NFL projections and unit grades for 2022: Mike Clay’s best, worst offenses and defenses, plus ranking all 32 teams, X factors.
Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season is just around the corner. What better way to raise (or temper) expectations than a complete breakdown of predictions and projections for how the upcoming season will play out?
Below is a guide of what to expect once the season kicks off Thursday when the Buffalo Bills visit the Los Angeles Rams. It includes my own power rankings, teams that will probably score the most points, defenses that will likely allow the fewest and the toughest and easiest schedules, along with predictions for the playoffs and, of course, Super Bowl LVI. Plus, I broke down 10 X factors for this season. Get up to speed and prep for Sundays this fall.
I used to kick this thing off with a look at the best and worst positional units across the league, but I did an expanded version of that in August, so be sure to check that out too. Let’s get started with what I consider the biggest storyline of the season: How will the loaded AFC West play out? Here’s what you need to know for 2022.
The big story: How will the AFC West shake out?
This division has had some legendary teams over the past few decades, but it has never been quite this loaded from top to bottom.
The Kansas City Chiefs lost receiver Tyreek Hill but still have quarterback Patrick Mahomes and coach Andy Reid at the controls. The Los Angeles Chargers have an elite quarterback in Justin Herbert, and their new-look defense is absolutely stacked after the additions of cornerback J.C. Jackson and edge rusher Khalil Mack, among others. The Las Vegas Raiders added firepower via wideout Davante Adams and edge rusher Chandler Jones, while the Denver Broncos finally solved their quarterback void with Russell Wilson.
Every one of these divisional games will be must-see TV, and the fun starts in Week 1 with the Raiders visiting the Chargers.
1. Washington Commanders (and the rest of the NFC East)
I show the Commanders with a slight edge for the league’s easiest slate in 2022, but it’s more about the division than anything else, as the Eagles (second), Giants (third) and Cowboys (seventh) are just behind them. The four NFC East teams will play nearly half of their games against the AFC South and NFC North, arguably the league’s two weakest divisions. Washington’s unique games are the Falcons, 49ers and Browns.
4. Detroit Lions
The Lions show up with the easiest schedule outside of the NFC East. They benefit from a pair of games against the Bears, as well as showdowns with the Seahawks, Giants, Jaguars, Jets and Panthers. Their toughest games include the two against the Packers and one against the Bills, though two of those three are at home.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are a top contender in the AFC, but they’ll have their hands full finding their way to the No. 1 seed with this schedule. Facing the division-rival Chargers, Broncos and Raiders two times each will be hard enough, but they’re also set for matchups with the Buccaneers, Bills, Rams, Bengals, Cardinals, 49ers and Titans, all of which were 2021 playoff teams. Add in the improved Colts, and that’s 14 of their 17 games. It doesn’t get much tougher than this.
2. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams are set up with the NFC’s toughest schedule, hardly a surprise considering they’re the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bills, Buccaneers, Chiefs, Packers and Chargers stand out as the toughest games, but it won’t get much easier against the Cardinals (twice), 49ers (twice), Cowboys, Saints, Raiders and Broncos.
3. Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders are in roughly the same boat as the Chiefs, with the extremely tough AFC West competition making up 35% of their slate. Las Vegas’ unique games are the Saints, Patriots and Steelers, all of which could have good-to-great defenses.
Projected highest-scoring teams
1. Kansas City Chiefs: 479 points
The Chiefs top this category for the fourth consecutive season. In 2019, they were projected for 469 and scored 451. In 2020, they were projected for 470 and scored 473. Last season, I had them at 477 points and they scored 480. Yes, Hill is gone, but the offensive line is elite, Mahomes is throwing the passes (often to Travis Kelce) and Reid is calling the shots. That’s promising.
2. Los Angeles Chargers: 468 points
The Chargers enjoyed an offensive breakout in 2021 and could be even better this season as Herbert enters his third pro campaign. The offensive line is no longer an Achilles heel, and if first-round pick Zion Johnson plays well, it could be a solid unit. Like the Chiefs, the Chargers will need to score plenty to keep up in the loaded AFC.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 466 points
The Buccaneers have ranked top-three in this category during both of Tom Brady’s seasons with the club and were tops in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA (or defense-adjusted value over average) in 2021. The offensive line is dealing with some injuries, but it’s still a solid unit. With receiver Chris Godwin on track in his ACL recovery, the Buccaneers’ skill-position players look good even without tight end Rob Gronkowski. Brady & Co. are positioned for another big season.
Projected lowest-scoring teams
1. Atlanta Falcons: 312 points
The Falcons finished 26th in scoring last season — and that was with Matt Ryan at quarterback. It will now be Marcus Mariota and perhaps rookie Desmond Ridder leading an offense that will be counting on the likes of Bryan Edwards and Olamide Zaccheaus for substantial work behind tight end Kyle Pitts, 31-year-old running back Cordarrelle Patterson and rookie receiver Drake London.
2. Houston Texans: 317 points
Houston finished 30th in scoring (280 points) and offensive DVOA in 2021, and the current roster doesn’t suggest that a big move up the standings is in order. Second-year quarterback Davis Mills’ top targets behind Brandin Cooks will be Nico Collins and Brevin Jordan.
3. Pittsburgh Steelers: 320 points
It’s hard to imagine a squad led by coach Mike Tomlin finishing this low, but this is a team that scored 343 points with Ben Roethlisberger last season and will now be relying on Mitch Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett behind arguably the league’s shakiest offensive line. Perhaps a good group of skill players — including Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and George Pickens — will boost this number a bit.
Defenses projected to allow the fewest points
1. Green Bay Packers: 350 points
The Packers hit a home run by adding linebacker De’Vondre Campbell last offseason, and he may be the final piece of the puzzle for a very good defense. Kenny Clark, Preston Smith, Rashan Gary, Jaire Alexander, Rasul Douglas, Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage are good-to-great players, and the team also has recent first-round picks Devonte Wyatt, Quay Walker and Eric Stokes developing into impact contributors.
2. Buffalo Bills: 359 points
Buffalo allowed the fewest points in 2021, and all that may stop the Bills from a repeat performance is the aforementioned loaded AFC. Edge rusher Von Miller and first-round rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam were the big-time adds for a unit that also acquired three solid veterans as complements to Ed Oliver at tackle. Tre’Davious White (once fully back from a torn left ACL), Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde lead a terrific secondary.
3. New Orleans Saints: 362 points
The Saints allowed the fewest points in the NFC last season and will return a majority of what is arguably the league’s best defense. Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport and David Onyemata lead a terrific line, with Demario Davis and third-year Pete Werner at linebacker. The cornerback room is among the deepest in the league, with Marshon Lattimore, Paulson Adebo, Bradley Roby and second-round rookie Alontae Taylor. The big change from 2021 is at safety, but replacing Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Williams with Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye is hardly a downgrade.
Defenses projected to allow the most points
1. Detroit Lions: 445 points
Detroit was in this same spot last season and proceeded to allow 467 points (463 projected). That was second-most in the league after allowing a league-high 519 in 2020. Things may not be much better this season, as the defense has weak spots all over the lineup, exacerbated by injuries to Romeo Okwara, Jerry Jacobs and rookie Josh Paschal.
2. Chicago Bears: 438 points
It wasn’t long ago that the Bears were a defensive powerhouse, but the current roster doesn’t suggest we should expect much success in 2022. The unit is without many impact players, leaving Roquan Smith, Robert Quinn, Eddie Jackson and Jaylon Johnson to carry most of the load. The front seven is lacking badly for youth, though perhaps rookies Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker will add some juice in the secondary.
3. Houston Texans: 436 points
Houston allowed 452 points last season (453 projected) and remains in a bit of a rebuild mode on defense. The front seven is packed with journeymen, and its best player — third-year defensive end Jonathan Greenard — will need to stay on the field after missing a chunk of 2021 because of injury. The secondary could make a leap forward, but it will need good play from rookies Derek Stingley Jr. and Jalen Pitre.
The X factors: Make-or-break players who will decide the 2022 season
1. Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Jameis Winston and Jared Goff
Let’s start with the obvious: veteran quarterbacks entering the season without an excuse for failure. The Eagles have good offensive skill-position players, an elite offensive line and arguably a top-five defense with James Bradberry, Haason Reddick and Kyzir White in the fold. That puts a lot on Hurts in his third season.
Tagovailoa is in a similar spot after Miami traded for Hill and signed star left tackle Terron Armstead. Winston, meanwhile, has Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas, Jarvis Landry and first-round rookie Chris Olave at his disposal, and New Orleans’ defense is one of the league’s best.
Detroit’s defense may be a problem, but Goff has no excuse in terms of offensive support, as DJ Chark and rookie Jameson Williams (who begins on the NFI list as he rehabs his torn ACL) were added to a unit that includes Amon-Ra St. Brown, T.J. Hockenson, D’Andre Swift and an elite O-line.
2. Joe Noteboom
I’m putting a lot on Noteboom here, but he’ll be a big factor in whether or not the Rams are able to repeat as Super Bowl champions. The 27-year-old veteran is set to replace legendary left tackle Andrew Whitworth on Matthew Stafford’s blind side this season. Noteboom has yet to emerge as an every-week NFL starter and was limited to 238 snaps off the bench in 2021.
3. Trevor Lawrence … and the other second-year QBs
The 2021 first overall pick, Lawrence will look to add to a list of recent Year 2 breakout quarterbacks that includes Carson Wentz (2017), Mahomes (2018), Lamar Jackson (2019), Kyler Murray (2020) and Joe Burrow (2021). This year he has a much better coach in Doug Pederson and supporting cast with wide receiver Christian Kirk, tight end Evan Engram, running back Travis Etienne Jr. and guard Brandon Scherff, so a major leap is possible and could help the Jaguars toward wild-card contention.
The same can be said for fellow 2021 first-round quarterbacks Trey Lance (49ers), Mac Jones (Patriots), Zach Wilson (Jets) and Justin Fields (Bears).
4. Trevon Diggs
Diggs had a 2021 season best described as “weird.” On one hand, he was a playmaking machine, racking up 11 interceptions (three more than any other player), which helped him to first-team All-Pro recognition. On the other, he struggled against the run and in coverage, allowing a league-high 1,016 yards on 96 targets (18.5 yards per catch). That was 154 yards more than any other corner.
Despite all the interceptions, Diggs graded out 80th among 116 qualified corners at Pro Football Focus. But his ability to sustain playmaking will be huge in Dallas’ quest to repeat as the NFC East champ, especially with star left tackle Tyron Smith set to miss extended time.
5. Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith
The good news: Hunter and Smith are two of the league’s best edge rushers, and they happen to play for the same team. The concerning news: The Vikings’ duo combined to play 403 snaps across eight games last season due to injuries. Minnesota looks solid on paper, so getting a healthy, high-impact season from these two could decide whether they land a playoff spot in a shaky NFC.
6. David Bakhtiari and Ronnie Stanley
Green Bay’s Bakhtiari and Baltimore’s Stanley rank among the league’s best offensive linemen, but the veteran left tackles have missed substantial time due to injury in recent seasons, including playing a combined 93 snaps in 2021. Bakhtiari has had three surgeries on his knee, while Stanley has had two on his ankle.
Both could return by Week 1, but that’s not a lock, and early-season effectiveness is an obvious unknown. The Packers and Ravens are top contenders, and having their star left tackles at 100% would go a long way toward making a Super Bowl run.
7. The Las Vegas Raiders’ offensive line
Speaking of offensive lines, the Raiders’ front five will have a major say in just how good the Las Vegas offense is this season. Las Vegas has a good quarterback in Derek Carr and an excellent group of skill-position players led by newcomer Adams, Darren Waller and Hunter Renfrow. That leaves the O-line as the wild card, as only left tackle Kolton Miller has cemented himself as an above-average player.
Recent first-round pick Alex Leatherwood was cut, leaving Andre James, John Simpson, Jermaine Eluemunor and rookie Dylan Parham projected as starters. Coach Josh McDaniels will need to get the most out of his line in order to keep up in this conference.
8. Jerry Jeudy
The 15th overall pick of the 2020 draft, Jeudy followed up a rookie-season receiving line of 52-856-3 by missing six games and struggling to a 38-467-0 line in 2021. A lot of the blame for the lack of production goes to the Broncos’ poor quarterback play, but that’s no longer an excuse with Wilson in town. Jeudy living up to his elite pedigree will be a driving force in whether Denver can make the playoffs while playing in the AFC West.
9. Chase Young
The Commanders are another potential wild-card contender in the NFC. Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne should be good to go on this very strong defensive line, but the problem is that the best of the bunch — 2020 second-overall pick Young — is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered in Week 10 last season. Young will miss, at least, the first four games, and any further absence could prove crushing for this team.
10. Kyle Pitts
Atlanta is not expected to contend this season, but we can’t not mention its tight end here. The 2021 fourth-overall pick was historically good as a rookie (68 catches for 1,026 yards and a touchdown), which is especially impressive when you consider that he was only 20 years old and that it usually takes tight ends a while to develop.
It might be a bit before Pitts has the support needed to get Atlanta to the playoffs, but it’s very possible that he emerges as one of the league’s best players in the meantime.
Preseason power rankings
*Asterisks indicate projected playoff teams.
1. Buffalo Bills*
With MVP candidate Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs carrying the offense, and Tre’Davious White and newcomer Von Miller leading an excellent defense, the Bills appear to finally be ready for a run at the Lombardi Trophy.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers*
Tom Brady leads a strong offense that added Shaq Mason, Russell Gage and Julio Jones as de facto replacements for Ali Marpet and Antonio Brown. Lavonte David, Shaquil Barrett, Vita Vea, Antoine Winfield Jr. and Carlton Davis III are among the standouts on a defense that added Akiem Hicks and Logan Ryan. The Buccaneers have won 23 regular-season games and a Super Bowl during Brady’s two seasons and are well-positioned for one more run in 2022.
3. Los Angeles Chargers*
The Chargers are loaded. Offensively, they have Justin Herbert, elite skill players (Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams) and finally a good line (led by Corey Linsley and Rashawn Slater). A revamped defense added Khalil Mack and J.C. Jackson, as well as Sebastian Joseph-Day, Kyle Van Noy and Bryce Callahan. Coach Brandon Staley has the roster he needs to keep up in the AFC.
4. Cincinnati Bengals*
The defending AFC champions fixed their biggest void during the offseason by signing offensive linemen Ted Karras, Alex Cappa and La’El Collins. Add a now-solid line to an excellent quarterback in Joe Burrow and a skill position group led by Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Joe Mixon, and the offense is set for a huge season. A very good defense — led by Jessie Bates III, D.J. Reader, Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard — returns its top 10 players in 2021 snaps (and 14 of their top 15).
5. Green Bay Packers*
The loss of Adams looms over the Packers this season, but the offense will be in good shape as long as two-time reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers is on the field. His outlook is even brighter with linemen David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins nearing full health. A strong Packers defense returns 11 of its top 12 defenders in 2021 snaps, with nickel corner Chandon Sullivan being the exception. The secondary could still be the league’s best.
6. Kansas City Chiefs*
The Chiefs suffered a few notable offseason losses, headlined by Tyreek Hill, Tyrann Mathieu and top corner Charvarius Ward. Of course, they still have elite coaching, arguably the league’s best QB in Patrick Mahomes, a terrific offensive line and a passable defense led by superstar Chris Jones. The tough schedule hurts, but the Chiefs are very much still in the Super Bowl mix.
7. Los Angeles Rams*
The defending Super Bowl champs took a little bit of a roster-talent hit during the offseason. Offensively, left tackle Andrew Whitworth retired and receiver Allen Robinson II (coming off a rough season) was brought in to replace Robert Woods and Odell Beckham Jr. Von Miller and Darious Williams are gone from the defense, but linebacker Bobby Wagner was added — and 10 of the top 11 in 2021 snaps are back. Coach Sean McVay still has a quality roster, led by Stafford, Cooper Kupp, Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald.
8. Baltimore Ravens*
Baltimore suffered some horrific injury luck in 2021, but a rebound campaign seems very likely this season. The offense is lacking talent at wide receiver, but the Lamar Jackson-to-Mark Andrews battery remains in place and there are some intriguing young players in the fold. A now-healthy defense led by Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Calais Campbell and newcomers Marcus Williams and Kyle Hamilton could be one of the league’s top units.
9. Philadelphia Eagles*
If we ignore the quarterback position, the Eagles arguably have a top-three roster on paper. Seriously. The offensive line is elite, the offensive skill positions are terrific following the A.J. Brown addition, and the defense looks very good with offseason additions Haason Reddick, Kyzir White, James Bradberry and C.J. Gardner-Johnson. The big question? Jalen Hurts. If the third-year QB makes a big leap, the Eagles will be contenders in the NFC.
10. Denver Broncos*
In a word, “Russ.” Denver finally solved its quarterback void by acquiring Russell Wilson, which sets this team up as a contender in the AFC. Wilson will have plenty of help in the form of Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton and Javonte Williams, as well as a solid line led by tackle Garett Bolles. The defensive front seven isn’t overly intimidating, but that’s offset by a strong secondary led by Justin Simmons and Pat Surtain II. Let’s ride.
11. Dallas Cowboys*
Dallas said goodbye to a few key players during the offseason (Amari Cooper, La’El Collins and Randy Gregory), but this remains a solid team on paper. Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence and Trevon Diggs add star power on defense, and Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb and Dalton Schultz lead the offense. The big variable will be a starting offensive line that will again be missing star left tackle Tyron Smith for an extended period, leaving rookie Tyler Smith and Terence Steele as its tackles and Zach Martin as the line’s only star.
12. New Orleans Saints*
The Saints are one of the league’s most intriguing and perhaps most underrated teams. The defense remains one of the league’s best, with nearly the entire 2021 unit back. The offensive line and skill positions are very good, leaving a lot on the shoulders of new coach Dennis Allen and quarterback Jameis Winston, who was fifth in QBR prior to suffering a torn left ACL last season.
13. San Francisco 49ers*
This may seem low for a team that played in the NFC Championship last season, but we have to hedge our bets a bit with Jimmy Garoppolo out and unproven Trey Lance in at QB. Lance has quality targets (Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk) and a pair of good tackles protecting him (Trent Williams, Mike McGlinchey), though the interior offensive line is a question. Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Arik Armstead and new top corner Charvarius Ward lead a very good defense.
14. Arizona Cardinals
Arizona’s offense is in good shape with Kyler Murray, Zach Ertz and Marquise Brown as the headliners, though DeAndre Hopkins’ six-game suspension is sure to sting a bit. The defense lost Jordan Hicks and Chandler Jones, and while there is some star power left (33-year-old J.J. Watt, Budda Baker), there are question all over the place, including edge rusher, linebacker and corner.
15. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings’ coaching change might be just what the doctor ordered for a team whose roster talent has underachieved several years in a row. The offense remains a work in progress up front, but Kirk Cousins is solid, and the skill-position players (Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen) are good. The defense appears serviceable, with Dalvin Tomlinson, Eric Kendricks, Patrick Peterson, Harrison Smith and the aforementioned Danielle Hunter/Za’Darius Smith duo supplying talent on all levels.
16. Indianapolis Colts*
The Colts upgraded from Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan at QB, which adds some talent to an offense that was overly reliant on running back Jonathan Taylor in 2021. The O-line isn’t as intimidating as in year’s past, but it still has a pair of stars in Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith. The defense is solid, led by stars DeForest Buckner, Shaquille Leonard and Kenny Moore II, as well as newcomers Stephon Gilmore and Yannick Ngakoue.
17. Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders check in last in the AFC West, but they’re undoubtedly a legitimate playoff contender. Derek Carr has settled in as a solid NFL starting quarterback, and he’ll have his best group of targets in quite a while. The offensive line, however, could prove problematic. The Maxx Crosby-led defense is trending up after the additions of Chandler Jones and Anthony Averett.
18. New England Patriots
If not for the GOAT coach Bill Belichick, the Patriots would be even lower. Training camp reports that the offense has struggled aren’t surprising, considering the underwhelming skill position players and constantly evolving line. The defense said goodbye to star corner J.C. Jackson and linebacker Kyle Van Noy, leaving them with a unit that doesn’t stand out on paper. Of course, that’s not new for New England, and Belichick always gets the most out of his squad. It may take a Year 2 Mac Jones leap, but New England is hard to count out, even in its tough conference.
19. Miami Dolphins
Can quarterback Tua Tagovailoa meet expectations? Terron Armstead and Tyreek Hill were massive additions to an offense that also includes Jaylen Waddle. The defense returns its top 12 players in terms of 2021 snaps, including breakout safety Jevon Holland and star cornerback duo Xavien Howard and Byron Jones — though Jones will begin the season on the PUP list.
20. Washington Commanders
Washington is another interesting sleeper team, as there is plenty of talent here but also a lot of questions. Wentz is an upgrade at QB, but will things fall through like they did in Indianapolis? He’ll be set up well behind a good offensive line and a skill-position group led by Terry McLaurin and first-round rookie Jahan Dotson. The defensive line remains elite on paper, but Chase Young’s torn ACL will cost him at least a month. A bounce-back campaign from William Jackson III would go a long way in the secondary.
21. Cleveland Browns
Quarterback aside, the Browns arguably have a top-10 team on paper. An elite offensive line highlights an offense that will feature Nick Chubb and newcomer Amari Cooper. The defense still has issues at tackle but is otherwise strong, with Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Denzel Ward and John Johnson III serving as the biggest names. Of course, with Deshaun Watson suspended for 11 of the team’s 17 regular-season games, it’s hard to imagine Cleveland keeping up in the vaunted AFC.
22. Tennessee Titans
The Titans will have a healthy Derrick Henry back this season, but A.J. Brown is gone, leaving the team with 30-year-old Robert Woods (off a torn ACL) and Austin Hooper as its primary targets for Ryan Tannehill. Jeffery Simmons and Kevin Byard lead a defense that isn’t overly intimidating. Tennessee could be hard-pressed to reach nine wins for the seventh straight season, especially now that Harold Landry III is out for the season with a torn ACL.
23. Pittsburgh Steelers
A Steelers team that ranked 26th in offensive touchdowns last season spent the offseason replacing retired quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with journeyman Mitch Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett while failing to fully address arguably the league’s weakest line. Those are two giant red flags, though the skill positions are otherwise in good shape. The defense will keep them competitive, as 16 of the top 18 in 2021 snaps are back. Departures Joe Schobert and Joe Haden were replaced by Myles Jack and Levi Wallace.
24. New York Jets
Are the Jets underrated? The offensive line has potential with Duane Brown and Laken Tomlinson added to the fold. Zach Wilson, when he returns from a knee injury, will have Elijah Moore, Corey Davis, Garrett Wilson and Breece Hall to work with. The defense returns its top nine snap-getters from 2021 and added Carl Lawson (back from injury), Kwon Alexander, D.J. Reed, Jordan Whitehead and first-round rookies Sauce Gardner and Jermaine Johnson. Still, this team is probably another year away.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Doug Pederson-led Jaguars revamped their offense during the offseason, adding Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, Evan Engram and Brandon Scherff to a group that will also get 2021 first-round pick Travis Etienne Jr. back from injury. The line still needs work, but this unit could surprise if 2021 first-overall pick Trevor Lawrence makes a leap at quarterback. The defense still has plenty of holes, but veteran additions Folorunso Fatukasi, Foyesade Oluokun and Darious Williams as well as first-overall pick Travon Walker will help.
26. Carolina Panthers
It may be a make-or-break season for coach Matt Rhule and Co., so the late-offseason dart throw at new QB Baker Mayfield makes a lot of sense. The 27-year-old signal-caller won’t have nearly as good an O-Line as he had in Cleveland, but his targets — Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, Robbie Anderson — are solid. The defense was respectable in 2021, but four of the top nine players in terms of snaps from that unit are gone — and that doesn’t include Stephon Gilmore (now with the Colts), who joined them mid-2021. The unit will need a leap from some of its recent early-round picks, including Jaycee Horn and Derrick Brown.
27. Detroit Lions
The Lions are another very intriguing team. Offensively, they have talent. The O-line is elite. The skill positions are very good and will be better when first-round pick Jameson Williams is healthy. The big question? Can Jared Goff lead this terrific supporting cast to high-end production? If not Goff, the big roadblock to success will be a very shaky defense that still has substantial holes, injuries and/or unproven players on all levels.
28. New York Giants
The Giants made some much-needed offseason revamps. Coach Brian Daboll has some quality offensive skill-position players to work with (led by Saquon Barkley and Kadarius Toney), but he’ll need to get the most out of fourth-year QB Daniel Jones. The O-line revamp will include four new starters and is led by recent first-round tackles Andrew Thomas and Evan Neal. The defense has some potential up front, but the secondary took a big hit with James Bradberry, Logan Ryan and Jabrill Peppers departing.
29. Seattle Seahawks
It’s a rebuild year in Seattle after the offseason departures of franchise legends Bobby Wagner and Russell Wilson. The offense has some good skill players (DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, Noah Fant), but it’s nonetheless a good bet they’ll struggle with Drew Lock or Geno Smith under center, not to mention that they’ll be protected by a pair of rookie tackles. The defense has questions all over the place aside from its good safety duo (Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs).
30. Chicago Bears
The Bears are in rebuild mode, and it shows up on both sides of the ball. The offense has a few good, young players (David Montgomery, Cole Kmet, Darnell Mooney) but severely lacks depth, and the O-line is among the worst in the league. The unit will need to be carried by second-year QB Justin Fields. With Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks gone, the Chicago defense is a shell of what it was a few years ago. Roquan Smith (who publicly asked for a trade) and 32-year-old Robert Quinn are arguably the unit’s two best players.
31. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons continue to trend the wrong way, following a 7-10 season, by trading Matt Ryan and replacing him with Marcus Mariota and third-round rookie Desmond Ridder. The QBs will be working behind a shaky O-Line and throwing to a skill-position group badly lacking depth behind Kyle Pitts, rookie Drake London and 31-year-old Cordarrelle Patterson. The defense remains a work in progress behind A.J. Terrell and Grady Jarrett, with three of its top four 2021 snap-getters gone and the fourth (Deion Jones) now on injured reserve.
32. Houston Texans
Houston has won four games each of the past two seasons, and the roster isn’t looking much better in 2022. Perhaps second-year QB Davis Mills will make a big leap, but it’s hard to expect much with no proven targets behind Brandin Cooks and a very shaky offensive line led by Laremy Tunsil, who is coming off an injury-plagued 2021. The defense is in a similar spot. Jonathan Greenard, Christian Kirksey and 34-year-old Jerry Hughes are the team’s top veteran defenders.
Super Bowl prediction
Bills over Buccaneers
One could make a case that the Chargers have built the AFC’s best roster, but once we factor in track record and coaching, it’s easy to give Buffalo the edge as the league’s best team.
On a less analytic level, it just feels like the Bills time, right? This is a team that was seconds away from an AFC Championship appearance last season before doing an excellent job filling voids and adding talent during the offseason.
The Buccaneers, meanwhile, are arguably the league’s best team on paper and primed for a Super Bowl run, especially in a weakened NFC.
Offensive and defensive unit grade rankings by team
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