As NFL training camps open throughout the land, teams and fans are (mostly) bristling with optimism – typically the prevailing sentiment as new players are incorporated, possibilities for the upcoming season abound and the loss column remains clean.
Late July is usually the most logical time to freshly evaluate the league, roster constructions largely finished and injuries generally at a minimum. Of course, the NFL always has variables – two of the major X-factors right now being the eligibility of Cleveland Browns QB Deshaun Watson and the status of San Francisco 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who seems likely to be traded in the coming weeks. But most clubs have a clearer picture of what they are and/or what they hope to be in 2022.
So what is that exactly?
Well, I’ve reached my midsummer conclusions after picking all 272 regular-season games – plus 13 playoff matchups – and stand ready to release my famous (infamous?) record projections. (Numbers in parentheses denote playoff seeding):
(1) Buffalo Bills (15-2): Had their past two postseasons not ended at Arrowhead Stadium – January’s divisional-round defeat to the Chiefs in overtime especially heartbreaking – who’s to say this team wouldn’t be seeking a Super Bowl three-peat? However this might just be the squad which puts this franchise’s woulda, coulda, shoulda history of playoff misfortunes into the past, led by bona fide MVP candidate Josh Allen and a defense that surrendered the fewest yards and points in 2021. Factor in seemingly capable rookie additions like CB Kaiir Elam and RB James Cook plus the crown jewel heist of Buffalo’s offseason – the free agent signing of pass rusher Von Miller – and this roster has the look of one that could stampede to its first championship since winning the 1965 AFL title, one year before Super Bowl 1. The Bills will be tested early, five of their first seven games against 2021 postseason outfits, the pair of outliers being the very capable Dolphins and Ravens. The forecast here is that they’ll navigate that gauntlet in fine fashion on their way to securing home-field advantage.
(7) New England Patriots (10-7): Could be an ugly start with trips to Miami, Pittsburgh and Green Bay occurring in the first four weeks with the lone date at Foxborough against the always nasty Ravens. But the Pats aren’t strangers to slow starts and might also struggle to find their early footing while adapting to the absence of longtime OC Josh McDaniels. But expect second-year QB Mac Jones and mastermind coach Bill Belichick, who’s only missed the playoffs twice in a three-year span once since arriving in New England, to recover.
Miami Dolphins (9-8): The arrivals of Pro Bowl-caliber players like WR Tyreek Hill and LT Terron Armstead should obviously upgrade a team that’s had a winning record the past two seasons despite falling short of the playoffs both times. The onus for a breakthrough will be on highly scrutinized QB Tua Tagovailoa, who’s somehow working with his fourth offensive coordinator heading into his third season, not to mention rookie head coach Mike McDaniel. How well does Tagovailoa mesh with his revamped supporting cast, and will he get any help from the ground attack? Stay tuned, but a team that’s started slowly the last two years better get it figured out quickly in 2022 given December serves up a murderers’ row of opponents (49ers, Chargers, Bills, Packers).
New York Jets (5-12): Easy to get excited about a draft that appeared to deliver four Round 1-caliber players (CB Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, WR Garrett Wilson, DE Jermaine Johnson and RB Breece Hall – even though the latter was picked atop the second round). But as improved as this roster seems, hard to predict the NYJ making up much ground in this division, especially if QB Zach Wilson can’t take a significant step forward following a disappointing rookie campaign.
NFL DRAFT GRADES: Jets, Lions among top team classes while Patriots, Cowboys among worst
(2) Baltimore Ravens (12-5): A team riddled with key injuries in 2021 still managed to project as the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed at one point last December before the absence of QB Lamar Jackson and a series of excruciating losses became too much to overcome. Jackson now appears ready to go and will strive to recapture his 2019 MVP form as he angles for a contract that could make him the best-compensated player in league history. LT Ronnie Stanley (ankle), RBs J.K. Dobbins (knee) and Gus Edwards (knee), CB Marcus Peters (knee) and OLB Tyus Bowser (Achilles) all start camp on the PUP list but are expected to provide reinforcements – along with first-round S Kyle Hamilton and C Tyler Linderbaum. Barring more unforeseen circumstances, hard to imagine a team this loaded with talent falling short of the playoffs again.
(5) Cincinnati Bengals (12-5): The defending AFC champs used free agency to address their glaring weakness – offensive line – a unit that might need extra time to jell given LT Jonah Williams projects as the only holdover from the starting front five in Super Bowl 56. Otherwise? An extended absence from franchised S Jessie Bates III wouldn’t help, but first-rounder Dax Hill is poised to fill in. And with an ascendant quarterback in Joe Burrow and the best wide receiver trio (Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd) in the league, this crew is poised to do more damage – especially since Cincinnati won’t face a team that won a playoff game last season until December.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-8): None of coach Mike Tomlin’s 15 seasons have concluded with a sub-.500 record. Of course, with the exception of 2019, now-retired QB Ben Roethlisberger was a common denominator throughout. The first half could be rough as Big Ben’s replacement – free agent Mitchell Trubisky? rookie Kenny Pickett? – tries to settle in against five 2021 playoff teams before Halloween. But we’re betting Tomlin, reigning defensive player of the year T.J. Watt and workhorse RB Najee Harris keep the Steelers relevant.
Cleveland Browns (6-11): You’re forced to draw a major assumption about this team whether you believe Watson will be available for the whole season, none of it, or something in between. For argument’s sake, let’s say Watson misses half the year – hard to believe QB2 Jacoby Brissett (14-23 career record despite playing on good teams) can keep this ship afloat, and that Watson can then take over and thrive given the rust he’ll have to knock off amid his unfamiliarity with his new teammates and playbook.
(4) Indianapolis Colts (9-8): They shape up as the best team in a subpar division, and no way new QB Matt Ryan is going to cough up a playoff spot if all he has to do is engineer a win at Jacksonville in Week 18. The ongoing question at left tackle and LB Darius Leonard’s various injuries are reasons for concern, but now-healthy CB Stephon Gilmore and unsung rookie WR Alec Pierce should provide nifty returns … as should a fairly friendly early season schedule.
Tennessee Titans (8-9): Over the past two seasons, they’re 23-10 with a couple of division crowns … yet that doesn’t include a pair of ugly one-and-done playoff losses in Nashville. All-galaxy RB Derrick Henry is back to full steam, but what’s he supposed to do against defenses that likely won’t have to pay much mind to an unrecognizable receiving corps or QB Ryan Tannehill, who seems a few more shaky performances away from becoming a lame duck?
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-11): The Urban Meyer experience proved a huge waste for the organization at large in 2021 and then-rookie QB Trevor Lawrence specifically. But the arrival of proven coach Doug Pederson, who will establish a professional atmosphere here, and a slew of free agent pick-ups – even if the Jags overpaid for them – should make doubling last year’s win total (3) an eminently attainable goal.
Houston Texans (3-14): They finally appear to be moving beyond Watson’s specter, the franchise recently settling its own rash of lawsuits connected to the former face of the franchise. The focus can now finally turn to football, but retread coach Lovie Smith and promising sophomore QB Davis Mills are still working with a weak hand even as GM Nick Caserio tries to lay a new foundation with his Watson trade bounty. Just not much to lay your 10-gallon hat on here, but the 2023 draft is only nine months away … and Houston might just be picking first.
(3) Kansas City Chiefs (11-6): Tyreek Hill and S Tyrann Mathieu are gone, key departures which underscore the perception this team has come back to the divisional pack at a time when the three other teams have made noteworthy acquisitions. But QB Patrick Mahomes and HC Andy Reid remain, reasons enough to think K.C. can win the AFC West for the seventh consecutive time – even if by a tiebreaker in this scenario. A retooled approach might appear pronounced early on, especially during a brutal October slate (Bucs, Raiders, Bills, 49ers), but a team that’s never failed to reach the AFC title round with Mahomes at the helm should settle in by the second half.
(6) Los Angeles Chargers (11-6): Whether it’s the “Air Coryell” teams, the 1994 AFC champions, or the LaDainian Tomlinson-Philip Rivers era, the Bolts have often looked to be on the verge of greatness … until they’re short-circuited by crippling injuries, poor game management, simple bad luck or all of the above. So here we are again, the 2022 edition projecting as a powerhouse – on paper. QB Justin Herbert, already part of the MVP discourse, is surrounded by scads of talent, including a potential brilliant coach in Brandon Staley – even if he overanalyzed his way out of playoff berth in Week 18 of last season. Still, folding the likes of OLB Khalil Mack, CB J.C. Jackson and rookie G Zion Johnson and RB Isaiah Spiller into this core suggests a team that’s already proven it can go toe-to-toe with the Chiefs should be primed for bigger things. The first six weeks should be telling as the Chargers will have gone through the AFC West lineup once, including dates with the Raiders and Chiefs in the season’s first five days.
Las Vegas Raiders (9-8): The buzz is understandable for a team coming off its second playoff trip in 19 seasons – that despite the most challenging of circumstances. But good as McDaniels might be during his second head coaching shot – Belichick 2.0? – he’s also the third boss these players have had in less than a year, to say nothing of the front office overhaul. And, yes, QB Derek Carr and new WR Davante Adams reunite with latent rapport from their time together at Fresno State – but what’s the half life of chemistry when you haven’t played together in nearly a decade? So while this organization appears headed in the right direction – even as defensive and blocking issues linger – maybe let’s give it a year to coalesce?
Denver Broncos (8-9): New coach (Nathaniel Hackett), new quarterback (Russell Wilson), new ownership group. That’s a whole lotta new for an organization that hasn’t reached postseason since winning Super Bowl 50. Throw in a trip to London and a schedule that’s anything but forgiving after Thanksgiving and, well, “Let’s ride,” Russ, even if we’re not likely to get very far in 2022. (Also, Russ, Broncos are not meant to be ridden, but the USFL champion Stallions would love to have you.)
(4) Philadelphia Eagles (11-6): One wouldn’t normally regard Philly as South Beach North (North Beach?), but the parallels with the Dolphins are evident. There’s an impressive nucleus coming off a strong kick to 2021 – the Iggles’ fast finish landed them in the wild-card round – yet questions remain about the long-term viability of a former Alabama quarterback, Jalen Hurts in this case. But he spearheads what was the league’s No. 1 ground game in 2021, now has WR A.J. Brown to anchor the receiving corps, is fronted by a standout offensive line and backed by a solid defense … not to mention the benefit of playing in what seems a relatively weaker conference than Tagovailoa’s. Even if Hurts falters, this group might be good enough to cover for him. But if he thrives? Then the Eagles, who open against four 2021 non-playoff teams and face just one 2021 postseason outfit in the final five weeks, could go a long way.
(6) Dallas Cowboys (10-7): History will tell you no NFC East team has successfully defended its crown since 2004, and the Cowboys haven’t managed it since 1996. QB Dak Prescott could be more dynamic, now two years removed from his grisly leg injury, and may have to be in order to maintain a top-ranked offense undergoing significant transitions on the line and at receiver. The defense features a budding superstar with LB Micah Parsons – though if he can’t at least replicate his rookie heroics, this group might get exploited. Drawing matchups with the AFC South and NFC North could really benefit Dallas, which may have to recover from an opening homestand featuring the Bucs and Bengals.
Washington Commanders (7-10): They’ve won seven games in both of HC Ron Rivera’s seasons, and that again seems a likely benchmark. DE Chase Young, arguably their best player, might not be ready to start the season as he recovers from ACL reconstruction. QB Carson Wentz, almost inarguably their most important player, is a wild card at this point despite the organization’s panicked move to obtain him. Factor in the pall that continues to shade the owner’s suite, and it becomes pretty apparent Rivera will have to muster another coach of the year effort to galvanize this group. Doesn’t help having your bye in Week 14.
New York Giants (5-12): They’ve won 22 games since 2017, tied with the crosstown Jets for the league’s fewest over that stretch, and probably have even more concerns heading into this season. If first-year coach Brian Daboll can’t unlock the talents of QB Daniel Jones, who’s now in a walk year after his fifth-year option was declined, good bet the G-Men fall behind their Gotham rivals.
(3) Green Bay Packers (11-6): Sometimes less is more, but the defection of Adams suggests this team will have to reinvent itself – at least offensively – and may struggle to provide HC Matt LaFleur’s fourth consecutive 13-win regular season. Yet, just maybe, learning to rely more heavily on a promising defense and the backfield tandem of RBs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon – while QB Aaron Rodgers recalibrates himself to a receiving group that lacks an obvious alpha – might just produce a less predictable team, and one that’s ultimately better geared for an extended run in January amid Wisconsin’s capricious winters. However the Pack could get hot late given the schedule only serves up one 2021 playoff team after November.
Detroit Lions (8-9): They played .500 football over the final six weeks of last season after going winless during the first 11 games. The culture seems to be established even if a building talent quotient probably still isn’t quite ready to challenge for a wild card.
Minnesota Vikings (8-9): The talent quotient looks pretty darn good for a team that’s frankly underachieved in recent seasons. But the culture is in its nascent stages as rookie shot callers Kwesi Adofo-Mensah (GM) and Kevin O’Connell (HC) relaunch the program. Still, O’Connell’s preexisting ties to Kirk Cousins – he was the quarterback’s position coach in Washington in 2017 – might provide a running start.
Chicago Bears (4-13): Hard to figure why a team amid an obvious reset didn’t appear to do more to facilitate the progression of second-year QB Justin Fields, whether hiring more established offensive coaches or bolstering the O-line or playmakers. Little doubt rookie coach Matt Eberflus will get Fields and Co. to play hard … yet hard to find many wins on this schedule.
(1) Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4): Assuming QB Tom Brady is healthy, it’s safe to pencil the Bucs in for at least 12 victories based on his track record over the past dozen years – and that includes a 24-9 regular-season mark since coming to Tampa in 2020. TB12 has to adjust to life without TE Rob Gronkowski – apparently – has two new guards in front of him (though ex-Pats teammate Shaq Mason is hardly unfamiliar), must play a home game in Munich in Week 10 and has last season’s version of the final four (Bengals, Chiefs, Rams, 49ers) on the non-divisional slate. Regardless, you betting against him to win the NFC South at minimum? I foresee obtainment of the NFC’s home field with new No. 3 WR Russell Gage (138 receptions since 2020) playing a prominent role.
(7) New Orleans Saints (9-8): The tiebreaking formula relegated last season’s 9-8 team a non-playoff qualifier. It wouldn’t have mattered had QB Jameis Winston (knee) been available for more than seven games (5-2 record). Winston was playing the most efficient football of his NFL career in 2021 before going down – albeit with since-departed HC Sean Payton and RB Alvin Kamara, who could face a stiff suspension in 2022 given his involvement in a fracas at last season’s Pro Bowl. Still, the Saints should be well balanced by their topnotch defense, and Winston should have no shortage of weapons given the arrival of WRs Jarvis Landry and Chris Olave, a first-round pick, to say nothing of Michael Thomas’ return. And remember this: New Orleans has seven straight regular-season wins against the Bucs.
Carolina Panthers (7-10): Did you know they owned the NFC’s top-ranked defense in 2021? Do you recall they were 4-3 with RB Christian McCaffrey last year, but 1-11 without him? And don’t forget 2021 first-round CB Jaycee Horn was limited to three games by a foot injury. No telling how this summer’s quarterback battle between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold pans out – or even how much it ultimately matters given both are in contract years. Bottom line: Good luck handicapping this team … though starting against three non-playoff teams from 2021 could mean a 3-0 start to match last year’s.
Atlanta Falcons (2-15): Coach Arthur Smith and his staff squeezed seven wins out of a club that was outscored by 146 points in 2021. Hard to envision anything close to a repeat performance sans steady Ryan.
(2) Los Angeles Rams (12-5): No champ has pulled off a Super Bowl repeat in 18 years. The Rams should at least be prohibitive divisional favorites given the varying degrees of upheaval the other three teams are coping with. But LA walked quite a tightrope in last season’s playoffs, winning each of the last three games by three points – and that was with the likes of Miller and still-unsigned WR Odell Beckham Jr. The Rams also must survive the league’s toughest schedule based on opponents’ 2021 winning percentage (.567).
(5) San Francisco 49ers (10-7): New QB1 Trey Lance was solid in spot duty as a rookie last year, and he’ll launch his Niners tenure by facing five non-playoff clubs from last season in the first six weeks. He’s bound to make mistakes Garoppolo probably wouldn’t, but Lance should also provide big plays Jimmy G. too rarely executes. Ought to be plenty good enough for a team that’s actually reliant on defense and the run game.
Arizona Cardinals (7-10): A team becoming known for starting fast and finishing flat draws the Chiefs, Raiders and Rams in September – a stretch that will cover half of WR DeAndre Hopkins’ six-game suspension. Even the perennial Pro Bowler’s scheduled return is suboptimal, the Cards’ Week 7 matchup with New Orleans occurring on a Thursday. Arizona will face five 2021 playoff opponents over the final eight games, the Chargers and Broncos also part of that gauntlet. QB Kyler Murray will need to study more than four hours a week to get back to postseason.
Seattle Seahawks (5-12): Expect recommittal to highly competitive practices, staunch defense and a relentless run game as Pete Carroll and Co. reboot following the exits of Wilson and defensive captain Bobby Wagner. Seattle went 7-9 the year before that dynamic duo arrived in 2012, however RB Marshawn Lynch was already in the Pacific Northwest along with a rising Legion of Boom. Little evidence Carroll has that kind young bedrock in place now.
Wild card: (2) Ravens def. (7) Patriots; (6) Chargers def. (3) Chiefs; (5) Bengals def. (4) Colts
Divisional: (1) Bills def. (6) Chargers; (2) Ravens def. (5) Bengals
AFC championship game: (1) Bills def. (2) Ravens
Wild card: (2) Rams def. (7) Saints; (3) Packers def. (6) Cowboys; (5) 49ers def. (4) Eagles
Divisional: (1) Buccaneers def. (5) 49ers; (3) Packers def. (2) Rams
NFC championship game: (3) Packers def. (1) Buccaneers
Super Bowl 57 (Glendale, Ariz.)
Packers def. Bills
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.