Jimmy Garoppolo was as surprised as everyone else to stay with the San Francisco 49ers for the 2022 season.

Garoppolo was expected to be released by the 49ers before Tuesday's deadline for teams to cut their rosters to 53 players ahead of the regular season but instead agreed a renegotiated one-year deal to stay in San Francisco.

The team had attempted to move Garoppolo this offseason as part of the transition to Trey Lance as their starting quarterback, having traded three first-round picks to select the younger man with the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

An offseason shoulder injury for Garoppolo did not help matters, though, and he will instead serve as back-up to Lance after 45 starts for the 49ers and a strong 31-14 record.

"[Returning] really wasn't on my mind to be completely honest," Garoppolo said on Thursday, speaking for the first time since the news broke.

"I was training out here. I had to be here, so I was here for that reason. I was just trying to get my body right.

"I felt very confident out there, and I knew that I was ready to roll. I just needed to figure out where it was. Things kind of fell into place these last couple days."

Garoppolo had considered asking to be released by the team but said it "just wasn't the way I wanted to go".

Now, with clauses to prevent him being traded or tagged, the quarterback will have control of his career beyond 2022.

"Trust me, there was a lot of back and forth going on just with other teams and what I wanted my future to look like," he explained. "This is what I wanted."

For now, Garoppolo will continue to work with Lance, who insists that is no issue.

"It's not my decision; it's an organisation decision," Lance said.

"Jimmy's been on the roster this whole entire time. Obviously, I knew it was a possibility of bringing him back.

"There's been no bad blood at all between me and Jimmy since day one. I was all arms open, excited to have him back."

The NFL is all about evolution. The constant fight to gain a decisive advantage, in a league where those who can adapt fastest are kings, consistently leads to sweeping changes every offseason.

While it is the raft of head coaching changes that dominate the headlines when the regular season gives way to 'Black Monday', it is the more granular alterations to a team's approach that can often have the greatest influence on a franchise's fortunes in a given season.

Switches in scheme or a diversion away from a team's long-standing tendencies are regularly brought on by the arrival of a new coaching staff or a change in coordinator, but personnel moves also frequently dictate the approach coaches settle on as they plot a path towards success.

Schematic decisions that may not cause much of a league-wide stir can end up having a huge influence on the outcome of a season, and there are no shortage of such changes that figure to have a significant bearing on the race for the playoffs in 2022.

Here, with the help of its advanced data, Stats Perform looks at five switches in scheme or tendencies that could play a defining role in the coming campaign.

Can McDaniel transform Tua?

The Miami Dolphins' second-half surge in 2021 was tied to their reliance on the run-pass option as they tailored their offense to Tua Tagovailoa's strengths.

Not only were the Dolphins prolific in going to the RPO, they were very effective when they called them.

Miami called a RPO on 12.27 per cent of their pass attempts, the league average was 3.5 per cent. They averaged 7.25 yards per play on RPOs, comfortably above the league average of 5.85.

Given their success on those plays and Tagovailoa's comfort in executing them, RPOs will still be a part of the Miami attack in 2022.

But the usage numbers are unlikely to be as high under new head coach Mike McDaniel, who brings his take on the Kyle Shanahan offense to Miami afer serving as the San Francisco 49ers' offensive coordinator last year.

McDaniel will likely reduce the number of straight dropback pass plays for Tagovailoa. The Dolphins ran them on 34 per cent of passes last year, below the league average of 36.1 per cent but well above the 2021 49ers, who used such plays only 22.9 per cent of the time while utilising the quick game on 40.97 per cent of passes compared to 25.97 per cent for the Dolphins.

The arrival of McDaniel will likely tip the balance towards the quick game for Miami in 2022 as he looks to give Tagovailoa easy buttons in the same way Shanahan did for Jimmy Garoppolo, getting the ball into the hands of Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill to do damage after the catch.

McDaniel, who was San Francisco's run-game coordinator prior to his promotion last year, will undoubtedly lean on Raheem Mostert, Chase Edmonds and a ground attack certain to be heavily based around inside and outside zone runs to take the burden off Tagovailoa and set up play-action.

Miami used play-action on 14.57 per cent of their passes in 2021, above the average of 12.7 per cent but still trailing the 49ers (15.89 per cent). With Tagovailoa's ability to hit Hill and Waddle downfield with consistent accuracy in question, look for McDaniel to put significant stress on defenses by attracting linebackers up to the line of scrimmage with play-action and then running Hill and Waddle cross-field on horizontal routes at the intermediate levels that are well within his quarterback's range.

Under Shanahan, McDaniel has had an education into scheming his weapons into space, and he should thrive at doing so when running an offense himself for the first time. Tagovailoa's challenge will be to prove he can deliver and make the most of the advantageous situations in which his coach will put him. Fail, and the Dolphins may soon be searching for a new franchise quarterback.

More deep balls and diversity for Niners

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Shanahan has insisted nothing in his playbook has changed as he enters the season with a new starting quarterback, and the 49ers head coach will unexpectedly have the same top two signal-callers as he did last season.

It is the order that has flipped, with Jimmy Garoppolo agreeing a reworked contract for 2022 to be Trey Lance's backup. Regardless of what Shanahan says, the 49ers' approach is likely to be different with Lance under center.

Lance averaged 10.10 air yards per attempt across his 10 full quarters of action last season (he started two games and played the second half when Garoppolo was injured in Week 4), the second-most among quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts.

On the other end of the scale, Garoppolo's 7.38 air yards per attempt were well below the league average of 7.99. Garoppolo attempted just 26 passes of 21 or more air yards the entire season, while 11 of Lance's 70 passes were of that distance.

The scheme isn't changing, but the tendencies certainly will. Lance will be more aggressive and attack downfield more often, likely leading to explosive splash plays that are not necessarily reliant on receivers creating yardage after the catch.

Though the plays may have already been in Shanahan's playbook, there is certain to be more of an emphasis on the threat of the quarterback run with Lance at the helm.

Just 2.62 per cent of the 49ers' run plays came on the zone-read last year, below the league average of 4.2. That number should increase, as should San Francisco's usage of the RPO game, which the Niners used on only 1.09 per cent of pass plays last year but averaged 8.43 yards per play when they did.

With Lance and the running back both threats to run on such plays, defenses will have to account for three possibilites when defending RPOs against the 49ers, exemplifying how much more diverse their offense can become with the 2021 third overall pick under center.

San Francisco's attack will be even more varied and more aggressive in 2022, but it is also likely to be more volatile due to Lance's inferior precision to Garoppolo on the intermediate passes that set up the yards after catch opportunities on which the 49ers have done such damage in recent years. How that volatility impacts the win-loss column will determine whether Garoppolo gets on the field at any point in the final year of his contract.

Vikings look to the 3-4

The Vikings swapped out basically everything this offseason. New general manager, new head coach – who will also be the offensive play-caller – and new defensive coordinator.

Though head coach Kevin O'Connell's offense will be different to the one run by former offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, the systems are similar enough that Kirk Cousins and Co. are unlikely to endure too much pain in acclimating to the new scheme.

The biggest adjustments will come on the defensive side of the ball, which will be run by Ed Donatell, who spent the last three seasons coordinating Vic Fangio's defense for the Denver Broncos.

The Fangio defense has become the en vogue scheme in the NFL as acolytes such as Brandon Staley have put their spin on it and the two-high safety shells that have been a hallmark of the system have helped limit explosive plays and level the playing field a little in an offense-dominated league.

Denver played Cover 1 robber – which is where a safety from a two-high look drops down into the box to disrupt in-breaking routes in the congested area – as the defense's primary coverage in 2021. The Broncos ran Cover 1 robber 41.87 per cent of the time in a season where the league average was 14.17 per cent.

The Vikings were more varied but still used Cover 1 robber more than any other coverage, relying on it for 21.81 per cent of defensive snaps.

Whether Donatell uses that coverage to the same extent in Minnesota remains to be seen, but the transition for the Vikings' secondary may be a smooth one given how often they ultilised the same shell under Mike Zimmer. 

The most significant change to the defense comes up front, with the Vikings switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

Though defensive fronts are much more hybrid in the modern NFL, the tenets of the 3-4 front are the same. The three-man line is tasked with holding ground and filling up gaps at the point of attack, offering more space to the four linebackers to take better pursuit angles against the run and opening a wide menu of blitz packages against the pass. 

Minnesota's two starting outside linebackers are de-facto edge rushers and both players who should each theoretically thrive in that role. Za'Darius Smith has significant experience with the 3-4 from his time with the Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers while the athletic profile of Danielle Hunter – whose 60.5 sacks since 2015 are tied for the seventh-most in the NFL – makes him an ideal candidate to excel as a stand-up pass rusher.

Possessing two impressive space-eating interior defenders in Harrison Phillips and Damon Harrison and an inside linebacker in Eric Kendricks who had five sacks last year, the Vikings have the personnel to continue to succeed rushing the passer despite the change in front. They were 10th in pass rush win rate in 2021, had the sixth-most pressures (291) and the second-most sacks (51).

Despite their joy in getting after the quarterback, the Vikings were 26th in yards per play allowed (5.66), with their struggles tied to a run defense that allowed 51 runs of at least 10 yards. Only 12 teams allowed more. If the switch to the 3-4 helps the Vikings grow more stout against the ground game, then a team with the talent on both sides of the ball to contend for the playoffs will be in a much better position to make noise as a potential Wild Card team.

The Raiders' overdue defensive switch

The Las Vegas Raiders will have a new offensive system after hiring Josh McDaniels as their head coach and will also have the benefit of expanded firepower following the blockbuster trade for All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams. 

Las Vegas will have the personnel and the offensive scheme to go blow for blow with their high-powered rivals in the AFC West.

The question is whether their defense can do enough to contain their divisional foes, and its success in doing so likely rests on how the Raiders adapt to new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.

In 2021, the Raiders only gave up 5.2 yards per play, the ninth-fewest in the NFL; however, former coordinator Gus Bradley's steadfast commitment to single-high Cover 3 defenses saw Las Vegas shredded for 888 net yards in a pair of defeats to Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Las Vegas played Cover 3 zone on an incredible 65.79 per cent of snaps last season. The league average was 23.75 per cent.

In his final year as the New York Giants' defensive coordinator, Graham relied heavily on Cover 3, which the Giants used 45.58 per cent of the time. 

But Graham used a wider range of coverages more regularly than his predecessor. The Giants played Cover 1 robber, Cover 2 and Tampa 2 at a rate above the league average.

The Raiders' secondary talent is questionable, but Graham is a coordinator who predominantly plays the coverage with which they are most familiar but is more flexible than Bradley. As such, the transition to Graham should be a relatively smooth one for the Raiders' defensive backfield; however, it will be their ability to excel in a defense that promises to be much more multiple than it was a year ago that determines whether this unit improves.

Las Vegas' defense did not embrace the two-high revolution in 2021. With Graham running a unit that will be tasked with stopping three explosive downfield passers in Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Russell Wilson in the AFC West, such shells will almost certainly become a bigger part of the Raiders' gameplan. How their defenders adapt to playing those coverages more frequently will have a huge bearing on the Raiders' success in competing for top spot in a loaded division.

Will 'Big Red' turn to the run?

As the Raiders perhaps shift towards a more two-high heavy world, the Chiefs' hopes of regaining the Lombardi Trophy will in part be tied to their proficiency in attacking such defenses.

The Chiefs' often exaggerated struggles against two-high coverage shells dominated much of the discussion in the first half of last season as defenses looked for a way to take away the shot play to Tyreek Hill.

By the end of the year, the Chiefs appeared to have solved the riddle and averaged 33.2 points per game over the final six weeks of the regular season.

Yet with Hill gone, the Kansas City offense has lost the reason many opponents not named the Raiders defended them with such coverages.

Defenses are unlikely to suddenly move away from the two-high looks when playing Kansas City now Hill is a Miami Dolphin, and teams will continue to dare Mahomes to take what he is given underneath and attempt to limit his opportunities to go downfield to the deep threats the Chiefs do have, namely Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Mecole Hardman.

Mahomes will need to be patient and connect with tight end Travis Kelce and other receivers who should excel attacking the underneath areas such as Juju Smith-Schuster and rookie second-round pick Skyy Moore.

But the Chiefs may also look to run the ball more to get defenses out of those coverages and draw more defenders into the box, opening the deep areas of the field for Mahomes to attack.

Kansas City ran the ball on only 31.8 per cent of offensive snaps last season, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest they would succeed if they did so more often.

The Chiefs ranked first in run block win rate in 2021 – their exploits in that regard allowing Clyde Edwards-Helaire to average 3.08 yards before contact per attempt, the eighth-most among running backs with at least 100 attempts – and Kansas City were seventh in yards per play on the ground (4.54). Rookie undrafted free agent Isaiah Pacheco has caught the eye in training camp and could blossom into a dynamic threat out of the backfield.

It is tough to make the case for taking the ball out of Mahomes' hands. However, as defenses continue to present him with more varied and complex looks, there is a need for a greater balance in the Chiefs' offense.

Between using a first-round pick on Edwards-Helaire and building an O-line that can produce dominant run-blocking, the Chiefs have spent significant resources on players with the potential to help them achieve that balance by committing to what has been an efficient run game. A modest shift in their offensive tendencies could be the key to the Chiefs getting back to the top of the pile despite the loss of one the league's most fearsome playmakers.

The San Francisco 49ers believe they have two starting quarterbacks after making the decision to retain Jimmy Garoppolo on a reworked contract.

Garoppolo was expected to be released by San Francisco before Tuesday's deadline for teams to cut their rosters to 53 players ahead of the regular season.

Instead, the 49ers and Garoppolo agreed to a rengotiated one-year that, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, is worth $6.5million in base salary and $500,000 in roster bonuses. Garoppolo has incentives for playing time that could be worth up to $9m.

San Francisco had attempted to trade Garoppolo this offseason as part of the transition to Trey Lance as their starting quarterback. The 49ers traded three first-round picks to select Lance with the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

But an offseason shoulder surgery contributed to the 49ers' inability to find a trade partner, and Garoppolo – who worked out away from the team during training camp and preseason – will now serve as the backup to Lance.

The 49ers' decision has led to questions about a potentially awkward dynamic between Lance and a starting quarterback predecessor who has a 31-14 record as a starter with the team.

It is a move that has also prompted observers to talk up the prospect for locker room discord if Lance struggles on a team expected to compete to go deep into the playoffs once again, after reaching Super Bowl LIV and last season's NFC Championship Game with Garoppolo as the starter.

However, speaking in a conference call on Tuesday, head coach Kyle Shanahan dismissed the notion of possible disharmony in the quarterback room and the wider locker room.

"That was the only option," Shanahan said, when asked if it was made clear Garoppolo would be the backup. "And we told that to Trey also.

"Trey and Jimmy have a great relationship. Trey actually likes having Jimmy in the building, and Trey was very grateful to how Jimmy was to him last year. And we feel very strongly from the two people that Jimmy will give that back to Trey this year.

"Trey's our starting quarterback. This doesn't change anything. I just feel it makes us a much better team and doesn't hurt our cap like it would have.

"There aren't 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL. We believe we have two of them on our roster.

"We felt strongly giving the keys to Trey. I can't wait to get him started on our team Week 1. Having Jimmy as a backup makes us feel really good because we have a starting quarterback as a backup.

"The rest of the league had a chance to get him, and I feel so fortunate that they didn't. There's no way that's bad for our team."

Pressed on why Garoppolo practised away from the team if there was a chance of him staying, Shanahan said: "I think that was because the chances, to me, it seemed slim to none, just with the possibility of that happening.

"I remember the first week of training camp, me saying to Jimmy, 'Hey, if you don't like any of these opportunities, if you don't go to the place you want, you can't get the contract you want, we would love to have you here as a backup, in a backup role, and that deal. I want you to know we feel that way, but I also think there's no way you're not going to get something as this goes throughout training camp.'

"Jimmy agreed with that. And so we waited all throughout training camp. Then, I think as he saw other situations out there, and I think, to me, it just seemed like everyone was just waiting for us to cut him so they could see how much they could get him for.

"But once the last Saturday preseason game happened, and no one got injured, then Jimmy thought this was his best situation that he liked. And that's why we were so pumped because it's obviously a better situation for the Niners."

Jimmy Garoppolo will be staying with the San Francisco 49ers for the 2022 season after signing a reworked one-year contract.

Garoppolo had been widely expected to be released by San Francisco before Tuesday's deadline for teams to trim their rosters to 53 players ahead of the regular season.

San Francisco had attempted to trade Garoppolo this offseason as part of the transition to Trey Lance as their starting quarterback. The 49ers traded three first-round picks to select Lance with the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.

However, a shoulder surgery for Garoppolo complicated the Niners' plans to trade him, with San Francisco unable to find a partner with which to do a deal.

He has worked out away from the team during training camp and preseason but will now serve as the backup to Lance after coming to an agreement on amended terms with the 49ers.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Garoppolo has agreed to a one-year deal worth $6.5million in base salary and $500,000 in roster bonuses. He has bonuses for playing time that could be worth up to $9m.

It is a move that lowers Garoppolo's salary cap number from nearly $27m to just over $8m, giving the 49ers financial flexibility for potential in-season moves and still giving the former New England Patriot the chance to hit the open market in 2023.

Garoppolo arrived in 2017 in a trade with the Patriots. He has a record of 31-14 as a starter for San Francisco and helped the Niners reach Super Bowl LIV in the 2019 season. He and the 49ers were minutes away from another Super Bowl appearance last season, but lost the NFC Championship Game 20-17 to the Los Angeles Rams. 

The 30-year-old completed 68.3 per cent of his passes for 3,810 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season.

Garoppolo led the league in yards per completion (12.7) and net yards per attempt (7.68) but was heavily reliant on his receivers creating yards after the catch. Lance, who made two starts while Garoppolo was injured last year, is expected to offer greater upside to the 49er offense with his dual-threat skill set that allows him to make downfield throws that are beyond Garoppolo and excel on the ground as a runner.

The 49ers open the season with a road game against the Chicago Bears on September 11.

No one player is bigger than the team. It's a phrase that is most commonly applied to football of the other variety, but it can be a tricky one to throw around in the context of the NFL.

In a game and a league where the quarterback position has an outsized impact, there is no denying there are players whose importance overwhelmingly dwarfs that of their team-mates.

And, for all the work NFL teams do to put together 90-man rosters and then get them down to 53, so many critical games are decided by a handful of key plays by one player.

As the NFL approaches the 2022 regular season, there are a collection of players, not all of whom are quarterbacks, who look almost certain to have a defining influence on the campaign.

Here, with the help of its advanced data, Stats Perform ranks the most important players of the 2022 NFL season.

10. Robert Hainsey - Center, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers' hopes of reclaiming the Lombardi Trophy following Tom Brady's decision to end his 40-day retirement were dealt a massive blow last month when center Ryan Jensen suffered a serious knee injury.

Jensen has been one of the most underrated and pivotal factors behind Brady's success in his two seasons in Tampa. The quarterback's relationship with his center is critical to any offense and Brady has enjoyed an outstanding rapport with Jensen.

Now Jensen's replacement Hainsey must quickly establish a similar connection with Brady if Tampa Bay's offense is to perform at its peak in 2022.

Additionally, Hainsey - a third-round pick in the 2021 draft who played only 29 snaps as a rookie - must attempt to replicate Jensen's performance of last season.

Jensen was 11th among all centers with a stunt-adjusted pass block win rate of 80.66 per cent, while his double team-adjusted run block win rate of 87.92 per cent was the best for his position and second among all offensive linemen.

It is a tall order for Hainsey to reach that level in his first season as a starter. However, it is crucial he ensures the drop-off from Hainsey is not too steep so Brady can keep an offense that was the third-most efficient in the NFL, according to Stats Perform's Efficiency Versus Expected (EVE) metric, performing at a championship-calibre standard.

9. Nick Chubb - Running Back, Cleveland Browns

The furore around the Deshaun Watson saga is rightfully unlikely to die down any time soon despite the NFL closing the book in the context of league discipline.

With Watson set to be suspended for the first 11 games, the Browns will be walking a tightrope as they bid to stay in contention with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback in their starter's absence.

Brissett has a 14-23 record as a starter and last season his well-thrown percentage of 75.8 across his five starts for the Miami Dolphins was the eighth-worst among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts.

Cleveland may, therefore, need to take the emphasis off Brissett, and the best way for them to do that is by leaning on arguably the premier running back in the NFL. 

The Browns led the NFL with 5.09 yards per carry last season, their success built around Chubb's complete skill set.

Chubb was third among running backs with a minimum of 100 carries with an average of 3.44 yards before contact per rush. He was tied 10th in yards after contact per carry (2.17) and led the NFL in yards per carry on plays where there was a run disruption by a defender, his average of 4.51 illustrating his ability to create yardage for himself even when the defense broke into the backfield.

His performances helped the Browns finish second in yards over expected on running plays and, though an undoubtedly talented defense will do its share of the heavy lifting, Chubb must ensure the devastating efficiency Cleveland displayed on the ground last year is maintained for the offense to perform at a high enough level to keep a team harbouring Super Bowl aspirations in the mix until Watson returns.

8. A.J. Brown - Wide Receiver, Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia's blockbuster draft-day trade for Brown was the clearest signal yet of the Eagles' intention to do everything they can to make Jalen Hurts succeed as their franchise quarterback.

Brown arrived in Philadelphia after racking up 1,000-yard seasons in two of his three campaigns with the Tennessee Titans. He would have had a third had Brown not been forced to miss four games through injury last season, and Brown projects as the ideal receiver to help take Hurts to the next level.

The former Ole Miss star thrived in a Titans offense based heavily around play-action passing concepts.

Meshing with Hurts, who ranked sixth in well-thrown rate (80.4 per cent) on play-action among quarterbacks with at least 50 such throws and averaged a league-leading 16.78 air yards per attempt on those passes, should not be a problem for Brown, who figures to make life significantly easier for his quarterback.

Indeed, Brown gives Hurts a physical wideout who can make tough contested catches over the middle of the field and has the route-running talent to consistently separate from defenders to make big plays. Brown produced a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 64 per cent of targets (including the playoffs) and was tied for the NFL lead (min. 100 targets) in burn yards per route last season with an average of 4.0.

Everything is seemingly set up for a blissful marriage between quarterback and number one wide receiver. There is a lot of pressure on Hurts to succeed with a loaded offense but, similarly, Brown will be under intense scrutiny as he will be tasked with continuing his outstanding Titans displays and, critically, avoiding any injury problems that could limit the ceiling of a team many anticipate becoming contenders after a flurry of offseason activity. 

7. Davante Adams - Wide Receiver, Las Vegas Raiders

Adams made a decision that changed the landscape of both the NFC and AFC when he eschewed the chance to stay with the Packers to sign a five-year, $141.25million contract with the Las Vegas Raiders following a trade that allowed him to reunite with college quarterback Derek Carr.

While Aaron Rodgers must adapt and excel without his long-time favourite target in Green Bay, Adams starts his new era in Las Vegas under tremendous pressure to live up to his megadeal.

The numbers from his time in Green Bay suggest he should have no problem doing so. 

Adams is second in receiving yards (3,924) and touchdowns (34) over the past three seasons. With an above-league average burn rate of 65.6 per cent last season, Adams was fifth in burn yards per route (3.5) among receivers with a minimum of 100 targets (including the playoffs). He was second (3.4) and first (3.9) in the same metric in 2019 and 2020.

His consistency in creating significant separation from defenders must continue in his new home for the Raiders' big swing to pay dividends in an AFC West division now widely regarded as the best in the league following a series of high-profile moves by all its inhabitants.

Moreover, Adams must re-establish the rapport he had in college with Carr, who had a well-thrown rate of 81.6 per cent that was third among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts in 2021.

Carr has the accuracy to reap the benefits of playing with Adams as Rodgers did. As long as the change of scenery does not provoke a surprising Adams downturn, the Raiders will have the arsenal to match the fireworks their division rivals can produce.  

6. Aaron Donald - Defensive Tackle, Los Angeles Rams

To label Donald as an important player is arguably the most obvious statement that can be made about the NFL.

But, with significant doubt hanging over the fitness of the Los Angeles Rams' star quarterback Matthew Stafford, there may be an onus on Donald to carry the burden of helping them repeat as Super Bowl champions.

While Stafford is still expected to play in Week 1 against the Buffalo Bills, he has spent the offseason dealing with an elbow issue head coach Sean McVay conceded is "abnormal" for a quarterback.

That at least creates the possibility of Stafford enduring injury-related poor performances or even missing time if it is eventually determined he requires surgery.

Playing in an NFC West division that houses a fellow NFC heavyweight in the San Francisco 49ers, the Rams can ill-afford to have any such scenario result in prolonged struggles.

Thankfully for the Rams, Donald is as impactful as Stafford when it comes to deciding games, as he did in Super Bowl LVI with his key fourth-down pressure of Joe Burrow.

Donald comfortably led all defensive tackles in both pressure rate (28.1 per cent) and run disruption rate (37.2) last season. No other defensive tackle with a pressure rate of 20 per cent or better had a run disruption rate of 30 per cent or higher.

With the spectre of possible quarterback injury issues hanging over the Rams, it is imperative Donald continues to produce his frequently game-winning destruction for Los Angeles to mitigate the influence of any such problems.

5. Von Miller - Edge Rusher, Buffalo Bills

The Bills famously failed to finish off the Kansas City Chiefs in last season's epic Divisional Round playoff clash as inexplicably soft defensive play-calling allowed Kansas City to move into range for a game-tying field goal in the final 13 seconds of regulation.

Yet one of the reasons it got to that point was the Bills' failure to convert their pressures of Patrick Mahomes into damaging sacks.

Buffalo registered 23 pressures of Mahomes, the most by any defensive team in the Divisional Round, but managed to get him on the ground just twice.

That performance will surely have had some influence on the decision to sign Miller to a lucrative six-year contract following his Super Bowl-winning sojourn with the Rams.

Miller's 115.5 sacks since entering the league in 2011 are the most in the NFL, and he proved he is still one of the best pressure generators in the NFL in 2021. His stunt-adjusted pass rush win rate of 43.4 per cent was the fifth-highest among edge rushers with at least 100 one on one matchups.

The Bills can be confident Josh Allen and the offense will put them in a position to contend, but it is Miller's addition to a defense with few holes that may be the move to get them over the top.

Buffalo made a big bet on Miller maintaining his outstanding 2021 form. It is imperative that gamble pays off and, if some of his wisdom from years at the top rubs off on young edge rushers Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham, the Bills will be extremely satisfied with their decision to put faith in the former Denver Bronco.

4. Patrick Mahomes - Quarterback, Kansas City Chiefs

While the likes of the Raiders and the Bills are plotting to do what the Cincinnati Bengals did in last season's AFC Championship Game and topple the Chiefs, Mahomes and Co. are set to face internal challenges in their bid to remain atop the AFC West.

The primary challenge for the Chiefs will be to replace the impact of Tyreek Hill, the three-time first-team All-Pro speedster sent to the Miami Dolphins in a blockbuster trade.

Hill's threat as a downfield receiver tormented opposing defenses during his time in Kansas City, and he was second among receivers with at least 100 targets with a burn rate of 70.8 per cent (including the playoffs) in 2021.

Though the Chiefs did sign a replacement burner in the form of Marquez Valdes-Scantling, the absence of Hill's game-breaking speed will likely force Mahomes to target underneath areas more frequently.

Mahomes was already forced to adapt in such a fashion last season to combat the two-high safety defenses thrown at the Chiefs by teams looking to nullify Kansas City's big-play threat.

Kansas City's struggles against such defenses served as one of the defining narratives of last season. It was a narrative, however, that was somewhat exaggerated and the Chiefs had clearly hit their stride by the end of the year.

Across the final five weeks of the season, the Chiefs averaged 283.6 net passing yards per game, the fourth-most in the NFL. They hit a significant speed bump in the second half of the conference title game, but Mahomes has had plenty of time to brush off that disappointment and needs to rediscover his best without one of his key support acts for the Chiefs to be the class of a stacked conference in 2022.

3. Lamar Jackson - Quarterback, Baltimore Ravens

Amid a flurry of big-money deals for quarterbacks and receivers alike, one high-profile contract saga has remained unsettled.

There has been no sign of an imminent agreement between the Ravens and Jackson, who will be an unrestricted free agent in 2023 unless they can come to terms on an extension.

To say Jackson is important to the Ravens is to put it extremely mildly. He finished in the top five in Efficiency Versus Expected among quarterbacks in expected passing situations in 2019 and 2020 before an injury derailed 2021 campaign and, since taking over as the Ravens' starter in 2019, has averaged more yards per carry (6.36) than any other player in the NFL.

With 103 of his 468 rush attempts going for 10 yards or more, Jackson's explosive run rate of 22 per cent also stands as the best in the NFL over that same period.

Jackson's success in harnessing the dual-threat upside, as he did in spectacular fashion three years ago, will decide if the Ravens return to prominence in the AFC after the frustration of 2021.

Beyond that, however, the extent to which he nears his 2019 zenith could have a huge bearing on his negotiations with the Ravens next offseason should the impasse continue.

If Jackson performs at a level close to his MVP season, the Ravens will be facing the prospect of making him the highest-paid player in the NFL by a potentially massive margin in 2023. An unconvincing and unsuccessful season for Jackson may see him lose a lot of leverage.

2. Aaron Rodgers - Quarterback, Green Bay Packers

It was an offseason of contrasting emotions for the back-to-back MVP, who looks in line to finish his career in Green Bay after signing a three-year, $150.8m deal that made him the highest-paid player in US sports on an annual basis but must renew his quest for a second Super Bowl title without Adams.

The prospect of trying to climb the mountain sans Adams looks a daunting one considering their remarkable rapport and the fact Rodgers couldn't hit anyone but him during the Packers' Divisional Round loss to the 49ers last season.

Rodgers has to establish a connection with two young rookie receivers in Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs, the latter of whom has enjoyed a sparkling preseason.

Green Bay still made moves to make Rodgers' life easier, though that impact may be less tangible than the one he and Adams produced consistently.

The Packers built up an increasingly talented defense in the draft, adding to their options on that side of the ball and improving the odds of Rodgers coming on to the field with favourable field position.

His receiving options may have changed dramatically, but Rodgers has no room to offer excuses given the apparent strength of the defense.

The 38-year-old's ridiculous consistency is fuelling thoughts of him going deep into his 40s, a la Brady; however, Rodgers' time to win a second ring is running out. After enjoying dominant season after dominant season with Adams as his top receiver, the challenge for the four-time MVP now is to elevate a young and unproven supporting cast as he seeks to right previous playoff wrongs.

1. Trey Lance - Quarterback, San Francisco 49ers

A team that was minutes away from a second Super Bowl appearance in three years handing the keys to the offense over to a quarterback with just two starts to his name? It sounds risky, and there is an inherent danger in San Francisco moving into the Trey Lance era.

But this is why the Niners traded three first-round picks to the Dolphins to move up to the third pick in the 2021 draft to select Lance. There is risk, yet it is unquestionably worth the potential reward.

Lance will be taking over an offense that finished the 2021 season first in Efficiency Versus Expected, a testament to the plethora of talent on that unit, Jimmy Garoppolo's comfort in the offense and the play-calling of Kyle Shanahan.

The task for Lance is to weaponise the deep passing game of one of the most consistent and dangerous attacks in the NFL. While San Francisco might have to sacrifice some efficiency for him to succeed, the numbers indicate he is up to the job.

Garoppolo had eight pass plays of 40 yards or more across 15 games in 2021. Lance produced three in his two starts in relief of his injured predecessor.

On top of that, Lance averaged 10.10 air yards per attempt – the second most in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 50 passes – and no player to average at least 9.0 air yards had a better well-thrown percentage than Lance's 77.1.

The prospect of Lance reproducing that blend of aggressiveness and accuracy over a longer sample size while adding another dimension to a running game that racked up the eighth-most explosive rushes of at least 10 yards in 2021 should terrify opponents.

San Francisco's roster is filled with Pro Bowlers on offense and the Niners have further stacked a defense that forced the most negative plays (122) in the NFL last season with reinforcements up front and in the secondary.

The 49ers have a Super Bowl-ready roster but, for all his success, Garoppolo has been unable to get them over the hump to a long-awaited sixth title.

Lance has the upside to end that wait and the Niners may well become Super Bowl favourites if he is as advertised. Should he flounder, a prospective challenger could be removed from the NFC playoff picture. Simply put, there is no player more important to the hopes of a legitimate contender in the NFL.

Trey Lance has the belief of Kyle Shanahan, but the San Francisco 49ers' head coach does not believe his starting quarterback will "make or break" their 2022 season.

Lance will be the Niners' starter in 2022, replacing Jimmy Garoppolo, who is likely to be released when rosters are trimmed to 53 players if San Francisco cannot find a trade partner.

San Francisco reached Super Bowl LIV with Garoppolo as the starter in the 2019 campaign and narrowly lost last season's NFC Championship Game with the former New England Patriot under center.

However, the Niners traded three first-round picks to move up to the third overall pick in the 2021 draft and select Lance out of North Dakota State, believing him to have the physical gifts and the mental attributes to take their offense to the next level.

They will now see their assessment of Lance put to the test across a full season. Lance started two games in relief of an injured Garoppolo last year and, prior to that, had only one full season of college football under his belt. That came in 2019 when he threw for 28 touchdowns and ran for a further 14 without throwing a single interception as Lance led North Dakota State to an FCS National Championship.

That lack of seasoning makes Lance one of the biggest unknowns of the 2022 season, but head coach Shanahan does not think his performance will be the defining factor for an extremely well-rounded team harbouring Super Bowl aspirations.

"Is Trey ready to take it on his shoulders?" Shanahan told Peter King's Football Morning in America. "He shouldn't be. He hasn't gone through it enough.

"I believe in him as a man, as a person. I believe in his talent. I don't think he is going to make or break our season, just like in 2019 and last year, I didn't think Jimmy was going to make or break our season."

Shanahan, though, suggested attempting to deliver for a team under pressure to win a sixth Super Bowl title after going agonisingly close in two of the last three seasons could negatively impact Lance.

"But what sucks is when you're learning how to play and you're not there yet, how do you not get worse sometimes when that pressure's on you and you need to go through the growing pains?" Shanahan added.

Lance went 1-1 as a starter last year, throwing for 603 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions in his brief time on the field. He also ran for 168 yards and a touchdown.

According to Stats Perform data, Lance was the second-most aggressive quarterback in the NFL in terms of pushing the ball downfield. Among quarterbacks with at least 50 pass attempts, only Drew Lock (10.20) averaged more air yards than Lance (10.10). 

Lance was still accurate despite regularly attempting low-percentage throws. No player to average at least 9.0 air yards had a better well-thrown rate than Lance, who delivered an accurate, well-thrown ball on 77.1 per cent of his attempts.

In his first preseason game of 2022, Lance played two offensive series, completing four of his five passes for 92 yards including a 76-yard touchdown to rookie wide receiver Danny Gray in a 28-21 win over the Green Bay Packers.

Lance will take part in joint practices between the 49ers and Minnesota Vikings this week but will not play in Saturday's second preseason game.

The New York Jets have had a nightmare start to their preseason with second-year quarterback Zach Wilson limping out of Friday's 24-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Wilson suffered a right knee injury in the first quarter, buckling without contact as he scrambled out of the pocket trying to outrun a tackler.

The 23-year-old Jets QB fell, got up limping, before dropping to the turf again and exiting for the locker room.

Wilson had thrown an interception on the Jets' fifth play, finishing the game completing three of five passes for 23 yards.

The injury concern is to the same knee that he sustained a PCL sprain last season, causing him to miss four games.

Jets head coach Robert Saleh revealed Wilson would have an MRI on Saturday to determine the extent of the injury but said his ACL was "supposed to be intact".

The Jets have high hopes for their 2021 NFL Draft second pick, building their roster around him this offseason, having bolstered their offensive ranks with tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin and drafting wide receiver Garrett Wilson and running back Breece Hall.

Wilson had a difficult rookie season with a 3-10 record, completing 213 of 383 attempts for nine touchdowns and 2,334 yards with 11 interceptions for a 55.6 completion rate.

There were other injury worries from Friday's preseason games with Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Drake London hurting his right knee in their 27-23 win over the Detroit Lions.

San Francisco 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell watched on in their clash with the Green Bay Packers after suffering a hamstring injury during their camp.

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Brandon Allen, covering for Joe Burrow who is recovering from an appendectomy, was ruled out due to a concussion in their 36-23 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

 

Kyle Shanahan praised the aggression of his San Francisco 49ers, but warned they must channel it appropriately after stopping practice earlier in the week due to fighting.

Tuesday's practice was reportedly halted by a scuffle between linebacker Fred Warner and receiver Brandon Aiyuk, with punches thrown.

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Shanahan said he wanted to see his players push one another, metaphorically, but that it goes too far when they could potentially cause each other injuries.

"I want everyone challenging each other," Shanahan said. "I don't care how much crap each other talks; I don't care how close they get to fighting.

"They can do whatever they want to get themselves to be as intense as they want and bring the best out of each other, which happens a lot that way. And it's the same on the field.

"But once you throw a punch, you get ejected or you get a penalty... I want people to be irritants, I want people to get as close as they can to all that stuff. I want people to get right on the line where they're about to black out, but you can't black out on the football field or you cost your team."

The disagreement between Warner and Aiyuk reportedly erupted after the former hit receiver Marcus Johnson late, which put Johnson in concussion protocol.

"I love the intensity of it," Shanahan added. "I don't think you have to fight to be intense, though. Scuffles are scuffles but then they lead to other stuff.

"I think that's why we've got a guy in protocol, because he took an unnecessary shot on someone, which led to the big fight and then we had a bunch of haymakers and stuff thrown in there, which only break hands.

"I think our team is pretty tough. I think we're pretty physical. Most probably [we would be] voted the most physical team on tape last year, I think we'd win most of that, and we didn't get in one fight last year. So, I don't think that totally pertains to toughness."

Kyle Shanahan said Deebo Samuel "inspires" him as the San Francisco 49ers confirmed the All-Pro wide receiver has signed a three-year extension.

Reports on Sunday suggested that Samuel, who was entering the final season of his rookie deal, would receive $58.1million guaranteed, in a deal potentially worth $73.5m.

In the 2021 season, Samuel became just the second player to score six or more rushing and receiving touchdowns and record over 1,000 receiving yards in a single NFL campaign, after former 49ers running back Roger Craig in 1985 was the first.

Samuel also set an NFL season record for a wide receiver with eight rushing touchdowns.

The 26-year-old led the league in yards per reception (18.2) last season among players with at least 35 catches, while his 1,770 yards from scrimmage ranked as the third most in the league and the second-highest total by a wide receiver in franchise history, behind only Hall of Famer Jerry Rice's 1,884 in 1995.

Speaking at a media conference on Monday just prior to the official confirmation, head coach Shanahan said: "My favourite thing about Deebo is how much he inspires people. He inspires me more than almost any player I've watched on a field.

"The way he runs the ball when you're handing it to him or you're throwing it to him, when he's catching it on a kick, and these aren't things that you have to talk him into doing. He usually talks you into doing [them] because Deebo just loves playing football.

"He loves helping us win, and I think that's what everybody sees on Sunday when you guys watch him on TV. I think that's why this country really likes Deebo also."

Samuel had reportedly requested a trade in April, but the two sides worked out their issues and Samuel did report to June's mandatory mini-camp as well as training camp, though he did not practise while his contract situation remained unresolved.

Following confirmation of the deal, 49ers general manager John Lynch also referenced the player's inspirational qualities, saying: "We are overjoyed to have come together with Deebo to keep him with the 49ers for years to come.

"Deebo has the rare ability to not only play at a unique level but to inspire his team-mates with the way he plays. He is a special player that embodies 'will meeting skill'.

"We're proud to move forward with him as an integral leader and foundational piece of our team."

Deebo Samuel finally has the long-term contract he had been seeking, as the San Francisco 49ers All-Pro wide receiver has reportedly agreed to a three-year, $73.5million extension.

Samuel, who was entering the final season on his rookie deal, will receive $58.1m guaranteed, according to NFL.com.

The agreement ends a drama-filled offseason standoff between the 49ers and their dynamic playmaker, who reportedly requested a trade in April. The two sides gradually worked out their issues and Samuel did report to June’s mandatory mini-camp as well as training camp, though he did not practice while his contract situation remained unresolved.

One of the NFL’s most unique talents, Samuel joined former 49ers running back Roger Craig (1985) as the only players in league history to score six or more rushing and receiving touchdowns and record over 1,000 receiving yards in a season when he did so in 2021. The 26-year-old also set an NFL season record for a wide receiver with his eight rushing touchdowns.

The four-year veteran also led the NFL in yards per reception (18.2) last season among players with at least 35 catches, while his 1,770 yards from scrimmage were the third most in the league and the second-highest total by a wide receiver in franchise history, trailing only Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s 1,884 in 1995.

Samuel’s new deal is similar to the three-year, $72m extension awarded to Seattle Seahawks receiver D.K. Metcalf earlier this week. Metcalf’s contract reportedly contained $58.2 million in guaranteed money.

The San Francisco 49ers released defensive end Dee Ford on Wednesday, ending the former Pro Bowler's three-year tenure with the team that was often marred by injuries.

Signed to a five-year, $85.5million contract by San Francisco in 2019, Ford appeared in just seven games over the last two seasons and 18 total regular-season contests in that three-year period.

The 49ers acquired Ford from the Kansas City Chiefs in March 2019 in exchange for a 2020 second-round pick. The 31-year-old recorded 13 sacks and made the Pro Bowl in his final season in Kansas City, then had 6.5 sacks in 11 games with San Francisco in 2019.

However, Ford missed all but one game in 2020 due to a chronic back injury that limited him to six games this past season.

The move will save the 49ers around $1.1 million in 2022 but will leave the team with over $11.6 million in dead cap space over the next two seasons.

A first-round pick of the Chiefs in 2014, Ford twice posted double-digit sack totals during his five-year run in Kansas City and has 40 sacks in 85 games over eight NFL seasons.

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has made it abundantly clear that Trey Lance is their man and they are moving on from Jimmy Garoppolo.

Garoppolo, who underwent shoulder surgery in March, led the 49ers to the NFC Championship game, losing 20-17 to eventual Super Bowl LVI champions Los Angeles Rams.

The 30-year-old quarterback is widely expected to depart the 49ers in the off-season, with Shanahan effectively confirming the assumption that 2021 NFL Draft's third pick in Lance will take over.

"We have moved on to Trey," Shanahan told reporters ahead of the 49ers training camp. "This is Trey's team.

"That's nothing against Jimmy. We made that decision a year ago and we're going with that. We're not going to mess around with that anymore.

"Jimmy understands that fully. That's a business decision and that's what makes it not awkward. Jimmy knows we're going with Trey.

"Trey knows we're going with Trey and our team does, and everyone likes both of those guys."

Shanahan along with 49ers general manager John Lynch sat down for a meeting with Garoppolo on Tuesday morning to discuss his future.

Garoppolo has only just been cleared to practice having resumed throwing after his shoulder surgery, meaning opposition teams were reluctant to make trade plans for him until now.

"As soon as we can," Shanahan said about a Garoppolo move.

"Hopefully with everyone being on the same page, hopefully that will happen sooner than later. I think that would be good for him and for us."

Garoppolo threw 20 touchdowns - with his 1.33 per game was ranked 19th in the NFL among quarterbacks - with a 68.3 per cent completion rate for 3,810 yards across the 2021 season.

Meanwhile, Lynch was positive about the future of wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who had requested a trade in April.

"We've had really productive and substantive talks," Lynch said.

"I don't want to get everyone all excited that something is imminent because we're not there yet, but really hopeful that in the near future we'll be able to announce something that is exciting for everyone involved.

"Deebo is here today and we're excited about moving forward with him as part of this team."

San Francisco 49ers players are scheduled to report to training camp on Tuesday, and coach Kyle Shanahan expects star wide receiver Deebo Samuel to attend despite his ongoing contract dispute. 

Shanahan is also certain Samuel will get a new deal soon. 

"What I do know is: I'm not worried about it not getting done," he told The Athletic. "I feel very confident that Deebo's going to be on our team this year, and he's going to be for many years after. I do believe he'll get a deal. I know that they're working on it right now."

Shanahan said general manager John Lynch and the 49ers front office have been working with Samuel's agent, Tory Dandy, on a new deal over the past few weeks. 

Samuel emerged as a dangerous playmaker lined up both as a receiver and in the backfield for San Francisco last season, earning All-Pro honours with 1,770 scrimmage yards and 14 total touchdowns. 

Due to make $3.986million in the final year of his rookie contract in 2022, the 26-year-old Samuel requested a trade after the 49ers failed to sign him to an extension earlier this offseason.

"I think every player in the league is underpaid," Shanahan said. "I think this league makes a lot of money, and these players go through a lot of stuff, so like you always look at it that way.

"But when you become a head coach or a general manager and stuff like that, you do get to see the other side, and your job is to put the best football team together possible, and so you work with these players and your goal is to get them paid, [but you] got to balance all that stuff together so you have a chance to win."

The 49ers reached the Super Bowl in Samuel's 2019 rookie season and nearly made it again last year before losing to the eventual champion Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship Game. 

This year's offense will have a different look, however, with Trey Lance taking over at quarterback for Jimmy Garoppolo. 

Despite Samuel's contract dispute, he still attended mandatory minicamp and is expected to be at training camp because of the collective bargaining agreement that deters players from holding out. 

"The days of holding out and stuff are a little bit different now because players, regardless of what the team decides later, always have to pay [the fines] back," Shanahan said. "Now, those fines can't get paid back." 

For years, there has been talk of the NFL entering an era of 'positionless' football and, looking back on the 2021 season, there is a case to be made that it's finally here.

With the league dominated by dual-threat quarterbacks and defenses increasingly reliant on secondary defenders who can move around the field, the phrase 'the more you can do' has never more definitively applied to the NFL – at least not since the bygone era of the two-way player.

Indeed, players who can excel in several positions and fulfil a multitude of different roles are more valuable than ever, with three of the teams that made last season's final four dependent on players who are among the league's most versatile.

Using advanced data, Stats Perform can break down the league's multi-faceted stars and look at some of the more versatile players who have flown somewhat under the radar.

The NFC West Unicorns

Aaron Donald - Los Angeles Rams

We would be remiss to mention the most versatile players in the league and not start it with Donald.

Donald is the NFL's pre-eminent defensive player and the most remarkable aspect of his dominance is that he maintains it irrespective of where he lines up on the defensive line.

His pressure rate of 28.1 per cent last year led all interior defensive linemen and it only dipped to 27.7 per cent when he moved out to the edge, though he did so for just 94 pass-rush snaps in 2021 compared to 448 from his defensive tackle position.

And 108 of his 127 pressures on the inside involved him beating a pass protector. That was the case for 23 of his 26 edge pressures, which illustrates his ability to confound offensive linemen regardless of whether he's working within tight confines or from wide-open space.

Jalen Ramsey - Los Angeles Rams

Donald is the engine of the Los Angeles defense, but a unit that has leaned on its top-end talent would not have remained among the league's elite if not for the presence of arguably the NFL's top secondary defender.

Ramsey still played the vast majority of his snaps as an outside corner in 2021, playing 784 in that position. However, as the 'star' player on the Los Angeles defense, Ramsey spends most of his time locked on an opponent's top receiver, which frequently means playing in the slot.

Indeed, Ramsey played 366 snaps in the slot and was outstanding when lined up there. Targeted 31 times from the slot, Ramsey allowed a burn, which is when a receiver wins a matchup on a play in which they're targeted, 38.7 per cent of the time. The league average for slot corners with at least 50 coverage snaps was 50.7 per cent.

Ramsey posted the ninth-lowest burn yards per target average (5.84) and was the seventh-best slot by big play rate. He gave up a big play on just 6.5 per cent of targets.

His numbers as an outside corner were less impressive. Ramsey gave up a burn 48 per cent of the time and surrendered 10.32 burn yards per target. However, his big-play rate allowed of 19.4 per cent was still better than the average of 26.1 per cent (min. 50 snaps) and amounted to him giving up 15 big plays on 75 targets across 398 coverage snaps.

In other words, Ramsey allowed a big play on under four per cent of his coverage snaps as an outside corner. The 'lockdown defender' tag applies to Ramsey wherever he is on the field.

Deebo Samuel - San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers have dug in their heels and refused to indulge Samuel's trade request, with their determination to hold on to the wide receiver unsurprising given his outsized value to San Francisco's offense.

Samuel is to the 49ers' offense what Donald is to the Rams' defense. Last season, he was the reason it worked and the reason the Niners came agonisingly close to completing three wins over the Rams and claiming the NFC championship.

In a career year for Samuel, he racked up 1,405 receiving yards, leading the league with 18.2 yards per reception while his 10.1 yards after catch average was also the best among wideouts.

Yet it was the way in which the Niners utilised his ability in the open field to turn him into a de-facto running back in the second half of last season that weaponized the San Francisco offense.

When lined up in the backfield as a running back, Samuel averaged 6.58 yards per rush last season. He recorded 4.11 yards before contact per attempt, 2.67 yards after contact and averaged 4.77 yards per attempt on carries in which there was a run disruption by a defender. 

No running back could match his yards per carry average or top his performance on rushes disrupted by a defender. Rashaad Penny of the Seattle Seahawks and Dontrell Hilliard of the Tennessee Titans were the only players with over 50 carries at running back to average over 4.0 yards before contact per rush. Kareem Hunt (2.84) of the Cleveland Browns was the only player to average more yards after contact per attempt than Samuel.

With the option to hand the ball off to Samuel or flare him out and get him the ball on screens, lining Deebo up in the backfield allowed the Niners to limit Donald's impact for long periods and lessen Ramsey's effectiveness when he played the 'star' role by forcing him to follow Samuel into the box.

The duplicity Samuel brings in his hybrid receiver-running back role is critical to head coach Kyle Shanahan winning the play-calling chess match. Despite his trade demands, it's why the Niners will ensure he remains on their board.

Cooper Kupp - Los Angeles Rams

While Kupp may not do the damage Samuel does out of the backfield, it is impossible to leave the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year off this list.

Kupp was the only receiver in the NFL last season to finish in the top five in burn yards per route as an outside receiver (fourth, 3.9) and from the slot (third, 4.0).

On top of that, he was fifth in big-play rate among outside receivers with at least 50 targets, registering an explosive on 39.7 per cent of targets. Only two wideouts, Christian Kirk (36.7) of the Arizona Cardinals and Cedrick Wilson (36.5) of the Dallas Cowboys produced a higher rate of big plays from the slot than Kupp's 36.4 per cent.

Lined up for 24 snaps as a running back, Kupp was also utilised as a safety net for Matthew Stafford out of the backfield on occasion. His proficiency in contributing to pass protection by blocking defenders before getting out into his route perfectly encapsulated just how well-rounded of a player he has become.

Queens on the Chessboard

Cordarrelle Patterson - Atlanta Falcons

Patterson was overdrafted by the Minnesota Vikings back in 2013, but he carved out a hybrid role last season in the Atlanta offense in which he, like Samuel, spent time in the backfield and lined up as a receiver.

Designated as a running back, Patterson averaged 4.07 yards per carry, racking up 2.0 yards after contact per attempt and 3.06 yards per attempt on rushes in which there was a disruption by a defender.

Among running backs who registered 100 carries and were targeted 50 times, Patterson's 22.6 per cent big-play rate on passing targets was the highest in the NFL. Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints was second at 21.3.

With the Falcons transitioning to a new era at quarterback as Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder compete for the job, Patterson's ability to create yards after contact as a runner and explosive plays on routes out of the backfield will again be extremely valuable in 2022.

Between Patterson, Kyle Pitts and first-round pick Drake London, the Falcons have a trio of malleable playmakers who can ensure the offense is still explosive as they move away from the Matt Ryan era.

Travis Kelce - Kansas City Chiefs

In terms of value to his team, Kelce rivals Samuel with the multiple roles he plays for the Chiefs and the importance of him excelling from several spots will likely increase in 2022 following the Chiefs' trade of Tyreek Hill.

One of the league's most effective 'power slots' who uses his size and route running to his advantage when lined up as a de-facto slot receiver, Kelce played 333 snaps in that position in 2021.

He played 184 as an outside receiver and 136 from his traditional in-line tight end spot in an encapsulation of the evolution of a position that has grown ever more multi-faceted.

Kelce's burn rate from all three spots was over 70 per cent. He won his matchup with a defender on 79.1 per cent of targets as an in-line tight end. That ratio dipped to 76.3 per cent as an outside receiver and 74.4 per cent from the slot.

The majority of his big plays, however, came when he lined up outside. Kelce produced a big play on 34.8 per cent of his targets as an outside receiver and 32.3 per cent from the slot. He was not as explosive as an in-line tight end, a spot from where he delivered a big play 25.8 per cent of the time.

Though the numbers at each alignment may differ, they all paint the same picture: a playmaker who gets open regardless of where he is on the field. Combined with his underrated blocking, Kelce's remarkable versatility makes him one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL.

Elgton Jenkins - Green Bay Packers

Jenkins has played every position in the trenches apart from right guard during his three seasons in the NFL, and in that time he has established himself as one of the best young offensive linemen in the NFL and an integral part of the Packers' attack.

Last season, Jenkins played the entirety of his snaps at left tackle before injury curtailed his campaign after eight games. He allowed only 11 pressures on 163 pass protection snaps, with his pressure rate of 6.7 per cent superior to the average of 9.2 per cent among left tackles.

Prior to that in 2020, Jenkins played most of his snaps at left guard, but also filled in at center and made cameos at both tackle spots. His pressure rate of 4.7 per cent was fifth among left guards that year. At center, he gave up a pressure on just 2.1 per cent of snaps – the third-best rate among players at the position.

Essentially, Jenkins is a rare breed of offensive lineman who can hold up in pass protection at every position on the offensive front. He appears set to slot in at right tackle for 2022, but Jenkins will likely be the first person the Packers call upon if they have an injury at another spot up front.

Ambidextrous Defenders

Micah Parsons - Dallas Cowboys

Parsons claimed NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2021 thanks to an exceptional first-year campaign that saw him make an unexpectedly outsized impact as a pass rusher.

On 220 pass-rush snaps, Parsons generated 69 pressures for a pressure rate of 31.4 per cent that was tops among linebackers with at least 50 pass rushes.

Parsons spent 153 of those snaps on the edge but also proved extremely effective in coverage. Allowing a burn on 41.9 per cent of targets last season, Parsons gave up only 6.86 yards per target – the fourth-fewest among linebackers targeted at least 25 times.

Also second for his position with a run disruption rate of 16.4 per cent, Parsons swiftly proved his ability to influence every facet of the game and his multiplicity will make him somebody opposing play-callers will constantly have to think about when game planning for the Cowboys.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah - Cleveland Browns

Though Parsons was the standout defensive rookie in the league last season, he was not the best first-year linebacker in coverage. That distinction went to Owusu-Koramoah, who slid to the second round of the 2021 draft and went on to lead all linebackers with 5.83 burn yards per target allowed and give up a big-play rate of 4.5 per cent that was also the best for the position.

Owusu-Koramoah played most of his snaps (414) at inside linebacker but also spent time at outside linebacker, on the edge and in the slot on top of a handful of snaps at outside corner.

He did not pass rush often, logging just 27 snaps in that regard, but gained nine pressures for a pressure rate of 33.0 per cent. Against the run, he registered a disruption rate of 15.3 per cent.

Owusu-Koramoah is a player the Browns can trust to hold up in man and zone coverage and has the flexibility to operate in almost every position in the back seven. He can play the run extremely well and has produced encouraging flashes as a pass rusher to suggest he can grow in that area.

Any success the Browns enjoy on defense in 2022 will likely in part be a product of Owusu-Koramoah's malleability.

Chuck Clark - Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens added Kyle Hamilton and Marcus Williams to their safety room this offseason but have, to this point, kept hold of Clark.

On the surface, that may be something of a surprise. However, a deeper dive into the numbers illustrates the value he has to Baltimore's defense.

Though Clark operated at free safety for 526 snaps in 2021, he also played 108 at strong safety, 97 in the slot, 81 on the edge and over 100 at linebacker.

He defended double-digit targets from free safety, strong safety and in the slot. Only at free safety did he allow more 10 burn yards per target.

His average of 8.01 burn yards allowed per target when lined up as a deep safety was 12th in the NFL. In the slot, he gave up 9.25 per target – better than the average of 9.53 for slots with at least 50 snaps.

With Williams set to slide in at free safety, Hamilton and Clark will have the freedom to roam around the field in three-safety looks and their proficiency in playing the slot should offer the Ravens more answers in defending tight ends and the bigger wideouts that are spending an increasing amount of time on the inside.

Under the Radar Rovers

Kamren Curl - Washington Commanders

Sticking at the safety position and with teams that play their football in Maryland, Curl has quietly emerged as a stud who can fulfil a variety of roles in the defensive backfield.

Last season, Curl played 342 snaps as a free safety, 211 in the slot, 90 as a strong safety, 56 as an inside linebacker, 53 as an outside linebacker and 45 as an outside corner. To say the Commanders have confidence in him all over the field is putting it mildly.

Lined up as a deep safety, Curl allowed 6.02 burn yards per target – the best ratio in the NFL. He allowed a big play on 14.8 per cent of targets, which was the fourth-best rate among deep safeties.

In the slot, he surrendered only 6.15 burn yards per target and a big play on two of his 21 targets. Though Curl was not asked to do as much in coverage when he played closer to the line of scrimmage, he influenced the game with his play against the run. His run disruption rate of 10.0 per cent from the inside linebacker spot was equal to that of Derwin James of the Los Angeles Chargers.

Defensive centrepieces are rarely found in the seventh round, but the Commanders have clearly unearthed one who has the multiplicity to rival defenders of a much higher profile.

Elijah Moore - New York Jets

If former 49ers defensive coordinator and now Jets head coach Robert Saleh is hoping to develop his version of Deebo Samuel, then Moore may be his best candidate.

Moore thrived playing as both an outside receiver and in the slot in his rookie season after being picked in the second round last year. He was tied for 16th in burn yards per route (3.0) among receivers with at least 50 targets. Moore also finished 16th in that group in big-play rate, delivering a burn or a burn for a touchdown on 35.7 per cent of targets.

Though the explosive plays (25.7 per cent) dropped off when he was in the slot, Moore excelled at maximizing his separation as an inside receiver, finishing tied for 10th (min. 25 slot targets) with 3.1 burn yards per route.

Moore carried the ball only five times as a rookie, but he averaged over 10 yards per attempt, with one of those attempts going for a touchdown. Though it is an extremely small sample size, that's the kind of efficiency to suggest he should be given increased opportunities on designed touches out of the backfield in his second season.

Asking Moore to replicate Samuel would be ambitious. However, if he can succeed in a more varied role while continuing to produce from several receiver spots, it would be a substantial boost to Zach Wilson's hopes of a second-year leap.

The 2021 NFL season saw the advent of the 17-game schedule. Some players would like to see the number of off weeks increase as well.

Speaking on comedian Kevin Hart's Cold as Balls programme, San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle said he would be very much in favour of a second bye week added to the schedule.

"There's a huge physical toll," Kittle said about the season's current structure. "Seventeen games is a lot. It's a lot of games with one bye, whether it's Week 4 or the bye is Week 11.

"I'm advocating for two byes. If you can get that to happen, that would be cool."

Kittle, a three-time Pro Bowl selection who earned first-team All-Pro honours in 2019, has missed at least two games in each of the last three seasons due to injuries, including a broken bone in his foot that limited him to eight games in 2020.

The NFL did add a second bye week during the 1993 season but scrapped the idea after just one year.

Kittle's wish is not likely to be granted, at least any time soon. The NFL's current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expanded the regular season and increased the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams, runs through the 2029 season.

The NFL Players Association reportedly pushed for a second bye week during negotiations for the present CBA that took place in 2020, but the league wound up getting its request to have an 18th week added to the schedule for the purpose of playing another game.

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