Once upon a time, defense won championships. In 2021, though, offensive stars were what NFL teams needed to make a run toward the title. Think about the final four. In the NFC, the Rams and 49ers had two of the league's great pass-catchers in Cooper Kupp and George Kittle. Both teams have made a habit of adding targets and backs year after year in the draft and free agency. Odell Beckham Jr., a midseason acquisition for the Rams, caught nine passes for 113 yards in Los Angeles' comeback victory.
Things might have been even clearer in the AFC. The Chiefs, who came in at No. 1 in these rankings during Patrick Mahomes' legendary 2018 season, built their team around Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. The Bengals came back to beat those Chiefs and nearly win the Super Bowl with their own dynamic duo of Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Two players, chosen in consecutive drafts after the Bengals were the worst team in football, helped drive Cincinnati's stunning turnaround.
Let's dive into an annual tradition and rank each NFL team's offensive playmakers from worst to first. It's hardly an exact science, but until we have actual football to discuss, it's a bit of fun. Keep in mind, though, that this is only considering each team's running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. If you could drop those players into an offense with a league-average quarterback, league-average offensive line, league-average coaching and league-average luck, which team would have the best offense?
I'll throw in a few more rules that I used to help sort through the list:
We're only thinking about performance in 2022. Money and long-term performance don't matter. The only thing being considered here is how a player would be expected to perform during the 17-game season in 2022. I'm a firm believer in the idea that we don't know much about draft picks until they actually get on the field, so in estimating how rookies perform, I'm considering how players drafted at similar spots have performed during their debut seasons.
Injury history, holdouts and suspensions matter. We can't project whether players will suffer serious injuries like torn ligaments or broken bones, but we do have recent history for hundreds of players and can use those to inform our expectations of how many games they'll play in 2022. Likely injury absences hurt the value of players such as Christian McCaffrey or Raheem Mostert. We also have players who are expected to miss the beginning of the season with injuries, including Michael Gallup and Chris Godwin. There are also players who are suspended, such as DeAndre Hopkins, and players who might hold out to start the year, such as Dalton Schultz. Those players have had their estimate production cut relative to how confident we are that they'll miss time.
Wide receivers are more heavily weighted than running backs or tight ends. The league values wide receivers at a different tier than other skill-position players. The top of the wide receiver market was reset this offseason by Davante Adams and then Hill, with the latter player taking home $24.3 million per season in real money over the first three years of his new deal with Miami. That's way more than the top players at running back or tight end, where the market tops out at just over $13 million in real money per season over Years 1 to 3. As such, wide receivers are treated as more valuable properties than backs or tight ends. Furthermore, since it's easier to find several competent players than it is to acquire a true superstar, players who are at the very top of their positions get the highest marks. As a result, teams with top-end wide receiver talent do well on this list, while deep teams built around running backs aren't as impressive.
I'm not mentioning every single player. I do look at a team's full complement of skill-position talent (minus the quarterback) in evaluating this list, but I focus on the top five or six for ranking purposes, with additional depth as a tiebreaker. With so much to talk about, I don't mention every single player who was considered, so if someone doesn't get mentioned in your favorite team's blurb, it's only in the interest of trying to keep this readable.
Efficiency matters. Raw numbers are great, but they're also influenced by how fast your team plays and what sort of field position they're handed by defense and special teams. The Cowboys ran 1,153 plays last season, which is nearly 200 more than the Seahawks' 954. Dallas' playmakers basically had a handful of extra games to rack up stats. DK Metcalf shouldn't be blamed for Pete Carroll going slow and his defense falling apart. As a result, you'll see lots of average metrics here. Two that come up a lot for receivers are yards per route and target share. Yards per route is the average number of yards a receiver gained when he ran an eligible route, regardless of whether he was caught the ball or was even targeted on the play. Target share is the percentage of the time a receiver was targeted when he did run a route. Neither stat is perfect, but they help us get a sense of whether a receiver was able to create opportunities when he was on the field.
Let's start with the league's worst group, where one talented wideout is forced to keep an entire offense afloat: