Could the Seahawks and Browns bounce back in 2022? Barnwell ranks most likely worst-to-first teams

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With their dramatic victory over the Chiefs on Sunday afternoon, the Bengals became the latest NFL team to go from worst to first in its division. If anything, Joe Burrow & Co. earned a few bonus points; the Bengals were in the AFC North basement for three consecutive seasons before turning things around. The Eagles, another last-place team in 2020, will join Cincinnati in the postseason, while the 49ers have just under a 60% chance of joining them, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.

We could see three of the eight last-place teams from 2020 playing postseason football in two weeks. That’s more than usual, but it’s a reminder of how quickly things can turn in the NFL. Let’s into the eight last-place teams from the 2021 season and rank their chances of going worst-to-first in 2022.

Before we get started, here’s a quick glance at how the Bengals turned things around. What changed?

They got a full, productive season from Burrow. The former LSU star missed 6½ games in 2020 after tearing his ACL, but he has been healthy for all 16 games this season. The Bengals actually had a better record without Burrow in 2020 than they did with their first overall pick, but let’s be realistic and suggest that a full season of him was better than relying on Brandon Allen and Ryan Finley. After two spectacular games, Burrow is 11th in the league in Total QBR, up comfortably from 24th a year ago.

They nailed their first-round pick and free agency. With all due respect to Penei Sewell, the Bengals don’t regret passing up the offensive tackle to take Ja’Marr Chase. Burrow’s former LSU teammate is finishing up one of the best rookie seasons we’ve ever seen from a wide receiver, peaking with his 266-yard performance against the Chiefs. Swapping in a superstar for an incredibly inefficient season from A.J. Green was a massive upgrade.

On top of that, they were able to land a difference-maker in free agency by signing pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson. I wasn’t a fan of the deal when it happened, but after a 14-sack, 27-knockdown season, it’s hard to argue with the results. Cincy also imported contributors Mike Hilton and Larry Ogunjobi and got D.J. Reader, one of their big additions from the 2020 offseason, back from a serious quad injury. The Bengals improved from 27th to 14th in defensive DVOA this season.

They were luckier. The Bengals were better than their record a year ago on a snap-by-snap basis, but they went 1-5-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer. This season, owing to some well-timed aggressiveness, they are a much more reasonable 4-4 in those same contests.

It would have been reasonable to expect the Bengals to improve, but I don’t think anyone saw them as likely winners in the AFC North, myself included. These eight teams won’t feel like future division champs as we watch them finish in last, but let’s run through what it might take to get them to follow in Cincinnati’s footsteps. I’ll start with the last-place team I think is least likely to win its division next year and work toward my most likely pick:

Jump to a team:

If you believe that mediocre teams that show signs of life at the end of the season are more likely to improve the following season, you’re probably interested in these Jets. After a competitive loss to the Dolphins in Week 15, the Jets beat the Jaguars in Week 16 and nearly upset the defending champion Buccaneers on Sunday. Coach Robert Saleh correctly called for his team to convert a fourth-and-2 to try to seal the game in the fourth quarter, only for Zach Wilson to be stuffed on a sneak and for Tom Brady to drive the length of the field for a game-winning touchdown.

When I’ve looked at the possibility in the past, I haven’t found that teams that up their play toward the end of the season are any more successful the following year than similar teams that don’t peak toward the end of the season. The Bengals did win two of their final three to end 2020, but what made them better was getting back Joe Burrow from his torn ACL and adding a bunch of defensive players in free agency (including D.J. Reader and Trae Waynes, who both signed before 2020 but weren’t available by the end of the season). The Patriots lost three of their last four, while last year’s Niners lost four of their final five.

Jets fans are specifically excited about the improvement in Wilson since the rookie returned from his knee injury in Week 12. The No. 2 overall pick has cut down on turnovers, which is important, but there’s not much to get enthused about otherwise. He’s completing 56% of his passes and averaging less than 6 yards per attempt, which is replacement-level production. His completion percentage over expectation (CPOE) over that timeframe is a league-worst minus-11.8%. This feels a lot like the late-season strides we saw Sam Darnold supposedly making during his time with New York, only for those improvements to invariably disappear the following season.

To be fair, Wilson isn’t working with a ton of talent at receiver, and his 4.9% drop rate over that timeframe ranks sixth in the league. He’ll get back Elijah Moore and Corey Davis next season — and Braxton Berrios looks like he’s going to be a useful slot receiver — but the offense isn’t even the problem with this team. Saleh’s defense ranks 32nd in just about every major category. They’ll get a key player back from injury in Carl Lawson, but the Jets have major work to do this offseason.

They’re also stuck in a very competitive division. We saw the Bengals rise from the bottom of what looked to be a stacked AFC North in one year, but I would rather take my chances with a team that has to come from last place in a division where there’s one dominant team. Instead, the Jets have to make major improvements and hope that the Bills and Patriots both decline, while the Dolphins don’t build off of their seven-game winning streak or make a major upgrade at quarterback. I don’t like the chances of the Jets accomplishing all of that in 2022, even if they do improve on what we saw in 2021.

Oh, boy. Where do we start? The Giants have taken another step backward in 2021, hitting what might be rock bottom over the past 48 hours. Facing a 5-10 Bears team with a lame-duck coach, the Giants delivered one of the most putrid offensive performances in league history and became the first team in 12 years to finish a game with negative net passing yards. Despite being down 22-3 at halftime, they responded to a Mike Glennon fumble on the opening snap by running the ball on 22 of their 23 remaining snaps during the half.

Coach Joe Judge followed the 29-3 defeat with one of the more bizarre news conferences in recent memory, insisting that the team was on the right track and that former Giants players who made more money elsewhere were calling him and wishing they were back in New York. (The only player this could plausibly be is defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, who admittedly might not be having much fun with the Vikings.)

ESPN’s Adam Schefter has reported that the Giants plan on bringing back Judge and QB Daniel Jones for the 2022 season. If Judge’s past few weeks haven’t soured ownership on his future, and if they plan to bring back Jones for a fourth season as their starting quarterback, there’s no point in writing anything else. Even if we saw the sort of disastrous 2020 season in which the top of the NFC East cratered, the Giants haven’t shown any evidence of sustained competency.

On the other hand, they do have something that could interest the teams looking to trade away veteran quarterbacks: two top-10 picks, with New York currently projected to land the Nos. 5 and 8 overall selections by ESPN’s Football Power Index. The Eagles have three first-rounders, but the two more lucrative picks might give the Giants the inside track to land a quarterback such as Russell Wilson or Aaron Rodgers via trade.

If that happens, even given Judge’s track record, a massive improvement at quarterback would probably turn around the Giants. I’m not sure that would be enough to win the division, but the Cowboys are likely to regress on defense in 2022 given their remarkable turnover rate. More likely, we’ll see New York hire a new general manager, make those two picks and continue to wonder why the franchise is going nowhere.

The Jaguars were in the top spot last year, but I’m not quite as enthused this time around. The 2021 Jags projected for meaningful improvement, but the disastrous Urban Meyer season erased much of that optimism. Jacksonville will finish with a worse point differential than it did in 2020, even if it does manage to come away with an additional victory this time around.

I’m also not as pessimistic about the AFC South. The Titans projected to decline in 2021, but despite losing running back Derrick Henry for half the year, Mike Vrabel’s team managed to overcome the odds. To be fair, they will also project to decline in 2020, given that they’re 11-5 and somehow came into Week 17 ranked behind the likes of the Seahawks and Vikings at 20th in DVOA. Given how Ryan Tannehill & Co. overcame the odds this season, I’ll be a little nervous about projecting them to decline next season.

The Colts are a legitimately good team, as they ranked eighth in DVOA before Sunday’s upset loss to the Raiders. The Texans are a mess, but they’ll finally get a full complement of draft picks in April, and there’s a chance that they’ll end up trading quarterback Deshaun Watson to add more selections. They’ll be a more talented team in 2022 than they were in 2021, and while the Jaguars have QB Trevor Lawrence, I’m not sure we can count on the rest of the Jags’ roster being competitive with the AFC South.

I was too optimistic about Jacksonville’s chances to begin with, but I also think that we saw how dramatically their chances were capped by hiring a totally overmatched person to run football operations. It’s also fair to note that the Jaguars could take a leap forward if they hire the right person to take over as coach this offseason. It’s probably not going to produce a playoff appearance unless they could land someone such as Andy Reid or Bill Belichick, but hiring the right person to foster Lawrence’s career is more important than a playoff run in 2022.

By their record, the Lions are the worst team in the NFC. Given how they’ve competed from week to week, though, it’s hard to feel like they are worse off heading into 2022 than the Giants, Bears or Panthers, who have major questions about their present and future identities. If feels like the Lions are moving in the right direction, even if they’ve managed to win only two games.

As you might suspect from a team that has had its heart broken more than once this season, the underlying numbers suggest the Lions are better than their record would indicate. While they will hit Week 18 with a 2-13-1 record, they are 1-5-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Their point differential suggests they would have won 4.3 games with average luck this season.

Of course, 4.3 games is still far away from winning a division, but don’t underestimate how quickly things can change from year to year. We’ve seen a handful of teams over the past 20 years with similar profiles take an unexpected leap and make it to the playoffs:

  • The 2011 Vikings went 3-13 with a 5.5-win point differential and finished 10-6 in Adrian Peterson’s MVP season the following year, advancing to the playoffs in the process.

  • The 2016 Jaguars went from 3-13 to 10-6 and a division title the following season, improving on their 5.9-win point differential.

  • The 2007 Dolphins seemed hopeless at 1-15 despite their 3.8-win point differential in the same division as the 16-0 Patriots, but they improved to 11-5 in 2008 and won the AFC East.

You might remember there was a big difference at quarterback between the 2007 and 2008 Patriots, as they went from reigning league MVP Tom Brady to untested backup Matt Cassel after the future Hall of Famer tore an ACL in Week 1. There’s a similarly imposing presence atop the NFC North in Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and while I don’t expect or want Rodgers to suffer a serious injury, the Lions’ chances of winning the North would improve considerably if the MVP favorite was traded out of the division this offseason.

The Packers would still be favorites with their roster and Jordan Love at the helm, but if Rodgers doesn’t factor in this discussion, things change quickly. The Vikings are 7-9 and about to face their own internal reckoning surrounding Kirk Cousins this offseason, which could lead to a rebuild. The Bears are 6-10, but they’re also going to turn over most of their offense and could make new hires at coach and general manager. It’s entirely possible that they’re worse at most of the sport’s key positions than the Lions are in 2022.

So much comes down to what the Lions do this offseason. It’s unclear whether they’ll be starting quarterback Jared Goff in 2022 after an uneven season, but Tim Boyle isn’t the answer, either. We’ve seen a young core of players begin to emerge here with offensive tackle Penei Sewell, cornerback Amani Oruwariye, running back D’Andre Swift and wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who is sixth in the league in receiving yards over the past five weeks.

With two first-round draft picks and approximately $50 million in cap space after some expected cuts, Detroit will be able to add more talent this offseason. The most important factor for its 2022 chances, though, might come down to what happens in Green Bay after the season ends

In each of his college stops at Temple and Baylor, Matt Rhule followed a dismal first season with a drastically improved second season. By Year 3, his teams were competing for a conference title. I don’t think he thought he could turn the Panthers around overnight, but if you asked him where he thought they would be by the end of their second season together, I suspect he would have been confident that they would be a competitive football team.

Well, the Panthers are not on schedule. After losing to the Saints 18-10 on Sunday, they have dropped to 5-11 this season. Rhule’s team has lost 11 of its past 13 games after a 3-0 start that included wins over the Jets, Saints and Texans to start the season. If anything, it has taken a step backward; the 2020 Panthers ranked 21st in DVOA, but these Panthers were 28th before the Saints loss and could drop even further before the season’s over. They finish up with a trip to play the Buccaneers in Tampa, Florida, next Sunday, and it would be a surprise if they pulled out a victory.

Rhule has rebuilt the team in his desired image, as just five of the 22 players who started the final game of the 2019 season are on the Panthers roster, but the early returns are mixed. They are the league’s seventh-youngest team by snap-adjusted age, but their drafts have delivered mixed results. Defensive tackle Derrick Brown, the No. 7 overall pick in 2020, was taken out of the starting lineup for games over the past month of the season. Cornerback Jaycee Horn got off to a good start, but the rookie No. 8 overall pick lasted only three games before suffering a season-ending foot injury.

The Panthers passed up quarterbacks Justin Fields and Mac Jones to take Horn and traded two picks to acquire Sam Darnold, who is guaranteed $18.9 million in 2022. After excelling in positive game scripts to start the season, the best thing Darnold did to improve his standing with the team was get injured; by the time he was ready to return, the organization was desperate to insert him into the lineup. He went 17-of-26 for just 132 yards with an interception in Sunday’s loss to the Saints.

Darnold is likely to be on the roster next season given his salary, but the Panthers will almost surely throw themselves back into the hunt for one of the league’s top quarterbacks this offseason. If they can land an Aaron Rodgers or a Russell Wilson, there might be enough on the defensive side of the ball and in terms of weapons for them to make a sudden leap. If that doesn’t happen, they would probably need a sudden drop-off or retirement from Tom Brady to open back up the NFC South for business. AFC East teams spent most of the past decade waiting for that to happen, so I’m not sure it’s a winning strategy for 2022.

If the Broncos could just get steady quarterback play, they might already be one of the league’s best teams. They were 7-6 with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm before he suffered a serious injury in Week 15 against the Bengals. They lost that game 15-10 and then dropped consecutive games to the Raiders and Chargers, dropping their playoff chances from 27% to the full zero. The Broncos have not made it to the postseason since winning Super Bowl 50 in the 2015 season.

The tough part in evaluating their chances of winning the division in 2022 is what we don’t know about their quarterback situation. Bridgewater is a free agent. Drew Lock isn’t the answer. Denver was the team most popularly linked to Aaron Rodgers over the spring, and if he goes back on the trade market, the Broncos would be the best on-field fit, even if they couldn’t offer the best possible haul of picks in return. Likewise, they would be a viable fit for Russell Wilson if the Seahawks star rekindles his trade push this offseason.

What happens if they don’t, though? Will the Broncos use their first-round pick on a quarterback in a draft class that isn’t expected to have difference-makers? Will the veteran alternatives be much better than Bridgewater? If they trade for someone such as Kirk Cousins, they should be better in 2022 than they were in 2021, but does that give them the ceiling to compete with the Chargers, let alone the Chiefs, in the AFC West?

Likewise, it’s unclear what they’ll do with coach Vic Fangio, whose defense ranked 19th in DVOA heading into Week 17. Fangio couldn’t do much this week given his team’s COVID-19-enforced absences, but if the Broncos do fire him, they will have made it to Year 4 with exactly one coach (John Fox) since letting Mike Shanahan leave. It’s easy to see how much promising talent they have on both sides of the football, but the two most important spots for a football team to fill are quarterback and head coach. General manager George Paton will probably have to nail both those hires this offseason to have a shot at winning the West in 2022, and he might not have access to the signal-callers he needs to succeed.

With Monday night’s loss to the Steelers, the Browns are back in the AFC North basement with one game to go. Kevin Stefanski’s team would jump to third next week if it beats the Bengals and the Steelers beat the Ravens, but if that doesn’t happen, it will finish in last place for the first time since 2017.

I’m not really sure the 2021 Browns are really that much different from the guys who went 11-5 and made it to the playoffs in 2020. Those Browns were outscored by 19 points and went 7-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer. This season, as they hit the 17th game at 7-9, they have been outscored by 27 points while going 4-6 in games decided by seven points or fewer. They would be at a minus-20 point differential and 4-7 in those one-score games if it weren’t for Najeh Harris’ fantasy-busting touchdown in garbage time.

When I wrote before the season about the Browns’ chances of declining, I mentioned their health along the offensive line and red zone performance as likely places that would drive a worse record. If you watched Monday Night Football, you saw how the absence of right tackle Jack Conklin helped spur a career night from T.J. Watt, who had four sacks. The red zone offense has still been effective, ranking fifth in the NFL, but the Browns are 27th in defensive red zone conversion rate.



Baker Mayfield says he is not sure whether he will play in the Browns’ final game of the season because of injury concerns.

Better play in the red zone on defense and a healthier team, especially on the offensive side of the ball, is Cleveland’s ticket toward a better season in 2022. Conklin should be back, and the Browns obviously will hope for a healthy year from Baker Mayfield, who battled through a shoulder injury for most of the season. Just about every key contributor from this team will be back, and Cleveland will have close to $40 million in cap space. It has the best roster of any of these eight teams.

On the other hand, the AFC North remains one of the most difficult divisions in football, and it’s unclear what sort of ceiling the Browns have with Mayfield at the helm. It would be a surprise if they gave Mayfield an extension this offseason, but with the 2018 No. 1 overall pick entering his fifth-year option campaign, it would also be unexpected if they brought in somebody to take his job. Without a change at quarterback, the Browns might only be able to settle in this nine-win range, so it might take another bit of luck in close games for them to jump atop the AFC North for the first time in division history.

So many of these teams have a future that depends on the identity of their 2022 quarterback. The Seahawks are no exception, but unlike many of the other teams on this list, they have to worry about keeping their guy. Sunday’s comfortable victory over the Lions felt like it had end-of-an-era vibes for the three most conspicuous people left from the Legion of Boom teams in coach Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner.

My guess is that all the three will be back. Wagner, who was hurt on the opening snap of the game on Sunday, has a $20.4 million cap hit in the final year of his deal. The Seahawks would save $16.6 million in cap space by releasing the veteran linebacker, but I suspect the two sides could work out a compromise with a pay cut, given that he’s not likely to take home a $16.4 million base salary if he’s released. The 70-year-old Carroll hasn’t hinted that he wants to retire or move on from Seattle.

Wilson is the most important one of the bunch, and his status is the most uncertain of the three. After pushing for a trade last offseason, he battled through the most difficult season of his career. He also gave an answer “out of nowhere” last week wondering whether this would be his final home game in Seattle. At the very least, given how disappointing a season it was for both Wilson and the Seahawks alike, it’s fair to wonder if the star quarterback’s frustrations were addressed over the past year. It would hardly be a surprise if he wanted to move on again this spring.

If Seattle does trade Wilson, its chances of competing would depend on his replacement. A move for someone like Jared Goff, whom offensive coordinator Shane Waldron worked with during their time with the Rams, probably wouldn’t move the needle. The 49ers probably wouldn’t trade Jimmy Garoppolo within the division, nor would the Packers prefer to ship Aaron Rodgers to the Pacific Northwest.

I still think Wilson will return, and if he does, the Seahawks should be able to bounce back. They won’t have their first-round pick, which complicates matters, but there’s another avenue for general manager John Schneider to add talent. The offensive core is still around for another season, and if Wagner is released, they would have about $70 million in cap space to rebuild their roster. The NFC West complicates things, given that they would be competing with as many three playoff teams from 2021, but we just saw the Bengals overcome that in the AFC North.

It’s also fair to argue that Seattle really isn’t that much worse than teams of years past. The 2019 and 2020 Seahawks outperformed their Pythagorean expectation by winning close games; they went a combined 23-9 with an expected win total of 18.2 wins, owing to the fact that Wilson & Co. went 16-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer. This season, they are 6-10 with the point differential of an 8.6-win team, which is right in line with their 9.1-expected win average between 2019 and 2020. The difference is that they have gone 2-5 in the one-score games.

I’m assuming here that the Seahawks run things back in 2022 with Wilson, Carroll and a remodeled roster. If so, given their level of play in the past and their similarly-high underlying performance in 2021, they are the best-positioned team of the bunch to rise back up to first in their division.

Source: ESPN

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