It’s impossible to predict exactly how any given NFL season might play out. That’s why we can’t rule out the possibility that the 2022 New York Jets will be this season’s version of last year’s Bengals.
Picture yourself looking ahead to the 2021 season at this time last year. Back then, the AFC North looked to be a race between the Browns and the Ravens after Cleveland stunned the Steelers in a Wild Card matchup and Baltimore won their first playoff game since 2014.
Maybe you still considered Pittsburgh to be a dark horse contender for the 2021 season, but the Bengals weren’t even in the picture. There were just too many questions about them. Would quarterback Joe Burrow play well even after his gruesome knee injury and a lack of improvements to the offensive line? Then, later in the offseason: is receiver Ja’Marr Chase poised to be a bust after his issues with dropping passes in the preseason?
For the Bengals to go from worst to first in their division last season, a few things had to go right. One big step was a strong offseason to build up some of the weaker points of their roster. Free agents like edge rusher Trey Hendrickson and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi ended up being extremely successful investments for Cincinnati. Drafted rookies—especially Chase—had successful debut seasons as well.
Looking at the Jets’ free agent additions, it’s easy to find guys who could be similarly impactful roster upgrades on both sides of the ball.
On offense, guard Laken Tomlinson joins the Jets’ offensive line as a seasoned veteran after seven seasons with the Lions and 49ers, including his first Pro Bowl season in 2021. Tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin come to New York as two starting-caliber guys that can both catch passes and be effective in pass- and run-block situations. The two of them are also coming off of the most productive season of their careers as pass-catchers.
Defensively, the Jets added safety Jordan Whitehead to replace Marcus Maye, who headed to New Orleans in free agency. They also brought in defensive lineman Solomon Thomas after his most productive season as a pro—3.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles—and cornerback D.J. Reed, who had somewhat of a breakout season in his pass coverage in 2021. Edge rusher Jacob Martin also comes to the Big Apple after his own career-best season last year.
As far as the biggest contributors, it’s pretty much Whitehead and the two tight ends who will determine how well the Jets’ 2022 free agency period went. The Jets will be set up for a much more successful season should the three of them perform up to expectations.
Of course, New York also elevated their offseason a couple of steps further by adding some quality rookies in the 2022 NFL Draft. Cornerback Ahmad Gardner is a huge addition to a secondary that has struggled to find quality cornerback play for a few years. Wide receiver Garrett Wilson is a dynamic receiver that could be a powerful weapon for quarterback Zach Wilson to throw to in his second season. Edge rusher Jermaine Johnson was one of the best pass rushers in his draft class and seemingly fell into the Jets’ lap to play alongside fellow edge rusher Carl Lawson as the latter returns from injury.
Those are just New York’s first-rounders. Running back Breece Hall, tight end Jeremy Ruckert, offensive tackle Max Mitchell and edge rusher Micheal Clemons are all either candidates to be immediate contributors or have the potential to develop into future starters. There’s plenty to be excited about with the Jets’ 2022 draft class.
Perhaps the biggest factor in the Bengals’ surprising success last season was a big step forward from their second-year quarterback. Burrow was seriously impressive, especially considering he was coming off of a bad knee injury just a year before. He was significantly more accurate, looked more confident in the pocket (even without a strong O-line) and clicked with all of his pass-catchers.
That’s going to be a huge key for the Jets to be more successful in 2022 than last season. Wilson has to take a step forward from where he was as a rookie. Having extra tight ends to run more 12 personnel might help. So should having a couple of dynamic receivers like second-year Elijah Moore and rookie Garrett Wilson. New York’s running game could also improve with a better offensive line and extra tight end blockers and help set up (Zach) Wilson and the passing game. However it happens, a better season from Wilson sets the Jets up for more wins in 2022 and beyond.
A final piece to the Bengals’ 2021 puzzle was some declining play from teams in their division and some injury luck—some serious ones suffered by divisional rivals and a lack thereof in Cincinnati.
Well, the Patriots don’t look like a strong team this season, and the Dolphins’ ceiling is only as high as either Tua Tagovailoa or Teddy Bridgewater will take them. Still, the Bills are among favorites to win the Super Bowl this season, and even some brutal injury luck akin to what the Ravens saw last year might still not stop them from winning the AFC East with their roster.
The Jets are definitely going to have more of a challenge on their hands to win the division with a roster that, on paper, pales in comparison to some others in the AFC East. But we didn’t think the Bengals had even an outside chance this time last year either. With strong play from their free agent signings, a big step forward from their young quarterback and, sure, a bit of luck, the Jets have the potential to be this year’s version of the 2021 Bengals.