Post-Super Bowl LV NFL Power Rankings Entering 2021 Offseason
The confetti has fallen. The Lombardi Trophy has been awarded. After leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 31-9 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, Tom Brady is going to Disney World—again.
Sunday's game puts the finishing touches on a 2020 season filled with action and record-setting performances. Breakouts and face-plants. There were surprises both good (looking at you, Miami Dolphins) and bad (Dallas fans don't want to talk about it).
The 2020 season may have just ended, but there's no respite for the league's 32 clubs. Some teams (like the Buffalo Bills) are well positioned for success next year. Others (like the New Orleans Saints) are staring at an offseason of great uncertainty. And others still (like the Jacksonville Jaguars) are at the opening stages of the long climb back to respectability.
With contract negotiations, free agency and the 2021 draft still to come, the NFL landscape could change substantially by the time organized team activities open in a few months. But as we turn out the lights on the 2020 season, Bleacher Report NFL analysts Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski have gathered one more time to rank the league's teams from worst to first heading into the offseason.
32. Houston Texans
The Houston Texans are a hot mess.
By virtue of a disastrous 4-12 2020 season, the Texans would have picked third in the 2021 draft. That is, had they not dealt that pick to the Miami Dolphins for tackle Laremy Tunsil.
At least Houston didn't allow the fourth-most sacks in the NFL in 2020. That would just be embarrassing.
It gets worse. So much worse.
New Texans general manager Nick Caserio has stated the team has "zero interest" in trading superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson. But it's no secret Watson wants out of Houston—so much so that the 25-year-old is reportedly willing to sit out the 2021 season if he isn't dealt.
Things are so bad in Houston that apparently some of Watson's teammates believe his best play is heading for the door.
Peter King of NBC Sports reported: "It's gotten to the point where, I'm told, even some respected veterans on the teams have, in effect, told Watson, 'Go ahead. Go. We love you. We don't want you to get trapped here. You don't owe us anything.'"
At this point, Gagnon's confidence level in the Texans is nonexistent.
"This changes a bit if the Texans kiss and make up with Deshaun Watson, but that is far from a guarantee, and I don't trust that organization to do anything right," he wrote. "I wouldn't be shocked if they found a way to lose Watson for 2021 without gaining a first-round pick in this year's draft. Never overestimate the Texans."
31. New York Jets
In 2020, the New York Jets offense was positively offensive—the Jets ranked dead last in both total offense (279.9 yards per game) and scoring (15.2 points per game).
The Jets hired a defensive-minded head coach in Robert Saleh, but Saleh brought fellow Niners assistant Mike LaFleur with him to New York as his offensive coordinator. Saleh has the utmost confidence LaFleur will engineer an innovative scheme similar to Kyle Shanahan's in San Francisco.
"Nobody in the world knows [that style of offense] better than he does," Saleh told reporters. "[I'm] really excited about the vision that we have in place for the offensive side, and there's no one better in the world than the people that we've hired to be able to do that. So, it's going to be an exciting time for this organization."
The biggest question looming over the Jets in the offseason isn't hard to pinpoint—who will run New York's new-look offense under center? Will it be incumbent Sam Darnold? A veteran like Deshaun Watson or Carson Wentz? Or a rookie like Justin Fields of Ohio State?
One thing is certain: With the second overall pick and $68 million in cap space, the Jets are well positioned to make extensive changes.
30. Detroit Lions
Stop me if you've heard this one before—the Detroit Lions are beginning a rebuild.
The Lions have a new head coach in Dan Campbell. A new general manager in Brad Holmes. And after swinging a blockbuster deal with the Los Angeles Rams that shipped Matthew Stafford out of town, a new quarterback in Jared Goff.
Goff was the first overall pick in 2016 and led the Rams to a berth in Super Bowl LIII, but he fell out of favor with the Rams after an up-and-down 2020 season. Former teammate Todd Gurley told NFL Network (h/t Nick Shook of NFL.com) he thinks Goff has a chance to thrive in his new home:
"It could be a good thing for him, you know? Just add an extra chip on your shoulder. A lot of players like to play with chips on their shoulder, but it's a lot different when you're a franchise quarterback and you take your team to the Super Bowl and two years later you're on a whole other team. Like I told him, man, love him, just want him to be happy and keep doing what you're doing."
That trade netted the Lions extra first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 and a third-rounder this year—ample ammo to spur a franchise turnaround. But it also saddled Detroit with a contract that pays Goff over $53 million the next two years.
How Goff fares in his new home will determine if this latest rebuild in Motown goes anywhere.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
The 2020 season started off in promising fashion for the Jacksonville Jaguars—the team upset the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1.
That the Jags didn't win another game the rest of the season is rather a different story.
However, more optimism surrounds this team than one would expect after a one-win campaign. That dismal record means the Jaguars own the first overall pick in the 2021 draft—a pick that approximately 137 percent of pundits expect Jacksonville to use on Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. There's a new head coach in town in three-time collegiate national champion Urban Meyer. And with $77 million and change to spare, the Jags have the most available cap space in the league.
Add it all together, and Gagnon thinks the Jaguars could be a prime candidate for a rapid rebound.
"The Jags were the worst team in football this year," he said, "but you have to give them power-rankings points for the room they have to grow. New, exciting head coach. A clear path to Trevor Lawrence. More salary-cap space than everybody else in football. This turnaround might happen fast."
28. Philadelphia Eagles
There have already been big changes in Philadelphia. Just a few years after winning Super Bowl LII, the Eagles fired head coach Doug Pederson following a 4-11-1 season.
The changes aren't done yet.
As Les Bowen reported for the Philadelphia Inquirer, after Carson Wentz led the NFL with 15 interceptions in 2020, the team could be nearing the completion of a deal to ship out the 2016 second overall pick.
It's a remarkable fall from grace for a quarterback who signed a $128 million contract extension in 2019—an extension that will require the Eagles to eat over $33 million in dead-cap charges if Wentz is dealt. But after Jalen Hurts showed flashes as a rookie, the Eagles appear to have decided the bevy of future picks Wentz will bring in is more valuable than having a disgruntled quarterback on the roster.
Dealing Wentz also highlights a harsh reality for a team that recently won a Super Bowl—the Eagles are in the early stages of a rebuild. The skill-position talent is weak. The offensive line allowed a league-high 65 sacks in 2020. And the defense isn't what it once was.
It's fixing to be a long 2021 season in the City of Brotherly Love.
27. Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers moved on from longtime quarterback Cam Newton last year, signing Teddy Bridgewater to a three-year, $63 million contract. But after a five-win 2020 season, Carolina could be ready for another switch under center.
The Panthers were among the teams that tried to acquire Matthew Stafford, per ESPN's David Newton, and team owner David Tepper admitted the Panthers are open to exploring upgrades at the game's most important position.
"Unless you have that guy, for sure, that gets you to playoffs and Super Bowls, you have to keep reevaluating that," Tepper told reporters.
Bridgewater was neither great nor terrible in 2020—3,733 passing yards, 15 scores and 11 interceptions. He also wasn't the only reason the team was 4-11 with him under center. Tailback Christian McCaffrey was injured most of the year, and the Panthers defense ranked 18th in points allowed.
In other words, while the quarterback position in Carolina may get most of the offseason ink, it's hardly the only obstacle that stands between the Panthers and playoff contention.
26. Cincinnati Bengals
At first glance, the 2020 season appears to have been another miserable one in Cincinnati. Just four wins and a top-five pick in the 2021 draft.
But the Bengals appear to have solved the biggest problem a floundering franchise faces. Before tearing his ACL against Washington, Joe Burrow looked like the real deal after being selected first overall in 2020.
Burrow's recovery will be the dominant storyline in Cincinnati. But provided his rehab goes well, the first quarterback to lead Cincinnati to the Super Bowl told Tyler Dragon of the Cincinnati Enquirer that he sees star potential in the former LSU standout.
"I don't think that there is any question that Joe Burrow is gonna be an outstanding quarterback," Ken Anderson said. "I think he did an excellent job. I think there were some things that he would've liked to have had back, but I saw very encouraging signs that he's going to be a top-notch quarterback in the league."
Now it's a matter of building around Burrow.
"After allowing 48 sacks in 2020, the Bengals have to do something about the offensive line," Davenport said, "and the defense wasn't very good either. Even if Burrow is 100 percent for Week 1, the Bengals still have quite a few holes and play in a brutal division. They could improve markedly in 2021 and still be a fourth-place team."
25. New England Patriots
The "Patriot Way" took a beating in 2020.
As Tom Brady was leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl LV title, the Patriots were pitching and lurching their way to a 7-9 season. It's the worst record the Pats have posted since going 5-11 in 2000—the year before Brady was first inserted as New England's starting quarterback.
Brady's departure might have been the biggest reason for New England's collapse, but it wasn't the only one. The Patriots have arguably the weakest assemblage of wide receivers and tight ends in the NFL. The defense was decimated by personal losses and opt-outs in 2020.
Veteran safety Devin McCourty told Tom Curran's Patriots Talk Podcast (h/t Pats Pulpit) he believes many of those opt-outs will return in 2021. But that alone isn't going to return New England to prominence.
With $63 million and change in cap space, the Pats appear positioned to be major players in free agency. But this is a team with no succession plan under center. A team that at least one veteran quarterback reportedly made clear he had no intention of playing for.
And a team whose run of dominance in the AFC East appears to be over.
24. Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons have blown up the coaching staff and front office. Head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff were shown the door during last year's 4-12 face-plant.
It will fall to Arthur Smith and Terry Fontenot to lead the Falcons in 2021. The question is how different the team will look.
The Falcons have the fourth pick in this year's draft, but they also have the third-worst salary-cap situation—the team is $37.6 million in the red. That has led to speculation that Atlanta might consider trading high-priced veterans like quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones.
However, team owner Arthur Blank told NFL Network (h/t Nick Shook) he believes the team's MVP quarterback can still get the Falcons into the playoffs:
"I'd be shocked, completely shocked if he was not (on the Falcons next year), and it really has nothing to do necessarily with his contract. Matt has played at a very high level for us since 2008 when we drafted him. He and Drew Brees are the only quarterbacks in the history of the NFL that have thrown for more than 4,000 yards over a 10-year period of time consistently. He's performed beautifully, was MVP of the league one year. So Matt can still play at a very high level and we expect him to be a Falcon next year, fully."
If that's the case, Atlanta will have to cut costs elsewhere. And that's not going to make getting better any easier.
23. Denver Broncos
Like many of the teams in the bottom half of these power rankings, the Denver Broncos face a quandary at quarterback.
Through the first two years of his professional career, Drew Lock has made 18 starts in Denver. But after winning four of five starts down the stretch as a rookie, Lock's numbers in 2020 weren't good—a completion percentage of 57.3, 2,933 yards, 16 touchdowns, 15 interceptions (tied for the NFL lead) and a passer rating of 75.4.
The Broncos were 4-9 in the 13 starts Lock made in his second season.
Those struggles reportedly led the Broncos to make a play for Matthew Stafford. According to Dan Patrick, Denver offered Lock and the ninth overall pick in this year's draft for Stafford, who Detroit later traded to the Los Angeles Rams.
If Lock is Denver's starting quarterback in Week 1, it will be something of an upset—and that's not the only big change the team could be looking at in 2021.
22. New York Giants
A 2020 season that saw the New York Giants wind up with the 11th overall pick was actually a success for first-year head coach Joe Judge—at least in the opinion of one of our analysts.
"Judge did a good job in his first season by keeping his team competitive when it didn't have any right to be," Sobleski said. "While the Giants still have a way to go in regard to building out their roster, Saquon Barkley will be back in the lineup after tearing his ACL early in 2020. The offensive front should be better after playing multiple rookies in 2020. Daniel Jones' development will be helped by an improved supporting cast. And the defense is already solid."
It's shaping up to be an important few months for the G-Men. New York has just $1.1 million available in salary-cap space, but the team needs to figure out a way to bring back defensive lineman Leonard Williams after a breakout campaign. For Jones to take a step forward in 2021, his protection has to get better.
The NFC East is there for the taking—and the team that makes the best use of its offseason resources will have a big leg up on the competition.
21. Las Vegas Raiders
The first three years of the second Jon Gruden era with the Raiders haven't been terrible. But they haven't been great either—19 wins, 29 losses and zero playoff trips.
Coincidentally, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr also has a sub-.500 record as the team's starter—47-63 over seven seasons. And there has been no shortage of speculation (again) that the team could look to upgrade under center.
However, in the opinion of one of our analysts, Carr isn't close to the biggest problem Las Vegas faces in 2021.
"It's not Derek Carr's fault that the Raiders' biggest free-agent signing last year (linebacker Cory Littleton) was a bust," Davenport said. "It's not Carr's fault that first-round picks like edge-rusher Clelin Ferrell and cornerback Damon Arnette haven't lived up to their draft slots. The truth is Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock haven't done a good job of improving a Raiders defense that allowed the eighth-most yards and third-most points in the league in 2020. Until that changes, the Raiders aren't going to be a real threat to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West."
"Gruden hasn't done enough with this team," Gagnon added. "I'm not convinced Carr can put them over the top, the defense remains awful and they're projected to be cap-strapped to start the offseason. It continues to be a mess in Las Vegas, and I continue to believe Gruden won't last for more than half of that 10-year contract."
20. Chicago Bears
Despite a one-sided loss to the Green Bay Packers in the regular-season finale, the Bears backed into the No. 7 seed in the NFC in 2020, making the playoffs for the second time in three years under head coach Matt Nagy.
Three out of four isn't going to be easy.
With Mitchell Trubisky about to hit free agency, the quarterback position in Chicago is an even bigger mess than usual. Arguably the team's best offensive player (wide receiver Allen Robinson II) is also about to become a free agent. And given that the Bears are more than $6 million over the projected salary cap for 2021, the team isn't in position for a spending spree.
The Bears are rumored to be in the thick of the Carson Wentz sweepstakes, which would solve one of the team's problems.
But Sobleski still believes Chicago fans who hope for a deep playoff run in 2021 are setting themselves up to be disappointed.
"How is anyone supposed to believe in the Bears at this point? Yes, they snuck their way into a playoff berth thanks to the expanded format, but they have no answers at quarterback," he said. "Their offensive line needs to be reworked. Allen Robinson II is a free agent. Robert Quinn disappointed after signing a significant free-agent deal. This team is teetering closer to rebuilding than competing for an NFC North title with any consistency."
19. Minnesota Vikings
After making the postseason in 2019 (and knocking off the Saints in New Orleans), the Minnesota Vikings took a significant step backward in 2020. That seven-win season has cast doubt on the future of both head coach Mike Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Zimmer remains the team's head coach, and he made it clear Cousins remains the team's unquestioned starter under center.
"Kirk's our guy," Zimmer told NFL Network (h/t NFL.com's Kevin Patra). "You know, he had a terrific year this year. We were fourth in the league on offense. We have to get better on defense—we had a lot of injuries and young guys—that's my job to get it fixed."
In Cousins, running back Dalvin Cook and wide receivers Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson, the Vikings have plenty of offensive firepower. And the reality is Cousins' contract makes the notion of releasing or trading him problematic at best and impossible at worst—especially with Minnesota $7.7 million over the projected cap for 2021.
If Minnesota is going to contend this year, it has to do something about the league's 29th-ranked scoring defense from last season.
18. Los Angeles Chargers
A seven-win 2020 season wasn't enough to save Anthony Lynn's job with the Los Angeles Chargers. But one significant positive appeared for the Bolts.
The Chargers appear to have found themselves a quarterback.
Justin Herbert was a revelation as a rookie, throwing for 4,336 yards and a rookie-record 31 touchdowns with a passer rating of 98.3. Those numbers won Herbert the Offensive Rookie of the Year Award. As he told the Associated Press, Herbert has spoken to new Chargers head man Brandon Staley about the next step for player and team.
"To be as busy as he was with everything going on, he reached out to me, and that meant a lot to me," Herbert said. "We kind of just talked about what he saw going forward. I know that talking about the offense and about all that stuff is coming up soon."
The Chargers have their quarterback in Herbert. A solid array of passing-game weapons led by Keenan Allen. A decent offensive line. And talent on defense—especially if Derwin James and Joey Bosa can stay healthy.
Among the first-year head coaches, Staley may have the best shot at making a run at a wild-card spot in 2021.
17. New Orleans Saints
Nothing good lasts forever. It's a sad truth in life—one that fans of the New Orleans Saints are about to discover in harsh terms.
When Drew Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the Saints were more punchline than powerhouse. In the history of the franchise prior to Brees' arrival, the Saints had won one postseason game. Brees matched that in his first year with the team. By his fourth, he had delivered the Saints' first (and only) Super Bowl win—a 31-17 victory over the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
The hope was Brees and the Saints would make one last run in 2020, allowing him to ride off into the proverbial sunset. But New Orleans was bounced from the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers…
And sunset is here.
Per Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap, Brees has restructured his contract to save the Saints $24 million against the cap in 2021—the latest sign that the 42-year-old is retiring. Even with that restructure, the Saints are a league-worst $74.6 million over the salary cap.
That jaw-dropping number leaves the Saints in all sorts of trouble.
"The day Brees retires," Davenport said, "the Saints should make every player on the roster available for trade. Alvin Kamara. Michael Thomas. Marshon Lattimore. Everyone. Go full Miami—dump salary and stockpile picks. The Super Bowl window is shut. Done. It's over. Embrace the rebuild. The more they halfway do it, the longer said rebuild will take."
16. Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys entered the 2020 season with aspirations of making a Super Bowl run. They enter the 2021 offseason with a top-10 pick in the NFL draft.
That's what happens when your star quarterback breaks his ankle in October.
Dak Prescott's rehab (and pending free agency) will dominate coverage of the Cowboys in the weeks to come, but it's not the team's biggest problem. Prescott will all but certainly be the team's starting quarterback in 2021.
The bigger issues standing between Dallas and a return to contender status are upgrading an offensive line that was a shell of its formerly dominant self and fixing a defense that was terrible most of last season.
It won't be easy. Dallas only has about $18 million in cap space—a number that won't come close to covering Prescott's salary. Hitting on that 10th overall pick will be critical.
"Provided that Dak Prescott is close to 100 percent for Week 1, scoring points shouldn't be a problem for the Cowboys in 2021," Davenport said. "They are going to have to—because barring a miracle, the defense isn't going to be good. The cap space isn't there to add an impact veteran, and that's without considering that guys like Tyrone Crawford, Aldon Smith and Xavier Woods could leave in free agency."
15. Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts have one of the best offensive lines in the National Football League. A capable cadre of wide receivers that includes veteran T.Y. Hilton and promising youngster Michael Pittman Jr. A defense led by star linebacker Darius Leonard that has talent at all three levels. A fantastic young running back in Jonathan Taylor.
It's a playoff-caliber roster. Maybe even a Super Bowl-caliber roster—save for one problem.
After Philip Rivers announced his retirement, the only quarterback under contract on the roster is Jacob Eason.
The Colts have tried (and failed) to trade for Matthew Stafford. They are one of the teams believed to be interested in Carson Wentz. Essentially, the Colts will be connected with every quarterback who might be available until they get one.
Which one Indy lands will go a long way toward determining what kind of season the team has in 2021.
"Despite not being settled at quarterback after Rivers' retirement, the Colts have a lot going in their favor," Sobleski said. "Indianapolis' offensive front, even without the retired Anthony Castonzo, remains formidable. Running back Jonathan Taylor blossomed during the tail end of his rookie campaign. Nick Eberflus' defense is arguably the most disciplined and well-coached of any unit in the league. If general manager Chris Ballard finds a competent starting option behind center, the Colts will be capable of competing for another playoff appearance."
14. Washington Football Team
The Washington Football Team managed just seven wins in 2020, but that earned a playoff spot as the "champions" of a dreadful NFC East.
Now the team has to attempt to improve upon that mark, and one issue towers above all others—the quarterback position.
In less than two seasons, Dwayne Haskins Jr. went from first-round pick to outright released. Alex Smith's return and Comeback Player of the Year Award was a great story, but he's not close to the player he once was and may retire. Taylor Heinicke was a fan favorite for all of one game—just the second start of his career.
Washington has a stout defense spearheaded by what may be the best defensive line in the game. The offense has some weapons in wide receiver Terry McLaurin, running back Antonio Gibson and tight end Logan Thomas.
But if Washington is going to have any chance at repeating in the division in 2021, it has to figure out the signal-caller situation.
13. San Francisco 49ers
At the culmination of the 2019 season, the San Francisco 49ers were the NFC representative in Super Bowl LIV.
Then came the injuries. So many injuries. All of the injuries. And by the time the dust settled, the Niners were 6-10 and the latest victim of the "Super Bowl hangover."
The rehab of prominent players like tight end George Kittle, edge-rusher Nick Bosa and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is an important offseason storyline in Santa Clara. But an even bigger question looms over the team—Garoppolo's future.
There has been no shortage of speculation that the Niners could look to upgrade under center. But as Gagnon wrote last week, a San Francisco team with salary-cap issues and a bevy of impending free agents might be best-served by going with what it knows.
"Altogether, the 49ers have won 22 of his 30 starts with the team," Gagnon said. "He deserves another shot at recapturing the magic we saw from him down the stretch in 2019."
In addition to the Garoppolo decision and all those free agents (including Trent Williams, Richard Sherman, Solomon Thomas, Jaquiski Tartt and Kyle Juszczyk), the 49ers have to deal with a shake-up on the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh took the job as head coach of the Jets, bringing passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur with him.
Still, one of B/R's analysts has confidence the Niners will rebound in 2021.
"It's time to wipe out much of what happened to the 49ers during an injury-ravaged 2020 campaign," Gagnon said. "The defensive line will be back this offseason, as will Garoppolo, Kittle, Raheem Mostert and Deebo Samuel. San Francisco should return to Super Bowl contention in 2021."
12. Arizona Cardinals
There was good news and bad news for the Arizona Cardinals in 2020.
The good news is the Redbirds improved markedly over the season before—especially on offense. Young quarterback Kyler Murray took a sizable step forward in his second NFL campaign. The trade for wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins might have been the most impactful personnel move of the offseason.
The bad news is that after a 6-3 start punctuated by the "Hail Murray" miracle finish against the Buffalo Bills in Week 10, the Cardinals won just twice the rest of the way and missed the postseason.
The Cardinals are better. But they aren't "there" yet.
Arizona enters the offseason with about $13.5 million in cap space, but also with a boatload of prominent free agents. Wideout Larry Fitzgerald, cornerback Patrick Peterson, running back Kenyan Drake, guard J.R. Sweezy and edge-rushers Markus Golden and Haason Reddick are all slated to hit the open market.
General manager Steve Keim faces a difficult test—prevent a backslide in arguably the NFL's toughest division despite limited resources.
Better hit on those draft picks.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers
Over the first 12 weeks of the 2020 season, there wasn't a better team in the NFL than the Steelers. Pittsburgh peeled off a franchise-record 11 straight victories to open the year.
However, beginning with a Week 13 loss to Washington, the wheels came off Pittsburgh's season. The Steelers won just once more the rest of the regular season, dropping four of five heading into the playoffs. Then the Steelers had quite possibly the worst postseason quarter in franchise history, falling behind the Cleveland Browns 28-0 on the way to getting bounced in the first round.
The Steelers hit the offseason more than $30 million over the projected salary cap for 2021, and team owner Art Rooney II admitted in a press conference that restructuring quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's contract is at the top of the organization's "to-do" list:
"I think we've been upfront with Ben in letting him know that we couldn't have him back under the current contract. I think he understands we have some work to do there. We'll have more conversations internally and we'll have more conversations with Ben, and we'll have to know what the cap number is to finalize some of those decisions."
"Make no mistake," Davenport said, "Big Ben will be back in 2021. And this remains a 12-win team that sports a solid corps of wideouts and one of the best defenses in the game. But Roethlisberger faded down the stretch last year. Pittsburgh's offensive line wasn't particularly good and could lose Maurkice Pouncey to retirement. Edge-rusher Bud Dupree, tackle Alejandro Villanueva and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster are all free agents. And the Steelers are in terrible shape against the cap. Pittsburgh could be a dangerous team again next year. But the Steelers are also prime candidates to regress in 2021."
10. Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins—from all indications—are trending in the right direction.
One year after a veteran fire sale and 5-11 campaign, the Dolphins parlayed three first-round picks and some significant spending in free agency into a 10-6 record and nearly making the playoffs.
In theory, the team is well positioned for another sizable step forward in 2021. Compliments of the trade that sent Laremy Tunsil to Houston, the Dolphins own the third overall pick in this year's draft. That trade also netted the 'Fins Houston's second-rounder, giving Miami four selections inside the top 50.
Miami also ranks in the top 10 in available cap space at a hair under $28 million—although a chunk of that will likely be spent on keeping Emmanuel Ogbah in town after the edge-rusher's career season.
Given the team's draft capital, buzz has connected the team to the pursuit of disgruntled Texans signal-caller Deshaun Watson. But Sobleski wrote recently that the smarter play is to use those picks to build around second-year pro Tua Tagovailoa.
"With Tagovailoa and an improved surrounding cast, the Dolphins can compete for AFC East titles and possibly more," he said. "The franchise needs to avoid the temptation of making yet another switch at the game's most important position when it has a talented and capable option on the roster."
9. Tennessee Titans
Given the upheaval that has hit the other teams in the AFC South, the Tennessee Titans will head into the 2021 offseason as the likely favorites in the division.
The Titans don't have a huge question mark at quarterback—Ryan Tannehill is an above-average veteran starter who has played well the past two seasons. Tennessee has the reigning Offensive Player of the Year in running back Derrick Henry, fresh off a 2,000-yard season. The team also has an excellent one-two punch at wide receiver in A.J. Brown and Corey Davis.
What the Titans don't have is an especially good defense. In 2020, the team ranked 28th in total defense, allowing 398.3 yards per game. Tennessee checked in 29th in the NFL against the pass and 24th in scoring defense. Only two teams had fewer sacks last year than the 19 the Titans amassed in the regular season.
Re-building that defense on the fly won't be easy. The Titans over $3 million in the red against the 2021 cap, so a big free-agent splurge will be difficult. The team also picks outside the top 20 in the 2021 draft.
Without some significant defensive upgrades, the Titans in 2021 will be essentially what we saw in 2020.
Playoffs good—but not Super Bowl good.
8. Seattle Seahawks
For the first half of the 2020 season, the Seattle Seahawks looked like one of the best teams in the league—despite a defense that opened the year on a historically bad clip. Russell Wilson looked the part of an MVP candidate, consistently hitting deep passes to DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.
However, as the season wore on, the offense cooled considerably—culminating in a listless performance at home in a Wild Card Round loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Wilson admitted the Seahawks took their foot off the gas offensively.
There were consequences for that swoon. Seattle fired offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, replacing him with Rams passing game coordinator Shane Waldron. Given the weapons at his disposal and the top-five quarterback running his scheme, Waldron is poised for early success.
That could place even more impetus on the Seattle defense in 2021. The Seahawks improved defensively as the year wore on, but the team was still just 22nd in total defense and doesn't have much cap space with which to make changes.
Still, with more consistency on offense and moderate improvement on defense, this could be a Super Bowl contender.
7. Los Angeles Rams
Over his time as the general manager for the Los Angeles Rams, Les Snead has demonstrated two things. The first is that he loves him a big trade.
The second is that he couldn't care less if he ever makes another pick in Round 1.
Snead's latest trade was a blockbuster in every sense—the Rams sent quarterback Jared Goff, a third-round pick in 2021 and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023 to the Detroit Lions for veteran signal-caller Matthew Stafford.
The move shows it's Super Bowl or bust in Los Angeles next year—that the Rams believe the upgrade from Goff to Stafford can boost the team back to football's biggest stage.
The Rams do have the league's top defense, led by three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, and a loaded cadre of skill-position talent. This will be easily the most talented team Stafford has ever played on.
And it could get even more talented—per ESPN's Adam Schefter, Stafford is receiving texts from veteran free agents looking to come to L.A. to chase a ring.
Of course, there's a flip side. Anything less than a championship will be viewed as a failure for these Rams—especially after mortgaging even more of the future to bolster the present.
6. Cleveland Browns
In what may be a portent of the apocalypse, the Cleveland Browns aren't a tomato can anymore. The Browns won 11 games last year—the most regular-season victories by the team since it rejoined the league in 1999. Cleveland also knocked off the Steelers in the Wild Card Round for its first playoff win since 1994.
In Sobleski's opinion, that season was less a fluke than a sign of things to come.
"The Browns are building sustainable long-term success through the vision laid forth by general manager Andrew Berry and NFL Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski," he said. "Quarterback Baker Mayfield played as well as any quarterback in the league through the second half of the season (including postseason). Cleveland's offensive line is the league's best. Stars can be found at running back and wide receiver. As long as Berry builds up the defense some this offseason, the Browns will increase expectations."
As Sobleslki indicated, the Cleveland defense should be the franchise's focus in the offseason. Edge-rusher Myles Garrett is a star, and Denzel Ward is a talented young cornerback. But the Cleveland linebackers were a glaring weakness in 2020.
The Browns have about $21.7 million in cap space with which to improve the roster in 2021. But there's also a mega-extension for Mayfield to consider—and that deal is going to be a knee-buckler.
5. Baltimore Ravens
In two-plus seasons as the starting quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens, Lamar Jackson has won 30 of 37 regular-season starts. He was named the Most Valuable Player in the league after the 2019 season. And in each of his three seasons, Jackson has led the Ravens to the playoffs.
Given that success, it's no surprise Ravens GM Eric DeCosta told reporters the team will sit down with its young quarterback in the offseason to discuss a contract extension.
"He certainly deserves a contract," DeCosta said. "He has played phenomenal football over the last couple of years. My intention is to keep him in Baltimore for many, many years."
For all the wins Jackson and the Ravens have piled up the past few seasons, one thing has eluded the team—postseason success. Baltimore's win at Tennessee in the Wild Card Round was the first playoff win of his career, and the loss at Buffalo the following week dropped Jackson to 1-3 in the postseason with three touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of less than 70.
The Ravens have everything needed to make a run at a Super Bowl—although an offseason upgrade at wide receiver would be appreciated.
But if they are going to take the next step as a franchise in 2021, their young quarterback needs to do the same.
4. Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is widely regarded as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. Donovan McNabb is widely regarded as a good (but not great) signal-caller who couldn't get it done in big games.
After the Green Bay Packers were ousted from the postseason in the NFC Championship Game, Rodgers' record in that game is now the same as McNabb's: 1-4.
That playoff disappointment didn't stop Rodgers from earning his third NFL MVP award after a phenomenal season in which he threw for 4,299 yards and a career-best 48 touchdowns against five interceptions. But it continues a theme that has permeated Rodgers' career—he keeps posting ridiculous numbers, but the Packers keep coming up short of the Super Bowl.
Rodgers will be the source of all sorts of offseason speculation. Teams have reportedly inquired about trading for him. And he is apparently still angry the Packers drafted a quarterback in the first round in 2020.
However, Gagnon believes all the hullabaloo is much ado about nothing. Rodgers will be back under center in 2021. And the Packers will be back among the leading contenders to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LVI.
"The Packers will be tight on cap space and could suffer a key loss or two in free agency, but I'm not removing them from the top tier because Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers, and he should have left tackle David Bakhtiari back in 2021," he said. "This team is equipped to win a Super Bowl right now. This just wasn't their year (again)."
3. Buffalo Bills
The 2020 season didn't end like Bills Mafia hoped, but Buffalo heads into the 2021 offseason with optimism like the franchise hasn't seen since Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith propelled the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls.
Quarterback Josh Allen is coming off a breakout campaign—his numbers skyrocketed in just about every statistical category. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs led the league in both catches and yards in his first season with the team. And the Bills won 13 games—tied for the most in franchise history.
Head coach Sean McDermott, who has led the Bills to the postseason in three of four seasons, finished second in Coach of the Year voting behind Cleveland's Kevin Stefanski. Allen checked in second in MVP voting behind Aaron Rodgers. And the Bills finished second in the AFC, falling at Kansas City in the conference title game.
Buffalo is slightly over the 2021 salary cap and has to start thinking about extending Allen, so the Bills aren't likely to be major players in free agency. Adding some pop to the pass rush in the 2021 draft will be a priority for general manager Brandon Beane.
But the future is bright for the Bills—bright enough to make you want to jump through a table.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After the Tampa Bay Buccaneers walloped the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV, much of the talk centered on the game's MVP, and with good reason. Tom Brady punctuated an excellent 21st season by capturing his seventh Lombardi Trophy. Brady has more rings now individually than any franchise in league history.
But that's just part of the reason why the Buccaneers will be among the favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LVI.
Offensively, Brady plays on an offense that has no shortage of firepower, whether on the ground with Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones II or through the air with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans.
The Tampa defense was the true hero in the team's blowout of the Chiefs. The pass rush led by Shaquil Barrett made Patrick Mahomes miserable. Off-ball linebacker Lavonte David was a force against the run and in coverage.
Both of those defensive stars are set to hit free agency—as are Fournette and Godwin—but it can be easier to keep the band together once everyone is all happy and ringed up.
The Buccaneers team that pasted the Chiefs is the best possible version of the Tampa team that went 11-5 in the regular season. A team with an explosive offense and smothering defense. A team without any glaring weaknesses.
And a team that could absolutely make it to Los Angeles next February.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs rolled into Super Bowl LV with a chance to stake a claim as the NFL's next dynasty by becoming the league's first repeat champion since the New England Patriots in 2003 and 2004.
That didn't happen—the Chiefs were pasted 31-9 by the Buccaneers, putting the sourest of exclamation points on what was otherwise an outstanding season.
However, if you look past that loss to the 2021 campaign, the Chiefs are still the early front-runner to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVI.
Kansas City has maybe the best quarterback in the league in Patrick Mahomes, who at 25 has already played in two Super Bowls, won one and been named the MVP of both that game and the league as a whole. Mahomes' weapons in the passing game include one of the NFL's most dangerous wide receivers in Tyreek Hill and the league's most dominant tight end in Travis Kelce.
"The Chiefs admittedly have work to do in the offseason," Davenport said. "The off-ball linebackers need to be upgraded, and given Eric Fisher's uncertain status for the beginning of the 2021 season, adding depth on the offensive line is wise. But the Chiefs are loaded on offense, have playmakers on defense and boast the NFL's most dynamic signal-caller in Mahomes. The season ended with a fizzle, but these Chiefs will be back."
Salary-cap information courtesy of Over the Cap.