Arthur Smith, the Falcons head coach and offensive play-caller, and Dean Pees, defensive coordinator extraordinaire, return for their second look at triad duties in 2022. Offensive coordinator Dave Ragone also returns for his second season at the position after previously serving as Chicago’s passing game coordinator.
The Falcons started their draft by selecting USC wide receiver Drake London with the eighth overall pick, who should immediately fill the WR1 role for a wide receiver room largely devoid of top-end talent. Atlanta continued by selecting defensive edge Arnold Ebiketie in the second round (38th overall), linebacker Troy Andersen in the second (58th overall), quarterback Desmond Ridder in the third (74th overall), outside linebacker DeAngelo Malone in the third (82nd overall), running back Tyler Allgeier in the fifth (151st overall), guard Justin Shaffer in the sixth (190th overall), and tight end John FitzPatrick in the sixth (213th overall). Second-rounder Arnold Ebiketie should also step into a starting role to start the season.
Atlanta traded for wide receiver Bryan Edwards, dealt away quarterback Matt Ryan, and signed cornerback Casey Hayward, depth defensive tackle Vincent Taylor, depth tackle Elijah Wilkinson, and depth cornerback Teez Tabor this offseason. Running back Damien Williams was added to the backfield, likely as a secondary contributor.
Our exploration of the Falcons has to begin with Arthur Smith and Dean Pees, two standout coaches on their respective sides of the ball. Pees has long been regarded as one of the most thorough and dynamic designers of defense in the league and he now has a full year of coaching duties in Atlanta, with additional draft picks and Casey Hayward now at his disposal. With his coaching pedigree, the fact the Falcons are coming off a season that saw them allow a whopping 27.0 points per game, and new talent on the defensive side of the ball, it’s likely we see a vast improvement in that area in 2022. Now, that’s kind of a double-edged sword due to the fact that a lot of the damage done to Atlanta last year was caused by the offense’s inability to maintain possession of the football (ranked 29th in the league in 2021 at 28:09 per game), but we’ll get to that shortly.
Atlanta’s offense should really be considered a case of the “haves and have-nots,” as dynamic traits exist in running back Cordarrelle Patterson, tight end Kyle Pitts, and rookie wide receiver Drake London, but the rest of the skill position players read as follows – Marcus Mariota, Bryan Edwards, and Olamide Zaccheaus. While this should be considered bad for real-world football, it’s good from the sense of potential fantasy production as it offers a relatively condensed production spread. Now, consider that only Kyle Pitts is being drafted in the first six rounds and there is legitimate hidden upside to be had from the Falcons. Atlanta struggled mightily in generating explosive plays in 2021, which makes sense when Calvin Ridley missed the majority of the season and Kyle Pitts could be bracketed in coverage. The addition of dynamic rookie wide receiver Drake London should do wonders for opening up the intermediate areas of the field, providing space for Pitts and Patterson to work underneath.
The team brought in veteran running back Damien Williams, who we are likely to see have a role from the beginning in conjunction with converted special teams ace Cordarrelle Patterson. It remains to be seen what the true usage split will be, but I would guess the team doesn’t want Patterson handling more than 55-60% of the backfield snaps considering how hard he fell off late last season. Consider Patterson an upside RB3 in early Best Ball drafts, more valuable in full-PPR formats for his pass-catching acumen. The offense was (and should remain) an issue for the Falcons, registering a well below average run-blocking grade in 2021. Matt Hennessey and Chris Lindstrom both ranked in the top-10 in run-blocking grades at their respective positions in 2021, but the rest of the offensive line is considered below average to replacement level. The main downfall of the offensive line came in the form of pass protection, as the unit surrendered a massive 26 sacks and 187 pressures in 2021. Because of that glaring issue, expect Arthur Smith to be forced into a short-area-biased offensive design, which is primarily a benefit to the full-PPR format. Touchdowns could be hard to come by again for this team, making volume the likeliest contributor to expected fantasy production. With that line of thinking in mind, I don’t want a ton of exposure to this offense outside of Kyle Pitts and Drake London.
Head coach Matt Rhule returns for this third season as the head coach of the Panthers after dealing with countless injuries and inconsistent quarterback play in his first two seasons. Newcomer offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo comes over from his position as an offensive consultant for the Cowboys, while defensive coordinator Phil Snow enters his third full season with Rhule.
Ikem Ekwonu was first off the board for Carolina with the sixth overall pick in the first and he should immediately step into a starting role at left tackle. The Panthers didn’t pick again until the third round when they selected quarterback Matt Corral with the 94th overall pick. They continued with linebacker Brandon Smith in the fourth (120th overall), defensive end Amare Barno in the sixth (189th overall), offensive lineman Cade Mays in the sixth (199th overall), and cornerback Kalon Barnes in the seventh (242nd overall).
Cornerback A.J. Bouye and defensive lineman Morgan Fox were released early in the tampering window, likely replaced by Xavier Woods and Matthew Ioannidis. Other than that, the Panthers had a relatively quiet free agency period.
It’s interesting, as I write these I sometimes struggle to find where to start with a team’s breakdown. Oftentimes you’ll see me use things like “we have to start our analysis of (insert team name) at (insert position or metric).” The Panthers are probably the most difficult team to find that leading stat or position. We were expecting big things from the Panthers after Matt Rhule took over head coaching duties, but what we’ve found is that he has largely been limited by poor quarterback play and injuries to his star running back. That has led to a team-wide fantasy profile that has basically been “DJ Moore or bust,” and even then, he has scored only four touchdowns each of the past two seasons on paltry catch rates of 55.9% and 57.1%. Christian McCaffrey’s health is probably the biggest influence on this team’s trajectory, which has been an issue the past two seasons. Now healthy, he provides the Panthers with dynamic abilities in both the run game and short-area passing game that serves to tie up opposing linebackers inside. The trickle-down effect of that additional attention is that it opens up more room for single coverage on the back end, particularly amongst DJ Moore, Robbie (y? The dude changed the spelling of his name recently, I don’t know) Anderson, and tight ends Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble. As in, CMC’s presence does much more for this offense than simply provide production with the ball in his hands.
The Panthers enter the 2022 season with a bottom 10 on-paper offensive line, something CMC has contended with and overcome in years prior. The combination of poor offensive line play, weak quarterback play, and CMC’s absence has led to the Panthers ranking towards the bottom of the league in explosive play rate for consecutive years, and while CMC should be fully healthy for the 2022 season, the offensive line and quarterback issues remain. Sam Darnold returns to Carolina for the second consecutive season as the starting quarterback, whose low 59.8 career completion rate becomes troublesome when discussing the fantasy prospectus of the Panthers pass-catchers.
CMC and DJM remain entrenched in the top four rounds of early Best Ball drafts, fitting places for players with as much expected volume as each of them possesses. Moore set career highs in targets and receptions in 2021 (163 and 93, respectively), and while the volume might take a slight hit with CMC back and healthy, the aforementioned coverage tendencies are likely to boost his overall efficiency. Robbie Anderson basically ran wind sprints for a full season last year, putting up a laughable 16.9% target per route run value, 3.0 yards after catch per reception value, and bonkers 48.2% catch rate. There is room for improvement in 2022 but Darnold will need to improve his processing, reads, and decision-making. Everyone’s favorite 2021 rookie wide receiver Terrace Marshall should man the slot for an offense that ran 11-personnel around league-average rates in each of the previous two seasons. Tight ends Ian Thomas and Tommy Tremble can largely be left alone in all formats.
Sean Payton retired following the 2021 season and the team promoted former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen to the head coach position. Pete Carmichael returns for his 17th season with the franchise and 14th as offensive coordinator, while defensive coordinator duties will be split between New Orleans defensive backs coach Kris Richard and the defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen.
The Saints enjoyed two first-round picks in 2022, selecting wide receiver Chris Olave with the 11th overall pick and offensive tackle Trevor Penning with the 19th overall pick. Each player should immediately step into a starting role. Cornerback Alontae Taylor came off the board next for New Orleans with the 49th overall pick in the second round. The team continued with linebacker D’Marco Jackson in the fifth (161st overall), and defensive tackle Jordan Jackson out of Air Force in the sixth (194th overall).
New Orleans got somewhat aggressive through free agency, bringing in safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye and signing wide receiver Jarvis Landry. All three fill long-standing voids on each side of the ball and should make immediate impacts.
While Payton is no longer with the Saints, I’m not expecting a whole lot to change with respect to how this franchise is run considering each of the four front office coaches has been with New Orleans for some time. Pete Carmichael, in particular, has been one of the main cogs in developing the offense over the better part of the previous two decades in New Orleans, giving us a good idea of what to expect moving forward. The Saints enter the 2022 season with the top projected offensive line in the NFL and a plethora of question marks at notable skill positions, including quarterback, tight end, running back, and wide receiver. Jameis Winston suffered a torn ACL with accompanying MCL damage in Week 8 of the 2021 season, ending his year and raising some questions about his health heading into the 2022 season. Current reports have him practicing with a heavy brace on the affected knee. Gadget extraordinaire Taysom Hill is reportedly placing his focus and emphasis on the tight end position, which theoretically should slide him right behind Adam Trautman on the tight end depth chart. Alvin Kamara could be facing a lengthy suspension stemming from a physical altercation in Las Vegas. Finally, videos of Michael Thomas and his rehabilitation process have raised questions surrounding when he will finally be ready for a return to game action. Lots of moving pieces and unknowns to work through here.
As things stand now, I am working under the assumption that Jameis Winston will be fully healed and ready for the start of camp considering the timeline of his injury, Taysom Hill will continue to be utilized in certain packages as the hyper-gadget-style player in this offense, Alvin Kamara is likely to be suspended at some point but the timeline depends on his civil and related hearings (as in, a precedent has been established to allow civil and criminal proceedings to play out prior to the NFL levying any suspensions, meaning Kamara could miss time this year), and Michael Thomas will be ready to go by the start of the NFL season. Operating with those assumptions in mind, we can expect the offense to once again be biased towards the run and layered passing game, with unique packages designed for the dynamic Hill. We can also expect the modest 48% 11-personnel rate from a season ago to see a slight uptick based on them using a first-round pick on wide receiver Chris Olave and bringing in Jarvis Landry via free agency, leaving the starting pass-catching unit with Olave and Thomas on the perimeter, Jarvis in the slot, Adam Trautman at tight end, and Kamara in the backfield. That’s a lot of talent for this team to work with behind the league’s projected top-ranked offensive line. The biggest knock on this offensive line in recent seasons has been health, and with little depth across the line, it could become an issue again.
The Saints struggled mightily with explosive play rate in both 2020 and 2021 as the team struggled through injuries and lack of depth at key positions, also struggling to put up points on the board (19th-ranked 21.4 points per game in 2021 a year after finishing top five in the league at 29.1). That said, we can’t discount the high likelihood that the Saints return to form in 2022 with a healthy Michael Thomas, two new wide receiver additions in Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave, and a healthy (for now) offensive line. Interestingly enough, the Saints ranked first in the league in situation-neutral rush rate over the first seven weeks of the 2021 season (with a healthy Jameis Winston) after ranking top five in the same metric in 2020. Those two seasons represented a clear shift away from the pass in the final season with Drew Brees at quarterback (2020) and the first season with Jameis Winston (2021), but Michael Thomas played only five full games in 2020 before missing the entirety of the 2021 season. To me, and this takes a bit of “reading between the lines” and deep analysis, we should expect the team to return to a more pass-balanced attack moving forward based on the return to health of Thomas and recent pass-catching additions. That leaves all of Thomas, Olave, and Jarvis undervalued currently in Best Ball drafts. Finally, the potential looming suspension for Alvin Kamara represents an interesting value scenario. On one hand, his price is now depressed all the way into the third round of Best Ball drafts, presenting a nice leverage and value scenario should the league decide to wait until civil and criminal proceedings are complete before levying any suspension (as in, it is still possible he plays the entire season). On the other hand, Kamara could see a nice little six-game suspension (or more) and the running back depth chart is basically Mark Ingram and dust. That makes third-round Kamara and 18th-round Ingram interesting bets on confined rosters as well as separate Best Ball rosters.
Bruce Arians relinquishes head coaching duties and moves to senior football consultant, leaving Todd Bowles in charge. Byron Leftwich returns for his fourth season as defensive coordinator, while defensive coordinator duties fall onto the combination of Kacy Rodgers and Larry Foote.
The Bucs made eight total selections in the 2022 NFL draft, the first two of which came in the second round with the selection of defensive tackle Logan Hall with the 33rd overall pick and tackle Luke Goedeke with the 57th overall pick. They continued with running back Rachaad White in the third (91st overall), tight end Cade Otton in the fourth (106th overall), punter Jake Camarda in the fourth (133rd overall), cornerback Zyon McCollum in the fifth (157th overall), tight end Ko Kieft in the sixth (218th overall), and defensive edge Andre Anthony in the seventh (248th overall).
The big offseason free-agent additions include defensive lineman Akiem Hicks and wide receiver Russell Gage, while the team is likely to start the season without wide receiver Chris Godwin due to injury and Rob Gronkowski due to retirement (more on that later). Keanu Neal and Logan Ryan join the franchise likely as depth pieces in the secondary.
Oh lawd, do I have to break down this team? Of bleeping course I do (for those lost on that intro, I took a nasty little stand on Rob Gronkowski in early Best Ball drafts, as a player being drafted in the 10th round because of the unknowns surrounding his 2022 status that would have immediately vaulted into the fifth or sixth)!
**Takes a deep, somber breath**
Chris Godwin tore his ACL in December of the 2021 season and could miss the start of the 2022 season. When combined with the fact Gronk retired, it leaves a potential gaping hole in the pass-catching unit to start the season, likely to be filled by increasing roles from Leonard Fournette and Mike Evans, newcomer wide receiver Russell Gage, rookie running back Rachaad White, some combination of Tyler Johnson, Cyril Grayson, Jr., and Breshad Perriman, and the tight end duo of Cameron Brate and rookie fourth-rounder Cade Otton. Primary beneficiaries are likely to be Fournette, Evans, and Gage for as long as Godwin remains out. I would also be remiss to fail to mention the possibility that Gronk comes out of retirement at some point before the start of the NFL season, which has been somewhat of a touchy and debatable subject on the Twitter machine following his announcement. What I see is this – the Bucs return the vast majority of their roster from each of the past two seasons, during which time they won a Super Bowl and made a deep postseason push. Tom Brady chose to return for his age 45 season to hunt for an additional ring and it’s difficult for me to believe he won’t be on the phone with Gronk every day from now until the start of the season, particularly with Godwin’s injury status uncertain. Whether or not it happens, Gronk is now a last-round pick in Best Ball and presents an interesting upside bet that late.
As things stand now, expect Fournette, Evans, and Gage to start the season hot as the primary contributors to an offense that should once again rank in the top five in scoring. The Buccaneers led the league in situation-neutral pass rate a season ago at a whopping 66%, which actually increased to 67% with the score within seven points. Their 69% 11-personnel frequency is likely to remain rather static, indicating one of Perriman, Johnson, or Grayson is likely to be heavily involved early in the year. Tampa Bay ranked 24th in explosive rush rate but eighth in explosive pass rate a year ago, which should also remain rather sticky heading into 2022 considering the personnel on the roster. Finally, they played at the fastest situation-neutral pace of play in the league in 2021, another metric that should continue into 2022.
Fournette and Evans are currently being treated as they should, with Best Ball ADPs in the top two rounds, but Russell Gage, Chris Godwin, Rachaad White, and all three potential tight ends in Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate, and Cade Otton seem to be the forgotten few. Gage is gaining steam around the industry but still isn’t being drafted for his median outcome, let alone his 90% outcome. I’ll continue smashing his name in the eighth round of Best Ball drafts. Basically, any expected primary contributor in an offense captained by Tom Brady deserves consideration, and Gage is currently the cheapest member of the primary four players. When you then combine a blistering pace, high pass rates, and relative concentration of targets, it begins to make sense why I can make those claims.