NFL News & Analysis

NFL bounce-back candidates: What went wrong for 32 struggling players, including Alvin Kamara, Baker Mayfield, plus 2022 outlooks

Seattle, Washington, USA; New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) runs the ball against the Seattle Seahawks during the second half at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

As a part of our partnership with ESPN, this story was originally published on ESPN+ and can be viewed in its entirety here with your ESPN+ subscription — NFL bounce-back candidates: What went wrong for 32 struggling players, including Alvin Kamara, Baker Mayfield, plus 2022 outlooks

• After missing time with an ankle injury last season, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is on track for a bounce-back season.

New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara set career lows in key rushing metrics last season, but he is projected to come back even stronger this season.

• After leaving Chicago for the Los Angeles Chargers, Khalil Mack is looking to resurge his career with his second AFC West team.

Every NFL player has expectations coming into each season. Some will meet them. Others will exceed them.

And then there are those who will fall short, some woefully. That's where we're putting our attention for the purposes of this exercise.

With our friends at PFF, we identified 32 players — one from each team — who are looking to bounce back from a season that, for one reason or another, went awry. These are players who have shown in the past that they can play at a high level in the NFL. Our NFL Nation reporters also give their thoughts on how these players can improve in 2022.

Will edge rushers such as Khalil MackBradley ChubbChase Young and Bud Dupree regain their edge? Will new surroundings benefit players such as Baker MayfieldAllen Robinson II and Myles Jack? Can running backs Alvin KamaraSaquon Barkley and Marlon Mack rekindle the magic of past seasons? These questions and many more are answered below (all grades and stats are from PFF):


ARZ | ATL | BLT | BUF | CAR | CIN | CHI | CLE | DEN | DAL | DET | GB | HOU | IND | JAX | KC | LVR | LAC | LAR | MIA | MIN | NE | NO | NYG | NYJ | PHI | PIT | SF | SEA | TB | TEN | WSH


PFF grade in 2021: 55.9

What went wrong: Hernandez was not alone in his struggles along the Giants‘ offensive line. It doesn't take an NFL coach's football knowledge to understand that New York didn't develop offensive linemen well the past few years. It also didn't help that, after three years at left guard, Hernandez was switched to the right side last year. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: From an offseason and a few weeks of training camp worth of work, the Cardinals seem pleased with Hernandez. They consider him one of the toughest offensive linemen they have. He is slated to start at right guard, putting him back at a position at which he's comfortable. His physical skills can come in handy in Arizona's up-tempo offense while he has to get outside the box to block for Kyler Murray. — Josh Weinfuss


PFF grade in 2021: 34.6

What went wrong: There aren't many “linebacker-friendly” schemes in the NFL nowadays, but former Falcons coach Dan Quinn's would qualify as one. With Jones going from that simplistic role to what he was asked to do in Dean Pees' defense in 2021, it was like going from learning to drive to racing Formula One. Jones had far and away the worst season of his career and gave up more than two times the number of yards in coverage (884) than he did in 2020. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Jones remains on the PUP list with a shoulder injury. Falcons coach Arthur Smith said Jones is trending well, but there's no real timetable on his return at this point. There's also the reality that the Falcons could be interested in trading him because of his high contract and how the team has handled the linebacker position: They've signed Rashaan Evans in free agency, drafted Troy Andersen in the second round and hope Mykal Walker can step up to become a full-time starter. — Michael Rothstein


PFF grade in 2021:

What went wrong: Jackson started the 2021 season on the hottest passing tear of his career. It quickly went south, however, and he ultimately missed the final four games of the season with an ankle injury. He finished with just 16 touchdown passes and also had 13 interceptions. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Jackson spent the offseason bulking up (adding 11 pounds of lean muscle) and working on his mechanics. The result has been the best training camp of his four-year career. The biggest factor in Jackson rebounding is a rebuilt offensive line. When Baltimore had one of the league's best offensive lines in 2019, Jackson was a unanimous NFL MVP selection. — Jamison Hensley


PFF grade in 2021:

What went wrong: There weren't too many weak links on last year's Bills defense, but Edmunds qualified as one. He made the fewest plays in coverage of his career, with only one interception and one pass breakup. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: The Bills' No. 1 defense last year didn't really have a soft spot on it, so including Edmunds here, one of the leaders of the defense, doesn't accurately reflect all of what he does for this unit. What coordinator Leslie Frazier has continued to challenge Edmunds to do is create more splash plays, something the linebacker has done multiple times during camp. As he enters a contract year and his fifth season at age 24, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Edmunds take another step forward, especially with the talent on this Buffalo defense. — Alaina Getzenberg


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: Mayfield really should not have been out there for the second half of the 2021 season. With a litany of injuries piling up, he couldn't even hit layup throws down the field. After earning a 76.0 passing grade through the first nine weeks of the season, Mayfield earned a 47.1 passing grade across the final eight. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: If the Panthers get the 2020 version of Mayfield, they will be big winners. But first Mayfield has to prove he is good enough to beat out Sam Darnold in their “open” competition. There's no reason to think he won't do that, since Mayfield's non-throwing shoulder appears sound now. Plus, Darnold had a chance to prove himself last year at Carolina and failed. Mayfield is in the ideal situation: a quarterback surrounded by enough offensive talent to prove himself and with a coach in Matt Rhule also trying to prove himself. — David Newton


PFF grade in 2021
: 59

What went wrong: Jackson has been a sore subject for Bears fans ever since he signed his four-year, $58.4 million contract extension at the end of the 2019 season. He hasn't been a liability by any means, but his ball production and effort as a tackler have dried up considerably. Jackson finished 2021 with no picks and only one pass breakup. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: With second-round pick Jaquan Brisker now on board, Jackson won't have to play up in the box, and he can be the free safety in Chicago's secondary. That's a better fit for the sixth-year vet, who has excelled in a role where he is responsible for reading the quarterback while roaming the back end of the defense so he can focus on making plays on the ball. Jackson stated a desire to get back to making plays (that is, interceptions) in a new defensive scheme that is predicated off turnovers. If he picks off a pass this season, it will be his first since 2019. — Courtney Cronin


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: The Falcons drafted Hurst's replacement at No. 4 overall in 2021. And so he fell out of favor in Atlanta to make way for Kyle Pitts, playing all of 409 snaps on the season. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Expect Hurst to play a significant role in Cincinnati's offense. He gives the Bengals another vertical threat in the passing game, which could prove vital with teams paying ample attention to Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Hurst should be an asset as a blocker and a receiver, which is paramount for the position group led by assistant James Casey. — Ben Baby


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: The change of scenery wasn't particularly kind to Johnson, as he stumbled out the gate while adjusting to a new defense. Of his 222 yards allowed last season, 169 came in the first seven games. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: After a few rocky moments early, the Browns' defense surged down the stretch last season — Johnson included. Given the talent around him, especially in the secondary, Johnson should thrive in Year 2 in Cleveland as the back anchor of a potentially elite defense. — Jake Trotter


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: Injuries. Vander Esch had one of the best rookie linebacker seasons in recent memory in 2018, yet he never has come close to that form since. The 2021 campaign was the first extended stretch in which he stayed healthy, and we finally saw flashes again of the player he was as a rookie. After a 42.7 overall grade through the first eight weeks, Vander Esch earned a 75.9 overall grade over the final nine. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: The more he plays, the better he plays, and having to split time with Keanu Neal early last season did him no favors. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said Vander Esch had a great offseason, and his start to training camp was equally impressive. The signing of Anthony Barr should not impact him as much since the two will not play the same position. The addition of Barr means Micah Parsons can play more on the line of scrimmage. It is interesting to note that Vander Esch has been calling the defenses in training camp. He is also as healthy as he has ever been since his rookie year. — Todd Archer


PFF grade in 2021: 54.2

What went wrong: After a stellar rookie season that saw him rack up 12 sacks, Chubb has played fewer than 300 snaps due to injury in two of the past three years, including last season. Even after returning from an ankle injury in Week 12 in 2021, Chubb didn't look the same. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Take it from the guy who has faced him in practice every day in training camp, Broncos left tackle Garett Bolles, who said this on Chubb so far: “Bradley Chubb is going to have a monster year. I'm telling you. I've seen different moves; I've seen a different attitude and a demeanor I haven't seen since his rookie year. He's just focused and ready to rock and roll. I feel bad for the tackles he has to go against.” Chubb, who has battled ankle troubles in recent seasons and had surgery to remove bone spurs in both ankles last year, had a full offseason to prep for the first time since that rookie year, and it shows. He has been far more explosive in his on-field work and has said he feels mentally refreshed. — Jeff Legwold


PFF grade in 2021
: 65.9

What went wrong: Chark played just three games for the Jaguars last season after he broke his left ankle in late September. The Lions picked him up in free agency. Chark, who made the Pro Bowl in 2019 when he caught 74 passes and had eight touchdowns, now has a fresh start with the Lions. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Chark, now healthy and still only 25 years old, has turned heads in training camp with a string of impressive plays off his connection with quarterback Jared Goff. This season could make or break both of their careers. Detroit has Chark listed as the No. 1 receiver on its unofficial depth chart, largely due to his deep-threat ability. — Eric Woodyard


PFF grade in 2021
: 75.2

What went wrong: Bakhtiari's rehab in 2021 from the left ACL tear he suffered the year prior ran into complications, which continue to set him back. After playing 27 snaps in the Packers' meaningless Week 18 contest against the Lions to test the knee out, Bakhtiari was unable to go two weeks later in the team's playoff loss. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Bakhtiari still hasn't been cleared to practice. He underwent another surgery — his third since the initial ACL tear in his left knee — this past offseason and remains on the physically unable to perform list. The Packers believe he can return to his All-Pro playing level, but until he actually gets back on the field for an extended stretch, that might just be wishful thinking. — Rob Demovsky


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrongJonathan Taylor took Mack's job in Indianapolis. After tearing his Achilles tendon in Week 1 of 2020, Mack handed Taylor the lead role that the then-rookie never relinquished. Mack saw only 28 carries all last season after getting back healthy. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Mack has shown flashes during camp that he can recapture the form he showed with the Colts in 2019, when he finished with 1,091 yards and eight touchdowns. His explosiveness, footwork and vision have stood out in practices. Mack is battling with Rex Burkhead and fourth-round pick Dameon Pierce for reps in the running back room. Mack has been the most consistent. As long as he can carry those flashes from practice into the season, he'll remind people he is an extremely productive player. — DJ Bien-Aime


PFF grade in 2021:

What went wrong: Nelson underwent three surgeries in 2021 before he even took a snap in a game. After that, he suffered a high ankle sprain and missed a game with COVID-19. After being named first-team All-Pro in each of his first three seasons, Nelson wasn't quite at that level in 2021. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Nothing that has happened thus far in training camp indicates Nelson will have any lingering effects from his injury-plagued 2021 season. Through two weeks of camp, Nelson hasn't missed any practices and has been a full participant throughout. The lingering back issues he experienced last season were worrisome, but they do not seem to be an issue right now. The Colts are expecting big things from him. — Stephen Holder


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: Engram's quarterback situation in New York last season was the worst in the NFL after Daniel Jones went down injured. Following his injury in Week 12, Giants quarterbacks combined to go 101-of-203 (49.8%) for 804 yards, four scores and 11 picks (44.0 passer rating) across the final six weeks of the season. No receiver was producing amid that. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Engram has been heavily targeted in camp, and Trevor Lawrence already seems to have developed good on-field chemistry with him. The Jaguars are moving Engram around in the formation to get matchups they can exploit, including putting him in the slot at times. Plus, Engram is playing for a coach in Doug Pederson who likes using tight ends in his offense. It would be a surprise if Engram caught fewer than 50 passes. — Michael DiRocco


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: Left as a primarily free safety with no semblance of talent around him, Reid was hung out to dry a lot in the Texans' defense last season. He didn't allow many catches (13), but almost all of them went for big plays (21.4 yards per reception allowed). — PFF

Outlook for 2022: The Chiefs were aware of this and made Reid a priority signing in free agency anyway. Look for the Chiefs to try to use Juan Thornhill as their coverage safety and Reid as more of an in-the-box type of player. But opponents will no doubt try to find favorable matchups with Reid, and the bottom line is that he needs to play better in these situations than he did last season. — Adam Teicher


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: After back-to-back 1,000-plus-yard seasons, Waller was limited to only 665 yards last season while dealing with a knee injury, a hurt back and time on the COVID-19/reserve list. Even with that decreased production, he set a career high with six drops. It was a no-good all-around season for the star tight end. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: On one hand, Waller, who is only the 17th-highest-paid tight end in the NFL, is playing for a new contract, so he is more than motivated. On the other, the presence of Davante Adams on the outside will only present more opportunities for Waller, with so many double-teams going Adams' way. Waller might not approach the franchise-record 107-catch season he had for the Raiders in 2020, but he might end up being more effective. And that more than counts as a bounce-back season. — Paul Gutierrez


PFF grade in 2021:

What went wrong: Mack's 2021 season ended seven weeks in when a left foot injury he suffered required surgery. It was the first serious injury of his career, after he averaged 923 snaps per year across his first seven seasons. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Mack appears rejuvenated since his move to L.A. over the offseason, and more significantly, he now has a significant partner up front in Pro Bowl edge Joey Bosa. “They have really complementary styles,” Bolts coach Brandon Staley said. As for Mack's surgically repaired foot that sidelined him after seven games last season? Mack said he's feeling good, and Bosa said Mack is obviously putting in the work to come back stronger. “I just keep trying to tell him — he's so hard on himself, as you can imagine a guy like that would be — I just keep telling him that it's going to take time, and I'm sure a few weeks into the season, he's really going to be rolling and feeling great,” Bosa said. — Lindsey Thiry


PFF grade in 2021
: 66.9

What went wrong: Robinson never developed any rapport with rookie Chicago quarterback Justin Fields last season and finished 2021 with no more than six catches or 78 yards in any single game. It was nothing close to what we've come to expect from him over the course of his career. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: While Matthew Stafford and Robinson haven't had a ton of time on the field together because of the quarterback's elbow injury, Stafford said he has been impressed by how quickly Robinson has picked up the offense. The targets will be there for Robinson, who replaced Robert Woods, and based on what we've seen during training camp, Robinson will be an important red zone threat. After catching only 38 passes last season in a subpar Bears offense, expect a big bounce back and improved numbers this season from Robinson. — Sarah Barshop


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: Davis suffered a minor knee injury in Week 1 last season that kept him out for four weeks. After splitting time in the A-gap and B-gap as a rookie, Davis played far more nose tackle in 2021. The 6-foot-7 defensive tackle struggled mightily to stay low against frequent center-guard double-teams at that size. His run-defense grade dropped from 66.8 in 2020 to 36.1. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Davis' relative ineffectiveness was somewhat overshadowed by the emergence of Christian Wilkins and Zach Sieler as a formidable interior duo. Cutting some weight in the offseason and a reenergized locker room should have Davis in a position to succeed in 2022. — Marcel Louis-Jacques


PFF grade in 2021
: 56.1

What went wrong: Smith slogged through back issues throughout training camp for Green Bay last season. After playing 18 snaps in Week 1 against the Saints, Smith was forced to undergo back surgery, and he didn't return until he played 19 snaps in the Packers' postseason loss to the 49ers. The Packers released him, and he signed a deal with Minnesota. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: The biggest reason to be optimistic about a bounce back is that Smith has been healthy throughout training camp. New coach Kevin O'Connell is particularly committed to sports science, and Smith's reps have been carefully managed. When he has been on the field, the Vikings have positioned Smith up and down the line, making it difficult for offensive players to account for him. — Kevin Seifert


PFF grade in 2021:

What went wrong: The Patriots signed Smith to a big-money deal in free agency last season then refused to use him. He played all of 525 snaps and went out in a route just 166 times. He wasn't even given an opportunity to make an impact. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Smith spent the entire offseason in New England, which he didn't do in 2021 due to a combination of COVID-19 considerations and anticipating the birth of his daughter. Offensive assistant Joe Judge said Smith had a “terrific” offseason, and that has shown up early in training camp. A change at offensive coordinator might also benefit Smith, who seemed to fall out of favor with Josh McDaniels after some early struggles last season. — Mike Reiss


PFF grade in 2021
: 63.2

What went wrong: In his first season without Drew Brees, Kamara set career lows in 2021 for yards per carry (3.7), rushing touchdowns (4), receptions (47), receiving yards (439) and longest run (30 yards). After finishing eighth in team run-blocking grade in 2020, the Saints checked in at 24th last year. And while Kamara's yards after contact dropped only slightly from 3.0 to 2.8, his yards per carry declined from 4.9 to 3.7 because of that poor run blocking. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: The Saints had four of their five starting linemen miss significant time last year, with only guard Cesar Ruiz playing in every game. They also cycled through four different quarterbacks due to injuries. Kamara's only hurdle is whether he'll be suspended for an offseason battery charge. Quarterback Jameis Winston, who has recovered from an ACL tear in his left knee, has made a point to emphasize his accuracy on shorter and immediate throws, meaning Kamara will get every chance to be utilized as a threat this year. — Mike Triplett


PFF grade in 2021: 59.1

What went wrong: The right ACL tear Barkley suffered in 2020 still had obvious lingering effects into 2021. He was a shell of his former uber-explosive self. Nothing better exemplified that than his work as a receiver. As a rookie, he broke 31 tackles on 91 receptions and averaged 7.9 yards per catch. In 2021, those numbers fell to seven broken tackles on 41 receptions with a 6.4-yard average. The home-run-hitting ability in space simply wasn't there. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Barkley looks healthier and better this summer than he has in years. Both coach Brian Daboll and quarterback Daniel Jones used the word “explosive” to describe him this summer. Is expecting rookie year Saquon Barkley realistic? Probably not. But he still has the look of a really good player who is a lot more confident in his body in Year 2 following his torn ACL. — Jordan Raanan


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: Returning from sitting the 2020 season out amid COVID-19, Mosley was nowhere near the player we saw before in Baltimore. The good news is, most of his struggles came at the beginning of the year, as he started with a 31.6 overall grade through nine weeks. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: The organization was happy with the performance of Mosley, who started 16 games, led the team in tackles and provided leadership on one of the youngest defenses in the league. Granted, the Jets finished 32nd in a few major categories, but that wasn't Mosley's fault. The Jets would be delighted if he delivers a repeat individual performance. — Rich Cimini


PFF grade in 2021:

What went wrong: After a career-best season in 2020, Bradberry had arguably a career-worst campaign in 2021. He allowed the highest completion percentage of his six-year career by a wide margin (65.2%). It's not too worrisome, however, as his ball production was still there, with four picks and 13 pass breakups. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Early signs indicate Bradberry is poised to bounce back. He has had one of the best training camps of any player on the Eagles' roster, routinely coming up with pass breakups and making life tough on the likes of DeVonta Smith and A.J. Brown. Bradberry likes it best when he is asked to play a healthy mixture of man and zone coverages, which should be a match for defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon's system. — Tim McManus


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: What didn't go wrong in Jacksonville last year? It's hard to blame Jack for a down season, considering the state of the Jaguars' coaching staff and general morale in the building. In Jack's previous three healthy seasons, his lowest grade was 68.3. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Jack is the Steelers' steadiest inside linebacker through 2 1/2 weeks of training camp. In the first padded practice, Jack blew up fullback Derek Watt in one of the final reps of backs-on-backers, and in team periods, he has shown a knack for shooting the gap and stopping the run. With Devin Bush coming off a roller-coaster season following a 2020 ACL tear, Jack is primed to lead the position group and revitalize the Steelers' run defense. — Brooke Pryor


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: Greenlaw endured a series of injuries in 2021, starting with a groin issue that required surgery and allowed him to play only three regular-season games. His return in the playoffs, however, was crucial to the 49ers' run in shutting down multiple top offenses. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: The 49ers believe they have the best starting trio of linebackers in the league, but that depends on Greenlaw (and Azeez Al-Shaair) staying healthy. Greenlaw has settled into his usual spot early in camp, and the team is doing what it can to ease his workload by offering an occasional day off. This is a big year for him, as he is slated for unrestricted free agency after the season. It's all the more reason he looks poised for a bounce-back season on a defense loaded with talent. — Nick Wagoner


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: Things never quite worked out for Coleman after he left Seattle in 2019. He allowed 869 yards in his first season as a starter with the Lions, and he hasn't been able to stay in a starting lineup since. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Coleman will have to make the team and earn a role on Seattle's defense before we can truly consider him a bounce-back candidate. Those aren't givens, considering he is competing with Marquise Blair and Ugo Amadi for the nickelback job and playing on a minimum-salary deal with a little over $150,000 guaranteed. Coleman's return to the place where he excelled in 2017 and 2018 could bring a level of comfort and confidence, though Seattle's defense has changed quite a bit since then. — Brady Henderson


PFF grade in 2021:

What went wrong: Between elbow, ankle and groin injuries, Hicks played in just nine games last season. Wear and tear is not uncommon for older players, but none of the injuries was serious enough to still be an issue in 2022. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Prior to last season, Hicks had only one other campaign in which he missed more than two regular-season games, and that was in 2019. Some guys' production falls off a cliff once they get into their 30s; but the Bucs have rookie second-round draft pick Logan Hall to rotate in with Hicks, so he doesn't need to play 800 snaps a season, and they have Vita Vea, who commands his share of double-teams. — Jenna Laine


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: Dupree suffered a torn ACL toward the end of the 2020 season and had lingering effects in 2021. He stated that it wasn't until the final game of last year that his knee felt back to normal. Of his 24 pressures, eight came in the final two games of the season. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Being a year removed from the torn ACL allowed Dupree to enter the offseason without worrying about rehabbing the knee. He trained with eight-year defensive end and pass-rush specialist Chuck Smith. Dupree said he once again started to feel his trademark strength and explosion coming off the edge toward the end of the season. The emergence of fellow front-four pass-rushers Harold Landry IIIJeffery Simmons and Denico Autry will lead to plenty of one-on-one matchups for Dupree this season. Dupree on Monday pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in Nashville and was sentenced to six months of probation. — Turron Davenport


PFF grade in 2021: 

What went wrong: This one is difficult to pin down. A right ACL tear ended Young's 2021 season against Tampa Bay in Week 10, but he fell well short of expectations prior to that. With his inability to win the edge, the “book” was out on how to stop him. Tackles were sitting on his bull rush and inside moves, forcing him to work an outside move. And Young had no recourse. — PFF

Outlook for 2022: Young will miss the season opener and possibly at least four games as he recovers from reconstructive surgery on his right knee. When he returns, his coaches hope he abandons a bad habit he fell into last year, in which he'd stutter step after starting his pass rush. It impacted his ability to play with violent hands and resulted in ineffective pass rushes. If he focuses on using his quickness off the ball combined with hand strength — and attacking one half of the blocker — Young will rebound once healthy. — John Keim


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