NFL players can make a lot of money in one year. Ask Josh Allen, who went from looking like the league’s most spectacular question mark in 2019 to a true superstar in 2020. The Bills subsequently gave the quarterback a six-year, $258 million extension. In March, wide receiver Christian Kirk, pass-rusher Randy Gregory and linebacker Foyesade Oluokun each signed deals that would have seemed unfathomable before the 2021 season began.
Of course, players also can lose a lot in one year. Julio Jones went from being a key trade pickup for the Titans to being a salary-cap casualty to getting picked up by the Bucs on a prove-it deal. Carson Wentz‘s supposed reclamation season with the Colts turned him into the Commanders’ problem. Former Jaguars coach Urban Meyer managed to erase his entire legacy as a successful college program builder in a few months. Neither players nor coaches need a long time for things to crash down.
Let’s run through the players, coaches and front-office executives who have the most to gain or lose during the 2022 season. In many cases, we’ll be looking at players who can make themselves many millions of dollars with four months of excellent football. Others have already made plenty of money and have their legacies on the line. Things that seem impossible today will be indisputably true six months from now. These are the people who can do the most for their own cause by exceeding expectations.
Let’s start with the 25-year-old former MVP, who is heading to training camp without a contract extension. Most quarterbacks with Jackson’s résumé sign a massive new deal after their third season in the league. Jackson, who is representing himself in contract negotiations, didn’t sign an extension at that point a year ago and doesn’t appear to have much interest in signing whatever the Ravens might have put on the table this offseason. He’s set to hit free agency next March.
While the fifth-year option will bump Jackson’s compensation from $1.8 million last year to just over $23 million this year, his future after this season is uncertain. The Ravens would likely franchise-tag him in 2023 and 2024 (at a projected cost of more than $72 million) before having to seriously weigh the possibility of losing their star quarterback in free agency, but just about every quarterback takes the security of a long-term deal over the risk of maximizing his leverage and year-to-year compensation. Jackson, who has repeatedly defied skeptics during his time in the league, is seemingly willing to bet on his own ability to stay healthy and produce at a superstar level.
He wasn’t healthy or a superstar in 2021, though. He had his worst stretch as a pro before suffering a season-ending right ankle injury. In a season in which the Ravens added pass-catchers and threw more often in neutral situations than ever before, Jackson’s interception and sack rates spiked. Baltimore then traded Jackson ally Marquise Brown this offseason and used a first-round pick on center Tyler Linderbaum while seemingly hinting toward a move back to the sort of run-heavy approach Jackson thrived under during his 2019 MVP campaign.
No, Jackson does not need to be an MVP again in 2022 to justify a new deal. His closest comparable in terms of passing production is Josh Allen, whose numbers also slipped between 2020 and 2021 (before a spectacular return to form in the postseason). If Jackson wanted to get a contract similar to the one Kyler Murray just signed with the Cardinals, he already has played at a high enough level to justify such a deal. It might take something more spectacular for the Ravens to justify a deal structured like the one Allen signed with the Bills or Patrick Mahomes‘ 10-year, $450 million contract with the Chiefs.
Of course, Baltimore has been through this before. In his fifth season, Joe Flacco chose to turn down an extension and bet on himself. The oft-frustrating quarterback produced one of the best postseasons in league history, won a Super Bowl and earned a massive deal in 2013, which subsequently hamstrung the organization until Jackson emerged in 2018. Jackson has been a much better player than his predecessor, but the Ravens might have their own reasons to be wary of commitment. A year from now, we could be lauding Jackson or the Ravens as geniuses for avoiding a long-term deal. We could also be looking at the largest contract in league history if things break right.
The 2020 and 2021 seasons have basically been a waste of time in terms of evaluating Tagovailoa. He was limited in his return from the serious hip injury he suffered in 2019, and when on the field, his offense was constrained by a porous offensive line. Tagovailoa spent most of 2020 and 2021 throwing run-pass options and looking over his shoulder for pass-rushers. Last year, his first full season as a starter, he threw just 7.5% of his passes 20 or more yards downfield, which ranked 29th out of 31 qualifying passers.
Now, at least on paper, the excuses are gone. The Dolphins traded for receiver Tyreek Hill, franchised tight end Mike Gesicki and signed left tackle Terron Armstead as the focal point of a half-dozen offensive additions. Star wideout Jaylen Waddle is entering his second season. New coach Mike McDaniel is regarded as a run-game wizard, although he will have to marry a Shanahan-style offense that prefers to go under center with a quarterback who has almost exclusively operated out of Pistol or shotgun depth as a pro.
If Tagovailoa gets it right and the Dolphins break out, he could sign an extension for something north of Murray’s $46 million-per-season mark as early as next spring. If he gets hurt or fails to impress as a passer, then Miami could very well pursue a new starter next offseason, with rumors continually linking the franchise to Tom Brady. The time for rebuilding is over. It’s playoffs or bust for the third-year quarterback.
Once the engine of the Dallas offense, Elliott now feels like an expensive, outdated spare part. The Cowboys would have loved to shed his $18.2 million cap hit for 2022 to spend money elsewhere, but repeated restructures locked them into their veteran back for one more season. They chose not to restructure Elliott’s deal this offseason, making it easier to cut him next March, which would free up as much as $10.9 million in cap space.
Elliott is due an identical amount next season in base salary, and since the market is unlikely to deliver a similar sort of offer, the only real way he can stay at that salary level is to deliver a vintage season. The 27-year-old got off to a slow start a year ago before suffering a right knee injury, and his numbers have been in a steady decline since he led league in rushing yards in 2018.
It might take another league-leading performance to keep Elliott on the Dallas roster at his listed salary in 2023.
Becton’s first two NFL seasons have been a whirlwind. One of the few success stories of the Adam Gase era in New York, the left tackle stepped into the starting lineup as a rookie in 2020 and immediately looked like a building block. After suffering an MCL sprain in Week 1 a year ago, though, he was expected to miss four to six weeks but never returned. Reports during and after the season suggested the Jets were underwhelmed by Becton’s rehab. In February, coach Robert Saleh said that the former first-round pick wasn’t guaranteed a starting job in 2022.
With left tackle in the second tier of the NFL contractual spectrum alongside wideouts and edge rushers, Becton looked to be one of the league’s most valuable players. Now, as he enters his third season, he might not even end up as his team’s starting left tackle, given how happy the Jets were with the returning George Fant.
The Jets could still move Fant to the right side and give Becton an opportunity to prove himself, and there just aren’t many humans with Becton’s combination of size and tools, but a lot can change in a year.
Third time needs to be the charm for McDaniels, who flamed out after a year and a half with the Broncos before leaving the Colts at the altar in 2018. The Raiders were able to successfully convince the offensive coordinator to leave the Patriots and join them in Vegas, but McDaniels and fellow Patriots export Dave Ziegler, the new general manager, took over a team that had whiffed on five first-round picks and then traded their top two selections for Packers star Davante Adams. Edge rusher Chandler Jones followed in free agency. The Raiders, who haven’t won a playoff game in nearly two decades, are suddenly in win-now mode in the league’s toughest division.
There never has been a coach who posted a losing record across a tenure of at least 10 games with one team who then waited a decade to become a head coach somewhere else, so it’s difficult to find too many comparables for McDaniels. One of the few obvious ones is a man Raiders fans learned to hate. Mike Shanahan was hired by team owner Al Davis and quickly fired after going 8-12 across two seasons. Six years later, in 1995, the offensive wizard took over the rival Broncos and led them to two Super Bowl victories.
What McDaniels does with the Raiders will define his legacy. Win and he could become the next Shanahan or Bill Belichick as the young star coordinator who matured and built a dynasty in his second job. If he flounders or flames out, he’ll forever be the coach who couldn’t do it without Belichick leading the way.
Las Vegas hasn’t been quite as prone to drastic moves after Al Davis’ death, but Mark Davis once fired Jack del Rio one year after a 12-4 season. Everything is always on the table for the Raiders.
I say it all the time: Contracts are about leverage, not skill. Brown was closer to good than great in his debut season with the Chiefs, but Kansas City was desperate enough to protect Patrick Mahomes that it traded a first-round pick for Brown without giving him a contract extension. Now, after being franchise-tagged for the 2022 season, Brown is in position to build upon his first full NFL season at left tackle.
Mahomes isn’t going anywhere, and with the Chiefs shedding Tyreek Hill‘s deal, they will have money to work with next offseason. If Brown has another solid season and asks for the moon, the team will probably have to use a second franchise tag, and we’ll play this all out again next summer. If Brown has an All-Pro campaign, though, there’s a chance he tops Trent Williams‘ six-year, $138 million deal and gets the largest contract for a tackle in league history.
Nobody sits on a hotter seat than the former Baylor and Temple coach, who has gone 10-23 in his first two seasons running an NFL team. Rhule has been without star back Christian McCaffrey for most of that stretch, but the organization’s repeated failures when attempting to land a franchise quarterback and the dismal play of Sam Darnold have soured fans on the 47-year-old. To rebuild is human, but after Rhule talked up Darnold last offseason, Panthers fans aren’t willing to forgive him.
Changes have been made, with former Giants coach Ben McAdoo coming in to replace fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady, while Baker Mayfield was acquired to compete with the flailing Darnold under center. Rhule had two losing seasons in seven years as a college coach, but he has matched that total in two years with the Panthers. It’s difficult to imagine him making it back after a third.
When you win a power struggle, you better keep winning afterward, too. The Seahawks finally called time on the Russell Wilson era and shipped their frustrated quarterback to Denver, which allows Carroll to move back toward the run-first approach he prefers without the threat of alienating a Pro Bowl quarterback. The Seahawks will eat $26 million in dead money for Wilson this year, but they’re set to retool in Carroll’s image in the years to come without Wilson’s four-year, $140 million extension on the books.
Of course, teams value those sorts of players for a reason, and unless Seattle can land Jimmy Garoppolo from its rivals in San Francisco, the Seahawks will start the season with either Drew Lock or Geno Smith under center. Neither prospect sounds appealing.
The focus in Seattle might fall on a defense that ranked 21st in DVOA a year ago. Carroll fired coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and has pledged to build a more aggressive style, but if Wilson excels in Denver, Seahawks fans are going to loudly wonder why the organization chose its 70-year-old coach over its 33-year-old quarterback.
As recently as two years ago, Wentz was regarded as a franchise quarterback and an untouchable member of the Eagles franchise. Since then, well, he has turned into the NFL equivalent of Russell Westbrook. Wentz’s bad habits — namely his refusal to give up on plays, propensity to take big hits and ill-fated decision-making — have become more noticeable and problematic. Teams keep trading him and getting less and less in the process. There is a two-and-a-half minute video on YouTube highlighting all of his left-handed passes with the Colts. He was there for only one season.
There are lots of reasons to be concerned about the fit in Washington, given that Wentz will be playing behind a middling offensive line on one of the league’s sloppiest fields. For all the memes and the terrible memories of how his 2021 season ended in Indianapolis, though, he was generally competent. Wentz posted average-or-better efficiency metrics by most measures despite playing with a below-average group of receivers. I don’t think the guy who nearly won MVP in 2017 is peeking out anytime soon — and I’m not sure I’d want to pay him more than $27 million per season over the next three years — but Wentz is a legitimate starting NFL quarterback.
Given that the Commanders have been crying out for a solution at quarterback since Kirk Cousins left in free agency in 2018, the bar isn’t high in Washington. If Wentz exceeds expectations, he might finally get to unpack his bags and stay for a while. If he disappoints again, though, the Commanders will likely cut the 29-year-old, who has no guaranteed money due after this season.
Wentz’s successor in Philadelphia might have more riding on the season than any other player, with Tua Tagovailoa as the one possible exception. Hurts been has more successful than his former teammate at Alabama, with the Eagles riding Hurts as the focal point of a run-heavy offense to an unexpected playoff berth in 2021. The Eagles were quickly dispatched by Tampa in the wild-card round, but they added a key ingredient to their offense this offseason by using a first-round pick to trade for Titans star A.J. Brown.
The spread here amounts to about $97 million. If Hurts excels in his third season and raises his game to the next level, he will be in position for a new deal with about $100 million in guarantees. If he struggles, the Eagles will likely use their two 2023 first-round picks to target a replacement for the 23-year-old while paying him somewhere in the ballpark of $3 million. No pressure.
If Hurts is playing for the opportunity to be feted as one of the league’s superstar quarterbacks, Jones is playing for his career as an NFL starter. The No. 6 overall pick in the 2019 draft has struggled to stay healthy, protect the football or create steady offense, even while being surrounded by first-round picks and expensive free agents. Those players haven’t lived up to expectation in New York, but it’s difficult to find many examples of Jones elevating the playmakers around him over the past few seasons.
His performance when unpressured continues to fall. He posted a promising 76.8 QBR when given time in the pocket as a rookie, which ranked 11th in the league. He has fallen to 17th and 22nd, respectively, in the same mark over the past two seasons. A few big plays also have given Jones a reputation as an effective scrambler, but fumbles led him to generate negative DYAR and DVOA last season. About the only thing he has done at an acceptable level is avoid interceptions, but that is also partly a product of avoiding risks; he threw 20 yards or deeper on a league-low 6.6% of his attempts last season and moved the chains at one of the league’s worst rates.
Dan Orlovsky breaks down why he doesn’t expect Daniel Jones to be with the Giants past this upcoming season.
The final hope for Jones comes in the presence of new coach Brian Daboll, who helped mold Josh Allen into one of the league’s most devastating quarterbacks during his time as coordinator of the Bills’ offense.
The Giants declined Jones’ fifth-year option to avoid guaranteeing him $22.4 million for the 2023 season, which leaves him in an unenviable position. Turn things around and the Giants will likely hand Jones a franchise tag of around $31.5 million. If Daboll can’t coax useful play out of him, though, he’ll likely move on from New York and try to find an opportunity as a backup.
Okudah, arguably the most disappointing pick from the 2020 draft, struggled mightily in his first season with the Lions before tearing his left Achilles tendon in Week 1 last year. The coach and general manager who drafted Okudah are no longer in the organization, and the former No. 3 overall pick will have to compete with Will Harris, Mike Hughes and Jerry Jacobs for the starting job at corner.
It’s still too early to give up on Okudah, but there are questions about whether the Lions would pick up his fifth-year option if the 23-year-old struggles. We’ve seen teams decline the options for players chosen second (Mitch Trubisky), third (Solomon Thomas) and fourth (Clelin Ferrell) overall in recent years; Okudah needs to turn around things to avoid being the next player on an ignominious list.
In a stunning 2021 season, Diggs picked off passes in each of his first six games and finished with a league-leading 11 interceptions. He generated incredible value for the Cowboys by winning possessions and flipping fields, but he gave some of it back in coverage. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he allowed 790 yards — third most in the league — and four touchdowns as the nearest defender in coverage.
It has become too trendy and simplistic to suggest that Diggs’ value is muted altogether by the yardage he allows in coverage, but it’s also fair to wonder what happens if he doesn’t continue to intercept passes at a historic rate. Over the past 50 years, just four players — Keith Lyle, Champ Bailey, Richard Sherman and J.C. Jackson — have managed to intercept at least eight passes in consecutive seasons.
If Diggs can’t pick off as many passes this season, he’ll need to be better in coverage to compensate. If he manages to repeat his double-digit totals from 2021, though, he could be looking at a record cornerback contract next March.
The duo of Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur has earned the benefit of the doubt. The Packers have won 13 games in three consecutive seasons since Gutekunst and LaFleur took over in 2019. They managed to weather the Aaron Rodgers storm and coax consecutive MVP awards out of the future Hall of Famer before signing him to an extension in March. For a moment, it felt as if the cloud of confusion surrounding one of the league’s most otherwise-successful franchises had dissipated.
Sam Acho and Mike Tannenbaum discuss how Aaron Rodgers and the Packers will fare without Davante Adams.
And then, shortly thereafter, Green Bay traded Davante Adams. I don’t have an issue with the trade in itself, but I expected there to be more put in to replace the superstar wideout.
Instead, after adding Sammy Watkins and second-round pick Christian Watson, the Packers will move forward with Allen Lazard and Robert Tonyan playing larger roles. It feels as if someone will break out for the Packers, but if Rodgers struggles to find a difference-maker in key situations, will Gutekunst — who, along with LaFleur, quietly got a contract extension this offseason — regret not going after a star such as A.J. Brown?
Duke Tobin, director of player personnel, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals organization is understandably flying high. It’s impressive to go from 2-14 to the Super Bowl in two seasons. The Bengals weren’t able to hold on to their lead or launch a fourth-quarter comeback once the Rams began to pick apart their offensive line, and unsurprisingly, Tobin went looking for linemen this offseason. Cincinnati imported three new starters: Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’el Collins. On paper, the line looks much better than it did heading into Week 1 a year ago.
Did Tobin do enough? Collins missed most of 2020 with injuries, was suspended for the start of the 2021 season and didn’t look like his old self after returning. Karras comes from New England, and Patriots linemen don’t always live up to their former levels of play after leaving Foxborough. Jackson Carman, a 2021 second-round pick who wasn’t playing well enough to make the lineup a year ago, is penciled in to start at one guard spot.
If the Bengals keep up their play from the final two months of 2021 and protect Joe Burrow, Tobin is right up there alongside Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane for successful turnarounds. If not, well, there are plenty of one-hit Executive of the Year wonders.
With Sean Payton gone, the two most important elements of the Saints’ offense have something to prove. Winston was playing the best football of his career under Payton before tearing his left ACL last season. Carmichael spent most of the past 15 seasons as Payton’s understudy, but outside of a brief spell in 2016, his only experience as an NFL playcaller has been for stretches in which Payton was suspended or injured. The Saints were great on offense during those runs, but they also had Drew Brees under center.
This feels like a situation in which Carmichael and Winston succeed or fail together. The Saints expect to get back receiver Michael Thomas from injury and used a pair of first-round picks on wideout Chris Olave and offensive tackle Trevor Penning. Their offseason decision-making suggests that general manager Mickey Loomis & Co. believe they can compete for a division title if the offense holds up its end of the bargain.
Given that the Eagles hold New Orleans’ first-round pick in 2023, the floor for what could happen if Carmichael and Winston aren’t up to the task could be devastating.
Expectations change everything. When Tannehill went from being a salary dump to the league’s greatest play-action passer, he was one of the best stories in football. Once the offense slowed down after losing running back Derrick Henry for the second half of 2021 and subsequently lost to Cincinnati as the top seed in the AFC playoffs, though, Tannehill bore the brunt of public criticism. His interception rate nearly doubled in 2021 before he threw three picks in the frustrating loss to the Bengals.
Talk that the Titans would move on from him during the offseason was never realistic, given that Tennessee would have been on the hook for more than $28 million in dead money if it traded him before June 1. He has no guaranteed money after 2022, though, and the Titans used a third-round pick on quarterback Malik Willis, who was projected to be a first-round pick before a draft-day tumble.
With A.J. Brown (trade) and Julio Jones (release) off the roster and Henry struggling even before the right foot injury, Tannehill has to be the key reason the Titans win if he wants to stick around in 2023.
Did any player seem like a more obvious fit for an offense? In the middle of their post-Super Bowl high, the Chiefs went out and used their 2020 first-round pick on what looked to be one of the few weak points on their roster. Edwards-Helaire was coming off a season with 1,414 rushing yards and 453 receiving yards at LSU. He was personally chosen for the Chiefs’ roster by Patrick Mahomes. When he ran for 138 yards in his debut win over the Texans, Edwards-Helaire looked like the next superstar playmaker in Kansas City.
Edwards-Helaire has averaged just under 54 rushing yards per game since that debut while missing 12 regular-season and playoff games with various injuries. He has not become a meaningful part of the passing game, and after he failed to score on six rush attempts inside the 5-yard line in that Texans game, the Chiefs have trusted him with only six more rush attempts in the same range over the ensuing 22 games. (To be fair, he has scored five times on those six.)
When the Chiefs drafted Edwards-Helaire, they expected him to be a different level of back from Darrel Williams, who had been the primary runner for their Super Bowl run. Unfortunately for Kansas City, it would be reasonable to argue that Williams, now in Arizona, was the better back of the two.
With Ronald Jones joining the organization, it’s unclear whether Edwards-Helaire will be the team’s primary back this season. It’s not too late for CEH to turn things around, but this will be his last chance to emerge as the guy whom we all expected to thrive in Kansas City.
Staley isn’t here for his aggressive decision-making on fourth down, virtually all of which is supported by data. Instead, he has something to prove with his core competency. The Chargers hired away Staley from the Rams after the 39-year-old helped lead Aaron Donald & Co. to the top of the DVOA charts in 2020. In his debut season with the Chargers, despite having Joey Bosa and Derwin James healthy for most of the season, Staley’s defense finished 26th in the same stat. The Chargers couldn’t come up with a stop in overtime of Week 18 when a three-and-out would have pushed them into the postseason.
If that’s not fixed by the end of the season, Staley will have to bear the brunt of the criticism, because the Chargers spent big on defense this offseason. General manager Tom Telesco traded for star edge rusher Khalil Mack and then added cornerback J.C. Jackson and defensive linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson in free agency.
The Chargers have the personnel to play the two-deep, light-box, 1.5-gap defense Staley learned under Vic Fangio and brought to national attention with the Rams. Now, he has to prove that it can be one of the league’s best without Donald.
Let’s finish with the greatest player in NFL history, who faces a unique conundrum. Having won six Super Bowls with Bill Belichick and a seventh without his longtime coach in Tampa Bay, Brady has nothing left to prove. He holds nearly every meaningful statistical record for quarterbacks and continued to play at a high level at the age of 44, only for the Buccaneers to fall to the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams in a classic divisional-round game.
The only thing for Brady to do is stick the landing. When he briefly retired after the season, it looked like he had put a comfortable cap on his career. Unlike similarly historic passers such as Brett Favre and Peyton Manning, we never saw Brady finish with a season in which he wasn’t good enough to live up to his own lofty expectations. Everyone has bad days or bad passes, but Brady at 44 looked about the same as Brady at 34 and better than Brady at 24.
In making his return, he backs off that cap and trades the reward of possibly winning an eighth championship for the risk of looking like he stuck around a year too many. Nothing in Brady’s performance record suggests he’s about to fall off the proverbial cliff, but Favre and Manning were both superstars the year before they suddenly declined, too. Manning was benched for Brock Osweiler and seemed to be breaking down in real time, but he did just enough in his final season to let the defense carry him to a Super Bowl.
Brady undoubtedly wants to close his career with one final title, but you also get the feeling that the soon-to-be-45-year-old will be satisfied only if he’s the one leading the way.