clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Six Least-Predictable Units of the NFL Offseason

Summer is a time for rampant optimism and even more rampant narratives—but some narratives aren’t so easy to identify

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As the world’s calendar turns to the back half of summer, the NFL’s calendar turns to training camps and preseason games, all but a few short weeks away. It’s wild how time flies when the only thing to watch is baseball.

These are the weeks for fantasy football drafts, for rankings and projections, for the season’s story lines to generate their first legs and start running amok. This is the time of year for all 32 fan bases to believe their team is a real playoff contender. It’s the time for rampant optimism and even more rampant narratives.

As I try to figure out which teams belong in which buckets, I find myself encountering more than a few roadblocks. While it’s certain that the Chiefs offense will be some sort of good and the AFC South will be some sort of pitiful, plenty of uncertainties make projecting the 2022 NFL season a tricky exercise. Here are the six units that I’m most uncertain about heading into the 2022 season.

Chargers Defense

Figuring out what the Chargers defense wants to be philosophically isn’t too difficult. We’ve seen Brandon Staley coordinate two defenses now—the 2020 Los Angeles Rams and 2021 Los Angeles Chargers. Both units prioritized defending the pass over the run, playing with odd fronts and light boxes to add extra players to the secondary.

This approach certainly went better with the 2020 Rams than it did with the 2021 Chargers. The 2020 Rams were fourth in defensive DVOA; the 2021 Chargers were 26th. No team gave up successful runs more frequently than the 2021 Chargers; only one team gave them up less frequently than the 2020 Rams.

Staley’s defensive philosophy didn’t get solved in a single season. Opposing offenses certainly got a little smarter, but the primary culprit in the failure of the 2021 Chargers defense was the personnel available. With the Rams, Staley could get away with light boxes because he had such a talented front—Aaron Donald, yes, but also Michael Brockers, Leonard Floyd, and Sebastian Joseph-Day. With the Chargers, Staley was playing 33-year-old Linval Joseph, Jerry Tillery, and Uchenna Nwosu with Joey Bosa. The defensive cupboards had been filled with resources for ex-coordinator Gus Bradley, Staley’s schematic antithesis. The tools available to Staley didn’t fit the job.

So this offseason, the Chargers went on a spending spree. They signed J.C. Jackson to a top-10 cornerback deal. They traded for Khalil Mack. They grabbed two former Rams defensive linemen—Sebastian Joseph-Day and Morgan Fox—and an ex-Rams linebacker in Troy Reeder. Kyle Van Noy was available, so they snagged him. So was Bryce Callahan. Is that everyone? No—wait! Austin Johnson! OK, that’s everyone.

The Chargers defense should be better in 2022. Swapping Nwosu for Mack, Joseph for Joseph-Day, and Chris Harris Jr. for J.C. Jackson will generally do that for your defense. But figuring out just how much better is tricky. The 2020 Rams defense took the league by surprise and by storm, and Staley no longer has that element of confusion. But Staley also changed some of his coverage tendencies with the Chargers, electing to run man coverage under two safeties at a far greater clip than any other defense in the league.

Whether this was a function of the personnel available, or a shift from his quarters-heavy approach with the 2020 Rams, remains to be seen. Given the way Staley has poured resources into cornerback—adding Jackson, retaining Michael Davis, signing Callahan—it seems that he wants to be able to play man coverage at a high rate. Perhaps with the Rams, where the cornerback room was weak behind Jalen Ramsey, he was forced into an approach that wasn’t perfectly to his liking.

Staley caught fire as a defensive coach because of his innovation, his creativity, and his boldness. While his transition from the Rams to the Chargers was still interesting, far more impactful will be the defense that he sculpts totally to his own line of thinking. This is the first time Staley has ever had influence, let alone control, over a defensive roster. What exactly he’s cooking up in Los Angeles is a mystery that will unfold over the course of the 2022 season.

Ravens Offense

For most teams, the unit is interesting because of the new players acquired, or the schematic changes foretold by a new coaching staff. In Baltimore, the offense is interesting—and tricky to predict—because they’re just getting everyone back.

Ronnie Stanley is back. Nick Boyle is back. J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards are both back. Rashod Bateman returned from injury last season, but was behind the curve for his entire rookie year. And, of course, Lamar Jackson is back.

This Ravens team didn’t look like it was supposed to for any stretch of the 2021 season. Injuries on both sides of the ball left them susceptible to the big play on defense and struggling to make big plays on offense. Their seemingly indefatigable rushing attack, first in EPA/rush in both 2019 and 2020, fell to 11th in 2021; even before Lamar got hurt, it was down to fifth. The cadre of veteran backs through which they cycled—Le’Veon Bell, Devonta Freeman—coupled with unavailability along the offensive line, was simply too much for even Jackson to overcome.

This year’s projections are far rosier, with a potential star back in Dobbins joining a bulkier Jackson behind a line revamped with the return of Stanley, the signing of veteran tackle Morgan Moses, and the debut of rookie center Tyler Linderbaum. As a player compared to Jason Kelce and Garrett Bradbury, Linderbaum simply did not fit the existing understanding of the Ravens’ prototypical offensive lineman, as Baltimore had favored big, long, powerful bodies—Ben Cleveland, Tyre Phillips, Orlando Brown Jr.—during the Jackson era. Linderbaum was destined for a zone blocking scheme. The Ravens were anything but.

With their running game restocked, the Ravens may be changing their approach in the ground game, looking to maximize Linderbaum’s mobility as a puller and lead blocker as the Eagles do with Kelce in front of their running quarterback, Jalen Hurts. But the real need for an offensive face-lift in Baltimore has long been the passing game, where coordinator Greg Roman has received criticism for the Ravens’ frequent issues with route spacing and depth.

Again, the Ravens seem to be changing what they have prioritized during Lamar’s time at quarterback. Many of their recent WR additions—Marquise Brown, Miles Boykin, Devin Duvernay—have been all about speed. But last offseason, they selected Rashod Bateman—a fine athlete, but more of a possession receiver than a burner. And this offseason, they traded Brown away to place Bateman as the clear WR1 and second target behind star tight end Mark Andrews. The Ravens can still go deep with both Bateman and Andrews, but philosophically, it seems that they’re moving on from speed, speed, speed at all costs.

The Ravens are coming off a disappointing season, but seem to have reloaded well on both sides of the ball—and with a little injury luck, they should find themselves in the playoffs again.

Cardinals Offense

Speaking of Marquise Brown leaving the Ravens, things in Arizona might look a little different this season.

On the surface, much is the same. Christian Kirk’s departure opens up over 900 snaps and 100 targets, but Marquise Brown should step nicely into that slot role, bringing his speed to those deep overs and seam routes and creating after the catch on quick targets. A.J. Green will remain a deep vertical receiver, taking on more volume during DeAndre Hopkins’s suspension, while Rondale Moore looks to grow his array of gadget touches into a more traditional receiver role. Everything is ho-hum in Arizona.

But the wideouts don’t tell the whole story. They used to! Back in 2019—Kliff Kingsbury’s first year as the Cardinals head coach—his Air Raid offense deployed four-receiver sets on a whopping 310 snaps (the next closest team was at 90). In 2020, that number went down to 215—still remarkable, as the Cardinals and the Bills (186) were the only teams over 60 such snaps. And in 2021, the number went down again: 148 total, less than half of the number from two years ago. Those four-receiver sets—called 10 personnel in coaching parlance—were one of a few hallmarks of the Air Raid system, never before so fearlessly deployed at the NFL level. But now, it’s fading away.

A big part of that change was the in-season acquisition of tight end Zach Ertz, a veteran pass catcher acquired from the Eagles following an injury to incumbent tight end Maxx Williams. In the six weeks before Ertz was acquired, the Cardinals played 97 snaps of 10 personnel; in the 11 games following, they played only 50. Over just those 11 weeks, Ertz garnered 81 targets—far and away the most passing volume a Cardinals tight end has seen during Kingsbury’s tenure.

Ertz would often line up as a slot receiver for the Cardinals, but his presence on the field changed the defensive personnel the Cardinals faced. With a tight end on the field, the defense has to respect the potential for an increased blocker in the running game, an additional gap to account for with a linebacker or defensive lineman—and accordingly, they have to take a defensive back off the field, or else risk being outmuscled at the point of attack.

Add a second tight end, and you magnify that problem. That’s the theory the Cardinals are exploring, as they both re-signed Ertz to a hefty deal before free agency and drafted Colorado State tight end Trey McBride in the second round. Kingsbury had never really invested in tight ends until this offseason, during which they sold out to strengthen the room.

These additions will change the complexion of the Cardinals’ passing attack, as Kingsbury slaps different personnel into his Air Raid passing staples and hunts mismatches in pass coverage. But the new tight ends also greatly benefit Kingsbury’s running game, long an underappreciated strength of his offensive approach. The Cardinals have been 10th, sixth, and third in rushing EPA/play over the last three seasons—and that’s on called running plays, with Kyler Murray scrambles excluded. Kliff’s rushing attack has long been as effective as it is creative, and with better tight end talent available, more wrinkles become possible in the development of that offense. From the new pass catchers to the versatile players available, offense is fun in Arizona, as they look to blossom into a legit playoff contender this season.

Titans Offense

The Titans’ offensive build has always been unorthodox relative to league trends. Most teams are becoming faster, and in doing so, have become more willing to sacrifice size and bulk, both at the skill positions and at quarterback. The Titans? They stayed big, with a 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback in Ryan Tannehill hanging in the pocket to deliver shots to A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. Of course, that was just when the Titans threw it. They’ve been one of the run-heaviest teams in the league over head coach Mike Vrabel’s tenure, and you would make the same call if you had Derrick Henry as your running back.

The Titans are changing on offense—but once again, not in the direction you’d expect. While most teams are continually looking to add pass-catching weapons, the Titans are downgrading at the position. Tennessee traded Brown away during the 2022 draft, while Jones remains a free agent. Now at wide receiver are trade acquisition Robert Woods and first-round pick Treylon Burks.

Both Woods and Burks make sense for what the Titans like. Woods is one of the best blocking receivers in the league—that’s an important role in the Titans’ rushing attack. And Burks was compared to Brown coming out of Arkansas with his impressive size (6-2, 225) and explosiveness. Theoretically, both Burks and Woods should work as replacements for the starting wideouts Tennessee deployed in the 2020 season, when their passing offense was tied for second in EPA/dropback.

A huge part of why that passing game worked wasn’t just the talent of the offense, but the designs of the play-action passing game. In 2021, first-year offensive coordinator Todd Downing attempted to replicate the approach left by Arthur Smith, the ex-Titans offensive coordinator since departed to become head coach of the Atlanta Falcons—but without the same success. Downing was dealt a bad hand, as the Titans only had Henry for seven games of the 2021 season before he broke his foot in Week 8.

Now, Henry is back—but, like Woods and Burks, he comes with uncertainty. Henry is the preeminent go-to back, leading the league in carries (and yards, and touchdowns) in 2019 and 2020 before his 2021 injury. He averaged a whopping 27.4 carries per game in the 2021 regular season, and looked anything but ready for action when he returned for the Titans’ playoff loss against the Bengals in the divisional round, carrying the ball 20 times for 62 yards.

The Titans offense works in large part because of Henry’s persistence. He’s enormous, he’s constantly finishing runs, and he has the speed to explode for a score from any area of the field. Whether or not he returns healthy is a massive “if” for Tennessee—and, even if he does, he alone isn’t enough to ensure the passing game works smoothly with Woods and Burks.

Tennessee had a formula that worked for them for a few seasons. They’re asking it to work once again this season. I’m not yet sold that it will.

Seahawks Defense

When I say “Pete Carroll defense,” you think Legion of Boom. You think Earl Thomas policing the middle of the field, Kam Chancellor roaming into the box, and Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell/Brandon Browner pressing the ever-loving daylights out of opposing wideouts at the line of scrimmage. You might even think about trying them with a sorry receiver like Crabtree. You should stop thinking about that.

It’s a fair association. For the better part of the last decade, the Seahawks have built their house on the foundation the Legion of Boom created. They’ve played single-high coverages, acquired cornerbacks who could press at the line of scrimmage, and relied on elite zone linebackers like Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright to handle every Cover 3 “beater” concept opposing offenses could throw at them.

It worked really well in the early days. Then the success became more irregular—higher peaks, lower valleys. The personnel that made it all possible—Kam, Earl, Sherm, Wagner, Wright—got older, retired, went elsewhere. As they’ve gone, so has the defensive coaching tree that supported them. Gus Bradley was hired away; then Dan Quinn was hired away; Kris Richard and Marquand Manuel and Robert Saleh all found different jobs; and finally, Ken Norton Jr., the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator of the last four years, was fired at the end of last season.

The new defensive coaching staff in Seattle is remarkably different. Longtime defensive line coach Clint Hurtt has been promoted to defensive coordinator, but his staff is peppered with new voices. Sean Desai, most recently the defensive coordinator of the Chicago Bears, was hired as an associate head coach and defensive assistant. Karl Scott, the new passing game coordinator, was the defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings last year, and on the staff at Alabama for three seasons before that. Desai is a branch off of the Vic Fangio tree; Scott, a Ron Roberts product that shares roots with Dave Aranda, the head coach at Baylor, and Pete Golding, the defensive coordinator at Alabama.

Desai and Scott are two of the top NFL coaches for defensive backfields looking to run split-field coverages—that is, coverages that don’t have a deep middle safety, like the Cover 3 on which the Seahawks have lived for so long. Carroll brought them into the building to teach those coverages—Fangio’s quarter/quarter/half coverages, Alabama’s man match quarters—as an acknowledgement that the single-high craze he himself heralded can no longer cut the mustard. Carroll began acknowledging this even last season, when the Seahawks’ rate of calling split-field coverage shot up to the top in the league, even when they didn’t necessarily have the coaching staff and personnel in place to run it well. Hurtt himself alluded to this—the difficulty of changing how a defense is taught—at the end of last season.

The Seahawks defense was far from perfect last year, but they were stuck in a tricky spot of transition. Now, they have the coaching staff in place to smooth over this difficult philosophy shift. We won’t know if they stuck the landing until the season comes around, but one thing’s for sure: These aren’t your mama’s Seattle Seahawks. The Pete Carroll defense is changing.

Jets Offense

In 2021, the Jets’ leading snap-getters at wide receiver were Jamison Crowder and Keelan Cole. Neither is back with the team. Ryan Griffin got the most snaps at tight end, and he’s also gone. Michael Carter got the most snaps at running back. He is back … well, sort of.

Carter’s spot in the starting lineup has likely been taken by rookie Breece Hall, selected at the top of the second round as the first running back off the board. Those receivers who were around last year—Elijah Moore, Corey Davis, and the recently-extended Braxton Berrios—now have to contend with first-round pick Garrett Wilson in the wide receiver room. The first three spots on the tight end depth chart belong, in some order, to C.J. Uzomah, Tyler Conklin, and Jeremy Ruckert, all of whom were acquired in the 2022 offseason.

Throw in second-year quarterback Zach Wilson, and you have a starting quarterback, a running back tandem, three top receivers, and three tight ends, all of whom have become New York Jets in the last two offseasons. Save for Berrios. Great work, Braxton.

But wait—there’s more! Along the starting offensive line, the longest-tenured Jets are two 2020 acquisitions: George Fant and Connor McGovern. Filling the gaps are 2022 free agent Laken Tomlinson, 2021 draftee Alijah Vera-Tucker, and 2020 draftee Mekhi Becton—assuming Becton is healthy and able to play.

There’s a reason we have no idea how the Jets offense is going to shake out. The newness of the Jets offense is unmatched even among the league’s other rebuilding teams. The Dolphins at least developed Mike Gesicki and Durham Smythe; the Panthers have Taylor Moton and D.J. Moore; Washington has Chase Roullier and Terry McLaurin; even the Texans boast Tytus Howard and Laremy Tunsil; the Jaguars have Jawaan Taylor and Cam Robinson. There isn’t a cornerstone to be found on the Jets offense.

With such a wealth of young talent comes excitement, intrigue, and possibility. There are so many things that could hit—Elijah Moore in Year 2, Conklin and Uzomah in two-TE sets, Garrett Wilson and Hall as foundational rookies—that it feels like something must. But Zach Wilson remains a complete question mark, and the chemistry between all of these moving parts—and young offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s ability to handle all that juggling—is still a huge question mark. The Jets offense could very well produce a few stars and even be good by season’s end—but exactly who ends up becoming the cornerstones is anyone’s guess.