New York Jets 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Special Teams

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

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

Grade: A-

Conclusion

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

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

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

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC East

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Special Teams

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

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

Grade: C

Conclusion

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

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC South

Miami Dolphins 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Linebackers

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Special Teams

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

Grade: B-

Conclusion

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

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

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

Prediction: TBD, TBD in AFC East

Los Angeles Rams 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Special Teams

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

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

Grade: B

Conclusion

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

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

Prediction: TBD, TBD in NFC West

Kansas City Chiefs 2022 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, Johnson ended up struggling so much at safety in 2021, again finishing dead last at his position on PFF, that he was moved back to cornerback down the stretch in a futile attempt to get something out of him, before the Texans traded him for minimal compensation this off-season. Johnson is already in his age 27 season, so he’s running out of time to make good on his upside, so he’s nothing more than a pure 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