7 NFL Teams Most Likely to Disappoint in 2021

Alex KayFeatured Columnist IAugust 10, 2021

7 NFL Teams Most Likely to Disappoint in 2021

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    Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

    In the NFL, disappointment can come in many forms.

    An eight-win season might feel fantastic for New York Jets or Jacksonville Jaguars fans, but New England Patriots or Green Bay Packers supporters would be disheartened if their teams missed the playoffs or finished with sub-.500 records.  

    There's no standard way to quantify a disappointing campaign, but a close approximation would be underperforming against the preseason win-total projection set by bookmakers. Every offseason, sportsbooks allow bettors to wager on whether a team will go over or under its projected W's.

    Most of these initial projections end up being close to the final records, but there are plenty of instances of teams significantly underperforming or exceeding expectations, whether that is due to injuries, breakout performances from unlikely players or a myriad of other factors.

    This piece will focus on the teams most likely to let their fans and "over" backers down in 2021, using their regular-season projected win totals from DraftKings Sportsbook as the barometer. It's worth noting that while some of these totals may look a bit high, the league did add a 17th game for the 2021 season.

    With that in mind, here are seven squads that are most likely to fall short of their projected win totals in 2021 to have disappointing seasons.     

Miami Dolphins

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    Mark Brown/Getty Images

    Expected Wins: 9.5

    Projected Record: 8-9

    On paper, the Miami Dolphins have one of the easier schedules in 2021 and seem like they could once again reach the double-digit-win mark. Their opponents had a combined winning percentage of .471 last year, meaning Miami is tied for the fifth-weakest strength of schedule in the NFL.

    Don't let that statistic deceive you, however, as the AFC East remains a tough division that saw some serious improvement this offseason. The Patriots went on a spending spree in free agency, the reigning division champ Bills are hungry to avenge their AFC Championship Game shortcomings, and even the Jets made notable acquisitions on the open market and through the draft.

    Outside of their AFC East schedule, Miami meets with five teams that made the playoffs last year, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Indianapolis Colts, Baltimore Ravens, New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans. 

    While the 'Phins shattered their 5.5-win projection in 2020, they'll find it difficult to notch the 10 wins required to go over on the total this season.

    One key reason for this is the pockmarked offensive line that has more questions than answers.

    The team, which is now on its fourth OL coach since Brian Flores took the head coaching reins in 2019, lacks consistency in the trenches. Miami will likely keep shuffling the deck leading up to Week 1's game against New England to try to unlock a combination of players that can keep second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa upright.  

    Even if Miami gets decent protection, it still isn't sure what it has in Tua. Last year, the Dolphins leaned on veteran signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick to bail them out when Tagovailoa was struggling. With Fitzpatrick now in Washington, Tua must become more consistent if he is going to guide this organization to the postseason.

    A lot will need to fall into place for Miami to become a contender this year. It would be wiser to expect a regression rather than a progression in 2021 as the club experiences some growing pains.     

Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Expected Wins: 8.5

    Projected Record: 7-10

    The Pittsburgh Steelers have never had a losing season under Mike Tomlin, but even the greatest coaches eventually suffer through a down year.

    It seems that 2021 will be that year for a multitude of reasons, with one of the biggest being quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's decline. The last remaining holdover from the vaunted 2004 quarterback class looked toasted late last season. While Big Ben elected not to join Philip Rivers and Eli Manning in retirement following his 17th campaign in the league, there is a good chance 2021 will be his last hurrah.

    Roethlisberger, who has missed 15 games over the last two seasons—including 14 in 2019 because of an elbow injury—averaged a respectable 7.8 yards per pass attempt from 2004 to 2018. Over the last two seasons, that number has dipped to an unsightly 6.2. He has struggled to make his usual throws and shown fading mobility.

    While Roethlisberger helped the Steelers to an 11-0 start last season, the club stumbled to a 1-4 finish. Much of the blame falls on the offense, which mustered only 308.4 yards per game during that stretch. Pittsburgh was also facing a slew of subpar quarterbacks early in the year, getting hollow victories against the likes of Jeff Driskel, Garrett Gilbert, Jake Luton and Robert Griffin III.

    The Steelers ultimately lost to the AFC North rival Browns—a foe they have traditionally dominated, with a 35-7-1 record against them over the last two decades—in the Wild Card Game and will find it difficult to even get back to the postseason this year.

    They will also have to square off against the Bills, Packers, Kansas City Chiefs and Ravens (twice) while also facing three other teams (Seattle Seahawks, Chicago Bears and Titans) that appeared in the playoffs last season.

    This makes for the toughest strength of schedule in the league, with Pittsburgh's opponents going 155-115-2 last year. It'll be a shock if the Steelers can somehow finish with a record above .500.        

Cincinnati Bengals

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Expected Wins: 6.5

    Projected Record: 5-12

    There is more excitement surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals going into the 2021 season than there has been in some time, but those expectations should be tempered until the team can convert that hype into on-field production.

    Cincinnati may have found a franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow, but he went just 2-7-1 in his starts and still has much to learn before he can enter the discussion as one of the league's top signal-callers. The second-year signal-caller is also coming off an ACL injury that sidelined him for nearly half of his rookie campaign. 

    The coaching situation in Cincinnati isn't too enviable either. Zac Taylor has arguably the hottest seat in the league, a situation brought about by his abysmal 6-25-1 record as head coach. While ownership isn't giving up on Taylor just yet, he must improve on last year’s 4-11-1 finish.

    That won't be easy, especially with the Bengals drawing one of the more brutal home schedules in 2021. The team will be facing the last three NFL MVPs when they welcome Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes and Baltimore's Lamar Jackson to Paul Brown Stadium.

    Cincinnati's upcoming foes had a .529 winning percentage last year, tying the team with the Detroit Lions for the sixth-toughest strength of schedule.

    The Bengals made some considerable upgrades to last year's roster, including a world-class rookie wideout in Ja'Marr Chase and extra protection for Burrow in veteran tackle Riley Reiff and second-round pick Jackson Carman. But they'll still have an uphill battle to reach seven wins. It's more likely this team will notch five or six, only slightly building on last year's showing.    

Dallas Cowboys

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    Expected Wins: 9

    Projected Record: 8-9

    The Dallas Cowboys had a trying 2020 campaign, losing starting quarterback Dak Prescott in Week 5 and finishing the year with a 6-10 record. Bookmakers are projecting a leap forward in 2021, initially setting the team's over/under at 9.5 before scaling that back to nine.

    Prescott will bear the weight of a new four-year, $160 million contract. The quarterback has gone just 10-11 in his starts over the last two seasons, however, and needs more support from his defense.

    It's a bit of a stretch to think Dallas can reach the double-digit-win mark, especially if the defense can't take a major leap. The unit ranked near the bottom of the league in both points allowed and total defense, with the front performing especially poorly.     

    The Cowboys conceded the second-most rushing yards and allowed 20 touchdowns on the ground. The lack of consistent pressure was felt in the passing game, as Dallas gave up 34 touchdowns and secured a meager 10 interceptions while notching a middling 31 sacks.

    The Cowboys drafted standout linebacker Micah Parsons at No. 12 overall and used eight of their 11 picks—including all five of their Day 1 and 2 selections—on defensive prospects this spring. The team will be asking a lot from a rookie class, however, after its free-agency acquisitions weren't too splashy.

    The safety position received the biggest injection of talent with the signings of Keanu Neal and Malik Hooker, but the team parted ways with quality defensive backs in Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods, offsetting the impact of those pickups.  

    A 10-7 season seems to be too lofty of a goal for the Cowboys right now. But an 8-9 showing in 2021 could still be worthwhile as long as Dallas develops its young defenders to make a run next year. 

Chicago Bears

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    Expected Wins: 7.5

    Projected Record: 5-12

    There is some serious hype in the Windy City, but Bears fans who are expecting their team to compete for a Super Bowl or even compile a winning record should rein in expectations for 2021.

    It's hard to fault Chicago supporters for being excited, especially after the organization was able to land Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields in the draft. The rookie has yet to even win the starting job, however, and must beat out veteran signal-caller Andy Dalton.

    Fields, who slipped to No. 11 on draft day after being considered a potential top-three pick, could be the long-term answer under center, but the strong-armed 22-year-old may not be ready to lead the team yet.

    The Bears also lost some notable pieces on the open market and failed to restock the cupboard. They are down a starting cornerback in Kyle Fuller, parted ways with starting tackle Bobby Massie and weren't able to retain a key rotational defensive lineman in Roy Robertson-Harris.

    Dalton was Chicago's top free-agent score, but he's an underwhelming pickup after a ho-hum year in Dallas (4-5 as a starter). Despite his fading skills, the 10-year veteran is still projected to be the Week 1 starter. While Bears managed to make the playoffs last year while waffling between Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky under center, they seem ripe for a regression.

    Remember, Chicago only earned a postseason berth by virtue of the expanded 14-team field, securing the NFC's No. 7 seed by the skin of its teeth. Six of the Bears' eight wins came by just one score. It's unlikely they'll get as lucky in close games again this season. A 5-12 or 6-11 record appears to be far more probable. 

Los Angeles Chargers

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    Expected Wins: 9.5

    Projected Record: 7-10    

    After the Los Angeles Chargers became one of the surprise stories of the 2020 campaign, there are now winning expectations for the team. Bookmakers even bumped up L.A.'s initial projection of nine wins to 9.5, but it's going to be a challenge for this squad to reach that mark. 

    The main reason for the Bolts' ascension is quarterback Justin Herbert, who earned Offensive Rookie of the Year honors while going a respectable 6-9 as a starter and is expected to continue his red-hot play in 2021.

    But promising young quarterbacks can easily find themselves in sophomore slumps before going on to have strong careers. Baker Mayfield, Dak Prescott and Matt Ryan all serve as relatively recent examples of QBs who took a step back in Year 2 following impressive debut campaigns.    

    There are other factors working against the Chargers, including that they have a first-year head coach in Brandon Staley. Anthony Lynn went just 33-31 in four seasons at the helm, but Staley was brought in to maximize the talents of the defense after doing the same for the crosstown Rams.  

    Yet the talent levels of the Chargers' linebackers and secondary members aren't up to snuff. The team was middling at best, allowing 29 touchdown passes while recording just 12 interceptions and 27 sacks (a bottom-10 number). Without any significant additions in that area outside of second-round nickelback Asante Samuel Jr., the Bolts could find themselves getting lit up by opposing quarterbacks in the AFC West.

    L.A. had an abysmal offensive line last year as well, ranking dead last in Pro Football Focus' metrics. That situation improved this offseason with the acquisition of center Corey Linsley on a four-year, $62.5 million deal, but the tackle spots are still a bit concerning. 

    The team used a first-round pick on Rashawn Slater, but the Northwestern product has yet to prove he can make an instant impact as an NFL left tackle. Bryan Bulaga could shore up the right side of the line. But the veteran is coming off an injury that cost him six games in 2020, and he has played 75 percent or more of his team's snaps just once in the last four years.

    The Chargers aren't a deep team either. Getting through a 17-game campaign unscathed is nearly impossible, which means below-average backups will be thrust into critical roles at times.

    This team doesn't appear to be ready to make a postseason run just yet. Expect another sub.-500 campaign before a breakout in 2022.      

New Orleans Saints

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    Expected Wins: 9

    Projected Record: 6-11

    After making the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, the New Orleans Saints will find their path back to Super Bowl contention an arduous one.

    They have the unenviable task of forging ahead without longtime quarterback Drew Brees, who brought the team its first championship and broke a myriad of passing records before retiring this offseason. Both in-house replacement candidates, Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill, possess major flaws. 

    Winston, the top overall pick in 2015, served as the Buccaneers' starter for five seasons. He finished his tenure with an unsightly 28-42 record, never taking his club to the playoffs and struggling mightily with accuracy. His 61.4 percent completion rate in Tampa comes in over 7 percent below Brees' career mark with the Saints.    

    Winston was also responsible for a league-leading 30 interceptions in 2019, seven more than Brees threw over the final four years of his career.

    Hill may not be the answer either. When he filled in for an injured Brees last year, the team needed to scale back the offense significantly to try to hide his flaws as a passer. While Hill went 3-1 as a starter and completed a respectable 88 of 121 passes for 928 yards and four touchdowns, he was responsible for a pair of interceptions and took 14 sacks in his limited dropbacks.

    The BYU product must show improved footwork and adjust his mechanics for a quicker release to become a long-term solution in the Big Easy.

    To make matters worse, the Saints found themselves mired in salary-cap hell this offseason. The crunch forced the franchise to cut ties with several key contributors, including No. 2 cornerback Janoris Jenkins and steady wideout Emmanuel Sanders. New Orleans will now be relying on lesser skilled or unproven players to fill some key roles in 2021.   

    With so much turnover, especially under center, the Saints are poised to take a major step back this year.   A disappointing six-win season seems far more likely to start the post-Brees era than a nine-win one. 

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