NFL Teams Headed in the Right Direction in 2021
Some NFL teams deserve all the typical summer hype because their strong trajectories, fueled by smart moves, should match expectations from hopeful fans.
Along these lines, the Buffalo Bills come to mind. Over the past two or three years, Buffalo has brilliantly fleshed out the roster around Josh Allen, going from six wins in 2018 to 13 and an AFC title game appearance last year.
A handful of teams seem to have positioned themselves similarly this offseason. It all starts with quarterback, of course, but strong roster additions have the following teams on the right path, starting with an improvement in the win column in 2021. Only teams that were under .500 last year and haven't made the playoffs in the last two years were considered.
After 16 years of the Marvin Lewis era, the Cincinnati Bengals finally got turned in the right direction by taking Joe Burrow at No. 1 last year. But years of negligence to the offensive line came to a head when he made it in just 10 games before suffering a season-ending injury.
Cincinnati made serious steps toward correcting this longstanding issue this offseason, though, most notably by adding Riley Reiff in free agency to play right tackle. Last year over 1,003 snaps, the veteran allowed one sack and was flagged once, earning a 71.4 Pro Football Focus grade (a starter grade). He replaces Bobby Hart and his 66.3 PFF grade, his first time since 2015 posting above a 57.6.
At guard, second-rounder Jackson Carman will replace a hodgepodge of backup-worthy names like Alex Redmond. Add in the return of line coach Frank Pollack, and the Bengals made strong strides in their worst area.
Not to be overlooked, of course, is the addition of Ja'Marr Chase at fifth overall. He had 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns with Burrow in 2019 at LSU and only amplifies a wideout group also boasting Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins. Big-money defensive additions over the last two years like Trae Waynes, D.J. Reader and Trey Hendrickson hint at a turnaround on that side of the ball, too.
Accentuating the talent around a prospect like Burrow could provide a dramatic boost in the win column for a team that's won a combined six games in the last two seasons.
Maybe it seems a little unfair to list a team that held the No. 1 pick and landed a possible generational prospect at quarterback, sure.
But the Jacksonville Jaguars did quite a bit more than simply draft Trevor Lawrence.
Lawrence is the headliner, of course. One doesn't have to look far to unearth whispers of comparisons to legendary names for the guy who threw 90 touchdowns and just 17 interceptions over three seasons at Clemson.
Jacksonville made noise in other areas around Lawrence worth noting. First-round running back Travis Etienne, despite decries from those who thump the table for positional value, should provide a massive boost to the offense after averaging 7.2 yards per carry and catching 102 passes in his Clemson career.
Veteran free-agent add Marvin Jones Jr. should be a stable presence alongside DJ Chark Jr. and
Laviska Shenault Jr., as he's had a catch percentage of at least 66 in each of his last two seasons along with 18 total touchdowns.
Jacksonville didn't skimp on defensive either, paying up big for No. 1 corner Shaquill Griffin and safety Rayshawn Jenkins before drafting corner Tyson Campbell in the second round.
While it remains one of the NFL's biggest outright rebuilds, the suddenly strong foundation has the Jaguars heading in the right direction.
New York Giants
Daniel Jones hasn't impressed much over two seasons and 27 games after the New York Giants made him the sixth overall pick in 2019. He's completed only 62.2 percent of his passes with 35 touchdowns and 22 interceptions and averaged just 6.6 yards per attempt.
But the Giants aren't backing down from the challenge of surrounding him with as much talent as possible.
The Giants added offensive tackle Andrew Thomas at fourth overall in 2020 and then drafted wideout Kadarius Toney in the 2021 first round, a prospect who had 984 receiving yards, 161 rushing yards and 11 total touchdowns during his senior season at Florida.
Toney isn't alone, either. The Giants paid up big for Kenny Golladay (four years, $72 million), who had 1,000-plus yards in each of the 2018 and 2019 seasons, totaling 16 touchdowns over that span. Veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph arrived in free agency too, providing a nice security blanket for a developing passer.
All of those additions join elite running back Saquon Barkley, who should return from injury and presumably be his usual self. New York also bolstered the defense, using its remaining three picks in the top 150 on that side of the ball and signing corner Adoree' Jackson to join an already-strong secondary boasting Logan Ryan and James Bradberry.
Much in New York still hinges on Jones, but the franchise has done its part to put the proper pieces around him. The trajectory looks good enough for the Giants to improve on their six-win mark from last year.
Los Angeles Chargers
The Los Angeles Chargers took a protect Justin Hebert at all costs approach to this offseason, and it unquestionably has them slingshotting in the right direction.
In free agency, Los Angeles made former Green Bay Packers center Corey Linsley one of the league's richest linemen, giving him a five-year deal worth $62.5 million. Still just 29 years old, Linsley let up just one sack with zero penalties over 734 snaps last year, earning an 89.9 PFF grade.
The Chargers also added Matt Feiler, a spot-starter from Pittsburgh with experience at multiple positions. He played 848 snaps to a 65.0 PFF grade last year and 995 to a 75.9 grade in 2019, so he has the upside to register as one of free agency's biggest steals.
Not content, the Chargers also used the 13th pick on Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater, who wasn't far behind—if at all—fellow tackle Penei Sewell. That makes three potential upgrades on a line that already had one quality starter with Bryan Bulaga.
The Chargers didn't only attack the offensive line, either. To ease the loss of Hunter Henry, they added veteran tight end Jared Cook, who has scored 16 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Second-rounder Asante Samuel Jr. was a great value and fit for a team that lost corner Casey Hayward in free agency, too.
Smartly reloading around a potential top-10 passer and doing everything possible to better protect him, the Chargers should shoot past the seven-win mark from last season—even while dealing with the stacked AFC West.