Six NFL teams that could surprise in 2022 – for better or worse

With two weeks of preseason action in the booksthings are starting to take shape in the NFL – positively for some, and rather ominously for others.

Every year, a few teams seemingly come out of nowhere and force themselves into relevance. Meanwhile, it’s not uncommon to see front-runners slide and fall short of expectations.

This year figures to be no different. Already, many people around the league believe teams like the Denver Broncos, Las Vegas Raiders and Philadelphia Eagles have a chance to make strides after big-name offseason acquisitions. And Meanwhile, there’s a degree of concern that the departure of Tyreek Hill, and the simultaneous improvement of AFC West rivals, could threaten the Kansas City Chiefs’ six-year reign atop their division.

But every year seems to offer a few surprises. A few smart moves and a couple of strokes of luck place a squad or two on that 2021 Cincinnati Bengals track. Meanwhile, misfortunes could wind up derailing anticipated contenders.

Here’s a look at three teams who seem to have a chance to become surprise threats, and three others, who could be destined for unexpectedly disappointing campaigns.

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NFL teams that could make surprising surges

Carolina Panthers

Matt Rhule needs this to happen in the worst way, and Baker Mayfield does as well as he starts fresh in Carolina after the Cleveland Browns split with the 2018 No. 1 pick after landing Deshaun Watson. Mayfield has always had a chip on his shoulder, but his motivation appears to be running as strong as ever. He’s out to prove that the Browns got it wrong and, now that he’s healthy, he can help a team contend.

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In addition to improved confidence and decision-making at quarterback, he could bring an edge that the Panthers need. Carolina certainly has the weapons on offense (Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore, Robbie Anderson, Terrace Marshall Jr.), but the unit needs to remain healthy and have the right facilitator to give them a chance. With the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints each starting over at quarterback and navigating uncertain territory at head coach (Atlanta’s Arthur Smith is still finding his way entering Year 2, and former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen replaces Sean Payton in New Orleans), the door is open. for Carolina to chase a wild-card bid after three straight double-digit loss seasons.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Things can’t get much worse than last year’s dysfunction-riddled 3-14 campaign under Urban Meyer. And after the hiring of Doug Pederson as head coach and an offseason devoted to building a much more complete team through free agency and the draft, Jacksonville’s prospects for taking a dramatic leap forward look good.

Pederson and quarterbacks coach Mike McCoy should be very helpful for 2021 top pick Trevor Lawrence, who often looked lost last season in a 12-touchdown, 17-interception campaign. An upgraded line should also help the quarterback’s comfort level. As members of the AFC South – where the Titans are retooling to a degree, the Colts are still trying to put it all together and the Texans seem destined for one of the top picks of the 2023 draft – the Jaguars have a sunny outlook.

Elandon Roberts #52 of the Miami Dolphins (R) celebrates with teammate Nik Needham #40 of the Miami Dolphins during the first quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders at Hard Rock Stadium on August 20, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Miami Dolphins

After a contentious end to the Brian Flores era, Dolphins officials have gone the route of the young, creative offensive coordinator, naming former San Francisco 49ers assistant offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel as head coach. The Dolphins hope Kyle Shanahan’s right-hand man can save Tua Tagovailoa’s careergrooming the quarterback into the top-five draft pick that they viewed him as in 2020.

McDaniel runs a quarterback-friendly system, and the investments in Tagovailoa’s supporting cast should also make life easier for the young quarterback. If the Dolphins can field a productive offense that matches an already talented defense, Miami could find itself in the thick of things down the stretch of the season. The Dolphins do, of course, have two fearsome AFC East foes (the Buffalo Bills and the New England Patriots) to worry about. But a suspect offensive staff in New England could lead to struggles in Year 2 for Mac Jones, setting the Dolphins up for that surprise contender candidacy.

NFL teams that could disappoint

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tom Brady’s mid-camp absence was odd, but it’s not at all the most concerning element of the preseason for Tampa Bay. That would be the disintegration of the offensive line. Between the offseason departures of guards Ali Marpet (retirement) and Alex Cappa (free agency), and the rash of injuries that claimed Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen, starting offensive guard Aaron Stinnie and All-Pro offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs, the Bucs should be he red alert. Brady, who turned 45 earlier this month, is known for his quick release and pocket presence, but a patchwork line means he could find himself under the most pressure he has experienced in quite some time, and one more run at a Super Bowl could prove impossible for Tampa Bay.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers resolved the long-running uncertainty hanging over their union with Aaron Rodgers, but after making their quarterback the NFL’s highest-paid player, they lost top targets Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The overhauled and young receiving unit has largely struggled this preseason and even drawn public criticism from Rodgers.

The Packers have dominated in three regular seasons under Matt FlaFleur (going 39-10 and winning the division each year) but have come up short each postseason. But they could be in for some offensive struggles with a lack of proven and trustworthy targets. A lack of continuity and cohesion during this year of potential growing paints could prove costly, particularly late in the season and in the postseason, as Rodgers and Co. have spent the last 12 seasons trying in vain to get back to the Super Bowl.

Tennessee Titans

Did the Titans’ best shot at a Super Bowl appearance slip through their fingers with the divisional-round loss to Cincinnati last winter? That certainly could be the case. Gone is Ryan Tannehill’s best offensive weapon in wide receiver AJ Brown. Julio Jones, another leading wideout, also departed this offseason. Salary-cap restraints made it hard for the Titans to reload. Workhorse back Derrick Henry returns but missed nine games last season after breaking a bone in his foot, and it’s hard not to wonder when all that mileage he has logged will catch up to him.

After two straight AFC South titles and three consecutive playoff appearances, the Titans must brace for improvement out of Jacksonville and Indianapolis. It’s a long season, but it feels like the Titans’ window of opportunity could be closing.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL surprise teams: Could Dolphins, Panthers defy odds in 2022?

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