It's that time of year again, the months-long window between the end of the NFL draft and the start of training camp, the period in which rosters are largely locked in, schedules are set, and it feels much safer to make predictions about the upcoming season.
Many of us like to pretend we know what's going to happen, but the truth is that we're guessing. Some guesses are informed, some emotional. But they're guesses nonetheless. If we were truly capable of predicting the future, there would be no such thing as sportsbooks.
At the risk of humbling -- if not humiliating -- myself, I'm going on record with a prediction for three teams in the 2022 campaign: I expect each of them to make a deep postseason run after missing the playoffs altogether last season.
For perspective, my choices last year at this time were the Chargers, Cardinals and 49ers, who barely missed the playoffs (Los Angeles), lost in the opening round (Arizona) and lost in the conference title game (San Francisco). Make of that what you will, but here are my selections for the upcoming season, ranked in countdown fashion.
REASONS TO BE BULLISH: Inconsistent quarterback play was a major reason the Colts missed the playoffs last season, but that should not be an issue this year with the arrival of Matt Ryan, the former league MVP who will be taking over for Carson Wentz.
The Colts thought they had their long-term answer at quarterback when they traded for Wentz before last season. He was being reunited with coach Frank Reich -- his coordinator in Philadelphia when he had his best campaign -- and would take over an offense that featured a talented line and solid running game.
But Wentz faded after the calendar flipped to December, throwing for multiple touchdowns only once in his final five games and losing his final two starts, including Week 18 against woeful Jacksonville, when a victory would have earned the Colts a playoff berth. His struggles led ownership to seek a change, and with Wentz traded to Washington, a path was cleared for Ryan, who was acquired in a swap with Atlanta.
Ryan might be closer to the finish line than the starting blocks in terms of his career, but the 37-year-old is still playing at a high level. His run of 10 consecutive seasons with 4,000 yards passing ended last year, but that had more to do with a lack of weapons than it did with Ryan. And the fact that the Indianapolis offense is built around running back Jonathan Taylor, who led the league in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns last season, means Ryan won’t have to carry an unhealthy share of the load.
Defensively, the Colts addressed an area of concern by acquiring talented pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue from Las Vegas. He joins a unit that finished among the top 10 in scoring the past two seasons and has playmakers among the front seven.
REASONS TO BE SKITTISH: The receiving corps is largely unproven and the secondary is thin. The Colts allowed Zach Pascal to depart for the Eagles and T.Y. Hilton remains a free agent, leaving them without a pair of veterans who made big catches over the years. The only proven threat is Michael Pittman Jr., though he could find it harder to make plays if there isn’t a reliable complement on the other side. Former second-round pick Parris Campbell has talent but has played in just 15 of a possible 49 games to this point in his career. Indianapolis used its first two draft selections on a wideout (Alec Pierce) and tight end (Jelani Woods) and later added another tight end (Andrew Ogletree), but these rookies are question marks until they prove themselves. Also, the left tackle spot will be an area to watch with Matt Pryor, who has 15 career starts in three seasons, expected to get the first crack at protecting Ryan’s blind side.
In the defensive backfield, the Colts will have two new starters on the perimeter after trading Rock Ya-Sin for Ngakoue and opting not to re-sign Xavier Rhodes. Veterans Brandon Facyson and Isaiah Rodgers will be competing for the job opposite 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, but neither is a proven starter. Third-round draft pick Nick Cross is expected to contend for playing time at safety and could be a factor, but regardless of how it shakes out, the secondary is an area of concern.
REASONS TO BE BULLISH: A loaded roster got even stronger with the trade for edge rusher Khalil Mack and the free-agent signings of cornerback J.C. Jackson, defensive linemen Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson, and tight end Gerald Everett. These were not meh signings. They were major additions. In Mack, they got a potential double-digit sack performer and top-flight run defender. In Jackson, they landed arguably the top cornerback in free agency. In Joseph-Day and Johnson, they picked up key pieces to shore up a leaky run defense. And in Everett, they acquired a more consistent and dependable tight end.
The Chargers were talented enough to make the playoffs last season but did not earn a spot, largely because of defensive issues and questionable game-management decisions by Brandon Staley in his first season as a head coach.
Offensively, the Chargers have one of the game’s top young quarterbacks in Justin Herbert, a deep receiving corps led by Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, an underappreciated running back in Austin Ekeler and a promising line with a mix of veterans and blossoming young talent. Defensively, they have premier edge rushers in Mack and Joey Bosa, a solid interior line with Joseph-Day and Johnson, a linebacker corps that was upgraded with the signing of Kyle Van Noy and a secondary that should be among the league’s best with Jackson joining safety Derwin James and slot corner Asante Samuel Jr.
Lastly, the early-season schedule sets up nicely for them -- on paper. The Chiefs are going through a transitional phase on defense, and the Chargers get them in Week 2, before they have a chance to jell. They also get Jacksonville and Houston -- who combined for seven wins last year -- in the first four weeks. And in Week 5, they get Cleveland, which could be without Deshaun Watson, pending the outcome of the league's investigation into allegations of sexual assault and misconduct made against the quarterback.
REASONS TO BE SKITTISH: Seemingly every year, we say the Chargers have the talent to make a deep playoff run. And seemingly every year, they fail to do so. In fact, they’ve missed the postseason in seven of the past eight years, finishing last in the division three times in that span. Is it culture? Coaching? Player fit? Who knows? The only certainty is that something always seems to go wrong.
If we’re nit-picking, the Bolts have potential concerns at right tackle and linebacker in pass coverage. But neither area is glaring, which means the biggest question mark could be on the sideline with Staley, in terms of game-management decisions.
REASONS TO BE BULLISH: When a fighter absorbs major body blow after major body blow, that fighter typically wears down in the late rounds. But that wasn’t the case with the Saints last season, despite losing so many key players to injury. The fact that many of those players are returning and the roster has been significantly upgraded at key areas of concern influenced my decision to make them one of my favorites to go from watching the playoffs to making a deep run. But what puts them at No. 1 is the fact that they play in the NFC, which will offer a much smoother road to the Super Bowl than the loaded AFC, which is as deep as I can recall in nearly three decades covering the league.
The Saints’ 9-8 finish last season was impressive considering they lost quarterback Jameis Winston (torn ACL) for the final 10 games and started four different players at the position; were without two-time All-Pro wide receiver Michael Thomas (ankle) the entire year; lost defensive linemen David Onyemata (suspension) and Marcus Davenport (shoulder) for six games each; and had an offensive line that was in constant flux due to tackles Terron Armstead (elbow/knee) and Ryan Ramczyk (knee/COVID-19) missing nine and seven games, respectively, and guard Andrus Peat missing the final 11 games because of a torn pec. Star running back Alvin Kamara was sidelined for four games with a knee injury, and backup Mark Ingram missed four contests due to injury and COVID-19 after being traded back to New Orleans at midseason.
Can we really expect that type of misfortune to strike New Orleans again this year? I don’t think so. In the meantime, the roster appears to be loaded. Winston and Thomas are on schedule to be ready for training camp, and the receiving corps could be among the deepest in the league after being one of the shallower units last season. The Saints did not have a player reach 700 yards or 50 receptions last season, but this year they should have Thomas, who averaged 118 catches for 1,378 yards in his first four seasons, speedy rookie first-rounder Chris Olave, free-agent pickup Jarvis Landry and returning threat Marquez Callaway, who had a team-high six receiving touchdowns in 2021.
On defense, they signed free-agent safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye, and drafted cornerback Alontae Taylor in the second round. They also used the second of their two first-round picks on offensive tackle Trevor Penning, who could compete to replace the departed Armstead.
REASONS TO BE SKITTISH: There has been significant turnover at some spots, most notably head coach. Sean Payton stepped down after 15 seasons, nine playoff appearances and a Super Bowl championship. He cast a long shadow over the organization and was at the center of every football decision. How will the Saints adjust to his absence? If nothing else, the changeover is expected to be smooth, with defensive coordinator Dennis Allen being promoted to succeed Payton. Allen was 8-28 in two-plus seasons as coach of the Raiders, from 2012 through '14, but it’s unfair to judge him on that. The Raiders were one of the league’s more dysfunctional franchises at that time. Allen inherited a situation in which the team was well over the salary cap and did not have a 2012 draft pick in the first three rounds before ultimately receiving a compensatory selection.
It's worth noting the Saints could be without their most dynamic player for some time with the possibility of a suspension looming for Kamara, who is facing battery charges after his February arrest. Also, keep an eye on changes in the secondary. Both starting safeties are gone after Malcolm Jenkins retired and Marcus Williams signed with the Ravens. Armstead, a three-time Pro Bowler at left tackle, signed with Miami in free agency. Mathieu and Maye are talented safeties, but how long will it take for them to get comfortable on a new team and in a new system? That said, the good news for the Saints is that there appears to be only one true competitor (Tampa Bay) for the division title. That’s another reason they’re my favorite to make the deepest playoff run among teams that did not qualify for the postseason last season.