Are the Arizona Cardinals poised to make the playoffs?
By: Ian Evans (@ianacevans)
The 2021-2022 NFL season is quickly drawing near as kickoff is just three weeks away. We have already seen teams trying to decide which players will make the cut for their 53-man rosters as the preseason is in full swing. We have also seen rookies such as Justin Fields shine and have seen other players turn heads with the reps they have been receiving.
However, every year there are the regular contenders who usually get most of the attention from the media and experts. Teams such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Green Bay Packers, and the Buffalo Bills are already seen as the front runners to win Super Bowl LVI. But there are some teams who could shock these contenders during the regular and postseason as some mid-tier teams have improved significantly during the offseason.
There are some teams that made changes to their roster in hopes of planning for the future, while a few teams made moves to make them playoff contenders or better. But there are some teams who made key acquisitions and roster moves that could disturb the power rankings throughout the duration of next season. With this being said, here are three dark horse teams to look out for the 2021-2022 NFL season.
1. Arizona Cardinals
Talk about a team with a surprising about of talent and potential. Lead by Kliff Kingsbury, the Cardinals could make some noise in a competitive NFC West. Lead by speedy and efficient Kyler Murray and arguably the best wide receiver in the league in DeAndre Hopkins, this team’s firepower on both sides of the ball got significantly better. Let’s start with their additions.
Arizona’s team defense ranked 12th in the league a season ago, but this should change as they acquired J.J. Watt and Malcolm Butler. They also drafted Zaven Collins and brought back Chandler Jones as well. The team added to their rush defense significantly as they ranked 22nd in rushing yards per game (125.5). Adding that talent to a Cardinals roster that already consists of Markus Golden, the stud sophomore linebacker Isaiah Simmons, and the hard-hitting safety Budda Baker makes this team potentially a top ten defense in the league for the upcoming year.
For a team that ranked in the top half in yards allowed per game, passing yards per game, and points per game, they are poised to improve on those numbers. Although it will be a tough task to replace Patrick Peterson who left for Minnesota, they have the talent to still be a nightmare to deal with. Their offense also got significantly better as well.
Their already explosive offense that ranked sixth in yards per game (384.6) just got even more explosive. How? They added the long-time Cincinnati Bengal A.J. Green to assist DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk in their receiving core. Arizona also signed James Conner from the Steelers to assist the reliable Chase Edmonds in the backfield.
Along with drafting the speedy Rondale Moore from Purdue in the draft, Arizona became incredibly dangerous in the passing game. Although they play in a division where they have to face the Los Angeles Rams and the Seattle Seahawks twice, I wouldn’t be surprised if Arizona found themselves in the playoffs and the NFC West had three teams in the playoffs in 2021. Keep an eye out for those birds in the desert.
2. Indianapolis Colts
Look. I get it. Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson are both nursing a foot injury and their timetable to return is roughly 5-12 weeks. That doesn’t look good for the Colts at all. But there is some optimism regarding their recovery. Head coach Frank Reich explained that he thinks, “Carson and Q have done a good job in the rehab process with the right mentality getting the work done that they need to get done and I think it’s all been good.” Indianapolis could see their starters back by as early as October.
Besides the injuries, they have skilled enough offensive players to make them competitive in the AFC South. With a running back core consisting of the athletic Nyhiem Hines, Jonathan Taylor, and with Marlon Mack returning, there are many offensive packages that Riech can use with these catching backs to thwart defenses. Along with their receivers such as the savvy veteran T.Y. Hilton, the ever-improving Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell, Zach Pascal, and the promising University of Texas rookie Tarik Black, this receiving core could cause problems for secondaries. I mean this offense was in the top ten in yards per game (378.1) and points per game (28.2) a year ago.
Lastly, the Colts still boast a top-five defense in the NFL. Lead by Darius Leonard, this defense has multiple impact players that can force consecutive three-and-outs. With this defensive roster such as DeForest Buckner, Malik Jefferson, and their freakishly athletic first-round pick Kwity Paye from the University of Michigan in the pass rush is a scary sight for opposing offensive linemen. Their secondary that consists of Xavier Rhodes, Kenny Moore II, Rock Ya-Sin, Julian Blackmon, T.J. Carrie, and Ibraheim Campbell should be solid enough to prevent big plays in the passing game as well. Keep in mind, the Colts were eighth in yards allowed per game (332.1), second in rushing yards allowed per game (90.5), and were tenth in points allowed per game (22.6).
The main concern with this team is Wentz and Nelson, and if their timetable to return is closer to five weeks than 12. But when this team is fully healthy, their potential is through the roof. I wouldn’t count them out just yet.
3. Cleveland Browns
If you told me that the Cleveland Browns would be a dark horse team four years ago, I would have personally checked you into a mental ward. The Browns from 2016 to 2018 only totaled 8 wins. However, after many coaching changes, they had their first winning season since 2007 finishing 11-5, ended the NFL’s longest playoff win drought that dates to the 2002-2003 season, and won their first playoff game since 1994 under head coach Kevin Stefanski. And they added to their depth significantly.
For starters, they had an incredible offseason as they added Jadeveon Clowney, safeties John Johnson III and Troy Hill, Malcolm Smith, Adrian Clayborn, and Takkarist McKinley to a team that ranked 21st in team defense. They also drafted linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah who could have an immediate impact as a rookie. For a team that ranked in the bottom half in points allowed per game (26.2), yards allowed per game (358.4), and passing yards allowed per game (247.6), they adhered to their defensive needs.
On the offensive side of the ball, Cleveland already has one of, if not the best running back duo in the league with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Along with a strong running game, this team has a ridiculous amount of talent in the passing game that consists of Jarvis Landry, Donovan Peoples-Jones, Rashard Higgins, Austin Hooper, and David Njoku. By the way, star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. returns from an ACL injury as well.
Quarterback Baker Mayfield is also entering a contract year and looks to improve on his 2020 campaign, especially as the Browns ranked in the bottom half in yards per game (369.6) and passing yards per game (221.2). Along with a stout offensive line, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cleveland made it to the AFC championship game. The Dawg Pound should have a lot to be boastful about for this upcoming season with the amount of potential the Browns have as the Brownies shouldn’t be taken lightly at all.