NFL Teams Ready to Vault into Super Bowl Contention Next Year
The NFL contention hierarchy continues to change in interesting ways.
This year features Tom Brady's Tampa Bay Buccaneers against Patrick Mahomes' Kansas City Chiefs in a fitting old versus new battle of the eras. But things continue to trend in the latter's direction, hence fun postseason runs for the likes of the Cleveland Browns and Buffalo Bills.
While Buffalo has fully arrived as a Super Bowl contender after making the AFC title game this year, a handful of teams could follow a similar trajectory in 2021.
Based on talent, offseason outlook and outside factors like divisional implications, these lesser-known sleepers could vault into Super Bowl contention next season.
The Miami Dolphins quietly won 10 games in 2020, and it feels like that could just be the beginning.
That strong overall performance and plus-66 point differential was second only to the 13-win Buffalo Bills in the AFC East. And it was with a combination of Ryan Fitzpatrick and first-rounder Tua Tagovailoa splitting the snaps under center.
Working with the idea the Dolphins will stick with Tagovailoa and not make a wild move like trading for Deshaun Watson, the future looks good. The fifth overall pick completed 64.1 percent of his passes last year for 1,814 yards and 11 touchdowns against five interceptions.
Miami also boasts a top-10 cap number at $25.8 million and two first-round picks and five in the top 100. The earliest is the third overall pick courtesy of a trade with Houston, so that's the most significant of what could be many upgrades to the roster.
Winning 10 games was encouraging, and the next step is a serious playoff push.
Washington Football Team
How about a significant sleeper?
The Washington Football Team made the playoffs this year, though backing in with a 7-9 record made them afterthoughts. However, Ron Rivera's team came close to the eventual NFC champions, losing 31-23 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Wild Card Round. Had Washington not needed to start Taylor Heinicke under center, the playoffs might have unfolded quite differently.
Washington really is that close in many respects. The offense has an elite No. 1 wideout in Terry McLaurin. Antonio Gibson was a breakout star at running back. The defensive front seven is one of the nastiest in football, headed up by first-rounders Montez Sweat and Chase Young, who combined for 16.5 of the team's gaudy 47 sacks, as well as 56 combined pressures.
This works under the presumption that Washington will upgrade at QB. Maybe that's trading for Deshaun Watson. Maybe it's using the draft or getting a quality free agent such as Cam Newton.
Either way, an upgrade under center plus a top-six cap number ($33 million), nine draft picks (the first at No. 19) and prior performance against a division that probably won't improve that much has Washington looking at least playoff-bound again.
The Cleveland Browns are one of the most noteworthy success stories of the 2020 season.
After never squeaking above. 500 since 2007, they ripped off 11 wins in an AFC North where three of the four teams posted as many wins. They proceeded to win a playoff game over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers before falling short against Super Bowl-bound Kansas City, 22-17.
Things should only get better in 2021.
Baker Mayfield shrugged off criticism to the tune of a 62.8 completion percentage with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. That was with star back Nick Chubb missing four games and top wideout Odell Beckham Jr. only appearing in seven games.
Besides Beckham, notables such as Greedy Williams, Grant Delpit and Olivier Vernon missed significant time. Yet the Browns rattled off 11 wins, have a top-10 cap number ($19.6 million) before any significant moves and boast nine draft picks.
Feel free to add in an AFC North that could regress depending on what happens with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and the Browns could be next year's Bills.
Quarterback is everything.
The Dallas Cowboys are about to be the perfect example of that in 2021. Provided the front office doesn't make a blunder of epic proportions and let Dak Prescott get away, he'll be back and as good as ever after suffering a compound right ankle fracture and dislocation.
Prescott set a historic pace over just five appearances and 151 attempts in 2020, completing 68.0 percent of those with 1,856 yards and nine touchdowns against four interceptions. That was enough to prop up a historically bad defense and make the Cowboys look respectable. Once he went down, the team slogged to a 6-10 finish.
Presuming Prescott is right back to being a top-10 passer, all the Cowboys have to do is improve the defense and have better injury luck up front. He already has elite options in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup in the passing game.
This offseason, the front office will have a top-15 cap number to work with and the 10th pick to beef up the defense. That—plus the return of Prescott and the lessening of growing pains for the talent under a new coaching staff in year two—should equate to the Cowboys surging in a division where two teams still look rudderless while rebuilding and the serious threat (Washington) hasn't figured out its quarterback situation.
San Francisco 49ers
It wasn't too long ago that the San Francisco 49ers won 13 games and made it to the Super Bowl.
That was the 2019 season. This past season featured Jimmy Garoppolo only getting in six games while superstars Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas could only get in two games. They joined plenty of other impact players out each week, including star tight end George Kittle.
Simply getting the two star defenders back and not having to rely on Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard under center should help the team greatly improve from its 6-10 performance.
But much of this has to do with Garoppolo.
He is just an ordinary quarterback. Over his six appearances in 2020, he threw seven touchdowns and five interceptions. Yet the 49ers paid him $137.5 million over five years. If the team cuts him, it saves $23.6 million on top of what is already a top-14 cap number.
With a better QB, the Niners would be instant contenders, especially with impact guys such as Brandon Aiyuk, Deebo Samuel and Kittle already in place offensively. The cap space is there and so are the assets, such as the 12th pick.
The combination of better health and a possible upgrade at quarterback could have the 49ers right back in the Super Bowl.
Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams forcefully shoved their way into this list by doing the most important possible thing: upgrading at quarterback.
Head coach Sean McVay and the Rams sent Jared Goff, two future first-round picks and a third-round selection to the Detroit Lions in exchange for veteran passer Matthew Stafford, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
That's a huge haul, but it's not hard to understand why they were willing to give up so much.
Goff, the first overall pick in 2016, has been just ordinary despite playing on a four-year deal worth $134 million. Over 15 games in 2020, he completed 67.0 percent of his attempts with just 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions for the 10-win Rams.
For comparison's sake, Stafford was his usual self while compensating for poor surroundings on a team that ended up firing its coaching staff. He completed 64.2 percent of his passes with 26 touchdowns and 10 picks.
The Rams don't have a first-round pick and are 30th in projected cap space at $35.2 million in the red. Yet working with weapons like Cam Akers, Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods in a McVay-directed offense could produce an elite year for Stafford and nudge next year's win total past 10 before another playoff berth.