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Tua, Lamar, Russell Wilson primed for big seasons: Warren Sharp’s NFL guide

By Warren Sharp
FOX Sports NFL Writer

Editor’s Note: NFL analyst Warren Sharp is joining FOX Sports for the 2022 NFL season. Throughout the year, he’ll recap the top games of the week and look ahead to the numbers that can give you a betting edge. In his debut column, Sharp starts with the top trends to know for 2022. Click here for Part 2 of his 2022 NFL Guide.

I’ve worn many hats in my career. But the thing that most clearly led me to this point was the core foundation of what it means to be an engineer: problem-solving.

My journey to understanding the NFL started with a simple question. What truly wins games? 

Many teams, even in 2022, do not know the answer.  

Ultimately, the goal must be to navigate the fastest path to victory each week based on your strengths and your opponent’s weaknesses. Playing to the current rules of the NFL, the quickest route will involve a healthy mix of early-down passing (regardless of how good or bad you think your quarterback is) with a goal of bypassing third downs, important incorporation of offensive explosiveness and an aggressive mindset — to focus on leading by as many points at halftime.  

This is not your grandfather’s NFL. Great offense will beat great defense because the rules so heavily favor the offense. Being too predictable on offense is one of the fastest ways to give back your edge.

By first understanding what truly wins games in the NFL, we need to know what to look for. This is where I come in to analyze, evaluate, review and judge. 

Sixteen years ago, I started a straightforward, no-nonsense website called Sharp Football Analysis to share my weekly predictions for games. I was hungry to answer that simple question then, and I continue to do the same today.  

This season, I’m thankful for the opportunity to share weekly content with you right here at FOX Sports.

I’ll share weekly recaps of what went right and wrong for teams, coaches and individual players. And I’ll share game previews, blending mismatches, edges, expectations and predictions. Yes, some of it will be very nerdy and data-intensive, but I’ll always back up and give you a straightforward takeaway. 

Hopefully, you’ll read a recap and say, “I noticed that, but I didn’t realize it was THAT bad!” My goal is for you to read a preview, watch the game unfold, and say, “Hey, that’s what Warren said might happen!”  

Part 2 of Warren’s NFL guide: Why Vikings will surprise, Cowboys could disappoint.

Trying to forecast games means one thing: We are in the business of predicting the future, and that’s never easy. But my goal is to provide insights you didn’t know before reading. 

I can’t wait for the season to get here, but first, I’m starting with 10 things you need to know before you watch and bet on the NFL this year.

We’ll go over the first five things now, and I’ll have five more things to watch on Tuesday.

1. It’s hard to imagine a quarterback drafted in the top five starting his career in a more challenging spot than Tua Tagovailoa.

He entered the NFL rehabilitating a catastrophic hip injury and knew he wouldn’t start entering the season. Then COVID-19 happened, and all of his meetings because virtual.

His offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, came out of retirement to design the offense for starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, as the two had previously worked together with the Jets. Despite no proper offseason, no reps with the “1s” and an offense designed for Fitzpatrick, Tagovailoa was inserted as the Dolphins‘ starter midseason. 

Gailey came out later questioning why the team switched to Tagovailoa midseason and later noted that the offense that left-handed Tua operated was still designed for the right-handed Fitzpatrick. Not to mention, coach Brian Flores frequently pulled Tagovailoa late in games to insert Fitzpatrick, fracturing his confidence under the guise that “Tua didn’t have the two-minute offense down well enough” to be in those situations.

Heading into 2021, his first season as a full-time starter, Tagovailoa finally had a healthy offseason and took all the QB1 snaps in camp. But he had no clue who his offensive coordinator would be, even two weeks before the season. The coordinators changed playcalling duties during the season, throwing off the quarterback even further. 

Tagovailoa then suffered rib fractures at the beginning of Week 2, missing most of that game and the next three games (the Dolphins went 0-4 in those four games). Once he returned, the team had two losses by three points or fewer before he fractured the middle finger on his throwing hand in a Week 8 loss to the Bills. On top of that, his No. 1 receiver (DeVante Parker) missed seven games with injury.

Over both years together:

– His wide receivers had the worst separation in the NFL

– His pass catchers had the second-worst yards after the catch (YAC)

– His offensive line ranked as one of the worst in the NFL in protection

– His running backs ranked No. 30 in efficiency

You can’t expect any quarterback to succeed under these conditions. When I’m betting on teams to exceed expectations, I look below the data to understand the context behind how the stats were earned. Tagovailoa was in a difficult situation, but what about this upcoming season?

He has better receivers, better linemen and better, more consistent coaching. He’ll get more receiver separation and YAC, better protection, and a more reliable running game. I expect many people will be surprised by how Tua looks this season. But not me, and hopefully not you. Expect it.

2. While Tua is the biggest lightning-rod quarterback in the NFL this offseason, Lamar Jackson has worn that crown over the past several seasons. And for the life of me, I don’t understand why. 

I’ve tried to battle against this notion and will continue to do so because I love sharing context and data to prove people wrong. Before getting into 2022, let’s look at this high-level timeline of Jackson’s career:

Steve Young says Ravens are “holding back” Lamar Jackson

NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young was critical of the way Baltimore has handled Lamar Jackson, including their current contract impasse.

In 2018, Jackson was a rookie backup quarterback at camp. He didn’t get first-team reps and was inserted for a handful of gadget plays. He became the full-time starter in Week 11. He went 6-1 and posted the best QB stats of any 21-year-old quarterback in NFL history.

In 2019, Lamar became the youngest player ever to win MVP. He was just the second ever to win MVP unanimously. Jackson was the first player ever to throw 30-plus TDs and rush for 1,000 yards in a season. He delivered the best season of any 22-year-old ever.

In 2020, Lamar became the first player with 7,000 passing yards and 2,500 rushing yards in his first three seasons. Want passing stats only? He threw 67 TDs in his 37 starts. That was tied with Aaron Rodgers (who sat out for years before he was ready to take over) and was more than Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and almost every quarterback in history.

In 2021, despite the Ravens being the most-injured team in the NFL, Jackson had Baltimore as the No. 1 seed in the AFC in December. The Ravens were a run-first team and the No. 2 most run-heavy team in the two seasons leading into 2021. The Ravens then lost every key running back before the season and had to sign RBs off the street, so they pivoted to the pass. 

They ranked as the No. 7 most pass-heavy offense in the NFL, completely changing their philosophy overnight. They leaned entirely into Jackson and asked him to carry them. And he did. 

He was the league’s No. 1 passer outside the numbers on early downs. But then he injured his ankle, missed the rest of the season, and the Ravens lost every game without him (0-5).

Before Jackson, people forget the Ravens almost fired John Harbaugh in 2018, as they were 40-40 in the prior five years. In 2018, Baltimore started 4-5, then started Lamar at quarterback. As mentioned above, he went 6-1 down the stretch and took a losing team without him to the playoffs.

Since then, he has won 37 out of 49 starts and never missed the playoffs when healthy (the team is 1-6 in games he has been injured/sick).

Do you want to know how many players in NFL history are responsible for at least 80 total touchdowns before turning 24? One. His name is Lamar Jackson.

As far as only passing touchdowns? Jackson is tied with Dan Marino at No. 2 on the all-time list of total TD passes before turning 24.

The list:

69 – Justin Herbert

68 – Lamar Jackson, Dan Marino

67

66

65

64

63

62

61

That’s correct — no other quarterback in NFL history has more than 60 touchdown passes before the age of 24. It’s just those three studs.

And that’s despite the Ravens spending the second-least money on their receiving corps of any team in the NFL in the four seasons Lamar has started. In 2022, this receiving corps is projected to be the cheapest in the NFL based on cap dollars allocated to the position. 

In all four seasons since Jackson became the starter, the Ravens have a bottom-10 paid receiving corps and a bottom-10 paid offensive line, based on cap dollars allocated to the position. It truly has been remarkable what Jackson has done with this group.

I fully expect Jackson to carry the Ravens to the playoffs in 2022, something he has done every season in his NFL career when healthy.

Ravens, 49ers highlight Colin’s amended predictions

Colin Cowherd amends his 2022 predictions for the Ravens and 49ers, with Week 1 kicking off in less than two weeks.

3. No name on a new team will make a larger impact than Russell Wilson with the Broncos this season. And one particular receiver should really benefit

Not since Peyton Manning in 2015 was this team projected to have double-digit wins by oddsmakers before the season started.

Not since Peyton Manning in 2015 has this team gone over their preseason win projection.

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Colin Cowherd explains why Russell Wilson should be ranked much higher on the list of the NFL’s top players.

That’s right — this team has gone under their win total in five of the past six years (with one push in 2019). And zero overs.

Now, they are expected to win double-digit games for the first time since 2015, and it’s all because of Russ.

Wilson replaces Drew Lock. Let’s look at just how bad Lock has been over the previous two seasons (minimum 400 attempts):

33rd in accuracy

33rd in completion %

32nd in success rate

30th in EPA/att

30th in TD-INT ratio

28th in first down rate

32nd from clean pockets

33rd on layups (less than 5 air yards)

32nd on early downs with no play action

We know Wilson has tailed off some at this stage in his career, but he’s light years ahead of Lock. Even last year, before his mallet finger injury on his throwing hand, guess where Wilson ranked on early-down passes in the first three quarters of games?

1st in EPA/att (+0.34)

1st in YPA (11.1)

1st in ANY/A (11.2)

1st in completion % (84%)

1st in passer rating (137.9)

3rd most passing TDs (7)

4th in accuracy (95%)

7th in success rate (52%)

I’m high on the Broncos having a capable quarterback, and I also love Cortland Sutton this year. Sutton’s projections from oddsmakers in the futures market are as low as 900 receiving yards.

Think about this:  

In 2020, Wilson’s top two receivers: DK Metcalf 1,303 yards, Tyler Lockett 1,054

In 2021, Wilson’s top two receivers: Metcalf 967 yards, Lockett 1,175

It was a 16-game season in 2020; 2021 was yet another season where the Seahawks massively dialed back the pass and Russ missed multiple games with the mallet finger injury. That didn’t stop his top two WRs from still going over 900 yards at a perfect 100% rate. 

I’m not a big fan of betting overs in yardage for receivers or running backs, but this is one of the few instances I see the value. Particularly when you factor in who Sutton had been trying to catch passes from:

83 targets from Case Keenum

78 targets from Teddy Bridgewater

61 targets from Lock

59 targets from Joe Flacco

25 targets from Brandon Allen

Now, he gets a quarterback light years ahead of anything he has had previously. Yes, I’m excited about both Wilson and Sutton this season.

4. I continue to contend the AFC Championship Game will feature the Chargers unless one of two things prevent them from making it: injuries or coaching.

Justin Herbert is a prodigy, but the way offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi used him last season was cause for concern.

Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson top list of AFC QBs under pressure

Emmanuel Acho and Joy Taylor reveal the four AFC QBs under the most pressure heading into the NFL season.

Herbert’s early-down average depth of target (aDOT) ranked 36th out of 42 quarterbacks last season.

36 of 42?! For a QB prodigy with one of the strongest arms in the NFL?

But this isn’t anything new for Lombardi. In a previous stop, he called plays for Matthew Stafford with the Lions. In his final season with Stafford (2015), Lombardi saw Stafford rank:

44th of 44 QBs in aDOT (5.9)

And in his final season with Drew Brees (2020), Lombardi saw Brees rank:

41st of 44 QBs in aDOT (5.6)

Now he’s doing it with Herbert. Let’s break down this “wow” stat even further.

Herbert threw behind the line of scrimmage at the sixth-highest rate in the NFL last season (18%), tying him with Taysom Hill and Lock.

And he only threw 10-plus yards downfield at the 30th-highest rate in the NFL. There is no need for this.

Pay close attention to Herbert’s target depth early in the season. If it’s dramatically increased over 2021, lean heavier into the Chargers in the futures market. If it’s close to 2021 numbers, I will be less bullish on the Chargers to go all the way this season, despite the massive edge they have with a prodigy quarterback on a rookie deal and tons of cap space to go around to build out the roster.

5. Illegal contact will be a point of emphasis this season. 

By definition, “illegal contact refers to prohibited contact by a defender when the quarterback still has the ball and remains in the pocket. It is a 5-yard penalty and results in an automatic first down.”  

Why are they doing this? After being flagged 97 times in 2020, the penalty was only called 36 times last season.

You might think that will mean automatic overs, but that hasn’t been the case. 

The league made illegal contact a point of emphasis twice in the past:

– In 2004, and there were 191 flags (up from 79 in 2003)

– In 2014, and there were 148 flags (up from 52 in 2013)

But that didn’t increase the rate of overs to a profitable level in either season to bet blindly. In 2004, only 50.4% of games went over the total, and in 2014, only 46.6% of games went over the total. To create profit, a bettor must clear a 52.36% win rate against -110 juice.  

And then the question I immediately was curious about: What about the first month of those seasons? Did we see a stronger emphasis, thus more overs?

In September 2004, we saw overs go 18-27-1 (40%). In September 2014, we saw overs go 30-28-2 (51.7%).  

Neither month was profitable to blindly bet overs.

Remember the crowd-less 2020 season? 

In September that season, we saw games go over at a 60% clip. Now that is profitable. Unfortunately, there will be no shortcuts to winning for bettors trying to take advantage of the new emphasis on illegal contact flags this season.

Click here for five more trends to know in Part 2 of Warren Sharp’s 2022 NFL Guide.


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