look like one of the best teams in the league and one of the top Super Bowl contenders. The Bengals have a good chance to win the AFC North and, while the AFC is loaded with other contenders and it’s very tough for Super Bowl losers to return the following season (just one has done so in the past 25 seasons), those are really the biggest things standing in the Bengals’ way, as they have the talent to make it back. Whether or not they do remains to be seen, but they have as good of a shot as anyone. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC North

Arizona Cardinals 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cardinals were the NFL’s last remaining undefeated team last season, starting the year 7-0 and, even after dropping a couple games, they still remained in the NFC’s #1 overall seed at 10-2, with just five games left in the season. However, the Cardinals lost four of those last five regular season games to not only fall out of the #1 seed, but to fall out of the division lead as well, forcing them to go on the road in the first round of the playoffs, where they were embarrassed by their divisional rival Los Angeles Rams.

In some ways, the Cardinals’ collapse was predictable, as they were very reliant on the turnover margin early in the season, with a +12 turnover margin through 12 games. Turnover margins tend to be very unpredictive on a week-to-week basis and the Cardinals’ efficiency ratings, which are more predictive, did not show them to be as good as their record through 12 games, as they ranked 9th, 14th, 12th, and 8th in offensive, defensive, special teams, and overall efficiency. In the Cardinals’ final five games, they were even in the turnover margin, which made it much tougher for them to win games.

Their failure to continue to dominate the turnover margin was not their only problem though, as they badly missed top wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who missed 7 of the Cardinals’ final 9 regular season games, including their final 4 games, as well as their playoff loss, top defensive lineman JJ Watt, who missed the final 10 games of the regular season before returning to be a shell of himself in the playoff loss, and top cornerback Robert Alford, who missed the final 4 regular season games and the playoff loss. As a result, the Cardinals fell to 13th, 19th, 20th, and 15th in offensive, defensive, special teams, and overall efficiency by season’s end.

That doesn’t bode well for the Cardinals’ chances of bouncing back in 2022. Hopkins is suspended for the first six games of the season, JJ Watt heads into his age 33 season with a big history of major injuries, and the oft-injured Robert Alford was not retained for his age 34 season this off-season. On top of that, the Cardinals lost Christian Kirk, their top receiver in Hopkins’ absence, Chandler Jones, their top edge defender, Jordan Hicks, their top off ball linebacker, and Chase Edmonds, their most efficient running back this off-season, with their only major addition being former Ravens wide receiver Marquise Brown, who cost the Cardinals their first round pick in a trade.

Quarterback Kyler Murray will have his work cut out for him if he wants to get the Cardinals back to the post-season. The 2019 #1 overall pick, Murray has taken a step forward in all three seasons in the league, going from 29th among quarterbacks on PFF as a rookie to 12th in 2020 and then 7th last season, emerging as one of the top dual threat quarterbacks in the league. In total, Murray completed 69.2% of his passes for an average of 7.87 YPA, 24 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions last season, while rushing for 423 yards on 88 carries (4.81 YPC) with 5 touchdowns.

Murray is still only going into his age 25 season and may still have further untapped upside and, even if he doesn’t, he’s likely to remain one of the better quarterbacks in the league for years to come. The Cardinals will have to make a decision on his contract long-term at some point in the next calendar year or so, with Murray set to see his salary jump to 29.703 million in the final year of his rookie deal after this season, and Murray spent some of the off-season pressuring for a big deal from the Cardinals sooner rather than later, with this being the first off-season he is eligible for a new contract. 

Murray is likely to command a top of market deal whenever he signs so there might be some logic to giving him a deal now, when the top of the market is lower than it might be in a year, with Lamar Jackson still unsigned long-term and Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert set to be eligible for extensions next off-season. However, when Murray is ultimately signed long-term, it will make it even more difficult for the Cardinals to keep talent around Murray. In the salary cap era, only Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks have won the Super Bowl with a cap hit lower than 11%, so Murray will have to prove he is on that level to justify his new payday when that day comes.

One concern with Murray, given his size (5-10 207) and playing style (314 carries in 3 seasons in the league), is injuries and he did miss the first three games of his career last season, but the Cardinals were able to hold down the fort pretty well because backup Colt McCoy gave them solid play. McCoy has been a bit of an erratic backup throughout his career, with just a 80.3 career QB rating, but he had a 101.4 QB rating on 99 pass attempts in his first season in Arizona last season and seems to be a good fit for the scheme. He’s only started 33 games total in 12 seasons in the league and he’s now going into his age 36 season, so it’s very possible he would struggle if he had to start for an extended period of time, but there are worse backups. The Cardinals obviously need Murray to stay healthy though, if they want any chance at being contenders.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, the Cardinals traded their first round pick, 23rd overall, to the Ravens for wide receiver Marquise Brown. The Cardinals did get back pick #100, but they still gave up the equivalent of the 28th overall pick in draft capital, a steep price to pay for a wide receiver who wants a big long-term extension added on to the 15.52 million he’s due over the next two seasons on the final two years of his rookie deal. 

Brown is a 2019 first round pick who is still only going into his age 25 season and there is some believe that he’ll be able to consistently put up better numbers in a more pass heavy system, after beginning his career with the run heavy Ravens, which is a big part of the reason Brown requested a trade from Baltimore in the draft place. However, Brown has actually surpassed 100 targets in each of the past two seasons and, while his 1.69 yards per route run average for his career is solid, it’s not the kind of number that suggests he’s secretly an elite wide receiver trapped in the wrong offense.

Brown played with Murray at the University of Oklahoma and their previous chemistry, as well as the likelihood that having Brown around will keep the mercurial Murray happy, make the addition of Brown more logical, but he hasn’t proven he’s worth the top level contract he wants long-term and giving a first round pick for the right to give him that contract is very questionable. He does give them a necessary replacement for Christian Kirk (1.81 yards per route run in 2021) and he gives them a interim #1 wide receiver while DeAndre Hopkins serves his 6-game suspension, but he comes at a very steep price.

Prior to the seven games he missed last season, Hopkins has missed just two games total in eight seasons in the league from 2013-2020. Starting in his breakout season in his second season in the league, the 2013 1st round pick had seven straight seasons among the top wide receivers in the league from 2014-2020, averaging a 99/1315/8 slash line and 2.18 yards per route run, despite generally inconsistent quarterback play, but he’s now going into his age 30 season and seemed to be slowing down a little bit in 2021 even before his injury, as he was averaging just 1.76 yards per route run and was on pace for just a 71/972/14 slash line across 17 games. 

Hopkins still was PFF’s 18th ranked wide receiver across the 10 games he did play, but that was his lowest rating since his 2016 season, with five finishes in the top-7 among wide receivers on PFF the previous seven seasons prior to 2021. His age isn’t a big concern, but 30-year-old wide receivers are about 40% less likely to have a 1,000 yard receiver than 26-year-old wide receivers and, even if he doesn’t drop off significantly this season, it’s likely that is coming in the next 2-3 seasons, with 33-year-old wide receivers being 80% less likely to have a 1,000 yard receiver than 26-year-old wide receivers. Hopkins has a good chance to remain one of the better wide receivers in the league when on the field in 2022, but his best days are likely behind him and a higher than expected dropoff is certainly possible, especially if he continues becoming increasingly injury prone.

Before trading for Marquise Brown, the Cardinals brought back veteran AJ Green, but he was never a long-term solution, now heading into his age 34 season. The 4th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Bengals. Green surpassed 1,000 yard receiving in six of his first seven seasons in the league, but has had a pretty typical decline for a top level wide receiver, posting his most recent and likely final 1,000 yard season in 2017, in his age 29 season. 

Green got off to an impressive start in 2018, with a 46/694/6 slash line in 9 games, but then he got hurt, leading to him missing all of 2019 and he has not nearly been the same since. His yards per route run average in 2021 was up from the pathetic 1.02 average he had in his final season in Cincinnati on a hapless Bengals team, but he still only averaged 1.60 yards per route run in a middling at best 2021 campaign and it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he declined further in 2022. He could remain a serviceable stopgap, but he could also see his abilities totally fall off and his best days are almost definitely behind him either way.

The Cardinals also have 2021 2nd round pick Rondale Moore, who figures to be the 3rd receiver to begin the season, with Hopkins out. Moore is still extremely raw, only turning 22 this season, but he had an impressive 1.64 yards per route run average as a rookie in a limited role and could be ready for a bigger role in year two. Even when Hopkins returns, Moore figures to continue seeing action in 4-wide receiver sets, which the Cardinals run about as much as any team in the league under head coach and offensive play caller Kliff Kingsbury.

Because of how many 4-wide receiver sets they run, the Cardinals never used a tight end much in the early days of the Kliff Kingbury/Kyler Murray era, but that changed when they acquired veteran Zach Ertz from the Eagles mid-season last year. Ertz seemed to be nearing the end in 2020 and earlier last season with the Eagles, seeing his yards per route run average drop to 1.03 between 2020 and his time with the Eagles in 2021, after averaging 1.83 in the first seven seasons of his career prior to 2020, but he managed to have something of a resurgence in what was previously considered an unfriendly offense for tight ends in Arizona, posting a 56/574/3 slash line in 11 games while averaging 1.54 yards per route run, not as good as what he averaged earlier in his career, but still an above average figure for a tight end.

Ertz’ best days are still almost definitely behind him, as he now heads into his age 32 season, and it’s very possible he could see his 2020 form return, but it’s also very possible he remains a solid starter for at least another season. The Cardinals clearly believe Ertz can remain a solid starter going forward, re-signing him on a 3-year, 31.65 million dollar deal with 14.5 million fully guaranteed in the first year, but they also hedged their bet a little bit, using their 2nd round pick on Colorado State’s Trey McBride as potential long-term successor for Ertz. 

McBride was mostly drafted for the future, but with Hopkins suspended to begin the year, we could see more two-tight end sets from the Cardinals, so the rookie could have a significant role to begin the season. The Cardinals also still have veteran tight end Maxx Williams, whose torn ACL suffered last season was what spurred the Cardinals to acquire Ertz in the first place. Williams has just 102 catches in 68 career games and injuries have been a consistent problem for him, costing him 45 games total in seven seasons in the league, but he’s an above average blocker and will be useful in that capacity if he can recover from his latest injury and stay on the field. This is a deep and talented group with a lot of potential when Hopkins is out there, but they’ll miss him early in the season and he may continue declining when he returns.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Cardinals employed a two-headed attack out of the backfield last season, three if you include Kyler Murray’s contributions as a runner. This off-season, both of those backs, James Conner and Chase Edmonds, were set to hit free agency. Conner had more carries (202 vs. 116) and significantly more touchdowns (15 vs. 2), but he was also the significantly less efficient back on a per carry basis (3.72 YPC and 52% carry success rate vs. 5.10 and 58% for Edmonds), so it might have been a mistake for the Cardinals to bring Conner back on a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal, while Edmonds signed in Miami on a cheaper 2-year, 12.1 million dollar deal.

The Cardinals also didn’t do anything to replace Edmonds aside from signing mediocre veteran Darrel Williams, so Conner figures to have a significantly expanded role this season, a concern considering he’s been injury prone throughout his career, never missing fewer than two games and never surpassing 215 carries in a season. Williams is likely to have at least some role as the #2 back, probably mostly on passing downs, after a 47/452/2 slash line with the Chiefs last season, and he’ll likely see at least a couple starts at some point as well when Conner inevitably misses time with injury, but that is a concern, considering Williams has averaged just 3.85 YPC on 237 carries in four seasons in the league. Even his 1.18 yards per route run average is mediocre, actually lower than Conner’s 1.27 average for his career.

It’s possible Williams could face competition for the #2 back job from incumbent #3 running back Eno Benjamin, but the 2020 7th round pick struggled when given the first action of his career in 2021, averaging just 3.47 YPC on 34 carries. He’d likely see some role if Conner gets hurt, but he would likely be just as unimpressive as Williams in an expanded role. The Cardinals are counting on Conner staying healthy as a feature back, with questionable depth behind him, but his 4.16 YPC and 1.27 yards per route run average for his career are underwhelming and he’s never been healthy enough to have more than 270 touches in a season in five seasons in the league, so he’s a questionable fit in a feature back role. It’s a concern for this backfield.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Cardinals’ offensive line was more of a weakness than a strength in 2021. Their expected starting five was not that bad, but all five missed at least some time with injury, so they rarely had their expected line together and their top reserves Josh Jones (852 snaps), Sean Harlow (441 snaps), and Justin Murray (90 snaps) all struggled. In addition to depth being a weakness, the Cardinals also had a weak spot on the starting offensive line at right guard to address this off-season. However, the Cardinals did nothing of note to address their depth and only replaced mediocre incumbent right guard Max Garcia with free agent addition Will Hernandez, who may not be a significant upgrade.

A second round pick by the Giants in 2018, Hernandez looked like a long-term above average starter after a solid rookie season in which he made all 16 starts and finished as PFF’s 24th ranked guard. However, that has proven to be his peak thus far in his career, as he’s finished below average on PFF in each of the past three seasons and was even benched for a stretch in 2020. Garcia finished the 2021 season as PFF’s 64th ranked guard out of 90 eligible, but Hernandez was even worse, finishing 68th. Hernandez is an experienced starter (56 career starts) and may still have some bounce back potential, but he’s already in his age 27 season and is unlikely to have significant untapped upside. I wouldn’t expect him to be more than a serviceable starter and even that may be wishful thinking.

The Cardinals’ depth concerns upfront are even more concerning as several of their starters are on the wrong side of 30, with left guard Justin Pugh going into his age 32 season, center Rodney Hudson going into his age 33 season, and right tackle Kelvin Beachum going into his age 33 season. Pugh was an injury concern even when he was younger, playing all 16 games just twice in nine seasons in the league and missing 30 games total over those nine seasons, and he’s unlikely to become more durable now in his 30s. He was still a solid starter last season, but early career injuries largely sapped his abilities, as he hasn’t been more than a solid starter since 2016, and he could easily fall off significantly in 2022, given his age.

Hudson had a significant drop off last season, in his first year with the Cardinals after being acquired from the Raiders for a third round pick last off-season, finishing 28th out of 41 eligible centers, after finishing in the top-13 among centers in each of the previous seven seasons, with five top-10 finishes in those seven years. Hudson could bounce back a little bit in 2022, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and he also could just as easily drop off even further, as he goes further into his 30s. Beachum was still a capable starter in 2021, but he did earn his worst grade from PFF since 2016 and also could easily continue declining. Even if he doesn’t decline, he hasn’t been much more than a middling starter for most of his career, though he is plenty experienced with 130 career starts in 10 seasons in the league.

The Cardinals will need Pugh, Hudson, and Beachum to hold up as at least capable starters for another season because Josh Jones, Sean Harlow, and Justin Murray remain as their top reserves and none of them are likely to be significantly better than a year ago. Jones has the most upside of the bunch, as a 2020 3rd round pick, but he was horrendous last season, finishing 85th out of 90 eligible guards on PFF, after barely playing as a rookie. Even if he takes a step forward in his third year in the league, he could easily still remain a below average option. Harlow, meanwhile, is a 2020 undrafted free agent who struggled in the first significant action of his career last season and is no guarantee to be better going forward, while Justin Murray is a career backup who has never been more than a middling injury fill-in.

The only above average starter on this offensive line in the prime of their career is left tackle DJ Humphries, who heads into his age 29 season. A first round pick in 2015, Humphries took a year to earn a starting job and dealt with a lot of injuries early in his career, so he only had 27 starts in the first four seasons of his career, but in three seasons since, he’s missed just one game total and has developed into a consistently above average starter. His best season came in 2020 when he finished 5th among offensive tackles on PFF and, while he hasn’t consistently been that good, it shows the highest ceiling he has. Other Humphries though, this is a pretty underwhelming group.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned earlier, the Cardinals lost Chandler Jones in free agency this off-season, with Jones signing in Las Vegas on a 3-year, 51 million dollar contract. Jones is going into his age 32 season, but he still had the 7th double digit sack season of his career last season and the Cardinals top’ returning edge defenders Markus Golden and Devon Kennard are also on the wrong side of 30, going into their age 31 seasons in 2022. The Cardinals used 3rd round picks on San Diego State’s Cameron Thomas and University of Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders in this year’s draft, but they probably won’t play huge roles as a rookie, so the Cardinals will be relying heavily on the veterans Golden and Kennard at this position in 2022.

Golden actually led this team with sacks last season with 11, while also totaling 9 hits and pressuring the quarterback at a 11.4% rate, and he’s mostly been an above average pass rusher throughout his career, with 44.5 sacks, 73 hits, and a 12.8% pressure rate in 94 games in 7 seasons in the league. He was limited to just 15 games total from 2017-2018 by injury, but has bounced back nicely to only miss one game over the past three seasons. He could easily have another above average season rushing the passer, but his age is becoming a concern and if his pass rush ability significantly declines, he would become a liability because his run defense has always been a problem. 

Kennard, on the other hand, is in many ways the opposite, as he’s never been much of a pass rusher, with 26.5 sacks, 36 hits, and a 9.7% pressure rate in 111 games in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s also generally received above average grades from PFF for his run defense. He’s played more of a reserve role over the past two seasons since joining the Cardinals, playing just 22.8 snaps per game in 28 games, but he played 44.3 snaps per game in his first six seasons in the league prior to the past two seasons and now will need to play a bigger role with Jones gone. How effective he’ll be in that larger role, now on the wrong side of 30, is questionable though. The Cardinals will need Golden and Kennard to not show any signs of decline and they will need good production from their rookies for this to be an above average group. More likely, they’ll be more of a middling group.

Grade: B-

Interior Defender

JJ Watt returns to the Cardinals this season, which is important because their defense fell off significantly when he missed the final 10 games of last season. Watt is going into his age 33 season and has missed at least half the season with injury in four of the past six seasons though, so he’s not that reliable of an option. Watt still played at a pretty high level when on the field last season, pressuring the quarterback at a very impressive 12.9% rate from the interior and ranking 10th among interior defenders on PFF across the seven games he played, but he still finished with the 3rd lowest PFF grade of his 11-year career, with his previous season in 2020 being the 4th lowest grade of his career, so he’s clearly on the decline. Even a declined JJ Watt could still be one of the better players in the league at his position, but it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if he continued declining further, considering his age and injury history.

If you’ve noticed something of a theme on this Cardinals team, it’s having key players who have been accomplished in the past, but who are now on the wrong side of 30. In addition to Watt, edge defenders Markus Golden and Devon Kennard, offensive linemen Justin Pugh, Rodney Hudson, and Kelvin Beachum, and pass catchers DeAndre Hopkins, AJ Green, and Zach Ertz are all on the wrong side of 30 and those nine players could all easily be starters for this team. 

It’s not hard to see how this could be one of the oldest teams in the league this season in terms of average age of snaps played, which is a concern, because older players tend to drop off suddenly. If that happens to a few of the aforementioned players, the Cardinals will be in trouble, given that efficiency ratings suggested they were a middling team last season, even before off-season departures and potential drop offs from key players. 

Watt dropping off significantly would especially be a concern, not just because of how well he still played last season before the season, but also because the Cardinals have next to nothing at the interior defender position behind him. Jordan Phillips (284 snaps) and Corey Peters (362 snaps) were their only other interior defenders to earn even an average grade from PFF last season, but those two veterans are gone and the Cardinals didn’t do anything to replace him, so they will be banking on getting better play from some of their young players at the position.

Those younger player sare 2019 3rd round pick Zach Allen (684 snaps), 2020 4th round pick Leki Fotu (371 snaps), fellow 2020 4th round pick Rashard Lawrence (219 snaps), and 2019 7th round pick Michael Dogbe (263 snaps), who all had roles last season and who are candidates to see their roles expanded in 2022, despite all of them finishing below average on PFF in every season of their careers. Allen led this position in snaps played last season, so there might not be much room for his role to grow, but either way, he will have a big role, which is a problem because he is a significant liability against the run. His career 6.4% pressure rate is not bad and he’s still only in his age 25 season and may have untapped upside, but he’ll need to improve his run defense to become even a capable starter.

Fotu, Lawrence, and Dogbe all may have untapped upside as well, but they’ve shown even less than Allen has thus far in his career, with Fotu and Lawrence also struggling on snap counts of 284 and 166 respectively as rookies in 2020 and Dogbe only playing 123 snaps total in two seasons in the league prior to earning a slightly bigger role in 2021. It’s very possible none of them ever develop into useful contributors, which is a concern because the Cardinals will need at least a couple of them to do so this season, for this to be a solid group overall. JJ Watt’s presence elevates this whole position group, but he has become increasingly unreliable in recent years.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Cardinals used back-to-back first round picks on off ball linebackers in the 2020 and 2021 NFL Draft, taking Isaiah Simmons 8th overall in 2020 and then taking Zaven Collins 16th overall in 2021. Simmons only saw 376 snaps as a rookie, but he moved into an every down role in year two in 2021. Collins was supposed to join him and his selection was expected to lead to the Cardinals trading or releasing veteran Jordan Hicks, but instead Hicks took a pay cut and stayed ahead of Collins on the depth chart all season, limiting Collins to 220 snaps as a reserve. In fact, Hicks was the Cardinals’ best off ball linebacker overall in terms of PFF grade and finished 27th in overall grade among off ball linebackers.

Hicks was still let go this off-season, a move that saved the Cardinals 6 million, freeing up the job for Collins, but there is no guarantee Collins is as good in his first year as a starter, even if he is a first round talent who flashed a lot of potential as a rookie. On top of that, Simmons hasn’t shown much more than middling play thus far in his career, though he obviously has the upside to take a big leap forward in year three. Both Collins and Simmons have the upside to be a very talented off ball linebacker duo long-term, but there is no guarantee they reach their potential and, even if they do, it might not be in 2022.

Collins and Simmons are also both somewhat non-prototypical linebackers, with the 6-4 230 pound Simmons having the athleticism to play on the slot and to move to the edge and the 6-4 260 Collins having the size to also play some defensive line, so there will be snaps available for at least one reserve off ball linebacker to see action. The most likely candidate for that role is veteran free agent signing Nick Vigil, who is plenty experienced, with 51 starts in 85 games in 6 seasons in the league, but who also has never been more than a middling linebacker and who finished last season as PFF’s 80th ranked off ball linebacker out of 94 eligible across 718 snaps. He’s not a bad reserve option, but he’ll likely struggle if he has to see extended action. This group has upside, but obvious downside if neither Collins nor Simmons take a step forward and it’s very possible they’ll miss Jordan Hicks, their best player at the position a year ago.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Robert Alford definitely wasn’t the biggest name on the 2021 Cardinals, but he was by default their top cornerback and his absence down the stretch last season was as big of a reason as any why the Cardinals declined down the stretch. Alford is oft injured, playing just 28 games total over the past 4 seasons, and was heading into his age 34 season in 2022, so the Cardinals opted not to retain him this off-season and he could easily have struggled even if he was brought back, so it’s understand why they let him go, but the Cardinals also didn’t replace him, so cornerback looks like it will be a very questionable position for the Cardinals this season.

Byron Murphy (967 snaps) and Marco Wilson (748 snaps) both played significant roles last season in three cornerback sets with Alford and both remain on the roster, but they finished 89th and 117th respectively out of 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF and will likely be underwhelming starting options again in 2022. Wilson was only a rookie, but he was also only a 4th round pick and it’s far from a guarantee that 4th round picks ever develop into long-term starters, even ones that see playing time early in their career. Wilson could take a step forward in year two, but he played badly enough last season that a step forward wouldn’t necessarily make him even a capable starter.

Similarly, Murphy is a 2019 2nd round pick who was a little better in 2020 than he was in 2021, but he was still only a middling cornerback in 2020 and he finished 122nd out of 135 eligible cornerbacks as a rookie in 2019, so he’s had an inconsistent at best three years in the league thus far. Still only in his age 24 season, there is still time for him to develop into an above average starter and, even if that doesn’t happen this season, he could still be better than a year ago, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Without any significant additions being made to this group this off-season, the Cardinals will likely turn to Antonio Hamilton as their third cornerback. He was decent on 313 snaps last season, but that was a very limited sample size and it was still a career high in defensive snaps for a 6-year veteran who has primarily been a special teamer in his career. Now in his age 29 season, it’s unlikely he’s suddenly going to break out as even an average #3 cornerback.

Making matters worse, the Cardinals don’t have any real depth to speak of behind their shaky top-3 cornerbacks. Breon Borders was probably the most significant addition the Cardinals made to this group this off-season and he flashed potential on 360 snaps with the Titans in 2020, but the 2017 undrafted free agent has played just 166 other defensive snaps in his career, including just 70 last season for the Titans, so he’s a highly unproven option as well. The Cardinals took cornerback Christian Matthew in the 7th round, but he would very likely struggle if forced into significant action as a rookie. This is one of the shakiest cornerback groups in the league.

Things are fortunately better at safety, although somewhat by default. Budda Baker is arguably the Cardinals’ best defensive player with Chandler Jones gone and Markus Golden and JJ Watt getting up in age, but Baker is also coming off of a down year. He still finished above average on PFF, but he fell to 47th among safeties on PFF after finishing 33rd in 2019 and 10th in 2020. He’s only in his age 26 season though and he’s been an above average starter in all five seasons of his career, so he has a good chance to bounce back and even if he doesn’t, he should remain a valuable player.

Jalen Thompson was actually the better of the two starting safeties last season, finishing 37th among safeties on PFF in his first full season as a starter. A 5th round pick in the 2019 supplemental draft, Thompson actually became a starter midway through his rookie season, when he made 9 starts in total, but his second season in the league was ended after 4 starts by injury. He fared well when on the field in his first two seasons in the league though, so it wasn’t surprising that he had a solid season as a full-time starter in his 3rd year in the league. He should remain at least a solid starter and, still only going into his age 24 season, he may still have some untapped upside.

Depth is a bit of a concern at safety though, with Deionte Thompson being their only notable reserve. The incumbent #3 safety, Thompson should remain in that role, but the 2019 5th round pick has struggled in limited action in his career and would likely be a big weakness if forced to start for an extended period of time. He’s played just 655 snaps total in his career, with just 71 of those snaps coming last season. The Cardinals will need their starting safeties to stay healthy because they’ll have to try to mask the Cardinals’ big weakness at cornerback.

Grade: B-

Special Teams

The Cardinals’ special teams was slightly below average last season, finishing 20th in special teams DVOA. Kicker Matt Prater had a better good season and returns for another year, but, sticking with the theme of this team, he’s getting up there in age, even for a kicker, in his age 38 season, while punter Andy Lee is in his age 40 season and coming off of a significantly down year, finishing dead last out of 35 eligible punters on PFF.

Rondale Moore will likely remain their primary return man, even if he has to play a bigger role on offense when DeAndre Hopkins is suspended, but he was underwhelming last season and is not a guarantee to be better in year two. On top of that, one of the Cardinals’ two best core special teamers, veteran Demetrius Harris, is no longer with the team, leaving Dennis Gardeck as their only top-50 special teamer on PFF from a year ago. Because of that, it wouldn’t be a surprise if this group was even worse in 2022, especially given the age of their kicker and punter.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Cardinals went 11-6 last season, but they needed a +12 turnover margin to win that many games, finishing just 15th in efficiency, and they were exposed in a big way down the stretch last season. Even if they brought back the same team as a year ago, they likely would not win 11 games again, as they would not be able to count on dominating the turnover margin again, as turnover margin is not predictive year-to-year, but the Cardinals also look worse than a year ago.

The aging Cardinals lost top edge defender Chandler Jones and top cornerback Robert Alford this off-season, both over 30, which will be big losses, and they still have nine players over 30 who could easily start for them this season and if even a few of them drop off significantly, that will be very noticeable. The absence of JJ Watt and DeAndre Hopkins was a big part of the reason for their struggles in the second half last season, but Watt is a highly injury prone player in his age 33 season, while Hopkins is also on the wrong side of 30 and will sit for at least the first 6 games with a suspension. 

The Cardinals also lost running back Chase Edmonds and linebacker Jordan Hicks this off-season, key players from last season’s team, and had to trade their first round pick to get Marquise Brown to replace another departure Christian Kirk, meaning the Cardinals didn’t get much out of the draft. There is still talent on this team, but they should be worse than a year ago and they’re starting from a lower base point than their 11-6 record a year ago would suggest. The NFC is the weaker of the two conferences by a wide margin, but the Cardinals play in probably the toughest division in the conference and are not guaranteed to even get a wild card berth again. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC West

Denver Broncos 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Broncos were just 7-10 last season, but things were better than that suggests. The Broncos were 7-6 and in the middle of a close game with the Bengals when they lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for the rest of the season with a concussion, leading to the Broncos losing their final four games of the season. Bridgewater was also knocked out of an eventual loss to the Ravens earlier in the season, so the Broncos were actually 7-5 last season in games that Bridgewater started and finished. Bridgewater also was far from their only key player who missed time last season, as the Broncos had the 5th most adjusted games lost to injury in the league. Despite that, the Broncos actually finished with a positive point differential at +13, suggesting they still were better than their 7-10 record, even with all of the talent that was sidelined.

Bridgewater was unspectacular, completing 66.9% of his passes for an average of 7.16 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, while finishing 21st among 39 eligible quarterbacks on PFF, but he was significantly better than backup Drew Lock, who completed 60.4% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while finishing 32nd among quarterbacks on PFF. Still, with Bridgewater set to hit free agency this off-season, the Broncos were in the market for an upgrade and they found one when the Seahawks decided to trade them their long-time franchise quarterback Russell Wilson for two first round picks, two second round picks, a fifth round pick, and three players, including Drew Lock, as well as starting tight end Noah Fant and talented defensive lineman Shelby Harris.

The Seahawks moved him because he is highly paid (51 million over the next two seasons) and getting up there in age (age 34 season), while the Seahawks are seemingly hitting the reset button and undergoing a rebuild, but Wilson was consistently one of the best quarterbacks in the league throughout his 10 years in Seattle and has yet to show many signs of slowing down. In total, Wilson has completed 65.0% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 292 touchdowns, and 87 interceptions in his career, while rushing for 4,689 yards and 23 touchdowns on 846 carries (5.54 YPC), and finishing in the top-10 among quarterbacks on PFF in seven of ten seasons.

Wilson missed three games with a finger injury last season, but he had never missed a game with injury in his entire career prior to that and returned from a 6-8 week injury much quicker than expected. Wilson wasn’t quite the same immediately upon his return, but after his first three games back, he returned to form. If you exclude those first three starts after his return, Wilson completed 67.7% of his passes for an average of 8.24 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while earning PFF’s 10th highest grade among quarterbacks over those games.

Athletic quarterbacks like Russell Wilson tend not to age as well, as their athleticism declines, and Wilson is coming off by far his worst rushing season in terms of carries (43) and yards (183), but he should remain at least an above average quarterback for another season, even if he doesn’t bounce back as a runner. He significantly elevates the ceiling of a Broncos team that has a lot of talent around the quarterback and that is clearly in win now mode, after giving up a significant amount of draft capital. 

One thing the Broncos still need to do is find a better backup quarterback, with Brett Rypien currently in line to be the #2 quarterback. Rypien was undrafted in 2019 and has thrown just 42 passes in three seasons with the Broncos, posting a 61.2 QB rating, so he would be a very underwhelming option if Wilson were to go down. Rypien’s only competition right now is career journeyman Josh Johnson, the other quarterback on their roster, who has made just 5 starts over the past 10 seasons. Even with the backup quarterback situation though, the Broncos are still in an enviable situation under center.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

One position group where the Broncos had significant injury absences was wide receiver, where Jerry Jeudy missed 7 games and KJ Hamler missed 14 games. Fortunately, the Broncos had a lot of depth at the wide receiver position going into last season and wide receivers Courtland Sutton (58/776/2) and Tim Patrick (53/734/5) led this group in receiving with Jeudy and Hamler missing time. All four should be healthy going into 2022, so this is a deep group, even if they lack a true #1 receiver.

Sutton and Patrick had pretty underwhelming 1.43 and 1.48 yards per route run averages, in part because of their inconsistent quarterback play, but Jerry was significantly better at 1.85 yards per route run, so getting a full season out of him should be a boost for this offense. That would especially be true if the 2020 1st round pick takes a step forward in his third season in the league, still only in his age 23 season. 

Jeudy also had a 1.66 yards per route run average as a rookie, so he’s flashed a lot of potential so far, and he has the upside to be a #1 receiver long-term. Hamler was also drafted early in 2020, taken in the second round, but he hasn’t shown much so far, averaging just 1.18 yards per route run. Hamler still has upside, but coming off a torn ACL doesn’t help and he figures to open the season as the clear #4 receiver, unless injuries strike ahead of him on the depth chart.

Sutton has been a #1 receiver for the Broncos in the past, surpassing the 1000 yard mark with a 72/1112/6 slash line in 2019 (2.08 yards per route run), in just his second season in the league. That made it seem like he’d be a #1 receiver for years to come, but he tore his ACL early in 2020 and did not seem to be the same upon his return in 2021, even if he didn’t miss a game. He has a lot of bounce back potential though, now another year removed from the injury, especially now that he has a significant upgrade under center.

With Jeudy and Sutton possessing the most upside of the bunch, Tim Patrick will likely settle in as the #3 receiver, a role he’s a little overqualified for. The 2017 undrafted free agent didn’t do much early in his career, but he’s had back-to-back solid seasons for the Broncos, with slash lines of 51/742/6 and 53/734/5 respectively and an average of 1.59 yards per route run over those two seasons. He probably won’t match the target totals he had in 2019 (79) and 2020 (85), with Jeudy and Sutton likely to command significantly more targets than him, but he also gets an upgrade at quarterback, so he could still remain a productive player in a smaller role.

Wilson won’t have the benefit of tight end Noah Fant, who went the opposite way in the trade with Seattle. Fant had a solid season as a receiver, averaging 1.52 yards per route run, but he struggled as a blocker and the Broncos have a good internal replacement for him in Albert Okwuegbunam. A 2020 4th round pick, Okwuegbunam hasn’t gotten to play much thus far in his career, limited to 86 snaps by injury as a rookie and then playing 421 snaps as Fant’s backup last season, but he’s flashed a lot of potential as a receiver, averaging 2.02 yards per route run. He’s not much of a blocker either and he’s a projection to a larger role, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he ended up as an upgrade over Fant as a receiver.

The Broncos will still miss Fant though, as they won’t be able to pass out of two tight end sets as effectively as they did last season. They used a 3rd round pick on UCLA’s Greg Dulcich, but he might be too raw to have a big role as a rookie, so the Broncos could lean on veteran Eric Tomlinson as the #2 tight end. Tomlinson is a capable blocker, but has never been much of a receiver, with 18 career catches in 54 games in the league. The Broncos will likely use more three and four wide receiver sets to make up for their lack of tight end depth, but they have plenty of wide receiver depth and Okwuegbunam has the upside to be an above average receiving option.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Broncos also had a lot of injuries on the offensive line last season, as they didn’t have a single starter play all 17 games, missing a total of 16 games across the five starters. All five starters earned average or better or grades from PFF, so they played well when healthy, and they return four of those five starters, so if they can stay healthier, they have a good chance to be an above average unit. The one change they made was at right tackle, where free agent Bobby Massie was not retained and was replaced by free agent acquisition Billy Turner, which is essentially a lateral change.

Also capable of playing guard, Turner has been a capable, if unspectacular starter over the past four seasons, making 54 starts in total. His age is a concern, now going into his age 31 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of dropping off, so he has a good chance to remain at least a capable starter. If he struggles, he would likely be replaced by fellow veteran free agent acquisition Tom Compton, a versatile player who should provide depth across the board. Compton has never made more than 14 starts in a season in 10 seasons in the league (44 total starts) and now heads into his age 33 season, but he’s played well when depended on, finishing above average on PFF in three of the past four seasons, doing so both at guard and at tackle.

Compton won’t be the Broncos’ only talented reserve either, as they have four starting caliber players competing for three starting spots on the interior of their offensive line. Graham Glasgow and Lloyd Cushenberry were the Broncos starters at right guard and center respectively going into last season, with 3rd round rookie Quinn Meinerz serving as a reserve, but Glasgow was limited to 384 snaps by injuries, opening the door for Meinerz to play 623 snaps as a rookie and he fared pretty well, finishing 38th among guards on PFF.

At center, Cushenberry made the most starts of any Broncos offensive lineman with 16, but the 2020 3rd round pick was a middling starter, after struggling mightily in 16 rookie year starts, so Meinerz could be an upgrade on him. The Broncos could also keep Meinerz at guard and move Glasgow inside to center, where he has some experience earlier in his career. Another option they have is just moving Glasgow to the bench, which could happen if he doesn’t play well in training camp, coming off of a broken leg and going into his age 30 season.

Signed to a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal in free agency two off-seasons ago, Glasgow was a consistently above average starter throughout his time in Detroit, whether he played guard or center, but, in two seasons in Denver, he’s been limited to 20 games total by injury and he’s mostly been a middling starter. The Broncos only kept him this off-season after he cut his expected 9.5 million dollar salary down to 3.2 million and, even if he can bounce back from his most recent injury, the Broncos might not have a starting spot for him, on a deep offensive line.

Left guard Dalton Risner is the most secure in his role of any of the Broncos’ interior offensive linemen, having earned an average or better grade from PFF in three seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2019 (47 of 49 possible starts), including a career best 31st ranked finish on PFF in 15 starts in 2021. He should have another solid season. The Broncos also bring back reserve Netane Muti, who has been underwhelming in four career starts in two seasons since the Broncos took him in the 6th round in 2020 and who will likely be further down on the depth chart on a deeper offensive line this season.

The best player on this offensive line is left tackle Garett Bolles, who finished 26th among offensive tackles on PFF last season, after a 4th ranked season in 2020. Bolles was a first round pick in 2017 and struggled mightily with penalties early in his career, so much so that the Broncos declined his 5th year option for 2021, despite the fact that he allowed just 14 sacks in 48 starts in his first three seasons in the league. 

Bolles’ 45 penalties from 2017-2019 led the league over that stretch, but he’s committed just 15 in two seasons since, leading to the Broncos keeping him on a 4-year, 68 million dollar extension long-term. As long as he can continue to avoid penalties, Bolles should remain one of the best offensive tackles in the league again in 2022. He’ll be backed up by Calvin Anderson, a 2019 undrafted free agent who has just five career starts, but who flashed a lot of potential in 172 snaps last season. This is a deep offensive line without any clear weaknesses in the starting five.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The strength of this offense last season was their running game, as they had a pair of running backs in Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams who both were effective on over 200 carries, leading the team to a 4.45 YPC average, 10th best in the NFL. It looked like the Broncos would lose Gordon this off-season, but they re-signed him as a free agent and they did so relatively cheaply, on a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. A second round pick last season, Williams could take on a larger percentage of the carries in year two and the Broncos are unlikely to rely on their running backs as much with Russell Wilson being added, but both backs should still have a significant role on this offense and they could find more running room now that the passing game is more of a downfield threat.

Gordon turned his 203 carries into 918 yards (4.52 YPC) and 8 touchdowns and ranked 16th in the NFL in carry success rate (55%), while Williams had a slightly lower YPC average on an identical amount of carries, rushing for 903 yards and 4 touchdowns (4.45 YPC) and a lower carry success rate (48%), but averaged more yards after contact than Gordon (3.42 vs. 3.12), broke more tackles (63 vs. 48). and was the more effective player in the passing game (1.21 yards per route run vs. 0.86). Overall, both finished above average on PFF, with Gordon ranking 15th among running backs on PFF and Williams ranking 18th at the position.

Gordon is a 7-year veteran who has surpassed at least 150 carries in every season in the league, rushing for 4.16 YPC and 53 touchdowns on 1,477 career carries. He used to be used more in the passing game earlier in his career with the Chargers (284 career catches for 2,244 yards and 12 touchdowns), but has not been as involved since joining the Broncos two off-seasons ago. Williams figures to be the primary passing down back again, but both players will play a big role in both situations. The Broncos also have Mike Boone as the #3 running back and he’s averaged 5.52 YPC on 75 career carries in four seasons in the league. He could be a decent fill-in if either running back missed time with injury. This is a talented backfield.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Broncos finished last season 10th in defensive efficiency, which is even more impressive when you consider that arguably their three best players and their three highest graded players on PFF all didn’t finish the season with the team, with Alexander Johnson (323 snaps) and Josey Jewell (82 snaps) going down for the season with injury and Von Miller (328 snaps) getting traded to the Rams for a second and third round pick, ahead of his pending free agency this off-season. 

The Broncos replaced Miller by signing ex-Cowboy Randy Gregory to a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal with 28 million guaranteed in free agency this off-season. Gregory comes with plenty of risk, as a soon-to-be-30-year-old who missed all of 2017 and 2019 with suspension and who has never played more than 14 games or 457 snaps in a season due to disciplinary and durability problems, but Gregory has been heavily effective when on the field, especially as a pass rusher, and he could prove to be a good value if he can keep on his recent play. 

For his career, Gregory has had a 12.7% pressure rate and he’s been especially good over the past two seasons since getting his life on track, totaling 9.5 sacks, 20 hits, and a 13.9% pressure rate in 22 games, while finishing 11th and 18th among edge defenders in overall grade on PFF in the two seasons respectively. He’s also missed 11 games over that stretch and it’s unclear if he can hold up as the 600-700 snaps per season type player that the Broncos are paying him to be, but he could easily prove to be a worthwhile risk.

Gregory will start opposite Bradley Chubb, who is coming off of a very disappointing season, being limited to 268 snaps in 7 games by injury and struggling when on the field, with 0 sacks, 4 hits, and a 6.9% pressure rate. Chubb also was limited to 233 snaps in 2019 by injury, but the 2018 5th overall pick has shown a lot of potential when healthy, totaling 19.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 13.0% pressure rate in 30 games between 2018 and 2020, and he’s still only going into his age 26 season, so he has a lot of bounce back potential. He also has all the financial incentive in the world to perform this season, going into the final year of his rookie deal, with a big payday in free agency likely awaiting him if he can bounce back. Gregory and Chubb both come with risk, but they have the potential to be an above average edge defender duo.

The Broncos have good edge defender depth too, especially after using their second round pick on Oklahoma edge defender Nik Bonitto. The Broncos also have Jonathon Cooper (457 snaps) and Malik Reed (737 snaps), who saw significant roles last season with Chubb missing a lot of the season and Miller getting traded. Cooper was a 7th round pick in 2021 and, while he didn’t show much as a pass rusher as a rookie, with 2.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.7% pressure rate, he excelled as a run defender. I don’t know if he’ll ever develop into a starter, which rarely happens from a 7th round pick, but he should provide decent depth again. Reed, an undrafted free agent in 2019, is a similar player, generally earning above average grades from PFF for his run defense, but totaling just 15 sacks, 17 hits, and a 7.8% pressure rate in 45 career games. This group has a lot of potential and depth, but their starters come with a lot of risk.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Shelby Harris was traded to the Seahawks in the Russell Wilson trade and the Broncos will miss him, especially as a pass rusher, with him totaling 6 sacks, 5 hits, and a 9.0% pressure rate last season, a great rate for a player who almost exclusively lines up on the interior. With Harris gone, Dre’Mont Jones will likely be the Broncos’ top interior defender, after playing 560 snaps and 614 snaps over the past two seasons respectively. The 2019 3rd round pick doesn’t hold up well against the run, but he’s an effective interior pass rusher, with 15.5 sacks, 13 hits, and a 9.3% pressure rate in three seasons in the league. He also may still have untapped potential, only heading into his age 25 season.

Harris will effectively be replaced by free agent signing DJ Jones, who comes over from the 49ers on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. A 6th round pick in 2017, Jones has developed into a capable player and is coming off the best season of his career, playing 550 snaps and earning above average grades for his run defense and pass rush. If he keeps that up, he should be worth what the Broncos are paying him, but, prior to last season, he had never earned more than a middling overall grade from PFF for a season, nor had he ever played more than 420 snaps in a season, so he’s not a guarantee to repeat the best season of his career. Either way, Jones should have a significant role as a starter alongside Dre’Mont Jones.

The Broncos didn’t retain reserve Shamar Stephen (393 snaps), but they will bring back fellow reserves Mike Purcell (361 snaps) and DeShawn Williams (386 snaps). Purcell is strictly a base package nose tackle and has just a 3.3% career pressure rate, but he’s earned above average grades from PFF for his run defense in three straight seasons and the Broncos won’t need him to play much more than the limited role he’s played in recent years. Going into his age 31 season, there’s some possibility his run defense drops off, but he has a good chance to remain a useful rotational player.

Williams, meanwhile, is more of a pass rusher than a run stopper (career 7.7% pressure rate), but he declined across the board in 2021 and finished below average on PFF, after a surprise breakout year on 436 snaps in 2020. Williams played just 57 career snaps between going undrafted in 2015 and his 2020 breakout season, so there was always skepticism that he would be able to repeat that performance. Now going into his age 30 season, he has a little bounce back potential, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he kept struggling, especially against the run.

The Broncos also have some young prospects competing for reserve roles, as they drafted Eyloma Uwazurike in the 4th round and Matt Henningsen in the 6th round in this past draft and have 2020 3rd round pick McTelvin Agim. Agim has shown nothing in two years in the league, struggling mightily across just 231 career snaps, and the selection of two defensive linemen in this year’s draft isn’t a good sign for Agim’s long-term chances, but he still theoretically has upside. None of the young players figure to see significant action early in the season, but they could be forced into a larger role by injury. This group will miss Shelby Harris, but it’s still not a bad group overall.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Off ball linebacker is the position where the Broncos were the most affected by injury last season, as every down linebackers Josey Jewell and AJ Johnson both played at a high level when on the field, but were limited to 82 snaps in two games and 323 snaps in six games respectively. Both were free agents this off-season and the Broncos only retained Jewell, replacing Johnson with ex-Eagle Alex Singleton. A late bloomer who didn’t play a defensive snap between going undrafted in 2015 and his first career defensive action in 2020, Singleton has plenty of tackles over the past two seasons (257 total), but he struggles mightily in coverage and has only earned middling overall grades from PFF in both seasons, despite his high tackle totals.

Singleton was only signed to a 1-year deal worth 1.115 million, so it’s possible he could see some competition from the Broncos’ reserve linebackers, who were forced into larger roles last season in the absence of Jewell and Johnson. Baron Browning led this group with 528 snaps played last season, doing so in just 10 games, and he held up pretty well for a third round rookie, earning a middling grade from PFF. He will probably be a reserve, but has the best shot of anyone to push Singleton for a starting role.

Justin Strnad (314 snaps) and Jonas Griffith (255 snaps) also played significant roles for this team down the stretch. Griffith, undrafted in 2020, flashed as a run stuffer in his first career action, but didn’t hold up as well in coverage and would be a projection to a larger role, so I wouldn’t expect a significant snap total from him, while Strnad, a 5th round pick in 2020, struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career and would not seem to be a strong candidate for a larger role. Still, with Browning in the mix as a reserve option, the Broncos have better linebacker depth than most teams.

Josey Jewell, meanwhile, re-signed on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal this off-season, so he should be locked into his role as an every down linebacker. If Jewell plays like he did last season before he got hurt, when he was PFF’s 7th ranked off ball linebacker across the first two weeks of the season, then he’ll be a steal at that price. While that’s unlikely, as he’s never shown that over the course of a full season, even if he plays like he did in 2020 he should be a good value.

In 2020, he finished 17th overall among off ball linebackers on PFF and played the 14th most snaps by an off ball linebacker with 1,011, showing himself to be the kind of linebacker who can hold up in coverage and against the run. It’s concerning that he’s coming off of a significant injury, but he had missed just one game in three seasons prior to last season and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, so he isn’t a major injury risk. He elevates an overall middling linebacking corps, albeit one with above average depth.

Grade: B

Secondary

With Von Miller no longer with the team, the best player on this defense is probably safety Justin Simmons, who has consistently been one of the best players in the league at his position over the past three seasons, finishing 1st, 9th, and 18th among safeties on PFF over the past three seasons respectively. The 2016 3rd round pick also finished in the top-30 among safeties in two of his first three seasons in the league too, before breaking out as an elite safety in 2019. Still only going into his age 29 season, having not missed a game in four seasons, Simmons should remain one of the top safeties in the league again in 2022 and could be even better than in 2021, which was actually a down year compared to 2019 and 2020.

Kareem Jackson was once an elite safety alongside Simmons, finishing 5th, 8th, and 6th at his position on PFF in 2018, 2019, and 2020 respectively, 2018 with the Texans and then 2019 and 2020 with the Broncos, but he’s getting up there in age, going into his age 34 season, and dropped off significantly in 2021, finishing as PFF’s 88th ranked safety out of 98 eligible. As a result, Jackson had to take a paycut down to 2 million this off-season and he may not even be guaranteed his starting spot. 

Caden Sterns was the third safety as a 5th round rookie last season and, while he was nondescript on 311 snaps, the Broncos may view him as a future starter and he could take Jackson’s starting job with a strong pre-season. The Broncos also used a 5th round pick on Jamar Johnson last year and a 4th round pick on Delarrin Turner-Yell in this year’s draft, but Turner-Yell would likely be overmatched in significant playing time as a rookie, while Johnson didn’t get on the field for a defensive snap as a rookie, so it’s unlikely either plays a big role this season. Jackson is the favorite to keep his job and may have some bounce back potential, but he also could decline even more or he could cede his starting job to an inexperienced young player.

At cornerback, the Broncos made a couple changes, with a pair of players who played significant roles last season, Kyle Fuller (719 snaps) and Bryce Callahan (504 snaps), no longer with the team. Fuller struggled mightily last season though, finishing 127th out of 134 eligible cornerbacks on PFF, so losing him will be addition by subtraction, while the Broncos made a lateral move to replace Callahan with K’Waun Williams, signed as a free agent from the 49ers on a 2-year, 5.2 million dollar deal.

Like Callahan, Williams is an undersized and injury prone cornerback who excels on the slot, where the 5-9 185 pounder has played 86.6% of his career snaps. Williams never played in all 16 games once in eight seasons in the league and has missed 38 games total in his career, but he’s also earned an average or better grade from PFF in every season. Going into his age 31 season, there’s some concern that he’s coming off of a career worst grade from PFF in 2021, only earning a middling grade across 647 snaps, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he continued declining, but he also could remain a solid slot option for at least another season.

The Broncos didn’t replace Fuller, so, instead, they’ll be hoping they can get a healthier season from starting cornerback Ronald Darby, who missed 6 games last season. That’s probably wishful thinking though, as Darby has been injury prone throughout his career like Williams and Callahan, missing 29 games in 7 seasons in the league, including 26 over the past 5 seasons, while only playing in every game once. Darby is generally an above average player when healthier, finishing above average on PFF in 5 of 7 seasons in the league, but he’s also struggled through injuries in the past, resulting in some poor play on the field, especially in 2019, when he was PFF’s 129th ranked cornerback out of 135 eligible. He’s talented, but not the most reliable player.

If Darby misses time, he’ll likely be replaced by 2020 3rd round pick Michael Ojemudia, but he struggled mightily across 852 snaps as a rookie, finishing 114th out of 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF, before only playing 85 snaps last season. He could face competition from 4th round rookie Damarri Mathis for the top reserve outside cornerback role, but Mathis also would likely struggle if he had to play significant snaps as a rookie. 

Williams, meanwhile, will likely be backed up by 2020 undrafted free agent Essang Bassey, who struggled across 382 snaps as a rookie, before playing just 11 snaps last season. The Broncos also signed veteran Blessuan Austin, who struggled 16 games with the Jets from 2019-2020, but struggled so much in 2020 that he played just 149 snaps in 2021. The Broncos have questionable depth for a team with injury prone starters.

The Broncos’ best cornerback and de facto #1 cornerback will likely be Patrick Surtain, who they selected 9th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. Surtain joined a group of veteran cornerbacks and only played 16 snaps in week one, but moved into the starting lineup week two and started the rest of the way except one game he missed, earning a slightly above average grade from PFF across 900 snaps in the process. 

Surtain has the upside to be better in year two and a big breakout year is certainly a possibility, given his immense upside, still only in his age 22 season. There are some questions in this secondary, with Williams and Darby being injury prone, Kareem Jackson coming to the end of his career, and the depth being questionable, but Patrick Surtain and Justin Simmons lead a group that has the upside to be above average if enough things go right.

Grade: B

Special Teams

The Broncos had one of the worst special teams units in the league last season, finishing 30th in special teams DVOA. Kicker Brandon McManus and punter Sam Martin had solid seasons, but they didn’t have a single core special teamer finish in the top-50 among special teamers on PFF and their return game was among the worst in the league, especially their kickoff return unit, which ranked dead last with just 16.2 yards per return on the season. 

The Broncos did add Montrell Washington, who scored five times in his collegiate career, albeit against underwhelming competition at Samford, but, aside from that, not much has changed in this group, with the Broncos still lacking any high level core special teamers. Especially if Washington doesn’t make much of an impact as a rookie, this could remain among the worst special teams units in the league this season and it could be tough for Washington to make an impact if he doesn’t get help from his supporting cast.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Broncos were a decent team last season, despite being one of the most injury affected teams in the league. This season, they should be healthier and they get a big upgrade under center with Russell Wilson replacing Teddy Bridgewater. Their defense probably won’t be as good this season, because former head coach Vic Fangio got the most out of that unit and is no longer with the team, but their offense should be a lot better and could be one of the best in the league, led by new coach Nathaniel Hackett, who was previously the offensive coordinator in Green Bay.

The Broncos are a legitimate contender, but unfortunately they play in the much tougher AFC and share a division with two of the best teams in the league in the Chargers and Chiefs, as well as another playoff contender in the Raiders. The Broncos are well-positioned to at least get a wild card berth, but they’ll have a hard time getting through the loaded AFC in the playoffs. I will have a final prediction at the end of the off-season when all previews are completed.

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC West