A New Hope? Evaluating the Outlook of Last Place Teams in Each Division From 2021 Heading into 2022
While none of the teams that finished in last place in their division after the 2021 NFL season are content with how their team fared the last time they took the field, there is reason to be optimistic with a new season looming. It is far from outlandish to expect that some, if not most, of these teams will improve their win total from the previous season. By just taking a look at the previous season in 2021 we can see that almost every last place team improved.
|Team||Win% in 2020||Win% in 2021|
7 out of 8 last place teams from 2020 improved their win percentage in 2021. Three of these teams (Bengals, Eagles, and 49ers) actually increased their win percentage by over 0.200 and made the playoffs. To go even further, the 49ers reached the NFC Championship while the Bengals fell just short in Super Bowl LVI. This is all to say that last place teams from the 2021 season can have some hope for more success heading into this season.
There is a combination of factors that can help improve a team’s success from year to year, such as a new coaching staff, free agent signings, development of young players, additions through the draft, and the return of previously injured players.
Now, let’s take a look at each of the last place division finishers from the 2021 season and make the case for their improvement heading into 2022.
AFC East: New York Jets (4-13)
Robert Saleh is preparing for his second season as Head Coach of the New York Jets. This team has a lot of young talent, plus they are getting back some key players they lost early last season due to injury. Carl Lawson was a major free agent signing for the Jets defense last offseason, but an achilles injury in August ended his season before it even began. Mekhi Becton will also be expected back after injuring his knee in just the first game of 2021.
The Jets had a fantastic draft, especially in the first round. They ended up with three selections in round one: Sauce Gardner (CB, Cincinnati), Garrett Wilson (WR, Ohio State), and Jermaine Johnson (EDGE, Florida State). Each of these players will have important roles carved out for them immediately, and they will also be important for the future of the New York Jets.
The return of key players from injury combined with the development of their young core that is led by QB Zach Wilson should suggest that this team has a strong chance to improve their win total from 2021.
AFC North: Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens (8-9)
The AFC North was a very competitive division in 2021, and it will continue to be in 2022 and the years that follow. This is a division filled with exceptional head coaches as well as great quarterbacks.
The Cleveland Browns were a popular pick to win the division heading into 2021 after they made a run to the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs the year prior. It is safe to say that expectations were not met last season for a variety of reasons. But, heading into 2022 the Browns have added some big names to an already talented roster.
Amari Cooper is set to be the new WR1 of this offense and should be a nice addition. There is certainly uncertainty in the availability of newly acquired QB Deshaun Watson, but regardless this team can be a contender in the AFC.
As for the Ravens, they had a down year as well but that can be attributed to a mind-boggling number of injuries that they suffered. According to Pro Football Reference, the Ravens reported a player on the IR 178 times during the 2021 season.
It is nearly impossible to expect a team to achieve success with that injury total, especially when the injured players were big names such as J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Marcus Peters, Ronnie Stanley, and Derek Wolfe just to name a few. Lamar Jackson was also dealing with an injury in the second half of the season that required the Ravens to turn to backup Tyler Huntley in several key games.
Baltimore traded away their number one WR Marquise Brown, but this made way for a strong 2022 NFL Draft for the Ravens. Baltimore selected Kyle Hamilton (S, Notre Dame) at 14th overall in the draft, and then using the 25th overall pick that they received by trading Marquise Brown to Arizona, the Ravens selected Tyler Linderbaum (IOL, Iowa).
The Ravens had a great draft, but the fact that they will begin the 2022 season healthy in itself is enough to give Ravens fans hope.
AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars (3-14)
Despite having the worst record in the NFL in 2021 in what was a disastrous season for Jacksonville, there is a lot to be optimistic about in regard to this team.
First, there will be a new culture established with the hire of Doug Pederson as the Head Coach for the Jaguars. Coach Pederson is now tied to a franchise with a second year QB in Trevor Lawrence that has limitless potential that was untapped in his rookie season. The hope is that the signings of Christian Kirk, Brandon Scherff, Zay Jones, and Evan Engram on offense will allow Lawrence’s potential to play out.
The Jaguars also added a few great prospects on the defensive side of the ball during the draft. Travon Walker (EDGE, Georgia), Devin Lloyd (LB, Utah), and Chad Muma (LB, Wyoming) all have a lot of potential to be great players for Jacksonville. This is a team that is poised to make strides in the right direction.
AFC West: Denver Broncos (7-10)
Denver potentially has the most hype out of any of these teams, and for good reason. Nathaniel Hackett looks to bring a fun, winning atmosphere with him from his time in Green Bay. This team has what many consider to be a championship level defense, and a nice young core of offensive players. Denver allowed 322 points during the 2021 season which ranked 3rd out of 32 teams.
The Broncos acquired Russell Wilson who is a championship level quarterback that makes this team a strong contender in the AFC. Sure, the AFC West looks to be one of the toughest divisions of all time, but when you introduce a quarterback that has two super bowl appearances and one championship to an already solid roster, you have as strong of a case as anyone to improve.
NFC East: New York Giants (4-13)
The New York Giants are another team with a new Head Coach heading into 2022, in Brian Daboll. Daboll had a large part in the development of Josh Allen in Buffalo, and the Giants are hoping he can do the same with Daniel Jones.
Similar to the Jets, the Giants improved their team tremendously in the first round of this past draft. The Giants selected Kayvon Thibodeaux (EDGE, Oregon) at fifth overall, and Evan Neal (OT, Alabama) at seventh overall. Additionally, they are a team with a few young players that have shown promise and are operating with a QB on a rookie contract which is always a luxury for teams. This team can really go as far as their quarterback takes them, so you can only hope that Daniel Jones takes that next step.
NFC North: Detroit Lions (3-13-1)
As the featured team for Hard Knocks, the Lions are looking for more success in Dan Campbell’s second season at the helm. Despite not seeing the results in the win column, the one thing you can say about this group is that they have formed a strong culture through Dan Campbell.
The Lions picked Aidan Hutchinson (EDGE, Michigan) at 2nd overall in the draft, and moved up in the first round to select Jameson Williams (WR, Alabama). Both of these players were regarded as top prospects at their respective positions, and therefore should make a big impact on this team in the coming years.
Certainly, the quarterback position remains a question. Jared Goff actually recorded his highest completion percentage of his career (67.2%) in his first season in Detroit, but there is clearly a lot more to be desired at the position especially considering Goff’s monster cap hit of $31,150,000 this season.
NFC South: Carolina Panthers (5-12)
Carolina also has questions at the quarterback position, and this may be Matt Rhule’s last opportunity to get something out of this team. Most signs point to Sam Darnold beginning the season as the starting quarterback, but it remains to be seen when/if newly drafted Matt Corral (QB, Ole Miss) sees the field in 2022.
The good news is that Carolina has a nice core of young players that is headlined by WR D.J. Moore and CB Jaycee Horn. Horn broke his foot early on in the season but when he was on the field, he showed his special ability. Plus, the Panthers added a much-needed piece to their offensive line by drafting Ikem Ekwonu (OT, NC State) in the first round.
People forget that the Panthers began the 2021 season 3-0, and seemingly fell apart after injuries to their stars. Carolina may have a shot at making some improvements from their pedestrian season in 2021 if they can remain healthy and have these young stars elevate the rest of the team.
NFC West: Seattle Seahawks (7-10)
The Seahawks have had the most turnover of these teams. They let go two faces of the franchise in Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner. Sure, they got worse by letting two of their best players go, but Seattle recognized it was time for change and they were able to get a decent return for Russell Wilson.
The Seahawks were able to acquire QB Drew Lock, TE Noah Fant, DL Shelby Harris, two first-round picks, two second-round picks, and a fifth-round pick in exchange for Wilson and a fourth-round selection. Seattle turned the draft capital they received for the 2022 Draft into Charles Cross (OT, Mississippi State), and Boye Mafe (EDGE, Minnesota). Seattle also drafted Kenneth Walker (RB, Michigan State) with the idea of dominating through the run game.
The departure of big-time players for this team can cloud the expectations for this season in Seattle, but it also provides a major opportunity for new players to step up and make a name for themselves.