Ranking the 7 Teams Best Set Up for the Future Entering 2021 Season
NFL dynasties are rare, and most don't last as long as the New England Patriots' nearly two-decade run of success. However, every franchise should aspire to be a long-term competitor.
Yes, winning a Super Bowl is the goal, and teams like the Denver Broncos and Philadelphia Eagles aren't going to trade in their Lombardi Trophies—after the 2015 and 2017 seasons, respectively—for long stretches of playoff appearances. Keeping that Super Bowl window open, though, is what transforms a great team into a potential dynasty.
Naturally, more than one factor goes into long-term success. Having a young upper-tier quarterback is a great foundation, though the right supporting cast is still required. Smart cap management and the maximization of draft capital are also vital.
Some of the teams on this list are already title contenders. Others are trying to push into the conversation. What they have in common are the core roster pieces, established coaching situations, draft ammunition and/or cap space needed to become or remain threats over the next several years.
7. Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins' roster isn't perfect. The team is looking at a backfield committee, while the jury is still out on second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. However, Miami won 10 games last season while just missing the playoffs and appears to have found its long-term head coach in Brian Flores.
A lot will hinge on Tagovailoa's development, but Miami seems to believe in him.
"He's been working. All signs point to—or I would say based on my experience—he's doing everything necessary to make some improvements," Flores told Peter King of NBC Sports. "That's really all we can ask for. My thing is if you put the work in, the results will take care of themselves."
Miami has a defense that ranked sixth in points allowed last season and a bevy of talented young pass-catchers in DeVante Parker, Mike Gesicki, Will Fuller V and rookie Jaylen Waddle. Many key returning contributors—including Tagovailoa, Gesicki, offensive tackle Austin Jackson and defensive lineman Christian Wilkins—are 25 or younger.
The Dolphins are also loaded with capital. They're projected to have the fourth-most cap space in the NFL next offseason, and they own two first-round selections in the 2022 and 2023 drafts.
If Tagovailoa can be a Baker Mayfield-level of high-end game-manager, Miami is set up to be a playoff contender for the foreseeable future.
6. Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals don't have the future capital that Miami has—though they are projected to be $19.9 million under the cap. However, the Cardinals have something the Dolphins do not. They have a quarterback who has already proved himself a star in Kyler Murray.
The 2019 Offensive Rookie of the Year was better in his second season. He finished 2020 with 3,971 passing yards, 819 rushing yards and 37 combined touchdowns with just 12 interceptions. He was also named to his first Pro Bowl.
While Murray may not be quite as indefensible as Lamar Jackson as a dual threat, he's close. The scary part is that Murray is only 23 years old and still progressing as a signal-caller. He also has three years remaining on his rookie deal (assuming the team picks up his fifth-year option), which leaves Arizona in a favorable cap situation.
Arizona also has a sneaky-good defense that ranked 13th overall and 12th in points allowed last season. Adding 32-year-old star defensive end J.J. Watt in free agency was a short-term move, but the defense is filled with young players like Budda Baker (25), Byron Murphy (23), Isaiah Simmons (22) and rookie Zaven Collins (22).
Offensively, the Cardinals lack a franchise running back but have a promising tandem in James Conner and Chase Edmonds. They also have one of the most unstoppable wide receivers in DeAndre Hopkins, who is still only 29 years old. While Kliff Kingsbury has a losing record as an NFL head coach, he has helped develop Murray into a star and appears to have the Cardinals trending in the right direction.
Arizona only narrowly missed the 2020 playoffs with an 8-8 record. There's every reason to think that the Cardinals will remain in the playoff conversation this season and beyond.
5. Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns would rank higher if not for their looming cap situation. They're projected to have just $6.1 million in cap space next year, which could lead to the departure of pricey veterans like Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
And star running back Nick Chubb is slated for free agency next offseason, which could be a problem.
Still, Cleveland has one of football's best young rosters. Chubb and Kareem Hunt forge arguably the game's best running back tandem, while Mayfield emerged as a quality starter over the second half of last season, having thrown 11 touchdowns and one interception over the final eight contests.
General manager Andrew Berry has also made it a point to bring in young players in free agency over the last two offseasons. Offensive tackle Jack Conklin, tight end Austin Hooper, safety John Johnson III and defensive tackle Andrew Billings are all 26 years old or younger.
Cleveland's offensive and defensive lines are superb.
"Down in the trenches, the Browns have arguably the best offensive line in the NFL and one of the league's best edge tandems in the form of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney," Anthony Treash of Pro Football Focus wrote while ranking the Browns as the league's second-best roster before the draft.
The Browns also have the reigning NFL Coach of the Year in Kevin Stefanski and are armed with five picks in the first four rounds of next year's draft.
4. San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers would be higher on this list if there were any guarantee that rookie quarterback Trey Lance is a sure thing. San Francisco gave up 2021's No. 12 selection, first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, plus a 2022 third-rounder, to land him.
This hurts San Francisco's draft capital, but the 49ers are in a solid spot cap-wise. They're projected to have $24.6 million in cap space next year and could have much more. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is set to have a cap hit of $27 million in 2022 and could be dumped if Lance is ready to take over as the full-time starter.
Quarterback uncertainty aside, the 49ers have a championship-caliber roster. While San Francisco only won six games last year, it also dealt with long-term injuries to Garoppolo, tight end George Kittle, wideout Deebo Samuel and pass-rusher Nick Bosa.
When the roster was healthy in 2019, San Francisco came within a few plays of winning the Super Bowl.
The important factor here is the 49ers' relative youth. While they have a few older players, many of the key contributors to that Super Bowl run—including Kittle (27), Samuel (25), Bosa (23) and linebacker Fred Warner (24)—are just entering their primes. Other young players like 2020 first-round picks Brandon Aiyuk and Javon Kinlaw should be building blocks.
Additionally, the 49ers have a proven head coach in Kyle Shanahan. He has already taken San Francisco to the Super Bowl and helped the Atlanta Falcons do the same as their offensive coordinator in 2016. The core pieces are in place—both on the roster and in the front office—for the 49ers to be one of the NFC's top teams over the next several years.
3. Baltimore Ravens
There's a lot to like about the Baltimore Ravens and their future. They ranked seventh in points scored and second in points allowed last season. They have an MVP quarterback in Lamar Jackson—who won the award unanimously in 2019—and they have a Super Bowl-winning coach in John Harbaugh.
The Ravens also addressed their biggest need this offseason by signing wideout Sammy Watkins and drafting former Minnesota receiver Rashod Bateman in the first round. Jackson has never had a legitimate No. 1 receiver as a pro. Bateman could change that, while Watkins should combine with Marquise Brown and rookie fourth-rounder Tylan Wallace to give Baltimore a quality receiving corps.
With a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end in Mark Andrews and a terrific running back duo in J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, the Ravens are loaded offensively.
A few question marks loom, however, especially after the departure of pass-rushers Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue and the trade of offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. Still, Pro Football Focus ranked this roster seventh in the NFL before the draft.
Baltimore also has future capital with which to work. It is projected to have the 13th-most cap space next offseason, and it will have six picks in the first four rounds of next year's draft.
The Ravens, who have made the playoffs nine times in 13 seasons under Harbaugh, won't depart the postseason picture anytime soon.
2. Buffalo Bills
While the Buffalo Bills only have their own draft picks in 2022—aside from a conditional seventh-rounder from Atlanta—and are projected to be up against the cap next offseason, they're still set to be perennial contenders.
Quarterback Josh Allen had a breakout campaign in 2020, passing for 4,544 yards with 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also rushed for 421 yards and eight more scores. He's only 25 years old and may not have reached his ceiling.
A contract extension for Allen will be coming, but he has two years left on his rookie deal.
Aside from him, the Bills have one of the league's best, most-balanced rosters—one Pro Football Focus ranked fifth before the draft. Buffalo also ranked second in both yards gained and points scored last season, while ranking 14th in total defense.
With contributors like Tre'Davious White, Micah Hyde, Matt Milano and Stefon Diggs—the reigning league-leader in receptions and receiving yards—under contract through at least 2023, the Bills are poised to be a permanent fixture in the Super Bowl chase.
Buffalo also has a quality head coach in Sean McDermott, who has taken Buffalo to the playoffs in three of his four seasons.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
If there is a team poised to be a future dynasty in the Patriots mold, it's the Kansas City Chiefs. They've appeared in each of the past two Super Bowls, and several more championship appearances should be on the horizon.
This is because Kansas City has quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The fifth-year pro has already been to two Super Bowls and three AFC title games, is a three-time Pro Bowler and has won both regular-season and Super Bowl MVPs.
Mahomes is also only 25 years old and is under contract through the 2031 season.
He isn't the only standout the Chiefs have locked up. Travis Kelce is signed through 2025. Tyreek Hill is under contract for two more years. Frank Clark is under contract for three. Kansas City has the cap space for more long-term deals, with a projected $22 million in cap space next offseason.
The Chiefs have a relatively young roster too—15th-youngest in the NFL, according to Indianapolis Colts writer Andrew Walker. They also have a future Hall of Fame coach in Andy Reid, who despite being 63 years old, has shown no signs of slowing.
"If (Mahomes’ presence) takes me into my 70s, let's roll," Reid said, per Vahe Gregorian of the Kansas City Star. "Doggone it, I'm ready to go."
The Chiefs are likely to remain the AFC favorites for a long time.
*Cap and contract information via Spotrac.