The pads are thudding. The sprinklers are sprinkling. Training camp is here. And with that, we look at the 10 most important figures for the 2022 NFL season, in no particular order.
1) Trey Lance, quarterback, San Francisco 49ers
It’s Lance Time in San Francisco. Everybody loves the idea of a young quarterback watching and learning the game from the sideline, taking his time from him, cultivating his craft from him away from the spotlight and pressure. But, at some point, it’s time to go.
The Niners are embracing the uncertainty. Lance was drafted to solve a specific schematic riddle that Jimmy Garoppolo could not. Garoppolo was part of a team that came within a drive of the Super Bowl and returned to an NFC championship game. But his flaws were consistently exposed. Lance might not be as consistent as Garoppolo, but he raises the team’s ceiling.
No team in the league has as wide a range of outcomes as the Niners in 2022. Sat here at the start of August, you could convince yourself that they will win it all, thanks to the blend of Kyle Shanahan’s re-worked offense, a stacked defensive line, a re-shaped secondary and Lance. It’s just as conceivable that they win six games: That Lance isn’t ready; that the defensive line returns to the mean. The most decisive factor between the two: the new starting quarterback.
2) Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner
Two crucial things weigh over Goodell heading into the season. He will serve as the appealer-in-Chief for Deshaun Watson’s impending appeal. Nestled in the fine print of the latest CBA is the ability for the commissioner, or his designee, to appeal any decision from the league’s newly-appointed disciplinary officer, who handed down a six-game suspension on Monday.
Then there’s the small matter of Daniel Snyder and the Washington Commanders. Snyder, the league’s most cartoonishly villainous owner, continues to drag the Washington franchise and the league into a swamp of his own making. Snyder finally answered questions under oath last Thursday to the House oversight committee. The congressional committee continues to probe the Washington franchise and accusations that Snyder presided over a toxic workplace culture.
Other owners are reported to be fed up with Snyder’s act, perhaps enough to force him out of the league. Snyder is notoriously litigious, which has worked as a shield for him and the franchise throughout his sleaze-riddled run. But as the accusations mount – including that he presented a set of phony books to his league partners – Goodell could be forced into taking action to try to remove the owner.
3) Patrick Mahomes, quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs
A second-half meltdown in the AFC championship game cost the Chiefs a shot at a second title last season. Now there’s a new look in Kansas City: Tyreek Hill and Tyrann Mathieu, stalwarts of the team’s recent success, are out. Hill was a once-in-a-lifetime field tilter that made life easier for his quarterback and the pass-catchers beside him. He imbued the whole offense with a sense that there was no deficit that was insurmountable.
Mahomes will have to strike up an instant connection with his new supporting cast to lead another postseason push. He has lived a blessed life early in his career – the ideal coach, franchise and supporting cast. The Chiefs’ roster remains one of the most talented in the league, but it’s now over Mahomes to raise the level of those around him.
4) Sean McVay, head coach, LA Rams
McVay is looking to become the first head coach to lead a team to back-to-back Super Bowl titles since Bill Belichick in 2003-04. He’s also set to become the highest paid coach in the league, with reports suggesting his new contract will eclipse Belichick’s.
Yet while the Rams are looking to tie McVay down for the long-term, whispers continue to persist that McVay would be happy to step away from the Rams – be it for another job or TV work – once the cap sins of the past few years start to catch up to the team.
5) Dr Alex Steinforth, NFL Germany
The NFL has entered a new phase of its international expansion. Whereas before there was a heavy focus on London (with nods to games in Canada and Mexico), the league is now going global. The NFL awarded Exclusive International Home Market Areas to 18 teams across 26 markets in eight countries. As the NFL takes its streaming rights under its own umbrella, they’re focusing on securing as many eyes on games as possible, irrespective of the location. Eyeballs are eyeballs; dollars are dollars.
The next key frontier: Germany. For the first time, the NFL is taking a regular season game to Munich. More than three million people entered the queue to secure tickets to the Bucs-Seahawks game in November. The demand for tickets to the inaugural game will inevitably lead to a second game in 2023 with the prospect of future games in different German markets – Frankfurt, Düsseldorf – in future years.
6) Aaron Rodgers, quarterback, Green Bay Packers
The Packers were finally able to put an end to the will-he-won’t-he Aaron Rodgers saga over the offseason. Rodgers signed an enormous three-year, $151m deal. Does that mean that Rodgers will play all three years? Who knows? Does it mean he’s happy? Pffft.
What we do know: Rodgers’ new deal made it tough for the Packers to improve over the offseason. The team was able to find enough cash behind the sofa to keep the bulk of its core intact. But the cap crunch meant that Green Bay had to say goodbye to valuable contributors. The biggest loss: Davante Adams, a one-man offense masquerading as a receiver.
The Packers are still one of the most talented teams in the NFL, but it’s hard to point to more than one area where they decidedly improved this offseason. Rodgers is still at the peak of his powers, gunning for a third straight MVP award, but it’s been proven that he cannot carry a team to a championship alone.
7) Jerry Jones, owner, Dallas Cowboys
Jones has already been talking about the warmth of the seat of his head coach. Mike McCarthy is not in any trouble, he says. But Jones does have options, he’d like to note. Jones will help determine whether or not the Cowboys can make a serious championship push – something that could mean making an in-season change from McCarthy to one of his ready-to-go coordinators of him.
As one of the power-centers of the league, Jones will also be heavily involved in any decision as it relates to Daniel Snyder’s ownership of the Commanders and approving the Walton family’s takeover of the Broncos.
8) Josh McDaniels, head coach, Las Vegas Raiders
Drop the Raiders into any other division in the NFL and they’d be a surefire contender. More often than not, they’d be the preseason favorite. Plop them in the AFC West, however, and you’re looking at a team that could conceivably finish first or last.
In his second go-round as a head coach, McDaniels has walked into a team with perhaps the finest skill position group anywhere in football. In Adams, he has the game’s top receiver. In Darren Waller, he has one of the upper-tier tight ends. In Hunter Renfrow, the duo has an overqualified third banana. Locking in Derek Carr into a new contract gives the Raiders assurance at quarterback – and with a quarterback who continues to improve.
Raiders should be good. The other AFC West teams look more complete. McDaniels and co. will likely be forced to play the role of spoilers: halting the Chargers’ momentum; making life uncomfortable for Mahomes and the Chiefs; knee-capping the start of the Walton-Wilson-Hackett era in Denver.
9) Ken Dorsey, offensive coordinator, Buffalo Bills
The Bills have no obvious flaw. They have the deepest and most talented roster in the NFL. They have an elite quarterback. They have playmakers all over the field. They have a good offensive line. Their defensive front is loaded. Their secondary features the best safety tandem in the league. They are deep at corner. The only plausible cause for concern: Moving from Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator to Ken Dorsey. Daboll ran a specific system with Allen. And while Dorsey will look likely to replicate that success, it’s possible (though unlikely) that there could be some teething problems.
10) Tom Brady, quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brady’s retirement-unretirement was the dominant story of the offseason. One trip to Salford, and Brady decided he wasn’t quite ready to give up on this whole football thing after all. Whether or not Este is his final season, before he takes up a lucrative job with FOX, remains to be seen. He is still at the apex of his powers, even at 44 years old. At this point, another MVP-caliber season is more of an expectation than a projection. And with reinforcements along the offense – on the line and at the skill positions – the Bucs enter the year as neck-a-neck favorites with the Rams to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.