Before the NFL season kicks off, let’s run through a few bold predictions. 

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Trey Lance Finishes as a Top 10 QB

Let’s start with one that we’ve hinted at in writing and podcasts throughout the offseason. A huge Lance breakout wouldn’t be the first time a Year 2 quarterback exploded after limited playing time as a rookie. Now we’re also a little vague here by saying “top-10 quarterback” because that can mean a lot of things, but for this, we’ll call it top-10 in EPA per dropback and as a collective football-observing community we’re impressed by Lance’s play.

When we wrote about what Lance could do in Year 2, we mentioned the elements Lance adds to the offense while many of the easy buttons that are schemed up will still be in place. There is more of a question of how Lance will take those layup opportunities than how he’ll handle the shot plays. 

That’s a development gamble I’d be willing to bet on. Lance’s 2021 production would have finished in the top-10 of EPA per dropback, per TruMedia. Lance could show both a higher upside and a higher floor as the established full-time starter in 2022.

DK Metcalf Finishes In the Top 10 For Receiving Yards

There aren’t high expectations for the Seattle Seahawks, especially on offense. If you want to look at expectations for Metcalf individually, we can look at fantasy ADP. On Underdog, Metcalf has been drafted as the WR30.

In a full 17-game season last year, Metcalf only had 927 receiving yards which ranked 28th. Going from there to the top 10 might feel like a bit of a stretch, especially as he’ll now go from Russell Wilson to Geno Smith at quarterback. While that is a huge downgrade in individual talent, it might not be quite as bad for Metcalf’s usage and development as a receiver.

Wilson and Metcalf might have been the perfect fit for each other — the moonball placed perfectly to a large, fast man down the field — but those deep throws weren’t always high percentage plays. When Smith took over at quarterback last season, Metcalf turned into an intermediate threat and took off in that area, though this came on just 21 targets.

DK Metcalf Quarterback Splits, 2021
data per TruMedia

w/ QBYPRRTarget ShareTargets/Route1-10 Air Yards11-19 Air Yards20+ Air Yards
Russell Wilson1.7528%26.3%45.4%19.4%25.9%
Geno Smith2.8223.9%23.6%47.6%28.6%10%

The deep shots shouldn’t disappear as they did, but if Metcalf can continue to work that intermediate area, that could lead to higher percentage conversions and some more room to run after the catch. It also could lessen the reliance on those big shot plays to put up those receiving yards. If Metcalf can become a higher-volume intermediate receiver, he could have some more consistent down-to-down success as a go-to receiver as the offense transitions to its new form.

The New York Giants will finish with the worst record

This roster is not good, but that’s by design. There should be a ton to look forward to in the future under general manager Joe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll, but immediate success isn’t it. While Daboll should be able to coax more out of an offense that was one of the worst in the league last season, it’s hard to believe the defense is going to hold up.

Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale wants to blitz and play man coverage. That can work when Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters are the cornerbacks. That aggressiveness works less when you’re asking Adoree Jackson and Aaron Robinson to hold their own in man. No team blitzed more than the Giants during the preseason (43.5%) per TruMedia and they ran Cover-0 on 12.8% of their snaps. The Giants played the third-highest rate of man coverage during the preseason. When it works, that could lead to some big plays on defense but it’s more likely to allow big plays the other way.

Over the past two seasons, it’s been the defense that has kept the Giants in games as the offense faltered, but the 2022 version is likely to be the other way around. This defense is going to give up a ton of points and any gains from the offense won’t be enough to make up for it.

The latest Football Outsiders projections give the Giants a 13.1% at receiving the top overall pick. Those are higher odds than the Buffalo Bills have to win the Super Bowl as the favorite (12.7%). The next highest odds for the top picks is at 7.2%. BetMGM has the Giants at +1400 as the ninth likeliest to finish the season with the fewest wins. 

Maxx Crosby leads the league in sacks

Crosby had his breakout season as a pass rusher in 2021 but only finished the year with eight sacks, which tied for 32nd. Per TruMedia/PFF, Crosby had a higher pressure rate (16.5%) than sack-leader T.J. Watt (15.5%) and also had a higher rate of quick pressures within 2.5 seconds of the snap (8.8% to 6.9%). Crosby was also 10th in ESPN’s pass rush win rate among edge rushers in 2021.

Despite the low sack total, Crosby finished the season tied for fourth with 30 quarterback hits. The problem was only 26.7% of those turned into sacks. The league average was around 41% and that’s a rate we tend to see regress toward the mean from year-to-year.

Crosby did play a ton of defensive snaps last season, but he appears to be the type of player that can handle that workload.

With a better pass rush partner on the other side of the line in Chandler Jones and a more exotic defensive scheme under new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, Crosby has the opportunity to receive more high-quality pass rush opportunities. It’s not out of the question for Crosby to get to the quarterback more often while his hit-to-sack ratio also increases.

At BetMGM, Crosby has the 10th highest odds at +1800 to lead the league in sacks. A very similar case could be made for Rashan Gary, who sits at +3000.

Desmond Ridder outplays and outstarts Kenny Pickett

The Steelers don’t appear to be in any rush to put Pickett on the field and as the team’s first-round pick, they don’t really have to. We often see first-round quarterbacks play early but if Mitchell Trusbisky can skate through the first half of the season as a passable enough starter, the Steelers might not want to make a move.

Marcus Mariota looked good in his limited preseason playing time, but as fun as a good Mariota would be for the NFL viewing experience, Falcons could be more pressed to see what Ridder looks like in real game action. The Falcons are going to be a much worse team overall, which would give a clearer path for Ridder starts.

We don’t want to get into making too much of preseason performance but while Pickett’s play was consistently highlighted, Ridder played just as well or better with a version of football that should be more translatable to the regular season.

Pickett was able to use his short area accuracy to complete 80.6% of his preseason passes as he relied heavily on slants and speed outs. That’s not going to be how the offense works in the regular season — at least not successfully sustained. Only 22.2% of Pickett’s preseason passes went more than 11 yards past the line of scrimmage. Ridder’s rate was 44% with an average depth of target four yards higher than Pickett’s.

If Ridder can find success on some of those deeper passes, he could have a path to some production throwing to Drake London and Kyle Pitts.

The Carolina Panthers will make the playoffs

From a process standpoint, the Panthers have been a mess. That’s especially true in their search for a quarterback since Matt Rhule took over as head coach. That process won’t matter as much when the team takes the field and Baker Mayfield is easily the best quarterback the team will use in the Rhule era.

Mayfield didn’t have a great — or good — season in 2021. But the improvement in EPA per dropback from the 2021 version of Sam Darnold to the 2021 version of Mayfield would be the same as going from that version of Mayfield to Kyler Murray. At full health, there is some hope Mayfield can improve upon what he showed in Cleveland last year.

Outside of the quarterback, this time has a ton of talent. The pass catchers can be good and getting close to the 2020 version of Robbie Anderson would be another boost next to D.J. Moore The offensive line has improved to at least a league-average unit. This defense also has the potential to be quite good. It was a unit that was in the top 10 of defensive DVOA as late as Week 15 of the 2021 season.

There is at least one difference-maker at each level of the defense in Brian Burns, Shaq Thompson, and Jeremy Chinn. Cornerback Jaycee Horn was outstanding as a rookie in his limited time before an injury ended his season. Defensive coordinator Phil Snow has been one of the more creative play designers, which has gotten the Panthers to cover up any holes in talent on that side of the ball.

There is no defending the road the Panthers took to get here, but on the field, this team could sneak a wild card berth in a weaker NFC.

Justin Herbert wins MVP

Herbert finished the 2021 season tied for second in EPA per dropback and that came with some meat left on the bone. The Chargers were more conservative with pushing the ball down the field on early downs. Herbert ranked 14th in EPA per dropback on first and second down while he was 26th in average depth of target.

The Chargers should open up the offense more on early downs, which could give Herbert more opportunities to showcase the superhuman ability at the position.  I’m not really sure I have to sell Justin Herbert to you any more than this.

Chiefs win the Super Bowl

The heart wants to go Chargers here, too, but we’ll leave that to just MVP for now. The Chiefs still have Patrick Mahomes, who also tied for second in EPA per dropback last season. Kansas City led the league in EPA per drive and finished second in EPA per play. 48.2% of the Chiefs’ offensive drives ended with points, the highest rate in the league.

That was a version of the Chiefs that many believed wasn’t the best version. Kansas City now has some more answers and changeups for what defenses could potentially throw at them in 2022. The defense could also be improved with new talent at meaningful positions.

If we add another layer to Andy Reid’s involvement, let’s say the win comes over the Philadelphia Eagles.

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