Ranking the NFL's Top Dark Horses to Lead Major Offensive Categories in 2022

Alex KayContributor IMay 21, 2022

Ranking the NFL's Top Dark Horses to Lead Major Offensive Categories in 2022

0 of 6

    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    The 2022 NFL season will be here before you know it, making this the perfect time to predict and project players with a chance to lead the league in notable categories.

    This article will focus on offensive statistics, highlighting some under-the-radar players with a chance to amass the most passing touchdowns, receiving yards and other noteworthy statistics during the coming campaign.

    While the usual superstar suspects will surely be in the running to pace their peers in these categories, here's a look at some dark horses who could give them a run for their money.

Touchdown Passes

1 of 6

    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    QB Zach Wilson, New York Jets

    Zach Wilson did not look like the breakout star the Jets were hoping for when they drafted him No. 2 overall last year. Despite his injury-plagued and inconsistent rookie showing, the Gang Green signal-caller is poised for a successful sophomore campaign.

    New York has surrounded the 22-year-old with a slew of weapons. The team's receiving corps appears to be one of the deepest in the league following the addition of Garrett Wilson, the No. 10 overall pick last month. Wilson will link up with incumbents Corey Davis, Elijah Moore and Braxton Berrios to form a dangerous crew of pass-catchers for Wilson to target.

    With rookie running back Breece Hall augmenting a backfield that already featured an up-and-coming star in Michael Carter, the Jets have set Wilson up with everything required to put up big numbers in 2022.


    QB Trevor Lawrence, Jacksonville Jaguars

    Like Wilson, Trevor Lawrence had an up-and-down rookie season, one marred by turnovers and Urban Meyer's disastrous tenure as head coach. Fortunately, a steady hand in Doug Pederson is taking Meyer's place, and Press Taylor will be running the offense, offering upside for the signal-caller to have a huge second season.

    Jacksonville added another high-end pass-catcher into the mix by signing Christian Kirk, bolstering a receiving corps that also features veteran Marvin Jones and an emerging Laviska Shenault Jr.

    If Lawrence settles in and lives up to his potential, he could be one of the top passers in the league this year.


    QB Matt Ryan, Indianapolis Colts

    Matt Ryan is a sneaky candidate to emerge as the league's top touchdown passer during his first season with the Indianapolis Colts.

    Ryan should have ample time to throw thanks to a quality offensive line and the emergence of Jonathan Taylor as the NFL's best back last year. With defenses stacking the box and focusing on stopping Taylor after he exploded for 1,811 yards and 18 TDs on the ground in 2021, the veteran QB should be able to pick defenses apart for scores.

    Ryan has more than adequate protection behind a Colts line that PFF ranked No. 12 last year. The unit received a boost with the addition of third-round offensive tackle selection Bernhard Raimann.

    If Ryan's receiving corps—which now boasts second-round rookie Alec Pierce in addition to rising star Michael Pittman Jr.—can step up, the 37-year-old could lead the league in TD passes for the first time in his career.

Passing Yardage

2 of 6

    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    QB Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders

    Derek Carr is coming off one of his best seasons as a pro, finishing fifth in the league in passing yards with 4,804. He could shatter that mark this year largely thanks to the Las Vegas Raiders' trade for All-Pro wideout Davante Adams.

    While Adams won't have back-to-back MVP Aaron Rodgers targeting him anymore, he's still a great bet to put up league-leading receiving numbers in an offense engineered by former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

    Carr and Adams will have instant chemistry after playing together for two years at Fresno State. Both entered the league as second-round draft picks in 2014 and are getting their chance to rekindle that connection in the pros.

    Add in the reliable presence of Hunter Renfrow and the upside of free-agent addition Demarcus Robinson and you have the recipe for Carr to move up to the top of the passing yards list in 2022.


    QB Deshaun Watson, Cleveland Browns

    Deshaun Watson is one of the more intriguing quarterbacks to watch this season. After spending a year on the sidelines, he's coming over to the Cleveland Browns with a chance to pick up right where he left off.

    Watson was last seen wrapping up a Pro Bowl 2020 campaign with the Houston Texans in which he led the NFL with 4,823 passing yards. He's capable of repeating that feat even with a relatively unproven stable of pass-catchers outside of veteran Amari Cooper.

    With support from arguably the league's best running back platoon, one that has a pair of stars in Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, there is sky-high potential for Watson to have a prolific 2022 season.

    There is a possible suspension to be concerned about. Watson is still facing 22 civil lawsuits from women accusing him of sexual assault or misconduct, and while he won't face criminal charges, the league could still suspend him under the personal conduct policy.


    QB Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings

    Kirk Cousins has been one of the NFL's most reliable QBs for much of his 10-year career. He's only thrown for more than 30 touchdowns on two occasions though, finally breaching that mark in each of the past two seasons.

    Cousins is on the cusp of taking another step forward and could potentially toss 40-plus scores in 2022. Wes Phillips, the Los Angeles Rams' passing game coordinator last year, is calling the shots for a new-look Minnesota Vikings offense that has a higher ceiling than it did under the previous regime.

    Phillips helped Matthew Stafford's transition to a new offense go seamlessly while maximizing the talents of Triple Crown-winning wideout Cooper Kupp. The coordinator could repeat that feat with Cousins, who has a superstar pass-catcher of his own to lean on in Justin Jefferson.

    Expect the battery to be one of the league's most prolific this coming season.


3 of 6

    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    WR Diontae Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Diontae Johnson has steadily improved in each of his three seasons as a pro. The 25-year-old just posted his first 1,000-plus-yard campaign and reeled in 107 of his 169 looks, a target count tied for second-most in the league.

    While the Pittsburgh Steelers star won't have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing him the rock this year, he will still see plenty of action from Kenny Pickett or Mitchell Trubisky in 2022. Whichever signal-caller wins the QB1 job will need to lean heavily on Johnson to pick up passing yards and move the chains.

    With JuJu Smith-Schuster—who accounted for 128 targets in 2020 and still had 28 targets in five games during an injury-plagued 2021—out of the picture and second-round pick George Pickens needing time to get adjusted, it's shaping up to be a monster year for Johnson. 


    WR Keenan Allen, Los Angeles Chargers

    Keenan Allen has been a target sponge for the past half-decade, seeing 1,070 looks since the start of the 2017 season. A Pro Bowler in all five of those campaigns, Allen has yet to lead the league in receptions despite ample opportunity.

    That could change in 2022, especially with Justin Herbert evolving into one of the NFL's top quarterbacks.

    Herbert threw for over 5,000 yards in his second season and still has untapped potential. With Allen remaining his favorite option in the passing game, the battery could reach new heights during the coming campaign.


    WR Hunter Renfrow, Las Vegas Raiders

    Hunter Renfrow is one of the most intriguing choices to lead the league in receptions.

    The Las Vegas Raiders wideout established himself as one of the league's most reliable possession receivers after amassing over 100 catches and 1,000 yards on his 128 looks last year.

    Even with Davante Adams entering the fold, Renfrow should see no shortage of targets in 2022. He'll be a star in Josh McDaniels' offense, playing a role akin to the one that Julian Edelman and Wes Welker—who led the league three times in receptions—assumed during the head coach's tenure with the New England Patriots.

Receiving Yards

4 of 6

    Terrance Williams/Associated Press

    WR Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints

    Although Michael Thomas has hardly seen the field these last two seasons, the New Orleans Saints wideout is only three years removed from an All-Pro 2019 campaign in which he led the league in receiving yards.

    After missing more than half of the 2020 season and all of the 2021 campaign with injuries, the 29-year-old could re-emerge in 2022 as a top pass-catcher.

    GM Mickey Loomis said the Saints are "expecting to have Mike back" to round out a receiving corps that now includes first-round pick Chris Olave and free-agent pickup Jarvis Landry.

    If Thomas isn't hindered by the ankle injury that has kept him sidelined, he should immediately resume his role as New Orleans' No. 1 option in the passing game. It may not be as prolific of a role as it was with Drew Brees under center, but it could still put Thomas near or at the top of the receiving yardage leaders.


    WR CeeDee Lamb, Dallas Cowboys

    CeeDee Lamb has put himself on the map as one of the NFL's top receivers early in his career. He could further separate from the pack with a huge third season.

    The Dallas Cowboys star is the clear-cut No. 1 option for quarterback Dak Prescott this year. With Amari Cooper now in Cleveland and Michael Gallup working his way back from an ACL injury, Lamb should see extremely heavy volume in 2022.

    Lamb racked up over 1,100 receiving yards playing in a crowded offense last year. Now the unquestioned focal point of Dallas' passing attack, the 23-year-old is in line to shatter that mark.


    TE Mark Andrews, Baltimore Ravens

    A tight end has never led the league in receiving yards, but Mark Andrews is on the precipice of changing that.

    The Baltimore Ravens star showed out this past season, posting career highs in receptions (107) and receiving yardage (1,361) while amassing a whopping 153 targets.

    Andrews will get even more work following the departure of Marquise Brown. Baltimore dealt Brown to the Arizona Cardinals during the draft, leaving an already thin receiving corps without its top wideout.

    The tight end is poised to take a sizable chunk of the looks that would have gone to Brown. Considering the Brown drew 146 targets last year alone, Andrews could make history as the NFL's receiving yardage king in 2022.

Rushing Yards

5 of 6

    Matt Patterson/Associated Press

    RB Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

    The Steelers made Najee Harris the first running back off the board in the 2021 draft and saw an immediate return on their No. 24 overall investment.

    The Alabama product proved to be a true No. 1 guy, leading all rookies with 307 carries and 1,200 rushing yards. That role should only grow in 2022 following Ben Roethlisberger's retirement.

    It would hardly be a surprise for Harris to pace the NFL in totes this season. He was only 25 carries off Jonathan Taylor's league-leading mark last year while producing more rushing yardage than all but three backs.

    With more experience under his belt and an increased focus on the ground game this year, Harris has a real shot at earning the rushing title in 2022.


    RB Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos

    Javonte Williams is another back going into Year 2 ready to assume a larger role.

    After going off for 903 yards on 203 totes last year, the Denver Broncos rusher has clearly earned the right to some additional touches this coming season. While he'll still have to split time with Melvin Gordon, Williams should only find more room to work when his number is called.

    The Broncos made a massive upgrade from Teddy Bridgewater to Russell Wilson under center, acquiring a quarterback who demands defensive focus and opens things up for his backs for the first time since Peyton Manning.


    RB Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks

    Rashaad Penny could shock the world by leading the league in rushing this season. Although he's been riddled by injuries to start his professional career, the 2018 first-round pick finally had a chance to reward the Seattle Seahawks' faith last year.

    Penny was downright dominant during the five games he started to close out the 2021 campaign, going off for 671 yards and six touchdowns on 92 rushing attempts. Extrapolating those numbers across a 17-game season, Penny would have posted an NFL-best 2,281 yards and 20 touchdowns on 313 carries.

    Although those numbers are unsustainable, it's a glimpse at what Penny brings to the table and shows he's a real contender for rushing leader-type numbers if healthy.

Rushing Touchdowns

6 of 6

    Paul Connors/Associated Press

    RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

    Saquon Barkley came into the league with a bang, racking up over 2,300 rushing yards and 17 scores on the ground over his first two seasons. Although the No. 2 pick in 2018 has since struggled with injuries and inconsistency, he has a legitimate shot at getting his career back on track in 2022.

    The Giants beefed up their run-blocking capabilities in the draft, selecting elite tackle Evan Neal at No. 7 to bookend their offensive line with Andrew Thomas. They also picked up third-round guard Joshua Ezeudu, a potential starter.

    These rookie additions, coupled with a pair of key free-agent pickups in Jon Feliciano and Mark Glowinski, should have Big Blue's line in better shape than it has been in years. If Barkley returns to form, he'll find plenty of paydirt behind it.


    RB James Conner, Arizona Cardinals

    James Conner may not be the most exciting back, but he's certainly one of the most productive touchdown scorers out there.

    The Arizona Cardinals confidently deployed him in short-yardage and goal-line situations. The club got a career-high 15 rushing touchdowns out of Conner last year, a number that tied him for the second-most in the NFL.

    Conner is not going to end up on the highlight reel often and only averaged 3.7 yards per carry, but the 27-year-old has a nose for the end zone and will continue to punch in plenty of scores as a key cog in this prolific offense.


    RB Damien Harris, New England Patriots

    Damien Harris quietly emerged as one of the league's most exciting talents last season. After flashing potential in 2020 with 691 yards and a pair of scores on 137 carries, Harris took command of the New England Patriots backfield in 2021.

    The 25-year-old tallied up 929 rushing yards and 15 TDs on 202 carries. He notched eight of those touchdowns during a five-game stretch to close out the campaign, including a three-score showing against the rival Buffalo Bills.

    If he can continue that pace this coming season, Harris has a realistic chance to lead the league in rushing scores.