2021 NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Stack Up Entering Training Camp?
It's time to go camping.
This week, teams across the National Football League will report for training camp, as preparations for the season to come ramp up in earnest ahead of the season opener on September 9 in Tampa.
The camps may all be similar, but the goals of the teams conducting them vary greatly. Teams like the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars are instituting ground-up rebuilds, with new coaching staffs and quarterbacks. Teams like the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans are trying to build on last year's success and take the next step to Super Bowl contender. And teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are just looking to tighten up a few things and avoid injuries.
The dawn of training camp offers our NFL team here at Bleacher Report to get in some work as well—analysts Gary Davenport, Brad Gagnon and Brent Sobleski have gathered to slot the league's teams from worst to first.
The teams on either end of that spectrum aren't especially surprising, but there are some eyebrow-raisers in between.
32. Houston Texans
It's fixing to be a very long season in Houston.
There's been no change in the Deshaun Watson situation for weeks as the NFL and Houston police investigate the sexual misconduct and assault allegations that led to 22 lawsuits against the young quarterback. But the odds he'll be playing at all in Week 1 are slim, and given his demands to be traded, the odds he'll be playing for the Texans are even slimmer.
Houston has a massive hole at quarterback. A lack of passing-game weapons even if they had one. A below-average offensive line. And a defense that cut loose its best player (J.J. Watt) in the offseason.
Per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, when the Westgate sports book released their early point spreads for the 2021 season, the Texans were underdogs in all 17 games. The team is favored to lose by a touchdown or more 10 times, and the Texans are double-digit underdogs five times.
The Texans probably won't become the NFL's first 0-17 team—going winless is almost as hard as a perfect season.
But make no mistake—these Texans are well and truly terrible.
31. Detroit Lions
It's rebuild time in the Motor City—again.
The Lions have a new head coach in Dan Campbell. A new general manager in Brad Holmes. A new quarterback in Jared Goff. There are changes galore.
But one thing hasn't changes—the Lions have no shot at contending in the NFC North.
Detroit got two first-rounders in addition to Goff in exchange for Matthew Stafford, but Stafford to Goff is a substantial step in the wrong direction at quarterback. Goff will be playing with arguably the worst assemblage of wide receivers in the league. Detroit's defense ranked dead last in the league in 2020.
As Michael Silver reported for NFL.com, at least Campbell is entertaining. Here's his latest pearl of wisdom.
"I told (the players), honestly, day one, I said, 'Look, I'm not carrying your toilet paper around," Campbell said. "I'm not gonna wipe your butt. You're gonna wipe your own butt. You handle it and I'll treat you like men until you prove otherwise.'"
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
It's not that often that a one-win football team heads into the following season amid considerable excitement and hype. But last year's 1-15 debacle earned the Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, and his arrival has injected hope for the franchise's future.
Lawrence was limited in OTAs after offseason shoulder surgery, but per Judy Battista of the NFL Network, he's expected to be a full-go for training camp. With DJ Chark Jr., Marvin Jones Jr. and Laviska Shenault Jr. at wide receiver and James Robinson and rookie Travis Etienne at running back, Lawrence isn't hurting for weapons.
However, the Jaguars also have a bottom-10 offensive line according to Pro Football Focus and a defense that checked in last in the AFC in both yards and points allowed.
"The Jaguars are going to be better this year than last," Davenport said, "and the offense could actually be quite good. But the defense will be Jacksonville's undoing. The Jags won't be a last-place team again in 2021—but the team's ceiling is about half a dozen wins.
29. New York Jets
The New York Jets are more likely than not going to struggle in 2021. Gang Green has a rookie head coach in Robert Saleh and a rookie quarterback in Zach Wilson. Last year the Jets managed to win all of two games.
However, odd though it may sound, Saleh said he's looking forward to the adversity the Jets will face in the season to come.
"Everything’s been awesome," Saleh said, via Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated. "Call it the greatest honeymoon in the world, if you want. It's been great. But I’m genuinely excited for adversity. Because a lot of different things are going to pop up. There are coaches that are going to find out about themselves. There’s the scouts and the GM, there’s myself, the players, the training staff. Everybody’s going to find out a little more about themselves when adversity hits."
We'll see if he feels the same way if the losses start piling up, although the team did catch a bit of a scheduling break—New York faces just two playoff teams over their first eight contests.
28. Philadelphia Eagles
It wasn't that long ago that the Philadelphia Eagles were Super Bowl champions. But in 2020, everything fell apart. Quarterback Carson Wentz was so bad that the Eagles ate the biggest dead cap hit in league history just to be rid of him. Head coach Doug Pederson was shown the door.
Now there's a new head coach in Nick Sirianni and a new leader for the offense in second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. Per Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia, tackle Lane Johnson said that Hurts is chomping at the bit to engineer a quick turnaround in the City of Brotherly Love.
"He's a tremendous worker and he's good with his teammates," Johnson said. “A lot of the linemen can vouch for that too, a lot of our team. We've got camp coming up so for him and the rest of the Eagles, we've got a lot to prove. We were not where we wanted to be last year so we've got a lot to get done over the next two months."
Gagnon has his doubts as to the odds of that happening.
"I don't know how a team can lose it this quickly but it's really hard to get behind the Eagles in any way right now," he said. "The right side of the offensive line is strong and they're always in good shape up front on defense, but the rest of the roster is pretty much a mess."
27. Carolina Panthers
To say that the first three years of Sam Darnold's NFL career have been a disappointment is being kind. The third overall pick in the 2018 draft will now try to resurrect his career in Charlotte. As David Newton wrote for ESPN, former Panthers signal-caller Rodney Peete believes that moving to a smaller market could be just what the doctor ordered.
"The fans at Carolina are passionate and they love football,'' Peete said. "But it's not the nastiness of a Philadelphia or New York, where it can get extremely personal. So that's going to be a relief for him.''
Darnold may well benefit from a change of scenery. And the return of star running back Christian McCaffrey will be a big boost for Darnold and the Panthers offense. But with the NFL's third-worst offensive line (per PFF) and a defense that ranked in the bottom half of the league a year ago, the Panthers possess some sizable flaws.
It would take a four-game improvement over last year to get the Panthers above .500.
That's not especially likely.
26. Atlanta Falcons
The times they are a-changin' in Atlanta.
Partway through last year's miserable 4-12 campaign, head coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimtroff were let go. Now it will fall to general manager Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith to return the Falcons to respectability.
Veteran quarterback Matt Ryan is still there, but his long-time favorite target isn't—Julio Jones was traded to the Tennessee Titans. However, in young wideout Calvin Ridley and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, Ryan still has considerable firepower at his disposal.
The bigger problem in Atlanta is the defense. Only three teams allowed more yards per game last year than the 398.4 the Falcons surrendered. Atlanta also ranked 19th in scoring defense, dead last in pass defense and 23rd in sacks.
The Falcons have the weaponry on offense to score some points, even with a shaky offensive line. But while the scheme may have changed defensively in Atlanta, the personnel really hasn't.
And that means that stops (and wins) could prove hard to come by.
25. Las Vegas Raiders
When Jon Gruden rejoined the Raiders back in 2018, it was supposed to spur a return to the franchise's glory days.
Instead, three years into a 10-year, $100 million contract, Gruden is 10 games under .500, the Raiders have yet to make the playoffs, and there's little reason to believe that's going to change in 2021.
The 2021 offseason was another bizarre one for the team. Despite the presence of young running back Josh Jacobs, the Raiders handed a sizable free agent contract to Kenyan Drake. Vegas traded three starters (center Rodney Hudson, guard Gabe Jackson and tackle Trent Brown) and then relaced Brown by reaching for Alabama tackle Alex Leatherwood in the first round. It marked the third straight season that the Raiders made a pick in Round 1 that could best be described as questionable.
"Raider Nation doesn't want to hear this," Davenport said, "but Vegas has a much greater chance of finishing last in the AFC West than first. The offense is average. The defense aspires to be average. It's time to admit that Gruden 2.0 was a mistake."
24. New York Giants
This is a critical season for New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones.
After showing flashes as a rookie, Jones regressed in a number of categories last year—including just 11 touchdown passes in 24 starts. However, per Myles Simmons of Pro Football Talk, veteran cornerback Logan Ryan said that the 24-year-old signal-caller has the support of his teammates.
"He's doing everything he can possibly to do set himself up for success and that's all you can do," Ryan said. "You've got to fall down to your level of preparation and I feel like he's extremely prepared. Training camp is another scenario, another situation to get more prepared. It's practice. So you've got to continue to get those reps and go out there and let the chips fall where they may, go out there and win the game. So, we're all supporting Daniel. He's got his teammates' respect and he's got the organization's respect and he's earned that job to be our quarterback."
With Kenny Golladay in town, Jones has plenty of weapons to throw to. New York's defense has quite a bit of potential as well. But Saquon Barkley's balky knee and one of the NFL's most porous offensive lines are not big-time problem areas.
23. Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals have the makings of a pretty scary offense in 2021.
Quarterback Joe Burrow has an excellent trio of receivers at his disposal in Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins and rookie Ja'Marr Chase. Joe Mixon is a talented, do-it-all tailback. The team took major steps in the offseason to address one of the league's worst offensive lines in 2020.
However, there are big-time issues on defense. The Bengals ranked 26th in total defense and 22nd in scoring defense a year ago, and that defense remains largely unchanged this season.
Sobleski thinks there is room for some optimism in the Queen City, but it may be a while before the Bengals are legitimate contenders in the AFC North.
"Bengals fans should be excited about some of the talent the organization acquired over the last two offseasons," he said. "Two issues still linger, though. First, the offensive line may be better than last season but that doesn't mean it's good. Second, the AFC North is brutal with the Browns ascending, the Ravens still featuring Lamar Jackson and the Steelers in the mix. Joe Burrow is going to be a special quarterback. Even so, a year or two may be necessary before the Bengals finally elevate into a postseason contender."
22. Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos have a decision to make. After quarterback Drew Lock regressed badly in his second season, Denver swung a trade to bring in competition for Lock in the form of veteran Teddy Bridgewater. As Jon Heath wrote for Broncos Wire, head coach Vic Fangio made it clear that this battle will drag on well into the preseason.
"[We will] probably play them a little more in preseason than teams may play their No. 1 quarterback," Fangio said. "These guys need snaps and they need to play, especially when you have a young quarterback like we have in Drew and a new quarterback like we have in Teddy. Hopefully we’ll get them a lot of snaps and the decision will be made easy."
The Broncos have some talent on both sides of the ball. But in Sobleski's opinion, Denver's fortunes all come down to who starts under center.
"The Broncos will go as far as their quarterback(s) takes them," he wrote. "Therein lies the problem. Neither Teddy Bridgewater nor Drew Lock is an inspiring option. Bridgewater tends to be too conservative, while the gunslinger in Lock needs to be tamed. If a happy medium can be reached, the Broncos can benefit because the offense features talented weapons, and the defense should be solid to quite good, especially with Von Miller's return. The lingering quarterback question may be too much to overcome in the AFC West."
21. Minnesota Vikings
It's time to put up or shut up for Kirk Cousins, Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings.
Cousins has long been a quarterback who puts up solid numbers. But three seasons into his Vikings tenure, Cousins is 25-21-1 as the team's starter and just 1-2 in the postseason. That's not much return on an investment of well over $80 million.
Zimmer, on the other hand, is entering his eighth season as the team's head coach. There has been some success to be sure—Zimmer's Vikings teams are 17 games over .500. But there have been just three postseason trips and one appearance in the NFC Championship Game.
Now, do the quarterback or the head coach bear all the responsibility for the team's inability to get over the proverbial hump? No. But if Minnesota misses the postseason again in 2021, the future of both men in the Twin Cities is going to be on shaky ground. In fact, just a one-and-done appearance may not be enough.
Given the team's issues on the offensive line and defense, the odds of a deep playoff run aren't especially good.
20. New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints need a hug.
It was bad enough that the Saints headed into 2021 having to replace the irreplaceable. But now, in addition to deciding whether it will be Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston who succeeds Drew Brees at quarterback, the team will have to open the season without its best wide receiver.
Per Myles Simmons of Pro Football Talk, Michael Thomas will be sidelined indefinitely after undergoing surgery in June to repair ligament damage in his ankle. It's a bizarre situation, both in that the injury happened all the way back in Week 1 of the 2020 season and that news of the surgery didn't break until over a month after it happened.
As Simmons' colleague Mike Florio wrote, Nick Underhill of NewOrleansFootball.com reported that things get even weirder from there.
"Thomas saw a specialist after the 2020 season ended," Florio said. "The specialist believed that Thomas possibly could rehab the injury and avoid surgery. Thomas, according to the report, was supposed to spend a month or so attempting to heal the ankle and then return to the specialist to see whether surgery would be needed. Underhill reports that the return visit never happened."
It's quite the mess—one that Davenport thinks settles the QB debate.
"With no wide receivers of note on the roster, the Saints have to start Hill," he said. "The team is going to need his running ability—and even then, New Orleans is in serious trouble offensively."
19. Chicago Bears
Are you ready for the Andy Dalton era in Chicago?
Well, neither are Bears fans. But as Larry Mayer reported for the team's website, Chicago head coach Matt Nagy has insisted from the moment rookie Justin Fields was drafted 11th overall that the youngster will sit and learn while the veteran journeyman will open the season against the Los Angele Rams.
"I think it's going to be exciting for (Fields) to just come in here and learn how to be a professional quarterback," Nagy said. "It's not going to happen overnight. He's going to be able to learn from great coaches and from great players that are going to be in the same room as him."
The question is how long a coach many perceive to be in the hot seat will stick to those guns if Fields shines in camp or if the Bears start slow—the first three games of the season contain trips to face the Rams and Cleveland Browns.
There's little question what the dominant storyline will be at Bears camp. And every throw from veteran and youngster alike is going to be examined, reexamined and then examined again.
18. New England Patriots
Here's something you haven't heard regarding the New England Patriots in a while.
There's a quarterback battle in Beantown.
Barring a significant upset, veteran Cam Newton will again be under center when the Pats open the regular season Sept. 12. But Newton knows that if the team gets off to a slow start, it won't be long until he's pulled in favor of rookie Mac Jones.
"We play in a sport that is strictly based off the final product," Newton told ESPN Radio's Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin Show. "And the final product is on game days. With that being said, it's just going to come down to winning and losing."
After an aggressive offseason and with several 2020 coronavirus opt-outs returning, the Pats have the potential to be markedly better than last year's 7-9 team.
But to give the Bills any sort of real trouble in the AFC East and/or compete for a wild-card spot, New England has to get exponentially better quarterback play than Newton provided a season ago.
17. Pittsburgh Steelers
2020 was a tale of two seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The first part was fantastic, with a franchise-record 11 straight wins. The second was not. The team won just one more on the way to getting rolled by Cleveland in the Wild Card Round.
The Steelers made quite a few changes heading in 2021, including a new offensive coordinator (Matt Canada), a new running back (first-rounder Najee Harris) and a revamped offensive line.
Ben Roethlisberger admitted that the changes in front of him are a significant adjustment.
"It's tough, all those guys...gone," the quarterback said, per Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It’s not easy. But we have guys willing and capable and excited to fill the roles. We're all excited what they can do. But it’s going to be different. I've been blessed to have older guys who have been here numerous years. It’s definitely going to be different."
"You can never totally count out the Steelers," Davenport said. "But the team's offensive line is hot garbage, and Roethlisberger isn't exactly Lamar Jackson when it comes to mobility. The defense remains formidable, and the offense has weapons. But I just cannot see a team with a line this bad making a deep playoff run."
16. Washington Football Team
The Washington Football Team won the NFC East last year, but it wasn't that impressive given that it came via a 7-9 record.
This year's iteration of the team, however, could be another story.
A defense that already sported arguably the best front four in the game added Kentucky's Jamin Davis—a rangy outside linebacker—in the first round of the draft. Washington offset the loss of veteran cornerback Ronald Darby quite nicely with the addition of William Jackson III in free agency.
A unit that featured a solid offensive line and some excellent weapons in running back Antonio Gibson, wide receiver Terry McLaurin and tight end Logan Thomas added another threat in wideout Curtis Samuel.
But Washington will go as far as Ryan Fitzpatrick and the quarterbacks take it. Gagnon isn't especially confident.
"I want to buy into the WFT so badly," he said. "Love the defense, and I believe in their top weapons on offense. But their quarterback situation lags so far behind every other contender's. It'll be close to impossible for them to go on a playoff run with any of the quarterbacks currently on the roster."
"This is a team that hung with Tampa Bay in the Wild Card Round last year with Taylor Heinicke under center," Davenport countered. "If Fitzpatrick can avoid backbreaking turnovers, this team could be legit. It doesn't have a lot of weaknesses."
15. Dallas Cowboys
You may not have heard, but Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott is back.
After fracturing his ankle in October, he is expected to be a full-go for Dallas' appearance on this year's iteration of Hard Knocks.
As a matter of fact, Prescott told reporters that he wants to play in the preseason:
"I definitely want to play. As far as giving you a number or quantity of how much I need to, I just want to obviously get back out there and get some reps before it's real. Just to have a live defense coming at me, hopefully not take too many licks because I have great protection, but that's part of the game, and I think it would obviously be great to get up from that, wipe it off and be just another process of burying the injury. I think it will be huge."
With a healthy Prescott under center, the Cowboys should sport one of the NFL's most dangerous offenses after a miserable 6-10 campaign in 2020. But the key to getting back to the postseason lies in improvement from a defense that allowed the fifth-most points per game.
"Someone has to win the NFC East," Sobleski said. "Why not the Cowboys? Injuries wrecked the team last season. The returns of Prescott, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La'el Collins will provide a significant boost on offense, which is where Dallas will shine.
"A healthy Prescott gives the Cowboys a distinct advantage over every other team in the division since Washington isn't settled at the position, New York hopes Daniel Jones will improve and Philadelphia plans to move forward with Jalen Hurts."
14. Los Angeles Chargers
It's a time of optimism for the Los Angeles Chargers. After setting a record for touchdown passes (31) by a rookie, quarterback Justin Herbert is heading into his second season with quite a bit of momentum.
And while there's a new head coach and offensive coordinator in Brandon Staley and Joe Lombardi, respectively, Staley made one thing clear: It's Herbert's show.
"I wanted our offense to run through Justin Herbert," Staley said, per Hayley Elwood of the team's official website. "... I wanted him to make it work, and I think that's what's been fun to sort of get started."
The addition of All-Pro center Corey Linsley and rookie tackle Rashawn Slater should provide a big boost to an offensive line that struggled last season, finishing last in Pro Football Focus' final rankings. Two of our analysts believe that the Chargers are likely still a year away from serious contention, but Gagnon is on the Bolts bandwagon in 2021.
"My colleagues are out to lunch here," he said. "The reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year now has a jacked offensive line and an exciting new coordinator. A sophomore slump is always a possibility with so many new pieces, but Herbert is used to change. Los Angeles won four in a row to finish the 2020 season and should be considered a playoff-caliber team entering 2021."
13. Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins were one of last year's pleasant surprises, winning 10 games and narrowly missing the playoffs.
If they are going to take the next step in 2021 and make the postseason, one thing absolutely has to happen: Second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa must improve upon an uneven rookie season.
Former Dolphins great Dan Marino believes that the fifth overall pick in 2020 has what it takes to make the jump to stardom in 2021, per ESPN's Cameron Wolfe:
"He's been great. He's been awesome. He has all the talent in the world. Now it's just about him developing the relationship with the other players. It's been tough because he didn't have OTAs last year, a lot of the summer camp or the chance to play in exhibition games. All those things delay you somewhat. I'll tell you, he works his butt off. I'm really excited about him, his future and our future as a team."
Tagovailoa has improved passing-game weapons at his disposal after the additions of William Fuller V and first-round rookie Jaylen Waddle. The Dolphins sported a top-10 scoring defense a year ago. But the team had a looming problem area: a young offensive line that allowed 34 sacks in 2020. Pro Football Focus ranked the unit as the fourth-worst O-line heading into 2021.
12. Arizona Cardinals
On paper at least, the Arizona Cardinals look the part of a contender.
The addition of J.J. Watt to a defense that already included Chandler Jones gives Arizona a one-two pass-rushing punch that few teams can match (although Jones has requested a trade, per ESPN's Jeremy Fowler). The Redbirds added veteran A.J. Green and rookie speedster Rondale Moore (unofficial 4.29 40-yard dash) to a wideout corps that already included superstar DeAndre Hopkins and 24-year-old Christian Kirk.
Then there's quarterback Kyler Murray, who is just as dangerous with his legs as with his arm.
However, this is a Cardinals team that faded badly late last season, dropping five of its last seven games to miss the playoffs after a 6-3 start. Watt stayed healthy last year in Houston, but his statistical impact was well off his usual pace. And Hopkins has taken issue with the NFL's new regulations regarding players who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.
"The Cardinals were all over the place last year," Davenport said. "One week they looked good enough to beat any team, and the next they were losing to teams like Detroit and Carolina. Arizona has the talent to win 12 games and the NFC West, but it could also lose 11 games and get head coach Kliff Kingsbury fired."
11. Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts have the ability make some noise in 2021.
They have plenty of skill-position talent, including running back Jonathan Taylor and wide receivers T.Y. Hilton and Michael Pittman Jr. All-everything guard Quenton Nelson anchors one of the best offensive lines in the league.
Indy's defense has young difference-makers in tackle DeForest Buckner, 27, and linebacker Darius Leonard, 25, and the team finished inside the top 10 in more than one defensive category in 2020.
None of that will matter if new quarterback Carson Wentz plays the way he did last year with the Eagles.
Still, Colts owner Jim Irsay told reporters recently that he's excited to see what Wentz can do in his reunion with head coach Frank Reich.
"Obviously, we're all looking to see how Carson's gonna do, and there's every reason to believe that he's gonna be a great football player for the Colts," Irsay said. "I'm very excited about Carson."
If Wentz plays like the MVP candidate he was before tearing his ACL when Reich was Philly's offensive coordinator in 2017, the Colts could win the AFC South.
If he's the turnover-prone mess he was in 2021, the trade that brought him to Indianapolis will be viewed as boneheadedest of boondoggles.
10. Seattle Seahawks
Much of the offseason conversation surrounding the Seattle Seahawks centered on Russell Wilson's supposed unhappiness with the franchise. However, the trade rumors came and went, and Wilson said he's all systems go for the upcoming season, per Kevin Clark of The Ringer:
"I think for our offense, I'm just excited for our guys to continue to grow and make plays. It's been fun having [offensive coordinator] Shane Waldron there. He's been an amazing mind, super collaborative. We've had a lot of fun and done a lot of great things and thrown a bunch of touchdowns over the last nine years, whatever it's been. It's been amazing along the journey, and it's time to throw some more and win some more games. That's what we're excited about. We think we've got a chance to win it all and we're going to go for it."
Seattle's offense tailed off down the stretch last year after a torrid start, but the Seahawks can score with the best of them. Davenport's concerns about the team's Super Bowl hopes lie on the other side of the ball.
"Jamal Adams is one of the game's best safeties, and the addition of Kerry Hyder Jr. should help the pass rush," he said. "But the loss of Shaquill Griffin raises serious questions about how the Seahawks secondary, which ranked 31st last year, will fare in an NFC West that is absolutely stacked with high-end wide receiver talent."
9. San Francisco 49ers
There may not be a more fascinating team entering training camp than the San Francisco 49ers.
Two years ago, they repped the NFC in Super Bowl LIV. Last year, an injury-ravaged team missed the playoffs altogether.
As if that free-fall (and a potential rebound from it) wasn't interesting enough, there's also the matter of the camp battle between veteran quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie third overall pick Trey Lance.
For Sobleski, the return of 23-year-old edge-rusher Nick Bosa (ACL) may mean even more for San Francisco's bounce-back chances.
"The 49ers' injury luck has been terrible since Kyle Shanahan took over as the head coach," he wrote. "Maybe hoping for a relatively healthy season is foolish, but something needs to break in the team's favor. The 49ers won't be rocked if Garoppolo suffers another injury since the team decided to go all-in by trading up for the third overall pick to ultimately select Lance. Bosa's return from injury, plus Lance's potential addition to the lineup, should allow San Francisco to reclaim contender status."
San Francisco went just 6-10 in 2020, tying for the fifth-worst record in the NFL, yet it has to be viewed as having the best odds of win its division this year, even if the NFC West is an absolute meat-grinder.
8. Tennessee Titans
Not many teams made a bigger offseason wave in 2021. The Tennessee Titans acquired Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones from the Falcons, and that addition gives them the makings of truly frightening offense.
In addition to an excellent offensive line, the Titans have the two-time defending rushing champion in Derrick Henry, an ascending star wideout in A.J. Brown and an underrated quarterback in Ryan Tannehill.
However, the Titans have a defense that ranked 28th in the league last year, allowing 398.3 yards per game. They were especially susceptible against the pass, allowing 277.4 yards per contest, the fourth-most in the league.
The Jones trade ramped up the hype surrounding the Titans, but Gagnon has his doubts about the team as a legit Super Bowl contender.
"I'm not convinced the Titans are much better than they were last year," he said. "Jones, 32, is beyond his prime. And I'm still concerned about the defense, the offensive line and anybody who relies that heavily on a bruiser running back. They're a playoff contender but not in the upper echelon."
7. Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams were the first team to make a major offseason splash in 2021, mortgaging their future by trading two first-rounders (in 2022 and 2023), a 2021 third-rounder and quarterback Jared Goff to the Detroit Lions for veteran signal-caller Matthew Stafford.
Stafford joined a team with a talented offense (albeit one that just lost running back Cam Akers to a season-ending Achilles tear) and the NFL's top-ranked defense from 2020. On the Catchin' Fades podcast, Ramsey indicated that he was already impressed with Stafford (via Cameron DaSilva of Rams Wire):
"He feels confident that he's rocking with a better overall team and he's going to be able to put it together. And he's got that chip on his shoulder, to be honest with you. He's got that chip on his shoulder to show people—like, 'Man, y'all say I got everything else but I can't win. Alright. Now I'm in an organization that do things the right way.'"
Sobleski is confident that Stafford and the Rams can make some noise in the NFC this year.
"Stafford immediately made the Rams a far more attractive and viable contender," he said. "The rest of the roster isn't too shabby. The offensive line remains intact. DeSean Jackson is now the vertical threat alongside Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods. As long as the secondary adjusts without John Johnson III, Troy Hill and former coordinator Brandon Staley, the Rams should be right back near the top of the NFC."
6. Baltimore Ravens
In three seasons, Lamar Jackson has already made a dent in the NFL. He's led the Baltimore Ravens to the playoffs three times. He was the league MVP in 2019, when he set a league record for rushing yards by a quarterback, Last year, he won his first playoff game and became the first signal-caller in NFL history to top 1,000 rushing yards in consecutive seasons.
Now the Ravens are hoping that the players around Jackson will help take the next step as a passer. There are new wide receivers in veteran Sammy Watkins and first-round rookie Rashod Bateman. They brought in tackle Alejandro Villanueva to replace the departed Orlando Brown Jr. and signed guard Kevin Zeitler.
Baltimore's pass rush is a question after Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue departed in free agency, but the Ravens are still Davenport's favorites in the AFC North.
"The Browns may have a more balanced roster," he said, "but the Ravens have two things going for them that Cleveland does not. The first is a much longer track record of success when expectations are high. The second is arguably the most difficult player to defend in the NFL. It's close, but the Ravens have the edge."
5. Green Bay Packers
Well, the summer's biggest soap opera appears to be coming to a close.
Per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com, after months of rumors and speculation regarding his future in Green Bay, Aaron Rodgers and the team have mended fences—at least for now. It's not known exactly when the 2020 NFL MVP will show up for camp, but ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that his contract is being reworked in a manner that could signal his departure in a year.
Of course, that's a problem for another day. For now, all is well in Titletown. And with Rodgers ostensibly back in the fold, a Packers team that has won 13 games and reached the NFC title game in back-to-back years has to be viewed as quite possibly the primary competition to the Buccaneers in the NFC.
Gagnon wrote that this is the ending he expected all along.
"Logically, he was always likely to remain on that roster this season," he said.
"It's not surprising that cooler heads prevailed," he wrote. "But the dynamic between the team and its star quarterback is still going to be very interesting to watch in 2021."
4. Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns might possess the most balanced roster in the NFL.
They have the best offensive line, per PFF. They arguably have the best one-two backfield punch in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. The return of a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. gives Baker Mayfield solid passing-game weaponry.
Defensively, the Browns executed a complete overhaul, with Malik Jackson and Jadeveon Clowney up front and Anthony Walker and rookie second-rounder Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at linebacker. Troy Hill, first-rounder Greg Newsome and John Johnson III are now in the secondary.
If 2020 NFL Coach of the Year Kevin Stefanski can get this team to play to its potential, the Browns are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
"Cleveland can easily claim one of the best all-around rosters entering the 2021 campaign," Sobleski said. "It may even deserve the No. 1 spot when looking at the lineup from top to bottom. But the hang-up for most centers on Mayfield. Those concerns are unwarranted. Mayfield played as well as any quarterback not named Aaron Rodgers through the second half of last season. He's only going to get better in Year 2 under Stefanski as he plays in the same system for consecutive seasons."
3. Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills tied a franchise record with 13 regular-season wins in 2020 and made the AFC title game. Quarterback Josh Allen led the charge, completing almost 70 percent of his passes for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns on his way to a runner-up finish in MVP voting.
That's going to be a hard season to top (or even match), but Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll said Allen isn't about to take his foot off the gas.
"He is really the same guy every day since he's been here," Daboll said, per Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. "He has an underdog mentality, he's a grinder, he's never satisfied, he loves to practice, he's competitive in the meeting rooms. His leadership skills are outstanding, but he's not relying on what happened the year before or anything like that. That's what I appreciate about him. He's turned the page really quick."
The Bills offense should again be among the league's best after finishing second last year. The key to getting past the Chiefs in the AFC lies in Buffalo's 14th-ranked defense taking a step forward. Buffalo made an attempt to do that in this year's draft, spending its first two picks on edge-rushers Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
It's not hard to see why the Kansas City Chiefs lost Super Bowl LV. Their banged-up offensive line was manhandled by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That line was the biggest priority in the offseason, and it has been rebuilt. There's a new left tackle in two-time Pro Bowler Orlando Brown Jr. and a new guard in Joe Thuney. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is returning after sitting out the 2020 season. There's also a new center in Austin Blythe. They should offer Patrick Mahomes ample time to find Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce down the field.
But there could be a problem on defense.
Edge-rusher Frank Clark was charged with felony possession of an assault weapon after the California Highway Patrol said it found two loaded firearms in the vehicle he was in during a March 13 traffic stop. Clark was also arrested in June after police said they saw an Uzi in an open duffle bag in the backseat of his vehicle during another routine traffic stop.
A suspension would be a major blow to a pass rush that was middle-of-the-pack in 2020.
Still, it's hard to view the two-time reigning AFC champions as anything but the top dogs in the conference.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
"If it's not broke, don't fix it" appears to have been the offseason mantra of the Super Bowl champions. The team's only outside signing of note was running back Giovani Bernard. All 22 starters from the squad that thrashed the Chiefs in Super Bowl LV returned.
Yet head coach Bruce Arians isn't taking anything for granted in 2021.
"I think for me I'm going to have to be harder, make sure that we stay the hunter and not the hunted," Arians told the team's official website (via JoeBucsFan.com). "We've relaxed a lot already this spring. Teams are getting ahead of us right now, but I think we can catch up quickly."
How far ahead teams have (or haven't) gotten is a matter for debate. What isn't is that it is difficult for teams to repeat as champions.
"The Buccaneers are absolutely one of the favorites to rep the NFC in the Super Bowl," Davenport said. "But we're talking about an 11-win team that was 7-5 at one point last year before getting hot late. Tampa is a very good team. But it isn't invincible."