This offseason was full of major trades and shake ups to many NFL rosters. What team are you most excited to see kick off the new season?
Ryan Sheehan: There are plenty of teams that have the chance to go from last place to first in the division, but none are as impressive as the Denver Broncos. In 2021, the Broncos won seven games with below-average quarterback play. Now, with nine-time Pro-Bowler Russell Wilson under center paired with a defense that placed third in points allowed in 2021, it’s hard to see how this squad wouldn’t make noise in the uber-competitive AFC West.
Max Mullins: Though unlikely to be one of the better teams in the NFL, the Jaguars will nonetheless be an interesting team to watch. After a dismal 3-14 season in 2021, Jacksonville hired one of the top coaches on the market, Doug Pederson, and shelled out big money to a huge number of free agents — including Christian Kirk, Darious Williams and Brandon Scherff. Pederson should be a massive upgrade from Urban Meyer, but it remains to be seen if the new roster pieces will be enough to kick off a successful rebuild. 2022 will be about providing support around a young offensive core of former Clemson superstars Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne Jr., along with rookies Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd on defense.
Kenzo Fukuda: It’s going to be interesting to follow both the Raiders and the Dolphins, two teams that traded for all-pro wide receivers in Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill respectively. Both teams acquired these star pass catchers in the hopes of bolstering their offensive potential, but in doing so gave up multiple draft assets and signed them to lucrative contracts. Derek Carr and Tua Tagovailoa are solid quarterbacks, though certainly downgrades from Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.
Which team has the most to lose or gain in the early part of the season?
RS: If last season’s division standings were any indication, every team in the AFC North needs to start fast in order to keep their postseason hopes within reach. This is especially true for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The first six weeks of the Steelers’ schedule feature four games with playoff teams and two division matchups on the road. To have any shot at returning to the postseason, NVP Mitchell Trubisky and the Steel Curtain need to be razor sharp when they kick the year off at Cincinnati.
MM: After a narrow loss to the Super Bowl runner-up Bengals in last season’s playoffs, Raiders fans are expecting big things in 2022. Though quarterback Derek Carr certainly has weapons to work with, how the Raiders stack up in their loaded division may be determined before their bye week. In the first five weeks, the Raiders play their entire division along with two other playoff hopefuls — the Cardinals and Titans. If they reach their week 6 bye with a winning record, they may be a legit contender. If they struggle, the season could quickly spiral out of control.
KF: We are going to learn a lot about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers right away. With new head coach Todd Bowles, they face a gauntlet to start the season: the Cowboys, Saints, Packers and Chiefs. Tom Brady took a ten-day break in the middle of training camp; the signature fire in his eyes just isn’t burning as bright. Meanwhile, the O-line is currently in shambles; center Ryan Jensen is on IR and tackle Tristen Wirfs is questionable for week 1. Not to mention, the receiving corps aren’t the healthiest right now either. If the Buccaneers can weather the first four weeks of the season, they’ll face an easier schedule with a healthier team.
As we start a new year in the NFL, what’s one bold prediction for the season to come?
RS: I’ll take the Carolina Panthers to win the NFC South. Carolina is returning a defense that was second in yards allowed: a healthy CB Jaycee Horn and RB Christian McCaffrey. The addition of former Browns QB Baker Mayfield and some marked improvement on the offensive line like sixth overall pick LT Ikem Ekwonu makes me think this team is ready for the postseason much sooner than most people think. Down in Tampa Bay, 2021 NFC South champion Buccaneers will have eight matchups against playoff teams. I see a rough road ahead for Tom Brady and a depleted Buccaneers roster. But then again, it is never a good idea to bet against the seven-time Super Bowl champ.
MM: Though they did not last long in the playoffs, the Titans weathered the loss of their star running back Derrick Henry very well on their way to being the number one seed in the AFC last year. My bold prediction is that they will not even finish first in the division. With an aging — but still competent — Matt Ryan taking over the reins at quarterback and throwing to a young, promising group of receivers behind a talented offensive line, the Colts are poised to break out on offense. And that is without even mentioning star back Jonathan Taylor or a defense stacked with All-Pro talent in DeForest Buckner and Shaquille Leonard. Look for Indianapolis to take the next step and join the upper echelon of AFC contenders.
KF: 2022 is the year of Jalen Hurts. I have little evidence that Hurts will make progress in his passing progression and decision making — two skills that don’t get better all of a sudden. But he finally has a number one calibur receiver in A.J. Brown and he’s blessed with a top five O-line. It took awhile for the Eagles to rebuild their defense after their miraculous 2017 Super Bowl run. If there ever was a year for Hurts to carry a stacked Eagles team, it’d be this one.