Must-See TV: The Most Exciting Players in the NFL by the Data
Patrick Mahomes might immediately come to mind given his tendency to buy time in the pocket – and out of it – before whipping no-look passes to Travis Kelce and other skilled pass catchers.
It’d be tough to dispute the inclusion of Tyreek Hill, Mahomes’ former teammate now with the Miami Dolphins, because of his exhilarating run-after-catch playmaking ability.
But where should someone like Justin Fields rank? The second-year signal caller of the Chicago Bears certainly wasn’t among the best quarterbacks in the NFL this past season, though you could argue that he was one of the most exciting.
Let’s face it, there are several viable candidates, and everyone has an opinion on who they’d consider being the most exciting players and teams of the 2022 NFL season.
However, what if we could look to the data to settle the debate and remove some of the bias (like choosing favorite teams and players over hated rivals) from those rankings?
We can actually do that with the help of SmartRatings, an AI-based platform that provides a bit of an unbiased guide to the most exciting players and teams. The model calculates excitement ratings ranging from 0-100, powered by complex algorithms that are predicated upon six primary variables: pace, parity, novelty, momentum, context and social buzz.
At the player level, the ratings are calculated by using a combination of player performance and exciting plays within those performances. So a player who had a lot of highlights and scoring plays during the season is likely to have a higher rating.
We’ll start at the quarterback position before moving on to the running back/wide receiver/tight end category and the most (and least) exciting teams in the NFL. So according to the model, these were the 10 most exciting signal callers in 2022:
Jalen Hurts edged out Mahomes for the honor of being the most exciting player in the NFL in 2022, per SmartRatings. That might not be much of a surprise considering both were NFL MVP finalists and gave MVP-caliber performances in Super Bowl 57 in Arizona (Of course, Mahomes took home honors after the Kansas City Chiefs won the title). During his breakout 2022 season, Hurts led all quarterbacks with 67 runs for first downs and 13 rushing touchdowns for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Tua Tagovailoa certainly passed the eye test in terms of being fun to watch, but the data backs his ranking as well. The Dolphins southpaw led the NFL in yards per attempt (8.7) and passer rating (105.5) before having to deal with concussion issues down the stretch. He also tied Mahomes with a league-best 6.3 touchdown percentage.
For anyone who has seen Josh Allen and Joe Burrow lead a drive or marveled at Justin Fields and Lamar Jackson in the open field, an explanation of their inclusion probably isn’t needed. But what about Daniel Jones, Geno Smith and Marcus Mariota rounding out the top 10?
Only Fields, Jackson, Allen and Hurts – four players on this list – had more rushing yards and only Hurts and Fields had more rushing TDs and more runs of at least 10 yards from the quarterback position than Jones. He was also great at buying time and finding receivers, ranking second in the league with a 91.7 open target percentage while on the move. He did not throw a single pickable pass in 72 attempts in those situations.
Smith, who won the NFL’s Most Improved Player and Comeback Player of the Year awards, was fourth in the league in passing touchdowns (30), fifth in passer rating (100.9) and sixth in pass plays of 25 yards or more (31). Mariota may not have been that good in 2022 (he ended up getting benched for rookie Desmond Ridder), but he certainly was exciting. He threw for three scores and had a key 30-yard run in overtime to lead the Atlanta Falcons to a wild 37-34 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 30.
Justin Jefferson was not only selected to our All-Pro first team and named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year, but he was also the most exciting non-QB in 2022 per the model.
The Minnesota Vikings star led the league in receiving yards (1,809), receptions for first downs (80) and burns (119), which is when the targeted receiver does his part to achieve a successful play (that is, a significant gain towards a first down or touchdown), regardless of the quality of the throw by the quarterback.
No surprise seeing the speedster Hill ranked high on the list. In his first season with the Dolphins, he led the NFL in burn yards per route (4.3). McCaffrey and Jacobs turned back the clock in 2022. McCaffrey was the only player to finish with both 1,100 rushing yards and 700 receiving yards, while Jacobs led the NFL with 1,653 rushing yards after posting a career-low 872 in 2021.
Kelce, a man who needs no introduction, is easily rated as the most exciting tight end. Chubb may be a bit of a surprise as a workhorse running back, but keep in mind that he led the NFL with 47 rushes of 10 yards or more.
Hall was on his way to NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors before going down with a knee injury. The explosive playmaker had 18.8% of his runs go for 10 yards or more – the best percentage in the league among running backs with at least 35 carries.
Which teams were the most exciting to watch in 2022? Again, the model calculates excitement ratings ranging from 0-100, powered by algorithms that are predicated upon pace, parity, novelty, momentum, context and social buzz.
At the team level, the ratings are similarly calculated by using a combination of team performance and exciting plays. Teams that are on a hot streak or are playing in a lot of high-scoring, close games (particularly against division rivals) are likely to have a higher rating.
Of course, the Super Bowl champion Chiefs top the list after averaging an NFL-best 29.2 points per game behind the previously mentioned Mahomes and Kelce.
They were also the No. 1 offensive team in the league, according to our adjusted offensive ratings at 8.38 points per 10 drives better than the league-average team in 2022.
For individual games, the excitement scale translates to the following general sub-ranges: 0-39 (Dull Game), 40-64 (OK Game), 65-84 (Good Game), 85-100 (Great Game). There were only 40 games during the 2022 season that had an excitement rating higher than 90.
And the Chiefs played in nine of them.
The Raiders finished a disappointing 6-11, but they were the second most exciting team in the league with 14 of their 17 games decided by single digits – including four overtime contests. They were also involved in one of the few 100-rated games (see above) in a 37-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on New Year’s Day.
We mentioned the year Jacobs had and Davante Adams was our NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Adams’ 14 receiving touchdowns led the NFL and his combined open percentage across man and zone coverage of 52.2 was superior to Jefferson and Hill, though his 1,516 receiving yards trailed them both.
Similarly, the Broncos ended up 5-12 despite most of their games going down to the wire. Fifteen of their 17 games were decided by single digits with three eventually settled in overtime.
The exclusion of the NFC champion Eagles might be a little surprising on the surface. They certainly had some exciting players in Hurts, Devonta Smith and A.J. Brown, but they also outscored opponents by a total of 185 points (including the playoffs). Philadelphia won seven games by 16 points or more.
That was also the case for the 49ers and Dallas Cowboys, who led the league in most victories by 14 points or more with nine and six, respectively. Not very exciting.
It was a rough season for fans of these teams that were difficult to watch. Of the 10 least exciting teams of 2022, only the New York Giants finished with a winning record at 9-7-1.
And it says a lot about the rest of the Giants, Bears, Jets and Browns rosters that they had players featured in the most exciting top 10 but ended up at the bottom of the team rankings.
It can only go up from here for the Houston Texans, who have the second pick in the NFL Draft. They not only finished 3-13-1 but also lost seven games by double digits.
Bryan Ziebelman and Trevor Goldstein contributed.