As the NFL free agency period comes to a close with the draft approaching, there could be major changes in the outlook of each division heading into next season. Certain divisions that have had the same relative hierarchy year after year are going to look completely different. Now that the rosters are starting to look more complete, let’s look at the results of last year’s division standings and evaluate how much the balance of power might change in 2021-2022.

NFC South

Saints (12-4)

Photo: Ben Liebenberg / AP

Bucs (11-5)

Panthers (5-11)

Falcons (4-12)

We saw a changing of the guard come to life last year in the postseason as the Bucs slayed the Saints despite being a wild card and getting swept by them in the regular season. With Drew Brees retired and the Bucs running it back with the same roster, quite literally as they re-signed all 22 offensive and defensive starters, it feels as if the NFC South is now Tampa’s to lose. However, the Saints may still be above Carolina and Atlanta, but we’ll see how the bottom two size each other up this season. The Panthers just made the trade to acquire Sam Darnold from the Jets, proving they really wanted to move on from Teddy Bridgewater. They were still competitive in the games that they lost last year, and Darnold, who granted, has been terrible in New York, is leaving a team with the worst coach in football and was a complete mess, so if he pans out in a new location with better coaching, he could be a tremendous add given he’s still younger than Joe Burrow. Their continued rebuild could prevent the Falcons and their waning time with Matt Ryan from passing them up. But who knows? Ryan and the Falcons have an innovative offensive head coach now in Arthur Smith, so a buzzing gameplan with Julio Jones might cancel out their invisible defense. The division is now essentially the Bucs and everyone else.

NFC North

Packers (13-3)

Bears (8-8)

Vikings (7-9)

Lions (5-11)

As long as Aaron Rodgers is playing football, Green Bay will own the NFC North. The Packers didn’t do anything in free agency due to their cap restraints and still are likely going to finish at the top. The Bears and Vikings on the other hand are in all likelihood swapping spots in the North’s hierarchy- from signing Andy Dalton after striking out on Russell Wilson to cutting Kyle Fuller, there’s enough turmoil and sense of desperation in Chicago that it feels like next season could be a disaster. Minnesota might be a little irrationally confident in themselves from their past performances by doing nothing significant outside of signing Patrick Peterson, but they’re at the very least in better shape now than the Bears. The Lions were in 4th last year WITH Matthew Stafford and Kenny Golladay and now they do not have Matthew Stafford or Kenny Golladay. No offense to their new quarterback and head coach pairing in Jared Goff and Dan Campbell, but I don’t see much changing unless he’s allowed to suit up an actual lion to bite the kneecaps off of the opponents.

NFC East

Football Team (7-9)

Giants (6-10)

Cowboys (6-10)

Eagles (4-11-1)

This division that was HORRID last year at the very least had quite a bit of movement this offseason. Every team is seemingly improved except Philadelphia, who traded down and looks to just focus on getting younger around Jalen Hurts as he learns his new coach’s system. Washington got Ryan Fitzpatrick and Curtis Samuel in hopes to give life to their offense after being carried by the young defense, the Giants signed Kenny Golladay and will have Saquon Barkley back from injury, and the Cowboys got their man by finally agreeing to terms with Dak Prescott. While they may not be as balanced as the rest of the division, the safest bet for a team to take over this wash of a division is Dallas because they have the most-proven quarterback spot and the highest ceiling with Dak. Washington’s defense is the best unit, but Fitzpatrick is 38 and has never been to the playoffs, and the jury is still out on Daniel Jones in New York, but he finally has weapons now, and if he doesn’t show any signs of life, they might look to move on from him. The NFC East will in all likelihood be another mess next year, but at the very least (hopefully) be a better product when they’re inevitably put in the primetime TV spots every week.

NFC West

Seahawks (12-4)

Rams (10-6)

Cardinals (8-8)

49ers (6-10)

The NFC West: where draft picks don’t exist and everyone is aggressively trying to one-up the other team. The ripple started with the Rams trading everything they have left for Matthew Stafford, then the Cardinals signed JJ Watt and AJ Green to build a 2016 Pro Bowl team, then the 49ers moved up to the 3rd pick in the draft to upgrade at quarterback over Jimmy Garoppolo (eventually). Meanwhile, Russell Wilson allegedly hates Seattle and wants out.

Everything is casual out west.

All four teams could easily compete, but the Rams are probably now the face of the division because they at least know what they are; they’re going to run the same Sean McVay system with Donald and Ramsey on defense and what everyone thinks is a level-up at QB with Stafford to run the offense. It’ll be the same formula but with roster improvements, and they’re looking to win now. Even though they lost some defensive pieces, the all-in approach will pay off.

There’s no telling where the rest of the division takes us; Russell Wilson could very well be moved, but as long as he’s the leader of the team, the Seahawks didn’t lose enough to not be close to the top of the division. The soap opera-level drama they 

AFC South

Titans (11-5)

Colts (11-5)

Texans (4-12)

Jaguars (1-15)

There might have been a bit of shuffling between the two teams at the top and the two teams at the bottom, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty in the South. The Colts and Titans were a toss-up last year, but now that Arthur Smith is out as the OC in Tennessee, Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith are both gone, the third-best offense in the league last year that carried their historically bad defense will almost certainly take a step back; they can only hope that signing Bud Dupree and Denico Autry can make the defense less abysmal.The Colts have been so competent of a defense and coaching staff that it hasn’t necessarily mattered who plays quarterback for them since Luck retired out of nowhere, and if anyone can fix Carson Wentz, it would be his new coach who he spent time with in Philly, Frank Reich. Indy is probably the favorite over Tennessee now, but Carson Wentz being the big “if” makes it murky. Nothing is ever certain in the AFC South.

At the bottom, the Jaguars only won one game last year and there is almost a certainty that they won’t be as bad as the Texans now that Houston is just a sinkhole of despair. Who knows? Trevor Lawrence, who they’re going to pick #1 overall, could come in and become the best quarterback of all-time under their new coach, Urban Meyer. Rebuilding a team that ended the year losing 15 games in a row isn’t a small task, but now that they’ll have the crown jewel of the draft, lots of cap space, and a new regime, in terms of the division Jags fans can at least say, “at least we’re not Houston!”

AFC North

Steelers (12-4)

Ravens (11-5)

Browns (11-5)

Bengals (4-11-1)

The AFC North is always a blood bath with ferocious rivalries, and it’s a shame that Joe Burrow suffered the injury that he did last year because otherwise, every team could be considered at least competitive. Cincinnati will still be at the bottom as Burrow rehabs from injury, but they continue to rebuild with their defense being bolstered and they got him some protection on the line- with strong draft picks they could end up having a bright future, just not in the current state of the division.

The rest of the division were all Super Bowl contenders last year, but the momentum surrounding the teams have changed. Pittsburgh brought back Big Ben and Juju Smith-Schuster for “one last ride,” to I guess give him a retirement send-off? The way that he looked at the end of the season last year was not anything to get excited about as they went out with a whimper after starting 11-0. They lost Bud Dupree on defense and some offensive line protection, so this feels more like a tribute to what he’s done for the franchise as opposed to being a season where they’re the cream of the crop of the division.

The Ravens and Browns, unlike the Steelers, are both competitive and young, so their window for the North now has seemed to pass up Pittsburgh. However, after free agency, the Ravens pretty much struck out- they lost Judon on defense, and they couldn’t convince a receiving threat to join their offense that runs the ball as often as they do. The Ravens have consistently found ways to win as an organization no matter what way they need to do it, but Cleveland got even better this offseason- they’ll have Odell back if they don’t trade him and made acquisitions in their secondary in John Johnson, so their balance might make them the most complete team despite coming off their one good season in a LONG time. We’re looking at a new era in the North.

AFC East

Bills (13-3)

Dolphins (10-6)

Patriots (7-9)

Jets (2-14)

The balance of power hasn’t necessarily shifted- but the amount of moving pieces has certainly been the most active this free agency. You’ve got the Bills who essentially just ran it back outside of replacing John Brown with Emmanuel Sanders, the Dolphins added Will Fuller and will have a loaded rookie class with all of their draft picks, the Patriots are running it back with Cam Newton, but spent the most amount of money by far to build around him, and the Jets spent on defensive help and receiving weapons for their likely new quarterback that they’ll draft at #2 overall.

And I still think nothing has changed.

The Bills are still going to be Super Bowl favorites given how well they performed last year with a similar roster, so they’re the de facto #1 power, but if Tua can take a step forward for Miami with a full season following his significant surgery coming out of college, then Miami will be right there with them as tough outs in the AFC. While the Patriots may have spent a lot to improve a decrepit roster impacted by opt-outs and COVID last season, if Cam Newton is going to throw grounders to his receivers thinking they’re Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts, then they can’t be placed ahead of the Bills or the Dolphins until they improve the passing attack no matter how much they spent. The Jets have too many new pieces, including a rookie quarterback and head coach, to have any benefit of the doubt outside of being last in the hierarchy, but at the very least Adam Gase is out of the building and they have signs of life for the first time.

AFC West

Chiefs (14-2)

Raiders (8-8)

Chargers (7-9)

Broncos (5-11)

It doesn’t matter how abysmal the offensive line looked in the Super Bowl to end the year- as long as Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid are running the show together in Kansas City, they’re going to be running the AFC West. Their one exposed weakness in the big game will improve tremendously next year, too, after free agency, picking up Joe Thuney, signing Kyle Long out of retirement, and getting Laurent Duvernay-Tardif back after he opted out.

The rest of the division has gone a bit topsy-turvy, though. The Raiders might have had the worst free agency of any team after they tore down the whole offensive line, overpaid Kenyan Drake, and still have a reality-show-like drama going on between Jon Gruden and Derek Carr. They could easily be the worst team in the division next year given each season they get off to a hot start and then collapse. 

The Broncos still don’t have a quarterback since Drew Lock hasn’t earned any merit over his two years, but they somehow might have won free agency overall?? They brought back key defensive pieces like Von Miller and Justin Simmons and added Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller. That defense will be scary, but they still feel like a Ferrari with the engine of a used Honda Civic in the assembly of the team since they have a below-average situation at the most important position. They’ll at least be a level above where they were last season in all likelihood.

Finally, the Chargers are looking poised as ever to be the team that takes the biggest step next year in the AFC. They’re not on the same level as the Chiefs, but Justin Herbert had as good a rookie season as you could have by breaking pretty much every rookie passing record. They just couldn’t win and blew terrible leads; LA was a team that should have easily been in playoff contention last year, but since-fired coach, Anthony Lynn, completely mismanaged games.

They’ve got a new head coach in Brandon Staley. They know how valuable Herbert is, so they invested in his protection by signing center Corey Linsley, and guard Matt Feiler. One of the best safeties in the league, Derwin James, will be returning from injury to join their loaded defense. Things are looking up for the team that has long been known as a “cursed” franchise as they’ll be battling with Kansas City for years to come.

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