Lead Draft Writer
With training camps underway across the league, Eric Edholm identifies the biggest challenge facing each team heading into the 2022 NFL season.
On Saturday, July 30, NFL Network will present Training Camp: Back Together Saturday. Beginning at 9 a.m. ET, more than 50 analysts, reporters and team correspondents will provide 13 hours of live coverage from training camps across the NFL — plus, check out NFL Films-produced wired sound of players and coaches in action.
Biggest challenge: Establishing a consistent pass rush.
Sure, the absence of suspended receiver DeAndre Hopkins for the first six weeks of the regular season will make life tougher on the offense, especially after also losing Christian Kirk in free agency. But even with the news that offseason acquisition Marquise Brown will open camp on the non-football injury list, I think the biggest individual defection was Chandler Jones, who will leave a massive pass-rush void. Markus Golden and J.J. Watt are back to help pick up the slack, but rookies Cameron Thomas and Myjai Sanders might need to be ready to hit the ground running.
Biggest challenge: Fielding a potent passing game after trading Matt Ryan.
The Falcons traded away Ryan, their franchise pillar since 2008, to the Colts, and though there are potential short- and long-term solutions on the roster, the question will be how effective they are in replacing him. Marcus Mariota is the presumed starter, and he has history with head coach Arthur Smith, but third-rounder Desmond Ridder will push him. Can either play at a Ryan-like level — either this season or beyond — with the lack of established pass catchers currently on the roster?
Biggest challenge: Is the pass rush strong enough?
Following the shocking death of Jaylon Ferguson and with Tyus Bowser still recovering from an Achilles injury, the Ravens could be looking for help off the edges. Last year’s standout rookie, Odafe Oweh, will be one primary source. But second-rounder David Ojabo, who remains unsigned as of this writing, has his own Achilles rehab, and after the Ravens watched the Za’Darius Smith deal fall through, their only veteran addition came via the re-signing of 33-year-old Justin Houston. Baltimore might be scouring the wires for defenders who can bring heat versus the pass.
Biggest challenge: Identifying the team’s CB2.
The Bills haven’t said when star Tre’Davious White — currently on the physically unable to perform list — will return from his November ACL injury, but he’s expected to man one outside corner spot whenever he returns. The favorite opposite him has to be first-round pick Kaiir Elam, who has the length to handle bigger targets, but his immediate readiness will be questioned until proven. If not him, then who? Maybe Dane Jackson or Siran Neal step up, but the depth at corner is a bit worrisome.
Biggest challenge: Getting Baker Mayfield up to speed for a QB competition.
After the Panthers finally traded for Mayfield earlier this month, they said that he’d battle Sam Darnold for starting duties. It seems clear that the Panthers want Mayfield to win the job, but not trading for him sooner — the contact between Carolina and Cleveland about a potential deal dates back to before the NFL draft — cost him key offseason reps. Now it’s down to Mayfield mastering the system and outplaying Darnold in camp and the preseason, with the backdrop of a coaching staff that might be feeling heat if the team can’t win more.
Biggest challenge: Putting together a proper support system for Justin Fields.
Fields was hot and cold as a rookie under Matt Nagy, and now he has a new head coach (Matt Eberflus) and play-caller (Luke Getsy), both of whom are in those positions for the first time in the NFL. There are issues to sort out on the offensive line and at receiver, where there might not be a clear-cut go-to option. All that, with Fields trying to soak up a new scheme, could lead to some slow going early on for the Bears’ offense unless the run game is stout.
Biggest challenge: Avoiding the Super Bowl hangover and proving they have staying power.
The Bengals shocked the world by making the Super Bowl — and nearly winning it. Now comes the hard part: proving they belong among the league’s elite teams. They targeted their two biggest problem areas, the offensive line and secondary, in the offseason and have some of the best young offensive talent in the NFL. But they’re not sneaking up on anyone this time around, play in one of the more competitive divisions in football and face a bear of a schedule that includes seven of the first 11 games on the road.
Biggest challenge: Navigating the uncertainty around Deshaun Watson.
The Browns have had all offseason to prepare for the seemingly inevitable suspension of Watson, but the team still doesn’t know if or for how long it will be without its presumed star QB. Watson has been accused of sexual assault and misconduct during massage therapy sessions. He faces potential discipline from the NFL following its independent investigation into whether he violated the league’s personal-conduct policy.
Jacoby Brissett is Watson’s primary backup with Joshua Dobbs and recent signee Josh Rosen as the only other QBs on the roster. Watson last attempted a pass in the 2020 regular-season finale, too, so there will be a need to get the $230 million quarterback some reps in preseason — barring a suspension that spans the entire season.
Biggest challenge: Solidifying the offensive line.
Once annually a bedrock unit for Dallas, the offensive line wasn’t quite its dominant self a year ago, and now with the departures of Connor Williams and La’el Collins, this group must reform. Left tackle Tyron Smith remains a star until proven otherwise, but he missed six games in 2021, all but two games in 2020 and hasn’t played a full season since 2015. Terence Steele, the expected right tackle, and center Tyler Biadasz have underwhelmed somewhat, and rookie Tyler Smith might not be instant coffee at left guard, assuming he wins the starting job.
Biggest challenge: Finding early pass-rush sources.
When Denver traded Von Miller last season, the team knew there would be a giant void at one edge spot. That was filled with free-agent signee Randy Gregory, but Gregory had shoulder surgery shortly after joining the squad and is opening camp on the physically unable to perform list. Bradley Chubb returns, and second-round pick Nik Bonitto arrives with talent. But Chubb has missed a combined 24 games over the past three seasons and Bonitto might not be ready for full-time duty.
Biggest challenge: Finding an offensive identity and rhythm, especially in the passing game.
Detroit boasts one of the league’s better offensive lines, has tight end T.J. Hockenson back from injury and unearthed a potential gem in WR Amon-Ra St. Brown. But many questions remain, including how things will look under the direction of first-year offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. Jared Goff found his footing with Dan Campbell calling plays late last season and will have two new talented targets in WRs D.J. Chark and first-rounder Jameson Williams, but Williams is currently on the PUP list as he continues to work his way back from the ACL tear he suffered in the national title game.
Biggest challenge: Identifying reliable targets for Aaron Rodgers.
Trading away Davante Adams was surprising. Also, the Packers let Marquez Valdes-Scantling walk in free agency, so finding three or four threats at wideout could be very challenging for Rodgers. Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins (Watkins is currently on the non-football injury list) are the three most likely veterans to vie for those spots, but they also have 2021 third-rounder Amari Rodgers (who struggled as a rookie) and rookies in Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs. Could they look to add veteran help?
Biggest challenge: Improving a running game that was the league’s worst last season.
By the end of 2021, the Texans were trotting out 31-year-old Rex Burkhead to try to buoy a run game that finished the season ranked last in rush yards (1,422), yards per carry (3.4) and rushing TDs (eight). Burkhead remains in the fold, but new blood has been added in fourth-round pick Dameon Pierce and ex-Colt Marlon Mack. Pierce has a great chance to earn a big role, but don’t forget about Mack, even as he’s struggled with health in recent seasons. An improved offensive line might work wonders, too.
Biggest challenge: Finding a starting receiver opposite Michael Pittman Jr.
T.Y. Hilton remains unsigned, and though GM Chris Ballard made it clear that he hasn’t closed the door on a reunion, for now the Colts have a group with some serious questions. Second-round pick Alec Pierce should have a good chance to win a starting job, and his biggest competition could come from fourth-year veteran Parris Campbell, who has only four career games with more than 25 receiving yards. Other names include Ashtin Dulin, who had a few big plays late last year, Dezmon Patmon, who had the game-winning TD at Arizona in Week 16, and king-sized project Mike Strachan.
Biggest challenge: Making sure they help Trevor Lawrence develop.
A year-plus after the Jaguars selected Lawrence first overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, we’re already wondering if he can maximize his talent after a trying rookie season. The clear hope is that Doug Pederson can help cleanse Lawrence from his Urban Meyer experience and that a slew of offseason reinforcements on offense will also pay big dividends. Lawrence’s effectiveness seemed to grow last year when he used his legs to extend plays, so it will be interesting to see if that’s an expanded part of his repertoire.
Biggest challenge: Finding more pass-rush sources.
Only one team (the New York Jets) has more money committed to its defensive linemen than the Chiefs do this season, per Spotrac. Much of that belongs to Chris Jones, who remains one of the best at his job. But getting more out of Frank Clark, who came back on a two-year, $29 million deal — quite a bit for a player who was very quiet last season outside of a few games — will be very important. The Chiefs drafted George Karlaftis in Round 1 to add juice to the unit. They need those players to step up.
Biggest challenge: Solidifying the offensive line.
Josh McDaniels could have an offense bursting with potential if the Raiders can sort out the offensive line. Kolton Miller has developed nicely at left tackle, but there are questions at the other spots. At right tackle, embattled former first-round pick Alex Leatherwood will try to prove he’s not a bust. Third-round pick Dylan Parham could earn a starting role at guard if he’s not tried at center. The player who had been penciled in to start at right guard, Denzelle Good, announced his retirement this week. There’s a lot to figure out, which makes the Raiders’ early reporting date all the more important here.
Biggest challenge: Finding a capable right tackle.
The Chargers are an ascending team with notable talent at several spots. But their biggest positional question might be at right tackle, where 2021 starter Storm Norton is set to battle with 2019 third-rounder Trey Pipkins for starting honors. Norton was subpar as a pass blocker a year ago, and protecting Justin Herbert is the biggest concern up front. Pipkins has started 10 games over three seasons, often struggling when given an opportunity. But he has more talent and potential than Norton, which is why some believe Pipkins could make the most of what’s likely his final shot with the Chargers.
Biggest challenge: Staying healthy and building depth.
The Rams rewrote the unofficial team-building handbook last season with their top-heavy approach, securing a handful of star talents and surrounding them with solid, complementary players. The Rams also stayed relatively healthy a year ago, all things considered, and rode off with a Super Bowl victory in their home stadium. But can they count on good health again? The roster’s depth could be seriously tested; it features only four former first-round picks and eight second-rounders.
Biggest challenge: Unlocking Tua Tagovailoa’s potential.
The challenge comes in the timing. Tagovailoa, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, clearly has the talent. And following a bountiful offseason, Miami’s supporting cast now appears to be in place. But Mike McDaniel doesn’t have time to waste in his first year as head coach. The Dolphins hold two first-round picks in 2023 and could be ready to move on from Tagovailoa next spring if the lefty can’t start to put it all together following two inconclusive seasons.
Biggest challenge: Finding solutions at cornerback.
Minnesota has endured struggles at the position the past two seasons, and the potential is there to make it three years in a row. Even with talent at safety, the Vikings must be worried about a group that could be counting on Patrick Peterson, Cameron Dantzler, second-round pick Andrew Booth Jr. and Chandon Sullivan, among others. Can Peterson turn back the clock? Is Dantzler better than the old staff realized? How ready is Booth after missing the offseason program while recovering from core muscle surgery? And can Sullivan earn a top-three role after coming from Green Bay? There are a lot of questions here.
Biggest challenge: Shepherding Mac Jones with an unusual offensive coordinator situation.
Far be it from us to question the coaching wisdom of Bill Belichick, but the Patriots are taking unorthodox to a different level with their approach to the role of offensive coordinator. When Josh McDaniels departed for the Raiders’ head-coaching job, it left a void at OC — one that hasn’t officially been filled. Matt Patricia, whose background is on defense, and Joe Judge, a former special-teams and receivers coach, are the expected candidates for the job, although we might not even know who has it anytime soon. This is occurring at a critical time in Jones’ development as he looks to build on a solid rookie season.
Biggest challenge: Figuring out what to expect from their star players.
There’s good news here, with Michael Thomas returning to practice after opening camp on the physically unable to perform list. On the other side of the ball, pass rusher Marcus Davenport remains on the PUP list, although there’s hope that his stay will be brief. There’s the matter of Alvin Kamara and possible discipline from the NFL stemming from his arrest and booking for battery in Las Vegas in February, with a hearing set for next month. Oh, and QB Jameis Winston is coming off a torn ACL. The first few weeks of training camp could be quite telling in regards to the availability of some key players.
Biggest challenge: Finding offensive difference-makers.
There certainly are questions on defense, too, but new head coach Brian Daboll was brought in to try to light a fire under QB Daniel Jones, get the most from RB Saquon Barkley in a flashpoint season and maximize the rest of the offensive talent. Jones is the biggest domino, with the team having declined his fifth-year option this summer, but Barkley enters his potential final season in blue if he doesn’t produce. Also, there is a need to get WRs Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney going, identify some useful tight ends and have the offensive line jell up front. That’s a lot of work for Daboll and his staff.
Biggest challenge: Get the most out of Mekhi Becton after his position change.
GM Joe Douglas’ maiden draft pick with the Jets was the uncommonly gifted Becton, a people-mover with rare mass. Unfortunately, that mass had become a talking point for all the wrong reasons until head coach Robert Saleh credited him for arriving to camp in good shape. Weight problems and conditioning worries following a knee injury that caused him to miss 16 games a year ago are not yet distant memories, though. Now the former 11th overall pick must prove to the Jets that he can be effective in a new spot, with Saleh announcing Becton will move from left to right tackle with George Fant playing LT.
Biggest challenge: Ensure the defense plays to its potential.
The Eagles had a productive offseason, and not just on offense. The defense received help in free agency and the draft, arguably upgrading all three levels. Plus, Brandon Graham is back. So, in the same way that Jalen Hurts will feel pressure to improve with the offensive additions, DC Jonathan Gannon now comes into the spotlight after the Eagles underachieved defensively in 2021. While Philadelphia posted solid numbers in some defensive categories and Gannon received multiple head-coaching interviews this offseason, good QBs shredded the Eagles last year. Dak Prescott, Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert, Tom Brady and Derek Carr combined to complete 82.1 percent of their passes, tally a 21:3 TD-to-INT ratio and average nearly nine yards per attempt in seven games against them, including the playoffs. Gannon must find ways to generate more big plays and slow down star passers or risk being replaced.
Biggest challenge: Figuring out when to hand the reins to Kenny Pickett.
Given that Mitch Trubisky took the lion’s share of first-team reps during offseason workouts, it will be an upset if he isn’t the Week 1 QB. Pickett might be breathing down his neck, and Mason Rudolph remains in the picture, but Trubisky is the likely starter when the Steelers open at the Bengals. Pickett is the future, no doubt, but the first-round pick was often seen running the third-team offense this offseason. How will Mike Tomlin and Matt Canada handle those reps in camp? You can bet Pickett will receive plenty of preseason snaps, but getting him ready behind the scenes for a potential regular-season handoff will be a delicate balancing act. And Tomlin, who’s yet to log a single losing season as the head man in Pittsburgh, intends to keep winning.
Biggest challenge: Putting Trey Lance in a position to succeed now.
After two starts as a rookie (plus only 17 at the FCS level), the 22-year-old Lance is expected to be the starting QB this season, despite the fact that Jimmy Garoppolo remains on the roster (for now). Kyle Shanahan squeezed everything from that bloodstone that he could, although it must be said that the 49ers went 31-14 with Garoppolo at QB, as well as 4-2 in the playoffs with a Super Bowl appearance. Lance is the more gifted of the two. The 2021 No. 3 overall pick is teeming with upside, which he teased in those two starts last year. But is he ready to take the wheel full time? It will be fascinating to see which elements of the offense Shanahan scraps — and which ones he emphasizes — with Lance under center. Will the team’s success continue while Lance develops?
Biggest challenge: Picking a quarterback who gives them a chance this year.
Unless the Seahawks are already looking toward the 2023 NFL Draft, it’s hard to understand their plan at the game’s most important position. Battling it out for starting duties are holdover Geno Smith and trade acquisition Drew Lock — both former high second-rounders who have never quite proven to be NFL starting material. Smith might have the slight edge heading into camp, and the good news is that the team’s likely to feature the run game quite a bit. But playing behind an offensive line that could start two rookie tackles, whoever wins the QB job will be tasked with keeping it in working conditions that are far from ideal.
Biggest challenge: Filling the TE void left by Gronk.
Assuming Rob Gronkowski’s retirement sticks (unlike that of his QB buddy), the Bucs have some things to figure out at tight end, with O.J. Howard also departing this offseason. The newly signed Kyle Rudolph joins a group in Tampa that includes steady Cameron Brate and two 2022 draft picks, Cade Otton and Ko Kieft. It will be fascinating to see how Tom Brady and OC Byron Leftwich adjust, personnel-wise, to so much turnover at the position. Gronk averaged nearly 7.5 targets per game last season and was a huge part of the team’s red-zone package when healthy, so his duties might end up being split up among the group.
Biggest challenge: Getting the overhauled receiving corps up to speed quickly.
The Titans traded A.J. Brown and let Julio Jones walk, leaving them short in the established-receiver department. Robert Woods certainly figures to play a primary role, but will it be right away? He just tore his ACL eight months ago. Meanwhile, first-round pick Treylon Burks is an exciting talent, but he had to have touches schemed up in college and got off to a slow start with Tennessee this offseason. Nick Westbrook-Ikhine could be a riser with more consistent snaps, but the Titans only return one player who caught a pass in the playoff loss to the Bengals, and that’s running back Dontrell Hilliard. Someone must step up to help an embattled Ryan Tannehill flourish after last season ended with a thud and the offseason wiped out the WR depth chart.
Biggest challenge: Fixing Carson Wentz.
We could get cute here and analyze some more obscure aspect of the team. But come on. The Commanders are attempting to do what the Colts could not: tap into Wentz’s reserves and resurrect his early-career form. Wentz has been off track for some time, arguably since the ACL injury that derailed what could have been an MVP season in 2017. If there’s a man for the job, it’s offensive coordinator Scott Turner, whose reputation is that of a coach who caters his scheme to a QB’s strengths. There’s some offensive skill talent here, and perhaps a fresh start for Wentz will bear fruit. But if he couldn’t get it done in Indy — in what looked like a pretty good environment for him to thrive in 2021 — what leads someone to believe that it’s likely to happen here and now?
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