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15 Things to Watch During the 2022 NFL Season

Aaron Rodgers

Aaron Rodgers can make some history with a third straight MVP awards in 2022, but he'll have to win it without his former top target as Davante Adams is now in Las Vegas looking to help Derek Carr take that step.

If the regular season plays out anything close to what transpired in the offseason, then NFL fans are truly in for a treat in 2022. After what can only be described as the wildest offseason ever, the league looks quite different in many ways, creating a myriad of new storylines to pay attention to. There are still plenty of familiar faces in the same places, including one after he changed his mind about retiring, which should only increase the intrigue and entertainment factor for the upcoming season. Along those lines, here are some of the storylines that could shape the 2022 campaign.

1. Another MVP for Aaron Rodgers?

The Packers traded up in the first round of the 2020 draft to select Jordan Love as the heir apparent to Aaron Rodgers. Surely, their plan wasn't for Love to sit for three years, but that's where they are after Rodgers won back-to-back MVP awards.

Rodgers can join former Packers quarterback Brett Favre as the only players ever to win three MVP awards in a row. Favre won in 1995 and 1996 and tied Barry Sanders for the award in 1997. Peyton Manning, Joe Montana and Jim Brown are the only other players to win MVP awards in consecutive seasons.

Rodgers received 39 of the 50 votes, with Tom Brady getting 10 and Cooper Kupp one, following the 2021 season. It was Rodgers' fourth MVP award, one short of Manning's record.

Rodgers, though, has only one Super Bowl ring, and that came in 2010. The Packers haven't made another appearance since, despite three consecutive 13-win seasons and home-field advantage in the postseason the past two years.

Rodgers, 38, signed an extension this offseason that will pay him $150 million the next three seasons, but time is not on his side. The odds might not be either this season after the Packers traded All-Pro receiver Davante Adams to the Raiders and saw Marquez Valdes-Scantling leave in free agency. But Rodgers gives the Packers hope, and he gives them a chance.

The last MVP to win the Super Bowl in the same season was Kurt Warner in 1999.

2. Tom Brady's return; Bruce Arians' departure

Tom Brady retired … for 40 days. He unretired to go for an eighth Super Bowl championship in the final year of his contract with the Buccaneers. But Brady, who turns 45 in August, will play for a second head coach in his third year in Tampa after playing for Bill Belichick for all of his 20 seasons with the Patriots.

Seventeen days after Brady announced he was returning to the Bucs because of "unfinished business," Bruce Arians made the surprising announcement that he was stepping down as the team's head coach. Arians stressed that Brady did not demand his departure as a condition of the quarterback's return. Instead, it was simply part of a succession plan, he said.

Related: The Wildest NFL Offseason Ever

Arians wanted to hand his top assistant, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, a team with a chance to win it all, not one that was rebuilding. When Brady came back, Arians knew it was time to slide into a new role. He will move into the front office, with Bowles getting the head coach's headset.

The Bucs do have a chance to win it all this season after Brady's recruiting efforts. Receiver Chris Godwin, running backs Leonard Fournette and Giovani Bernard, center Ryan Jensen and cornerback Carlton Davis III are among the players who signed new deals in Tampa, and receiver Russell Gage and offensive guard Shaq Mason are arriving as newcomers to join the band.

Tampa Bay doesn't have all 22 starters back like last season, but the Bucs have Brady, and that makes them a contender.

3. Mike McCarthy's hot seat

No coach is on a hotter seat than Mike McCarthy. The Cowboys head coach will enter the 2022 season looking over his shoulder. 

Sean Payton is a former Cowboys offensive coordinator who has a close relationship with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and could seek to return to coaching next season. (He remains under contract for three more seasons with the Saints, who likely will seek draft compensation to allow him to coach another team.) Jones also re-signed defensive coordinator Dan Quinn to a multi-year extension after Quinn interviewed for five head-coaching jobs and had second interviews with the Bears, Giants and Broncos.

"Mike knows that someday somebody other than him will be coach of the Cowboys," Jones said candidly this offseason after saying he considered Quinn a head-coaching candidate.

McCarthy has an 18-15 record in two seasons with the Cowboys, who were the only home team to lose in the Wild Card Round of the postseason in 2021. McCarthy likely needs a postseason win (or two or three) to keep his job.

After trading Amari Cooper, cutting La'el Collins and losing Randy Gregory and Cedrick Wilson Jr. in free agency, the Cowboys certainly don't look the part of Super Bowl contender

4. Tua Tagovailoa has what he needs

No player faces more pressure in 2022 than Tua Tagovailoa. The Dolphins drafted Tagovailoa with the fifth overall choice in 2020, and though he has shown flashes in his 21 career starts, he has yet to prove that he's the franchise quarterback Miami drafted him to be.

Tagovailoa doesn't have so much as a Pro Bowl appearance, something the quarterback drafted immediately after him (Justin Herbert) does. Tagovailoa also doesn't have a playoff appearance, something the quarterback drafted four selections before him (Joe Burrow) does.

The Dolphins have given Tagovailoa everything he needs, putting him on win-now-or-else notice. He has an offensive-minded head coach in Mike McDaniel. He has an All-Pro receiver in Tyreek Hill to go with Jaylen Waddle and a proven third receiver in Cedrick Wilson Jr. He has a Pro Bowl left tackle in Terron Armstead. He has upgrades at running back in Sony Michel, Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert.

The Dolphins are putting Tagovailoa in position to win. Will he? Will he stay healthy? Will he play well enough to keep backup Teddy Bridgewater on the bench? If he can't, someone else — maybe Tom Brady — is likely going to be the Dolphins' quarterback in 2023.

5. The Rams-ification of the NFL

The Rams pushed their chips to the middle of the table last offseason and continued to do so once the season began. They traded for Matthew Stafford before the season, traded for Von Miller during the season, and signed Odell Beckham Jr. during the season. After they won it all, during the Super Bowl victory parade, general manager Les Snead wore a T-shirt saying, "F--- them picks," becoming a walking meme. His point being: Who needs first-round picks when you can get the pieces you need in other ways?

The Rams are poised to go seven consecutive years without a first-round draft choice. Their last first-round choice was Jared Goff with the No. 1 overall pick in 2016. They don't have another one until 2024. The Rams traded first-round picks for Brandin Cooks, Jalen Ramsey and Stafford. Los Angeles' first choice this year was in the third round, No. 104 overall.

The Rams' success last season prompted several teams to adopt the same trade-happy philosophy this year. The Broncos backed up the Brinks truck to get Russell Wilson. The Raiders did the same for Davante Adams, and the Browns coughed up a king's ransom to acquire Deshaun Watson. The Dolphins parted with five draft picks for Tyreek Hill. Those teams are rolling the dice in the same way the Rams have the past few years, a fact that helped create the most exciting offseason ever.

For years, the Colts had continuity at the quarterback position. Peyton Manning started 227 consecutive games, including the postseason, from 1998-2010, and Andrew Luck had 57 consecutive starts from 2012-15. But since Luck's unexpected retirement before the 2019 season, the Colts have had constant turnover at the position.

For the sixth consecutive season, and the seventh in eight years, the Colts will have a different Week 1 starter. Matt Ryan will follow Scott Tolzien, Luck, Brian Hoyer, Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers and Carson Wentz. The Colts traded a third-round choice to the Falcons for Ryan, the 2016 NFL MVP.

Wentz lasted only one season, with owner Jim Irsay admitting the team made a mistake in trading a third-round choice in 2021 and a first-round pick in 2022 for Wentz. They were so eager to get rid of Wentz that the Colts traded him to Washington for less than they paid and without a definitive backup plan.

The Colts were left without a starting quarterback for 12 days after trading Wentz to the Commanders. Ryan, who turns 37 in May, fills that role for at least this season.

He joins a team that had the most Pro Bowlers of any team in the NFL last season — defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, center Ryan Kelly, linebacker Darius (now Shaquille) Leonard, cornerback Kenny Moore II, left guard Quenton Nelson, long snapper Luke Rhodes and running back Jonathan Taylor. They're part of a group that gives Ryan his best chance to win since 2017, when the Falcons went 10-6.

7. Whither the Chiefs?

Patrick Mahomes was only 24 when the Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV to end the 2019 season. Lifting the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy in 50 years, with a quarterback in his second full season as a starter, caused some in KC Kingdom to set unrealistic expectations. Chris Jones predicted the team would win "five-plus" rings. Tyreek Hill upped the ante to seven, comparing the Chiefs to the dynasty the Bulls established with Michael Jordan.

The media began asking whether Mahomes would catch Tom Brady for Super Bowl appearances and rings.

Three seasons later, the Chiefs have returned to the Super Bowl once, and lost; Hill now is in Miami; and the other three teams in the AFC West have as much talent as (or more talent than) the Chiefs. Could KC's run be one-and-done?

They do have Mahomes under contract through 2031, and he remains a top-five quarterback in the NFL. So, they have a chance. But it won't be as easy as Mahomes and the Chiefs once made it look and thought it was. They have found out that winning one title is hard; winning more than one is harder.

The Chiefs have won six division titles in a row, but the Raiders, Broncos and Chargers all made offseason moves that have evened out the talent within the division.

8. Broncos land on Manning's replacement — finally

Peyton Manning retired after the 2015 season, capping his career with a Super Bowl title. The Broncos tried every which way to replace him. They drafted quarterbacks, traded for quarterbacks and signed quarterbacks. Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler, Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Drew Lock, Brandon Allen, Jeff Driskel, Brett Rypien and Teddy Bridgewater all started at least one game for the Broncos over the past six seasons. That lack of QB continuity helps explain Denver's 39-58 record in that span.

For the first time since 2015, the Broncos are confident that they have their franchise quarterback for this season and the next several seasons.

Three weeks after Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said his team had "no intention" of trading Russell Wilson, the Seahawks traded Wilson to the Broncos. Wilson has a Super Bowl ring, a 104-53-1 regular-season record, a 9-7 postseason record and seven Pro Bowls.

Manning has offered advice to Wilson about the challenges of changing teams mid-career. But Wilson, unlike Manning, should spend more than four seasons with the Broncos.

So while the Broncos head into a season as a true contender for the first time since 2015, they have a bright future beyond this season now that they have a franchise quarterback again.

9. Steelers post-Big Ben

Father Time finally caught up with Big Ben. Ben Roethlisberger spent 18 years as the quarterback of the Steelers, and after two Super Bowl titles, 165 regular-season victories, 64,088 passing yards and 418 touchdowns, his next stop is Canton. Roethlisberger's retirement has left the Steelers looking for a starting quarterback for the first time since selecting Roethlisberger 11th overall in 2004.

The Steelers have taken a flier on Mitchell Trubisky, who spent last season backing up Josh Allen in Buffalo. Trubisky, who'll be 28 when the season starts, was the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2017 with Chicago. He has a Pro Bowl appearance, two postseason starts and a 29-21 record after spending four seasons as the Bears' starter.

The Steelers, though, got their quarterback of the future, if not their quarterback of the present, when they drafted Kenny Pickett with the 20th overall pick. The team's selection of the University of Pittsburgh quarterback came 39 years and three days after the Steelers passed on University of Pittsburgh quarterback Dan Marino with the 21st overall selection.

Trubisky is the favorite for the job this year, but the Steelers also have veteran Mason Rudolph. Rudolph has started 10 games for the Steelers the past three seasons. Dwayne Haskins Jr. also was expected to compete for the job before his tragic death this offseason.

The Steelers are starting over at the position, but history says that the team will remain competitive. The Steelers haven't had a losing season since 2003, which was the year before Roethlisberger arrived and four seasons before Mike Tomlin took over as head coach.

10. Kyler's future

The Cardinals are a vivid example of how quickly a team's fortunes can change in the NFL. They were one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the NFL after a 7-0 start. But Kliff Kingsbury's team did what Kingsbury's teams typically do. They finished with a thud.

The Cardinals went 4-6 down the stretch and then lost to the Rams in an ugly, non-competitive wild-card game. It was part of a pattern. Kingsbury's teams are 42-20-1 in the first seven games of the season, dating to his first year at Texas Tech in 2013, and 17-45 from Week 8 on.

The Cardinals can explain away some of their misfortunes to injuries to Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins, but their crash-and-burn stretch run raised questions about Kingsbury and Murray. Can the Cardinals win with Kingsbury? Can the Cardinals win with Murray?

Kingsbury signed a contract extension through 2027, and after Murray's contract situation was a hot topic throughout the offseason, the two sides finally got a deal done right around the start of training camp. The five-year extension is worth $230.5 million, including $160 million guaranteed for injury. The average annual value is $46.1 million, which is second only to Aaron Rodgers ($50.1 million).

So despite the rough end to the season (Murray posted a career-worst 40.9 passer rating in the 34-11 postseason loss to the Rams) and an at times acrimonious offseason (he scrubbed his social media of all things Cardinals right after the Pro Bowl), it seems that all is well right now between the franchise quarterback and his team.

11. Derek Carr's first playoff win?

Derek Carr has his favorite receiver, and he has a contract extension. Will he finally get his first playoff win?

The Raiders quarterback called it "ridiculous" that anyone would think he can't win in the postseason, but the fact is he hasn't. Since the Raiders drafted him in the second round in 2014, Carr has started one postseason game, and that was last season when the Raiders lost to the Bengals 26-19 in the wild-card round.

The Raiders traded for two-time All-Pro Davante Adams, reuniting Carr and Adams. The two were teammates at Fresno State, with Adams catching 233 passes for 3,031 yards with 38 touchdowns in the duo's shared seasons of 2012-13.

The Raiders gave Adams a five-year, $141.25 million contract and later signed Carr to a three-year, $121.5 million extension. But Carr's deal, which guarantees him $24.9 million this season, allows the Raiders to move on after this season.

So while new general manager Dave Ziegler and new head coach Josh McDaniels repeatedly have expressed their support of Carr, he needs to prove he can win. Carr is 57-70 in 127 starts, the most losses by a quarterback in his first eight seasons. Most quarterbacks wouldn't get that many chances with that many losses, but Carr has at least one more to prove the Raiders right.

12. AFC takeover

The NFC has won the past two Super Bowls. The balance of power, though, clearly has shifted to the AFC.

Matt Ryan, Von Miller, Russell Wilson, Davante Adams, Chandler Jones, Khalil Mack, Robert Woods, Terron Armstead, Randy Gregory, Brandon Scherff and Amari Cooper are among the star players who left the NFC for the AFC this offseason. Deshaun Watson stayed within the conference, going from Houston to Cleveland, and Tyreek Hill went from Kansas City to Miami.

"Take your heart pills and buckle up," Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said on "The Rich Eisen Show."

That doesn't mean the AFC will win the Super Bowl for the first time since the Chiefs did so after the 2019 season. The AFC teams might beat each other up so badly in the postseason that the winner of the conference has nothing left for Super Bowl LVII.

Getting to Arizona will be far easier coming out of the NFC, so maybe the Cardinals should be the betting favorite. The past two seasons, the Bucs and Rams hosted the Super Bowl and won the Super Bowl in their home stadium. The Cardinals host Super Bowl LVII this season.

13. Bengals' next step

Shortly after the 2020 season ended, Bengals owner Mike Brown released a statement expressing faith in head coach Zac Taylor. The unusual statement said the team was "bullish on the foundation Zac is building." Cynics questioned whether the Bengals simply were too cheap to pay off Taylor's contract.

What a difference a year makes.

Fresh off the team's first Super Bowl appearance in 33 years and possessing dynamic pieces like QB Joe Burrow and WR Ja'Marr Chase, Taylor received a contract extension through 2026. He will have plenty of time to try to do what the Bengals almost did in 2021. Cincinnati lost to the Rams 23-20 in Super Bowl LVI.

The team set out to improve its offensive line this offseason after Burrow took an NFL-leading 51 sacks in the regular season and another 19 in the postseason. The Titans set an NFL postseason record with nine sacks of Burrow in the Divisional Round, and the Rams tied the Super Bowl record with seven sacks.

The Bengals signed right tackle La'el Collins, center Ted Karras, right guard Alex Cappa and tight ends Hayden Hurst and Nick Eubanks in free agency. Collins, Karras and Cappa all are projected as starters. Does that make the team good enough to take the next step? We shall see.

14. Deshaun Watson the answer?

Since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they have started 32 quarterbacks. That's the most starting quarterbacks for any franchise in the NFL the past 23 seasons. The Browns thought they had their franchise quarterback when they used the No. 1 overall choice on Baker Mayfield in 2018, but he worked out only slightly better than Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden and Johnny Manziel had before him.

Only 14 months after the franchise's first playoff victory in 26 years, the Browns moved on from Mayfield by trading for Deshaun Watson. The team sold its soul to get Watson to agree to a trade to Cleveland.

The Texans got six total draft selections, including three first-rounders, and, to the chagrin of the rest of the NFL's owners, Watson got a five-year, $230 million deal that is fully guaranteed. Watson, 26, is a three-time Pro Bowler who led the league with 4,823 passing yards in 2020 — the last season he played, as the Texans made him inactive for all 17 games after 22 women filed civil cases against him alleging sexual misconduct.

As a result of those civil cases, whose total reached 25, the NFL launched an investigation into Watson's actions. Even though Watson has since settled all but one of the civil cases, the disciplinary officer assigned by the league (Sue L. Robinson) announced on Aug. 1 that Watson would be suspended six games without pay (but not fined) for violating the league's personal conduct policy. While the NFLPA said it would "stand by" Robinson's decision, the NFL announced a few days later that it would appeal, as the league is seeking a lengthier suspension. The appeal will be heard by former New Jersey Attorney General Peter C. Harvey, who was chosen by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as outlined by the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). So for now, Watson's status remains in limbo.

Legal issues aside, is Watson the answer the Browns have long sought? Will the Texans improve with the picks they acquired? If so, for one of the few times in NFL history, a trade of this magnitude will be a win-win.

15. Lawrence's reset

The Jaguars made Trevor Lawrence the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. It seemed a no-brainer, with the former Clemson quarterback evaluated as the safest prospect at the position since Andrew Luck in 2012. Any team with the No. 1 overall choice in need of a quarterback would have drafted Lawrence. But things did not go the way the Jaguars or Lawrence planned.

The regime of head coach Urban Meyer was short-lived. A series of missteps by the former college coach prompted the Jaguars to fire him after only 11 months. He won two of 13 games, as his tenure proved to be an embarrassment. Lawrence's rookie season was disappointing. He completed 59.6 percent of his passes for 3,641 yards with 12 TDs and 17 interceptions as the Jaguars went 3-14 and secured the No. 1 overall draft choice for a second consecutive year as the league's worst team.

Lawrence gets a new start with a new coach (Doug Pederson), a new offensive coordinator (Press Taylor) and a new quarterbacks coach (Mike McCoy). Will they help Lawrence become the quarterback the Jaguars (and everyone else) believed he was when Jacksonville drafted him? Or is Lawrence not that quarterback? His second season will go a long way in showing who he really is.

 Written by Charean Williams (@NFLCharean) for Athlon Sports' 2022 Pro Football magazine.