I’ll be posting my first power rankings tomorrow morning, but before we get to them, I wanted to step back and take a look at the league as a whole. What can we expect to happen this year? Will past trends re-emerge, or will new ones begin? Can 2021 provide any hints regarding what will take place in 2022? I thought about these questions and more, and then I came up with my most interesting (in my opinion) 5 predictions for the 2022 NFL season. Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Since the most recent divisional alignment took place in 2002, a team has gone from worst in their division to first the following year in every season except 2014 and 2019. Last season looked like it was going to be an outlier before the Bengals caught fire and took the AFC North title. This year will be another tough ask. I actually only see two viable candidates: the Baltimore Ravens (tied with CLE but listed 4th due to tiebreakers) and Denver Broncos. Both cases come down to QB play: Baltimore should have a full season of Lamar Jackson instead of Tyler Huntley, and Denver traded for Russell Wilson to replace Drew Lock. Denver’s biggest issue is that they play in the AFC West. All 4 teams could win other divisions but are likely to beat up on each other. Denver could end up being one of the best last-place teams of all time. Baltimore has no easy task themselves, sharing a division with the AFC Super Bowl representative. However, their health is likely to improve this year, giving them the best shot at a turnaround.
New Playoff Teams That Missed the Dance in 2021
Another remarkable trend demonstrating parity in the NFL is that each year, 5-7 teams who didn’t make the playoffs in a given season will earn a berth the following year. That got me thinking about the candidates for doing so this year, as well as which teams they’d displace. My first two thoughts went to teams that just barely missed the playoffs last season: the Dolphins and Colts. Both teams went 9-8 but made major improvements. The Colts acquired QB Matt Ryan, whose steady play will take a playoff-ready roster where they need to go. Miami overhauled the coaching staff, replacing the uncommunicative Brian Flores with Mike McDaniel, and they acquired key pieces like Tyreek Hill and Terron Armstead. Tua is primed for a breakout. I also think the Chargers are destined to finally make the playoffs. They came oh so close last season, but after adding JC Jackson and Khalil Mack, this is their year. In the NFC, I see New Orleans and Minnesota joining the party. The Vikings can only improve their pass defense; it can’t be worse. New Orleans has a great roster and they get back Jameis Winston and Michael Thomas. The teams I see missing out as a result are Tennessee, New England, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, and Arizona.
How Will the Traded QBs Fare?
In this unusual offseason, multiple veteran QBs were traded into new starting roles, including Baker Mayfield, Matt Ryan, Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz, and Russell Wilson. Some will fit in seamlessly, while others will continue to struggle. One won’t even play for 11 games. I think the best match will be Ryan; he joins a team that has been desperate for consistent QB play since Andrew Luck retired, and I doubt they lose a week 17 game to the Jaguars with the playoffs on the line if Ryan is under center. Wilson should also have success as the best QB Denver has had since Peyton Manning. He instantly makes Denver a contender…if they can escape their own division. Wentz should be an upgrade over Taylor Heinicke for the Commanders, but his elite 2017 season is looking increasingly like a fluke; he wasn’t as bad as he was made out to be in Indy, but this isn’t an incredibly talented roster. Mayfield represents false hope for Carolina, who actually has a higher ceiling with Sam Darnold; Mayfield was the correct choice for Matt Rhule to save his job, but they’re likely finishing 3rd behind TB and NO. Watson is the wild card; the Browns could be out of the playoff race by the time he returns, so he might not have much to play for but to knock off rust and build chemistry. I’m not sure you’ll see 2020 Watson after that much time away, especially if his preseason performance is any indicator.
Rookies That Will Make an Immediate Impact
Rookies are tough to project. Many need time to adapt to the speed and technique of the NFL, whereas others hit the ground running and produce right away. In terms of QBs, Malik Willis is the media darling, but he won’t even play unless the Titans collapse. Matt Corral is out for the year, and Desmond Ridder might get a year behind Marcus Mariota (he could see action late in the season if the team starts to look to the future). Only Kenny Pickett has a chance to start for an extended stretch; I expect him to be decent but not great, and I won’t judge him no matter what because his line will be partly to blame. At the other offensive skill positions, I wasn’t as high on Breece Hall as some, but he should get volume touches. I think Kenneth Walker and Dameon Pierce are the likeliest RBs to break out. This draft was all about WRs, and I think Jahan Doston and Treylon Burks are going to be immediate contributors. Chris Olave will do alright in a #2 role for the Saints, and Jameson Williams will likely look good late in the year when he returns from his torn ACL. Garrett Wilson, arguably the best receiver in the class, will be hurt by poor QB play and might not produce as expected. Drake London feels boom or bust; I’m not sure I can count on him to stay healthy. Two to watch are George Pickens (PIT) and Alec Pierce (IND). I think both top CBs, Derek Stingley and Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, will be good. I expect Aidan Hutchinson to be solid, but Trayvon Walker could be special against weaker tackles with Josh Allen on the other side. The best offensive lineman, at least to start, might be Charles Cross; he’s the most natural pass protector among the top tackles and should get acclimated quickly. My favorite rookie is Jordan Davis, but he won’t likely stuff the stat sheet for the Eagles’ talented defensive line until 2023.
Race for the #1 Overall Draft Pick
I know; I just talked about the rookies who were taken this year, and I’m already looking at the 2023 draft?? Yep. GMs and scouts do it, so I will as well. The leader in the clubhouse for the rights to draft someone like CJ Stroud, Bryce Young, or Will Anderson is Chicago. The Bears weren’t very good last year, and they had no first-round pick due to trading up for Justin Fields. By making this projection, it’s clear that I’m not a buyer on Fields. I did not love his accuracy and decision-making coming out of college, and most Ohio State QBs don’t translate to the NFL game. His athleticism is real, but I don’t trust him to take care of the football. Even if you like him, does he have a chance on this team? They let Jason Peters and James Daniels walk, so his protection is much worse, and they allowed Allen Robinson to leave, denying Fields a #1 receiver. Darnell Mooney and Velus Jones are nice players, but they aren’t Robinson. On top of that, Khalil Mack was traded and Akiem Hicks was not re-signed, so the defense will be worse this year. Sharing a division with the Packers, the Vikings, and an improved Lions squad leave Chicago looking at a rough schedule as well. All of this has the Bears looking like the favorites to be on the clock as soon as week 18 ends.