The 2022 NFL season kicks off Thursday, Sept. 8, and that means it’s time for our annual ranking of the league’s top 100 players. What can we expect from the game’s best this season, and how do they stack up against each other?
To create our list, we asked an ESPN panel of more than 50 NFL experts to rate players based on how good they will be in the 2022 season compared with their peers. Emphasis was placed solely on expectations for the upcoming season and predicting potential greatness, rather than past performance, career résumé or positional value. That means long-term injuries and suspensions played a part. From those ratings, we were able to rank the best of the best, one to 100.
The Los Angeles Chargers lead this year with eight players on this list. Twenty-seven franchises are represented, while five are absent: the New York Jets, New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars, Detroit Lions and, perhaps most surprising, the New England Patriots. Two-thirds of last year’s top 100 returned for another appearance and, in terms of positions, wide receiver dominated — again — with 18 wideouts making the list. Quarterbacks (14) were also well represented.
For each player, our NFL Nation reporters weighed in on his 2022 outlook and asked a player, coach or executive from the league what makes him so dominant. ESPN Stats & Information then provided a signature statistic to know and fantasy analyst Mike Clay projected a stat line for this upcoming season.
Here’s the full list, starting with the Chiefs’ star signal-caller, who’s on top for a third straight season.
QB | Chiefs
2021 rank: 1
Mahomes is a great playmaker in part because of his ability to complete unconventional throws. He has completed passes without looking at his intended receiver, throwing left-handed and in numerous other unorthodox ways. No other quarterback has produced like him through 63 career starts, and he is primed for another big season. And Mahomes will be energized by a number of factors in 2022: the significant moves made by all AFC West rivals, having a mostly new group of wide receivers, a career-low QBR (62.2) last year and his miserable second half in last season’s AFC Championship Game against the Bengals. — Adam Teicher
Signature stat: Since Mahomes became the Chiefs’ starter in 2018, he leads all NFL quarterbacks in … a lot of things. He is at the top of the leaderboard over that span in Total QBR (75), passing yards (18,707), passing touchdowns (151) and yards per dropback (7.6). Mahomes’ .790 win percentage is the best of any quarterback to start at least five games.
What they are saying: “He has so much confidence, and when he walks in the room, results occur because of that confidence every day in practice. That’s rare. You don’t come across that very much.” — Chiefs quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy
2022 projection: 4,610 passing yards, 36 TDs, 12 INTs (358 yards/3 TDs rushing)
DT | Rams
2021 rank: 2
Everyone knows Donald is the best at his position, and he still has incredible success. Donald is more than 100 pass rush wins ahead of anyone else in the NFL since 2017 despite being double-teamed at the highest rate. Donald won a Super Bowl in February but said he is even more motivated “because you have the experience of how it feels.” — Sarah Barshop
Signature stat: Last season, Donald joined Lawrence Taylor as the only players to be named Defensive Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year multiple times, first-team All-Pro five times and also win a Super Bowl. Donald has been double-teamed 1,586 times since tracking began in 2017, per ESPN’s metrics-powered NFL Next Gen Stats. He has still managed 98.0 sacks since entering the NFL in 2014, the most by any player.
What they are saying: “The way he works, and the way he comes to work every single day and his mindset, it’s just different. You notice it right away.” — Rams defensive coordinator Raheem Morris
2022 projection: 11 sacks, 76 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
QB | Packers
2021 rank: 3
This might be Rodgers’ most challenging season. He lost his favorite receiver, All-Pro Davante Adams, and his deep threat, Marquez Valdes-Scantling. But anyone who understands what motivates Rodgers knows he loves being told he can’t do something. He has carried the chip-on-his-shoulder approach to four NFL MVPs. There has been no visible decline in his skills, and he has expressed contentment in his personal and professional life. — Rob Demovsky
Signature stat: Over the past two seasons, Rodgers has thrown 85 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Of all QBs to throw at least 500 passes in that span, his 9.44 touchdown/interception ratio ranks first by a wide margin. The ratio is the best ever in a two-season span with a minimum of 1,000 pass attempts. Rodgers, in fact, occupies spots 1-3 on the list.
What they are saying: “You guys that have been around here a long time [know] he never lacks for motivation. He’s very unique in his ability to look at things and create challenges for himself. I think he’s excited to take on this one.” — Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst
2022 projection: 4,147 passing yards, 33 TDs, 7 INTs (138 yards/2 TDs rushing)
WR | Rams
2021 rank: NR
When Matthew Stafford was asked how he and Kupp could top their record 2021 seasons, the quarterback said the pair had to look for ways to improve that would not be noticed by many other people. Kupp won the triple crown of receiving in 2021, and first-year Rams offensive coordinator Liam Coen said he thinks adding Allen Robinson II‘s versatility will help Kupp against defenses in 2022. — Sarah Barshop
Signature stat: All Kupp did last season was lead the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns and win Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP. Jerry Rice is the only other player to do all of this in his NFL career. Thanks to the addition of a 17th game, Kupp finished 2021 with 1,947 receiving yards, the second-most in a single season in NFL history, after Calvin Johnson‘s 1,964 in 2012.
What they are saying: “His ability to communicate what he’s seeing and what the defense is doing is what separates his skill set in my mind.” — Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford
2022 projection: 114 receptions, 1,349 yards, 10 TDs (25 yards rushing)
QB | Bills
2021 rank: 9
Allen’s football prowess has produced an expectations for the quarterback, who’s become one of the best and most exciting players to watch. This season, however, Allen will have a challenge he hasn’t faced in his NFL career: pairing with a new offensive coordinator in former Bills quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey. A big priority for Allen, especially behind a questionable offensive line, will be not taking too many hits. Since the start of 2018, he leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards (1,481) and rushing touchdowns (11) on scrambles. — Alaina Getzenberg
Signature stat: Two players in NFL history have a season of 4,000 passing yards and 700 rushing yards: Cam Newton in 2011 and Allen last year. Allen’s tenacity as a runner is part of what sets him apart — he had 260 rushing yards after contact last season, the most in a season by a quarterback since tracking began in 2009.
What they are saying: “[Allen] can make every throw on the football field. He can run the ball. He’s big, he’s strong. The aspect that I love about him the most is his ability to get guys to play at a level that they wouldn’t normally play at.” — Bills linebacker Von Miller
2022 projection: 4,098 passing yards, 33 TDs, 13 INTs (678 yards/7 TDs rushing)
OLB | Steelers
2021 rank: 6
After coming close earlier in his career, Watt finally earned a Defensive Player of the Year award just a few months after signing a contract that made him the then-highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. En route to capturing the elusive award, Watt led the league in sacks and nearly broke Michael Strahan’s long-standing record. Now it’s about finding a way to repeat as DPOY — and more importantly, lead a defensive surge that will dictate the direction of the Steelers’ 2022 season. — Brooke Pryor
Signature stat: Watt became the eighth Steelers player to win Defensive Player of the Year behind 22.5 sacks that matched Michael Strahan in 2001 for the NFL single-season record. Watt’s 72.0 sacks are the third-most by a player in his first five seasons since the stat became official in 1982, trailing only Reggie White (81.0) and brother J.J. Watt (74.5).
What they are saying: “The thing that makes him special is a lot of teams game-plan around stopping him. I don’t know if you could say they haven’t done a good job, but when the game is on the line he’ll be the guy to make the big play, to give us a splash, to give us a chance to stay in the game and win the game. He’s always been a game-wrecker.” — Steelers defensive lineman Tyson Alualu
2022 projection: 13 sacks, 67 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries
WR | Vikings
2021 rank: 36
What can Jefferson do for an encore after leading the NFL in combined receiving yards (3,016) over the past two seasons? The Vikings will endeavor to show us after hiring Kevin O’Connell as coach. O’Connell and his staff got Rams receiver Cooper Kupp in position for a record-breaking season in 2021. Jefferson figures to line up in a wider variety of spots on the field and get the ball through an increased diversity of route types in the new scheme. — Kevin Seifert
Signature stat: Jefferson’s 1,616 receiving yards last season were the second-most in a single season in Vikings franchise history, after Hall of Famer Randy Moss’ 1,632 in 2003. Jefferson’s 3,016 career receiving yards are the most by any player in his first two seasons in NFL history.
What they are saying: “He’s had all the tools ever since he was a rookie. Very polished route runner. He can catch any ball. Sharp off the line of scrimmage versus press. Every route looks the same when he is coming in and out of his breaks. You can just tell he has been coached very well throughout not even his NFL career, but his football career. Just to come into the league that polished, you don’t see that very often. He’s up there already.” — Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson
2022 projection: 98 receptions, 1,367 yards, 8 TDs (24 yards rushing)
CB | Rams
2021 rank: 7
Ramsey had one of the best seasons of his career in 2021, and he did it while playing through injuries to both shoulders for more than half of the season. The versatile cornerback had an offseason surgery on one of the shoulders because it “needed to be cleaned out and made new again.” The Rams’ defense perhaps got even better this offseason by adding Bobby Wagner, and Ramsey will lead the way in the secondary. — Sarah Barshop
Signature stat: Ramsey is the only defensive back selected to the Pro Bowl in each of the last five seasons. Since Ramsey made his debut with the Rams in 2019 Week 7, the Rams have allowed the third-lowest QBR (49.9) on passes outside the numbers.
What they are saying: “He’s, first of all, just naturally a very incredible athlete. … And then, what you add on to the top of that, he’s an incredibly smart, instinctive football player as well.” — Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp
2022 projection: 3 interceptions, 16 passes defensed, 76 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
DE | Browns
2021 rank: 11
Garrett has contended for NFL Defensive Player of the Year the past three seasons only to fade down the stretch. Yet this will be the most talented Browns defense he has played with during his career. And after topping the league in pass rush win rate (27.8%) last season, Garrett could finally establish himself as the league’s top defender. — Jake Trotter
Signature stat: Since entering the league in 2017, Garrett ranks fourth in the NFL in pass rush win rate (25.6%) and fifth in sacks (58.5). Donald is the only other player in the top five of both categories over the same span.
What they are saying: “He’s been locked in more so than I’ve ever seen him. He’s out early to everything. He’s really taken the next step in our defensive line room, being a leader. … The talent continues to get better. His time will come [to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year]. Hopefully it’s this year.” — Browns defensive line coach Chris Kiffin
2022 projection: 13 sacks, 54 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
WR | Raiders
2021 rank: 8
Despite being the third-ranked receiver on this list, Adams is generally seen as the best pass-catcher in the game. And while he is changing quarterbacks in leaving the two-time reigning league MVP in Aaron Rodgers, he’ll have another familiar arm tossing footballs his way in old college teammate Derek Carr. Adams is playing much closer to his San Francisco Bay Area home, and he’ll have an elite playcaller in coach Josh McDaniels, along with Pro Bowlers around him in slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, tight end Darren Waller and running back Josh Jacobs. Adams should flourish in 2022. — Paul Gutierrez
Signature stat: Since being drafted 53rd overall in 2014, Adams leads the league with 81 receiving touchdowns in the regular season and playoffs in 127 career games. In 2012 and 2013, Adams’ two seasons at Fresno State with Carr throwing him the ball, Adams caught 38 touchdowns, which led all FBS quarterback-receiver tandems in that span.
What they are saying: “So, it’s a blessing to be able to play with him. Not only because of the player he is, but he’s one of my best friends in the whole world. Like, we’ve tried to plot and scheme this [reunion] for a long time, you know?” — Carr
2022 projection: 97 receptions, 1,157 yards, 7 TDs
QB | Chargers
2021 rank: 38
Herbert shined as a second-year pro, turning in a Total QBR that ranked third in the NFL behind star quarterbacks Rodgers and Tom Brady. Now as a third-year pro and operating for a second consecutive season in coordinator Joe Lombardi’s offense, Herbert is expected to take another step forward. Coaches and teammates have touted Herbert’s improved communication and comfort level, noting he’s ability to take greater command of the offense. — Lindsey Thiry
Signature stat: Only Matthew Stafford threw more touchdown passes 50-plus yards through the air last season than Herbert, who was also runner-up in completions (Brady) and passing yards (Brady). Over the last four seasons, only Mahomes has a higher QBR on third down than Herbert.
What they are saying: “We can unlock some more stuff this upcoming season. Last year was [Herbert’s] first year in this offense, so in Year 2, he’s a lot more comfortable, a lot more relaxed, a lot more vocal, knows where the spots are on the field for us.” — Chargers receiver Mike Williams
2022 projection: 4,259 passing yards, 34 TDs, 12 INTs (270 yards/3 TDs rushing)
ILB/OLB | Cowboys
2021 rank: NR
There is no worry with the Cowboys regarding a second-year slump for Parsons. He will continue to line up as both a linebacker and pass-rusher to make it difficult for offenses to plan for him. He had 13 sacks a year ago and believes he can get more in his second year — even if there is more attention on him. — Todd Archer
Signature stat: Parsons became the first unanimous AP Defensive Rookie of the Year last season. He had the highest pass rush win rate in the NFL at 29.2%, and his 13.0 sacks were tied for the third-most by a rookie since sacks became official in 1982.
What they are saying: “He can do incredible things. He’s really a great talent. Just seeing him work and how competitive he is, the sky’s the limit for him. He can do really great things.” — Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs
2022 projection: 9 sacks, 105 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
QB | Broncos
2021 rank: 4
Both Wilson and the Broncos see the offseason blockbuster move as a set-up for a long-term affair, and Wilson’s arrival puts the Broncos back in the playoff conversation. Denver has built a playbook that should fit Wilson, and he has playmakers at wide receiver and running back, so expectations are plenty high for his first year in Denver. — Jeff Legwold
Signature stat: Wilson’s 316 combined passing and rushing touchdowns (292 pass, 24 rush) are second-most by a player in their first 10 seasons in NFL history — only Peyton Manning had more with 322 (306 pass, 16 rush). For a guy listed under six feet, Wilson knows how to throw “dimes” — defined by NFL Next Gen Stats as a pass into a tight window thrown 30-plus yards through the air. Over the last five seasons, Wilson has 15 touchdown passes on “dime” throws, which is the most in the NFL over that span.
What they are saying: “Any time you get a franchise quarterback, a Super Bowl winning quarterback, like Russell Wilson, it’s going to accelerate anything that you’re doing. It wouldn’t have done any good to bring Russell in here if we didn’t have a foundation in place … We needed a foundation to go get a quarterback like him. First of all, he wouldn’t have come, right? But second of all, he didn’t come here to lose. He came here to win and believed in our team, and we believed in our team.” — Broncos general manager George Paton
2022 projection: 4,089 passing yards, 30 TDs, 10 INTs (303 yards/2 TDs rushing)
WR | Bengals
2021 rank: NR
As a rookie, Chase turned in one of the best seasons in Bengals history. He set team records for most yards in a game (266) and a season (1,455), breaking marks previously set by Chad Johnson. The AP Offensive Rookie of the Year is now poised for another massive season. — Ben Baby
Signature stat: Chase’s 1,455 receiving yards was the most by a rookie since the Super Bowl era began in 1966. During last year’s postseason run to the Super Bowl, Chase also became the first rookie in NFL history to record multiple 100-yard receiving games in a single postseason. He also had an NFL-best five TD catches on passes thrown 30-plus yards downfield in 2021.
What they are saying: “His ability to understand the game, pick up the offense so quickly, allowed him to just play fast. And then he has a combination of speed, strength, explosiveness. He has strength down the field, so any contested 50-50 ball, he’s gonna make [the catch].” — Bengals assistant Troy Walters
2022 projection: 84 receptions, 1,247 yards, 9 TDs (83 yards, 1 TD rushing)
DE | 49ers
2021 rank: 15
After a 2020 season lost to injury, Bosa’s 2021 bounce back was the best campaign of his young career, but there’s a belief around the Niners that there are bigger and better things to come than the 15.5 sacks and 47 tackles he had last year. Bosa was able to spend the offseason working out and not having to worry about recovering from an injury, which left him in better shape than anyone at camp, with left tackle Trent Williams noting that Bosa looks like “a sculpture.” — Nick Wagoner
Signature stat: Bosa has a knack for getting after the quarterback. Per ESPN metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, he created the first pressure on 95 plays last season, the third-most in the NFL trailing only Donald (112) and Maxx Crosby (99).
What they are saying: “He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen. … He shows up, he’s going to be ready to go. It’s one guy you don’t have to be concerned with. Bosa is going to show up, he’s going to be a big-time playmaker for us. One of the best D-ends in his league. And again, I’m happy for him because he’s coming in this year, he’s not worried about rehabbing an injury. He’s worried about getting better as a football player. Nothing to worry about but getting better as a football player, so it’s exciting to see where he’s going go.” — 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans
2022 projection: 12 sacks, 58 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
OT | 49ers
2021 rank: 13
Williams landed his first All-Pro nod in 2021, when he was so dominant the Niners spent time dreaming up ways to use him, including putting him in motion to give him a head start on certain blocks. For his efforts, Williams was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded offensive player and became a member of the Madden 99 Club. What can he do for an encore? It’s only limited by the imagination of the 49ers’ offensive coaching staff. — Nick Wagoner
Signature stat: Williams allowed zero sacks on 285 pass-blocking snaps last season, the third-most pass-blocking plays without allowing a sack in the NFL. He finished top 10 in pass block win rate among tackles in each the past two seasons and has nine Pro Bowl selections since 2012, tied for the most Pro Bowl selections by any player in the league in that span.
What they are saying: “That’s the best in the world at what he does. That’s the standard of how you operate. And to have that on film and watching it every single day, from a football standpoint, that’s pretty damn cool.” — 49ers offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey
TE | Chiefs
2021 rank: 10
Kelce will be 33 in October, but he is showing no signs of a career slowdown. He has six straight 1,000-yard seasons, a record for tight ends. But Kelce is not a typical tight end. Two-thirds of his 2021 receptions came when he lined up as a wide receiver or in the slot. — Adam Teicher
Signature stat: Since the start of 2018, Kelce and Davante Adams are the only NFL players with at least 5,000 receiving yards during that span. Kelce has recorded 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last six seasons — that’s the most 1,000-yard receiving seasons by a tight end in NFL history.
What they are saying: “He’s just the best at what he does and continues to do it year after year.” — Chiefs general manager Brett Veach
2022 projection: 87 receptions, 972 yards, 7 TDs
RB | Colts
2021 rank: NR
Taylor led the NFL in carries in 2021, but the Colts are looking to reduce his workload this season. Still, his speed and home-run ability is what separates him from most backs. He’ll remain a threat to score every time he touches the ball, even with fewer attempts. — Stephen Holder
Signature stat: In 2021, Taylor became the youngest player in NFL history to have a season with at least 2,000 scrimmage yards and 20 scrimmage touchdowns. Taylor accrued 2,171 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns during his age-22 season.
What they are saying: “J.T. has just taken it to the next level. He’s learning from everybody. He’s seeing others do certain things, seeing receivers do certain things, and he’s learning. That’s one thing about J.T: He’s gonna ask questions and he’s gonna learn. And I think that’s why he’s gonna have another big year and will take an even bigger jump.” — Colts running back Nyheim Hines
2022 projection: 1,493 rushing yards, 13 TDs (351 yards, 2 TDs receiving)
DE | Chargers
2021 rank: 16
Bosa shows no signs of slowing as he enters his seventh NFL season. Last year, the four-time Pro Bowl selection forced seven strip sacks, with 10.5 sacks altogether. Now Bosa could see even greater opportunity to get to the quarterback with offenses needing to protect against him and his counterpart, outside linebacker Khalil Mack. — Lindsey Thiry
Signature stat: The four-time Pro Bowler was tied for second-most in forced fumbles in 2021 with Josh Norman. Since tracking began in 2017, Bosa ranks fourth among edge rushers in pass rush win rate defeating his blocks within 2.5 seconds 25.2% of the time.
What they are saying: “Joey is such an artist as a rusher. He has as good of hands, as good of a pass-rush setup, as anybody in pro football. … But then the other thing is that Joey is a really good player against the run.” — Chargers coach Brandon Staley
2022 projection: 10 sacks, 59 tackles, 5 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries
QB | Buccaneers
2021 rank: 20
Brady led the NFL in just about every major statistical category last year, including passing yards, completions and touchdowns passes. He has shown no signs of decline after a 40-day retirement stint, and while he won’t have future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski to throw to this year, the Buccaneers did add receiver Julio Jones. — Jenna Laine
Signature stat: At age 45, Brady will be the oldest quarterback in NFL history to start a game. Since celebrating his 40th birthday back in 2017, Brady has five 4,000-yard passing seasons, an MVP, two Super Bowl wins and a Super Bowl MVP — Peyton Manning is the only other player that has accomplished that over an entire career.
What they are saying: “Just the joy he still gets out of football and the way he throws a football at 45 is unbelievable to me. Every day I stand amazed. Every day I watch that thing come off his hand and I’m amazed. I’m just amazed. Some of it’s God gifted him with a bunch of extra throws from the average quarterback and a lot of it’s him working and doing his due diligence, so it’s a pretty good combination. And gosh, I think he’s throwing it as good as any time I’ve seen him throw it.” — Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen
2022 projection: 4,547 passing yards, 34 TDs, 12 INTs (42 yards, 2 TDs rushing)
G | Colts
2021 rank: 27
Nelson’s injuries resulted in a subpar season (by his standards) in 2021. But he still managed to perform at a Pro Bowl level, and even held his own in an epic battle with the Rams’ Donald in Week 2. Nelson is now healthy and coming off an offseason of intense individual preparation for 2022. — Stephen Holder
Signature stat: Nelson is the only guard to be selected first team All-Pro in his first three seasons in NFL history (2018-2020), and is one of two offensive linemen selected to a Pro Bowl in each of the past four seasons (Joel Bitonio). Since entering the NFL in 2018, Nelson has the seventh-highest pass block win rate in the NFL according to ESPN metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats.
What they are saying: “I really think he’s at a great spot physically and mentally. I just think this is the best he’s probably felt physically. He always trains hard, but the kind of combination of things he did to train this year, I think it hit a sweet spot for him. I think his body is at a spot where it feels better than it’s felt in a while.” — Colts coach Frank Reich
WR | Bills
2021 rank: 18
Diggs is an elite route runner, proven by his performances over the past two years in Buffalo. Diggs is set to be quarterback Josh Allen‘s No. 1 receiver for years to come and primed for more success as the wide receiver talent around him, including Gabe Davis, continues to grow. Diggs has four straight seasons with 1,000-plus receiving yards and is coming off a career-high 10 receiving touchdowns in 2021. — Alaina Getzenberg
Signature stat: Diggs led the NFL in receiving in 2020 with 127 catches for 1,535 yards. Diggs’ 230 receptions since joining the Bills in 2020 are the most by any player in his first two seasons with a team in NFL history.
What they are saying: “I love the fact he’s kind of got that little chip on his shoulder a little bit. He’s so competitive. He wants to win every rep. … Then, obviously, the physical traits of what he can do of his strength, speed and just natural instincts and feel for the game is what makes him an extremely talented and effective receiver.” — Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey
2022 projection: 93 receptions, 1,145 yards, 8 TDs
S | Steelers
2021 rank: 32
A year ago, then-defensive coordinator Keith Butler described a Fitzpatrick play as “another Troy [Polamalu]-like deal.” And while Fitzpatrick might not be a Polamalu duplicate quite yet, his cerebral approach to the game and versatility make him a foundational piece to the Steelers’ defense. And the team rewarded him as such, giving him a four-year extension worth $18.4 million annually. Fitzpatrick recorded 124 tackles last season along with two picks and a forced fumble. — Brooke Pryor
Signature stat: Fitzpatrick has four defensive touchdowns since entering the NFL in 2018, tied for the most in the NFL in that span. Since Week 3 of 2019 — when Fitzpatrick made his debut with the Steelers — the Steelers have allowed a 32.6 QBR and 5.0 yards per play with Fitzpatrick on the field compared to an 80.9 QBR and 6.5 yards per play with him off the field.
What they are saying: “Mink is a perfectionist. … He wants to win every play. And if he doesn’t win every play, then it’s like, OK what happened on that play? … He’s not one of those guys that it paralyzes him. He sees the game, he sees the game fast.” — Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin
2022 projection: 2 interceptions, 116 tackles, 7 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
WR | Dolphins
2021 rank: 5
One of the offseason’s most surprising moves felt like it came together over the course of a single morning, but Hill’s addition in Miami sent expectations for this once-fledgling offense into the stratosphere. As the NFL’s premier home-run threat, Hill gives Tua Tagovailoa and coach Mike McDaniel a yards-after-the-catch star who should take defensive attention away from Jaylen Waddle. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Signature stat: Hill set a Chiefs single-season record with 111 receptions last season and is one of four players with six-plus receiving touchdowns in each of his first six seasons since the 1970 merger — alongside Larry Fitzgerald, Randy Moss and Marvin Harrison. Hill also has scored 20 touchdowns of 50-plus yards — twice as many as the next-highest wide receiver since Hill entered the league in 2016.
What they are saying: “The thing that people really don’t realize that is so cool about him is he’s also very, very accountable. He’s one of the first people that I can show in team meetings and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t to our standard,’ or ‘This isn’t right,’ because 10 times out of 10, ever since we started with him here, when I do that, the next day in the team meeting, I get to show him correcting the mistake. And it kind of sets the tone that you’re conditioned as [a player] to want to be.” — McDaniel
2022 projection: 88 receptions, 1,087 yards, 7 TDs (59 yards rushing)
ILB | 49ers
2021 rank: 30
By his own admission, Warner didn’t have his best season in 2021, though he still had 137 tackles and four pass breakups. What Warner lacked from his previous All-Pro seasons was splash plays. He had a half of a sack and no interceptions. Still, Warner remains the focal point of San Francisco’s defense, and the expectation is that another season with defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans should take his game back to previous heights or beyond. — Nick Wagoner
Signature stat: Since entering the NFL in 2018, Warner has 503 tackles — fourth-most in the NFL trailing only Bobby Wagner (605), Shaquille Leonard (538) and Roquan Smith (523). According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he has held opposing quarterbacks to a 60% completion rate as the nearest defender since 2018 — the second-lowest clip among linebackers with 500 coverage snaps.
What they are saying: “We want Fred to be an A-plus player 100% of the time. And I thought last year that he had a really good year. … I think what he missed out on last year — the impact plays, the interceptions, the fumble recoveries — he missed out on some of those big plays, but as a consistent, every-down linebacker, he was pretty good last year. And I think this year, with contract stuff behind him and he doesn’t have to prove himself anymore, he can just go out and play. I think he’s at a level right now that his game is definitely ramped up to another level.” — 49ers linebackers coach Johnny Holland
2022 projection: 142 tackles, 1 sack, 1 interception, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
QB | Bengals
2021 rank: NR
In his first full NFL season, Burrow showed why he was so coveted coming out of LSU. He helped the Bengals reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1989 and put up some dazzling numbers. He had the fewest percentage of off-target throws in the league (10.3%), according to ESPN Stats & Information. His splits in the final seven games of the regular season were also incredible: 14 TDs, 3 INTs and a plus-7.4% completion percentage over expectation. — Ben Baby
Signature stat: Burrow led the NFL in completion percentage (70.4%) and yards per attempt (8.9) despite playing behind an offensive line that finished 30th in pass block win rate. In addition, Burrow’s deep ball was dangerous in 2021 as he had an NFL-high seven touchdowns on passes at least 30 yards downfield, and his eight touchdown passes on fade routes were tied for most in the NFL (Dak Prescott).
What they are saying: “Very limited times is there a missed throw, a poor decision. He plays on time, he plays very fast and decisive and gives his playmakers opportunities to make plays on the ball.” — Bengals coach Zac Taylor
2022 projection: 4,165 passing yards, 30 TDs, 12 INTs (171 yards/3 TDs rushing)
CB | Saints
2021 rank: 53
Lattimore signed a five-year extension worth almost $100 million right before last season’s opener against the Jaguars and didn’t miss a game despite a thumb injury that required a brace to start the season. The Saints took a while to find their No. 2 corner last summer, but Lattimore has been a sure thing on the other side since he was drafted in 2018. He also has earned a Pro Bowl selection in each of the past three seasons, one of four defensive backs to do that alongside Jalen Ramsey, Stephon Gilmore and Budda Baker. — Katherine Terrell
Signature stat: Over the past five seasons, Lattimore leads the NFL with 74 pass breakups.
What they are saying: “He’s a smart guy. He knows football. He understands route concepts. He knows where his help’s at. I think the biggest thing is he knows ball. And being able to know football and understand things like that, you don’t have to play at 100 mph. And that’s something he’s trying to teach me.” — Saints cornerback Alontae Taylor
2022 projection: 3 interceptions, 18 passes defensed, 71 tackles
WR | 49ers
2021 rank: NR
Samuel plays a position unto himself — wide back — and despite speculation he wanted that role to change during his contract negotiations, Samuel said it’s not true. In 2021, he became the first player since 1999 and third in NFL history to have at least 1,000 receiving yards, five receiving touchdowns and five rushing scores in the same season. That means the Niners and Samuel can continue to dream up ways to get him the ball and see how he can continue to blur the lines between receiver and runner. — Nick Wagoner
Signature stat: Samuel is the only player to record 1,400 receiving and 300 rushing yards in the same season, and his eight rushing touchdowns were the most by any receiver in a single season. He is also the first receiver since the 1970 merger to lead his team in rushing touchdowns. Since joining the NFL in 2019, Samuel leads all players with 10.7 yards per target (min. 150 targets).
What they are saying: “When Deebo stays healthy and he’s able to practice and able to go through things, Deebo is capable of doing anything, and that’s why he has helped us so much to win, whether it’s in the pass game or the run game, whether it’s blocking, whether it’s throwing the one time we asked him to throw. When you have guys who have skill sets, who can do a number of things, you want to always keep building off of that.” — 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan
2022 projection: 68 receptions, 985 yards, 5 TDs (372 yards/4 TDs rushing)
CB | Dolphins
2021 rank: 14
Throw to Howard’s side of the field at your own risk. The NFL’s leader in interceptions since entering the league got the contract extension he was looking for this offseason as one of the league’s premier lockdown corners. He excels at taking the ball away, and not just through the air. Last season, Howard forced and recovered two fumbles that either sealed a Dolphins victory or won them the game outright. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Signature stat: Over the past five seasons, Howard has recorded an NFL-high 27 interceptions. In 2020, he finished third in NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting — the best finish by a Dolphins player since Hall of Famer Jason Taylor won the award in 2006.
What they are saying: “Personally, I think X is the best corner. I’m not just saying that because he’s on my team. But if you look at what he’s done in this league, he travels, he goes and plays man-to-man, so I feel like it’s good to go against the best to up my game.” — Dolphins wide receiver Jaylen Waddle
2022 projection: 2 interceptions, 15 passes defensed, 56 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
QB | Rams
2021 rank: 24
Stafford is coming off the best season of his career, including a Super Bowl LVI victory, and he added another pass-catcher to target in wide receiver Allen Robinson II. Stafford is dealing with a right elbow injury, but coach Sean McVay says he’s not concerned. Since 2008, Stafford is tied with Matt Ryan the most game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime (42). — Sarah Barshop
Signature stat: Stafford had 14 passing touchdowns and zero interceptions in the fourth quarter last season including the playoffs — which is tied for the most without an interception in the past 40 years. Stafford’s fourth-quarter QBR in one-score games last season was 89.5 — the best in the NFL.
What they are saying: “He’s a guy who has a special trait of seeing the entire field. … Always having all five eligibles alive on every play truly makes the game come alive.” — Robinson
2022 projection: 4,324 passing yards, 32 TDs, 14 INTs (82 yards/1 TD rushing)
WR | Buccaneers
2021 rank: 43
Evans has taken his game to another level with Tom Brady as his quarterback. He’s doing so much more now in the short-to-intermediate passing game, in addition to being on the receiving end of many chunk plays downfield and winning jump-ball situations in the red zone. And he’s arguably one of, if not the most dependable receiver in the league in terms of availability, missing just six games in eight seasons. — Jenna Laine
Signature stat: Since entering the NFL in 2014, Evans is the only player to record eight-straight seasons with 1,000 receiving yards, and the only player to do so in his first eight NFL seasons all time — only Jerry Rice and Tim Brown have longer streaks of 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Since 2017, using ESPN’s route metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, Evans leads the NFL with 15 touchdown catches on fade routes.
What they are saying: “It’s been a real privilege for me to play with him. He’s one of the NFL all-time greats.” — Brady
2022 projection: 74 receptions, 1,016 yards, 8 TDs
WR | Cowboys
2021 rank: NR
Lamb had a team rookie-record 74 catches in 2020 and then 1,102 receiving yards and a Pro Bowl bid in Year 2, but he has to make another jump in 2022 — especially now that he is the unquestioned No. 1 receiver. How important is he to the Cowboys? Twice he was rested early in training camp so they wouldn’t put any burden on his legs. For the offense to be at its best, Lamb needs a career year. — Todd Archer
Signature stat: Lamb is the only receiver in Cowboys history to record 150 receptions in the first two seasons of his career. In addition, his 2,037 receiving yards are the second-most by a Cowboys player in his first two seasons — trailing only Hall of Famer Bob Hayes.
What they are saying: “He’s a guy that wants the ball, expects the ball. When one guy is on him, he’s not covered in his head and I appreciate that and like that. So I think in that sense, yeah, as [offensive coordinator] Kellen [Moore] said, we’ll feature him. Some plays will be designed to get it to him, but in a case where everybody is one-on-one across the board, yeah, he’s our guy to go to.” — Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott
2022 projection: 88 receptions, 1,141 yards, 7 TDs (59 yards rushing)
TE | Ravens
2021 rank: 98
Andrews staked his claim to being the NFL’s best tight end by producing 1,361 yards receiving, the third-most ever in a single season by a tight end, despite quarterback Lamar Jackson missing five games. Andrews has continually found a way to get open since being a third-round pick in 2018, especially in the red zone. — Jamison Hensley
Signature stat: Since the start of 2019, Andrews’ 26 touchdown catches leads all NFL tight ends, and his 2,914 receiving yards trails only Travis Kelce and Darren Waller among tight ends. He has been incredibly productive from the slot: over the past three seasons, Andrews’ 1,997 receiving yards from the slot are fourth among all players in the league.
What they are saying: “I would put about three people on him. You can’t just sit there and think you’ve got him figured out. He finds his way open, finds an open area in the defense. He’s relentless in his effort and gives 110 percent every single time he’s on the field. He does that in practice every single day. He’s just an exceptional player. Honestly, you’ve got to put a corner on him; it’s got to be Jalen Ramsey at this point.” — Ravens linebacker Josh Bynes
2022 projection: 81 receptions, 1,010 yards, 8 TDs
CB | Packers
2021 rank: 34
The Packers were just beginning to explore different ways they could use Alexander in 2021 when he injured his right shoulder in Week 4. He missed the rest of the regular season. But second-year defensive coordinator Joe Barry has big plans for the 2020 Pro Bowler/second-team All-Pro now that he’s healthy. At times, Barry plans to assign Alexander to cover the opponent’s best receiver. Other times, he plans to leave him on one side to try to take away half the field. And on some occasions, he would like to use him in the slot. — Rob Demovsky
Signature stat: He was limited to four games in 2021, but Alexander recorded 41 passes defended from 2018-2020, the fourth-most in the NFL during that span. Since the start of 2020, Alexander has allowed 4.9 yards per attempt as the nearest defender — the best mark in the NFL according to NFL Next Gen Stats (among DBs with 75 targets). He has also allowed the third-lowest completion rate (51%) as the nearest defender among defensive backs since the start of 2020.
What they are saying: “He can shadow, he can play on the outside and lock guys down, he can move inside, he can kind of do it all.” — Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst
2022 projection: 2 interceptions, 15 passes defensed, 63 tackles, 1 forced fumble
ILB | Colts
2021 rank: 88
Leonard was a revelation during his first three seasons, but an ankle injury in 2021 heavily restricted him. Now he’s working his way back from back surgery to correct an impinged nerve that was exacerbating the ankle and lower-leg pain. Leonard is on the PUP list, and there is no established timetable for his return. But his performance last season demonstrates he can be effective even when hurt. — Stephen Holder
Signature stat: Leonard is the only player in the NFL with at least 15.0 sacks and 10 interceptions in his first four seasons since 1982, when sacks became official. In addition, Leonard’s 538 tackles since entering the NFL in 2018 and his 17 forced fumbles are both tied for second in the league.
What they are saying: “I think when he gets cleared, he’s not going to be 100%, and he’s going to have to work his way back into it. This has happened to everybody. All the great ones. I remember back in 2008, Peyton [Manning] had the knee [injury], and he played the first four games, and he was a mere shell of [himself]. But we still found ways to win those games. He found ways to play winning football until he, around Week 5 or Week 6, hit his stride. My guess is that whenever Darius gets cleared, it’s going to be the same way.” — Colts coach Frank Reich
2022 projection: 133 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, 8 passes defensed, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
OT | Buccaneers
2021 rank: 96
The Bucs believe Wirfs can be a Hall of Famer one day, and he certainly has the makings. Human beings aren’t supposed to be 6-foot-5, 320 pounds and running 4.85 40-yard dashes, jumping a 36.5-inch vertical, hoisting trees on their backs and doing backflips into swimming pools. Unfortunately, Wirfs suffered two torn ligaments in his right ankle last season that knocked him out of the postseason, but he was able to avoid surgery and looks like his old self in camp. — Jenna Laine
Signature stat: Last season, Wirfs became the third offensive tackle in NFL history to be named first-team All-Pro before turning 23 (Jack Conklin and Ron Mix are the others). Wirfs played 100% of the Buccaneers’ offensive snaps during the 2021 regular season.
What they are saying: “He’s a great player, and he’s a great person. He’s a great teammate, and he’s a great worker. He just does a great job in his position and takes the coaching, tries to apply it, it means a lot [to him], [he] cares a lot. He’s obviously got a very bright future. In football, you’ve got to earn the respect of people. Nothing is given to you, and I think the people that don’t make it, they’re entitled to something. Tristan is the opposite of that. Tristan wants to go out and earn it every day and wants to do a great job.” — Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady
OT | Saints
2021 rank: 90
Ramczyk played 10 games last season because of a knee injury that required offseason injections to strengthen the area. The Saints have been careful with him in training camp and have him on a limited rep plan designed by Matt Rhea, their new director of sports science. Ramczyk says his knee is good to go though, and if he stays healthy, he’ll anchor the right side again like he did in his All-Pro seasons between 2018-2020. — Katherine Terrell
Signature stat: Ramczyk led all offensive tackles in pass block win rate last season, sustaining his blocks for 2.5 seconds 95% of the time, according to ESPN metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats.
What they are saying: “His ability to take coaching is elite. You can tell Ryan, ‘I want that hand 3 inches wider, 2 inches higher, I want you to turn,’ and he’ll do it. And that’s really hard to do. That’s hard physically. The other thing is, you’ve got a player who plays with his feet in the ground, with lower power all the time, so everything is a little bit easier when you do that. He’s always done it naturally. You would say he’s a technically sound football player. When we watch tape, and we talk, ‘Hey, we want this,’ we can point out Ryan and say ‘See? He did this and this, it’s right.’ And that gives him a chance on every play to be successful.” — Saints assistant offensive line coach Zach Strief
TE | 49ers
2021 rank: 19
For Kittle, production in both the pass and run game has never been an issue. When healthy, he is one of the best, most versatile tight ends in the league. But Kittle hasn’t played a full season since 2018, with various injuries slowing him down. If he can find a way to stay on the field — and the Niners intend to help him in that cause — he will again be a prominent piece of San Francisco’s offense. — Nick Wagoner
Signature stat: Nobody has churned out yards after the catch like Kittle. Since the start of 2018, Kittle leads all tight ends with 2,212 yards after the catch and ranks fifth among all players in that category regardless of position. Kittle has 27 receptions since 2018 where he gained at least 20 yards after the catch, the most in the NFL over that span (six more than any other player).
What they are saying: “Kittle’s biggest thing was getting back to feeling totally healthy. That’s why we were real smart with him in OTAs. He didn’t do much there. We’ve eased him into camp, and I think he’s in a good spot right now… Our goal for Kittle is making sure he’s 100% for Week 1.” — 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan
2022 projection: 66 receptions, 820 yards, 5 TDs
QB | Cowboys
2021 rank: 12
There’s no contract to worry about and he’s healthy. There is some worry about the receiving corps, but the Cowboys believe Prescott will raise their level of play. This is the QB’s seventh season as the Cowboys’ starter, and he has only one playoff win. He knows he is entering a critical junction of his career for an organization where quarterbacks are measured by what Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman did. — Todd Archer
Signature stat: Prescott is the first player in NFL history with 140 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing touchdowns in his first 85 career games (143 pass, 25 rush). Last season, Prescott’s 37 touchdown passes set the Dallas franchise single-season record.
What they are saying: “He’s had his best camp that I’ve seen him have since he’s been a Cowboy. Velocity, his accuracy, the whole thing. Obviously, as the quarterbacks get older, they get better. The good ones do. They get better every year. There’s no question in my mind, I think he’s had his best training camp he’s ever had.” — Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones
2022 projection: 4,425 passing yards, 31 TDs, 11 INTs (195 yards/3 TDs rushing)
DT | Chiefs
2021 rank: 41
Jones still moves to the edge on occasion but mainly plays from the interior where he has been more productive. The Chiefs used him in both spots early last year, which can explain the slow start. But Jones has led the Chiefs in sacks in each of the past four seasons and could do the same again in 2022. — Adam Teicher
Signature stat: Since entering the league in 2016, Jones is second in pass rush win rate as an interior defender (behind Donald), is sixth in pass rush win rate vs. double teams and is tied for third in pass rush interceptions created. His 41.0 sacks since 2018 are sixth in the NFL.
What they are saying: “He has to have a career year. That means not only in the stats of sacking the quarterback but knocking the run out. That’s something we’ve stressed with him.” — Chiefs defensive line coach Joe Cullen
2022 projection: 8 sacks, 42 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
G | Cowboys
2021 rank: 50
Martin was already one of the best guards in the NFL as a rookie in 2014, and he remains one as he enters his ninth season. He plays with strength and can get to the second level. He has incredible balance, so he is rarely on the ground. He is instinctive and can adjust quickly if things break down. Whenever his career ends, he will push Larry Allen as the best guard in team history, which means by extension he will be one of the best in NFL history. — Todd Archer
Signature stat: Martin has been first-team All-Pro five times over his eight-year NFL career. Since 2000, Martin and Joe Thomas are the only offensive lineman to be named to five All-Pro teams in their first eight NFL seasons. Additionally, since Martin came in the league in 2014, only Donald (7) and Bobby Wagner (6) have been named to more first-team All-Pro selections.
What they are saying: “Zack’s everything as advertised. If you’re watching him from afar, you’ve always admired the way he played. But he’s here all the time. When the season’s over, he’s one of the first players back in the building. Just so consistent in everything he does. He’s a true pro, a great leader, an awesome teammate. He’s been everything I thought he would be and more.” — Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy
QB | Ravens
2021 rank: 22
Jackson remains the best dual-threat QB in NFL history, tying the league record with seven games of least 200 yards passing and 50 yards rushing last season. But he’s looking to bounce back from a season in which he was sidelined for the last four games with a bone bruise in his right ankle. This has been Jackson’s best offseason of his career, and teammates and coaches have said he’s throwing the ball with more velocity and accuracy. — Jamison Hensley
Signature stat: Jackson joined Cam Newton as the only players in NFL history to have three seasons of 2,500 passing yards and 750 rushing yards — and is the first player to do it in three straight seasons. His .755 win percentage in his first four seasons is the fourth-best all time among QBs with at least 40 starts. Jackson also has an NFL-high nine games with at least a 90 Total QBR since the start of 2019.
What they are saying: “The thing about Lamar is that he is probably one of the best athletes at the position in the history of known mankind.” — Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman
2022 projection: 3,412 passing yards, 23 TDs, 14 INTs (924 yards/4 TDs rushing)
43. Derwin James Jr.
S | Chargers
2021 rank: 81
James did it all in coach Brandon Staley’s scheme last season. He lined up as a safety, as a corner, as a linebacker and on the edge — and now in his second year in the system, he is expected to improve on what already was considered an impressive performance. In 15 games in 2021, James recorded 117 tackles (tied for No. 3 in NFL among all defensive backs), intercepted two passes, forced three fumbles and had two sacks. — Lindsey Thiry
Signature stat: After two injury-filled season, James in 2021 finished with a career-high 118 tackles, third-most among all defensive backs. He was one of two players in the NFL to play 400 snaps at safety, 150 snaps at slot comer and 150 snaps at outside linebacker in 2021.
What they are saying: “I don’t look at Derwin as a safety. I look at Derwin as an impact player … If you were just looking at him as safety, that wouldn’t be doing Derwin justice. For me, I look at him as a defensive back. When I see him, I’m like, ‘That’s a defensive back,’ because he can play anywhere … He’s our signal-caller and the heartbeat of our defense.” — Staley
2022 projection: 2 interceptions, 117 tackles, 6 passes defensed, 1 sack, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
WR | Eagles
2021 rank: 69
Now partnered with his good friend Jalen Hurts, Brown has been mostly all smiles since being traded from Tennessee to Philadelphia for a first- and third-round pick this offseason. Hurts has targeted Brown more than any other receiver in camp, and their on-field chemistry seems to be in a good place. Most importantly, Brown has remained healthy to date. If that continues, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be one of the more productive wideouts in football. — Tim McManus
Signature stat: Since entering the league in 2019, Brown is averaging 16.2 yards per reception, third-most in the NFL among players with at least 100 receptions in that span.
What they are saying: “His resume speaks for itself. He does a lot of things really well. The better your players, the better coach you are, and that’s no secret. Our job is to get the most out of those players as we can and maximize their potential. Just excited to have him. Yeah, he’ll fit in nicely.” — Eagles coach Nick Sirianni
2022 projection: 73 receptions, 1,058 yards, 7 TDs
CB | Chargers
2021 rank: NR
Jackson earned a five-year, $82.5 million contract in Los Angeles, where he is expected to continue to wreak havoc for quarterbacks playing behind the pass-rushing duo of Joey Bosa and Khalil Mack. Jackson recently underwent a non-invasive procedure on his ankle that will sideline him up to four weeks. — Lindsey Thiry
Signature stat: Jackson leads the NFL in interceptions (25) since entering the league in 2018. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Jackson has allowed the lowest passer rating (42.0) as the nearest defender since 2018.
What they are saying: “We brought him in here to be the No. 1. He’s been like we anticipated from his playing days in New England. He’s come out here and just been a lock-down performer. … Every time he steps on the grass, he’s either close to making a play or he’s making a play.” — Chargers defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill
2022 projection: 3 interceptions, 18 passes defensed, 63 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
CB | Falcons
2021 rank: NR
Terrell emerged as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL last season. Rarely targeted, Terrell allowed three touchdowns. This season, he has been looked at as a leader and a face of the Falcons, as the club moves on from the Matt Ryan era. — Michael Rothstein
Signature stat: Terrell was next-level in coverage in 2021 — according to NFL Next Gen Stats, Terrell allowed a 41% completion rate as the nearest defender, which was the lowest by any DB in the NFL (minimum 30 targets). He also limited opposing players to 4.1 yards per target as the nearest defender in 2021, the lowest mark in the NFL.
What they are saying: “He’s versatile. It’s not just one element of his game that you can nitpick at. And I think that’s what makes veterans veterans. That’s what makes the greats greats. You can’t just find that one niche that, you can say, like he was it. Think about a guy like Randy Moss. He’s known for Mossing, jumping over them. But what else did he have to do? He had to use his speed, he had to get open, and then he had to do the Mossing. So there were other elements of his game he had to perfect to do what he’s known for. Guys in this league, what makes them great, is the consistency behind it.” — former Falcons wide receiver Geronimo Allison
2022 projection: 3 interceptions, 16 passes defensed, 84 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
RB | Browns
2021 rank: 54
Following three straight Pro Bowl seasons, Chubb has shown no signs of slowing down. He has been especially dominant late in games, averaging a league-best 4.2 yards per rush after contact these past two seasons. Running behind one of the league’s top offensive lines, Chubb could finally capture his first rushing title. — Jake Trotter
Signature stat: In 2021, Chubb became the first Browns running back with three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons since Mike Pruitt between 1979 and 1981. Chubb also has 2,070 rushing yards after contact since entering the NFL in 2018, third-most in the NFL after Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott.
What they are saying: “The way he comes running through a hole, you don’t want to get in front of him. Then he hits another gear once he breaks through the second line of the defense. It’s astonishing to watch.” — Browns safety John Johnson III
2022 projection: 1,182 rushing yards, 7 TDs (224 yards/1 TD receiving)
WR | Commanders
2021 rank: 73
Washington signed McLaurin to a three-year extension in July, rewarding a player who has been a consistent standout since entering the NFL as a third-round pick in 2019. McLaurin’s 3,072 receiving yards in the past three seasons ranks 12th among wideouts. During that time, no other Washington receiver has more than 715 yards, and the next closest player in receptions is running back J.D. McKissic — and he is 99 shy of McLaurin’s 222 combined catches. — John Keim
Signature stat: Since McLaurin entered the NFL in 2019, Washington has had a league-high eight different starting quarterbacks. Over that span, he has dropped only two of a possible 259 passes (0.8%). That’s the lowest drop percentage in the NFL among wide receivers targeted 125 times.
What they are saying: “I just love the grind, man. And it’s got me to why I’m here. Like the adversities that I went through in college and high school and the NFL kind of being the underdog. The reason why I’m here is because of the work that was put in during those times.” — McLaurin
2022 projection: 77 receptions, 1,073 yards, 6 TDs
WR | Chargers
2021 rank: 65
Entering his 10th NFL season and coming off a 1,138-receiving yard season with six touchdowns, Allen shows no signs of slowing. He continues to provide an example and set the tone for younger teammates. Allen is Herbert’s go-to target, and their connection is bound to grow stronger in a third season (and the second in coordinator Joe Lombardi’s offense). — Lindsey Thiry
Signature stat: Allen has had at least 90 receptions and 900 receiving yards in five straight seasons, one shy of tying the longest streak in NFL history with Antonio Brown (2013-2018) and Torry Holt (2002-2007). He is also the only player in the NFL to have at least 100 receptions in each of the past three seasons.
What they are saying: “Keenan Allen was always one of the standards in the NFL at receiver, but I think he continues to improve as a player. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, it’s the same old Keenan.’ No, it’s a better Keenan. Keenan has continued to improve. I really appreciate the example he sets.” — Chargers coach Brandon Staley
2022 projection: 93 receptions, 1,028 yards, 7 TDs
TE | Raiders
2021 rank: 45
Waller is coming off a down season in which back and knee injuries slowed his production after a Pro Bowl campaign in 2020. But his skills remain, as does the desire for a contract extension. He is only the 17th-highest paid tight end in the NFL, so he is more than motivated; he spent the offseason watching film of how coach Josh McDaniels used tight ends in his offense with the Patriots. The addition of receiver Davante Adams and the emergence of slot man Hunter Renfrow should create more opportunities for Waller, especially in the red zone. — Paul Gutierrez
Signature stat: Over the past three seasons, Waller ranks second among tight ends in receptions (252), receiving yards (3,006) and yards after the catch (1,414) — all behind only Travis Kelce. He is the only TE over the past five seasons to gain 80 yards after a catch on a single play.
What they are saying: “A guy like that motivates me every time he hits the field. You see what he’s accomplished. Just what he’s capable of and all of that, it pushes you. You can’t be on the outside, especially as a receiver as fast as that dude is, it makes you feel like you’ve got to run as hard as you can on every route that you’ve got out there.” — Adams
2022 projection: 69 receptions, 882 yards, 5 TDs
WR | Seahawks
2021 rank: 47
The drop off from Russell Wilson to whomever replaces him may not hurt DK Metcalf as much as you think. In the three games Geno Smith started last season, Metcalf outproduced his season-long averages in catches, yards and touchdowns. And whether he is catching passes from Smith and/or Drew Lock in 2022, Metcalf won’t be bothered by the foot injury he played through last season. — Brady Henderson
Signature stat: Metcalf has 29 career receiving touchdowns, the second-most through a player’s first three seasons in Seahawks history. It’s also tied for the fifth-most by a player since 2019. Metcalf has 10-plus receiving touchdowns in back-to-back seasons, one of four players with an active such streak.
What they are saying: “He can run, he can jump, he can catch, he makes the contested plays … There’s a lot of things he can do. There’s nothing really that he can’t do.” — Wilson
2022 projection: 73 receptions, 1,075 yards, 5 TDs
OT | Chargers
2021 rank: NR
The 13th overall pick in 2021, Slater earned Pro Bowl recognition as a rookie. Now in his second season, he is expected to improve with a year of experience and a greater knowledge and understanding of NFL schemes. Touted for his flexibility and strength, the young tackle also will benefit from picking not only the brains of his veteran offensive line counterparts Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler, but of some of the best pass-rushers in the NFL who line up across from him in practice daily, Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa. — Lindsey Thiry
Signature stat: A Pro Bowler in his first NFL season, Rashawn Slater led rookie offensive tackles last season with a 90.4% pass block win rate.
What they are saying: “Rashawn just always amazes me at his ability to sit down on power. The flexibility that he has in his body to absorb and transition from blocking a speed rush, and that thing goes to power, his ability to sit that down, he’s so strong, but strong in a unique way … I thought he was damn good [last season], but I’m sure that he’s looking for consistency in how he sets in anticipation of kind of a game plan when the ball is snapped.” — Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi
OT | Packers
2021 rank: 33
When Bakhtiari tore the ACL in his left knee on Dec. 31, 2020, no one could have imagined that it would still be an issue more than a year and a half later. It took Bakhtiari more than a year to get back on the field and almost as soon as he did — playing 27 snaps in the 2021 regular-season finale — he had to shut it down. He underwent another surgery this past offseason — his third on his left knee since the initial injury. Bakhtiari was a five-time All-Pro before he got hurt. Now, there’s no guarantee he’ll be back on the field to stay, let alone play at that level. — Rob Demovsky
Signature stat: Over the last five seasons, Bakhtiari’s 94.5% pass rush win rate is the highest among offensive tackles.
What they are saying: “There’s no doubt when you haven’t played as long as he has, there’s going to be a period of time where he’s going to have to develop that callous and kind of get back into that elite level play that he has always been used to. He’s a unique [player], and I know he’ll get up to peak quickly once he gets out there.” — Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst
QB | Cardinals
2021 rank: 21
Forget this past offseason full of Instagram scrubbing, missed OTAs, public negotiations and a contract extension. Murray is one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL. He guided Arizona to its first playoff appearance since 2015, even if it was a blow out by the Rams. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler and former rookie of the year, and one of the most dynamic playmakers at in the NFL. — Josh Weinfuss
Signature stat: Murray joins Prescott as the only passers to top 10,000 passing yards within their first three NFL seasons while also averaging a completion percentage north of 65% over that span. Murray’s completion percentage (66.9%) and yardage (11,480) both slightly edge Prescott’s numbers.
What they are saying: “What I would say is every year he’s gotten dramatically better in every area, whether it’s on the field, off the field, the way he carries himself, preparation, all those things. He’s just learned to be a pro.” — Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury
2022 projection: 4,112 passing yards, 25 TDs, 13 INTs (491 yards/5 TDs rushing)
OLB | Chargers
2021 rank: 40
Coming off a season when he was limited to seven games due to season-ending foot surgery, Mack is anticipated to prove again why he is considered among the best pass-rushers over the past eight seasons. Reunited with Brandon Staley, his position coach for a season in Chicago, Mack knows the scheme and he’ll have the opportunity to get after the quarterback perhaps more than usual, given opponents must also account for Pro Bowl edge Joey Bosa off the opposite side. — Lindsey Thiry
Signature stat: Since entering the league in 2014, Mack has the third-most first pressures by defender (221) behind only Donald (291) and Cameron Jordan (253). He is also tied for the third-most tackles for loss (103) with J.J. Watt behind only Donald (150) and Jordan (114).
What they are saying: “What Khalil does is he doesn’t chase sacks. He rushes the quarterback when the quarterback needs to be rushed, but he also plays the run at the highest level that you could play it on the edge.” — Staley
2022 projection: 10 sacks, 51 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
CB | Ravens
2021 rank: 49
Humphrey is one of the most physical and opportunistic cornerbacks in the league who excels at punching the ball away from receivers. But Humphrey acknowledges he has to reestablish himself among the top cornerbacks after missing the last five games because of a torn right pectoral muscle. — Jamison Hensley
Signature stat: Since the start of 2017, Humphrey has allowed a completion percentage of 53% as the nearest defender. That ranks fifth among defenders with at least 2,000 coverage snaps over this span. Additionally, Humphrey has allowed just 6.3 yards per attempt as the nearest defender, which ranks fourth over the same span and among players with at least 2,000 coverage snaps.
What they are saying: “The thing about Marlon, and what the other guys watch about Marlon, is when he runs a drill, he doesn’t just run a drill. He runs a drill as if it’s the last play in the Super Bowl. … Every single rep. When you do it like that, you can’t help but get better.” — Ravens coach John Harbaugh
2022 projection: 3 interceptions, 17 passes defensed, 81 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
S | Broncos
2021 rank: 59
What more do you want from the guy? Simmons is always in the lineup — he’s played at least 1,000 snaps in each of the last four seasons having missed three snaps over that span. He has led or tied for the team lead in each of the last four seasons. He’s a leader in the locker room and community, is reliable in run defense and a rare player in coverage. He’s a cornerstone of the current defense and, in his seventh season, he has had one of his best training camps. — Jeff Legwold
Signature stat: Simmons is one of four players with five-plus interceptions in each of the last two seasons, and his 17 pass breakups at safety are most in the NFL over that span. His 18 interceptions when lined up as safety lead the NFL since he entered the league in 2016.
What they are saying: “Justin Simmons — he does everything right. He’s a true professional, and he is the same guy every day. If I’m a young player, I’m looking at the guys like him. …Those are guys that I’m looking at because they do it right and do things the right way. They want to win. If I was giving advice to young guy or a new player, it would be that when you walk into this building, find a guy who is doing it right and follow him.” — former Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe
2022 projection: 3 interceptions, 83 tackles, 11 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble
S | Bills
2021 rank: NR
Poyer being voted on the list and fellow safety Micah Hyde not making the cut is not reflective of how well the duo has played together since arriving in Buffalo in 2017 in free agency. Poyer and Hyde are both coming off strong seasons that allowed the Bills to have the No. 1 defense. Poyer was named first-team All-Pro for the first time in his career after a season that included five interceptions and the Bills giving up a league-low 12 passing touchdowns. Poyer’s situation for the future is up the air after requesting a contract extension, but he and Hyde are set for a strong season working with a revamped defensive line. — Alaina Getzenberg
Signature stat: Poyer is one of two players, along with Harrison Smith, to have at least five takeaways (interceptions and fumble recoveries) in four of the last five seasons.
What they are saying: “Just an all-around player. If you think about a safety, you think about a box safety, you think about a free safety, he can do it all. [Offensive players] can run fast, so [when] he’s in a box, he can cover, run defense, run stopping. … And on top of that, he’s gonna communicate. He’s going to communicate his a– off, and he’s gonna get guys lined up.” — Hyde
2022 projection: 2 interceptions, 95 tackles, 8 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
WR | Panthers
2021 rank: 92
Moore has more than 1,100 yards receiving each of the past three seasons. He has done it with six different starting quarterbacks and in an offense that for the most part has been dysfunctional. He’s clearly a favorite target of quarterback Baker Mayfield — who was recently named the starting quarterback. If Mayfield displays consistent play, and running back Christian McCaffrey stays healthy, Moore can’t help but be among the leading receivers in the league. — David Newton
Signature stat: There have been five players to record 1,000 receiving yards in each of the past three seasons — Moore, Stephon Diggs, Mike Evans, Travis Kelce and Tyler Lockett. Moore’s run of three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons is tied for the second-longest in Panthers team history — trailing only Steve Smith Sr.’s four straight from 2005-08.
What they are saying: “I was inspired watching DJ Moore sprinting, running 4.3 down the right sideline to maybe go, probably not, but to maybe go make a block to spring Brandon Zylstra [against Dallas in 2021]. When your best players play that hard, you’re always going to have a chance.” — Panthers coach Matt Rhule
2022 projection: 79 receptions, 1,163 yards, 5 TDs (54 yards rushing)
QB | Raiders
2021 rank: NR
Let’s see, Carr has his college bestie and the best wide receiver in the game in Davante Adams, adding him to a trio of Pro Bowlers in slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, TE Darren Waller and RB Josh Jacobs. Throw in a modern offense under the direction of coach Josh McDaniels and the sky should be the limit for Carr, who is coming off a career-high 4,804 passing yards, right? Right, unless the offensive line fails to protect him. Again. He was sacked 40 times last season, the second-highest total of his career. Everything else, though, is lining up for a breakthrough season for the guy who holds virtually every passing record in franchise history and signed a three-year, $121.5 million extension. — Paul Gutierrez
Signature stat: Last season, Carr was the only QB to finish in the top five in the NFL in completion rate (68%) and passing yards (4,804). Since entering the NFL in 2014, Carr has 30 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or OT which is tied with Stafford for the most in the NFL over that span.
What they are saying: “I do think that Derek’s career is Hall of Fame worthy, and why not? Does he have the MVPs right now? No. Has he won a Super Bowl? Not yet. That’s obviously what we’re chasing. … Honestly, you look at the numbers that he’s had and what he’s had to work with and the adversity that he’s had in Oakland and coming to Vegas and the type of stuff that’s been going on here in the past — and this is not putting any expectations or any added pressure on him because he puts all that type of pressure on himself because of what he expects every time he touches the field.” — Adams
2022 projection: 4,187 passing yards, 27 TDs, 12 INTs (102 yards/1 TD rushing)
RB | Titans
2021 rank: 29
The road back from a Jones fracture has been relatively smooth for Henry, despite it being his first experience with an injury that caused him to miss extensive time. The shortened season allowed Henry’s body to get a break from the normal wear and tear. He appears to have gotten bigger, but has still shown the ability to accelerate away from defenders during training camp. He’ll get plenty of touches this season in the Titans’ run-heavy offense. — Turron Davenport
Signature stat: Henry ran for nearly 300 yards more than any other RB in the NFL before a season-ending foot injury in 2021. He still managed to finish in the top 10 in rushing yards despite playing less than half the season. No one has more rushing yards and rushing touchdowns since 2019.
What they are saying: “We start over. Every year is a new year. He understands that what he accomplished in the past is the past. It’s not what you did last year, it’s what are you going to do going forward. He’s had that in his background from his college days at Alabama.” — Titans running backs coach Tony Dews
2022 projection: 1,464 rushing yards, 11 TDs (218 yards, 1 TD receiving)
DT | Colts
2021 rank: 51
Buckner has 16.5 combined sacks since joining the Colts two seasons ago. Remarkably, he’s done that with minimal help from others to ease the constant double teams he faces. The Colts think this year could be different with the addition of Yannick Ngakoue and the growth of Kwity Paye. — Stephen Holder
Signature stat: The two-time Pro Bowler and 2020 All-Pro is one of seven players with at least 7.0 sacks in each of the last four seasons. Of those seven, he is one of three with at least 30 solo tackles in each of those seasons (Cameron Jordan, T.J. Watt).
What they are saying: “I feel like this is going to be one of Buck’s best seasons. That’s just coming from what I’ve seen, from seeing his hard work. He has a lot of motivation behind him, and I think he’s got a really big season in store. That’s why he’s accomplished what he’s accomplished: He works hard and he’s a smart player. Obviously he has God-given ability, but he knows how to use it and how to improve.” — Colts defensive lineman Dayo Odeyingbo
2022 projection: 6 sacks, 69 tackles, 1 forced fumble
CB | Browns
2021 rank: 56
After battling injuries his first three seasons, Ward stayed healthy last year while emerging as one of the league’s elite cover corners. With continued health, he will only get tougher to throw against. The Browns signed the Pro Bowler to a five-year, $100.5 million contract extension in April. — Jake Trotter
Signature stat: Ward has forced a tight window (less than a yard of separation) on 29.5% of his targets since entering the NFL in 2018, the fourth-best among 28 cornerbacks with 1,500-plus coverage snaps in that span.
What they are saying: “He can do it all. He can get out there and pressure. He can play off. He can tackle when he needs to. He can pick the ball off. He’s almost perfect out of his breaks. I think honestly he’s the best in the business.” — Browns cornerback Greg Newsome II
2022 projection: 2 interceptions, 12 passes defensed, 57 tackles,
DE | Commanders
2021 rank: 31
Young will miss at least four games to start the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee last November and being placed on the PUP list last week. Regardless, the second pick in the 2020 draft remains a pivotal part of the defense. He was not as effective rushing the passer last season, with 1.5 sacks in nine games. But in his last seven games as a rookie, he recorded four sacks, forced three fumbles and returned another fumble for a touchdown — and made his presence felt. — John Keim
Signature stat: Among qualified players that played in 2020 & 2021, Young is one of four players to have a pass rush win rate over 20% (21%) and a rush stop win rate over 30% (30.2%) with Donald, Chris Jones and J.J. Watt
What they are saying: “He brings some energy. He’s an energetic guy. He plays fast, he plays hard, and that helps his teammates.” — Washington coach Ron Rivera
2022 projection: 6 sacks, 41 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
CB | Broncos
2021 rank: NR
There are plenty of personnel executives who would say this ranking, while Surtain’s first appearance on the list, is too low. He has length, speed, flexibility in his hips and rare footwork in coverage. Even in 2021, his rookie season, veteran quarterbacks didn’t challenge him often because with all of his physical skills, his best attribute may be his composure in coverage. He lets the Broncos do more things in coverage because defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero knows if needs to move help elsewhere, Surtain can match up with the league’s best. — Jeff Legwold
Signature stat: Surtain’s four interceptions tied the Broncos rookie record since the 1970 merger. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Surtain allowed a 59.9 passer rating as the nearest defender which was the fifth-lowest mark among DBs with 50 targets in 2021.
What they are saying: “For me, I’m always excited to come in and see what step he’ll take next. He never disappoints with that. It’s a privilege to have a guy like that out at corner because as a safety, you really don’t have to worry about him much.” — Broncos safety Kareem Jackson
2022 projection: 3 interceptions, 16 passes defensed, 72 tackles, 1 forced fumble
S | Cardinals
2021 rank: 72
He’s just 26, but Baker is one of the top safeties in the NFL — despite being largely overlooked playing in Arizona. He has made a name for himself by throwing his body around and being able to play from the line of scrimmage to center field and sideline-to-sideline. — Josh Weinfuss
Signature stat: Since entering the NFL in 2017, Baker has 55 QB pressures, second most among defensive backs in that time, trailing only Jamal Adams.
What they are saying: “His effort, intensity every single day. I mean, he’s on edge. You wouldn’t know if it’s the Super Bowl or first day of training camp. The way he approaches the practice, the look in his eye, the way he competes. And the thing I’ve seen grow the most is the leadership aspect. He’s breaking the team down now. The communication on the back end going into Year 4 in our system, he knows it like a coach knows that.” — Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury
2022 projection: 2 interceptions, 100 tackles, 7 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble
DE | Raiders
2021 rank: NR
Crosby, the reigning Pro Bowl defensive MVP, entered rarefied air with his four-year, $99 million extension, and expectations are just as high. For the third straight year, he’ll have a different bookend when it comes to rushing the passer, going from Clelin Ferrell to Yannick Ngakoue to Chandler Jones, who should command more attention than any of Crosby’s former teammates. Crosby may not rack up sack totals — the 10 he had as a rookie in 2019 are a career high — but he excels in wrecking games with pressures and hits. And with Jones complementing him, and a stronger push up the middle and stickier pass coverage in the secondary, Crosby, who has been next to unblockable in camp, should thrive. — Paul Gutierrez
Signature stat: Crosby was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season after leading the NFL with 68 QB pressures.
What they are saying: “Obviously, the Raiders were on [my] list, but there were a lot of things that credited to my decision of coming to Las Vegas: Maxx Crosby. I mean, everyone’s speaking about Maxx Crosby. I’m speaking about Maxx Crosby. I’m a huge fan of him and just to have the opportunity to rush an opposite side of him is huge for me. … I thank Maxx for the compliments that he gives me, and I think I can go hand in hand with him. There’s a lot of things that he does that I can’t do, and there’s a lot of things that he does at his age that I didn’t know.” — Jones
2022 projection: 11 sacks, 56 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
C | Chiefs
2021 rank: NR
Experience should only help Humphrey, who led all offensive lineman last season as a rookie in pass block win rate. Humphrey is a solid technician who has enough in his toolbox to handle whatever opponents might throw at him in Year 2. — Adam Teicher
Signature stat: He led the NFL in 2021 in pass block win rate as a center (97.7%) and played 702 pass blocking snaps (tied for fifth in the NFL), while allowing four sacks. Last season, Humphrey was the first player with 400-plus pass block wins and 10 or fewer pass block losses since at least 2017.
What they are saying: “It doesn’t matter what the situation is. You know you’re going to get him in the front holding his ground.” — Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce
OT | Dolphins
2021 rank: 89
Miami desperately needed to upgrade its offensive line this offseason and did so by signing ESPN’s top-ranked free agent, regardless of position. Armstead provides stability to the NFL’s worst pass-blocking unit from a season ago and leadership to a room that features just two other players over the age of 25. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Signature stat: In 2021, when Armstead was on the field, Saints quarterbacks were sacked 13 times and had a QBR of 52.8. With Armstead off the field, they were sacked 24 times and had a QBR of 39.4.
What they are saying: “Terron has helped a lot of our guys out, especially us young guys. He’s out there at practice working with some guys. He’s in the meeting room telling us what we can do, what he’s seen. He’s been doing this for a while, so what he says, we definitely take heed and we listen to it because he’s done it. He’s been an All-Pro, he’s been to Pro Bowls, he’s been everything that we want to be in life, pretty much. Everything Terron says, we take it in and we listen.” — Dolphins offensive lineman Robert Hunt
TE | Falcons
2021 rank: NR
In his second season, Pitts is already among the top tight ends in the NFL. His 2021 season was one of the best for a rookie tight end, and he should now be the focal point of a Falcons offense transitioning from Matt Ryan to Marcus Mariota. Between his improved route running and better understanding of what’s expected of him, he’s on his way to stardom. — Michael Rothstein
Signature stat: Last season, Pitts became the second rookie tight end in NFL history to record 1,000 receiving yards (Mike Ditka, 1961). Additionally, his 68 receptions in 2021 rank third among rookie tight ends all time.
What they are saying: “He really makes it easy on us. For a guy his size, his catch radius, his length, his ability to get in and out of cuts, makes it easy on us. His body language as a receiver makes it simple. So we know when he’s coming in and out of breaks, we know when he’s going to break down.” — Mariota
2022 projection: 75 receptions, 960 yards, 4 TDs
RB | Panthers
2021 rank: 39
McCaffrey would be near the top of this list if he hadn’t missed 23 of the past 33 games with injuries. You can’t forget that, but you also can’t forget that in 2019, when McCaffrey played a full season, he became the third player in NFL history with 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same year. He sought out Marshall Faulk for advice during the offseason on how to stay healthy later in his career. That and a new practice plan to keep him fresh in camp and during the season, along with an overhauled offensive line, could mean a return to top-back form. — David Newton
Signature stat: McCaffrey has averaged the second-most fantasy PPG (22.5) in PPR leagues, trailing only Mahomes (23.0 PPG). McCaffrey’s 22 career games with at least 50 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards ranks fourth in NFL history, trailing only Marshall Faulk (41), LaDainian Tomlinson (23) and Tiki Barber (23).
What they are saying: “When Christian’s on the field, you’ve got to account for him. Whether he’s out wide, inside, in the backfield, it just opens up all the one-on-ones out there on the field. Having him — shoot — just opens up everything.” — Panthers receiver DJ Moore
2022 projection: 920 rushing yards, 8 TDs (679 yards/2 TDs receiving)
DE | Bengals
2021 rank: NR
Turns out the 2020 season was no fluke for Hendrickson. After compiling 67.5% of his career sacks during his final year with the New Orleans Saints, Hendrickson followed up with his best season to date. He racked up a career-high 14 sacks and more than played up to the $60 million contract he signed in the ’21 offseason. The former Florida Atlantic player ranked 11th in pass rush win rate (21.9%) and forced three fumbles. He seems primed for another big season for a sturdy Bengals defense. — Ben Baby
Signature stat: Hendrickson and T.J. Watt are the only NFL players with 13.0 sacks or more in each of the past two seasons. The 2021 Pro Bowler had a career-high 14.0 sacks last season — ranking fifth in the NFL — and the most in Bengals history (since sacks became an official stat in 1982).
What they are saying: “His swipe and get-off is just unbelievable. You see it on film over and over. Tackles know it’s coming and they still can’t stop it. And then he switches it up with power. So there’s really no win scenario for the tackles.” — Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard
2022 projection: 11 sacks, 39 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
OLB | Bills
2021 rank: NR
Miller reminded everyone what he is capable of during the Rams’ postseason run. His pass rush win rate of 41.5% was the highest by a player in a single postseason (with a minimum of 30 pass rush plays with a win or loss) since ESPN started tracking that metric in 2017. On what should be a top defense in the league with plenty of young players, Miller will have a chance to show his value in the later part of his career and his abilities as one of the best pass-rushers in NFL history. — Alaina Getzenberg
Signature stat: Miller’s 115.5 sacks in his career are the seventh most by a player in their first 10 seasons since sacks became official in 1982. He is also one of four Super Bowl MVPs to win a title with multiple franchises and can become the first to win with three.
What they are saying: “Von is just one of those guys that just shuts down your natural abilities, and he’s the one with the natural abilities. … I’m blessed to be able to be a tackle playing against him because I can’t imagine if Von was like here for six years. Imagine how good all of us would be. Adding him, it’s definitely physical already. He has one speed, and that speed is greatness.” — Bills left tackle Dion Dawkins
2022 projection: 10 sacks, 53 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
WR | Dolphins
2021 rank: NR
Waddle was the Dolphins’ de facto No. 1 receiver from the moment he stepped on the field in Week 1, and he delivered with an NFL rookie record 104 catches in 2021. His usage drew some criticism as he averaged only 9.8 yards per catch, but the speedster should see more open looks opposite Tyreek Hill this season and has turned in one of the Dolphins’ best training camp performances. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Signature stat: Waddle set the NFL rookie record for receptions in 2021 with 104. He had 31 catches on third down, tied for third in the NFL.
What they are saying: “He’s faster than I thought. Like when I first got here, I was like, OK he’s a 4.3 [second 40-yard dash guy] because typically when you see 4.3 guys, they don’t run as fast on a football field, but ‘J. Dub’ — like he actually runs a 4.3 on the football field. There’s a difference.” — Hill
2022 projection: 86 receptions, 910 yards, 6 TDs (48 yards rushing)
OT | Texans
2021 rank: 63
After posting Pro Bowl seasons in 2019 and 2020, Tunsil played in five games in 2021 because of a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb, and posted a PFF grade of 60 with a pass blocking grade of 75, which was the second lowest of his career. But Tunsil now looks healthy in camp and is the anchor for an offensive line that hasn’t allowed much pressure on QB Davis Mills in practice. As long as he stays healthy, he’ll have a major bounceback season. — DJ Bien-Aime
Signature stat: After beginning his career with the Dolphins, Tunsil joined the Texans in 2019, making the Pro Bowl in each of his first two seasons with the team. Tunsil’s pass block win rate in 2019 and 2020 of 90.6% ranked 14th among tackles.
What they are saying: “It’s awesome having LT back. I think when he’s playing at his best, he’s a top-three tackle in the league, so it’s definitely exciting dropping back knowing your backside is covered.” — Mills
DE | Saints
2021 rank: 94
Jordan was out for Week 1 of 2021 (the first missed game of his career) because of COVID-19 protocols and then went on a tear to end the season — tallying 8.5 sacks in the final four games to finish with 12.5. Jordan’s numbers dipped in 2020 after three straight years as an All-Pro with double digit sacks, but his finish to last season suggests he has more left in the tank at age 33. — Katherine Terrell
Signature stat: Jordan has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each of the past five seasons and has been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. His 107 sacks and 43 batted passes since entering the NFL in 2011 both rank third in the league over that span.
What they are saying: “He’s technically sound, you can tell watching him. … He’s basically a step ahead of everyone he’s going against. He knows what he’s going to do if a tackle does this or that. Just his technique and everything he does. You can tell he’s been around a while and he’s really good at it.” — Saints left tackle Trevor Penning
2022 projection: 9 sacks, 54 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
S | Buccaneers
2021 rank: NR
Get ready for Winfield to take on a bigger, more versatile role in 2022. With the emergence of Mike Edwards and the additions of Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal, Winfield is going to be lining up all over the field, whether it’s as a single high free safety or blitzing as a nickelback. He has been everywhere in camp. A trip to the Pro Bowl in his second season has him playing with even more confidence in Year 3. Early on, he was playing off pure physical skills. Now he’s got an understanding of the scheme and where his help is, putting him in position to make more plays on the ball. — Jenna Laine
Signature stat: Winfield is one of four defensive backs to force multiple fumbles in each of the past two seasons. His five sacks are tied for third among DBs since he entered the league in 2020.
What they are saying: “Antoine just gets better and better. But that’s the type of kid he is. Because of his father and his background, he’s just a blue-collar guy. The one thing with Winfield where I challenged him after this [past] year was: ‘Run support you’re beautiful. You’re beautiful in a lot of areas. Let’s start getting six and seven interceptions a year. Let’s make that the next step where you’re gonna get six or seven interceptions’ because the real good players love to get challenged. … ‘We know you can blitz. We know you can tackle. We know you can pass defend. Let’s get the football a little more.'” — Bucs safeties coach Nick Rapone
2022 projection: 2 interceptions, 104 tackles, 7 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
CB | Cowboys
2021 rank: NR
Last season, Diggs was the first Cowboys cornerback to receive All-Pro honors since Deion Sanders in 1999. Eleven picks will do that, but he gave up a lot, too. For him to move higher in these ratings, that has to change. It’s easier to teach a player technique and understanding game situations than how to take the ball away, so experience and knowledge will help Diggs grow. — Todd Archer
Signature stat: Diggs had 11 interceptions in 2021, the most by any player in a season over the past 40 years. It also tied Everson Walls (1981) for the most in a single season in Cowboys franchise history.
What they are saying: “You go into the year, you set your goals high and you just knock your goals down. Can he have a year like last year? Honestly, I believe he can. Sky’s the limit.” — Cowboys secondary coach Al Harris
2022 projection: 4 interceptions, 24 passes defensed, 59 tackles
RB | Packers
2021 rank: 84
This is another important season for Jones. He’s entering the second year of the four-year, $48 million contract he signed in 2021, but the way the deal is structured makes it almost impossible for him to return without another extension or restructure given that his salary-cap number for 2023 is more than $20 million. The deal always looked more like a two-year, $20 million deal because of the $7 million roster bonus due in 2023. With AJ Dillon on the rise, the Packers will have to find ways to use both of them in different ways. One way for Jones could be an increased role in the passing game. — Rob Demovsky
Signature stat: Over the past three seasons, Jones has scored 40 touchdowns, ranking second in the NFL after Henry’s 45. Jones also has shown off his value as a pass-catcher; his 1,220 receiving yards since 2019 are the fourth most among running backs.
What they are saying: “He’s fantastic [as a receiver] out of the backfield. He’s done a lot of stuff for us in that respect. Coming out of the backfield, catching balls, running option routes. Threw a hole shot to him against Atlanta a couple years ago, he made an incredible catch against Washington backed up, to kind of put that game away. I know the Chiefs game, at the Chiefs in what, ’19? He took a screen and went 75, ran a sluggo outside and basically scored but barely stepped out of bounds. He’s very versatile.” — Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers
2022 projection: 818 rushing yards, 5 TDs (503 yards/3 TDs receiving)
WR | Chargers
2021 rank: NR
Williams is a quarterback’s dream: Throw the ball up, and let him go get it. At 6-foot-4, Williams has an unmatched ability to go against any defensive back and win a 50/50 ball, and it showed as he accumulated 1,146 receiving yards last season. Another season with quarterback Justin Herbert will continue to benefit the sixth-year receiver. — Lindsey Thiry
Signature stat: Since the start of 2017, Williams has averaged 16.1 yards per reception, which is the third-highest mark in the NFL after Kenny Golladay (16.3) and A.J. Brown (16.2) among players with at least 150 catches. Williams has also made his fair share of contested catches: According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Williams’ 62 catches on tight-window passes (less than 1 yard of separation) are the third most in the league in that span (trailing only DeVante Parker and Julio Jones).
What they are saying: “He doesn’t have to be open to be open, and our quarterback can throw it in the right location for him to high point it and back shoulder it. He’s fast enough. He can get behind you at times. Just keep playing fast and keeping him fresh is key.” — Chargers offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi
2022 projection: 63 receptions, 955 yards, 9 TDs
RB | Vikings
2021 rank: 52
Cook turned 27 during training camp, putting him on the other side of the peak for running back performance historically, but that doesn’t mean talent is lost. First-year head coach Kevin O’Connell could extend his premium production arc by incorporating him more into the passing game and also adding a new focus to regular rest to minimize injury. — Kevin Seifert
Signature stat: Cook is one of three running backs (excluding fullbacks) to earn a Pro Bowl selection in each of the past three seasons (Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb are the others). His 3,851 rushing yards since 2019 are the second-most in the league after Henry.
What they are saying: “Within the walls of our building and on the field, he’s one of our best examples of how to be a football player, how to lead from the front. There will be a play [in practice] where maybe the ball goes to the complete opposite side of the field, and you’ll see No. 4 sprinting across the field without his coach having to say anything. Whether he touches the football, it does not matter.” — O’Connell
2022 projection: 1,142 rushing yards, 10 TDs (359 yards/1 TD receiving)
DT | Steelers
2021 rank: NR
A few months before training camp, Heyward turned heads when he said he should be considered one of the league’s premiere defensive tackles along with Aaron Donald. But his stats from 2021 — 10 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble — back up that assertion. Heyward, an unquestioned team leader, is getting better with age, and the Steelers need him to keep playing at a high level to revamp the run defense. — Brooke Pryor
Signature stat: Heyward earned at least three first-team All-Pro selections over the past five seasons. He is one of six defensive players in the NFL to have achieved that. The only Steelers players this century with more sacks than Cameron Heyward? James Harrison and T.J. Watt.
What they are saying: “He’s just a dominating force. There’s not too many guys in the league that demand as much attention in the interior as him. It’s him and Aaron [Donald]. … We’ll be playing around, just like joking and wrestling and stuff like that, and it’s like, it’s not even fair. I’ll be trying, but I give him my best shot. And he just grabs me and it’s over. His strength is unbelievable.” — Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick
2022 projection: 5 sacks, 76 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
S | Titans
2021 rank: 99
Byard remains one of the most complete safeties in football. He’s able to match up against slot receivers or tight ends, be a ballhawking single high safety and make plays in the box against the run. Byard is always around the football, as shown by his five interceptions last season. An increased focus on film study last season helped Byard consistently diagnose plays and jump routes to make picks. — Turron Davenport
Signature stat: Over the past five seasons, Byard leads safeties in interceptions with 23. He is also fourth among all defensive players with at least 1,500 coverage snaps in targeted EPA at minus-52.9 since 2017.
What they are saying: “You put the film on and start studying, and you say, ‘OK this guy does everything really well.’ Over the last two or three years, he’s continued to get better. To me, he’s the standard for the position. He’s the best safety in football. ” — former Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber
2022 projection: 3 interceptions, 89 tackles, 11 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
WR | Bengals
2021 rank: NR
A big jump in physical development led to a Year 2 leap for the 2020 second-round draft pick. Higgins made the most of his height and his 6-foot-4 frame, especially in tight windows. From Week 11 until the end of the regular season, Higgins led all receivers in total EPA on targets of 1 yard of separation or less, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. His ability to play the ball in the air and create space against defenders early in routes should lead to another big season. — Ben Baby
Signature stat: Higgins led all receivers with 100 yards and two touchdowns in Super Bowl LVI, becoming just the third player since 1997 to have 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a Super Bowl (Larry Fitzgerald in 2008, Rob Gronkowski in 2017).
What they are saying: “He’s gotten faster, more explosive. He already has the length, so now, he uses that to his advantage. He can go up and make the 50-50 catch, which he didn’t do his rookie year and he did last year.” — Bengals assistant Troy Walters
2022 projection: 80 receptions, 1,080 yards, 8 TDs
QB | Colts
2021 rank: 58
The Colts believe they have made a considerable upgrade at quarterback, moving from Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan. His addition is the biggest reason the Colts think they have a team equipped to win the AFC South and be a factor in the postseason. Ryan will benefit from a significant upgrade in his offensive line this season, a unit that features All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson and Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly. Atlanta’s failure to protect Ryan was a constant in recent seasons. — Stephen Holder
Signature stat: Since the start of his MVP-winning 2016 season, Ryan leads the NFL with 26,978 passing yards. His 38 games with 300-plus passing yards are also the most over that span.
What they are saying: “The team just gravitates. You feel it from the team. You sense it from the team. You sense a confidence. That’s what we feel right now with Matt as our quarterback. He’s just come in here [and impacted us] in every way — physically, the way he’s throwing the ball, the way he carries himself, and what he has meant to this team, and what he’s said to this team.” — Colts coach Frank Reich
2022 projection: 3,878 passing yards, 24 TDs, 12 INTs (113 yards/2 TDs rushing)
G | Chiefs
2021 rank: 97
The Chiefs are looking for Thuney to have an even better season than in 2021, his first in K.C. He was 15th among offensive linemen in pass block win rate at 95.2%. There’s no reason Thuney shouldn’t deliver as he’s no longer figuring out how to best work with a new set of offensive line teammates. — Adam Teicher
Signature stat: Thuney has the second-most snaps of any offensive lineman over the last five seasons, trailing only Ryan Jensen.
What they are saying: “He’s one of those guys that people don’t talk about. He just does his job every week.” — Chiefs general manager Brett Veach
RB | Steelers
2021 rank: NR
Harris trained all offseason to carry the offensive load for the Steelers, putting on a couple of pounds of muscle to set the table for a big year. After leading all running backs in touches last season, it’s a safe bet that he’ll continue to be a workhorse in his second year. Harris had a quiet 1,000-yard season in 2021, but a revamped offensive line and a quarterback running Matt Canada’s offense should open the door for Harris to be even more productive this season. — Brooke Pryor
Signature stat: Harris accounted for 31% of his team’s scrimmage yards last season, second-most behind only Jonathan Taylor. He also set the franchise record for most rush yards (1,200) by a rookie and led the NFL with 381 touches.
What they are saying: “He’s got the stomach — people say he’s built for it all time — but he’s really built for the load of being a leader. It’s natural to him.” — Steelers running backs coach Eddie Faulkner
2022 projection: 1,133 rushing yards, 7 TDs (391 yards/2 TDs receiving)
CB | Bills
2021 rank: 23
It’s unclear what to expect from White in 2022 as the cornerback continues to work back from a torn ACL in his left knee suffered on Thanksgiving Day last season. White’s abilities as a defensive back and the talented defense the Bills have around him hold promise for a potentially strong season despite the injury. — Alaina Getzenberg
Signature stat: The Bills allowed six touchdowns with 13 interceptions when Tre’Davious White was on the field last season. Opposing quarterbacks averaged 5.63 yards per attempt with White on the field, a mark that would have led NFL defenses over the entire 2021 season. Since entering the NFL in 2017, White has the second-lowest completion rate (53.4%) allowed as the nearest defender (minimum 350 targets), trailing only Marlon Humphrey.
What they are saying: “There’s so many pluses to his game. The experience now at this stage of his career, his competitive fire, his ability to be able to match up on the top receivers in our league. That’s rare to have a guy like that. And the confidence that he plays with, the takeaways that he gets for us, the big plays, the punchouts, the interceptions. And then the intangible, his leadership.” — Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier
2022 projection: 2 interceptions, 10 passes defensed, 68 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
QB | Vikings
2021 rank: NR
The arrival of coach Kevin O’Connell represents Cousins’ best chance yet to take that final step from a good to great quarterback. O’Connell’s relatively easy-going personality is a good match for Cousins, who was notably looser during training camp this summer. — Kevin Seifert
Signature stat: Cousins threw 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions (for a 4.71 ratio) in 2021 that was second in the NFL behind only Aaron Rodgers.
What they are saying: “I was with Kirk in Washington, so I had some familiarity with Kirk. But really what I’ve been pleased with is that Kirk was a different player in Washington early in his career, when he didn’t have as many starts under his belt, and kind of seeing his mental progression over the years, with all the experiences he’s had, with different systems, different concepts, I’ve been really impressed with his ownership of our offense, bringing in something new.” — Vikings offensive coordinator Wes Phillips
2022 projection: 4,110 passing yards, 29 TDs, 10 INTs (97 yards/1 TD rushing)
OLB | Bears
2021 rank: NR
Quinn is the only returning starter on the Bears’ defensive line whose pass rush win rate (26%) was the second highest of any edge defender in 2021. Chicago is relying on the 12-year NFL veteran not only to replicate his franchise-best production, but be the guiding force on a defense filled with new faces. — Courtney Cronin
Signature stat: Last season, Quinn finished with 18.5 sacks for the most by any Bears player in a single season since 1982, when sacks became official. Quinn finished the 2021 season with the second-highest pass rush win rate among edge rushers, defeating his blocks within 2.5 seconds 26% of the time, trailing only Myles Garrett.
What they are saying: “I don’t know if everybody knows, but Quinn used to wrestle. Like really wrestle. When I see him bend and I see the way he gets through stuff, knowing that he has a wrestling background, it makes a lot of sense. It’s just really [wild] to see how he puts the two and two together to make it his own style of rushing, because he doesn’t rush like anybody else in the league. It’s just, you know what I’m saying, Quinn. He does his thing and it’s really special.” — Bears defensive tackle Justin Jones
2022 projection: 10 sacks, 47 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
DE | Cowboys
2021 rank: NR
Lawrence hasn’t topped more than 6.5 sacks in a season the past three years and missed 10 games a year ago with a broken foot, but his game is about more than sacks. He is relentless against the run and can generate pressure on quarterbacks by himself. With more attention expected on Micah Parsons, Lawrence could see more one-on-one opportunities to help him get his sack totals back to double digits. — Todd Archer
Signature stat: Even though Lawrence played only seven games last season, he has been one of the most effective pass-rushers for some time now. According to ESPN Metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats, Lawrence has defeated his block within 2.5 seconds 26% of the time when lined up as an edge defender since the start of 2017. That’s the third-highest mark in the league, after Robert Quinn (28%) and Myles Garrett (27%).
What they are saying: “When his eyes are in the right places, he makes the right plays. And usually those plays are like exciting plays. When he’s all together with his self, he’s a pretty talented player.” — Cowboys defensive end Dorance Armstrong
2022 projection: 8 sacks, 57 tackles, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
DT | Titans
2021 rank: NR
Simmons is looking to take his game to the next level by being more disruptive and causing more turnovers. He said he wanted to develop a leaner physique and focus on speeding up his footwork. That didn’t come at the expense of his trademark bull rush, which he still plans to be his go-to move. Simmons’ three-sack performance against the Bengals in the Titans’ playoff loss last season is an indication of his ability to dominante. — Turron Davenport
Signature stat: Simmons recorded 8.5 sacks last year (5.0 sacks in his first two seasons combined). He was one of six players with 8.0 sacks and 40 solo tackles last year, along with teammate Harold Landry III.
What they are saying: “He’s improving, which is what you expect a fourth-year player to do. He’s played in playoff games and has been a meaningful player for us for a while. He’s right where we expect him to be. He’s also done a good job with leadership. Not only is he talking to the defense, he’s giving the offense pointers, too. The good players that I’ve been around do that. That’s something you don’t coach them to do. They just do it naturally.” — Titans defensive line coach Terrell Williams
2022 projection: 6 sacks, 62 tackles, 2 passes defensed
S | Bengals
2021 rank: 83
Outside of a slump at the beginning of 2021, Bates has been one of Cincinnati’s consistently best players the past four seasons. His improved tackling over the years combined with his playmaking abilities made him one of the NFL’s top free safeties. Those skills were evident during last year’s postseason run, when he forced a key turnover in the AFC Championship Game and had an interception in Super Bowl LVI. — Ben Baby
Signature stat: Over the past two seasons, Bates has the fourth-ranked targeted EPA among safeties with at least 500 coverage snaps (minus-15.4). He ranked first among safeties in targeted EPA in 2020 (minus-23.9).
What they are saying: “He’s super well-rounded. He’s a great leader, great teammate. When he’s out there, you feel him, which is about the biggest compliment you can get.” — Bengals assistant Robert Livingston
2022 projection: 2 interceptions, 95 tackles, 8 passes defensed, 1 forced fumble
DE | Panthers
2021 rank: 80
Burns may be the best of the next class of pass-rushers. His 25.5 sacks since 2019 are the most of any edge rusher selected in the 2019 draft. His ability to play down in a 4-3 scheme and up in a 3-4 gives defensive coordinator Phil Snow the flexibility to switch schemes without switching players. An NFC scout told ESPN recently that Burns is a “rare” player who can be deployed in any scheme. — David Newton
Signature stat: Burns had at least 50 tackles and 9.0 sacks in each of the past two years, earning his first Pro Bowl selection in 2021. He has led Carolina’s defensive linemen in tackles each of the past two seasons (58 in 2020, 50 in 2021), and is the only Panthers defensive lineman to reach 50 since 2016.
What they are saying: “There’s a lot of things I can work on as far as fine-tuning my hands and really developing my [football] IQ and looking at things from different perspectives of rushing and of the position. I’m taking my game to another level.” — Burns
2022 projection: 9 sacks, 56 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery
DT | Buccaneers
2021 rank: 66
The Bucs extended Vea this offseason with a four-year deal worth $73 million and injected new life in their interior defensive line in signing free agent Akiem Hicks and selecting defensive tackle Logan Hall in the second round of this year’s NFL draft. Those additions should help Vea be even more disruptive and bolster his sack count, which is a goal this year. Bucs run game coordinator/assistant head coach Harold Goodwin said of facing the 347-pound Vea and company each day in practice is like “trying to stop a motorhome in motion.” — Jenna Laine
Signature stat: Playing in the trenches, Vea finds himself in the action early and often on plays. His time to tackle of 4.13 seconds in 2021 ranked second among 21 players with at least 300 snaps at nose tackle.
What they are saying: “I give him a hard time because I’m going into my 20th season coaching in this league — a lot of them spent up front — and he’s probably the biggest guy that plays third down in the history of the NFL.” — Bucs run game coordinator/defensive line coach Kacy Rodgers
2022 projection: 4 sacks, 36 tackles, 2 passes defensed
WR | Cardinals
2021 rank: 17
When Hopkins is on the field, he’s one of the toughest receivers in the NFL to defend. His hands, catch radius, ability to make plays along the boundary and subtle quickness put him in elite company. However, it’s how defenses have to prepare for Hopkins that’s one of his strongest weapons. Just look at the end of last season when he wasn’t on the field. Arizona went 3-5 in the eight games he missed last year because of injury, including 1-4 in the last five. He’ll miss the first six this season because of a suspension. — Josh Weinfuss
Signature stat: Since his debut in 2013, Hopkins leads the NFL in targets (1,257) and receptions (789).
What they are saying: “He lifts the whole level of play, as we saw last year when he’s out there, and his competitive spirit.” — Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury
2022 projection: 57 receptions, 665 yards, 5 TDs
ILB | Bears
2021 rank: NR
The off-ball linebacker plays a critical role in coach Matt Eberflus’ defense, one the Bears’ hope will be occupied by Smith. Chicago’s defensive EPA went from 49.8 with Smith on the field to minus-16.9 when he was off it, and his presence helped limit teams to converting on 35% of third downs in 2021. That number jumped to 44% with him not in the game. — Courtney Cronin
Signature stat: Smith’s 523 tackles are the third most since entering the league in 2018, and his 347 solo tackles are the most over the same span. Last season, his 163 tackles were the fifth most in the NFL.
What they are saying: “He’s the heart and soul of the defense. His presence is always missed when he’s not there.” — Bears safety Eddie Jackson,
2022 projection: 164 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble
DT | Falcons
2021 rank: 55
Jarrett decided he wanted to remain with his hometown team for the long haul in the offseason, signing a three-year contract extension. He has been a team stalwart and is a commanding presence on the front of the Falcons’ line, even as the team transitioned defenses last season under coordinator Dean Pees. Jarrett had 59 tackles, 12 quarterback hits and one sack last season but consistently faced double- and triple-teams from opposing offensive lines — in part because he was by far the most impactful front-seven defender Atlanta had. — Michael Rothstein
Signature stat: Over the past five seasons, Jarrett ranks in the top five among defensive tackles in the NFL in quarterback hits (78), tackles for loss (46) and forced fumbles (5).
What they are saying: “He’s a dynamic guy with polished moves. So your hand and body position has got to be right every time, because he’ll make you wrong. And he’s just strong. He’s got good technique, quick, strong — kind of checks all the boxes. Keeps you on your toes. If you’re leaning forward, he’ll feel that and pull you through.” — Falcons center Drew Dalman
2022 projection: 5 sacks, 60 tackles
ILB | Packers
2021 rank: NR
The Packers got Campbell on a cheap contract in 2021, signing him in June for $2 million. He quickly became one of the leaders on the Packers’ defense and gave them something they’ve rarely had in the middle: a speedy linebacker who can get to the ball in a hurry and also cover. He rarely came off the field (playing 91.6% of the defensive snaps) and ranked seventh in the NFL with 145 yards. The Packers had to pay up to keep him, and they did with a five-year, $50 million contract. — Rob Demovsky
Signature stat: Campbell finished 2021 with 145 tackles, the seventh most in the NFL. In addition, Campbell had 20 “hustle stops” last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats — which are defined as defensive stops in which a player covers at least 20 yards during a play from snap to tackle. That was tied with Roquan Smith for the second most in the NFL, trailing only Kyzir White (21).
What they are saying: “He brings so much to our team, just more so than what you see on the field, the player. He’s super consistent in everything he does and just a great team guy. He’s not the most outspoken guy — that’s one thing that we’ve talked about is how can we put him in positions to be more vocal — but I want him to always stay true to himself. I think there’s more room for him to take more of a leadership role on our team because I think he is so well respected.” — Packers coach Matt LaFleur
2022 projection: 2 sacks, 147 tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
G | Packers
2021 rank: 82
The best part about Jenkins is the Packers can play him anywhere on the offensive line — at any of the five positions — and feel confident he will do it at a Pro Bowl level. He’s coming off a torn ACL in his left knee from last November, but when he’s back, the Packers will have options for him. Some of it depends on whether David Bakhtiari is back, too. If Jenkins beats him back, then Jenkins could play left tackle. If Bakhtiari is already back, then Jenkins could play right tackle or guard. — Rob Demovsky
Signature stat: Jenkins has played 250-plus snaps over the past three years at all three primary offensive line positions (center, guard and tackle). He is not just versatile, he has been effective as well. His 95% pass block win rate over the past three years means he has sustained 95% of his pass blocks for at least 2.5 seconds — a mark that ranks 12th in the league out of 162 players with 750-plus pass blocks since 2019.
What they are saying: “We drafted him to play guard, and the next thing you know, he’s playing center. The next thing you know, he’s playing right tackle, the next thing you know, he’s playing left tackle.” — Packers offensive line coach Luke Butkus
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