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2022 NFL season: Projecting win share leaders on offense and defense

Inspired by the idea of wins above replacement in baseball and real plus-minus in basketball, I created a metric that measures the contribution of each player, position group and side of the ball for every snap in an NFL season. I call it WIN SHARE to reflect the fact that 11 players are working together on the field for each team at any given time, meaning that the "share" part is a really big factor -- and the interconnectedness took a lot of time to model out.

The metric is built around the number of times a player impacts first downs and touchdowns that lead to wins or losses, either by creating first downs and touchdowns on offense or by preventing them on defense. On-ball impact (like when a wide receiver is targeted directly) and off-ball impact (like when a wide receiver draws coverage away from other players on the field, resulting in a better matchup for someone else) are both measured. Win share adds up all of the positive on- and off-ball plays and subtracts the negative ones in order to help attribute a value to each player and phase of the game, as represented by the number of wins each player is responsible for on an individual level in a given season. Personnel on the field, game situations and matchups are all factored in, to the degree that it's possible.

Now the important part: Who will pace the NFL in win share in 2022? Below, you'll find the top five projected leaders among quarterbacks, non-quarterback offensive players and defensive players, listed with their predicted win shares for the 2022 campaign. I have added some notes about units, too. And you might be surprised by some of the rankings.

Let me know what you think! You can reach me on Twitter @cfrelund.

QUARTERBACKS

Rank
1
Josh Allen
Buffalo Bills · 6.56 wins

Last season was a special one for Allen, who paced the NFL in several Next Gen Stats categories, including downfield passing touchdowns (24 of 10-plus air yards), outside-the-tackle-box passing touchdowns (12) and TD passes on the run (12). He also became the only quarterback in NFL history to notch at least six rushing touchdowns for a fourth straight year.


This season brings one major change for the MVP front-runner, though, with QB coach-turned-offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey assuming play-calling duties in the wake of Brian Daboll's departure to the Giants. For many quarterbacks, this would have the net impact of lowering win share, but for Allen, the figure went up. Why? Because of his exceptional higher-pressure situation stats, which have been predictive for success under a new coordinator when it comes to past signal-callers with a profile and experience similar to Allen's. Last season, Allen led the league in fourth quarter and overtime completion percentage (70.8), and his 18 TD strikes on third/fourth down were tied (with Tom Brady) for most in the NFL last season. Allen easily leads all quarterbacks with 31 rushing touchdowns since entering the league in 2018. He also ran for 6.3 yards per carry last season, which was tops in the NFL.


My favorite computer vision metric for Allen: He threw seven of the 11 highest-velocity passes in the NFL last season. This isn't a super predictive stat, but it's a fun one to throw in as the cherry on top. Allen has an absolute cannon.

Rank
2
Aaron Rodgers
Green Bay Packers · 6.45 wins

Computer vision shows that Rodgers is the most accurate QB when using different velocities (how fast the ball travels) at every level (fewer than 10 air yards, between 10-19 air yards, 20-plus air yards). Basically, he has the most accurate arsenal of different "pitches" in the league over my 10-season sample. I say this to emphasize that Rodgers has a lot of different ways to create for his receivers, which is a big deal after Davante Adams' relocation to Las Vegas.


The back-to-back reigning league MVP led the NFL with a 122.6 passer rating when not under pressure in 2021, but he also had the largest under-pressure decline, with a 68.7 decrease down to 53.9. I don't anticipate that latter number being anywhere near as low in 2022. Rodgers' versatile accuracy sustains the potential for great upside.

Rank
3
Patrick Mahomes
Kansas City Chiefs · 6.39 wins

Tyreek Hill's exit clearly changes how Kansas City's offense looks and functions, but my projections show that the Chiefs' total win share for the receiving corps could easily surpass the 2021 unit's sum. Computer vision reveals that Mahomes' off-platform passing capabilities are unparalleled since he became a full-time starter in 2018; in this span, he boasts the most intermediate and deep completions, as well as the most touchdowns, when his feet aren't completely set. Mahomes' ability to reliably deliver the ball no matter the throwing plane is a huge advantage, especially with the QB looking to jell with a number of new pass catchers.


Of course, you can't talk Mahomes without adding that he remains the best against the blitz. According to Next Gen Stats, he led the NFL in passing yards per attempt (10.8) and completion percentage (73.8) when facing the blitz in 2021. I keep bringing this up because he faced the blitz last season at an extremely low rate (12 percent of dropbacks), underscoring the fact that everyone knows he'll make you pay for sending extra pass rushers.

Rank
4
Tom Brady
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · 6.22 wins

With a number of changes and injuries along the offensive line, the potential for Chris Godwin to not be fully healthy at the beginning of the season AND Rob Gronkowski sticking to his retirement (for now), the G.O.A.T. has his work cut out for him in 2022. Last season, Brady was only sacked in 2.2 percent of dropbacks when facing the blitz -- the lowest rate in the NFL, per NGS. Brady also led the league in deep pass attempts (20-plus air yards) in 2020 and tied for the most in 2021.


Still, while there's more pressure on Brady this season, it doesn't forecast to prevent the 45-year-old from executing at an extremely high level. There might be fewer deep passes early in the season, but the potential for first downs and touchdowns drives the fourth-highest win share among quarterbacks.

Rank
5
Joe Burrow
Cincinnati Bengals · 6.14 wins

Burrow completely busted my model last season. His ability to overcome pressure -- and his ability to be efficient on the next play after being pressured -- is the best in my 20-season sample, and it's not close. His passer rating on the play after getting pressured was 99.1 last season; in my sample, the average figure for playoff QBs in this scenario is 60.4. The fact that he was coming off a season-ending ACL injury makes that doubly impressive.


Per NGS, Burrow led the league in completion percentage (64.3) and yards per attempt (9.7) when under pressure last season. He also paced the NFL with a +6 completion percentage over expected on all passes.

BONUS QUARTERBACK

Jalen Hurts
Philadelphia Eagles · 5.82 wins

Hurts ranks eighth among quarterbacks in projected win share, which helps drive my projection of Philadelphia winning the NFC East. NGS shows that Hurts led all quarterbacks last season in rushing attempts (72), rushing yards (377) and rushing touchdowns (eight) on designed runs. Fun fact: Hurts also exceeded 15 mph on 78 rush attempts, which was the most at any position by 24 rushes.


If you're an Eagles fan -- or if you like my model's projected upside -- you should consider telling your friends that Hurts is a great sleeper candidate for league MVP.

NON-QB OFFENSIVE PLAYERS

Rank
1
Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans · RB · 2.35 wins

Henry's projected off-ball metric this season drives the most value for a running back that I have observed since I started using my model for preseason projections six seasons ago. Without A.J. Brown, Henry's ability to attract attention creates an important base win level for the Titans. According to Next Gen Stats, he has averaged 4.7 yards per attempt against eight-plus defenders in the box since 2016 (second-most in the NFL, min. 150 attempts, behind only Nick Chubb). Per Pro Football Focus, Henry leads the NFL with 5,250 rush yards after contact over that same time period.

Rank
2
Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts · RB · 2.25 wins

Yes, the reigning rushing champ should be the 1.01 selection in your fantasy league. With Indy's stout offensive line and the change at QB -- which should lead to more consistency from the passing game, with Matt Ryan replacing Carson Wentz -- Taylor's opportunities in all phases are even more favorable than last season, even if the volume of touches decreases. Next Gen Stats show that Taylor led all running backs with +481 rushing yards over expected in 2021, which was the second-highest figure in a single season since NGS started tracking the metric back in 2016. Only Lamar Jackson has generated more than Taylor in a season, and that came in his MVP campaign of 2019 (+631). By PFF's count, Taylor had more rushing yards after contact (1,272) than any other player had total rushing yards in 2021.

Rank
3
Justin Jefferson
Minnesota Vikings · WR · 2.22 wins

Earlier this summer, Jefferson called himself a better receiver than reigning triple-crown winner Cooper Kupp: "Coop is good, but I'll say he's behind me." I appreciate his confidence -- and this model backs him up! For context, Kupp's projected win share is 2.11. There are some nuances here, like that Kupp now has Allen Robinson, and Matthew Stafford boasts a higher projected win share value than Kirk Cousins. According to Next Gen Stats, Jefferson's 12.9 receiving yards per target against press coverage since 2020 is the second-best mark in the NFL -- behind only Kupp's 13.7. But Jefferson's 1,249 total receiving yards on such targets pace the league in this span. Lastly, Jefferson leads the NFL with 97 receptions on targets of 10-plus air yards since 2020; the next-closest receiver on these downfield passes is Stefon Diggs with 73.

Rank
4
Travis Kelce
Kansas City Chiefs · TE · 2.18 wins

This is the first time a tight end has appeared in the top five since I've started using my models to project non-QB offensive win shares! Computer vision shows that Kelce's ability to change direction without losing speed between the hashes is the best for any player standing at least 6-foot-4 over the past four seasons. This helps him boast the highest red zone win share among tight ends over that same time period. Additionally, Kelce's off-ball value this season is, very logically, the highest it's been since I've tracked this. NGS shows that Kelce leads all tight ends in receptions (30) and receiving yards (905) on deep passes (20-plus air yards) since 2016, and his eight deep receiving touchdowns is tied for the most over that time period. Meanwhile, PFF reveals that Kelce leads tight ends with 58 combined receiving touchdowns and receiving first downs when covered by off-ball linebackers since 2020 -- that's the highest figure in the league by a robust total of 24.

Rank
5
Najee Harris
Pittsburgh Steelers · RB · 2.17 wins

Harris is my 1.02 fantasy pick this season -- which is an aside, because win share also factors in off-ball impact, but still a worthwhile note. The second-year back's value greatly surpasses fantasy scoring, especially considering that a) Pittsburgh's breaking in a new QB for the first time in nearly two decades and b) my models do not project the Steelers' offensive line to rank in the top 25 once the 53-man roster is set. Harris played 83.5 percent of Pittsburgh's offensive snaps last season, per NGS, which was the highest percentage for any RB in 2021. Harris led the NFL with 179 rush attempts against six or fewer defenders in the box, but averaged just 4.2 yards per rush in large part because defenses used formations that anticipated short-area gains (short passes or runs) without explicitly loading the box. This season, Harris' upside projection banks on the fact that an increase in intermediate and deep passing plays should create significantly more space for him to operate in both the run and receiving aspects of his game. This will also give him more opportunities to reach full speed, driving a big uptick in overall production. More efficient complementary football means more yards per touch for Harris.

DEFENSIVE PLAYERS

Rank
1
Aaron Donald
Los Angeles Rams · DT · 2.41 wins

Exploring Donald's jaw-dropping transcendence never gets old. Three more notes to add to the ledger:


  1. Donald ranks in the top six in pressures in every season since 2016, according to Next Gen Stats, with his 64 in 2021 ranking sixth.
  2. Pro Football Focus credited him with a 22.9 pass-rush win rate in 2021, unsurprisingly ranking No. 1 among 114 interior defenders who played at least 150 snaps.
  3. Computer vision shows Donald has been double- and triple-teamed at a 79.8 percent rate since 2017, which is 14.1 percentage points higher than any other interior defender over that time period.
Rank
2
Nick Bosa
San Francisco 49ers · DE · 2.20 wins

My model gives Bosa the best chance to lead the league in sacks this season. He generated 68 pressures last season, according to Next Gen Stats, the fourth-most in the NFL. Per PFF, he was one of just six edge defenders with a 90-plus pass-rush grade in 2021. Computer vision shows his fatigue level (speed erosion between the first and fourth quarters) is the lowest among all edge defenders since he entered the league in 2019.

Rank
3
T.J. Watt
Pittsburgh Steelers · OLB · 2.17 wins

Watt's win share takes a small individual hit because Pittsburgh's defensive front is stacked, which is obviously great for the Steelers overall. NGS shows that 37.5 percent of Watt's pressures resulted in sacks last season, which was the third-highest rate in the NFL (min. 200 pass rush attempts). This helped drive his 22.5 sacks in 2021, which tied Michael Strahan's single-season record. PFF shows that his 21.4 percent pass-rush win rate ranked fourth (among 108 qualified edges).

Rank
4
Xavien Howard
Miami Dolphins · CB · 1.98 wins

A nice nugget from Pro Football Focus: Howard's 63.1 passer rating allowed in coverage since 2020 ranks third among corners during this span. He also has logged the most snaps in man coverage (539) and earned nine interceptions in man coverage over that time frame. This season, the Dolphins' potential for just enough defensive pressure and run-stopping up front gives the cover men, led by X, a greater probability to return to their dominant form of a couple years ago.


Side note: Going through this exercise made me realize that there are a bunch of underrated corners in the NFL today. Howard may not be that underrated, given that he received first-team All-Pro honors in 2020, but A.J. Terrell is. The CB8 by projected win share is someone we don't talk about enough.

Rank
5
Budda Baker
Arizona Cardinals · S · 1.89 wins

So there's a tight end in the top five on offense and a "safety" on defense?! Convince me there hasn't been a shift in how the game is played -- I'll wait. In fairness, I put Baker's position in quotation marks there because he's not really a traditional safety, which is what drives the disproportionate value. NGS shows that he's logged 282 pass-rush snaps since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2017, which is the third-most among defensive backs -- and he's earned the second-most QB pressures among DBs in that span (45). According to PFF, when Baker was deployed as a free safety in 2021, he allowed six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown while defending eight passes and logging three picks. Budda's value this season is driven even higher due to changes along Arizona's defensive front (no Chandler Jones), which will require the Cardinals to rely even more on the unique set of skills this playmaker possesses.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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