The 2022 NFL season is underway and after one mostly disturbing week, we’ll hope that all the low scores and sloppy play were just a function of teams doing little in the preseason to get players “game sharp.” Only three games contained a team that scored over 31 points. There were nine last year and seven before that. It was surprising to see the Chiefs using starters in the preseason. And then they went and spanked the defending World Champs on opening Thursday night.
There was a long list of players that rose in the rankings this summer, and almost all of them haven’t yet justified the hype – D.J. Moore, Allen Robinson, Elijah Moore, Dameon Pierce, Rhamondre Stevenson, Zamir White, Isiah Pacheco, and many more. But as always – it was only one game, and in many cases, that game will be different than all the others.
Week 1 probably sparked as many questions as it did answers. Here are six players or situations I’m watching this weekend.
1.) 49ers backfield – This is the one that everyone wants to know. Who steps up after Elijah Mitchell injured his
shoulder ribs finger head knee hamstring MCL and will miss up to two months before he is available for the next injury. In his wake are Jeff Wilson, Tyler Davis-Price, and Jordan Mason. Wilson enters his sixth year with the 49ers as a backup they’d rather not need to use. Wilson isn’t bad, but he isn’t much more than “just another running back.” He’s only 26, but he’s never been more than a backup. Davis-Price was their 3.29 pick, but was inactive in Week 1 and hasn’t impressed in the summer. That leaves Jordan Mason, whose best aspect so far is that he’s an unknown. He was an undrafted free agent and had the most positives in practices. This is all worth tracking because of this trend:
The 49ers had a different primary running back every year since 2014 when Frank Gore’s streak ended. HC Mike Shanahan started in 2017 where this lack of consistency took a firm hold.
2.) The Cowboys – Losing Dak Prescott seems catastrophic for the franchise. While he missed 11 games in 2020, they had Andy Dalton on hand. This year, Cooper Rush takes over with just one start since entering the league in 2017. He relied on Dalton Schultz, but the rest of the receivers including CeeDee Lamb have to be devalued. There are two things to watch for – first, will Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard see higher usage? There is every reason to want Elliott to do well, and for Pollard to add to the receivers. Secondly, I want to see if the passing game can be sustained until Prescott returns. If it looks bad, then Jimmy Garoppolo, Mason Rudolph, or other veteran quarterbacks may be acquired.
3.) RB Kenneth Walker III (SEA) – The Seahawks’ 2.09 pick was the second running back selected in the 2022 NFL draft, but he missed time with a groin injury. He ran just five times for 19 yards and caught an 11-yard pass in the preseason. But the Michigan State star logged 1,623 yards and 18 scores on 263 carries last year. He still has plenty of tread on the tires with just the one big year. Rashaad Penny remains the starter until he isn’t. That all depends on Walker. Penny ran for 60 yards on 12 carries last week versus the Broncos, so he’s done well on the few carries they gave him. When Walker shows up, it’s hard to imagine that Seattle will continue to only have 13 total carries in a game with two running backs of their quality. The plan this year was to run more. One of three outcomes will happen. Either Penny does the unthinkable and remains productive and healthy as the primary back, Walker outperforms him (or replaces the injured Penny), or they kill each other’s potential by sharing the workload that so far is not big enough to be split.
4.) WR Garrett Wilson (NYJ) – The second wide receiver drafted this year (1.10) only played in little more than half of the snaps in the loss to the Ravens, but he logged eight targets for four catches and 52 yards in his first NFL game. It was a high-volume pass day with Joe Flacco tossing 59 passes, three other wideouts caught at least five passes each. But the Jets will need to throw more than most teams, and Wilson has already jumped into the fray as an equal. He only averaged 13 yards per catch, but his 4.38 speed and college history says he’ll start catching deeper passes soon.
5.) WR Chase Claypool (PIT) – The Steelers are adjusting to life without Ben Roethlisberger, though so far the results have been similar. Pat Freiermuth stepped up to five catches and Diontae Johnson remains a target-sponge with a very low average length of catch. But Hype-monster George Pickens debuted with only one catch for three yards. He was thought to have been a detriment for Chase Claypool but certainly not yet. The Steelers opted to make Claypool their own “Deebo Samuel” by throwing him four catches for 18 yards, and six rushes for 36 yards. Najee Harris only ran ten times for 23 yards. Regardless of what happens at quarterback, Claypool as a runner was effective.
6.) RB Rhamondre Stevenson (NE) – Of the many surprises, revelations and head-scratchers last week, one that went counter to conventional wisdom and interpreted coach-speak was second-year back Rhamondre Stevenson. He was touted to take over for the retired James White. Stevenson (6-0, 246 lbs.) may not look like White (5-10, 205 lbs.), and his resume’ was more of a workhorse, power-back. There was speculation that he’d replace Damien Harris as the primary back. With OC Josh McDaniels gone, the roles and responsibilities were up for change anyway. But Ty Montgomery entered the picture in the final part of August as another receiving back.
In Week 1, Harris gained 48 yards on nine carries and caught two passes for ten yards. Stevenson was a close second with eight rushes for 25 yards and two catches for two yards. Montgomery ran twice for a net two-yard loss and led the backfield with three catches for 15 yards and the only Patriot touchdown. But Montgomery injured his right knee and landed on injured reserve.
The coaching staff spoke to the backfield to remain limited to Stevenson and Harris. They also drafted Pierre Strong in the fourth round, but his development has been slow. The Patriots have a solid offensive line and more reasons to run since the transition away from McDaniels has not been smooth. This week at the Steelers they face a defense that gave 27 carries to Joe Mixon and their backfield totaled ten catches for 99 yards. This should be a very telling week for how the backfield will be sharing the ball and which back is the truly better option.