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NFLTR Review: Who’s In, Who’s Out?

Football is back and so are we! In this issue of NFLTR Review:

  • Which 2021 playoff teams will regress and who will take their place?
  • Disaster in the desert
  • Which teams had the most/least Top 100 players?

Who’s In, Who’s Out?

Parity is the name of the game in the NFL, as year to year there’s consistently about a 50 percent turnover rate in the playoffs. That’s held true even as the league has shifted from six to seven teams per conference as well. Last season the Bengals, Raiders and Patriots crashed the postseason in the AFC, while the Cowboys, Cardinals, 49ers and Eagles made appearances in the NFC. There were seven newcomers the year before that as well. 

That provides a neat little reference when trying to forecast the upcoming season. This is now the third year we’ve done the “Who’s In, Who’s Out?” exercise for NFLTR Review and there are always a few obvious candidates one way or the other. It was easy to see the Buccaneers coming in 2020, for instance, while a Saints dropoff without Drew Brees last season was also predictable.

There are always surprises, though, and I’m going to try to spoil a few of them. 

For reference, here’s the 2021 playoff field:

2021 Playoffs

AFC NFC
Seed Team Record Seed Team Record
1 Titans 12-5 1 Packers 13-4
2 Chiefs 12-5 2 Buccaneers 13-4
3 Bills 11-6 3 Cowboys 12-5
4 Bengals 10-7 4 Rams 12-5
5 Raiders 10-7 5 Cardinals 11-6
6 Patriots 10-7 6 49ers 10-7
7 Steelers 9-7-1 7 Eagles 9-8

 

Low-hanging fruit first. The Steelers squeaked into the postseason last year as the final wildcard team largely on the back of great defense and the last few drops of veteran craftiness Ben Roethlisberger had to compensate for his noodled throwing arm. From an athletic standpoint, both Mitch Trubisky and first-round rookie Kenny Pickett will allow OC Matt Canada to implement more of his system, which could make the offense more aesthetically pleasing, perhaps even more productive. However, Roethlisberger led a career-high seven game-winning drives in 2021, which formed the bulk of Pittsburgh’s nine wins. Losing that shouldn’t be discounted. 

The best thing the Steelers have going for them is HC Mike Tomlin. Zero losing seasons in 15 years is remarkable stuff and that includes a season platooning between Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges. He’s proven it would take numerous calamities for the bottom to really drop out on the Steelers’ season. Still, the AFC is so hyper-competitive this year that it feels unrealistic to expect the Steelers to seriously challenge for the playoffs. 

The Titans and the Patriots face similar issues. Both teams elected to let significant members of their playoff squads leave this offseason and are rebuilding entire positional groups — the receiving corps in Tennessee with the departure of A.J. Brown and the secondary plus offensive coaching staff in New England. And while both teams looked like possible Super Bowl contenders at various points in 2021, each saw their season come crashing to an ignominious end. 

The Patriots looked light years behind the Bills in a 47-17 drubbing, and it’s hard to argue they’ve closed the gap based on the offseason both teams had. Buffalo loaded up even more with the addition of DE Von Miller, while the Patriots’ most notable offseason move was converting former special teams coach Joe Judge and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to QB coach and OL coach respectively. Neither have ever called plays on offense, yet one of them is probably going to be tasked with that role in the pivotal second season for promising QB Mac Jones

As for the Titans, their run as the No. 1 seed in the AFC ended in a playoff meltdown against the Bengals, with three picks from QB Ryan Tannehill. The veteran thrived in Tennessee when he was allowed to manage the game and let RB Derrick Henry do the heavy lifting, but even if Henry is healthy in 2022, the offensive line and receiving corps are both in flux and that will put more pressure on Tannehill’s shoulders again. The Colts (more on them later) look like bigger threats to challenge for the AFC South, and if the Titans don’t win the division, they’ll face a much tougher road in a loaded potential AFC wildcard field. 

Strong coaching and tough defense count for a lot, especially late in the season, and to their credit those all look like strengths for the Patriots, Titans and Steelers. At some point, though, the AFC turns into a numbers game. One of these six teams — Chiefs, Chargers, Raiders, Broncos, Bengals, Ravens — will miss the playoffs because there will be only two division winners and three wildcard slots to go around. 

All six of those teams have legitimate reasons to believe they can contend for a Super Bowl in 2022. Tick through each team and you see a fearsome battery of quarterbacks with rosters featuring some of the best players in the league and few weaknesses. In less than six months we’re going to be dissecting what went wrong for one of them.

Injuries thin the herd every year, but those are as capricious as lightning and as difficult to predict. If I had to pick one roster on paper that lags just a hair behind the rest, however, it would be Las Vegas. The Raiders have as much top-level talent as any team in the league between WR Davante Adams, OLB Chandler Jones, OLB Maxx Crosby, TE Darren Waller, WR Hunter Renfrow, LT Kolton Miller and of course QB Derek Carr. But there are concerns for the rest of the line besides Miller which could limit how explosive the Raiders offense is in 2022. Defensively, Jones and Crosby are terrific but there are major questions at cornerback and safety.  

That’s just enough of a difference to put the Raiders behind some other teams in the AFC West for me. The Chargers came within a whisker of the playoffs last season and look like they’ve improved their defense dramatically. You can only keep a talent like QB Justin Herbert out of the playoffs for so long and it feels like this is the year he breaks in. The Broncos made one of the offseason’s biggest splashes trading for QB Russell Wilson, and while there will be an adjustment period as he and new HC Nathaniel Hackett gel with each other and the rest of the team, last season was only the second time ever a Wilson-quarterbacked team hasn’t made the playoffs. You can argue Wilson is better than Carr even if his supporting cast isn’t, and the Broncos’ defense definitely has an edge over the Raiders. Los Angeles and Denver will be popular bandwagon picks this year, but for good reason. 

As for other potential newcomers, no team in football had worse injury luck than the Ravens in 2021 and they still held it together for half the season before petering out. Assuming they get just about everyone back — and that’s the way things are trending, most importantly with QB Lamar Jackson entering a pivotal contract year — the Ravens should be right back in the thick of things in the AFC. They also have the added benefit of a last-place schedule since they finished fourth in a competitive AFC North last season, which could help juice their record with a win or two. 

Finally, the Colts should have been in the playoffs last year if not for that epic collapse in Jacksonville in Week 18. They’ve taken a number of steps to try and rectify the issues that cropped up in that game, most notably trading away QB Carson Wentz and acquiring veteran QB Matt Ryan from the Falcons. Ryan’s on the tail end of his career but he still has enough left in the tank to be highly effective the same way Philip Rivers was in 2020. Indianapolis was a wildcard team that year and the Titans look more vulnerable at the top of the AFC South than they did then. 

Out: Steelers, Titans, Patriots, Raiders

In: Chargers, Ravens, Broncos, Colts

In the AFC, there are too many good teams for too few playoff spots. In the NFC, there’s the opposite problem. Only the Packers, Rams and Buccaneers seem truly ironclad heading into 2022. The Cowboys, Eagles, 49ers and Cardinals all have glaring red flags that could sabotage their efforts to return to the playoffs. The catch is there’s a shortage of obvious candidates to take their place. 

Let’s start with the regression cases. Dallas lost a fair amount of talent from a team last year that truly should have been competing for the Super Bowl. They had the NFL’s No. 1 offense and forced a league-leading 34 turnovers on defense. However, there’s a significant luck element to interceptions and fumble recoveries which makes it hard to carry over success in that department from year to year. Take away the turnovers, and Dallas was only 19th in yards allowed last season. The offense should still be good this year, but the Cowboys could struggle on defense. 

Philadelphia seems poised to take advantage if the Cowboys slip from the top of the NFC East after a major influx of talent this offseason. They added a ton of talent to their defense and juiced their receiving corps with the trade for Brown. However, the defense was often criticized by opponents last season for being too “vanilla” under DC Jonathan Gannon. Is it because he didn’t have the right personnel, or are there other issues there? The Eagles are also obviously counting on a big step forward from QB Jalen Hurts. He’s probably exceeded expectations so far, but without more development, the Eagles would be left with a quarterback similar to Tyrod Taylor. Solid but probably not someone you’re seriously contending with.  

The 49ers also have a big question mark at quarterback as they turn from the veteran Jimmy Garoppolo to the inexperienced Trey Lance. Lance’s talent is undeniable, as the dynamic duel-threat passer wouldn’t have slipped outside the top four picks in 2021. He just has played so little that it’s natural to expect growing pains. San Francisco is counting on the rest of the roster to carry him, and on paper it mostly looks up to the task with the potential exception of the interior offensive line. 

As for Arizona, they were the top team in the NFC most of last season and just extended the leadership trifecta of GM Steve Keim, HC Kliff Kingsbury and QB Kyler Murray. Things ought to feel more positive around the franchise but the tenor of everything surrounding that team since about last December has been bad. Bad, bad, bad. The Cardinals faltered again in the second half of the season, which is a long trend for Kingsbury and at this point Murray, and were dismantled in the wildcard round by the Rams, ending 2021 on a sour note. 

The offseason did little to make that taste go away. Star WR DeAndre Hopkins was suspended for six games and top pass-rusher Jones left for Vegas. Several other key role players signed elsewhere in free agency. The Cardinals did trade their first-round pick for WR Marquise Brown and re-signed guys like RB James Conner and TE Zach Ertz, but they made almost no outside additions.

Talks with Murray boiled over into drama a number of times, with a weird public statement from his agent to try and pressure the team into an early deal, threats of a holdout and anonymously-sourced reports that the Cardinals had questions about Murray’s leadership and maturity. Those quieted down this summer, only to burst back into flames with the “homework clause” fiasco in Murray’s $230 million deal that required him to do four hours of film study on his own each week until it was rescinded. 

All that drama will evaporate if the Cardinals win games. But the holes perforating the roster are harder to deal with. The pass rush looks a lot weaker and there are questions in the secondary. The offensive line is unstable and although Brown is a welcome addition to the passing attack, the Cardinals missed Hopkins a lot when he was out last season. That could make things difficult early in the season and sap Arizona’s margin for error in the second half, where Kingsbury and Murray have a big monkey to try and get off their back. 

What could save these teams is there aren’t many candidates in the rest of the pack in the NFC to push them out. The top one might be the Vikings, who are coming off of an 8-9 season and didn’t make drastic changes apart from jettisoning HC Mike Zimmer, GM Rick Spielman and the accompanying coaching staff/front office. The roster is largely the same but the thought in Minnesota is that HC Kevin O’Connell will be able to get more out of it than Zimmer did — a gamble considering the hit-and-miss nature of new coaching hires. 

Working in the Vikings’ favor is they caught some bad breaks in one-score games last season, finishing 4-7 in those contests. Those tend to be closer to 50-50 over time, so they should be due for some good luck. You can question QB Kirk Cousins’ chops in big games but he consistently churns out yards and touchdowns every year and offense is O’Connell’s specialty. Add in talents like WR Justin Jefferson, WR Adam Thielen, RB Dalvin Cook and an improving offensive line, and Minnesota could be tough to deal with offensively. On defense, the Vikings are strong enough on the defensive line, particularly with OLBs Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith, to potentially make up for some question marks in the secondary. 

After Minnesota, the Saints seem best situated to return to the playoffs. Losing Sean Payton will hurt big-time — how could it not? —  but they’ve been a top-five defense two years in a row and return just about everyone from that side of the ball. The exception is at safety but Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye shouldn’t be too steep of a dropoff from Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams

The big question is on offense, as Jameis Winston will enter his second season as the starter in New Orleans while trying to navigate a recovery from a torn ACL. There were bright spots for Winston last season as he had just three interceptions in his seven starts after infamously throwing 30 in 2019, adding 14 touchdown passes as well. But Winston averaged just 23 pass attempts a game and completed just 59 percent of his attempts. The question is whether the training wheels were a reflection on Winston or on the wasteland that was New Orleans’ receiving corps in 2021. We’ll get an answer, as Jarvis Landry, first-round rookie Chris Olave and a potentially healthy Michael Thomas represent a massive upgrade. 

Once you get past those two, you have to really squint to see enough things breaking right for teams like the Panthers, Commanders or even the Lions to make a run as a surprise Cinderella team. The rule of seven forces me to make a pick, however. The Eagles and 49ers are the next two bubble teams, and at this point I’m a bigger believer in Lance than Hurts. If the Cowboys and Eagles are both out, someone has to win the NFC East, and it’s almost the Commanders by default. 

I liked Washington as a dark horse playoff contender last season. The reasoning was the defense looked like it could be terrific and Ryan Fitzpatrick was spunky enough to take advantage of some really good skill position talent. Of course, Fitzpatrick dislocated his hip and the defense massively underperformed. But if HC Ron Rivera can fix that side of the ball, Wentz is a better quarterback than Fitzpatrick (right?). Maybe I was just a year off on the Commanders. 

(probably not)

Out: Cardinals, Cowboys, Eagles

In: Vikings, Saints, Commanders

This Week In Football

  • The beginning of training camp used to be marked by a number of holdouts around the league by players unhappy with their current contract situations. The new CBA changed the rules to effectively nerf most holdouts, but a few loopholes remain. Players like Bengals S Jessie Bates and Chiefs LT Orlando Brown Jr. who are on the franchise tag but have not signed the tender can stay away from camp without fear of fines because they aren’t technically under contract. Week 1 is the marker for when they start to lose money, and at that point it seems that no matter what either may threaten, they’ll be in the fold ready to play. Bates’ tag is $12.9 million and Brown’s is $16.6 million, a ton of money to walk away from. Former Steelers RB Le’Veon Bell’s decision to forego the tag in 2018 didn’t age well and that will surely be a factor. 
  • The other loophole is what’s technically being termed a “hold in.” Players report to training camp to avoid fines but decline to practice until their contracts are addressed. A few players are taking that tack, including Bears LB Roquan Smith, 49ers WR Deebo Samuel and Chargers S Derwin James. The Chargers and James seem to be on the same page with holding him out and are optimistic about a deal being done, while San Francisco and Samuel have had “productive and substantive” talks after he reported to camp. But Smith and the Bears are a long way apart. Smith presumably is looking for a deal close to or more than $19 million a year, which is the top of the inside linebacker market. While he’s young and one of the Bears’ best players, that’s a significant commitment for the Bears’ new front office to jump into right away. Smith landed on the PUP list to start camp and Chicago’s hesitancy to discuss details of his ailment hint it might be something fixed by a new deal. 
  • One other player who was “holding in” until Thursday is Seahawks WR D.K. Metcalf, as his agent and Seattle were in talks through the first couple days of camp. They finally broke through on a three-year, $72 million deal that includes $58.2 million in guaranteed money. While it’s slightly less than the $25 million a year the Eagles gave WR A.J. Brown — who’s also represented by Metcalf’s agent, Tory Dandy, who also represents Samuel, funny enough — the guarantees are higher. Not having the extra year of control is also a huge concession Metcalf’s team was able to wring out of the Seahawks. That means Metcalf will be entering his next contract year at 27 and potentially unrestricted free agency in 2026 at the age of 28, prime years for wide receivers. 
  • In addition to the Samuel negotiations, the 49ers still have one major loose end with QB Jimmy Garoppolo still on the roster. However, they made it a point this week to authoritatively shut down any speculation about who their starter will be in 2022, indicating they’re moving forward with Trey Lance and one way or another Garoppolo will be elsewhere. Ideally that’s a trade, but at this point it would take a major injury to another team’s starter to ignite what’s been a dismal market. In the end, San Francisco might be forced to simply release Garoppolo to save $25 million, a possibility we mentioned all the way back in December
  • In what could be Tom Brady’s final year — for real this time — the Buccaneers will likely spare no expense to ensure they have the best chance possible at another Super Bowl victory. So while wide receiver wasn’t an obvious need, Tampa Bay remembered the injuries that hit the unit late last season and decided to be proactive. Enter Julio Jones, who signed a one-year, $6 million deal this week. It’s tough to know how much Jones has left in the tank as he’s been limited by injuries significantly the past two seasons. However, he’s likely looking at a rotational role behind Mike Evans, Chris Godwin whenever he’s healthy and even Russell Gage who signed a big deal in free agency this offseason to be Brady’s handpicked slot receiver. Essentially, he’s a juiced-up Breshad Perriman at this point. 
  • Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, their offense took a big hit on Thursday when C Ryan Jensen went down in practice with what looked like a severe knee injury. There’s no official diagnosis yet, but Tampa Bay is bracing to be without Jensen for a long time, potentially the whole season. There’s a reason Jensen was one of the first priorities for the Buccaneers when Brady announced his return. He’s one of the nastiest linemen in football, someone defenders genuinely despise playing, and the literal heart of the Buccaneers’ offensive line. The next man up is 2021 third-rounder Robert Hainsey, but if he’s not quite ready, don’t be surprised if they go after veteran J.C. Tretter. After all, it’s a spare-no-expense kind of year. 
  • There are usually big deals for young stars done at the beginning of camp, but the rest of the time the free agent budgets are usually pretty spent for NFL teams. That’s why it was surprising to see the Bears hand out $10 million to OT Riley Reiff. However, considering Chicago was looking at starting fifth-round rookie Braxton Jones at left tackle, Reiff had some leverage for a sizable pay-day. The Chiefs also dipped into the cookie jar, giving veteran DE Carlos Dunlap a deal that maxes out at $8 million. They still have the worst edge rushing group in the AFC West but this closes the gap somewhat. Finally, the Patriots handed out a two-year, $20.5 million extension to DT Davon Godchaux. He just signed with New England last year on a two-year, $15 million deal, so this is a nice get for him. 
  • The Texans will unfortunately be without the services of second-round WR John Metchie this season, as he was diagnosed with leukemia and will miss the season undergoing treatment. The good news for Metchie is it’s a treatable form of cancer with a high recovery rate, so his outlook is strong. We’re wishing him the best in his recovery and hope to see him back on the field soon. 

Nickels & Dimes

Quick-hit thoughts and observations from around the NFL…

There was a fair amount that happened while NFLTR Review is on break, most notably — for me especially — the Panthers trading for QB Baker Mayfield. It’s hard to hate the deal for what they paid, which was practically nothing, but it’s also hard to get really excited by it. In my opinion, Mayfield is an average quarterback at best who would benefit from understanding his limitations vastly more than he does. I don’t think he’s a long-term solution, which means odds are Carolina is adding another quarterback in some capacity next offseason. The only coherent way to describe their strategy at the position the past few seasons has been throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. At least they’ve wised up and have gotten cheaper with it…

I think HC Matt Rhule was a driving factor in the trade given his tenuous standing, but I’m skeptical Mayfield saves his job. I’d bump them up a tier into the longshot category in my power rankings, but probably the bottom of that tier…

Some thoughts on the other big news items of the summer…

  • Brace yourself for Sean Payton watch this season, it’s almost guaranteed to be worse than when Bill Cowher stepped away. And don’t dismiss the story about the Dolphins’ interest in Payton…
  • Kansas City being frustrated that Brown didn’t take their team-friendly offer and venting about it is rich for a few reasons. One, the entire reason they had a crack at Brown is because he requested a trade out of Baltimore instead of staying put to play right tackle. Not a “team-friendly” move, and nothing wrong with that. Two, they cheaped out on WR Tyreek Hill ostensibly to have money to pay Brown, and they’re already benefiting from underpaying two of the best players in football, TE Travis Kelce and QB Patrick Mahomes
  • I’m still baffled as to why Murray and his agent made such a big fuss over getting a deal ASAP from Arizona. Not many quarterbacks, at least not of Murray’s caliber, have ever made LESS money by waiting to sign…
  • It’s hard to argue that the Cardinals shouldn’t have signed Murray given all the success so far. And yet…I think there’s a bigger chance than many people think of this situation souring the same way things did for Wentz and the Eagles…
  • Just marinate on this for a moment. Deshaun Watson and Kirk Cousins are the only two quarterbacks in history to secure fully guaranteed contracts…

This is an interesting interview with new Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, worth reading by itself. One tangent that jumped out at me is how he discussed the quarterback position, including the value of having an elite-level talent. And it helps put into perspective why the Browns and GM Andrew Berry, who Adofo-Mensah worked with for two years, were willing to overlook so much and bend over backward to bring in Watson. They believe he’s a rare, elite-level talent who can help them win. A lot. Ultimately that mattered more to them than anything else regarding Watson…

And, eventually, they think it’ll matter more to the fans, too…

Here’s a breakdown of which teams had the most and the least top 100 players from our list this summer…

AFC NFC
GB 5 CLE 5
MIN 2 BAL 4
DET 1 CIN 3
CHI 0 PIT 3
TB 5 IND 4
NO 4 TEN 3
CAR 2 HOU 1
ATL 2 JAX 0
DAL 7 BUF 4
PHI 5 MIA 3
WAS 2 NYJ 1
NYG 0 NE 1
SF 5 LAC 7
LAR 4 LV 6
ARI 2 KC 5
SEA 1 DEN 3

*organized by division

Some interesting stuff here. Dallas tying for the NFL lead with seven players shows the roster isn’t barren or anything. They just have to fix their chronic underperformance…

It’s also worth noting the apparent talent gap between the Broncos and the rest of the AFC West, with just three top 100 players in Denver compared to five, six and seven for the Chiefs, Raiders and Chargers. Not quite enough to get me to flip Denver and Las Vegas in my predictions above, but still worth noting…

The AFC has 53 top 100 players compared to 47 for the NFC. Those players are more concentrated in the NFC, however. Nine of 16 teams have fewer than 3 top 100 players, while 12 of 16 AFC teams have at least three…

Teams with one or fewer: Bears, Giants, Jaguars, Seahawks, Texans, Lions…Jets? Patriots?? Worth noting…

Circling back to the Panthers to finish things off, they may not come particularly close to a Super Bowl this season. But they’ve already accomplished something much more difficult — a uniform re-design that everybody loves. Those black helmets are sick…

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