Less than a week away from the 2022 NFL season kickoff game between the Bills and Rams, it’s time for me to once again predict the entire year, going through every single award, presenting my playoff picture and projecting forward who will square off in Super Bowl LVII.
As far as the awards are concerned, I will go through my top three candidates for each honor, explaining why I believe they will receive votes, along with just listing a couple of honorable mentions at the end of each paragraph.
To determine playoff seeding, I actually had to go a step further and yet again predict all 272 games, work through tiebreakers to figure out how exactly these teams stack up and then put them in order, so I could ultimately pick my winners for each matchup, leading up the eventual NFC and AFC representatives in the big game at the end of the season in Arizona.
(I added the Excel sheet with ever single game picked at the very bottom, if you’re interested.)
Here’s how I believe things will shake out:
1. Josh Allen
2. Justin Herbert
3. Lamar Jackson
I’m going chalk here. Once you scroll down further to my playoff predictions and see the Bills stand atop the AFC with their 13-4 record, it becomes fairly easy to extrapolate where the credit may go. Josh is the quarterback and best player on the best team in the AFC, which will be a dog-fight. They have the weapons around him, now with Gabriel Davis bound to explode in year three and having rookie James Cook as a dynamic pass-catching back to contribute to his quarterback’s production on easier completions. Ken Dorsey being elevated to coordinator will add some wrinkles and maybe we see Allen be less prominently utilized as part of their run game, but even if so, that production should still reflect in the QB’s stat sheet in form of hitting outlets, so he can bring home the award. I had Josh as my number one quarterback on the top 100, because I believe his highs are as bright anybody’s and as we see him access those more regularly in high-stake games, he will be one of the key figures from the 2022 season.
Right behind him is another uber-talented quarterback from the AFC, whose team I have winning one game less, but has to do it in a better division, where almost all of those games will be on for everybody to see. Offensively, other than upgrading at right guard with first-round pick Zion Johnson and adding Gerald Everett at tight-end, they’re basically the same unit. However, with all the acquisitions they’ve made on defense, there will be less pressure, or rather more opportunities for that quarterback to cash in on. Herbert obviously has the ability to extend plays and make bat-shit type throws, but he’s also shown tremendous growth at deciphering information from the pocket and can be a killer on third/fourth downs. It’s almost crazy to call the Chiefs a sleeping dragon, as people seemingly forget how great they still are, but I see the Chargers winning that beast of a division and opening up a lot of eyes.
Sticking with the theme of signal-callers from that conference with special skills, Lamar may be different than the others, but I believe he has a chance to do even more impressive stuff, considering there are fewer well-known commodities around him. While I believe Rashod Bateman is a major breakout candidate for 2022 and they drafted a couple of tight-ends to diversify their passing attack, with the moves made by the Ravens, they still clearly want their offense to pound people on the ground and then Jackson gives defenses nightmares with what he can do pulling the ball. And I thought early on last season, he looked much more comfortable operating from the pocket in the drop-back game. Baltimore probably won’t win 14 games again like in Lamar’s 2019 MVP season, but if he puts up 40+ touchdowns, he runs for nearly 1000 more yards and they beat out the Bengals for the AFC North, the voters will have to show him respect.
Honorable mentions: Tom Brady & Patrick Mahomes
(Non-QB) Offensive Player of the Year:
1. Justin Jefferson
2. Ceedee Lamb
3. Jonathan Taylor
I have long disagreed with the methodology of handing out Offensive/Defensive Player of the year, that don’t match the MVP winner. So here, I wanted to shine light on non-quarterbacks who I believe will have seasons worthy of being named OPOY.
The first one that comes to mind for me is the guy who has recorded more receiving yards through his first two seasons than any other player in NFL history (3016). Justin Jefferson to me is already one of the elite players at his position and he’s been this impressive despite playing almost exclusively out wide (about 82% of snaps). Now with Kevin O’Connell coming in at head coach, the third-year receiver will transition more into the slot, where he already had major success at during his time at LSU as part of that national championship team, and now is in a very similar system to that, which last year produced the triple-crown winner Cooper Kupp. I could absolutely see Jefferson lead the NFL in at least two of those three bench-marks, for a Vikings time bound to get back into the playoffs, having shed the roster of several long-time veterans to infuse new blood, and changed their coaching staff to one more adapted to the modern game.
Sticking with the wide receiver position – and particularly another one from the 2020 draft, if there’s a guy whose circumstances could dictate even higher production than Jefferson, it might be Ceedee Lamb in that Dallas offense. I’ve been a big fan of his game since early during his days at Oklahoma and while there was a slight uptick numbers-wise in year two (153 catches for 2037 yards and 11 touchdowns combined), I could really see him explode this year. Amari Cooper’s 104 targets are now up for grabs, Michael Gallup could miss up to half the season, they just lost Tyron Smith at left tackle for at least the majority of the season, making deep drops a smaller component of gameplans, and I could really see Dak pepper Lamb with targets in-between the numbers, where Ceedee may see a lot of favorable matchups in the slot. With what he can do after the catch, the ball-skills in contested situations and the feel he’s already shown for working into open space to keep the chains moving, I expect a monster year for Dallas’ undisputed number one.
Now let’s talk about a running back here as well, and it’s pretty easy to just go with the best one in the game today. The easy argument against Taylor winning the award this season is that he already put up amazing numbers in 2021 and still didn’t get enough votes (as he led the league with 2171 yards and 20 touchdown from scrimmage). However, if Jefferson doesn’t repeat what the actual winner Cooper Kupp did – who’s due for some regression, which what I believe Allen Robinson could be in that offense – JT could easily stand apart from the rest of the running back position yet again. With Matt Ryan now under center instead of Carson Wentz, there’s a lot more stability at that spot and somebody who has targeted running backs in the pass game at a high rate. Now you have the Colts as the favorites to win the AFC South and Taylor will once again be the featured weapon.
Honorable mentions: Travis Kelce & Javonte Williams
Defensive Player of the Year:
1. Nick Bosa
2. Rashan Gary
3. Derwin James
Moving over to the defensive side of the ball, we also start with a couple of players at high-value positions. I believe Bosa is pretty much right there in that elite tier of edge defenders with T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett, and considering the teams those guys are on, the 49ers star defensive end should easily have the best chances of playing with the lead and producing big pressure numbers. Like everything else, this will depend on how consistent Trey Lance can be at quarterback, but assuming they’ll at least be about equal offensively and the second-year guy can provide some more explosive plays, I believe San Francisco’s defense can take advantage of positive game-script and will be near the top of the league. I like what Charvarius Ward can bring as a physical boundary corner to complement what they want in that quarters-based system, taking away the primary read on the backside more regularly, and with the guys they’ve brought in to replenish that depth on the D-line, Nick will be fresh and ready to hunt.
The other name on the edge I want to talk about here is Rashan Gary. Not many people may have noticed how much he improved last season, but according to Pro Football Focus, the Packers outside linebacker actually finished ahead of that trio of elite edge rushers and behind only the Raiders’ Maxx Crosby with 81 total pressures last season. However, he “only” logged 9.5 sacks and a couple of forced fumbles in terms of traditional statistics. And a lot of the great work he does, is bench-pressing tight-ends to re-set the point of attack in the run game and creating negative plays. I believe the Packers D has a chance to be really special this upcoming season, with All-Pro cornerback Jaire Alexander back healthy and a couple of guys from that historic Georgia defense added to the front-seven. If some more of those pressures and impact plays he makes against the run now turn into sacks and TFLs, Gary will get some attention.
For the third guy up here, I had a few different ways I could have gone. I ultimately settled on Derwin James, to back up my belief in the 2022 Chargers and particularly their improvements on defense. Last season they had major issues on that side of the ball, with Brandon Staley implementing his system, because they didn’t have the bodies up front to compensate for the negative box numbers they were in or a legitimate boundary corner they could rely upon in solo coverage on the backside. Now, they are loaded with guys who can win that half gap back, to make them stouter on early downs and allow that coaching staff to be more creative in passing situations. By drafting Baylor’s rangy safety prospect J.T. Woods, that also enables them to use Derwin closer to the line of scrimmage in three-safety sets, taking advantage of his skills as a blitzer, matching him with tight-ends and just letting his roam in-between the hashes as a hole defender/de facto dime backer. I could see him really fill the stat sheet and garner credit for their turnaround on that side of the ball, for one of the AFC’s top teams.
Honorable mentions: Aaron Donald, Micah Parsons & Devin White
Offensive Rookie of the Year:
1. Skyy Moore
2. Dameon Pierce
3. Breece Hall
Some people may think I’m weird for going with somebody who by the belief of Kansas City beat reporters won’t actually be a starter (in 11 personnel) for his team. However, I still believe second-round pick Skyy Moore might lead all of their receivers in yardage, because of what role he could quickly carve out for himself. It will be a group effort to replace Tyreek Hill’s production. Not only should we see them morph into more power-slot centric concepts with Juju, and Marquez Valdes-Scatling speed will be used as a vertical and horizontal stretch element, but in terms of what the Cheetah’s usage was in 2021 particularly, Moore is the closest thing they have to that. Unlike popular belief, Tyreek wasn’t just this deep ball specialist – actually just over 40% of his scrimmage yards over the last two years were produced with the ball in his hands and his slot rate was right around there too. That matches extremely well with what Skyy did at Western Michigan, because he has more of that stocky build to work the middle of the field, he led all draft-eligible receivers with 26 missed tackles last year and then he also has great burst off the line combined the largest hands from this draft class. So he can deliver explosive plays that way too.
Next is a guy who was already treated like a starter in the preseason by his team, pulling him out of games early, once he showed his skills in limited live action, and they even kept him out of the second contest without any injury designation. That’s almost hard to believe for people who do understand how those snaps are typically distributed, but don’t really know Pierce as anything but a fourth-round rookie. At Florida, he was heavily underutilized, but his efficiency was off the charts, scoring on 16 of his 119 touches as a senior and averaging 6.2 yards every time the ball was put in his hands. I already gushed about this guy a couple of weeks ago, as one of my favorite targets in fantasy drafts, and his average draft position has sky-rocketed since then. To me he can be a legit three-down back in this league, thanks to his physicality and foot quickness as a runner, his skills as a receiver and the ability to stun blitzers in pass-pro. Considering the Texans will likely feature him in a major way and the improvements on their O-line, I expect Pierce to put up big numbers, for a team that just waived Marlon Mack, as the only other guy to ever be a featured back.
And finally, the Breece Hall hype train has seen a bit of a damper, considering he’s not listed as the official starter in New York, but I still believe he could have a big year. I understand the respect shown to Michael Carter Jr. – who was my number five-ranked back in last year’s draft – because of what he showed in limited action as a rook, but I said all along that he’s also best in a two-headed backfield, paired with a more physical runner. Breece Hall profiles as that guy, weighing in at 220 pounds, having forced the most missed tackles since the start of the 2020 college season (128) and been a very effective short-yardage runner. That’s along with being an above 90th-percentile athlete, with tremendous short-area quickness and several break-away runs thanks to that 4.39 speed. You put that guy in Mike LaFleur’s wide-zone based rushing attack, behind an O-line that all of a sudden has proven studs across it, with the receivers to punish defenses for playing as much man-coverage and a quarterback in Zach Wilson who I believe will scare opponents with the big throws he can make off play-action. I just think even if Carter does play more of the passing downs, Hall could rush for around 1000-1200 yards for an improved Jets team, as Robert Saleh has to get the troops going in year two.
Honorable mentions: Drake London, Chris Olave & Tyler Allgeier
Defensive Rookie of the Year:
1. Aidan Hutchinson
2. Drake Jackson
3. Lewis Cine
Considering I didn’t believe Travon Walker was at a point that you’d like a number one overall pick to be, my top-ranked prospect Kayvon Thibodeaux missing some time with a knee injury from that much-scrutinized play (and wrongly so) on a cut-block and then we had two corners drafted with the remaining two picks in the top-five, who rarely win this award, before we got seven straight offensive players, Hutchinson may seem like a chalk pick, but he’s the only one near the top that came to mind for me here. With the Michigan standout staying home in Detroit, for a team that needed a star on defense, the script is already right there for him to get. And while I didn’t look at him as a truly elite prospect maybe, he is absolutely pro-ready, when you look at his ability to set up and string together moves throughout games, in order to beat tackles. Last season he led all draft-eligible edge rushers with a pressure rate of 17.3% and we already saw him creative negative plays against the run in his very limited preseason action, while being a guy who plays with his hair on fire.
Now let’s get to a less obvious pick here, but one that I already backed with a bet for DROY at 35-to-1 early this offseason, once the 49ers drafted him late in the second round. Drake Jackson was considered a potential top-ten pick ahead of the 2021 college football season and while he didn’t dominate as consistently as you would have liked, I thought there were several eye-popping moments and stretches on tape, while his athletic tool-box should have pushed them him up the board. His explosion off the ball combined with the ability to bend around the corner and be almost horizontal to the ground could give tackles nightmares. Once again, he probably won’t start for San Francisco right away, because of the names they already have there, but I think he’ll play the majority of passing downs, come in fresh on those and be really tough to deal with in those wide-nine alignments the Niners run so heavily. I already talked about Nick Bosa winning DPOY this year and Jackson could feast across from him, as part of a terrorizing D-line.
Number three here was pretty challenging, because there are several choices that would have made sense, but considering the guys who typically win this award and who got drafted highly – and are healthy – none really stuck out to me. So I went with one of my favorite safeties from the draft, even though those guys rarely get votes. Minnesota made Lewis Cine the final pick of the first round, before they picked another DB in Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr. ten picks later, which makes sense because they desperately needed to infuse young talent into the secondary. I actually had Booth ranked higher on my big board (both were number three at their respective position for me), but I love how Cine projects into that new Vikings defense. With Ed Donatell taking over play-calling duties and working under most recently Rams OC Kevin O’Connell, we should see a lot of split-safety principles, where they can take advantage of the Georgia product’s versatility to rotate into the deep post, drive on routes from depth and absolutely fly up the alley against the run. Let’s see if that brings allow the numbers needed.
Honorable mentions: Travon Walker & Sauce Gardner
Comeback Player of the Year:
1. Christian McCaffrey
2. Allen Robinson
3. Saquon Barkley
Call me an eternal optimist, but I will or have drafted Christian McCaffrey anywhere from the second pick of my fantasy drafts on, because he has been a historically great statistical performer and a really fun player to watch when healthy. He’s been limited to just ten games over the last two years by shoulder, thigh/hamstring and ankle injuries. So this is obviously assuming that he can finally stay healthy in 2022. Looking at the pieces around him, unless you count like the last one-and-a-half years of banged-up Cam Newton, Baker Mayfield may actually be the quarterback CMac has played with. You may not be a fan of Ben McAdoo as a head coach, but looking at how the Giants have fallen apart since his departure and considering how quick-paced his offenses were, the scheme could create more space for the back, with a talented group of receivers around him. And most importantly, I don’t believe people acknowledge how much better the Panthers O-line could be. I expect them to be improved at three spots, with sixth overall pick Ikem Ekwonu and a couple of solid veterans. When he last played a full season (2019), McCaffrey led the league with 2400 scrimmage yards and 19 TDs.
A different comeback story may be written for Allen Robinson in the city of angels. This guy has been in QB purgatory basically ever since he came to Penn State. Blake Bortles probably remains the best guy he’s caught passes from ever since then, before kind of shutting it down from December on last year. Robinson still was able to produce despite that. If you take out his first and most recent year in the pros respectively (along with 2017, when he was lost for the year after just one catch), he has averaged 1087 yards and 7.4 touchdowns per season. Whether he was used on the perimeter as a vertical, ball-winning receiver or running option routes from the slot, A-Rob can and has done pretty much everything. Now he gets to play under Sean McVay and with Matthew Stafford throwing him the ball, who only failed to go over 4000 passing yards once since 2011 (when he was limited to just eight games). Looking at how they used Odell Beckham Jr. as their X receiver, particularly as a designated red-zone target near the goal-line, but also to some degree Robert Woods, I could easily see him go for 1200 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
And finally, the optimist in me also had to put up Saquon here, who headlined my list last season and barely made an impact at all, due to constantly being banged up yet again. So once more, I’m working under the assumption that he won’t land badly on his foot, to twist his ankle or knee, which has caused him to miss more games than he played across the past two seasons. I believe because he has tried to tough it out and hasn’t looked like himself, people think he’s washed, but I refuse to not look at him as an elite draft prospect and talent at the running back position. His combination of burst, lower body strength, natural receiving skills, as somebody can cross up linebackers underneath or go downfield, along with his break-away speed, made him the NFL’s leader in scrimmage yards as a rookie back in 2018. The following season I’d argue the Giants had the worst O-line in the league and then of course the injuries started to hit. Considering Big Blue now has two book-end tackles with top-ten picks and added a couple or above-average starting veterans on the interior, that unit has seen an immense upgrade. Then you have Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka opening up what has been a very underwhelming offensive structure, to go with more dynamic receiving talent around him, I think Saquon will remind people of the player he is.
Honorable mentions: J.K. Dobbins & Jaire Alexander
Coach of the Year:
1. Brandon Staley
2. Kevin O’Connell
3. Dan Campbell
I put some money on Staley to win Coach of the Year early on last offseason, because I thought they would go from a 7-9 team to a playoff contender, while liking the head-man’s view on the game. That looked like a smart bet up to the point they were 8-5 and had a chance to sweep the Chiefs, to take the lead in the race for the AFC West. However, they lost a heartbreaker in overtime against those guys and did the same in the final game of the regular season on that walk-off field goal by the Raiders, to knock them out of the postseason. Even if that last game ended up in the tie and they just snuck, I doubt Staley would have received this honor, because people questioned their defensive mindset from a guy who got this job after coordinating the NFL’s number one defense in the Rams, their special teams woes and just some of the general game management stuff – particularly fourth-down decisions. However, I do like his commitment to analytics and aggressiveness in that regard, having an alien at quarterback like Justin Herbert. Now I want them to also show that in allowing him to push the ball down the field, instead of having him in the Ben Roethlisberger range for deep pass attempts. If they allow him to be an MVP candidate, along with having the bodies on the D-line to not put them at a disadvantage in run fits and less of those aggressive decisions coming up in losses – since I already said I have them winning the West – I believe coach will get his respect.
Trying to find a recipe for how to win this award, you’re looking for a coach under who a team makes some changes schematically, but mostly uses the same personnel and leads them to new heights. Minnesota did go 8-9 last season, but since they never surpassed the .500 mark, they never felt like a legitimate contender for the playoffs. There are multiple statistics that point towards them regressing to the mean, such as finishing top-five in turnover differential (+11). However, where I do certainly expect an improvement by the numbers, was them being basically across the board offensively. With Kevin O’Connell coming in from the Rams, I expect them to work out of 11 personnel a lot more and diversify the run game, even if the basis remains the same. With Justin Jefferson being my pick for Offensive Player of the Year, improved offensive line play and opening up the attack more in general, I expect the Vikings to field a top-ten offense. They also added more youth in the secondary and pass-rush weapons, along with adapting more modern split-safety principles. If they win double-digit games, another member from the Sean McVay tree should receive plenty of attention.
Don’t believe I’m just buying the Hard Knocks hype here – I’ve been on the Lions all offseason long. They didn’t go out and make any huge signings in free agency, but they brought back basically all their key pieces bound to hit the open market and they made a couple of under-the-radar signings, such as wide receiver D.J. Chark and safety DeShon Elliott at positions of need. Then of course they put together a banger draft class, with Aidan Hutchinson as the new face of their defense at the top, but throughout the weekend, with late-round gems like linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, who has been blowing away coaches even more so than how I believed he would. There may not be as many household names, but they could easily have a top-five offensive line in the league and they are extremely deep on the D-line, while having added guys on the perimeter on either side of the ball to go with the focus on the trenches. Detroit went 1-6-1 in one-score games last season, but now they have a more talented roster, likely won’t suffer as many injuries again and this group has had time to grow together. I love that coaching staff led by Dan Campbell and I think if they do challenge for a Wildcard spot, a year after winning just three games, voters are going to take note.
Honorable mentions: Sean McDermott & Nick Sirianni
1. Los Angeles Rams (12-5)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5)
3. Philadelphia Eagles (11-6)
4. Green Bay Packers (11-6)
5. San Francisco 49ers (11-6)
6. New Orleans Saints (10-7)
7. Minnesota Vikings (10-7)
We have a tie at the top of the NFC table and unlike some of the implications in the other conference, the Rams winning that direct matchup at Tampa Bay in week nine made it fairly easy to determine who earned the first-round bye. The reigning Super Bowl champs did lose/give up some familiar faces, with Andrew Whitworth retiring, not being able to pay up for Von Miller and OBJ still out there on the open market whilst recovering from a torn ACL. Yet, they could arguably be a more complete team, when you look at Allen Robinson having a chance to revitalize his career, Cam Akers now actually back healthy to provide some balance with the run game, a linebacker level that won’t be attacked as regularly anymore in coverage, but we could see them be more prevalent pieces of the pass-rush, with Bobby Wagner coming in, plus they actually enter their second season under DC Raheem Morris. If Matt Stafford can cut down on his interceptions a little bit (tied for NFL-lead with 17 in 2021), while staying close to his explosive per-attempt numbers (third-highest at 8.1), this team could be even better.
Right there with L.A. is the team that they actually knocked out of the postseason earlier this year in the Wildcard Round – although the Bucs certainly made them sweat in the second half by almost erasing a three-touchdown deficit. With the un-retirement of Tom Brady leading to several key contributors staying in house, as well as veterans hungry for a ring (such as Akiem Hicks) and the front-office pulling off a crazy deal to acquire a Pro Bowl-level guard in Shaq Mason, this squad is loaded once again. The multitude of injuries along the interior of the O-line recently is my one major concern, but otherwise there’s not much to complain about. The defense should actually be better on paper and with Chris Godwin set to be a full go week one, they are deeper at wide receiver. Brady led the league in explosive pass plays (75) and was pressured at the lowest rate last season (11.1%), while the run defense has been elite as long as Vita Vea has been healthy, to make opponents one-dimensional.
I’ve been a huge fan of what the Eagles have done this offseason, pretty much every step of the way. With the trade for a true alpha receiver in A.J. Brown, adding the two Georgia boys in Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean to strengthen the defensive front-seven and of course re-signing some of their key contributors, I already looked at them as the favorites for the NFC East, comparing it to the losses the Cowboys have suffered. Then they really attacked the secondary, by adding James Bradberry on a one-year deal as soon as the Giants released him, signing Jaquiski Tartt at great value and most recently trading for one of the top nickels in the game from New Orleans in Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. If that inclines DC Jonathan Gannon to be a little less conservative from a coverage-perspective, while the presence of A.J. Brown helps Jalen Hurts continue to develop as a passer, along with packing the league’s number one ground game in total and yards per attempt, this should be a very complete squad.
At this point I kind of sound like a Packers hater, expecting regression from their 13 wins for the third straight year now, but once again I have some concerns as to why they could take a slight step back. While I do understand that they didn’t have the financial resources to retain Davante Adams, not having the best receiver in the game, who has built up impeccable chemistry with Aaron Rodgers and is such a vital part of their passing attack, due to his ability to quickly win off the line, will be a major transition. The O-line could definitely be stronger, with a couple of stalwarts back and depth added through the draft, which is why I expect them to lean even more into that two-headed rushing attack. The defense should be one of the very best, adding a couple of guys from that historic Georgia defense to the front-seven, getting back All-Pro corner Jaire Alexander back and being in the second season under coordinator Joe Berry. Yet again, their 6-2 record in one-score games (not counting a meaningless week 18 matchup) is bound to regress and because I have them losing at Philly, they end up with the fourth seed.
Is this 49ers team clearly better than the one that went to the NFC Championship game last season? I have them winning one extra game in the regular season, but of course with Trey Lance at quarterback, we can’t truly know what kind of consistency can be expected from that position, due to the lack of tape on him. I had him as a breakout candidate for 2022, but also recognize that the whole operation isn’t super clean, although I see him making this a more dangerous squad. The overhauled O-line isn’t being talked about enough for one of the top rushing teams in the league, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen from the young guys. They were the number one team in net yards per pass attempt last season (7.7), not because of Jimmy G making big-time throws but rather the YAC skills of those skill-position players – now we’ll see Trey actually pushed the ball vertically outside the numbers. Defensively, they’ve replenished the depth up front, added Charvarius Ward as a feisty outside corner and make it really hard for opponents, by squeezing down passing windows in zone coverage.
Back in January/February, when the Saints had just come short of somehow sneaking into the playoffs with a combination of Jameis Winston and quarterbacks who aren’t even on the roster anymore, I didn’t believe we’d be back here, but while we can question the resources spent on keeping them in win-now mode, there’s nothing in terms of the roster or – even without Sean Payton – the coaching staff that would make you believe they won’t be a pain in the ass. Their defense allowed the fewest yards per rush attempt (3.7) and the fourth-fewest points per game (19.7) last season and bring back basically the same group other than swapping out their safety tandem. With Alvin Kamara’s legal situation pushed back now, Michael Thomas finally back healthy, a vertical element in rookie Chris Olave and hopefully a full 17 games from Jameis (who went 5-2 as a starter in ’21), they have the offense to complement that.
I already discussed some of the reasons why I believe the Vikings will be improved in 2022, when I made my case for Kevin O’Connell as a Coach of the Year candidate. I like to see them open up the offense more, using 11 personnel at a higher rate and being more diverse in the run game, with receivers capable of executing blocking assignments from tight sets, but then also creating challenges in the pass game when teams don’t give the group enough respect. Similarly, the defense will transition to more modern split-safety principles and not being as vulnerable to scheme-beaters conceptually. If those new pieces in the secondary can quickly integrate themselves and Kirk Cousins can put a little more on his plate, after being one of the most efficient, but maybe not challenging quarterbacks for defenses, this could be a dangerous group, that we don’t pay enough attention to.
Just missed the cut: Dallas Cowboys (9-8) & Detroit Lions (8-9)
1. Buffalo Bills (13-4)
2. Los Angeles Chargers (12-5)
3. Baltimore Ravens (11-6)
4. Indianapolis Colts (11-6)
5. Kansas City Chiefs (11-6)
6. Denver Broncos (10-7)
7. Cincinnati Bengals (10-7)
The Bills finish atop the loaded AFC for me, thanks to a combination of talent on the roster, elite quarterback play, still excellent coaching and the motivation to blaze through the regular season, with how frustrating their exit in the playoffs was, mere 13 seconds away from going back to the conference championship game. Their defense may not finish number one across the majority of statistics again, but with Von Miller they now have somebody with a knack for making both plays in high-leverage moments along a deep defensive front, and Kaiir Elam could give them a more physical element in that CB2. Offensively, I expect them to be less up-and-down, with more commitment to going under center and taking their shots off play-action, while Josh Allen continues to show his growth to take what is given to him in the drop-back game if teams run two-high shells.
Certainly calling my shot here with the Chargers at number two, considering they missed out on the playoffs altogether last season, but I believe in the quarterback, the coach and the improvements on defense. I already talked about Justin Herbert as a favorite for MVP, Brandon Staley earning Coach of the Year honors for where they finish in my projections and Derwin as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. This front-office and coaching staff have already shown the capability to self-scout, investing heavily into their D-line to not leave them vulnerable in soft box looks, along with a true boundary corner for how they want to orchestrate their coverages. I expect a big jump from finishing 29th in points allowed last season. And that also makes me confident in their understanding that they need to allow their biggest asset to shine, not only going for it on fourth downs, but also letting Justin Herbert push the ball down the field more (with just 8.9% of his passes going for 20+ yards in ’21).
Sticking with that trend of picking teams that finished outside the top two in their division, I predict the Ravens will go from worst to first this season, due to a multitude of factors. First and foremost, they had the most adjusted games lost to injury of the last decade (191.2), according to Football Outsiders. That alone was a huge factor as to where they couldn’t be what they wanted to be fundamentally. With their entire backfield out for the year and having to re-shuffle the offensive line, they couldn’t nearly run the ball as effectively as in recent years. Former defensive coordinator Wink Martindale still wanted to run a pressure-heavy man-coverage based defense on later down especially, despite not having the bodies in the secondary to hold up, putting them dead-last in yards allowed per play (6.0). Not only do they get those guys back, but with the additions at safety with an underrated veteran in Marcus Williams and the draft’s top guy in Kyle Hamilton, they’ll adapt more of the modern meta under Mike Macdonald returning post his one-year stint at Michigan. The one stat that does matter from last year, Baltimore despite all that, still went 7-4 when Lamar was in the lineup.
And let’s go with another change atop the final division here, as the Colts build on their impressive second-half run from last season, without the late collapse in the final two games. This was the team nobody wanted to face in the playoffs, before they ultimately didn’t have to anyway. Jonathan Taylor was the breakout star for this team, spear-heading the league’s number-two ranked rushing attack. Their defense may not have been super impressive statistically, but they did force the second-most turnovers (33) and added Yannick Ngakoue, to go with a couple of other young D-linemen entering year two, becoming a deep and scary rotation up front. The biggest variable change of course is Matt Ryan replacing Carson Wentz at quarterback, who did have a solid year by the numbers, but made too many bone-headed decisions and cost his team when it hurt the most. I expect Matty Ice to give this group a lot more stability and balance, while the defense can get after opposing QBs, as they can play with the lead.
This feels oddly low for the Chiefs and if you look through the full schedule grid, you’ll see that in theory they would be the number three team in the conference, but by finishing behind the Chargers in the West, they become the conference’s top Wildcard team – and one of the most dangerous I can ever remember. I personally believe they can offset the loss of Tyreek Hill with all the receivers they’ve added and be a more multifaceted passing attack. The defense has a chance to be much more like they did from week eight on, when they surrendered just 17.7 points per game and won all but one of their final regular season contests, if those new faces can quickly fit in. I believe there could be a ramp-up period because of the roster overhaul, but more importantly, the rest of the division will simply challenge them more intensely.
There were three teams legitimately contending for that final Wildcard berth, between the Broncos, Raiders and Dolphins. Ultimately, the group with the best quarterback and weakest out-of-division slate of opponents won out for me, and due to a better record versus common opponents, it actually lifted them up to the sixth seed. Looking back at Denver’s 2021 season, they can build on a defense that finished third league-wide in points allowed (18.9) and should look very much the same schematically with Ejiro Evero taking over, as a Vic Fangio disciple, while getting back Bradley Chubb, having added two underrated pieces from the 49ers in nose-tackle D.J. Jones and nickelback K’Waun Williams, along with two more edge rushers via free agency and the draft. Now you pair that with the immense upgrade at quarterback with Russell Wilson, who’s able to take advantage of a highly talented group of skill-position players and at worst an average O-line, with running back Javonte Williams as one of my biggest breakout candidates in year two.
So two spots behind the Chiefs, I have the team that actually beat them in a stunning comeback to go to the Super Bowl earlier this year. Once again, this is not me not liking the Bengals and I don’t rule them out from being a better team in 2022, but people seem to forget that they were 10-7 heading into the playoffs and all three teams in the AFC playoffs had the ball with a chance to tie or win the game at the end against them. Joe Burrow is a killer under center, now entering year three, he has a tremendous group of skill-position players around him and the O-line could go from allowing a league-high 51 sacks last season to at least being average. Defensively, they also largely bring back the same group. However, unlike the Chargers, I don’t have the same trust in this offensive coaching staff at least, to let their own tendencies of running the ball on early downs and from 12 personnel at an inefficiently high rate. Combine that with probably not being as healthy (sixth-fewest AGL) and I have Cincy “only” winning ten games again, while the Ravens take advantage of a fourth-place schedule this time around.
Just missed the cut: Las Vegas Raiders (10-7) & Miami Dolphins (10-7)
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers OVER 7. Minnesota Vikings
3. Philadelphia Eagles OVER 6. New Orleans Saints
5. San Francisco 49ers OVER 4. Green Bay Packers
2. Los Angele Chargers OVER 7. Cincinnati Bengals
3. Baltimore Ravens OVER 6. Denver Broncos
5. Kansas City Chiefs OVER 4. Indianapolis Colts
5. San Francisco 49ers OVER 1. Los Angeles Rams
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers OVER 3. Philadelphia Eagles
1. Buffalo Bills OVER 5. Kansas City Chiefs
3. Baltimore Ravens OVER 2. Los Angeles Chargers
5. San Francisco 49ers OVER 2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
1. Buffalo Bills OVER 3. Baltimore Ravens
San Francisco 49ers vs. Buffalo Bills
Here it is! I have the 49ers continuing the trend of one Wildcard team making it all the way to the big game, after once again sending home the Packers, Kyle Shanahan flexing his muscle against Sean McVay one more time and then potentially sending Tom Brady into retirement finally, after losing to his childhood team. They’ll be going up against the top-seeded Bills from the AFC, who are finally able to slay the dragon that is the Chiefs, and winning a challenging matchup with the Ravens – a Divisional Round game from a couple of years ago, where Taron Johnson delivered a pick-six and soon after, Lamar Jackson was knocked out of a one-score game.
Who will be come out on top? You’ll have to stay tuned.