NFL Teams Getting Overlooked Heading into 2021 Season

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJuly 18, 2021

NFL Teams Getting Overlooked Heading into 2021 Season

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    NFL teams with big on-paper potential seem to get all the summer hype. Think: the Cleveland Browns, a franchise that, until recently, hadn't matched that buildup on the field.

    Lurking behind all the flashy headlines, though, are squads with serious potential to shake up the standings. These teams typically have veteran passers capable of putting up big numbers and some additions or changes around them that hint at improvements.

    Using Super Bowl odds from DraftKings for context, these are the overlooked clubs that have the best chance to shock everyone next season.

Minnesota Vikings

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    It seems like an online hobby to dunk on the Minnesota Vikings for things such as Kirk Cousins' two-year, $66 million contract extension.

    But we're still talking about a squad that has made the playoffs out of the NFC North in two of the last four seasons, winning double-digit games and nabbing a postseason victory in both instances.

    That makes it a little strange to see oddsmakers hit the Vikings with bottom-12 Super Bowl odds (+5000; bet $100 to win $5,000). Cousins completed 67.6 percent of his passes last year and tossed 35 touchdowns, and the Vikings went big with Christian Darrisaw in the first round to address an offensive line that allowed 39 sacks.

    Around Cousins, running back Dalvin Cook ran for 1,557 yards and 16 scores on a 5.0 per-carry average, and Justin Jefferson put up 1,400 yards receiving, while Adam Thielen scored 14 times through the air.

    Minnesota even attempted to rebuild its 27th-ranked defense, signing corner Patrick Peterson and defensive linemen Sheldon Richardson and Dalvin Tomlinson. In all, it added 16 defenders via free agency and the draft, and it will get Anthony Barr (torn pec), Danielle Hunter (herniated disk in neck) and Michael Pierce (opt out) back after lost seasons.

    None of this even mentions the strife between Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, arguably the biggest divisional threat to the Vikings. After winning seven games last year, Cousins and Co. could be right back to duking it out in the playoffs.

Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The NFC North houses another deep sleeper: the Detroit Lions.

    While the Matt Patricia era dragged on too long and deserved every bit of the criticism it got, and swapping out Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff would seem to signal a rebuild, there's little reason to think Detroit should sit tied for the longest Super Bowl odds (+20000).

    That puts the Lions even with the dramatically overhauling Houston Texans, an organization that ran franchise legend J.J. Watt out of town through ineptitude and has a question mark at quarterback.

    That's absurd. Sure, based on trade compensation with the Los Angeles Rams alone (two first-round picks and a third-rounder), Goff is clearly a downgrade. But he's also a passer with a 42-27 record who's capable of executing a well-coached attack, as seen under Sean McVay during the Rams' Super Bowl LIII run.

    And well-coached remains an emphasis. If Dan Campbell and his new staff give 2020 second-rounder D'Andre Swift more than the 114 rushing attempts he got last year behind a 36-year-old Adrian Peterson, Goff could excel behind a line bolstered by No. 7 pick Penei Sewell.

    Patricia's squads never lived up to his defensive billing, but it's not like the unit lacks talent thanks to the likes of Trey Flowers. Defensive tackles Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill, both taken in the top 75 this year, have plenty of upside, as does 2020 third-overall pick Jeff Okudah.

    This is far from suggesting the Lions will contend for a Super Bowl in 2021. But onlookers expecting a Texans-level performance might come away disappointed.

Las Vegas Raiders

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    The Las Vegas Raiders have routinely underwhelmed during Jon Gruden's latest stint with the team.

    In 2018, a headline-worthy start to an exciting new era saw Gruden and Co. ship away big names such as Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, but they've yet to clear the .500 mark in a deep AFC West. That, at least in part, would explain the Raiders' seventh-worst Super Bowl odds (+8000).

    Still, that 8-8 mark from last year featured 4,103 passing yards and 27 touchdowns from Derek Carr, the most scores he's thrown in a season since 2016. He did that while 2020's No. 12 pick, receiver Henry Ruggs III, missed three games and struggled to adapt to the pros, and a complimentary defense managed just 21 sacks while allowing 29.9 points per game, the third-worst mark in the league.

    The good news? Carr is a stable, high-upside passer, Ruggs should be better, the ground game will get a boost via Kenyan Drake alongside Josh Jacobs and the offensive line should improve thanks to first-rounder Alex Leatherwood. The defense also revamped with names like Yannick Ngakoue, Solomon Thomas and Casey Hayward Jr. Ngakoue is especially notable because he'll make life easier on Maxx Crosby (seven sacks last season) and 2019 fourth-overall pick Clelin Ferrell. Second-round rookie Trevon Moehrig will help the secondary as well.

    Add in the pressure of expectations on a staff that should have plenty of lessons learned after three seasons, and the mixture could catch those who sleep on the Raiders off guard.

Atlanta Falcons

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Also tied with the seventh-worst Super Bowl odds (+8000) are the Atlanta Falcons.

    They repeatedly burned those who placed high expectations on them during the tail end of the Dan Quinn era. Now Atlanta has gotten swept aside in the hype department after starting over with head coach Arthur Smith and trading seven-time Pro Bowler Julio Jones.

    Yet, quarterback Matt Ryan remains, and Smith is one of the league's foremost offensive minds. Ryan, despite suffering 41 sacks, getting 3.7 yards per carry from his running game and seeing only nine appearances from Jones last year, threw for 4,581 yards and 26 scores.

    Losing Jones stings, of course, but No. 4 pick Kyle Pitts was the highest-drafted tight end ever for a reason given his elite skills as a receiver. Calvin Ridley, who led the team in receiving last year, hasn't gone anywhere, either. New running back Mike Davis has breakout written all over him in this sort of pass-happy offense after scoring six times as a rusher and catching 59 passes last year in Carolina.

    While the Falcons didn't undergo a complete overhaul, sometimes it's all about the coaching change. Smith got some stunning results out of Ryan Tannehill as a coordinator in Tennessee. Now he's got a massive benefit most first-time head coaches don't have: a quarterback boasting elite potential.

    Dreams of contention are likely unreasonable this year, especially with Tom Brady still in the NFC South. But Drew Brees is gone, and the remnants of a win-now roster, plus a prospect like Pitts, could have the Falcons putting up eye-popping numbers and winning more games than expected.

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Should the Pittsburgh Steelers really rank in the middle of the Super Bowl-odds pack at +4000?

    Yes, the wheels fell off down the stretch last season, as 11-0 turned into losses in four out of five games before a wild-card playoff loss.

    But, Ben Roethlisberger's further removed from the 2019 elbow reconstruction that hampered him last year (he still threw for 33 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions). In addition, first-round running back Najee Harris is a Derrick Henry type capable of feasting while defenses try to contain targets Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who surprisingly returned amid a muted free-agent market.

    Defensively, Pittsburgh's depth chart still boasts best-in-league talent in T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick, even after the losses of Bud Dupree and Steven Nelson. The real concern is the offensive line, which has been in a downswing for years and just lost David DeCastro. But if Big Ben's arm is right, a short passing attack and violent ground game can compensate for the weakness.

    Some big ifs are baked in here. But we're still talking about a team that hasn't been under .500 since 2003, and its list of accomplishments under Big Ben and head coach Mike Tomlin doesn't need an explanation. While the hype levels are low, would anyone really be shocked to see the Steelers start hot again and sprint to a double-digit win count?


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