NFL Teams Ready to Take a Huge Leap in 2021
Huge leaps from recently struggling NFL teams are uncommon. But they aren't impossible.
In 2018, the San Francisco 49ers won four games. They followed that with 13 wins and a Super Bowl appearance in 2019. That same year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won seven games but followed with 11 victories and a 2020 Super Bowl triumph. The Washington Football team won three games two years ago before a playoff appearance and NFC East title last season.
The common ground among the major rebounders isn't hard to find. Significant talent upgrades, better injury luck and in some cases changes to the coaching staff all play a role. So do the developmental tracks for key players and the overall team's projectable upside.
Looking ahead to 2021, several squads share characteristics with recent major turnaround projects. They aren't guaranteed to outright contend for the playoffs, but the swing in the win-loss column should be dramatic.
After drawing out the Dan Quinn era for far too long, the Atlanta Falcons have smartly reset with offensive guru Arthur Smith, who arrives from the Tennessee Titans, as head coach.
Smith will get to go from Ryan Tannehill to veteran quarterback Matt Ryan, who still threw for 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on a 65 percent completion rate last year on a four-win team that coughed up 40-plus sacks.
And while star wideout Julio Jones is gone, No. 4 pick Kyle Pitts is the highest-drafted tight end ever, and last year's leading receiver, Calvin Ridley, returns after 90 catches, 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns. Running back Mike Davis seems an upgrade over Todd Gurley from a year ago, too, after he saw 70 targets in Carolina last year, catching 59 of them.
These Falcons may not have moved the needle a ton along the offensive line or on defense, but a shift in coaching approach can go a long way, especially with a player like Ryan under center. While winning only four games last year, Atlanta lost seven contests by a mere five points or fewer.
In an NFC South without Drew Brees in New Orleans and Carolina starting over under center with Sam Darnold, the Falcons are quietly positioned to undergo a major swing.
Trevor Lawrence is the center of attention for the Jacksonville Jaguars, as he should be.
The 21-year-old isn't just a borderline generational prospect who could have gone No. 1 in a handful of draft classes after he threw 90 touchdowns and 17 interceptions at Clemson—he's also playing in an era when highly-drafted rookie passers seem to do better than usual.
Even if Lawrence doesn't immediately perform like Joe Burrow or Justin Herbert, the Jaguars have done a solid job of resetting the roster over the last few years. Laviska Shenault Jr. and DJ Chark Jr. have big upside at wide receiver, and the addition of Marvin Jones Jr., owner of nine receiving touchdowns in each of his last two seasons, will provide a stable presence.
Don't forget first-round back Travis Etienne Jr., who ran for 70 touchdowns and a 7.2 per-carry average in college.
Besides banking on a general upswing for defensive prospects and hoping edge-rusher Josh Allen can play more than his eight 2020 appearances after a knee injury hampered him, Jacksonville added several free-agent pieces, including a No. 1 corner in Shaquill Griffin from Seattle. The unit should be much better than the one that coughed up 30.8 points per game last year, the league's second-worst mark.
Onlookers shouldn't expect a playoff appearance, but a big upswing from last year's one-win record seems a given, especially with the AFC South featuring an imploding Houston team and an Indianapolis squad with a change under center to Carson Wentz, who's out with a foot injury.
This one is a no-brainer, right?
The Dallas Cowboys only got four games and change from top-10 passer Dak Prescott a season ago, ultimately winning six contests in an NFC East that sent a seven-win team to the playoffs.
After rehabbing from his broken, dislocated ankle, Prescott said in May he was "pretty much full-go." And though he missed the Hall of Fame game to rest an arm setback, the Cowboys "fully expect him to be the starter Week 1," per Fox Sports' Jay Glazer.
That's about as encouraging as it gets after he completed 68 percent of his 222 attempts last year with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. He'll be a dramatic upgrade over the Andy Dalton-Garrett Gilbert-Ben DiNucci quarterback carousel that held back the offense last year.
Flanking Prescott is running back Ezekiel Elliott and arguably the league's most dangerous wideout trio: Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup.
Prescott might have dragged a miserable defense kicking and screaming to the playoffs last year. But Dallas saw it fit to revamp what was a historically bad unit that ended up surrendering 29.6 points per game, the league's fifth-worst mark.
In is defensive coordinator Dan Quinn; free agents Malik Hooker and Keanu Neal; and first-round linebacker Micah Parsons, second-round corner Kelvin Joseph and third-round defensive linemen Osa Odighizuwa and Chauncey Golston. In sum, eight of Dallas' 11 draft picks went to fixing the defense.
A back-to-basics approach on D under a proven coordinator and the return of a top-10 passer should have the Cowboys looking at the upper echelon of contention in 2021.
Los Angeles Chargers
Despite Los Angeles Chargers rookie passer Justin Herbert's record-setting season, the team only won seven games in a stacked AFC West.
But that feels like it's about to change in a big way.
Herbert's upward trajectory alone should have the team winning more. Without the benefit of a preseason and playing under a coaching staff that didn't want him to start initially, Herbert completed 66.6 percent of his passes and threw for 4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, all while suffering 32 sacks, one of the 10-worst marks.
The hint of top-10 upside was there, and the Chargers, who hired new head coach Brandon Staley to replace Anthony Lynn, went all-in on supporting it. L.A. added one of the league's best centers, Corey Linsley, doling out a five-year deal worth $62.5 million for a guy who had an 89.9 Pro Football Focus grade—a smidge under the "elite" category—while allowing a single sack with no penalties over 734 snaps.
Los Angeles added another starter in free agency in guard Matt Feiler and replaced tight end Hunter Henry with reliable veteran Jared Cook, who has scored 22 times over the last three seasons. Northwestern offensive tackle Rashawn Slater was the team's pick at 13th overall, too, giving the offense a wash at tight end and three upgrades along the line.
While Herbert flashed last year, five of the team's nine losses came by just five points.
Looking at the AFC West, Denver seems to be in a holding pattern, and Las Vegas isn't a guarantee to be much improved from last year's 8-8 mark either. That leaves the Chargers in a position to play leapfrog while riding the division's best non-Patrick Mahomes passer.