Welcome to the Hub’s 2021-22 NFL season preview. To preview the upcoming year, we’re breaking all 32 NFL teams down into three categories: those that can’t win the Super Bowl, those that probably can’t get there and those that absolutely can.
To start, let’s kick it off with the eight teams who don’t have any shot at winning Super Bowl 56, with reasoning to follow. Note: The following teams are listed in no particular order.
The reason they can’t: While the Colts have overcome their preseason injury bug to a degree, there’s still not enough talent here overall. Indianapolis’ offense and coaching is an upgrade from what Carson Wentz had in Philadelphia, but with T.Y. Hilton out, the Colts really lack a true No. 1 wide receiver that Wentz can rely on. Additionally, left tackle is a big question mark with Eric Fisher out for part of the season and Sam Tevi out for the year. Those two question marks do not bode well for a quarterback whose ability to handle pressure has seemingly fallen off a cliff in recent years.
The defense has holes at every level – most notably at linebacker, where Darius Leonard has a lot on his shoulders. It’s not a group that’s going to carry the offense, even if Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack are the best backfield in football.
The reason they can’t: It was tough to not elevate the Bears into the next category, just because their ceiling with Justin Fields under center is so much higher than it is with Andy Dalton. But there’s no way to know when that day will come – it certainly won’t be Sunday, at least to start out.
In addition, even with Fields in the mix, problems are present. The offensive line on paper may not look like a disaster, but the center position is a question mark, and Germain Ifedi was let go by the Seahawks of all teams for a reason. Even with Fields’ running ability and some underrated weapons, rookie QBs should be as comfortable as possible. Chicago will not make Fields feel that way.
In years past, this was a defense that could overcome the troubles of the offense – specifically quarterback play. It’s how the Bears went 12-4 and made the playoffs in 2018-19. This group isn’t quite as ferocious, though. Cornerback is an extremely thin position, and the talent is concerning behind Jaylon Johnson. A lot rests on Roquan Smith at linebacker, although the fearsomeness of the defensive line still exists with Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn. Even so, Smith and Chicago’s safeties – Eddie Jackson (who oddly declined last year) and Tashaun Gipson Jr. (who’s kind of been a journeyman himself since the year he led the league in interceptions) – have a lot to make up for, and that’s just on their side of the ball.
The reason they can’t: It would simply be too much of a step up to expect Daniel Jones to make this year. Elevating from a well-below average quarterback to an above-average quarterback, which is what would be necessary given New York’s good-but-not-great defense, is almost unprecedented in NFL history (Yes, Josh Allen is a very recent example, but one could debate how below average he truly was before last year), and Jones has shown zero flashes that suggest he could do that (Unlike Allen, who was initially seen as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2018 Draft).
That said, Jones should be better this season. The Giants invested heavily in weapons over the offseason. Aside from a still shaky offensive line, there’s no more excuses for Jones. If he still struggles, the Giants are looking at a player who needs a near perfect situation, on both sides of the ball, to succeed. Better QBs, and therefore easier tasks for a front office, can be found.
The reason they can’t: It’s hard to slam the Jets for their defense, but some of it was avoidable.
Season-ending injuries to Carl Lawson and Jarrad Davis are brutal, but cornerback was the team’s second-biggest weakness entering the offseason, and not much was done to correct it. New York has good safety play in stud Marcus Maye and LaMarcus Joyner, but there will be a lot of responsibility on those two, especially with CJ Mosley being more of a run-stuffing presence than a cover linebacker.
The offense comes down to how much one believes in Zach Wilson. The offensive line is as good as it has been in years, and the weapons core is better than former quarterback Sam Darnold ever had it. But there’s no clear No. 1 option in the pass-catching corps, and Wilson being totally overmatched as a pro shouldn’t come as surprising.
The reason they can’t: This roster makes it quite clear how the Lions feel about Jared Goff as their starting quarterback long-term.
There is just no real support system for him here, which is what he will need to be successful. Detroit’s receivers are awful. The defense, especially the secondary, has many holes. It’s not a group that is strong enough to carry a bad offense to .500 (or, now with 17 games, around .500) or the playoffs. Goff’s offensive line is quite good, which could lead to a productive season for D’Andre Swift and the rest of the Lions’ young running backs. But we’ve seen Goff flame out in the past in a scheme built around a strong running game and play action. In his favor then was a much better head coach, and one of the league’s best defenses. The Lions don’t possess either of those.
The reason they can’t: Not going to lie about it – the Texans received consideration for the next group of teams up.
In no way are the Texans Super Bowl – let alone playoff – contenders. But Houston doesn’t have the worst roster in football, and in that particular superlative, they aren’t even close.
The offensive line is the best it has been in years. With whatever underwhelming quarterback they throw out there in DeShaun Watson’s absence, that will pay dividends. To help overcome QB deficiencies, the Texans have two solid lead running backs in Mark Ingram and Phillip Lindsay, a third in David Johnson if he’s healthy, and a perfect complimentary back in Rex Burkhead. At the worst, one of those four can be flipped at the trade deadline for a late-round pick.
The defense is not very good, with holes aplenty. The biggest reason why there’s no case for the Texans to be in the next bunch is because their quarterback will likely be career backup Tyrod Taylor or rookie third-rounder Davis Mills throughout the season. But while Houston should be picking in the top five of 2022’s draft, it wouldn’t be shocking if they were closer to No. 10 than No. 1.
The reason they can’t: This Panthers field the best surrounding roster Darnold has had in his NFL career. That doesn’t mean he’ll take advantage of it, or that it will be enough.
While he has a weapons core that has high potential, the line in front of Darnold is still suspect. Matt Paradis and Taylor Moton are the only starters who can be penciled in to hold their own. The rest of the line is filled with journeymen and low-end starters. That’s bad news for Darnold, who already struggles to make decisions even with a clean pocket. A flustered Darnold, even with better weapons, will not lead to less turnovers.
Carolina’s defense is good, especially up front. The defensive line will have to make up for the presence of only one true linebacker, and the secondary has some holes as well. It could be a good defense that gets Carolina to the playoffs, but that’s an iffy bet, and with Darnold being a complete unknown, it’s hard to make a case for Carolina being a contender.
The reason they can’t: It was a surprise to place Atlanta in this group of teams. It has been a sneaky sleeper team since the drafting of Kyle Pitts, which was for seemingly good reason. But it’s not the offense that’s the issue, it’s the defense.
The secondary is a mess, with Duron Harmon probably slotting in as the only projected average player in the group. Deion Jones is Atlanta’s only bankable linebacker, and his health is a massive wild card every season (as is everyone’s on this Atlanta team). The line is perhaps the defense’s best position group, but there’s no dominant pass-rusher who can single-handedly wreck games.
The Falcons are going to score a lot of points. A key stop that they will need here and there though may be hard to come by.
Now, let’s partially dive into the next category: Teams that probably won’t win Super Bowl 56, but have a case that could be made for them to do so. Again, these six teams are listed in no particular order. Note: Part 2 of this category will be released tomorrow, and the final category will be released on Thursday.
The reason they can: This was arguably the most unstoppable offense in football in 2020 before Dak Prescott’s horrible, gruesome ankle injury. If Ezekiel Elliot is still ‘Zeke’ and Prescott is the same player, then they should be able to outscore anyone – other issues be damned. There’s no better trio of wide receivers in football with Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, and the offensive line still has two studs in Zack Martin (who will be out in Week 1 due to a breakthrough positive COVID-19 case) and Tyron Smith.
The reason they can’t: Well, it’s the Cowboys. Mike McCarthy had his issues early last season, and his ability to guide an elite offense still seems suspect. Prescott had his ankle pointing the other direction less than a year ago, and it’s fair to wonder whether that should be talked about more. He also has what’s been described as a “baseball-style” injury somewhere in his upper-body. Elliot has teetered on the elite label the past two seasons, and the defense, particularly the secondary, has numerous holes. Dallas might also be giving up bomb after bomb down the field. Case in point: It’s the Cowboys.
The reason they can: This season and situation is going to be the tell-all test for Teddy Bridgewater and what his status and legacy really means. How far can situation and non-below-average quarterback play get you? Well, this year’s Broncos will be the answer.
The Broncos did it before, when Peyton Manning was on his last legs in 2015-16. There was no way Denver got as far as it did without the defense and weapons core it had in place – Manning was arguably below average that year. Denver’s defense this season is one of the best units in the league, with a front that can wreck teams’ offenses. Bridgewater has a good offensive line in front of him and more weapons than he seemingly needs. Every piece is in place for Denver to make a miracle run. It just comes down to whether Bridgewater is the guy we think he is or not.
The reason they can’t: The defense isn’t perfect, which is what it might take. Linebacker isn’t very talented nor is it deep – Denver will be relying on rookie Baron Browning heavily at that spot. The secondary and front will have his back, but most dynamic defenses have at least one stud in the middle. Even with the offense being set up the way it is, asking Bridgewater to do enough to win the Super Bowl (versus making the playoffs) is a whole different ball-game, and Denver may need a more offensive-minded head coach to get them there.
The reason they can: The offense had its moments last year, with Henry Ruggs III occasionally looking like Tyreek Hill when he was healthy and forcing Derek Carr to throw the ball deep. In a perfect world, Carr has two high-impact targets in Ruggs III and tight end Darren Waller, with plenty of depth behind them in Hunter Renfrow, Zay Jones and Willie Snead IV. Josh Jacobs also exists, which gives Las Vegas a potentially lethal attack offensively.
The reason they can’t: The other end of the ball, which has plagued Las Vegas for years no matter what it looks like on paper. This is perhaps their best unit in that regard, with the back seven hole-free. But the Raiders’ secondary has been a turnstyle year after year, and the defensive line needs a couple different players – most notably Yannick Ngakoue and Gerald McCoy – to step up. Additionally, Carr turning into an elite quarterback seems like a stretch at this point in his career, which lowers the Raiders’ ceiling and puts even more pressure on a defense that’s shown no evidence that it can handle it.
The reason they can: It’s simply about Tua Tagovailoa and whether he’s the guy we thought he was out of college or not. That player was someone who could make any throw within 25 yards thanks to pristine accuracy and awareness in addition to having the ability to make plays with his legs. Last year, Tagovailoa was coming off of a devastating hip injury, a subdued training camp and no preseason all while playing in an offense that was designed specifically for Ryan Fitzpatrick and not him. The offensive line is a little suspect, but Miami has one of the deepest receiver rooms in football. Tagovailoa should be able to elevate them, and if he can’t, then they can do the reverse instead.
The reason they can’t: The defense just may not be good enough if Tagovailoa is the type of quarterback who needs substantial help. The Dolphins have one of the best secondaries in football, but the front seven is young and only possesses one or two impact guys (that’s including rookie Jaelen Phillips, who is hard to bet on because of his youth). Additionally, expecting Tagovailoa to emerge as an above-average-to-elite QB might be unreasonable – even with his injury and all the other complications he faced, his lows were quite low last year.
The reason they can: The defense should be a lot better, with the potential to be a load-carrying group if Kirk Cousins is the reason the offense is held back. If he can be average or better, then the Vikings should score plenty. Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook is about as good of a one back, two receiver set up that a team could ask for. The offensive line has gotten better, although right tackle and center are both still a big question mark. Minnesota has the potential on both sides of the ball. On the margins is where concern lies.
The reason they can’t: If Kirk Cousins is in his best form, is that enough? Or what if he is and the line sucks? If he’s worse than his best, it’s over for Minnesota. Additionally, the defense isn’t as loaded as you’d like it to be – cornerback has no one guaranteed to be successful as it’s a group of flyers. The safeties help, but there’s also a hole at one of the linebacker positions. Cousins is just a little tough to bet on after such a large lack of improvement last decade, and even if Minnesota is serious about putting pressure on his starting role, all Kellen Mond did in college at Texas A&M was underwhelm.
The reason they can: The offense has the chance to be special. Arizona alleviated any concerns about not having enough wide receivers by adding AJ Green and Rondale Moore over the offseason. They pivoted full-time to Chase Edmonds as the starter at running back instead of relying on underqualified or washed up players to assume a high-volume starting role. That would lead one to believe that the Cardinals are ready to air it out this season, and put head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense on full display with perhaps the largest dose of Kyler Murray’s legs we’ve ever seen, because when he runs, the Cardinals’ offense clicks.
The reason they can’t: As smart as Kingsbury is, the stars just haven’t aligned for him quite yet as he enters his third season at the helm, and if they don’t this year, then he’ll be out of excuses for the reasons above. Additionally, cornerback is a complete mess for Arizona, with Malcolm Butler’s surprise retirement putting them in a tough spot less than two weeks before the season-opener. Jordan Phillips to the IR hurts as well, although the Cardinals have gotten used to him not being available as his free agent signing looks like a total disaster. Arizona also plays in a division that has at least two contenders, if not three. The Cardinals are trying to be the fourth, and that will not come easy.