If we could predict surprises, they wouldn’t be surprises. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it a shot.
Every year, things happen in the NFL that we didn’t expect. By this point in the offseason, months’ worth of phone calls, texts and training camp visits (a deeper look at the latter right here) have given those of us who report on the league a sense of what is and isn’t likely to happen with each team. But not everything we find out rises to the level of a “look for this to happen” report.
So we did this piece last year to address the issue of surprises. And we actually hit on a few, including Colts running back Jonathan Taylor leading the league in rushing, Davante Adams‘ and Baker Mayfield‘s contract situations not being resolved, and DeVonta Smith overcoming a preseason injury to lead the Eagles in receiving, among several others.
Once again, we’ve identified something for each team that, based on my reporting and the conversations I’ve had around these teams, could happen that you might not be expecting.
I hope you enjoy it.
What I’m hearing: DeAndre Hopkins is suspended for the first six games, which is what makes this prediction even remotely realistic. Christian Kirk signed with the Jaguars, and the Cardinals anticipate that Moore will pick up some of the leftover work Kirk used to do.
Additionally, the coaching staff recognizes Moore’s unique ability to contribute from various spots on the field and could use him out of the backfield as well as out wide. Moore is slated for a big role in this offense.
Don’t be surprised if … Desmond Ridder starts at least one game at quarterback this year.
What I’m hearing: Marcus Mariota wasn’t the Falcons’ first choice for starting QB this year. Deshaun Watson was. And while it’s possible that Mariota’s time as a backup with the Raiders improved things, he has shown little in his career to indicate he’s the kind of guy who can hold off a rookie challenger forever. Add in that I don’t expect the Falcons to be very good this year, and you can see a path to Ridder getting some starts, either because he overtakes Mariota or just because the Falcons want to see what they have there.
Don’t be surprised if … rookie tight end Isaiah Likely is the team’s second-leading receiver.
What I’m hearing: Everything’s relative here, of course. The Ravens’ second-leading receiver over the past four years has averaged 62 catches a year, and their third-leading receiver averages just 38 over that same span. This is a run-first team with one of the best tight ends in the league already ahead of Likely.
But the Ravens love this player and what he showed in camp. If Mark Andrews, who was targeted 153 times and caught 107 passes in 2021, becomes the focal point for opposing pass defenses, don’t be surprised if the Ravens look to Likely for vertical production from the tight end spot. This is no knock on second-year wideout Rashod Bateman, mind you, but the tight ends are major factors in Baltimore.
Don’t be surprised if … the Bills lead the league in sacks AND takeaways.
What I’m hearing: They were third in takeaways and 11th in sacks last year, so this isn’t some major jump. But Buffalo’s defense, with the addition of Von Miller and the expected return of Tre’Davious White from injury, looks like it could be the best in the league in a number of facets. There are few teams, if any, in the NFL more motivated and equipped to make a Super Bowl run in 2022.
Adding two-time Super Bowl champion Miller to the pass rush and the locker room can only elevate the group. Maybe, if this prediction comes true, this will finally be the year defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier gets his well-deserved second chance to be a head coach again.
Don’t be surprised if … the Panthers sneak into the playoffs.
What I’m hearing: The addition of Baker Mayfield, the Panthers believe, makes them viable on offense. They like their receivers. They love Christian McCaffrey if they can keep him on the field. They believe they have a playoff-caliber defense.
If Mayfield, who played through shoulder and foot injuries in Cleveland last year, can move around enough to overcome the present concerns about pass protection, he should push the ball downfield in Ben McAdoo’s offense. There are enough questions about the Bucs and Saints and, honestly, the rest of the NFC field that it’s not impossible to see Carolina sneaking into a seven-team playoff field as one of the year’s inevitable surprises.
Don’t be surprised if … Khalil Herbert ends the year as the team’s lead running back.
What I’m hearing: The new staff seems to like David Montgomery just fine, but there is some skepticism about whether his style fits the new offense as well as Herbert’s does. I believe Montgomery opens the season as the starter and gets the chance to show he deserves to hold the job. But he’s in the final year of his contract, and the team made no move this offseason to extend him. Don’t be surprised if Herbert is a factor and maybe even overtakes Montgomery during the season.
Field Yates explains the pros and cons of drafting Khalil Herbert as a David Montgomery manager.
What I’m hearing: It’s easy to be skeptical about Hurst, the former Ravens first-round pick who’s now on his third team. But the Bengals believe his disappointing stints in Baltimore and Atlanta were due to opportunity issues, not ability.
The Cincinnati coaches see him as a player who fits what they want to do on offense and can contribute in ways Uzomah could not, especially as a vertical threat. The Cincinnati wide receivers get all of the attention, and rightfully so. Just don’t be surprised if the tight end is more involved statistically this season.
Don’t be surprised if … Myles Garrett wins Defensive Player of the Year.
What I’m hearing: There is always turmoil around the Browns, it seems, and this offseason has obviously been no exception. But they do believe they have a strong defense and that Garrett is as good at his job as anyone else in the league.
The mentality of the Browns’ defense at the moment, from what I am told, is that if it has to hold down the fort for the first few months of the season, it is ready to do so. Garrett is the star on that side of the ball, and it feels like a DPOY run for him is just about overdue.
Don’t be surprised if … they add a wide receiver soon.
What I’m hearing: The Cowboys sound optimistic about an early return from injury for Michael Gallup and about the promise of rookie Jalen Tolbert behind top receiver CeeDee Lamb. But with James Washington out with a broken foot and legit questions around Gallup and Tolbert until we see what they can do on the field, Dallas would do well to poke around.
Players such as Denzel Mims could be available here in the coming days and pique the Cowboys’ interest.
Don’t be surprised if … Javonte Williams wins you your fantasy league.
What I’m hearing: The fantasy community is concerned about a repeat of last year’s 50/50 running back split between Williams and Melvin Gordon, but the Broncos have major plans for Williams, and they start now. They were ready to let Gordon leave before he failed to find what he was looking for on the market and returned to them late in free agency.
I think Gordon, who has had a strong camp by all accounts, still has a role, but that it’s a far more secondary role than he had last year as Williams takes control of the backfield and piles up yards and catches.
Don’t be surprised if … Jared Goff sets career highs in yards and touchdown passes.
What I’m hearing: Goff’s current career highs are the 4,688 yards and 32 touchdowns he had in 2018 with the Rams. An extra regular-season game makes those numbers attainable. The Lions look good on the offensive line. They added DJ Chark to the receiving corps to go with the promising Amon-Ra St. Brown. They’re strong at running back with D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.
I’m not saying the Lions make some major jump into the playoffs this year, and I’m not just caught up in “Hard Knocks” hype, because Goff has been the invisible man on that show so far this year. I’m saying the Lions feel very, very good about how Goff has looked in camp, and he may be better set up for statistical success than you think he is.
Don’t be surprised if … Allen Lazard has a 1,000-yard receiving season.
What I’m hearing: His career highs are 40 catches and 513 yards, so this would be a major Year 5 jump. But Davante Adams is gone, and someone has to catch the ball. Aaron Rodgers is already referring to Lazard as the team’s No. 1 receiver. The coaching staff says Lazard looks at himself as that kind of guy and is ready to assume the mantle.
If there’s a key question about Rodgers and his receivers this year, it’s whom he will trust on third down and in the red zone. But Lazard was 11th in the league in end zone targets LAST year, so there are signs that he already has some level of that trust.
Stephania Bell and Field Yates discuss Allen Lazard’s fantasy potential as WR No. 1 with the Packers.
Don’t be surprised if … Davis Mills plays well enough to keep the job.
What I’m hearing: The Texans like Mills and want to give him every chance to show he can be their long-term answer at quarterback. He has to show improvement on deeper throws, but offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has a chance to add to his own résumé by coaching a big year out of Mills.
Houston has the draft capital to go after a QB in next year’s draft if it decides it needs to, and that might end up being the most likely outcome here. But Mills was fairly well regarded by a number of teams ahead of the 2021 draft and could outplay expectations as Houston’s unchallenged starter in 2022.
Don’t be surprised if … Nyheim Hines catches 63 (or more) passes this season.
What I’m hearing: Hines had 63 catches in 2018, when Andrew Luck was the Colts’ quarterback, and 63 catches in 2020, when Philip Rivers was the Colts’ quarterback. He had 44 catches in 2019, when Jacoby Brissett was the Colts’ quarterback, and 40 last year, when the checkdown-averse Carson Wentz was his quarterback.
The Colts WANT Hines and his pass-catching ability to be a big part of what they do on offense, and they believe Matt Ryan won’t be shy about finding him when the play calls for it.
Don’t be surprised if … they make the playoffs.
What I’m hearing: The change in atmosphere around the Jaguars under Doug Pederson versus what it was a year ago under Urban Meyer may constitute the biggest upgrade of any situation in the league. Trevor Lawrence is still a top-end QB prospect in the eyes of many, and they added a ton of players around him on offense in free agency.
Tennessee could take a step back this year, and Houston is likely to struggle, so the division outside of Indianapolis doesn’t look too intimidating. (Plus, they ALWAYS beat the Colts in Jacksonville!) It’s a long shot, but there’s always a long shot that ends up in the postseason, and the Jaguars are likely a lot better team than they appeared to be last year during the Meyer fiasco.
Field Yates and Daniel Dopp decide if the Jaguars will win over or under 6.5 games next season.
Don’t be surprised if … This is the year Clyde Edwards-Helaire breaks out.
What I’m hearing: Yeah, yeah, I know … how many years are we going to be saying this? Well, if it’s not this year, then I would say no more years after this. The Chiefs have to decide on Edwards-Helaire’s fifth-year option next May, and if he doesn’t live up to his 2020 first-round pedigree, it’ll be really easy for the Chiefs to cut ties after this year.
But the coaching staff remains high on Edwards-Helaire and what he can do in this offense. They believe his biggest issue so far in his career has been staying healthy, and that he has done a good job of that this offseason. He’s set up for a post-hype breakout kind of year.
Don’t be surprised if … Derek Carr eclipses 5,000 passing yards.
What I’m hearing: First of all, he had 4,804 last year (yes, really, and he didn’t have Davante Adams to throw to. He still has Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller, plus a couple of pass-catching running backs in addition to Adams, who’s quite determined to prove he wasn’t just an Aaron Rodgers creation.
There are question marks on the offensive line, and I don’t want to diminish the significance. But I expect these Raiders to throw, throw and throw some more, and it’s not some major stretch to think the addition of Adams to the receiving corps and Josh McDaniels to the head coach’s offense could add at least 196 yards to Carr’s 2021 total.
Don’t be surprised if … they have a top-three defense.
What I’m hearing: There’s a lot of hype around Justin Herbert and the offense, and for good reason. It has a chance to be as good as any in the league. But don’t overlook the other side of the ball, where the Chargers boast legitimate superstars up front (Joey Bosa) and on the back end (Derwin James).
When James is healthy, he is the difference-maker for L.A. on defense, and the contract the Chargers just gave him speaks to their faith in his ability to stay on the field moving forward. Don’t be surprised if James and Bosa both get DPOY votes as this group becomes one of the very best in the NFL.
Don’t be surprised if … Matthew Stafford‘s elbow is an issue all season.
What I’m hearing: Well, everything you hear from the Rams and from Stafford is that it’s fine, it’s nothing to worry about, they have a plan, and it won’t be a problem. And hey, maybe they’re telling the truth. The Rams’ medical staff is outstanding, and its plan for getting Stafford ready for the season may be perfect. But it’s the elbow on the starting quarterback’s throwing arm. The level of precision required to succeed at that position in the NFL is so high that even the slightest problem — one that affects the placement of the throw by 2 or 3 inches — could be enough to turn a great year into a so-so year.
My impression of this situation is that it affects Stafford’s practice schedule all year and could also, obviously, affect his performance on Sundays. He’s tough enough that it’s fair to believe it won’t affect his availability for Sundays, but this is a guy who already led the league in interceptions last year. We sure an elbow problem isn’t going to mess with him at all?
What I’m hearing: Hill is the fastest dude in the league, but Waddle is pretty darn speedy himself, and he caught 104 passes last year as a rookie. He already has a connection with Tua Tagovailoa, who’s likely to lean more on shorter, quick-hitting stuff than deep downfield throws.
Hill could open up the field for Waddle to an extent that allows him to build on his highly productive rookie campaign. Think about a Deebo Samuel-type role (without the rushing attempts) in former 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel’s offense.
Don’t be surprised if … C.J. Ham has some kind of role in the offense.
What I’m hearing: When I was at Vikings camp, I was a little shocked at the extent to which people were talking up fullback Ham as a player who could contribute in multiple ways on offense. I’m thinking, “Dalvin Cook? Justin Jefferson? Adam Thielen? K.J. Osborn? Irv Smith Jr.? Like, are they hurting for playmakers?” But the new Vikings coaching staff — and QB Kirk Cousins — really do see Ham as a player who can help in a variety of ways.
I think new coach Kevin O’Connell is going to have some fun shaking up formations, putting multiple running backs on the field at the same time, maybe deploying Ham as an extra tight end in certain scenarios, etc. I don’t think there’s an action item here from a fantasy standpoint unless Cook gets hurt and they have to get REALLY creative at running back. But from a watching-the-team standpoint, this is a guy you could notice more than you have in years past.
Don’t be surprised if … Nelson Agholor is Mac Jones’ favorite target.
What I’m hearing: Agholor had a quiet first season in New England, and the team traded for DeVante Parker and drafted Tyquan Thornton in the second round to bolster a WR corps that already included Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers. Oh, and don’t forget Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, the two free agent tight ends the Pats signed in 2021.
It’s a crowded group of pass-catchers, to be sure, but the buzz out of New England this camp has been that Jones and Agholor have developed a reliable connection. There are many things we don’t know about how this offense will function in New England this year, but watch out for Agholor as a guy Jones has grown to like a lot.
Don’t be surprised if … Chris Olave turns out to be their No. 1 receiver.
What I’m hearing: Yes, Michael Thomas has supposedly looked good in his effort to finally return from those ankle injuries. And yes, Jarvis Landry is a quarterback’s-best-friend type of possession receiver who should catch a lot of balls. But Olave, the 11th overall pick in this year’s draft, is the receiver the Saints truly believe can be a dynamic difference-maker in multiple ways on offense.
Indications out of Saints camp are that Olave has picked things up quickly and is already a polished route-runner for a rookie, and that Jameis Winston likes throwing to him. He could be the most instant-impact player among this year’s offensive rookies.
Liz Loza examines Chris Olave’s fantasy value this season with with Jameis Winston in New Orleans.
Don’t be surprised if … rookie Wan’Dale Robinson is the team’s leading receiver.
What I’m hearing: There is plenty of opportunity for someone to assume a dominant role in the Giants’ pass-catcher rotation. Kenny Golladay doesn’t appear capable of separating from defenders. Kadarius Toney continues to deal with nagging health issues here and there. Sterling Shepard just got back to practice as he works his way back from an Achilles injury. Darius Slayton has been made available in trade since last October.
The Giants have a healthy Daniel Jones and a favorable schedule of opposing defenses. Somebody has to catch the ball. Robinson was the team’s second-round pick in this year’s draft, and the coaching staff feels it can use him all over the formation. This coaching staff and front office didn’t sign Golladay and didn’t draft Toney or Shepard. It’s a big jump from the second round to a team’s leading receiver in Year 1, but watch out. Robinson should be a factor.
Don’t be surprised if … they field a top-10 defense.
What I’m hearing: Coach Robert Saleh’s background is on defense, so last year’s performance on that side of the ball had to make him sick. This year, the Jets added first-round draft picks Sauce Gardner and Jermaine Johnson, among other key pieces, and they’re getting 2020 free agent signee Carl Lawson back after he missed all of last season because of injury.
Their first-half schedule looks brutal, so it may take a while for this unit to move up the statistical charts. But Gardner should be a strong Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate at the least in Year 1, and Lawson’s impact on the pass rush should be significant.
Don’t be surprised if … A.J. Brown has more than 1,000 receiving yards this year.
What I’m hearing: The Eagles haven’t had a wide receiver go over 1,000 yards in a season since Jeremy Maclin in 2014. (Tight end Zach Ertz did it in 2018.) Last year’s Eagles ranked second in rushing attempts (one behind Tennessee) and first in rushing yards. No team last year attempted fewer passes than Philly’s 494. But they traded for Brown because they felt he was what their offense was missing.
And with Brown in the fold, I believe we should expect the Eagles to throw more. By all accounts, Brown and QB Jalen Hurts already have a strong friendship and on-field connection. If Hurts continues to progress and develop as a passer, Brown should show his stuff as an alpha receiver and clear 1,000 yards easily.
Mike Clay forecasts AJ Brown’s fantasy production with the Philadelphia Eagles this season.
Don’t be surprised if … Chase Claypool is the breakout star at wide receiver.
What I’m hearing: Diontae Johnson is the reliable No. 1 in the receiving corps, and the offseason hype about rookie George Pickens is legit — he really has impressed the coaching staff at every turn. But don’t forget about Claypool, whose physical gifts make him a mismatch when they use him in the slot and, honestly, all over the field.
Whether it’s Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett or both at QB for the Steelers this year, Claypool has a chance to be a difference-making target who can win on 50-50 balls and be a major factor in the red zone.
Don’t be surprised if … they miss the playoffs.
What I’m hearing: Trey Lance could be a lot of fun to watch, but he’s also very likely to struggle to overcome the lack of experience he brings to the job. Even some of the 49ers’ recent public comments indicate they think as much. They have question marks at four of the five starting offensive line spots, which isn’t getting nearly enough attention amid the preseason hype. The defense looks championship-caliber, which could save them, but there are enough questions at key spots on offense to make you wonder if we’re assuming too much when we think they’ll just stay good.
Kyle Shanahan’s record as 49ers head coach is 39-42 (43-44 counting playoffs), and the team has failed to reach seven wins in three of his five seasons. So it wouldn’t be the first time people overrated the 49ers in the preseason. I think Lance ends up being good, but I think this season could be quite rocky.
Don’t be surprised if … Kenneth Walker III wins Offensive Rookie of the Year.
What I’m hearing: He’s currently out recovering from hernia surgery, but everything I’m hearing makes me expect Walker back sooner rather than later. The guy in front of him on the depth chart, Rashaad Penny, hasn’t exactly been the picture of consistent health. Walker will have the opportunity with a team that wants to run a lot and has the offensive line to pull it off. If he’s back in Week 1 or 2, he could start piling up major yardage from the get-go.
Don’t be surprised if … Tom Brady throws for 5,000 yards again.
What I’m hearing: The internal concern over the Bucs’ offensive line issues, Brady’s training camp absence, the changes on the coaching staff, etc., don’t match the external concern. The Bucs believe Brady is in the right frame of mind to start the season and that the guys they will line up in front of him Week 1 are good enough to keep him protected.
If both of those things are true, and if Chris Godwin comes back early in the season as they expect him to, Brady should continue to do what he has done since he got to Tampa. There are some questions on defense, but if they can keep him protected, Brady should be the least of the Bucs’ problems.
Stephen A. Smith says Tom Brady and the Buccaneers shouldn’t be worried since “it’s the preseason.”
Don’t be surprised if … Treylon Burks leads all rookie receivers in catches.
What I’m hearing: Robert Woods is slated to be the No. 1 receiver in Tennessee, but the Titans have a major role planned for Burks and have been giving him extra reps in the preseason to get him up to speed quickly after a difficult spring.
This is a run-first team that will lean on Derrick Henry, but the Titans have big plans for Burks and would like to feature him prominently in the passing game. The bet here is that he has some bumps in the road early, but that they keep going to him in order to help him work through it, and he’s a major part of things there in the second half of the season.
Don’t be surprised if … Chase Young wins Comeback Player of the Year.
What I’m hearing: Young will have to miss at least the first four games while recovering from an ACL tear, but Washington expects him to be ready soon after that if not before, so he should be able to hit the ground running and start piling up sacks for what’s already a good-looking defense even without him.
In his rookie season two years ago, Young showed an ability to wreck games and harass quarterbacks week in and week out. He’ll be a major factor down the stretch for a Washington team that has a chance to hang in the wild-card race if everything breaks the right way.