Struggling NFL Teams That Will Make a Leap in 2022

Alex KayContributor INovember 15, 2021

Struggling NFL Teams That Will Make a Leap in 2022

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    Although there are still two months left in the 2021 NFL season, a good percentage of teams are already facing long odds of making the playoffs. Their fanbases are already dreaming of next season, when the slates are wiped clean and hope springs anew.

    Some of these down-and-out clubs have a real shot at turning things around in 2022.

    Whether that's because they are flush with cap space to lure free agents, sitting on the draft capital to acquire several talented prospects or have young players ready to take on expanded roles, things are looking up for several basement-dwelling organizations.

    With that in mind, here are the teams most likely to make a leap next season.


    All stats and records accurate as of Sunday, November 14.

New York Giants

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    Brett Duke/Associated Press

    The Giants came into 2021 with designs on winning an NFC East title after finishing just a game back in the division last season.

    The G-Men are sitting at 3-6, well off the rival Cowboys' 6-2 pace for the divisional crown. While New York still has a realistic chance at grabbing a wild-card spot in the top-heavy NFC, the club lacks the talent to compete for a Super Bowl.

    That could change next year, when the Giants roster should be much healthier and can potentially avoid another rash of injuries.

    Star running back Saquon Barkley has been sidelined for a month after suffering an ankle sprain in Week 5, the latest injury woe for the 24-year-old who missed all but two games in 2020 with a torn ACL.

    Even before spraining his ankle, Barkley was struggling to find running lanes and produce at a high level. It certainly didn't help that the team lost a pair of Week 1 offensive line starters early on, with Shane Lemieux and Nick Gates both going down for the season. Their absences have made an already-thin O-line unit critically short on depth.

    Big Blue's receiving corps has been one of the league's most snakebitten as well. Kenny Golladay, Sterling Shepard and Kadarius Toney have all missed time at various points, leaving the cupboard bare for quarterback Daniel Jones.

    If this offense can stay healthy, it still has the potential to be among the NFL's best. Jones has played well despite the lack of weapons surrounding him and looks like he still may be a franchise QB.

    Jones has improved his ball security despite playing behind a ramshackle line, cutting his interception rate down to 1.7 percent from 2.2 percent last year and 2.6 percent as a rookie. He's also taking sacks on a career-best 6.1 percent of his drop backs, down from 9.1 percent in 2020.

    These protection issues have helped hone his ability to make things happen on the run. The third-year QB has punched in two rushing touchdownstying his career-highand is on pace for nearly 500 rushing yards with eight games left to play. 

    With contracts like Evan Engram's and Jabrill Peppers' coming off the books, Big Blue will have some cap space to augment the offensive trenches and other weak areas on the roster.

    Factor in a whopping five picks over the first two days of the 2022 draft—which can be used on prospects or traded for an impact veteran—and you have the recipe for a reloaded Giants squad making some noise next season.

San Francisco 49ers

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    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    The 49ers have been among the league's most disappointing teams. After getting ravaged by injuries and missing the playoffs last year, San Francisco was a prime candidate to bounce back in 2021.

    With a 3-5 record over the first half of the campaign, that return to prominence has come up well short. The 49ers are hardly a contender for the NFC West title after losing five of their past six games.

    Left tackle Trent Williams told reporters the team hasn't been living up to its talent level: "I think a lot of us looked at this roster and kind of saw where it stacked up with the NFL. And it did stack up near the top."

    Quarterback Trey Lance may not be able to jolt this team back into contention this year, but getting him ready to take over on a full-time basis in 2022 should be one of San Francisco's top priorities.

    The rookie signal-caller has been sparingly utilized early in his career, logging a meager 111 snaps—most of which came in relief of starter Jimmy Garoppolo after he went down in Week 4 and in a subsequent start filling in for him in Week 5.

    While the offense stagnated in a 17-10 loss to the Cardinals in Lance's lone start, San Francisco hasn't fared much better with Garoppolo at the helm the last three weeks, going 1-2 with only a win over the Chicago Bears in that span.

    With Lance healthy after suffering a knee injury in his first start, the North Dakota State product should soon see more reps during this trying campaign. He's already accounted for four touchdowns, showcasing his dynamic dual-threat abilities during his rare sightings.  

    Getting Garoppolo off the books will be a huge boon for the Niners. The veteran quarterback—who is making more than Aaron Rodgers this season—only carries a $1.4 million dead cap hit in 2022, making it almost certain that the franchise will forge ahead with Lance as its starter.

    San Francisco's running back platoon should find more consistency next year as well.

    The team went into 2021 with Raheem Mostert as the starter, but the veteran lasted just two carries before suffering a season-ending injury. His exit began what has become a revolving door of young players stepping up and going down with injuries of their own. 

    While the team appears to be in good hands for years to come with rookies Elijah Mitchell and Trey Sermon in the platoon, both have been banged up this season and haven't been able to cement themselves in a crowded backfield rotation. 

    The 49ers have also lacked stability at the tight end spot. George Kittle has already missed three games this year after being sidelined for half of the 2020 campaign. If the two-time Pro Bowler can find a way to stay on the field, San Francisco will once again have one of the league's most enviable TE situations. 

    With key skill positions accounted for, cash to burn and one of the game's most intriguing young QBs under contract, the 49ers will be able to contend despite lacking a first-round pick in the upcoming draft.

Carolina Panthers

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    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    The Panthers have been doing their best to stay afloat this season, swinging multiple in-season trades and making splashy free-agent pickups to fill roster holes on the fly.

    The team notably acquired a pair of quality cornerbacks in Stephon Gilmore and C.J. Henderson to patch up an injury-plagued secondary, and dished out a sizable contract to bring former starting QB Cam Newton back in the fold after Sam Darnold was lost for an extended stretch to a shoulder injury.

    While it's still to be determined if these transactions will result in a playoff berth in 2021, Carolina is well positioned to be a force in 2022.

    The team is hoping Newton can play well enough to remain the starter next season but has options if the veteran fails to produce.

    The Panthers still hold a first-round pick in 2022—their only selection over the first three rounds after a slew of deals—that they could use on a signal-caller if they don't feel comfortable with Newton or Darnold going forward.

    With three different paths it can choose from, Carolina has a decent chance to wind up with some respectable QB play in 2022. If the club can stabilize the position, there is plenty of complementary talent in place on both sides of the ball.

    The team employs one of the game's best and most versatile playmakers in running back Christian McCaffrey. The receiving corps is potent, with players like DJ Moore and Terrace Marshall Jr. still offering plenty of upside early in their respective careers.

    Factor in a defense full of young contributors such as Brian Burns and Jeremy Chinn, and the Panthers have quietly become one of the more promising franchises in football.

    Carolina has some weak links outside the QB position—the offensive line desperately needs some work even though second-year tackle Taylor Moton has shown he is a piece the unit can build around—but there are plenty of reasons to believe this group is close to breaking out.

Chicago Bears

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The Bears seemed ready to build on last year's playoff appearance by upgrading the quarterback position this offseason. The team signed veteran Andy Dalton and drafted Justin Fields in the first round, but so far it hasn't paid dividends.

    Chicago is off to a disheartening 3-6 start—the team was 5-4 going into Week 10 last year with Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles under center—but still has plenty of reasons to be excited for the 2022 season.

    Fields has flashed the type of skill that made him a No. 11 overall selection, ripping off some highlight-reel runs—such as his 22-yard scoring scamper against the 49ers—and leading several exciting drives, including a go-ahead march late against the Steelers.

    Those moments of brilliance have been bookended by poor decision-making and other rookie mistakes, but the Ohio State product's potential remains sky-high. If the team can better protect Fields (the club has given up a league-high 33 sacks), build the young quarterback's confidence and surround him with playmakers, the Chicago offense could take a bigger leap than any next season.

    The lack of chemistry between Fields and top wideout Allen Robinson II is one of the main issues plaguing Chicago's offense.

    The receiver was franchise tagged this offseason, but has thus far only accumulated 30 catches for 339 yards and one touchdown on 50 targets. With Robinson likely on his way out after the season, the team can try to unearth another wideout to pair with Darnell Mooney, the promising second-year receiver who has built a strong rapport with his rookie QB, leading the team with 450 yards and two scores on 36 receptions.

    Chicago's tight ends have underwhelmed too. Cole Kmet was a breakout candidate going into his second season, but the 22-year-old has only hauled in 28 receptions for 284 yards in nine games. 

    Despite the lack of offensive support, the Bears defense remains a tough matchup. The team ranks No. 13 in total defense, No. 10 in pass defense and has recorded the seventh-most sacks in the league with 25.

    Chicago is especially dangerous when edge-rusher Khalil Mack is on the field. He's missed some time recently with a foot injury, but the veteran linebacker has recorded six sacks in seven games and remains one of the league's most disruptive forces when healthy.

    Mack is under contract through the 2024 season, giving Chicago long-term stability on the edge.

    It's vital that the Chicago brass keeps as much of this unit together as possible for another run. The Bears won't have a first-round pick next year after dealing it to move up for Fields and hold only four total selections in the upcoming draft.

    If the Bears can keep the core of their defense intact and improve offensively, they will be playoff-bound once again in 2022.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    The Jaguars are one of the most downtrodden franchises right now, winning a combined three games since the 2020 campaign began. That poor play has resulted in some high-end draft picks, however, some of whom should be making significant strides sooner than later.

    It all starts with Trevor Lawrence, the generational quarterback prospect whom Jacksonville secured with the No. 1 overall pick this year. While Lawrence hasn't instantly changed the Jags' fortunes, the rookie signal-caller has made considerable progress over his first half-season as a starter.

    After starting the year off completing only 54.2 percent of his passes and throwing seven picks in three games, Lawrence has clearly become more comfortable during his last five starts. The Clemson product has upped his completion rate to 62.9 percent, tossing three touchdowns against two interceptions—while running for another two scores—in that span.

    Lawrence's improvement has coincided with Jacksonville finding some success. The team has won two of its last three games, including a highly impressive victory over the Buffalo Bills.

    While the Jaguars offense didn't explode against Buffalo, the defense was able to hold one of the league's top offenses to just two field goals in a 9-6 win.

    Taven Bryan—a first-round pick in 2018—excelled in the contest, securing two of Jacksonville's four sacks. If Bryan—a defensive tackle who largely disappointed over his first three seasons—can continue playing at a high level, it will be a welcome sight for a defense that still needs plenty of help.

    There is some quality talent in place—Josh Allen and Myles Jack are centerpieces the team can build around—but improving the defense should be the top priority for Jacksonville this offseason.

    With 11 selections in the upcoming draft, the Jags have plenty of capital to make impact acquisitions. Expect the club to package some of these picks in exchange for veterans and use others to acquire elite prospects to plug some glaring holes.

    Travis Etienne, Lawrence's collegiate teammate and Jacksonville's second first-round selection this year, will also be back in the mix in 2022.

    Etienne is missing the entire 2021 campaign after undergoing foot surgery, but the Jaguars will eventually be able to pair the RB with James Robinson to form what could quickly become one of the league's better one-two punches out of the backfield. 

    These new faces will be a welcome sight for a team on the cusp of turning things around in 2022.