NFL Teams That Could Fall Off a Cliff in 2022

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 27, 2022

NFL Teams That Could Fall Off a Cliff in 2022

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    We've reached Conference Championship Weekend in the NFL, and Sunday's games are going to feature some new faces. The San Francisco 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals weren't even in the postseason a year ago. Now, both have a shot at reaching Super Bowl LVI.

    In all, this year's postseason field featured seven new teams. There's a good chance the 2022 campaign will produce similar playoff turnover. Of course, as new teams enter the postseason mix, others must exit.

    Here, we'll examine five franchises that may not only fall out of playoff contention in 2022, but fall off in a big way. Whether due to aging rosters, players likely to depart in free agency, bad cap situations or other franchise-specific factors, these teams could go from playoff squads and potential contenders to borderline basement-dwellers.

    Teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Arizona Cardinals

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The Arizona Cardinals, at one point, appeared to be the best team in the NFL. They sat at 10-2 after Week 13 and seemed to have a legitimate chance of earning the NFC's No. 1 seed. However, the Cardinals went 1-4 down the stretch and finished as a wild-card team—and were blown out in the opening round.

    Now, coach Kliff Kingsbury's propensity for late-season collapses is well-documented. Arizona also didn't have star receiver DeAndre Hopkins (knee) late in the year. However, there was more at play than those two factors. Teams figured out how to best defend quarterback Kyler Murray and how to scheme against Kingsbury's play-calling.

    These trends could continue into 2022, preventing a hot start from preceding any late collapse. An unfavorable cap situation—Arizona is projected to have only $7.9 million in space—and some key impending free agents aren't going to help matters.

    Pass-rusher Chandler Jones, wideout A.J. Green, tight end Zach Ertz, running back James Conner, running back Chase Edmonds and receiver Christian Kirk are among the notable 2021 contributors who could be gone next season.

    On top of everything is the fact that Kingsbury will be on the hot seat. He's gone 24-24-1 with no playoff wins, and Arizona has a history of coaching turnover. As Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk pointed out, the franchise has been around for more than a century, but no coach has lasted more than six seasons.

    Kinsbury's uncertain future will put pressure on the coach and perhaps his players.

    Hopkins will be 30 years old when next season starts. Pass-rusher J.J. Watt will be 33. There's virtually no chance Arizona can bring back all of its key free agents. This means the Cardinals will be older at some critical positions and likely less talented at others.

    Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams—who are set to face off in the NFC Championship Game—will still be formidable.

    All of this suggests we're more likely to see results similar to Kingsbury's first two seasons in Arizona—when the team went 5-10-1 and 8-8—than double-digit wins like in 2021.

    2021 Record: 11-6

    2022 Prediction: 7-10

Green Bay Packers

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    For the Green Bay Packers, a lot is going to hinge on whether quarterback Aaron Rodgers returns, retires or tries to force his way to a different team via trade.

    "I don't want to be part of a rebuild if I'm going to keep playing. So a lot of decisions in the next couple of months," Rodgers told reporters.

    The Packers got a glimpse of life without Rodgers in Week 9. It wasn't pretty. With Jordan Love making his first NFL start, Green Bay mustered a mere seven points in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

    With or without Rodgers, though, the Packers are likely facing a bit of a rebuild this offseason. Key players like Davante Adams, De'Vondre Campbell, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Rasul Douglas are set to be unrestricted free agents. Receiver Allen Lazard will be a restricted free agent.

    The Packers, meanwhile, are projected to be $45.8 million over the cap, which could lead to players like Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith leaving as cap casualties. Green Bay may still have a solid secondary, but its pass rush and offensive roster could be greatly diminished.

    "If Aaron Rodgers retires and Davante Adams walks, Green Bay would head into March nearly capped out with only these players on the roster at QB/WR/TE: QB: Jordan Love, WR: Amari Rodgers, TE: Josiah Deguara. End of list," Bleacher Report's Ian Kenyon tweeted.

    Again, a lot will depend on Rodgers' decision because the reigning MVP is likely to make the Packers competitive even with a shell of a roster.

    There's no guaranteeing that, though. In 2018, Rodgers appeared in all 16 games and still went just 6-9-1 as a starter. This led to the firing of Mike McCarthy and the hiring of current head coach Matt LaFleur.

    Green Bay could conceivably miss the postseason with Rodgers under center. Without him, it might end up contending for a top-five draft selection. Either way, it's hard to envision the Packers repeating as a No. 1 seed.

    We'll find out a lot more about the direction Green Bay is headed in the coming month, but falling off a cliff is certainly possible.

    2021 Record: 13-4

    2022 Prediction: 7-10

New Orleans Saints

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Saints didn't reach the postseason in 2021, but they came close. Despite losing starting quarterback Jameis Winston to a torn ACL in Week 8, New Orleans finished 9-8 and remained in contention until the final week of the regular season.

    One problem, though, is that Winston may not be back in 2022. He's part of an extensive list of impending free agents that includes Terron Armstead, Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams, Tre'Quan Smith, Trevor Siemian and Kwon Alexander.

    Receiver Deonte Harris will be a restricted free agent. New Orleans may have star wideout Michael Thomas back after he missed all of 2021 following ankle surgery. Whether he can be a major factor with Taysom Hill at quarterback remains to be seen. Winston and Siemian may both be gone because of New Orleans' cap situation.

    The Saints are projected to be $76.5 million over the cap.

    The biggest issue, however, may have nothing to do with New Orleans' roster or its financials. Longtime head coach Sean Payton recently announced that he won't be back in 2022.

    "I don't know what's next—and it kind of feels good," Payton told reporters. "But, man, I felt like it was time."

    Payton is an offensive coach who knows how to maximize the talent New Orleans had on the field. That includes Hill, who went 7-2 as a starter over the last two years but remains an unconventional dual-threat quarterback.

    The Saints' next head coach may not know how to properly utilize Hill and may not be as high on him as Payton was. Hill, though, is under contract through 2025 and has $19 million in dead money remaining on his contract.

    New Orleans heads into the offseason with questions at quarterback and in the front office. It doesn't have the cap space needed to improve in free agency, so the Saints will likely be rebuilding rather than reloading in 2022.

    After five consecutive winning seasons, the Saints may be headed back to the bottom.

    2021 Record: 9-8

    2022 Prediction: 5-12

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    It was admittedly difficult to place the Pittsburgh Steelers on this list. Pittsburgh hasn't experienced a losing season under head coach Mike Tomlin, even when Ben Roethlisberger missed the majority of the 2019 season.

    Roethlisberger was merely serviceable in 2021 (86.8 passer rating), so his expected retirement may not have a huge impact on what the Steelers can do offensively. However, it still leaves Pittsburgh without its biggest offensive leader and Big Ben's mental savvy.

    A shaky offensive line isn't going to help Pittsburgh's next quarterback. Roethlisberger was sacked 38 times in 2021 despite uncorking the ball at an average of just 2.1 seconds. The Steelers ranked 29th in yards per rush attempt (3.9), too.

    The bigger issue is the collapse of Pittsburgh's vaunted defense. When the Steelers went 8-8 in 2019, they stayed competitive with a defense ranked fifth in both points and yards allowed. This past season, Pittsburgh ranked 20th and 24th in those categories, respectively.

    With $28.4 million in projected cap space, the Steelers can afford to reload to some degree. However, Joe Haden, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Terrell Edmunds, Miles Killebrew, James Washington and Trai Turner are among the team's impending free agents. The Steelers will have to put in a lot of work to reload.

    This will also be a transition year on the sideline. Matt Canada was in his first year as offensive coordinator in 2021, and the results weren't great—Pittsburgh ranked 23rd in total offense. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler is now out after announcing his retirement, along with offensive line coach Adrian Klemm, who departed for Oregon in December.

    General manager Kevin Colbert is expected to step down following the draft.

    The 2022 season will mark a new beginning for the Steelers on many fronts, and that's not necessarily a good thing. The AFC North is a talented division, and four of Pittsburgh's nine wins in 2021 came against the banged-up Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.

    If the Browns and Ravens can stay healthy in 2022, the Steelers could easily be staring down the bottom spot in the division and the first losing campaign of Tomlin's career.

    2021 Record: 9-7-1

    2022 Prediction: 6-11

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Alex Menendez/Associated Press

    Roethlisberger isn't the only first-ballot Hall of Famer who may call it a career this offseason. Though he has repeatedly discussed playing through 2022, there's a very real chance that Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady retires this offseason.

    "It's not always what I want. It's what we want as a family. And I'm gonna spend a lot of time with them and figure out in the future what's next," Brady said on the Let's Go! podcast (h/t's Grant Gordon).

    If Brady doesn't return for the 2022 season, the Buccaneers offense won't be nearly as potent. Brady passed for a league-high 5,316 yards with 43 touchdowns and six interceptions this season. Without Brady, the Bucs could be looking at Blaine Gabbert or the untested Kyle Trask at quarterback.

    Gabbert is part of a substantial group of impending free agents, too. Chris Godwin, Jason Pierre-Paul, Rob Gronkowski, Leonard Fournette, Ryan Jensen, O.J. Howard, Richard Sherman, Ndamukong Suh and Carlton Davis are all notable names slated to hit the open market.

    The Buccaneers are projected to have only $14.9 million in cap space available. Whether or not Brady is back, the Bucs will be on the hook for his $18.4 million cap hit. Brady has $40.9 million in dead money remaining on his deal. This means if Brady retires, it won't give Tampa any cap relief.

    On top of everything else, Tampa appears likely to lose offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich.

    "Hearing there are some items left to clear up contractually but both Byron Leftwich and Jacksonville are trying to finalize an agreement to make him the Jaguars next head coach," Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times tweeted.

    The one fortuitous aspect of the coming season is that if the Saints also fall off, the Buccaneers may still be one of the better teams in the NFC South. The Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons both posted losing seasons in 2021.

    Still, Tampa is about to embark on a transition year, dramatically so, if Brady retires. While the Bucs may stay afloat in their own division, they're not likely to be in the Super Bowl conversation any longer.

    2021 Record: 13-4

    2022 Prediction: 8-9


    Contract projections and cap information via Spotrac. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.