Cooper Kupp, Photo by All-Pro Reels
Our preparation for the 2022 NFL season continues with another installment in our full series of NFL team previews.
We’re moving division-by-division with breakdowns and roster analysis for every team in the NFL. Today, we’re breaking down the defending champion LA Rams and the rest of the NFC West! Who’s ready to bet on football and win in 2022?
Los Angeles Rams
The overarching question about the defending super bowl champs is; can the stars and scrubs formula win another super bowl?
The Rams sustained a few key losses this offseason, including a few stars.
Without Von Miller, LA wouldn’t have made it to the Super Bowl last year, but Miller is now a Bill. Stalwart left tackle Andrew Whitworth is also gone after walking off into the retirement sunset as NFL man of the year and super bowl champion.
The Rams have honed their organizational ability to draft and develop replacement-level talent in the middle and late rounds so they can let starting-level talent walk out the door each year. We’ll see how it works in 2022.
The story early in camp was that QB Matt Stafford is dealing with a tendinitis-like irritation of the elbow on his throwing arm; a condition compared to what a baseball pitcher might deal with. Sean McVay said they “managed” it last season and throughout the offseason and Stafford has said he’s not worried about it. He’s reportedly looked good throwing the ball throughout training camp.
The unit where the roster attrition causes the most concern is the offensive line.
LA re-signed swing tackle Joe Noteboom, who played well in spot starts, to replace Whitworth. They let starting right guard Austin Corbett leave in free agency and appear set to replace him with a rookie third-rounder. Center Brian Allen returns but can at times be overpowered by disruptive interior players.
Wide receiver Allen Robinson was LA’s marquee free agent signing of the offseason, and the Rams are glowing with excitement about Robinson in camp.
With a bad team, a rookie quarterback, and a bad lame duck head coach in Chicago, Robinson checking out on the 2021 Bears would be understandable — and he’s never really played with a good quarterback. We expect him to have a big bounce-back year in an exponentially better situation.
Number three receiver Van Jefferson is out of training camp after undergoing a “minor knee procedure”. The Rams led the league with three or more wide receivers on the field 87% of the time in 2021, so with unproven players behind Jefferson on the depth chart, they’ll need him to stay healthy. Tutu Atwell and Ben Skowronek are currently replacing him in the starting lineup. The slight-framed speedster Atwell has to prove he can stay on the field.
In the secondary, the Rams let corner Darious Williams walk and are set to replace him on the outside with either David Long or Robert Rochell, both of whom are young and unproven. Star Jalen Ramsey also plays a lot in the slot to be closer to the ball and support the run, which leaves two unproven corners to man receivers on the outside.
Coordinator Raheem Morris’ defense ranked 31st in man coverage rate in the league in 2021, so heavy zones are likely the plan again to hide any coverage deficiencies.
On the defensive line, Justin Hollins or Terrell Lewis (again, both unproven) are projected to replace Von Miller in the starting lineup and behind Leonard Floyd, the edge depth looks thin.
The strength of this defense is the interior defensive line, led by three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald. Donald demands so much attention he makes the whole line better, but he has two excellent running mates on the interior line with A’Shawn Robinson and Greg Gaines.
One breakout player to watch for the Rams’ defense is linebacker Ernest Jones. The 2021 third-round pick is a long, athletic player who came on strong late in his rookie season, flashing real blitzing and overall playmaking ability in a small sample size. LA also brought in future hall of fame linebacker Bobby Wagner in free agency. Wagner may not have much left in the tank, but he still instantly upgrades the position and will help patch up their deficiency in defending the short middle of the field.
Having Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, the league’s two best players at their positions remedies many ills.
With their ability to spot and develop complementary talent to play alongside their stars, the Rams have earned the benefit of the doubt. Once again, this will be among the best teams in the NFC and the favorite to win the NFC West. But you still wonder if/when the roster attrition catches up to them.
The NFC West will play an out-of-conference schedule against the AFC West.
With a first place schedule and the expected strength of the AFC West, the Rams will face one of the toughest schedules in the league. In addition to the AFC West, the Rams non-divisional schedule includes an opening night visit from the Bills, a Week 5 visit from the Cowboys, and road games @Bucs, @Saints, and @Packers.
San Francisco 49ers
For the Niners this season, it’s all about second-year quarterback Trey Lance.
The third overall pick in 2021 is just 22 years old and was spotty and spot duty a year ago. However, Lance’s arm strength and athletic ability give Kyle Shanahan options that weren’t on the menu with Jimmy Garrapolo.
Where Lance is in his development and how fast he will improve is hard to predict, and that unpredictability widens the range of outcomes for this Niners season.
According to Lance, after a broken right index finger late in training camp last year, he couldn’t straighten the finger for most of the year, which pushed off work on improving his mechanics to this offseason. Lance has taken all the starter’s reps this offseason, and the Niners praise his mental makeup.
“He is everything we thought he was and a little bit more,” said GM John Lynch.
The only certainty about Kyle Shanahan’s offense is there will always be a lot of running. Shanahan used 21 personnel (2 backs, one tight-end) on 36% of snaps in 2021, more than five times the league average.
The offensive line is the unit to be concerned about.
Center Alex Mack retired, reliable left guard Laken Tomlinson signed a free agent deal with the Jets, and right tackle Mike McGlinchey is coming off a torn quad injury in 2021. Jake Brendel, who hasn’t started a game since 2018, is slated to start at center, and a rookie fourth-rounder currently has the inside track on the starting right guard spot. Even if we assume guard Aaron Banks takes a step forward in year two, there are still plenty of reasons to be concerned about the four non-Trent Williams starters on this line.
In stark contrast to last year, Kyle Shanahan has praised the offseason work of receiver Brandon Aiyuk, and entering his third season, Aiyuk is poised for a major breakout. His physical tools are readily apparent, but due to Jimmy G’s limitations, he’s barely been used as a down-the-field threat in his first two seasons. With Trey Lance’s arm strength, expect a major increase in deep targets for Aiyuk. Lance will have his ups and downs but expect Aiyuk, Kittle, and Deebo Samuel to be unlocked for more explosive play potential in 2022.
Even with the certainty that Lance will have his rough games, the potential to make plays downfield, and plays out of structure, are elements Lance should provide that Jimmy G simply did not.
Jimmy was adept at keeping the Niners on schedule. The Lance Niners will be more volatile but more explosive.
In his first year as defensive coordinator, Demeco Ryans burst on the scene in 2021, culminating with the Niners playoff masterpiece in Green Bay against Aaron Rodgers.
San Francisco was 7th in defensive DVOA despite their shaky corner group. Ryans may already be one of the best coordinators in the league and is a virtual lock to secure a head coaching position next offseason if he wants it.
The signing of cornerback Charvarius Ward from the Chiefs highlights an otherwise unspectacular offseason for San Francisco. Ward (currently hurt during camp) fills a major need in a corner room that was shaky a year ago, and his physical style of play is a great fit for this defense.
Ryans likes to vary and simulate his pressure packages, with his Niners defense ranking in the top seven in both the percentage of snaps they rushed three and six. Even with the struggles at cornerback, San Francisco was seventh in man coverage rate, so with the addition of Ward, they could rank higher in 2022.
The Niners let productive defensive linemen D.J Jones and Arden Key walk in free agency, so the depth up front might not match the 2021 team, but they seem to march out productive linemen every year no matter what.
San Francisco’s defensive ceiling pushes even higher if third-year lineman Javon Kinlaw can tap into his potential.
The former first-round pick is coming off ACL reconstruction surgery that cost him most of the 2021 season. If Kinlaw can emerge as an interior pass rush threat, alongside studs Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa, this Niners defense could be the best in the entire NFL. The Niners also boast the premiere linebacker group in football, with Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, and Azeez Al-Shaair.
The offensive line, especially the interior, constitutes our primary concern with this team. We expect this Niners defense to be one of the best units in the league and could be good enough to sneak San Francisco into the playoffs, even with some poor performances from Lance.
Their end-of-season ceiling will be decided by how Lance progresses throughout the year.
The Niners will face about a league-average schedule in 2022. They’ll face the all four teams in the AFC West like the rest of the division, but unlike the Rams, their games vs the Bucs and Saints will be at home in San Francisco. They have soft non-division opponents on the schedule, like the Bears and Falcons.
In 2021, the Cardinals crumbled down the stretch, getting thoroughly dominated by their division rival Rams in their playoff loss.
Yet, for reasons that go beyond explanation, general manager Steve Keim and head coach Kliff Kingsbury received contract extensions this offseason.
Quarterback Kyler Murray also received a massive contract extension, which included a bizarre film study clause, that was later removed after public ridicule – the ordeal made both the Cardinals and Kyler look bad.
More recently, coach Kliff made a wild remark pointed at Murray about playcalling.
After everything that has taken place this offseason, it’s implausible that there isn’t some friction between Murray and Cardinals management. All that drama aside, it’s actually the Cardinals’ team-building strategy that leaves us more perplexed than anything else.
After their offensive line gets whipped all over the field in the playoffs against the Rams, you’d think Arizona would make some investments upfront.
But their only change upfront was to bring in guard Will Hernandez from the Giants. The Giants had one of the worst offensive lines in the league, and Hernandez played poorly on it. Guard Justin Pugh is 32 and was planning to retire before coming back for another year, while center Rodney Hudson is 33 and showed signs of decline in 2021.
Instead of bolstering this unit, Keim shelled out questionable contracts to retain Zach Ertz and James Conner. After resigning Ertz for more than $10 million annually, they used their first draft pick on…a tight end.
Arizona traded a first-round pick for Hollywood Brown, but they will open the year without their two best receivers from last season; Deandre Hopkins is suspended for the first six games of 2022, and Christian Kirk is now a Jaguar. When Hopkins returns, he and Brown will be a solid complimentary pair on the outside, but that’s only if they can keep their head above water during Hopkins’ suspension. Remember, Hopkins’ late-season injury absence helped precipitate Arizona’s second-half decline in 2021.
Second-year receiver Rondale Moore was used almost exclusively on screens last year, and his route profile must expand for this Cardinals offense. After resigning Ertz, rookie tight end Trey McBride has to contribute immediately in two-tight end sets (or as an h-back).
This offense relies heavily on explosive plays, and Kyler relies heavily on Hopkins to make a lot of those explosive plays, so we’re concerned about this offense, especially in the first half of the season.
At least, with Kyler at the helm, Arizona always has a big play upside. On defense, the personnel just doesn’t add up.
Chandler Jones is off the Vegas, and while they drafted a few rookie rushers, there’s no clear answer on the roster to replace his production. Jones’s departure will likely lead to a heavier dosage of blitzing, but Vance Joseph’s defense already ranked in the top five in the league in rates of rushing five players, rushing six, and blitzing with defensive backs.
Arizona’s interior line is on the lighter side, and with linebacker Jordan Hicks gone, former first-round linebackers Zaven Collins and Isaiah Simmons have to step up.
Neither Byron Murphy nor Marco Wilson is a number one cornerback, yet in a division stacked with elite wide receivers, Arizona neglected to upgrade the cornerback room too. Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson are a terrific safety pair, but beyond that, we see weaknesses across the board on this defense.
The last few years in the Kliff/Kyler Cardinals era, it’s been a tale of two halves. The Cardinals start hot before fading in the second half. Kyler has sustained injuries, and while he has only missed a few games, his slight 5’10 frame seems to wear down over the course of the year. As for Kingsbury, his offense becomes more predictable as they put more on tape each week, and he’s yet to prove he can make adjustments on the fly.
Kyler Murray is a fun watch, but we saw the offense sputter out last year when your supporting cast is poor. When Hopkins returns, we could see this offense get hot in the second half. But we look up and down this Cardinals roster and see many more weaknesses than strengths.
The Cardinals have a difficult schedule in 2022; out of the gate, their first three are the Chiefs, @Raiders, and Rams. In addition to the AFC West matchups, they’ll face the Bucs, Saints, Vikings, and Eagles.
Seattle starts the post-Russell Wilson era with one of the most depressing quarterback competitions in recent memory.
Drew Lock (acquired in the Wilson trade) will battle it out with Geno Smith to get the starting nod to start the season. Lock is erratic and inaccurate, and occasionally capable of making big plays. Smith, a long-time backup, is accurate but unlikely to make any big plays. Geno likely gives them a better chance to operate within the structure of Shane Waldron’s offense, so he may be the guy they turn to.
No matter who starts, the Seahawks are rebuilding. The offensive projects as one of the worst few in the league, with at least one (9th overall pick Charles Cross) and possibly two rookie starters at the tackle spots, and the interior won’t be a strength either.
Seattle retained running back Rashaad Penny after his late-season breakout, and added Kenneth Walker to the backfield in the second round, perhaps anticipating Chris Carson’s recent retirement. Penny’s career has been injury-plagued, but his breakout is no fluke. If he stays healthy (and gets adequate blocking), he’s poised to be one of the most productive backs in the league this year — and he’ll need to be.
With Tyler Lockett, DJ Metcalf, and Noah Fant onboard, Seattle’s skill positions are still in reasonably good shape. But with a backup at quarterback and a potential train wreck on the offensive line, there will be weeks where this offense looks hideous.
On the defensive side, Seattle is undergoing schematic changes, with Clint Hurtt taking over as defensive coordinator and Sean Desai, the Bears DC last year, joining Hurtt’s staff. They’ll implement more 3-4 looks and two-deep safety formations, a departure from the Cover 3 scheme of Pete Carroll’s vintage legion of boom days.
In the secondary, their safety pairing of Quandry Diggs and Jamal Adams is a strength, but Diggs is coming off a serious injury in 2021, and Adams is currently sidelined in training camp after offseason finger surgery.
The cornerback room is the biggest problem on this defense.
Sidney Jones constitutes the lone holdover from a year ago you can lock into a starting position. Seattle is high on Artie Burns, who played well down the stretch for Chicago last year, and they drafted two corners in the first four rounds in 2022. There’s some potential here, but this group will still be one of the weaker cornerback units in the league.
With Al Woods, Poona Ford, and Shelby Harris added in the Wilson trade, the interior defensive line projects as a strength. The edge group should be better than last year, but that isn’t saying much. Uchenna Nwosu was added from the Chargers, and athletic edge Boye Mafe was added in the second round. Darrell Taylor, who led the team with 36 pressures a year ago, will need to take a step forward in his third season. They are without a standout rusher in the group.
Linebackers Jordyn Brooks, Cody Barton, and Taylor may be the best unit on defense.
Without a bonafide starting quarterback and question marks on the offensive line, at the edge, and at cornerback, this will be one of the worst teams in the NFC.
Seattle doesn’t benefit much from their last place schedule in 2022. With ten games total against their division and the AFC West, plus road games against the Bucs and Saints, the Seahawks are set for a tough year.
DVOA statistics & strategic tendencies sourced from Football Outsiders