Some NFL teams have few holes on their rosters. Other teams have positions where they are stuck making do with veterans and late-round youngsters. But no team is weak at every position on the depth chart.
There is talent all across the league; that’s why any team can beat any other team on any given Sunday.
Below, Scott Spratt (AFC East), Robert Weintraub (AFC North), J.P. Acosta (AFC South), Mike Tanier (AFC West), Rivers McCown (NFC East), Derrik Klassen (NFC North), Bryan Knowles (NFC South) and Vincent Verhei (NFC West) from Football Outsiders look at where each team is most robust going into the 2022 season. We analyzed depth charts and used advanced stats and scouting to determine each team’s strongest unit. We’re looking at both the quality of the top players and the depth of that unit as well.
It’s important to note that we set a rule for ourselves not to consider the quarterback position. You don’t need us to tell you that Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are the best and most important players on their respective teams. We chose to dig a little deeper.
Let’s start with the AFC East.
The Bills’ secondary might not compete with Josh Allen or Von Miller for star power, but the group spurred the team’s top finish in defensive DVOA in 2021 with versatility and complementary play. Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde earned first- and second-team All-Pro honors and had five interceptions apiece in 2021.
Outside corner Tre’Davious White and slot corner Taron Johnson finished seventh and 12th among qualified cornerbacks with 5.1 and 5.4 yards allowed per target. First-round rookie Kaiir Elam should replace departed free agent Levi Wallace and has better potential with a bigger 6-foot-2 and 195-pound frame. And all told, the Bills allowed just 7.2 yards on deep-pass attempts thrown 16 or more yards in the air in 2021. No other team allowed fewer than 10.0 yards on deep attempts.
The Dolphins paid a hefty price to acquire Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. They traded away two first-round picks, a second-round pick and two fourth-round picks. Then they handed out a guaranteed $72.2 million contract to Hill that is the richest in history for the position. But what a one-two punch those receivers should be.
Hill touched 21.4 miles per hour on a 33-yard carry, and Waddle touched 21.8 mph on a 57-yard catch, both top-10 ball-carrier speeds in 2021, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Their speed should make them perfect fits for new head coach Mike McDaniel’s Shanahan-inspired offensive scheme. And while the team does not have tremendous depth at the position, it does have a promising free agent in Cedrick Wilson Jr. and fourth-round rookie in Erik Ezukanma.
Wilson had an 18.7% receiving DVOA rate that was in the top 15 among receivers with 50 or more targets in 2021 with the Cowboys. He has a chance to break out with more targets next season. Tua Tagovailoa has all the receivers he needs this season.
Football Outsiders research has shown that offensive lines have more to do with running back efficiency than many fans might expect. But some peripheral metrics suggest the Patriots can be confident that their backs are the real deal.
Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson averaged 2.3 and 2.7 yards after contact per attempt in 2021 and were the only teammates in the top 10 among backs with 125 or more carries. James White is still fifth at the position with 220 catches since 2018 despite injuring his hip in Week 3 and missing the rest of last season.
And as the team’s third running back selected in the third or fourth rounds in the past four seasons, Pierre Strong Jr. should make the Patriots’ backfield even stronger. With 1,686 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns in 2021, he was way more productive than a typical Day 3 draft pick. He likely flew a bit under the radar playing at South Dakota State in the FCS.
Last season, Jets fans had plenty of reason for optimism with rookie Michael Carter at the top of their running back depth chart. He led backs with 150 or more touches with a 24% broken tackle rate, according to Sports Info Solution charting. And at just 5-foot-8, his 201 pounds plays bigger than its listing. His 30.6 body mass index is in a range typical among lead backs in the NFL.
But now that the team drafted Breece Hall, it should be in the mix for the best backfield in football. Hall has the fourth-highest BackCAST projection in Football Outsiders history behind exclusive luminaries at the position in Jonathan Taylor, Ricky Williams and Saquon Barkley. And unlike Taylor when he entered the league, Hall already demonstrated his pass-catching versatility with 36 catches and 302 yards as a junior for Iowa State. Taylor caught just 42 passes in three seasons at Wisconsin.
Strong safety Chuck Clark remains a solid veteran presence, but it is the two newcomers, Marcus Williams — signed from the Saints in free agency — and Kyle Hamilton, Baltimore’s top draft choice in April — who transform the unit.
The Ravens now have an excellent coverage man in Williams, who has a 65% success rate against the pass in 2021, ranked 13th among all safeties; a hard-hitting banger in Clark, who boasted a 48% run-stop rate that ranked 17th overall; and a chess piece with game-changing size (Hamilton) with which to plague opposing offenses.
The receiving trio of Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd needs little introduction after powering the Bengals to Super Bowl LVI. They combined for 24 touchdowns, 3,374 yards and — perhaps most important — only two combined missed games to injury in 2021.
Chase, the Offensive Rookie of the Year, got most of the publicity, but Higgins actually finished ahead of him in both DVOA and DYAR. Boyd was excellent on third down, sporting a 17.5% DVOA and 79% catch rate. Depth is a concern, but this is the best starting group in the league.
Chris “Mad Dog” Russo and Dan Orlovsky debate the top NFL wide receivers after Ja’Marr Chase’s omission from the top-10 list in Madden 23.
But the emergence of D’Ernest Johnson has made the Browns’ backfield a three-pronged attack. Johnson led the NFL in rushing DVOA last year and could be a starter for a number of teams. Regardless of who is playing quarterback in Cleveland in 2022, he can turn and hand off to anyone of the three with confidence.
It’s a bit of a cheat, since the pass rush in Pittsburgh incorporates both edge-rusher linebackers like T.J. Watt and down linemen like Cameron Heyward. We list the pass rush here for the Steelers largely thanks to the brilliance of those two players. Watt and Heyward combined for 31.5 sacks, 21 hits and 61 hurries in 2021.
The Steelers have been forever defined by getting after the passer, and lately they have done it as well as at any point in their proud history. Last season, they led the NFL in sacks for the fifth straight year, and they have been first or second in adjusted sack rate each season in that span.
Pittsburgh’s defense was hardly dominant otherwise, finishing 27th in DVOA against the run, for example. It’s likely that the pass rush will again be the key element to defensive success in 2022.
Houston’s roster doesn’t have overwhelming talent at any position. However, wide receiver seems to be the position where multiple players of intrigue are. Brandin Cooks finished 25th in receiving DYAR in 2021 and had over 1,000 receiving yards for the second consecutive season. Nico Collins has built a rapport with quarterback Davis Mills, and many people around the Texans believe he’s due for a breakout season.
In addition, the Texans drafted John Metchie III from Alabama, who can be a high-level slot option once he’s fully recovered from a torn ACL in his left knee that he suffered in the SEC championship game. Add in solid depth pieces like Chris Conley and Phillip Dorsett, and the Texans have built an interesting receiver room.
We also considered the linebacker group, but the defensive line gets the nod because of talent on the edge and in the interior. Despite a disappointing finish in both pass rush and run stop win rate (24th and 12th, respectively), the Colts’ defensive line has players capable of taking over an entire game. DeForest Buckner led the team in total hurries to go along with seven sacks, and his disruption in the run game is crucial to allow the linebackers to flow freely. To juice up their pass rush, the Colts traded for Yannick Ngakoue, who finished with 34 hurries playing for the Las Vegas Raiders last season. His presence gives the Colts speed off the edge that they desperately needed. The pieces that put the Colts’ defensive line over the top are Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo, two second-year edge rushers primed for a breakout. Depth on the edge as well as Buckner’s presence on the interior makes this the best unit on the Colts.
For a lot of the Jacksonville position groups, optimism is based on projection rather than actual results. That is what happens when you have one of the youngest teams in the league. However, one group that has more results than projection is the defensive front.
Josh Allen continues to produce, notching 7.5 sacks last season. But it was the unheralded Dawuane Smoot who led the Jaguars with 29 hurries last season. Now the Jaguars are adding 2022 No. 1 pick Travon Walker to the mix. He has potential to be a strong pass-rusher and is already a strong run-stopper.
On the interior, there’s a deep rotation of players including Roy Robertson-Harris, Malcom Brown and Adam Gotsis. New nose tackle Folorunso Fatukasi led all interior linemen with an average run tackle after a gain of just 1.1 yards with the Jets last season.
Since I’m waiting until the end to select my defense, which are the three I’m getting, noting how favorable their schedules during the season’s first two weeks? Video by Tristan H. Cockcroft
Tennessee underwent a defensive turnaround during the 2021 season, and the defensive line play was a major reason for it. The Titans finished 10th in adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate, a jump from 14th and 31st in those rankings in 2020, respectively.
Jeffery Simmons is the star of the group; he had 8.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss while also tying for third in total disruptions. Denico Autry is one of the most underrated players in the league, and his presence allowed Simmons to see more one-on-one opportunities. Harold Landry III led the team with 12 sacks and made his first Pro Bowl appearance.
What really puts this team over the top is Bud Dupree — when healthy. He was still recovering from a torn right ACL in 2020, so he played in only 11 games and had three sacks in 2021. However, in his last full season in 2019, he had 11.5 sacks while playing next to other dominant forces like T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward.
If Simmons and Landry can be anything close, this group will be formidable to opposing offenses.
Courtland Sutton went 72-1,112-6 back in 2019, but he has been held back by injuries and quarterback uncertainty over the past two seasons. Jerry Jeudy, a first-round pick in 2020, has had his own injury problems while coping with the same quarterback situation, but he flashed potential, catching 32 passes for 326 yards in seven November and December games in 2021.
Slot wideout KJ Hamler lost almost all of last season to an almost catastrophic left ACL tear/hip injury. But he looked as swift as ever during OTAs. If healthy, he’ll be Russell Wilson’s most dangerous YAC playmaker since Percy Harvin.
And then there’s Tim Patrick, the Broncos super sub who fills in when injuries happen. Patrick went 51-742-6 in 2020 and 53-734-5 in 2021. He will be a veteran and dependable leader for the Broncos in 2022. Wilson cannot make the others healthier, but he’s sure to make everyone better.
The Chiefs spared no expense in money or draft capital to repair their offensive line after it collapsed in Super Bowl LV, and they were overjoyed by the results in 2021. Rookie Creed Humphrey‘s blown block rate of 0.5% was the lowest in the NFL among starting centers. Both Humphrey and right guard Trey Smith were named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie team.
Free-agent acquisitions Joe Thuney and Orlando Brown Jr., meanwhile, brought stability to a line that finished fourth in the NFL in Football Outsiders adjusted sack rate and eighth in adjusted line yards. Brown is in a contract kerfuffle entering training camp, so that is something to watch as we get closer to the season. Right tackle is the only position up for grabs. Lucas Niang started last season at right tackle but battled shoulder, rib and knee injuries. Andrew Wylie was adequate in relief of Niang in 2021, but is much better suited to backing up both guards.
Journeyman Geron Christian Sr. held his own at left tackle for the Texans when Laremy Tunsil was unavailable, but the Chiefs may think of him as Brown insurance, as opposed to a right tackle. Finally, there is 2020 fifth-round pick Darian Kinnard from Kentucky, who slipped in the draft because of medical questions.
The three losers of the right tackle battle will fill out the bench, giving the Chiefs one of the deepest offensive lines in the NFL.
Maxx Crosby led the NFL with 49 hurries and finished second to Myles Garrett with 80 pressures (per Sports Info Solutions) despite frequent double-teams in 2021. Crosby had some quiet stretches — he went eight games without a sack in the middle of last season — but can absolutely take over a game, as he did with two sacks and four quarterback hits in the Week 18 playoffs-or-bust victory over the Chargers.
Free-agent acquisition Chandler Jones has also become a boom-or-bust sack producer late in his career: five sacks in the 2021 season opener against the Titans and just 15 pressures in the Cardinals’ final six games. But when a team has a boom-or-bust pass-rusher on each edge, somebody’s bound to go boom. The Raiders’ edge-rush depth isn’t great, but it’s better than their depth at most positions. Kyler Fackrell is a high-effort role player who performed well in coordinator Patrick Graham’s defense for the 2020 Giants. Clelin Ferrell is a stout enough run-defender to soak up some early-down carries and keep the 32-year-old Jones fresh.
From 2018 through 2021, opposing quarterbacks have thrown just seven touchdowns, suffered 25 interceptions, recorded a 48.9% completion rate and posted a quarterback rating of 38.05 when targeting receivers covered by free-agent arrival J.C. Jackson. The quarterback rating for throwing nothing but incomplete passes is 39.58, so opponents would have been better off just throwing the ball into the dirt than challenging Jackson for the past four years!
With Jackson covering players like Davante Adams, Asante Samuel Jr. and veteran newcomer Bryce Callahan holding down the slot, Mike Davis can slide down from his role as CB1 (where he was often overmatched) to CB3 or CB4, where he can match up against taller receivers and provide outstanding depth.
Derwin James Jr. bounced back from two injury-plagued seasons to make an impact all across the stat sheet in 2021. He had two interceptions, two sacks, three forced fumbles, seven tackles for a loss and a third-place finish in the Comeback Player of the Year voting. James is a natural box safety, while Nasir Adderley has grown into his role as a free safety.
For extra depth, the Chargers drafted Baylor safety JT Woods in the third round. Woods’ college nickname was “The Heartbreak Kid” because he intercepted so many passes in practice. When the seventh-best player in your secondary has a cool nickname, it means you are ready to hold your own against the pass-happy contenders of the AFC.
While the offensive line is not as strong as it has been with the defections of La’el Collins and Connor Williams, the Cowboys don’t have another position group with a 1-2 like Tyron Smith and Zack Martin.
First-round pick Tyler Smith should slot in nicely at left guard for the short term, Terence Steele was much-improved at right tackle last year while covering for Collins and Tyler Biadasz is still young with room to grow. Connor McGovern is solid interior depth and could functionally be the backup for all five positions with Smith stepping in at tackle if need be.
Sam Acho and Domonique Foxworth disagree on whether the Cowboys should become a run-first offense this season.
This is both a strong position and one with a lot of dissonance right now. Sterling Shepard is rehabbing a torn left Achilles, and Kadarius Toney may or may not be traded. That said, when you have those two, Darius Slayton and Kenny Golladay as well as 2022 second-round pick Wan’Dale Robinson, it’s hard not to recognize how strong the overall depth and talent at the position is. How that unfolds when it comes to the regular season is still yet to be seen.
Brandon Graham is coming off a lost season on account of a ruptured left Achilles, but is one of the most underrated pass-rushers of the 2010s. Fletcher Cox is still phenomenal even after 10 years in the league, and Javon Hargrave was excellent in his second season in green. Third-round 2021 pick Milton Williams was disruptive last season (two sacks, 14 hurries in 456 snaps), and Derek Barnett is also back.
Oh, and they also drafted some guy named Jordan Davis with the 13th overall pick. Plenty of depth to go around.
The Commanders’ depth on the defensive line was disrupted a bit by losing Tim Settle and Matt Ioannidis in free agency, but it’s hard to go against the front four of Jonathan Allen, Chase Young, Montez Sweat and Daron Payne.
They added Alabama defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis in the second round of the 2022 draft for interior depth to replace Ioannidis. Even without a third real edge rusher of note, the collection of upper-level talent in this group is among the best that any team has at any position around the NFL.
If David Montgomery returns with good health, the Bears will have a good starter at the position and that’s more than they can say for most other spots on the roster. Montgomery is a tough, explosive runner who has done well to navigate rushing lanes behind a middling Bears offensive line. Backing up Montgomery is Khalil Herbert, a surprising late-round 2021 pick who offered a nice burst and vision behind the line of scrimmage in his rookie season.
On the line, Taylor Decker is a solid left tackle, while Penei Sewell really came on strong at right tackle down the stretch last season and should only be better with another offseason under his belt. The Lions also return center Frank Ragnow, a force in the run game who will help with sorting out protections in the passing game better than backup Evan Brown last season. The guards are nothing to write home about, but when flanked by good players on either side of them, they will be enough to keep this unit rolling.
At cornerback, the Packers got electric play out of Rasul Douglas last season and saw their first-round rookie, Eric Stokes, perform rather well despite teams constantly picking on him. Add in the return of Jaire Alexander, one of the league’s stickiest cornerbacks, and it’s hard to find the guy defenses will want to pick on.
Justin Jefferson is not just the Vikings’ best player but one of the best four or five wide receivers in the NFL. Jefferson’s inside-outside versatility, speed and elite route-running skills make him a threat from anywhere.
Kyle Pitts may not have set rookie tight end records, but he’s already the best playmaker in Atlanta’s offense in his second year in the league.
His elite physical skills make opposing defenses treat him like a wide receiver, as linebackers and safeties were substantially less successful covering him — he led the league in receiving DYAR on slant routes despite not receiving a single target on a slant when lined up tight.
One player does not make a position group, but Anthony Firkser‘s reunion with Arthur Smith is very promising. With Firkser inline and Pitts split wide, Smith will get to recreate the best parts of his offenses in Tennessee. That’s one position group fixed, bringing Atlanta’s total to one.
Tristan H. Cockcroft explains why Kyle Pitts is ready to break through as one of the top tight ends in fantasy football.
Tristan H. Cockcroft explains why Kyle Pitts is ready to break through as one of the top tight ends in fantasy football.
The caveat of “if he stays healthy” looms large, but a healthy Christian McCaffrey is one of the best players in football — ranking in the top 10 in both receiving and rushing value in both 2018 and 2019.
There’s concern that his repeated ankle and hamstring injuries will zap some of his explosiveness, but if he can get back to his fully healthy form, you can count the better backs in the league on one hand.
If McCaffrey does get injured, the Panthers added a reliable back in D’Onta Foreman, who finished in the top 10 in rushing yards over the back half of last season while filling in for the injured Derrick Henry on the Titans. Foreman is tough to bring down once he gets a head of steam and provides a nice contrast for McCaffrey.
We could pick nearly any unit on the Saints’ defense and defend the selection. All parts of the front seven look very sharp. But the Saints have an argument for the best secondary in the league, and while you could pick nits at their cornerback group, their safety pair is top-notch.
Tyrann Mathieu is a matchup threat and quite possibly the best cover safety in the league. He’s able to handle the slot better than many dedicated cornerbacks and ranked third among safeties in both yards per target and success rate last season.
Marcus Maye is one of the top free safeties in the league. While he was forced to play a little out of position after Jamal Adams left the Jets, he’ll get to go back to playing his ideal role full time in New Orleans. Add in C.J. Gardner-Johnson as a hybrid safety/cornerback, and the Saints’ safeties match up with any other group in the league.
Mike Evans does not always get the respect he deserves. He has been in the top 10 in receiving DYAR each of the past four seasons — one of only 14 receivers to pull that feat off in the past 40 years. And Chris Godwin joined Evans in the top 11 in each of the past three seasons.
Russell Gage adds the sort of deep speed the Buccaneers were missing, and the depth provided by players like Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson and Cyril Grayson is better than any other team’s WR 4-6. They won’t be at full speed until late in the year, but Tom Brady has an impressive collection of threats ready to go for December onward.
Arizona’s trio of wideouts — deep threat Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, possession receiver A.J. Green and YAC threat Rondale Moore — complement one another nicely. DeAndre Hopkins will return in Week 7 after serving a six-game suspension to take back his place as Arizona’s No. 1 option. Rookie Trey McBride joins veteran Zach Ertz to give the Cards a one-two punch at tight end. And don’t forget James Conner, third among running backs in receiving value (DYAR) and first in per-target efficiency (DVOA) at Football Outsiders last season.
From Week 1 to the Super Bowl, Cooper Kupp set records with 178 combined catches for 2,425 yards, scoring 22 touchdowns along the way. With defenses focused on Kupp’s drag and out routes, Van Jefferson and Allen Robinson II should get plenty of one-on-one opportunities downfield. And don’t forget Tutu Atwell and Ben Skowronek, a pair of 2021 draftees who are still developing and add depth at the position.
Although Deebo Samuel won’t be taking handoffs as often this fall, the 49ers still have their top four true running backs from last season — young guys Elijah Mitchell and Trey Sermon, plus veterans Jeff Wilson and JaMycal Hasty.
Inside linebackers Jordyn Brooks (a 2020 first-rounder) and Cody Barton (2019 third-rounder) highlight the quartet of young, highly drafted linebackers the Seahawks have found for their 3-4 scheme. And 2020 second-rounder Darrell Taylor adds a threat of pass-rushing from the outside — he was second on the team with 6.5 sacks last season despite starting only five games. Uchenna Nwosu, a 2018 second-rounder who is still only 25 years old, arrives via free agency after finishing second on the Chargers with 5.0 sacks last year.