Sometimes the data tells a different story than the popular narrative. Sometimes it doesn’t.
This isn’t a list of the fans’ favorite players or the greatest superstars with the most All-Pro honors. Instead, our ‘players to watch’ features the ones worth keeping an eye on in 2022 based on their outstanding performance in our metrics last season.
Yes, the data confirms what we already suspected in some instances, but there are other selections here that might raise a few eyebrows.
In no particular order, here are the Analyst’s top 25 NFL players to watch in the new season.
Click below to skip to the player:
Patrick Mahomes / AJ Dillon / Mike Evans / Casey Hayward Jr. / Bobby Wagner / Justin Jefferson / Aaron Rodgers / Nick Chubb / Cooper Kupp / Jalen Ramsey / Demario Davis / Dak Prescott / Rashaad Penny / Travis Kelce / De’Vondre Campbell / Trent Williams / Aaron Donald / Tristan Wirfs / Myles Garrett / Matthew Stafford / T.J. Watt / Rashawn Slater / Darius Slay / Von Miller / Darren Waller
Kansas City Chiefs
We’ve developed a metric to rank the top QBs in expected passing situations called spread value, which represents how far a signal-caller is above or below the cumulative baseline in that period. Spread value is calculated using our efficiency versus expected (EVE) metric. For quarterbacks, EVE measures performance in terms of yards added in passing situations.
In 2021, there was no one better in those key spots than Mahomes. And it wasn’t even close as Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers lagged far behind. Oh, and by the way, our model concluded that Mahomes is also the best in expected passing situations going all the way back to 2008 – well ahead of Drew Brees.
Green Bay Packers
Quick, who led the Packers in rushing last season? If you said Aaron Jones, you’d be wrong. There seemed to be a changing of the guard in Green Bay’s backfield in 2021, as Dillon led the team in carries (187), rushing yards (803) and touchdowns (five).
What’s there to like about the Boston College product? His tenacity, for one. Dillon led the NFL in yards after contact (2.48) and was seventh in yards per carry (3.20) on plays with a run disruption among those with at least 140 carries.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Evans, who is coming off his eighth-straight 1,000-yard season, is always exciting around the end zone. He finished with a career-high 14 receiving touchdowns last season – second only to Cooper Kupp’s 16 – and only Davante Adams (29) has more than his 27 scores over the past two years.
But what we really like is his ability to win matchups and get open. Evans led the league with a 50.5% combined matchup win percentage (combined in terms of beating both man and zone coverage) and finished second with a 75.2 burn percentage among receivers with at least 25 targets.
Casey Hayward Jr.
Using standard statistics to measure defensive backs is a difficult game. Numbers are often lessened by the fact that teams don’t want to throw in the direction of the top pass defenders. After totaling 42 passes defended between 2016-17, Hayward has had 33 over the past four seasons.
But the data reveals that Hayward is still playing at an elite level. He led the league last season with a 14.8 combined open percentage allowed, which measures a player’s ability to defend in both man and zone coverages. The Falcons took notice, inking him to a two-year deal in May.
Los Angeles Rams
The data reveals what we already suspected. Entering his 11th season, Wagner is still getting it done at a high level and should be an impact addition to a star-studded Rams defense. He earned his eighth Pro Bowl selection after finishing with the second-most tackles (93) of his career.
Among middle linebackers with at least 50 pass coverages and 75 opportunities against the run, Wagner ranked first in the league (3.17) in our linebacker rating that combines pass coverage and play against the run into one number.
Jefferson isn’t much of a surprise on this list – he’s been a star since the moment he stepped on the field for the Vikings two years ago. In fact, his 3,016 receiving yards over the past two seasons are the most in the NFL.
Jefferson was the second-best receiver in the league last year in terms of winning his matchups with a 49.4 combined matchup win percentage (against both man and zone defenses) and he finished ninth in burn percentage (68.9) among receivers with at least 50 targets.
Green Bay Packers
There’s no question Rodgers still has it at age 38, winning his fourth NFL MVP and finishing second in our aforementioned quarterback spread value metric in 2021. That means only Patrick Mahomes was better than Rodgers in expected passing situations – perhaps the most important moments for a QB.
It should be interesting to see how Rodgers, who also had 37 touchdowns with just four interceptions last season, adjusts with former favorite target Davante Adams now playing for the Las Vegas Raiders. Only Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers (2.30) had a lower pickable pass percentage than Rodgers’ 2.36 mark among those with at least 200 attempts last season.
With Jacoby Brissett expected to be the starting quarterback while Deshaun Watson serves an 11-game suspension, the Browns figure to lean heavily on Chubb. In his fourth season, the Georgia product finished second in the league in rushing yards per game (89.9) behind only Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts (106.5).
But what makes Chubb fun to watch? He just refuses to go down. Chubb led the NFL in yards per carry (4.33) on plays with a run disruption – when a defender breaks into the backfield to disrupt a play – and in missed and broken tackles per touch (0.25) among running backs with at least 150 touches last season.
Los Angeles Rams
Whether he’s racing down the field or fighting traffic over the middle, Kupp belongs on this list. And he’s coming of a remarkable season in which he won the receiving Triple Crown, leading the NFL in catches (145), yards (1,947) and touchdowns (16) before earning Super Bowl MVP honors.
The Rams star wideout has been equally impressive from a data perspective. He consistently beat both man and zone coverage, finishing fourth in combined matchup win percentage (47.2).
Los Angeles Rams
Rumor has it that Ramsey has lost a step in recent seasons. If that is true, he hadn’t lost very much in 2021 despite reportedly playing the entire season with tears in both shoulders.
He set career highs in tackles (77) while matching a career best with four interceptions. The three-time All-Pro selection also finished second with a 17.1 combined (both man and zone coverage) open percentage allowed among defensive backs with at least 150 opportunities.
New Orleans Saints
In his fourth season in New Orleans and 10th overall, Davis put together his fifth straight 100-tackle season. He’s one of the biggest reasons why the Saints finished second in the NFL in defensive EVE – our measure of team efficiency vs. what was expected.
Davis ended up second among middle linebackers in our combined pass coverage/run defense rating at 2.72, which trailed only Bobby Wagner’s 3.17 mark. He was particularly elite against the pass, leading the league by only allowing a 12.0 combined (man and zone coverage) open percentage.
There’s no denying that the Cowboys are simply a different team with Prescott on the field. In his sixth season, Prescott won The Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year after finishing with the best passer rating (104.2) since his rookie year and fourth in well-thrown percentage (81.4) while leading Dallas to a 12-5 record. The Cowboys went just 6-10 when he played in only five games in 2020.
Prescott was elite in critical spots last season, finishing third in the NFL in our quarterback spread value metric. He’s also fourth among all signal callers in that category since 2008, behind only Mahomes, Brees and Rodgers.
With Russell Wilson now leading the way for the Denver Broncos, the Seahawks are likely to lean on their running game. And while Ken Walker III is certainly an intriguing rookie option, Penny is likely to get the first shot at grabbing the spot left when Chris Carson retired.
Penny led the team with 74.9 rushing yards per game and six touchdowns last season. He also paced the NFL with 6.29 yards per carry overall and finished second with 4.30 yards per carry on plays with a run disruption.
Kansas City Chiefs
Nobody has done it better from the tight end position over the past six seasons. That’s because Kelce has the most receptions (565), yards (7,269) and touchdowns (47) of any tight end since 2016 – and it’s not even close.
But Kelce is still going strong. He finished third among tight ends with a 40.7 combined matchup win percentage (against both man and zone coverage) and second among all pass catchers with a 76.9 burn percentage last season.
Green Bay Packers
Don’t just watch the Packers when Aaron Rodgers steps between the lines because Campbell is worth keeping an eye on. In his first season in Green Bay, he piled up a career-high 146 tackles and a career high-tying two interceptions.
The data backs his ability to play well against both the pass and the run as he ended up third among all middle linebackers in our combined rating (2.35) in 2021 – behind only Bobby Wagner and Demario Davis.
San Francisco 49ers
It turned out to be a great move when the 49ers acquired Williams from Washington in exchange for two draft picks in April of 2020. The left tackle made his eighth Pro Bowl in 2020 before signing a six-year contract extension ahead of 2021.
Williams lived up to the deal last season, leading the 49ers to the best passing EVE (our efficiency vs. expected model) in the NFL. He had a 91.8 pass protection win rate and an 89.1% aggregate matchup win percentage (both pass and run blocking) that both ranked third in the league among linemen with at least 300 total plays.
Los Angeles Rams
The seven-time All-Pro defensive tackle is the highest-paid non-quarterback in NFL history. There’s a good reason for that. Drafted 13th overall in 2014, Donald has amassed 98 sacks in his pro career – the most of any player in that time.
But he’s no one-trick pony. Doubled 95 times as a run defender in 2021, no player with at least 100 1-on-1 run defensive snaps had a better double-team adjusted run disruption rate than Donald’s 58.3. He was also easily first in aggregate matchup win rate (pass rush and run defense) at 53.4.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Wirfs was a home run pick for the Bucs at 13th overall in 2020. The tackle made the all-rookie team that year before earning a trip to the Pro Bowl last season. With Wirfs up front, Tampa Bay finished fifth in both passing and rushing EVE (our efficiency vs. expected model) last season.
How good is Wirfs? He ranked second in the NFL last season with an 89.6 aggregate matchup win percentage, which measures a lineman’s ability to both pass and run block.
To say that Garrett has been a bright spot for the woeful Browns might be an understatement. Only T.J. Watt (65) and Aaron Donald (59) have had more sacks since 2018 than Garrett’s 51.5.
The former Texas A&M star and two-time NFL All-Pro selection continued his strong play last season, finishing with a career-high 16 sacks. He also ranked second with a 47.6 aggregate matchup win percentage (both pass rush and run defense), trailing only Donald’s 53.4% mark.
Los Angeles Rams
Stafford had a rebirth in Los Angeles, leading the Rams to the Super Bowl after finally escaping the floundering Detroit Lions. But the data also shows Stafford to be one of the most exciting passers to watch.
Not only did Stafford finish seventh in air yards per attempt (8.6) in 2021, but he also ended up fourth in our quarterback spread value metric. Of course, he was even better in the playoffs.
The Steelers had to hold their collective breath when Watt was forced out of Sunday’s preseason game with a left knee injury. Coach Mike Tomlin, however, said he believes the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year will be fine.
That’s a big relief as Pittsburgh’s chances of having an elite defense hinges on the health and performance of Watt, who was fourth in stunt-adjusted pass rush win rate (45.3%) and aggregate matchup win percentage (44.1%) last season.
Los Angeles Chargers
It didn’t take long for Slater to make an impact in Los Angeles after being selected No. 13 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. The Northwestern product made the all-rookie team, earned Pro Bowl honors and was named to the All-Pro second team.
With Justin Herbert at quarterback and Slater winning pass protection matchups at a 90.5% clip, the Chargers ranked ninth in passing EVE in 2021. The left tackle also finished with an 88.3 aggregate matchup win percentage that ranked fourth among all linemen with at least 300 total plays.
Entering his 10th NFL season, Slay remains a big playmaker on the Eagles defense. Not only did he have three interceptions (returning one for a touchdown), but he also had two fumble returns for scores. The three TDs were the most in the league for a non-offensive player.
Slay also played lockdown defense against the pass – no matter the coverage. He finished third in the NFL with a 17.2 combined open percentage allowed.
Miller has become something of a hired gun for Super Bowl contenders, going from the Denver Broncos to the eventual champion Los Angeles Rams at last year’s trade deadline before signing with the Bills in the offseason.
Miller ranked fifth among edge rushers with a stunt-adjusted pass rush win rate of 43.4% in 2021, with that ability to generate pressure highly valuable to a defense that figures to be going up against Patrick Mahomes again in the playoffs.
Las Vegas Raiders
Waller has arguably been the most exciting tight end in the league not named Travis Kelce in recent years – when healthy. No tight end in the NFL – even Kelce – has averaged more yards per game (82.4) since Dec. 6, 2020. Waller, however, has played four fewer games than Kelce over that span due to knee and back issues that plagued him late last season.
Waller has dealt with a hamstring injury during the preseason, though new head coach Josh McDaniels has said that he isn’t concerned. Even though he was limited to 11 games last season, Waller led all tight ends (again, even Kelce) in combined matchup win percentage (46.3%) among those with at least 100 matchups.
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