Ranking the NFL’s worst-to-first contenders for 2022

Which NFL teams can follow the Cincinnati Bengals' path and go from worst to first in 2022? We rank the most likely candidates.

Last season, the Cincinnati Bengals made an improbable worst-to-first run which culminated in a Super Bowl appearance. One year after finishing last in the AFC North, the Bengals and Joe Burrow were playing in the NFL’s title game. Which teams will take a similar leap forward in 2022? Let’s rank the NFL’s worst-to-first contenders.

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Which NFL team will go worst to first in 2022?

The NFL is a win-now business. Half-decade-long rebuilds have become commonplace in other professional sports leagues except in the NFL. Most teams get two years — maybe three — to turn things around. And parity seems to be at an all-time high in 2022, as only a few clubs are likely out of playoff contention before the season even begins.

We’ll rank last year’s last-place teams based on how well-positioned they are to win their division in 2022. Roster strength is obviously built into this analysis, but divisional strength is a key factor too. For example, the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars may have similar overall talent, but the AFC South is a much more winnable division than the AFC East.

8) Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks could potentially move up a spot or two in these rankings if they’re able to land Jimmy Garoppolo, but the 49ers are unlikely to move their veteran quarterback to a division rival. As PFN’s Aaron Wilson recently reported, Seattle would need to make it worth San Francisco’s while — likely by trading a relatively premium pick — in order to land Jimmy G.

The NFC West remains one of the toughest divisions in football after sending all three non-Seahawks teams to the playoffs last season. Seattle refuses to call what they’re doing a “rebuild,” but that’s essentially what it is. They’re squarely behind the Rams, 49ers, and Cardinals in their division, and a worst-to-first season seems incredibly unlikely.

7) New York Giants

After using top-seven draft picks on pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and Evan Neal, the Giants are well on their way to revamping a roster that was in shambles. New head coach Brian Daboll will attempt to turn around Daniel Jones’ career, and New York quietly has a decent set of offensive weapons (especially if Saquon Barkley can stay healthy).

Still, Big Blue’s defense is a work in progress. Thibodeaux will help up front, but he can’t change the fact that the Giants don’t have a No. 2 cornerback after releasing James Bradberry. The Eagles and Cowboys look like clear playoff contenders in the NFC East, leaving the Giants and the Commanders to battle for third place.

6) New York Jets

The AFC East features arguably the best team in the NFL (the Bills) and another squad that made the playoffs last year (the Patriots). Buffalo is a Super Bowl favorite after another outstanding offseason, while New England could take a step back in 2022 after losing key pieces like J.C. Jackson and Shaq Mason.

In CB Ahmad Gardner, WR Garrett Wilson, EDGE Jermaine Johnson II, and RB Breece Hall, the Jets added four early draft picks who should all contribute in their rookie campaigns. Still, that infusion of talent won’t have much of an effect if Zach Wilson doesn’t show massive improvement in his second NFL season. New York should be a better team in 2022, but the presence of the Bills, Patriots, and Dolphins makes a division title unlikely.

5) Carolina Panthers

Before acquiring Baker Mayfield, the Panthers would have been much lower in these rankings. Mayfield isn’t an All-Pro-caliber quarterback, but he’s a significant upgrade over Sam Darnold. Given Carolina’s decent offensive weapons, rectified offensive line, and playmaking defense, it’s fair to wonder if they could compete for a playoff spot in a weak NFC.

However, that postseason berth is unlikely to come via a first-place finish in the NFC South. The Buccaneers are head and shoulders above the rest of the division, and the Saints should also be projected to win more games than the Panthers. Carolina could sneak in as a Wild Card team, but the division is Tampa Bay’s for the taking.

4) Detroit Lions

The Lions will play hard for Dan Campbell — we know this. New pass catchers DJ Chark and Jameson Williams, plus an underrated offensive line, should give Detroit a solid floor on offense. Can Jared Goff and first-year offensive coordinator Ben Johnson elevate the unit enough to turn the Lions into a serious contender?

The Lions are probably a year away from finding their franchise quarterback and turning those playoff aspirations into realities. Detroit is an interesting dark-horse contender for a Wild Card berth, but they’d need the Packers to take a meaningful step back in order to grasp the NFC North title.

3) Jacksonville Jaguars

Any of the teams on this list could go from worst to first, but we’d place our money on these last three clubs taking notable steps forward in 2022. In Jacksonville, the transition from Urban Meyer to Doug Pederson represents the largest head-coaching improvement in the league in years. Moving on from the Meyer debacle and installing a Super Bowl winner like Pederson should yield immediate returns.

Trevor Lawrence didn’t live up to his No. 1 overall draft stock in his rookie year (29th in EPA + CPOE composite), but what chance did he have under Meyer and the offensive duo of Darrell Bevell and Brian Schottenheimer? New additions such as Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, Evan Engram, and Brandon Scherff — plus the return of running back Travis Etienne Jr. — should give Lawerence a fighting chance in 2022.

Then there’s the AFC South. The Titans were the conference’s No. 1 seed a season ago, but they’re expected to take a step back next year. The Colts should be better with Matt Ryan under center, but Indianapolis isn’t exactly rife with weapons for its veteran quarterback. If Lawrence can ascend and become one of the NFL’s most exciting young signal-callers, the Jaguars have a legitimate chance to win the division.

2) Denver Broncos

If the Jaguars made the league’s biggest head coach improvement, then the Broncos made the most significant change under center. Going from Drew Lock/Teddy Bridgewater to Russell Wilson makes the Broncos instant contenders, even in one of the strongest divisions in the NFL.

The Chiefs and Raiders both made the playoffs last season, and if the final regular-season game of the year had stayed tied, the Chargers would have snuck in as well. The AFC’s arms race was centered around the AFC West, and all four teams reloaded over the offseason.

This will be a tight battle to the finish, but the Broncos have the advantage of the easiest schedule in the division. Based on win projection SOS, Kansas City has the hardest schedule in the league, Las Vegas is tied for fifth-hardest, and Los Angeles is 15th. Denver, meanwhile, has just the 21st-hardest schedule in the NFL, giving them a leg up on their competition.

1) Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens finished last in the AFC North in 2021, but at 8-9, they weren’t that far out of postseason contention. Injuries decimated their roster at every level, and they lost six consecutive games to finish the season.

Lamar Jackson was only healthy enough to play one full game over that season-ending stretch, but he’s back and hoping for a breakout campaign as a contract extension looms. The Ravens didn’t add any pass catchers this offseason, so the pressure is on Lamar to lead what should be a run-heavy offense.

On the other side of the ball, Baltimore’s defense has the potential to be elite. Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters, Marcus Williams, Kyle Hamilton, and Chuck Clark comprise the league’s best secondary, and first-year DC Mike Macdonald will get the most out of the club’s front seven.

The Bengals represent stiff competition, but the Browns won’t be as competitive with Jacoby Brissett as they would be with Deshaun Watson, and the Steelers are in for some growing pains with rookie QB Kenny Pickett. The Ravens have as good a shot as any NFL team at going worst to first in 2022.

Dallas Robinson is a Writer and News Editor at Pro Football Network. You can read his other work here and follow him on Twitter: @dallasdrobinson.

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