Friday, October 7, 2022

Ceiling and floor for all 32 NFL teams: Bills, Chiefs, Bengals, Bucs, Packers looking to dethrone Rams

The 2022 NFL season is less than a week away, as every team has high hopes of competing for a Super Bowl title. The optimism is what makes the NFL great, especially when a long shot like the 2021 Cincinnati Bengals defied the odds and came out of nowhere to win the conference title. 

Every team is hoping to put themselves in a position to be this season’s Bengals, but a lot of factors need to go right in order for that to come to fruition. What is a team’s realistic ceiling in 2022? How good can each team be with its current roster? Or how badly can things fall apart?

With the NFL season here, let’s take a look at the ceiling and floor for all 32 franchises. Think of this as a guide of what to expect for each team this season — or how we think things will play out. 

Arizona Cardinals (2021 record: 11-6)

Ceiling: 12-5, playoff victory 

The Cardinals are a better football team than many realize, yet bad finishes to the season have defined the Kliff Kingsbury era. After a 7-0 start, Arizona finished 1-4 to close the regular season and was demolished by the eventual Super Bowl champion Rams in the wild card round. 

When DeAndre Hopkins does come back, the Cardinals will have Hopkins, Marquise Brown, A.J. Green, and Rondale Moore as their top wide receivers — plus Zach Ertz at tight end. That’s a passing game set up for Kyler Murray to succeed. Murray has a new contract — and he’ll have something to prove. 

Winning 12 games may be enough to win the NFC West, but a playoff victory would be a huge step in the right direction for this franchise. 

Floor: 7-10, miss playoffs

An aging offensive line comes back to haunt Arizona and James Conner takes a step back from his 18-touchdown campaign last year. The defense will take its lumps without Chandler Jones and Jordan Hicks and Trayvon Mullen doesn’t solve the ever-rotating cornerback position. 

Of course, there’s the annual Kingsbury late-season collapse — which also affects the play of Murray. Another late-season swoon could mean the end of Kingsbury’s tenure in Arizona. 

Atlanta Falcons (2021 record: 7-10)

Ceiling: 6-11, miss playoffs

The Falcons don’t want to win six games in 2022. After trading Matt Ryan and eating $40.525 million in dead cap from his contract, 2022 is a rebuilding year. Desmond Ridder should get his shot to start sooner rather than later, but Arthur Smith declared Marcus Mariota the starting quarterback in the first week of camp.

Mariota is the bridge quarterback for the bigger prize in 2023, unless Ridder builds off his strong preseason and carries this offense to a few wins. Drake London also becomes a game-changer in Year 1. Atlanta will need its offense to play at a high level to win some games. 

Floor: 2-15, miss playoffs

If the Falcons win two games, they’ll be in prime position for the No. 1 pick in 2023. Their offensive line has solid players in Jake Matthews and Chris Lindstrom, yet is one of the worst units in football. The defensive line is young and will heavily rely on Grady Jarrett to be competent. 

Of course, the quarterback situation isn’t great. This is a bad football team, building toward the future. Atlanta is doing the right thing in rebuilding the franchise. 

Baltimore Ravens (2021 record: 8-9)

Ceiling: 13-4, win AFC Championship

The Ravens do have a talented roster, as they displayed last season in having the AFC’s best record heading into December despite over a dozen players on injured reserve. They didn’t win a game after that as Lamar Jackson’s ankle injury was the final straw in stopping Baltimore from reaching the playoffs for the fourth straight year. 

Jackson is playing with house money regarding his contract situation, determined to prove he’s worth every penny. The offense is tailor-made for Jackson to succeed running the football, back to the system that aided him in leading the league in touchdown passes and winning MVP honors in 2019. J.K. Dobbins is also back, a major boost for the ground game. 

Mike MacDonald has the defense set for a major turnaround and a revamped secondary, with Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey back on the field, should have Baltimore back toward the top of the AFC North in 2022.

The Ravens are contenders in the AFC. 

Floor: 9-8, miss playoffs

Even if Jackson suffers an injury, the Ravens should be fine on offense with Tyler Huntley. “Fine” isn’t good enough in a loaded conference. The Ravens need Jackson on the field and playing toward MVP level every week, similar toward how he was in the first month of last season. 

The wide receiver corps, outside of Rashod Bateman, is a concern and could significantly hurt Baltimore through a 17-game season, even if the Ravens are stacked at tight end. The Ravens also need the All-Pro version of Ronnie Stanley back to keep the offense at a high level and Gus Edwards healthy for the stretch run. 

Again, Baltimore is a good team, even with the glaring weaknesses. However, the Ravens really need to get a deal done with Jackson. 

Buffalo Bills (2021 record: 11-6)

Ceiling: 14-3, win Super Bowl

The Bills are one of the best teams in the NFL, set up to win the AFC and advance to their first Super Bowl since the 1993 season. Josh Allen is one of the best quarterbacks in football with a loaded wide receiver corps featuring Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, Isaiah McKenzie, and Khalil Shakir. Good luck stopping that group and Dawson Knox at tight end. The Bills are going to score a lot of points. 

The defense brought in Von Miller, who proved he’s still one of the best edge rushers in the NFL with his incredible postseason run with the Rams. Daquan Jones and Ed Oliver are excellent on the interior, as the defensive line will set up an already talented secondary with Tre’Davious White (currently on PUP), Jordan Poyer, and Micah Hyde. The linebackers are very underrated as well (remember this was the No. 1 defense last year). 

Buffalo’s Super Bowl window is now. The Bills are good enough to bang the door down and win it all. 

Floor: 11-6, lose in divisional round

There aren’t many holes on the Bills that will cost them a playoff spot. Cornerback could be an issue if White doesn’t come back until later in the season, but the Bills’ biggest hole is at guard. Ryan Bates should be fine at the spot, but how Rodger Saffold handles the grind of a 17-game season will be vital (he is 34 and injured his ribs in a car accident in July). 

Devin Singletary will need the blocking up front to continue the strong finish he had last year. The Bills will need Singletary to be more consistent, especially in the close games. Buffalo went 0-6 in one-score games last year, so the Bills will have to learn to win the close ones if they want to be champions. 

This team is going to win a lot of games, but a fast start is required. The Bills have to make sure the road through the AFC playoffs goes through Buffalo. 

Carolina Panthers (2021 record: 5-12)

Ceiling: 9-8, playoff berth

Acquiring Baker Mayfield was the best move Carolina could make in order to have a chance at the postseason. The Panthers did have the the No. 2-ranked defense in 2021 — and that was without Jaycee Horn the majority of the season. Carolina had horrible quarterback play with Sam Darnold and Cam Newton, which impeded its ability to compete for wins late in the season. 

Mayfield doesn’t need to be playing at a Pro Bowl level, but has to manage the game and make the crucial throws. A healthy Christian McCaffrey will help as well as Carolina was 4-3 when McCaffrey played last season.

The NFC South isn’t a daunting gauntlet as in previous seasons. There’s an opportunity for Carolina to steal some wins and go to the playoffs. 

Floor: 6-11, miss playoffs

The Panthers could still have McCaffrey miss significant time (he has only played in 10 games over the last two years), really hindering what Carolina wants to do with its offense. That also makes Mayfield’s job more difficult in a make-or-break year as a starting quarterback. 

Yetur Gross-Matos will have to step up with the departure of Haason Reddick and Ikem Ekwonu has to figure out how to pass protect at the next level. The offensive line needs to be better (on paper the unit is better) than 2021 or Mayfield will be running for his life. A significant injury to Mayfield derails Carolina’s playoff chances. 

Chicago Bears (2021 record: 6-11)

Ceiling: 7-10, miss playoffs

The Bears are in Year 1 of a rebuild with Matt Eberflus, so this franchise is going to take its lumps. If Justin Fields can take a big step under offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, the rebuild won’t be as painful. Fields has the talent to be a big-time quarterback in the league, but poor offensive concepts and a terrible offensive line doomed his rookie year. 

The offensive line isn’t much better, yet there’s promise among the tackles. Chicago’s defense still has Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn after it appeared both could have been on their way out, so that’s a step in the right direction for a unit that needs its playmakers on the field. 

Chicago has a ways to go, but Fields’ development is worth watching this year. 

Floor: 4-13, miss playoffs 

The offensive and defensive lines continue to struggle and football is won in the trenches. There isn’t much to brag about up front for the Bears, which could significantly hurt Fields’ potential. If Fields struggles mightily again in Year 2, the lack of talent around him will play a major factor. 

Cincinnati Bengals (2021 record: 10-7)

Ceiling: 13-4, win Super Bowl

The Bengals shocked the NFL last season by winning the AFC North and advancing to the Super Bowl, having one of the largest odds to reach the championship game in the modern era. Joe Burrow is already one of the best quarterbacks in the game and has a dynamic offense with a significantly improved offensive line from last year. 

Ja’Marr Chase is going to be even better and it’s already hard to contain Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd, arguably the best wide receiver trio in football. Add Joe Mixon to the mix and the Bengals are primed to score a lot of points. 

Jessie Bates ending his holdout was a huge development for a defense that already has Trey Hendrickson, Logan Wilson and Sam Hubbard. This defense doesn’t need to be elite, just good enough with that explosive offense leading the way. 

Cincinnati showed it can compete with any team in the AFC and win games. The Bengals can get back to the Super Bowl with a franchise quarterback like Burrow. 

Floor: 10-7, lose in wild card round

Cincinnati won’t be surprising teams in the AFC like it did last season — and the AFC North is significantly better. The division will be a gauntlet with a healthy Baltimore team and Cleveland primed to get back to the playoffs. Pittsburgh can never be counted out. 

The Bengals will have to fight through the AFC North, but they still should be a playoff team in the AFC — even if the conference is loaded. Buffalo and Miami on the schedule will also be tough, same with Kansas City and Tampa Bay. The Bengals will be getting their opponents’ best every week. 

The offensive line is significantly improved from last year and the defensive line can get to the quarterback. If the Bengals fail to reach expectations, the tougher schedule and gauntlet of the AFC will have a lot to do with it. 

Cleveland Browns (2021 record: 8-9)

Ceiling: 11-6, win playoff game

Even without Deshaun Watson for 11 games, the Browns have a talented roster across the board. They have one of the best offensive lines in football, perfect for a dynamic rushing attack with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Amari Cooper significantly improves the passing game and Donovan Peoples-Jones is one of the best-kept secrets in football. 

Led by Myles Garrett and excellent cornerbacks, the Browns’ defense should be a top-10 unit. Once Cleveland gets Watson back, the Browns can make a run at the AFC North — especially if they are .500 or better by the time he returns. 

Floor: 7-10, miss playoffs

Even with a talented roster, Cleveland misses the playoffs because Jacoby Brissett isn’t good enough to get the job done. Is Brissett really a better option then an injured Baker Mayfield from last year? The Browns have to use the ground game to get off to fast starts and have Brissett manage the game.  

The Browns need to be better at defensive tackle and hope Jadeveon Clowney can repeat the success he had last year. Even with Peoples-Jones and David Bell, there are still questions at wide receiver. Brissett has to hold the fort down and keep the team afloat while Watson is suspended or the Browns’ playoff hopes will be gone by Week 13. 

Dallas Cowboys (2021 record: 12-5)

Ceiling: 12-5, reach NFC Championship

Going to the playoffs in consecutive seasons has been difficult for Dallas in recent years, not making consecutive playoff appearances since 2006 and 2007. Dallas has the star power to go back to the playoffs with Dak Prescott at quarterback, supported by Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, CeeDee Lamb, Zack Martin, and DeMarcus Lawrence

The Cowboys have an excellent defensive line that can get after the quarterback and Parsons is a game wrecker. Adding Anthony Barr has done wonders for Leighton Vander Esch at linebacker and the secondary is already one of the best in the league. 

Dallas has a defense that is playoff-caliber. Add this with Prescott and the Cowboys are good enough to repeat as NFC East champions. 

Floor: 8-9, miss playoffs 

Losing Tyron Smith until December is brutal on an offensive line that’s already replacing Connor Williams and La’El Collins. Dallas may turn to 40-year-old Jason Peters or rookie Tyler Smith to solidity the position until Smith returns. Both raise serious question marks in being able to protect Prescott and get the ground game going with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.

Can anyone step up at No. 2 receiver while Michael Gallup recovers from his ACL injury? The Cowboys don’t have a lot of depth at receiver with Gallup on the mend and James Washington out. This could be an issue for Prescott and the No. 1-ranked offense from last season. 

The offensive line can doom Dallas. Not to mention Mike McCarthy is on the hot seat as well. This year could fall way short of expectations. 

Denver Broncos (2021 record: 7-10)

Ceiling: 12-5, win AFC West

Russell Wilson is believed to be the missing piece toward the Broncos competing for division titles and making deep playoff runs every season. Wilson is a winner and can immediately transform an offense with his ability to improvise and make plays down the field. The Broncos have the offensive personnel to “Let Russ Cook” and the ground game, in Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon, to complement him. 

Denver addressed its biggest issues at quarterback and pass rusher (Randy Gregory), giving the Broncos ammunition to compete in the daunting AFC West. If Wilson returns to his Pro Bowl form, the Broncos will win games with an offense that can back up a top-10 defense. 

Winning the AFC West and returning to the playoffs would be massive for Denver in Wilson’s first year with the team. 

Floor: 8-9, miss playoffs 

The Broncos have to cover Travis Kelce and Darren Waller four times a year and have significant problem at off-ball linebacker. Gregory will have to stay on the field to make the impact on the defensive line the Broncos are hoping for, especially with Bradley Chubb playing just seven games last year (no sacks). 

Tight end is also a question mark with Albert Okwuegbunam, an issue other teams in the division don’t have. Even with Wilson, the Broncos have holes on their roster  — holes that need to be fixed in order to win the division. They may be too glaring in the talented AFC West. 

Detroit Lions (2021 record: 3-13-1)

Ceiling: 7-10, miss playoffs 

The Lions are on the right track under Dan Campbell, building a talented offense led by excellent wide receivers in Amon-Ra St. Brown, DJ Chark, and Jameson Williams. Detroit’s offensive line is also one of the most underrated units in the game, pacing the way for D’Andre Swift to be an emerging star in the league. 

Aidan Hutchinson is the perfect fit for a defense that was one of the worst in football last year. He’ll make life easier for the secondary while Detroit can finally get after the quarterback consistently. The Lions are on the right path, which will showcase itself in 2022. 

Floor: 5-12, miss playoffs

Detroit should still be better than last season, but the defense needs a lot of work — specifically at linebacker. The pass rush should be better with Hutchinson, Alim McNeill, and Charles Harris, but will also need to stop the run consistently. 

Playing in the NFC North should help improve Detroit’s record, yet the Lions still need significant work on defense. Jeff Okudah also needs to show some signs he’s the shutdown corner the Lions thought they drafted two years ago. There’s also no excuse for Jared Goff either — or Detroit will be looking for a franchise quarterback next year. 

Green Bay Packers (2021 record: 13-4)

Ceiling: 13-4, win Super Bowl

As long as the Packers have Aaron Rodgers, they’re going to be competing for Super Bowl titles. The last three seasons have seen disappointing finishes, yet Rodgers has been arguably the best player in the game while carrying the offense to victory. Even without Davante Adams, who’s to say Rodgers can’t do it again? 

The Packers have a top-10 defense with Jaire Alexander back at cornerback. De’Vondre Campbell is one of the underrated linebackers in the game and Kenny Clark is a force at nose tackle. That defense can be the difference in the NFC North and earn the Packers one of the top seeds in the conference. 

Green Bay can win games in the trenches, another reason why the Packers will have double-digit wins in 2022. All Rodgers needs to do is exercise the playoff demons and get back to the Super Bowl. The Packers are a Super Bowl contender. 

Floor: 11-6, lose in divisional round 

The same old story can apply to the Packers. Rodgers plays at an MVP level, but puts up a clunker in the playoffs. If that’s the case in 2022, the young wide receivers didn’t develop enough. Allen Lazard is the No. 1 wideout and Randall Cobb is Rodgers’ security blanket. 

One of the Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs, or Amari Rodgers has to step up for Rodgers to get back to the Super Bowl. Having David Bakhtiari back to 100% health would significantly help the offensive line as well. 

The Packers have to exercise these playoff demons, or else 2022 will be another great year that ends in disappointment. 

Houston Texans (2021 record: 4-13)

Ceiling: 6-11, miss playoffs

The Texans are still in a rebuild and are trending in the right direction. Davis Mills may be a diamond in the rough at quarterback, winning games and playing well despite the lack of wide receivers at his disposal. The Texans plugged some holes on defense with Derek Stingley Jr. at cornerback, Kenyon Green at guard, Dameon Pierce at running back and Jalen Pitre at safety — all promising draft picks.

This Texans team overachieved with the worst roster in the NFL last year, and the franchise has significantly improved the talent at key positions with actual high draft picks to use. This rebuild is lengthy, but the Texans can win some games in the AFC South. 

Floor: 3-14, miss playoffs

Mills takes a significant step in the wrong direction and the Texans are back to square one trying to find a franchise quarterback. The Texans don’t have a defensive line to write home about, which may make life very difficult for the secondary. This was one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season, a unit Lovie Smith has to improve. 

This season could be ugly in Houston on both sides of the ball. Mills also needs more players than Brandin Cooks to throw to. Nico Collins and Tyler Johnson have to step up. 

Indianapolis Colts (2021 record, 9-8)

Ceiling: 11-6, win AFC South

The Colts should win the AFC South with the best roster in the division. Matt Ryan still has some good years left in the tank and he’ll be running a fast-paced offense set to distribute the ball to Jonathan Taylor, Nyheim Hines, Michael Pittman and Alec Pierce. The offensive line is also very good, which Ryan hasn’t experienced in years with Atlanta. 

Yannick Ngakoue and DeForest Buckner should thrive in Gus Bradley’s defense, which significantly helps Shaquille Leonard make plays. The secondary is also set up to shut down passing games with Stephon Gilmore and Kenny Moore leading the way, part of a very deep defense. 

In a weak AFC South, the Colts have the most talent. They should win the division and reach the playoffs. 

Floor: 9-8, miss playoffs

The Colts were a playoff team last year before collapsing at the end of the season. If the Colts collapse again, it will be because of the passing game. Indianapolis is hyping up Parris Campbell and Ashton Dulin a bit too much, raising some red flags about the depth at wide receiver. 

What if Ryan’s best days are long behind him? Indianapolis is back to square one at quarterback, even if the position is deep. The Colts will have to rely on Taylor to win games again, but they have to be more balanced in order to win the division.

Indianapolis is a good team, but it’s time to become a contender. 

Jacksonville Jaguars (2021 record: 3-14)

Ceiling: 7-10, miss playoffs

Doug Pederson has shown he can overachieve with a franchise in Year 1 — and that could be the case again in Jacksonville. Trevor Lawrence is getting a reset on his rookie year, learning a West Coast-based offense that caters to his strengths under Pederson. The Jaguars improved the offensive line and gave Lawrence pass-catching upgrades in Christian Kirk and Evan Engram. Having Travis Etienne back significantly helps the passing game, too. 

Jacksonville revamped the defense by going on a free agent-spending spree and using two first-round picks on that side of the ball with Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd. The secondary is also better with Darious Williams helping out a young group. 

The talent is better in Jacksonville and the coaching is significantly better. The development of Lawrence is why Jacksonville should be excited. 

Floor: 5-12, miss playoffs

The Jaguars have questions with their pass rush as Josh Allen is the only proven asset who can get to the quarterback. Jacksonville still needs to significantly improve the offensive line, hindering Lawrence’s ability to throw the ball downfield. 

Until the Jaguars significantly improve in the trenches, the progress toward building a contender will be stagnated. Jacksonville may be a year away. 

Kansas City Chiefs (2021 record: 12-5)

Ceiling: 13-4, win Super Bowl 

The Chiefs have Andy Reid as their head coach and Patrick Mahomes at quarterback. They’ve won 12 games and advanced to the conference championship game in every year the pair have been together. Why aren’t the Chiefs the team to beat in the AFC with this duo? 

Losing Tyreek Hill is a significant loss, but the Chiefs are deeper at wide receiver than last year with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Mecole Hardman, and Skyy Moore. They also have Travis Kelce at tight end — in case fans forgot. The offensive line is a top-10 unit as well. Kansas City will score points. 

The defense has also improved with George Karlaftis aiding Frank Clark and Chris Jones — who is back at defensive tackle. Nick Bolton is a rising star and Trent McDuffie has a lot of potential at cornerback. This unit seems prepared to give the offense short fields by creating turnovers. 

The Chiefs are talented once again. Seeing them play in February wouldn’t be a surprise.

Floor: 10-7, lose in divisional round

Kansas City has some issues to figure out at cornerback and running back, especially who lines up opposite McDuffie. Rashad Fenton is the favorite to line up at the other cornerback slot, but what if he struggles? The Chiefs will have to add a cornerback midseason, which isn’t good given the quarterback play in the division.

Running back will also have to be settled between Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Isiah Pacheco and Ronald Jones. Who emerges as the No. 1 running back will be a storyline throughout the season.

The Chiefs do have holes that can keep them out of Super Bowl contention — and the AFC West will play a role in  that. Kansas City is still — at worst — a playoff team. 

Las Vegas Raiders (2021 record: 10-7)

Ceiling: 12-5, win AFC West

The Raiders could have the game’s best quarterback-receiver combination in Derek Carr and Davante Adams, a No. 1 receiver who can change the course of the game. Adams is arguably the most dangerous player in the division, making the high-powered Raiders offense a force to be reckoned with. 

Hunter Renfrow and Darren Waller will also be catching passes from Carr, who has been one of the underrated quarterbacks in the game for years. The defense will also be getting after the passer with the addition of Chandler Jones to free up Maxx Crosby. The pass rush could also help a young secondary with Tre’von Moehrig and the offseason acquisition of Rock Ya-Sin

There’s talent on the Raiders, enough to win the division and a playoff game. Another team that will score points in a loaded AFC. 

Floor: 8-9, miss playoffs 

Las Vegas has the makings of a “boom-or-bust” team. The offensive line needs to develop in order for the big plays to happen. Kolton Miller is a proven tackle, yet there’s uncertainty on the other side of the line. Josh Jacobs also has to be more consistent now that the No. 1 back job is his. 

On defense, the pass rush is excellent but the defensive interior could significantly impact the Raiders’ ability to stop the run. If the Raiders can’t shore up the run defense, they’ll struggle to consistently win in the AFC. Fortunately, Patrick Graham is their defensive coordinator. 

Los Angeles Chargers (2021 record: 9-8)

Ceiling: 13-4, win AFC Championship

The Chargers are built to make a deep playoff run this season, especially with a franchise quarterback like Justin Herbert on a rookie contract. Herbert asked the Chargers to keep Mike Williams, which the franchise did. They also added Gerald Everett to an already explosive offense, while shoring up the offensive line with first-round pick Zion Johnson

The significant changes were on defense, spending big money on J.C. Jackson, Austin Johnson and Sebastian Joseph-Day while trading for Khalil Mack to bolster the pass rush. One of the worst defenses in the NFL is now a strength. 

The Chargers have one of the best rosters in the NFL — and have a top-five quarterback in Herbert. They’re Super Bowl contenders. 

Floor: 10-7, lose in wild card round

Losing Kyzir White was a massive blow at linebacker, and the Chargers haven’t found someone to adequately replace him. Kenneth Murray has been disappointing in the two years he’s been with the Chargers, as Drue Tranquill appears in line to be the team’s best linebacker. 

The Chargers are also looking for a No. 2 running back behind Austin Ekeler, adding Sony Michel this week. Joshua Kelley and Isaiah Spiller could still fill that void, but there are question marks at the position. The Chargers could be very one-dimensional. 

Will Brandon Staley’s gambles on fourth down pay off? That cost the Chargers a playoff spot last year and he’s not changing. Let’s see how they work with a better roster intact. 

Los Angeles Rams (2021 record: 12-5)

Ceiling: 13-4, win Super Bowl

Somehow, the Super Bowl champions got better. The Rams added Allen Robinson in free agency, making the offense even more explosive than the one that carried them to a title last year. Matthew Stafford is in Sean McVay’s system for another year, getting excellent protection up front. Let’s not forget Cooper Kupp is back after arguably the greatest year for a wide receiver ever. 

The Rams’ defense added Bobby Wagner at linebacker pairing him with Aaron Donald. Troy Hill is also back from injury, supplying significant help in the secondary for Jalen Ramsey

The Rams are loaded with star power and are the best team in the NFC entering the year. Los Angeles has an excellent chance to repeat. 

Floor: 11-6, lose in divisional round

If the Rams don’t repeat, the effectiveness of Cam Akers will play a role. Akers doesn’t appear to be the explosive player since his Achilles injury, sharing the carries between him and Darrell Henderson throughout camp. McVay highly believes in Akers, which may lead to overuse of the back — and the Rams’ downfall. 

There aren’t many weaknesses on the Rams’ roster and Stafford having an average season seems implausible in McVay’s offense. Finding another pass rusher not named Aaron Donald or Leonard Floyd will help, too. 

Miami Dolphins (2021 record: 9-8)

Ceiling: 12-5, win AFC East

This all comes down to how Tua Tagovailoa develops in Mike McDaniel’s offense. The Dolphins improved the offensive line and added Tyreek Hill to an already impressive wide receiver group with free agent signing Ced Wilson and Jaylen Waddle. Miami is going to be effective running the ball while also having a downfield passing game, but Tagovailoa is the key toward the Dolphins challenging the Bills for the division. 

Miami is going to blitz heavily, helping a talented cornerback group with Byron Jones and Xavien Howard making plays. Emmanuel Ogbah and Christian Wilkins are also going to get to the quarterback. 

The Dolphins have a talented roster, good enough to win the division. This all comes down to Tagovailoa making the next step in his development. 

Floor: 9-8, miss playoffs

There’s a lot of pressure on Tagovailoa to play at a high level — and he’ll have to throw the ball downfield in order for the Dolphins’ offense to take off. Miami’s offensive line is better, but will it be good enough to protect Tagovailoa consistently? Will Tagovailoa make the same mistakes he did when under duress last year?

Miami is good enough to be a playoff team, but the play of Tagovailoa is the difference between contending in the AFC and missing the playoffs entirely. The Dolphins went “all-in” for their quarterback. They’ll miss the playoffs if Tagovailoa doesn’t improve.

Minnesota Vikings (2021 record: 8-9)

Ceiling: 11-6, win playoff game

The Vikings have the skill-position players to compete for the NFC North, as Minnesota has one of the top wide receiver duos in the conference in Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen. Dalvin Cook is one of the best running backs in the game and quarterback Kirk Cousins is good enough to make plays for this team. 

The Vikings brought in new coach Kevin O’Connell to make this offense elite and provide stability on the roster. O’Connell may be the difference between missing the playoffs and becoming an NFC contender. Minnesota’s defense will certainly help, starting with the dangerous pass-rushing duo of Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter. Jordan Hicks and Eric Kendricks are also a threat at linebacker. 

Minnesota is underrated. The Vikings could sneak up on teams in the NFC. 

Floor: 7-10, miss playoffs

O’Connell doesn’t make the significant difference the Vikings think in Year 1. The Vikings have struggled with finding good offensive linemen for a decade, even though they invested plenty of high draft picks to fix the problem.

Brian O’Neill made his first Pro Bowl and Christian Darrisaw has improved at tackle, yet the Vikings have plenty of competition on the interior of the line. The offensive line has played a major role in Cousins failing to win big games in Minnesota. The secondary is also aging, too, which is another question mark on this roster. 

The Vikings will be intriguing all year.

New England Patriots (2021 record: 10-7)

Ceiling: 10-7, make playoffs

What has Bill Belichick done with the Patriots? A series of bad draft picks in the first three rounds over the past three years allowed the Bills and Dolphins to catch up to the Patriots in the AFC East. Mac Jones doesn’t have much to work with at wide receiver, even with New England trading for DeVante Parker. The Patriots have a bunch of No. 2 and No. 3 wideouts, which doesn’t help score points in a talented division. 

Thankfully, New England still has a good defense. Matt Judon can stop the run and get pressure on the quarterback and should get help from Christian Barmore in Year 2. Replacing J.C. Jackson will be tough, but Belichick has replaced great cornerbacks before. The defense should carry New England throughout the year. 

If Jones takes a big step in Year 2, the Patriots should be back in the playoffs. Still difficult to see New England competing in a loaded AFC. 

Floor: 6-11, miss playoffs

Having Joe Judge and Matt Patricia play a significant role on offense is — something. Both coaches could significantly impact the development of Jones, and not in good way. A step back from Jones could put New England toward the cellar of the conference, even if the Patriots rely on their running game to move the ball. 

The running game and a strong offensive line should carry New England, but Jones is the key to this year. Belichick appears to have lost some zip on his fastball, but we’ll see. 

New Orleans Saints (2021 record: 9-8)

Ceiling: 11-6, win playoff game

Having Jameis Winston healthy is huge for New Orleans, who had a winning record with four different starting quarterbacks last year. Winston has a receiving corps with a lot of potential, starting with Michael Thomas‘ health and Chris Olave being an immediate contributor in the passing game. Let’s not forget Alvin Kamara will start the year at running back and not on the suspended list. 

The defense will be carried on the edge by Cameron Jordan, but Marcus Davenport is no slouch in getting to the quarterback. DeMario Davis is as good of a linebacker as you’ll find and Tyrann Mathieu adequately fills the void left behind when Marcus Williams departed. There’s a lot of talent on this defense, and Dennis Allen is still running the show. 

If Winston continues to play like he did last year pre-injury, the Saints should be one of the seven playoff teams in the NFC. 

Floor: 7-10, miss playoffs

Can Allen coach? His first stint wasn’t great, but that was over a decade ago. Going from Sean Payton to Allen is a significant drop-off, one that can’t be ignored. 

New Orleans also has a major weakness on the offensive line, which took a huge hit with Trevor Penning’s injury. Ryan Ramczyk’s return is massive, but the Saints must hope Cesar Ruiz takes a step up in his play in 2022. 

The Saints have a talented roster and an opportunity to win games in a down year in the NFC South. 

New York Giants (2021 record: 4-13)

Ceiling: 6-11, miss playoffs

The Giants are expected to be bad in 2022, thanks to awful roster construction by former general manager Dave Gettleman — who left them in salary cap hell. Daniel Jones is a lame duck quarterback and Saquon Barkley appears to be on his way out after the year — no matter how well he performs. 

New York is thin at wide receiver and tight end, the former filled with bloated contracts and minimal production. There’s hope the Giants are trending in the right direction with a better offensive line and a defensive line featuring Azeez Ojulari and Kayvon Thibodeaux. The Giants are beginning their rebuild in the trenches, an excellent start toward turning around the franchise. 

Floor: 4-13, miss playoffs

New York significantly lacks depth at linebacker and the secondary, so teams are expected to score a lot of points against this unit. The offense will be relying on Jones to sling the ball, which he can do on occasion. New York is excited about Wan’Dale Robinson, who may have to play a huge role in Year 1.

Things will get better for the Giants. Just not this year. 

New York Jets (2021 record: 4-13)

Ceiling: 7-10, miss playoffs

The Jets are doing all the right things to build a consistent winner. Garrett Wilson has all the makings of the next star wide receiver and Sauce Gardner has the recipe to be a true difference-maker at cornerback. That’s two strong building blocks in New York, which already has a good offensive line — even with the Mekhi Becton injury. 

Carl Lawson coming back is massive for an underrated defensive line , which is looking to see production from rookie Jermaine Johnson. The secondary is significantly improved with Gardner, D.J. Reed, and LaMarcus Joyner in the fold. 

Zach Wilson’s health is monstrous this year. The Jets need him to develop to take the massive leap to contender. 

Floor: 4-13, miss playoffs

Wilson struggling to stay on the field in Year 2 will leave the Jets back to square one. If Wilson doesn’t stay healthy and turns the ball over, the Jets will have the same issue. In a loaded AFC, Wilson has to live up to his potential. 

The Jets will take their lumps — despite a better roster — in a great conference. They’ll be ready to make a run if Wilson improves. 

Philadelphia Eagles (2021 record: 9-8)

Ceiling: 12-5, win NFC East

The Eagles arguably had the best offseason of any NFL team. Any hole on their roster, general manager Howie Roseman fixed. The pass rush is significantly better with Haason Reddick and the return of Brandon Graham and the secondary improved with James Bradberry and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. The defense should be a top-10 unit. 

Philadelphia has the best offensive line in football and significantly improved at wide receiver by acquiring A.J. Brown. DeVonta Smith is expected to take a significant leap in Year 2, taking pressure off an already good running back rotation to perform. 

The time is now for the Eagles to win the NFC East, especially with Dallas appearing to take a step back. Philadelphia is a surprise contender in the NFC. 

Floor: 9-8, lose in wild card round

The Eagles’ success depends on the development of Jalen Hurts. Is Hurts the same one-read quarterback that rolls to his right? Or does the improved offensive cast translate toward his success throwing to his left and the middle of the field? 

Is the talent good enough for Jonathan Gannon to run the defense the way he wants? The Eagles have talent across the board on that side of the ball, but safety is still a question mark as the Eagles look for the right depth at the position. 

This all comes down to Hurts. If he significantly improves, so do the Eagles. 

Pittsburgh Steelers (2021 record: 9-7-1)

Ceiling: 10-7, make playoffs

The Steelers have a quarterback situation to figure out, but it looks if Mitch Trubisky will start the year. Pittsburgh has talent on offense around Trubisky, starting with Najee Harris at running back and a dangerous wide receiver trio of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and George Pickens

The Steelers’ defensive line is arguably the best in the NFL with T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward leading the way. Adding Myles Jack will significantly help the run defense, a unit that gets a coaching boost with the arrival of Brian Flores. 

Mike Tomlin has never had a losing season for a reason. The Steelers can contend in the AFC North in a transition year. 

Floor: 7-10, miss playoffs

Another team where overall performance comes down to quarterback play. Pickett is the better quarterback than Trubisky, but Pittsburgh wants to give him more time to develop. Trubisky will have to get off to a fast start or the Pickett era will begin sooner rather than later — which may be good for Pittsburgh. 

The offensive line is young, which is why Trubisky is starting the year in the first place. Facing the brutal fronts in the AFC North may be Pittsburgh’s demise in 2022 unless the offensive line improves. 

San Francisco 49ers (2021 record: 10-7)

Ceiling: 13-4, win NFC Championship

The 49ers took a major swing in trading up to grab Trey Lance. Now it’s Lance’s time to take this team past the NFC Championship Game. San Francisco won a lot of games with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback and have the offensive system to win a lot of games with Lance adding another dimension to the unit. 

Deebo Samuel is really good as a Swiss Army knife. Brandon Aiyuk is primed for a breakout year and George Kittle is one of the best tight ends in the game. The 49ers’ defense is built to win with Nick Bosa and Fred Warner, getting constant pressure on the quarterback. San Francisco has one of the deepest defensive lines in football. 

The 49ers are good enough to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. No quarterback may have more pressure to win than Lance. 

Floor: 9-8, miss playoffs 

Trent Williams can mask the interior of the offensive line, but the secondary is certainly unproven. The 49ers will need Talanoa Hufanga and Tarvarius Moore to become solid starters at safety or teams will surprisingly be able to pass on DeMeco Ryans‘ defense. 

Overall, the 49ers’ success falls on Lance. If he has problems for a long stretch, Garoppolo is waiting to take his starting job back. That’s very unhealthy for San Francisco, no matter how well Lance and Garoppolo get along. 

Seattle Seahawks (2021 record: 7-10)

Ceiling: 6-11, miss playoffs

The Seahawks moved on from Russell Wilson and recouped a boatload of draft capital as a result. No matter the talent at wide receiver, the Seahawks are in a rebuilding year. Geno Smith isn’t the long-term answer at quarterback, but Seattle can win games thanks to Rashaad Penny, Tyler Lockett, and DK Metcalf as building blocks on a team in transition.

Whether the Seahawks want to win games is the question. Seattle is a quarterback away from competing for wins again. 

Floor: 3-14, miss playoffs

Seattle has arguably the worst offensive line in football, so Smith will be running for his life throughout the year. The Seahawks will have to control possession with the ground game, so they better hope Penny stays healthy. 

The defense will struggle getting pressure off the edge and the cornerback situation leaves a lot to be desired. Teams will be able to throw the ball on Seattle — and the Seahawks don’t have the quarterback play to keep up in a shootout. 

This could be a rough year for Seattle, but it was expected to be. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2021 record: 13-4)

Ceiling: 13-4, win Super Bowl

Regardless what’s going on with Tom Brady, he’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL at age 45 and the Buccaneers are loaded at wide receiver. Todd Bowles assembled an excellent defense that’s built to get after the quarterback with Akiem Hicks in the mix. Devin White and Lavonte David will play a major role in the Buccaneers’ defense giving a high-powered offense every opportunity to score. 

Tampa Bay is going to score a lot of points. Getting Chris Godwin back by the start of the season will make the passing game even better, especially with Mike Evans, Russell gage and Julio Jones in the mix. 

With Brady at quarterback, it’s “Super Bowl or bust” for Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers are good enough to win it all. 

Floor: 11-6, lose in divisional round

The interior of the offensive line is a major concern for Tampa Bay, especially with Brady not being the most mobile quarterback. Brady will have to get rid of the ball quickly, taking away the big plays from the offense. 

If Tampa Bay doesn’t find a solution for the offensive line issues, it will be hard to see the Buccaneers beat the Rams, 49ers and Packers in a playoff game. Maybe even the Cowboys and Eagles. 

Tennessee Titans (2021 record: 12-5)

Ceiling: 11-6, win AFC South

Getting Derrick Henry back to full health is massive for the Titans, especially with the offseason loss of A.J. Brown significantly hurting the downfield passing game. Ryan Tannehill can still ignite an offense with Robert Woods as a game manager, but the success of the Titans rolls through Henry. 

Losing Harold Landry is significant for a defense built to get after the quarterback, which could cost the Titans the division. Tennessee still has Jeffery Simmons and an underrated secondary that can hold teams to under 25 points, but will the Titans be able to keep up with opponents?

Henry can carry Tennessee to a division title in a weak AFC South. He has to play all 17 games. 

Floor: 9-8, miss playoffs

The Titans are still good and play hard for Mike Vrabel, but it’s hard to overcome the Landry loss along with a poor offensive line. Taylor Lewan returning to his Pro Bowl form is paramount.

Who is Tannehill going to throw the ball to? Treylon Burks has to be an immediate contributor for this team to compete in a loaded AFC, but it’s hard to think the Titans will have a major drop off. They’ll be competitive all year, despite the challenges ahead. 

Washington Commanders (2021 record: 7-10)

Ceiling: 10-7, make playoffs

The Commanders could be a surprise playoff team in the NFC, especially if Carson Wentz can eliminate the inconsistent quarterback play that’s plagued him since the ACL injury five years ago. Wentz is the best quarterback Terry McLaurin has ever had and the Commanders have a dynamic wide receiver group with him, Curtis Samuel and rookie Jahan Dotson. Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic complement each other well at running back. 

Even without Chase Young to start the year, the defensive line should be significantly better than last year. Montez Sweat is one of the game’s underrated pass rushers and Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen are forces on the interior. The Commanders had a great defense two years ago and could repeat that success with their front four. 

Don’t be surprised if Washington is a playoff team, especially if Wentz plays well. 

Floor: 7-10, miss playoffs

The Commanders are thin at linebacker, bringing Jon Bostic back in an attempt to solidify that group. There isn’t much depth at cornerback and safety, either, which is significant for a defense that will rely heavily on pressuring the quarterback. 

Logan Thomas returning at tight end will be massive, another position that is significantly thin. There are plenty of holes on this roster, enough to keep Washington out of competing for the NFC East.

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