It can be pretty easy to find things to complain about as an NFL fan, even if you root for one of the best teams in the league. Maybe it’s the run defense in Kansas City, the passing game in Baltimore, or the offensive line in … well, every fan base thinks its offensive line could be better, so maybe that’s not the best example.
The offseason is a time for optimism, though. All those issues that plagued your favorite team last season? They’ve been sorted out—unless you root for the Bears. And there’s reason to believe things will be different this time around. Just you watch!
Much of that faith will look awfully silly by the end of September. But some teams truly do solve their biggest problem over the course of a spring. We saw this play out in Kansas City a year ago when, after watching the Bucs harass Patrick Mahomes for 60 minutes in Super Bowl LV, the Chiefs overhauled their entire offensive line and went on to finish second in ESPN’s pass block win rate metric.
So which groups will be this year’s versions of the Chiefs’ offensive line? Which teams were able to flip a major weakness into a strength in the past few months? Here are five candidates for the NFL’s most-improved units.
Chargers Front Seven
The NFL is a passing league and has been for awhile now. But if you need proof that run defense still matters, just look at the 2021 Chargers. Rookie head coach Brandon Staley brought his state-of-the-art defense—which was celebrated by both film and data nerds for taking liberties against the run in order to better stop the pass—over from the Rams and found out it’s much harder to coach when you don’t have Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey at your disposal.
The Chargers’ scheme was not an exact replica of what Staley deployed as the Rams’ defensive coordinator, but the tenets remained the same: The Chargers dedicated as many players to stopping the pass as possible—which meant a lot of looks with two safeties back deep—while using schematic hacks to make up for the numbers disadvantage in the run box. With the Rams, who were loaded with front-seven talent, the hacks worked. But they weren’t so successful with the Chargers, who finished near the bottom of the league against the run in just about every relevant metric.
Chargers’ Ranks Against the Run (2021)
|EPA per Play||31st|
|Adjusted Line Yards Allowed||28th|
|Run Stop Win Rate||21st|
When you’re at a talent disadvantage, defensive football becomes a give-and-take, and Staley (wisely) prioritized slowing the deep passes that fuel the best offenses in the league. “It’s not, ‘Well, hey, I would like to play this way versus them,’ but maybe you don’t have the armor to play that way,” Staley explained at the NFL combine in March. “And I tell our team all the time, why the NFL is amazing is because you do what you have to do, not what you want to do. If you do what you want to do, it’s because you’re loaded and you got all the players.”
Not too long after saying that, Staley did get those players. The Chargers traded for Khalil Mack, who played under Staley in Chicago in 2018, and then signed interior defenders Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson. Troy Reeder, another former player of Staley’s, signed with the team a bit later in free agency and should add depth to a linebacker corps that struggled to keep its head above water last season. On top of the additions to the front, the Chargers pried J.C. Jackson away from New England and drafted Baylor’s JT Woods in the third round, moves that should free up Derwin James to play closer to the line of scrimmage.
While Mack and Jackson are the big-ticket additions—and will improve the team’s passing defense by allowing Staley to get more creative with his pressures and coverages—Joseph-Day and Johnson could prove just as valuable. Bringing in those two means the Chargers will no longer have to rely on a washed-up Linval Joseph to control multiple gaps in the run game, or on Jerry Tillery to hold up against double-teams at the point of attack, which rarely went well:
And because everything is so interconnected in this sport, the Chargers’ run defense improvements should affect their defensive success overall. In 2021, Chargers opponents faced the eighth-fewest yards to go on third down of any team in the league, per Pro-Football-Reference. And unsurprisingly, L.A. allowed the league’s highest third-down conversion rate as a result. Better early-down defense will lead to more advantageous scenarios for the third-down defense, which should help this unit get off the field more often in 2022.
With Justin Herbert entering his third season, and second-year offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi finding a groove, the offense should once again be near the top of the league’s statistical leaderboards. Now if Staley’s upgraded defense can produce even league-average results in 2022, the Chargers will be playing deep into January—and possibly even longer.
Saints Receiving Corps
Life in the NFL is awfully hard without a solid quarterback, as the Saints found out in their first season After Brees. Jameis Winston kept the patchwork offense afloat for much of the early part of the season, but when he went down with an ACL injury in Week 8, everything seemed to fall apart.
Saints’ Offense Before and After Winston’s Injury
|Weeks||EPA/Pass||Pass Success Rate||Team Record|
|Weeks||EPA/Pass||Pass Success Rate||Team Record|
That wasn’t the most shocking development. Trevor Siemian and Taysom Hill are both limited passers, and the receiving corps was devoid of talent after an ankle injury sidelined Michael Thomas. Sean Payton’s genius can carry an offense only so far, especially on third down when defenses tend to play tight man coverage. The receivers couldn’t create separation, and New Orleans finished 28th in third-down success rate, per RBSDM.com.
That shouldn’t be a problem this season, however. Even with Payton enjoying retirement (for now), things should be easier for the offense in must-pass situations. Not only has Thomas returned, but the Saints have also provided him with some assistance. In the past, defenses could bracket Thomas without really having to worry about getting burned by another receiver. But that won’t be the case after the team traded up to draft Ohio State’s route-running savant Chris Olave in the first round and added Jarvis Landry on a thrifty one-year, $3 million deal. If Olave hits the ground running—and as this year’s most pro-ready receiver prospect, he should—and Landry bounces back after playing in Cleveland’s mess of an offense, the Saints could go from having the NFL’s worst receiving corps to having one of its best.
The offensive scheme shouldn’t look too different with longtime Payton assistant Pete Carmichael taking over the headset. And with Winston back in the fold, and with three smart receivers capable of beating any corner in front of them, Carmichael’s degree of difficulty won’t be terribly high.
Bengals Offensive Line
Do I really need to explain how terrible the Bengals offensive line was in 2021? When you do a Google Image search for Joe Burrow, this photo pops up on the first page of results, and I think that does a good job of summing up the situation over the first two years of Burrow’s career.
After largely ignoring the line last offseason, the Bengals weren’t going to repeat that mistake this time around—not after watching Donald and Von Miller wreck their gameplan in the Super Bowl. Lacking the draft capital to land one of the better offensive line prospects in the draft, Cincinnati went to work early, bringing in three new starters via free agency: La’el Collins, who’ll take over at right tackle; Alex Cappa, who’ll slot in as the new right guard; and Ted Karras, who’ll man the center position. None of those new additions are considered stars—none have ever made the Pro Bowl and aren’t capable of elevating the line on their own—but they are obvious upgrades over the guys they’re replacing.
Cincinnati’s Offensive Line Upgrades
|Position||2021 Starter||2021 Pass Block Grade||2022 Starter||2021 Pass Block Grade|
|Position||2021 Starter||2021 Pass Block Grade||2022 Starter||2021 Pass Block Grade|
|Center||Trey Hopkins||60.5||Ted Karras||76.5|
|Right Guard||Hakeem Adeniji||36.1||Alex Cappa||67.5|
|Right Tackle||Isaiah Prince||39.7||La'el Collins||74.3|
Protecting Burrow was clearly the motivating factor in these acquisitions, but we shouldn’t discount the effect they can have in the run game, too. Collins, for instance, has graded out as an average pass blocker throughout his career, but he’s been one of the better run blockers in the league. Having him on the perimeter of the line should allow Zac Taylor to lean a bit more on his run game, which, in turn, should slow down opposing pass rushers and boost Cincinnati’s early-down efficiency. A good running game can protect a quarterback just as much as a stout pass blocking unit, so even if these new additions aren’t known for stellar pass protection, they should help keep Burrow clean in other indirect ways.
It will be hard for Cincinnati to replicate its output of explosive plays next season, many of which came after Burrow escaped pressure and exploited a scattered secondary. But the Bengals offense as a whole should be better thanks to the new and improved line. Will that be enough to make up for whatever statistical regression could be in store in 2022? Maybe not, but Cincinnati won’t have to worry about the franchise’s most important player getting pummeled for a third consecutive season.
Bills Defensive Line
After finishing first in defensive DVOA in 2021, there seemingly wasn’t a lot of room for improvement for the Bills on that side of the ball this offseason. But that didn’t stop Buffalo’s front office from trying. Head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have had plenty of talent to work with during their time in Buffalo, but they’ve also had to scheme around a defensive line that wasn’t capable of just lining up and beating an offensive line without some help from its coaches. Whether it was well-timed blitzes or intricately designed pressures that exploited an opponent’s pass protection rules, McDermott and Frazier have filled in any gaps you might have found in Buffalo’s defensive front.
That comes at a cost, though. More creative pressure designs necessitate more movement after the snap, and that makes it harder to play run defense—the Bills’ run unit has lagged behind the pass defense throughout McDermott’s tenure. It’s a trade-off Buffalo was willing (and able) to make because the pass defense was so damn good. But with Von Miller now joining an ascending group of edge rushers buoyed by last year’s early-round picks Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham, the Bills may not have to choose in 2022.
Miller isn’t the dominant, every-down force he was at his peak in Denver, but his game hasn’t fallen off too far, even after a series of injuries. The Rams probably wouldn’t have won the Super Bowl without him dominating on the edge throughout their playoff run. And at the very least, it will be much harder for opponents to make 13-second drives into field goal range with Miller firing off the edge in obvious passing situations.
Buffalo also beefed up its interior defense with a couple cost-effective signings. DaQuan Jones and Tim Settle may not move the needle against the pass, but it’s hard to get either to budge in the run game, meaning Ed Oliver can be saved for pass rushing opportunities where he’s most useful.
Not only is this line more talented now, but it’s also deeper. And while we (rightfully) spend so much time talking about Josh Allen and the Bills offense, Buffalo’s defense just might be the best unit in the entire league—on either side of the ball.
Packers Special Teams
This unit was an issue all season long last year, so it was only fitting that the Packers’ playoff hopes ended shortly after the special teams gave up the game-tying score in a 13-10 loss to the 49ers.
Their problems didn’t fall on one culprit in particular. Mason Crosby missed 26.5 percent of his field goal attempts, setting a career-worst mark; three different returners muffed at least one kick; and the team finished 32nd in special teams DVOA. Outside of punting, the results were horrid across the board:
Green Bay’s Special Teams DVOA Ranks (2021)
|Field Goal/Extra Point||32nd|
Special teams coordinator Maurice Drayton was fired after one season on the job, but this has been a long-standing problem in Green Bay; the Packers’ special teams have graded out as a bottom-10 unit in each of the past six seasons, per Pro Football Focus. To fix that, Green Bay brought in Rich Bisaccia this offseason, the man who led the Raiders to the playoffs after replacing Jon Gruden as head coach last year. And he’ll be leading a completely different group of players after the front office basically purged anyone associated with the special teams last season.
I don’t know whether the Packers have greatly improved—it’s always tough to say when it comes to special teams, which are notoriously volatile—but they have at the very least changed things, and that has to be positive, right? Special teams stalwarts Oren Burks and Isaac Yidiom have left town. So has Henry Black, who was involved in the gaffe that allowed San Francisco’s Jordan Willis to make the decisive punt block in the playoff loss. But the bar is beneath the Lambeau turf at this point, so even if the Packers can just climb to 31st in special teams DVOA in 2022, it will represent a massive leap.
With the offense most likely taking a step back now that Davante Adams is gone, the field position battle could be more important for Green Bay this season than it has been in recent memory. So no matter how it comes, the Packers sure could use the boost.