Every NFL Team's Biggest X-Factor for 2022
In the NFL, sure things are usually in short supply.
We know Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes will chew opponents up through the air. When healthy, we know Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry will do the same on the ground. And we know Pittsburgh Steelers edge-rusher T.J. Watt will make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
But for every thing that is known, there are five that are not. That includes young quarterbacks, running backs trying to get their career back on track, offensive linemen trying to rebound from an injury-plagued campaign and untested cornerbacks who have been thrust into major roles.
From Arizona to Washington and all points in between, every team in the NFL has an X-factor whose success (or failure) will have a sizable impact on their record in 2022. Here's a look at the biggest one for each team.
Arizona Cardinals: LB Zaven Collins
Last year, the Arizona Cardinals spent a first-round pick on an off-ball linebacker for the second straight season. And just as with Isaiah Simmons the year before, Zaven Collins' first NFL season left something to be desired.
The 6'4", 260-pounder was a small-school star transitioning to a new role after playing outside at Tulsa. However, Collins was on the field for only 20 percent of the Cardinals' defensive snaps and tallied 25 total tackles across 17 games (six starts).
However, Arizona general manager Steve Keim remains confident that Collins and Simmons can form a formidable duo in the middle of the Cardinals defense.
"Zaven, it's one of those situations where it's always tough whenever you have to be a rookie and try to call the defense and some of the challenges that it presents," Keim told reporters in early May. "But I think both those guys are going to be tremendous players."
Collins' potential is undeniable. It's not every day that a 260-pound off-ball linebacker with his athleticism comes along.
But with former Cardinals starting linebacker Jordan Hicks now in Minnesota, Collins needs to start turning that potential into production.
Atlanta Falcons: QB Desmond Ridder
The Atlanta Falcons traded longtime quarterback Matt Ryan to the Indianapolis Colts for a third-round pick in March, which set the stage for a ground-up rebuild.
The first item on their to-do list is figuring out who will succeed Ryan.
The Falcons added a pair of new quarterbacks this year, signing Marcus Mariota in free agency and drafting Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder in the third round. Ridder was the highest-ranked quarterback on the B/R Scouting Department's big board, and Falcons assistant director of college scouting Dwaune Jones believes the team got a massive bargain.
"Winning is contagious and Desmond Ridder's a winner," Jones said, via Tori McElhaney of the team's website. "It permeates the whole building because he's a guy who's going to have command of the entire locker room. He's going to demand respect as well. A guy like that, he's going to do his absolutely best to hit his ceiling."
Mariota will likely open the season as the starter, while Ridder should take over at some point down the road. But with Ridder reportedly impressing in rookie camp, the Falcons might be able to skip that first step and roll him out in Week 1.
Expediting a rebuild is never a bad thing.
Baltimore Ravens: WR Rashod Bateman
In today's NFL, you aren't going to win consistently unless you can throw the ball. And while the Baltimore Ravens have one of the league's best tight ends in Mark Andrews, second-year wideout Rashod Bateman is their biggest X-factor given the state of their receiving corps.
Veteran receiver Sammy Watkins left Baltimore for Green Bay in free agency, and the Ravens shipped fellow wideout Marquise Brown to the Arizona Cardinals for the No. 23 pick. That leaves Bateman as the team's top receiver after an injury-marred rookie year in which he caught 46 passes for 515 yards and one touchdown in 12 games.
While appearing on teammate Marlon Humphrey's podcast, Bateman said that he's up to the task of being the franchise's top wideout.
"I feel like Baltimore drafted me for a reason. They drafted me to be in this position," Bateman said. "For me, all I've been waiting on is the opportunity. I know what I'm capable of, I feel like the Ravens organization knows what I'm capable of. I'm just excited to go out and finally show it to the fans and especially to my teammates."
The Ravens had better hope Bateman is right. Because their odds of a deep playoff run hinge in no small part on his ability to replace Brown's production.
Buffalo Bills: Edge Gregory Rousseau
The Buffalo Bills had the league's No. 1 defense last year in terms of both yards and points per game allowed. However, they lost their sacks leader from last season, Mario Addison, who signed with the Houston Texans in free agency.
That ramps up the pressure on second-year edge-rusher Gregory Rousseau to become the player whom the Bills thought they were getting when they drafted him 30th overall in 2021.
Rousseau showed flashes as a rookie, finishing with four sacks (tied for second on the team). However, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier told reporters that Rousseau hit the proverbial "rookie wall" last season.
"It's a real occurrence, the rookie wall. I've had a lot of players who have experienced it, went through it myself. This is a long season compared to what those guys have experienced in college. And you take Greg's situation, which is a unique one because he didn’t play any football in 2020, and all of sudden you have such a lengthy season, it can get to a point where you're looking and saying, 'Man, when is this thing gonna end?' And it can affect your play."
Rousseau had only one sack in his final 12 regular-season games last year, and he had zero across 68 snaps in his two playoff games. That has to change this season.
Carolina Panthers: RB Christian McCaffrey
In 2019, Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey became the third player in NFL history to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. When he's healthy, he's arguably the most dangerous player in the entire league.
The problem is that McCaffrey hasn't stayed healthy since the 2019 season.
After piling up a league-high 403 touches that year, McCaffrey played in only three games in 2020 because of ankle, shoulder and quadriceps injuries. Last year, ankle and hamstring injuries limited him to only seven games.
At OTAs in late May, McCaffrey told reporters that he's spent this offseason trying to figure out ways to stay on the field:
"I think it's just a constant listening to your body, and I think that's the best way to sum it up. Just listen to my body, do all the little things correct, eat right, sleep right, eliminate any kind of other energy exertions. And I know how I feel, and so just trusting in that and not overdoing it, not underdoing it. But I think that whether guys have had injuries or not, that's something that every NFL player goes through in the offseason is when to do what. But that's the fun part about it, you know, trying to figure it out. All I know is I feel great now."
The Panthers are a completely different offensive team with McCaffrey on the field. Without him, they have no chance of making any noise in the NFC South.
Chicago Bears: QB Justin Fields
It's rare for a starting quarterback to be an NFL team's biggest X-factor. But that's where the Chicago Bears find themselves heading into the 2022 campaign, because they still don't know what they have in second-year signal-caller Justin Fields.
Veteran center Lucas Patrick, who signed with the Bears as a free agent, told reporters at OTAs that he's been impressed with Fields so far.
"Fast. He can get moving pretty quick," Patrick said. "He's got a live arm. I mean, there were a few throws he made where that ball—it's like it keeps getting faster in the air. He's soaking everything up. Whether it’s coaches, me, or stuff he’s telling me, it's really good. He's really talented. ... He is exceeding my expectations."
Fields struggled as a rookie after taking over for veteran Andy Dalton under center. He completed only 58.9 percent of his passes, threw 10 interceptions to seven touchdowns and had a passer rating of 73.2.
Perhaps Fields will fare better under first-year head coach Matt Eberflus than he did under Matt Nagy. Maybe he'll get back to being the player who lit up the stat sheet at Ohio State and not the overmatched mess we saw last season.
But one way or another, the Bears need to figure out who Fields is…fast.
Cincinnati Bengals: CB Eli Apple
The Cincinnati Bengals don't have a lot of question marks on their roster. One of the biggest from last season was the offensive line, but they spent the offseason bolstering a front that allowed a whopping 70 sacks (including the postseason) in 2021.
The players whom the Bengals added aren't guaranteed to fix things. But guard Alex Cappa, center Ted Karras and tackle La'El Collins are all capable veterans with significant starting experience. They are known commodities.
That leaves seventh-year cornerback Eli Apple as their biggest X-factor.
Apple started 15 games, amassed 49 total tackles and tied a career high with two interceptions last season, which was his first in Cincinnati. He allowed 60.3 percent of the passes thrown in his direction to be completed, and while his passer rating against of 86.6 wasn't great, it also wasn't terrible.
But in Super Bowl LVI, Apple fell apart. He was victimized repeatedly while covering Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp, including on the game-winning touchdown.
Apple is the biggest question mark on the Cincinnati defense…and perhaps on the entire roster.
Cleveland Browns: QB Deshaun Watson
Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson might be the biggest X-factor in the entire NFL, much less his own team.
The Browns shipped a package including three first-round picks to Houston to acquire Watson this offseason before signing the 26-year-old to an unprecedented five-year, fully guaranteed $230 million contract. In 2020, he led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards and threw 33 touchdowns against only seven interceptions while leading the AFC with a passer rating of 112.4.
However, it's unclear when we'll see him on the field again.
Watson missed the entire 2021 season after 22 women filed lawsuits against him accusing him of sexual assault or misconduct. Two more women have filed similar lawsuits against him in recent weeks.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters in late May—prior to the latest lawsuits being filed—that the league is nearing the end of its investigation into Watson, so word on a suspension could be coming soon. That suspension, and what Watson does once he does get back on the field, will define the Browns both in 2022 and for years to come.
Dallas Cowboys: OT Terence Steele
The Dallas Cowboys fielded the NFL's top offensive line last season, according to Pro Football Focus. But that line faces a test in 2022, as left guard Connor Williams departed in free agency, and they cut right tackle La'El Collins.
The Cowboys used their first-round pick on Tulsa guard Tyler Smith to replace Williams. They're seemingly going the in-house route at tackle, promoting third-year pro Terence Steele to the starting lineup.
An undrafted free agent from Texas Tech, Steele has played quite a bit over his first two seasons due to injuries and Collins' six-game suspension last season. He surrendered only two sacks across 910 snaps last year, per PFF.
However, Steele has also been inconsistent and prone to lapses, as Mark Heaney wrote for The Landry Hat:
"He finished in the top ten in penalties allowed last year, a stat that unfortunately nearly all of the Dallas offensive line dominated in 2021. In the year prior, he finished second in sacks allowed league-wide. That could have more to do with him being a rookie, and he has since improved on that number, but the technical issues that engulfed Steele in his first year are not gone."
The Cowboys badly need Steele to clean things up in 2022. Their personnel losses up front have taken a toll both on their depth and their margin for error.
Denver Broncos: Edge Bradley Chubb
After the Denver Broncos pulled off a blockbuster trade for Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in March, most of the talk in the Mile High City this offseason has centered on the offense. But the Broncos' eighth-ranked defense from last season will also play a major role in how much noise they do or don't make in the AFC West.
There are some new faces on that defense, including pass-rusher Randy Gregory, linebacker Alex Singleton and slot corner K'Waun Williams. But the guy on whom everything may hinge defensively has played in Denver for his entire career.
Bradley Chubb made a big-time impact as a rookie, piling up 12 sacks. But since then, the 2018 No. 5 overall pick has mostly disappointed.
Chubb made the Pro Bowl two years ago, but he has missed 24 games over the past three seasons. He's had nearly three times as many games missed as sacks over that span.
Heading into the last year of his rookie deal, Chubb is well aware that the pressure in on to turn things around. But he told Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post that he's worried less about next year's money than this year's performance.
"When it comes to the business side of it, whatever happens at the end of the year happens," Chubb said. "My job is to go out and help the Broncos win more games than we ever have in my five years. My job is getting as many sacks as Bradley Chubb has ever had in the NFL. That’s what Year Five is all about for me."
Detroit Lions: WR D.J. Chark
Back in 2019, D.J. Chark looked like a star in the making. He hauled in 73 passes for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns on his way to the Pro Bowl with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But Chark's numbers dipped in 2020, and the bottom fell out last year. He caught only seven passes in four games before breaking his ankle.
Rather than re-sign Chark, the Jaguars instead handed a massive contract to Christian Kirk. Chark wound up signing a one-year, $10 million deal with the Detroit Lions.
Per Mike O'Hara of the Lions' website, the 25-year-old is thankful for the opportunity to get his career back on track:
"It was my first time being out for a season. It's been a long recovery. It's my first time back on the field going against people. Being the person I am, I'm excited. I think these are small wins, just being out here competing. I'm really hard on myself about being as close to perfection as possible every day I come to work. We all come to work with the same mission. Everybody wants to get better. It's football."
Detroit traded up for Alabama wideout Jameson Williams in the first round of this year's draft, but he tore his ACL in the national title game in January. His status for the early part of the regular season is very much in doubt.
The Lions have an excellent slot receiver in Amon-Ra St. Brown. But quarterback Jared Goff needs a dependable outside target, which is a void that Chark could potentially fill.
Green Bay Packers: WR Allen Lazard
The Green Bay Packers have won 13 games in each of the last three years. But after dealing star receiver Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders this offseason, it won't be particularly easy for them to make it four in a row.
The Packers took steps to address Adams' departure, adding veteran Sammy Watkins and drafting small-school star Christian Watson. But Aaron Rodgers has long shown an affinity for throwing to wide receivers with whom he has a rapport, which suggests Allen Lazard could be headed for a big role in 2022.
Lazard believes his relationship and comfort level with Rodgers will be important for the Packers this season, per Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register.
"I think just our repertoire and our history, it's obviously a major amount of comfortability between us two—just understanding the game and understanding what he wants," Lazard said. "I think that's probably the biggest challenge for anybody playing with him, especially young guys, is just understanding what he’s thinking in the moment."
Lazard has put up relatively modest numbers over his first four NFL seasons. His 40 catches and 513 yards were both career highs. He also isn't especially big or fast.
However, Lazard is a sure-handed wideout whom Rodgers trusts in the red zone, as evidenced by his career-high eight touchdowns last season. For the Packers to have real success in 2022, Lazard needs to have the biggest season of his career.
Houston Texans: Edge Jonathan Greenard
The Houston Texans' entire roster is arguably one big X-factor. There are a lot more questions than answers on both sides of the ball.
For Houston to have any kind of success, it needs players at the premium positions to perform well. Quarterback Davis Mills has to avoid mistakes. The Texans secondary needs to hold up in coverage. And edge-rusher Jonathan Greenard needs to build on last year's team-leading eight sacks.
At a recent charity event, the third-year pro said he believes the entire Houston defense is ready to take a step forward this year, per Cole Thompson of Texans Daily.
"We've got a lot of fire from last year. We saw glimpses and pieces of what we can be doing as a team and as a unit," Greenard said. "I'm excited. We’re doing our thing in the weight room and on the playbook as well. We have to let everything come to fruition.”
Greenard might not only be the Texans' best defensive lineman. He might also be the team's best defender overall.
Houston badly needs him to play like it in 2022.
Indianapolis Colts: WR Parris Campbell
The Indianapolis Colts have a new quarterback in 2022...again.
Matt Ryan's success in his new home will depend at least somewhat on the pass-catching options at his disposal. While Michael Pittman Jr. is coming off a career year, the questions start adding up quickly behind him.
Rookie second-round pick Alec Pierce is a talented youngster, but he has yet to take a meaningful NFL snap. That makes fourth-year pro Parris Campbell the real wild card among Indy's wideouts.
Colts head coach Frank Reich recently told reporters that Campbell could be a potential difference-maker:
"I've always seen Parris, since the day we drafted him, as a guy who can play every position and can really do it all. I think he can play in the slot, he can play all that game—the shallows, the crosses, the option routes. … He's explosive. You can put him on the outside and he's got speed to get deep. … We've developed him as a complete receiver. That's the upside, if he can stay healthy."
the first three years of his NFL career, Campbell has played in only 15 of 49 potential games. He has 34 career catches and two touchdowns.
Yet as things stand right now, Campbell is penciled in as the Colts' starter in the slot.
Jacksonville Jaguars: CB Tyson Campbell
The Jacksonville Jaguars had the NFL's worst record for the second straight season last year, but their pass defense wasn't awful. The Jaguars added veteran slot cornerback Darious Williams in the offseason, and head coach Doug Pederson told reporters that he believes his cornerback unit can make some hay in 2022.
"(It's) a group that wants to get their hands on balls and really create some turnovers," he said. "It’s a group that has embraced the scheme a little bit—it's another potential group that has a lot of potential."
Williams and Shaquill Griffin are proven commodities. The former won a Super Bowl with the Rams last year, while the latter was a Pro Bowler with the Seattle Seahawks in 2019.
However, the third starter in Jacksonville's nickel sets is a bet less certain.
The Jaguars drafted Tyson Campbell in the second round out of Georgia in 2021. Campbell started 14 games as a rookie, piling up 73 total tackles, but he allowed 54 of the 81 targets thrown his way to be completed with a passer rating against of 94.0.
Rookie corners often struggle in coverage early in their NFL careers. But the Jaguars need Campbell to tighten that up this season.
Kansas City Chiefs: Edge Frank Clark
The Kansas City Chiefs have won the AFC West each of the last six years and hosted the last four AFC Championship Games. But last year, only three teams had fewer sacks than they did (31).
The Chiefs made an effort to bolster their front seven in the 2022 draft by spending the No. 30 overall pick on Purdue edge-rusher George Karlaftis. But what the Chiefs really need is for veteran Frank Clark to get in gear.
Clark has made the Pro Bowl for three straight seasons, but he managed only 22 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 14 games last year. Both of those were his lowest output since his rookie year.
The Chiefs have a new defensive line coach this year in Joe Cullen, and he told reporters that he expects both Clark and tackle Chris Jones to bounce back in a big way in 2022.
"Well, I'll tell you what, those are two of my favorite guys," Cullen said. "I was at another place when they were coming out. I mean, I expect those guys to have career years and play the best they have in their career. And if we do that, that will elevate the whole team."
Las Vegas Raiders: OT Alex Leatherwood
Last year, the Las Vegas Raiders used the 17th overall pick on Alabama tackle Alex Leatherwood. The hope was that the 6'5", 312-pounder would hold down the right tackle spot in Sin City for years to come.
But like so many of former Raiders general manager Mike Mayock's first-round picks, Leatherwood hasn't come close to living up to his draft slot.
Leatherwood was so disastrous at right tackle as a rookie that he was moved inside to guard, where he also didn't play well. On the season, he allowed eight sacks and committed a whopping 14 penalties, per PFF.
There's a new regime in charge in Las Vegas now, and head coach Josh McDaniels told reporters that the Raiders are moving Leatherwood around to get him back on track.
"We've been moving him (Leatherwood) around a little bit," McDaniels said. "Ultimately, we're going to try to figure out who the best five are that can give us the best chance of success every play. And he's certainly working his butt off right now to try to give us the right stuff wherever we put him."
While the Raiders made a number of impact moves this offseason, the offensive line remains a potential problem area, especially the right side. Derek Carr won't be able to complete passes to new No. 1 wideout Davante Adams if he's flat on his back.
Los Angeles Chargers: LB Kenneth Murray
The Los Angeles Chargers made a massive investment on defense in the offseason, whether it was strengthening the pass rush by trading for Khalil Mack or giving big bucks to cornerback J.C. Jackson. But their biggest defensive X-factor is a recent first-round pick at a position that they didn't do much to address.
In 2020, the Chargers used the 23rd overall pick in the draft on Oklahoma linebacker Kenneth Murray. He was a full-time player as a rookie, notching 107 total tackles.
But as the 2021 season progressed, Murray appeared to fall out of favor with the new regime in Los Angeles. After playing 959 snaps in 2020, Murray missed six games and played only 364 snaps in 2021.
Murray had offseason surgery to fix his balky ankle, and batterymate Drue Tranquill told reporters that he expects a healthy Murray to break out in 2022.
"I've been able to kind of see [Murray] throughout the offseason getting rehabbed. He's as focused as ever and as hungry as ever. I think, when you come in as a first-round pick, it can be really hard. There's a lot of expectations on you. I think, if he kind of gets his freedom, mentally, back that you're going to start to see some of those traits come alive. I know he's just super hungry and ready to get back on the field, and ready to solidify as a premium player.”
After losing Kyzir White in free agency, the Chargers signed former Rams linebacker Troy Reeder, who is a middling talent at best. A Chargers team with Super Bowl aspirations needs Murray to live up to his predraft expectations in 2022.
Los Angeles Rams: WR Allen Robinson II
For the most part, the reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams have done an excellent job of keeping the band together. In fact, they were even able to add some notable new talent, including the their biggest X-factor in 2022.
The Rams lost two wide receivers to ACL tears last year—Robert Woods during the regular season and Odell Beckham Jr. during Super Bowl LVI. With Woods now in Tennessee and Beckham unsigned, the Rams needed a new running mate for Cooper Kupp.
Enter Allen Robinson II, who recently told reporters that he's loving his new home.
"It's been a great transition, honestly. Being able to join this culture and this team, being able to come out here and work every day," Robinson said. "Coach McVay coaches us hard, detailed and I think that's something for a vet guy that I can appreciate. It's very detailed, specific coaching, it helps me learn, it allows me to ask questions and be able to learn things pretty quickly."
Two years ago, Robinson hauled in 102 catches for 1,250 yards and six touchdowns despite catching passes from Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky. However, he posted the second-lowest yardage and reception totals of his eight-year career last season.
Was that down year the result of a floundering Bears offense? Or did Robinson's poor play contribute to the floundering?
Miami Dolphins: QB Tua Tagovailoa
The Miami Dolphins made a big splash in the offseason by acquiring wide receiver Tyreek Hill. That only raises the pressure on quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who has yet to have the kind of statistical or team success that 2020 draft classmates Justin Herbert of the Chargers and Joe Burrow of the Bengals have.
There has been no shortage of criticism of Tagovailoa's play, whether it's his decision-making or his arm strength. But in a recent interview with Chris Cason of Muscle & Fitness, Tagovailoa blamed the old coaching staff for not dialing up more vertical passing:
"I have seen some improvements on being able to push the ball down the field once again. I honestly think it's just practice. I wasn't really able to push the ball down the field last year because we didn't have plays specifically to push the ball down the field. A lot of plays that were called last year were meant for one person. Either this person is open or the play might be dead. It's a little different now. My second year was different than my rookie year and this year will be different than last year with how we go about doing things. I definitely feel a lot more confident being able to push the ball down the field. It's going to be exciting."
To be fair, Tagovailoa led the league in completion percentage of throws over 25 yards downfield last year, according to Marcel Louis-Jacques of ESPN. But he also attempted the second-fewest such passes in the league.
With an improved offensive line and passing-game weapons, Miami has put the pieces in place for a third-year breakout for Tagovailoa. But if he doesn't improve quickly, things could get ugly.
Minnesota Vikings: Edge Danielle Hunter
The Minnesota Vikings have a new head coach in Kevin O'Connell and a new defensive coordinator in Ed Donatell, who brings with him a new scheme. Edge-rusher Danielle Hunter will be one of the keys to making that scheme work.
Hunter was once of the most feared pass-rushers in the NFL. He tallied at least 12.5 sacks three times in the four-season span between 2016 and 2019, including 14.5 in both 2018 and 2019.
However, the past two years have been an injury-marred mess for Hunter. He missed the entire 2020 season with a neck injury and played only seven games last season before tearing a pectoral muscle. He did rack up six sacks before going down, though.
In mid-May, Hunter told reporters that he's looking forward to playing in more three-man fronts this season.
"Last year, we played 3-4 a little bit," he said. "You guys remember the Arizona game, that game was pretty fun. I feel a little bit more free playing 3-4. We go back and forth. Playing 3-4 kind of reminds me of playing Arizona last year."
The Vikings brought in veteran edge-rusher Za'Darius Smith to complement Hunter up front. They'll need Hunter to get his groove back to improve the league's third-worst defense from last season.
New England Patriots: CB Malcolm Butler
New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler has been on quite the ride over the past several years.
As a rookie in 2014, Butler was the hero of New England's win over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. After playing in two more Super Bowls (and winning one) with the Pats, Butler signed a five-year, $61.3 million contract with the Tennessee Titans.
The Titans waived him after three years, and he abruptly retired in 2021 after signing with the Arizona Cardinals. After one year away from the game, Butler then decided to return to where his career began, signing a two-year, $5 million contract to re-join the Patriots.
New England head coach Bill Belichick recently told reporters that the 32-year-old looks like the player he coached back in the mid-2010s.
"Malcolm works hard, like he always has," Belichick said. "Very competitive, out there scrapping for balls. His aggressiveness, play style—we're not in pads, but yeah, looks like it’s about the same."
After losing cornerback J.C. Jackson to the Los Angeles Chargers, the Patriots need someone to replace him opposite veterans Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones. Whether Butler can do that given his age and his year away from the game remains unclear.
New Orleans Saints: WR Michael Thomas
A few years ago, New Orleans Saints wide receiver Michael Thomas was considered arguably the NFL's best player at his position. Now, it's almost impossible to know what the Saints will get from him in 2022.
In 2019, Thomas set a new NFL record by catching 149 passes for 1,725 yards on the way to being named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year. It marked the fourth straight year in which Thomas eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards.
But the fun didn't last. In 2020, Thomas caught only 40 passes and missed 10 games due to an ankle injury. After undergoing surgery the following summer, that same ankle injury caused him to miss the entire 2021 season.
New Saints head coach Dennis Allen told reporters that the team isn't exactly sure when Thomas will be back:
"I think he's doing well in his rehab. He's not ready yet. But he's here, he's rehabbing, he's getting himself better and we're certainly anxious to get him out there. If I had a crystal ball and could tell you all these things, I'd probably be making a lot more money and doing something different. But yeah, our hope is that he's gonna be ready to for training camp. So that's what we're pushing for."
The Saints drafted Ohio State wideout Chris Olave in an effort to strengthen their passing attack. But having a healthy Thomas back in action would be a big help for Jameis Winston.
New York Giants: RB Saquon Barkley
Barring a miracle, this year will probably be quarterback Daniel Jones' final season with the New York Giants. After three up-and-down seasons, the Giants declined his fifth-year option, which means Jones will be a free agent in 2023.
Like Jones, Giants running back Saquon Barkley is also heading into a contract year. But the 25-year-old's future with the franchise (or lack thereof) is less certain.
According to Zack Rosenblatt of NJ Advance Media, Barkley has been one of the stars of OTAs:
"This is the healthiest that Barkley has been entering an offseason maybe since his rookie year. The most notable aspect of his appearance at OTAs, though, is how Daboll and the Giants coaches have been deploying him in team drills. Namely: How they’ve used him as a receiver. Barkley has gotten a lot of targets from Daniel Jones on screens and wheel routes, and he’s been moved around using pre-snap motion too."
Last season, Barkley averaged only 3.7 yards per carry and finished with 856 total yards. But he also ran for more than 1,000 yards twice over his first four seasons, including topping 2,000 total yards and 90 catches on the way to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2018.
New York Jets: OT Mekhi Becton
Not much went right for the New York Jets last year. But despite being without mammoth tackle Mekhi Becton for much of the year, their offensive line ranked a respectable 11th in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
The Jets spent the No. 11 overall pick on Becton in 2020, but his performance hasn't come close to his potential yet. The 6'7", 364-pounder allowed seven sacks in under 700 snaps as a rookie, and he barely played last year due to a knee injury.
Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur recently told reporters that while Becton was a no-show at OTAs, his rehab is going well.
"They're working on everything," he said. "I know he's just working on overall strength and getting the knee back and all that stuff. From everything I've been gathering, he looks really good."
However, Becton ballooned up to 400 pounds while he was injured, according to ESPN's Rich Cimini. Jets head coach Robert Saleh said at the Senior Bowl that Becton will have to compete with George Fant (who spent most of last season on Zach Wilson's blind side) for the right to start at left tackle.
The Jets added weapons at wide receiver and running back in this year's draft. But improvement from Wilson and the offense depends largely on New York's line performing at least as well as it did last season.
Philadelphia Eagles: QB Jalen Hurts
The Philadelphia Eagles will only go as far as Jalen Hurts takes them in 2022.
The Eagles added a big-time wide receiver when they traded for A.J. Brown during the first day of the draft. Eagles general manager Howie Roseman lauded Hurts' work ethic and will to be great while speaking with Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk:
"We're just looking to win. I think that at the end of the day, that's something that always attracted us to Jalen as a player when we drafted him. Obviously, that's what he's done really his whole life as a football player. He's figured out ways to win games and put his team in a position, in college, to win championships. I think with Jalen, the one overriding theme with him is he will do whatever it takes to be great. He will work as hard as he possibly can. He will connect with as many teammates as he possibly can. If you tell him this will make you better, he will go to the ends of the Earth to do that. And he’s a talented guy."
But when last we saw Hurts, he went only 23-of-43 with two picks and a passer rating of 60.0 in an ugly loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card Round.
The Eagles started last season 2-5 before winning seven of their next nine games to surge into the playoffs. If this season starts off anything like that, Roseman might be shopping for a new quarterback next offseason.
Pittsburgh Steelers: LB Devin Bush
During the 2019 NFL draft, the Steelers traded up to the No. 10 overall pick to select Michigan linebacker Devin Bush. After he amassed 109 total tackles as a rookie, it looked to have been a wise investment.
Since then, however, it's been a steady downhill slide. Bush missed most of the 2020 season with an ACL tear. He played in 14 games last season, but he wasn't nearly the player he was as a rookie.
That swoon led the Steelers to pass on Bush's fifth-year option. Former Steelers fullback Merril Hoge thinks that the team should move on as soon as possible.
"You gotta cut bait there," Hoge said on Pittsburgh's 93.7 The Fan. "Doesn't play smart or fast. Doesn't play with good technique. Doesn't play with good instincts. He gets targeted by teams in the passing game. Not a good football player."
Bush recently told reporters that he's finally fully recovered from his knee injury.
"I get the chance to play football again how I want to, for real," Bush said. "I get the chance to go out there and be myself. I feel like I’m starting a whole new slate, and I feel pretty good about it."
The Steelers signed Myles Jack in the offseason in an effort to strengthen their linebackers corps, but a rebound year from Bush would be huge for them. Given their uncertainty at quarterback, they're likely going to have to lean on their defense.
San Francisco 49ers: QB Trey Lance
The San Francisco 49ers are heavily invested in Trey Lance's success. After all, they gave up two extra first-round picks and a third-round pick to move up nine spots to draft him third overall in 2021.
Lance started only two games last season as a rookie and threw 71 total passes. But one former Niners quarterback is excited to see him grow in his second season.
"There's not going to be part of his development as a player that happens somewhere else," Steve Young said, per Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. "At North Dakota State, it happened a little bit. But it's all going to happen as a 49er. A lot of guys have it in college a lot more, play a lot more, develop in other places. We're going to get to watch it all. We're all invested and are in it for the long haul."
Lance has a cannon for a right arm and athleticism to burn. But when he did see the field as a rookie, he completed less than 58 percent of his passes and topped 200 passing yards only once.
Jimmy Garoppolo remains on the roster for now, but that figures to change at some point in the offseason. And as soon as this becomes Lance's team, he'll become one of the biggest X-factors in all of the NFL.
Seattle Seahawks: CB Artie Burns
The Seattle Seahawks underwent changes galore this offseason. They now have a quarterback competition between Geno Smith and Drew Lock, a new anchor on the offensive line in rookie Charles Cross, a new defensive scheme and all kinds of uncertainty in the defensive backfield.
After cornerback D.J. Reed bolted for the New York Jets, first-year defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt has to figure out who will start in his place. Hurtt told reporters that he's been impressed so far with what he has seen from free-agent signee Artie Burns:
"It's been really good. Talking with [associate head coach—defense] Sean [Desai], what he's really impressed with Artie is how much more comfortable he is in year two of the system. He's really kind of grabbed that and ran with it. ...
"Now he's healthy, so now he has a full offseason under his belt. It's great having Artie here. He's a Miami guy—I love Hurricanes—so it's good having him in the building. But he's doing a really nice job."
Burns didn't play especially well last year with Chicago, for which he played in a scheme similar to Seattle's new one. He allowed a completion percentage of 65.4 and a passer rating against north of 115.
But his familiarity with the Seattle defense could offer badly needed stability to a franchise undergoing massive transitions all over.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Edge Joe Tryon-Shoyinka
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did a fine job in the offseason of keeping their talented roster together. But as is usually the case, there were some losses.
One was on the edge, where the Bucs didn't re-sign Jason Pierre-Paul after four years with the team. That opened a hole opposite Shaquill Barrett, one which Joe Tryon-Shoyinka will be expected to step through.
The 2021 first-round pick showed some flashes as a rookie, amassing four sacks. But head coach Todd Bowles told reporters that the Buccaneers have lofty expectations for Tryon-Shoyinka this season.
"He's very athletic," Bowles said. "Obviously, we took him in the first round. Going into Year Two, we expect him to have the nuances down with a lot of the things he did last year and expect him to come into his own. I don’t expect him to be [Jason Pierre-Paul], I expect him to be Joe. He has a skill set all on his own that he could be a good player."
The Buccaneers were seventh in the league with 47 sacks last season. Tryon-Shoyinka will need to show out in his second season for Tampa Bay to get back to that level.
Tennessee Titans: WR Treylon Burks
With A.J. Brown now with Philadelphia and Robert Woods rehabbing from a torn ACL, rookie Treylon Burks could open the season as the No. 1 wide receiver for a team that was the AFC's top seed in 2021.
Burks got off to a bumpy start at the Tennessee Titans' rookie minicamp, per ESPN's Turron Davenport. He was "was visibly laboring during his first practice" and was "spotted using an inhaler and had ice on his neck to cool him off before returning to practice briefly."
He addressed questions about his conditioning while speaking with reporters later on at OTAs.
"I'm just getting adjusted to it," Burks said. "Every player comes into situations differently. I'm just attacking it every day that I can. I'm just taking it one day at a time, and everything else will take care of itself. Everybody is going to have setbacks. It's just how you come back and attack it."
Talent isn't the question for Burks. B/R scout Nate Tice wrote that he "could be one of the more dynamic weapons in the NFL if he goes to the right team with a creative play-caller and a little bit of patience."
But with Brown gone, the Titans might be short on patience. The organization can't afford for Burks to be a slow study.
Washington Commanders: WR Curtis Samuel
Some might point to new quarterback Carson Wentz as the Washington Commanders' biggest X-factor in 2022. If they get the Wentz who flopped against the lowly Jaguars in Week 18 last season, the Commanders are going to be in trouble.
But to a large extent, Wentz's success will depend on the passing-game weaponry around him. And while Washington has a bona fide star wideout in Terry McLaurin and a promising youngster in 2022 No. 16 overall pick Jahan Dotson, the slot is a massive question mark.
When healthy, Curtis Samuel can be a movable chess piece who's capable of lining up all over the formation. However, he missed 12 games last season and caught only six passes for 27 yards.
Offensive coordinator Scott Turner is confident that a healthy Samuel can make a much bigger impact in the nation's capital in 2022, telling reporters:
"Curtis can play everywhere. We did some of that last year in the limited time that he was on the field. I’m just happy for Curtis that he's healthy. He's back to his normal self, running around. Curtis is one of the smartest players I've been around. So he's got no real limitations as far as the different things you can do with him. I know he's excited to be out here, and I'm excited to see him out here."
We'll see how long that confidence holds.