They are ranked number one and the reason mainly is a young quarterback, Joe Burrow, who is going to get better. Ja’Marr Chase and Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins are the top trio of receivers in the league. Perhaps just as important, they’ve improved their offensive line, adding Ted Karras and Alex Cappa through free agency and picking up La’el Collins from Dallas when he got cut. They did lose tight end C.J. Uzomah to the Jets, but they have a young kid in Drew Sample, and they also signed veteran Hayden Hurst.
Come playoff time we saw that defensive line was a little bit better than people knew. Trey Hendrickson, who signed in free agency last year, obviously played very well in the playoffs. Cincinnati will have a very good wave of defensive linemen. The linebackers, Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson, are young and athletic, and in the secondary, the three corners, Chidobe Awuzie, Eli Apple, and Mike Hilton, are good.
We know their kicker, Evan McPherson, was clutch last year. This is an all-around very good football team, and they shouldn’t have the Super Bowl-losing blues.
It’s really whether Jalen Hurts can be a quarterback you can win with. This is a very good football team going back to their weapons, especially since trading for wide receiver A.J. Brown. Having DeVonta Smith in his second year, who is a vertical threat, and Quez Watkins is good. Dallas Goedert is a top tight end, so the weapons are there. Throw in the halfback, Miles Sanders, and a very good offensive line, and the key with Hurts will be if you can see them quickly and deliver the ball accurately.
The pass rush has a little bit of age with Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox, but if they still have gas in the tank, watch out! That’s a very good defensive line. Their corners are good with Darius Slay, James Bradberry, Avonte Maddox and Zech McPhearson. It’ll be whether the safeties, Anthony Harris, Jaquiski Tartt, Marcus Epps, and K’Von Wallace, are good enough.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
A team everyone is excited about is the Chargers. The quarterback, Justin Herbert, is special. And they did a good job in keeping their weapons, particularly WR Mike Williams. Obviously, they’ve got Keenan Allen. They brought in Gerald Everett, the 2017 Rams’ second-round pick, who was at Seattle last year, to be the receiving tight end.
The running back position has Austin Ekeler as the space guy, and they drafted a size halfback in Isaiah Spiller, and also have Joshua Kelley. The line is solid. That’ll be the offense that moves ahead of the pack in the AFC West.
Defensively, they added Khalil Mack, Austin Johnson, and Sebastian Joseph-Day and already have Joey Bosa. So they’ve improved their pass rush. The linebackers are good, and the secondary will have improved coverage. A key will be if they have a top-10 kicker.
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
With this new coaching staff, Josh McDaniels will utilize QB Derek Carr well, and they signed star receiver Davante Adams—he and Carr were college teammates. They couldn’t have added a better receiver because he’s an elite talent. They already have Hunter Renfrow and added some other receivers. Darren Waller is a very good vertical speed tight end. At running back, they have Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake. The question mark will be the right side of the line with Alex Leatherwood and Lester Cotton.
Las Vegas is stout on the defensive edge with Maxx Crosby and, of course, Chandler Jones. Uncertainty lies in the corner spots and whether they can stay healthy.
The Broncos are another AFC West team some see as a sleeper in the conference. Adding Russell Wilson gives the Broncos the quality QB they haven’t had since Peyton Manning retired.
Many ask, does a great quarterback make wide receivers, or do wide receivers make great quarterbacks? It’s probably the quarterback who is most responsible. With Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, Tim Patrick and K.J. Hamler, if one or two ascend to the next level with a top QB, Denver will become very explosive on offense. The running back trio of Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon, and Mike Boone are strong.
On defense, can Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory stay healthy? If so, they will have a strong edge rush, and their secondary is very good with Patrick Surtain II, who can be an elite corner, and Justin Simmons, who is a strong playmaking safety.
Did Josh Allen last season reach what will be the norm for him? Or was that an exception? Does he go back to what he was in his second and third years, or does he continue to ascend? He certainly has the weapons in WRs Stefon Diggs, newcomer Jamison Crowder, and maybe Gabe Davis, who showed up in the playoffs against Kansas City.
Does the second-round draft pick out of Georgia, James Cook, make the running game a real threat? They also added veteran guard Rodger Saffold and Dion Dawkins is a very good left tackle.
The headline move was adding edge rusher Von Miller to last year’s first-round pick, Greg Rousseau. Top corner Tre’Davious White comes off knee surgery, and age seems to be catching up with their solid safety duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Patrick Mahomes is elite. Enough said. Operating behind that line is where the questions surface. Is RT Andrew Wylie good enough? Are backup tackles Geron Christian and Lucas Niang good enough? LT Orlando Brown Jr. has been holding out. They still have Travis Kelce to dominate at tight end, but who replaces the big play threat of Tyreek Hill? Is it Mecole Hardman? Is it Marquez Valdez-Scantling? Is it JuJu Smith-Schuster? Can RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire remain healthy?
The defense could take a step back, too. Does Frank Clark still have any gas? They do have Chris Jones inside, but is this a top defensive line? And who replaces Tyrann Mathieu at safety?
So many questions. And everybody else in the AFC West has gotten better.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
The Rams, coming off the Super Bowl win, have a perfect fit at quarterback in Matthew Stafford for what Coach Sean McVay wants to do. They added WR Allen Robinson and have Van Jefferson and tight end Tyler Higbee, and of course, Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp. Cam Akers made a remarkable comeback for the playoffs coming off an Achilles tendon injury. The offensive line saw LT Andrew Whitworth retire, and Joe Noteboom should be fine there.
Aaron Donald simply is the premier inside rusher and though they lost Von Miller, they still have Leonard Floyd—that will be a top-five pass rush group. The key on defense is Jalen Ramsey as their shutdown corner.
A surprise? Perhaps.
Start with the weapons in WR Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel if he can stay healthy and the top draftee in Penn State’s Jahan Dotson. RB Antonio Gibson is a big guy who’s improving and second-year tight end John Bates is a strong blocker with receiving skills.
The O-line is not well known but is solid. Then, there is Carson Wentz. If he avoids the errors of trying to create and force things, he could revive his career.
Getting back edge rusher Chase Young from a knee injury is critical, but that could take a while. They have all those first-round picks on the defensive line. The linebackers are good, and the secondary is filled with veterans.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
This is Trey Lance’s team. Is he ready in his second year? Lance must show he can get rid of the ball quicker and deliver it accurately. Coach Kyle Shanahan is the most creative offensive mind in the NFL. He’ll have a familiar running back, Elijah Mitchell, and Deebo Samuel, who was an All-Pro last year. His versatility as a runner and receiver makes him one of the NFL’s most dynamic weapons. San Francisco also is strong at the tackles but did lose center Alex Mack.
Having Nick Bosa on the edge with Arik Armstead inside makes for a potent pass rush. How will 2020 first-rounder Javon Kinlaw perform? Fred Warner is an exceptional linebacker. There are questions in the secondary.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
For nearly 30 years, Green Bay has had Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers–and currently, that adds up to just two Super Bowl wins. Unlike how the Colts used their assets to upgrade the offense in Peyton Manning’s days, Green Bay has used high draft picks and free-agent money to keep improving the defense.
Now, Rodgers won’t have Davante Adams, which is huge. Maybe Rodgers can turn this receiving corps into a top-15 unit and someone becomes a star. Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon are a good 1-2 backfield punch, and the offensive line is good enough but the issues with LT David Bakhtiari’s health bear watching.
Defensively, they have a good front seven, rush and secondary. But here’s the other key part—special teams have been awful.
Like with Philadelphia, it’ll be the quarterback that is the most important to watch. Tua Tagovailoa has gotten hurt and missed games and has much to prove. He has an improved cast with RBs Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert and Sony Michel and, naturally, adding Tyreek Hill to be the big-play receiver. Tua already had Jaylen Waddle and TE Mike Gesicki, and now also gets Cedrick Wilson Jr. Can they find their fit and balance on the offensive line?
Defensively, it’s a very underrated unit. There is more skill, especially in the pass rush with Christian Wilkins, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Jaelan Phillips. Their secondary also has been overlooked and features Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, and second-year free safety Jevon Holland.
The Panthers’ situation could be similar to when Pete Carroll went to Seattle and was building something, then Russell Wilson got there. Carolina kept trying to figure out the quarterback position and now has Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, and third-round draft pick from Ole Miss, Matt Corral.
If they get the quarterback answer correct, it’s a team that has talent elsewhere. Do-everything RB Christian McCaffrey must stay healthy, and in DJ Moore, Robby Anderson and Terrace Marshall, they have an impressive trio of receivers. The O-line got better.
Defensively, watch Brian Burns, who comes off a strong season, on the edge, and Derrick Brown inside is a force. Jeremy Chinn is a very good big-play safety, leading a solid secondary.
Deshaun Watson is now expected to miss six games, and Jacoby Brissett will be the starter. He will have Amari Cooper and Donovan Peoples-Jones and TE David Njoku to throw the ball to. The running backs are top-notch with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The offensive line will be strong if Jack Conklin and Jedrick Wills stay healthy.
The pass rush on the edge with Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney is excellent. Garrett is a game-changing player. The secondary was plagued by injuries and staying healthy will be a big key for Cleveland.
If Lamar Jackson displays the ability to make the downfield throws, the Ravens will be tough to stop. We know he can be a major factor as a runner. The RB trio of J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Mike Davis, plus Lamar, can make a difference if the blockers stay healthy.
Ronnie Stanley can be dominant if he can stay on the field. With WR Marquise Brown traded, TE Mark Andrews is the most proven target. They do have first-round receiver Rashod Bateman returning and some serious speed in Devin Duvernay.
Baltimore has some good edge guys. Calais Campbell probably will make the Hall of Fame but age is catching up with him. Odafe Oweh showed some good burst, but can he put it all together this season? The linebackers must show more and should be aided by a healthier secondary featuring Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters.
They do have the best special teams in the NFL.
I think adding Doug Peterson as the head coach was excellent. If Trevor Lawrence makes the ascent of, say, what Joe Burrow did in his second year, Jacksonville can climb the ladder and be a playoff contender. That means Lawrence sees the play develop quicker and delivers more accurately. The Jags spent big money on their trio of receivers: Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and Marvin Jones. The O-line has high picks in Cam Robinson and Brandon Scherff.
First overall draft pick Travon Walker will be added to the front seven that has Josh Allen and Foye Oluokun. You can see a similar foundation for the defense as the 49ers built under the same general manager, Trent Baalke. They also added LB Devin Lloyd in the first round. The secondary needs to kick it up a notch but this could be a big-play, get-after-it defense.
Pittsburgh is so disciplined at following its blueprint since the 1970s when they were regularly winning Super Bowls. They understand the AFC North, so they’re going to be physical on offense and defense. They’re going to run the ball with big, strong offensive linemen, and they’re going to have big-play wide receivers, like Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and rookie George Pickens. The unknown is who plays quarterback. Whoever it is will have powerful RB Najee Harris to help them.
The front will carry Pittsburgh defensively, especially if Cam Heyward is still firing on all cylinders. T.J. Watt was the Defensive Player of the Year and has Myles Jack and Devin Bush at linebacker with him. Minkah Fitzpatrick is a solid center-field safety.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Is Tampa a little bit low for some people’s liking? It’s been an impressive two-year run with Tom Brady, but doesn’t Father Time have to catch up? Brady won’t have Gronk but has plenty else to work with in WRs Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and maybe even Julio Jones recaptures his magic.
RB Leonard Fournette showed up overweight, which doesn’t help. The power run game is big for them and losing their guards hurts. The Bucs brought in Shaq Mason in a trade to help offset Ali Marpet’s retirement. Brady doesn’t like quick pressure up the middle, of course.
Vita Vea is outstanding inside on defense, but age is catching up with DEs Akiem Hicks and William Gholston. Same with Shaq Barrett on the edge. The secondary has some injury-prone players.
Their latest quarterback is Matt Ryan, who must show he can make the plays downfield. He has the No. 1 receiver in Michael Pittman Jr. Second-round pick Alec Pierce could help. When Ryan has a good receiving tight end, he also is very productive. Does he have one?
What he definitely has is RB Jonathan Taylor, a top weapon who led the NFL in rushing. Getting there again with uncertainty at left tackle is problematic. Third-round selection Bernhard Raimann might get a shot.
Kwity Paye and DeForest Buckner anchor the defensive line, while their linebackers are strong with Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke. It’s uncertain if the secondary has the speed and range needed, but adding veteran Stephon Gilmore should be a boost. The kicking game struggled last year.
What do the Cowboys want to do on offense? Maybe they should become more of a passing attack. Zeke Elliott’s burst in the hole and ability to avoid tacklers has diminished. Dak Prescott has a top-line receiving group with CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup and James Washington, plus TE Dalton Schultz. The line has also gone backward except for guard Zack Martin.
They don’t appear to have the wave pass rush of the past. They’ve created the rush with matchups and blitzing. That helps, but they don’t have a deep protector at safety. All-Pro CB Trevon Diggs makes big plays but also gives up catches, yards and touchdowns.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
New England will be watching closely after QB Mac Jones had a very good rookie year. All indications are he is vastly improved physically and mentally, and he could be helped by the running game with Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, and old reliable James White.
His top receivers are not stars. Someone needs to be a top-20 guy. Jones has fine tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, but is there someone that becomes a consistent big-play threat? On the line, Trent Brown needs to prove he can handle left tackle.
The Patriots have a solid front seven on defense and DT Christian Barmore is a second-year player to keep an eye on. They scheme and match up well upfront; that’s the one thing Coach Bill Belichick always does. In the back, does Devin McCourty still have the range at safety and does the secondary have the speed to match up?
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
This will be a much different look in New Orleans. Drew Brees left after 2020, and now Sean Payton no longer is the coach. They came in together in 2006 and turned around the franchise.
If the veterans can stay healthy, they could contend. That means QB Jameis Winston, RB Alvin Kamara, WRs Michael Thomas and Jarvis Landry, and several offensive linemen.
On defense, there also needs to be peak performance from older players such as Cam Jordan on the edge, LB Demario Davis and SS Tyrann Mathieu. They have talented young players in Marcus Davenport, Payton Turner, and Marshon Lattimore, but the unit as a whole needs to take a step up.
The assumption with the Vikings is the new regime will make everything positive. Maybe not. The concerns start on offense. The trio of receivers of Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and K.J. Osborn is top level—if Thielen can still produce as he has in the past.
The same thing could be said with RB Dalvin Cook. He’s only going to be 27 but has trouble staying on the field. Is he still an elite weapon? QB Kirk Cousins can deliver the ball when unpressured. Will he have a clean pocket? For the last two years, the answer has been no.
On paper, the defense looks very good with Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith on the edge, Dalvin Tomlinson inside, Jordan Hicks and Eric Kendricks at linebacker and safety Harrison Smith. But Smith and Hunter have had serious injuries recently. Minnesota flipping from a 4-3 defense that played smart, sound coverage to a 3-4 front raises more uncertainty.
NEW YORK JETS
They are probably a year away from contending, but the Jets should improve with their young quarterback, Zach Wilson. They have given him more weapons with first-round selection WR Garrett Wilson, they have Corey Davis coming off an injury and they added to the tight ends group–critical to young passers –with C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin. Big-money free agent guard Laken Tomlinson joins second-year player Alijah Vera-Tucker, and the tall, strong Mekhi Becton shifts to right tackle.
Edge rusher Carl Lawson was out all of 2021. He’s back on a young line, and another veteran presence returns with C.J. Mosley at linebacker joining Quincy Williams, who was a surprise standout last season. Sauce Gardner was considered by many the top cornerback in the draft, and the secondary needs to be much better.
Their games will be exciting with lots of shootouts. The Cardinals have plenty of first and second-round draft picks on the roster. The top overall choice in 2019, Kyler Murray has yet to show he can be a top-10 quarterback in the second half of the schedule.
Acquiring WR Hollywood Brown to complement DeAndre Hopkins (when he’s available) and A.J. Green was wise. Age also is an issue with some guys on offense: TE Zach Ertz and nearly the entire offensive line.
Budda Baker is a good safety, but around him are some aging players: J.J. Watt, Markus Golden and Devon Kennard on the edge. Can they get opponents off the field? The two young LBs Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins have to step up now.
Another head-scratcher of a team. It’s still hard to tell if quarterback Ryan Tannehill can consistently win. He lost his top receiver when A.J. Brown was traded and replaced by first-rounder Treylon Burks. Believe it or not, RB Derrick Henry, their best player, is an age/injury factor. He comes off a serious foot injury, and his blockers are not elite.
Jeffery Simmons is a top threat inside on defense. LBs Harold Landry III and Bud Dupree are being paid big money but are they worth it? Their cornerbacks, Caleb Farley, Roger McCreary and Kristian Fulton, are unproven. What always helps is the good coaching Tennessee has.
The players love Dan Campbell in Detroit. So do the fans. He’s fiery, frank, and entertaining. If the Lions can start winning a few games, they might name a car after him.
For now, he’ll try to get Jared Goff to begin 2022 the way he ended 2021 and concentrate on a potentially strong running game with D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams. Amon-Ra St. Brown showed out last season, and they have a veteran WR in DJ Chark. TE T.J. Hockenson is solid with a high ceiling, and first-rounder Jameson Williams, recovering from a knee injury at Alabama, could be a star. The line isn’t bad and has two studs in C Frank Ragnow and RT Penei Sewell.
First-round choice DE Aidan Hutchinson already might be the best defender on the roster.
Rebuilding is the word in the Windy City, starting with second-year QB Justin Fields. The challenge is for him to quickly see what is happening and deliver the ball accurately. Even with that, other than WR Darnell Mooney, does he have the targets who will contribute? The tight end, Cole Kmet, might be the move-the-chains guy. Plus, moving the ball will be problematic with a weak set of tackles.
Robert Quinn has been very productive on the edge but is aging. Outstanding LB Roquan Smith is upset with his contract and is not participating at training camp. Additionally, the safety and cornerback positions are all young and raw.
More rebuilding is on the horizon in Atlanta. Trading Matt Ryan is emblematic of that. The cupboard isn’t exactly bare with TE Kyle Pitts, and this year’s first-round pick WR Drake London. Quarterback Marcus Mariota is a bridge to the next young QB but hasn’t stayed healthy as a backup the last two years. They’ve got a young O-line with right guard Chris Lindstrom as the best blocker.
Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett brings the heat, and the Falcons stocked up on pass-rushers in the draft. A.J. Terrell is a top young cornerback, and Richie Grant is a young safety to watch.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Quarterback Daniel Jones has his third offensive coordinator in three years. He hasn’t played a full season yet, and there has been no after-injury QB who’s become a consistently impressive performer.
RB Saquon Barkley’s also an injury risk. WR Kenny Golladay hasn’t played a full schedule in two years. Injuries have also impacted Sterling Shepard and Kadarius Toney.
They used a first-rounder on edge Kayvon Thibodeaux. Will he be a consistently big play guy on the edge? Secondary-wise, they don’t have a top cornerback group, and the safety position is middle of the road defensively.
Yet another team retooling, but there are age and injury factors at running back and receiver. The roster is a smorgasbord of old and young players that second-year QB Davis Mills must deal with. He has size and a strong arm to be successful. He doesn’t have much around him, though veteran WR Brandin Cooks can help. They have spent big money on the O-line and still haven’t figured it out.
The Texans brought in Mario Addison and Obo Okoronkwo on the edge along with Jerry Hughes—all of whom will mentor a young rusher with promise in Jonathan Greenard. First-rounder CB Derek Stingley Jr. will be tested.
This team has been on a slow descent and now has traded the franchise quarterback. The Legion of Boom disappeared a while ago. Although the Seahawks have top pass catchers Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf (with a new contract), the replacements for Russell Wilson are Geno Smith and Drew Lock. Not quite the same. RBs Rashaad Penny and Kenneth Walker III could see plenty of work.
Another huge loss came on defense with Bobby Wagner leaving for the Rams. Jordyn Brooks is a solid linebacker, but he’s no Wagner yet. At least the secondary has safeties Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams.