1 Reason for Every NFL Team to Be Optimistic About 2021

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistDecember 25, 2020

1 Reason for Every NFL Team to Be Optimistic About 2021

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    It's time to break out "Auld Lang Syne" as the NFL closes out the calendar year. For some, that means visions of playoff runs will be dancing through their heads. For others, it means a nightmare season is finally coming to an end.

    But this isn't the time of year to focus on the negative. The new year is a chance for new beginnings and renewed hope. In that spirit, each NFL team has at least one thing to be optimistic about. 

    Whether it's the fact they finally found a head coach after nearly two decades of searching (looking at you, Cleveland), the opportunity to add a franchise quarterback to a talented offense (hello, Jacksonville) or something else, all 32 teams have some reason for hope. 

Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray-to-DeAndre Hopkins Connection

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    One of the most important things when drafting a quarterback is to give him as many weapons as possible early in his career. The Cardinals made a big move in the offseason to ensure that was the case when they dealt for DeAndre Hopkins. 

    The move has paid off already. 

    Kyler Murray has shown growth in all areas of his game while DeAndre Hopkins has seen no decline in production. His catch rate is actually the highest it's been in his career, and most of his counting stats are on par with his best seasons.

    There isn't a statistical category that Murray hasn't improved in during his second season. He's already thrown for more touchdowns (26) while cutting down on his sacks (from 48 in 2019 to 22 so far) and improving his passer rating.

    All this while massively improving his rushing totals. He has 741 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns this season.

    Murray is clearly more comfortable running Kliff Kingsbury's offense, and Hopkins deserves some of the credit. 

Atlanta Falcons: Calvin Ridley Has Taken over No. 1 Receiver Duties

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    For years, the Falcons had an elite No. 1 receiver in Julio Jones. As Jones declines, the Falcons will still boast a legitimate No. 1 receiver for years to come with Calvin Ridley. 

    The Alabama product put up his first 1,000-yard season in 2020 and is well on his way to double-digit touchdowns. 

    The Falcons are about to enter an offseason of uncertainty. Especially on the offensive side of the ball. There will be a new general manager and head coach. Whether the Matt Ryan era should come to a close will be a much-debated topic. He's 36 years old and carries a $41 million cap hit next season. 

    Todd Gurley appears to be shot, and the aforementioned Jones will have a hard time playing up to the $40 million-plus in cap hits he will accrue over the next two seasons. 

    There are some hard decisions ahead for the Falcons, but Ridley offers a building block for the future. 

Baltimore Ravens: Lamar Jackson Is Still a Franchise Quarterback

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    It was always going to be difficult for Lamar Jackson to duplicate his MVP season from 2019.

    The list of players who have won the award in back-to-back seasons is short and filled with future Hall of Famers. Peyton Manning (twice), Brett Favre, Joe Montana and Jim Brown are some lofty names for Jackson to join this early in his career. 

    Regression has come for Jackson in his third year. He has been comparable as a runner, but his numbers as a passer have dipped. He's already thrown more interceptions (eight), and he's on pace to throw just 24 touchdown passes after throwing 36 last season. 

    Yet this appears to be the quarterback's floor, and the Ravens are still very much in the playoff hunt. There's still plenty of reason to believe in Jackson as an elite quarterback option, and the supporting cast can and most likely will get better. 

    The emergence of Gus Edwards and rookie J.K. Dobbins in the backfield gives them exciting options in the backfield, and the offseason presents an opportunity to improve the receiving corps while hoping Marquise Brown takes the next step as a No. 1 receiver. 

    Jackson took a step back this season, but it wasn't so drastic as to believe that 2019 was a fluke.

Buffalo Bills: The New AFC East Favorite

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    After years of playing second or even third fiddle to the New England Patriots in the AFC East, the Buffalo Bills have established themselves as the new class of the division. 

    There will certainly be battles with the Miami Dolphins for that distinction over the next few years. Tua Tagovailoa's progression as a franchise quarterback paired with the defensive improvements made this offseason will determine how far the Dolphins can take their current roster. 

    But there isn't a team in a better situation than the Bills in the division. 

    Much of that is because Josh Allen is the best quarterback of the bunch. He's broken out in 2020. Getting Stefon Diggs in the lineup has given him a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and he's responded by posting career highs in touchdowns, passing yards and completion percentage.

    He's had more thrown on his plate as a passer but has still improved in every efficiency metric while leading the Bills to their first division championship since 1995. Given their recent play, it's likely they will win their first playoff game since that year as well. 

    The Patriots have questions to answer at quarterback, the Dolphins haven't completed their rebuild, and the Jets, well...they're the Jets. 

Carolina Panthers: Young Talent on Defense

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    The Carolina Panthers underwent a lot of change in the 2020 offseason. Ron Rivera was swapped out for Matt Rhule, Cam Newton was replaced by Teddy Bridgewater, and the team essentially gutted the defense and rebuilt through the draft. 

    The Panthers spent every pick they had on defense. While that generated some buzz, it hasn't resulted in an elite defense—yet. 

    The Panthers have actually gone from 20th in defense by ESPN's efficiency metric in 2019 to 27th in the league this year. That would be disconcerting if you don't consider the talent of their individual pieces. 

    What that reveals is a defense that has young prospects who can make big leaps next season.

    Brian Burns is 22 years old and seventh in the league in pressures. Jeremy Chinn has been a Swiss Army knife defender who has made plays all over the field with five pressures, two forced fumbles, an interception, five pass deflections and 101 tackles. 

    First-round pick Derrick Brown doesn't have flashy stats, but he's started 13 games and played 70.5 percent of the snaps. Defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and cornerback Troy Pride Jr. are seeing increased roles every week as well. 

    The Panthers could spend their first-round pick on another defender, giving even more hope of building a dominant defense. As long as the coaching is sound, they have all the elements they need to put together a great defense. It could be one of the most improved units in football in 2021. 

Chicago Bears: The Opportunity to Improve the Offensive Line

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    David Berding/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears may be the most maddening team in the NFL right now.

    They have the pieces to be better than .500. Khalil Mack is still one of the top pass-rushers in the league. Allen Robinson II is a force at receiver. David Montgomery is PFF's seventh-highest-graded running back. 

    The defense ranks in the top 10 in points and yards on a per-play basis, per TeamRankings

    Yet Matt Nagy and Co. can't get the offense rolling with any consistency. They have put up big performances in the last two weeks. But the offense ranks in the bottom third of the league in nearly every category. Yes, Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles at quarterback are part of that problem, but the offensive line has been downright porous. 

    David Montgomery is seventh in the league in rushing yards over expected, according to Next Gen Stats. It's a metric that measures how well a running back does relative to his blocking, and the Iowa State product is running behind a line that rarely gives him room to operate. 

    The unit isn't any better at protecting the quarterback, either. The Bears are tied for the third-least amount of pocket time, giving Trubisky and Foles an average of 2.3 seconds before the pocket collapses. Veteran left tackle Charles Leno Jr. is among those who need to be replaced. 

    He has given up 14.5 sacks over the last three seasons, according to STATS (via the Washington Post). He and Germain Ifedi are the only two players to play every offensive snap for the Bears this season, so there's something to be said for that. But this unit will need to be addressed in the offseason to give the Bears a chance to be a contender next year. 

Cincinnati Bengals: In Position to Select OT Penei Sewell

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Joe Burrow didn't resurrect the Bengals in his first season, but he did offer plenty of reason for hope before suffering a season-ending knee injury. That injury put a serious damper on his inaugural season and highlighted the most important objective the Bengals will need to address this season: upgrading the offensive line.  

    All told, the offensive line allowed Burrow to get sacked 32 times and absorb 33 hits in 10 games this season. 

    He can't have another season like this one. When he does return from the knee injury, it needs to be behind a line that can keep him intact for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, the Bengals are losing enough games they should be able to make that happen by drafting the consensus No. 1 offensive lineman in the draft in Penei Sewell. 

    The left tackle is No. 2 on Matt Miller's latest big board. The next tackle doesn't show up until No. 10 (Rashawn Slater of Northwestern). Dane Brugler of The Athletic is of a similar mind with Sewell at No. 2 overall and Slater next at No. 18. 

    Sewell is probably the only tackle in this class worthy of top-five discussion, and the Bengals should be there to get him. 

Cleveland Browns: Kevin Stefanski Looks Like the Long-Term Solution

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    Gary McCullough/Associated Press

    Since coming back to the NFL as a franchise in 1999, the Cleveland Browns have had 10 different head coaches. That doesn't even include Terry Robiskie and Gregg Williams, both of whom served as interim coaches for five and eight games, respectively. 

    That's pretty much a new coach every other year for two decades. None has looked as promising or done what Kevin Stefanski has within a year of taking over. 

    Stefanski has taken a middling team and given it an offensive identity and has it looking to play in the postseason for the first time since 2002.

    He has helped elevate Baker Mayfield back to the high ceiling he showed as a rookie. The third-year quarterback is on pace to set a career high in touchdowns and passer rating and a career low in interceptions.

    Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are the most dynamic running back duo in the league. 

    The defense has some major holes, but the Browns should know that and go into the offseason with specific needs rather than needs everywhere. Things are looking up, and having a coach who appears to be consistent, organized and able to lead is a new feeling for the Browns that should give them hope for a bright future. 

Dallas Cowboys: A Healthy Dak Prescott on a Long-Term Deal (Hopefully)

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    In the 2020 offseason, the biggest question for the Dallas Cowboys was how much is Dak Prescott worth. This season has proved the answer to that question is "a lot." 

    After a long period of haggling with their franchise quarterback, they settled on allowing him to play under the franchise tag. Then the quarterback suffered a season-ending ankle injury just five games into the year, and the Cowboys have won just three games since.

    Prescott isn't a cure-all. Dallas was 2-3 in his five starts. The team still has a lot of questions on defense and doesn't project to have a ton of cap flexibility to address it through free agency a la the Miami Dolphins this past offseason. According to Over the Cap, the Cowboys will enter the 2021 offseason with just $21.4 million in effective cap space. 

    As polarizing as Prescott can be, he is 42-27 as the team's starter over five seasons and put up his best year statistically in 2019. The Dallas offense has fallen from third in ESPN's offensive efficiency in 2019 to 25th without Prescott for most of 2020. 

    The Cowboys' best bet at this point is to do what they can to bring back a healthy Prescott next season and hope the offense returns to its 2019 form. That would at least bring back the excitement the team had coming into this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. 

Denver Broncos: A Full Offseason for the Offense to Develop

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    John Elway and Co. have spent a lot of resources to build a dynamic offense in Denver. Over the last three drafts, the Broncos have had seven picks in the first and second rounds. They used six of them on the offensive side of the football. 

    They also handed out contracts to Melvin Gordon III and Graham Glasgow this offseason, committing even more resources to build the offense. 

    All of those moves haven't quite paid dividends yet. They are 28th in scoring offense, 28th in total yards, 13th in rushing and 28th in passing. The efficiency metrics are even worse. The Broncos are 31st in ESPN's offensive efficiency metric. 

    Frustrating as that may be, there's still reason for hope. No unit was probably more affected by the COVID-shortened offseason than the Broncos offense. The team was trying to break in a new offensive coordinator in Pat Shurmur, Drew Lock had five career starts heading into the season, and Denver was planning on having rookies Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler make big contributions. 

    Throw in a season-ending injury to Courtland Sutton and Lock essentially missing four games (he only had five pass attempts when he was injured in Week 2), and it's no surprise the Broncos have been disappointing.

    It also shouldn't come as a surprise they are playing some of their best football late in the season. The potential of the young offense was on display against the Carolina Panthers. Lock threw for 280 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, while Melvin Gordon averaged 5.2 yards on 13 carries. Hamler had two touchdowns on his only two catches of the game. 

    With their first full offseason to figure out timing and how best to utilize their players, brighter days are ahead.

Detroit Lions: New Front Office and Head Coach Means New Direction

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    When Matt Patricia took over as the head coach of the Detroit Lions, they had gone 9-7 in the previous two seasons and Matthew Stafford was leading an offense that was seventh in scoring. There was hope the Lions could become a perennial playoff team. 

    Since, they have three straight seasons without a playoff appearance or even a winning record. Bob Quinn's rosters seemingly got worse each year. 

    The good news is that the Lions brass has shown those results don't match expectations in Detroit. From the sounds of team governor Sheila Ford Hamp, those expectations are the playoffs. 

    "Ten days ago we looked like we had a good chance to be playoff-bound, and both of those games were extremely disappointing," Hamp said when the team fired the pair after a Thanksgiving Day loss to the Texans, per ESPN's Michael Rothstein. "And just seemed like the path going forward wasn't what we wanted it to be so, yes, we thought this was a good time to make the change."

    The Lions' search for a general manager is already well underway. According to reports, they have already targeted ESPN's Louis Riddick, former Chiefs GM and current CBS analyst Scott Pioli and former Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff

    The new staff is going to have some difficult decisions to make. Stafford is now entering his age-33 season and has an out in his contract that would save the Lions $10.1 million if they cut him before next season. That would be after absorbing $24.9 million in dead cap. 

    Kenny Golladay's contract is also on the chopping block this offseason. The receiver has produced enough that he's in line for a big payday, but the Lions don't project to be a team with a ton of spending money. 

    Regardless, the Lions will have fresh blood making all of these difficult decisions, and that's a reason to be optimistic things could be on the upswing. 

Green Bay Packers: MVP Aaron Rodgers Is Back

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    Aaron Rodgers' return to his peak at 37 years old is one of the most impactful storylines of the 2020 season.

    There was plenty of reason to believe that Rodgers was not long for Green Bay in the offseason. There was very little to believe he would return to MVP form. The Packers did not address the receiver position in any meaningful way despite several opportunities. They drafted his future successor in the first round of the draft, and the rest of the picks were seemingly spent with an eye to a future that was built around a power-running game. 

    Despite all the speculation of an unhappy Rodgers not being helped by head coach Matt LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst, Rodgers is having one of the best seasons of his career. That's a career that features MVP awards in 2011 and 2014 as well as a Super Bowl win in 2010. 

    Rodgers has an interception percentage of less than 1 percent. He's thrown three or more touchdowns in 10 of the Packers' games this season and is on pace to set a new career high in touchdown passes with 46. 

    Not only is Rodgers the highest-graded passer by PFF this season, but he is also tied with Tom Brady's 2016 season for the highest-graded year since 2010. 

    It wasn't as though Rodgers' play had cratered over the past three seasons. He posted a passer rating in the mid-to-high 90s in each of them. However, Rodgers is close to a career high in that category with a 118.0 rating this season. 

    As we head into the new year, it's fair to be optimistic about the Packers' chances for another magical postseason run led by their franchise quarterback. 

Houston Texans: A New GM Will Build Around Deshaun Watson

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    It isn't often that a general manager can botch building a roster around a truly elite quarterback talent. 

    But Bill O'Brien the general manager managed to do just that. 

    Watson is among the most talented quarterbacks in the league. Yet the Texans are in the bottom third of the league in the standings. They would at least be looking forward to a high draft pick in the first round, but that pick belongs to the Miami Dolphins. 

    O'Brien was aggressive as a GM. He paid draft capital to acquire proven talents like Laremy Tunsil and Brandin Cooks. The DeAndre Hopkins trade hasn't actually hurt their passing game as much as one might think. Watson is enjoying career bests in adjusted yards per attempt and passer rating. 

    But taking on David Johnson's contract still looks bad given his 47.9 rushing yards per game, and the team's lack of draft capital and cap room will pose serious obstacles for whoever takes over O'Brien's duties. 

    The good news is that all of this mismanagement did not scare away the Texans' best asset. Watson has already signed an extension that will make him Houston's quarterback all the way through the 2023 season.

    Between restructures and nonguaranteed money, no league makes it easier to carve out some cap space, and the Texans' draft stash will replenish. With the right guy making decisions, the Texans will be able to put a competitive team around Watson sooner than later. 

Indianapolis Colts: A Successful Transition from the Andrew Luck Era

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    It seems like ages ago given the general nature of 2020, but the Colts are just one full season removed from star quarterback Andrew Luck's surprise retirement. Given all of the factors working against head coach Frank Reich, the Colts have proved themselves to be a well-run franchise, worthy of attracting quality free agents and coaches. 

    Despite the sudden shift to Jacoby Brissett in 2019, the team still flirted with .500 at 7-9. One year later, they are right back in the thick of the playoff race and one of the most balanced teams in the NFL. Reich's squad is seventh in overall efficiency, 10th on offense and 15th on defense, per ESPN. 

    They were able to lure Philip Rivers away from Los Angeles on a one-year, $25 million deal that has worked out for both parties. Regardless of whether they decide to re-sign him or hit the free-agent market once again, the Colts have proved to be a good situation for any quarterback looking for a change of scenery.

    The offensive line has only allowed Rivers to be sacked 14 times. After taking 66 sacks over the last two seasons with the Chargers, he has surely welcomed that change. Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr. are both showing flashes of brilliance in their rookie seasons.  

    The move to trade for DeForest Buckner has worked out well for the club. The defensive tackle has an 89.6 PFF grade and leads a defensive front that is giving up the fourth-lowest yards per carry in the league. 

    The Colts are in good hands with this front office and coaching staff. 

Jacksonville Jaguars: New Quarterback Will Have Weapons

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    After tearing down the roster over the last few offseasons, the Jaguars did what any team in a rebuild does: They gave a lot of young players opportunities. The positive side to that is figuring out who can contribute to making this team competitive again. 

    They also made it clear they won't be riding with Gardner Minshew II at quarterback in the future. After a compelling rookie campaign, the Washington State product has thrown for 16 touchdowns and five interceptions in eight starts (nine games) this season, yet the team has gone with Mike Glennon at times when Minshew was healthy. 

    At this point, the Jets' inability to even tank well has gifted the Jaguars with the real possibility of drafting Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 pick. Because the Jets inexplicably beat the Rams, the Jaguars have moved into the top spot based on strength of schedule. 

    One thing that's clear is whoever gets that job will have some weapons to work with. James Robinson has been one of the biggest surprises of the year and ranks fourth in all-purpose yards as an undrafted free agent. 

    The receiving corps is young and promising. DJ Chark Jr. (24) showed how productive he can be when healthy last season (73 catches, 1,008 yards, eight touchdowns). Laviska Shenault Jr. (22) leads Jacksonville's wide receivers in yards after catch as a rookie. Collin Johnson (23) has seen limited reps in his rookie season but leads all of the team's receivers in yards per target at 8.8.

    That isn't even factoring in Keelan Cole (27), who is having his strongest season to date but could hit free agency at the end of the season. Whichever quarterback walks into the job in 2021 will have some talent to work with. 

Kansas City Chiefs: Patrick Mahomes

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    Brett Duke/Associated Press

    What more reason do the Chiefs need? It might be an oversimplification, but the team with the best quarterback year-in and year-out will be a Super Bowl contender.

    In July, the Chiefs locked up a player in Mahomes who looks like he could have that distinction for the next decade. That also happens to be how long No. 15's contract is set to last in Kansas City. Of course, NFL contracts are only as concrete as either party wants them to be, but the two parties seem just fine being linked for the long term. 

    That's great news for Kansas City. If there was going to be some great regression for Mahomes, it would have happened by now, and an argument could be made it already happened in Mahomes' relatively slow start in 2019. 

    The Chiefs went on to win a Super Bowl despite him throwing for 1,000 fewer yards and almost half as many touchdowns. Mahomes is good enough that conventional football wisdom doesn't seem to apply to his team. Defense might win championships, but the Chiefs won it all with a defense that was 17th in efficiency last season. 

    This year, they once again have the 17th-ranked defense and look ready to make another deep playoff run. 

    The Chiefs will still need to make smart decisions, especially as it pertains to building a roster around Mahomes' massive cap hits. But as long as he's the quarterback, they are going to be dangerous.

Las Vegas Raiders: Josh Jacobs and Darren Waller Are Foundational Pieces

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    It's deja vu all over again for the Raiders this season. In 2019, they started 6-4 before collapsing down the stretch to finish the season 7-9. This year, they were 6-3 with a win over Kansas City. They appeared ready to take the next step. 

    Instead, they are all but eliminated from the playoff race. They are now 7-7 and last lost to the 5-9 Chargers on Thursday Night Football.

    While it's hard to be positive after back-to-back November and December meltdowns, there's still a lot to be optimistic about in terms of the Raiders roster. Chief among them are running back Josh Jacobs and tight end Darren Waller. 

    Both Jacobs and Waller posted good numbers last season, but this year's performances show they are ready to lead the offense on a yearly basis. Jacobs is sixth the league in rushing, and he's improved as a receiver in his second season. 

    Waller is one of the best tight ends in the league. He's second among them in receptions (93) and yards (967) and third in touchdowns (eight). 

    The Raiders defense will once again be a big concern in the offseason. Free-agent acquisition Nick Kwiatkoski has played exceptionally well, but Cory Littleton has done little to help a unit that is 31st in defensive efficiency by ESPN's metrics.

    Assuming they can get that handled, Jacobs and Waller should lead the team to a lot of win games next season.

Los Angeles Chargers: Justin Herbert Could Be the Best in the 2020 Draft Class

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Justin Herbert was the least productive college quarterback of the passers taken in the first round, but he's well on his way to flipping that script in the NFL. 

    Herbert has a chance to break pretty much every rookie passing record. With two games left on the slate, he has tied Baker Mayfield's record for passing touchdowns and, according to ESPN Stats & Info, he has already passed Andrew Luck for most games with at least 300 passing yards with seven. 

    The record for the Chargers isn't pretty. The team is just 5-9, but when you consider that seven of those losses have come in one-score games, the recipe for a quick turnaround next year is in place. 

    There's still plenty of time for the quarterbacks of the 2020 class to write their stories. Joe Burrow's season was cut short by injury. Tua Tagovailoa has taken over a Miami team that isn't done surrounding its quarterback with weapons. 

    But for now, you'd be hard-pressed to make the case you would want either of them over Herbert considering what he's done in his rookie season. That's reason for the Chargers to have high hopes for the future. 

Los Angeles Rams: An Elite Defense

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    After a 9-7 year in the ultra-competitive NFC West, the Rams were kind of an afterthought in the offseason. The Niners were coming off a Super Bowl appearance, the Cardinals traded for DeAndre Hopkins, and the Seahawks were prepping for another season of Wilson-to-Metcalf highlights. 

    The Rams, meanwhile, had a quiet offseason. On paper, they lost more than they gained in free agency, and that wasn't offset by the draft in which they made nine selections but had no first-rounders. 

    Despite all that, the Rams have already matched their win total from last season and have done so on the strength of one of the best defenses in the league. 

    "It just seems like a group playing violent, playing aggressive and creating chaos for the opposing offense," Jets coach Adam Gase said, describing the defense, per Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times. Yes, the Rams ended up somehow losing to the Jets, but one week doesn't ruin a whole season's worth of evidence that this Rams defense is good. 

    While other teams can point to a player as their biggest offseason acquisition, the Rams can probably point to defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. They brought him on after he served as the outside linebacker coach for the Denver Broncos in 2019. 

    The result has been a defense that does just about everything well. It creates pressure (tied for second in sacks), stuffs the run (3.8 yards allowed per attempt) and has shut down opposing team's passing games (tops in yards allowed per attempt). 

    It's the kind of defense that is suited for the postseason. The Rams can match up well with any kind of offense and have a legitimate shot at making another playoff run under Sean McVay. 

Miami Dolphins: The Rebuild Is Ahead of Schedule

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Some teams can use the excuse of "rebuilding" for several seasons. Brian Flores and the Miami Dolphins are making it more difficult to use that as a reason for lack of results. In one offseason they went from 5-11 and last in the AFC East to a wild-card contender. 

    That's a testament to the roster that Chris Grier is building and the culture Flores has established as the head coach.

    Those who played under Flores in New England, where he was the linebackers coach and de facto defensive coordinator, aren't surprised by the quick turnaround. 

    "For sure. Flo, he was always a great coach and very respected," Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said, per Mark Daniels of the Providence Journal. "He has his guys doing the right thing on the field and off the field, so it's no surprise that they're having success over there."

    In the offseason, the Dolphins sought to fix a defense that was 30th in ESPN's defensive efficiency in 2019. Miami signed Byron Jones, Emmanuel Ogbah, Shaq Lawson and Kyle Van Noy in free agency. 

    With the influx of veteran talent, Flores has this defense ranked fifth in efficiency

Minnesota Vikings: Justin Jefferson Is a Future Star

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Justin Jefferson hasn't just been the standout in a highly anticipated crop of rookie wideouts. He's been among the best receivers in the league regardless of experience. 

    The Minnesota Vikings' decision to trade Stefon Diggs to the Buffalo Bills has turned out to be a win-win. Diggs has thrived in Buffalo, while the Vikings used the Bills' first-round pick on Jefferson.

    Going into Week 16, Jefferson leads all rookie receivers in yardage (1,182) by more than 350 yards. He has paired with Adam Thielen to form one of the league's most productive receiving duos this season.

    Jefferson is one of only 12 players with 1,000-plus receiving yards this year. He's tied with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce for the league lead in receptions for 20-plus yards.

    Quarterback Kirk Cousins' massive contract will force the Vikings to draft well so long as he remains on the roster. His $31 million cap hit in 2021 and $45 million cap hit in 2022 will make it tricky to build out his supporting cast, but paying a receiver of Jefferson's caliber only $3 million and $3.6 million in those seasons will help.

New England Patriots: Tons of Cap Space for a Quick Rebuild

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The New England Patriots' first year without Tom Brady has been painful. Cam Newton wasn't a perfect fit with Bill Belichick, and the defense fell off between injuries and the opt-outs of Patrick Chung and Dont'a Hightower. 

    But the success of former Belichick protege Brian Flores in South Beach should be a sign of hope for the Patriots faithful. Flores was able to leverage an offseason spending spree into a quick turnaround from 5-11 to playoff contention. 

    Belichick has already acknowledged that this season was designed to be a bridge toward better financial stability in the future. 

    "This is kind of the year that we've taken to, I would say, adjust our cap from the spending that we've had in accumulation of prior years," Belichick told former assistant coach Charlie Weis on SiriusXM NFL Radio (h/t ESPN's Mike Reiss). "We just haven't been able to have the kind of depth on our roster that we've had in some other years."

    Moving on from Brady and neglecting to be big spenders in free agency sets the Patriots up with the ability to make a splash in the offseason. The only teams with more projected cap space than the Patriots' $69.6 million next season are the Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets. 

    While those teams clearly need to make massive changes, the Patriots have remained fairly competitive for a team with its eye on 2021. They've rarely been blown out and will likely finish 7-9 with the Bills and Jets left on the schedule.

    Belichick hasn't forgotten how to coach. And the Pats have the resources they'll need to field an even more competitive team next season. 

New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees Is Back in Time for Playoffs

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Saints have a ton of questions heading into the 2021 season. They're projected to be $96 million over the cap, Drew Brees will be 42 years old, and several key contributors are set to hit free agency.

    But for now, the Saints are once again poised to compete for a Super Bowl run with Brees at the helm. His Week 15 return against the Kansas City Chiefs confirmed that. 

    Although Brees was without No. 1 wideout Michael Thomas, he threw for 234 yards and three touchdowns as the Saints took the Chiefs to the wire in a 32-29 loss. He also completed his longest pass by air yards in three years, according to Next Gen Stats, as his 51-yard bomb to Emmanuel Sanders traveled 50.8 yards in the air. 

    The Saints defense and overall composition of the roster have been strong enough to survive a mediocre season from Thomas, a stretch of games with Taysom Hill as the starter and the looming threat of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC South.

    There's a lot to like about Brees and Co. getting a few more weeks to round back into shape ahead of the playoffs. The Saints expect to get Thomas back "close to 100 percent" for the playoffs, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    With a few more weeks to work Brees back in and possibly get Thomas healthy, the Saints should yet again be a contender this postseason.

New York Giants: Joe Judge's Promising Debut Season

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    The first year for an NFL head coach isn't just about wins and losses. It's also about getting the organization moving in the right direction.

    Based on the New York Giants' progression throughout the season, there's reason to believe Joe Judge is the right man for that job. Although their 5-9 record is underwhelming, they've shown a number of positives.

    Although the Giants lost their first five games and seven of their first eight, Judge got enough buy-in to rip off four straight wins, including a 17-12 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. They've done it with a tough-minded defense that is ninth in points allowed and sixth in yards allowed per carry (3.9). 

    Judge has established his vision for the organization with some tough decisions. He fired offensive line coach Marco Columbo midseason, released 2019 first-round pick DeAndre Baker after he was charged with armed robbery and sat Golden Tate for a game after he created drama off the field. 

    Those types of decisions don't necessarily lead to wins right away, but they set the ground for a team's culture.

    Questions remain about whether Daniel Jones is the Giants' quarterback of the future. They also have to hope that running back Saquon Barkley hasn't lost a step when he returns from a season-ending knee injury.

    But it appears they won't have to worry about whether they have the right man at the helm.

New York Jets: The Opportunity to Reset with Trevor Lawrence... or Justin Fields

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    AJ Mast/Associated Press

    No team needs to hit the reset button quite like the New York Jets. They haven't posted a winning record since 2015, and they've finished outside of last place in the AFC East only once in that timeframe. 

    But this isn't about dwelling on the negative. It's about looking forward to the future. 

    That hope is likely getting ready to play in the Sugar Bowl right now. Ohio State's Justin Fields and Clemson's Trevor Lawrence are preparing for another matchup in the semifinal of the College Football Playoff.

    The Jets were in line to get Lawrence with the first pick in the draft before their upset win against the Rams in Week 15. That victory could come back to haunt them, but Fields would not be a bad consolation prize.

    He has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country over the past two years, and he has the athleticism and arm talent to be a franchise quarterback. If the Jets fire head coach Adam Gase as expected, they should become an attractive landing spot with nearly $82 million to spend this offseason.

    This season has largely been a debacle for the Jets, but it could lead them to a quarterback who could help turn their franchise around.

Philadelphia Eagles: Jalen Hurts Has Created a Quarterback Controversy

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    When your offense ranks 25th in scoring, 28th in yards per play and 31st in yards per pass attempt, a quarterback controversy is actually a welcome development. That's the case in Philadelphia after two consecutive strong starts from rookie Jalen Hurts. 

    Carson Wentz was dreadful this season. He leads the league with 15 touchdowns, is second-to-last in adjusted yards per completion and has been sacked a career-high 50 times.

    There are several explanations for Wentz's struggles, not all of which are his fault. The Eagles offensive line has been a revolving door because of injuries, and the receiving corps has dealt with plenty of injuries, too. 

    However, Hurts has a 1-1 record with that same offensive line and those same receivers. He led the Eagles to an upset win over the New Orleans Saints by going 17-of-30 for a modest 167 passing yards, but he ran for 106 yards on 18 carries. In Sunday's loss to the Arizona Cardinals, he posted 338 yards through the air with three touchdowns and scored another touchdown on the ground. 

    The Eagles are financially committed to Wentz, who's due to make $34.7 million next season and has a dead cap hit of $59.2 million. But if they decide to shop him, it sounds like he'll have a market. 

    According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the Eagles' decision to bench Wentz for Hurts "has garnered the attention of other teams around the NFL, with some expected to inquire about Wentz's availability in a trade." Hurts' success so far makes that idea seem even more attractive.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Sustained Greatness on Defense

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    It's difficult to maintain an elite defense in the modern NFL. Since ESPN started tracking defensive efficiency in 2015, only the Denver Broncos have put together back-to-back seasons as the No. 1 defense.  

    Only the Jaguars (2017 and 2018) and Vikings (2016-2018) have fielded a top-three defense for two or more years, although the Steelers are poised to join them this year. After finishing second last season, they are the best in the league this year by a fairly comfortable margin. 

    The Steelers rank second leaguewide in scoring defense, yards allowed and turnovers. Although takeaways tend to be a volatile stat, Pittsburgh led the league in that category last year.

    A few key injuries have hampered the Steelers defense in recent weeks. Second-year linebacker Devin Bush tore his ACL in October, while pass-rusher Bud Dupree tore his in early December. Robert Spillane, who was filling in for Bush, was forced to the injured reserve list with a knee injury, although he is expected to return.

    If the Steelers can re-sign Dupree this offseason, they will have a strong pass-rushing duo between him and T.J. Watt. Bush, Stephon Tuitt, Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cameron Heyward are all set to come back next season as well. 

    Pittsburgh's offense still hinges on the health and play of Ben Roethlisberger. As the Steelers begin to prepare for life after the 38-year-old, having an elite defense to fall back on will make that process easier.

San Francisco 49ers: Losing Enough to Be in Play for Round 1 Quarterback

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    George Frey/Associated Press

    San Fransisco's 2020 season has been defined by two things: quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's precipitous fall from grace, and a stretch of injuries that severely hampered their ceiling.

    The Niners' list of injuries is exhaustive, but their injured reserve list in Week 15 speaks volumes. It included Garoppolo, George Kittle, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Solomon Thomas and Jaquiski Tartt, among others. 

    One silver lining of this campaign is the opportunity to get a blue-chip quarterback prospect. After their loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 15, the Niners would pick 12th if the season ended today, per Tankathon.

    That likely takes them out of the Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields sweepstakes, but they may be in position to get one of the other four quarterbacks in the top 32 of Matt Miller's most recent big board. 

    Whether the Niners went with BYU's Zach Wilson, North Dakota State's Trey Lance, Alabama's Mac Jones or Florida's Kyle Trask, any of them would bring new excitement. And there aren't many teams ahead of them in the projected draft order that are in need of a new quarterback.

    Although Garoppolo guided the Niners to the Super Bowl last year, he's largely been unable to stay healthy as a starter. He has played more than six games in only one of his three full seasons in San Francisco, and the Niners would incur only a $2.8 million dead cap hit if they release him this offseason.

    The Niners could get both a new quarterback and a clean bill of health in 2021.

Seattle Seahawks: DK Metcalf's Breakout

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    As a rookie last season, Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf showed he had the potential to be a star.

    This year, he has fully realized that potential.

    As a rookie, Metcalf was 34th in receiving yards (900), tied for 16th in touchdowns (seven) and 28th in air yards (627). This season, he's fourth in receiving yards (1,223), tied for fifth in touchdowns (10) and third in air yards (894).

    In just one season, he has transformed into the league's premier deep-threat receiver. 

    Metcalf was a big reason for Russell Wilson's early-season MVP campaign. The veteran quarterback spoke highly of his young wideout as he chases Steve Largent's franchise record of 1,287 receiving yards in a season. 

    "DK is a special player. Obviously he's a freak athlete, but he's super focused on the game in growing and building," Wilson said, per Matt Calkins of the Seattle Times. "He can make every catch, do everything you want him to do, and to be even in the same category as a guy like Steve Largent so early is a blessing in itself."

    Metcalf and Tyler Lockett have emerged as one of the most formidable wide receiver duos in the league. Considering the 23-year-old Metcalf is still refining his game, the Seahawks should have many productive seasons ahead. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Early Impact from Tristan Wirfs and Antoine Winfield Jr.

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    Doug Murray/Associated Press

    Everything about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' moves over the past year have been about immediate success. You don't sign Tom Brady in the twilight of his career while bringing Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown out of retirement if you're beginning a five-year plan. 

    However, the Buccaneers are getting major contributions from two of their early-round rookies.

    Right tackle Tristan Wirfs has been a full-time starter and has given up only one sack on the season, per PFF, much to the delight of Tampa Bay's coaching staff.

    "I would say he's probably exceeded our expectations, especially for a rookie," Bucs assistant head coach Harold Goodwin said, per Luke Easterling of Bucs Wire. "To go up to get him was big by our GM and our owners to allow that to happen. It's huge because it would be tough to say where we would be today without him. Right now, you can't imagine life without him.

    Meanwhile, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. has the versatility to play in all of Tampa Bay's sub-packages. Only two Bucs defenders have played a higher percentage of snaps than the Minnesota product. 

    Winfield has proved to be a play-maker in those snaps, too. He has had three sacks, an interception, five pass deflections, two forced fumbles and four quarterback hits on the season while racking up 83 total tackles. 

    Winfield and Wirfs are each providing important contributions to a team with Super Bowl aspirations while looking like two foundational pieces moving forward as well.

Tennessee Titans: The 2020 Playoff Run Was No Fluke

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Titans finished the 2019 season as one of the hottest teams in the league, and they carried it over to one of the most surprising playoff runs in recent memory. They rode a few historic performances from Derrick Henry and Ryan Tannehill playing the best football of his career to an AFC Championship Game appearance. 

    The Titans won't sneak up on anyone in the playoffs this year. But teams should be dreading a game against them like a 200-pound cornerback would dread tackling Henry with a full head of steam. 

    After taking over for Marcus Mariota midway through last season, Tannehill has carried his strong play over into 2020. He's fourth in the league in adjusted yards per attempt, leads the league in game-winning drives with five and is fourth in passer rating. 

    Henry has kept up his production as well, even though teams know the Titans will lean on his rushing ability. According to the NFL's Next Gen Stats, he faces eight or more defenders in the box on nearly 30 percent of his carries, yet he leads the league in rushing yards over expected. 

    The Titans are also getting a breakout season from Corey Davis that's been four years in the making. The 2017 No. 5 overall pick has already posted career highs in receiving yards (945) and touchdowns (five), and he's five receptions shy of his previous best mark (65).

    Tennessee is 24th in defensive efficiency this year after finishing 15th last season, which is a mild concern. But this offense is good enough to make the Titans dangerous in the postseason once again. 

Washington Football Team: Pass-Rushing Duo of Chase Young and Montez Sweat

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    Jennifer Stewart/Associated Press

    Outside of the quarterback position, a devastating pass rush is among an NFL team's most coveted assets. The Washington Football Team might still need to find a passer, but they have the pass-rushing department covered for the foreseeable future with Chase Young and Montez Sweat. 

    Sweat is 24 years old and on his rookie contract through the 2022 season. He's already matched his sack total (seven) from his rookie season while registering 26 total pressures. He's also PFF's 13th-highest-graded edge-defender, which speaks to his ability to play the run as well. 

    Young is only 21 years old and is enjoying a successful rookie season. He's registered 5.5 sacks with 16 total pressures, and he's PFF's eighth-highest-graded edge-defender. 

    The two are leading the way for a defense that is tied for sixth in the league in sacks (40). Next season, Washington will pay the duo around $11 million. That's an incredible advantage as team president Jason Wright goes about building out the roster with a projected $50 million in cap space. 

    Young and Sweat aren't the only strong assets Washington has up front, either. Veteran Ryan Kerrigan (a free-agent-to-be) is still playing at a high level, while Daron Payne (23) and Jonathan Allen (25) complete a formidable collection of young talent in the trenches. 

       

    All stats from Pro Football Reference and ESPN.com unless otherwise noted and current through Week 15.