2022 NFL Season Preview: 8 Teams Set to Improve This Season, From Lions to 49ers
We finally made it to the 2022 NFL season, so let’s continue our season preview with Opening Kickoff just two days away.
Each year heading into the season, I separate all 32 teams into four buckets of eight teams. Eight get labeled as bonafide Super Bowl contenders, while eight others get left for dead at the bottom, fighting for the No. 1 pick.
The 16 teams in the middle are the most interesting, and it’s all about trajectory. Last week we looked at eight teams trending in the wrong direction, set to disappoint in 2022. Today it’s the fun half of the group: this year’s sleepers set to improve and take a big step forward this fall.
As a reminder, this is not a Power Rankings. Some of today’s teams are improved but still nowhere near the top of the league, while others could be candidates to be this year’s Bengals. We’ll focus on why these teams should outperform expectations and decide whether to bet, lean, or pass on each over/under win total.
You’ll see offensive and defensive rankings for each team, plus other bets worth considering along the way. Here’s a quick refresher on position-by-position 1-to-32 rankings, if you missed them:
Check out the entire four-part season preview:
- The 8 Worst Teams
- The 8 Teams Taking a Step Backward
- The 8 Sleepers Trending Up
- The 8 Super Bowl Contenders
Detroit Lions Over/Under 6.5 Wins
It shouldn’t be difficult for the Lions to improve on last season’s 3.5 wins, but the question is how much.
Detroit went 2-5-1 in one-score games last season with some heartbreakers and got besieged by injuries on both sides of the ball. The team finished 1.6 wins below Pythagorean expectation. Per Bill Barnwell, teams with a profile like the Lions improve by an average of 3.7 wins the following season.
Detroit will effectively add three top-12 picks. You already know about No. 2 pick Aiden Hutchinson’s “Billie Jean” karaoke abilities, but the Lions also return top 2020 pick Jeff Okudah after a lost season, and speedster Jameson Williams should return later this fall. The Lions also hope to get a far healthier season from an offensive line that could be one of the top three in the league.
Don’t go crazy, though. The Lions may have the worst defense in the entire NFL, the only team in the league that rates well below average at every position in defense. The coaching staff also remains likable but unproven and Jared Goff is, well, still Jared Goff.
The Lions will be better in 2022, but don’t confuse better with good.
Win Total Verdict: Pass
Jacksonville Jaguars Over/Under 6.5 Wins
The Jags are another of the most obvious improvement cases in the league.
Jacksonville ranked dead last in turnover margin last fall at -20. Turnover luck tends to even out from season to season, and teams with that bad of a turnover margin win an average of 3.2 more games the following season, per Barnwell. The Jaguars have one of the league’s most improved rosters two years in a row, including back-to-back No. 1 overall picks.
They also improve the easiest low-hanging fruit in memory by jettisoning joke of a coach Urban Meyer for Super Bowl winner Doug Pederson. Pederson is an adult in the room who will bring some badly needed competence to this franchise. He’s also a former quarterback and positive playcaller, so that could help sophomore QB Trevor Lawrence take a leap forward.
Jacksonville still has a long way to go, but things could turn quickly in the league’s softest division. With the Colts lacking ceiling and the Titans due for regression, the Jaguars are the best worst-to-first bet on the board at +800. Even if they don’t get there, Jacksonville would probably settle for its second season with more than six wins since 2010.
Win Total Verdict: Pass
Washington Commanders Over/Under 7.5 Wins
The Commanders transitioned to a new team name this offseason, and that’s about the last time anyone thought much about this franchise. Overlooked or not, Washington looks like a good improvement candidate.
It starts at quarterback, no matter how much you dislike Carson Wentz. Wentz finished 20th in the NFL in EPA at 0.084, but he ranked 11th from Weeks 3 through 16. Because the Colts did not have a capable backup, Wentz played through injury and Covid to start and finish the year, and that’s the last thing anyone remembers. But compare Wentz to Taylor Heinicke’s season-long 0.001 EPA last season, and it’s easy to see he’s a big upgrade.
Washington should be far better in the trenches. The offensive line adds a pair of proven guards, and last year’s shambolic defense should get healthier years from pass rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat. The defense can’t help but improve on last year’s historically bad third down numbers. Remember, Washington was expected to be one of the top defenses in the league heading into last season. They were far from it, but most of the talent is still there.
The Commanders play in a soft division with an easy schedule. They begin the year against the Jaguars, Lions, Eagles, Cowboys, Titans, and Bears, so Washington has a chance for a great start and a soft closing stretch too. The Commanders are +190 to make the playoffs and +750 to win a weak division. This team has improved enough to have value at both numbers.
Win Total Verdict: Lean over 7.5
Miami Dolphins Over/Under 8.5 Wins
Calling Miami’s offseason tumultuous would be an understatement. The team fired Brian Flores, then dealt with the ensuing allegations. Conversations with Sean Payton and Tom Brady led to tampering charges that cost the team future draft picks, and you have to wonder if Mike McDaniel and Tua Tagovailoa even think the team wants them there.
It’s possible everything off the field will derail this season before it starts, especially with a brutal opening stretch against New England, Baltimore, Buffalo, and Cincinnati. On paper, though, the Dolphins are intriguing.
McDaniel is a bright offensive mind, and he and new OC Frank Smith will hope to overhaul a fraught run game and make use of Miami’s new weapons. The Dolphins paid big to add Tyreek Hill, and the team also adds two excellent linemen in Terron Armstead and Connor Williams, plus a cadre of RB options. There will be no more excuses for Tagovailoa now, especially with a defense that’s already been pretty good the last couple seasons.
Miami has the profile of a team that could make a jump, but the offseason tumult confuses things. I’m opting to stay away until we see more.
Win Total Verdict: Pass
Minnesota Vikings Over/Under 9.5 Wins
The Vikings were expected to blow up the roster, but instead the team is mostly running it back with the same guys and a new coaching staff.
Kevin O’Connell should bring this offense into the modern era, adding pre-snap movement and making use of some of the best weapons in the league in Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and Irv Smith. O’Connell’s Rams offense did a great job confusing and freezing linebackers, allowing the QB to make clean reads and get the ball accurately to his playmakers, and that’s a formula for success for Kirk Cousins.
The Vikings offense could have a monster season. A healthier season from Christian Darrisaw will boost the offensive line, and Jefferson could put up huge numbers in a Cooper Kupp role for this team (and is worth a look in the NFL season leader categories).
Can this defense return to form? That may depend heavily on the health of edge rushers Danielle Hunter and free agent acquisition Za’Darius Smith. Minnesota’s defense had ranked top-seven in DVOA five consecutive seasons before falling off the map the last two years. We’ll see if the move away from Mike Zimmer revitalizes this unit or if this defense is just average now.
The Vikings can make a statement in Week 1 when the rival Packers come to town. A win sets the tone and puts Minnesota in great position to win the NFC North at +275. I prefer the exact division order finish of Minnesota, Green Bay, Detroit, Chicago at +1000 with Detroit improving just enough to finish ahead of the Bears without threatening the Packers.
If the Vikings do win the division, Kevin O’Connell could be a strong candidate for Coach of the Year too. Minnesota has all the makings.
Win Total Verdict: Bet over 9.5
Indianapolis Colts Over/Under 10 Wins
The 2021 Colts lost their first three games and stumbled to the finish line with a pair of losses, but the team went 9-3 in between. Indianapolis dealt with a slew of injuries and Covid absences during those losing streaks, so the Colts might be a good team hiding in plain sight.
How much you believe probably comes down to how much of an improvement you think Matt Ryan is on Carson Wentz. Popular opinion is that Wentz sucks and Ryan is still a top-12 QB, but I’m not sure either narrative is correct. Wentz was in MVP contention more recently than Ryan, and Ryan’s declined steadily in four years since his win and might be more of a game manager at this point.
Still, a steady, high-floor game manager might be just what the doctor ordered after Wentz’s roller coaster and collapse last season. Perhaps just as importantly, Nick Foles is a steady veteran backing up Ryan.
The rest of this team faces significant changes. A once great offensive line has a big hole at left tackle, and the receiving room lacks depth after Michael Pittman. Yannick Ngakoue and Stephon Gilmore should help defensively, but this unit will be adjusting to a very different scheme going from Matt Eberflus to Gus Bradley, and Bradley’s scheme looks outdated and vulnerable to modern passing attacks.
I’m not sure the Colts have the high ceiling many expect, but the floor is there. Indianapolis starts the year against the Texans and Jaguars, an easy opportunity to wash away last year’s failure with a 2-0 division start.
Win Total Verdict: Lean under 10
San Francisco 49ers Over/Under 10 Wins
The 49ers were up 10 points and one quarter away from the Super Bowl when everything fell apart in January. Now, San Francisco is running back a lot of the same roster that might have been a Super Bowl favorite, with one huge obvious change at quarterback.
Jimmy Garoppolo remains on the roster, but he’ll start the year on the bench as Shanahan turns to second-year QB Trey Lance. Lance is unproven and untested, but for the first time in Shanahan’s coaching career, he has a hand-picked quarterback with the full package of talent. Lance has the arm to drive the ball down the field in new ways, and his legs could open up the attack. Shanahan has made a career of playing video game QB with competent signal callers, but this is the first time he’ll be playing with a video game talent too.
The move from Garoppolo to Lance could be one step back now, two steps forward later. The 49ers offensive line isn’t as strong after losing two starters, and it will take Lance some time to settle in. But with Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and George Kittle, Lance has outstanding weapons who always make things happen after the catch. Don’t be surprised if things click quickly, especially with Chicago and Seattle first on the schedule.
The Rams are the presumed division favorite, but the 49ers might be the deeper and more complete team. San Francisco’s defense ended the year flying high under DC DeMeco Ryans, and this year’s secondary can only be better than last year’s version with backup cornerbacks. San Francisco is +180 to win the division if you like what you see.
Win Total Verdict: Lean over 10
Denver Broncos Over/Under 10 Wins
Last year’s Broncos were a popular sleeper with everything but the quarterback, and now Denver went out and got that QB. The Broncos paid dearly for Russell Wilson in hopes that he’ll change everything and do what Tom Brady and Matt Stafford did the last two years, taking a new team to a Super Bowl ring in their first season there.
This roster is loaded. Denver’s defense has talent at every position. Pat Surtain II looks like a star, and Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are the best safety pair in the league. If Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory stay healthy off the edge, this could be an elite pass defense. On offense, Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon provide a one-two punch at RB, and Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy give Wilson a pair of good targets.
The Broncos had bad turnover luck and poor third down luck last season, and the team went 1-4 in one-score games and dealt with a barrage of defensive injuries. Denver should have won 1.9 more games according to Pythagorean expectation, and all of that was before Russell Wilson.
Nathaniel Hackett and this coaching staff could be the X-factor. Hackett is mostly an unknown but helped lead the offense that made Aaron Rodgers an MVP each of the past two seasons.
If the Broncos are ready, they could be the talk of the league early, with Seattle and Houston a clear runway to a hot start and a very winnable opening stretch. Denver needs it, though. Wilson hasn’t been as good late in the season, and the Broncos close with a murderer’s row: Ravens, Chiefs, Cardinals, Rams, Chiefs again, and then Chargers.
This is a brutal division, and Denver has its work cut out. I can’t bet Denver’s over or divisional odds with so many unknowns. I’d rather play this team week-to-week as we see what they’re made of and avoid that brutal closing stretch.
Win Total Verdict: Pass
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