Why the Fate of the 2022 NFL Season Weighs Heavily on These 10 Players
NFL

Why the Fate of the 2022 NFL Season Weighs Heavily on These 10 Players

No one player is bigger than the team.

It’s a phrase that’s most commonly applied to football of the other variety, but it can be a tricky one to throw around in the context of the NFL.

In a game and a league in which the quarterback position has an outsized impact, there is no denying there are players whose importance overwhelmingly dwarfs that of their teammates.

And, for all the work NFL teams do to put together 90-man rosters and then get them down to 53, so many critical games are decided by a handful of key plays by one player.

As the NFL approaches the 2022 regular season, there are a collection of players, not all of whom are quarterbacks, who could have a defining influence on the campaign.

With the help of advanced data, we’re here to rank the most important players of the 2022 NFL season.

10. Robert Hainsey, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers’ hopes of reclaiming the Lombardi Trophy following Tom Brady’s decision to end his 40-day retirement were dealt a massive blow last month when center Ryan Jensen suffered a serious knee injury.

Jensen has been one of the most underrated and pivotal factors behind Brady’s success in his two seasons in Tampa. The quarterback’s relationship with his center is critical to any offense and Brady has enjoyed an outstanding rapport with Jensen.

Now Jensen’s replacement Hainsey must quickly establish a similar connection with Brady if Tampa Bay’s offense is to perform at its peak in 2022.

Additionally, Hainsey – a third-round pick in the 2021 draft who played only 29 snaps as a rookie – must attempt to replicate Jensen’s performance of last season.

Jensen was 11th among all centers with a stunt-adjusted pass block win rate of 80.7%, while his double team-adjusted run block win rate of 87.9% was the best for his position and second among all offensive linemen with 100 1-on-1 battles.

double-team adjusted run block win rate
(Minimum 100 1-on-1 situations)

It is a tall order for Hainsey to reach that level in his first season as a starter. However, it is crucial he ensures the drop-off is not too steep so Brady can keep an offense that ranked third in offensive EVE last season.

9. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

The furore around the Deshaun Watson saga is rightfully unlikely to die down any time soon despite the NFL closing the book in the context of league discipline.

With Watson set to be suspended for the first 11 games, the Browns will be walking a tightrope as they bid to stay in contention with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback in their starter’s absence.

Brissett has a 14-23 record as a starter and last season his well-thrown percentage of 75.8 across his five starts for the Miami Dolphins was the eighth worst among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts.

Cleveland may, therefore, need to take the emphasis off of Brissett, and the best way for them to do that is by leaning on arguably the premier running back in the NFL. The Browns led the NFL with 5.1 yards per carry last season, with much of their success built around Chubb’s complete skill set.

Chubb was third among running backs with a minimum of 100 carries with an average of 3.4 yards before contact per rush. He was tied 10th in yards after contact per carry (2.2) and led the NFL in yards per carry on plays in which there was a run disruption by a defender. His 4.5 average in those situations illustrates his ability to create yardage for himself even when the defense breaks into the backfield.

His performances helped the Browns finish second in rushing EVE and, though an undoubtedly talented defense will do its share of the heavy lifting, Chubb must ensure the devastating efficiency Cleveland displayed on the ground last year is maintained for the offense to perform at a high level until Watson returns.

8. A.J. Brown, Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia’s blockbuster draft-day trade for Brown was the clearest signal yet of the Eagles’ intention to do everything they can to make Jalen Hurts succeed as their franchise quarterback.

Brown arrived in Philadelphia after racking up 1,000-yard seasons in two of his three campaigns with the Tennessee Titans. He would have had a third had he not missed four games due to injury last season, and Brown projects as the ideal receiver to help take Hurts to the next level.

The former Ole Miss star thrived in a Titans offense based heavily around play-action passing concepts.

Meshing with Hurts, who ranked sixth in well-thrown rate (80.4%) on play-action among quarterbacks with at least 50 such throws and averaged a league-leading 16.8 air yards per attempt on those passes, should not be a problem for Brown, who figures to make life significantly easier for his quarterback.

Indeed, Brown gives Hurts a physical wideout who can make tough contested catches over the middle of the field and has the route-running talent to consistently separate from defenders to make big plays. Brown produced a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play in which he’s targeted, on 64.0% of targets (including the playoffs) and was tied for the NFL lead (min. 100 targets) in burn yards per route last season with an average of 4.0.

Everything is seemingly set up for a blissful marriage between quarterback and No. 1 receiver. There is a lot of pressure on Hurts to succeed with a loaded offense, but similarly, Brown will be under intense scrutiny as he will be tasked with continuing his outstanding Titans displays and, critically, avoiding any injury problems that could limit the ceiling of a team many anticipate becoming contenders after a flurry of offseason activity. 

7. Davante Adams, Las Vegas Raiders

Adams made a decision that changed the landscape of both the NFC and AFC when he eschewed the chance to stay with the Green Bay Packers to sign a five-year, $141.25 million contract with the Raiders following a trade that allowed him to reunite with college quarterback Derek Carr.

While Aaron Rodgers must adapt and excel without his long-time favorite target in Green Bay, Adams starts his new era in Las Vegas under tremendous pressure to live up to his megadeal.

The numbers from his time in Green Bay suggest he should have no problem doing so. 

Adams is second in receiving yards (3,924) and touchdowns (34) over the past three seasons. With an above-league average burn rate of 65.6% last season, Adams was fifth in burn yards per route (3.5) among receivers with a minimum of 100 targets (including the playoffs). He was second (3.4) and first (3.9) in the same metric in 2019 and 2020.

burn yards per route
(Minimum 100 targets/includes playoffs)

His consistency in creating significant separation from defenders must continue in his new home for the Raiders’ big swing to pay dividends in an AFC West division now widely regarded as the best in the league following a series of high-profile moves by all its inhabitants.

Moreover, Adams must re-establish the rapport he had in college with Carr, who had a well-thrown rate of 81.6% that was third among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts in 2021.

Carr has the accuracy to reap the benefits of playing with Adams as Rodgers did. As long as the change of scenery does not provoke a surprising Adams downturn, the Raiders will have the arsenal to match the fireworks their division rivals can produce.  

6. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams

To label Donald as an important player is arguably the most obvious statement that can be made about the NFL.

But with significant doubt hanging over the fitness of the Rams’ star quarterback, there may be an onus on Donald to carry the burden of helping them repeat as Super Bowl champions.

While Matthew Stafford is still expected to play in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, he has spent the offseason dealing with an elbow issue head coach Sean McVay conceded is “abnormal” for a quarterback. That at least creates the possibility of Stafford enduring injury-related poor performances or even missing time if it is eventually determined he requires surgery.

Playing in an NFC West division that houses a fellow NFC heavyweight in the San Francisco 49ers, the Rams can ill-afford to have any such scenario result in prolonged struggles. Thankfully, Donald is as impactful as Stafford when it comes to deciding games, as he did in Super Bowl LVI with his key fourth-down pressure of Joe Burrow.

Donald comfortably led all defensive tackles in both pressure rate (28.1%) and run disruption rate (37.2%) last season. No other defensive tackle with a pressure rate of 20.0% or better had a run disruption rate of 30.0% or higher.

With the possible quarterback injury hanging over the Rams, it’s imperative that Donald continues to produce frequent game-winning destruction for Los Angeles to mitigate the influence of any such problems.

5. Von Miller, Buffalo Bills

The Bills famously failed to finish off the Kansas City Chiefs in last season’s epic divisional round playoff clash as inexplicably soft defensive play-calling allowed Kansas City to move into range for a game-tying field goal in the final 13 seconds of regulation.

Yet one of the reasons it got to that point was the Bills’ failure to convert their pressures of Patrick Mahomes into damaging sacks. Buffalo registered 23 pressures of Mahomes –the most by any defensive team in the divisional round – but managed to get him on the ground just twice.

That performance will surely have had some influence on the decision to sign Miller to a lucrative six-year contract following his Super Bowl-winning sojourn with the Rams.

Miller’s 115.5 sacks since entering the league in 2011 are the most in the NFL and he proved he’s still one of the NFL’s best pressure generators in 2021. His stunt-adjusted pass rush win rate of 43.4% was the fifth highest among edge rushers with at least 100 1-on-1 matchups.

The Bills can be confident Josh Allen and the offense will put them in a position to contend, but it’s the addition of Miller to a defense with few holes that may be the move that gets them over the top.

Buffalo made a big bet on Miller maintaining his outstanding 2021 form. It’s imperative that gamble pays off and, if some of his wisdom from years at the top rubs off on young edge rushers Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham, the Bills will be extremely satisfied with their decision to put faith in the former Denver Bronco.

4. Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City Chiefs

While the likes of the Raiders and the Bills are plotting to do what the Cincinnati Bengals did in last season’s AFC championship game and topple the Chiefs, Mahomes and Co. are set to face internal challenges in their bid to remain atop the AFC West.

The primary challenge for the Chiefs will be to replace the impact of Tyreek Hill, a three-time first-team All-Pro speedster who was sent to the Miami Dolphins in a blockbuster trade. Hill’s threat as a downfield receiver tormented opposing defenses and he was second among receivers with at least 100 targets with a burn rate of 70.8% in 2021 (including the playoffs).

burn percentage leaders 2021
(Minimum 100 targets/includes postseason)

Though the Chiefs did sign a replacement burner in the form of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, the absence of Hill’s game-breaking speed will likely force Mahomes to target underneath areas more frequently.

Mahomes was already forced to adapt in such a fashion last season to combat the two-high safety defenses teams looking to nullify Kansas City’s big-play threat threw at the Chiefs.

Kansas City’s struggles against such defenses served as one of the defining narratives of last season. It was a narrative, however, that was somewhat exaggerated and the Chiefs had clearly hit their stride by the end of the year.

Across the final five weeks of the season, the Chiefs averaged 283.6 net passing yards per game – the fourth most in the NFL. They hit a significant speed bump in the second half of the conference title game, but Mahomes has had plenty of time to brush off that disappointment and needs to rediscover his best without one of his key support acts for the Chiefs to be the class of a stacked conference in 2022.

3. Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens

Amid a flurry of big-money deals for quarterbacks and receivers alike, one high-profile contract saga has remained unsettled.

There has been no sign of an imminent agreement between the Ravens and Jackson, who will be an unrestricted free agent in 2023 unless they can come to terms on an extension.

To say Jackson is important to the Ravens is to put it extremely mildly. He finished in the top five in EVE among quarterbacks in expected passing situations in 2019 and 2020 before an injury derailed 2021 campaign. Since taking over as the Ravens’ starter in 2019, he’s averaged more yards per carry (6.4) than any other player in the NFL.

With 103 of his 468 rush attempts going for 10 yards or more, Jackson’s explosive run rate of 22.0% also stands as the best in the NFL over that same period.

Jackson’s success in harnessing the dual-threat upside as he did in spectacular fashion three years ago will decide if the Ravens return to prominence in the AFC after the frustration of 2021.

Beyond that, however, the extent to which he nears his 2019 zenith could have a huge bearing on his negotiations with the Ravens next offseason should the impasse continue.

If Jackson performs at a level close to his MVP season, the Ravens will be facing the prospect of making Jackson the highest-paid player in the NFL by a potentially massive margin in 2023. An unconvincing and unsuccessful season for Jackson may see him lose a lot of leverage.

2. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

It was an offseason of contrasting emotions for the back-to-back MVP, who looks in line to finish his career in Green Bay after signing a three-year, $150.8 million deal that made him the highest paid player in U.S. sports on an annual basis. But he must renew his quest for a second Super Bowl title without Davante Adams.

The prospect of trying to climb the mountain sans Adams looks a daunting one considering their remarkable rapport and the fact Rodgers couldn’t hit anyone but him during the Packers’ divisional round loss to the 49ers last season. Rodgers has to establish a connection with two young rookie receivers in Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs, the latter of whom has enjoyed a sparkling preseason.

Green Bay still made moves to make Rodgers’ life easier, though that impact may be less tangible than the one he and Adams produced consistently. The Packers built up an increasingly talented defense in the draft, adding to their options on that side of the ball and improving the odds of Rodgers coming on to the field with favorable field position.

His receiving options may have changed dramatically, but Rodgers has no room to offer excuses given the apparent strength of the defense.

The 38-year-old QB’s ridiculous consistency is fueling thoughts of him going deep into his 40s a la Brady, however, Rodgers’ time to win a second ring is running out. After enjoying dominant season after dominant season with Adams as his top receiver, the challenge for the four-time MVP now is to elevate a young and unproven supporting cast as he seeks to right previous playoff wrongs.

1. Trey Lance, San Francisco 49ers

A team that was minutes away from a second Super Bowl appearance in three years handing the keys to the offense over to a quarterback with just two starts to his name? It sounds risky, and there is an inherent danger in San Francisco moving to the Trey Lance era.

But this is why the Niners traded three first-round picks to the Dolphins to move up to the third pick in the 2021 NFL Draft to select Lance. There is risk attached to starting the Lance era, but it may be unquestionably worth the potential reward.

Lance will be taking over an offense that finished the 2021 season first in EVE, which is a testament to the plethora of talent on that unit, Jimmy Garoppolo’s comfort in the offense and the play-calling of Kyle Shanahan.

2021 offensive EVE leaders

The task for Lance is to weaponize the deep passing game of one of the most consistent and dangerous attacks in the NFL. While San Francisco might have to sacrifice some efficiency for him to succeed, the numbers indicate he’s up to the job.

Garoppolo had eight pass plays of 40 yards or more across 15 games in 2021. Lance produced three in his two starts in relief of his injured predecessor.

On top of that, Lance averaged 10.1 air yards per attempt – the second most in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 50 passes – and no player to average at least 9.0 air yards had a better well-thrown percentage than Lance’s 77.1.

The prospect of Lance reproducing that blend of aggressiveness and accuracy over a longer sample size while adding another dimension to a running game that racked up the eighth-most explosive rushes of at least 10 yards in 2021 should terrify opponents.

San Francisco’s roster is filled with Pro Bowlers on offense and the Niners have further stacked a defense that forced the most negative plays (122) in the NFL last season with reinforcements up front and in the secondary.

The 49ers have a Super Bowl-ready roster, but for all his success, Garoppolo has been unable to get them over the hump to a long-awaited sixth title.

Lance has the upside to end that wait and the Niners may well become Super Bowl favorites if he is as advertised. Should he flounder, a prospective challenger could be removed from the NFC playoff picture.

Simply put, there is no player more important to the hopes of a legitimate contender in the NFL.