Ranking NFL's worst-to-first candidates for 2022

Getty Images

Last year, the Cincinnati Bengals became the eighth team in the last seven seasons to go from worst to first in their division. Beyond even that, they reached the Super Bowl for the first time since 1989.

As we turn our attention to the upcoming season, we'll rank the chances of each last-place finisher from 2021 winning its division in 2022.

8. Seattle Seahawks

2021 record: 7-10

Notable additions

Free agency/trades Draft
QB Drew Lock OT Charles Cross
TE Noah Fant DE Boye Mafe
LB Uchenna Nwosu RB Kenneth Walker
DL Shelby Harris
OL Austin Blythe

It's hard to believe the Seahawks have any chance of winning the NFC West for two reasons. First, not only did Seattle trade Russell Wilson - who posted a 104-53-1 regular-season record across 10 seasons with the club - but the Seahawks also didn't put much effort into replacing the perennial playoff quarterback. Geno Smith, who's only started five games since 2016, looks in line to start Week 1 over Lock, who was unimpressive in Denver.

Second, Seattle competes in a division with three playoff teams from last year. That includes the reigning Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, who lost Von Miller but added Allen Robinson and Bobby Wagner. Even though the San Francisco 49ers are starting a young quarterback and the Arizona Cardinals lost DeAndre Hopkins for the first six games due to suspension, both clubs have more potential than the Seahawks.

7. New York Jets

Mitchell Leff / Getty Images Sport / Getty

2021 record: 4-13

Notable additions

Free agency Draft
G Laken Tomlinson WR Garrett Wilson
TE C.J. Uzomah CB Ahmad Gardner
CB D.J. Reed DE Jermaine Johnson
S Jordan Whitehead RB Breece Hall
OT Duane Brown

It was easy to get excited about the Jets after the draft. New York improved its offensive line, running game, and receiver room in an excellent offseason. The team also addressed its main needs defensively, and the secondary should be solid if the newcomers, especially Gardner, live up to the hype. Everything seemed ready for quarterback Zach Wilson to make a big leap after struggling as the second overall pick last year.

What's the problem, then? Well, injuries have hurt the Jets lately. Offensive tackle Mekhi Becton recently suffered a season-ending knee ailment. Signing Brown following Becton's injury was a solid move, but then Zach Wilson sustained a knee ailment that's expected to sideline him for two-to-four weeks. Unless the Jets acquire a new starter, they're in line to start Joe Flacco in Week 1. Even when Wilson returns, will he be fully healthy?

To make things even harder, the AFC East will likely be one of the NFL's top divisions, with the Buffalo Bills entering the season as legit Super Bowl contenders. The New England Patriots also made the playoffs in 2021, and the Miami Dolphins are red-hot after making offseason splashes, including trading for Tyreek Hill.

6. Carolina Panthers

2021 record: 5-12

Notable additions

Free agency/trades Draft
QB Baker Mayfield OT Ikem Ekwonu
G Austin Corbett QB Matt Corral
S Xavier Woods
DL Matt Ioannidis
C Bradley Bozeman

We have to give the Panthers credit for addressing their main needs in the offseason. Though Carolina didn't make any big free-agent moves, it improved its team on both sides of the ball. Granted, the defense has room for improvement, but it ranked second in yards last year and returned its main stars. The offense, which rosters an improved offensive line, also features talented weapons, assuming running back Christian McCaffrey stays healthy. That means whether or not Carolina records its first winning season since 2017 comes down to the quarterback position.

The Panthers have a higher ceiling with Mayfield under center over Sam Darnold. But even if Mayfield plays as he did in 2020 when he guided the Browns to the divisional round, it'll be tough for the Panthers to end their six-year division title drought. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers remain the best team in the NFC South with Tom Brady at quarterback. If anyone is to leapfrog the Bucs, it'd more likely be the New Orleans Saints, who made solid moves and got key starters back from injury. At least Carolina is steps ahead of the Atlanta Falcons as the third-best team in this group.

5. Detroit Lions

2021 record: 3-13-1

Notable additions

Free agency Draft
WR DJ Chark DE Aidan Hutchinson
S DeShon Elliott WR Jameson Williams
CB Mike Hughes DE Josh Paschal

The Lions last won their division in 1993 when it was still called the NFC Central, but they should move a little closer to the North title in their second year with coach Dan Campbell. Detroit enters the season with a solid offensive floor due to its underrated offensive line and an explosive group of skill-position players, featuring running back D'Andre Swift as well as receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Chark. Williams is the team's most talented pass-catcher, but the 12th overall pick won't play right away as he rehabs from a torn ACL.

That said, it's hard to envision Detroit's ceiling being high enough to contend in the division with Jared Goff at quarterback. Plus, the defense is coming off two rough seasons. Drafting Hutchinson was a great move, but we can't assume he'll immediately fix all of the team's problems.

If those issues weren't enough, the Lions would have to dethrone Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers - who've won the NFC North three straight times - to claim the division. Yes, Green Bay lost receiver Davante Adams, and its offensive line isn't fully healthy. But Detroit - as well as the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears - likely needs a subpar campaign from the reigning back-to-back MVP to have a real shot at winning the North. Good luck with that.

4. New York Giants

Maddie Meyer / Getty Images Sport / Getty

2021 record: 4-13

Notable additions

Free agency Draft
OL Jon Feliciano DE Kayvon Thibodeaux
QB Tyrod Taylor OT Evan Neal
OL Mark Glowinski WR Wan'Dale Robinson

The Giants are kicking off a new era with Brian Daboll, their third head coach since 2019. Daboll's top priority is turning around Daniel Jones' career like he did Josh Allen's as Buffalo's offensive coordinator. However, the 25-year-old Jones - who's tossed only 21 touchdowns since 2020 - has shown little signs that he has enough untapped upside to reach the level of an MVP candidate.

At least Jones' supporting cast should be better. New York's 31st-ranked scoring offense from the last two seasons will see the likes of Saquon Barkley and Kenny Golladay fully healthy again, and the club added top prospects to its offensive line and defense in Neal and Thibodeaux, respectively.

History and the Giants' slate are also on their side. New York has the easiest strength of schedule in 2022 based on projected win totals. Plus, four NFC East teams since 2015 have gone from worst to first in a division that hasn't had a repeat champion since 2004.

Granted, the Giants aren't the East's best team on paper. But the Dallas Cowboys lost talent this year, and the Washington Commanders can't be trusted with Carson Wentz at quarterback. The Philadelphia Eagles got better, though it remains to be seen if quarterback Jalen Hurts can take the team to the next level. The Giants might have a chance of winning a potentially open NFC East if Daboll proves he's the right coach for the club.

3. Denver Broncos

2021 record: 7-10

Notable additions

Free agency/trades Draft
QB Russell Wilson LB Nik Bonitto
DE Randy Gregory
DT D.J. Jones
CB K'Waun Williams

Denver's expectations are sky-high, and it's easy to understand why. The Broncos, who boasted a top-10 defense in 2021, found the answer to their biggest problem - quarterback - by acquiring Wilson. And despite wideout Tim Patrick's season-ending injury at camp, Denver still rosters Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy at wide receiver, as well as running backs Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon. So, why aren't the Broncos ranked even higher on this list?

The main reason is the AFC West. Denver would probably be first here if it wasn't in football's toughest division. Still, if Wilson performs at his best, the Broncos will be able to compete against any division rival. Winning the AFC West is a different story, though, as the Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, and Las Vegas Raiders all look like playoff contenders. And Kansas City's won six straight division titles.

Also, even though parting ways with head coach Vic Fangio was the right move, it remains to be seen whether the Broncos' defensive unit will be just as solid without him. Including Fangio's time as a coordinator in Chicago, his defenses have ranked in the top 10 in scoring in four of the last five seasons. Though Denver rosters one of the NFL's premier secondaries, its front seven has questions. First-year coach Nathaniel Hackett, a former offensive coordinator, is the Broncos' new sideline boss, while the defense will be coordinated by ex-Rams assistant Ejiro Evero.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars

2021 record: 3-14

Notable additions

Free agency Draft
WR Christian Kirk LB Travon Walker
WR Zay Jones LB Devin Lloyd
G Brandon Scherff C Luke Fortner
TE Evan Engram
CB Darious Williams
LB Foye Oluokun
DT Folorunso Fatukasi

Even if we question what the Jaguars paid for their free agents, there's no doubt Jacksonville improved its roster. More importantly, the team replaced Urban Meyer with Doug Pederson. Pederson, who won Super Bowl LII with the Eagles, has helped quarterbacks throughout his career, and he'll be a key factor in Trevor Lawrence's development.

The 2021 first overall pick struggled with only 12 touchdown passes to 17 interceptions as a rookie, but the arrivals of Kirk, Jones, Engram, and Scherff, combined with running back Travis Etienne's return from injury, should put the Jaguars' offense in a strong position to bounce back.

Then there's the AFC South, where the Houston Texans seem harmless and the Tennessee Titans have more questions than last year. The Indianapolis Colts got better with quarterback Matt Ryan's arrival, but Indy still isn't as dangerous as other favorites such as the Bills, Chiefs, and Packers. If Lawrence lives up to the hype in Year 2, and Jacksonville's 2022 rookie class steps up, the Jaguars will have a legit shot at winning the AFC South.

1. Baltimore Ravens

Scott Taetsch / Getty Images Sport / Getty

2021 record: 8-9

Notable additions

Free agency Draft
S Marcus Williams S Kyle Hamilton
OT Morgan Moses C Tyler Linderbaum
DT Michael Pierce LB David Ojabo

The Ravens won eight of their first 12 games last year and were in the driver's seat in the AFC North before Lamar Jackson suffered a season-ending injury. Baltimore lost all five games without Jackson - including the Week 14 contest in which the quarterback sustained the ailment - opening the door for the Bengals to clinch the division with a 10-7 record, the lowest number of wins among division champions last year.

Jackson wasn't the only Ravens player sidelined; Baltimore had seven starters suffer season-ending injuries in the season's first nine weeks, including left tackle Ronnie Stanley, cornerback Marcus Peters, and running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards. And don't forget about Pro Bowl corner Marlon Humphrey, who was ruled out for the year after Week 13.

Though Baltimore took a hit at wide receiver by not acquiring an established wideout after trading Marquise Brown, getting healthier alone should again make the Ravens one of the AFC's most competitive teams. They also improved their secondary and offensive line.

Though the AFC North is always competitive, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns have questions at quarterback. Pittsburgh is looking for a new starter among Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, and Kenny Pickett, while Deshaun Watson could be suspended for more than six games. The Bengals will likely offer a tough challenge to the Ravens - they scored 82 points in two games versus Baltimore in 2021. But again, the Ravens didn't have some of their most important players in those contests. That narrative could - and should - change with Baltimore healthy again in 2022.

Ranking NFL's worst-to-first candidates for 2022
  Got something to say? Leave a comment below!

Daily Newsletter

Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox