UPDATE: The Los Angeles Rams defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 23-20, in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday, earning the franchise its second championship.
The Los Angeles Rams are about to face the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI, but the other 15 teams from the Rams' conference are already working toward supplanting Los Angeles in 2022. Below, Gregg Rosenthal spotlights one significant thing each non-Rams NFC team must do to pave a pathway to Super Bowl LVII.
The Cardinals must: prevent a talent drain on offense.
The Cardinals' offense crashed late in the season, and they figure to look a lot different in 2022. Christian Kirk, A.J. Green, Zach Ertz, James Conner and Chase Edmonds are all free agents, which represents a ton of snaps and production to replace in one offseason. Ertz and Conner shouldn’t be too expensive to keep, which would be a fine place to start. Kirk could have a strong free-agent market, so the Cardinals figure to look to free agency and the draft for wideouts.
The Falcons must: fix the offensive line.
The Falcons finished 28th in scoring differential and 30th in efficiency, according to DVOA. They profiled more as a four-win team that played a soft schedule, with a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball. It all starts up front, as usual in Atlanta. The line made offense virtually unplayable in too many Falcons games. Matt Ryan needs better protection to survive at this stage of his career, and I don’t expect Ryan to go anywhere.
The Panthers must: find an alternative to Sam Darnold.
Yes, the Panthers also need to fix one of the most talent-poor and poorly coached offensive lines in football, or the quarterback probably won't matter. But Darnold could be playing behind the 1994 Cowboys' line, and I’d still want a strong quarterback alternative. Darnold’s guaranteed money ($18.858 million in 2022) probably locks him in as a highly paid backup, but he needs to be option 1B, and Matt Rhule surely knows it.
The Bears must: build an offense around Justin Fields' strengths.
I was nervous when the Bears hired a defensive-minded head coach in Matt Eberflus because of what it could mean for Fields. Then Eberflus hired Packers quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy as offensive coordinator, meaning Fields will have an unproven, first-time play-caller running the show in Year 2. The Bears need to make building around Fields their top priority to best take advantage of his mobility and deep accuracy. Darnell Mooney is practically the only wideout under contract next year, so this group has a long way to go.
The Cowboys must: evolve the offense.
The Cowboys have a talented team, with most key players likely to return. That’s often been the death knell for Jerry Jones squads that have struggled with success in the past. Perhaps the thudding end to the Cowboys' 2021 season will help the franchise realize that just running it back won’t be good enough. Too often, the offense looked like it counted on Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb to get open outside without helping them. There was too much Ezekiel Elliott. They were reminiscent of Mike McCarthy’s stagnant Packers teams, but with Kellen Moore running the show. Moore isn’t maximizing his talent.
The Lions must: ???
I struggled with this one, because there’s so much the Lions still need to accomplish after one year of this rebuild. A quarterback of the future would be great to find in this draft, but that won’t help much in 2022. The wide receiver group needs a major boost, but at least they have a trio of offensive weapons in the passing game in Amon-Ra St. Brown, D'Andre Swift and T.J. Hockenson. The overall defensive talent is more pressing, even if the Lions were competitive after the team’s bye, despite possessing so few difference-makers. I was impressed by defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn in his first season, but he needs help at all three levels.
Should be simple enough, right?! No, really. Adams may skip offseason work if he’s given the franchise tag, but that’s the norm in Green Bay. Rodgers is under contract for 2022 and seemed happier with the Packers' front office by the end of last season. While it's a tricky negotiation, the Patriots' experience with Tom Brady should be instructive here. Just give Rodgers a few more years of guaranteed money, and if some other team wants Jordan Love, consider that, too. Love's game tape makes that less likely, though.
The Vikings must: hope Kevin O'Connell becomes the next Sean McVay.
I struggle projecting what first-time head coaches will do, especially one like O’Connell, who hasn’t called plays. Anyone who has worked with him loves him. That likely includes Kirk Cousins, who had O’Connell as his quarterbacks coach in Cousins' final season in Washington (2017). This Vikings roster needs help up front on both sides and will have to move away from a veteran-laden defense full of Mike Zimmer favorites. The only way they are getting to the Super Bowl is if they are so right about O’Connell as a leader and offensive mind that he somehow tops his mentor with the Rams as an immediate coaching star.
The Saints must: get 2019 Michael Thomas back.
I could have chosen virtually anything for a Saints team facing an offseason that will be complicated, even for them. They enter February $76 million over the cap. They need a quarterback. They have a great defense, with Dennis Allen in position as Sean Payton's replacement at head coach to maximize a top-five unit, even if it will be tricky to keep the group together. The easiest addition, however, is already on the roster. If they get back the version of Thomas (who is under contract through 2024) that led the league in yards (in 2019) and receptions (in 2018 and '19), their offense will have a shot. If he’s a diminished version of himself or hurt again, they probably are going to come up short, no matter what kind of salary-cap jujitsu general manager Mickey Loomis pulls off.
The Giants must: fix the offensive line. (Again!)
Former GM Dave Gettleman couldn’t do it. Now it’s on new Giants GM Joe Schoen and head coach Brian Daboll, who came together from Buffalo, to fix the Giants’ pass protection. Left tackle Andrew Thomas made strides in Year 2 last season. But as a unit, the Giants finished 28th in ESPN’s pass-block win rate and 30th in Pro Football Focus’ pass-blocking ratings. Daniel Jones needs something close to an average line to have a chance.
The Eagles must: fortify the pass rush.
The Eagles love to invest in big dudes. The offensive line is mostly set, beyond center Jason Kelce, but the defensive front could use work, with starter Derek Barnett and three key role players (Hassan Ridgeway, Ryan Kerrigan, Genard Avery) all set for free agency. Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon runs a system that relies on the front four getting pressure.
The 49ers must: get Trey Lance up to speed.
Lance wasn’t healthy enough to step in when the 49ers fell to 3-5 on the season, the very moment Kyle Shanahan’s loyalty to Jimmy Garoppolo wavered. Jimmy G started playing better the following week, and Shanahan never gave the No. 3 overall pick another shot to earn the job. Now he has no choice. Shanahan has a whole offseason to build the offense around Lance's skill set, and I’m excited to see them play in 2022. All the other offseason concerns, including new deals for Deebo Samuel (entering the final year of his rookie contract) and Nick Bosa (under team control through 2023), are secondary in importance.
The Seahawks must: not trade Russell Wilson.
There’s an argument for trading Wilson now, with his value high, to better the long-term future of the Seahawks. I don’t buy that argument, especially if making the Super Bowl next season is a goal. (And if Pete Carroll is still there, it should be!)
Most of the Seahawks’ secondary and offensive line are headed for free agency. The team has plenty of cap space. This would have been a sensible year to blow up the entire machine, but ownership didn’t want to change course with Carroll or GM John Schneider. If they want to squeeze more out of the Carroll-Wilson era, they may as well go as bold as possible in spending, like their division-rival Rams did. Seattle’s roster is fine in most spots and excellent in very few.
The Bucs must: not be sentimental.
With Tom Brady gone, it’s time to make hard decisions on the roster. Title winners Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston, O.J. Howard, Jordan Whitehead, Carlton Davis and Leonard Fournette are among the free agents that may no longer make sense. Chris Godwin should be a priority, but the team might have to choose between guard Alex Cappa and center Ryan Jensen. With Kyle Trask apparently a strong contender to take this Bucs starting job, it’s probably going to be a transition season.
The Commanders must: hit on a big swing at quarterback.
One year after striking out in the Matthew Stafford sweepstakes, Washington figures to go hard after big fish in the quarterback market. I have my doubts Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson would want to play there. If there is clarity about Deshaun Watson’s status, the team is a prime candidate to go after him. After taking a step back in Ron Rivera’s second season, Washington has a lot of cap space to play with in its first season as the Commanders.