Sides of the Ball That Will Take “the Next Step” in 2022
The Chargers' Defense
I confidently believe that Brandon Staley will prove to be one of the best head coaches in the NFL in his second year with the Chargers. As a former quarterback himself, he understands what offenses are trying to achieve play-to-play. He understands how offensive minds want to attack his defense, and how to counter them. This defense gets me really excited. This is Derwin James' first fully healthy offseason in years and his second season in Staley's system. While he was already the leader of the defense, this season I see him mastering the defense. At free safety, I believe rookie JT Woods will push Nasir Adderley for the starting role, and both players will be better. I also like that Staley can play around with Asante Samuel Jr. who will take a major jump in year two. JC Jackson is an elite outside corner, and Michael Davis can carry the load on the outside. That frees Samuel Jr. up to play the slot and confuse defenses with James at strong safety. With Davante Adams and Russell Wilson entering the AFC West, it is really important to have a great secondary, and that's exactly what the Chargers have. Upfront, Khalil Mack is going to make all his teammates better. He had the best season of his career with Staley coaching him in Chicago, and I could see him coming back to all-pro caliber in 2022. Joey Bosa is now fully recovered from his neck injury and has said that he's in the best mental shape of his career. The most underrated signing of this offseason was Sebastian Joseph-Day (SJD). SJD is one of the most athletic, and intellectual defensive tackles in the NFL. He will allow the Chargers to play Staley's patented "two-gap" technique. This Chargers' defense could be even better than their offense which is really saying something. 2022 will be the year the Chargers finally make the jump.
The Eagles' Offense
So much of offensive success relies on the quarterback and the Eagles have done everything possible to make Jalen Hurts' life easy. Last year, was his first full season as a starter, and this year he has continuity with the coaching staff. In 2021, he was very inconsistent, but I always felt that he needed another weapon on the outside. Howie Roseman understood this and went all in. AJ Brown is the physical X-receiver that this offense was missing last season. Brown will be tasked with taking on the opposing team's number one corner which gives Devonta Smith favorable match-ups as a number two receiver. The coaching staff isn't the only thing with continuity for the Eagles, they also managed to retain all five starting offensive linemen from 2021. That line should also face lighter fronts because of the addition of Brown on the outside. This means that Miles Sanders will have a better chance to break more runs in 2022. The Eagles' offense should take the next step in 2022, it all just depends on Jalen Hurts' progression.
The Broncos' Defense
Out of all the teams on this list, this may be the biggest head-scratcher, but I think this defense can be really good. It all starts with their new defensive coordinator, Ejiro Evero, who quietly is one of the best assistant coaches in the NFL. He's been working his way up the ranks for years now and has been able to learn from some of the league's best defensive coaches: Brandon Staley, Raheem Morris, Sean McVay (has a great defensive mind), Jim Harbaugh, and Dom Capers. This is the first year that he will be calling a defense, but I really think he is going to surprise some people. It is a long time coming, and he has some really good pieces to work with. Defensively, everything starts with free safety Justin Simmons who has shown that he can consistently be one of the league's best safety. Patrick Surtain II is a guy who came in immediately and played at a pro bowl level. I see him being the "Jalen Ramsey" of Evero's defense. He is one of the most technically sound corners in the NFL and has a lot of untapped potential. They signed two key pieces from the 49ers this year, K'Waun Williams and DJ Jones. Williams is a guy who can match up with any receiver in the slot: Hunter Renfrow, Keenan Allen, or whomever. Jones on the other hand is elite at causing chaos in the run game and disrupting plays behind the line of scrimmage. He will compliment Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory very well on the outside. It might take a few games to click, but I anticipate the Broncos having one of the best defenses in the NFL by the end of the season.
The 49ers' Offense
This may cause a few of you to scratch your head because the 49ers already have one of the league's best offenses. They are on this list because Trey Lance is going to add an element to Kyle Shanahan's offense that will make this offense even better. That element is the deep ball-- one of Lance's biggest strengths as a quarterback. Lance has taken on the leadership role this offseason and has been working with receiver Brandon Aiyuk in Southern California. This is also with the assumption that Deebo Samuel signs his long-term deal with the 49ers before the season starts. While Samuel may not be carrying the ball as much out of the backfield, he will still see a great magnitude of Lance's targets. Lance is going to be dynamic out of the pocket, and his impact will really show on off-schedule plays. Outside of Lance, I anticipate Aiyuk and Elijah Mitchell taking major steps in 2022. For Aiyuk, it's really important for him to start the year strong. Last season, he didn't have a big role in the offense until the second half of the year. As for Mitchell, this is his first offseason as an NFL starter. I anticipate him having a greater role as a receiver out of the backfield. I also see George Kittle having a greater role as a receiver in 2022 because of Lance's ability to put the ball on a rope towards the middle of the field. While there are so many reasons to be excited about the 49ers' offense, Kyle Shanahan having a full season and offseason to come up with ways to use Trey Lance has to be the most exciting. The 49ers' offense was already awesome, but in 2022 I believe it will be even "awesomer".
The Vikings' Offense
Kevin O'Connell may not have been the "biggest name" to get hired this offseason, but he could be the most impactful. He is going to simplify the game for Kirk Cousins and help get the Vikings' offense in the best position to succeed. He is one of the masterminds behind Cooper Kupp's 2021 season and is like a "Mini McVay". He is going to find ways to get Justin Jefferson open in ways that we didn't know were possible. While it may hurt Dalvin Cook's fantasy production, I anticipate him using Cook in a way that prevents him from getting injured and keeps him on the field. This includes more opportunities as a receiver out of the backfield and more time for Alexander Mattison as a pure runner. It seems like O'Connell and Cousins see the game in a very similar way; I see the two being a good match in Minnesota. This is a make-or-break year for Cousins, and I see O'Connell simplifying the game for him. The best coaches make the complicated intricacies simple, and that is what I see coach O'Connell doing in Minnesota.