The first week of the 2022 NFL free agency period is in the books, and there have been numerous power shifting moves made across the NFL, particularly in the AFC.
The AFC West looks like a juggernaut division at the moment, at least on paper. In what potentially could be a bloodbath, the winner of the AFC West could come down to a survival of the fittest scenario.
After the AFC West, the AFC North appears to be the most complete and competitive division in the league.
The talented Cincinnati Bengals are the defending AFC North champion, and AFC Super Bowl representative. They have the best quarterback in the division with Joe Burrow, a thousand yard rusher in Joe Mixon, and an explosive wide receiver trio; led by Offensive Rookie of the Year Ja'Marr Chase. They have a young offensive core that should only improve with age and experience.
Pittsburgh, we have a problem.
No team in the NFL was devastated more by the injury bug in 2021 than the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens lost their top two running backs, Gus Edwards and J.K. Dobbins, before the season even started. The offensive line, usually a strength of the team, wasn't up to it's normally near the top of the league standards due to injuries and ineffectiveness. Dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson tried valiantly to carry the offense on his shoulders, but struggled under the weight and eventually gave in to the inevitable injuries created by the unrealistic workload and immense pressure. It shouldn't shock anyone for the Ravens to rebound in a big way in 2022, simply by getting healthier.
The Cleveland Browns are the biggest unknown in the division. It's impossible to know whether the Browns have improved or regressed at this point, but they have made the biggest gamble of the 2022 offseason, without a doubt. The Browns evidently are sick and tired of their laughable loser status, and appear determined to change that status, or go down in a blaze of glory.
The Browns bet the house to acquire superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson from the Houston Texans via trade, and are reportedly giving him a $230 million dollar contract, completely guaranteed. Those are unforeseen numbers for any NFL player, even for a franchise quarterback, but an insane amount for a individual with legal issues and character concerns.
The Browns are the perfect franchise to try such a bold and audacious move, seeing how they have never even been to a Super Bowl, and are not too far removed from a winless season. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and who could conceivably be more desperate than the Browns. The only way to get a potential franchise quarterback to come to Cleveland was to give Watson the largest guaranteed contract in league history. Is that desperate enough for you?
Although free agency has only just begun, and the 2022 NFL Draft is a little over a month away, it is becoming more evident by the day the Steelers will be at a offensive disadvantage in the AFC North next season. They will definitely have the least accomplished quarterback in the division, quite possibly for the foreseeable future, until they can find their next franchise guy. Many national prognosticators have stated that the Steelers shouldn't even bother showing up, or at least accept their destiny at the bottom of the division.
That is simply not the Steelers Way. The Steelers maybe striving for offensive respectability next season, but there is great news on the horizon. The Steelers maybe the least explosive offense in the division in 2022, but they potentially could be the most dominant defense in the NFL.
The Steelers have the best defensive player on the planet in T.J. Watt, the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. 2021 All-Pro and Pro Bowl performer Cameron Heyward is a powerful defensive lineman and team leader. Minkah Fitzpatrick is one of the top free safeties in the league, and Alex Highsmith is a young edge player who continues to show steady improvement. That's a talented foundation on defense on which to build.
Thus far in free agency, the Steelers have added former Jacksonville Jaguars All-Pro inside linebacker Myles Jack and former Buffalo Bills cornerback Levi Wallace to further strength two areas of concern. The Steelers still have the opportunity, and cap space, to add another substantial free agent acquisition or two, such as cornerback Stephon Gilmore or strong safety Tyrann Mathieu, to name a few.
The Steelers could go the expected route and re-sign strong safety Terrell Edmunds, a solid but in no way special all around player, reuniting him with his partner in crime Fitzpatrick. Or they could shock us all by signing one of the aforementioned game changers, players capable of elevating the defense to an elite level.
This maneuver would help minimize the competitive advantage on offense the Steelers’ divisional rivals may possess until the Steelers find their next franchise quarterback. The 2022 draft class is filled with talented defenders capable of taking the Steelers defense to the next level. This is truly an exciting time to be a Steelers fan.
The Steelers are a franchise with a winning culture. They can be accused of being overly cautious and even frugal on occasion, but never acting out of desperation. The Steelers are an impact player or two away from being a top defense in the NFL. How they go about acquiring those defenders remains to be seen, but the Steelers can't miss this opportunity.