Once upon a time, defense won championships. In 2021, though, offensive stars were what NFL teams needed to make a run toward the title. Think about the final four. In the NFC, the Rams and 49ers had two of the league’s great pass-catchers in Cooper Kupp and George Kittle. Both teams have made a habit of adding targets and backs year after year in the draft and free agency. Odell Beckham Jr., a midseason acquisition for the Rams, caught nine passes for 113 yards in Los Angeles’ comeback victory.
Things might have been even clearer in the AFC. The Chiefs, who came in at No. 1 in these rankings during Patrick Mahomes‘ legendary 2018 season, built their team around Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. The Bengals came back to beat those Chiefs and nearly win the Super Bowl with their own dynamic duo of Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Two players, chosen in consecutive drafts after the Bengals were the worst team in football, helped drive Cincinnati’s stunning turnaround.
Let’s dive into an annual tradition and rank each NFL team’s offensive playmakers from worst to first. It’s hardly an exact science, but until we have actual football to discuss, it’s a bit of fun. Keep in mind, though, that this is only considering each team’s running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. If you could drop those players into an offense with a league-average quarterback, league-average offensive line, league-average coaching and league-average luck, which team would have the best offense?
I’ll throw in a few more rules that I used to help sort through the list:
We’re only thinking about performance in 2022. Money and long-term performance don’t matter. The only thing being considered here is how a player would be expected to perform during the 17-game season in 2022. I’m a firm believer in the idea that we don’t know much about draft picks until they actually get on the field, so in estimating how rookies perform, I’m considering how players drafted at similar spots have performed during their debut seasons.
Injury history, holdouts and suspensions matter. We can’t project whether players will suffer serious injuries like torn ligaments or broken bones, but we do have recent history for hundreds of players and can use those to inform our expectations of how many games they’ll play in 2022. Likely injury absences hurt the value of players such as Christian McCaffrey or Raheem Mostert. We also have players who are expected to miss the beginning of the season with injuries, including Michael Gallup and Chris Godwin. There are also players who are suspended, such as DeAndre Hopkins, and players who might hold out to start the year, such as Dalton Schultz. Those players have had their estimate production cut relative to how confident we are that they’ll miss time.
Wide receivers are more heavily weighted than running backs or tight ends. The league values wide receivers at a different tier than other skill-position players. The top of the wide receiver market was reset this offseason by Davante Adams and then Hill, with the latter player taking home $24.3 million per season in real money over the first three years of his new deal with Miami. That’s way more than the top players at running back or tight end, where the market tops out at just over $13 million in real money per season over Years 1 to 3. As such, wide receivers are treated as more valuable properties than backs or tight ends. Furthermore, since it’s easier to find several competent players than it is to acquire a true superstar, players who are at the very top of their positions get the highest marks. As a result, teams with top-end wide receiver talent do well on this list, while deep teams built around running backs aren’t as impressive.
I’m not mentioning every single player. I do look at a team’s full complement of skill-position talent (minus the quarterback) in evaluating this list, but I focus on the top five or six for ranking purposes, with additional depth as a tiebreaker. With so much to talk about, I don’t mention every single player who was considered, so if someone doesn’t get mentioned in your favorite team’s blurb, it’s only in the interest of trying to keep this readable.
Efficiency matters. Raw numbers are great, but they’re also influenced by how fast your team plays and what sort of field position they’re handed by defense and special teams. The Cowboys ran 1,153 plays last season, which is nearly 200 more than the Seahawks’ 954. Dallas’ playmakers basically had a handful of extra games to rack up stats. DK Metcalf shouldn’t be blamed for Pete Carroll going slow and his defense falling apart. As a result, you’ll see lots of average metrics here. Two that come up a lot for receivers are yards per route and target share. Yards per route is the average number of yards a receiver gained when he ran an eligible route, regardless of whether he was caught the ball or was even targeted on the play. Target share is the percentage of the time a receiver was targeted when he did run a route. Neither stat is perfect, but they help us get a sense of whether a receiver was able to create opportunities when he was on the field.
Let’s start with the league’s worst group, where one talented wideout is forced to keep an entire offense afloat:
Imagine where the Texans would be without Brandin Cooks, who managed his sixth 1,000-yard season with Davis Mills and Tyrod Taylor throwing him passes. Cooks is a midtier No. 1 receiver, but the Texans just don’t have much around him. General manager Nick Caserio traded up to grab Alabama wideout John Metchie in the second round of the draft in April and used a third-round pick on Nico Collins, so the hope has to be that one of those two turns into a viable starter across from Cooks.
If there’s any position where Houston should have been trying to find a long-term solution a year ago, it’s at running back, where it re-signed Rex Burkhead to compete with Marlon Mack and fourth-round rookie Dameon Pierce. There’s a glimmer of hope at tight end in Brevin Jordan, who averaged 1.3 yards per route run in a small sample as a rookie a year ago, which is in line with Dawson Knox and Tyler Conklin.
Even so, the fact that the Texans are counting on midround projects such as Pierce and Jordan as promising possible starters two years into their rebuild tells you how far they have to go. Caserio’s vision of filling the roster with low-ceiling veterans doesn’t enthuse.
The move to buy low on N’Keal Harry in a trade with the Patriots didn’t move the needle here. The Bears let Allen Robinson leave after a disappointing 2021 campaign and didn’t really replace him; the opportunities across from Darnell Mooney will belong to Byron Pringle, Equanimeous St. Brown and rookie third-round pick Velus Jones Jr., who enters the league as a 25-year-old prospect, which is typically an inauspicious sign for receivers. Jones is about a month younger than DJ Moore, who is entering his fifth season for Carolina. Mooney, a talented deep threat who inherited the No. 1 spot from Robinson last season, is the standout here.
Running back David Montgomery has now failed to average 4.0 yards per carry in two of his first three campaigns and was one of the 10 worst backs in football by DVOA a year ago. The offensive line didn’t help, but NFL Next Gen Stats suggest Montgomery ran for 26 fewer yards than an average back would have in the same situations.
Cole Kmet improved from 1.0 yard per route run as a rookie to 1.4 yards per route run in Year 2, but the tight end failed to score a touchdown despite 12 red zone targets. His touchdown performance will likely regress toward the mean in 2022 — and both he and Mooney should see gobs of volume as the only receivers of note in this offense — but the Bears will be shopping next offseason. Including his underwhelming offensive line, Justin Fields is heading into his second season with less help than any other quarterback in football.
If you’re a Giants fan, your best hope has to be that former coach Joe Judge simply sucked the talent out of this offense, because just about everybody in this group looked a lot better two years ago.
Saquon Barkley has been limited by injuries to 627 middling rushing yards over the past two seasons and hasn’t looked like his rookie self since suffering a high right ankle sprain in 2019. Wideout Sterling Shepard tore his left Achilles last season, while deep threat Darius Slayton hasn’t built on a promising rookie campaign and was in and out of the lineup in 2021. Big-ticket free agent Kenny Golladay, who averaged more than 74 receiving yards per game for the Lions in 2019, had almost exactly half as many yards per game with the Giants last season.
Hope resides with 2021 first-rounder Kadarius Toney and 2022 second-rounder Wan’Dale Robinson, who unfortunately might play the same role in the lineup as undersized “gadget” wideouts. Toney’s résumé consists of a 10-catch, 189-yard game against the Cowboys; he failed to top 40 yards in a single game the rest of the way. New coach Brian Daboll got the most out of a variety of skill positions when he was the coordinator in Buffalo; he’ll have his work cut out for him in New York, where the names look bigger on paper.
Well, trading arguably the league’s best wide receiver for draft picks isn’t going to help Green Bay amass a fortune of skill-position talent. The Packers dealt Davante Adams and let Marquez Valdes-Scantling leave in free agency, replacing them with second-round pick Christian Watson, fourth-rounder Romeo Doubs and oft-injured veteran Sammy Watkins. The team’s most efficient wideout a year ago besides Adams was 31-year-old Randall Cobb. Allen Lazard, nominally the team’s top wide receiver, averaged a dismal 1.3 yards per route run (102nd among wideouts) despite the presence of Adams drawing attention. This might be the league’s worst group of receivers.
On the other hand, the Packers might sport the best one-two punch of running backs with Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, with the latter leading the league in success rate (63%). Jones was more boom or bust, but he remains a valuable pass-catcher for a Packers team that needs one more than ever. Tight end Robert Tonyan, returning from a torn left ACL, needs to play a key role for Green Bay in the red zone after 11 touchdowns in 2020.
Like the Patriots a year ago, the Jaguars went on a shopping spree in free agency to surround their young quarterback with a better supporting cast. And, like the Patriots, the Jaguars likely will still be looking for a No. 1 wide receiver next offseason. We’re not considering price here, but wideouts Christian Kirk and Zay Jones weren’t even projected to play every-down roles on their respective offenses heading into last season. Evan Engram was anonymous with the Giants last season and hasn’t developed into a red zone threat at tight end. When Trevor Lawrence absolutely needs a completion, where’s he going with the football?
Kirk approached 1,000 yards in Arizona, but he was playing in one of the league’s most pass-friendly offenses; his usage was in line with someone like Cedrick Wilson, who signed in Miami for a fraction of the price. He’s a good slot receiver, but I would be surprised if he shows the efficiency and volume of a No. 1 in Jacksonville. Jones’ December and January were the first two months of his career in which he has looked like an NFL-caliber wideout.
The Jags fell from where they were a year ago, even after adding Kirk, Jones and Engram to the mix, because their young contributors had lost years. Running back Travis Etienne Jr. missed his entire rookie season with a Lisfranc injury, while Laviska Shenault Jr. was limited to screens and buried on the depth chart after the season. If Shenault can show some of his rookie form and Etienne has a healthy season, the Jaguars should be higher in these rankings in 2023.
The Falcons have hope. Kyle Pitts did everything the Falcons could have wanted as a rookie outside of scoring touchdowns, as the No. 4 overall pick was in the top five among tight ends in both receiving yards and yards per route run. He scored once on 14 red zone targets, something which won’t happen again.
Drake London, the No. 8 overall pick in April, profiles as a future star, although the plight of similarly drafted players such as Kevin White, John Ross, Tavon Austin and the Lions edition of Mike Williams are a reminder that even highly drafted wide receivers can miss. Since we’re only considering 2022 here, London projects as a starting-caliber player as opposed to a Ja’Marr Chase-style insta-star.
Good thing the Falcons have those two, because the cupboard is bone dry otherwise. Calvin Ridley‘s season-long suspension means Bryan Edwards and Olamide Zaccheaus will compete for regular reps at wide receiver. Cordarrelle Patterson had a fun half-season in 2021, but the legendary returner faded down the stretch in his role, and the backs behind him are 30-year-old Damien Williams and fifth-round pick Tyler Allgeier. Pitts and London should see massive target shares this season.
I wasn’t enthused about the Patriots’ additions last offseason, and the results were mixed. Hunter Henry ranked second in the league among tight ends in red zone touchdowns and 10th in yards per route run. That’s a hit. Jonnu Smith, who was billed as a yards-after-catch phenom by Bill Belichick, ran fewer than 10 routes a week and averaged 18.4 receiving yards per game. Not ideal. Nelson Agholor, coming off an outlier season as a deep threat in Las Vegas, went from having six catches of more than 30 yards in 2020 to one a year ago.
Kendrick Bourne created more big plays than expected in his best season, so that’s a positive. Bourne will likely start alongside new addition DeVante Parker and Jakobi Meyers, who was a poor man’s Hunter Renfrow in 2021. Meyers was targeted at a virtually identical rate but averaged 1.7 yards per route run when Renfrow was up over 2.0. Renfrow was at that level the prior season and took a leap in 2021 to become a red zone and YAC threat; the hope has to be that Meyers does the same thing in his fourth campaign.
The Patriots also added speedy second-rounder Tyquan Thornton, who was widely regarded as a third- or fourth-round selection on most (if not all) boards. Their best position might be running back, where Damien Harris ran for 15 touchdowns and generated 128 rushing yards over expectation a year ago. Rhamondre Stevenson was similarly effective in a smaller sample. This analysis rewards receivers over backs and top-end talent over depth. The Patriots’ supporting cast would rank much better if those priorities were flipped.
Unexpectedly, it took an injury to Lamar Jackson to unlock the best from Mark Andrews. From Week 13 onward, the tight end was second in the NFL in receiving yards and third in receptions. Part of the increase was opportunity, as Andrews ran about five more routes per game with Tyler Huntley at quarterback, but the 26-year-old led all tight ends in receptions, receiving yards and tied for the positional lead in touchdowns. Drops are the only hole you can poke in Andrews’ game, but the first-team All-Pro has a legitimate shot at being the TE1 again in 2022.
Beyond Andrews, it’s not pretty. Running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards were both felled by torn ACLs, leaving Baltimore to spend the season relying on replacement-level veterans. Dobbins led the league in DVOA and averaged six yards per carry as a rookie in 2020, so there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, but Saquon Barkley is a reminder of how torn ACLs can be career-altering injuries.
Unless (or until) the Ravens add a veteran, though, wide receiver is a problem. Rashod Bateman, a first-round pick last year, didn’t stand out as a rookie, as he averaged 1.4 yards per route run with a 19% target share. There’s obviously hope he’ll emerge as a No. 1, but the trade of Marquise Brown forces Bateman into that role with Devin Duvernay, James Proche and Tylan Wallace as supplemental wideouts. The Ravens might be moving back toward a run-heavy approach, but they desperately need to add a wideout such as Will Fuller or Julio Jones before the season begins.
Few teams have more potential to make an explosive charge up these rankings than the Jets, who are loaded with young draft picks. Elijah Moore, a second-round pick last year, appeared to be breaking out in midseason, as he racked up 459 yards and five scores over a six-game stretch before suffering a quad injury. Moore will now be joined by first- and second-round picks in wideout Garrett Wilson and tailback Breece Hall, the latter of whom projects as the clear top running back prospect in this class. That trio could be an imposing Big Three as early as 2023.
Braxton Berrios has proved he can be a useful slot receiver, as he basically posted numbers in line with Jakobi Meyers in a smaller sample. Berrios will run as the No. 4 behind Moore, Wilson and Corey Davis, who had a disappointing first season with the Jets after signing a big deal to leave Tennessee. C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin give the Jets a pair of solid tight ends, but the young (would-be) stars will be the pieces who determine where the Jets land a year from now.
There’s no doubting Nick Chubb, who might be the best pure runner in football. The Browns have an excellent run-blocking line, but Chubb routinely exceeds the expectations for what an average back would do in the same situations per the NFL Next Gen Stats model. Kareem Hunt remains effective when healthy, although he dealt with with calf and ankle injuries for most of the final 11 games. This running back group is in a tier with the Packers, Vikings and Colts for the league’s best one-two punches.
I’m just not so sure about the receivers. I loved the Browns getting Amari Cooper on a salary dump when other veteran wideouts were netting first-round picks, but Cooper took a step backward last season. Playing in the league’s fastest-paced offense in Dallas, the 28-year-old was only able to manage 865 yards across 15 games. Cooper should see the ball more often without CeeDee Lamb and the rest of the Cowboys’ receivers around, but it would be nice to see some of his explosiveness return.
Even if Cooper is back to his old self, though, the Browns are going to have a trio of midround picks competing for a starting role in Donovan Peoples-Jones, Anthony Schwartz and David Bell. They also cut tight end Austin Hooper after two disappointing seasons without really replacing the veteran. David Njoku, who is in line to assume a bigger role after signing a new deal, ranked eighth in yards per route run among tight ends a year ago, but he wasn’t able to garner a significant target share. Unless the Browns add a veteran receiver in training camp, Njoku might have no choice to shoulder a much bigger load.
Terry McLaurin has been one of the NFL’s best receivers despite seeing most of his pass attempts from Taylor Heinicke, Dwayne Haskins, Case Keenum, Alex Smith and Kyle Allen over the past three seasons. McLaurin averaged more yards per route run last season than Keenan Allen and DeAndre Hopkins in an offense in which he was the only receiving threat and Heinicke was the quarterback. We likely would be talking about McLaurin as a CeeDee Lamb-level talent with better quarterback play.
Around McLaurin, there’s more promise than production. Antonio Gibson still hasn’t earned the trust of the coaching staff, which gave the running back snaps on only about 28% of Washington’s third downs a year ago. Fumbles were also a huge problem for Gibson, who coughed up the ball six times on 300 touches. J.D. McKissic backed out of his deal with the Bills to return to the Commanders, leaving them with a useful rotation, if not a star duo.
Tight end Logan Thomas, who broke out in 2020, tore his left ACL last season, while last offseason’s pricey free-agent addition Curtis Samuel played 84 offensive snaps. Both have significant injury histories. Rookie first-rounder Jahan Dotson is leverage against another injury-hit season from Samuel, and his ability to adapt to the NFL is the biggest X factor for Washington this season. If Dotson can emerge as an immediate regular, McLaurin might finally have some operating space.
The names are a lot bigger than the expectations should be for the skill-position talent in New Orleans. Michael Thomas, who was the best receiver in football in 2019 as a 26-year-old, has missed most of the past two seasons with recurring ankle injuries, including all of last season. Fellow wideout Jarvis Landry was cut by the Browns and could land only a one-year, $3 million deal with the Saints, suggesting the league no longer sees the 29-year-old as a difference-maker after hip surgery.
Running back Alvin Kamara could be suspended for some portion of the 2022 season after a fight in Las Vegas. On top of the potential legal issues, Kamara’s rushing numbers collapsed in 2021, with the five-time Pro Bowler ranking as one of the least efficient backs in football by both traditional and advanced metrics. The Saints have little behind him and an underwhelming group at tight end, where Taysom Hill is expected to compete with Adam Trautman after the latter failed to break out.
I’m more excited, strangely, about the players lurking behind Thomas and Landry. First-rounder Chris Olave should be an immediate starter on the outside and was productive for three years at Ohio State, although he is the rare Round 1 wide receiver who failed to top 1,000 yards in a single season, owing in part to the COVID-19-shortened 2020 schedule. Olave’s role could grow quickly if Thomas and Landry aren’t able to stay healthy.
Deonte Harty (formerly Harris) was a small-sample star last season. The return man saw the field for only about 15 routes per game, but he was targeted on 30.1% of his routes and averaged 2.91 yards per route run, which is what Justin Jefferson and Davante Adams do on a regular basis. Harty is not going to be that sort of player in a bigger role — and he might have been limited to playing as a deep threat — but I would have liked to see him get more reps as a third wideout in 2022. Instead, he’ll be fourth or fifth on the depth chart, depending on who’s healthy.
Many of the teams below the Colts in these rankings saw their young stars struggle last season. Not the case for Indianapolis. Michael Pittman Jr. broke out as a full-time starter and more than doubled his rookie receiving numbers while finishing 13th among wideouts in yards per route run. Jonathan Taylor took things even further, leading the league in just about every major rushing category and finishing second in Offensive Player of the Year balloting.
Taylor projects to be the best back in football in 2022, and Pittman is a legitimate No. 1 wideout. After that, though, the Colts are just desperate. Wide receiver Parris Campbell, a second-round pick in 2019, has been unable to stay healthy, which could force Indy to rely on rookie second-rounder Alec Pierce. Likewise, third-rounder Jelani Woods might have to play meaningful snaps as tight end alongside Mo Alie-Cox after Jack Doyle’s retirement.
Nyheim Hines is a useful second back, but reports suggesting he might see more time in the slot this season tells you what you need to know about Indy’s lack of depth at receiver.
Which version of Derrick Henry will show up in 2022? He gobbled up volume while maintaining a rare level of efficiency in 2019 and 2020, but the star back’s per-carry numbers had dropped to league average even before a broken right foot spoiled his season. History is not optimistic about players with his sort of workload after they fall off, and for a team that runs the ball as often as Tennessee, the backfield behind Henry consists of Dontrell Hilliard and rookie fourth-round pick Hassan Haskins.
On top of the questions surrounding Henry, the Titans are starting over at wide receiver. Julio Jones was released after a disappointing season in Tennessee and replaced with former Rams wideout Robert Woods, while budding superstar A.J. Brown was dealt to the Eagles in what amounted to a swap for first-rounder Treylon Burks. We’re not considering the financial benefits of deals in these evaluations, so while the Titans clearly felt like they could save money and get a similar sort of prospect, it would be a surprise if Burks matched Brown’s level of play as a rookie.
I liked the move to trade for Woods, who was productive in Los Angeles before suffering a torn left ACL last November. Likewise, getting veteran tight end Austin Hooper for a fraction of what he cost in Cleveland was a totally reasonable move. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, the third wideout in this offense, produced like Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a per-snap basis. All of that’s great. A year ago, though, the Titans had three players who profiled as superstars based on their recent performance. Now, they might not have any.
ESPN fantasy football analyst Mike Clay is brilliant and a wonderful teammate, but I’m happy I don’t have to do his job and generate projections for the season. What do you do with Christian McCaffrey? When he has been on the field over the past two years, he has been targeted about as often as Davante Adams and averaged as many yards per route run as Cooper Kupp while adding just under 16 carries per game. He has also played a total of five full games since 2020, missing 17 games outright. If McCaffrey is healthy, he’s the running back equivalent of Deebo Samuel.
Here, I’m essentially guessing that CMC plays about nine games. If that’s the case, the Panthers could call on half of a season of a devastating one-two punch with McCaffrey and wideout DJ Moore, who does everything at a high level besides score touchdowns and attract star quarterbacks. A healthy Baker Mayfield would be the best quarterback Moore has played with as a pro.
Robbie Anderson melted down last season, as the former Jets burner struggled with drops and off-target throws in a wasted year, but he’s one season removed from a 1,096-yard campaign. At 29, he can still run. There’s a scenario in which Carolina’s big three lives up to its prior level of production and this ranking looks criminally low in hindsight. There’s also a universe in which McCaffrey gets hurt, Anderson is running wind sprints and Moore is the only above-average playmaker in the offense.
The Lions are on the right track, and there’s a lot to like about what they’ve assembled on offense around quarterback Jared Goff. I’m not sure it will all coalesce in 2022. Do you believe Amon-Ra St. Brown is a superstar? He played like one at the end of 2021, as the rookie third-rounder ranked in the top five in both receptions (51) and receiving yards (560) from Week 13 on. I’d point toward garbage time and a lack of other options in the passing game as inflating those numbers a bit, given that T.J. Hockenson was out for most of that stretch, but that production has to count for something. If St. Brown is really that sort of player for an entire season, the Lions have a major building block on their hands.
Even if St. Brown is merely a starting-caliber wideout, there’s a lot of options to go around. D’Andre Swift had six games with at least 100 yards from scrimmage and consecutive 130-yard games as a rusher in November before going down with a shoulder injury. Is he Alvin Kamara in a worse offense? Hockenson’s 2021 was disappointing in part because of injuries, but after a Pro Bowl appearance in 2020, the 25-year-old should bounce back toward the top of the tight end charts in 2022.
The difference-maker for the Lions could be what they get out of star rookie Jameson Williams. The No. 12 overall pick is recovering from a torn left ACL suffered during the national title game in January, and his status for the start of the season is uncertain. As was the case with St. Brown, we might not see Williams’ best until the end of the season, leaving Detroit poised to rise up these rankings next year.
It’s a long way from the top for the Chiefs, who are in the middle of retooling their offense. Travis Kelce stands out as the difference-maker and would still be the favorite to emerge as 2022’s TE1, with age as the only obvious concern for the seven-time Pro Bowler. He turns 33 in October, which has been a drop-off point for stars in the past. The only tight end over 32 to produce a 1,000-yard season was Pete Retzlaff, who did it for the 1965 Philadelphia Eagles. I would bet on Kelce being the second, but his prior dominance can’t be treated as a guarantee.
After trading Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs are rebuilding at wide receiver, where Patrick Mahomes‘ top three targets — JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and rookie second-round pick Skyy Moore — are all new to the organization. Smith-Schuster is now three years removed from his 1,426-yard campaign with the Steelers, and while that was the last time he played with a quarterback who was capable of throwing the ball downfield effectively, it’s difficult to find many players who hit those sort of heights, didn’t come close for three years and then returned to their prior form. I’m cautiously optimistic, but that’s in part because of Mahomes, and we’re imagining what this group would look like with an average quarterback.
The Chiefs could also improve on this ranking if one of their disappointing draftees finally lives up to expectations. Mecole Hardman, a second-round pick in 2019, has mostly been a gadget player, while 2020 first-rounder Clyde Edwards-Helaire hasn’t stood out from replacement-level backs Darrel Williams or Jerick McKinnon. General manager Brett Veach signed Valdes-Scantling to avoid relying on Hardman, while Ronald Jones was brought in to shoulder some of the rushing workload. With Hill in Miami, there are certainly opportunities to go around.
I suspect I’ll come in relatively low on the rankings for the Cardinals versus expectations. In part, that’s because I’m factoring in DeAndre Hopkins‘ six-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, which costs Arizona its top wide receiver for more than a third of the regular season. I’m also not quite as optimistic abo ut running back James Conner, who had a much better fantasy season than he did in terms of real-life production.
Likewise, while Zach Ertz‘s numbers improved after joining the Cardinals last October, he was essentially the same player on a per-route basis but simply ran far more routes on a pass-happy Cardinals offense than he did as the No. 2 tight end for the Eagles. As a tight end turning 32 in November, Ertz already has been slowed by the aging curve, and it’s far more likely that he takes another step backward as opposed to forward. The same is true for 33-year-old wideout A.J. Green, though the veteran did average nearly 16 yards per reception last season.
I’m excited about Marquise Brown moving from a run-first offense to a different Cardinals attack, and Rondale Moore‘s electrifying physical tools make him a great candidate for a Year 2 breakout. Given that Moore was rarely used on deep routes last season before the organization traded for Brown, though, I’m concerned that he again won’t see much downfield activity, making it difficult to project what he could do in an average offense.
The nature of this offense makes it difficult to put in an average context. The Cardinals play at one of the league’s fastest paces. Quarterback Kyler Murray‘s ability as a runner, which isn’t included here, helps create rushing lanes for Conner and one-on-one opportunities for his receivers. It’s clear the Cardinals have a lot to work with, but I’m not sure it’s quite as much as it might seem at first glance.
Like everyone, I expect the raw numbers for Denver’s offensive threats to rise dramatically after it swapped out quarterbacks Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater for Russell Wilson. Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick, Albert Okwuegbunam and even injured deep threat KJ Hamler have the potential to post spike weeks throughout the season. Their numbers should all improve overall. Second-year back Javonte Williams could be the 2022 version of Jonathan Taylor. The Broncos could legitimately rank No. 1 in these rankings next year if everyone lives up to expectations.
I don’t think they can all break out, but it’s also hard to pick a candidate. Sutton has a 1,112-yard season under his belt, which at least establishes a baseline of success. Jeudy’s second season was marred by a right high ankle sprain. When healthy, he has averaged 1.8 yards per route run and a target share of just under 23%, which is roughly what Michael Pittman Jr. has done over his first two years. Okwuegbunam has averaged just over 2.1 yards per route run in a small sample over the past two seasons, and now he gets to play for a quarterback who has routinely helped his tight ends become red zone threats.
I’m not as optimistic about Patrick, who has combined average production with lots of routes since 2020, and Hamler is recovering from both a torn left ACL and a dislocated hip, so it’s tough to count on him being ready to start the 2022 campaign at 100%. More so than one player having a huge season, we could see a scenario in which one of Wilson’s options emerges each week.
Jeremy Fowler details Russell Wilson’s plan to gather Broncos playmakers in San Diego to establish chemistry.
As for Williams, any possible breakout might come more from volume than efficiency. His rushing numbers were virtually identical to backfield mate Melvin Gordon‘s last season, though Williams was better in short-yardage and produced five first downs over expectation to Gordon’s one. The Broncos were comfortable using Williams on third downs, so there’s no situational element holding him back.
I’m not sure Gordon is quite as much of a threat to Williams’ workload as it seems, as the former Chargers back had his numbers inflated by garbage time work. His biggest run of the season was a 70-yard touchdown while up multiple scores in the fourth quarter against the Giants, and his two biggest catches were checkdowns of 30 and 24 yards on the final plays of first halves. The league didn’t see Gordon as a starter in free agency, which led to his return to Denver on a one-year, $2.5 million deal. As deep as the Broncos are, the best thing for their future would be breakout seasons from Jeudy and Williams. Both seem possible.
Just as the Broncos can expect to see their playmakers rack up big numbers with Russell Wilson added to the mix, the Seattle playmakers’ raw totals could decline after being saddled with Drew Lock and Geno Smith as their starters. We can try to account for that in these rankings, since they’re supposed to be based off of average quarterback play, but it’s difficult for any receiver to look as good with replacement-level passers as they do with a likely Hall of Famer such as Wilson.
Even with Wilson in the mix for 14 games a year ago, DK Metcalf‘s numbers declined from what had been a dominant 2020 season. He was weirdly much better with Smith as his quarterback, which might augur the tiniest bit of hope for 2022. Tyler Lockett‘s numbers actually improved, with the veteran averaging 2.5 yards per route run, up from 2.2 during the prior year. New tight end Noah Fant has flashed without ever putting together a great season, but he should be an upgrade in the pass-catching role on Gerald Everett.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure the Seahawks are as deep at running back as it might seem. Chris Carson‘s future is uncertain after he suffered a serious neck injury last season. Former first-round pick Rashaad Penny filled in and dominated during a five-game stretch to end the season, leading all NFL players in rushing yards (706) and touchdowns (six) while averaging nearly 7.0 yards per attempt. Given Penny’s own significant injury history, though, it’s tough to count on the 26-year-old staying healthy with that sort of workload for an entire season. Rookie second-rounder Ken Walker III might be this team’s primary back sooner rather than later.
The Steelers ran plenty of plays in 2021, but they weren’t efficient, which made their raw numbers look more impressive than they might actually have been in reality. Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson ranked 63rd and 65th, respectively, in receiving DVOA. Pat Freiermuth was 20th among tight ends. Najee Harris ranked 40th in receiving DVOA among running backs. Nobody could escape the vortex of Ben Roethlisberger.
With Roethlisberger limited to short throws and lobs down either sideline, it might be tempting to assume Harris was facing flooded boxes. That wasn’t really the case. NFL Next Gen Stats data notes that Harris faced loaded boxes just 16.6% of the time, which was the second-lowest rate in football among backs with at least 100 carries. After accounting for defenders, he was 48 yards short of what an average back would have done with the same opportunities. The hope has to be that a more vertical passing attack frees up opportunities, but he shoulders some of the responsibility, too.
Freiermuth’s impressive rookie season gives the Steelers a de facto replacement for the departed JuJu Smith-Schuster in their passing attack. With Johnson’s future as a 2023 free agent uncertain, I wouldn’t be surprised if Freiermuth and Claypool assumed a larger share of the receiving workload. Claypool, who went missing from the offense for stretches amid a frustrating season, is the player the Steelers — and their new quarterback, whomever he is — need to unlock in 2022.
The league’s No. 1 scoring offense in 2021 won’t be bringing back several key players. Amari Cooper was shipped off to Cleveland for cap space. Cedrick Wilson, who played nearly half of the offensive snaps a year ago, signed with the Dolphins. Blake Jarwin was released after undergoing hip surgery, and while Dalton Schultz emerged as a difference-maker in his absence, the franchise-tagged tight end wasn’t able to come to terms with Dallas on a new deal before the July 15 deadline. I’m assuming Schultz will be on the roster come Week 1, but wideout Michael Gallup probably won’t be ready after tearing his left ACL last December.
Booger McFarland breaks down the expectations for the Cowboys and what Dak Prescott can do to elevate them.
While the Cowboys imported James Washington and spent a third-round pick on Jalen Tolbert, the big question now is whether CeeDee Lamb can emerge as a true No. 1 receiver. His 1,102 yards as a sophomore were solid but also inflated by him playing in a fast, pass-happy attack. The 2020 first-rounder ranked 18th in yards per target and 59th among qualifying receivers in target rate. Most everyone believes Lamb is capable of being one of the best wide receivers in football; now, with Cooper gone and Gallup sidelined to begin the year, he’ll have his chance.
I wrote at length about Ezekiel Elliott‘s 2021 season in May. The Cowboys are blessed to have Tony Pollard as a 1B, and the best move for all parties involved would be a 50/50 split. Given the likelihood of the Cowboys cutting the 26-year-old Elliott to create cap space after the season, both backs are essentially in contract years.
The Bills are in the middle of a transition on offense, but they have well-earned confidence in their ability to draft and develop young talent. Last season, they relied on tight end Dawson Knox and were rewarded for their patience, with the 2019 third-round pick scoring nine touchdowns while nearly doubling his career yardage total. This season, it’ll be wideout Gabriel Davis, who was last seen scoring four touchdowns and reducing Mike Hughes to ash in the AFC playoffs.
Davis and the incredible Stefon Diggs should make an excellent one-two punch. The Bills aren’t as deep as they were a year ago, with Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders out the door for cap purposes. The team re-signed Isaiah McKenzie, who had a 125-yard game against the Patriots; he’ll compete with former Jets wideout Jamison Crowder for the slot job. Knox will get help from former first-round pick O.J. Howard, who hasn’t looked the same since tearing his right Achilles in 2020.
The backfield seems likely to be split between several backs, with Devin Singletary getting first crack. Zack Moss fell out of favor before the 2021 season began, and the Bills used a second-round pick on James Cook to add more depth. General manager Brandon Beane also tried to sign J.D. McKissic before landing Duke Johnson, so while Singletary was efficient on 228 touches, it’s clear Buffalo doesn’t want to overwork the pending free agent.
Well, Chris Grier isn’t playing around. After a successful rookie season from wideout Jaylen Waddle, the Miami general manager built Tua Tagovailoa‘s supporting cast by signing fullback Alec Ingold, running backs Chase Edmonds, Sony Michel and Raheem Mostert, and wide receiver Cedrick Wilson. Grier franchised “tight end” Mike Gesicki, but the most prominent move was Miami’s call to send five picks to the Chiefs for star wideout Tyreek Hill, giving Tagovailoa arguably the league’s most devastating speed threat.
Leaving aside the issue of how much Hill cost for this analysis, the Dolphins have just about everything a young quarterback could want. Hill’s deal might not age well after he turns 30, but as a 28-year-old, he should still be in the prime of his career. Forced into an underneath role by opposing defenses a year ago, Hill should be back in position to attack defenses vertically if Miami can protect Tagovailoa. Gesicki gets quote marks around his position because he’s only a tight end for financial purposes; the 26-year-old ran routes on nearly 96% of his pass snaps a year ago.
Waddle was force-fed the ball at times in an offense that relied heavily on RPOs to keep Tagovailoa on his feet, but any rookie amassing his sort of target share is still impressive. The 2021 first-rounder was targeted on nearly 26% of his routes; ironically, the highest rate for a rookie wideout over the past decade is his new teammate, Hill, who was targeted on nearly 33% of his routes in 2016. With Waddle averaging just under 10 yards per catch in 2021, the goal has to be bigger plays, which shouldn’t be much of a problem given his college profile.
The big question might be who ends up taking running back snaps between Edmonds, Mostert, Michel or any of the other backs on the roster. New coach Mike McDaniel comes from a 49ers offense that hummed on the ground despite rotating backs often, so while Edmonds’ contract suggests he’ll have the biggest role, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Dolphins run through multiple backs.
Like the Dolphins, the Eagles are riding a promising young wideout and a superstar trade acquisition up these charts. Here, of course, it’s DeVonta Smith and former Titans star A.J. Brown, who was acquired on draft night for a first-round pick. I wrote about the Brown deal on draft night and broke down how Brown can reach new heights. In short, I suspect Philadelphia is going to bump up his snap rate from the 73% mark he saw in Tennessee toward 85%, which should create more opportunities.
Smith wasn’t quite as valuable as Jaylen Waddle during their respective rookie campaigns, but the Eagles have a major advantage with the Dolphins if you compare their tight ends. Gesicki is a solid power slot option, but Dallas Goedert was on another level last season when given the opportunity. Pushed into the primary role for good by the trade of Zach Ertz, Goedert averaged 2.6 yards per route run, which led all tight ends. He dropped five of his 75 targets, which isn’t ideal, but even with those drops, the only players with at least 60 targets who averaged more yards per target than him were Deebo Samuel, Ja’Marr Chase, Kendrick Bourne and Tyler Lockett.
Quez Watkins, who comes up one target short of that list, averaged 11 yards per target as the team’s third wideout while simultaneously posting the best catch rate over expectation (CRoE) in football, per NFL Next Gen Stats. This team is stacked with receiving talent, even if Jalen Reagor and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside haven’t panned out.
It’s hard to argue running back is a weakness given that Miles Sanders averaged 5.5 yards per carry, but he struggled in short-yardage and came in six first downs below the expectation of an average back. Sanders did get his fumbling under control, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Eagles funnel more work to backup Kenneth Gainwell in 2022.
Hope you drafted Cooper Kupp in your fantasy league! After seemingly settling in as a solid veteran in the 70 yards-per-game range, Kupp exploded after the arrival of Matthew Stafford in Los Angeles. He led the league in receptions and receiving yards, outpacing wideouts in the latter category by more than 300 yards. The 29-year-old combined rare usage with devastating efficiency, leading in yards per route run (3.2). We don’t see many breakouts like this five years into an NFL career — it’s tough to count on Kupp being the best receiver in football again — but it’s clear the ceiling is much higher than it previously seemed for the sixth-year veteran.
If Kupp does slip, the Rams need one of their two players who dealt with frustrating 2021 campaigns to pick up the slack. Allen Robinson was imported as the replacement for Robert Woods after the former had a disastrous season with the Bears. After averaging 1.8 yards per route run or better in each of his first three seasons with Chicago, Robinson dropped all the way below 1.3 a year ago, which is Kalif Raymond and Nelson Agholor territory. The Rams bet heavily on a bounce-back season, and Robinson will finally get an above-average quarterback after a decade with the likes of Christian Hackenberg, Blake Bortles and Mitch Trubisky.
Coach Sean McVay will also have to hope Cam Akers can recover in full from his torn right Achilles. Akers miraculously made it back at the end of the 2021 season to play in the postseason, but his playoff run was a disaster. The 2020 second-rounder averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, lost two key fumbles against the Bucs, was seven first downs below expectation on 67 attempts, and generated minus-31.8 expected points added (EPA). To put that in context, Jonathan Taylor was the league’s best running back, and he generated 30.7 EPA on his 332 carries during the regular season. The track record for backs recovering from torn Achilles tendons remains spotty, so the Rams might have to call on backups Darrell Henderson Jr. and Kyren Williams.
The rest of the offense doesn’t appear to be overwhelming. Tight end Tyler Higbee‘s nuclear run at the end of 2019 sticks out like a sore thumb on his career game log. Van Jefferson has yet to develop into a complete receiver as he enters his third season, while fellow second-rounder Tutu Atwell barely saw the field as a rookie. The specter of a reunion with Odell Beckham Jr. hangs over the Rams, but he’s not factored in here since he remains a free agent.
Dreams came true for the Chargers in 2021. The long-awaited Mike Williams breakout finally came, with the bruising wideout producing above-average receiving yardage and touchdown totals in the same season for the first time. Austin Ekeler took the primary running back job and was one of the best two-way threats in football, racking up 1,558 yards from scrimmage and a league-high 20 touchdowns. Keenan Allen mostly stayed healthy and had a classic Keenan Allen season, putting up 106 catches and tormenting defenses with 25 third-down conversions, the fourth most in the league.
If everyone is healthy and living up to expectations like they were in 2021, the Chargers have one of the best big threes in football. After those standouts, though, there’s mostly just midround picks such as Isaiah Spiller, Jalen Guyton and Joshua Palmer. The new tight end in the mix is Gerald Everett, whose physical tools often have hinted at a larger role, if not necessarily his actual play. If quarterback Justin Herbert & Co. can unlock a career season from him, the Chargers might challenge for the top spot in 2023.
The Bucs drop out of the top spot, owing to the retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski, the torn right ACL suffered by receiver Chris Godwin and whatever Antonio Brown did during that game against the Jets. Godwin should be back early in the season, and the Bucs did sign Russell Gage to take Brown’s role in the lineup, but there’s no replacing Gronkowski, who remained a wildly efficient option when healthy. (We’ll take his words about staying retired at face value.)
What’s left isn’t bad. Mike Evans just became the first receiver in NFL history to start his career with eight consecutive seasons of at least 1,000 yards, adding 14 touchdowns on top. Godwin made it over 1,100 yards in 14 games before suffering his knee injury. Running back Leonard Fournette missed time in December, but the Jags’ former top-five pick racked up more than 1,200 yards from scrimmage in just over 13 games. The depth chart isn’t deep at running back or tight end, but Cameron Brate has been a viable red zone tight end in the past.
Gage’s move from the Falcons, reportedly at Brady’s behest, will be interesting. The 26-year-old was the No. 2 receiver for Atlanta over the past two seasons behind Calvin Ridley and then Kyle Pitts, approaching 800 receiving yards both times. He isn’t explosive, but he was efficient in a bad Falcons offense, averaging 2.1 yards per route, right in line with what Godwin did for the Bucs. If Gage can approximate what Godwin did early in the season and then stay efficient after Godwin returns, the Bucs should be just fine, even if they’re not first in this ranking again.
One of the great mysteries of the 21st century will be why the Vikings waited until Week 3 of his 2020 rookie season to start Justin Jefferson. Since entering the lineup that week, Jefferson leads all NFL players with 2,946 receiving yards. The only wideouts to average more yards per target over that stretch are Davante Adams and Deebo Samuel. Jefferson combines remarkable efficiency with relentless volume, and if reports are correct, his role in the offense might grow further under new coach Kevin O’Connell in 2022.
Dalvin Cook is a known quantity as a running back who will miss a handful of games each season and play at a high level otherwise. Alexander Mattison has been a solid backup, although he wasn’t as effective in 2021. The Vikings will also get back Irv Smith Jr. after the tight end missed all of 2021 with a torn meniscus, while K.J. Osborn has been a solid third wideout and should feature regularly in 2022.
For most teams, the biggest question is a young player. Here, it’s 31-year-old wideout Adam Thielen, who is now three years removed from his last 1,000-yard campaign and missed time in December with a left high ankle sprain. Thielen returned from the injury and immediately reaggravated the ailment, which is even more worrisome. Similar high ankle sprains have felled in the past veterans such as Michael Thomas, Roddy White and Mohamed Sanu, so while the hope has to be that Thielen returns at his prior level of play in 2022, I’m more than a little concerned.
Deebo Samuel just finished one of the most unique seasons in NFL history, leading the league in yards per catch (18.2), racking up 1,405 receiving yards and scoring 14 touchdowns, including eight on the ground. I’ve written about why I don’t think Samuel will be quite as efficient in 2022, and there are questions about whether the wantaway wide receiver will be in the same hybrid role for the 49ers (or another team) this season, but his skill set makes him an incredibly valuable player when healthy. Since Samuel is under contract for 2022, I would expect him to be on the field in Week 1.
He isn’t the only option for new quarterback Trey Lance. George Kittle has been limited by injury from approaching the 1,377-yard season he posted in 2019, but the star tight end remains devastating on a per-snap basis. Kittle ranked third in yards per route run and second in target rate among tight ends a year ago, but injuries and blocking responsibilities limited him to 366 routes, about two-thirds of Mark Andrews‘ 544.
A rookie back also emerged as a valuable contributor, but it wasn’t the one most expected. Third-round pick Trey Sermon quickly landed in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse and was used only in case of emergency, while sixth-rounder Elijah Mitchell eventually took over the primary role. The 49ers added more rookie playmakers again in 2022, using third-round selections on halfback Tyrion Davis-Price and wide receiver Danny Gray. They can be anything from superstars to utterly unplayable, given Shanahan’s history with rookies.
Brandon Aiyuk already knows how fickle Shanahan can be with his offensive talent. Tipped to break out in 2021, the wideout was shockingly on the bench as a part-time player for most of September before working his way back into a starting role. Prorate Aiyuk’s performance from Week 8 on over an entire season, and you get the sort of year most expected, with 73 catches for 1,128 receiving yards and six scores. Samuel went from promising wideout to superstar in Year 3. Can Aiyuk follow in his footsteps?
I didn’t love the Raiders trading significant draft capital and handing out a new deal to a 29-year-old Davante Adams, but here, we’re leaving the money aside and only considering how he will play in 2022. Adams is a superstar, and he’s likely to be excellent in his debut season with the Raiders. The former Packers star might miss a game or two, but even 15 games of him represents one of the league’s most spectacular wide receivers.
Adams will be joined by Hunter Renfrow, who took the leap from solid slot receiver to genuine star last season. Renfrow’s triple moves made him a force in the red zone, while the 2019 fifth-rounder topped the 2.0 yards per target mark for the first time as a pro. Renfrow’s per-route numbers were right in line with Travis Kelce and Terry McLaurin; he probably won’t see the same red zone usage again with Adams in the fold, but he’s going to be a valuable part of the offense.
The third piece in the big three should be Darren Waller, who was limited to 665 yards in 11 games by injuries. Waller is about to turn 30 in September, so there’s always a chance we’ve seen the best of him, but he was arguably the second-best receiving tight end across the 2019 and 2020 seasons, behind Kelce. The Raiders have one of the best trios in football, and they can all complement one another stylistically.
They declined running back Josh Jacobs‘ fifth-year option, and he posted a career low in rushing yards at 872, but I actually thought his increased role in the receiving game made it a successful season. New coach Josh McDaniels is likely to rotate situationally between Jacobs, Kenyan Drake, Brandon Bolden and rookie fourth-round pick Zamir White, but Jacobs should have the valuable short-yardage role played by Damien Harris and LeGarrette Blount during their time with the Patriots. Jacobs isn’t a superstar, but he’s a solid back and a better fourth option than most other NFL teams will enjoy.
“I’m always a little skeptical about the impact of rookies when I make these rankings,” I said to start last year’s Bengals blurb, “but it’s not hard to be more optimistic about Ja’Marr Chase than the vast majority of other first-year wideouts.” Well, I undersold things. Chase was sensational during an instant classic of a rookie campaign, as a fling with the drops in training camp gave way to a 1,455-yard catch, 13-touchdown season. He averaged 11.5 yards per target, second in the league behind Samuel. Yes, he dropped eight passes. When you do what he does with his other 119 targets, you can drop a pass every other week.
There’s no more devastating one-two punch than Chase and Tee Higgins, with the latter receiver continuing to build on an impressive rookie 2020 campaign. Higgins finished eighth among starting wideouts in yards per route run and seventh in yards per target before 96-, 103- and 100-yard games in the postseason. It’s tempting to chalk up his success to the presence of Chase and Joe Burrow, but he’s tremendous. Higgins’ catch rate was 9.8 percentage points better than expectation, the second-best mark in the league for players with 50 catches or more.
Chase and Higgins alone would be enough to propel the Bengals toward the top of the list, but Cincinnati has more. Tyler Boyd‘s raw numbers have come down with Chase and Higgins eating up so much market share, but the veteran catches just about everything thrown his way and tied Chase for the team lead in third-down conversions. The Bengals also added former Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst to replace C.J. Uzomah this offseason, giving them a tight end who was productive in 2020 before being usurped in the offense by Kyle Pitts a year ago.
The Bengals finish things off with Joe Mixon, and while he probably isn’t “the best back in the league” even if Bill Belichick says so, he’s well rounded enough to do anything Cincinnati needs from a running back. Rushing touchdowns were the only thing missing from Mixon’s résumé, and after missing most of 2020 with injuries, he stayed healthy in 2021 and racked up 16 scores, 13 of which came on the ground.
In the end, I felt like the Bengals were comfortably No. 1 in these rankings. It’s a massive leap for an organization that ranked 23rd two years ago. Of course, in successive drafts, they added a pair of star wide receivers in Higgins and Chase. Plenty of teams will emulate their plan to try to surround their young quarterback with skill-position talent, but it’s not quite so simple, as the Eagles and Giants can tell you. The Bengals swung for the fences and landed two superstars in two seasons. The league’s best set of offensive playmakers helped take them all the way from 2-14 to the Super Bowl.