The preseason is good for a lot of things. Overhyping rookies off performances against vanilla defenses. Gratuitous social media clips of Tua Tagovailoa completing the simple act of throwing a football in a practice. Debating which trade the Philadelphia Eagles will pull off next. Your favorite player entering the season in the best shape of his life. And your friends seeking fantasy football advice. Make it stop!
But the preseason is largely empty calories. Now, we dig into the cheese curd bacon burger that is the regular season. Week 1 is here. Sundays shall be blessed. Rosters are built. Contenders are ready to contend. Pretenders won’t validate the hype.
It’s all about the matchups, the performances and the stars. The NFL has 1,696 roster spots on game day, along with 500-plus practice squad players. Only a few truly dominate. That’s why we asked league execs and scouts to sort out which stars will shine brightest in 2022. Who will win the game’s top awards at season’s end?
MVP always stirs the most debate. Aaron Rodgers is vying for a third consecutive MVP. Josh Allen is looking for his first, and many think he might get it. Tom Brady might mess around and lead the NFL in passing again. Patrick Mahomes hasn’t gone away. And young guns Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert are ready to build off monster second seasons.
Will a quarterback win Offensive Player of the Year? Not if a young star receiver channels Cooper Kupp for the triple crown, or a running back flirts with 2,000 yards. While top edge rushers try to unseat Aaron Donald or T.J. Watt for a first Defensive Player of the Year award, the Rookie of the Year race has a chance to get wildly unpredictable. Regardless of the category, finding consensus from the league was tough. Finding a surprise was not.
MVP | OPOY | DPOY | OROY | DROY
Comebacks | Breakouts | Top coach
Stephen A. Smith explains why the Buffalo Bills’ Super Bowl chances will rise and fall with Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs.
After finishing second in MVP voting in 2020, Allen was execs’ preseason pick for 2021. He didn’t quite deliver, with his QBR dipping from 76.6 to 60.7 year-over-year. But his moments of brilliance assuage any concerns about his 2022 candidacy. His near-flawless performance against Kansas City in the AFC divisional round stuck with many voters.
“He’s got everything around him that he needs — Buffalo might have the best roster in the league — and he’s set up for another massive season,” an AFC exec said. “There’s been enough growth as a passer where you’re encouraged.”
Allen has a combined 10,135 total yards of offense since 2020, so assuming he stays healthy, he’s all but guaranteed to put up big numbers. The ball was in his hands for a passing attempt or rush a combined 768 times last season, a league high. Durability is a concern after 122 rushing attempts, but new Buffalo OC Ken Dorsey should be able to scheme around that.
But the decision at MVP wasn’t so clear-cut. Aaron Rodgers supporters believe he’ll continue to thrive without Davante Adams because, as one high-ranking exec pointed out, “He’s produced at a high level no matter who he’s throwing to.” Added an AFC exec: “Can’t bet against Patrick [Mahomes]. He’ll be eager to show what he can do without Tyreek [Hill].
Also creating buzz: Aaron Rodgers (Packers); Patrick Mahomes (Chiefs); Justin Herbert (Chargers); Lamar Jackson (Ravens); Tom Brady (Buccaneers)
Stephania Bell looks forward to seeing Ja’Marr Chase play even better in his sophomore season.
Offensive Player of the Year: Justin Herbert, QB Los Angeles Chargers or Ja’Marr Chase, Cincinnati Bengals
Let’s go with two players here, because non-QBs have won the award in each of the past three years, yet enough execs think Herbert will get it that he must be included.
Everything is lined up for Herbert, who has an elite set of playmakers around him, a stout offensive line and should thrive with the spotlight of the Los Angeles market.
And the splash plays should be there, as multiple personnel evaluators think the Chargers will go deep more often to utilize Herbert’s arm. Herbert ranked tied for second with Joe Burrow with 15 completions of at least 40 yards last season.
“He gets credit for his physical tools, but he’s got the instincts and ability read the field, which should help him only get better,” an NFL personnel evaluator said.
Former LSU teammates and now adversaries in the wide receiver pantheon, Chase and Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson are prime OPOY candidates.
Chase got a narrow edge, even though Jefferson is all but assured to put up huge numbers with Kirk Cousins. Jefferson sits alone as the NFL’s only receiver with 3,000-plus yards in his first two NFL seasons, unless Chase (1,455 yards in Year 1) can join him.
“My only hesitation with Chase is whether his team can stay hot or will they fall apart,” an AFC exec said. “But I’m betting on Chase and Joe Burrow to keep it going. Chase is in line to be the next great one.”
Also creating buzz: Justin Jefferson (Vikings); Jonathan Taylor (Colts); Derrick Henry (Titans); Joe Burrow (Bengals); Cooper Kupp (Rams); Dak Prescott (Cowboys)
We could probably give this award to Aaron Donald every year without argument. The same might go for T.J. Watt. But Garrett, 49ers pass-rusher Nick Bosa and Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons came up enough in conversations to make me think one of them will make a run at it.
Garrett was highly productive last year with 16.0 sacks and a 26.5% pass rush win rate to lead all defensive ends. Despite a first-team All-Pro nod, he’s capable of more.
“Feels like he hasn’t had his signature season yet — that might be coming,” an NFC exec said. “He’s got more talent around him and a better secondary so that could free him up.”
Added an NFC team official: “Nobody’s Aaron Donald, but [Garrett’s] got that quality that he can just physically dominate you. One of the few guys you have to account for at every moment.”
Parsons and Bosa should push him. Playing for America’s Team as an exotic option for defensive coordinator Dan Quinn only strengthens Parson’s campaign. “Really curious how they use him — do they keep moving him around as a chess piece or just let him rush the passer,” an NFC personnel director said. “He’s rapidly improving. He’s got a serious case [for DPOY].”
Added an AFC exec on Bosa: “I like how they moved Arik Armstead to 3-technique, [with Armstead and Bosa] next to each other, that could result in less double-teams for [Bosa], which he’ll take advantage of.”
Also creating buzz: Aaron Donald (Rams); T.J. Watt (Steelers); Micah Parsons (Cowboys); Nick Bosa (49ers)
Eric Moody breaks down what makes Kenny Pickett his favorite to be named the starter for Week 1 for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh Steelers
No rookie quarterbacks are slated to start Week 1, which complicated the voting. There’s also not a clear-cut offensive playmaker here, with running backs Dameon Pierce, Kenneth Walker III and Breece Hall splitting votes.
That brings us to an NFL truism: First-round quarterbacks play. Early.
From 2018 through 2021, 16 quarterbacks were drafted in Round 1. Seven opened their rookie seasons as the starter, while seven others earned the full-time job during their first season. Only two — Trey Lance and Jordan Love — did not. The seven who earned the job during the season did so quickly. Here’s when they assumed the starting role.
Current Steelers No. 1 QB Mitch Trubisky has a few things on his side, to be sure. He had a strong preseason and is positioned for success. The Steelers like his pedigree as a Pro Bowler with 29 career wins. He has gotten most of the first-team reps since OTAs. The Steelers are paying him $6.285 million this year, with the chance to earn millions more in incentives. He’s one of five team captains! And coach Mike Tomlin never has had a quarterback controversy, so anything feels possible.
But history is not on Trubisky’s side here.
“Even if [Pickett] starts 10-12 games, the spotlight will be on him and he’s got good weapons around him,” an NFL personnel man said. “The offensive line would have to hold up.”
Yes, teams are impressed by Pickett’s preseason performance, which included a 124.7 passer rating. One AFC exec cautioned that preseason defenses are very vanilla and zone-heavy, so he’s not ready to crown Pickett until the rookie can handle more challenging coverages in regular-season action.
Also creating buzz: Dameon Pierce (Texans); Breece Hall (Jets), Kenneth Walker III (Seahawks), George Pickens (Steelers); Chris Olave (Saints); Garrett Wilson (Jets)
The Lions’ defense last season looked like the early stages of a renovation project — the workers just showed up to start on the kitchen, so it’s best to leave the mess and stay in a hotel for six months.
Detroit’s defense ranked 29th overall, which was largely expected due to a talent drain.
But things are starting to look up, thanks in part to a top pick who represents hope.
Hutchinson, the No. 2 overall pick, has looked better than advertised in the eyes of many.
“He looks like he’s going to be a good player off the bat,” an AFC personnel director. “The question has always been, how good of an athlete is he? But maybe he doesn’t get enough credit for how big he is [6-foot-7, 264 pounds] and having a quick swim move.”
The feeling on Hutchinson in the pre-draft process was he wouldn’t be a miss, but his ceiling would be lower than that of No. 1 pick Travon Walker. While we will need years to see how that plays out, Hutchinson has the inside track on immediate impact.
Also creating buzz: Travon Walker (Jaguars); Sauce Gardner (Jets); Jalen Pitre (Texans); George Karalaftis (Chiefs)
Mike Clay explains why Jameis Winston has a chance to be a top-10 fantasy QB this season.
Plenty of candidates here, especially at running back with Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry. But questions persist about McCaffrey’s long-term durability, and Henry did at least return for the playoffs last season off a foot injury, so the comeback is already on.
Meanwhile, Winston was solid in seven games last year pre-ACL tear, with 14 touchdowns to three interceptions and a 64.4 QBR, which would have ranked fourth among NFL QBs if he kept it up for a full season.
And that was with a suspect wide receiver corps that is suddenly Mariana Trench-deep with the additions of Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave and Michael Thomas’ return from injury.
“This will be his best chance at success,” an NFC exec said. “Because it’s not only the talent around him, but he’s comfortable in the system and you’d like to think he’s learned from the mistakes in Tampa with all the turnovers. I think he’s a better quarterback now.”
Also creating buzz: Christian McCaffrey (Panthers); Derrick Henry (Titans); David Bakhtiari (Packers)
We’ve reached peak parity in the NFL — nearly two dozen teams might fit the “contender” description — which only widens the Coach of the Year pool. But it’s hard to ignore the Eagles’ roster strength after a strong offseason, and Sirianni showed his coaching acumen by winning six of his last eight regular-season games after a 2-5 start to 2021.
“They’ve got a manageable schedule, and if Nick can help Jalen [Hurts] improve, they should have enough pieces to make some noise,” an AFC personnel exec said.
LaFleur didn’t win Coach of the Year in either of his 13-win seasons, but he’ll be hard to ignore with a big 2022 — and a roster of receivers who would go unrecognized in your local Chili’s.
“I think Green Bay will make headlines when they win 12 or 13 games again without Davante [Adams],” an AFC scout said. “They have the pieces to do it.”
Also creating buzz: Kyle Shanahan (49ers); Sean McVay (Rams); Josh McDaniels (Raiders); Dennis Allen (Saints)
Field Yates and Mike Clay assess the RB roles for Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon III for the Broncos.
Call him “Jonathan Taylor Lite.” He might not have Taylor’s explosiveness, but he has everything else: toughness, contact balance and strength, all of which make him tough to tackle. “For as good as Russell Wilson is, he’s in a new offense that requires passing with rhythm and timing, and in Year 1, as he adjusts, I could see the Broncos relying heavily on the running game,” an AFC exec said. “Javonte is the ideal workhorse back.”
Williams did a little bit of everything last season with 203 rushes for 903 yards along with 43 catches for 316 receiving yards. The presence of Melvin Gordon III reduces Williams’ workload a bit but also keeps him fresh.
Also creating buzz: Pat Freiermuth (Steelers); Daron Payne (Commanders); Jevon Holland (Dolphins)