NFL Division-by-Division Rankings After 1st Week of 2021 Free Agency

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2021

NFL Division-by-Division Rankings After 1st Week of 2021 Free Agency

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    In the first week of free agency, NFL rosters went through significant changes. Playoff contenders lost key players, while teams that finished at the bottom of the standings made splashy moves to close the gap on divisional rivals.

    As always, some divisions look stronger than others, and there will be intriguing playoff races in the upcoming campaign.

    Based on win-loss records from last season, projections, roster acquisitions and key departures, we ranked each division following the early action in free agency.

    This list favors groups with the most predicted postseason-bound squads. Rebuilding clubs put dents in their divisions' rank. In some cases, a top-five team elevated one unit over another. Think of this as a look at the toughest divisions to win in 2021.

8. NFC East

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    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott
    Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak PrescottRon Jenkins/Associated Press

    2020 Records

    • Washington Football Team 7-9
    • Dallas Cowboys 6-10
    • New York Giants 6-10
    • Philadelphia Eagles 4-11-1

    The NFC East has a lot to prove. Last year, all the teams finished with losing records. Though the Dallas Cowboys should improve with Dak Prescott coming off a season-ending ankle injury, the other three clubs have serious questions at quarterback, a position that can make or break a season.

    Despite an unclear quarterback situation, the Washington Football Team defense is still one of the best across the league. Montez Sweat and Chase Young will spearhead a relentless pass rush, while cornerback William Jackson III replaced Ronald Darby in a stingy secondary. Washington will give Ryan Fitzpatrick a chance to start, but that's not set in stone, which brings some uncertainty to the club's outlook.

    Prescott said he's "healthy," which makes the Cowboys a strong contender to win the division. However, they must fix a defense that gave up the fifth-most points last season. Coordinator Dan Quinn will take over for Mike Nolan, and he needs to focus on strengthening the front seven. Dallas ranked 31st against the run in 2020.

    The New York Giants have a clear-cut starting quarterback in Daniel Jones, but he struggled in 2020, throwing for 2,943 yards and 11 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in 14 starts. Big Blue needs a healthy Saquon Barkley to boost the offense. Since 2019, he's missed 17 games.

    At the bottom of the division, the Philadelphia Eagles are in rebuild mode with first-time head coach Nick Sirianni. Despite Carson Wentz's departure, general manager Howie Roseman hasn't named second-year pro Jalen Hurts the starting quarterback. The Eagles will likely finish last for the second consecutive season.

7. AFC East

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    Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (left) and wide receiver Stefon Diggs
    Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (left) and wide receiver Stefon DiggsAssociated Press

    2020 Records

    • Buffalo Bills 13-3
    • Miami Dolphins 10-6
    • New England Patriots 7-9
    • New York Jets 2-14

    The AFC East has a top-five squad in the Buffalo Bills with the Miami Dolphins possibly on the rise. Like the NFC East, it has multiple quarterback questions but with a much stronger contender in pole position.

    Buffalo kept the core of its second-ranked offense together, adding wideout Emmanuel Sanders, and Brian Daboll is still the play-caller. The Bills should field an electric attack in another double-digit win season.

    With Ryan Fitzpatrick in Washington, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa seems like Miami's starter, though according to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the Dolphins discussed acquiring Deshaun Watson.

    Tagovailoa called his rookie campaign "below average." Perhaps the team agrees. If Miami sticks with him, we have to wonder about the aerial attack. His backup, Jacoby Brissett, hasn't started since 2019. Miami may need another strong performance from its defense to win 10 games.

    The New England Patriots made several moves in free agency. If quarterback Cam Newton starts, he will have a solid supporting cast with the additions of Nelson Agholor, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith. The Patriots' turnover makes them a wild card. They'll likely compete for second place.

    The New York Jets will go through a rebuild under first-time head coach Robert Saleh. Gang Green hasn't made a decision on quarterback Sam Darnold. Once that happens, we will have a clearer outlook. Right now, the Jets have a long way to go following a two-win season.

6. AFC South

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    Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry
    Tennessee Titans running back Derrick HenryBrett Carlsen/Associated Press

    2020 Records

    • Tennessee Titans 11-5
    • Indianapolis Colts 11-5
    • Houston Texans 4-12
    • Jacksonville Jaguars 1-15

    Coming off an AFC Championship Game appearance with their squad intact, the Bills would land higher in power rankings than any AFC South team, but this division has two playoff contenders. The Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts should battle for the top spot again.

    The Titans dismantled their secondary, cutting Malcolm Butler, Adoree' Jackson and Kenny Vaccaro, which isn't necessarily a negative when you consider the pass defense ranked 29th last season. Tennessee signed cornerback Janoris Jenkins to man the boundary and added edge-rusher Bud Dupree to apply pocket pressure, which should help the defensive backs.

    As an offensive coordinator for one season with the Oakland Raiders, Todd Downing fielded the 23rd-ranked scoring unit, but he'll have two-time defending rushing champion Derrick Henry in Tennessee. If the 6'3", 247-pounder stays healthy, the unit should run smoothly despite the departure of play-caller Arthur Smith.

    Coming off his worst season as a pro, Carson Wentz will hope to bounce back with Colts head coach Frank Reich, who was his offensive coordinator for two seasons with the Eagles. Indianapolis must replace left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who retired, and add a veteran receiver with T.Y. Hilton on the open market. Nevertheless, Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack will maintain the team's physical identity.

    The Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars will likely finish with sub-.500 records.

    With a new regime in place, Houston has to sort through a trade standoff with quarterback Deshaun Watson. Also, the NFL launched an investigation into the sexual assault and indecent contact lawsuits filed against him. Journeyman signal-caller Tyrod Taylor could open the season as the starter.

    Jacksonville adopted a new vision under general manager Trent Baalke and head coach Urban Meyer, though Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, the presumptive No. 1 pick, gives the franchise some optimism for the future.

5. NFC North

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    Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers
    Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron RodgersMike Roemer/Associated Press

    2020 Records

    • Green Bay Packers 13-3
    • Chicago Bears 8-8
    • Minnesota Vikings 7-9
    • Detroit Lions 5-11

    The NFC North landed one spot above the AFC South because of the Green Bay Packers at the top with the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings in position to fight for playoff spots. This division has competitive depth with only one squad going through significant changes from the front office to the roster.

    Coming off back-to-back NFC Championship Game appearances, the Packers will likely put together another season of double-digit wins with a playoff berth. Green Bay re-signed running back Aaron Jones to complement reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers.

    Head coach Matt LaFleur has to figure out how to compensate for the loss of center Corey Linsley and patch up the left tackle spot while David Bakhtiari recovers from a torn ACL, but Rodgers' brilliance in the pocket could mask those issues.

    Andy Dalton expects to start for the Bears. He can stabilize the offense. The 33-year-old went 4-5 for the Cowboys last season, throwing for 2,170 yards and 14 touchdowns with eight interceptions in 11 appearances.

    According to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, the Denver Broncos signed cornerback Kyle Fuller after the Bears released him. Chicago will allow defensive end Akiem Hicks to pursue a trade, per Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune (h/t Pro Football Talk's Charean Williams). Still, Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan, Eddie Jackson and Jaylon Johnson could maintain the unit's stinginess.

    The Vikings signed nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and cornerback Patrick Peterson to strengthen their defense, which ranked 29th in points allowed last season. The team has to mend financial fences with defensive end Danielle Hunter, who missed the 2020 term (neck) but wants a new contract. The two-time Pro Bowler had talks with head coach Mike Zimmer, per Mackey and Judd of SKOR North.

    Wideout Justin Jefferson had an impressive rookie campaign in 2020, hauling in 88 passes for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. If running back Dalvin Cook stays healthy, watch out for Minnesota.

    General manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell will change the Detroit Lions' course for the future, though the club isn't going to start from scratch.

    The Lions have veteran quarterback Jared Goff, who has played in a Super Bowl. With a high-end perimeter weapon, perhaps a top wideout prospect, he could put up points with running backs D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams. Detroit could finish closer to .500 if the defense shows moderate improvement under play-caller Aaron Glenn. The unit gave up the most points and yards in 2020.

4. AFC West

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    Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes
    Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick MahomesSteve Luciano/Associated Press

    2020 Records

    • Kansas City Chiefs 14-2
    • Las Vegas Raiders 8-8
    • Los Angeles Chargers 7-9
    • Denver Broncos 5-11

    Similar to the NFC North, the AFC West has a top-five team with competitive depth. This division has promising quarterback play, which raises the expectations of the collective.

    The Kansas City Chiefs offensive line will undergo changes. The team released tackles Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher. Center Austin Reiter remains a free agent. On the flip side, the Chiefs re-signed right tackle Mike Remmers and added guards Joe Thuney and Kyle Long.

    Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has the mobility to buy himself time. He still has his top two pass-catching targets in tight end Travis Kelce and wideout Tyreek Hill. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire has a year of experience under his belt. The offense will continue to score in flurries.

    The Las Vegas Raiders traded three of their top offensive linemen—right tackle Trent Brown, right guard Gabe Jackson and center Rodney Hudson—which raises some concerns about quarterback Derek Carr's protection and running lanes for Josh Jacobs and Kenyan Drake. Yet Carr has improved every year under head coach Jon Gruden.

    Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley could become the key to the Raiders' success. If he can field a solid unit, the offense won't have to win shootouts. Vegas signed Yannick Ngakoue, who should add immediate juice to the pass rush.

    Watch out for the Los Angeles Chargers as the second-place finisher in the division.

    Justin Herbert was the 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year, throwing for 4,336 yards and 31 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He has playmakers around him, including running back Austin Ekeler, tight end Jared Cook and wideouts Keenan Allen and Mike Williams. The Chargers also addressed their offensive front, signing All-Pro center Corey Linsley and the versatile Matt Feiler.

    Los Angeles hired Brandon Staley to be its head coach. He fielded the No. 1 defense with the Los Angeles Rams in 2020. With his background, the Chargers could match an explosive offense with a stingy defense and become a wild-card playoff team.

    With wideouts Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler and running back Melvin Gordon III, Drew Lock has the weapons to push the ball downfield. However, he's thrown just 23 touchdown passes against 18 interceptions in two seasons. The Missouri product must take a third-year leap to put the Denver Broncos in playoff contention.

3. NFC South

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski (left) and quarterback Tom Brady
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski (left) and quarterback Tom BradyAssociated Press

    2020 Records

    • New Orleans Saints 12-4
    • Tampa Bay Buccaneers 11-5
    • Carolina Panthers 5-11
    • Atlanta Falcons 4-12

    The NFC South ranks third with the reigning Super Bowl champions and a perennial contender. The bottom of the division should be more competitive next season.

    With the exception of running back Leonard Fournette, wideout Antonio Brown and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who are still free agents, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers retained key playmakers. Expect them to stay in the chase for the Lombardi Trophy with Tom Brady under center.

    The New Orleans Saints will start the post-Drew Brees era, which seems like a huge blow to their short-term outlook. However, the club went 8-1 with backup quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill over the last two seasons. Jameis Winston has the starting experience to lead a potent offense under head coach Sean Payton. Don't erase the Saints from the contender's circle just yet.

    The Carolina Panthers enter Year 2 of their rebuild under head coach Matt Rhule. Though owner David Tepper wants a franchise quarterback, per The Athletic's Joseph Person, Bridgewater should fare well in his second season under Rhule, especially if running back Christian McCaffrey comes back healthy after an injury-riddled season.

    The Panthers pass rush will apply consistent pressure with Haason Reddick and Morgan Fox in the fold. They combined for 18.5 sacks last season.

    The Atlanta Falcons hired Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith to fill the general manager and head coaching positions. Despite the changes in those roles, the front office didn't break down the roster.

    Quarterback Matt Ryan will continue to move the ball with wideouts Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. He lost center Alex Mack, but 2020 third-rounder Matt Hennessy will slide into that spot. On defense, the Falcons have proven playmakers in Grady Jarrett, Dante Fowler Jr. and Deion Jones within the front seven with promising cornerback A.J. Terrell on the back end.

    Atlanta is a sleeper.

2. AFC North

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    Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson
    Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar JacksonMark Zaleski/Associated Press

    2020 Records

    • Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4
    • Baltimore Ravens 11-5
    • Cleveland Browns 11-5
    • Cincinnati Bengals 4-11-1

    The AFC North doesn't have the reigning Super Bowl champion, but three of the four teams made the playoffs last season. Those clubs will vie for a home playoff game in 2021. The worst squad of the group should grow significantly.

    The Pittsburgh Steelers trended in the wrong direction at the end of last season, losing five of their last contests, but head coach Mike Tomlin deserves the benefit of the doubt. In 14 years, he doesn't have a losing campaign.

    After a season of dinking and dunking, Ben Roethlisberger seems like he's headed for a sharp decline going into his age-39 season. Perhaps new offensive coordinator Matt Canada can scheme around the quarterback's shortcomings with a strong ground attack.

    The Steelers lost edge-rusher Bud Dupree, slot cornerback Mike Hilton and defensive tackle Tyson Alualu (and perhaps linebacker Vince Williams) via free agency, but their top-three defense still has top-notch playmakers in Cameron Heyward, Devin Bush, T.J. Watt, Joe Haden and Minkah Fitzpatrick. That unit will continue to stifle opponents.

    Over the past few years, the Baltimore Ravens have established an identity with Lamar Jackson behind center. They've fielded the No. 1 ground attack for each of the last two terms. Expect offensive coordinator Greg Roman to stick to the run-heavy attack that features Jackson's mobility alongside running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards.

    The Cleveland Browns should have a shot to win the division. In 2020, head coach Kevin Stefanski found a winning formula, which features running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. If wideout Odell Beckham Jr. bounces back from an injury-riddled campaign, he will add a big-play element to the offense. The Browns must improve their 21st-ranked scoring defense to take the division crown.

    Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow had an impressive 10-game debut, throwing for 2,688 yards and 13 touchdowns with five interceptions before he tore his ACL. If the second-year player makes a full recovery in time for Week 1, expect him to elevate the offense with wideouts Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd on the perimeter. The unit also needs a healthy Joe Mixon in the backfield.

    With that said, play-caller Lou Anarumo has to push the right buttons on defense to propel this team to .500 or better. His units have ranked 22nd or worse in scoring over the past two years.

1. NFC West

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    Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay
    Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVayStephen Brashear/Associated Press

    2020 Records

    • Seattle Seahawks 12-4
    • Los Angeles Rams 10-6
    • Arizona Cardinals 8-8
    • San Francisco 49ers 6-10

    From top to bottom, the NFC West has the toughest competition. In 2020, two of the four teams clinched playoff berths. One squad made multiple offseason splashes and looks primed for a significant leap next season. The worst club of this bunch had terrible luck with injuries last year. Any one of these teams could win the division.

    Thus far, the Seattle Seahawks have had a drama-filled offseason with trade rumors surrounding Russell Wilson. The Chicago Bears offered a massive haul for the star quarterback, but the Seahawks turned it down, per Dan Patrick.

    Assuming Wilson starts for the Seahawks in Week 1, they will be a contender. He may not "cook" as much with an emphasis on the ground attack, but that run-heavy formula worked in the team's favor in 2018-19.

    In January, the Los Angeles Rams agreed to acquire Matthew Stafford from the Lions for Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-rounder. Now, head coach Sean McVay has a signal-caller who has some mobility with the capacity to make off-script plays. In the backfield, we should expect second-year player Cam Akers to develop in a featured role.

    The Rams lost defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, who became the head coach of the Chargers. New play-caller Raheem Morris will have three-time Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald and two-time All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey to keep the unit strong.

    Over the past few weeks, the Arizona Cardinals have acquired defensive end J.J. Watt, wideout A.J. Green and center Rodney Hudson (via trade with the Raiders). All those players are older than 30, but they round out a talented roster. Chandler Jones will return to action following an injury-marred campaign (torn biceps). His presence should help the pass defense even though the secondary lost cornerback Patrick Peterson via free agency.

    With good health on the Cardinals' side, they'll be a double-digit win squad.

    In 2020, the San Francisco 49ers had several injuries in key spots. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, running back Raheem Mostert, wideout Deebo Samuel, tight end George Kittle, defensive ends Nick Bosa and cornerback Richard Sherman missed at least eight games apiece.

    Sherman isn't likely to return, but the 49ers will get a significant talent boost on each side of the ball if the other key players are healthy. San Francisco absolutely needs Bosa to bolster the pass rush. Garoppolo's health could be the key to the season.

    Despite the injuries, the Niners still finished 3-3 within the division.