Biggest Question That Can Decide Each NFL Division Race with Training Camps Underway
As NFL teams open training camp, we should revisit the biggest storylines from the offseason and how roster changes can impact the 2022 campaign.
Did the clubs that took big swings for star players do enough to unseat incumbent division leaders, or will the top teams remain in the No. 1 spots?
In a look at each division, you'll notice an emphasis on offense because of the splashy quarterback and wide receiver moves during the spring. Apparently, front-office executives received the memo about the importance of racking up points after watching eight of the 10 highest-scoring teams clinch a postseason berth in 2021.
That being said, one club may have to win its division with a stifling defense.
Let's take a look at who's in the running to claim a top-four seed in each conference, and which teams may take a step back as rival squads attempt to move up the ranks.
AFC East: Can Dolphins’ Revamped Offense Pose a Threat to the Bills?
New Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel will have plenty of playmakers to feature in his offense, starting with the All-Pro wideout Tyreek Hill, who the team acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs.
Hill's explosiveness should allow the Dolphins to gain chunk yardage in the passing game. He averaged at least 14.7 yards per catch in four of his past five seasons with the Chiefs. With the spotlight on him in coverage, the big-play wideout will open up the field for fellow receivers Jaylen Waddle and Cedrick Wilson Jr. as well as tight end Mike Gesicki.
Along with four viable perimeter pass-catchers, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa should have a complementary run game with Chase Edmonds, Myles Gaskin, Sony Michel and Raheem Mostert in the backfield.
In order for all the pieces to click around Tagovailoa, he must remain upright and avoid injury. Coming into the NFL on the mend from hip surgery, he's missed 10 games in two seasons.
Fortunately for Tagovailoa, the Dolphins signed three-time Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead and Connor Williams, who could start at center or guard.
Miami added the ingredients to field a high-powered offense. Now, Tagovailoa has to gain command of the system and utilize those assets. If he does, the Dolphins can leapfrog the New England Patriots for second place in the AFC East and challenge the Buffalo Bills for the division title.
AFC North: What's the Browns' Quarterback Plan?
The NFL's decision on Deshaun Watson’s disciplinary hearing will significantly impact the Cleveland Browns' 2022 season.
Twenty-four women filed civil lawsuits against Watson accusing him of sexual assault or sexual misconduct during massage sessions. Watson has denied the allegations but has settled with 20 of the women.
According to the Wall Street Journal's Andrew Beaton, the league will push for an indefinite suspension. Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson reported Watson's camp and the league's player association plan to file a lawsuit if he faces a yearlong suspension.
Regardless of the length of the suspension, the Browns have expressed confidence in Jacoby Brissett as a fill-in starter if Watson misses a portion of the upcoming season, per Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot.
"For starters, Watson's camp remains optimistic he'll see the field this year, possibly for the final eight or nine games. In that scenario, the Browns are comfortable with Jacoby Brissett holding down the fort, especially with a relatively soft first four games. They believe Brissett will fare better than some expect, especially with the supporting cast he'll have this season.”
However, Cabot writes that the team would "undoubtedly re-evaluate their quarterback room" in the event the league suspends Watson indefinitely. Though she doesn’t see Jimmy Garoppolo as a trade option right now, the Browns may consider the 30-year-old signal-caller if the San Francisco 49ers release him and Watson faces a lengthy ban.
The 49ers have already granted Garoppolo permission to seek a trade, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, which is a decision that sometimes precedes a player's release. Nonetheless, he still needs time to fully recover from offseason shoulder surgery.
Following Baker Mayfield's departure (via trade) to the Carolina Panthers, the Browns don’t have another signal-caller on the roster with more starts than Brissett, who served as a stop-gap quarterback in place of Andrew Luck with the Indianapolis Colts for the 2017 term.
Whether the Browns rely on Brissett or another veteran quarterback in place of Watson, they're a viable squad with a serviceable starter under center. Keep in mind that despite Mayfield playing through a torn labrum, Cleveland swept the division-winning Cincinnati Bengals in a season series last year.
AFC South: Has the Titans Offense Lost Its Steam?
In 2021, the Tennessee Titans lost running back Derrick Henry for nine games because of a foot injury that required surgery, and they went 6-3 without him during the regular season.
Henry returned to action in the divisional round of the playoffs, but he ran for just 62 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. Perhaps with an offseason to rest and recover he will bounce back, but what if the 6'3", 247-pounder has endured too much wear and tear?
Keep in mind, Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey hasn't been able to stay healthy since his injury-riddled 2020 campaign following a league-leading 403 touches in 2019.
Henry has a bigger body frame than McCaffrey, who's listed at 5'11", 205 pounds, but he led the league in carries for consecutive terms (2019-2020). The Titans may want to dial back on his rush attempts to extend his career, which may explain why they selected Hassan Haskins in the fourth round of the 2022 draft.
If Henry isn't the same bruising tailback who averaged at least 102.7 yards per contest for each of the past three years, can Tennessee rely on its aerial attack?
That's a big question mark with the departure (via trade) of Pro Bowl wideout A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles and rookie first-rounder Treylon Burks' slow start in part because of issues related to asthma. Tennessee acquired Robert Woods from the Los Angeles Rams, but he's coming off a torn ACL at 30 years old.
With Ryan Tannehill's regression under offensive coordinator Todd Downing, who replaced Arthur Smith last offseason, and concerns about the team's top playmakers, the Titans' scoring attack could take a step back in consecutive years. Tennessee's potential shortcomings would open the door for the Indianapolis Colts to win the AFC South with quarterback Matt Ryan possibly adding some balance to a Jonathan Taylor-led offense.
AFC West: Can the Broncos Go from Worst to First with the Addition of Russell Wilson?
Even in a tough AFC West division, the Denver Broncos have a good chance to go from worst in 2021 to first in 2022.
The Kansas City Chiefs traded a dynamic weapon in Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins, which may level the offensive playing field within the division. Not only that, as a more accomplished quarterback than Justin Herbert and Derek Carr, Wilson can make a huge difference in tight games late in the season.
Head coach Nathaniel Hackett will go all-in with Wilson; he's going to "Let Russ Cook" in Denver.
"It's all about the command of the system," Hackett said. "We want to build this thing completely around him and make sure that he's comfortable and watch him come alive."
With wideouts Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, Tim Patrick and KJ Hamler, Wilson can post gaudy passing numbers in an offense that could rank top-five in points and yards for the first time since Peyton Manning’s first three years in Denver when the Broncos finished atop the AFC West.
Denver's defense has to pull its weight, but in a division with Patrick Mahomes, Herbert and Carr rekindling his Fresno State connection with wideout Davante Adams, the Broncos must score a lot of points to win crucial divisional matchups.
NFC East: Will A.J. Brown Balance and Elevate the Eagles Offense?
Last year, the Philadelphia Eagles finished the regular season on a bit of a hot streak, winning six of their last eight outings, but they started 2-5 and couldn’t catch the Dallas Cowboys (12-5) for the division crown.
In the upcoming campaign, the Eagles could come out strong with a balanced offense that matches the Cowboys' unit, which ranked No. 1 in scoring and yards last year but lost wideouts Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson Jr. as well as tackle La'el Collins and guard Connor Williams this offseason.
The Eagles finished the 2021 season with the most rushing yards. They employed a dominant ground attack that featured quarterback Jalen Hurts and running back Miles Sanders with Jordan Howard, Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell, filling gaps in reserve roles.
In 2022, we could see Hurts make strides as a pocket passer with the addition of A.J. Brown, who led the Tennessee Titans in receiving yards for all three of his campaigns with the team.
With Brown and DeVonta Smith on the perimeter, Hurts has two No. 1 wideouts who can take over a game. As a rookie, the latter led Philadelphia in catches (64), receiving yards (916) and touchdowns (five) last season.
If the NFC East continues to send a different division leader to the playoffs in consecutive terms—a trend that dates back to 2005—the Eagles may find themselves back on top with a pick-your-poison offense.
NFC North: How Will the Packers Offense Look Without Davante Adams?
In one of multiple blockbuster offseason trades, the Green Bay Packers dealt Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders. The two-time All-Pro wideout had been Aaron Rodgers' top pass-catching threat over the past five campaigns, but he wanted to play for the Silver and Black, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.
To mask the loss of arguably the league's top wideout, the Packers can lean heavily on the ground attack with Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, or they can fill Adams' void by committee.
Packers head coach Matt LaFleur isn't a stranger to run-dominant offenses.
Remember, he had a front-row seat for head coach Sean McVay's top-scoring Los Angeles Rams offense that featured running back Todd Gurley in 2017. Moreover, he called plays for the Tennessee Titans as running back Derrick Henry started to break out in 2018.
Jones and Dillon have the potential to challenge Cleveland Browns running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt as the league's top running back duo. They rushed for 799 and 803 yards, respectively, and combined for nine touchdowns last year.
If Jones and Dillon lead a run-heavy attack, Green Bay's perimeter pass-catchers, which include Sammy Watkins, Allen Lazard, rookie second-rounder Christian Watson, rookie fourth-rounder Romeo Doubs, Amari Rodgers, Randall Cobb and Robert Tonyan, have to win their one-on-one matchups to keep defenses honest.
Most importantly, Rodgers has to build trust in one or two guys who can consistently move the chains.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson seems optimistic about the transition from Mike Zimmer to new head coach Kevin O'Connell, who will bring a fresh outlook to the offense.
If the Packers have a rough year offensively, they should be wary of the Vikings.
NFC South: Is the Saints Defense Good Enough to Slow Down Tom Brady?
Even though the New Orleans Saints may have a strong wide receiver group with the addition of five-time Pro Bowler Jarvis Landry, rookie first-rounder Chris Olave and the possible return of two-time All-Pro Michael Thomas, they cannot match the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at quarterback.
The Buccaneers have Tom Brady, who led the league in completions, passing yards and touchdown passes last year—not to mention the rest of his Hall of Fame career. Meanwhile, the Saints hope to see Jameis Winston bounce back from a torn ACL and cut down on turnovers, which left a stain on his tenure as the starter in Tampa Bay between 2015 and 2019.
However, the Saints can neutralize the Buccaneers offense with their defense.
Following Sean Payton's decision to step down from his head-coaching duties, New Orleans promoted defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, who's going into his second tenure as an NFL lead skipper. He called plays for the fourth-ranked scoring defense last year.
The Saints lost a couple of starters in the secondary, but the front office filled those holes. They signed three-time All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye to replace safeties Malcolm Jenkins, who retired, and Marcus Williams, who signed with the Baltimore Ravens.
If 2021 first-rounder Payton Turner contributes to the pass rush after undergoing shoulder surgery last November, New Orleans would have a solid edge-rushing trio with Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport in starting positions.
For now, Brady doesn’t have Rob Gronkowski, who retired, or Antonio Brown, who's a free agent, and Chris Godwin is recovering from a torn ACL. Assuming cornerback Marshon Lattimore continues to match up well against Bucs wideout Mike Evans, New Orleans may have the defense to stifle Tampa Bay's offense in a battle for the division crown.
By the way, the Saints are 4-1 against the Buccaneers with Brady—the only loss coming in the divisional round of the 2020 playoffs.
NFC West: Is Trey Lance Ready to Take Over the 49ers Offense?
Is the No. 3 pick from the 2021 draft ready to prove himself and turn potential into production in 2022? If he is, Kyle Shanahan will remain a thorn in Sean McVay's side.
As the lead skipper of the San Francisco 49ers, Shanahan is 7-4 against McVay's Rams, though the latter had the last laugh in the NFC Championship Game in January.
However, Lance can elevate the 49ers offense to another level with his big arm and ability to move the chains with his legs. With those skills alone, he adds more dimensions to San Francisco's offense compared to what we've seen while Jimmy Garoppolo was under center over the past five seasons.
Opposing defenses already struggle to stop the 49ers' staple outside zone run scheme, but defensive coordinators will need to stay up later at night if Lance can consistently stretch the field and force a defender to account for him in the run game.
With Arizona Cardinals three-time All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins set to serve a six-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, the 49ers—with a young dynamic signal-caller—may be the biggest challenger to the Rams in a race for the division title late in the season.
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.