NFL Headlines 2022: What to watch

The NFL season is finally here, ladies and gentlemen! The chaos, the drama, the excitement – it’s back. If you haven’t been fully keeping up with everything heading throughout the offseason, I’ve got your back. I have listed some of the biggest and most interesting narratives that you need to watch this season. Some are based on individual players, and some are more focused on teams or groups of players. This is my list of the most important NFL Headlines for the 2022 season.

The Cincinnati Bengals – Super Bowl Slump or perennial contenders?

Getting to a Super Bowl is an incredibly difficult thing to do, that is obvious. Getting to a Super Bowl with one of the youngest cores in the NFL and one of the worst offensive lines around – that gets your Quarterback sacked more than any other QB in the entire league… That is crazy. Crazy or not, that’s what the Cincinnati Bengals did in 2021. Super Bowl slumps are a real thing. However, I think it is very important to acknowledge something before you assume it’ll happen here. The Bengals are objectively going into Week 1 this year than they were going into the Super Bowl.

Their O-line is the biggest upgrade, but there is also the benefit of big-game experience for this young team. Joe Burrow is 25 years old, Ja’Marr Chase is 22, Tee Higgins is 23, Jessie Bates III is 25, and even Joe Mixon is just 26. Playing in a Super Bowl, and showing grit at such a young age will be helpful long-term.

I’m not saying the Bengals are favourites or anything, but I think they should be considered contenders. And they’re actually getting better over time.

Russell Wilson outside of Seattle

As many high-profile players have changed teams this offseason as I’ve seen in years. However, no new addition will attract more eyes than Russell Wilson. The future HOF QB played 11 seasons in Seattle and has now – at age 33 – gone to the Denver Broncos. They have been the weakest team in the hyper-competitive AFC West over the last few years, but that could change immediately. In my preseason power rankings, all four teams in this division are inside the top 12 – making it by far the best (or worse if you’re trying to win in it) division in the league.

Can Wilson single-handedly upgrade the Broncos to make them a legitimate playoff threat, or will he just cause more chaos in an already intense division? Only time will tell. The Broncos have a pretty solid group of wide receivers, headed by Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy. A downgrade from Seattle WR’s, admittedly, but an upgrade across basically the entire rest of the roster, especially at offensive line, where he has gone from arguably the league’s worst to an average one.

The Las Vegas Raiders Offense

While we are talking about the AFC West, let’s talk about the team who came second in it last year. That finish came courtesy of the crown jewel of the regular season, their epic walk-off overtime victory over the Chargers. The Las Vegas Raiders enter this season off the back of their first playoff season since 2016. Their offense was the strength of the team already, but now they just got better. Last year they were very productive, averaging 364 yards of offense per game – 11th in the league. Their actual scoring was much more average, though – their 22 points per game only good for 18th. The offensive line is nowhere near what it was a few years ago, either, which is the one weakness.

However, they did add the best wide receiver in the NFL to their team, so there’s always that. Davante Adams upgrades an already good offense and will hugely improve their scoring potential, as he is a true red zone master.

Adams is one of the hardest players in the league to guard in man coverage, but he will also now be lined up alongside Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller, who also require a huge amount of attention. Derek Carr, with these elite weapons, is poised for a huge year. He will have the opportunity to face a lot of zone coverage, with three separate phenomenal targets to choose from. The defense might still be below average, albeit improved, and the offensive line is still bad, but this offense is ready to go nuclear if they can hold up.

Green Bay without Davante Adams

A natural segue here, when the best WR in the league gets traded, someone has to lose him. The Packers still have a first-ballot Hall of Famer under centre, but the losing Adams will hamstring their passing game. Aaron Rodgers is a truly unbelievable talent but he needs targets. If you cut out Adams’ first two years, and start from his 2016 breakout, the quantity of Rodgers’ TD’s that went to Adams is pretty wild. Of the 192 touchdowns Rodgers threw from 2016 through 2021, Adams caught 69 of them. That is a whopping 36%.

Rodgers’ WR1 now goes from being Davante Adams to Allen Lazard, who is unproven, to say the least. The depth chart looks very different and we might even see them lean more on the running game with the one-two punch of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. If not, the pressure on ARod’s ability to elevate his wideouts will be at an all-time high. Green Bay want a championship and won’t settle for less, but that won’t be easy without their second best player.

The MVP Race

This is a nice segue too, as Aaron Rodgers is the back-to-back reigning Most Valuable Player. However, with everything I just said suggesting he may not be able to hit the three-peat, we find the battle for that coveted title open to the young stars taking over the league. You have two previous winners in the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Ravens QB Lamar Jackson in the mix. Then there’s a trio of superstars who hold the league’s future in their capable hands; Josh Allen of the Bills, Joe Burrow of the Bengals and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert.

The old heads could still win, too, though! Rodgers is still elite, and then there’s Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady. TB12 is equally likely to win MVP as he is to retire going into every new season – never underestimate him.

It’s going to be an incredibly close-run race and it will be extremely exciting to watch it play out.

The Miami Dolphins

Of all the teams in the NFL, Miami is one of the teams with the highest variance in their range of outcomes. The Dolphins defense is solid, and in their last two seasons they put up respectable records of 10-6 and 9-8. Their offense now has more firepower, through the addition of Tyreek Hill, who has terrorised defenses for the last handful of years, and doesn’t show any sign of slowing down just yet – pun not intended. Making the playoffs is no longer a hope, it’s an objective. This roster needed a little more oomph, and now it has it. The big question is Tua Tagovailoa. If the Alabama product can play well, making smart decisions and timely throws, this team could be very good indeed. His weapons are great and the defense will help them out. It’s all on Tua’s shoulders.

Carolina Panthers Quarterback Battle

The Carolina Panthers are a football team in a difficult situation. Their roster has some real stars; especially Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, Brian Burns and Jeremy Chinn. However, they don’t have the anchor of their team, a reliable long-term QB. Their QB position is occupied by fifth-year QB’s Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield, who will be battling for the starting role this year. PJ Walker who likely won’t make it to week one. Then, you have Matt Corral, who they drafted out of Ole Miss with the hope of a long future.

In the short-term, the starter spot is up for grabs between Darnold and Mayfield, as Carolina attempt to fight their way out of mediocrity. Their last winning season was all the way back in 2017. This season is memorable as the year that Christian McCaffrey was drafted. If they’re going to take advantage of the stars I named previously, they have to get the QB situation right, and that starts with one of Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold bridging until Corral is ready. I think Mayfield will be a better bet, but we’ll see.

The future stars of the league

There are so many young superstars in the NFL, right now. And I personally think this is one of the most exciting things to watch at the moment. You have a real plethora at each different position, at the moment. The Quarterback position is particularly insane, as Josh Allen, Justin Herbert and Joe Burrow are all elite quarterbacks – and perennial MVP candidates – but, excitingly, they are all 26 or younger.

My personal favourite young positional group is the wide receivers. Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson are both absolutely absurd talents, and their combined age is just one year older than Tom Brady, at 22.5 and 23.5 years respectively. Then, after the elite of the elite, you have CeeDee Lamb, DK Metcalf, A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, DJ Moore and Tee Higgins. All of these stars are 25 years old or younger.

The running back position has a bit of a shorter shelf life, but there is young talent out there. Jonathan Taylor springs to mind as the face of young RB’s, with just shy of 3,000 yards and an impressive 32 touchdowns in his first two seasons – starting 30 games in that time. There are also some very bright futures for the likes of D’Andre Swift, Javonte Williams, Cam Akers and Najee Harris – who are all 24 or younger. Plus, you also need to remember that the likes of Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon and Nick Chubb are still only 26-years old, some of the best in the business.

Even the tight end position has a bright future, with none brighter than Kyle Pitts of the Falcons, who doesn’t turn 22 until the middle of Week 5. Then you have that slightly older group including Pat Freiermuth, Cole Kmet, Noah Fant, Albert Okwuegbunam and Irv Smith Jr., who are all poised to break out but haven’t been able to do so yet.

 Second-year QB breakout candidates

The 2021 draft class was jam-packed with players who had big expectations, particularly at the quarterback position. However, it was a pretty tough year for them all. That isn’t because the talent isn’t there, though, and there were some positive flashes. So, it’s now time to prime ourselves for some second-year breakouts. The most likely breakout is Trevor Lawrence, who went first overall, but Mac Jones also looked solid in his first year, so he’s right there too.

Justin Fields has shown individual ability, but is on a very bad team, and Trey Lance is a dream dual-threat on paper, but he didn’t get to start in his rookie season. In 2022, though, he is getting handed the keys to the San Francisco offense. I am incredibly excited to see this. Trey Lance’s breakout may be the easiest of every name I’ve listed here, as the 49ers are a genuinely good team. Finally, after a very chill and under the radar offseason, Zach Wilson too is a potential breakout candidate, however it won’t be as easy for him as a couple of these other guys, especially after Mekhi Becton got injured.

 Kyler Murray has been paid, time to earn that money

There has been a shift in recent years toward rushing quarterbacks, with the likes of Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen setting the world on fire with endless highlights of them embarrassing defenses for long runs. Kyler Murray is the latest benefactor of this shift, having received a five-year contract worth $230.5m with $160m guaranteed. Murray’s ability to extend plays, break big runs and put defenses under pressure with his legs earned him a big pay check, but now he has to step up and earn it. The way to do that will be to take Arizona beyond the wild card round.

Now, I will say, this might not be easy. His best wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins is suspended for the start of the season. That doesn’t help when, infamously, Kliff Kingsbury’s Cardinals have usually been at their best in the first seven weeks.

Also, there has been some very unusual preseason antics that add to my worry for Murray’s situation. First, there was the weird ‘independent study clause’ controversy. An addendum in his contract implied that he needed to be forced to spend more dedicated film-watching time. It got removed, but the damage was done. Finally, there was a weird, seemingly irritated, comment from Coach Kingsbury after he made Kyler call plays for the other QB’s on his rest day during training camp. He said, “I just wanted him to know that, hey, this s— ain’t easy. Every now and then, he starts shaking his head when I’m calling it in there, I’m like, ‘Alright big dog.”

Nobody is questioning Kyler’s ability, but is he a $230.5m QB? Let’s watch and find out.

The class of 2022

We already spoke about how there are some second-year players poised for a breakout. However, there is also a very good batch of rookies coming out this year. Quite a lot of the first-round picks will have the opportunity to make a difference early. The wide receiver class has some real potential, with four of them going in the first 12 picks: Drake London to Atlanta, Garrett Wilson to the Jets, Chris Olave to New Orleans and then Jameson Williams to Detroit. All four guys will be looking to make an impact in their rookie year, which will be exciting to see.

Breece Hall is the standout at the running back position, but Kenneth Walker was also a second-round pick with an opportunity to be the primary back of their team. Hall and Walker will have to make it happen on weaker teams, but this does admittedly mean that the rebuilding rosters will allow them to try and put their stamp on the offense from year one. Their rookie years will be watched closely, as nobody is safe on a rebuilding team.

No rookie QB’s walk straight into the QB1 role this season, but Kenny Pickett is behind a shaky Mitch Trubisky. He will be looking to perform on the training field and put himself right on Trubisky’s heels. The other QB’s might have to wait longer, but the likes of Desmond Ridder and Matt Corral will be licking their lips at the potential opportunity to step up and start later this season.