How is it already September? In some ways, it feels like it’s been a lifetime since the Rams and Bengals were facing each other in the Super Bowl, yet it also feels like yesterday that that the Cowboys and Buccaneers opened up the 2021 season in Tampa Bay. I don’t even know how to explain how that is possible, but, then again, when do sports ever make sense?
In the midst of all of this was one of the best offseasons of recent memory. With an extensive amount of quarterback movement, star receivers such as Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and AJ Brown changing teams, as well as ten different head coaches being hired, the storylines never stopped, and truly set out to make us question whether the “off” in offseason actually is needed. At some point, though, as fun as thinking about hypothetical scenarios is, it’s time for business to be settled on the playing field, which starts on Thursday in Los Angeles.
Before that, though, let’s bring on the hypotheticals! In my opinion, one of the most exciting parts of any NFL season is attempting to project how each team will finish. Last year, the Bengals were projected to finish last in the AFC North, and look how that turned out! Now, the focus is trying to find the next iteration of that, and while that’s likely a fool’s errand, there’s no better tradition than preseason predictions.
There are a lot of ways to peg a win total for a specific team. For me, however, having a strong foundation is paramount. Thus, using previous research on what facets of play, as measured by Pro Football Focus, leads to NFL wins, as well the effect of each offensive/defensive play-caller, I was able to create a statistical projection model that has been a feature on this site before. By factoring in each team’s projected PFF grades in each significant area based on their personnel, and than using a multi-variable formula to project a unit’s expected points added per play, and, thus, their points per game/points allowed per game, we can then project their expected point differential, which, adjusted for strength of schedule, gives us a win total projection.
I know that’s a lot, but think of this as just another unique look at how to project future team performance. Yet, simply being a slave to the model would be a disservice. There are plenty of factors, such as continuity or specific reasons to expect a unit to play better projected, that can’t be completely factored in without dismissing the purpose of objectiveness with the model, but we’re not supposed to be completely objective. Rather, with making predictions, you should trust your football knowledge enough to build off of the model’s projection, because, hey, you never know where the next Bengals are coming from.
Alas, that’s what we are going to do today. Although I’ll be listing the model’s projections for each team, we’ll also be doing our own separate preview before determining a likely final record for all 32 teams. What are each team’s strengths and weaknesses? What could make or break their season? Which team is going to break through and surprise the world? We’ll cover that, and so much more, here. Man, this is so much fun.
#1: Cincinnati Bengals
Win Total Projection: 10.02 (Vegas Win Total: 9.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 5th
Defense Projected Rank: 25th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 20th
Personal Projection: 10-7
Breakout Player: S/CB Daxton Hill
How quickly can a quarterback change a franchise? Just ask the Cincinnati Bengals. Going from the worst record in football in 2019 to reaching the Super Bowl two years later is not something that is exactly common, but, hey, that’s the power of Joe Burrow. Now, for the Bengals, it’s time for them to not just rest on their success last season, but to build on it to try to repeat as AFC North champions.
Cincinnati’s 2021 season truly is a tale of two parts: before and after Week 15. Why? Well, that correlates exactly with a notable change in offensive philosophy. Generally, passing the ball on early downs is one of the easiest edges an offensive play-caller has at their disposal; to state the obvious, the average passing play is naturally more efficient than the average rushing play, while early-down pass concepts induce more favorable looks for an offense. As the season went on, head coach Zac Taylor embraced this:
- Weeks 1-15: 51.1% Early-Down Pass Frequency (15th)
- Weeks 16-Super Bowl (Excluding Week 18): 60.6% (4th)
That’s quite a shift in offensive philosophy, and while six weeks isn’t the largest sample, it’s more than enough time for a process-driven statistic, especially since these were quite literally the biggest games of the Bengals season- when push came to shove, their true identity came out. Considering this was a bottom-ten offense in rushing EPA/play last season anyways, this is especially a team that should air it out on early downs, and it doesn’t hurt to have PFF‘s highest-graded quarterback last season in Joe Burrow. Speaking of which, for a quarterback that has the propensity to take sacks, trying to eliminate as many third and long scenarios as possible would be ideal, and, contrary to conventional wisdom, that’s what early-down passing would accomplish; it would simply help allow them avoid third down all together. In Burrow’s second season removed from a torn ACL, expect the team to feel more comfortable sticking with this approach, leading to a more efficient offense.
Of course, it doesn’t just end with Burrow. Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins provide Burrow with two high-end receivers and big-play threats that essentially prevent teams from being able to blitz him or play anything but two-high looks, and Tyler Boyd is quite a proficient slot receiver as well. Then, you add in the offensive line additions of La’el Collins, Ted Karras, and Alex Cappa, and we should see Burrow operate from a clean pocket more. You can have reservations about the lack of creativity from Taylor’s play-calling – passes out of empty and under-center runs – but the ceiling remains through the roof with this offense.
Defensively, the Bengals do have a lot of continuity, which is a notable bonus. At the same time, for a team that ranked in the bottom-twelve in PFF run defense grade and coverage grade, the front seven is a concern, and you wonder if that’s on display more going from a last-place schedule to having to take on the likes of the Chiefs and Bills. In many ways, the key to this defense may be first-round pick Daxton Hill, a three-year starter at Michigan with safety/slot corner flexibility, as well as elite athletic testing numbers. At their peak, expect this to be a team that leans on a lot of dime looks to take advantage of their safety depth and compensate for linebacker deficiencies, which could ultimately turn out quite well. That being said, given their schedule, anything more than a middle-of-the-pack defense would be a surprise.
With the offense they have, that’s more than acceptable. If the Bengals do, in fact, continue to adopt a pass-first mindset on early downs, then we’ve already seen what they’re capable of accomplishing. If not, it could look a lot like it did for the early portions of last year. It’s still pretty evident that their roster depth lacks compared to some of the elite teams in the AFC, yet when you have a tier-one quarterback like Burrow at the helm, you can beat anyone at any time. This season will be a true test for where this franchise is going moving forward, though, then again, there are too many pathways for success here to overlook.
#2: Baltimore Ravens
Win Total Projection: 8.74 (Vegas Win Total: 10.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 17th
Defense Projected Rank: 23rd
Strength of Schedule Rank: 28th
Personal Projection: 10-7
Breakout Player: WR Rashod Bateman
Remember the 2019 Ravens? Those were fun times, and it seems as though they agree. We’ll get to that in a moment, though it’s still strange to think that they failed to make the postseason last season. Really, outside of the Tom Brady-led Patriots, this franchise has been the staple of organizational excellence and consistency, and it’s hard to imagine them missing out on the postseason in consecutive years.
Of course, it ultimately comes down to what Lamar Jackson can provide. Since his MVP season in 2019, it is worth noting that has production has consistently gone in the wrong direction:
- 2019: 90.1 PFF grade (4th), .344 adjusted EPA/play (1st)
- 2020: 79.3 PFF grade (16th), .194 adjusted EPA/play (13th)
- 2021: 70.2 PFF grade (20th), .098 adjusted EPA/play (18th)
From setting the world on fire to essentially being a middle-of-the-pack quarterback, this certainly isn’t the trajectory Jackson was hoping for. Plus, how last season ended certainly leaves a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. I mean, this is a damning split:
- First five weeks: 83.8 PFF Grade, 8.7 Yards/Attempt, 6.9% Big-Time Throw Rate, 3.8% Turnover-Worthy Play Rate, .246 Adjusted EPA/Play, 5.8 Completion Percentage Over Expectation (CPOE)
- Final six weeks: 53.6 PFF Grade, 6.3 Yards/Attempt, 2.7% Big-Time Throw Rate, 4.2% Turnover-Worthy Play Rate, .007 Adjusted EPA/Play, -3.8 CPOE
There probably isn’t much to take away from these splits in reality, though it does beg the question if teams started to figure something out with Jackson. See, prior to the season, the Ravens lost both of their top running backs (JK Dobbins, Gus Edwards) for the season due to injuries, and couldn’t have as much success running the ball. As a result, they went from the 32nd-ranked early-down pass rate to the 12th-highest, which is a substantial change. Considering Jackson prefers to not throw outside the numbers, there are a lot of limitations here to suggest avoiding a high-octane passing offense, and it’s clear the Ravens agree. Not only have they made running back depth a priority, they also added multiple tight ends in the draft and get blocking tight end Nick Boyle back from injury, which makes sense; in 2019, they ran 12 personnel (one RB, two TE) 18% of the time, but that has been cut in half the past two years. Clearly, this is a team that wants to get back to their roots.
To be honest, it’s an adjustment that could easily happen. For instance, with Jackson last season, this was the 13th-most efficient offense in football last year, but that fell to 28th on third down. Fortunately, third-down success has been found to be unstable on a year-to-year basis, pointing to heavy shift in the other direction. Meanwhile, not only do they get star left tackle Ronnie Stanley back, but first-round rookie center Tyler Linderbaum opens up a lot for their offense, and helps solidify the best offensive line they’ve had since 2019. Between injuries, natural positive regression, and even more efficiency on early downs (having a competent rushing attack will do that), all signs point to an offense on the rise.
Still, will the receiving corps support that? With the loss of Marquise Brown, this is suddenly not only a very thin group of playmakers, but not one providing a lot of speed. Now, having Mark Andrews to work over the middle of the field helps matters a lot, though it may all come down to second-year receiver Rashod Bateman developing into an impact player. Considering he was considered an elite college prospect after a dominant sophomore season at Minnesota (89.4 PFF receiving grade, 3.48 yards/route run), that’s an easy projection to make, especially since a) he had his training camp/start of season taken away due to a sports hernia and b) started his career very strong and had three different games with a yards/route run of 2.29 or higher. Consistency is needed, but as a physical receiver who can serve as an exceptional chain-mover over the middle of the field, this is a breakout that almost feels too obvious.
Clearly, the Ravens should expect a better offense this season, and the same goes for their defense, which ranked just 27th in EPA/play allowed last year and allowed the second-highest explosive pass rate. With cornerback Marcus Peters out for the season and Marlon Humphrey missing time, this was a unit that simply did not have a chance at cornerback, especially in former defensive coordinator Wink Martindale’s blitz-heavy scheme, which places a lot of pressures on the cornerbacks to succeed in man coverage. Now, you not only have Humphrey and Peters healthy, but add in safeties Marcus Williams (free agent) and Kyle Hamilton (first round), as well as a shift in defensive philosophy with the hiring on former Michigan defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald. We can quibble about their ability to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks with just four rushers or the recent struggles of new nickel corner Kyle Fuller, though it’s hard not to expect a defense near the top-ten in efficiency, even if that seems far-fetched after last season.
Heck, Baltimore even has one of the easiest schedules in football. So, why not them to win the AFC North? Ultimately, there are a lot of things that need to go in their favor for that to happen
- Jackson needs to bounce back
- Bateman needs to break out
- Linderbaum has to thrive as a rookie center, a tough task
- The defense has to adjust immediately to a new system, which could take time
- Heck, even the running backs need to be healthy and efficient ideally
- There needs to be other offensive contributions from another wide receiver or tight end
Those are a lot of “what ifs”, especially for an aging defense and unproven offense that hasn’t been able to maintain the efficiency they once had. On the other hand, the Bengals, as simple as it seems, can simply flick a switch and be better suited to handle any sort of adversity due to the presence of Burrow- an elite quarterback makes all the difference. That being said, this is still a postseason-caliber team that could easily win this division, with plenty of upside beyond that as well. Ironically, we could have just made this preview just one sentence, but it all comes down to Jackson. If he rebounds, they’re in great shape, but, if not, things become much harder. We’ll see where he falls on that spectrum in a pivotal season for the organization.
#3: Cleveland Browns
Win Total Projection: 8.57 (Vegas Win Total: 8.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 18th
Defense Projected Rank: 16th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 24th
Personal Projection: 7-10
Breakout Player: CB Greg Newsome II
On the other end of the spectrum in terms of organizational stability would be the Browns, who, as their fanbase is well aware, haven’t had a recent track record of success. That all started to change in 2020, when general manager Andrew Berry and head coach Kevin Stefanski were brought in, and, from there, Cleveland made their first postseason berth since 2003. The next step? Building a Super Bowl-caliber team, which they seemed to be considered as in 2021. Instead, in the midst of a chaotic season with an injured Baker Mayfield under center, they couldn’t finish with an above .500 record, and, now, face even more chaos entering 2022.
In theory, the Browns could have run things back with a healthy Mayfield, which would have put them in a similar spot as heading into last year- potential favorites to win the AFC North. Instead, they took a different route, trading three first-round picks for Deshaun Watson, only to also sign him to a fully guaranteed $230 million deal before later trading Mayfield to the Panthers for a mere fifth-round pick. From a pure football sense, it’s a massive quarterback upgrade that would make them a true Super Bowl contender. The problem? It isn’t as simple as simple as that. In addition to the moral implications of trading for a quarterback accused of over 20 sexual assaults, he is also suspended for 11 games this season, which, for a team ready to go “all-in” on this season, certainly isn’t what they were expecting.
Thus, for the first 11 games, it’ll be Jacoby Brissett under center. On the bright side, he was PFF’s fifth-highest graded quarterback throwing 0-9 yards down the field, and generally limits his overall mistakes. At the same time, he was one of the league’s least-productive intermediate passers and has as limited big-play ability (2.8% career big-time throw), so, while they may make fewer mistakes, there’s also a significantly lower ceiling than with Mayfield under center. Rather, they’ll rely on one of the league’s most efficient rushing attacks to provide explosive plays and keep them efficient on early downs (10th in EPA/play), which, with positive regression on third downs (25th in EPA/play), could lead to an efficient-enough offense; finishing 18th in EPA/play given all they dealt with last year is actually relatively impressive.
The addition of receiver Amari Cooper to pair with deep threat Donovan Peoples-Jones and third-round rookie David Bell, who profiles more as a possession receiver, as well as a larger role for tight end David Njoku, should theoretically lead to a better group of pass catchers than last year (27th in PFF receiving grade). Is that enough to make things work, however? I’m not sure, and when things go off schedule, it could go poorly. Consider them an offense with a relatively high floor, but little ceiling whatsoever.
From a defensive perspective, this is where the team becomes much more interesting. Last season, no team had a higher PFF coverage grade than the Browns, while they also ranked in the top-ten in terms of rushing the passer. Yet, they ranked just 18th in EPA/play allowed, and 15th on drop-backs. That seems inconsistent, no? In fact, this is the second-straight season in which Cleveland’s actual performance has been significantly worse than they have graded, which raises questions about defensive coordinator Joe Woods. Interestingly, while they’ve ranked in the top-ten in EPA/play allowed on early downs in each of the past two years, they’ve finished just 17th and 24th, respectively, over the past two years on third downs. Normally, you could point to this as a mere statistical anomaly, yet for it to happen in back-to-back years seems strange enough to pay greater attention to it.
On paper, the defense seems to have a lot of ingredients for success here. After all, this may be the best back seven from a pass coverage perspective in all of football. Cornerback Denzel Ward has been a rare commodity in terms of experiencing consistent success at a very volatile position, but don’t forget about Greg Newsome II. A former first-round pick out of Northwestern with elite athletic testing numbers and a dominant junior year, the second-year corner already performed admirably for a rookie corner (70.6 PFF coverage grade), and will now move into the nickel for them- something he already did successfully at the end of last season. Usually, when a rookie cornerback with that type of draft pedigree performs at the level he did, that ultimately leads to him becoming a high-end player, which should be the expectation here. Then, you add in Greedy Williams, as well as a strong safety duo with John Johnson III (second year in system) and Grant Delpit (should improve in second year), and the secondary gets even better. Oh, and I almost forget about second-year linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, one of the highest-graded linebackers from a season ago as a rookie, and Anthony Walker. Yeah, that’s pretty good.
If that’s not enough, having last year’s highest-graded pass rusher in Myles Garrett, and complementing with Jadeveon Clowney, certainly helps. Now, in terms of run defense, there are notable concerns on the interior defensive line and back seven in that regard, though when you’re elite in terms of pass coverage and can rush the passer, you’ll usually have a lot of success. Now, it’s time for that to read to tangible results.
The quarterback position with the Browns will certainly makes this a very chaotic and perplexing season, and it’s also unclear how much of a ceiling this offense can have with Brissett. On the bright side for them, their schedule opens up very favorably, which could lead to them sticking in postseason contention. Outside of the chaos under center, there’s a lot of intrigue with this team mainly with the back-seven of the defense. It’s likely that doesn’t show up this season, though, moving forward, consider it one of the more well-rounded rosters in football.
#4: Pittsburgh Steelers
Win Total Projection: 4.14 (Vegas Win Total: 7.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 32nd
Defense Projected Rank: 8th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 6th
Personal Projection: 6-11
Breakout Player: CB Akhello Witherspoon
Folks, the time has finally come- the Steelers’ transition away from the era of Ben Roethlisberger is in motion. Speaking of motion, you should see a lot of that in their offense, but more on that in a second. How Pittsburgh, despite being the ninth-lowest graded team by PFF and a negative-55 point differential, made the postseason with a 9-7-1 record, is beyond me, though it will be difficult to recapture the magic for a second straight season. Even if not, this can still be a season with very positive developments for them.
For the past few seasons, it’s been difficult to watch the Steelers offense at times; Ben Roethlisberger had the second-lowest average depth of target in the NFL last season, while the offense featured the third-lowest amount of explosive passes per attempt and featured very little play-action or pre-snap motion. Now, though, offensive coordinator Matt Canada gets to bring out his toolbox, which is going to lead to a lot of this:
Hopefully, a lot of that is going to be wasted with one-yard runs in the regular season, though it’s sadly a sign of things to come between my projected 23rd-ranked run-blocking unit and a running back in Najee Harris who struggled mightily producing explosive carries last season. What’ll ultimately dictate the team’s success, though, is their productiveness through the air. Between first-round rookie Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky, the team should likely get improved quarterback play, and, at the very least, more big-play ability and mobility. Now, the offensive line is a major concern, but there’s a lot to like with this receiving corps. With Diontae Johnson hopefully showcasing his expected prowess after the catch with more crossers over the middle of the field, Chase Claypool thriving in a “big slot” role, and second-round rookie George Pickens serving as the size/speed vertical threat he could be right away, this is an extremely talented group of playmakers that can accomplish different things, making lives much easier on whomever is asked to start under center. Is it enough to overcome the combination of quarterback uncertainty and offensive line woes, though? Probably not.
Alas, as per usual, this is a team that will try to win via their defense. That’ll start with a star-studded defensive line, which, led by TJ Watt and Cameron Heyward, will rush the passer at an extremely high level. Yet, there are other concerns, such as the linebacking duo of Myles Jack and Devin Bush, who each struggled mightily in both coverage and pass rush, and the need for bounce-back seasons from safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmonds. On the bright side, though, I’m pleasantly intrigued by the Steelers’ cornerback room. Akhello Witherspoon has now been a top-six ranked cornerback in PFF coverage grade in back-to-back seasons, albeit in 200-snap samples, and now gets a full season to prove himself. Furthermore, Levi Wallace has performed at a consistent level for three straight seasons, and reversion back to previous levels is on the table for nickel corner Cameron Sutton. Really, there are a lot of paths to this defense once again being a standout unit, but that involves a substantial amount of “coin-flips” going in their favor. Generally, it’s not advisable to expect every hypothetical scenario to work out, and the hope is enough go in their favor to produce another top-ten unit.
For a team that has relied so much an absurd defensive efficiency and winning close games, having so many clouds of uncertainty there is concerning, and, eventually, luck in one-score games starts to run out over time for even the best-coached teams. Seeing progression from players like Pickett and Pickens is the true focus of this season, though, for a team with as many established veterans as them, they may be disappointed by the final outcome. Of course, though, this is Mike Tomlin’s team we’re talking about, so, somehow, voodoo magic will lead to a winning record. Wait, what was the point of this preview?
#1: Buffalo Bills
Win Total Projection: 13.54 (Vegas Win Total: 11.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 1st
Defense Projected Rank: 1st
Strength of Schedule Rank: 12th
Personal Projection: 14-3
Breakout Player: WR Gabriel Davis
It was supposed to different for the Bills in 2021. After all, 13 seconds stood between them and hosting the AFC Championship Game, where they would have been considerable favorites over the feisty Bengals. Instead, the unthinkable happened, and, now, it’s clearly “Super Bowl or bust” in Buffalo. With pressure at an all-time high, can now be when things change?
It’s crazy to think how quickly the Bills have gone from a rebuilding organization to this, yet a lot of it is tied to the development of the team’s passing attack with Josh Allen. As we went over recently, it’s always a bit of a chaotic ride, but, ultimately, the end result is more than worth it:
“The pros with Allen are quite obvious- the highs are very high. Not only was he the second-highest graded passer 20+ yards down the field thanks to a cannon of an arm with improved accuracy, but his ability to continue to keep drives going simply via his elite athleticism (62 first-downs, to be exact) can’t be discounted as well. When you’re in need of a miracle, this is the quarterback you call upon- he is a true magician. No quarterback leads to pressure being converted to a sack less often than him, and he’s one of the few quarterback that has a higher EPA/play on non-structured plays (plays he holds onto the ball longer). When you’re thinking about the prototype of a quarterback capable of the type of high-end plays that result in a Super Bowl title, this is it.
Nevertheless, the lows can also be low. There were five games where Allen earned a PFF passing grade under 54, while he averaged six yards/pass attempt or under in 10 of his 17 regular season games. That all comes down to his play-style, as he ranked 24th in negative play rate and middle-of-the-pack in turnover-worthy play rate, which, ultimately, is the trade-off you make for the peaks he can provide. That leads to an overall exhausting experience with some bumps in the road, which is going to lead to you having a significantly different opinion of him based on what game you watch. When it comes to the whole sample size, though, the pros certainly outweigh the cons.”
A quarterback as talented as Allen would be enough to lead a high-functioning offense, but what makes it truly stands out is the supporting cast around him, which, in my opinion, is a much-more intriguing group than it was a year ago. What Stefon Diggs brings to the table as an impact #1 wide receiver is obvious, yet it’s the players behind him that will ultimately make-or-break that group. That starts with Gabriel Davis, who may have gained much of his fame from his four-touchdown performance in the divisional round against the Chiefs, yet also ranked 13th in the entire NFL in yards/route run (2.03), was one of the league’s best wide receivers working down the field, and was also a top-ten graded receiver by PFF against man coverage. The extra explosiveness he provides compared to what the team got from Emmanuel Sanders is massive last season, and gives the Bills an exceptional wide receiver tandem to build their passing game around. Yet, new slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie also provides the team much more productiveness after the catch than they had previously there, and the depth behind him with veteran Jamison Crowder and fifth-round rookie Khalil Shakir is extremely strong. Yeah, this is going to be a very fun passing attack.
If that wasn’t enough, you could also make a case the Bills have the best defense in the NFL as well. They already led the league in EPA/play allowed on early downs a year ago, and now get to pair emerging second-year edge rusher Gregory Rousseau with Von Miller, who remains one of the league’s most productive pass rushers. Suddenly, they can simply rush four and get plenty of pressure on the quarterback, and that’s before considering the illustrious amount of depth they have on the defensive line; they’re built for the long run. Plus, ideally, this is a team that’ll boast one of the best safety duos in the league and a deep cornerback room headline by Tre’Davious White and first-round rookie Kair Elam, yet there are complications here. See, White is on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) as he recovers from a torn ACL, meaning he’s out for at least four games, and perhaps longer than that. As a result, the team will be relying on a rookie cornerback and Dane Jackson on the outside to start the year, which is concerning.
Still, this is a team playing the long game, so as long White is ready for the stretch the run, they’ll be fine. Heck, even the run defense projects much better with Miller in the mix, the addition of interior defender Daquan Jones, and improvements in run defense from safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. It’s very rare to feel extremely confident that a defense is going to perform at a high level, yet that may be the case here.
We could nitpick here, such as the team’s offensive line or the adjustment from Brian Daboll to former quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey calling plays. Yet, when you have an elite quarterback paired with a tremendous receiving corps, to go along with arguably the best defense in the NFL and a very sound coaching staff, you’re going to do quite well. Frankly, this is one of the best rosters heading into a season that I can remember in some time now, and I’d be astonished if they don’t come away with their third AFC East division title. Of course, what happens after that is what Bills fans are truly worried about.
#2: New England Patriots
Win Total Projection: 10.79 (Vegas Win Total: 8.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 6th
Defense Projected Rank: 6th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 13th
Personal Projection: 9-8
Breakout Player: RB Rhamondre Stevenson
Believe it or not, but last season was Bill Belichick’s first postseason appearance without Tom Brady since 1994. Of course, considering he was partnered with Brady from 2001-2019, that fact will almost certainly be misconstrued, but the point is that this is our first chance to get any sort of gauge of what life without Brady will look like in New England. When you make the postseason with a rookie quarterback, the expectation is you’ll get there again, there are some fascinating roadblocks that may be in place to prevent that.
Really, there isn’t any reason to expect anything other but another productive season from Mac Jones under center. Last year’s 12th-highest graded quarterback, as a rookie no less, already showed a propensity to limit mistakes (2.5% turnover-worthy play rate) with enough positives (15th in both positive and negative play rate), while also making quick, efficient decisions as well. You don’t expect that from a rookie, and there’s added upside that he can perform better working 10+ yards down the field in the future; he already has a very stable baseline.
This is a team that ranked in the top-ten in PFF grade for their pass protection, run blocking, receiving corps, and rushing attack, and all the same pieces are there again for the most part. Even if going from Shaq Mason to rookie Cole Strange is risky on the interior, they complement him with four other players projected for a 71+ PFF pass-block grade with strong run blocking as well, while the team features quite the running back tandem in Rhamondre Stevenson and Damien Harris; Jones being kept upright and the team being able to have an efficient ground attack is a concern. Ultimately, it comes down to the receivers.
For what it’s worth, though, Jakobi Meyers, Davante Parker, and Kendrick Bourne all project for PFF receiving grades over 75, Nelson Agholor can at least stretch the field vertically, and the tight end duo of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith remains quite strong. Still, down by seven, is there a player you trust on this team to get behind a defense or truly make a difference? None of these wide receivers are exactly known to be proven impact #1 receivers and only Agholor provides any sort of speed, which would theoretically make them quite vulnerable i a team can man them up (Dolphins on line 2). That being said, it’s likely the perception of this passing attack is too negative; there’s enough talent for them to perform at a high-enough level.
In the past, it’s essentially been a given that New England would rank near the top of the league in defensive efficiency, yet will that be the case this year. Going from JC Jackson as your #1 corner to Jalen Mills on the outside, Myles Bryant in the nickel, and Jonathan Jones having to play as an undersized outside corner is not ideal, and the team’s linebacking corps (Ja’Whaun Bentley, Raekwon McMillan, Jahlani Tavai) aren’t exactly going to move the needle in pass coverage. They’ll have to rely a lot on the safety trio of Devin McCourthy, Kyle Dugger, and Adrian Phillips, yet is that sufficient? Matthew Judon adjusted admirably to this defensive scheme and interior defender Christian Barmore already demonstrated pass-rushing excellence in his first season, but the team’s pass rush is still lacking, and, now, they may not have the back-seven coverage to back it up.
At the same time, a defense coached by Belichick that has the depth they have on the defensive line and safety should perform at a strong level, which would work in tandem with a deep offense. Of course, I’d be remiss. to mention the overall dysfunctionality regarding the team’s offense, mainly due to Matt Patricia, historically a defensive coach, now calling plays. Perhaps there’s something to this, and they’re set to struggle moving on from life without Josh McDaniels, though we have to be careful not to overreact too much to a small training camp/preseason nugget; in the grand scheme of things, the overall talent they appear to have should win out.
Is it enough to make the postseason? In a vaunted AFC, that could prove to be difficult, but it’s not something you should be shocked by whatsoever. As things stand, 8.5 wins seems on the low side for a win total, and there’s more upside with this team than is being accounted for. The schedule at the end of the season isn’t ideal, though by the time their bye week occurs in Week 10, this should be a team discussed very differently than they are now.
#3: Miami Dolphins
Win Total Projection: 7.34 (Vegas Win Total: 8.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 23rd
Defense Projected Rank: 9th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 8th
Personal Projection: 7-10
Breakout Player: LB Channing Tindall
Although designed completely differently, the Dolphins have similar expectations to the Patriots, and are hoping that an infusion of speed, led by Tyreek Hill, as well as new head coach Mike McDaniel, is what this organization needs to take the next step in a hurry. Still, though, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of that happening.
When you spend the fifth-overall pick on a quarterback, let alone a college prospect as hyped up as Tua Tagovailoa was, expectations are going to be quite high. Entering his third season, though, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to meet those expectations and become the team’s franchise quarterback:
There are plenty of valid justifications for being worried about Tagovailoa’s stance as a starting quarterback after his first two years in the NFL. After all, he’s had twice as many turnover-worthy plays (35, 4.3%) as big-time throws (17, 2.3%), while he has struggled mightily as an intermediate passer. For someone who doesn’t throw the ball down the field much at all, you’d also wish for fewer negative plays (19th), especially in a RPO-heavy offense that has been relatively catered to his strengths.
Now, for the positives. In a small sample, Tagovailoa did finish as the most accurate passer 20+ yards down the field, so perhaps the ability is in there to push it down the field- we’ll see if that comes to fruition with Tyreek Hill in Miami. At the very least, with his success (8th in PFF passing grade) in the short passing game, allowing him to be the type of distributor who can take advantage of the dynamic playmakers he has to work with. Of course, he’s also going from being “protected” by PFF‘s lowest-graded pass-block unit to a group that has added star tackle Terron Armstead and interior offensive lineman Connor Williams, and head coach Mike McDaniel could theoretically build a more quarterback-friendly system in Garoppolo-esque fashion; Tagovailoa’s reluctance to throw over the middle of the field and struggles in the intermediate passing game complicate things, however.
There is a great chance Tagovailoa has his best season as a pro in 2022. That being said, what does that actually entail? There seem to be too many restrictions in place for a diverse, bullet-proof offense to be in place here in very similar fashion to Garoppolo, though Tagovailoa is also less refined than Garoppolo.”
With McDaniel at the helm, expect this to be an offense where Tagovailoa is asked to be a distributor for an electric group of playmakers, headlined by Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Without proven ability to stretch the ball vertically and the limitations in play, though, it’s unclear if that’s enough. It’s going to be extremely exciting to see how McDaniel exploits the talent he has to work with, though you’re essentially getting last year’s 49ers without as proven of a quarterback, a first-time head coach and play-caller, and an inferior offensive line. That seems like a concern, no?
If things align, a middle-of-the-pack offense could be in play, which could work with the defense they have. Rather than have their cornerstone players adjust to a brand new scheme, defensive coordinator Josh Boyer was retained, and you should expect a similar aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme with a lot of man coverage principles. That’ll help maximize the team’s pass rush, which, between second-year edge rusher Jaelan Phillips, Emmanuel Ogbah, Melvin Ingram, Trey Flowers, Andrew Van Ginkel, and a strong interior trio of Christian Wilkins, Raekwon Davis, and Zach Sieler, is absurdly deep with talent. As such, I’m optimistic about this group’s ability to rush the passer effectively enough and be stout against opposing rushing attacks, which is a great start.
Meanwhile, they can bank on players such as corner Xavien Howard and safety Jevon Holland anchoring your secondary, though they’re also relying on Byron Jones to finally fit into this defensive scheme, and he’s also starting the year on the PUP list. Thus, they’ll have to go through at least four games with as little cornerback depth as possible, and there are reasons to be concerned about the linebacking corps as well. What would help matters is immediate production from third-round rookie Channing Tidwell, who was quite productive in coverage and rushing the passer as a senior at Georgia and posted absurd athletic testing numbers at the combine. Sadly, though, expecting much from any rookie linebacker isn’t realistic.
It’s easy to see the appeal with this team; they have impact playmakers and a lot of defensive talent. Still, with holes remaining on the offensive line and the back-seven, as well as an unproven coaching staff, there are a lot of barriers to manufacture wins in the way they may have to with Tagovailoa under center. Simply put, their schedule is quite challenging, especially right away, and there’s a strong possibility this could go south in a hurry. At the very least, this is going to be a team that learns a lot about themselves by the end of the season.
#4: New York Jets
Win Total Projection: 6.27 (Vegas Win Total: 5.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 20th
Defense Projected Rank: 30th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 11th
Personal Projection: 5-12
Breakout Player: CB Michael Carter II
It’s been an interesting first three years for Joe Douglas as the general manager of the Jets. At the time, prior to the 2019 season, he was hoping to have inherited a team with a franchise quarterback, but, unfortunately, Sam Darnold could not prove to be that for them. Alas, through three drafts that have been filled with picks thanks to the Jamal Adams trade, the team’s staple of young players, including the quarterback, should be there. Now, will it lead to an organizational turnaround?
Coming off an elite junior year at BYU, Zach Wilson earned notable praise from scouts for his arm talent and ability to create out of structure, but, as a rookie, things went south. Whether it was PFF grade, adjusted EPA/play, CPOE, percentage of negatively-graded plays, or sacks credited to the quarterback, he ranked last in every significant metric, and didn’t demonstrate the big-play ability he was supposed to showcase. To make matters worse, a bone bruise to his knee suffered in the first preseason game (where he already threw an interception) will likely keep him out of action for a game or two, putting them behind the eight-ball further.
On the bright side, Wilson is actually supported well here. Elijah Moore (2.29 yards/route run) was fantastic for the Jets seven games after their bye week, and he’ll pair with first-round rookie Garrett Wilson to form an extremely young receiver duo to build around for the future- both are going to separate at a high level. If that wasn’t enough, Corey Davis provides the team with a more physical receiver with a proven track record of production, and Braxton Berrios (career 1.84 yards/route run) has been an efficient player out of the slot. To make matters better, thanks to the additions of Duane Brown and Laken Tomlinson, this is an offensive line without any weak links, while the team should be more efficient on the ground with the tandem of Michael Carter (elusiveness, receiving ability) and Breece Hall (explosive runner) complementing each other well. You have to commend the job done to put this core around Wilson; all the ingredients for him to succeed are there.
Any defensive head coach is expected to make that side of the ball a strength, so now is a major season for head coach Robert Saleh after finishing as the league’s least-efficient defense last year. Yet, there is reason for hope. Last year, what did them in was the worst defense on drop-backs and allowing explosive passes, but when you replace their cornerback group with DJ Reed, a free-agent signing with proven production in this exact defensive scheme in Seattle, as well as fourth-overall pick Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, a refined prospect with three years of elite production in college and tremendous athleticism, that calculus changes. Heck, even nickel corner Michael Carter II was a consistent performer out of the slot at Duke with superb athleticism, and more than held his own (56 PFF coverage grade as a rookie in a poor defense, which is very difficult to do).
Add in Lamarcus Joyner, the team’s expected single-high safety, and the addition of Jordan Whitehead, and this secondary suddenly provides room for optimism. Meanwhile, the return of Carl Lawson, as well as impact from John Franklin-Myers, Quinnen Williams, first-round rookie Jermaine Johnson, and Vinny Curry lead to a well-rounded defensive line ready to rush the passer. So, all solved, right? Not exactly. When you return two of the league’s 15-lowest graded linebackers (min. 600 snaps), that’s not ideal, and little depth remains in the secondary should any injuries present themselves; there’s also a lot of pressure on Gardner to hit the ground running, which can be difficult to do when you’re in your first season in the league. Is this defense going to be as ineffective as last year? Almost certainly not. Could we get to Week 12 and some of their major holes are still being exploited? Very possible.
At the end of the day, this is a very young team, which does mean growing pains. Unfortunately, you’d prefer for those growing pains to not hit so hard at the quarterback position, where there likely needs to be concern about Wilson’s ability to give this organization the franchise quarterback they have desired for a long time. On the bright side, there are plenty of young players elsewhere that make this team very interesting moving forward, yet, all that goes for naught with any issues under center. After all, that’s the power of the quarterback position.
#1: Indianapolis Colts
Win Total Projection: 9.22 (Vegas Win Total: 9.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 16th
Defense Projected Rank: 21st
Strength of Schedule Rank: 29th
Personal Projection: 10-7
Breakout Player: EDGE Kwity Paye
August 24th, 2019; the day the fate of the Indianapolis Colts changed forever. Coming off a season in which they won a postseason game, they entered the 2019 season as Super Bowl contenders. After all, with a well-rounded roster and Andrew Luck at the helm, what could go wrong? Then, Luck shocked the world by announcing his retirement, and, from there, Indianapolis has gone through three different quarterbacks, all to a similar result- mediocrity and not a single AFC South division title over the Titans. Now, they’re running it back with the same strategy, hoping they now have the right man to get them over that hump.
On one end of the spectrum, one could point out that Matt Ryan hasn’t ranked above 19th in adjusted EPA/play in any of the past three seasons. At the same time, it’s not as though the support around him was ideal- he’s thrown to an open receiver 5% and 4% below league average the past two seasons, respectively. In fact, he’s ranked better in PFF grade than EPA/play in each of the past three years pointing to positive regression, and he’s still ranked near the top of the league in intermediate passing grade; for all concerns about his decline, he still ranked second in adjusted completion rate 20 yard downs the field. At this point of his career, can he put a franchise on his back? As we saw in Atlanta, the answer is no. Can he be the perfect catalyst for a well-rounded team? Absolutely!
In fact, the fit with Ryan in Indianapolis could be tremendous:
“Could you think of a better fit for Ryan than what Michael Pittman Jr. brings to the table? If you simply take a look at where he’s been at his best, it’s working over the middle of the field, exactly where Ryan thrives. Thus, we can see Pittman serve as a “slasher” type that gets back to producing after the catch with a more accurate quarterback, while Ryan gets the consistent chain mover he lacked during the end of his time with the Falcons. While Indianapolis’ offensive line struggled last year, the Falcons’ second-worst pass-block unit per PFF grade didn’t do an immobile quarterback any favors, and it worth noting they were able to rank 13th in EPA/play despite having to deal with subpar quarterback play from Carson Wentz (67.9 PFF Grade). Finally, Ryan is in position where he doesn’t have to be savior, which is a beautiful sight.”
Last season, the Colts dropped down to the 23rd-ranked early-down pass rate, but given Reich’s history with trusted quarterbacks previously, I’d expect that to revert back up. With Ryan under center, we can be more optimistic about improvements from the offensive line, which his plenty of talent as is. Sure, you can’t rely on an outlier rushing attack again, but simply with a more efficient passing attack, a better offense is likely. Still, what’s the ceiling? Outside of Pittman, the Colts are relying on the likes of second-round rookie Alec Pierce, Parris Campbell, and a collection of unproven playmakers, making this offense mainly condensed between Pittman and the team’s running backs. Is that enough, particularly with an elite “tier-1” quarterback? Consider them an offense that will “beat up” on less-talented defenses, yet may struggle when faced with a notable challenge there; it’s hard to rise to the top with such a thin offense.
Defensively, we’ll see Indianapolis shift to defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, which means a cover-three system with precisely zero blitz packages whatsoever. Fortunately, they have the talent to rush the passer effectively still. Kwity Paye was seen as a more raw edge rusher with athletic tools coming out of Michigan, but he immediately put tit together as a rookie with strong production (71.3 PFF pass-rush grade, 15.1 pass-rush win rate), particularly in true pass sets (77.3 grade). Considering he was an impact run defender in college, expect that area of his game to be refined, while DeForest Buckner remains an elite interior rusher and Grover Stewart suits them well as a run defender on the inside. Now, Yannick Ngakoue also gives them another pass rusher to work with, and his run defense woes are helped compensated for by two tremendous run defending safeties and linebacker Shaquille Leonard. All told, it’s a pretty strong front seven.
From there, questions arise. How will free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore combat the aging curve and adjust to a zone-heavy system? Can Isaiah Rodgers repeat last year’s exciting, yet surprising performance? What about the team’s two safeties; Julian Blackmon and third-round rookie Nick Cross are beneficial for the team’s run defense, though it’s unclear what they’ll bring in terms of pass defense. To acquire Ngakoue, they had to part ways with cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, which is a very difficult loss, and the team lacks any sort of depth in the secondary whatsoever. There are reasons to be optimistic, though we can’t ignore clear holes that may show up with worse turnover luck.
In some ways, the Colts are the classic high-school bully that loves to go after the freshman, but wouldn’t dare tussle with the seniors. Given the the stability present here and the impact players they have on both sides of the ball, they’ll have a lot of regular season success, but can they compete with the likes of the Bills, Chiefs, and Chargers with their current roster? It’s hard to see that within their realistic range of outcomes; the “ceiling” simply isn’t there with this team. Perhaps there comes a time where the right quarterback becomes available and a Super Bowl title looks more within the range of outcomes, but, for now, this is about what to expect. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a divisional title! I’m sure more than half the team would be more than glad to trade places with them on the spot.
#2: Tennessee Titans
Win Total Projection: 8.53 (Vegas Win Total: 9.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 19th
Defense Projected Rank: 10th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 21st
Personal Projection: 8-9
Breakout Player: WR Treylon Burks
Is this the beginning of a new era in Tennessee? In 2019, the team entered the season as a fringe postseason contender, yet a midseason quarterback change from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill unlocked a new level to their team that they were able to ride to the AFC Championship Game, as well as two straight AFC South titles after that. In many ways, though, it doesn’t feel like that magic will carry over to this season.
Let’s go back to the “glory days” of 2019 and 2020, where the Titans ran one of the most efficient offenses (2nd in EPA/play in 2020) in all of football. Sure, a lot of attention will be placed on the rushing attack led by Derrick Henry, but how dominant they were in the air points to Tannehill’s comfort in then offensive coordinator Arthur Smith’s play-action heavy system, with AJ Brown and Corey Davis forming a phenomenal and very physical wide receiver pairing; Brown’s prowess on in-breaking routes specifically catered with Tannehill’s strengths. Fast forward to 2022, though, and both of those wide receivers are out of the picture, as is Smith, while Henry is coming off his worst season from an underlying efficiency standpoint, is over the 1500 carry threshold that generally predicts future decline for running backs, and also is coming off a notable foot injury. This is an offense that already ranked just 17th in EPA/play this season, and now Brown is completely out of the picture? Not ideal.
A lot of the issues may ultimately stem with the loss of Smith, however. In 2020, Ryan Tannehill had the highest percentage of his passes come via play-action, yet that dropped to 9th (down 7%) in 2021, which, for a quarterback that struggles much more on traditional dropbacks, is not ideal; a much greater percentage of his passes also came behind the line of scrimmage. So, not only does Tannehill no longer have one of the league’s best wide receivers, he’s in a less offensive friendly system, won’t be able to benefit from as much efficiency on the ground, and will be behind an offensive line with the lowest-projected pass-block grade in the sport. Oops!
On the bright side, there is still a world where the team’s revamped wide receiver corps meshes perfectly with Tannehill and where this offense thrives. Robert Woods is coming off of a torn ACL and is 30-years-old, though he’s also consistently been a weapon after the catch that primarily works over the middle of the field; expect crosser concepts to be a staple for this offense. The ultimate key, though, is the development of first-round rookie Treylon Burks. To be fair, that’s probably a sound bet to be making. After all, when comparing him to other power-five wide receivers last season, it’s clear how much he stands out:
- 91 PFF Receiving Grade (3rd)
- 4.01 Yards/Route Run (2nd)
- 9.3 Yards After Catch/Reception (T-3rd)
- 155.3 Quarterback Rating When Throw To (2nd)
Yeah, that’s pretty good. The best part? Burks is a perfect fit in this offense. Ironically, if there was one player to compare him to stylistically it may be AJ Brown; where he thrives is on-in breaking routes where he can make magic happen after the catch, though he can work down the field in a pinch if needed simply due to his size/speed combination. Reports have indicated he may be behind schedule, though hopefully that changes after a strong Week 3 preseason performance, and, simply put, they can’t afford not to play him right away; he’s too talented of a prospect, and, in my opinion, the best receiver from this past draft. In many ways, the Titans may come away from this not as disappointed over the loss of Brown as one may assume, though, of course, could you also just imagine brown and Burks together? That would have been a lot of fun, and I’m sure Tannehill agrees.
A year after finishing in the top-ten in EPA/play allowed, Tennessee will once again rely upon strong defensive production to make the postseason. Having an elite safety tandem of Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker helps, though there are questions; they’re relying on youngsters Caleb Farley, Kristian Fulton, and Elijah Molden, all of whom are unproven to this point, and the linebacking corps doesn’t help significantly there. To make matters worse, losing edge rusher Harold Landry is a blow for an already thin pass rush, placing more of an emphasis on their cornerbacks to hold their own If all goes well, this could be a very, very strong defense, though questions are there.
That’s the ultimate story for the Titans, who’ll benefit from playing in the AFC South, yet with uncertainty on both sides of the line and the perimeter, there are plenty of questions to be had. This is a well-coached organization that could will look to maximize what they have, though there isn’t a lot that screams “impact playoff team”. Will a ground-and-pound strategy work in 2022 without an explosive passing game? Find out soon!
#3: Jacksonville Jaguars
Win Total Projection: 3.84 (Vegas Win Total: 6.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 31st
Defense Projected Rank: 29th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 26th
Personal Projection: 4-13
Breakout Player: S Andre Cisco
Is there any team more excited to be done with last season than the Jaguars? Usually, selecting a quarterback deemed as “generational” with the first overall pick is supposed to lead to a lot of excitement, but, instead, the chaos that was Urban Meyer’s very brief NFL head-coaching tenure impeded that. With head coach Doug Pederson taking over, the hope is that much-needed stability gets this ship back on course, but watch out for the iceberg.
Is Pederson taking over all that Trevor Lawrence needs to live up to his prospect pedigree? Simply put, the former top pick was one of the least-efficient quarterbacks in the league no matter what metric he used, while he was the second-least accurate passer in the NFL based on CPOE (-4.9). Whether it was a lack of positive plays (28th) or limiting negative ones (28th), he struggled all around, and, to have optimism about his future prospects, it means essentially throwing away his rookie season. To shine a bright light, if there’s one area where Lawrence showed promise, it was making quick decisions (20th-graded passer on throws made in 2.5 seconds or less), and Pederson is going to bring a lot to the table in terms of run-pass options to try to lead a more efficient offense; when you’re on a team that lost by double-digit points ten times, you’re naturally going to be a bit more reckless and make more mistakes than you should have.
How do you get Lawrence in better position to succeed? Allow him to showcase what he does best- making quick decisions and using his freakish talent when need be. One way to do that outside of RPOs? More early-down passing, something that was a staple of Pederson’s tenure as the head coach of the Jaguars. Expect an offense that’ll simply give Lawrence a chance, while his pass protection projects to be satisfactory once again. Ideally, the money they spent this offseason would have led to an impact wide receiver, though none of Christian Kirk or Zay Jones come with proven production or ability after the catch, while no wide receiver with at least 25 receptions produced fewer yardage after the catch than reception than Marvin Jones Jr., who is now also 32-years-old. Plus, for all of the athletic ability tight end Evan Engram has, he also was the fourth-least efficient tight end in football last year in terms of yards/route run. Where is Lawrence’s outlet, and, also, who can you count on to get open, catch the ball, and create yardage after that? That may be overly simplistic, but the point is that this could very well be the worst receiving corps in the NFL, and I wouldn’t expect much from the team’s rushing attack as well. As such, the production of this offense is in the hands of a massive second-year leap from Lawrence.
Meanwhile, 2021 was also quite rough for the Jaguars defensively, who finished with second-worst EPA/play allowed in the sport. On a positive note, the corner duo of Shaquil Griffin and Darious Williams is very strong, and perhaps further development from second-year corner Tyson Campbell rounds out that group. Heck, Rashawn Jenkins is a proven coverage safety, and Andre Cisco, an athletic freak with a lot of ball production in college, more than held his own in a small sample as a rookie; a “boom” from him could lead to a more than competent secondary.
In recent memory, edge rusher Travon Walker is about as fascinating of a #1 pick as I can remember. At Georgia, he never once eclipsed a 67 PFF pass-rush grade, which is not ideal, yet he’s also an off-the-charts athlete, and the Jaguars clearly fell in love with the length, power, and agility he possesses. Yet, given the usual predictive power of college production for defensive linemen in college, can he live up to his draft billing? That’ll be an incredibly interesting development to monitor. Around him, players such as Josh Allen and Arden Key round out a relatively strong defensive line, and I’m optimistic about the trio of Folorunso Fatukasi, Roy Robertson-Harris, and Davon Hamilton on the interior. Run defense, on the other hand, is a much different note, and as is they’re relying on a lot of uncertainty in that front seven.
Speaking of which, this is a team that not only signed linebacker Foyesade Oluokuon to a lofty three year, $45 million deal, yet also traded back into the first round to select Utah linebacker Devin Lloyd and also drafted Chad Muma in the third round. The problem? That’s unlikely to move the needle; Oluokon hasn’t eclipsed a 55 PFF run defense or coverage grade in back-to-back seasons, while Lloyd is likely to fall victim to the massive learning curve for rookie linebackers, had just one season in college with strong production, and didn’t test as a superb athlete. In general, spending this amount of resources on linebackers isn’t wise, and it’s unclear how much better the defense actually go there.
It’s clear the Jaguars are trying to build a competitive team. The problem? A notable misallocation of resources. There were already notable questions regarding a front office headlined by Trent Baalke as is, and this offseason likely did not quell those concerns. Perhaps the pairing of Pederson and Lawrence is enough for us to forget that, yet the sad reality is the most likely is picking back in the top five, yet with less resources available to build an impact team in the future. If so that’d be unfortunate; it’s time for Duvall County to have a stable, winning organization to cheer for.
#4: Houston Texans
Win Total Projection: 3.98 (Vegas Win Total: 4.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 29th
Defense Projected Rank: 31st
Strength of Schedule Rank: 25th
Personal Projection: 4-13
Breakout Player: TE Brevin Jordan
Speaking of organizations that have dealt with quite a bit of chaos as of late, consider the Texans another team very glad to be turning the page as an organization. From the turbulence of the Bill O’Brien head coach/general manager era to the Deshaun Watson fiasco, Houston has been through it all, and now gets to move forward with a younger roster, as well as two first-round picks in each of the next two drafts. Now, let the true rebuild begin!
It’s very likely the Texans’ franchise quarterback is not on the roster, though, for a rebuilding team, having a young player to star under center and hold his own is always a bonus. At the very least, Davis Mills showcased the ability to be an accurate passer (7th in accuracy%), though he also had more turnover-worthy plays than big-time throws, was reluctant to push the ball down the field, and struggled to evade pressure due to his very poor mobility. When you’re talking about a team that should be picking in the top-five next season, it’s very hard. to imagine Mills doing enough for them to pass on a quarterback, though the receiver trio of Brandon Cooks, Nico Collins, and Chris Moore did produce better with him on the field as opposed to Tyrod Taylor last year. Assuming new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton goes back to his roots from the Colts and airs it out more, perhaps a big game or two is up their sleeves, though consistency will be lacking.
In spite of recent excitement about fourth-round rookie running back Dameon Pierce, a bottom-five projected run-blocking unit will likely get in the way of an efficient rushing attack. If you’re looking for an exciting young player to monitor on the offense, it’d be tight end Brevin Jordan, who surprisingly fell to the fifth round despite strong production at Miami, especially after the catch, and then immediately performed admirably (69.3 PFF receiving grade) in a small sample as a rookie. Not giving him the opportunity to build on that would be criminal given the team’s current direction, and he’s someone that could take a major step forward this year.
Defensively, there is continuity with Lovie Smith being promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach, which can be interpreted in many different ways. In an ideal world, you can talk yourself into Derek Stingley Jr. living up to his billing as the #3 overall pick, with Steven Nelson and Desmond King (moving back to the nickel helps) bouncing back from last season. Even then, though, is that enough to compensate for the team’s troubles at both linebacker and safety, with the run defense also serving as a major area of concern? Probably not.
For a team not filled with an abundance of talent, it is astonishing how much pass-rushing talent they have. At this point, Jerry Hughes is as proven as an edge rusher as it gets, while Jonathan Grennard is coming off of a breakout year in his second season, Ogo Okoronokwo has flashed in small samples during his three-year career, and Mario Addison is a steady player in a rotational role. Hopefully, we see younger players like Grennard and Okornokwo provide this team with multiple pass rushers to commit to, and the upside here is actually relatively high. Of course, though, when arguably your only strength is a pass-rush group that wouldn’t be mistaken for last year’s Rams, that’s an inditement on what could be a very long season.
Most likely, general manager Nick Caserio is looking for the team’s younger players, such as Stingley Jr., Collins, Jordan, first-round rookie guard Kenyon Green, second-round rookie safety Jalen Pitre, and even Mills to do enough to make them very confident about the team’s future. This is going to be a long process, though, and one that may mirror what we saw last year on many levels. Nevertheless, a plan is finally in place, and it’d be better placed into action with some encouraging developments from this season. The team’s focus may already be on the draft, but, between then, games will be played, and you never know who could be the next breakout player. Hence, the beauty of being in the position to give different players chances to surprise people. Now, let’s get Brevin Jordan a full-time role.
#1: Kansas City Chiefs
Win Total Projection: 10.98 (Vegas Win Total: 10.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 2nd
Defense Projected Rank: 12th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 3rd
Personal Projection: 12-5
Breakout Player: LB Willie Gay Jr.
In sports, one of the biggest conundrums is balancing short-term aspirations with building a sustainable winner for the long term. For years, the Chiefs have prioritized the former, trading first-round picks for players such as Frank Clark and Orlando Brown Jr., while also not being afraid to spend up in free agency. After just falling short of a Super Bowl appearances, however, they’re set to look much different than in years past, yet, in the end, should find themselves once again in the thick of the Super Bowl hunt.
There are definitely legitimate reasons to be worried about the Chiefs offensively this year. Patrick Mahomes is coming off of his least-efficient season as a pro, struggled to create big-plays (3.6% big-time throw) as his average depth of target (7.4) fell towards the bottom of the league, while Kansas City ranked just in the middle. of the pack in explosive pass rate. Of course, this correlates with teams shifting to universally playing two-high coverages against them, while simply refusing to blitz Mahomes. As such, the offense was forced to become much more patient and rely on less off-schedule plays, which took time to adjust to; they ranked just 17th in EPA/play between Weeks 7-13. From there on out though? Back to first in EPA/play, which is where they finished the season at. It was a rocky season that ended on a sour note, but lt’s not forget this offense was still functioning at an absurdly high level this season.
Then, there is the Tyreek Hill factor; the star receiver, who was in search of a new contract extension, was traded to the Dolphins for five picks, including this year’s first and second-round picks. It’s no secret how hard it is to replace a player of Hill’s caliber, especially with how condensed the targets operated within this offense and how critical of an explosive element he has brought to the table. So, instead, of looking for a one-to-one replacement, Kansas City replaced him in the aggregate. We’ve seen Juju Smith-Schuster’s production hampered significantly by poor quarterback play as of late, but don’t forget this was a player who eclipsed two yards/route run (2.08) as a second-year player in 2018, which is quite an impressive feat. Sure, that was a long time ago, but this is a player who has been at his best working the intermediate areas of the field between the numbers, while also performing admirably after the catch. That wasn’t on display given a deflated average depth of target playing with Ben Roethlisberger, but that changes now in Kansas City, and it’s a great bet on a one-year deal.
From there, Marquez Valdes-Scantling helps re-capture some of the explosiveness they’re losing with Hill, Mecole Hardman has consistently been one of the best wide receivers after the catch and could thrive in an expanded role, and second-round pick Skyy Moore is a player coming off an exceptional junior year at Western Michigan; in all honesty, he likely should have been a first-round pick. Oh, and even if decline is inevitable for Travis Kelce heading into his age-33 season, he still is evidently one of the best tight ends in football. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a poor group of playmakers to me, and they also rank in the top-five in projected pass-block and run-block grade. Any offense centered with Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes is going to have success, and there is more than enough talent here for this to be one of, if not the best offense in the NFL.
Defensively, too, there is reason to be optimistic about this team as well. Between first-round pick Trent McDuffie (an elite college performer), Rashad Fenton, and L’Jarius Sneed, there isn’t any sort of weak-link at the cornerback spot, and that extends to the safety duo of free-agent signing Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill. Now, though, they also have a talented linebacker tandem to be excited about; Nick Bolton (76.4 PFF run defense grade, 64.4 PFF coverage grade) was very impressive for a rookie linebacker and Willie Gay Jr. is an athletic player who has performed well in pass coverage in smaller roles. From a coverage standpoint, pending health, this may be as strong as Kansas City has been in some time.
Meanwhile, with the additions of Carlos Dunlap and first-round rookie George Karlaftis, the Chiefs also have much more depth on the defensive line, leading to significantly more competency rushing the passer and defending the run. That, along with a high-end coverage unit, is going to provide a defense that is more than productive enough to complement a fantastic offense, which they’ll need with such a difficult schedule.
Speaking of which, playing in the AFC West is naturally going to lead to a challenging schedule, especially with the NFC West being the division the AFC West will face off with this year. Still, Kansas City also has to take on the Bills, Bengals, and Bucs due to their first-place schedule, which would seemingly be a difficult task. Then again, they’re currently favored in all but three games, which essentially tells you what you need to know; as hard their schedule seems, they’re also one of the best teams in the NFL, and, thus, should be able to overcome it. It’ll come in different style, but we should fully expect another Super Bowl run from the Chiefs this year.
#2: Los Angeles Chargers
Win Total Projection: 10.23 (Vegas Win Total: 10.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 8th
Defense Projected Rank: 13th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 10th
Personal Projection: 11-6
Breakout Player: CB Asante Samuel Jr.
Are we going to do this again? This certainly isn’t the first time the Chargers, after a seemingly terrific offseason, has found themselves with extremely high expectations heading into a season. Somehow, someway, whether it be injuries or late-season collapses, something has gotten in the way for them, but it’s a new year, and here’s hoping the talent wins out.
After all, the roster here is utterly loaded. Obviously, it all starts with Justin Herbert, who is anybody’s definition of an elite quarterback. Whether it’s his accuracy 92nd in accuracy rate), processor (lowest turnover-worthy play rate), or exceptional physical tools, an MVP-esque season could very much be on the horizon, though it may come down to one thing- more explosive passes. Last season, Herbert was tied for just 20th in big-time throw rate, and a lot of that is due to a conservative average depth of target (7.9); only Daniel Jones, Tua Tagovailoa, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett, Matt Ryan, and Jared Goff attempted fewer passes 20+ yards down the field than Herbert. Now, is this a “Herbert problem”, or an inditement on offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Given the latter’s history running very restrained passing attacks, that’s where I lean, but there aren’t any signs that will change this season.
Perhaps some of this is a personnel issue too; as productive as Mike Williams is down the field, he’s not a traditional separator by any means, while Keenan Allen is much more of an underneath threat at this point of his career. Ideally, a speed receiver (hello, Will Fuller?) could be the missing piece to put this offense over the edge, though, when you have two high-end wide receivers, that matters a lot less. We’ll see how the right side of the offensive line fares between rookie first-round guard Zion Johnson and right tackle Trey Pipkins, who has a rough start to his career but has performed better in small sample sizes, yet, if that goes well, the ceiling of this offense is even higher. As a high-paced offense that airs the ball out with an elite quarterback, two tremendous wide receivers, and a relatively strong offensive line, they have all the capabilities to lead the NFL in scoring. Of course, that’s going to require a shift in philosophy from Lombardi, which we’re not sure will happen.
To be fair, what really did the Chargers in last season was a defense that ranked just 23rd in EPA/play allowed, and 31st against the run. Head coach Brandon Staley is running a defense that has become very popular with extremely light boxes and an emphasis on limiting explosive passes and simply encouraging teams to the run the ball, but you also need strong defensive line talent for that to work. Enter Khalil Mack, who not only forms an elite pass-rush duo with Joey Bosa, but is also a fantastic run defender. From there, Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson are significantly improved options on the interior from last year, while Kyle Van Noy is another versatile chess piece for the front seven. Will this be an elite run defense? No, but being in the middle-of-the-pack there is all you’re looking for.
What will ultimately dictate the fate of this defense, though, is the production they’ll get from their cornerbacks JC Jackson was brought in on an $82.5 million deal to continue to serve as a shutdown #1 corner, but can that happen while he recovers from injury (on PUP list), adjusts to a new defensive system that is much different than he’s used to from New England, and also deal with the natural ebbs and flows of the cornerback position? Can Asante Samuel Jr., a very strong college prospect, take a step forward in his second season? Can Bryce Callahan stay healthy and remain one of the best nickel corners in the NFL? These are “what ifs” that we should mainly be confident in happening, particularly when you have one of the league’s best defensive players in safety Derwin James. Still, a defense lacking continuity is always a concern, especially early in the season.
At the end of the day, how can you not be confident in this coaching staff? All Brandon Staley has done is do everything a coach should do- be an excellent communicator, make analytically inclined decisions, especially on fourth down, and build a philosophy that stems around the passing game on both sides of the ball. Right now, I have the utmost belief in this coaching staff getting the most out of this illustrious amount of talent, yet can it all gel in time? Defenses built through free agency often have a notable bust rate, so we’ll have to wait and see. Of course, this was a postseason-caliber team last year with one of the league’s worst defenses in the NFL and similar lack of speed on the offense, so it’s hard to imagine them not making the playoffs. Then again, what do we ever know with the Chargers?
#3: Denver Broncos
Win Total Projection: 9.17 (Vegas Win Total: 10.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 12th
Defense Projected Rank: 20th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 9th
Personal Projection: 10-7
Breakout Player: CB Patrick Surtain II
Between John Elway and Peyton Manning, the Broncos certainly have experienced some great stretches of quarterback play throughout their organizational tenure. Coming off a Super Bowl championship in 2016, they sought to accomplish something no franchise wants to do- replace a Hall of Fame quarterback. To be fair, Denver won the Super Bowl in spite of Manning, who struggled mightily during his final year in the league. That being said, relying on absurd defensive efficiency is not something that can last, and the team needed to find an answer under center. From Paxton Lynch to Trevor Siemian to Joe Flacco to Drew Lock to Teddy Bridgewater, they’ve taken stabs at various different quarterbacks whether via the draft or a veteran stopgap, but, so far, no cigar; that 2016 season represents they last time they reached the postseason. Suddenly, though, that is in position to change.
When George Paton took over as the general manager of the Broncos last offseason, he inherited a roster with plenty of established talent, yet with no stability at the quarterback position. Rather than draft a quarterback with the 9th overall pick, however, he decided to select cornerback Patrick Surtain II, while rolling into 2021 with Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock. After a seven-win season, though, the elite veteran quarterback he desired became available- Russell Wilson. In exchange for multiple first-round picks and second-round picks, as well as a collection of players, Denver finally has a star quarterback to rally behind. Given the hefty price they paid, anything but a postseason appearances will be a massive disappointment, and it’s up to Wilson to lead them there.
To be fair, Wilson definitely is the type of quarterback you want to gamble on. Between 2018 and 2020, he led the league in big-time-throw rate, and ranked towards the top of the league in both PFF grade and EPA/play+CPOE composite rating. So, what’s the potential pushback? Well, last year was not an ideal season for him. Overall, he finished with a career-low 73.9 PFF grade, ranked just 19th in adjusted EPA/play (.084), saw his accuracy crater (24th in adjusted completion rate), and also was in the bottom-ten in both positively-graded play rate and negatively-pay rate. All told, it was a shocking turn of events, and one that could signal concern. Luckily, there’s more to it than that. See, in Week 5 against the Rams, Wilson injured his middle finger leading to him missing three games, which, perhaps, wasn’t enough time. Regardless, the splits pre and post-injury are rather telling:
- Pre-Injury: 92.1 PFF passing grade, 9.6% big-time throw, 0% turnover-worthy play, 80% adjusted completion rate, 9.6 yards/pass attempt, .153 adjusted EPA/play, 10.2 (!) CPOE
- Post-Injury: 53.9 PFF passing grade, 3.9% big-time throw, 3.8% turnover-worthy play, 67.9% adjusted completion rate, 6.6 yards/pass attempt, .051 adjusted EPA/play, 0 CPOE
Can we completely buy into this split? Usually, I’d say no, but with such a clear cause-and-effect here, I’d be inclined to believe it; this is a quarterback that relies so much on touch and precision, so when that goes, he’s in trouble. Really, there’s no other explanation for why there would have been any sort of decline, so let’s enter 2022 assuming we’re getting the established elite play from Wilson. . From there, what does the offense look like? Not only are they adjusting to a new quarterback in Denver, but a new head coach as well, as we’ll have to see what Nathaniel Hackett carries over from his time in Green Bay, in addition to what Wilson wants to do. Generally, Wilson has had a tendency to rely on low percentage throws (outside the numbers deep shots), yet if Hackett can will him to make slightly quicker, more efficient decisions, a whole new level can be unlocked here. Regardless, though, it’s hard to not see him performing simply because that’s what elite quarterbacks do.
Especially following the injury to Tim Patrick, there is a bit of uncertainty in the receiving corps, though there is plenty to like. Speaking of injuries, coming back from a torn ACL with subpar quarterback play isn’t easy, and Courtland Sutton eclipsed two yards/route run as an elite outside-the-numbers vertical threat while dealing with inaccuracy from the quarterback position. With Wilson, the ceiling is through the roof with that connection, and although Jerry Jeudy’s strengths an intermediate receiver between the numbers may not mesh with Wilson, he’s still a very talented receiver with proven separation ability and success after the catch. Heck, the duo of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon should provide strong value on the ground, and this quite easily the best pass-protecting offensive line Wilson has ever played behind. Even if it takes time for the pieces to fit together, by the end of the year, expect them to be performing at a top-ten level.
Defensively, we shouldn’t see much of a schematic shift going from former head coach Vic Fangio to new defensive coordinator Ejiro Everto, coming from a Rams defense that has run plenty of Fangio principles (light boxes, limiting explosive passes and encouraging the run), though there could always be growing pains. What we’ll see, though, is if the personnel is enough. Patrick Surtain II had the elite production and athleticism to profile as an elite cornerback prospect, and by holding his own while essentially playing on an island as a rookie, he’s done enough to expect a major surge in year #2. If you get the right end of the spectrum on players like Ronald Darby and K’Waun Williams, this could be a very strong cornerback duo, while the safety tandem of Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson remains fantastic. The defensive line, meanwhile, features plenty of impact players between Randy Gregory, Bradley Chubb, Dre’Mont Jones, and DJ Jones, all of whom will be big beneficiaries rushing the passer, but also holding their own in run defense and allowing Denver to operate with lighter boxes. Even if the linebackers are an unknown, there is a lot to be excited about on this defense, especially with them already due to better luck on third downs.
Could we be looking at a team with a top-ten offense AND defense? That’s very much in the realm of possibilities, though how quickly it comes together may be the ultimate question. Initial games against the Seahawks and Texans makes life much easier, and it helps tremendously that their two games against the Chiefs are during the back-end of the season. I wouldn’t call them as bullet-proof as the Chiefs and Chargers, though should you be surprised if they win the division? Absolutely not. I’m confident calling this franchise one trending upwards in a hurry.
#4: Las Vegas Raiders
Win Total Projection: 8.98 (Vegas Win Total: 8.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 11th
Defense Projected Rank: 18th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 5th
Personal Projection: 9-8
Breakout Player: IOL Dylan Parham
The Jaguars definitely dealt with their fair share of chaos last season, but no team deserves the title for “most chaotic” season than the Raiders. In one season, head coach Jon Gruden had to re-sign as head coach over racist, homophobic emails he had sent previously were exposed, wide receiver Henry Ruggs III was released after facing criminal charges for a DUI that resulted in the death of a woman and their dog, dealt with a substantial amount of injuries, and somehow still ended up in the postseason in spite of a negative point differential. Wow. With head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler taking over, here’s hoping for much more stability moving forward, which will be needed in a treacherous AFC West.
Between 2018 and 2019, we saw Derek Carr become one of the league’s most conservative quarterbacks, putting his position as the Raiders’ franchise quarterback in jeopardy. Starting in 2020, though, he embraced a much-more aggressive style of play, which is critical for one of the game’s most productive passers when working 10+ yards down the field. The problem last year? With Ruggs gone, that big-play element went away, which may help explain this notable split:
- With Ruggs: 89.9 PFF Passing Grade, 8.5% Big-Time Throw, 2% Turnover-Worthy Play, 9.2 average depth of target, .201 adjusted EPA/play
- Without Ruggs: 61.6 PFF Passing Grade, 3.9% Big-Time Throw, 4.3% Turnover-Worthy Play, 7.8 average depth of target, .083 adjusted EPA/play
There are other factors here such as tight end Darren Waller dealing with injuries and moving on from Gruden, though I think there is something to be taken away with how much more conservative Carr was without a dynamic receiver he felt comfortable with. Enter Davante Adams. No wide receiver has commanded a higher target share (30.3%) or been more efficient (2.78 yards/route run) over the past two seasons, and he’s one of the few receivers who can thrive at all levels of the field. Thus, you have the game’s top receiver in football, one of the game’s top tight ends who can stretch the seam in Waller, and a tremendous underneath threat in Hunter Renfrow. Assuming ideal health, Carr has all the weapons needed to be right at the top of the league in most passing metrics, which definitely wasn’t the case last year.
Plus, there’s a lot to be excited about with the pairing of Carr and McDaniels. Only Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger saw a lower-percentage of their passes come via play-action concepts than Carr, yet expect that to change with McDaniels in 2021, who also has proven to be comfortable leading a high passing-volume offense. The concern, though, is everything else. I’m a bit less worried about the offensive line considering it’s an improved group than what they dealt with last year, yet the Raiders will certainly struggle on the ground with the second-lowest projected run-block unit, and there is absolutely zero wide receiver depth behind Adams and Renfrow; there isn’t any source of speed here either, which would be a major benefit. Dylan Parham, with elite athletic testing numbers and consistent production at Memphis, could prove to be an exceptional third-round pick, but if any offensive lineman or wide receiver get injured, things could fall off the rails quickly.
Defensively, it’s a similar story. With new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, they definitely have strong coaching on that side of the ball, and we’ll see a much less static defense that with Gus Bradley. Furthermore, the pass-rush duo of Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones is exciting, nickel defender Nate Hobbs and safety Trevon Moehrig performed well as rookies, and corner back Rock Ya-Sin may have had a breakout season last year. Then, there are the holes; Anthony Averett and Jonathan Abram haven’t been adequate in coverage in the past, the run defense is problematic, and it’s unclear what they’ll get from their linebackers. There is a lot of star power here, but, once again, if a few players go down, they’re already perhaps starting players that competitive teams would prefer not to- the depth is a massive concern.
Football is a long season, so not having the roster fit to handle that is extremely problematic. Given how potent the passing attack could be, the floor of this team gets raised significantly, though, in a very competitive division, they’re the one team whose holes are the easiest to find by a significant margin. How far can the stars carry them? Postseason contention should be expected, though, in the AFC West, that may very well mean a last-place finish with a winning record. That has never happened before, yet somehow becomes the median expectation in 2022. That’s the AFC West for you!
#1: Green Bay Packers
Win Total Projection: 11.76 (Vegas Win Total: 10.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 3rd
Defense Projected Rank: 19th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 17th
Personal Projection: 12-5
Breakout Player: CB Eric Stokes
Can we talk about the unprecedented amount of success head coach Matt LeFleur had had in Green Bay? Through three seasons, he’s won 13 games in each, accumulating a 39-10 regular season record during that span, in addition to multiple NFC Conference Championship Game appearances. He and Aaron Rodgers have formulated quite the deadly combination, though consider this their most daunting task yet.
When you lose a player of Davante Adam’s caliber, it’s going to have a notable effect, but that is particularly true in Green Bay. As we alluded to in the Raiders preview, not only was Adams the most efficient receiver in the NFL, he also had the highest target share, speaking to how condensed the passing game was; the production ran completely through him. Unlike with the Chiefs, though, the Packers didn’t really look to replace him at all. As such, the receiving corps is quite suspect:
- Allen Lazard, one of the league’s least-efficient wide receivers (1.13 yards/route run) last season
- Sammy Watkins, who has failed to eclipse a 65 PFF receiving grade in back-to-back seasons
- Randall Cobb, who somehow leads all receivers in yards/route run (1.36) from last season
- Romeo Doubs, a rookie wide receiver that has impressed, but is also a fourth-round rookie
- Christian Watson, whom the Packers traded up to select a pick #34, yet was seen as an unrefined athletic “project” coming out of North Dakota State, and has been dealing with an injury through the preseason
- Tight end Robert Tonyan, a fringe bottom-ten player at his position in yards/route run (1.06) in 2021
Perhaps running back Aaron Jones can be used an elevated role in the receiving game, but the fact that the Packers don’t have a viable #1 or #2 option in a general passing attack is very concerning. That being said, how much will it truly matter? The return of David Bakhitiari solidifies a strong pass-protecting offensive line with a lot of continuity, and the Packers are betting on the pairing of Rodgers and LeFleur being more than enough to get them over the hump. Against more favorable defenses, something they’ll see plenty of given the division they play in, that’ll work; when you have the league’s most-productive quarterback, it is very difficult to expect anything other than a top-five offense.
Defensively, the Packers already ranked 11th in EPA/play allowed against the pass last season, and now gets back one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL in Jaire Alexander. That’s not too shabby! Eric Stokes already more than held his own as a rookie and was an intriguing college prospect with superb athleticism and strong college production, while Rasul Douglas may have found his place in the nickel; add in the safety tandem of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, and they’re going to be a high-end coverage unit.
From there, Rashan Gary, Kenny Clark, and Preston Smith make up a defensive line that is going to thrive rushing the passer, but what happens in terms of run defense? Only three teams had a worse EPA/play allow against the run than they did, and, to be honest, it held that back to a notable degree and led to struggles on early downs. The hope is that the addition of first-round rookie linebacker Quay Walker will help, though his lack of college production, in addition to being a rookie linebacker, is awfully concerning, and who knows if DeVondre Campbell repeats last year’s high-end performance. Again, though, how much does it matter when you’re as potent as they will be in pass defense? Ultimately, not a ton.
There is a chance the Packers can field a top-five offense and defense this season, which once again would put them in position to finish with the NFC’s top record. Of course, that’s not a guarantee with Adams out of the picture, but when you have an elite quarterback, strong coaching, and a tremendous pass defense, a lot of other deficiencies can be masked away. We’ll see if that comes back to haunt them come postseason time against stronger defenses, but, in the regular season, expect another smooth ride for what has been as tremendous of a marriage as anyone could have hoped for.
#2: Minnesota Vikings
Win Total Projection: 9.78 (Vegas Win Total: 9.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 13th
Defense Projected Rank: 17th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 22nd
Personal Projection: 10-7
Breakout Player: OT Christian Darrisaw
Sometimes, a change in the coaching staff can be all that is needed to take the team over the hump. With a new regime coming into Minnesota, led by general manager Kwesi Adolfo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell, the Vikings look a lot similar to years past, but perhaps new voices is all that is needed to finally take a talented team back to the postseason.
While there are notable limitations to an offense quarterbacked by Kirk Cousins, the good certainly outweighs the bad here. After all, Cousins just finished as PFF‘s fourth-highest graded passer, has finished in the top-ten in yards/attempt in three straight years, is an accurate quarterback who is proficient throwing ten+ yards down the field, and combines the ability to produce chunk plays with limiting negatives as well. Throwing to a strong receiving corps led by Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and tight end Irv Smith Jr., it’s hard to not expect Cousins to be very efficient through the air; he’s also benefitting from playing in O’Connell’s offense, one that he’s very well familiar with and, most importantly, is going to lean more on early-down passing.
The offensive line remains a concern, though the development of second-year tackle Christian Darrisaw, who is already stout as a run-blocker (77.3 PFF run-block grade) and took major strides as a pass protector as the season went on, would help with that. That could potentially cap the ceiling of this offense, but when you have a well-regarded play-caller, a very productive passer, and a strong group of playmakers, the floor is also very high. Realistically, we could be looking at a top-ten offense here.
Defensively, there are more concerns, albeit some reasons for excitement as well. It’s unclear if Patrick Peterson or Chandon Sullivan are reliable starting cornerbacks at this point, yet a safety trio of Harrison Smith, first-round rookie Lewis Cine, and Cameron Bynum, who impressed in his rookie season, helps with that, as does arguably the most productive coverage linebacker in the NFL in Eric Kendricks. Plus, the pass-rush tandem of Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith could be quite exciting, and help allow the team to rush four and aim to limit explosive passes, which is ideal given the cornerback situation. Is this a defense with a lot of depth? No, though the hope is the high-end talent they have allows them to play at a competent level.
If so, you’re looking at potentially very productive offense with a defense that gets the job done. In the NFC, that’s a playoff team. After being much more limited due to a very conservative approach by previous head coach Mike Zimmer, a change in regime, as well as an offensive head coach, may make all the difference here, and should have Vikings fans very excited about this upcoming season. After a season filled with plenty of heartbreak, consider this a welcome “turn of the page” in the Twin Cities.
#3: Detroit Lions
Win Total Projection: 5.22 (Vegas Win Total: 6.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 25th
Defense Projected Rank: 32nd
Strength of Schedule Rank: 23rd
Personal Projection: 5-12
Breakout Player: LB Malcolm Rodriguez
Has a team ever benefitted more from being featured on Hard Knocks than the Lions? It seems like every emphatic Dan Campbell speech raises the bar for this team up a notch, and, at this point, the hype has gone to an extraordinary level. After all, no team has been bet on more to exceed their win total than them, while Campbell is the betting favorite to win coach of the year. Perhaps we’ve gone a bit too far, though a step forward should be expected this season.
Slowly but surely, Detroit is build a very solid foundation for a quarterback to thrive in. Only Ja’Marr Chase earned a better PFF receiving grade as a rookie than Amon-Ra St.Brown, whose production (88.3 PFF receiving grade, 2.42 yards/route run) after the bye week points to him evolving into a very dynamic player out of the slot moving forward. Eventually, first-round rookie Jameson Williams will be back and provide the team with sheer explosiveness, and that duo is going to be an absolute headache for defensive coordinators moving forward. In the short term, DJ Chark and Josh Reynolds are both quality deep threats that open things up tremendously for St.Brown, while tight end TJ Hockenson is a fine outlet in the short passing game. Add in an improving offensive line, and things are trending up in a hurry.
Yet, does it make much of a difference for this season? Jared Goff finished last season with the third-lowest big-time throw rate and the lowest average depth of target (6.8) in all of football, which seems unideal when a lot of your top receiving options are meant to stretch the field vertically. With zero mobility and extreme conservativeness, you’d assume there simply is no ceiling for an offense led by him, and the Lions are setting things up for a quarterback via the draft next year. At the very least, new offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has something to work with here as he crafts an offense for the future.
Defensively, it’s hard to not have faith in a well-regarded coaching staff, led by defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant. Yet, they have they work cut out for them. As things stand, only the Texans are projected to have a lower coverage grade than the Lions, and it goes back to a lack of impact talent in the back-seven. Now, a breakout from former third overall pick Jeffrey Okudah would help matters, as could third-round rookie safety Kerby Joseph earning more playing time as the season goes on. The player who may make the biggest difference, though, is actually a sixth-round rookie. To be fair, with elite athletic testing numbers and high-end production upon being moved from safety to linebacker in college, there isn’t a justifiable world where Malcolm Rodriguez should have been drafted where he was, and I frankly wouldn’t be surprised if he turned out to be the top linebacker in the draft. That’s only been validated by a strong performance in training camp and the preseason, to the point he’s expected to receive immediate playing time.
Of course, the rookie that will have Lions fans’ attention is none other than Aidan Hutchinson, and for good reason. As PFF‘s highest-graded edge defender and highest-graded pass rusher in college football last year, he had a clear case to be the #1 overall pick in this past, and should be an immediate producer with the potential to become one of the most complete edge rushers in the NFL. Plus, he’s complemented by a surprisingly strongdefensive line; Charles Harris had a breakout season last year, Romeo Okwara is coming back from injury, Julian Okwara showed flashes of excellence last year, and second-round rookie Josh Pashcal can make an impact as well. If second-year interior defender Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeil take a step forward, this is not a strong defensive line for this year, but moving forward as well.
As things stand, though, we may be looking at the least-productive defense in terms of run defense and coverage, which is a tough pill to swallow. That’s okay, though; this is not a team expecting to make a postseason push, but, rather, is hoping to take another step in their rebuilding process. With multiple years of strong drafting from a process standpoint, they’re certainly heading in a right direction, and a playoff run by next year is not out of question. For now, though, it’s about letting the young players develop, and going from there. Even if the wins aren’t there, this should be a fun season for Lions fans.
#4: Chicago Bears
Win Total Projection: 4.85 (Vegas Win Total: 6.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 27th
Defense Projected Rank: 26th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 16th
Personal Projection: 4-13
Breakout Player: QB Justin Fields
It can be tiring to talk about the importance of resource allocation when it comes to building an NFL team, but if any organization can demonstrate the negative effects of dismissing that aspect of team-building, it’s the Chicago Bears. After years filled with little cap space and trading draft picks for immediate upgrades, the organization hit rock bottom, and, thus, the pairing of general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy was let go. Now, with a new regime taking over, it’s clear the rebuild that has needed to happen is finally in action, though it could lead to a difficult season ahead.
It’s an interesting dynamic for a new regime to inherit a young quarterback, though if the Bears play it right, they could have a franchise quarterback in Justin Fields:
Overall, Fields’ rookie season didn’t go as planned; he finished 30th in both PFF passing grade (60.8) and adjusted EPA/play (-.104). Now, the former still ranked higher than every rookie quarterback not named Mac Jones, but for someone whose college data was essentially as prodigious as it gets, it certainly was a disappointing first year. That being said, it wasn’t devoid of reasons for optimism moving forward. When looking for a franchise quarterback, one o the first places to start is their ability to produce positive plays- do they have the high-end style of play that can truly take over games. In Fields’ case, that showed right away. Overall, the Ohio State product ranked third in big-time throw rate (6.1%) and positively-graded play rate, combining impact arm talent with scrambling ability that he started to rely on to his advantage as the season went on. That on its own is a great start, though we’ll be looking for Fields to improve in other areas to become the player he has the ability to be.
In college, Fields, according to a data study by Tej Seth at PFF, was not only the most accurate quarterback in the 2021 NFL Draft, but the most accurate draft prospect since 2015. Yet, with the highest uncatchable pass rate in the NFL and a negative completion rate above expectation, he was anything but the accurate passer we had come to expect. With accuracy being such a stable trait from college to pro, I’d expect on this improving – he was mainly throwing outside the numbers and was a rookie – though it’s worth monitoring. From there, a slightly quicker processor would be beneficial; even if time to throw rate doesn’t correlate with success on either end of the spectrum, not being under pressure on 42.8% of his drop-backs again make matters much easier. Now, a mobile quarterback with such extensive big-play ability should be holding onto the ball in hopes of utilizing his strengths, but making sure to not have these situations covert into sacks as much as he did would certainly keep things from getting out of hand at any particular time.
On the bright side, Fields’ production on third down and in the red zone was so low compared to standard that it would be a shock to not see him improve in those two areas. Furthermore, he already showed plenty of flashes (12.7% big-time throw) working off play-action, which is someone thing he should be able to use to his benefit a lot more with new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who comes over from Green Bay and has already made it an emphasis in the preseason. For a quarterback that dealt with poor separation from his receivers as much as almost any other quarterback, being in a more fluid offense that allows for more high-percentage throws will be a great addition for him- combining layups to go along with his normal half-court shots will certainly help him become the complete player he has the potential to be. With the high-end play he already showed and the clear areas of growth that we have reason to expect to happen, there are so many reasons to be optimistic about Fields’ long-term outlook.
It’s easy to forget how dominant of a quarterback prospect Fields was, but you shouldn’t; given the combination of accuracy, athleticism, and arm talent that was an on display consistently at Ohio State, it’d be a personal shock if he didn’t end up as a starting quarterback, and Getsy can help him get there. That being said, outside of that, he’s not in a position to succeed. While he did formulate a connection with Darnell Mooney, who was productive (1.72 yards/route run) as a vertical threat last year, the rest of the depth chart at wide receiver consists of players such as Byron Pringle, Equanimeous St.Brown, and 25-year-old rookie Velus Jones Jr., while Cole Kmet (63.4 PFF receiving grade) is certainly not a proven player at the tight end position. As such, Fields’ passing options completely center around Mooney, who is a fine player, yet this strategy perhaps is best served when you have Davante Adams to throw to, and even that isn’t a sure thing. All told, Fields may be stuck holding onto the ball for a considerable amount of time.
The problem? He’ll also not be protected very well by his offensive line. Perhaps Braxton Jones surprises people this year, but starting a fifth-round rookie from Southern Utah at left tackle is incredibly risky, and you don’t know what you’re getting from Teven Jenkins on the interior after a tough rookie year. As such, Fields will likely be under duress consistently, and you shouldn’t expect much efficiency on the ground either. The pairing of Fields and Getsy is fascinating, though it’s not going to lead to offensive production this season.
Defensively, head coach Matt Eberflus also may have his work cut out for him. Now, between cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker, the team’s two second-round picks each had the college production to warrant being first-round selections, and, thus, are exciting cornerstones moving forward. Plus, Roquan Smith is one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL, and the pass-rush duo of Robert Quinn and Trevis Gipson should have more than enough success. Beyond that, though, there is little depth on the interior of the defensive line, which, combined with deficiencies in linebacker run defense, are likely to lead to a defense that is gashed on the ground. With little pressure from the interior and a lack of proven secondary talent, it’s not as though that is being made up in other areas, and, consequently, this defense should look a lot like you would expect it to for a rebuilding team.
Between Fields, Brisker, Gordon, Mooney, and Gipson, there are some young players for Bears fans to be excited about, yet the grunt work is just getting started. Due to the very poor situation this regime inherited, it’s going to be a long rebuilding process, but if Fields can prove to be a franchise quarterback, that calculus can change quickly; having a top-five pick and not having to use it on a quarterback opens up so many possibilities, in addition to having an abundance of cap space. I appreciate the long-term vision and responsibility general manager Ryan Poles is sticking to, though it’s quite obvious that is going to lead to an ugly season. Here’s hoping enough positives come from it to create some buzz in the Windy City moving forward.
#1: Philadelphia Eagles
Win Total Projection: 12.06 (Vegas Win Total: 9.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 10th
Defense Projected Rank: 11th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 32nd
Personal Projection: 12-5
Breakout Player: S Marcus Epps
Football, unlike sports such as baseball, is one that involves a lot of parity from season-to-season; the fluctuations in team success are much more stark. Take the Eagles as a prime example of this. A year ago, they had just moved on from quarterback Carson Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson, looked to be in clear rebuild mode, while the front office was not extremely popular amongst the fanbase. A year later, they’re in position to win the NFC East, and are set up for a very bright future.
Heading into 2021, the Eagles seemed to be giving a one-year trial run to Jalen Hurts, though the expectation was that he’d potentially just be keeping the seat warm for the team’s eventual franchise quarterback. Yet, between his performance and the team’s success, he did enough to maintain the team’s faith in him. You would have expected that after he finished as PFF‘s 14th-highest graded quarterback (77.1) and was in the top-ten in positive-play rate, thanks to his abilities as a rusher. That being said, can he take a step forward this season? Last year, Hurts showed a great reluctance to throw over the middle of the field, while he only ranked 21st in PFF grade from a clean pocket. With production from a clean pocket being much more predictive than production when under pressure, what happens when his success in the latter situation regresses? There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, though it is too be determined how he fares in his second full year of a starter.
Fortunately, for him, few quarterbacks are more set up for success than he is. Between DeVonta Smith, who performed tremendously (77.6 PFF receiving grade) as a rookie stretching the field vertically, and tight end Dallas Goedert, the most efficient receiving tight end (2.33 yards/route run) in the NFL last year, Hurts wasn’t derived of weapons to throw to, yet there was little depth beyond them. Thus, in comes AJ Brown, whom the team traded a first-round pick to acquire. We’re not just talking about a high-end receiver, but the second-most efficient (2.7 yards/route run) between the past two years, as well as a player who is a menace after the catch on crossers, uses his absurd athleticism and physicality to shine down the field, and is also one of the best receivers against man coverage. When you trade for a player of this caliber, you’re not only getting someone who is going to have insane production, but is going to have a tremendous effect on the rest of the team’s receivers. If anything, he may be the wide receiver traded who has the greatest impact on their new team.
The fit with Brown in Philadelphia is a fascinating one, though; his best work tends to come on in-breaking routes between the numbers, yet that’s not an area of the field Hurts prefers to target. Plus, there’s a matter of the run/pass balance of the offense. As you can see, following a Thursday Night game against the Bucs in Week 6, the team’s philosophy shifted tremendously:
- Weeks 1-6: 5th in Early-Down Pass Rate, 20th in EPA/Play
- Weeks 7-17: 28th in Early-Down Pass Rate, 8th in EPA/Play
Now, it’s easy to look at this and assume that the team simply didn’t have confidence in Hurts, and they had to manage an offense around him. Yet, his efficiency metrics didn’t change at all with this change, and it’s clear the team believes in them being able to handle a more pass-heavy offense; you don’t trade for AJ Brown unless you plan on opening up the offense. Regardless, though, this is an offense that has multiple pathways for success. and we haven’t talked about arguably the best offensive line in all of football (1st in projected pass protection, 5th in run blocking); can you imagine if second-year interior offensive lineman Landon Dickerson takes a step forward. Any team with elite weapons, an exceptional offensive line, and arguably the most dynamic rushing attack in the NFL is going to have a lot of success with any sort of competency at the quarterback position, which Hurts more than provides.
That’s not all, though- the defense also should take a notable step forward. Last season, defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon was very reluctant to bring extra pressure, preferring to rush four, but that’s quite easy to accomplish with edge rusher Brandon Graham back, the addition of Hasaan Reddick, as well as Fletcher Cox, Josh Sweat, and Javon Hargrave. Graham, meanwhile, is a major boost for the team’s run defense, and first-round rookie Jordan Davis helps tremendously there. This is a deep defensive line that can handle injuries and keep each other fresh, and, as such, is ready for the long haul.
It’s unclear if cornerbacks Darius Slay or Avonte Maddox will be able to perform at such a high level again, but between them and new addition James Bradberry, Philadelphia has a very strong cornerback room, but it’s the rest of the back seven that could help them take the next step. In a part-time role the past two seasons, Marcus Epps has been a very steady player in both pass coverage and run defense, and now gets the opportunity to have a full-time role, with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson playing a flexible role for them as well. Meanwhile, after getting poor production from their linebackers last year, Kyzir White is a notable upgrade alongside TJ Edwards, and don’t discount any production they could get from rookie linebacker Nakobe Dean, pending his health. It’s easy to be concerned about an aging defense, or the lack of cornerback depth, yet, as things stand, the lack of a weak point is tremendously promising.
Add all this together, and the Eagles are probably a ten-win team that could go either way in the postseason hunt. Instead, they get to feast on the easiest schedule in the entire NFL, with a very soft start to the year as well. When taking that into account, this not only becomes a solidified postseason team, but, also, a clear candidate to be the #1 seed in the NFC, even if their true talent doesn’t back that up. That being said, though, with strong talent on the perimeter and trenches, any development from Hurts could vault them up even further. No matter what, it’s going to be a fun season in the city of Brotherly Love.
#2: Dallas Cowboys
Win Total Projection: 10.15 (Vegas Win Total: 10.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 14th
Defense Projected Rank: 5th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 27th
Personal Projection: 9-8
Breakout Player: EDGE Sam Williams
Whereas the Eagles had about as exciting of an offseason as any team, the Cowboys are certainly on the opposite end of the spectrum. With players such as Amari Cooper, La’el Collins, Randy Gregory, and Connor Williams all out of the mix, and the team not finding ideal replacements for them, there are plenty of holes present on a roster that may be heading for a step in the wrong direction. In the end, though, it’s up to the team’s star players to prevent that from happening.
Really, it all comes down to number four. When you pay a quarterback $40 million a year, you do so believing they can elevate the talent around them, which is what Dak Prescott will need to prove capable of doing. Last season, he benefitted from from the second highest-graded receiving corps and pass-block unit, yet, in spite of that, he was just the 14th-best quarterback in adjusted EPA/play. What happens now that he’ll be without three of his top offensive linemen from a season ago, as well as arguably his favorite target in Amari Cooper? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered here. By now, Prescott has established him as an accurate (6th in accuracy%) passer who can limit mistakes and produce enough positives at capable enough rates, though the few times we have seen him without an elite infrastructure have gone well. Clearly, the Cowboys are betting that things of changed.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about his supporting cast. Instead of Tyron Smith and La’el Collins, each of whom eclipsed elite PFF grades of 80, Prescott’s tackles will be Tyler Smith, a rookie offensive lineman from Tulsa whose main deficiency in college was pass protection and spent all of training camp on the interior of the offensive line, and Terence Steele, who ranked just 65th among qualified offensive tackles in PFF pass-block grade (60.9). The interior of the offensive line isn’t a concern, though that’s quite the problematic tackle situation, and the wide receivers aren’t much better. By now, we’ve seen enough from CeeDee Lamb (last year’s 9th-highest graded wide receiver) to feel comfortable about him being a true “alpha” player in the passing game. Yet, the depth behind is trouble-some. Michael Gallup is recovering from a torn ACL and hasn’t been an efficient wide receiver (1.35 yards/route run) the past two years, Jalen Tolbert is a third-round rookie from Southern Alabama who took until his senior year to perform at an adequate level, and Noah Brown has run a grand total of 385 routes over his four NFL seasons. While tight end Dalton Schultz performed well as an underneath zone beater last season, there isn’t any reasons for defenses to do anything else but solely focus on taking Lamb out of the picture. If that happens, this could be much uglier than anyone is expecting.
On one end, the Cowboys are coming off a season in which they finished second in EPA/play allowed and return many of the same faces. On the other end, no team forced more takeaways than them last season, which is quite unsustainable, to say the least. The return of Demarcus Lawrence helps compensate for the loss of Randy Gregory on the edge, especially if defensive coordinator Dan Quinn continues to feature Micah Parsons as a pass rusher; second-round rookie Sam Williams, coming off an elite season (90.2 PFF pass-rush grade) at Ole Miss, also should make an impact. The question for me, though, lies elsewhere. Can the back-seven remain as functional with turnover regression? How does one of the league’s worst run defenses from a season ago improve without any reinforcements made on the interior defensive line? Continuity is a massive benefit, though you wish there could have been minor moves made to tighten up some loose ends here.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, they play in the NFC East, and, consequently, have a very favorable schedule. That said, finishing in first place last year puts them at a disadvantage in terms of schedule compared to the Eagles, and I’m not comfortable saying this is a sure-fire postseason team. When you have a very concerning tackle duo, no depth at wide receiver, and even some defensive holes, it often takes an upper-echelon quarterback to mask those flaws, and it’s unclear if Prescott can be that quarterback. It’s been a bizarre offseason for Dallas, and, in the end, that feeling of disappointment could last into the regular season. On the bright side, now might be a time to draft CeeDee Lamb for your fantasy team?
#3: Washington Commanders
Win Total Projection: 7.25 (Vegas Win Total: 7.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 24th
Defense Projected Rank: 23rd
Strength of Schedule Rank: 30th
Personal Projection: 7-10
Breakout Player: OT Samuel Cosmi
Want to know how crazy of a run it has been in Washington as of late? Since 2019, they have had three different team names, and, now will start their ninth different quarterback. Really, since the devastating injury to Joe Theismann in 1985, this has been a franchise in consistent flux, and in desperate need of any sort of stability. That isn’t likely to happen in the near future, though the Commanders are hoping they’ve done enough to put themselves in postseason contention.
As you’d expect given their recent run of quarterback instability, finding a solution under center was Washington’s clear focus heading into this offseason. After taking a run at Russell Wilson before he was traded to Denver, they went with a familiar face in the NFC East, sending multiple third-round picks to the Colts for Carson Wentz, while fully inheriting his $28.3 million cap hit for this season. On the surface, acquiring a quarterback coming off a season where he had a 27-7 TD-INT ratio may seem like a wise decision, yet the underlying numbers (22nd in PFF grade, 25th in negatively-graded play rate, 21st in positively-graded play rate) certainly don’t back that up. On the bright side, the Commanders are going from Taylor Heinicke, arguably the league’s least-efficient downfield passer last year, to a quarterback who was quite competent (13th PFF passing grade 20+ yards down the field) with all of the arm talent on the world, which seemed to be a focus for them. Of course, though, you’re also dealing with one of the last accurate passers who has historically struggled with pocket presence, which limits the ceiling of this offense significantly.
That’s too bad; there are actually some very interesting pieces for this offense. Terry McLaurin’s production sadly aren’t up to the par with the type of elite receivers he’s comparable to given his quarterback situation, yet, even then, he’s a very talented #1 wide receiver who is exceptional working down the field- he actually pairs quite nicely with Wentz. From there, a healthy Curtis Samuel can be a very effective underneath weapon working from the slot, and first-round rookie Jahan Dotson is a Darnell Mooney-esque player as an under-sized player that will try to compensate for that with separation down the field and production after the catch. Add in a rather complete offensive line that may benefit from a second-year leap from Sam Cosmi, who was already proficient as a run blocker, and there is plenty of support around Wentz. If he’s actually going to be able to take advantage of that is the $28.3 million-dollar question, however.
For a team who had such a strong defensive reputation, they certainly didn’t expect to finish with the fourth-worst EPA/play allowed in the entire NFL. That being said, there are reasons for optimism here. See, after investing heavily on the defense in free agency, there was an overall lack of continuity that was quite evident early on in the season, which was on display with a lack of communication in the back-seven. After the bye week in Week 9, however, they vaulted up to 15th in EPA/play allowed, with top cornerback William Jackson (74.8 PFF coverage grade) looking much more like the high-end cornerback they signed him to be. Plus, unless you expect them to once again be a historically-poor third-down defense, shouldn’t we look at their success on early downs (13th in EPA/play allowed) as a sign of things to come anyways? Even with some questions around second-year cornerback Benjamin St.Juste, Jackson, Kendall Fuller, and safeties Bobby McCain and Kamren Curl round out a strong secondary, and they still project to be strong defending the run. There are still some deficiencies to be concerned about, though.
For starters, what should we make of this linebacking corps? When Washington selected Jamin Davis with the 19th overall pick in the 2021 draft, it was a bit of a surprise due to his limited college production, but they were betting on getting the most on his freakish athletic tools. A year later, he’s coming off of a very poor rookie season (48.6 PFF run defense grade, 48.7 PFF coverage), with him and Cole Holcomb not being able to defend the middle of the field whatsoever. Plus, while the defensive line remains strong, it’s unclear how potent it can be rushing the passer should Chase Young miss a considerable portion of the year as he recovers from a torn ACL. Alas, while there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, it’ll take some turnover luck for them to be as productive of a defense as their investments in it would make them expected to be.
Normally, that’d be fine, but due to their quarterback situation, the Commanders have essentially zero margin for error. Sure, you can shine a bright light and say they’re in a better spot than last year, but is it saying much to be slightly improved from the team whose point differential put them on a 5.9-win pace last year? There’s a world where you convince themselves that this team can wiggle there into the postseason mix due to an easy schedule, though there is also a world where this crashes in a hurry. Most likely, we’re looking at seven-to-eight win season and another run at the quarterback carousel next offseason, which, at some point, begs the questions: how can this team get over the hump? With the team’s current philosophy and organizational instability, a clear solution would not appear to be present.
#4: New York Giants
Win Total Projection: 5.55 (Vegas Win Total: 6.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 28th
Defense Projected Rank: 25th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 31st
Personal Projection: 6-11
Breakout Player: WR Ka’Darius Toney
Sticking with the theme of organizational instability, this is something the Giants have dealt with to a great extent recently. Alas, after multiple different general manager/head coach pairings, the team went to Buffalo to try to solve that issue. In comes new general manager Joe Schoen, previously the assistant general manager of the Bills, as well as new head coach Brian Daboll, “the talk of the town” after being the offensive coordinator of one of the league’s top offenses. With this duo intact, Big Blue is in a much better position than they’ve found themselves in for some time. This season, though, will be quite the adjustment phase.
Who is Daniel Jones as a quarterback? To be honest, this is a question I have long struggled to answer. In his rookie season, the former 6th overall pick demonstrated plenty of aggressiveness, with the hope that he could refine his decision-making while retaining the “upside” to lead the Giants to promising pastures. Now, though, he’s coming off a year with the lowest big-time throw rate (1.8%) in the NFL, which stems from high attempting throws 20+ yards down the field at the lowest rate (6.6%). With the tools for improved big-play ability in place, can be coerced with a new coaching staff? It’s unclear at this point, but in his last stand as the team’s starting quarterback, what does he lose?
On a positive note, Ka’Darius Toney more than lived up to his first-round billing by being one of the league’s most efficient receivers (2.14 yards/route run) when healthy, showcasing his the dynamic playmaking ability he has with the ball in his hands- he’s a tremendous underneath weapon that should have a very bright future ahead. Meanwhile, although things went quite poorly last year, Kenny Golladay is just a year removed from being regarded as one of the better receivers in the NFL (2.12 yards/route run), and played through a lot of injuries last season. Then, you factor in Sterling Shepard and second-round rookie Wan’Dale Robinson, and perhaps there is something here? On the other end, Golladay has had a turbulent training camp and, as someone who specializes as a contested-catch threat down the field, stylistically does not mesh well with Jones, with Shepard coming back from a torn ACL, and Robinson is a bit of an outlier given his lack of size and speed to compensate it (5’8″, 179 pounds, 25th percentile speed score). Perhaps Saquon Barkley can get back to being one of the league’s top running backs, but without some things working in favor in terms of the team’s wide receivers, how much does that move the needle? Also, I dare you to try to name one tight end on this roster.
Well, Jones will be protected by a stable offensive line, right? Not exactly. The tackle duo of Andrew Thomas and seventh overall pick Evan Neal is a strong foundation to build upon, yet this may be the weakest interior offensive line in football, and there’s no guarantee Neal hits the ground running as a rookie. Whether it’s pass protection or developing any sort of efficient rushing attack, this offensive line might not be doing a lot of favors for the Giants this season, which is very problematic without strong play from the wide receivers. Really, when looking for sources of optimism here, it all stems around the magic of Daboll. To be fair, while running an offense with an extreme amount of early-down passing and play-action concepts for Josh Allen, he was a key part in the development of what is now known as arguably the best offense in the NFL. Still, that may be more relevant a year from now.
Defensively, Daboll swung for the fences with defensive coordinator, bringing in former Ravens defensive play-caller Wink Martindale. With an extremely aggressive, blitz-heavy mindset, Martindale was a perfect fit in Baltimore, a team that has continually invested heavily in their secondary. The problem? Outside of Adoree’ Jackson, the Giants aren’t exactly strong in the back-seven. Really, they’re as close to a lock as there is to lead the league in explosive passes allowed, and, overall, could have some every ugly weeks should Martindale keep these cornerbacks on an island. Once fifth overall pick Kayvon Thibodeaux gets back from injury, perhaps this pass rush can be viable, though as things stand, it’s the second lowest-projected pass-rush unit in the league, as well as a bottom-ten projected run defense. Yikes!
In a perfect world, the Giants see major signs of promise from their rookies, Daboll sets a strong foundation offensively, and they’re in position to take off in the near future. Still, even if that happens, a lot of wins aren’t on the table here. In similar fashion to the Bears, this is a regime that needs to start over after inheriting a very difficult situation, and, as such, that is going to lead to a lot of growing pains. The league’s second-easiest schedule may help mask that, though to what end? I guess we’ll see the true power of competent coaching here.
#1: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Win Total Projection: 11.93 (Vegas Win Total: 11.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 7th
Defense Projected Rank: 4th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 18th
Personal Projection: 12-5
Breakout Player: IOL Luke Goedeke
How many times is too much to “run it back”? Consider the Buccaneers a test case for this. After spending a month in retirement, Tom Brady is back at least one more time to try to add another Super Bowl trophy to his ledger, though, this time around, he’ll do so with a slightly altered core in place.
Then again, this is Tom Brady we’re talking about. This is a quarterback who just led the league in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), per PFF, at the age of 44, has finished as a top-two graded quarterback from PFF in consecutive seasons, and accomplishes everything you’d want from a passer; he was charted as a top-five passer in accuracy rate, had the second lowest turnover-worthy play rate, has been in the top-ten in big-time throw rate in two straight seasons, and had the second lowest average time-to-throw as well. In other words, he’s accurate, limits mistakes, produces chunk plays, and makes quick decisions all at elite levels. Regardless of the talent around him, he’s going to shine.
Still, in spite of some turnover, this remains a very talented offense. Losing Rob Gronkowski is a notable blow, but the Bucs still return Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, although the latter could be slowed down as he recovers from a torn ACL, and signed Russell Gage and Julio Jones this offseason. Alas, they have players that can attack all areas of the field and win in different ways, providing them with the wide receiver depth that they didn’t have when they needed it last year. Even with some turnover on the offensive line, Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs are one of the league’s top tackle tandems, trade acquisition Shaq Mason is an uber-productive interior offensive lineman with previous familiarity with Brady, and youngsters Luke Goedeke and Robert Hainsey were strong college performers; Goedeke, in particular, had the fifth-highest PFF run-blocking grade (94.3) in all of college football last season and should serve as an immediate fill-in on the interior offensive line. After all, there aren’t any better places for an offensive line to perform well than with Brady, given how quickly he gets rid of the ball, and this unit as is possesses more than enough talent.
Defensively, there’s a strong amount of continuity for head coach Todd Bowles to work with, even with the loss of safety Jordan Whitehead. Anchored by the cornerback duo of Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis, as well as safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and linebacker Lavonte David, Bowles has led a top-five unit in EPA/play allowed in back-to-back seasons, gets a strong boost to the interior pass rush with the addition of Akiem Hicks to go alongside Vita Vea and edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, and can compensate for any concern with pass-rush depth simply by his consistent urge to bring the heat- Tampa Bay led the league with a 40.8% blitz rate last year. As long as your back seven holds up, that strategy can work, and there isn’t any reason to expect that to be different this season with a very stable group in place.
Really, what else needs to be said? It’s easy to get wrapped into some reasons for “negative buzz” around this team, whether it be Brady’s 11-day absence or the loss of Gronkowski and some of the offensive line losses. That being said, this remains the most talented team in the NFC, as has been the case the past two seasons as well. If this is truly it for Brady, it appears he’s set to go down in style.
#2: New Orleans Saints
Win Total Projection: 9.07 (Vegas Win Total: 8.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 22nd
Defense Projected Rank: 2nd
Strength of Schedule Rank: 15th
Personal Projection: 9-8
Breakout Player: CB Paulson Adebo
Once upon a time, the Saints weren’t exactly known as the standard for organizational consistency. Then came 2006, where the pairing of quarterback Drew Brees and head coach Sean Payton was formed, which, by now, I’m sure we’re all aware went quite well. Now, though, New Orleans enters this season for the first time without either of those pivotal contributors, and will need to hope that their immense amount of roster talent plagues any other concerns.
Replacing a Hall-of-Fame quarterback is definitely not an easy task, and after dipping their toes in the water for some of the game’s elite quarterbacks this year, they ultimately decided to re-united with Jameis Winston on a two-year contract. In just seven weeks last season, the Saints experienced the volatility Winston brings to the table, yet that volatility tends to lead to strong offenses- Winston has ranked 14th or higher in adjusted EPA/play in every season of his career. With a career 10.8-yard average depth of target, his propensity to push the ball down the field will lead to some turnovers, but, also, a lot of chunk plays through the air, where there was a strong balance last year; his 7.1% big-time throw rate would have ranked 2nd in the entire NFL, while his 3% turnover-worthy play rate was by far the lowest of his career. Consider this a combination of a slightly diminished average of depth of target (9.5), using the play-action passing game (25.7% of passes) to set up big plays through the air, and simply by playing in more favorable game scripts. In short, the lows could be low, but the high-end play can still lead to something special if it comes at the right time.
The most impressive part about Winston’s success last year? He did so behind arguably the thinnest receiving corps in the league. Now, he gets to throw to Michael Thomas, who is back from injury and had arguably the best wide receiver season of all time during his last healthy season, first-round rookie Chris Olave, and veteran acquisition Jarvis Landry. When you put it all together, you have three wide receivers that provide strong diversity for the offense, and that’s not even adding in Deonte Harty and Marquez Callaway, each of whom go from counted-on starters to reliable depth. If fully formed, this can be quite the exciting passing game. The interior of the offensive line remains a concern, though, even with Terron Armstead now in Miami and first-round Trevor Penning on injured reserve, the tackle duo of Ryan Ramczyk and James Hurst is very strong from a pass protection standpoint, even if they struggle to run the ball significantly with the current personnel in place.
The main question? What does this offense look like under new play-caller Pete Carmichael? While Carmichael has been Payton’s understudy for some time, he’s never been asked to call plays throughout his NFL career, and although the continuity here is a bonus, it adds another question to a major assortment already present between Winston, the offensive line, Thomas, and the rest of the receiving corps. There is legitimate high-end upside with this unit, even if a middle-of-the-pack season in terms of efficiency is most likely.
If so, New Orleans is in a great spot- their defense has a chance to be exceptional once again. Many of the similar components to the unit that has finished in the top-four in EPA/play allowed in back-to-back years remain in place, and those who aren’t (Marcus Williams, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson) were replaced rather effectively (Tyrann Mathieu, Marcus Maye). Many are well familiar with what Marshon Lattimore can bring to the table, and Brandon Roby provides the team with tremendous stability working back in the nickel. The key, though, may come with second-year cornerback Paulson Adebo, who could be in line for the strongest step forward this season. Sure, it took time for him to adjust to the NFL, but with a 76.5 PFF coverage the last six games of the year, we already saw that potential, and it’s encouraging to him perhaps take the step in progression you hope to see from a rookie cornerback. Thus, this may very well be the back seven in the NFL when factoring in Mathieu, Maye, and linebacker Demario Davis, while the components of last year’s second-highest graded run defense are still there. Even if Cameron Jordan’s production as a pass rusher is starting to diminish with age somewhat, Marcus Davenport and David Onyemata mean that Jordan only needs to be the team’s third-best pass rusher, which tells you everything you need to know.
There is no doubt that this is an extremely talented roster. The question is, will it come all together? You have Winston, who has just six career starts as a Saint, throwing to a wide receiver who just missed all of last year due to injury and a rookie behind an unstable offensive line, as well as a defense that is starting to age and went over a complete make-over at the safety position. Oh, and, now, Sean Payton is out of the picture, leading to Dennis Allen being promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach and Pete Carmichael calling plays for the first time in his career. If they pick up right where they left off from a coaching perspective, this is a team that should make the postseason, though there are a lot of “what ifs” to answer with a reasonable difficult schedule. Now, we wait for the mystery to unfold.
#3: Carolina Panthers
Win Total Projection: 4.9 (Vegas Win Total: 6.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 30th
Defense Projected Rank: 14th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 19th
Personal Projection: 6-11
Breakout Player: CB Jaycee Horn
Usually, when a team is over the cap for next season and was without a day-two pick in the past draft, it’s a sign that they’ve gone all-in to win a Super Bowl. The Panthers, on the other hand, have done all that to find themselves projected to be at the bottom of the NFC, with very few signs of optimism for this current regime. Can a miracle occur here? That could be what it takes.
While the Panthers’ quarterback investments have been questionable, to say the least, their latest one on Baker Mayfield is one that much easier to defend. Yes, things went poorly last season, but do consider that we’re talking about PFF‘s eight-highest graded quarterback in 2020, while his production was quite similar in 2021 prior to re-injuring a labrum he had previously torn earlier in the season. All told, the Panthers are getting an accurate passer who is quite potent creating chunk plays throwing 10+ yards down the field with an overall strong body of work of being an above-average NFL starter. Surely, that’s an upgrade over what they’ve dealt with recently.
However, this is not a scenario where I’d say Mayfield is in a position to succeed. For a quarterback who has historically seen his production decline significantly when under pressure, playing behind the league’s fifth-lowest projected pass protection unit is certainly ideal. Could sixth overall pick Ikem Ekonwu make an immediate impact? Sure, but based on what we saw from in college, as well as the preseason, that is going to come as a run blocker- it could be quite ugly in pass protection, which likely leads to “happy feet” from Mayfield with no assurance from the protection of his blindside. At the very least, DJ Moore is a dynamic receiver that has produced at a high level with far worse quarterback play, and you can talk yourself into Robbie Anderson having a bounce-back season as a vertical threat, and Laviska Shenault Jr. producing after the catch. Outside of Moore and running back Christian McCaffrey, though, consider the rest of the team’s playmakers far from a lock to produce.
Perhaps things could come together, though it’s unclear if that’ll be with new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo, who last was an offensive play-caller when he was the head coach for the Giants in 2017, which didn’t exactly end well; the fact that this was the first time he was reportedly in any sort of consideration for an offensive play-calling job may be telling on the lack of intrigue over being the offensive coordinator here. Alas, outside of Mayfield, it may be up to the defense to try to salvage this team somewhat.
To be fair, this is a defense that just finished 7th in EPA/play allowed despite being at the bottom of the league. in takeaways. With Brian Burns coming off the edge to go along with Derrick Brown and Matt Ioannidis on the interior, they’ll be able to rush the passer, especially if Yetur Gross-Matos can take a step forward in his third season. Yet, the rest of the unit is concerning. The safety tandem of Xavier Woods and Jeremy Chinn is a quality duo, but what about the cornerbacks? 2021 8th overall pick Jaycee Horn could emerge, though he’s also played just three professional games, with Donte Jackson experiencing a lot of volatility throughout his career and CJ Henderson showing little signs of progress as well. Factor in subpar run defense and concerns in terms of linebacker depth, and it’s hard to imagine them being a top-ten defense again.
If that’s not going to happen, things could go off the rails in a hurry. While the schedule isn’t overly daunting, it’s hard to overlook the immense amount of dysfunction that appears to be here from a coaching and team building standpoint. Mayfield gives them needed upside under center, though that wouldn’t appear to be enough to compensate for other clear deficiencies, which, if so, could lead to another season of disappointment. Should that be the case, this organization is going to need to finally question the direction they’ve decided to head in.
#4: Atlanta Falcons
Win Total Projection: 5.65 (Vegas Win Total: 4.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 26th
Defense Projected Rank: 28th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 14th
Personal Projection: 6-11
Breakout Player: EDGE Arnold Ebiketie
In many ways, the Falcons have found themselves in the past in a very similar position to the Panthers- going “all-in” for limited success. Now, under a new regime, they’ve effectively hit the reset button, and, now, have their eyes completely set on the future.
Thus, the main goal offensively is focused on building head coach Arthur Smith’s offense for the future, which was difficult to accomplish last year. Now, Kyle Pitts enters his second season in the league after finishing fourth in the NFL in tight end yards/route run (2.04), which is absurd for a rookie, and, to be honest, is really a glorified wide receiver with a 6’6″ frame and a 4.49 40-yard dash (99th percentile speed score). I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a player almost too good to be true, and we could seriously be looking at the best offensive player in the league in the near future. Now, though, he’s paired with 8th overall pick Drake London, fresh off being PFF‘s second highest-graded wide receiver (91.8) in all of college football, with the type of physicality that Smith clearly covets. In fact, in Tennessee, the blue-print of Smith’s offense was centered around two ultra-physical receivers in AJ Brown and Corey Davis, creating matchup nightmares for opposing secondaries, and the combination of Pitts and London has the potential to be trump that, even if it doesn’t fully show this season.
For now, it’ll be Marcus Mariota under center for the Falcons, who provides more intrigue than you may expect. Although we last saw Mariota shift to more of a conservative approach during the end of his time with the Titans, he’s shown the willingness to have one of the league’s highest average depth of targets before, and showcased that aggressiveness in the preseason (12.3 aDOT). It’s clear the plan is to utilize his mobility and try to leverage his previous success in the play-action passing game, which could create plenty of opportunities for Pitts working up the seam. At the same time, for a quarterback that has struggled to avoid pressure in the past, being behind the league’s third-worst projected pass-blocking unit is a concern, and the team’s playmaker depth outside of Pitts, London, and running back/wide receiver hybrid Cordarelle Patterson lacks. I would not be surprised if this offense surprises people in some specific instances, though with not enough consistency over the long haul.
Defensively, it’s funny how a team projected to perform as poorly as them could have one of the league’s best cornerback duos in AJ Terrell and Casey Hayward Jr., yet, here we are? Outside of that, though, the holes are immense. Most likely, undrafted free agent Dee Alford is the team’s nickel corner, which could get exploited early, and the team’s linebacker and safety talent is quite uninspiring, especially with Deion Jones on injured reserve. If you need more reason for concern, this also is the worst projected pass rush in the NFL, though second-round rookie edge rusher Arnold Ebiketie’s elite senior production at Penn State (90.5 PFF pass-rush grade) is something that could carry right over to the NFL. Regardless, though, there are as many holes with this unit as any other defense as the league, which, in turn, could lead to some very tough weeks.
With Pitts and London on the offensive side of the ball, as well as Smith’s play-calling prowess, you can talk yourself into this offense for this season, but, mainly, moving forward as well. This organization is doing all the right things in terms of planning for the future as much as possible, which is going to lead to a rough season, but, with some development from some of their young players, could still make it a success. It’ll be very strange to watch a Falcons game without Matt Ryan under center, though it’s clear the organization is heading in the direction it has needed to for some time.
#1: Los Angeles Rams
Win Total Projection: 11.7 (Vegas Win Total: 10.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 4th
Defense Projected Rank: 1st
Strength of Schedule Rank: 2nd
Personal Projection: 11-6
Breakout Player: OT Joseph Noteboom
Has there ever been a franchise in sports history that has gone “all-in” quite like the Rams? Since 2016, the only time they’ve had a first-round pick is 2019, which they traded out of, due to trades for Jared Goff, Brandin Cooks, Jalen Ramsey, and Matthew Stafford- they’ll be without a first-round pick next year as well. Heck, that’s not counting for trades for players like Marcus Peters, Sammy Watkins, Aqib Talib, Dante Fowler Jr., Sony Michel, and Von Miller, all of which have left the team with little to work with in the draft and in terms of financial flexibility. That finally led to a Super Bowl title in 2021, and, before it’s too late, they’ll look to cash in another before the bill comes due.
Offensively, it’s easy to have an idea of what to expect from the Rams, though the fact they ranked “just” 8th in EPA/play may be surprising on some level. What Matthew Stafford provides to the offense in terms of big-play ability (top five in big-time throw rate and positively-graded play rate), which allowed them to have the highest explosive-pass rate in the NFL, is something they simply did not have with Jared Goff, and allows the offense to not have to stay completely in structure. That turned out to be the missing piece for Cooper Kupp to become one of the league’s top receivers, as we saw a significantly higher target depth, and, theoretically, should lead to an easy connection with new addition Allen Robinson II, whose contested-catch prowess down the field is a tremendous fit with Stafford. The depth at wide receiver and tight end is questionable, though Los Angeles is clearly banking on their star players shining.
There could be some concerns on the offensive line with tackle Andrew Whitworth retiring and interior offensive lineman Austin Corbett signing with the Panthers, but new left tackle Joseph Noteboom has been tremendously productive as a pass protector over the past two years at tackle, while Corbett leaves more behind as a run blocker than in pass protection. As such, this is a unit that will still keep Stafford upright significantly, though not one that is going to help pave much on the ground. It’s easy to forget, but only two teams had less success running the football than the Rams last year, and, now, their run blocking projects to be worse, while Cam Akers (off an Achilles tear) and Darrell Henderson (explosive but struggles to create after contact) haven’t shown to be capable of overcoming that. This isn’t something that is going to necessarily come back to bite them, though you’d prefer to be able to be efficient in all facets of play.
Defensively, the Rams are going with their preferred “star-heavy” approach, hoping Aaron Donald can continue to anchor the defensive line and Jalen Ramsey covers up loose ends in the secondary. Ramsey was truly the only standout player last season in the secondary, so there shouldn’t be much change in that regard, though losing Von Miller off the edge does create a significant hole in terms of pass rush. Unless the team truly feels confident in what Justin Hollins and Terrell Lewis can provide opposite of Leonard Floyd, it’s likely we see them entertain a midseason trade for a pass rusher (Jerry Hughes, Robert Quinn?), though, then again, Donald simply drawing double-teams makes life a lot easier for the rest of the defensive line. The notable change, though, is the re-making of the linebacking corps.
For years, the Rams have not been a team that has prioritized linebackers at all. Yet, the may have find something in third-round rookie Ernest Jones, who earned more playing time down the stretch and flashed in coverage and as a pass rusher, and, now, Bobby Wagner enters the fold, providing a drastic upgrade in all facets of play. Even without Miller, we’ll see Los Angeles leverage these two linebackers rushing the passer, and, allows them much more coverage flexibility with any sort of assurance the middle of the field won’t be wide open. They already finished as PFF‘s highest-graded defense last year, and that may not change in 2022.
The book on the Rams is rather obvious; if they stay healthy, the star power they have is enough for them to compete for a Super Bowl, but, if not, things get much more complicated. Playing in the NFC West, who also faces the AFC West, along with a first-place schedule, they’re going to face a brutal slate of opponents. In many ways, this is too talented of a team to suffer a Super Bowl hangover, though it’s safe to say they’ll have their work cut out for them. Still, their odds are as good as anyone’s to come out of the NFC this year.
#2: San Francisco 49ers
Win Total Projection: 10.66 (Vegas Win Total: 9.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 9th
Defense Projected Rank: 7th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 8th
Personal Projection: 10-7
Breakout Player: WR Brandon Aiyuk
Usually, a team that just made the NFC Championship Game wouldn’t be so difficult to figure out, nor be starting a new quarterback. Last year, though, the 49ers made a major bet in Trey Lance, trading multiple first-round picks to move up to select him with the third overall pick in the 2021 draft. Considered a “raw” prospect coming from North Dakota State, Lance was never expected to play last season, but, now, he’s taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo, and is expected to immediately lead a Super Bowl contender. Truly, there may be not be a more fascinating storyline in the entire NFL.
Simply put, a Trey Lance-led offense is going to look a lot different than what the 49ers showed last season:
“With just 19 career starts for a run-heavy offense at North Dakota State, Lance was already a complete enigma coming into the draft. Any team drafting him was banking on his illustrious talent, hoping to help refine some of the other deficiencies in his game. If a team was going to make that bet, perhaps the 49ers, who have such a strong foundation for development with an offensive mastermind in head coach Kyle Shanahan and an elite supporting cast, as well as an incumbent quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo) who could allow Lance to take as much time as he needed, were the best fit. Then again, compared to the other organizations that drafted quarterbacks, it is relatively obvious San Francisco was the best fit for any of those quarterbacks.
Anyways, rather than go with the anticipated selection of Mac Jones, the 49ers certainly believe that Lance can give them a layer to their offense they’ve lacked. His 64.4 rushing yards/game (168 over 2.5 games) was enough to make fantasy football managers drool, as well as Shanahan, who can only imagine the explosive rushing attack he can build with him at helm (see, Lamar Jackson). Meanwhile, with Garoppolo, this is a team that has been forced to play completely on schedule and rely on production after the catch, yet, now, Lance allows them to succeed even if things go off the rails, which they will at times. Lance’s accuracy woes in college showed up in a major way (71.4% adjusted completion rate), while he had more turnover-worthy plays (4.3%) than big-time throws (3.9%), and struggled mightily (53.4 PFF passing grade) in the intermediate areas of the field. All together, there are a lot of raw elements here that could go south, which could make Shanahan quite uncomfortable at times.”
Since we did see Lance play last season, we got a glimpse of what this offense could look like; a lot of chunk plays created through the play-action game, a heavy emphasis on the designed quarterback running game, longer-develop plays. For what it’s worth, they weren’t a particularly efficient offense with him at the helm last year, and it’s not a given this goes well. At the same time, though, the margin for error is so high when you have three of the best weapons after the catch in the entire NFL, Kyle Shanahan as an offensive play-caller, and should have a dynamic rushing attack based on Lance and running back Elijah Mitchell.
Yet, will the offensive hold up? That wasn’t an issue last season, but, now, the team goes through a complete makeover of the offensive line, featuring:
- Jake Brendel, a former undrafted free agent in 2016 who has just six blocking snaps over the past three years.
- Spencer Burford, a fourth-round pick whose production left a lot to be desired at UTSA
- Aaron Banks, a 2020 second-round pick who played just five snaps last season and has struggled mightily in the preseason
For a quarterback who holds onto the ball for as long as Lance does, that is mightily concerning, and is an overlooked area of worry for this offense. The floor is theoretically high with how explosive they should be, but there could be some rough weeks mixed in as well. The upper-end of variance may be what’s needed to win a Super Bowl, though that has to all come together at the right time.
Defensively, there is certainly plenty of reason to be excited about the 49ers. Charvairus Ward is simply a massive upgrade over the combination of Josh Norman and Ambry Thomas last year, and, with Emmanuel Mosley, form a productive cornerback duo, with strong coverage from the linebackers (Fred Warner specifically) further helping matters. Still, what does the safety room look like if Jimmie Ward misses a considerable amount of time? Is fifth-round rookie Samuel Womack ready to start in the nickel? There are ways it could go wrong from a pass coverage standpoint. There’s no doubt that this team will be able to generate plenty of pressure, particularly if Javon Kinlaw takes a step forward and second-round rookie Drake Jackson can make an impact off the edge, and the coverage unit isn’t a liability by any means. Thus, with some positive regression on third downs (23rd in EPA/play allowed there, 7th in EPA/play allowed on third downs), a top-ten defense is well within the realm, which should be enough to prop them into the postseason.
Given the combination of coaching and high-end talent, it’s too hard to see them missing out on a postseason berth in such a thin conference. Of course, there’s a chance Lance is fantastic and they come out of the NFC, though the most likely outcome is a chaotic season with some notable peaks and valleys. At the end of the day, though, is there going to be a more fun team to watch?
#3: Arizona Cardinals
Win Total Projection: 7.53 (Vegas Win Total: 8.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 15th
Defense Projected Rank: 15th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 1st
Personal Projection: 7-10
Breakout Player: LB(?) Isaiah Simmons
Is there a team with a greater disconnect between the success they’ve had and the mood associated with them? In many ways, one could look at the fact the Cardinals have gone from the #1 overall pick to an 11-6 team in just three years as a major success for head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure in Arizona. Yet, between late-season fall-offs, drama surrounding Kyler Murray’s contract clause, and clear doubts about this current regime, this simply doesn’t feel like a team that just made the postseason. Ultimately, expect the bottom to fall off this year.
Now, that would have nothing to do with Murray, who has firmly established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s improved his PFF passing grade to the point he ranked 5th in that metric last year, led the league in big-time throw rate, and finished in the bottom-five in turnover-worthy play rate. When you’re a very accurate quarterback (3rd in accuracy%) who has as much success down the field (top PFF passing grade 20+ yards down the field) as he does, are an athletic freak, and also limit mistakes, you’re going to do quite well. The problem? The offense is practically entirely centered around him. Theoretically, once DeAndre Hopkins comes back, the pairing of him and Marquise Brown should be similar to what the ten games that got from Hopkins to go alongside Christian Kirk’s peak season. That being said, the rest of the options, whether it be Rondale Moore in an unknown role, aging players such as AJ Green or Zach Ertz, and a very inefficient rushing attack, don’t create much reason for optimism. For perspective, the Cardinals needed to have the second-best offense on third downs to compensate for just the 17th-ranked offense on early downs, which, as you would expect, is not a gap that will sustain. It’s hard to bet against Murray, but so much is on his plate here.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has done a fantastic job allowing the Cardinals to overachieve defensively by being about as unique of a defense (so many blitzes) as one can be. The problem? The talent just isn’t there. That’s not completely fair to the safety duo of Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson, yet the corner trio of Byron Murphy, Trayvon Mullen, and Marco Wilson is going to be put to the test often, especially since Joseph will need to blitz consistently to compensate for a pass rush that just lost Chandler Jones. It’s very exciting to see Isaiah Simmons go back from being a traditional linebacker to a flexible “star backer” who’ll be in the box, defending the slot, lined up at safety, and could be asked to rush the passer, and 2021 first-round pick Zaven Collins should take a step forward in year #2. Yet, we’re talking about teams with major deficiencies on the defensive line and at cornerback, which is not an ideal place to be. In a schedule faced with so many high-powered offenses, those issues could become much more severe in a hurry.
In a normal situation, the Cardinals could probably be a playoff team in a weak NFC with what Murray can provide them. Instead, they have to face the Rams and 49ers twice, the entire AFC West, the Bucs, the Vikings, and the Eagles; it’s projected to be the toughest schedule in football for a reason. As such, the major holes that have come about due to a very questionable team-building process will finally come back to get them, which could have serious doubts about this regime’s future in Arizona. At the very least, them being on the in-season version Hard Knocks is going to lead to a very entertaining product.
#4: Seattle Seahawks
Win Total Projection: 6.03 (Vegas Win Total: 5.5)
Offense Projected Rank: 21st
Defense Projected Rank: 27th
Strength of Schedule Rank: 4th
Personal Projection: 5-12
Breakout Player: OT Abraham Lucas
It can be very difficult to rip off the band-aid and finally start a potentially needed teardown, but by trading Russell Wilson to the Broncos this offseason, the Seahawks clearly felt it was time to start over as a franchise, ending a partnership that led to an extraordinary amount of success. Now, though, it’s time to move on, and, if all goes well, there’s a chance they can get back on track soon.
Certainly, that will be with a different quarterback under center, though Geno Smith (73.9 PFF grade) was more than competent filling in for Wilson last year and was impressive enough in the preseason to earn the starting job. With Smith, he’ll hold onto the ball for a while and is generally conservative, an unideal combination, though Pete Carroll is likely hoping for him to serve as a competent “game manager” in a run-heavy offense, which is too predictable not to be true. I mean, there are worse spots to be in that throwing to DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, two extremely explosive wide receivers who were actually productive with Smith last year, and, for what it’s worth, the rushing tandem of Rashaad Penny and Kenneth Walker III can be extremely dynamic. Ultimately, though, with the interior offensive line not in great shape, how can their rookie tackles fare right away? Both Charles Cross (9th overall) and Abraham Lucas (third round) projected as very refined pass protectors with room to grow as run blockers, which is a trade-off worth making. Of course, they’re also rookie tackles, so who knows?
Finally, the Seahawks have no member of the “legion of boom” on the roster after parting ways with Bobby Wagner this offseason, and, as you’d expect, could struggle mightily in this adjustment phase. On the bright side, Sidney Jones has been rather productive over the past three years, and Artie Burns showed flashes of excellence (85.1 PFF coverage grade in 127 snaps) that could lead to a fine-enough cornerback duo. At the same time, beyond that, they’re relying on rookie cornerbacks, a bounce-back from safety Jamal Adams, and a very unproven linebacking corps with a bottom-ten projected pass rush, leading to a potential bottom-five defense. Man, it’s weird to say that about the Seahawks.
Seattle isn’t looking to win games this season, but if they come out of this year with their rookie tackles holding their own, second-round rookie pas rusher Boye Mafe making an impact, and one of their rookie cornerbacks emerging, this is a successful season. Really, it’s all about growth and development, even if wins to come by with such a hard schedule. It’s a weird position for head coach Pete Carroll to be in after years of success, but it’s the route they’ve decided was the best for them moving forward. Only time will tell if they were, in fact, correct in that decision.
After nearly 28,000 words about every NFL team, let’s run through this quickly, shall we? No favorite is allowed to be picked, because where would the fun be in that?
AFC Final Standings
Final NFC Standings
- AFC Championship: Chiefs over Bills
- NFC Championship: Bucs over Rams
- Super Bowl: Chiefs over Bucs
- MVP: QB Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs
- Offensive Player of the Year: WR Ceedee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys
- Defensive Player of the Year: EDGE Von Miller, Buffalo Bills
- Offensive Rookie of the Year: WR Treylon Burks, Tennessee Titans
- Defensive Rookie of the Year: CB Kaiir Elam, Buffalo Bills
- Comeback Player of the Year: QB Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints
- Coach of the Year: Nick Sirianni, Philadelphia Eagles
- Most Passing Yards: Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders
- Most Passing Touchdowns: Justin Herbert, Los Angeles Chargers
- Most Rushing Yards: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
- Most Rushing Touchdowns: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
- Most Receiving Yards: CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys
- Most Receiving Touchdowns: Courtland Sutton, Denver Broncos
- Most Interceptions: Paulson Adebo, New Orleans Saints
- Most Sacks: Von Miller, Buffalo Bills
Here’s to a fantastic 2022-2023 NFL season filled with plenty of entertainment. Every team may be in first place right now, but who will be holding the Lombardi trophy when it is all said and done? Find out February 12th!
Ravens: Baltimore Beatdown
Browns: Browns Wire
Steelers: Still Curtain
Bills: Bleacher Report
Patriots: Prime Sports Talk
Titans: Pro Football Talk
Texans: Texans Wire
Raiders: Bleacher Report
Vikings: Star Tribune
Bears: NBC Sports
Cowboys: Sports Illustrated
Giants: New York Post
Buccaneers: Bucs Wire
Saints: Touchdown Wire
Panthers: Panthers Wire
Rams: Turf Show Times
49ers: NBC Sports
Cardinals: The Spun
Seahawks: Sporting News