Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills
With great play (both in fantasy and reality) comes great expectations. You could argue no team comes into the 2022 season with higher outside expectations than the Buffalo Bills. Buffalo has gotten oh so close to the Super Bowl the last couple of years and frankly, it’s not Josh Allen’s fault they weren’t there last season.
Nevertheless, he’ll be the prime catalyst for this team's hopes to make a title push. This team can add anyone it wants but at the end of the day, they’ll go as Allen goes. Squarely in the prime of his career and one of the best quarterbacks on the planet, we should have all the confidence in the world for Allen.
Fantasy managers will also hope Allen can carry plenty of weight on his shoulders.
We know that the Allen-to-Stefon Diggs connection is white-hot and the latter’s status as a fringe first-round fantasy draft pick shows it. Gabe Davis’ ADP fluctuated depending on your fantasy platform but for the most part, we’re all on board with him making a leap. Isaiah McKenzie ended the year in the draftable range and Dawson Knox is a consensus top-10 tight end. And we didn’t even mention the backfield.
If all of these players are going to hit their peak value in fantasy and the Bills are going to make a Super Bowl run … Allen needs to be special. I believe he can be. We’ve seen him be that player already.
He’s my favorite pick for MVP this season.
Matthew Stafford, Los Angeles Rams
There’s always some level of “Super Bowl hangover” concerns, especially with a team like the Rams that seemed to really enjoy their post-game celebrations.
All jokes aside, the Rams have the type of culture and veteran infrastructure to keep the train on the tracks. No one is expecting a full-on regression. It’ll just be a challenge to navigate some of the changing waters. This roster is weaker in certain areas and the loss of big-name players like Andrew Whitworth, Von Miller and Odell Beckham leaves behind big shoes to fill. The Rams have some in-house options to step up and we can never discount them from a mid-season move but the reality is they don’t win the Super Bowl last year without those aforementioned guys.
The only way this train really goes off the rails is if something goes awry with Matthew Stafford. There’s a chance the fretting over his elbow this offseason was all for naught. It’s not a new injury, Stafford has played through pain before and McVay has been known to be slightly dramatic with his media reports. But if this is something TO worry about — no one can blame you if seeing a quarterback compared to an aging pitcher leaves you unsettled — there’s a floor on this Rams’ team that didn’t exist before.
We shouldn’t be projecting or expecting doom for the Rams. We don’t really have a reason to be worried about Stafford, who is coming off a fantastic debut season with LA and could be even better in his encore, heading into Week 1. However, we will likely keep one eye with a slightly raised brow fixated on him all season.
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
While a handful of teams underwent an identity shift this offseason, the Titans essentially doubled down on their Derrick Henry-centric identity.
The only other star-level talent in this offensive skill position group was A.J. Brown. Brown was shipped off to Philadelphia; Henry was given a pay bump this offseason. Obviously, the two contract situations aren’t the same but it all still points to where the team is most comfortable dedicating resources.
Henry arrives in 2022 at an interesting inflection point in his career. He’s endured a ton of mileage in recent years and nothing the Titans did this offseason indicates they’re planning on easing up. It was clear the version of Henry we got when he returned from an injury in last year’s playoffs wasn’t anything close to peak form. If he gets right back to the top level of his play and sustains throughout the year, the Titans' offense will be in good shape. If not, the loss of Brown will be felt even more as this passing game isn’t equipped to carry the team.
How Henry plays this year will determine the fate of this AFC contender — and countless fantasy teams.
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
I’m not convinced the Panthers are going to be anything close to a contender this year but let’s be honest — either way, we’re all interested in seeing Christian McCaffrey play again.
For starters, any time superstar talent is going to return after a long layoff, I’m down to watch. McCaffrey is such a unique player in the NFL, the real win would just be able to get him back and operating at the height of his powers. We’ll always be afraid of Lucy pulling the football with his health but it would be incredible if he stays out there for a full season. Not to mention, he will legitimately win fantasy leagues on his own.
McCaffrey will also play a huge role in the Baker Mayfield career-rehab tour. CMC made Sam Darnold’s life easier when he was out there last year. There’s no doubt he would do the same for Mayfield. The former No. 1 overall pick having a chance at a second act when his career opener didn't truly crash and burn should be a bigger story. McCaffrey leading the charge would be helpful if it’s going to end in success.
Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes would be the easiest Chiefs’ nominee but Travis Kelce is the lone pass-catcher on the Chiefs who both projects to play a ton and has a history with the quarterback.
Kelce has been one of, if not the most, dynamic players at the position in league history. That said, he’s about to turn 33 years old this season and wasn’t quite as prolific from start to finish last year as we’re used to. With some of the receivers added this offseason, it’s worth wondering how he’ll be deployed this year.
I could see Kelce playing more of the X-receiver spot that he operated in during the 2020 season since none of KC's receivers profile as a legitimate No. 1s. But he may end up needing to play more traditional tight end snaps if the Chiefs see MVS as their speed X-receiver and JuJu as their big slot.
Kelce’s resume shows he can play any spot along the receiver position. How he integrates into this new-look offense as it takes the next step in its identity shift will go a long way in dictating how the transition goes.
Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers
All eyes will be on Trey Lance this season but in reality, whether he’s good or not will be a referendum on Kyle Shanahan.
I love this idea that Shanahan is hedging by bringing back Jimmy Garoppolo this season and might be able to salvage the 49ers with the veteran quarterback. News flash: If Lance is bad, that comes back to Shanahan. If he feels the need to hedge, he’s already lost the war.
Should Lance bottom out and prove the massive investment made with Shanahan’s blessing was a bad bet, the coach might not survive such a failing. That’s even with some fairytale where Garoppolo gets back in there and stabilizes the ship.
So all eyes will be on Shanahan even as we watch the Lance experiment play out. Personally, I still want to believe that the wily coach will have an entirely redesigned and fascinating offense built around Lance to roll out in Week 1 that leaves most prior observers blown away. We saw a similar story play out with Shanahan and a rookie-year Robert Griffin III years ago in Washington.
Lamar Jackson, Baltimore Ravens
Jackson’s contract situation alone will take up oxygen, given that a deal feels unlikely to hit before Week 1. That was the hard deadline Jackson put on negotiations before being put on pause during the season.
His on-field play should be a fascinating story to watch as well. It seems like we’ve forgotten what a dynamic force Jackson is as a player. When he’s surrounded by good players, he can lead an offense as a dual-threat. He’s one of the best pure rushers in the league.
If you’re a Rashod Bateman believer like I am, you also feel confident in saying Jackson is tethered to by far the best receiving duo he’s ever had in the NFL. Bateman’s ability as a pure X-receiver who can get open at all levels is a dimension this offense hasn’t seen in years.
If he hits, Jackson is going to have his best season since winning the MVP.
Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Chargers
We have no reason to doubt the Chargers' offense. You can pick nits at their right tackle position or their lack of deep speed at wide receiver but this offense should be top five in the league without much of a stretch. Justin Herbert can win MVP, Austin Ekeler and the boys can bring home fantasy titles; no doubts there.
The questions lie with just how good this team can be overall and to me, that comes down to the head coach. Brandon Staley’s specialty is on defense and that was the deadweight unit in LA last year. Staley’s brand of defense took the league by storm in 2020 but he didn’t have the guys he needed to run the unit in Year 1 with the Chargers.
After an offseason overhaul, that’s not an excuse now.
Staley’s progressive brand of gameday management will also come into question if the Chargers look like they aren’t playing to potential. It’s way too early to say Staley isn’t up for the head coach gig and I’m not suggesting that. But someone will underperform in the AFC West and if it ends up being the Chargers, Staley might be the one to take the bulk of the blame, deserved or not.