NFL 2022 preview: Don’t be surprised if…

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Sam Prestipino, Sports Writer

The 2021 NFL season was full of shock and intrigue. Fans should expect nothing less this year. From personal changes to player progressions, the league has seen some serious changes over the offseason. Today, I will be covering some wild events that could happen this year, that shouldn’t surprise you come February.   

 

A Panthers Playoff Push

Don’t be surprised if Carolina finds themselves playing football in late January. This is a completely different team than the one that went 5-12 and secured last place in the NFC South just a year ago. If there’s a dark horse team that can have a Bengals-like turnaround this year, it’s Carolina. The key factor in this scenario is a healthy Christian McCaffery. It is clear that CMC is one of the biggest playmakers in the league when he’s healthy. Each of the last three years has hurt the Panthers due to major injuries to their star running back. 

Another key factor is the changes that they’ve made in the quarterback room. Trading for former number one overall pick Baker Mayfield may have set them up to have Pro Bowl-caliber play at the QB spot. Another underrated trade that Carolina made was trading for Jaguars receiver Laviska Shenault. He should provide some good depth to an already great receiving core. These moves, along with drafting former NC State Tackle Ikem Ekwonu, should set the Panthers up for success on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively, Carolina already had the second-ranked unit in the league last season. They only improved this offseason by getting back cornerback Jaycee Horn from a broken foot. This is a unit that should once again be a premier force in the league. 

The culmination of this new-look offense and an already stellar defense should be enough to propel Carolina to the postseason. The only question mark is whether or not head coach Matt Rhule can get them over the hump. It truly is put up or shut up time for Rhule. He has carried this team to back-to-back lackluster seasons where they won five games in each campaign. If Rhule can’t get this team to the playoffs with a great roster around him, it might be time for management to head in a different direction.

 

A 49ers Super Bowl Run

Don’t be surprised if San Francisco is playing in the Super Bowl. This is a 49ers team that is tough to gauge for the upcoming season. This has everything to do with what type of quarterback Trey Lance is. If Lance can have Mahomes-like success right away in his second year then San Francisco is almost certainly headed to the Super Bowl. However, if he winds up like Mitch Tribisky, this team is fighting for a wild card. The reports out of camp and the small sample size that two preseasons have provided lead fans to believe that Lance will be one of the premier quarterbacks within the next couple of years. The crazy thing is that he doesn’t even need to be elite in order for this team to make a run. They went all the way to the NFC Championship last year and were a dropped pick away from the Super Bowl. All they need Lance to do is to outplay Jimmy Garoppolo in order to contend. What will make this a championship team will be dependent on whether or not Lance can make that jump this year? Most fans are willing to bet that he is ready. This is a team that is hungry after a Super Bowl loss in 2019. 

San Francisco is led by a top-10 defense and some serious firepower on offense. If Lance can play at a relatively high level, the sky’s the limit for this team. It is also worth mentioning that the 49ers have an elite play caller at the helm in Kyle Shanahan. With him as the coach, San Francisco will be a wild card team at worst.

 

Minnesota Wins The NFC North

Don’t be surprised if the Vikings win the NFC North. This isn’t as much about Minnesota as it is about the rest of the division. The Bears are in rebuild mode for the hundredth consecutive year and will be lucky to not kill quarterback Justin Fields by the end of the season. Detroit will be better this year but will not really be competing for a playoff spot. This makes it a two-horse race between Minnesota and Green Bay. The advantage is clearly in the Vikings’ favor. The only leg up that the Packers have is on defense and at quarterback. They lost, arguably, their best player in Davante Adams and have limited pass catchers for Aaron Rodgers this season. Minnesota however, has improved drastically this offseason. They have weapons all over the offensive side of the ball. Kirk Cousins, Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, and Adam Thielen look to play at a high level outside of former head coach Mike Zimmer’s offensive playbook. Defensively, the Vikings have a solid unit. Defensive tackles, Dalvin Tomlinson and Armon Watts hold down the middle very well while Danielle Hunter and former Packer, Za’Darius Smith, put together one of the more elite pass rush duos in the league. 

Eric Kendricks returns to the fold as one of the high-end linebackers in the NFL. An area that Minnesota had problems with last season was the cornerback position. They looked to upgrade the position by drafting Andrew Booth out of Clemson. They of course will also enjoy the services of All-Pro safety Harrison Smith. Overall, Minnesota will need everyone to step up in order to claim the title of king of the North.

This year will surely feature some shockers. These three scenarios are the ones that are most likely to happen. Don’t sleep on the Panthers, 49ers, and Vikings this season.