NFL News & Analysis

Bold predictions for every NFL team in 2022 — NFC South

Flowery Branch, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder (4) passes watched by quarterback Marcus Mariota (1) during training camp at IBM Performance Field. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

• Sam Monson predicts that Desmond Ridder will be Atlanta's starting quarterback by midseason.

• Carolina will make a push for a wild-card spot this year.

• Jameis Winston and New Orleans' receivers will rank top 10 in passing and receiving yards.

• Tom Brady will lead the league in passing yards.

Click here for the rest of Monson's “Bold Prediction” series.

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, I want to be a little more specific with some bold predictions and go out on a limb for each team, offering up 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.

Atlanta Falcons

1. Desmond Ridder is the starter by midseason

There’s a degree of optimism surrounding Marcus Mariota from the brief glimpses we saw of him as a backup with the Raiders, and the combination of him and Arthur Smith’s offense is intriguing. Still, Mariota is a player who looks worse the more he plays.

He played his way to the bench in Tennessee, and while we may see a brief spark of excitement early on, there’s a good chance the Falcons end up motivated to see what they have in rookie Desmond Ridder sooner rather than later. Mariota has three seasons with a sub-70.0 PFF grade, not counting the 24 snaps we saw of him last season as a gimmick addition to the Raiders' offense.

2. Atlanta’s offense ranks in the top half this season

The Falcons hammered the franchise reset button when they traded away Matt Ryan, and on paper this team isn’t in good shape at all, but the offense has the potential to be a very surprising unit. With playmakers in multiple positions, as well as an athletic rushing threat at quarterback, the Falcons' offense at a minimum is very difficult to match up with for opposing defenses.

Cordarrelle Patterson had a career year at running back last season, earning an 81.3 PFF grade, and the combination of Kyle Pitts and rookie Drake London represents a pair of massive receivers with the athleticism to cause major problems. The Falcons may be bad this season, but the offense may not be.

3. The defense will be one of the worst in the NFL

As encouraging as the offense may be, the defense looks concerning. For years, Atlanta relied on Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones as its stars. Jarrett’s 67.6 PFF grade and 36 pressures last season were both his lowest marks since 2016, and he rushed the passer around 150 fewer times that year. Jones is coming off a 34.6 overall grade and just doesn’t look the same player as early in his career.

As great as A.J. Terrell was last season, cornerback play is volatile and any kind of regression wouldn’t be a shock. For this defense not to be among the league’s worst, it will need immediate positive contributions from rookies such as Arnold Ebiketie on the edge and Troy Andersen at linebacker.

Carolina Panthers

1. Baker Mayfield earns a PFF grade of 80.0-plus

The narrative surrounding Baker Mayfield went to a strange place this offseason, but in two out of his four NFL seasons — including his rookie year — he has earned at least an 80.0 PFF grade. Mayfield is a capable starting quarterback with a career big-time throw rate of 5.8%, one of the best marks in the league since 2018.

How good he can be, and whether his bad play is worth the investment, is up for debate, but he likely bounces back to his career baseline even outside of Cleveland’s environment this year as the starter in Carolina.

2. Carolina makes a wild-card push

After three games last season, the Panthers thought they were playoff bound. They made moves such as trading for Stephon Gilmore because they thought they’d be contending at the business end of the season before it all fell apart.

This offseason, they made excellent moves almost across the board, and Baker Mayfield at quarterback gives them the opportunity to do what Sam Darnold never could. The discussion surrounding this team is about how long before Matt Rhule is fired, but Mayfield playing at a solid level could propel this team into a wild-card spot in the NFC.

3. Robbie Anderson doubles his production from last season

Robbie Anderson had a disastrous 2021 season, seeing over 100 targets but managing just 519 receiving yards. He posted the worst yards gained per target of any player with 100 or more targets, and the second-worst figure in the league among all receivers. He has been an excellent deep threat throughout his career, but alongside Sam Darnold and a dysfunctional Panthers offense last season, his play nosedived.

Baker Mayfield is, if nothing else, an aggressive, big-throw type of quarterback. He will look early and often in Anderson's direction, likely at times even when he shouldn’t. That volume of opportunity will see Anderson bounce back to post over 1,000 yards and maybe even double his five touchdowns from last season.

New Orleans Saints

1. The Saints rank top 10 in passing/receiving yards

Last season’s Saints receiving group was one of the weakest in the NFL. With no Michael Thomas in the fold, Marquez Callaway led the team with 81 targets and Deonte Harty was by far the most efficient receiver (although he saw just 57 targets over the year). With Thomas back this season and Chris Olave added in the draft, the Saints receivers have all of a sudden gone from a major weakness to a strength. Jameis Winston will put the ball in the air and give his receivers a chance, so this has the makings of a surprisingly productive unit, even without Sean Payton as head coach.

2. No starter on the defense earns a PFF grade below 60.0

The Saints have been one of the best drafting teams in the league in recent years, and you can see the results of that on their defense, which carries very few obvious weak spots. They have talent across the board, and players such as sophomore cornerback Paulson Adebo, who earned a solid 60.3 overall PFF grade as a rookie third-round pick, have been getting rave reviews in training camp.

It’s entirely possible that the Saints' defense won’t have a single starter earn a below-average PFF grade of 60.0 this season. Marcus Maye is coming off a 55.9 mark last season for the Jets, but that represents a massive drop from his previous baseline on a terrible defense. He should be expected to bounce back and clear that mark with ease.

3. The offensive line will rank in the bottom third of the league

For years the Saints had an offensive line that was the strength of the team. Then they boasted arguably the best tackles in the league. Now they have Ryan Ramczyk at right tackle and some question marks. The team did make moves in the draft, adding Trevor Penning to replace Terron Armstead at left tackle.

Penning was an elite player at Northern Iowa (97.3 PFF grade last season), but put some concerning losses on tape, had 16 penalties (and has already been kicked out of practice in training camp) and is making a big jump in competition to try and replace one of the best players in the game. The interior has become a problem spot, with none of the starters grading above 65.0 last year. It wouldn’t take much to see the Saints dip below their 18th ranking last season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1. 45-year-old TOM BRADY leads the league in yards and PFF grade again

It’s important we don’t normalize what Tom Brady is doing at his age. Last season, at a sprightly 44, Brady led the league in PFF grade, passing yards, touchdowns and big-time throws. He recorded the second-best turnover-worthy play rate in the league. Matt Ryan is almost eight years younger and looks like he has another year or two left in the league before he’s spent. Brady is going to walk away from the game at the peak of his powers despite being 45 years old. Don’t be shocked to see him lead the NFL statistically almost across the board once more.

2. The Bucs will still field a top-five-ranked offensive line

Tampa Bay’s offensive line ranked second in the league at the end of 2021 before losing three starters for varying reasons. Ali Marpet retired, Alex Cappa left in free agency and center Ryan Jensen was an early training camp injury casualty. Trading for Shaq Mason should ensure one of those spots suffers no decline, but the other two are questions.

Rookie Luke Goedeke allowed just seven pressures last season while playing tackle for Central Michigan and may get a chance to start, and the team dodged a bullet when Robert Hainsey — the current starter at center — was carted off from a joint scrimmage with Miami, reportedly only with severe cramps.

The key to the unit’s success is Tom Brady. Only Ben Roethlisberger had a faster average time to throw last year than Brady’s 2.35 seconds. And Roethlisberger is the only quarterback to post a faster average time to throw than that mark in the past five years. That gives the Bucs' offensive line a much easier job than many other units and will help smooth the transition in personnel.

3. Julio Jones will have the best PFF grade in the receiving corps

Jones looked a shell of his former self last season for the Tennessee Titans. Injuries restricted him to fewer than 400 snaps and only 31 catches. He still earned a solid-enough 74.2 PFF grade on those catches and, critically, the Bucs don’t need him to be anything more than a contingency plan. If Jones can stay healthy for even a fraction of the time, he still has the talent to be an exceptionally efficient receiver catching passes from Tom Brady. Jones won’t lead the team in receiving or any volume metrics, but he could easily lead it in PFF grade.


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