With free agency and the 2022 NFL Draft approaching, franchises all have a level of excitement. Some are looking to contend this season, while others just want to move in the right direction. The league is unique in that every team has a chance to win the Super Bowl each season. The NFL can be volatile, and the smallest of breaks could launch a championship run, as exemplified by the Cincinnati Bengals last season. It may be unlikely to happen again, but football is unpredictable for a reason. There is a path for all 32 teams to win Super Bowl LVII.
Today, that path is for teams in the AFC North.
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While the Bengals did blow a fourth-quarter lead in the Super Bowl, all is not lost. Heading into 2022, the division is theirs for the taking. Cincinnati has an elite quarterback who is still on a rookie contract with stud skill players around him. The defense coalesced late in the season and was terrific for most of the playoffs. Evan McPherson is likely already a top-five kicker in the NFL. Realistically, the only place to go for the Bengals is up.
They can continue to elevate with reinforcements to the offensive line. This could come in free agency (such as Terron Armstead) or the draft (such as Zion Johnson), but the Bengals have a clear need and clear targets. Beyond the line, Cincy has a complete roster with productive players on all levels for both sides of the ball. Throw in Joe Burrow, and the impossible becomes the reality. In just two seasons, he transformed the Bengals from a downtrodden organization to a budding dynasty in the AFC North.
The team will need to match their sensational health from 2021, but even a handful of injuries might not be enough to curb Burrow and company. Zac Taylor might not be an elite head coach, but he is much improved from this point last year. With upgrades along the offensive line, Cincinnati will be in play for the No. 1 seed in the conference and another Lamar Hunt trophy.
The formula for the Steelers is simple: hit on the quarterback. After 18 seasons of Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh is heading into new waters. They could be a prime destination for a quarterback trade (such as Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson), or they could choose a signal-caller that tickles their fancy in the draft. At the Senior Bowl, Mike Tomlin’s love for Malik Willis was no secret, but Kevin Colbert’s last hurrah as general manager could be his best yet. The Steelers have a solid roster in desperate need of a quarterback. If they hit, they could be right back in Super Bowl contention.
The defense speaks for itself. T.J. Watt just tied the NFL sack record with 22.5, and he might not be the best player on the defensive front. Cameron Heyward had another dominant season en route to his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl, as well as an All-Pro nod. Minkah Fitzpatrick had an up-and-down season, but that is the life of a safety in the modern NFL. Even in a down season, the Steelers finished in the top half of the league in takeaways and passing yards allowed per play. With the return of Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt in 2022, expect the run defense to jump from No. 32.
The offensive line is troublesome, but the Steelers have options. They could take a quarterback in the first round and use several of their last few picks on offensive linemen. Not all will hit, but they can compete for spots along an unsettled offensive line. As currently constructed, no player along the line has job security. Even with a poor offensive line, the Steelers have several top-tier weapons including Diontae Johnson and Najee Harris, so the offense should be in the middle of the pack at the minimum.
The Browns have two main concerns this offseason. First, they need an alpha wide receiver. With the No.13 pick, expect Cleveland to take a receiver from a crop that includes Treylon Burks, Garrett Wilson, or Drake London. The second problem is the player throwing the football: Baker Mayfield. Mayfield had a horrendous season in 2021, but he was also dealing with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder for much of the season. At the quarterback position, the entire business is about consistent mechanics. If Mayfield could not get comfortable with his injured shoulder, it makes sense that he struggled mightily for most of the season.
For the Browns to win the Super Bowl, they need Mayfield to return to 2020 form. The supporting cast is one of the better ones in the NFL, as Cleveland has the best offensive line and a top-tier running back in Nick Chubb. The pass-catching weapons are a mixed bag, but the Browns will be adding a stud early in the draft. The defense was excellent in 15 of 17 games in 2021. Myles Garrett had a phenomenal season, and he could win the 2022 Defensive Player of the Year.
The team will have a high floor next season with their offensive line and secondary. Even though 2021 was a massive disappointment, the Browns still went 8-9 and may have made the playoffs if their kicking was slightly better. Browns opponents made 96.3 percent of kicks. Cleveland kickers made 72.7 percent, a number made all the more horrendous after factoring in that Chase McLaughlin was four-for-four on 50-yard tries. He went just 4-for-10 in the 40-yard range. If he made six, the Browns could have made the playoffs and been a difficult out.
All considered, it is a miracle that the Ravens squeezed out eight wins. Only 14 of their players participated in all 17 games. That number includes three offensive starters, three defensive starters, and the entire specialist group. In 2020, the Ravens had 16 players play in all 16 games and an additional nine that missed one game from COVID-19. In 2019, despite resting players in Week 17, 21 players played every game. Six additional players played in 15 or more games. In 2018, Baltimore had 26 players appear in every game. To compete in 2022, the Ravens just need to be healthier than they were in 2021.
Five Ravens were All-Pros in 2019. Despite all five still being on the roster in 2021, they played a total of 42 games out of a maximum of 85. Marcus Peters missed the entire season. Ronnie Stanley played one game. Lamar Jackson and Marlon Humphrey each missed the final month, playing 12 games apiece for the season. Justin Tucker played all 17 games, single-handedly raising the percentage of games played from 36.7 percent to almost 50 percent. With the massive influx of returning talent (including the team’s top two running backs), Baltimore should exceed their eight wins from 2021.
The (relatively) healthy Ravens made significant progress in 2021. Jackson led four game-winning drives in his seven wins, after having just four in his first three seasons. He also led two potential game-winning drives in Week 1, but the defense imploded in the fourth quarter. Similarly, the quarterback was inches away from a game-winning drive against the Steelers. Jackson answered many of the criticisms posed in the last few seasons, and he had the Ravens at 8-3 heading into the game with Pittsburgh in Week 13.