After spending months on evaluating college prospects, talking about what each team did in the draft and their overall roster building process, it’s time to discuss some of the tangible effects we may witness this upcoming season. So I wanted to look at all eight teams, who finished last inside their division in 2021, and rank them based on likelihood of ascending to the top of those groups.
I had a lot of fun with this exercise, because while I enjoy creating excitement for one franchise – and I was able to still do so for the teams in question – it’s also good to do think contrarily, try to poke holes in rosters/coaching staffs and lay out a path for why groups may underachieve. Therefore, I ultimately put together a short intro on the baseline situation, gave the other three teams a paragraph each to break down certain concerns they may have, and then finally got to the franchises in question here.
We spend so much time hyping up the established squads and neglect those closer to the bottom of the league – at least in terms of positives they may have going on for themselves – that this was supposed to be a change-up to a lot of the content out there.
(I have no idea how it happened, since the Jaguars obviously selected first overall in the draft, but somehow I ended up listing the Texans for the AFC South. Since they have a lower projected win total this season, that actually makes it a slightly bigger challenge anyway though.)
So let’s get into the breakdown!
1. Baltimore Ravens
This was really a two-team race for the top spot here, but what made me go with Baltimore over the other squad in question was what is needed to actually win the AFC North, in relation to the rest of the division. The Bengals are set up to be a major threat for years to come, if the organization is willing to go out of their ways of refusing to guarantee contracts beyond the first year and keep their best players in-house, which we’ve already seen them change in terms of going out and spending big money in free agency. However, as impressive as their run to the Super Bowl was, they did win division with a 10-7 record. I can’t remember a team that snuck into the playoffs quite like the 9-7-1 Steelers did last year and the Browns have a lot going on right now that doesn’t even concern what’s happening on the football field.
Cincinnati did address the area that held them back the most by far and ultimately cost them their first Lombardi trophy most likely – which is the offensive line. However, there are some things that will be tough to re-create, such as forcing a turnover in 16 of 21 games – a statistic with a ton of variance – and they were tied for the sixth-best AGL (adjusted games lost – a metric used by Football Outsiders to estimate the impact of injuries on teams). Then there are areas from last year that are concerning, such as converting a lower percentage of third downs than their opponents (-2.0%), head coach Zac Taylor’s stubbornness of early down run percentage (53%) and formation tells (running the ball out of 12 personnel at an absurd rate), putting them behind the chains constantly. The O-line certainly got better, but they did also quietly lose arguably their top performer in Quinton Spain from last year, La’el Collins has been dealing with some injuries recently and the two free agents they signed on the interior were both replacement-level starters their teams were fine parting ways with. Defensively, they lost D-tackle Larry Ogunjobi, who was tied for the team-lead in tackles for loss (12) and routinely created disruption up front, and their top player on that entire unit in safety Jessie Bates currently has no intention of signing the franchise tender. Along their defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo was much more effective in the postseason, being able to craft gameplan specifically for their next opponents, while the regular season was fairly mediocre, as their takeaways per contest nearly doubled (1.23 to 2.25).
As for the other two teams in that division – the Steelers needed nearly every single break possible over the last two weeks of the season to somehow sneak into the playoffs. They pretty miraculously won against the Browns despite Ben Roethlisberger throwing for 123 yards on 46 attempts and then just were able to get by the wounded Ravens in overtime of week 18, when they had just six points until less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter. They still have major question marks at quarterback with the combination of Mitch Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett, as the former is looking to re-start his career after getting benched for Nick Foles on his sixth team and I thought Pickett was a major reach at 20th overall in the draft – you can find my detailed breakdown of his skill-set here. They do have some nice weapons around those guys, but their O-line held them to 29th in yards per rush gained (3.9) and they surrendered the sixth-most pressures (142), despite Ben Roethlisberger averaging an absurdly low 2.20 seconds per pass. Their defense does still have three elite players on it I would say, but they finished dead-last in yards per rush (5.0) and by far explosive runs allowed (24 versus 16 for the next-closest). Stephon Tuitt just retired and their corner room is filled with replacement-level guys.
The Browns on the other hand still have one of the most talented rosters in the league, but their quarterback situation is even more uncertain, with Deshaun Watson’s pending lawsuits and looming suspension, Baker Mayfield having been traded to Carolina just now (which delayed this piece being released by a day) and the possibility of Jacoby Brissett starting week one. They also had one of the more questionable drafts in my opinion, where their fourth-round kicker (the only selected through three days) may have the biggest impact in year one. They didn’t re-sign a Pro Bowl-level center in J.C. Tretter and didn’t add any difference-makers I would argue, outside of Watson potentially and depending on how much better Amari Cooper can be than the combination of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. In terms of starting lineups, I would question why they don’t have a designated A-gap defender, but more importantly, this was an 8-9 group that by all reports was distracted by the power struggles between Baker, OBJ and the organization. I don’t see how the current situation with Deshaun is going to be less of a factor in their ability to stay focused on the task at hand.
So that leads us to the Ravens, who show several signs of being in position for a major bounce-back. They were 7-4 as long as Lamar Jackson was healthy, despite having started the season without their top three running backs, a Pro Bowl cornerback in Marcus Peters, a starting linebacker, then an All-Pro left tackle after the first week and several key losses piling up throughout the year, eventually going out there with practice squad corners and veteran free agent running backs, who nobody else wanted to sign the last two years. As I already referenced with the Bengals having “good injury luck”, Football Outsiders estimates by far the highest adjusted games lost last season for Baltimore (191.2 vs. 158.5 for the second-highest). Not only that, but they are bringing back pretty much every single meaningful starter or replaced them with somebody better in my opinion, other than wide receiver Marquise Brown.
Offensively I could see them transition to more pin-and-pull run schemes with Tyler Linderbaum having premiere mobility at center, while I believe we’ll see them very tough to match up against based on personnel they have in the game, since they also drafted two more tight-ends, where now they can come out in 13 sets and have those guys in tight, but then spread them out, since they’re all quality big slot options. Defensively, with Mike Macdonald returning to Baltimore as the former Michigan DC, we should see more split-safety principles along with the pressure looks we’re accustomed to seeing from them on passing downs, which I went over in more detail in my piece on the “most improved position groups”, talking about their new safety tandem of free agent Marcus Williams and former Notre Dame standout Kyle Hamilton, along with their green-dot guy in Chuck Clark. So with increased depth at corner as well now, I believe they’ll be far less vulnerable to big plays, while the offense could be very unique to gameplan for. I’d personally make the Ravens the slight favorite to win the North.
Chance of winning the division: 35-40%
2. Denver Broncos
So like I mentioned at the top, I decided on the Ravens being number one in this ranking, because the competition may not be quite a fierce at the top-end. No other division has engaged in an arms race this offseason anything close to what we’ve seen from the AFC West. Going through this thought exercise, I’d say that at least 20 of the top-100 players in the whole league currently reside spread across those four rosters. Still, I could easily see the Broncos finish with a better record than Baltimore and come out on top of this group, to prove a lot of people right who said for a long time that they were a competent quarterback away from really making some noise.
While you can argue the gap between the Chiefs – who have won the division in each of the last six years – and the rest of the West has shrunk, they are still the betting favorite and have earned the cachet to own that status. They still have Patrick Mahomes, the same excellent coaching staff and arguably just had one of the best drafts of any team in the league. However, there are areas of the team that are unproven at this point. They big difference we’ll see in 2022 is not having the guy who probably scares the defense on every single snap more than any other player, having traded Tyreek Hill to Miami. I do like the new trio of receivers they brought in, but unless Marquez Valdes-Scantling becomes the consistent play-maker people have wanted to see for several years, they lack that vertical element to the offense and it will change the math for this offense, in terms of the available space because of how opponents have to play them. Mahomes threw a career-high 13 picks last season, due to needing to develop the maturity to patiently take underneath routes as they faced so many two-high shells. Now as those safeties can creep up a little more and there are smaller voids to attack, the newly found efficiency on offense will be challenged once again. Switching over to defense, Kansas City did make a remarkable shift over the second half of last season, but they probably won’t force 21 turnovers over the final ten weeks again, only the Steelers allowed a higher yards per rush (4.8) and they were dead-last in yards surrendered per drive defensively, meaning teams were able to move the ball on them and win field-position more easily than on any other unit.
Next I guess has to be the Raiders, since they beat out the Chargers in overtime of the final regular season matchup. Interim head coach Rich Bisaccia was able to steer the ship despite multiple off-the-field issues around the franchise and they did have first-and-goal down seven at the end of their Wildcard loss against the eventual AFC champs. Still, this group was far from perfect on the field and overperformed. They ended the regular season with a negative point differential of -65, they were 26th in red-zone offense (51.7%) and dead-last in RZ defense (81.4%), with 6.9 expected wins according to PFR. They got blown off the field twice by Kansas City and the second matchup against the Broncos was decided by only four points despite a +3 in turnover differential. So just winning inside their own division will be tough for them. Vegas did make two big moves for wide receiver Davante Adams and edge rusher Chandler Jones, but even if you look some of the guys they got in the draft, they only have two proven pieces on the O-line and you have to question if new head coach Josh McDaniels will allow Derek Carr to take command of the offense quite like he did over this most recent stretch, where he’s been playing his best ball, having brought along his fullback from New England and the offense having far less pre-snap checks built in. Defensively, they were average or worse across the board last season and while I like Patrick Graham’s defensive principles, it may limit their edge guys to just attack upfield. Plus, they’re losing one of the top special teams coordinators.
And finally, the Chargers may actually be the team with the highest ceiling, since they have a quarterback who challenges the talent level of Patrick Mahomes, they bring back almost all prior pieces and a couple of additions on offense, while making major investments into the defense. However, with OC Mike Lombardi’s philosophy that heavily revolves around the quick game, we saw their offense sputter at times against well-coached opponents, because their star QB wasn’t allowed to maximize his ability to attack vertically. They laid a couple of stinkers at Baltimore, Denver and versus Houston, while Herbert had to be superman a lot of times to carry them to victories late. Defensively, they have a long way to go, as the 29th overall scoring unit and 32nd-ranked third-down group. I discussed some of the front dynamics before, talking about pre-snap looks that got them killed, because they left gaps uncovered, and they did add beef to neutralize those issues, but the coaching staff under Brandon Staley will have to self-scout in that area as well, plus the second level is still a major question mark with unproven commodities. I can defend a lot of the fourth-down decisions they make, even though there is room for optimization, but they had some serious errors on special teams (28th in DVOA) and overall game situations.
Now that I’ve presented reasons for the other three teams to disappoint with the hype around them, let’s talk about why I believe Denver can be the group that rises above them. Well, first of all they finished last season 7-and-10, but their expected win total from pro-football-reference.com and Football Outsiders respectively was at 8.9, despite having the fifth-most adjusted games lost to injury (118.1). Their 2020 leaders in receiving yards (Jerry Jeudy), sacks (Bradley Chubb) and tackles (Alexander Johnson) all played between 25 and 38 percent of snaps. Yet, their defense still somehow finished third in points allowed (18.9 per game) and now they added underrated players from San Francisco, in nose-tackle D.J. Jones and slot corner K’Waun Williams, along with one of the most productive per-rush pass-rushers from last season in Randy Gregory and I believe the guy with the highest pass-rush win rate in college over the prior two years in Oklahoma’s Nik Bonitto. And while Ejiro Evero will have to prove he can recreate what they had there under the wise duo of Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell, he comes from the same background of defensive philosophies, and the Broncos certainly upgraded their offensive coaching staff. Nathaniel Hackett is one of the most well-versed minds in terms of schematic knowledge, when you look at his background, and he seems incredibly excited to work with Russell (“Freaking”) Wilson, who presents the biggest upgrade at the most important position for any other team in the league. He is somebody who can finally take advantage of the talent they’ve accumulated in their receiving corp, along with a rushing attack that averaged 4.5 yards last season and took over some games despite being so one-sided and not even fully cutting loose Javonte Williams as a rookie, who should have a huge encore season. I’d be shocked if they went 1-and-5 inside the AFC West again, and just by that, they can improve rapidly.
Chance of winning the division: 25-30%
3. Detroit Lions
From this point on, you can argue that the remaining teams seem more like long-shots, based on public perception. With that being said, looking at the direction of this Detroit franchise under their current regime, the additions they’ve made this offseason and some uncertainty for the other three teams, I want to bet on this group (maybe not in the sense of actually putting money on them to actually win the NFC North, but at least in this capacity). So hear me out on this.
The big obstacle in their way of course of the Packers, who have won 13 games in three straight years. They bring back the MVP of football in Aaron Rodgers, they should get a couple of starters back on the O-line and looking at the defensive depth chart, there are talented players largely top-to-bottom. However, they did just lose one of the truly elite receivers in football in Davante Adams, who Rodgers had almost blind trust in and repeatedly went to in key situations, often times making things up on the fly or just having a small detail down perfectly. Now they replaced him with Sammy Watkins and draft picks Christian Watson from North Dakota State and Romeo Doubs from Nevada. Not that those aren’t talented players, but Watkins hasn’t cracked 700 receiving yards since 2015(!), never had more than flashes in the most explosive offense in the league with the Chiefs and he’s missed 4.5 games since reaching that mark. The two draft picks showed inconsistency in college with drops and will both face major jumps in competition. And let’s just quickly note here that All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari is still working with the rehab group almost exactly one-and-a-half years after tearing his ACL. Green Bay’s defense had some excellent showings in 2021 and could be even better this year with some guys coming back, but we see major variance on that side of the ball every year, with career years for players at every level, and it’s very unlikely they’ll reproduce such a drastic turnover differential (third-best at +13). The Packers also had the worst special teams unit league-wide last season according to several metrics and now expect Rich Bisaccia and former Bears punter Pat O’Donnell to instantly turn that unit around.
Minnesota certainly has some pieces to make noise this season, depending on the improvement we could from this defense. That inarguably includes top five players at wide receiver in Justin Jefferson and running back in Dalvin Cook, a more than competent quarterback in Kirk Cousins and to me a more adept defensive scheme to face the modern offenses under Ed Donatell. Yet, as much good as I can find for them and we haven’t seen them finish with less than seven wins as a franchise since 2013, we also have yet to witness Cousins being able to elevate this roster above mediocrity since he’s gotten there, which is illustrated perfectly by finishing last season dead-average in offensive, defensive and overall DVOA last season (16th). Pro Football Focus had them as the 23rd-ranked offensive line, with the only addition being third-round guard Ed O’Neill from LSU, and the defense has seen some stalwarts either move on or regress, with Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith coming their worst years in a while and Danielle Hunter being a major question mark still medically. Looking at what they were able to do last season, five of their eight wins came against teams that picked or would have picked (without trades) inside the top-10 of the draft, yet they’re now set up with a second-place schedule, which sets them up for matchups with the Saints, Cardinals and Colts (rather than the Panthers, Seahawks and Jaguars for Detroit).
I would certainly argue the Bears need a miracle to be any threat to win the division, considering they parted ways with basically their entire front-five so to speak other than Robert Quinn, two starters on the O-line and Allen Robinson, all largely based on cap numbers and the fact that they are entering a rebuild right now – which they’re not really trying to hide. So considering they already had a negative point differential of -96 and might actually be worse in some areas, I won’t include them much in this conversion. I’m excited to see where second-year quarterback Justin Fields may go, but the pieces around him are actually worse this upcoming season, with very limited aerial weapons, relying on Byron Pringle, Equanimeous St. Brown and third-round pick Velus Jones Jr. (Tennessee) to make plays. I don’t want to talk down on Chicago here, but the front-office is telling you at which stage of their life cycle they are and I’d be shocked if they don’t draft in the top-ten come next April.
And now I’m excited to talk about the Lions. Looking at last season, along with their three wins, nine more games they lost came by ten or fewer points, which is why pro-football-reference.com had them at a projected 5.1 wins. Plus, they had the third-most average game lost to injury in 2021, behind only the Ravens and Jets (122.4). That included key players like running back D’Andre Swift, an All-Pro level center in Frank Ragnow, Pro Bowl tight-end T.J. Hockenson, a plus-starter at left tackle in Taylor Decker, the third overall pick from a couple of years ago in cornerback Jeffrey Okudah and even a couple of their kickers missed between five and 16 games. Their defense finished 29th in yards and 31st in points allowed respectively, but with the injuries they suffered and the variance we see on that side of the ball and them being slated to have between four and six new starters, we could see them make a quick jump under a defensive coordinator in Aaron Glenn, who’s probably on the short-list for head coaching candidates in 2023. Jared Goff would have to play his best season yet, but he’s in a situation where he has to overperform, as we’ve already heard the coaches talk about there, to keep his job. So he’ll need to take advantage of those new weapons on the perimeter in veteran D.J. Chark and 12th overall draft pick Jameson Williams, therefore opening up room for those running backs, after already averaging a solid 4.4 yards per carry in 2021. They’ll need more than just a stingy defense to shock some people here, but I certainly like where this franchise is heading. The betting community is already in love with them and while they’re not scheduled for a single primetime game in 2022, I think we’ll see a lot of other people start rooting for a group that is all pulling on one string.
Chance of winning the division: 15-20%
4. New York Jets
This is maybe the team I’m most excited about this upcoming season to see what jump they might be able to make. Let’s not sugarcoat this – they were absolutely horrific in 2021 altogether with a defense that ranked dead-last in yards and points allowed, while their young quarterback ranked at the bottom of the league in passer rating, QBR, EPA and a bunch of other analytics. As much as I believe both those things can turn around this upcoming season, the big issue and the reason they only come in fourth for me, is that I believe they have the NFL’s best team inside their division. Still, there are a lot of things to like about this group and now let’s try to drag the others down.
I’m a huge fan of how Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott have put together this roster, with a guy at the quarterback position capable of outdueling anybody in the league, with the weapons needed around him, and one of the most well-constructed and -organized defenses out there. However, for the purpose of this exercise, let me poke some holes in them, where I could see a path for them underperforming. They did score 26 or more points in 13 of 17 games last season, but other than the snowstorm game against New England, the other three games (16 points vs. Steelers, six vs. Jaguars and 15 vs. Colts), what they all had in common was how they forced Josh to be very patient with zone coverages and even when showing pressure, backing out of those. Buffalo may have lost in the Divisional Round, but everybody saw the show they put up against Kansas City and will be studying that offense in depth, potentially applying a similar strategy as the three teams mentioned, while Allen accounting for a third of their rushing total and how one-sided they are in play-selection may not be replicable. Defensively, there’s very little to find about them analytically to allude to in a negative sense, but I go back to how fluctuant that side of the ball is and in particularly turnover “luck”, where they ranked third in the NFL with 30. Their biggest strength there has been a safety duo, where both guys are 31 years old, their Pro Bowl corner Tre’Davious White is coming off a torn ACL and they’ll be relying on 33-year-old free agency addition Von Miller to be their alpha pass-rusher, which he hadn’t lived up to before coming to L.A. late last season.
Of course I spent a lot of time on the Bills now, because they are the current Super Bowl favorites, but I still have to pick apart the other two AFC East teams, which even if there are things to like, I have a few concerns that need to be mentioned here. First up with the Patriots, where there’s one area of the team that I want to zero in on, even with their weird obsession of keeping who’s going to be calling offensive plays a secret, but rather it’s the fact that they lack true difference-makers in my opinion. Having lost cornerback J.C. Jackson and to some degree also their starting duo of guards over the last two years, I find it hard to point to those two or three guys that really worry opponents game-planning for them, other than maybe Matt Judon or just the respect they have for Bill Belichick. They haven’t re-signed three of their top four linebackers and just had the worst draft in the league from a value perspective in relation to consensus boards.
Miami on the other hand, did base their offseason around acquiring that one true superstar in Tyreek Hill. With him, Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki, they certainly have some receiving weapons there now, but I still major questions about the offense. With new head coach Mike McDaniel having worked under Kyle Shanahan since 2006, I’m sure he understands how to give his playmakers the ball in space and Tua Tagovailoa can get it there if he’s in rhythm and has space, but the better defensive play-callers understand how to force him to make plays outside of that and he’s unproven in that regard, as a guy who plays rather small in the pocket and the only two quarterbacks with a lower intended air yards per attempt last season (7.0) were Ben Roethlisberger and Jared Goff. They did sign a franchise left tackle in Terron Armstead, but he missed half of last season and has only played more than ten games twice since 2016. And the rest of the O-line is still a question mark. I like Connor Williams as an upgrade at left guard, even if his 12 penalties surrendered last year was the second-most in the league, but then the guy for first in that regard Austin Jackson may be back in the lineup, Michael Deiter is making a switch to center probably and their potential starter at right tackle in Liam Eichenberg was charged with nine sacks and ten penalties as a rookie.
So at least in terms of jumping those latter two teams, there’s certainly a path for Gang Green. Zach Wilson will benefit from a full offseason that it tough to comprehend just based on the language for a rookie and with a top-ten pick at wide receiver in Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson, along with the top two guys from a year ago back healthy and a completely overhauled tight-end room, teams won’t be able to just lock up in man-coverage, against which Zach ranked dead-last by a significant margin in EPA last year. With their second-rounder Breece Hall, they now also have an excellent running back duo, to give them better balance with the rushing attack and present options out of the backfield. Their defense ranked 32nd in yards and points allowed as well as DVOA, but that’s nearly impossible to recreate and there are several reasons why they’re bound to recover. I mean just look-wise, they’re completely different with two new starting edge defenders, corners and safeties most likely, including last year’s big free agency signing Carl Lawson and two of my top-eight overall prospects from the draft. You give Robert Saleh those pieces, who earned his current job by coordinating one of the premiere defenses in football a couple of years ago in San Francisco, and they could make a 360-degree turn potentially. So altogether, this is one of the more promising young squads, with quite a hill to climb, having the current Super Bowl favorites inside their division, but if they can get to their week ten bye with the slate they’ll be facing with a positive record, watch out!
Chance of winning the division: 10-15%
5. New York Giants
First of all, you can never really predict what will happen in the NFC East. We haven’t had a repeat champion since the Eagles’ run between 2002 and ’04, when they made it to three straight conference championships. Now, the Giants haven’t been kings of the East since making that magical Super Bowl run in 2011 and lost their lone playoff contest they’ve been in since then, but with how tough this division has been to project, you can’t rule anything out and I’m about to poke some sizeable holes into those other three teams.
We have to start off with the reigning division champs in the Cowboys, coming off a 12-win campaign. In terms of stability, they’re retaining their head coach and all three coordinators, Dak Prescott shouldn’t have a period of where he’s still testing out the ankle, coming off surgery last year, and they’re bringing back all but two starters on each side of the ball basically. However, we saw what happened when they faced a well-coached team and how they handled late-game situations when they faced the 49ers in the Wildcard Round. We also saw their offense sputter trying to put together drives against the Broncos and Chiefs last season, who asked their DBs to challenge guys off the line and knew who to double in certain situations. They hold themselves back by letting Zeke touch the ball nearly 300 times, despite Tony Pollard averaging 1.7 yards more per touch, and while I like the way Kellen Moore can stretch defenses out, there is some predictability with what they like to run based on formation and down-and-distance. Their defense is another candidate to regress to the norm, particularly the fact that they likely won’t be taking the ball away a league-high 34 times again. They don’t have a designated A-gap defender on the roster other than 178th overall pick John Ridgeway III from Arkansas, which is also why they only held opponents below 100 rushing yards once over their final 13 games, easily their second-most effective pass-rusher in Randy Gregory pulled out of a contract with them late and thanks to where they finished, they’ll be facing the three top-scoring offenses in the NFC other than them.
Of course, we have to address the other playoff team from this division as well, since the Eagles were able to win six of seven games before week 18, when they sat most of their starters against the Cowboys, having clinched a Wildcard berth already. They did so by relying heavily on their run game and limiting big plays defensively, to not neutralize how they were able to control the football. And I love the addition of wide receiver A.J. Brown to slide everybody in that room down one slot in the pecking order. Yet, I have a hard time believing they’ll average 190 yards over their final ten games again, as teams will be willing to rotate safeties down late and blitz the run on early downs, putting the ball back in Jalen Hurts’ hands, who has progressed as a passer, but has still functioned best in a rather elementary approach of singular reads instead of dropping back and scanning the whole field. The defense is also pretty impressive up front, but the second level is largely dependent on the impact third-round pick Nakobe Dean can make right away, who if totally healthy could turn out to be a huge steal, but him going this late is still pretty fishy to me, and without Rodney McLeod, that second safety spot is a major question mark. James Bradberry now being there could lead to us seeing more challenging man/quasi-man coverages, but their philosophy last season of playing a bunch of two-deep shells and keeping everybody in front of them could once again be picked apart by teams with patient quarterbacks who have solid protection, as teams completed a league-high 69.4 percent of passes against them and they were bottom-ten in third-down percentage.
And then let’s quickly address Washington here. They were 7-10 last season and two of those losses actually came without Taylor Heinicke starting, while there are other factors that can certainly lead you to believe they will be better in 2022. However, even though Carson Wentz should be a slight upgrade under center, he has made too many big mistakes in crucial moments, that you can trust him to bring home games. Their defense was a huge disappointment last year, finishing in the bottom-ten in yards and points allowed, as well as 31st in third-down percentage, because they are also very predictable schematically and the middle of the field was where opponents killed them all year long. They might have the exact same starting-11 again other than Landon Collins, who when used as a big nickel actually had their unit look the best, and from their draft class the biggest impact may be coming from second-round pick Phidarian Mathis – another Alabama D-tackle – who will either be a rotational piece up front or potentially replace (and be a downgrade) for Daron Payne, with some trade rumors around him. I don’t love their play-calling on either side of the ball and Ron Rivers hasn’t coached a team to a .500-or-better record since 2017.
So that finally brings us to the Giants, who may be scoffed at by many people around the league, but arguably are set up best since Ben McAdoo’s final full season as a coach in 2016. It feels kind of arbitrary to try judging head coaches based on very limited information about what’s happening in those buildings, but Joe Judge approving or deciding on third-and-long QB sneaks to me is a sign of not believing in your players and that’s a reason for me to be out on a guy. I personally still like their now former DC Patrick Graham, but that coaching staff Brian Daboll has put together in New York is a major upgrade just from a play-calling perspective. They didn’t spend a lot of money in free agency, but added a couple of underrated veterans on the O-line and then they selected the top two overall prospects on my draft board – Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeuax, who has the talent to become a true alpha pass-rusher, and Alabama’s Evan Neal, who is one of the premiere tackle prospects to come out in recent years. With Daniel Jones and Saquon Barkley on the final year of their contracts, they are in major prove-it spots, the O-line looks completely different all of a sudden and they have a lot of versatile pieces on defense for Wink Martindale to play with.
Chance of winning the division: 10%
6. Carolina Panthers
Well, first of all, the fact that I had to initially go through it in my head who finished fourth in the NFC South and realized that the Falcons picked eighth overall in the draft – only two spots behind the Panther – along with the fact that they Saints had to beat those two teams closing out the year, just to somehow get to a 9-8 record. Unless Tom Brady has re-retired again, there’s certainly one big fish in that division with the Bucs, but in terms of the three teams as a whole and the redeemable/promising pieces on a roster of these final three in the ranking, I have to put Carolina ahead of those other situations.
This is not going to be easy, trying to make a case for why Tampa Bay coming 13-win season should nose-dive all of a sudden, but really we don’t need them to be a bottom-dweller or anything like that, but just find reasons why they will decline. And what could be the biggest one is their soon-to-be 45-year-old quarterback. In no way am I predicting Tom Brady will all of a sudden hit the cliff – like some prominent ESPN talking head hung onto for way too long – but this will be the shortest offseason for him since coming into the league in terms of being all the way in on preparing for the upcoming year and it can’t be a one-sided beatdown with him versus father time forever. At this point we don’t know if Gronk will be back, who was looking much more like his old self last year than in 2020, and their number two tight-end O.J. Howard is now in Buffalo. Defensively, they’ll be thinner than in years with Jason Pierre-Paul, unless their toolsy fifth-round pick Zyon McCollum rapidly gets ready to perform as a rookie, they remain equally vulnerable to any corner injuries, just like we saw last season, and while Todd Bowles’ pressure-happy play-calling creates some big plays, his over-aggressiveness in big spots bit this team in the behind when last seen, allowing that huge completion to Cooper Kupp to set up the game-winning field goal in the Divisional Round loss to the Rams.
Things certainly get a lot easier and there’s a clearer path to seeing the Saints to have a rather disappointing season. Not that I see this team picking in the top-ten in 2023, because I think the roster as a whole is still in pretty damn good shape. The difference between a seven-/eight-win squad and a playoff contender in double-digits will be quarterback play. I understand that New Orleans was 4-2 in games started (and finished) by Jameis Winston, but week one was a complete no-show from the Packers, two weeks later the Patriots hadn’t nearly found their groove on offense in particular, they beat a Taylor Heinicke-led Washington team and a Russell Wilson-less Seattle squad. There’s no doubt that Jameis can produce some big plays through the air, but we can’t completely ignore that the last time Jameis started a full season, he threw a league-high 30 picks and displayed a definite lack of maturity in decision-making.
I’m not going to waste a bunch of time on the Falcons, as currently only the Houston Texans have a lower win total in terms of their 4.5 betting line. Their expected win total according to pro-football-reference.com was 2.1 lower than their actual seven Ws, their rankings of 26th and 29th respectively flip-flopped in yards/points allowed on either side of the ball last season speak to that and odds are they won’t have the third-fewest adjusted games lost to injury again in 2022. Down-grading from Matt Ryan to Marcus Mariota or third-round rookie Desmond Ridder and losing arguably their biggest play-maker on defense from a year ago in Foyesade Oluokun puts the cherry on top. I’m interested to see what defensive coordinator Dean Pees can do with so many versatile pieces on that side of the ball, but they are very few proven commodities and you can’t really point at any position group other than corner (and that could certainly be important for how Pees structures his defense) as above-average.
That leads us back to the Panthers, who a lot of people seem to forget won their first three games last season – even if it may have been the Jets, Saints and Texans – before losing 12 of their final 14 contests. And there are multiple factors you can look at here, whether it’s going from averaging 45 rushing yards allowed through those first three weeks to 128.6 from that point on, injuries to key players like Christian McCaffrey and top-ten pick Jaycee Horn or the highly inconsistent quarterback play. Yet, if I had to point at one area of the team where they struggled most, it would the offensive line, where Taylor Moton at right tackle was the only one of 11 players used who finished with a PFF grade of 67 or higher. Well, they drafted an absolute ass-kicker sixth overall in N.C. State’s Ikem Ekwonu as the top lineman off the board and they brought in two other underrated starters in free agency with Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett, who finished well-above that mark last season. Obviously, quarterback is the big question mark, as Carolina just traded for 2018 first overall pick Baker Mayfield and still have the guy who came off two spots later in Sam Darnold. Baker did lead this iteration of the Cleveland Browns to their first playoff win and his shoulder is now fully healthy again, after playing through that injury against the advice of doctors last season. For Darnold on the other hand, this would likely be his first season in the NFL not playing behind a bottom-three pass-protecting unit and his final chance as a starter, with a very talented rookie behind those two in Ole Miss’ Matt Corral. CMac is eyeing a huge comeback season, and as far as the defense goes, I put more pressure on their play-calling under Phil Snow. They had a lot of success with the way they would create free runners by testing protection schemes early on, but due to the unwillingness to get out of nickel packages and use base personnel on early downs, they rarely got to (longer) third downs and throw those pressures at opponents. They lost a couple of down-linemen from last season, but they still basically have all that talent to play at a high level for a full season, with a bunch of gifted, young corners to allow them to be aggressive. This entire regime has to win to keep their jobs and there are several players desperate to prove themselves, whether they’ve been labelled injury-prone, draft busts or whatever.
Chance of winning the division: 7-8%
7. Houston Texans
We’re really getting into the heavy lifting here, talking about a team here with just one single player selected to the Pro Bowl and neither of the All-Pro teams over the last two years combined, outside of Deshaun Watson, who’s obviously in Cleveland now and dealing with stuff far from the football field. However, there are certainly reasons to believe that the Texans won’t be 32nd in total offense and 31st in total defense once again and more importantly the team to take home the AFC South may easily be a nine- or ten-win squad, even if it may have brought out the conference’s number one seed last year.
And of course, we have to start with the Titans, because it’s pretty bold to say a team that just won 12 games in the regular and beat the number two and three seeds respectively will all of a sudden fall off and not repeat as division champs. Yet, the betting markets agree, with the Colts being the current favorites to win the South at two-to-one and you can get Tennessee at +170 as I’m putting this list together. A large part of that is probably based on the sour taste Ryan Tannehill left with those three interceptions that led them to be one-and-done in the playoffs against the Bengals and there was a dip in his play, Derrick Henry is coming off an injury, they need first-round pick Treylon Burks from Arkansas to instantly replace the guy they traded away for that pick in A.J. Brown and the defense probably won’t score four touchdowns themselves again. The main reason I believe things could fall apart quickly for this group however is the how paper-thin their roster is. Particularly on defense, they have a lot of star-level players, but as you look at their projected depth chart, I don’t see a single position, where I actually feel good about a proven replacement behind first-string. They are a couple of injuries away from playing a bunch of rookie, which I believe are talented, but I don’t necessarily want to see in prominent roles year one.
Once again, the actual odds-on favorites to win this division are the Colts and they’d be my pick as of this moment as well. There’s certainly reason to believe they’ll win those two games at the end of last season and easily earn a playoff spot, after looking like one of the hotter teams in the whole league, if Matt Ryan is under center rather than Carson Wentz. Still, this is a new season and they need some guys to perform at a high level who are rather unproven at this point. On offense, the one thing I would point to is that they’ll have replace veterans with largely unproven players at left tackle and right guard, which is big for a team heavily relying on the run game and the O-line. Defensively, not only will former coordinator and now-Bears head coach Matt Eberflus be replaced by one of the least adaptable play-callers in Gus Bradley and rules of averages would tell us they won’t come in just one takeaway short of the league-lead (33), but also personnel-wise I have questions. For that second corner spot, they don’t have anybody with extended starting experience on the outside other than Stephon Gimore and they have a lot of youth on the front-end. DeForest Buckner is obviously a premiere interior D-linemen and Grover Stewart is a nice complement to him, but Yannick Ngakoue hasn’t been able to really make a difference unless he was the clear-cut number two edge rusher in any of the last three years and looking at that second D-end spot paired with the likely five other names on that front to make the roster, all of those guys combine for just 2540 career NFL snaps.
Not trying to sound disrespectful and I’ll give Jaguars reasons to get excited still, but I don’t want to waste too much time with them here for this exercise. The only way is up from picking number one overall in the draft each of the last three years, but they severely overspent on good, not great players in free agency, I had them fourth in my divisional draft rankings for the AFC South, their best returning offensive player James Robinson suffered a torn Achilles back on December 26th and may miss half the season, and while it’s very hard for this new coaching staff to not be a massive upgrade over the chaos Urban Meyer brought in, by just being decent human beings, I don’t see this team winning more than six games in 2022.
And that brings us to the Texans, who may not look like a big prize in this discussion, but there’s reason to believe things are starting to turn around for this group, now that the massive boulder on their leg that was Deshaun Watson is gone, a few veterans being brought in to re-invigorate or finish their careers on a high note, along with the young guys, as they put together one of their best draft classes in franchise history. Naturally, the quarterback question will come up and I’m not saying Davis Mills will their long-term savior, but not only will he put everything into retaining that spot, other than the Patriots’ Mac Jones, this guy performed at the most consistently high level of any rookie QB last season, despite those five guys selected in the top-15. To support him, not only they trade back up into the top-50 of the draft for of the most pro-ready receivers in Alabama’s John Metchie III, but they added the most rugged run-blocking guard in Texas A&M’s Kenyon Green and the most hard-nosed runner available in Florida’s Dameon Pierce, along with a vet in Marlon Mack in the backfield, to turn around a rushing “attack” that finished 2022 dead-last in total yards and yards per carry. They bring back their only starter on the O-line with a PFF grade above 60.0 (Justin Britt), with Laremy Tunsil now back from injury and both starting guards upgraded. Switching over to defense, with the additions in the secondary, particularly number three overall pick Derek Stingley Jr. from LSU, who could become a true shutdown corner in the NFL, they have the ability to be a lot more diverse around him in coverage, being tied for seventh in tackles for loss last season is a sign for the talent they have accumulated on the D-line, which they’ve continued to add to, and the have time to gain some confidence, only facing two top-ten scoring offenses through their first 13 weeks. Houston did get blown off the field by the Colts twice, but they swept the Jaguars by a combined 30 points and they came just a field-goal short of doing so to the Titans as well.
Chance of winning the division: 5-6%
8. Seattle Seahawks
Somebody had to come in last here and that’s what will to you when you trade away the greatest quarterback in franchise history in Russell Wilson and the other of your two best players on the team over the last decade in Bobby Wagner. So openly declaring you’re entering a rebuilding phase and the roster being at a stage, where it’s loaded with players on their rookies deals, certainly gave me reason to put Seattle here. However, this may actually be more about the rest of the NFC West, which features the reigning Super Bowl champs, the team they narrowly defeated in the conference title game and the top-ranked Wildcard team from this past season. Still, I will accept the challenge and try to drag down those other squads, which there are reasons that enable me to do so.
First and foremost, it’s time to talk about the Rams, who pushed all of those chips into the middle of the table with the big-time additions they made before and during the 2022 season, which ultimately saw pay off in a Lombardi trophy. It’s easy to forget though that this team could not defeat the 49ers in the season-finale to boost themselves to the NFC’s number two seed, entered the tournament as fourth among the division-winners and was largely not projected to make it past the second round of the playoffs. Their defense had regressed from number one the previous season to middle of the pack, they did not display the balance of years past, ranking 25th in rushing yards and yards per carry respectively, and there were questions about Matt Stafford being tied for the lead-league with 17 interceptions – not saying he didn’t shut people up in the playoffs. L.A. did reload at a lot of the spots, where they lost pieces from that championship run, but star performers like Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller were not brought back, they need to replace two starters on the O-line, I’d say they lack depth on both sides of the line and they won’t be top-five in injury luck (based on AGL) again. They also lost to their offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell as the new Vikings head coach and whatever you want to believe about a Super Bowl hangover, that’s of course in the ether as well.
We have to pick apart another top-four team from a year ago next in the 49ers, but there’s a more defined path for them regressing this season. Once again, people seem to forget that this team was 3-and-5 at one point and they needed the biggest second-half comeback ever against a Sean McVay team in week 18 to even qualify for the playoffs. Not counting Jimmy Garoppolo, who is still on the roster, they are bringing back all but two starters on both sides of the ball, but Daniel Brunskill is certainly not the one guy from the interior three of your O-line you’d like to retain, they lost a highly underrated nose-tackle – the only guy who fits that role – in D.J. Jones and one of their safeties in Jaquiski Tartt, which along with Fred Warner in the middle, their defense largely ran through I’d say. The key switch that we’ll likely see them make however is at quarterback. I believe they’ve probably reached the ceiling with Jimmy G under center and I won’t be the guy to defend him here, but at least we’ve seen him run that Kyle Shanahan offense, as long as he operated within the parameters of the system, and his teams in San Francisco have gone 35-and-16 since getting there. Trey Lance has tremendous physical talent and I’m excited to see what he can look like in that offense, but the fact of the matter is that he has only attempted 71 career passes in the pros and he could snatch the job from Jimmy.
The Cardinals are the team I get kind of excited about talking why I do expect them to potentially take a big step back this upcoming season. Before we even get to anything that happens on the football field, there’s still some tension between quarterback Kyler Murray and the organization about his contract situation, which could bubble over to the rest of the team, DeAndre Hopkins will miss the first six games of the upcoming season with a suspension and while this may change the tone here, one of their players in former first-round cornerback Jeff Gladney was recently killed in a car-crash, who – to get us back to football – could have been a key player at a weak position for them. Some regression can be expected from finish last season with the fourth-best turnover differential (+12), while re-connecting his with his former college QB should be fun, wide receiver Marquise Brown is basically their first-round pick, when they needed to reinforce other areas of the team, they have at least five guys without a defined position on defense, thanks to Steve Keim’s weird obsession with draft “position-less” front-seven players and after starting last season 7-and-0, it’d be a surprise if they came out of that same stretch with a positive record this year. With the way Kliff Kingsbury’s teams have routinely fallen off over the second halves of seasons – with their only win over the final six games coming by a field goal and getting destroyed by the Rams in the Wildcard Round – and how little his offensive play-designs can add to Kyler, I’m very concerned about this team.
So now that we’ve talked bad about the other three teams in the West, let’s give the 12’s some reason for optimism with their team. There’s no denying that there will be a significant downgrade in quarterback plays, but I would argue Russ has slightly declined each of the last two years and he was dead-average in EPA this past season. And not only was he not like an elite passer when last season, but the way Seattle found success offensively in the later stages of 2021 was by riding the ground game, spearheaded by Rashaad Penny, averaging 176 rushing yards and going 4-and-2 over the final six weeks. Now they added an even more talented runner in Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III and while they did lose three top-ranked O-linemen based on PFF grade from last year, I believe they actually be better in those spots with two of my top-eight ranked OT prospects and a solid veteran center in Austin Blythe. The duo of D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett is still there to take advantage of for who wins the QB battle between Geno Smith or Drew Lock, along with a vertical tight-end in Noah Fant and a very underrated D-tackle in Shelby Harris on defense. They’ll of course need some young guys to step up on that side of the ball, but do have several talented athletes and will look different schematically with Sean Desai coming in as the likely defensive play-caller, where they won’t be as antiquated with keeping base personnel on the field in passing situations and just more deceptive late safety rotations. Their expected win total from pro-football-reference.com was at 9.3 and that was playing a first- rather than a fourth-team schedule.
Chance of winning the division: <5%