Ranking the 5 Worst NFL Rosters Entering 2021 Season
Every NFL team is talented. Some are far more talented than others.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers are loaded at every level. The other side of the spectrum isn't as promising.
Professional football is said to be the ultimate meritocracy where a squad can win on any given Sunday. While both statements are partially true, certain franchises are at a distinct disadvantage before the latest campaign even begins.
Proper roster building is critical to sustained success, and every organization sits at a different point along that path.
Those teams viewed as long shots, even this early in the process, are lacking in critical areas. Either they're not settled at quarterback, they're young and need time to develop, or they're just missing pieces at key positions that will be exploited once the season ensues.
Five rosters still have more questions than answers, which makes these teams the worst the NFL has to offer as they prepare for the 2021 campaign.
5. New York Jets
New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas had his work cut out for him after the team finished 2-14 last season. Now, Adam Gase is no longer a stumbling block. New head coach Robert Saleh and his staff should be considered an improvement.
Plus, Douglas set about fortifying the Jets roster, though it's not all there yet.
The team's most important offseason decision simultaneously brings the most uncertainty. Douglas traded previous starting quarterback Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers. In turn, the Jets chose BYU's Zach Wilson with this year's second overall pick.
Wilson has the potential to be a standout, particularly in Mike LaFleur's new offensive scheme.
At the same time, rookie quarterbacks will have their share of missteps along the way. While the position may ultimately be upgraded, the Jets must endure the typical bumps that come with a first-year signal-caller.
"We're still learning, I'd love to give you an answer on that one right now but there's going to be so much more to learn, and your best learning comes through adversity and conflict," Saleh told reporters when asked about Wilson's early progression. "Obviously OTAs everything has been feel good, everyone's excited about everything that's happening around the organization, until we actually hit adversity will we be able to learn more about each other and how we handle things."
Around Wilson, the offensive line remains in flux, particularly the right side, hence the team's interest in veteran free agent Morgan Moses. Running back is far from settled. A committee approach with Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson and rookie Michael Carter is likely on the horizon. The team has gotten very little from the tight end position, particularly Chris Herndon, in recent years.
Defensively, the additions of Carl Lawson, Sheldon Rankins and Vinny Curry certainly upgrade the front, though they're not on the level Saleh left behind with the San Francisco 49ers. Cornerback remains a significant concern as well. Some combination of Bryce Hall, Bless Austin, Corey Ballentine, Lamar Jackson and rookies Jason Pinnock and Brandin Echols will try to combat today's high-flying offensive attacks.
4. Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers are all-in with their new quarterback, Sam Darnold.
"We believe in Sam," head coach Matt Rhule told reporters in April. "We believe in his skill set. We believe in his approach. ... I don't think there's a game you watch, he doesn't make a play where you don't say 'there it is.' I think his arm talent, his movement, are a great fit for the guys here that he'll be playing with."
That steadfast belief could be a boon or detriment to the entire team.
Darnold is only 24 years old. He flashed throughout his first three seasons. The quarterback's previous coaching staff didn't place him in a position to succeed.
Yet, the Panthers aren't guaranteed to fully develop their new signal-caller. Until Darnold shows otherwise, he's one of the league's worst starting quarterbacks.
To make matters worse, the Panthers still have significant lingering questions regarding Darnold's supporting cast.
The left side of the offensive line could be an absolute disaster. Right now, Cameron Erving projects as the starting left tackle with Pat Elflein at guard. Maybe third-round rookie Brady Christensen earns one of those spots. Either way, the Panthers will have one of the league's weakest front fives.
Obviously, Christian McCaffrey's return to the lineup will help. But the team lost Curtis Samuel in free agency. Dan Arnold isn't a significant upgrade at tight end, either.
Carolina spent most of last season building up its defense. Some top talent appears ready to break through in Brian Burns, Jeremy Chinn, who's moving back to safety, and Derrick Brown. The additions of Haason Reddick, Denzel Perryman and this year's eighth overall draft pick, Jaycee Horn, should push the unit into the top half of the league.
Even so, the Panthers are working their way through Year 2 of a rebuild, and some key pieces are still lacking.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
Like the New York Jets, the Jacksonville Jaguars are embarking on a new phase of the franchise's life after a devastating 2020 campaign.
Enter Urban Meyer, who now serves as the organization's head coach and de facto football czar.
The transition may not be easy for Meyer, who had been a college football lifer. Granted, the three-time national-championship-winning head coach has been a success at all of his previous stops. But the NFL is different, and the realization may come early based on the roster he and his staff assembled.
The Jaguars were the NFL's worst team a year ago. Last year's problems are both a blessing and a curse as the Meyer era begins.
The franchise landed Trevor Lawrence as a result of last season's futility. Lawrence is the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck burst onto the scene in 2012. His potential is enormous. Even so, he won't be perfect in Year 1. He's going to experience his share of mistakes.
Uncertainty due to a young roster will make the 2021 campaign difficult.
Aside from Lawrence, fellow first-round pick Travis Etienne must establish his role as a hybrid offensive threat. Tight end is unsettled. Surprisingly, the organization decided to place the franchise tag on left tackle Cam Robinson despite four middling seasons. Meyer pretty much called his best wide receiver soft, too.
"I just didn't like his size. His strength, I just thought, was way below average, way below what we expect from our receivers, and he was told that," Meyer told reporters of DJ Chark. "He's a big guy that played little last year, and that can't happen."
The Jaguars invested quite a bit in the defense, particularly along the defensive line, but the unit's core centers around Josh Allen, Taven Bryan, K'Lavon Chaisson and CJ Henderson—all of whom are still under their rookie contracts. How much the unit improves after finishing 31st overall in total defense remains to be seen.
2. Detroit Lions
How obvious are the Detroit Lions' roster problems? Well, principal owner and chairwoman Sheila Ford Hamp pointed out the team's biggest area of need when Detroit didn't immediately address it during the draft.
Yes, the Lions still need help at wide receiver (among other places).
Basically, the Lions took a wrong turn after they fired Jim Caldwell three years ago, and the new regime is still trying to clean up the mess left by previous head coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn.
Now, first-time general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell are tasked with guiding Detroit to its first winning season since 2017. The new decision-makers weren't shy about their approach. They entered the situation with their eyes wide-open regarding a long-term rebuild.
"Of course I want to win now," head coach Dan Campbell said in February, per The Athletic's Chris Burke. "... And we'll do whatever we can to win now, but not to sacrifice what we can become long-term. I look at things two years out—I don't look at them right now. I want to know where we can be two years from now, even possibly three years from now."
Matthew Stafford, Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones Jr., Kerryon Johnson, Jarrad Davis and Joe Dahl are gone. In their place, the Lions brought in quarterback Jared Goff, running back Jamaal Williams, tight end Darren Fells and wide receivers Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman.
Essentially, Detroit downgraded at multiple positions. Goff won't threaten every blade of grass as Stafford did. The Lions wide receiver room is arguably the worst position group in professional football.
The defense, meanwhile, will transition under new coordinator Aaron Glenn.
"We want ass-kickers," Glenn told reporters. "So, we expect to play that way anyway, and it's nothing new to what my vision is for a Detroit Lions defense."
Detroit lacks difference-makers on defense, though.
1. Houston Texans
The amount of turnover the Houston Texans experienced this offseason is staggering. Everything started with the hires of new general manager Nick Caserio and head coach David Culley. Caserio quickly went to work on changing the locker room.
Now, a hodgepodge of a roster exists after last season's 4-12 campaign.
In total, the Texans signed 30 free agents, completed four trades for veterans Shaq Lawson, Marcus Cannon, Ryan Izzo and Ryan Finley and drafted five prospects.
Basically, Houston is an entirely new team going into the 2021 campaign, and maybe it should be since the foundation crumbled throughout Bill O'Brien's tenure. Nobody was/is safe, not even the franchise's greatest player, J.J. Watt, whom the Texans released in February.
Another significant departure could be forthcoming as well. Quarterback Deshaun Watson's status remains in doubt with allegations of sexual assault and misconduct that have resulted in 22 lawsuits yet to be heard in a court of law.
"I think we're respectful of what's happening, respectful of the process and everybody that's involved. The most important thing is for all of us, the coaches and players and myself included, is to focus on the things we can control," Caserio said during an interview on Sports Radio 610 (h/t Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio). "As we get more information, as we get closer to training camp, we'll try to make the best decision for the Houston Texans, whatever that entails."
With Tyrod Taylor potentially leading the way, the Texans lack offensive firepower to compete. On the other side of the ball, the Texans are transitioning to a new scheme under defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. Some will fit; others will not.
"We're telling him don't be a square peg in a round hole," defensive line coach Bobby King told reporters specifically of Charles Omenihu.
The quote is applicable across the board.
Clearly, the Texans are in transition. Caserio cobbled together as many players as he could to expedite the process. But Houston looks like it's well on its way toward the first overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft.