5 UNDERRATED STORYLINES HEADING INTO THE 2022 NFL SEASON
This has been one of the wildest offseasons of my lifetime, with one blockbuster trade after another happening all the way up to what turned out to be the craziest NFL Draft first round in recent memory.
With all the hyperbolic headlines, some storylines that will have a major effect on the 2022-23 season seem to have fallen through the cracks. I’m here to pick them.
1. THE AFC WEST PLAYS THE NFC WEST
For years, the familiar refrain in NFL circles is that the NFC West was the best division in football. It was difficult to argue against it. Since 2018, three of the four NFC Super Bowl teams were from the NFC West and one of them, the Los Angeles Rams, went twice and won it all last season. From 2018-2020 two NFC West teams made the playoffs in each season and last year, three made it. Two of them, the Rams and San Francisco 49ers, played each other in the NFC Championship. And while I might not agree with the odds, the Rams (+450), 49ers (+900) and Arizona Cardinals (+1400) are all in the top six (2, 4 and 6 respectively) to win the NFC this upcoming season.
We’ve had an influx of talent in the AFC West this offseason and it’s now overtaken the NFC West as the “best division in football,” in good measure because a former NFC West QB, Russell Wilson, is now playing for the Denver Broncos. Last year two AFC West teams, the Las Vegas Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs, made the postseason. If the Los Angeles Chargers had managed to end their Week 18 game with the Raiders in a tie (and it was on the table until the final minutes) they would have made it too. All the AFC West teams, with the exception of the Chiefs, got better, some significantly, since the 2021-22 season ended.
So while the pundits and prognosticators look at the talent on these rosters and again predict three or more teams from each division making the playoffs, they are not factoring in that they all play each other. The Chiefs, for instance, play every team in the AFC West twice (six games), plus play the Rams, 49ers, Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks. A fantastic NFC and AFC West team, a Super Bowl caliber team, could finish that schedule 5-5.
These teams are going to beat the hell out of each other for 10 out of the 17 games of the 2022 schedule. That means that some really good team (or more one good team) isn’t making the playoffs specifically because of that. What will likely be the best team in the league could be a No. 4 seed in their conference. I’ve seen predictions where the Chiefs, Chargers, Rams and 49ers win 13-14 games this season. How? Where are those victories on the schedule?
We could end up with an oddball Super Bowl champion in 2022-23 specifically because the damage these franchises do to each other for more than half the season.
2. LAMAR JACKSON IS STILL ON HIS ROOKIE CONTRACT AND IS SKIPPING RAVENS OTAS
Lamar Jackson is in the final year of his rookie contract, his fifth year option to be specific and due to earn $23.016 million in 2022. A lot of money, sure, but underpaying his actual value by a good $15-20 million or so.
While Jackson has made no hints that he’s looking for a way out of Baltimore, he has skipped the squad’s Organized Team Activities and there’s no real rumblings on the contract talks front, even though the Ravens have to be desperate to get them over and done. When asked about it, head coach John Harbaugh said, “I’ll just let Lamar speak for himself on that. It’s for him to talk about. Ask him.”
Jackson, for his part, did tweet that he “Can’t wait to get back,” but nothing’s really stopping him from “getting back.” He’s still, as of this writing, “not back.”
I have been consistently hard on the Ravens coaching staff because they deserve it. There’s no excuse for any NFL team to keep offensive coordinator Greg Roman employed let alone Baltimore. Roman’s playcalling is a disaster waiting to happen as he consistently puts Jackson in harm’s way with his comically inept play design and strategies.
Louis Riddick, who should already be an NFL general manager, but isn’t, made it clear he thinks Jackson shouldn’t take the field without a contract. But maybe there’s a reason he’s not willing to negotiate a long term deal with the Ravens, who will unquestionably franchise him next year anyway.
Maybe it’ll be easier to force a trade on the franchise tag next offseason (with, presumably less QB movement) without making Baltimore eat some massive signing bonus on its cap. A tagged Jackson trade counts absolutely nothing on a salary cap, so the cap damage can’t be figured into the deal. Jackson can walk to a better situation, say a Miami Dolphins team led by a Kyle Shanahan disciple, make all the money he’s supposed to make while saving his health and career.
It’s something to watch.
3. DOUG PERDERSON’S IMPACT ON TREVOR LAWRENCE
There’s a reason that two NFL teams in two consecutive seasons looked at Carson Wentz and decided he was an NFL quarterback. And that reason is Doug Pederson. Pederson, as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, drafted Wentz out of an FCS school where the dude probably faced 10-15 NFL caliber defenders in his entire career and molded him not only into an NFL quarterback after a single season, but had him as the MVP front-runner in 2018. In just 13 games that season Wentz threw for 3,296 yards, 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
There is no comparison between the pro readiness of Wentz, coming out of North Dakota State and Trevor Lawrence coming out of Clemson, even with a year lost to the Urban Meyer debacle.
The AFC is a grindhouse this season with too many good teams vying for too few playoff spots. It’s unlikely the Jaguars can sneak in there, but what they can do is make life very difficult for the teams that they play as Lawrence works his way into the Pro Bowl thanks to Pederson and gets everyone excited about their 2023 prospects. Looking at their schedule, a 3-3, 4-2 start to the season is not out of the question.
4. MATT RYAN’S ACQUISITION BY THE INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Speaking of the AFC South, the trade to get Matt Ryan from the Atlanta Falcons onto a loaded Colts team isn’t getting nearly the attention it deserves.
Indianapolis sent the most players (7) to the Pro Bowl a season ago for good reason. This roster is built to win now, but didn’t win enough last year thanks to so many game-losing plays from Wentz. Ryan will not make those same mistakes. In fact, on the best roster he’s been on since the 2016 Atlanta Falcons team that made the playoffs, it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him return to somewhere close to his MVP form.
Last year was the first season since 2010 that Ryan didn’t throw for more than 4,000 yards. With the Colts’ running attack, he won’t have to, but I’m betting he still hits that mark. It might take a month or so to click in Indy, but when it does, the Colts could very well be a Final Four team. Their AFC South schedule is built for an 11-12 win season and the Colts are tied with the Jags for the sixth easiest schedule in the league.
5. THE BUCCANEERS SCHEDULE IS SHOCKINGLY TOUGH
According to the metrics, the Buccaneers have the fourth toughest schedule heading into the 2022 season. If you look at that list, you see a lot of NFC West and AFC West teams, which is the problem I wrote about at the beginning. Tampa Bay has it no easier.
Of their 17 opponents, 10 finished the 2021 season with a winning record. Eight made it to the playoffs and two made it to the Super Bowl. That’s right, the Bucs are playing both the Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals this season.
Speaking of the Rams, in three tries since Tom Brady joined Tampa, the Bucs are 0-3 against the team from LA and one of those was with Jared Goff at QB. The New Orleans Saints are an even bigger problem. The Saints are 4-0 against the Brady Bucs in the regular season and should be significantly better this year.
Of the seven teams they play that didn’t finish last year as winners, two of them are the Baltimore Ravens (who only finished 8-9 because Lamar Jackson was hurt) and the Cleveland Browns. By the time the Buccaneers play Cleveland on Nov. 27, Deshaun Watson should be on the field regardless of any early season suspension and probably have a month’s worth of games under his belt.
As I asked the prognosticators picking the Rams or Chiefs to win 13-14 games, if you see the Bucs putting up a similar record, where are those victories?
And just like those NFC West and AFC West teams I mentioned in the first entry, the Bucs are going to have to go through the gauntlet to get to the postseason. And they surely will, as I believe the Rams and Chiefs will as well. It’s just a schedule like that can take its toll and a team like the Dallas Cowboys, with the easiest schedule in the league, could wind up benefiting from it at the end of the season by landing home field and forcing squads like Tampa and LA to play on the road.