The interminable wait is over, and Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season is finally upon us. An end to all the prognostication and preseason analysis, and time for some actual football. Well … perhaps just a little bit more prognostication and preseason analysis, now that we mention it.
Insiders Dan Graziano and Jeremy Fowler have been keeping you informed on all the latest National Football League happenings since the final second ticked off the Super Bowl LVI scoreboard at SoFi Stadium seven months ago, and will now apply their powers of NFL pulse-checking to the Week 1 schedule.
What are the top upset picks for Week 1? Which players will Graziano and Fowler be watching most closely — both fantasy football-wise and otherwise? Which coaches will begin the 2022 season under the most scrutiny? Who are the new faces in new places who hold the highest level of intrigue? What’s the latest buzz from around the league? ESPN’s Insiders empty their notebooks and answer all of the biggest questions as another thrilling NFL season gets set to commence with this week’s 16-game slate.
What’s your top upset pick for Week 1?
Graziano: Jaguars (+2.5) over Commanders. I went through my picks and dang, they’re chalky this week. This is literally the only upset I picked. But I do like the Jaguars as a little bit of a sleeper team this year. No team in the league underwent a more significant upgrade at the head coaching position, from the all-encompassing disaster of Urban Meyer to the Super Bowl-winning Doug Pederson. I think Trevor Lawrence reminds everybody why he was the first pick.
Fowler: Patriots (+3.5) over Dolphins. Time to put the chalk down, Dan, and come over to the AFC East, where New England is still a major player despite the mess of an offensive performance in the preseason. I know, the playcaller thing is concerning. I have no idea what to expect from Mac Jones in Year 2 as a result. But there’s a sneaky feeling that Bill Belichick is doing all this by design, to lull opponents to sleep. He’ll slop this game up with defense and the running game and win 17-14.
With a new team and a chip on his shoulder, Russell Wilson’s projection for the 2022 season is hovering around the number 10 spot.
Which quarterback in a new place are you most intrigued by this week?
Fowler: I’ve been intrigued by Russell Wilson‘s Denver debut for a while now. It’s easy to say, well, Wilson is an elite quarterback, and so elite guys do what they do. But there’s a transitional phase here that must take place, and for all Wilson’s greatness in Seattle, the Seahawks were long frustrated with Wilson’s struggles to avoid sacks and get rid of the ball with rhythm and timing. You can live with some of that because of Wilson’s brilliant playmaking, improvisationally or on the move, but Nathaniel Hackett’s offense in Green Bay was structured around rhythm and timing. How Wilson adapts will be crucial.
Graziano: Lots of eyes — and pressure — on Wilson, to be sure. I’m a little surprised at how little grief he’s taken for basically forcing his way out of Seattle, and I’m fascinated to see how the Seahawks fans greet him Monday Night. Wilson begins a critical chapter in his career — one in which he’ll either win with a second team or have to answer questions about whether his first one propped him up early in his career. When you talk about Hall of Fame candidacies and things like that, these are the kinds of developments people watch closely.
Fowler: Great point, Dan. Curious your thoughts on Baker Mayfield‘s Carolina rebirth. The stage is set for him in a major way. Discarded in Cleveland. Feeling underappreciated. Asked to take less money to get out of his contract. Now, he has playmakers in Carolina and a new outlook — and he gets a home game against his former team Sunday.
Graziano: I think Baker will do well in Carolina. He was obviously not healthy last year, between shoulder and foot injuries, and things turned ugly in Cleveland as they always seem to with everyone. I would not be at all surprised if Mayfield played well enough to return as Carolina’s quarterback in 2023 on a new deal.
Matt Ryan in Indianapolis is another big one to watch, at home against Houston. This is the Colts’ fifth different Week 1 starting quarterback in five years, and this is a team that believed it’s good enough, with more reliable quarterback play, to contend for a championship. I’m fascinated not only to see how Ryan plays in his first year in Indy, but whether he can break the cycle and return for a second one!
Marcus Spears weighs in on Mike McCarthy’s responsibilities as head coach to decrease the number of penalties the Cowboys have racked up under his tenure.
Which coach has the most to prove in Week 1?
Fowler: Matt Rhule, Panthers. This one’s pretty easy for me. Rhule takes a 10-23 NFL record into an uncertain Year 3 in Carolina. No coach enters the year with a hotter seat, and quarterback uncertainty doesn’t help. What Rhule has going for him: The Panthers roster is sneaky good, and Rhule’s college programs (Baylor, Temple) always made a big jump after three seasons. He’s going to need it.
Dan, who’s a coach people aren’t talking enough about now but could face heat in November and December?
Graziano: Mike McCarthy, Cowboys. No coach enters this season with more eyes on him. McCarthy is set up to be the punching bag if the Cowboys have a disappointing season, and especially if they lead the league in penalties for the second year in a row. As the overseer and tone-setter for the team, McCarthy is ultimately where the blame will go if the Cowboys look sloppy and undisciplined this year, and that starts Week 1. They played an outstanding game in the opener against Tampa Bay last year and barely lost.
I don’t think McCarthy has to win Sunday night against the Bucs, but it surely would help him if the team looked the way it did in Week 1 of 2021.
Field Yates explains why Tyreek Hill might not live up to expectations with the Dolphins.
Who’s a non-QB newcomer you have your eye on this week?
Fowler: Let’s go with Julio Jones. People with the Bucs are legitimately giddy over what they think the future Hall-of-Fame wideout can do for Tampa’s offense. Word is he looks rejuvenated and explosive. That was hardly the case last year in Tennessee, however, where Jones was hampered by injury and produced a career-low 31 catches. Can he stay healthy?
Graziano: A Julio revival would be a lot of fun, but I don’t know, man… He barely practiced the last two years in Atlanta and Tennessee, let alone played. I’m inclined to think the air is out of the balloon on that brilliant career. But we shall see.
How about Tyreek Hill in Miami? This offense is supposed to make a big jump under first-year head coach Mike McDaniel. The Dolphins added several helpful pieces around third-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, but none more prominent than Hill, whose blazing speed should help open up the offense. If Tua’s going to look good, Hill’s going to be a big reason why.
Fowler: Yeah, Hill’s so good I just assume he’s going to produce in a big way, no matter the quarterback. His presence changes everything for Tagovailoa.
If we’re going with rookies, I’m looking for first-round wideout Jahan Dotson to make a swift impact in Washington. Coach Ron Rivera told me this offseason that Dotson runs routes like a polished veteran. For quarterback Carson Wentz to succeed, the Commanders offense needs an explosive option opposite Terry McLaurin.
Graziano: Good call there. Another rookie to watch is Seattle running back Kenneth Walker III, a second-round pick who’s recovering from a hernia procedure and might not even be ready to play this week. I still expect Walker to be able to play early in the season and probably to overtake Rashaad Penny as the lead back at some point in 2022. Penny finished the season on fire, but he has struggled to stay healthy.
The Fantasy Football Podcast crew breaks down how likely it is for Gabe Davis to lead the Bills in touchdown catches.
What’s your fantasy football call of the week?
Graziano: Mecole Hardman has the biggest week of the Chiefs wide receivers in Arizona. Kansas City’s pass-catcher pecking order remains a bit of a mystery going into the first year post-Tyreek Hill, but Hardman has more experience in the offense than do newcomers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Skyy Moore.
Patrick Mahomes told me when I visited the Chiefs’ training camp that their hope was to expand Hardman’s role this year. Whether Hardman can handle an expanded role in the offense remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if they take some shots against the Cardinals’ suspect secondary Sunday to try and start finding out.
Fowler: That Gabe Davis starts his Year 3 breakout with a big debut. The feeling out of Buffalo’s camp is Davis, who has yet to surpass 35 catches or 600 yards in a season, is poised for a much stronger WR2 output. Josh Allen trusts him, and Stefon Diggs double-teams allow Davis to win one-on-one matchups against a Rams secondary that is not considered deep.
Graziano: Yeah, you have to think Diggs sees a lot of Jalen Ramsey in this one, so I like that Davis call.
What do you think about tight ends? I tend to overlook tight end in most of my fantasy drafts (mainly because the “main” league I’ve played in for 27 years lumps WRs and TEs together, so we don’t use many of them), so I’m always looking for streamers. I kind of like Austin Hooper this week against the Giants. Someone has to catch the ball for the Titans, and with Robert Woods working his way back from injury and Treylon Burks still getting acclimated to the NFL, Hooper should be able to feast on that Giants’ defense.
Fowler: If you’re looking for a tight end sleeper, Hayden Hurst qualifies. The Bengals are anticipating him to get opponents’ fourth-best cover man on a lot of snaps, due to Cincinnati’s talented trio of receivers, and he’ll be able to win those matchups. I’m not expecting massive numbers from him but enough to get you by on some dry weeks.
Stephen A. Smith discusses the potential risk of Lamar Jackson playing without a contract extension.
Give us one bold preseason prediction you feel confident about.
Fowler: The 49ers will win the NFC. Quarterback Trey Lance‘s development is a wild card here, but the offense has a chance to be more explosive with his physical tools and arm strength. The running game and the front seven will be stout, and the secondary has improved after key additions. San Francisco looks built for December and January behind stars such as Trent Williams, Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Fred Warner and Arik Armstead.
Graziano: The only thing that concerns me about the Niners (other than the legit questions about whether Lance is ready) is that offensive line other than Williams. They have major question marks there, but if it all comes together, you’re right, the 49ers are stacked. The defense looks like it could be a monster.
My prediction is that Lamar Jackson will win MVP. I don’t know whether he’ll get a contract extension done with the Ravens in the next three or four days. I kind of think he won’t. But if he can stay healthy all season, with a Ravens team that just has to be a ton more healthy than it was overall last season, he’s the most vital and electrifying player in the league. He might not win the Super Bowl in his prove-it contract year like Joe Flacco did for the Ravens once upon a time, but, A) he very well could and, B) a second MVP trophy would likely be enough to convince Baltimore to hand over all that guaranteed money he’s looking for when they talk again next spring.
Jake Trotter explains how the Browns will handle their QB situation now that Deshaun Watson’s punishment is confirmed.
Let’s empty your notebooks. What else are you hearing this week?
Lamar Jackson might not get his extension before the season starts, but I’ll bet a few guys do. Remember, T.J. Watt‘s megadeal with the Steelers got done last year on the day of the Thursday night opener between the Cowboys and Bucs. Candidates to get high-end extensions in the dwindling days before the season starts, based on chatter I’ve heard around the league, include Colts guard Quenton Nelson, Titans defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, Bengals tackle Jonah Williams, Rams safety Taylor Rapp, Packers defensive lineman Rashan Gary and Raiders tight end Darren Waller.
Bill Belichick’s decision to fly the Patriots to South Florida on Tuesday and spend the week practicing in the kind of heat and humidity they’ll face in Sunday’s opener against the Dolphins raised eyebrows around the league. People I’ve spoken to in New England say they don’t remember anything like this before, but the Pats are 2-7 in their last nine games in Miami, and this is a very young Patriots team with key players who are being exposed to some things for the first time. Belichick’s hallmark is his ability to change up the plan week-to-week depending on opponent and circumstances. This may be an extreme example, but if they win Sunday, expect the Pats to spend a week in Miami again next year.
Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson isn’t allowed to be in the team facility until after the Browns’ Week 5 game against the Chargers and can’t play until their Week 13 game in Houston — the result of his 11-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy. In the meantime, his plan is to spend his time in Cleveland, working out away from the facility with his personal quarterbacks coach, Quincy Avery. Watson can practice with the team starting Oct. 10, even though he won’t be eligible to play until Dec. 4.
There was an interesting announcement this week by new Giants coach Brian Daboll, who says offensive coordinator Mike Kafka will call the plays this season. The vast majority of offensive-minded head coaches these days choose to call the plays themselves, and this decision speaks to Daboll’s view of his own role. Yes, he was the playcaller in Buffalo, and quite good at it. But he didn’t get the Giants job to be a playcaller. They hired Daboll to be the overall tone- and vision-setter for the team, and he’s focused on what he’s doing to establish a fresh culture there. Kafka, who has his own head-coach aspirations, left Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City to go with Daboll to the moribund Giants, so it’s not shocking that such a move would come with increased responsibility. A lot of eyes are on the Giants, where quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Saquon Barkley, two of the highest-profile draft picks of the Dave Gettleman regime, are playing out the final years of their contracts with Daboll and new general manager Joe Schoen evaluating their (and everyone else’s) place in the team’s future.
People I’m talking to remain skeptical that the Ravens can bridge the gap with Lamar Jackson on a new contract before Week 1. One person with knowledge of the situation told me Jackson made clear a few weeks ago that he’s playing out his rookie contract after both sides failed to reach an agreement over the summer. Perhaps Baltimore can change that over the next few days. But Jackson wants a fully guaranteed deal — his dialogue with the team reflected that — and Baltimore, despite efforts to improve its offer in recent weeks, simply hasn’t wanted to go there. This feels over. But the clock is ticking and there’s another 24 hours to change that. Otherwise, the two-year standoff begins, with the fifth-year option of $23 million this year and the exclusive franchise tag of $40 million next year.
Those are great names for potential extensions, Dan, with Simmons the one player of the 2019 first-round picks I have earmarked for a deal sooner than later, though last I’m hearing the sides might wait until in-season or after the year. The Titans also value safety Amani Hooker, a 2023 free agent, as a key piece, though safety Jalen Thompson‘s big deal in Arizona (three years at close to $40 million) probably doesn’t help both sides, since Hooker could get more. Another name to watch: Eagles defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. The Eagles like to do extensions for key players around the start of the season (Jordan Mailata, Josh Sweat last year), and Hargrave, coming off a Pro Bowl year, seems like a logical candidate. And my understanding of the Waller deal — it’s a matter of when, not if. Could be this week.
The trade that facilitated Baker Mayfield‘s juicy matchup with Cleveland this weekend almost didn’t happen. As the Panthers and Browns failed to come to terms early in the summer, Carolina owner David Tepper stepped in with a deadline – July 4th weekend. He wanted it done by then, with the presumption that talks would otherwise shut down. So the parties involved kept by their phones even as some were on vacation. The deal finally got done July 5, as both sides eventually made concessions to finalize it. “Everyone agreed they had to give something up to get it done,” a source involved said. The Browns agreed to cover $10.5 million of his $18.8 million salary (believed to be an increase from where they were early in the process) and the Panthers settled on a conditional fifth-round pick as compensation. Mayfield was never crazy about relinquishing $3.5 million in guaranteed money, but that’s the win Cleveland needed. Winning Sunday might be enough of a payoff for Mayfield, who also can earn that money back through incentives.
The New York Jets caught attention last week for a reason that speaks to roster strength: Eleven of their released players from roster cutdowns were claimed by another team, most in the league. That total includes seven players released on Aug. 31. This drained some of the Jets’ plans for the practice squad but came with a clear message: The roster is in a much better place under GM Joe Douglas and head coach Robert Saleh than it was a few years ago. “I assume they picked the right players to keep, but overall they’ve got an improved team that could push for the playoffs if Zach Wilson gets back healthy and takes care of the ball,” an NFC exec said.