Jameis Winston, Photo by All-Pro Reels
We’re back with our eighth and final installment in our series of NFL previews as we prepare for the 2022 NFL season.
We’ve gone division-by-division with breakdowns and of every team in the NFL. Last but not least, we’re breaking down the NFC South. Who’s ready to bet on football and win in 2022?!
Tampa Bay Bucs
Until a few weeks ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a weakness on this roster.
But Tampa was dealt a few concentrated blows to the interior of the offensive line that could bring the ceiling of this high-powered offense down a few pegs.
First, pro bowl center Ryan Jensen went down with a knee injury early in training camp and is highly unlikely to play this season. Losing Jensen, one of the top centers in the league is a significant blow.
A few weeks later, guard Aaron Stinnie, who was competing to replace the retired Ali Marpet in the starting lineup, went down for the season with a knee injury of his own. The Bucs will now have three new starters along the interior of the line, with inexperienced players at two spots; 2021 third-round pick Robert Hainsey will take over at center, and rookie second-round pick Luke Goedeke will slide in at left guard.
The Bucs don’t appear to be worried, but what previously was a strength is no longer, and interior pressure has always been how you disrupt Brady and knock him out of his unstoppable rhythms.
While Brady’s ability to get the ball out fast mitigates a lot of concern, his pocket won’t be as clean this year, and there could be some bumps in the road early in the season as the new line builds continuity.
There isn’t much elsewhere on this roster to poke holes.
Tampa is deep on the outside with Evans, Godwin, and free agent signings Russell Gage and Julio Jones. Anything the Bucs get from Jones is a huge bonus, and Gage is an underrated pick-up and perfect weapon for Brady in the short and intermediary. It’s still unclear whether Godwin will be ready to start this season, but he’s been practicing late in training camp and doesn’t appear far off. He may not be 100% early in the year ,but Tampa has enough talent to weather a ramp-up period for Godwin.
Rookie running back Rachaad White is carving out a role, and his receiving skills especially will endear him to Brady.
Tampa will miss Rob Gronkowski, but knowing Gronk, it wouldn’t stun anyone if he made a midseason return. Veteran Cam Brate is slated to star, and we think he can be serviceable.
On defense, we don’t see any weaknesses that concern us. The Bucs ranked 9th in defensive DVOA in 2021, despite being depleted in the secondary for large chunks of the season.
The trenches for Tampa again project as a strength for Tampa.
While there was some turnover among the veterans, this defensive front should continue to dominate in the run game. Akeim Hicks steps in to replace Ndamukong Suh and has reportedly looked great in training camp; if he’s healthy playing alongside Vita Vea, Tampa will be as formidable as ever in the interior.
2021 first-round pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, flashed his athleticism as a rookie but didn’t reach the quarterback much. He steps in to replace JPP at defensive end, and the Bucs added Houston linemen Logan Hall at the top of the second round. They might miss JPP in the run game, but he had lost a lot of his pass rush juice.
As defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles loves to send the pressure. Tampa ranked fifth in blitz rate in 2021, and with Bowles now the head coach, we don’t expect that to change.
Blitzing linebackers Shaq Barrett and Devin White is at the core of Tampa’s pressure packages; Barrett led the team with 10 sacks and 37 pressures in 2021.
Antoine Winfield Jr. is a stud at safety, and Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean are a solid tandem on the outside. Slot corner Sean Murphy-Bunting had an injury-plagued year in 2021 and needs improve this year. They let starting safety Jordan Whitehead leave in free agency and added Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal as replacements. Both are downgrades but will bring different skill sets to the group.
We don’t love the corner depth, but you could say that about 28 teams in the NFL.
Expect this to be a top ten defense again this year, and with better injury luck in the secondary, they have a chance to be a top five.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints promoted Dennis Allen to head coach after being one of the top defensive coordinators in the league for the last several years. He offers New Orleans cultural continuity as he steps into Sean Payton’s big shoes.
The Saints had the worst pass catchers in the NFL a year ago.
The Saints addressed their biggest need by trading up for Chris Olave and signing Jarvis Landry. They also welcomed back star receiver Michael Thomas, who hasn’t played in two years. Thomas has been nursing a hamstring injury throughout camp, which is cause for concern. The Saints need a healthy Michael Thomas.
Olave is an NFL-ready route runner who should contribute in year one. Speedster Deonte Harty (formerly Harris) is now pushed down the depth chart into a more suitable role.
The most costly casualty of the Saints’ cap woes was stalwart left tackle Terron Armstead. They drafted Trevor Penning in the first round, but the rookie is out indefinitely with a significant toe injury that will require surgery. They were leaning on the FCS product to be a day-one starter on the left side and now are forced to go with career backup James Hurst unless they can acquire a replacement.
The Saints offense suffered a ton of injuries in 2021.
Aside from Michael Thomas, the offensive line faced injuries across the board; Ryan Ramczyk, Terron Armstead, and Erik McCoy all missed significant time. And, of course, Jameis Winston missed half the season after tearing his ACL.
Winston was playing pretty well before his injury and will benefit significantly from the upgrades at receiver. Still, New Orleans’ offense was run-heavy and conservative in the season in 2021, and we’re yet to be convinced Winston significantly improved from his days in Tampa. We have to see it to believe.
Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara faces felony battery charges, but it doesn’t appear a suspension will be levied in 2022, so expect Kamara to be available.
The biggest question on offense is how much the team will be affected by the loss of Sean Payton, as Offensive Coordinator Pete Carmichael takes over the playcalling. Carmichael has sat at the feet of Payton for twelve years as the coordinator, and when Payton was suspended for Bountygate in 2012, Carmichael kept the offense humming.
On defense, don’t expect anything to change schematically, as Allen will retain plenty of influence over that side of the ball.
New Orleans lost top safety Marcus Williams to the Ravens, and veteran Malcolm Jenkins retired while still playing at a high level. While they did well to sign Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu to replace him, that’s a big downgrade.
We’re a little confused by the decision to trade CJ Gardner-Johnson on the eve of the season when contract extension negotiations broke down. It just doesn’t jive with their all-in approach to the season.
Marshon Lattimore is one of the ten best cornerbacks in the league. With Bradley Roby, second-year corner Paulson Adebo, and rookie second-rounder Alontae Taylor, the Saints have some depth at the position to replace him. Still, New Orleans is losing a versatile tone-setter in the secondary after already losing Williams and Jenkins.
Lattimore allows Dennis Allen to play a lot of man coverage; the Saints ranked second behind only the Dolphins, playing man on 41% of their snaps.
While the defense has dealt with some aging and attrition in recent years, there’s still quality talent at every level. Cameron Jordan is still performing at a high level at 33, putting up 12.5 sacks in 2021, while Marcus Davenport produce nine sacks in just 11 games, though he continues to be plagued by injuries.
The Saints were first overall in DVOA against the run in 2021.
We expect them to continue to be among the league’s best in that category, especially if David Onyemata is available for the whole season.
The Saints’ success up front against the run allows the Saints to live more in subpackages. In 2021, Dennis Allen’s defense ranked fifth in the league in percentage of snaps with six or more defensive backs on the field.
We believe the Saints can have a top-five defense this year, but there are many more questions surrounding the offense.
How much will they lose without Sean Payton at the helm?
Will Michael Thomas stay healthy?
Can Jameis Winston handle pressure and play consistent, mistake-free football?
Will they hold up at left tackle?
New Orleans has won their last four matchups with the Bucs, so we understand why they went all in on 2022 when post-Payton tear-down seemed logical – this is playoffs roster. The offense will be better than last year, the question is how much better.
The Falcons roster was terrible in 2021, but with Matt Ryan behind center, they managed to squeeze out some close games – somehow, they won seven of them.
With Matt Ryan gone, there’s nothing to paper over those deficiencies in 2022. Atlanta is in the early stages of a full rebuild.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota reunites with former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith and should be a fine short-term steward. We expect rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder to take the job from him by midseason. The Falcons have no reason not to give themselves a close look at Ridder in game action in 2022.
Head coach Arthur Smith is looking to recreate his Titans offense with exclusively big bodies on the outside.
Kyle Pitts is a unicorn who plays like a big wide receiver on the outside, and top selection, USC receiver Drake London (6’4) is another big athletic guy who can win at the catch point. Bryan Edwards is another in the same mold of big contested catch receivers. The Falcons have a type, but you still need some skill set diversity – like a route-running Russell Gage type.
The reliable Gage departed in free agency.
Rookie running back Tyler Allgeier is poised to make an immediate impact for Atlanta, bringing a physical element to the Falcons’ running game that will compliment Cordarrelle Patterson nicely. We’re also intrigued by how Arthur Smith might deploy Mariota in the running game alongside those two.
Smith loves diverse formations and heavy personnel. The Falcons ranked fourth in the league in multi-back formations and second to last in three wide receiver formations.
The biggest issue for Atlanta is their offensive line. Atlanta ranked 26th in pass block win rate yet didn’t make a meaningful upgrade at any position this offseason.
Jake Matthews at left tackle and Chris Lindstrom at right guard are solid, but the other three spots are question marks. Kaleb McGrary at right tackle is especially bad. This will again be among the worst offensive lines in the league.
On defense there are just as many holes, though cornerback is not one of them.
Cornerback AJ Terrell vaulted himself into the elite group at his position, and Casey Hayward comes over from Vegas to solidify the other side. Slot corner Isaiah Oliver returns from missing most of last year. Led by Terrell, this is probably the best positional group on the team.
Veteran coordinator Dean Pees is known for his aggression and disguised coverages but curtailed the aggression in 2021 without adequate personnel. His defense is also known to be complex, and Pees remarked they had to simplify things considerably during last season. Pees expects the playbook to be deeper in year two, which means we could see more blitzing and man coverage from Atlanta.
2021 second-round pick Richie Grant wasn’t quite ready as a rookie, and they need him to develop into a reliable player in his second season.
Grady Jarrett remains the lone standout along an uninspiring defensive front.
Jarrett faced non-stop double teams, and his teammates failed to get the job done. Atlanta did spend two high picks on edge rushers, drafting Arnold Ebiketie in the second round and DeAngelo Malone in the third, injecting some much-needed athleticism into the mix on the edge. They’ll need production from Ebiketie immediately.
Atlanta ranked 30th in defensive DVOA in 2021, including 29th in rush defense and 28th in success rate against the run. We expect to see some improvement against the pass in 2022, but the run defense will continue to be porous.
The Falcons did a decent job of reshuffling on defense, but we don’t think it will add up to a significantly improved product.
With Pitts and London moving inside and out, Atlanta’s offense will be interesting to watch, if nothing else.
With very few building block pieces outside of tight end Kyle Pitts, cornerback A.J Terrell, and left tackle Jake Matthews, the Falcons are a top-five candidate to secure the first overall pick in 2023.
With a 10-23 record in his two seasons, Matt Rhule enters training camp on the hottest seat of any coach in the NFL.
The Panthers’ were actually worse in 2021 than their five wins indicate.
After a 3-0 start, they were last in total DVOA for the remainder of the season and dead last in offensive DVOA.
Carolina deserves ridicule for their incoherent handling of the quarterback position, and the Darnold trade may ultimately be Rhule’s undoing. All that said, the Panthers did address urgent needs this offseason, starting with the quarterback and offensive line.
Like Jared Goff in Los Angeles, the Browns moved on from Baker Mayfield because his limitations cap what you can do offensively. Like Goff, with a competent supporting cast, within the structure of the run-based, play-action offense, Baker can look very good.
But no mistake, Mayfield is a significant upgrade over Sam Darnold. Mayfield wasn’t healthy last year; he reportedly is now.
Carolina ranked 29th in pass block win rate. By any measure, Carolina had one of the worst offensive lines in the league.
Austin Corbett comes over from the Rams to solidify one guard spot, while Bradley Bozeman arrives from Baltimore and upgrades the center position as well.
Tackle Ikem Ekwonu is the prize of Carolina’s offseason.
Left tackle was a cavernous hole for Carolina last year. The rookie, who fortuitously slid to them in the draft, steps in as a day-one starter at left tackle, and even if he is just functional there, he upgrades the entire line instantly. Matt Rhule wants to run the ball, and Ekwonu was the top run-blocker in the draft.
This line can potentially be close to average, which is a massive upgrade over last season.
DJ Moore is a big-time player, and Robby Anderson needs to have a bounce-back year but is a solid number two receiver. We liked the addition of Donte Foreman at running back as a complement to (and insurance for) Christian McCaffrey.
If CMac is healthy (a big if), with DJ Moore, and a decent offensive line, this offense can go from dreadful to competent with Baker behind center.
Our one major question is, will this Ben McAdoo offense be shaped to fit Baker’s strengths? McAdoo has been out of football for two years and off the sidelines for most of the last five years.
On defense, the Panthers have some good young pieces, starting with Brian Burns upfront.
Burns had nine sacks and 30 hurries in 2021, and at 24 years old, it is reasonable to expect him to improve on that in 2022. Carolina did lose their sack leader Haason Reddick to the Eagles, so Carolina will need to find some pass rush juice from someone other than Burns. 2020 second-round pick, Yetur Gross-Matos is one guy they need to step up. Gross-Matos managed just 3.5 sacks in 2021. Free agent addition Matt Ioannidis should help on the interior.
Carolina will likely blitz a lot to make up deficiencies here too.
The Panthers ranked in the top ten in percentage of snaps rushing five and six, so defensive coordinator Phil Snow likes to send the pressure.
2021 top pick, cornerback Jaycee Horn played excellent in three games before an injury cut his rookie season short. Carolina picked Horn one spot ahead of Patrick Surtain, and expectations are high that he’s a legit number one corner. Despite only having three career games under his belt, Snow called Horn, “one of the best players in the league”.
Carolina ranked ninth in man coverage rate, so with Horn Back, opposite Donte Jackson, we’ll likely see the rate go even higher in 2022.
Veteran safety Xavier Woods was a nice pick-up from the Vikings, and Jeremy Chinn is a solid, versatile safety as well.
Though we’re not confident in the coaching with Rhule and Macadoo, there’s enough talent on both sides of the ball for Carolina to stay competitive this year. The problem for the Panthers is, even if they are competitive this year, they look like they’re on a road to nowhere.