The NFL season is nearly upon us. With the first game on September 8th, now is the time to cast your NFL season predictions. This series will be split into eight segments for each NFL division. I will take the schedule, notable additions and losses (both as players and coaches) player history and game locations into consideration when predicting each team’s win/loss record. With that being said, please keep in mind that this is just my opinion. The NFL is incredibly competitive and difficult to predict.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Currently constructed in the NFC South, there does not appear to be a clear challenger to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. No other team in the division returns the amount of talent and proven veteran experience that Tampa will be bringing back. Of course, it only helps their odds, with the return of seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady returning. After contemplating retirement this last offseason, Brady opted to return in hopes of claiming his 8th Super Bowl.
In what may be Brady’s last season, the team will still have to endure a few changes. Todd Bowles steps in as coach with Bruce Arians moving to the front office. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is retired (at least for now), leaving Cameron Brate, Kyle Rudolph and rookie Cade Otton to pick up the slack.
Even with the changes this season, Brady will have a plethora of weapons at his disposal. All in all, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage, Brate, Leonard Fournette, Rachaad White and Julio Jones are enough to push them over the rest of the division. Undoubtedly, injuries remain a concern for a few of these weapons. Godwin is likely to be brought back slowly after recovering from an ACL injury. While Julio Jones has missed 14 games in the last two seasons, there should be enough talent to make up for any time missed.
Additionally, the defense is likely to be great again. It is worth noting that Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul remain free agents. If Tampa decides to not bring them back, others will have to step into those roles. Even with questions filling those holes, the rest of the defense has too much talent to suffer any significant step back. Unless something unforeseen happens, all signs point to a return to the 2022 playoffs.
New Orleans Saints
Unlike Tampa, it remains difficult to determine what to make of the Saints. New Orleans returns plenty of great veteran talent, as well as promising young players. Then there remains Jameis Winston. Jameis may very well hold the fate of New Orleans in his hands. His play will largely determine if the team is heading towards a rebuild or contention.
Previously in 2021, Winston looked much improved during the seven-game stretch before his injury. If you believe in that stretch, it is much easier to convince yourself of a bright season in 2022. The problem is that the much larger sample of evidence over his career suggests that may not be a realistic expectation over the course of an entire NFL season. If Winston can continue to avoid turnovers at a career-low rate, the Saints might be a sleeping powerhouse.
Additionally, the Saints will likely miss Kamara for six games due to suspension. New Orleans will also be hoping for health and a return to form for veteran receiver Michael Thomas. Should Thomas look like he did prior to last season, with the addition of Chris Olave, Winston should have plenty of weapons.
The Saints are tied with the Raiders for the seventh-toughest strength of schedule. The good news is that another elite defense returns to New Orleans. The Saints finished fourth in points and seventh in yards allowed last season and they also allowed the fewest yards per carry. If they are to return to the postseason this year, they will need to rely on this side of the ball.
By now it should be no surprise that my outlook for the South is bleak outside of Tampa. Carolina may surprise and be a sneaky competitive team if they can get the most out of Baker Mayfield and Christian McCaffrey. Outside of those two, I remain bullish on the fit and product that will take the field in 2022.
Mayfield remains an improvement at QB for Carolina. This sounds like a compliment until realizing that the bar was set unbelievably low. Even with the said improvement, Baker remains one of the league’s most inconsistent quarterbacks, which makes it hard to bank on any week-to-week consistency for the offense. Furthermore, it remains difficult to believe that McCaffrey will be available for enough games to make a meaningful difference. McCaffrey has only been available for a combined 10 games over the course of the last two seasons.
The Panthers are tied for the 12th-hardest schedule in the NFL. Couple that with a very suspect offense and a coach who may soon be on the hot seat, I don’t expect Carolina to compete for anything other than a high draft pick.
Lastly remains the Atlanta Falcons. Having fully embraced a rebuild this last offseason, fans in Atlanta can expect a painful bumpy ride. Long-time QB and former MVP Matt Ryan is now in Indianapolis. Replacing the former MVP will be Marcus Mariota and rookie Desmond Ridder; neither of which are likely to raise the floor of this team. Atlanta also loses talented wide receiver Calvin Ridley for the year due to suspension.
Atlanta will be relying on production from rookie Drake London and second-year phenom tight end Kyle Pitts. Though both appear to be exciting building blocks, it is rarely advisable to rely on players that young to raise team outlook. Young players typically struggle more with consistency. Expect those pains to be intensified without a proven QB to ease the burden on those young playmakers.
The defense has plenty of nice building blocks with corners A.J. Terrell and Casey Hayward, as well as defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and rookie edge-rusher Arnold Ebiketie. Outside of those four players, the defense remains quite questionable. Expect Atlanta to once again be near the top of the draft. The loss of talent, youth and tough top end of the division will prove to be too much for the Falcons in 2022.