The 2021 NFL season had the ultimate surprise in the Cincinnati Bengals, an organization that was just minutes away from capturing its first Super Bowl title. While the league had excellent stories like the Bengals, there were plenty of teams that took a hit in prestige.
The Seattle Seahawks went from first to worst in the NFC West, the Indianapolis Colts went from a virtual playoff lock with two weeks remaining to missing the postseason altogether, and the Cleveland Browns went from preseason Super Bowl contender to playoff afterthought in the final two months of the season.
The teams that could suffer the same fate as the Seahawks and Browns have many questions that need to be answered in the coming weeks. These teams appear set to take a major step back in 2022, but this is a friendly reminder it's a way-too-early prediction -- as so much can change throughout the offseason (check out our Free Agency Primer for a breakdown of the offseason situations for all 32 teams).
New Orleans Saints (9-8)
The Saints took a fall with the retirement of Drew Brees last offseason. Now, head coach Sean Payton has stepped down after a non-playoff season (the Saints missed the playoffs by a tiebreaker and had four different starting quarterbacks used throughout the year).
Even if New Orleans can overcome the Payton loss, the problem lies in the lack of salary cap space, as the Saints are $75,993,406 over the cap -- an astronomical amount that needs to be reduced this offseason. This limits the Saints to retain their key free agents, as Terron Armstead and Marcus Williams are basically on their way out.
Then there's the matter of Jameis Winston. Do the Saints bring him back for 2022 or does he get a better offer elsewhere? The Saints have an uncertain quarterback situation that has to be addressed, not to mention that they have a new head coach in Dennis Allen who has 8-28 career NFL record and never won more than four games in a season.
The NFC South doesn't appear to be very good, so there's hope for the Saints. The defense will carry this team again, but will it be enough to compete for a playoff spot again?
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-4)
Let's assume Brady actually stays retired. The Buccaneers quarterback situation involves Blaine Gabbert (who is a free agent) and Kyle Trask (a second-round pick who didn't play a snap in his rookie year). Tampa Bay will look at outside options with the Super Bowl window still open, but will have to give up a premium for players like Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Deshaun Watson. The Buccaneers don't exactly have enough cap space to pull off such a move ($3,075,110 under the cap).
Tampa Bay is also primed to lose some of its key free agents this offseason due to the lack of salary cap space available to retain all of them. Chris Godwin, Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, Ryan Jensen, and Rob Gronkowski are all free agents -- and all but Godwin are over 30.
The Buccaneers need to get younger and figure out their quarterback situation, but they should still be competitive in a bad NFC South. If Brady stays retired, the Buccaneers are destined for a drop off -- and their Super Bowl contending window might evaporate as well.
Pittsburgh Steelers (9-7-1)
The Steelers overcame the poor play of Ben Roethlisberger in his final season and an inconsistent defense to make the playoffs, an incredible accomplishment from Mike Tomlin as he again avoided a losing season (he's never had one in his 15 seasons as head coach). Roethlisberger has retired and the Steelers are faced with replacing him for the first time in Tomlin's career, with the in-house options being Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins.
If the Steelers go with their internal options at quarterback, they won't be AFC North title contenders in a division with the upstart Cincinnati Bengals and a Baltimore Ravens team that was first in the division until Lamar Jackson's ankle injury proved the final nail in the coffin on a team that had 21 players on injured reserve throughout the year.
Pittsburgh does have $31,206,582 in available cap space, so the Steelers can spend money and improve the pass defense, but this team isn't competing for the AFC North until the quarterback situation is figured out.
Indianapolis Colts (9-8)
Indianapolis only needed to win one of its final two games to make the playoffs but couldn't get the job done -- losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 18 to cap one of the bigger collapses in NFL history. The Colts front office took the loss hard, not defending quarterback Carson Wentz in the aftermath -- the player who general manager Chris Ballard gave up a 2022 third-round pick and 2022 first-round pick for.
Are the Colts really going to move on from Wentz after one season? Are they going to run it back, knowing how Wentz reacts when he faces a little adversity? If Wentz does return, the 2022 season could be a disaster -- no matter how talented the roster is.
What if Indianapolis moves on from Wentz? What quarterback are they going to target in an offseason where many teams are looking to acquire a superstar quarterback? Especially since there are more attractive situations than Indianapolis?
The Colts can significantly improve the roster with $37,377,327 in available cap space, which needs to be allocated to the wide receiver position and a better pass rush. If Indianapolis decides to retain Wentz and he can't handle the adversity issues (a similar situation as he was in with the Philadelphia Eagles), the 2022 season could be ugly -- even in a weak AFC South.
Las Vegas Raiders (10-7)
The Raiders made a surprise trip to the postseason for the first time in five years, an incredible accomplishment under interim coach Rich Bisaccia --- who was not retained. In comes Josh McDaniels as head coach and Patrick Graham at defensive coordinator, meaning the Raiders have to install a new offensive and defensive scheme for 2022.
The Raiders could have run it back with Bisaccia and retained Gus Bradley at defensive coordinator, but they decided to think long term. Graham runs a much different defense than Bradley, so expect roster turnover on that side of the ball. Las Vegas will also need to add wide receivers and reshape the interior of the defensive line this offseason as a result of the new scheme (and have $20,537,443 in available cap space to improve those areas).
Then there's the matter of the AFC West. The Kansas City Chiefs aren't going anywhere and the Los Angeles Chargers will only get better with Justin Herbert heading into Year 3. What if the Denver Broncos add a superstar quarterback with their talented roster?
Las Vegas will be one of the most intriguing teams to watch this offseason. The Raiders could still be talented in 2022 -- and potentially finish in last in their stacked division.