The 2022 NFL season is almost upon us, which means it’s time to make some bold predictions. While everybody is focusing on team win totals, let's be a little more specific here with some bold predictions and go out on a limb for each team, giving some takes that will be specific to PFF grades and some that are more general.
Given the nature of bold predictions, the strike rate here is unlikely to be incredibly high, but these takes will be rooted in data and be things that I think have a realistic shot of happening, not just craziness plucked from the ether.
The AFC East article can be found here, and next up is the AFC North:
1. Tyler Linderbaum will be the best-graded rookie offensive lineman
The narrative on Linderbaum seemed to go on a real journey pre-draft. Early in the process, he was being talked about as the next great offensive lineman prospect — a player so good that teams might need to reconsider the unwritten rules about how high they can draft a center. Then, when measurements began to be taken, Linderbaum was “undersized” enough that that talk grew quiet. He end up being drafted with the 25th overall pick, but he never changed as a player. Linderbaum earned an absurd 95.5 PFF grade last season in college and allowed nine total pressures over his last two seasons starting. He is set to hit the ground running in the NFL and outperform all of the linemen drafted ahead of him.
2. Lamar Jackson will have under 200 yards on breakaway runs
Remember when the NFL was going to “figure out” Lamar Jackson? That’s never likely to happen — he’s too unique an athlete, talent and quarterback — but the league does seem to be getting better at containing him. Since his unanimous MVP season, Jackson has seen his PFF rushing grade decline in consecutive seasons, has broken fewer tackles each year and last season had just three breakaway runs of 15-plus yards in an injury-shortened year compared to 15 in that MVP season. Jackson will always be an incredible rushing threat, but NFL defenses are inching toward being able to limit how many times he can gash them for huge gains on the ground. Jackson has topped 300 yards on breakaway runs twice, but he will slip under 200 this season.
3. Baltimore will win the AFC North
The playoff race in the AFC last year was a wild ride, and Baltimore was the No. 1 seed in the AFC until injuries finally started to take their toll and drag the team down. The Ravens’ backfield was decimated before the season even began, and the secondary took a real beating late in the year — not to mention losing Lamar Jackson for some time. The Ravens were overtaken in the pecking order when those injuries began to mount, but a healthy roster again puts them right back among the favorites in the AFC, let alone the division. Baltimore is the obvious choice for this year’s worst-to-first candidate in terms of standings.
1. The Bengals will miss the playoffs
The Super Bowl hangover is real! The bigger point is that Cincinnati clearly overachieved last season, going on a postseason run that came tantalizingly close to a championship, but that type of lightning in a bottle is difficult to capture twice. To the team’s credit, it clearly recognized the issues and did a fantastic job of reworking the offensive line this offseason to remove the biggest area of weakness. There is a lot to like about this team, and it’s strongest in the right areas, but the AFC is an incredible gauntlet this year and some good teams are going to miss out. The AFC West looks like the strongest division in football, but the North isn’t far behind. It wouldn’t take a lot for the Bengals to go from Super Bowl losers to missing the postseason entirely.
2. Joe Mixon will lead the NFL in rushing yards
Cincinnati’s offensive line was a mess last season, but Mixon still finished third in the league in rushing yards, racking up over 1,200, and had 13 touchdowns. He averaged just 4.1 yards per carry, with 3.1 of coming after contact. This offseason, the Bengals added three new starters to the line and each represents a significant upgrade in terms of run blocking, with La’el Collins, in particular, one of the best players in the league in that respect. If Cincinnati’s line takes a leap in terms of run blocking and Mixon remains one of the few true workhorse backs in the game, he has a real shot of rivaling anybody for the rushing title.
3. Joe Burrow remains a top-five most-sacked quarterback
The relationship between a quarterback and his pass protection is a complicated one, and as bad as Cincinnati’s offensive line was last year, Burrow plays with a style that can tend to make it look worse than it really is. Cincinnati’s line is much improved this offseason, but Burrow may not improve his average time to throw or modify a play style that risks sacks by trying to extend the play and keep drives alive. Only three other quarterbacks saw a higher percentage of pressured plays result in sacks than Burrow last season, and that’s a quarterback-driven data point. It might not necessarily be a bad thing, but Burrow’s play will likely determine how often he gets sacked in 2022 as much as the new-look offensive line does.
1. Myles Garrett will win Defensive Player of the Year
Garrett has been in the running for Defensive Player of the Year for a while now, but this is the season he secures one. Last year, his pass-rush win rate was more than four percentage points higher than T.J. Watt‘s, and a much lower percentage of his plays were clean-up pressures. He actually sacked the quarterback 18 times, but the half-sack recording methodology the NFL persists with turned that number into 16. Garrett had the best PFF pass-rushing grade (92.7) of any edge rusher last season and has now earned at least a 90.0 mark for three straight years.
2. Cade York will be the best-graded kicker in the league
The only thing we know about NFL kickers is there is very little consistency from one year to the next unless you are named Justin Tucker. Incredible talents come out of college regularly, but all it takes is one bad miss to erode confidence and turn the player into a busted flush. Cade York recorded the second-best PFF grade of any kicker in the country last year in college football, earning a 91.4 grade from 39 extra points and 18 field goal attempts. The season before, he was even better. York has the kind of leg that will earn him opportunities other kickers don’t get, and while he might not become the next Tucker, he will sit atop the mountain in 2022.
3. Cleveland’s O-line will rank outside the top 10
Whether Jacoby Brissett or Deshaun Watson is under center, the Cleveland offensive line is going to be protecting a quarterback who ranks among the slowest players in the league in terms of average time to throw. The longer a quarterback holds the ball, the more pressure the line will surrender, and this is a line that lost a key cog in center J.C. Tretter. Cleveland still has some elite players, but for the first time in a while, there are potential weaknesses that could make blocking a taller task. The fact that Watson, in particular, can offset pressure by evading it once it arrives won’t affect the grades from the linemen, so don’t be shocked if Cleveland’s line earns its lowest ranking in a few years.
1. The offensive line will rank 20-plus spots lower in pass-blocking efficiency than in 2021
Pittsburgh’s offensive line last season is a fascinating study of the impact quarterbacks can have on pass protection. The line ranked 26th overall in the end-of-season rankings and 18th in terms of pass protection. They surrendered more sacks than 19 other teams but ranked fourth in pass-blocking efficiency. Why? Because Ben Roethlisberger had by far the fastest average time to throw in the NFL. Mitchell Trubisky skews toward the other end of the scale, and Kenny Pickett could be off the charts if his college play carries over to the professional level. It’s difficult to overstate the impact on pass protection in going from the league’s fastest average time to throw to potentially its slowest. If that happens, the Steelers could rank among the bottom few teams in pass-blocking efficiency without even playing any worse.
2. George Pickens will lead the team in receiving
Pickens was one of my pre-draft crushes. In a draft that wasn’t stuffed full of players with an obvious No. 1, X-receiver skill set, Pickens absolutely has that. He boasts the size, speed, body control and hands to be a spectacular receiver for Pittsburgh, and the Steelers have an impressive track record of not just drafting good receivers, but keeping ones with potential character or attitude issues on the rails. Even Antonio Brown lasted nine seasons in Pittsburgh before going through three teams in two years and winding up out of the league after he left. Diontae Johnson is the team’s incumbent No. 1 option, but it wouldn’t take much eating into his workload for Pickens to have a realistic shot at generating more yards over the season.
3. Kenny Pickett won’t start until the second half of the season
Young quarterbacks struggle with the speed of the NFL game. That’s a cliche, but it’s such a time-worn statement because it’s true. That manifests in a lot of ways — most obviously, mistakes and turnovers — but we critically see it a lot in terms of average time to throw. Pickett had a 3.2-second average time to throw last season in college, one of the slowest marks in the nation. It’s a figure that usually increases from college to a player’s rookie NFL season. Each of the first-round rookies to start last year saw their average times to throw get longer from their final college season. If Pickett’s process doesn’t speed up significantly, he won’t be viable behind the Steelers' offensive line, and it will be tough for him to earn the job over Trubisky until that happens.