The New Orleans Saints have their 2022 season and beyond riding on the reclamation of Jameis Winston and the return of Michael Thomas. The Cincinnati Bengals and Las Vegas Raiders hope second-year linemen won’t become the Achilles heels of their explosive offenses. The Seattle Seahawks hope a dope new defensive system can revive Jamal Adams, while the Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive rebuild rests on a pair of very streaky veterans.
To be selected to the Walkthrough All Boom-or-Bust Team, a player must be an expected starter on a team with a reasonable chance of reaching the playoffs. There must also be a wide gap between what a player is expected to do and what he has recently done. Maybe he’s a former All-Pro coming off an injury-marred season or three. Maybe he’s a recent first-round pick who has fallen short of expectations. Perhaps he’s a journeyman who is suddenly asked to be a lynchpin starter. Maybe he has thrown for 5,000 yards and 30 interceptions in the same season.
Whatever the case, these are the players that hometown fans love to pretend that they aren’t worried about at all.
Quarterback: Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints
Best-Case Scenario: The hypothetical versions of Winston that his boosters like to create by jigsawing together his hot streaks; line-item vetoing a few dozen interceptions; and acting like it’s totally normal to be talking about an eighth-year veteran’s “upside potential.” The Saints have shrewdly found a way to pivot toward a successful post-Drew Brees, post-Sean Payton future.
Worst-Case Scenario: If we get another typical sorta-up-and-way-down Jameis season, the Saints will be just good enough to beat the Panthers and Falcons while wondering where and when they will ever find a real quarterback solution.
Running Back: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
Best-Case Scenario: Henry’s is a unicorn, last season’s injury was not the beginning of the end, and he’s ready to carry what’s left of the Titans offense up a steep hill in a snowstorm.
Worst-Case Scenario: Henry is Atlas, and he’s already buckling under the weight of the Titans’ world.
Wide Receiver: Michael Thomas, New Orleans Saints
Best-Case Scenario: The 2018-2019 version of Thomas is ready to return to the top of a depth chart featuring Jarvis Landry and rookie Chris Olave, giving Jameis Winston a receiving corps that even Taysom Hill could win some games with.
This is all we have seen of Thomas since December of 2020. He did not practice with the Saints during OTAs. Training camp is a goal and not a foregone conclusion. And no one really knows what the problem is beyond an “ankle injury” that never clears up. There’s a chance that Thomas is going to be “day-to-day” for the next 150 days or so.
Alvin Kamara and left tackle Trevor Penning could also have made the All Boom-or-Bust team, which gives a pretty good indication of what the Saints 2022 season will be like, at least on offense.
Wide Receiver: Allen Robinson, Los Angeles Rams
Best-Case Scenario: Robinson is a would-be Hall of Famer who has been held back by some of the worst quarterback situations imaginable. He’ll shine in a Robert Woods-meets-Odell Beckham role, and the Rams offense won’t skip a beat.
Worst-Case Scenario: Robinson has been worn down by too many Blake Bortles/Mitch Trubisky experiences, and/or his reputation got a teensy bit inflated by eight full seasons of “if he only had a real QB” arguments. Robinson turns out to be just another guy, leaving the Rams without a Super Bowl-caliber Plan B beyond Matthew Stafford-to-Cooper Kupp.
Tight End: David Njoku, Cleveland Browns
Best-Case Scenario: Njoku is the high-impact seam-stretching playmaker the Browns need as their possession target and de facto WR2.
Worst-Case Scenario: Another season of sparse targets and platooning with Harrison Bryant, this time on a reported four-year, $55-million contract that will prevent Njoku from taking his annual tour of the trade-deadline rumor mill.
(A quick note: Deshaun Watson was suspended indefinitely from the All Boom-or-Bust Team by the commissioner of the All Boom-or-Bust Team. The Boom-or-Bust Players Association, per their charter, cannot decide whether to appeal by calling a national general strike or by disbanding.)
Tight End: Jonnu Smith, New England Patriots
[Read aloud in a stereotypical pahhhk the cahhh Boston accent] Ya see, the plan all along was for Smith to be invisible after signing a reported $50-million contract in 2021. The Patriots knew he would need a full year to soak up the coaching wisdom of Josh Mc … um, er, some of Bill Belichick’s most experienced and trusted lieutenants! Belichick was building for the 2022 season, when he knew Mac Jones would be ready to ascend into Bradyhood with the help of an unstoppable Smith/Hunter Henry one-two punch at tight end.
[Same accent] Sure, Smith’s weekly 4-yard reception on two targets is unimpressive if all you care about is fantasy football. But actually, Bill Belichick signed him for his blocking. And his leadership. And the versatility he provides. The brilliance of the 2022 Patriots offense is that it’s designed to work without the need of explosive playmakers! You’ll see. Just wait until 2023.
Left Tackle: Matt Pryor, Indianapolis Colts
Best-Case Scenario: The Colts found a starting left tackle in Pryor, a former Eagles super-sub lineman who looked very good at the position in a spot start against the Raiders in Week 17 last year.
Worst-Case Scenario: That one great game was a fluke. Pryor is the guy he has looked like for the last three seasons. And the Colts must decide between him and third-round small-program converted tight end Bernhard Raimann as the blindside protector of a 37-year-old pocket passer.
Right Tackle: Alex Leatherwood, Las Vegas Raiders
Best-Case Scenario: Lots of rookie linemen have seasons where they wash out at right tackle and look even worse when sliding inside to guard. So the fact that Leatherwood has been penciled back in at right tackle is no reason for alarm! It’s not like the Raiders spent a bajillion dollars and lots of draft capital at wide receiver and expect to win now or anything…
Worst-Case Scenario: The Raiders spend another year playing “hide the weakest link” on the offensive line, but this time the expectations and payroll are much higher.
Guard: Jackson Carman, Cincinnati Bengals
Best-Case Scenario: Carman’s rough 2021 season—he was benched in November, spent much of the playoff chase as a package sixth lineman, and got pushed around when pressed into service again at guard in the AFC Championship Game—was just the result of adding a rookie to an already-rickety offensive line. Carman will be much better now that he’s flanked by Ted Karras, Alex Cappa, and La’el Collins, and Joe Burrow’s protection won’t fail him on the final drive of a playoff game or the Super Bowl.
Worst-Case Scenario: Every defense in the league schemes to isolate Carman, who proves unready for the challenge, and Burrow spends too many AFC shootouts on the run.
Guard: Cole Strange, New England Patriots
[Same Southie guy from the Jonnu Smith segment] Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time the Patriots drafted an obscure guard named Logan Mankins from an unknown little program called Fresno State. Mankins went on to earn six Pro Bowl berths before we tossed him aside. This is exactly the same scenario as what happened 17 years ago, buddy. Watch and learn.
Worst-Case Scenario: Look, the draft was never Bill Belichick’s strength. And so what if we got swept by the Bills by a combined 84-24 score. Let them have their little moment. You wanna tour of the trophy case? Thought so. Go Bucs.
Center: Lloyd Cushenberry, Denver Broncos
Best-Case Scenario: Cushenberry was a disaster as a rookie in 2020 but looked much better as the Broncos started to quietly fade away late in 2021. If he keeps making progress, he joins Garrett Bolles and Dalton Risner on the best offensive line Russell Wilson has seen since the days of Max Unger and Russell Okung in Seattle.
Worst-Case Scenario: Cushenberry peaks at “good enough to get by” and veteran challenger Graham Glasgow is no better. We all know what Wilson running around behind shaky protection looks like, and while it’s much better than what Broncos fans have gotten used to, it’s not as good as the team is banking upon.
Edge Rusher: Frank Clark, Kansas City Chiefs
Best-Case Scenario: That two-month stretch at the start of 2021 where Clark played like he was ready to open a chain of car washes was just the result of injuries and a general Chiefs defensive malaise. He’s still a fully motivated impact defender, and the Chiefs pass rush of Clark, Chris Jones, and rookie George Karlaftis will produce plenty of big plays to help out their Tyreek-nerfed offense.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Chiefs handed a $29-million extension to a 29-year-old edge rusher whose sack totals have declined for four straight years because they entered free agency in low-key panic mode about how to keep their nucleus together. Now they’re counting on someone who should be a 30-snap role player to start for a defense they are trying to rebuild on the fly.
Edge Rusher: Za’Darius Smith, Minnesota Vikings
Best-Case Scenario: Smith is still a double-digit sack producer despite last season’s injuries. Danielle Hunter is still a double-digit sack producer despite last season’s injuries. The Vikings have a pass rush that Aaron Rodgers will find nearly as troubling as his own receiving corps.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Vikings added another pricey late-in-his-peak veteran to a collection of them that never seems to get any smaller. Smith and Hunter combine for 15 sacks at 30-sack prices.
Defensive Line: D.J. Jones, Denver Broncos
Best-Case Scenario: Jones was quietly effective as a run defender and pass-rusher for the 49ers in 2021. He’ll step right in to replace Shelby Harris this season for a Broncos defense that’s every bit as good as its reputation.
Worst-Case Scenario: Jones turns out to be a good-not-great 30-snap wave defender for a defense that lives down to its below-average 2021 DVOA rating instead of its third-place finish in points allowed in 2021, because the Broncos offense no longer plays tortoise ball against opponents who know that any lead is safe.
Defensive Line: Sebastian Joseph-Day, Los Angeles Chargers
Best-Case Scenario: Did an awful run defense keep you out of the playoffs in 2021? No problem! Just add a sturdy role player who knows Brandon Staley’s defense from his time with the Rams and watch those third-and-23 draw-play conversions and rushing touchdowns on third-and-goal from the 9-yard line disappear!
Worst-Case Scenario: Admit it. You never spent a moment of your life thinking about Sebastian Joseph-Day until the Chargers gave him a reported $24 million. Then, reassured by the positive reviews of the signing during free agency (fueled by lots of my colleagues performing NFL columnist calculus: Need Position + Coach Connection + Non Glamor Position/Small Fanbase Team = Give it a B-Plus and Save Your Bandwidth for a Quarterback Trade) you figured, “yep, problem solved.” That Chargers run defense isn’t all that great, and the Chargers could be in big trouble again if they cannot force every opponent into a pass-happy shootout.
Linebacker: Nakobe Dean, Philadelphia Eagles
Best-Case Scenario: The only rookie on our team. The Eagles have the playmaking tough-guy linebacker fans have dreamed about since the days of Jeremiah Trotter, and they stole him in the third round of the draft.
Worst-Case Scenario: The draft-weekend injury rumors prove true, Dean cannot stay on the field, and the Eagles will be forced to rely heavily on Kyzir White, who (based on my study of Chargers film for Football Outsiders Almanac 2022) will make fans yearn for the days of Nathan Gerry.
Linebacker: Isaiah Simmons, Arizona Cardinals
Best-Case Scenario: Simmons has been practicing with the safeties this offseason. Maybe nickel safety will turn out to be an ideal role for the speedy third-year Swiss Army Knife defender who gets knocked around as a run defender, is unreliable in coverage, and provides little juice as an edge rusher.
Worst-Case Scenario: Maybe the Cardinals should swear off the “positionless defenders” until they figure out what they really want to do with one.
Cornerback: Stephon Gilmore, Indianapolis Colts
Best-Case Scenario: The Colts took their time in free agency and came away with a two-time All-Pro to anchor their secondary.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Colts dragged their heels in free agency and came away with a soon-to-be 32-year-old coming off a pair of injury-marred seasons who will break their hearts in the secondary.
Cornerback: Trevon Diggs, Dallas Cowboys
Best-Case Scenario: The 11 interceptions were the REAL Diggs. The NFL-high 916 yards allowed in coverage in 2021 (per Sports Info Solutions) and five touchdowns allowed were just growing pains.
Worst-Case Scenario: Diggs continues down the path of being the Jameis Winston of cornerbacks, but his early-season 2021 interception tear (seven picks in the first six games) turns out to be unrepeatable. The Cowboys enter the playoffs with an inconsistent gamble-and-guess defender, not the second coming of Everson Walls, playing cat-and-mouse with quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers.
Cornerback: Rasul Douglas, Green Bay Packers
Best-Case Scenario: Douglas has developed into the stalwart defender we saw in 2021, and the Packers defense is a top-10 unit.
Worst-Case Scenario: Douglas is the big-but-sluggish-and-penalty-prone defender we saw in Philly and Carolina from 2017 to 2020, and the Packers are counting on too many veterans to repeat their career years on defense.
Safety: Jamal Adams, Seattle Seahawks
Best-Case Scenario: You simply cannot create a Boom-or-Bust Team without Adams, the World’s Tiniest Edge Rusher. Coordinator Clint Hurtt arrives with a new scheme that Adams describes as “dope.” Maybe Hurtt can get Adams to do actual safety stuff!
Worst-Case Scenario: So, it sounds like Hurtt wants to run more two-high looks, then roll one of the safeties down at times to disguise coverages and stuff. So, Adams will line up deep a lot. Adams. Deep. Often. Get the fire extinguishers ready, folks!
Safety: Juan Thornhill, Kansas City Chiefs
Best-Case Scenario: Thornhill looked like a high-impact multi-purpose defensive back as a rookie in 2019 and for much of the 2021 playoff stretch. That version of Thornhill can do many of the things Tyrann Mathieu did and become a leader for the youthful Chiefs defense.
Worst-Case Scenario: Thornhill played a reduced role behind Daniel Freakin’ Sorensen for much of 2020 and the start of 2021 because Steve Spagnuolo didn’t trust him as a starter. That version of Thornhill is a mistake waiting to happen on a team that can no longer easily overcome defensive mistakes.
Kicker: Mason Crosby, Green Bay Packers
Best-Case Scenario: Only four kickers in history have made more playoff field goals than Crosby. That’s the sort of reliability you can bank upon in the NFC Championship Game.
Worst-Case Scenario: Crosby, who turns 38 in September, missed four field goals inside of 40 yards last year. If he’s toast, the Packers won’t replace him with undrafted rookie camp leg Greg Brkic or some free agent if he slumps. Instead, they will give Crosby every opportunity to turn things around. Which could out to be a fun new way of losing an NFC Championship Game.
Punter: Arryn Siposs, Philadelphia Eagles
Best-Case Scenario: Siposs averaged 46.5 yards per punt in September as a rookie. He just hit the wall late last season and in the playoffs, and he’ll be fine with better conditioning and more big-game experience.
Worst-Case Scenario: The cap-strapped Eagles are stuck with Captain Shanktastic gift-wrapping opponents the ball at midfield when it matters.
Return Specialist: DeAndre Carter, Los Angeles Chargers
Best-Case Scenario: The Chargers solved the latest version of their annual special teams crisis by adding Carter, a dependable and productive upgrade over K.J. Hill and Andre Roberts, who was the ultimate boom-or-bust return man in 2021.
Worst-Case Scenario: Eh, Carter will be fine. But these are the Chargers special teams we are talking about. Something’s gonna go horribly wrong.