As soon as one NFL draft ends, we’re all looking forward to the next. And while every fan wants to have hope for his or her favorite team going into a new season, that hope takes a bit of a hit if you see your team forecast with a top-10 draft pick.
With the 2021 NFL draft in the rearview mirror, we wanted to go through the teams we currently have projected with the top 10 picks in the 2022 draft, and explain a little bit about those predictions. The projections are created by forecasting a range of possibilities for each team’s offense, defense and special teams based on numerous factors, including personnel changes, three-year performance, standard regression toward the mean and schedule strength.
If your favorite team is listed here, don’t fret. Over the past three seasons, seven of the teams we projected to have top-10 draft picks instead ended up making the playoffs. There’s a lot of year-to-year change in the NFL, and prognostication is difficult. For each team, we’ve listed a best-case scenario of what would take our prediction of a top-10 draft pick and turn it into a playoff season.
Here are our projections for the top 10 picks of the 2022 NFL draft:
The Jets have our worst overall projection, in particular our worst offensive projection. Obviously, Zach Wilson brings hope to Jets fans that the offense will finally turn things around. However, top-drafted rookie quarterbacks often take time to develop or — as in the case of Sam Darnold, Wilson’s predecessor — they don’t develop at all. Since 2013, quarterbacks taken in the top half of the first round who played as rookies found their teams averaging 25th in offensive DVOA.
But the quarterback is just part of the projection for the Jets. We also look at their performance over the past three years and that has been dismal, ranking in the bottom four for three straight years. It’s not just the passing game, as the Jets’ running game also ranked in the bottom six for three straight years. The Jets have added some offensive talent, in particular wide receiver Corey Davis, but the boost in our projection system from those new players is not enough to counterbalance the value of a rookie quarterback and the Jets’ poor recent performance overall.
The Jets’ defense projects better than the offense but our system sees less upside than other defenses with similar recent track records. Yes, Robert Saleh is bringing a strong scheme with him that performed well in San Francisco. But defenses in new schemes, all else being equal, tend to play a little bit worse than average. And there are still a lot of questions about the secondary, in particular where the starting cornerbacks are both young, lower-round picks (Bryce Hall and Bless Austin).
Best-case scenario: Wilson plays well right out of the gate, finally turning around the long-struggling offense. Saleh’s defensive scheme clicks immediately and covers up for the questions in the secondary. Free-agent addition Carl Lawson plays up to his huge contract as one of the league’s top edge rushers. The best-case scenario also would require a lot of injuries in Buffalo; otherwise, this dream still ends with the Jets getting just a wild card.
The Texans signed a lot of free agents this offseason, and don’t have a lot of holes. They also don’t have a lot of strengths; it’s just mediocrity across the roster.
The exception is the quarterback position, which could go from a huge strength to a huge negative. Our projections assume that Deshaun Watson will not take any snaps for Houston in 2021, either due to lawsuits against Watson alleging behavior from sexual misconduct to sexual assault, or due to his discontent with franchise management. Watson propped up the Houston offense last year with his 70.5 QBR, and there’s a long drop in production between Watson and either veteran Tyrod Taylor or rookie Davis Mills. There has also been a step down at the receiver position. Will Fuller V, who led all NFL wide receivers in our DVOA efficiency ratings in 2020, has gone to Miami in free agency.
We’re also forecasting a bad season from the Texans’ defense, which ranked 30th in DVOA last season. The Texans were balanced in subpar play: 29th against the run and 29th against the pass. Like the Jets, the Texans might take time to learn a new defense, switching to Lovie Smith’s scheme, which is heavily Cover 2. Houston was good last season in one regression indicator (preventing short-yardage runs) and bad in another regression indicator (turnovers) and those variables offset each other in our projection system.
One positive for the Texans: By our current projections, their schedule ranks 31st in average opponent strength.
Best-case scenario: Maybe if Watson can settle his grievances with the front office and he’s suspended for only a few games for the allegations against him, he can lead the Texans to some wins over the second half of the schedule. With five of the last seven games at home, the Texans then could sneak into the postseason.
The projection is almost entirely about Sam Darnold as the new Carolina quarterback. Darnold was terrible in his first three seasons with the Jets. He finished last in QBR last season, and even from a clean pocket only Washington’s Dwayne Haskins Jr. and Alex Smith were worse. Carolina is taking the grand gamble that Darnold’s problems were related to a poor scheme and lack of quality receivers with New York.
Carolina had an average offense last year, and the return of Christian McCaffrey and the addition of Dan Arnold and David Moore should balance the loss of Mike Davis and Curtis Samuel, so there’s no other particular reason to predict that the Carolina offense will be poor. The Panthers have an average defensive projection and an average special teams projection. They do have the seventh-most difficult schedule by average DVOA of opponent, so that is contributing to the low win projection, but otherwise this is all about Darnold.
Best-case scenario: Carolina’s grand gamble pays off. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady unlocks the skills that got Darnold drafted third overall in 2018. The Panthers don’t just avoid a bad offense, they actually have a good offense. Meanwhile, the defense improves due to additions such as Jaycee Horn and A.J. Bouye in the secondary. That would be enough to propel Carolina into a playoff spot.
Here’s another projection that’s almost entirely about the offense and specifically the quarterback. But there’s some disagreement about how bad Daniel Jones was in his second year. ESPN’s QBR has Jones ranked 22nd out of 36 quarterbacks with at least 200 pass plays. But Football Outsiders DVOA puts Jones 32nd. Since Football Outsiders projections are based on our stats, that poor DVOA for Jones translates to a poor projection for the Giants’ offense in 2021.
Our low expectations for Jones outweigh the addition of Kenny Golladay and the return of Saquon Barkley to the offense. The Giants’ defensive and special teams projections are only slightly below those of the Panthers, close to average. So again, like the Panthers, this projection is pretty much all about the quarterback.
Best-case scenario: The most common season for a young quarterback to improve his play is Year 2. But it’s not impossible for a quarterback to blossom in Year 3. We saw it last year with Josh Allen. Certainly, Allen-like progress for Jones is not completely off the table. If he raises his game substantially, the Giants can be a playoff team and even a division champion — although the return of Dak Prescott and the quality of the Washington defense mean the NFC East might not be as weak as you think it is.
Joe Burrow tore his ACL in Week 11 of last year. Through Week 11, the Bengals ranked 27th in offensive DVOA. They currently rank 24th in our offensive projections for 2021. So we’re expecting some improvement from Burrow in his second season, but not a dramatic leap forward.
OK, you say, but what about the other additions to the offense? In particular, what about adding Ja’Marr Chase at wide receiver with the fifth overall pick? Believe it or not, adding rookie offensive talent outside of the quarterback position plays no role in our projection system. We’ve found that the effect of adding top defensive draft picks is more predictable than the effect of adding top offensive draft picks. Sometimes those top offensive stars contribute significantly as rookies. Sometimes they don’t move the needle at all. We won’t know the effect of Chase until we see the Bengals actually play.
The Bengals are also dragged down a little by a subpar defensive projection, currently 25th in the league. That too would be an improvement, as the Bengals ranked 27th last year on defense. The Bengals are churning a lot of talent on defense. They’ve lost six players with approximate value of at least 4 according to Pro Football Reference. They’re adding three defenders with AV above 4 and returning D.J. Reader and Trae Waynes from injury.
The Bengals have the third-best special teams projection in the league, behind New England and Baltimore. It’s not the best rock on which to build a winning team, but it’s a positive!
Best-case scenario: Burrow blossoms in his second year and Chase is Offensive Rookie of the Year. The new talent fits the defense better than the old talent, and the Bengals play average or even slightly above-average defense. The special teams are great. Put it all together, and the Bengals become a winning franchise again.
Chicago is the only 2020 playoff team that makes it into our projected top 10 for the 2022 draft. Usually one or two playoff teams will fall to the bottom of the league and earn a top-10 pick in the next draft. Houston and Philadelphia both fell from the 2019 playoffs into the bottom 10 teams of 2020. From 2018 to 2019 it was just one team, the Chargers, and 2017 to 2018 also had just one team, the Bills.
Most fans are probably not surprised to see the Bears as the playoff team we think is most likely to decline this season. The Bears were only 15th in DVOA last season and got into the playoffs in the new seventh spot despite an 8-8 record. Our projections see the Bears as the Bears: The consistently bad offense is projected to be bad again, and the consistently good defense is projected to be good again. Except both the offense and defense are projected to be worse than last year, at least in relation to the projections for the rest of the league.
The other big problem for the Bears is the schedule. Based on average projected DVOA of opponent, the Bears have the hardest schedule in the league in 2021. The three hardest projected schedules are all in the NFC North: Chicago, Green Bay and Detroit, with Minnesota’s schedule ranking sixth. The difficult schedule drags Chicago’s forecast down even further and gives the Bears a better chance of picking high in the draft than teams with a lower projected DVOA but an easier schedule, such as Philadelphia and Jacksonville.
Best-case scenario: It’s possible that Andy Dalton rebounds dramatically and starts playing like he’s with the 2015 Bengals again, but it’s very unlikely. The more realistic best-case scenario, although still unlikely, is that Justin Fields takes the starting quarterback job early in the season and has a fantastic rookie year akin to what Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III did in 2012. Defense is harder to project and more variable than offense, and it’s certainly easy to imagine that the Bears’ defense could be great instead of just good. Put a great defense with a real offense and you have a dangerous playoff team, not just a team that sneaks in at 8-8.
The Rams thought that difference was big enough to send the Lions two first-round picks and a third-rounder in the exchange. ESPN’s QBR, which attempts to separate a quarterback’s performance from his teammates’, had a gap of about 10 points last year, or the difference between ranking 15th (Stafford) and 23rd (Goff). That’s not too big, and it was only two years ago that Goff had a higher QBR than Stafford.
Detroit’s offense was exactly average at 0.0% DVOA last year, and our mean forecast has its offense only a little bit worse in 2021. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the Detroit defense is lousy, ranking dead last a year ago. Even with an infusion of new talent, such as veteran Michael Brockers, it’s likely to be pretty bad in 2021. On top of this, the Lions have our No. 3 toughest projected schedule.
Best-case scenario: It turns out that Sean McVay wasn’t personally responsible for anything Goff did well over the past couple of years, and he can play quarterback outside the Rams’ system. The defense demonstrates how things are less stable on that side of the ball by improving dramatically to league average or even better. Put that all together and the Lions could challenge for a wild card, although it will be tough against their schedule.
A team that looked deep across the board a year ago now looks just all-around drained on both offense and defense. Some players aged. Some are gone. Some were never as good as expected. The Eagles don’t project to be particularly terrible in any area. They just don’t project to be good anywhere, either. Philadelphia’s projections for offense, defense and special teams all fall between 23rd and 26th in the league.
On offense, there are questions about whether Jalen Hurts can truly mature into an NFL-level passer. On defense, the front line is still strong, but the linebacker corps is very weak and there are questions in the secondary, where a number of young defensive backs never quite developed as expected.
Best-case scenario: Hurts has a strong year, with Jalen Reagor developing in his second season and DeVonta Smith exploding onto the league as a rookie. Darius Slay has a big season shutting down the opponent’s top receiver, and the quality of the defensive line makes up for questions in the rest of the secondary. Plus, the Eagles finally have good health after a couple of years struggling with injuries. If the Dallas offense and Washington defense don’t produce as advertised, the Eagles then could win the NFC East.
This is probably the most controversial of the teams I’m listing here in 2022’s projected top 10.
Many fans are expecting a big step forward from the Chargers on both offense and defense. We’re expecting some advancement from quarterback Justin Herbert, but overall the Chargers had a very average offense last year, particularly if you take out Week 17 when they played against the Kansas City backups.
On defense, there really isn’t the kind of talent base you would need to predict a major improvement, even with the likely return of safety Derwin James from two years of injuries. A lot of the hope for defensive improvement is based on new head coach Brandon Staley and what he was able to do with the Rams’ defense last season. But the evidence that Staley can dramatically improve any defense he takes over has a sample size of one. We’ve never seen Staley with any other team or seen what he can do without Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey to build around.
One other note: The Chargers had one of the worst special teams units last season that we’ve ever measured, mostly due to horrific punting and punt coverage. Punt value is one of the elements of special teams that has some consistency from year to year, so while the Chargers won’t have the kind of horrible special teams they suffered through in 2020, they still have our lowest special teams projection for 2021. It drags their overall forecast down a little extra.
Best-case scenario: Herbert takes a leap and becomes one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL in his second year. The defense learns Staley’s scheme quickly and takes to it easily, turning the Chargers into a top-10 defense. Los Angeles demonstrates the inconsistency of special teams by actually putting an above-average unit on the field. All of that combines to lift Los Angeles into competition with the powerful Kansas City Chiefs for an AFC West title.
It’s not that we expect the Jaguars to be a good or even average team. Jacksonville ranks 30th in its mean DVOA projection. But the Jags look better than last year. They’ve added talent on both sides of the ball. Trevor Lawrence is the most obvious name, but the offense also added underrated veteran receiver Marvin Jones Jr., while the defense added a number of useful veterans including Malcom Brown, Rayshawn Jenkins and Damien Wilson. As for Urban Meyer, a number of college coaches who moved to the NFL had initial success translating their college schemes to the pros before they lost their ability to manage the locker room, including Nick Saban (9-7 in his first season) and Chip Kelly (10-6 in his first season).
So why aren’t the Jaguars higher up on our list of possible top-10 draft picks for 2022? The answer is their schedule. Jacksonville has the easiest projected schedule in the NFL by average DVOA of opponent. A big part of that is Football Outsiders predicting a down year for the AFC South, with all three of the other teams expected to decline.
Best-case scenario: Do you notice a pattern behind these best-case scenarios? Most of them revolve around “the young quarterback develops” because that’s the modern NFL: Quarterback play is hugely important, and the best way for a team to dramatically improve is for the quarterback to dramatically improve. Or, in the case of a rookie like Trevor Lawrence, for the quarterback to come right into the NFL playing at a high level from day one. Lawrence is considered one of the best quarterback prospects of the past 30 years, and the Jaguars just need him to play like it, to put up a rookie year somewhere between Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. If the defense can play better, that would help too, but given this schedule, a great rookie year from Lawrence could drag any defense into the postseason.
Full 2021 NFL projections will be in our annual book Football Outsiders Almanac 2021, available online in mid-July
Credit: Source link