Every NFL Team's Biggest Reason for Optimism Heading into Camps

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJuly 19, 2021

Every NFL Team's Biggest Reason for Optimism Heading into Camps

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    With training camps quickly approaching around the NFL—the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers open on July 21—optimism is at an all-time high. Every team is undefeated, and under the expanded playoff format, most teams can realistically challenge for the postseason.

    Not every team will be a Super Bowl contender, of course, but each franchise has at least one reason to be hopeful about the coming season. Whether that's a promising new quarterback, the culture change brought on by a new coaching staff, the potential of a strong free-agent class or sheer overall talent, every team should be flying high.

    Here, we'll examine each franchise's biggest reason for optimism heading into training camp. Teams are listed in alphabetical order.

Arizona Cardinals: Defensive Additions

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 8-8

    The Arizona Cardinals were close in 2020, and they have the foundation for a stellar offense in quarterback Kyler Murray. The Oklahoma product thrived with new wideout DeAndre Hopkins last season, finishing with a passer rating of 94.3, 3,971 passing yards, 819 rushing yards and 37 combined touchdowns.

    However, Arizona's biggest reason for optimism is its retooled defense. The Cardinals were stealthily 12th in points allowed last year, and the defense should be even better in 2021.

    Pass-rusher J.J. Watt and rookie linebacker Zaven Collins highlight the new additions. However, Arizona also added cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Malcolm Butler in free agency and drafted defensive backs Marco Wilson, Tay Gowan and James Wiggins.

    Additionally, Arizona should have pass-rusher Chandler Jones back after he missed 11 games in 2020. He and Watt could emerge as one of the top pass-rushing duos in the NFL this season.

    The Cardinals can realistically hope for a top-10 defense this season. That, combined with a potent Murray-centric offense, should make Arizona a real threat in the NFC.

Atlanta Falcons: The Potential of Kyle Pitts

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 4-12

    The Atlanta Falcons traded star wideout Julio Jones this offseason, which likely bummed out many fans. However, they also added former Florida tight end Kyle Pitts, who can inject new life into the Falcons' potent passing attack.

    Even with Jones sidelined for seven games in 2020, the Falcons ranked fifth in passing. Just 20 years old, Pitts has the potential to create mismatches all over the field.

    "Pitts has all the makings of being a true matchup nightmare at the TE position with the athleticism, versatility, grit and skill set to play across the formation," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.

    Atlanta's passing attack should be just as prolific as it was a year ago, which means new head coach Arthur Smith isn't building from scratch. He'll still face the challenge of turning around a team that won just four games in 2020, but Atlanta's offensive identity will remain intact.

    If the Falcons can show some improvement on defense (29th overall in 2020) and in the ground game (27th), they can climb out of the NFC South basement.

Baltimore Ravens: An Upgraded Receiving Corps

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 11-5

    One could argue quarterback Lamar Jackson is the Baltimore Ravens' biggest reason for optimism. He was the league MVP two years ago, and the Ravens have not missed the playoffs with him as the starting quarterback.

    However, Jackson and the Ravens could be poised to take the next step this season thanks to their revamped receiving corps. Baltimore added Sammy Watkins in free agency and drafted Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace in the spring.

    Bateman has the potential to be the No. 1 perimeter target that Jackson has lacked in his NFL career—last year's No. 1 wideout, Marquise Brown, had just 58 catches for 769 receiving yards. This is big because if Jackson can improve even a little in the passing game, the Baltimore offense could be borderline unstoppable.

    Even in a "down" year last season, Jackson passed for 26 touchdowns, topped 1,000 yards rushing and carried the Ravens into the second round of the playoffs. With more talent out wide, there's no reason why the AFC title game shouldn't be a realistic goal.

Buffalo Bills: Josh Allen, Year 4

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 13-3

    The Buffalo Bills reached the AFC title game in 2020, thanks in no small part to the play of quarterback Josh Allen. Though inconsistent over his first two seasons, Allen exploded in Year 3. He finished with 4,544 passing yards, 37 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 107.2.

    The idea that Allen could be even better in Year 4 should have everyone in the Bills Mafia excited about the coming season.

    "I know him well enough to know that the kid can play. If you can get the right material around him, which I think he has, and the offensive line gives him time to throw things will be awesome," Bills Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly said, per Dante Lasting of the team's official website.

    Allen is still growing as a signal-caller, and that is perhaps the biggest reason for optimism the Bills can have. Buffalo has a playoff-caliber roster, and we may have yet to see the best of what Allen can be. Weapons like Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis and offseason addition Emmanuel Sanders should set him up for early success.

    If Allen is at least as good as he was a year ago, the Bills will be right back in the Super Bowl mix.

Carolina Panthers: A Healthy Christian McCaffrey

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 5-11

    It's going to be a lot of fun to see how quarterback Sam Darnold develops under offensive coordinator Joe Brady. If Darnold can be the quarterback he was supposed to be when the New York Jets drafted him third overall in 2018, the Panthers will have their franchise quarterback.

    As far as playoff chances go, however, Christian McCaffrey provides the biggest reason for optimism.

    McCaffrey missed the bulk of 2020 with injuries, but he was nothing short of phenomenal in 2019. He racked up 1,387 rushing yards, 1,005 receiving yards and 19 touchdowns that season. That version of McCaffrey should be back in 2021.

    "I'm back to 100 percent," McCaffrey said, per Jonathan M. Alexander of the Charlotte Observer.  "I'm healthy and ready to roll."

    With McCaffrey at 100 percent, he'll take some of the pressure off Darnold, and the Panthers will have a chance in every game. If Darnold can serve as an upgrade at quarterback, Carolina should also be a legitimate factor in the NFC South race.

Chicago Bears: Matt Nagy's Track Record

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 8-8

    The Chicago Bears only won eight games in 2020, but they did make the postseason. That marks the second time in three seasons that head coach Matt Nagy has led his team to the playoffs—despite some very underwhelming quarterback play.

    It's fair to be critical of Nagy's approach to the offense in Chicago—I certainly have been. He hasn't delivered the same potent attack that he orchestrated as the Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator, and he failed to develop quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

    Despite having weapons like Allen Robinson II, David Montgomery, Jimmy Graham and Darnell Mooney, Chicago ranked just 26th in total offense last season.

    Still, it's impossible to argue with the overall results. Nagy has won in spite of poor play under center, and his Bears teams have reached the playoffs more often than not. If Chicago can get better quarterback play out of Andy Dalton and/or Justin Fields this season, there's little reason for Bears fans to believe they won't be postseason-bound once again.

Cincinnati Bengals: A Healthy Joe Burrow

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 4-11-1

    Drafting former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow first overall provided the Cincinnati Bengals with plenty of optimism in 2020—and as a rookie, Burrow delivered. He threw for 2,688 yards with 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in 10 games while posting a passer rating of 89.8.

    Unfortunately, Burrow also suffered a torn ACL in his 10th game and was lost for the season. The good news is that Burrow is on the mend and expected to be ready to go by Week 1. This, along with a retooled offensive line and the addition of wideout Ja'Marr Chase, should have the Cincinnati offense primed for a breakout season.

    "I got Joe Burrow throwing for more yards and more TDs than any quarterback in the AFC North," ESPN's Chris Canty said on Get Up.

    To be a legitimate contender, Cincinnati will also have to improve a defense that ranked 26th overall last season. However, a healthy Burrow will give the Bengals a chance every single Sunday (or Thursday) that they take the field.

Cleveland Browns: The New-Look Defense

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 11-5

    Cleveland Browns fans are accustomed to disappointment. Prior to 2020, the Browns had just two winning seasons and one playoff appearance as an expansion team. When Cleveland went 10-6 in 2007, optimism followed, only to then be followed by a disastrous 4-12 campaign.

    The sense of hope on the shores of Lake Erie this offseason is real, however. The Browns are coming off an 11-5 campaign and a playoff win over the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. They accomplished this despite having a defense that ranked just 21st in points allowed—and that defense was the focus of the offseason.

    The Browns brought in safety John Johnson III, cornerback Troy Hill and pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney. That gave Cleveland a roster that Pro Football Focus ranked second in the league before the selections of cornerback Greg Newsome II and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

    With those additions—and a healthy Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit—the Browns should have a playoff-caliber defense to pair with their potent offense.

    A letdown could still happen in 2021—and Browns fans will be waiting for it—but on paper, the new-look defense makes Cleveland a legitimate title contender.

Dallas Cowboys: A Healthy Dak Prescott

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 6-10

    The Dallas Cowboys' 2020 season fell apart when quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a fractured and dislocated ankle five games in. The two-time Pro Bowler was leading the NFL with 1,856 passing yards when he suffered the injury, and the offense wasn't the same without him.

    Fortunately for Dallas, Prescott appears to be as close to 100 percent as fans could hope for.

    "I was told this week that Dak Prescott is expected by the Cowboys to be a full go at the start of training camp," ESPN's Dan Graziano said on SportsCenter (h/t Matt Howe of 247Sports).

    With Prescott healthy and weapons like CeeDee Lamb, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Dalton Schultz on the roster, the Cowboys should have the foundation of an elite offense. Dallas managed to rank 14th in total offense a year ago, and it should field a top-10 unit this season.

    A healthy offensive line—La'el Collins, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith all missed significant time in 2020—and additions like first-round linebacker Micah Parsons will help Dallas rebound. However, it's the return of Prescott that gives the Cowboys their best chance of competing in the NFC East.

Denver Broncos: A Promising Defense

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 5-11

    The Denver Broncos aren't going to contend in 2021 if a viable starter doesn't emerge from the Teddy Bridgewater-Drew Lock camp competition. However, even a marginal improvement under center could be enough to make the Broncos relevant in the AFC West.

    Denver has the pieces to field a top-tier defense this season. The Broncos ranked just 21st in total defense a year ago, but they're getting Von Miller back, they added cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby, and they drafted cornerback Patrick Surtain II in the first round.

    With budding stars like pass-rusher Bradley Chubb and safety Justin Simmons headlining the unit, Denver's defense could be among the best in the conference.

    NFL Network's Steve Wyche recently named the Broncos defense as the one he's most excited to see in the AFC.

    Again, the Broncos will struggle if they cannot field some semblance of a functional offense. However, a strong defense can keep games competitive and should give fans reason for optimism ahead of the all-important quarterback competition.

Detroit Lions: A New Regime and a Fresh Start

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 5-11

    The Detroit Lions repeatedly floundered under head coach Matt Patricia, particularly late in games. In Week 1 of last season, for example, Detroit blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead against the rival Bears. As NFL analyst Warren Sharp pointed out, that marked only the fourth time since 2006 that a team had blown such a lead.

    Detroit went just 14-33-1 over the last three seasons.

    Patricia is gone, along with former general manager Bob Quinn. In their place are Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes, respectively. Coach Campbell has vowed to return the gritty, Motor City mentality to Lions football.

    "This team is going to take on the identity of this city and this city has been down and it found a way to get up," Campbell said in his introductory press conference. "... When you knock us down, we're going to get up and on the way up, we're going to bite a kneecap off. All right?"

    The shift in culture should have fans excited about the coming season, even with sweeping changes across the roster. There's no telling what the Lions will get out of new faces like quarterback Jared Goff and wideout Breshad Perriman. However, fans can expect to a team that fights for a full four quarters each and every week.

Green Bay Packers: A Championship-Caliber Roster

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 13-3

    It may be difficult for some Green Bay Packers fans to be optimistic given the uncertainty surrounding Aaron Rodgers' future. The Packers quarterback and reigning MVP has stayed away throughout the offseason and has been noncommittal about whether he wants to return.

    "I'm going to enjoy the hell out of this week," Rodgers told NBC Sports during the American Century Championship. "And then I'm going to get back to working out and figure things out in a couple weeks."

    There's a very real chance that Green Bay could be looking at Jordan Love and/or Blake Bortles under center in 2021. However, the Packers could still be a playoff team because their roster is simply that good.

    Yes, Rodgers makes the Packers better. However, this is still a team loaded with playmakers like running back Aaron Jones, wideout Davante Adams, pass-rusher Za'Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander. Even if Rodgers doesn't return, six Pro Bowlers—Jones, Adams, Smith, Alexander, David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins—will.

    Green Bay might not be able to win a Super Bowl without Rodgers in 2021, but an NFC North title wouldn't be out of the question.

Houston Texans: The Veteran Backfield Trio

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 4-12

    Optimism may be hard to come by for the Houston Texans right now. The team won only four games a year ago, and it is unlikely to have star quarterback Deshaun Watson on the field in 2021.

    Watson has requested a trade, and there have been 22 lawsuits filed against him by women alleging sexual assault or misconduct. Watson is not scheduled to be deposed until February 2022 at the earliest.  

    While a quarterback competition between Tyrod Taylor, Jeff Driskel and rookie Davis Mills may not thrill fans, the potential for a strong running game should. Houston is set to field an experienced running back trio featuring David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram II.

    Johnson, Lindsay and Ingram have five Pro Bowl appearances between them.

    A strong running game can help keep the Texans competitive as they sort out their quarterback situation. New head coach David Culley has worked with quarterbacks like Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, and if he can coax something of quality from the quarterback position this year, Houston might be more relevant in the AFC South than most anticipate.

Indianapolis Colts: The Reich-Wentz Reunion Tour

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 11-5

    The Indianapolis Colts won 11 games with aging quarterback Philip Rivers under center in 2020. With Rivers retiring, Indy decided to take a flier on 2017 Pro Bowler Carson Wentz, who was acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Now, Wentz was not good last season, and that cannot be ignored. He tied for the league lead in interceptions with 15 and finished with a passer rating of just 72.8. However, there's reason to believe he can rebound in his reunion with head coach Frank Reich.

    The Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017, and Wentz was a viable MVP candidate with Reich as Philadelphia's offensive coordinator. Wentz suffered a torn ACL before the playoffs began, of course, but he tossed 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions while leading Philly to an 11-2 record before the season-ending injury.

    With a strong running game, a stout offensive line and a better wide receiving corps, Wentz should be closer to the quarterback he was in 2017 than the one we saw last season.

    While Reich and Wentz don't represent the whole band, getting those two back together could be enough to make the Indianapolis offense as good as it was a season ago. And if Indy's version of Page and Plant can recapture some of the magic it had in 2017, the Colts might be even better than they were a season ago.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 1-15

    The Jacksonville Jaguars won a single game in 2020, and they're on their fifth full-time head coach since the 2011 season. However, there's reason to be optimistic about this latest rebuild, and that reason is quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

    Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick out of Clemson, has been touted as a can't-miss prospect ever since his freshman season. He won a national championship as a true freshman and led the Tigers to the College Football Playoff in each of his three seasons.

    More importantly, though, Lawrence has all the physical tools needed to thrive at the next level.

    "Overall, Lawrence is living up to the hype he received as the top high school quarterback in the country and looks like a Week 1 franchise quarterback with the upside to win multiple MVPs and only injuries or an incompetent franchise will put him on a path toward failure," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.

    As long as Jacksonville can avoid setting up Lawrence to fail, he should begin turning around the franchise as early as this season.

Kansas City Chiefs: Lofty Expectations

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 14-2

    This may be a simplistic take, but the Kansas City Chiefs should be optimistic because their recent track record warrants it.

    Ever since Patrick Mahomes took over as the full-time starting quarterback, Kansas City has not missed an AFC Championship Game. The Chiefs have been to two Super Bowls, won one and watched Mahomes evolve into perhaps the best quarterback of his generation. However, high expectations were set even before Mahomes' arrival.

    Kansas City has been to the postseason seven times in eight seasons under head coach Andy Reid.

    Most of last year's Super Bowl roster is back, and the Chiefs may even feature an upgraded offensive line—Orlando Brown Jr., Joe Thuney, Austin Blythe and Kyle Long were added to the unit in the offseason. There's virtually no reason for Chiefs fans to not be optimistic heading into camp.

    As long as Kansas City can avoid the dreaded injury bug, it will be a factor in the AFC.

Las Vegas Raiders: Two Years of Coming Close

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 8-8

    Jon Gruden's tenure as the Las Vegas Raiders head coach hasn't yielded a playoff berth just yet, but the Raiders have shown incremental growth. After going 4-12 in Gruden's first year on the job, Las Vegas went 7-9 in 2019 and 8-8 a year ago.

    The Raiders also quietly fielded an offense ranked in the top 10 in both yards and points in 2020. They remained in the postseason hunt for most of the season, and another year of even minimal improvement could put them into the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

    Improvement could come with the additions of players like Yannick Ngakoue, Solomon Thomas, John Brown and Kenyan Drake. While there are questions about the offensive line—Las Vegas traded center Rodney Hudson along with offensive tackle Trent Brown and guard Gabe Jackson—the Raiders believe they've made strides there, too.

    "You can criticize all you want, and I’m talking about the world in general, but I can’t tell you how excited I am to watch our new group play next year," general manager Mike Mayock said, per Adam Hill of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

    Gruden and Mayock have not provided a quick turnaround in Las Vegas, but they do appear to be on the right track.

Los Angeles Chargers: Justin Herbert

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 7-9

    Justin Herbert wasn't the first quarterback drafted in 2020, or even the second. Based on what we saw last season, though, he might be the best.

    The Oregon product passed for 4,336 yards and a rookie-record 31 touchdowns while logging a passer rating of 98.3 in 15 games. He went on to win Offensive Rookie of the Year and delivered four straight wins for the Los Angeles Chargers to close the season.

    If Herbert can make a second-year jump, he could be a viable MVP candidate—as Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson were in their second years as NFL starters. As long as Herbert doesn't regress under new head coach Brandon Staley, though, Los Angeles should be in the playoff mix.

    It will be interesting to see how Staley and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi look to develop Herbert in camp. Lombardi has worked with stars like Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees and should know how to get the best out of his second-year signal-caller.

    New regimes usually mean new schemes, but Herbert has done nothing to suggest he isn't up to the challenge. At no point did he appear overwhelmed as a rookie.

Los Angeles Rams: Matthew Stafford

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 10-6

    The Los Angeles Rams went 10-6 in 2020, made the playoffs in three of the last four years and went to the Super Bowl in 2018. However, they pegged quarterback Jared Goff as a weak link and swapped him for Matthew Stafford in the offseason.

    The addition of Stafford could turn L.A. from a good team into a great one. The other pieces are in place, and Stafford has Hall of Fame-caliber talent. While playoff success has eluded him, Stafford has passed for 45,109 yards and 282 touchdowns in 12 pro seasons.

    In 2021, Stafford will be supported by perhaps the best roster he has ever had.

    "He's going to be in the MVP race because they're going to put up huge numbers with McVay's offense," NFL Network's Peter Schrager said on Good Morning Football (h/t John Maakaron of FanNation). "He's got all those great receivers, that great offensive line, one of the best defenses in the league."

    Stafford very well could be in store for the best season of his career, and that possibility should have the Rams very optimistic about their Super Bowl chances.

Miami Dolphins: The 2020 Season

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 10-6

    The Miami Dolphins should be optimistic about the coming season because of how they performed last year. Despite starting a rookie quarterback for nine games, they won six of those and narrowly missed the playoffs at 10-6.

    More importantly, Miami forged an identity as a tough, physical football team that was more powerful than its individual pieces. Yes, the Dolphins had a few standout players, but cornerback Xavien Howard was the only Pro Bowler on the roster.

    As a collective, though, the Dolphins were difficult to stop. They ranked 15th in points scored and sixth in points allowed. They logged more interceptions (18) than any other team in football, and four of their losses were by a touchdown or less.

    If quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can take a positive step as a passer this season—the additions of Will Fuller V and Jaylen Waddle should help tremendously—Miami won't have to worry about missing the playoffs with 10 wins. It'll have an even more impressive record.

Minnesota Vikings: Justin Jefferson and Dalvin Cook

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 7-9

    The Minnesota Vikings failed to make the playoffs last season, but they did feature two of the best offensive players in the game.

    Running back Dalvin Cook missed two games in 2020 but still finished with a career-high 1,557 rushing yards, 361 receiving yards and 17 total touchdowns. Then-rookie receiver Justin Jefferson caught 88 passes for a whopping 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns.

    In Cook and Jefferson, the Vikings have two viable Offensive Player of the Year candidates. If Cook can stay healthy and Jefferson can take another step as a pro, these two could drag Minnesota into the postseason.

    For the Vikings to be legitimate contenders, they'll need more consistency from quarterback Kirk Cousins, who slightly regressed after earning a Pro Bowl nod in 2019. They'll also need to see improvements from their 29th-ranked scoring defense—which was missing starting linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks for a combined 19 games in 2020.

    As long as Cook and Jefferson are healthy and in the lineup, however, Minnesota is always going to have a chance.

New England Patriots: The Offseason Spending Spree

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 7-9

    The New England Patriots haven't traditionally been big free-agency players, but that changed this offseason. New England went on a massive spending spree, adding the likes of Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, Matt Judon, Kyle Van Noy, Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne.

    While opening the proverbial pocketbook doesn't always lead to regular-season success, it could in the Patriots' case. New England was competitive in 2020 despite having some major deficiencies on the roster.

    Notably, the Patriots lacked pass-catchers, which is where Henry, Smith, Agholor and Bourne can make an impact. New England also struggled to pressure opposing quarterbacks, totaling just 24 sacks as a team. Judon and Van Noy should help there. The return of linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who opted out of the 2020 season, will also bolster New England's defense.

    With just a few enhancements on the roster, New England could be right back in the playoff mix. 7-9 could turn into 9-8 or 10-7 pretty easily, especially with a seasoned coach like Bill Belichick at the helm.

    The big question is whether the Patriots can have a quality signal-caller in Cam Newton and/or rookie Mac Jones. That question will remain through camp, but fans should feel optimistic about the improved supporting cast.

New Orleans Saints: Drew Brees' Injuries

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 12-4

    Drew Brees retired this offseason, and the New Orleans Saints are going to have a new starting quarterback in either Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston. That could lead to some trepidation among fans, but the past two seasons should provide a source of optimism.

    Specifically, New Orleans should feel good about how the team has fared without Brees under center. The future Hall of Famer missed nine games between 2019 and 2020. In 2019, the Saints turned to Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback. In 2020, it was Hill who got the call.

    During Brees' nine absences, New Orleans went 8-1.

    This isn't to suggest that the Saints are better off without Brees. Most likely, they are not. However, the fact remains that New Orleans has a playoff-caliber roster that can still thrive without a passing legend under center.

    The Saints have a top-10 defense, offensive weapons like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray, and a head coach in Sean Payton who has weathered the Brees-less storm. Brees will be missed, but the Saints are still likely to be strong contenders in the NFC.

New York Giants: The New-Look Offense

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 6-10

    The 2021 season is likely to be a make-or-break year for quarterback Daniel Jones. The New York Giants signal-caller has shown flashes but has yet to establish himself as a franchise quarterback. His performance in 2020 (11 TD, 10 INT, 80.4 passer rating) could create feelings of unease within the organization.

    However, the Giants are happy with what they've seen from Jones during the offseason.

    "I'm very pleased with the leadership he's taken on this year. He's really growing as a player, as a professional," head coach Joe Judge said on the Flying Coach podcast (h/t Myles Simmons of Pro Football Talk).

    The Giants should be optimistic about Jones' 2021 potential, too. They reloaded his supporting cast by adding Kenny Golladay and Kyle Rudolph in free agency and by drafting former Florida wideout Kadarius Toney in the first round. With star running back Saquon Barkley set to return from last year's torn ACL, Jones should have plenty of firepower at his disposal.

    Whether Jones actually takes the next step will be up to him, of course, but Jones, the Giants and their fans should feel good about his chances of success.

New York Jets: A Whole New Era

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 2-14

    The New York Jets have been an NFL also-ran for some time. They last made the playoffs in 2010, have suffered through five consecutive losing seasons and are on their fourth head coach in seven years.

    However, 2021 is the beginning of a new era in New York, both in the front office and on the field. The Jets hired experienced defensive mastermind Robert Saleh for the head coaching gig and tabbed Zach Wilson as their new franchise quarterback.

    The Brigham Young product has all the physical tools needed to succeed, though he may not be an elite signal-caller from day one.

    "Wilson is a legit franchise QB prospect who will add excitement and explosive plays to whatever offense he joins, but might take some time to adjust to what he can—and can't—get away with at the NFL level," Nate Tice of the B/R Scouting Department wrote.

    Along with Wilson, the Jets added potential standouts in Corey Davis, Carl Lawson, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Elijah Moore and Michael Carter.

    While the future has looked bright for the Jets before, New York should feel far better about where it is headed than it did one year ago.

Philadelphia Eagles: No More Pederson-Wentz Drama

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    Rich Schultz/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 4-11-1

    The Eagles made the postseason three straight times before collapsing in 2020. Poor play from quarterback Carson Wentz and a strained relationship between Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson were an albatross around the franchise for much of the season.

    "There are a lot of things that went wrong," ESPN's Adam Schefter told 97.5 The Fanatic (h/t Bleacher Report's Tim Daniels). "We have the team drafting Jalen Hurts. We have Carson feeling jilted by that. ... We have Carson and Doug not talking for weeks on end during the season, where the head coach and quarterback are not talking for eight, nine, 10 weeks."

    Wentz was traded, and Pederson was fired. Philadelphia can now move on with Jalen Hurts under center and Nick Sirianni running the show—and the fresh start should provide plenty of hope.

    Hurts showed a lot of promise as a starter last season—passing for 847 yards and rushing for 238 in three complete games—and the Eagles added former teammate and reigning Heisman winner DeVonta Smith in the draft. With a healthy Lane Johnson back to bolster the offensive line, the Eagles should be equipped to support Hurts better than they did Wentz during his final Philadelphia campaign.

Pittsburgh Steelers: A New Brand of Offense

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 12-4

    The Pittsburgh Steelers offense regressed during its three seasons with Randy Fichtner as offensive coordinator. It ranked fourth overall in 2018, 30th in 2019—a year mostly without Ben Roethlisberger—and 24th with Big Ben in 2020.

    Pittsburgh missed the playoffs in both 2018 and 2019, and while it made the postseason in 2020, the offense faded down the stretch. Roethlisberger was part of the problem, as he appeared to lose his ability to stretch the field last season, but Fichtner failed to compensate.

    Fortunately, Pittsburgh should have an entirely new system in place under new coordinator Matt Canada.

    "In all seriousness, there is a lot of new. For someone who has had a very similar offense for a very long time verbiage-wise, it's taking some extra studying," Roethlisberger said, per Mark Kaboly of The Athletic.

    The Steelers should also field a more balanced offense after adding running back Najee Harris in the first round. Roethlisberger's age (39) and arm strength are still concerning, and Pittsburgh must replace longtime starters Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva along the offensive line. However, a new offensive approach should leave fans feeling better about the coming season than if the Steelers were trotting out the same game plan that finished 2020 with a belly flop.

San Francisco 49ers: A Healthy Roster

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 6-10

    The San Francisco 49ers should feel good about their future with quarterback Trey Lance. They picked the North Dakota State product third overall, making him the next franchise signal-caller.

    However, the future may have to wait, as Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy and heading into camp as the presumed starter. His health, though, is a reason for immediate optimism, as is the overall health of the roster.

    Key contributors like Garoppolo, George Kittle, Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel all missed significant time in 2020.

    When these players were all healthy in 2019, San Francisco was a Super Bowl team. Garoppolo had a career year, while Kittle and Bosa were Pro Bowlers. With San Francisco largely back to 100 percent, the Super Bowl is no pipe dream in 2021.

    Even if Lance is forced onto the field this season—Garoppolo has missed 23 games in three years—the 49ers should, at the very least, be a contender in the NFC West as long as the team's stars can stay off injured reserve.

Seattle Seahawks: A Happy Russell Wilson

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 12-4

    There was a point early in the offseason when the Seattle Seahawks and quarterback Russell Wilson appeared headed for an inevitable split. Wilson was reportedly unhappy with the support he was getting from the organization, and the Seahawks were unhappy with him.

    "A source told me that the Seahawks management is not happy with Russell Wilson and his camp for taking this to the media," Dan Patrick said on The Dan Patrick Show (h/t Rob Staton of BBC Sports). "... The current situation is unsustainable."

    The rift has apparently been mended, though, at least for the short term. According to Wilson, his relationship with head coach Pete Carroll has never been better.

    "I think me and Pete have gotten closer. Pete and I have always had a great bond but I think we had a great heart-to-heart," Wilson said on The Dan Patrick Show (h/t Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk).

    As long as Wilson is on the field, the Seahawks are going to be relevant. Seattle has only missed the playoffs once with Wilson under center, and he's going to be there in 2021.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Defending Champs Are Back

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 11-5

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the defending Super Bowl champions. They're bringing back all 22 offensive and defensive starters from their championship run, and they're heading into camp with a better understanding of what they can be.

    New additions from last season—including Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, Leonard Fournette and rookie Tristan Wirfs—now have a full season together. Tampa jelled late last season but should be off to a quick start in 2021.

    Tampa should also have a healthier Brady under center this season. He underwent knee surgery after the Super Bowl, and it was later revealed that his 2020 knee injury was quite serious.

    According to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, Brady's MCL was fully torn by the time of his surgery.

    If Brady can be better than he was last season, it's a scary thought. Scarier still is the idea that the Buccaneers could be more cohesive than they were during their title run. At least, it's scary for those outside of Tampa. Bucs fans should simply be optimistic about a returning roster that is virtually unchanged.

Tennessee Titans: Julio Jones

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 11-5

    The Tennessee Titans are coming off of back-to-back playoff appearances—thanks in no small part to the dominance of running back Derrick Henry. Henry, who has back-to-back rushing titles, is arguably the most unstoppable offensive force in football.

    However, Henry isn't the only weapon Tennessee has on that side of the ball. The Titans also have a reliable quarterback in Ryan Tannehill—who has a passer rating of 110.6 as a Titan—and a budding star in wideout A.J. Brown.

    Tennessee also traded for future Hall of Famer Julio Jones to replace the departed Corey Davis this offseason. With Jones and Brown on the perimeter and Tannehill and Henry in the backfield, containing the Titans offense will be a tall order.

    "I mean, defenses, you're really going to have to pick your poison," Jones told reporters.

    The Titans ranked second in offensive yardage and fourth in points scored a season ago, and they could be even more potent if Jones returns to Pro Bowl form. Davis never had a 1,000-yard campaign in Tennessee. When Jones was healthy in 2019, he amassed 1,394 yards and six touchdowns. Three years ago, he led the league in receiving yards.

Washington Football Team: A Retooled Passing Attack

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    Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

    2020 Record: 7-9

    The Washington Football Team didn't have a winning season in 2020, but it did win the NFC East. The Football Team was able to dominate with its second-ranked defense while getting enough from quarterback Alex Smith and rookie rusher Antonio Gibson to stay ahead on the scoreboard.

    Washington even came close to knocking off the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in the playoffs.

    The offense, though, ranked just 30th in yards and 25th in points scored. Fortunately, new additions to the unit should help balance out Washington's game plan.

    Specifically, the additions of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, receiver Curtis Samuel and rookie receiver Dyami Brown should bolster a passing offense that ranked 30th in net yards per attempt. With a viable No. 1 receiver in Terry McLaurin and a quality tight end in Logan Thomas, these new additions could be enough to make Washington's offense quite potent.

    If Washington can pair an improved offense with its championship-caliber defense, it might be more than just an NFC East contender. The Football Team could be a real factor in the conference race.


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