We’ve already discussed Which team won free agency? and Which team won the draft?, not to mention Which team will make the playoffs after missing the postseason last year?
In an attempt to fulfill my contractual obligation and provide copy during the gap between the end of minicamps and start of training camps, I present another peek into the crystal ball: Which five teams will make the biggest net gain in victories from last season?
That should not be construed to mean any of these teams will pull a 2021 Bengals and go from last place in the division to Super Bowl participant. At the same time, it should not be construed to mean that one of them won’t.
What can be said is that each of them will double or nearly double their win totals from a year ago.
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Net improvement: Four wins
Last season, the Jets had a rookie quarterback, first-year head coach and glaring holes across their roster, yet they still managed to double their win total from the previous season. Against that backdrop, it stands to reason that they should at least double last season’s four-win total this year with significantly upgraded personnel and QB Zach Wilson having a year of experience behind him. Wilson was sacked 44 times last season, but part of that was due to him holding the ball too long, perhaps hoping to minimize mistakes by waiting to see receivers break free, which didn’t happen with regularity. But in 2022, he has safety nets in running backs Breece Hall, Michael Carter and Tevin Coleman, as well as free-agent tight end C.J. Uzomah, plus a dangerous deep threat in rookie first-round pick Garrett Wilson. If those additions don’t take pressure off of Wilson, the improvements on defense should. The Jets ranked last overall and struggled to get to the quarterback last season, but they are much improved on the front and back ends of the unit. The pass rush should be much better with the addition of first-round pick Jermaine Johnson II and Carl Lawson, a key 2021 free-agent signee who missed all of last season after rupturing an Achilles. A pass rush’s best friend is a talented secondary, and New York appears to have that with rookie first-round pick Sauce Gardner and free agents D.J. Reed and Jordan Whitehead. The Jets are still a year or two away from ending a playoff drought currently at 11 years, but it would not be shocking to see them finish above .500.
Net improvement: Five wins
No one is expecting a lot from the Seahawks following their trade of quarterback Russell Wilson to Denver, but Seattle arguably had its best draft since coach Pete Carroll’s first season with the team, in 2010. That year, the Seahawks selected several foundational players to their glory years, namely Russell Okung, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, with Golden Tate also a key contributor. Drew Lock is likely to replace Wilson over veteran Geno Smith, even if Carroll isn’t ready to name him the starter, and while outsiders might not think much of the Broncos castoff, Seattle coaches genuinely believe they can win with him. And the fact that they’ll attempt to take some weight off his shoulders by running the football and playing stout defense, while competing in a division in which one team is breaking in an untested quarterback and another repeatedly fades down the stretch, should result in at least four additional wins.
Net improvement: Five wins
A lack of talent was not the issue for Jacksonville last season; dysfunction at the top of the coaching ladder was. Thankfully for the Jaguars, Urban Meyer and his arrogance are gone. Replacing him is Doug Pederson, a coach who has a history of relating to players. He went to the playoffs three times in five seasons with the Eagles, winning a Super Bowl during the 2017 season. I don’t expect the Jags to hit the ground running in full stride; it will take time to break through the scar tissue associated with only one winning season since 2007 and five last-place finishes in the past six seasons. They also will need time to develop the type of trust that only comes with walking through the fire together. But by the end of the 2022 season, I expect Jacksonville to find its rhythm and be a team that no one wants to play, particularly if that opponent needs a win to reach the playoffs. Look for Pederson to work wonders not only instilling a positive culture, but also helping second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence show why he was considered a generational talent coming out of Clemson. I could go into all the personnel upgrades, including the addition of No. 1 overall draft pick Travon Walker, but as I previously said: talent was not the issue with this team a year ago.
Net improvement: Five wins
They were winless through 11 games but finished 3-3 down the stretch. That, as much as anything, speaks to optimism for them taking a giant stride toward relevancy. Dan Campbell instilled a culture of competitive character in his first season, meaning the Lions continued to play hard even when there was nothing to play for. That might sound like a cliché, but it’s proven to be the foundation on which turnarounds are built. Another is solid quarterback play, which, to the uninformed, is something the Lions got from Jared Goff over his final five starts, when he threw for 11 touchdowns against two interceptions and had a 107.1 passer rating. His performance caused Detroit to go from thinking about possible replacements at the position to passing on the opportunity to pursue someone through trade, free agency or the draft. If Goff builds on that finish, there is reason to believe the Lions can surprise people. It should help not only that the offense got a proven big-play receiver in Jameson Williams, one of two first-round draft picks, though he still is recovering from a late-season knee injury, but also that the defense added potentially impactful pieces. Detroit drafted pass rushers in each of the first two rounds in Aidan Hutchinson and Josh Paschal, who are being counted on to upgrade a unit that had fewer sacks than all but two teams last season. In the secondary, the Lions are holding their collective breath that Jeff Okudah, the third pick of the 2020 draft, will live up to expectations after his season was cut short by an Achilles injury. There is depth this time around, as Mike Hughes was brought in via free agency and Kerby Joseph was acquired in the draft. The Lions have not had a winning season since 2017, but don’t be shocked if they make a run at ending that streak.
Net improvement: Six wins
Two words: Russell Wilson. All we heard last season was that the Broncos were a quarterback away from being a Super Bowl contender. Well, they have one in Wilson, the former Seahawks star who is regarded as one of the game’s top talents at the position. Wilson wants to be mentioned among the greats of the game, and he knows that will require more Super Bowls. If you know Wilson, you know it doesn’t sit well with him that his Super Bowl appearances with Seattle are associated with the Legion of Boom and the running of Marshawn Lynch more than they are with his play. Not judging, just saying he wants to stamp indelible fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy. He should have an opportunity with a Denver team that has a roster flush with talent, particularly at the receiver position. The Broncos upgraded the defensive front with the signings of D.J. Jones and Randy Gregory, and added a solid cornerback in K’Waun Williams. But it all will come back to Wilson. Last season the Broncos had four defeats by five points or fewer. Wilson is expected to be the human eraser who makes such defeats disappear. If he does, anything is possible, even in the league’s toughest division.
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