Now that the Draft has come and gone, barring a few trades and free agent signings, most teams around the league have their rosters set for the upcoming season. Here are the four that I believe improved most meaningfully from 2021 to 2022.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers were heralded as the winners of free agency after re-signing WR Mike Williams, signing CB JC Jackson, and trading a second- and sixth-round pick for star pass rusher Khalil Mack. Los Angeles barely missed out on the playoffs a season ago and realistically should have been there if not for a 1-3 record in their final four games.
After Justin Herbert’s 5,000-yard-plus 2021 season, he has proven himself to be one of the most exciting young quarterbacks to watch in this league. Assuming he maintains the high level of play that he has displayed over his first two seasons in the league, the Chargers will always be in contention to make the Playoffs. Retaining Mike Williams was a big piece to making sure that this offense is as explosive as it was in 2021.
Adding Jackson and Mack via free agency will provide a boost to a defense that was 22nd in the league in terms of total yard allowed and 28th in terms of points allowed. They also added former Rams interior DL Sebastian Joseph-Day, who figures to contribute mostly to stopping the run — a glaring weakness of the 2021 Chargers defense.
In the Draft, Los Angeles selected Boston College OG Zion Johnson to sure up their interior offensive line. While selecting a guard in the first round is not “flashy,” it was vitally important to continue to build out their offensive line after selecting an OT in the first round last season to keep Justin Herbert upright as much as possible.
While I’m not certain that the Chargers will win the loaded AFC West, I do believe that they have the makings of a playoff team with a good chance of winning some big games and making a run thanks to their prolific passing attack and the way they have built out the offensive and defensive lines over the past two offseasons.
Decimated with injuries in 2021, Baltimore should see a substantial improvement in 2022 simply based on getting back players like JK Dobbins, Gus Edwards, Marcus Peters, and LJ Fort — who all missed the entire 2021 season. The return of QB Lamar Jackson — who missed the final four games of the season himself — will also be a huge boost.
Before Jackson’s injury in the 2nd quarter of the Ravens Week 13 loss in Cleveland, the Ravens were 8-4 and poised to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. Including that Week 13 loss, the Ravens went 0-5 in games in which Jackson did not finish.
This offseason the Ravens retained DT Calais Campbell and brought in S Marcus Williams, DT Michael Pierce, and RT Morgan Moses in free agency. General Manager Eric DeCosta did a wonderful job in the Draft as well, nabbing Notre Dame S Kyle Hamilton and Iowa C Tyler Linderbaum in the first round. The Ravens also added edge rusher David Ojabo (a surefire first-round pick until he tore his Achilles at his pro day) in the second round, UConn DT Travis Jones in the third round, and a number of other talented players on Day 3 such as OT Daniel Faalele, TEs Charlie Kolar and Isaiah Likely, and CB Jalyn Armour-Davis.
It is clear that the Ravens placed an emphasis in the secondary as well as along the offensive and defensive lines this year. They have always been a team that could rush the passer from anywhere with anybody, but this is a slightly different philosophy than they have implemented in the past. Investing a significant amount of capital along the defensive line in Campbell, Pierce, Ojabo, and Jones will allow their linebackers to play in space more often and could pay dividends when they do decide to blitz and can get their LBs in more one-on-one scenarios with backs.
As I’ve discussed in the past, Kyle Hamilton and Marcus Williams complement each other at safety nicely. Hamilton is more comfortable playing in the slot and up in the box as a pseudo slot corner/outside linebacker, while Williams plays more than 90% of his snaps as a deep free safety.
On top of all of this, they shipped WR Hollywood Brown to Arizona in a draft day trade leaving Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay and James Proche II as the starting wide receivers. Yes, they still have Jackson’s favorite target in Mark Andrews, and they added two tight ends in the draft who are better pass catchers than blockers but taking away the only receiver who played nearly 75% of the team’s offensive snaps just a year ago is a risky move.
Even so, I believe that, as long as the team stays healthy, the Ravens should be back in the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
After losing their first eight games — two of them in heart breaking fashion — the Lions went 3-5-1 after their midseason bye week. While this is nothing to write home about, the way a team ends a season, especially when they aren’t playing for anything, is indicative of the culture that the head coach has set. Getting professional athletes to play hard even when the games are meaningless is a difficult task. In his first season as an NFL head coach, Dan Campbell did just that.
When coaching a team in a complete rebuild like the Lions were last season, the most important things to do are build a culture, firm up the coaching staff, and add as much talent as possible over multiple years. Good rebuilds don’t happen overnight — they take time. Patience is certainly a virtue in these situations.
Campbell and General Manager Brad Holmes filled out the coaching staff with an abundance of experienced coaches. Lions’ 2021 Offensive Coordinator Anthony Lynn and Defensive Coordinator Aaron Glenn brought a combined 50 years of experience as players and coaches in the NFL. Lynn has since moved on and been replaced by 2021 tight ends coach Ben Johnson.
Detroit also brought in Duce Staley and Mark Brunell to coach running backs and quarterbacks, respectively. Both had 10-plus years of experience as a player in the league. Staley had been an offensive assistant in Philadelphia for 10 years prior to taking the job of Assistant Head Coach/Running Backs Coach with the Lions.
Dave Fipp, another former Philadelphia staff member, was hired by Campbell at the beginning of last season to be the special teams coordinator. Fipp had 13 years of experience in the NFL, including eight as special teams coordinator with the Eagles, before being hired to Detroit.
On top of experience and stability in the coaching staff, you need to hit on blue chip prospects in the draft. The Lions did just that over the past two seasons.
In 2021, they selected one of the best offensive line prospects to come out of college in a while in Penei Sewell as well as WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, who really rounded into form in the second half of last season. They also added great culture fits via trades and free agency in RB Jamaal Williams, DT Michael Brockers, and LB Alex Anazalone.
This year’s Draft was no different. Detroit selected the hometown edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson and Alabama WR Jameson Williams, who (despite his knee injury) I believe is the best wide receiver in this draft class. These two players will be immediate contributors to their respective sides of the ball.
With the building blocks in place, do not be shocked if the Lions add a few extra tallies to the win column this season. Their rebuild might be slow, but the Detroit fans should be excited for what the future holds.
In comparison to how Detroit is taking the slow and steady approach to team building, the Jaguars have taken the complete opposite path. The Jaguars spent more than $327 million in free agency this past offseason — over $192 million of which was fully guaranteed at signing. That’s good for most ever in one offseason by a sizable margin.
Rightfully so, most of the players Jacksonville added should be immediate contributors. Pass catchers such as Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and Evan Engram will provide 2021 first overall pick Trevor Lawrence with some options other than Marvin Jones. The Jags also signed the top free agent offensive guard, Brandon Scherff, to add to recently extended LT Cam Robinson and 2019 second round pick Jawann Taylor along the offensive line.
As we’ve seen in the past, teams that spend the most in free agency often see a quick increase in total wins from year to year. However, sustaining that success is often the problem. One way that the Jaguars will be able to sustain any increase in potential 2022 wins is by drafting significantly well.
With the first overall pick, they made a selection that had some in disbelief in Georgia DL Travon Walker. Walker was certainly not at the top of anybody’s board at the conclusion of the college football season but is as physically gifted as they come. Jacksonville also traded back into the first round to select Utah LB Devin Lloyd. Both of these players will be welcome additions for a defense that gave up the fifth most points, recorded the fifth fewest sacks, and forced only 9 turnovers all year — fewest in the league.
The selection of Kentucky C Luke Fortner was one of the best value picks of the draft. And the Jags have quietly created what should be one of the best offensive lines in the league in 2022. Trevor Lawrence should be thrilled about this after only completing 38.4% of his passes when pressured across his rookie season.
If Lawrence really is the “can’t miss” prospect that everybody proclaimed him to be prior to last season, the Jaguars have a chance to add to last year’s win total by a substantial amount thanks to the offensive additions made this offseason. Lawrence was throwing to a largely injured receiving group while dealing with an inconsistent running game and a revolving door of interior offensive linemen. That is rarely a recipe for success for even the best quarterbacks.