Before you start perusing my 2022 NFL power rankings (my annual rating of the teams 1 to 32, after free agency and trades and the draft), a bit of a warning. I’m not great at this.
Now that’s a great sales tool to get people to read this column. But I want to be honest as we get into this. I was pretty good in 2019, picking the Niners coming off a 6-10 season as my seventh team in the rankings; they won the NFC. I was pretty good in 2020, picking the Bucs fifth coming off a 7-9 season—after importing 43-year-old Tom Brady; Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl.
Last year, not so good. The highlights: I had the Rams sixth and Bengals 27th, and you know where they landed … I had Green Bay eighth and Tennessee 18th, and they ended up the two top seeds in the league … Browns fourth, Colts ninth, Cowboys 21st, Eagles 28th. First two out of the playoffs, last two very much in them. You get it. Sinatra’s A Very Good Year it was not. About the only good thing I did: I had six of the eight teams in the divisional playoff round in my top eight last May—Kansas City (one), Tampa Bay (two), Buffalo (three), San Francisco (five), Rams (six), Green Bay (eight).
So I am out to avenge my C-minus from last year. The whole idea is to try to pick three or five risers and a couple of fallers, with the understanding that virtually every year there are three or four teams that surprise people. I only have one stunner this year, but a few things should raise ire.
Two notes before starting: I’ll do longer bits on the top 10, then shorter ones thereafter, because I didn’t sign a contract to ever write a 20,000-word column, and certainly not in late May.
Also, I’ll use a longer part of the column next week to air your reactions to my rankings. Send your love, your hate and your rants to [email protected].
Each team’s finish to last season in parentheses:
1. Buffalo (12-7, lost in the divisional round to KC)
I don’t know that you can say the Bills are overwhelming favorites to get to their first Super Bowl in 29 years, what with road games against both Super Bowl teams, home games with both conference top seeds, and a roadie with nemesis Kansas City; KC’s won three of four Mahomes-Allen duels. But they’re the favorites for sure.
The Bills had the best margin of victory in the league last year, scored 83 points in two playoff games, and made a couple of big bets to bolster a good but not great defense in the offseason—signing 33-year-old Von Miller to a deal with $45-million fully guaranteed at signing and drafting corner Kaiir Elam, who will need to play right away with the Bills facing Matthew Stafford, Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers in their first seven games. The Miller signing looks great now after his impactful Super Bowl for the Rams, but he’s a $21.8-million cap hit if the Bills have to move on after two seasons. Miller hasn’t had a double-digit-sack year since 2018. But for today, Miller’s a good gambit.
In Buffalo, I think GM Brandon Beane has done a good job worrying about today while prepping for tomorrow. Beane understands the vital thing is to surround a top-tier franchise quarterback with enough weapons to survive a 17-games-plus-postseason minefield. And Josh Allen definitely has enough to win. Beane gave the offense peace of mind, ensuring that Stefon Diggs can play with a clear head now that he has a new contract. Beane subbed out an aging slot receiver, Cole Beasley, for a good one, Jamison Crowder. Gabriel Davis is a superb number two receiver coming off a historic four-TD playoff game. And insurance was added at tight end with O.J. Howard to supplement Dawson Knox, with second-round back James Cook adding quality depth in the running game.
A team that obliterated New England and got the overtime coin-flip rule changed in the playoffs is better today than it was in January. One bit of caution: Playing at home in the playoffs is a big edge in Buffalo, so coach Sean McDermott’s mantra, even with a comfy lead late in the AFC East, must be No weeks off.
2. L.A. Chargers (9-8, out of the playoffs)
Two teams that attacked their needs better than any teams in this offseason: Chargers, Eagles. Which is why both are in my top 10.
The Chargers, I thought, needed to do significant surgery coming off a playoff-less season. And GM Tom Telesco did. I thought he won this offseason. He needed to, particularly on defense. Only the Jets and Lions gave up more points than L.A.’s 27 per game last year, and a collapse on defense down the stretch (giving up 110 points to Kansas City, Houston and the Raiders in losing three of the last four) knocked the Chargers out of the playoffs. Trading for Khalil Mack, though a bit of a health gamble, gives L.A. as good a 1-2 pass-rush tandem with Joey Bosa as any team in football. “He’ll give people someone to account for opposite Joey,” Telesco said. But the Chargers gave up 4.6 yards per rush last year, so bulking up inside with free-agents Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson might turn out to be as important as the Mack addition. In the secondary, the Chargers added the best corner in free agency, J.C. Jackson, who showed tremendous instincts in New England and pairs well with second-year corner Asante Samuel Jr.
I thought it was vital on offense to continue to build around Justin Herbert. Wideout Mike Williams, a gamer coach Brandon Staley loves for playing to exhaustion, got signed to a new deal before the receiver market exploded. The drafting of guard Zion Johnson gives Herbert two cornerstones up front (with 2021 top pick tackle Rashawn Slater) to grow old with. And Herbert should be better if the defense is better, because he won’t have to score 30 every week to win.
One other little advantage for the Chargers: They’ve got Jacksonville, Houston, Seattle and Atlanta in games 3-4-7-8. That should mean they’ll be near the top of the best division in football come Thanksgiving.
3. Kansas City (14-6, lost AFC title game to Cincinnati)
At a loss where to put Kansas City. This has all the feel of a get-right season. Two huge pieces of KC’s puzzle, Tyreek Hill and Tyrann Mathieu, left in trade and free agency, both after GM Brett Veach calculated that, all things considered, the team long-term would be better by moving on from them. That sounds great for future free-agent acquisitions and re-signing his own players, but Veach understands that the offense could take a step back without Hill’s explosiveness and the defense could too without the leadership and guile of Mathieu.
I used to say to Andy Reid when he was in Philadelphia that Eagles fans had to feel good every midsummer because the team would always have a chance to contend. Philly, of course, got to one Super Bowl under Reid and never won one. But this Kansas City team is mindful of those days in Philadelphia. As long as Patrick Mahomes is healthy and dealing, and as long as Reid/Veach have a competitive roster, Kansas City’s going to be a Super Bowl contender. Annually. That’s how I look at this edition of this team. Someone—Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Juju Smith-Schuster or Skyy Moore—or some combination of newbies is going to have to produce to make up for Hill.
The trade of Hill (plus other picks as ammo) brought cornerback Trent McDuffie and the speedy Moore. Jettisoning Mathieu made room for 25-year-old strong safety Justin Reid in free agency. Moore is 21. Reid is 25. McDuffie is 21. For Kansas City, this offseason has been as much about 2024 as 2022. It’ll be up to Mahomes to win some games with his golden arm to prove this is not a gap year. I think he can do it, even in the toughest division in football, even if the Chargers, for one year, pass them in the standings.
4. L.A. Rams (16-5, won the Super Bowl over Cincinnati)
I want to pick the Von Miller-less, Sebastian Joseph-Day-less, Odell Beckham-less (for now), Andrew Whitworth-less, Robert Woods-less Rams to move back a bit after their Super Bowl season. But like Green Bay, let’s remember what remains. The four biggest player drivers to a championship are back and should be as good as ever: Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey. Oh, and coach Sean McVay, who, at least for 2022, remains coaching and not commentating. And do not underestimate the force that is McVay in moving this team forward. Some coaches coach the team. McVay coaches the team, sets the organizational tone, and gives the team a fervor during the week and certainly on Sundays.
Two veterans should help keep the Rams atop the NFC West. On defense, Bobby Wagner is coming off PFF’s second- and 11th-rated seasons for linebackers in ’20 and ’21, so he should be able to be the nerve center of a very good defense. On offense, Allen Robinson is one year removed from a 102-catch season with the Bears; at 29, he should be able to be the alternative to Kupp that Stafford needs.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance, in many ways, of Kupp to the Rams in 2022 and beyond. First, he said in the offseason upon seeing the spate of huge receiver contracts that it wasn’t important to him to be the highest paid receiver in football. At $15.75-million per year, he’s currently the 18th-highest-paid receiver, per Over The Cap. My bet is Kupp will sign a new deal sometime in 2022 that will put him among the top receivers. But his team ethos hasn’t gone unnoticed inside the team. The Rams are in L.A. They’re champs. Every player who was great last year could stomp their feet and say, Gimme more! Kupp is taking the long view, for his team in a cap sport and for himself.
On the field, the mark of Kupp’s greatness showed up when everyone knew Stafford was going to him and he still caught his share … nine catches for 183 yards in the divisional round, 11 for 142 in the NFC title games, eight for 92 (and two TDs) as the MVP in the Super Bowl. The man averaged 115.4 receiving yards in the Rams’ 21 games last year. The 69th pick in the 2017 draft has turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving.
Not sure the Rams will win home field; Green Bay’s got a huge division edge there. But I think the Rams will play deep into the playoffs again.
5. Green Bay (13-5, lost in the divisional round to the Niners)
I have my issues with the Packers losing Davante Adams, then beginning draft weekend with four picks in the top 60 and not moving up for a primo receiver in the first round. Lots of pressure on second-round pick Christian Watson (2.0 receptions a game at North Dakota State) to be something he really never was at a mid-level college program, which is to produce big numbers in a big passing game.
But let’s look at what the Packers have rather than what they don’t. They have Aaron Rodgers, coming off two straight MVP seasons. They have a very good running game. They have what should be a top-three NFL defense by Dec. 1, when first-round front-seven players Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt should be consistent producers. They have a top cornerback, Jaire Alexander, back from an injury-plagued 2021 season. That gives the Packers probably the best chance of NFC team to win home-field for the third straight year. Green Bay would be higher if I trusted them to actually use that top seed to storm into the second Super Bowl of Rodgers’ career, but especially without Adams, I’m dubious.
Still, the schedule will be kind to Green Bay, as usual. Jets and Giants back-to-back; Vikes and Lions at Lambeau to end the regular season; Rams in Week 15 at home coming off a 14-day break. Even with an easier schedule, it’ll be a huge challenge for Rodgers, minus the best receiver in football, to get the Pack to 13-4.
6. Tampa Bay (14-5, lost in the divisional round to the Rams)
I could have put the Bucs ahead of Green Bay. Maybe I should have. I just don’t take for granted that 45-year-old Brady will just pick up where he left off. Even with bottom-feeders Carolina and Atlanta to get fat off, the Bucs will be seriously challenged by the Saints (4-0 versus Brady and Tampa in the regular season in the last two years) for division supremacy, even post-Payton. It worries me, too, that both starting guards, Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa, left in the offseason. Brady’s a statue, and anything that affects his protection is an issue. Career backup Aaron Stinnie and ex-Pat Shaq Mason have big jobs to do at left and right guard.
Have you noticed a trend in the NFC? Every top contender is somehow diminished. The Rams without Von Miller and maybe Beckham. The Packers without Davante Adams. Dallas without Amari Cooper and Randy Gregory. The Saints without long-time coach Sean Payton. Arizona without Chandler Jones, Christian Kirk and, for a six-game suspension, DeAndre Hopkins. The Bucs are part of that trend. They’ve got two new guards protecting Brady, Rob Gronkowski’s future is uncertain, and they might be without Chris Godwin—recovering from Jan. 3 ACL surgery—at the start of the season.
The Bucs scored 30 points a game last year, thanks in large part to the chemistry between Brady and Chris Godwin. In his last two full games last season, Godwin was targeted 32 times by Brady and caught 25 passes. We’re all used to Brady figuring it out with whoever he has to catch the ball, and he’ll still have Mr. Reliable, Mike Evans. But if Gronk and Godwin are missing in September … yikes. The Bucs open at Dallas, at New Orleans, Green Bay home and Kansas City home. Not too friendly.
It’s impossible to not like Tampa Bay. The Bucs are 30-9 since Brady walked on campus, and he’s still here, coming off leading the NFL in passing yards. I doubt the coaching change to Todd Bowles will be much of a factor. The schedule might be the biggest factor of all. Other than four against the Panthers and Cards and one against Seattle, I don’t see any fluff.
7. Cincinnati (13-8, lost the Super Bowl to the Rams)
Want the good news or the bad news first? Start with the bad: In the last 27 years, only one Super Bowl loser has won the conference championship the following season—the Patriots four years ago. (Lost to Eagles in Super Bowl 52, won AFC next year, beat Rams in Super Bowl 53.) Excepting that Patriots team, the last six Super Bowl losers have won an average of 8.8 games the next year.
The Bengals were the beneficiaries of a lousy game by the top-seed Titans in the divisional round and a Patrick Mahomes pick on the first drive of OT in the AFC title game. Good for them for the transcendent season, defying all expectations, but they had some good fortune and a great kicker.
Now for the good news: This is a rising team, highly competitive, with a confident and fearless quarterback in Joe Burrow and a fiery defensive leader and good pass-rusher in Trey Hendrickson. The right side of the offensive line, trampled in the Super Bowl, is all new: center Ted Karras, guard Alex Cappa, tackle La’el Collins. The loss of tight end C.J. Uzomah will be felt, but there’s enough firepower here for the Bengals to be a top five offense. I like Cincinnati to edge Baltimore for the division title, but a deep run will be tough with a first-place schedule—games at the Cowboys, the Saints, the Titans, the Bucs and the Patriots, and KC and Buffalo visiting the Queen City. The Bengals are a team on the rise, without question. I don’t think they can beat Buffalo this year, but in the long haul, I love their prospects to contend in the Burrow years.
8. Baltimore (8-9, out of the playoffs)
One day I hope there’ll be a 30-for-30 on the Ravens’ 2021 season. They were 8-3, a playoff lock, entering December. Already beset by injury, with every warm-blooded running back out for the year, and with franchise tackle Ronnie Stanley and top corner Marcus Peters lost for the season, MVP QB Lamar Jackson and cornerback Marlon Humphrey were lost for the year in December. The Ravens lost their last six games, by 1, 2, 1 (to the Packers), 20, 1 (to the Rams) and 3 points.
The top four guys on their 2022 salary cap are Jackson, Stanley, Humphrey and Peters. Those four players missed 42 of a possible 68 games last year.
So all are back. The man who emerged as the best tight end in the game, Mark Andrews, is back. Top running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards return for a team that wants to run it more than any team in football. Top pick Kyle Hamilton will be a chess piece in the back seven on defense, while Tyler Linderbaum, the top center in the draft, takes over as (the Ravens hope) the long-term center. It’s a time of crucial players returning from injury, and a time of an infusion of youth including nine rookies from the first four rounds of this year’s draft. Baltimore has a hole where speed receiver Hollywood Brown, traded to Arizona, was. That’s an issue.
All who would say, Baltimore’s in decline, Greg Roman’s a dinosaur coordinator, the defense doesn’t have a dominator on the front seven, who knows about the future of Lamar Jackson, I hear you. But I look at the Ravens this way: They won 12 in 2020, they beat Tennessee on the road in the playoffs, and they got murdered by injuries last year. That counts. I say they’re back, and I say they’ll challenge the Bengals for the division. Week 18, by the way: Ravens at Bengals. Game 272? Don’t bet against it.
9. Philadelphia (9-9, lost to Tampa Bay in the wild-card round)
I see the Eagles as the best team in the East. I see Jalen Hurts doing enough to be a C-plus quarterback, with the addition of A.J. Brown. I see the receiving corps of Brown, DeVonta Smith, Quez Watkins and Zach Pascal being good enough to make the Eagles a top-10 offense. I see Haason Redick returning to the scene of his prime (he played college football at Temple) and James Bradberry fortifying a corner depth chart to make this the best defense in the NFC East.
What I like about what the Eagles have done this offseason is this: They’ve created a team with a legitimate chance of winning now, with a legitimate offense to make a judgment on Jalen Hurts as the future quarterback. GM Howie Roseman has done it while still retaining enough pieces for the future to address the quarterback position if he needs in 2023. Roseman has three picks in the first two rounds next year, and three picks in the first two rounds of 2024. He’s done his job: He’s built a team for 2022, and he’s built a team that can do a U-turn in 2023 if need be.
The Eagles are better on both sides of the ball than they were in January, and that was capped by the Bradberry signing. In the end, they have a chance to win a game in January. The biggest addition was Brown, and I think he can be the difference in two or three games. “A.J. was a DNA match with us,” Roseman told me after the trade. “He was exactly what we were looking for in a receiver, and he matched our culture.” Good add.
10. San Francisco (12-8, lost in the NFC Championship to the Rams)
I have precisely the same questions as you:
Who’s the quarterback?
Can Trey Lance play?
Should they keep Jimmy Garoppolo as a $26.95-million (on the cap) insurance policy, if he’s not the starter?
Can they make peace, and a long-term deal, with Deebo Samuel?
Those are some pretty important questions. The Niners got to the NFL’s final four for the second time in three years because of some memorable plays by Samuel, some excellent defense when it mattered (like on that frigid night in Green Bay), and some efficient, low-mistake play by Garoppolo. That’s not how Kyle Shanahan wants to play offensively, however. He wants a mobile quarterback scaring teams with his arm first and feet second.
The 49ers are doing the right thing in this offseason, letting the Samuel situation cool down after he requested a trade, and letting Lance be The Man in offseason quarterback work while Garoppolo recovers from shoulder surgery. Clearly, they think they can make Samuel a long-term Niner in time for the start of the season. If they can, they obviously should; he’s the best rushing/receiving weapon in football and no one else is close in production and electricity. The Jimmy G thing is harder, because the longer he’s in-house, the harder it is for the team to become Lance’s. But if Lance had shown all the signs Shanahan needed to see by now, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The Niners would have granted Garoppolo his freedom if they couldn’t trade him.
My guess: Samuel will be a Niner this year. Lance will start opening day. Garoppolo will hang around because Shanahan and GM John Lynch know the defense is so good they could win with Garoppolo if Lance spits the bit.
This is a very hard team to forecast, as you can see. But I trust Shanahan to figure out the way through the quarterback maze. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t pick them fifth in the NFC.
11. New Orleans (9-8, out of the playoffs)
Strange that I like the Saints to be perhaps a win better in 2022 than ’21, even though the brain of Sean Payton will be in a FOX studio on Sundays instead of finalizing a game plan for Jameis Winston. I remember Winston pledging allegiance to Payton last offseason and being so excited to play for him. Now he’s going to have to channel that affection into offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, who will be the play-designer and -caller for the first time in his Saints coaching career. “They’ll miss Payton more than people think,” one wise NFL person told me last week. I tend to agree. But there is an offensive salve. How many teams can line up in a three-receiver set with the potential explosiveness of Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave. Not many. Winston will have a playoff receiving corps to lean on every week.
12. Tennessee (12-6, lost in the divisional round to Cincinnati)
What we have here is a failure to … well, have offensive competency in the big spots. And this season, without question, will be a referendum on the future of Ryan Tannehill to quarterback an NFL contender. In his last two playoff games, both in Nashville, Tannehill has led the Titans to two losses and a total of 29 points. Last season, in 18 games, Tennessee managed to win AFC home-field (largely because the rest of the division was a tawdry 16-35 and never challenged the Titans), but Tannehill had a crummy 22-to-17 TD-to-pick ratio. How he’s going to be better without A.J. Brown, I have no idea. I can’t figure this team out, but I do know Mike Vrabel is worth at least what he’s making in his new contract. This defense plays with the kind of intensity and efficiency their coach used to have as a player. The Titans will need that this year.
13. Las Vegas (10-8, lost a wild-card game to Cincinnati)
Nice quiet offseason for the Raiders. New GM, new coach, new offensive superstar, new pass-rush superstar. Dave Ziegler, Josh McDaniels, Davante Adams, Chandler Jones: The spotlight is on all of you, right now. Adams has 432 catches and 47 TDs in his last four seasons playing with Aaron Rodgers; Jones had 59.5 sacks in his last four full seasons in Arizona. Those are huge adds. A defense with Maxx Crosby and Jones rushing the passer is almost as threatening as Darren Waller and Adams challenging defenses from day one. The Raiders could use some stability after all the front-office turmoil and after the mayhem of Gruden and Ruggs last year. In McDaniel’s second run at being a head coach, stability is job one. Job two? Making the playoffs out of the toughest division, by far, in the NFL.
14. Denver (7-10, out of the playoffs)
When the Broncos look back at the Russell Wilson trade, they should be grateful not only for getting the durable Wilson (Seattle games in last 10 years: 176; Wilson starts in last 10 years: 174) but also for not giving up left tackle Garett Bolles or one of three plumb receivers. Tight end Noah Fant and defensive end Shelby Harris are nice pieces but were worth Wilson, along of course with denuding two drafts. You pay what you have to pay for a quarterback. Now, can Wilson hit the ground running? Let’s look at new Denver head coach Nathaniel Hackett’s hands-on history (along with Matt LaFleur) in Green Bay. In 2019, LaFleur/Hackett’s first year in Green Bay, Rodgers took 2.92 seconds from snap to throw (a lot) and averaged 7.2 yards per attempt. By 2020, Rodgers’ first two straight MVP years, the time to throw was down to 2.68 seconds and his yards-per-attempt was up to 8.1, both very good. Wilson has to learn the Hackett way fast to hit the ground running in an impossible division.
15. Dallas (12-6, lost in the wild-card round to San Francisco)
The Cowboys do lead the league in drama most years. (The Raiders have eclipsed them in the last 12 months, but Dallas will be in the distraction ballgame soon, somehow.) Last year it was clock management as the Dallas season ended with Dak Prescott trying to get one more play off after scrambling with no timeouts against the Niners. Two weeks of recriminations about Mike McCarthy’s clock management and Prescott’s game management followed. I picked the Eagles ahead of Dallas because the Eagles got significantly better this offseason and Dallas worse, with the subtraction of two key contributors (Amari Cooper and Randy Gregory) and the addition of none. Oh, and the two best pieces of protection for Prescott, tackle Tyron Smith and guard Zack Martin, both turn 32 this season and have missed 26 games, combined, due to injury the last two years. On their best day, the Cowboys can play with everyone except maybe Buffalo. Problem is, they don’t have enough best days.
16. Miami (9-8, out of the playoffs)
“They have the widest distribution of outcomes of any team in the league this year,” said analytics-cruncher Eric Eager of PFF. Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle and Mike Gesicki are going to be hell for opposing defenses, and Tua Tagovailoa should be better-protected with Terron Armstead protecting his front side. But this will be a referendum season on Tagovailoa. Will his arm strength be good enough for deep shots to two great deep threats? New coach Mike McDaniel was great in San Francisco at divining the strengths of his players (see: Deebo Samuel). And he’ll figure out ways in the intermediate areas to get Hill and Waddle free to make trouble for defenses. The win for McDaniel will be making Tagovailoa the no-doubt quarterback for the near future in Miami, and in passing New England in division supremacy. Two lofty goals, but for a team that won eight of its last nine, attainable ones.
17. New England (10-8, lost a wild-card game to Buffalo)
Every year’s a new year. Every season’s a snowflake, always different. But the Patriots, particularly after the worst beatdown in a big game a Belichick team ever absorbed in New England (Bills 47, Pats 17, and it was 33-3 after 38 minutes) in the AFC wild-card game, have to be thinking: Buffalo’s what we were the first 19 years of this century. It’s crucial for Mac Jones to be better in year two if New England has a prayer to catch Buffalo and to stay above Miami in the East. But will he be better? Jones was a 69-percent passer while starting his NFL career 9-4; he was a 61-percent passer in finishing the season 1-4. And now he’s lost his mentor and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in favor of either Joe Judge, Matt Patricia or some combination of them. I’d check Wikipedia. In 39 years of college and NFL coaching combined, neither Judge nor Patricia has ever had quarterback coaching as part of their job description. That seems problematic for a quarterback who needs to get better.
18. Cleveland (8-9, out of the playoffs)
All due respect to Eric Eager (see Miami, above), the Browns are the team with the widest outcome swings in 2022. If you told me Deshaun Watson would play 16 or 17 games this year, give me the Browns at 11-6. If you told me he’d play 10 or 11 games, I’d say 9-8. Longer than that, a majority Jacoby Brissett-quarterbacked team probably goes 7-10-ish. Even if Watson plays the year, how will he react to fans booing? And if the suspension doesn’t come till 2023, will the issues be a cloud over the team all year? It’ll be interesting what, if anything, new comes out of the “HBO Real Sports” story Tuesday, with some fresh reporting and interviews from Watson’s accusers. The Browns, of course, have one of the best rosters in the AFC 2 to 53, and that was supplemented Sunday afternoon with the re-signing of Jadeveon Clowney to boost the pass-rush. But it’s all about the 1, and the 1 in this case leaves question marks everywhere entering 2022.
19. Minnesota (8-9, out of the playoffs)
There’s some fresh air over the Vikings with the firing of Mike Zimmer. Lots of players found him too negative at the end of his reign. Despite having above-average talent over the past four years, including quarterback Kirk Cousins, the Vikings have been just 33-31-1 in the regular season since Cousins arrived in 2018—and they’ve averaged finishing 19th in the league in team defense over those four seasons. That was Zimmer’s area of expertise, of course. Now the head coach is a sunny offensive guy, Kevin O’Connell, with a veteran running the defense, Ed Donatell. He’s run a 3-4 recently, but promises to meld three- and four-man fronts in Minnesota. Either way, two defensive imports—end Harrison Phillips (Buffalo) and OLB Za’Darius Smith (Green Bay)—should play big roles if the Donatell system is going to get the Vikings back to playing quality defense.
20. Detroit (3-13-1, out of the playoffs)
I did some reporting on the Lions in Detroit this month, and I’m higher on them than most. Consider how hard they played in a disastrous rookie year of coach Dan Campbell, and how, despite winning only three games, they were 11-6 against the spread, indicative of a team outperforming expectations. Consider a schedule that includes eight games against the NFL’s netherworld (Giants, Jets, Carolina, Jacksonville, Washington, Seattle, Chicago, Chicago). Consider a team that entered December winless and finished 3-3, though the last one was against the Pack playing out the string. “There’s a lot of reasons for us to be very optimistic,” Jared Goff told me this month, “and I can tell you the guys in the locker room are feeling good about our chances.” Of course, it’s Goff who has to be more productive for the Lions to play meaningful December football, and to stave off the team looking for a new quarterback in 2023. This is one of the most interesting teams in football—and, their starved fans hope, for the right reasons.
21. Indianapolis (9-8, out of the playoffs)
It’s a great cliché in the NFL, but so true about the Colts: They’ll go as far as the quarterback takes them. After a three-year, 27-23 post-Luck run with Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz, now they settle into a season with 37-year-old Matt Ryan and a suspect receiving corps that features three recent second-round picks—Parris Campbell (2019), Michael Pittman Jr. (2020) and Alec Pierce (2022). Ryan’s 7.1-yards-per-attempt with Atlanta last year was his lowest in eight years, and Frank Reich has been hungry to start stretching the defense with some deeper throws. So we’ll see if Ryan can still air it out. The Colts have the talent to win the AFC South, and the defense is good enough to keep them in games. They need a quarterback who makes receivers better and who’s in the building for more than 10 or 15 minutes. Ryan’s the latest hope for those jobs.
22. Arizona (11-7, lost a wild-card game to the Rams)
Something doesn’t feel right about the 2022 Cards. Part of it’s the pointed dissatisfaction of quarterback Kyler Murray and his agent over a new contract. Part is the six-game suspension of the best player on the offense, DeAndre Hopkins, to start the season. (That means Hopkins will miss at least 13 games over 2021 and ’22.) Hollywood Brown arrived in trades to buttress the receiving corps, but Christian Kirk left in free agency, as did the most dangerous player on defense—pass-rusher Chandler Jones. It’s an odd vibe around the team, and the attitude in negotiations with Murray this summer will tell a lot about the chemistry of the locker room coming training camp.
23. Pittsburgh (9-7-1, lost a wild-card game to Kansas City)
If the coach was anyone but Mike Tomlin, I’d think of the 2022 Steelers in the 5-12 range. They still might be in that neighborhood, because for the first time since training camp 2004, there’s no Ben Roethlisberger, and significant questions about whether Mitchell Trubisky or Kenny Pickett can be a good NFL passer. The offense should run through Najee Harris. His 307 carries as a rookie in 2021 could easily graduate to 330 in 2022. For the Steelers to be close to good, the defense will have to be better than 24th in the league in yards allowed. The talent is too good for that, and new coordinator Teryl Austin will be under pressure to make sure it’s a better unit.
24. N.Y. Giants (4-13, out of the playoffs)
With a manageable schedule, and a QB-friendly head coach in Brian Daboll, and a receiving corps that at least starts camp with a chance to be impactful, and the first time in years the Giants can look at an offensive line with two high-achieving tackles (Andrew Thomas, Evan Neal), Daniel Jones actually has a chance to be the quarterback he was drafted to be in 2019. Daboll and Joe Schoen aren’t lying when they say they think Jones has a chance to be the guy for the future. While odds are against it, Jones is set up to have the best chance he’s had to be a middle-of-the-pack quarterback. If he’s that, the Giants could win seven. Amazing, isn’t it, that this franchise who snuffed out New England’s Super Bowl twice in the last 15 years hasn’t won a playoff game in a decade—and a seven-win season would get the locals fired up.
25. Seattle (7-10, out of the playoffs)
Gap year. That’s what this feels like. It also feels like we’re going to find out this year how Russell Wilson and baling wire kept this franchise competitive longer than it probably should have. I like Seattle’s approach, though. If you’re going to trade a franchise quarterback, don’t go nuts moving heaven and earth (and importing a non-sequitur like Baker Mayfield) to try to eke out nine wins and the seventh playoff seed. Take your medicine, lean into having four top-50 picks in 2023, and be prepared to pick the quarterback of the future next April. And if Drew Lock or Geno Smith shocks the world and plays great, change the plan. That looks to be Seattle’s focus.
26. Washington (7-10, out of the playoffs)
Mike Florio said this first, and I loved it: Carson Wentz is in the perfect spot for the 2022 Carson Wentz. He has no godfather in Washington. To review: Wentz entered the NFL under the fatherly wing of Doug Pederson, then went rogue against Pederson, then landed under the fatherly wing of Frank Reich, then underachieved and got fired after one season in Indy, then got traded to Washington. He’s with strangers. He’s got to prove himself to new people, and he has a decent crew of receivers (Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson, Curtis Samuel) to help prove himself. That’ll be a fun subplot for another building season in D.C.
27. N.Y. Jets (4-13, out of the playoffs)
The Jets got four of the top 19 players on their draft board in April, so euphoria ensued in Jetdom. Good for a downtrodden team having a great draft weekend, and it appears to be just that. Now they need four things to happen, in this order, to enter 2023 with a chance to get off the playoff schneid:
• Zach Wilson has to polish some at-times rough mechanics and become one with a good receiving corps led by Garrett Wilson.
• Robert Saleh, who is expert in such things, has to figure a way to invent a pass-rush centered around Jermaine Johnson and Carl Lawson.
• Saleh has to give Sauce Gardner a chance to be the shutdown corner he was drafted to be, challenging him with tough assignments from the start.
• The coaches have to salvage Mekhi Becton, the wayward offensive tackle with the talent to be a 10-year left tackle.
Lots of jobs for a sneaky-important season.
28. Chicago (6-11, out of the playoffs)
I’ve crushed Chicagoland dreams. I ranked the Lions over the Bears. Feels like the first time that’s been possible since Joe Schmidt roamed the middle of the field. But part of being a smart franchise architect is to survey the landscape and understand where you are and who you are. Ryan Poles did that when he took this job. He traded Khalil Mack, putting a $24-million dead-cap-money anchor on the franchise in the process, and saddled the team with $52.8-million in dead money. The flip side: The Bears have a league-high $96.9-million in cap space in 2023 ($103 million more than the in-debt Packers, per Over The Cap). The upshot is if new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy can help Justin Fields to be a competent player, the Bears will be in great position to attack the market next March. Baby steps, Bear fans.
29. Jacksonville (3-14, out of the playoffs)
The Jags spent like drunken sailors on good but not great players in free agency. And with the first pick in the draft, Jacksonville took a projection with great potential who has not been great yet: Travon Walker. But they hired a coach, Doug Pederson, who is very good for a young quarterback, and they have a young quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, who showed signs of being everything he was drafted to be. After the weirdness of the Urban Meyer dynasty, the Jags had nothing to play for in Week 18 against the Colts. For Indy, it was a win-and-in-the-playoffs game. The week of the game, Lawrence went around the locker room and fired up the troops and said they had to win this game. He played his best game of the year (111.8 rating) in a 26-11 skunking of the Colts, the keystone in Indy evicting Carson Wentz from the team. With a better skill set around Lawrence (Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, Evan Engram), the Jags should be an improved team.
30. Atlanta (7-10, out of the playoffs)
The first non-Matt Ryan season since 2007 should be entertaining to watch. Marcus Mariota will start, then Desmond Ridder will play at some point unless Mariota is uncharacteristically efficient. And there are some interesting pieces to see: tight end Kyle Pitts, rookie wideout Drake London and a pass-rusher who had a late hot streak pre-draft, Penn State’s Arnold Ebiketie. I like the Falcons ripping off the Matt Ryan bandaid this year and taking the $40-million dead-cap pain, leaving them currently with $41-million in cap room next year when, theoretically, they’ll be able to address quality roster depth. Some years you build, and this is one of those years for Atlanta.
31. Carolina (5-12, out of the playoffs)
Hard to be optimistic if you’re a Panthers’ fan. You don’t know who your quarterback, head coach or coordinators will be on opening day 2023, and you’re not sure any of those men are in-house (even Matt Corral) today. The best sign of the spring for Carolina is that owner David Tepper came out and said the team has to be patient. If so, give Sam Darnold six or eight games to sink or swim, and if he fails, give the rest of the year to Corral. I wouldn’t import Baker Mayfield unless I was confident he had a good chance to be the QB of the future. How you’d figure what to pay him … I am clueless.
32. Houston (4-13, out of the playoffs)
At least the Texans know what they are. They’re a bad team, drafting for the long-term. Even if corner is not a vital need in new coach Lovie Smith’s defense and Derek Stingley Jr.’s not the best Smith fit, he was the best player available for GM Nick Caserio and for Houston for the next six to eight years. Davis Mills gets this season to prove to Caserio—with four first-round picks in the next two drafts—he’s the quarterback of the future. I’m not optimistic for Mills, who did have a 102.4 passer rating in his last five starts as a rookie. But that’s why they play the games.