Ja’Marr Chase taught us two things last year: One is not to listen to any of us; two is that life can change faster for NFL teams than we’ve ever envisioned. So let’s not waste time or energy paying lip service to the fact that the draft is a years-long process that we can’t evaluate until the next election cycle. Some team is going to hit it big this season and ride the wave of rookie stardom into the playoffs—like the Bengals did last year, going from 4-11-1 all the way to the Super Bowl.
We already ran through this exercise after the hectic opening of free agency (and some blockbuster trades), but now is truly the perfect time to reevaluate where franchises stand and where they could be in a matter of months. I also graded each team’s draft haul here, but now come join us for our latest installment of power rankings.
I’ll count myself as one of those folks last year, who overthought the momentary slowdown of the Chiefs and assumed Patrick Mahomes might settle into an early-career period that made him look something closer to human. I was obviously proven wrong, and have applauded the way the Chiefs got younger and attacked both free agency and the draft. While we may be biased (some of Kansas City’s draftees were among personal favorites) their performance in the draft may have netted them three immediate starters in a lineup that’s difficult to crack. See you back in the Super Bowl, Andy Reid.
While the endgame of Tom Brady’s Wendy Byrde–like multilevel scheme to take control of the Dolphins and act as both the team’s chief financial officer and starting quarterback has yet to materialize, the Buccaneers remain one of the best and most complete teams in the NFL—one that could easily use its draw as a veteran-led roster to successfully mine the remainder of free agency (as cohost Gary Gramling and I did on the latest MMQB pod). Todd Bowles is an excellent coach with a healthier defense. The Buccaneers are coming off a draft in which they nabbed a high-upside, space-eating tackle (Logan Hall) to pair with Vita Vea and a potential franchise running back in Rachaad White.
It wasn’t hard to fall in love with Green Bay’s draft. The Packers solidified their defense and gave Aaron Rodgers receiving talent to play with, all while maintaining a sensible grasp on their board. The run on first-round wide receivers happened early, which allowed the Packers to hang back and net a combination of Georgia defenders that will make the team less singularly reliant on stellar linebacking play and a little bit beefier against the run. They remain the runaway favorite to own the NFC North and cruise into the playoffs as a possible No. 1 seed.
The Rams targeted interior offensive line play as a critical need during draft season and came away with the versatile Logan Bruss out of Wisconsin. The Rams may be an interesting team to watch in veteran free agency now that the compensatory pick formula will be unaffected by signings. There are some intriguing, though aging, bodies out there for the right price. Despite some serious turnover this offseason, the Rams remain one of the best teams in the NFL, with their foot firmly punched on the accelerator. If this year’s class can contribute (looking at both Bruss and running back Kyren Williams out of Notre Dame), it’ll be a huge win for Les Snead and Sean McVay.
While my initial grade on the Bills draft—a B minus—felt conservative at the time, it is looking more and more like the team made some serious and timely upgrades despite picking at the end of the first round. This is especially true on the playmaker front, with both James Cook and Khalil Shakir donning red and blue this season. The Bills got markedly better, which is difficult to say about most teams that made deep playoff pushes a year ago.
The Bengals are going to be good again next year. How good? It’s tough to say. Offensive coordinators have more time to dissect their brilliant, coverage-heavy defense. The AFC North will, theoretically, be more competitive with an evolved Ravens offense and a Browns team that may or may not be starting a Pro Bowl–caliber quarterback. That said, Cincinnati’s rebuilt offensive line and increased commitment to finding rangy playmakers in the secondary who can beat receivers to the ball make the team just as competitive as anyone else. Each season is a testament to both team-building and luck, with the Bengals being unique in that so many of their biggest breaks last year came from dogging out tough games and hanging around when other teams could not. Can Cam Taylor-Britt, who comes from a Nebraska program that coach Zac Taylor knows well, make a push for one of the corner spots out of camp? That would signal some blue skies ahead for the Bengals.
Continuously pegging the Chargers as an it team, which I’ve seemingly done each year since the hiring of former head coach Anthony Lynn, is getting exhausting. It’s a little like waiting for a trendy tech company to turn a profit. One has to wonder whether Brandon Staley can be our Dara Khosrowshahi. Justin Herbert is approaching megastardom at such an expedited pace, it’s difficult not to place our highest hopes ahead of our penchant for realism. That said, the Chargers did well in the draft, bolstering the interior of their offensive line, supplementing their backfield and theoretically buttoning up Staley’s defense. While we’d like more stability at right tackle and more heft against the run, the Chargers are poised to cash in on all their style points.
It’s difficult to imagine a better draft for the Ravens, who seemed to be spinning the entire board like a lazy Susan, having a premium player of need land in their laps in every round. People are going to complain about a lack of help at the wide receiver position, though I’d argue that if wide receiver was a position central to their near-future plans, they would not have let Hollywood Brown go. They also wouldn’t have drafted about 13 tight ends. When a team knows itself as well as the Ravens do, they can create some real art on draft night. Imagine a 400-pound Daniel Faalele securing the edge for Lamar Jackson on boot action runs this year. They are, at the moment, my runaway favorite in the AFC North.
The Cowboys, for now, are going to find themselves in this kind of water-treading position. They’re good enough to keep winning the NFC East for now. They’re not nearly good enough to make a deep run in the playoffs. Who knows whether that is ultimately good enough for this particular franchise, to perpetually make it to the postseason and then thrust themselves into a too-close game that gives their fan base the ability to blame losses on the officiating crew. All that said, Sam Williams probably has the best chance at helping this team go from good to great if he hits as a pass rusher. With Dan Quinn still in town, those chances are better.
10. Denver Broncos
Internally, the Broncos were over the moon about their draft class, and I think part of that has to do with understanding how deeply creative their coaching staff is. Ejiro Evero is a rising star at defensive coordinator, and now has Nik Bonitto to fling off the edge of some creative stunts. He could be a dark-horse breakout candidate this year, given how much equity the front office placed on the pass-rusher position generally. The Broncos want to rattle the fleet of star quarterbacks in their division to bolster their own.
The Colts remind me a bit of my youthful obsession with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which led to my buying and obsessing over their records far longer than I should have. The arrival of Matt Ryan puts us in the Californication phase, which you could take however you want personally, but for me means a breaking point. For the last three seasons I’ve been saying that Frank Reich can get the best out of [insert long list of quarterbacks here]. Which is true. But their run of bad luck coinciding with late-season slumps seems to be becoming more of a solidified norm than an unfortunate anomaly. I still think Reich is brilliant. I still think what everyone has said about Chris Ballard building a next-generation front office is true. But I’m going to need more than “Scar Tissue” out of this team, else they’ll forever be banished to the back end of my power rankings (and record shelf).
The Patriots were going to be around No. 12 no matter whom they drafted, as we correctly assumed they would select someone we’ve heard little about with their top pick. It probably never ceases to amaze Bill Belichick that people don’t understand his desire to draft a certain kind of person over a certain kind of pedigree, which obviously leads to some significant misses and head-scratching choices (but has also formulated the foundation of a record-setting number of championships). Cole Strange or not, New England should be in competition for a bottom-half playoff spot and should be talented enough to fend off the Dolphins and Jets.
13. Tennessee Titans
The Titans have done all they can to signal a perceived end to the current team we all know and love. That doesn’t mean they won’t be competitive in 2022, but there will be a metaphorical “under construction” sign hanging next to the active roster. Ryan Tannehill is in his final evaluation stretch and now has a potentially capable replacement sitting behind him in Malik Willis (sort of like the situation Marcus Mariota was in when Tannehill got to Tennessee). Derrick Henry is 28, coming off a significant injury and a heroic playoff return, not to mention a significant stretch of high-volume seasons. The last few years have been a stellar run for Mike Vrabel, and there will be good times in the future, but could this season get a bit rocky? On the plus side, we’ll get to see the development of receiver Treylon Burks, who should be considered a possible Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate in that system.
We have a really interesting case study happening across the NFL right now. Four teams (the Dolphins, Packers, Titans and 49ers) each run a version of the same offense. Two teams—Green Bay and Tennessee—traded away their best wide receiver. Two teams—Miami and San Francisco—either traded a haul to get one or refused a king’s ransom to trade one. It is a real-time look at scheme versus player. The 49ers kept Deebo Samuel and will eventually trade Jimmy Garoppolo, leaving us with only a foggy idea of what their offense looks like over the long term. That said, San Francisco was able to make some minor upgrades with limited draft capital on both sides of the ball. Drake Jackson could highlight the true depth of the edge-rushing class, while Tyrion Davis-Price and Danny Gray are typical explosive playmakers coveted by the scheme.
The Eagles are entering the safest kind of prove-it year for their quarterback. Jalen Hurts enters Year 3 with a top-seven group of weapons and a powerful, veteran offensive line to keep him upright. The defense could be among the best in the NFC, with interior line pressure rivaling that of any team in the league. While the Cowboys remain somewhat stagnant, the Eagles are surging their way toward a divisional takeover.
Josh McDaniels chose one of the most chaotic offseasons in NFL history to become a head coach again, which means many of his decisions have avoided the kind of microscope they might have if McDaniels was the story of the offseason. And, in a lot of other years, having Jon Gruden replaced by the coach who agreed to lead the Colts before bolting at the last minute would have been a massive story. Despite having little capital following the Davante Adams trade, the Raiders succeeded in finding some talented players from big schools who can come in and provide some adequate talent right away. Las Vegas was not starved on the talent front per se, but absent a good draft, the Raiders would have been solidified as the worst team in their division. In Vegas right now, I see a team that is going to make the AFC West more competitive than we thought, a team that will most certainly be a thorn in everyone’s side.
After disagreeing with the sentiment that the Saints are a win-now team in my draft grades post, which earned me some kind overtures on social media (from the same people, oddly, who called me idiotic for writing this back on Jan. 7, by the way), I’ve chosen to hedge that statement just a little bit. I think the Saints are a sixth or seventh seed at best. And, after covering the NFL’s recent investigation into the Browns’ tanking, I have more respect for teams that fight for fringe contention than those that sacrifice valuable years of players’ athletic primes to lose games somewhat intentionally. I’m willing to believe there’s a version of Jameis Winston who can play solid football for a year, especially when surrounded by this talent set. I think a lot hinges on Trevor Penning’s ability to make the leap quickly, but there are riskier bets teams are making with their rookie class following this year’s draft.
Full disclosure: I picked the Cardinals to win six games last year. I thought they’d look, for most of 2021, like the team that showed up against the Rams in the playoffs. Now, they enter the ’22 season knowing they’ll be without DeAndre Hopkins for a third of the year. Their success hinges on the professional transformation of Hollywood Brown and a coaching staff scrambling to catch a bunch of mismatched personnel and square-peg them into the Air Raid. The Cardinals spent their highest draft pick on a second tight end, which, if last year’s numbers hold, they’ll use 22% of the time. Their last two first-round picks failed to see the field for more than 40% of the snaps in their first season. If we’re doing this power rankings exercise, in part, to show how much better a team got between free agency and the draft, I can’t depict the Cardinals as a team that transformed itself in any meaningful way.
Here’s what happens after the draft: Behind the scenes, coaches and scouts tell reporters that they pounded the table for whomever ended up succeeding and they had a fourth-round grade on first-round picks that busted. It is a truism as predictable as death and rising New Jersey property taxes. Looking at Patrick Mahomes’s fan base inside NFL scouting departments versus after his rookie season is like seeing the crowd at Neutral Milk Hotel in some collegiate dorm room in the late 1990s versus Metallica on the East Stage at Woodstock. This is going to be what happens with Kenny Pickett. If he succeeds, he was clearly the only salvageable passer in the draft. If he busts, other scouts and coaches will rip the Steelers and say they could have had Pickett in the third round. I have less of a problem with the selection than many others. The scouting department’s information on Pickett may have been better and more intimate than any team/prospect combination in the draft. It’s not a bold take to say the Steelers’ floor is still 8–9 or 9–8 even with Pickett starting 17 games.
20. Cleveland Browns
Rant time: Paul DePodesta has had six years now as the team’s “director of strategy.” While he’s not the de facto general manager, imagine a GM whose track record was as follows: hired Hue Jackson, who compiled a record so egregious the team triggered an eventual tanking investigation; replaced Jackson with Freddie Kitchens, who lasted one season; rubber-stamped the Odell Beckham Jr. trade and spent $80 million on Jarvis Landry; lost a power struggle to draft Mitch Trubisky over Deshaun Watson and Mahomes (and Myles Garrett); picked Baker Mayfield No. 1; and then, after botching a Mayfield trade, has been forced to hold on to the ornery quarterback months after signing Watson to a fully guaranteed contract amid at least 22 sexual harassment and assault allegations. How many of those executives would have made it six years, especially with the incredible amount of draft capital the Browns accrued, and only have one playoff win to show for it?
Anyway, the Browns had what appeared to be a good draft and, outside of the edge position opposite Garrett and the wide receiver spot, look to be one of the most complete rosters in football. What does that mean with Watson’s possible suspension looming? Who knows. Maybe we’ll have to wait for Year 7 for the big picture to materialize.
21. Miami Dolphins
After a weird offseason, the Dolphins still managed to emerge with a more-than-capable head-coaching candidate in Mike McDaniel, who will have the team more efficient on offense. For all of Brian Flores’s strengths, his inability to find a sensible solution at offensive coordinator was a knock on his overall tenure (pending lawsuit and alleged behavior by ownership aside). While we came away surprised there weren’t any distinguishing offensive draft picks that tipped us off as to where McDaniel was leaning, the Dolphins should be an interesting outside-zone team with more intermediate, quick-strike opportunities for Tua Tagovailoa.
The Vikings added some capable defensive backfield talent in the draft, otherwise utilizing their picks to layer the depth chart at several positions of need. Minnesota did need to get younger en masse, though it’s interesting to see how the team decided to go about it. Large-scale pick accrual is tricky business right now, and without the time to establish an edge elsewhere, Kwesi Adofo-Mensah opted to move back and try to manipulate the board in his favor. Yes, the Vikings needed a lot of help on defense, but time will tell if this was the right way to go about it.
I can’t be the only one who would prefer Ryan Fitzpatrick over Carson Wentz here, or even another round of Taylor Heinicke. I thought there might be an outside shot of the Commanders going first-round quarterback in this draft (which, if you went by the October mock draft scene, would have included eventual fifth-round pick Sam Howell, anyway). Instead, they drafted like a team one player away from the Super Bowl. Jahan Dotson is growing on me, and their overload on the defensive line will be tough to handle. Still, it’s hard to imagine this roster rallying around Wentz to crack the top two in the NFC East.
24. Detroit Lions
I think this Lions team is good enough to make some noise as a second-place contender in the NFC North this year. Jared Goff isn’t terrible and has been in the NFL long enough to string together capable drives. With their cup running over at wide receiver and two consistent, pressure players at the edge spots, this team feels so much more complete than it was a year ago. The Lions have a long way to go to dig themselves out of the Matt Patricia regime, but Brad Holmes has done a fine job of expediting the process.
25. New York Jets
After going back and watching Zach Wilson from 2021, there’s a little more to like than initially expected. Wilson is going to be O.K. as an NFL quarterback. How fast he gets there depends on everything else around him. Joe Douglas came as close as any GM to winning this draft, netting the Jets some shutdown cornerback talent and a receiver whose run-after-the-catch ability will help Wilson tremendously. Garrett Wilson doesn’t feel like a Beckham-type to me, who will immediately improve the offense by one-handing a bunch of wobbly hospital balls. But he will beat his man on a drag route and, once a game, turn a five-yard pass into a 35-yard pass by eluding a few tackles (or straight up plowing through them like he did against Akron last year). Either way, the Jets project to be a tougher and more legitimate club than they were a year ago.
26. New York Giants
The Giants may just now be realizing the extent of their necessary rebuild. While I believe the company line on giving Daniel Jones a shot (despite not picking up his fifth-year option) this roster was in tatters before the current head coach and GM arrived. Bringing in their most athletic edge rusher since Jason Pierre-Paul (in fifth pick Kayvon Thibodeaux) and solidifying their most promising tackle tandem since the 1980s will go a long way toward erasing the destructiveness of the Dave Gettleman era.
27. Houston Texans
The Texans got an awful lot better this offseason. While that may not guarantee them more wins than last year (Urban Meyer is gone from their schedule, after all), Houston is assembling the very lower rungs of a foundation that could one day yield a contender. That sounds like an awful lot of hedging, but it’s not hard to imagine Houston finding relevance again in the post–Derrick Henry AFC South. Derek Stingley Jr. will reshape the Texans’ defense as we know it. A team that ran press-man coverage fewer than all but seven teams in the NFL last year, the Texans will almost certainly have to change their identity to accommodate a player who is infinitely better when he can get his hands on a defender, much like Lovie Smith tried to accommodate Darrelle Revis while coaching in Tampa Bay.
The Jaguars would have jumped four spots on everyone’s collective power rankings board by hiring Yosemite Sam as head coach, never mind Doug Pederson. This team still has the feeling of an adrift franchise, but getting Trevor Lawrence into a somewhat controlled situation, with a handful of veteran, athletic weapons can’t be the worst thing for his career. As time passes, I like the idea of Trent Baalke betting big on athleticism. It’s worked out for perennially great franchises elsewhere, and Pederson has a reputation for empowering his staff. Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd both have such high ceilings and, aligned correctly, can transform a defense that struggled to win with relatively heavy usages of pressure packages a year ago.
29. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are entering an exciting period in franchise history, or at least what could be an exciting time in franchise history. The relationship between Russell Wilson, Pete Carroll and John Schneider brought a bit of stagnancy to a once creative and forward-thinking franchise that was stuck in a particular mode of being for too long. This draft was a table-setter, though we don’t know what the entirety of the plan looks like. The Seahawks made a powerhouse out of a fleet of mid-round draft picks. Who are we to doubt they could do something incredible again? That said, it will take too much imagination on our part … for now.
30. Atlanta Falcons
No team is going to call what it’s doing a rebuild at this point, especially with the Brian Flores investigation happening and the Hue Jackson investigation recently in the NFL’s rearview mirror. That said, it’s difficult for anyone in Atlanta to sell us on the current roster (outside of this rookie class) as some direct bridge to the future. This is a team that will develop its young players while ideally losing enough games to net a top-tier quarterback in 2023. It just can’t say that right now. Best-case scenario? Drake London and Kyle Pitts dazzle in the red zone, and Arnold Ebiketie comes on as a pass rusher.
I liked Matt Corral coming out of Ole Miss, and I had him as the highest quarterback on the board in my “what teams should do” mock draft. I think his success in quick-strike offenses could work well against coverage-heavy defenses predicated on slowing down mobile, orchestra-leading quarterbacks like Rodgers and Mahomes. Corral is going to get rid of the ball before most teams have time to set up their coverage and, while his quarterback rating tends to dip significantly under pressure, he may find himself under less pressure. I also like Ben McAdoo more than most as a coordinator, and think he could bring out the best in Corral (interestingly enough, his aim as Giants head coach was to significantly reduce Eli Manning’s snap to throw time, and he did so successfully). Now that the nice part is out of the way, Carolina has a good defensive backfield and a smattering of talented skill-position players, but not much else.
32. Chicago Bears
Velus Jones Jr. isn’t going to fix the Justin Fields situation, even if he was better than any receiver in the country at causing missed tackles (or breaking tackles after the catch, according to Sports Info Solutions). I know I have been a bit of an alarmist about Fields, but it’s difficult to imagine him reclaiming a sense of normalcy this year despite a smart coaching change. Bears fans may feel otherwise, but how did this draft assuage any of our concerns about their young quarterback’s surrounding talent? A majority of Chicago’s picks were in the sixth or seventh round. Both of its starting tackles will likely be 2021 picks from outside the first round. This could get scary.
More NFL Coverage:
• MMQB: The Falcons’ Strange Offseason, Remaining Free Agents
• What the NFL Didn’t Reveal About Its Browns Investigation
• Biggest Draft Takeaways From Around the NFL
• Which Version of Tom Brady Will We Get in the Booth?