Ranking NFL divisions after first wave of 2022 free agency: Who can challenge the AFC West?

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Ranking NFL divisions after first wave of 2022 free agency: Who can challenge the AFC West?
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The NFL offseason has been one of the craziest in league history, with players flocking to the AFC in order to challenge Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs for conference supremacy. Players are embracing the challenge of snapping the Chiefs’ streak of four consecutive conference championship games and six straight AFC West titles. 

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About the AFC West — that division has emerged as the best in football with flurry of activity swooping around the four teams. All to dethrone the Chiefs. The NFC West was the best division in football at the end of the 2021 season — and had two teams reach the NFC Championship Game — yet has been challenged for the title as the first wave in free agency concluded this week. 

Can any division challenge the AFC West? How far did the NFC West fall? The NFL division rankings experienced a major shakeup over the past two months. 

1. AFC West

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Last year’s final ranking: 2

The AFC West received a power boost not even Sonic the Hedgehog could rival with all the offseason moves. Davante Adams and Chandler Jones joined the Las Vegas Raiders, Russell Wilson was acquired by the Denver Broncos, while J.C. Jackson and Khalil Mack were key additions to the Los Angeles Chargers

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Every team in the division has an opportunity to make the playoffs. The Broncos have their franchise quarterback in Wilson, the Raiders loaded up the pass rush and wide receiver position, while the Chargers gave their defense an opportunity to win games and preserve leads so Justin Herbert doesn’t have to perform Houdini acts every week. 

As for the Kansas City Chiefs? They traded Tyreek Hill, but still have Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes leading a franchise that has won 50 games over the past four seasons. Kansas City has taken a step back, but the rest of the AFC West will have to strip them of their stranglehold of the division.

All four AFC West teams can make the postseason. This is going to be the most exciting division in 2022 — perhaps in NFL history. 

2. AFC North

Last year’s final ranking: 3

This division already houses the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals, who only improved their offensive line with the additions of La’El Collins, Alex Cappa, and Ted Karras. The Bengals’ biggest weakness was the offensive line and they significantly upgraded the unit. This team also has Joe Burrow entering his third season, a year after winning the AFC Championship. 

The Baltimore Ravens are getting Lamar JacksonJ.K. Dobbins, and Gus Edwards back on offense in 2022 (Dobbins and Edwards didn’t play a down last year) and Ronnie Stanley will be back anchoring the offensive line (Moses addition was one of the most underrated signings in free agency). Baltimore was 8-3 and leading the conference before Jackson’s ankle injury ended up being the final nail in the coffin. 

The Cleveland Browns added Deshaun Watson to a talented roster. They’ll be in the mix for a division title and a playoff spot. Hard to count out the Pittsburgh Steelers and any Mike Tomlin coached team, even if they appear to be the worst team in this stacked division. 

The AFC North was a slugfest in 2021, and will continue to be the same in 2022. 

3. NFC West

Last year’s final ranking: 3

The NFC West took a massive hit with the Seattle Seahawks entering a rebuilding phase by trading Russell Wilson and the release of Bobby Wagner, two franchise cornerstones that kept the organization competitive. This division is still talented — the same one that boasts the league champion Los Angeles Rams

Of course, the Rams loaded up even more with the addition of Allen Robinson in free agency and Matthew Stafford having his offensive line intact. The San Francisco 49ers still boast one of the deepest rosters in the NFL while the Arizona Cardinals are looking to get younger based on their free agency moves and retaining certain players. 

This division is still good enough to get three teams in the playoffs based on how top-heavy the NFC is. The AFC West and AFC North are just better at the moment. 

4. AFC East

Last year’s final ranking: 4

Regardless what the New England Patriots are doing (or not doing), this division got significantly better. The Buffalo Bills are arguably the best team in the AFC and rebuilt the pass rush by landing Von Miller while shoring up their run defense with a Jordan Phillips reunion. They also have Josh Allen at quarterback. 

The Miami Dolphins loaded up in free agency in speed, culminated with the Tyreek Hill trade. Miami also decided to actually protect Tua Tagovailoa with the additions of Terron Armstead and Connor Williams. If Tagovailoa makes progressions in his game, the Dolphins are contenders for the division title.

The New York Jets made smart roster moves as they are still in the rebuilding phase, while the Patriots got worse and still need to improve at wide receiver. This division is top heavy with the Bills and Dolphins, but Miami needs to show that progress on the field for the AFC East to challenge with the contenders. 

5. AFC South

Last year’s final ranking: 8

The worst division in football last year got a major facelift. The Jacksonville Jaguars made sure the AFC South won’t be a laughingstock thanks to the head coaching hire of Doug Pederson and their offseason spending spree that included Christian Kirk, Foye Oluokun, Darious Williams, and Brandon Scherff. The Jaguars should be much better than the team that took the field last season. 

Matt Ryan may be the quarterback the Indianapolis Colts need to get back to the playoffs, even if he’s a short-term fix. The Tennessee Titans added Robert Woods and retained Harold Landry, while still having Derrick Henry in his prime. They’ll still be in the running for the top seed in the conference. 

The Houston Texans are in a rebuild and arguably have the worst roster in football. If the Colts and Jaguars make strides in 2022, this division looks much better on paper. 

6. NFC East

Last year’s final ranking: 6

The biggest headline in this division was the Washington Commanders acquiring Carson Wentz from the Colts. Does Wentz make the Commanders significantly better? Washington should be more competitive in a division while the Dallas Cowboys took a step back by moving on from Amari Cooper and losing Randy Gregory in free agency. Dallas also released La’El Collins as the Cowboys are feeling the sting of Ezekiel Elliott’s contract. The Cowboys are still a good team, but the roster isn’t as talented as last year. 

The Philadelphia Eagles bolstered the pass rush with Haason Reddick, yet have failed to get a good veteran wide receiver to help out Jalen Hurts in the passing game. There’s still a lot of holes on this playoff-caliber roster. 

The New York Giants didn’t have any cap space to get better, but made the right head coaching hire with Brian Daboll and Joe Schoen is a forward-thinking general manager. Their 2022 outlook isn’t good, but at least New York has a sense of direction. 

The NFC East will be interesting to say the least. 

7. NFC North

Last year’s final ranking: 7

This division is still bad — and that’s with Aaron Rodgers coming back to the Green Bay Packers. Davante Adams is gone — which hurts Green Bay’s Super Bowl chances — but the Packers are still the class of this division with the rebuilding Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions

Detroit is making strides toward getting better with Dan Campbell building a strong culture, something D.J. Chark took a shot on when he signed there. Chicago’s rebuild is underwhelming to say the least. 

The Minnesota Vikings are an enigma, but their defense improved with the additions of Za’Darius Smith and Jordan Hicks. They could be a playoff team in 2022, as seven teams have to qualify for the NFC tournament. 

The NFC North still isn’t good and the Packers took a step back. Not a great outlook for the division. 

8. NFC South

Last year’s final ranking: 5

Imagine if Tom Brady didn’t return to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Tampa Bay is the class of a rebuilding division that saw the Atlanta Falcons trade Matt Ryan and Sean Payton stepping down from the New Orleans Saints

The Carolina Panthers are a mess as well, even though they should be better with a healthy Christian McCaffrey. Outside of Brady and the Buccaneers, it’s very tough to get excited about the NFC South.

If the Saints can keep up their standout defense and Jameis Winston has a similar start to last year, this division could be better than anticipated. The NFC South has low standards to begin with. 

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