2021 NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Rank Entering Preseason?

NFL StaffContributor IAugust 12, 2021

2021 NFL Power Rankings: Where Does Every Team Rank Entering Preseason?

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    Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

    Let the games begin. Preseason games, that is. 

    Some NFL teams just want to get to the regular season. Others have plenty to decide in the coming weeks, and on-field action will play a role in determining which direction those squads take. 

    The view of each team can change rather quickly. Differences can already be seen from the beginning of training camps. Competition and injuries are a fact of NFL life. Both occur on a daily basis and often determine whether a franchise will be successful during the regular season. 

    Depth can be built through camp sessions, but it ultimately appears during the preseason. The teams with the best rosters from top to bottom are those usually standing when the postseason begins. Right now, the quality of each roster's depth is a projection that will be solidified in the coming weeks. 

    However, a significant difference exists this preseason compared to previous incarnations. Only three exhibitions will take place (excluding the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers, who have four after playing in the Hall of Fame Game). From there, rosters will be culled and the regular season will begin. 

    Before then, Bleacher Report's team of NFL analysts—Brad Gagnon, Brent Sobleski and Gary Davenport—have taken stock of the league's hierarchy, with composite scores determining the site's power rankings prior to the start of the preseason. 

32. Houston Texans

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    High: 32

    Low: 32

    The Houston Texans have done everything to skirt questions about Deshaun Watson and the quarterback's status with the team after he requested a trade and was then the subject of 22 civil lawsuits from women accusing him of sexual assault or misconduct. 

    Watson has denied those allegations, but with 10 criminal complaints also filed against the Texans signal-caller, there would be a great deal of uncertainty around his availability even if he was happy with the franchise.

    "He's unlikely to play in the game [Saturday] for sure, so we'll make a decision later in the week as to what's going to happen with that," head coach David Culley told reporters. "It's based off the limited reps he's had in practice and that sort of thing."

    When pressed about Watson's availability to play at any point this preseason, Culley responded, "No comment."

    For all intents and purposes, the Texans have already moved on from him. 

    The Texans are in a bind with Watson, but their direction couldn't be more clear. Houston features the NFL's least-talented roster. General manager Nick Caserio spent all offseason overhauling the roster. The team is well on its way to becoming one of the league's worst squads.

31. Detroit Lions

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    High: 29

    Low: 31

    The Detroit Lions will be throwbacks under the supervision of Dan Campbell. Think of them as the NFL's version of The Flintstones

    The first-time head coach brings an old-school mentality and prioritizes things a little differently than others. First, he mentioned "grit" as the No. 1 trait the Lions look for in players. 

    "You're a guy that your body demeanor never changes [no matter] what happens to you," Campbell told reporters. "You're dependable. You're accountable. It's everything that you would want in somebody." 

    What didn't Campbell mention? Talent. 

    The Lions aren't without some talented individuals. But they are lacking in certain areas, particularly the passing game. Aside from Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson, the Lions will likely struggle to generate explosive plays. They look more like a hard-nosed, run-first squad, which would match Campbell's attitude. 

    Obviously, a new regime must establish its standards. The Lions are in the beginning stages of discovering who they will eventually become. 

30. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    High: 28

    Low: 30

    The Jacksonville Jaguars will put a better product on the field this fall than they did a year ago. That's a pretty safe assumption after they finished 1-15 in 2020 and "earned" the No. 1 overall pick in this year's NFL draft. 

    An overall talent upgrade coupled with a potential franchise quarterback in Trevor Lawrence doesn't necessarily solve all the organization's problems, though. Plenty of uncertainty still swirls around the Jaguars. 

    "There's more than a little optimism in Jacksonville with the arrival of head coach Urban Meyer and Lawrence, but there are also quite a few unknowns," Davenport said. "For as well as the quarterback played at Clemson, we don't know if he is really the franchise-changer so many think he is. We don't know if Meyer can coach at the NFL level. And we don't know how much better Joe Cullen's defense will be than the unit that was dead last in the AFC in both yards and points allowed in 2020."

    Expectations should be tempered. Yes, the Jaguars will be more competitive this year than last. At the same time, they're still in a rebuilding phase under a new regime. 

29. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    High: 29

    Low: 31

    The Philadelphia Eagles went from being one of the league's best-run organizations to utterly confounding in about three years. 

    This offseason, they fired head coach Doug Pederson and traded quarterback Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts. Dysfunction behind the scenes became public knowledge thanks to an expose by The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia, Bo Wulf and Zach Berman

    Nick Sirianni entered as head coach, but the team seems to lack direction, beginning with the quarterback position. The coaching staff has yet to name Jalen Hurts its starter despite the fact that he showed flashes last year and that there's no better alternative on the roster. 

    "There's just no rush there on having to do that," Sirianni told reporters. "We just want him to continue to impress, and show like he has. We're just not there yet."

    By waiting, the staff could actively hurt an offense with two young, first-round wide receivers who require stability to properly develop. Hurts will more than likely start, but there's no reason to operate in this matter. 

28. New York Jets

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    High: 26

    Low: 30

    The New York Jets know their success or failure will revolve around rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, and they are allowing him to grow naturally in practice. 

    "I can't be afraid to make mistakes," Wilson told reporters. "This is where I'm learning what I can get away with and what I can't."

    Rather than adhering to outdated philosophies of making the rookie "earn his spot" or sit awhile behind a veteran, the Jets understand they made a significant investment in Wilson and plan to prepare him for the start of the regular season. 

    The Jets have some nice pieces in Wilson, left tackle Mekhi Becton, left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, defensive end Carl Lawson and safety Marcus Maye. It's still a team in transition, though. 

    New head coach Robert Saleh and his staff are implementing their schemes and philosophies. The team should grow together in time and be far more prepared and competitive than it was at any point under previous head coach Adam Gase. But the process takes time.

27. Carolina Panthers

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    High: 24

    Low: 29

    In the second year of Matt Rhule's tenure, the Carolina Panthers can build their identity through their defense. 

    They have a lot of uncertainty on offense. Is Sam Darnold damaged goods or will a fresh start revive his once-promising career? Who will be asked to protect Darnold, and will the left side hold up? How will the offensive staff utilize free-agent tight end Dan Arnold and rookie wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr.? 

    Those questions will be answered soon enough. They have far fewer concerns on the other side of the ball. 

    "A commitment to drafting athletes on defense gives the Panthers one of the more exciting units in the game," Sobleski said. "Brian Burns and Derrick Brown already showed they can be consistent disruptors up front. Jeremy Chinn is a versatile weapon, though the staff will utilize him a little differently this year as he transitions to strong safety. Now add Jaycee Horn, who was the best man-cover corner in this year's draft class. 

    "Once you factor in veteran additions Haason Reddick, DaQuan Jones, Denzel Perryman and Rashaan Melvin, the Panthers could skyrocket from last season's 18th overall defense into a top-10 unit." 

26. Atlanta Falcons

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    High: 25

    Low: 27

    The Atlanta Falcons can't replace Julio Jones. The hope is Kyle Pitts fills the void as a mismatch nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. No matter how talented the tight end is, he's still a rookie. 

    "We're throwing a lot at Kyle," head coach Arthur Smith told reporters. "It's like I told him, it's a long journey, and you try to remind these guys but there's little nuances then there's things that he's going to have to learn on his own. ... There are certain things we'll ask him to do that [blocking tight end] Lee Smith has never done." 

    Pitts' potential is exciting. His status serves as a microcosm of the team's current standing, though. 

    The Falcons should be building around the elite tight end prospect. But he shouldn't necessarily be taking over for Jones, their all-time leading pass-catcher. They are caught somewhere between rebuilding for the future and trying to win in the present. 

    While trying to accomplish the latter, the losses of veterans like Jones and center Alex Mack could be too much to overcome.

25. Las Vegas Raiders

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    High: 23

    Low: 26

    The Las Vegas Raiders have no right to be this low based on talent alone. Yet Jon Gruden and Co. have done very little for anyone to think said talent will translate to a better on-field product. 

    "I want to believe in the Raiders because I do think Derek Carr has it in him and they certainly have a lot of young talent on both sides of the ball. But why does it always feel like something screwy is happening with this team?" Gagnon wondered. "Before this recent strange mini-exodus, there was the odd decision to gut a solid offensive line. It's just hard to trust this team." 

    The recent signing of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and the possibility of adding linebacker K.J. Wright could help on the defensive side of the ball.

    But it's difficult to project the Raiders as an ascending team when they seem to be in disarray and the AFC West is arguably the league's toughest division from top to bottom. Some squad will finish last. The Raiders are the early contenders to do so.  

24. New York Giants

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    John Munson/Associated Press

    High: 23

    Low: 24

    Aside from a huge practice skirmish, head coach Joe Judge flipping out and multiple veterans retiring, New York Giants training camp has been business as usual. 

    Tensions running high are a result of individuals who want to change the culture. 

    "Players are tired of losing games around here," safety Logan Ryan told reporters. "The fanbase is tired. Management gave us an opportunity and gave us a better roster this year, and we're coming out competing." 

    To Ryan's point, the Giants added Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, Kyle Rudolph, Danny Shelton, Azeez Ojulari and Adoree' Jackson. They will have a healthy Saquon Barkley on the field, too. 

    Each of these additions should help. Ultimately, the Giants will go as far as third-year quarterback Daniel Jones leads them. The 2019 sixth overall draft pick has more than enough talent around him to succeed.

    Apparently, New York's ranking shows how little faith B/R's analysts have in Jones emerging as an elite talent. 

23. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    High: 22

    Low: 25

    Injuries are such a regular part of professional sports that the mental hurdles and emotional turmoil athletes endure tend to be overlooked. Joe Burrow looked like the potential NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year before a devastating knee injury prematurely ended his season. 

    The Cincinnati Bengals quarterback said he hasn't quite gotten back into rhythm as he works his way back from the injury. 

    "I would say right now it's a mental thing," Burrow told reporters. "I'm just getting back used to playing football again against top-level competition. Hopefully a couple more reps, a couple more days, we'll get it back to my old self."

    Burrow added, "It's just getting more comfortable in the pocket."

    The Bengals' skill positions have the potential to be electric. But Burrow's uneasiness places a spotlight on Cincinnati's offensive front and whether the previous weak spot can become significantly better under OL coach Frank Pollack's direction. 

22. Minnesota Vikings

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    High: 19

    Low: 25

    The Vikings have a good squad, but they're lacking in specific areas that could hold them back. 

    One can look at the positives and think they're capable of becoming a playoff team. After all, running back Dalvin Cook is coming off his best season. Wide receiver Justin Jefferson became an immediate-impact star. Defensive end Danielle Hunter is back from last year's neck injury. Minnesota added veteran corners Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland as well.

    On the flip side, Hunter does not have a running mate to help with the Vikings' pass rush. The offense will transition to first-time play-caller Klint Kubiak. And the offensive line is in flux with right guard and left tackle unsettled. 

    Right guard is an open competition where former starter Dakota Dozier, third-round rookie Wyatt Davis and tackle-convert Oli Udoh are trying to take the job. On Kirk Cousins' blindside, this year's 23rd overall pick, Christian Darrisaw, has been brought along slowly after offseason core muscle surgery. 

    "I think in a perfect world, yes, we'd love to have them ironed out," Kubiak said. "That's not our situation and probably not a lot of teams' situation. It is important to continue to get those guys work at different spots so if something happens on game day we're ready to adjust."

21. Denver Broncos

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    High: 20

    Low: 22

    The Denver Broncos haven't earned the trust of anyone because they lack a solution at the game's most important position. 

    The quarterback competition between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater overshadows everything.

    "In many respects, the Broncos don't have a bad team," Davenport said. "The skill-position talent on offense is decent. Bradley Chubb and Von Miller are a solid pair of edge-rushers. And Denver's new-look secondary contains as much talent as any defensive backfield in the league.

    "But it's all going to be for naught if head coach Vic Fangio makes the wrong pick at quarterback. A decision between Lock and Bridgewater may not come until late in the preseason, but after his 15-interception 2020 campaign, rolling Lock out there again feels like a disaster waiting to happen."

    Until Denver makes a decision regarding its starter and that individual shows he's capable of elevating the play of others, the Broncos won't climb these rankings. Instead, they'll be stuck in quarterback limbo, which is one of the worst possible places for any franchise to be.

20. New Orleans Saints

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    High: 16

    Low: 22

    The fact that the New Orleans Saints are still ranked among the top 20 teams is a testament to head coach Sean Payton and what he's built over the last 15 seasons. 

    Great coaching can't mask significant rosters issues, though. 

    Obviously, Payton and his staff will go into a season without Drew Brees for the first time. Eventually, a choice will be made between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston to be the Week 1 starter. 

    But that's not the only major preseason storyline. There's also the standoff between the organization and its star wideout, Michael Thomas.

    "For unknown reasons, Thomas fell out of communication with the Saints. He did not return multiple calls over the next three months,” NOLA.com's Jeff Duncan reported. "Then-Saints trainer Beau Lowery, wide receivers coach Curtis Johnson and head coach Sean Payton all tried to reach Thomas. None of their calls were taken or returned."

    Finally, the Saints' cornerback room is in dire need of capable bodies, especially after Patrick Robinson's unexpected retirement. Beyond Marshon Lattimore, the group is suspect at best. 

    Maybe a fifth straight winning season is too much to ask of these Saints. 

19. Chicago Bears

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    High: 17

    Low: 20

    Rookie quarterback Justin Fields could be the great equalizer for the Chicago Bears. 

    "I'm projecting a bit by calling the Bears a middle-of-the-pack team," Gagnon said. "If Andy Dalton starts most of the season, that's unlikely to be the case. If Justin Fields does, they could be a top-10 team. For now, we're somewhere in between." 

    Dalton is nothing more than a placeholder because Fields' potential is immense. Sooner or later, the switch will be made, and this year's 11th overall pick will assert himself as the team's franchise quarterback. At least, the Bears hope he'll be their franchise signal-caller. 

    However, both quarterbacks need help. The Bears' surrounding cast is suspect due to injuries along the offensive front. Second-round left tackle Tevin Jenkins has yet to practice in training camp due to a back strain. Fellow rookie Larry Borom, who was competing for the right tackle job, suffered a concussion last week. 

    The offensive line needs help before anyone can project the Bears as a top team, even with Fields eventually leading the way. 

18. Indianapolis Colts

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    High: 15

    Low: 21

    The Indianapolis Colts dropped in the rankings like a rock thrown into a well due to the critical injuries Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson suffered during training camp. 

    Frank Reich's squad went from being an AFC favorite to an afterthought in no time whatsoever. But the Colts can still overcome their rash of injuries and shouldn't be completely overlooked. 

    "There's no doubt that a rash of brutal early-camp injuries will hinder the Colts. Better now than in December, but the margin for error is going to be razor-thin with the Tennessee Titans (who just took new star pass-rusher Bud Dupree off the PUP list) and maybe even a surging Jacksonville Jaguars squad in the AFC South. This does not represent a promising start," Gagnon said. 

    There's a silver lining regarding Wentz's and Nelson's recoveries from the same foot injury. According to ESPN's Chris Mortensen, both are "trending" to start the season opener against the Seattle Seahawks. If so, a short acclimation period should then turn into the Colts being very competitive in the AFC South. 

17. New England Patriots

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    High: 11

    Low: 18

    Things went quite well for the New England Patriots this offseason until tight end Hunter Henry injured his shoulder. The free-agent acquisition is expected to miss "a couple of weeks," according to ESPN's Adam Schefter

    Regardless, the Patriots are one of the league's most intriguing squads after all the moves they made over the last few months. 

    "It seems a little weird to call the Patriots a dark-horse playoff team after a 20-year dynasty," Sobleski wrote, "but that's exactly what they are. Take a look at the roster and tell me that team isn't capable of getting into and making a postseason run. The organization did a wonderful job of identifying its weaknesses last season and building up its roster. 

    "The Patriots should be better at quarterback with Cam Newton or Mac Jones behind center. New England now has weapons everywhere. The offensive line is better. The defensive interior has been improved. Plus, the front office added more versatile defensive pieces at linebacker and in the secondary.

    "On paper, the Patriots can be a very good team and get beyond last season's hiccup." 

16. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    High: 12

    Low: 18

    The Pittsburgh Steelers sit at a tenuous juncture as a team that still has enough talent to compete with the league's best, but the organization could undertake a serious downturn if things don't work out as planned. 

    Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 39 years old. The offensive line remains far from settled. The standout secondary must endure the losses of Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson. To top it off, the offense is undergoing a philosophical and schematic shift under new coordinator Matt Canada. 

    As such, the usually dependable Steelers sit smack dab in the middle of these rankings as everyone tries to figure out exactly which direction they're trending. 

    "Maybe I'm sleeping on the Steelers—Pittsburgh won a franchise-record 11 straight to open the 2020 season, the Steelers have one of the league's most fearsome defenses and Ben Roethlisberger has reportedly looked good in camp," Davenport said. 

    "But after watching Pittsburgh fade badly down the stretch last year and endure an offseason that saw hole after hole get punched in the offensive line, I have substantial concerns about Pittsburgh's ability to hang with the Ravens and Browns in a loaded AFC North. It's that O-line that forces me to rank Pittsburgh third in the division—and outside the top-10."

15. Washington Football Team

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    High: 10

    Low: 16

    Ryan Fitzpatrick is the only thing holding the Washington Football Team back from being a chic playoff pick. The franchise snuck into the postseason last year with a 7-9 record and played relatively well in the Wild Card round against the eventual Super Bowl champions. 

    But the team isn't settled behind center. Fitzpatrick may be viewed as an upgrade, but the 38-year-old journeyman never established himself as a long-term solution at any of his previous stops. Washington has all of the other pieces to win, particularly on the other side of the ball. 

    "There's a scene in Eddie Murphy's Nutty Professor when he loses a ton of weight and decides he's going to wear 'spandex, all spandex,'" Sobleski said. "Something similar runs through my mind when discussing Washington. 'Defense, all defense.' Ron Rivera's squad is built to slow offenses, which is a nice change of pace in today's NFL. Washington's defensive front is good enough to dictate terms.

    "Really, the team's success hinges on the quarterback position not making mistakes. Fitzpatrick may be a proven veteran, but he's also proven to throw multiple interceptions as well. If Washington's offense plays mostly mistake-free, complementary football to its defense, the unnamed ones can repeat as NFC East champs." 

14. Dallas Cowboys

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    Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

    High: 10

    Low: 17

    The NFC East is wide open for any of its teams to take charge after last season's shameful display of sub-.500 play by all four participants. 

    As a result, not a single NFC East squad is counted among Bleacher Report's top 12 teams. The Dallas Cowboys are within striking distance thanks to the offense getting healthy and expected defensive improvement. 

    Just the fact Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith, La'el Collins and Zack Martin are back in the lineup pushes the Cowboys into a different stratosphere compared to their divisional rivals. The Dallas offense should be nearly impossible to stop this fall. Plus, the front office invested its initial six draft picks on the defensive side of the ball to help improve upon last year's 23rd-ranked unit in total defense. 

    Not everyone buys the hype, with Davenport chief among them. 

    "If it's the offseason, it must be time for some Cowboys hype—hype that has ramped up that much more with the team appearing on Hard Knocks this year," he wrote. "There's no question that so long as Dak Prescott is healthy, Dallas should field one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. But for Dallas to contend for an NFC East title and/or make a run in the postseason, Dan Quinn's defense is going to need to be light years better than the unit that finished the 2020 season allowing the fifth-most points per game in the league."

13. Los Angeles Chargers

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    High: 9

    Low: 16

    An extreme philosophical adjustment should drastically change how the Los Angeles Chargers play defense. 

    New head coach Brandon Staley served as the play-caller for last year's No. 1 overall defense, the Los Angeles Rams. He brings his approach to the Chargers where the team's previous defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, preferred to perfect more basic concepts. 

    The Chargers will be more varied with their looks to keep the opposition guessing, which will create opportunities for those within the scheme. 

    "It's refreshing," defensive lineman Justin Jones told reporters. "It allows a team the inability to adjust to what we're going. It keeps them on their toes, which means offensive linemen are on their toes. They're not going to know who's blitzingwho's coming and who's not coming.

    "It's going to be hard to figure us out [for the opponents]. What we're doing, what we're bringing. We're never a standstill defense and that's going to make us really hard to beat."

    A different defensive approach coupled with expected improvement from quarterback Justin Herbert in Year 2 behind a fortified offensive front may have the Chargers winning more games instead of Chargering too many. 

12. Miami Dolphins

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    Mark Brown/Getty Images

    High: 11

    Low: 14

    The Miami Dolphins put one issue to bed when the organization came to terms with All-Pro cornerback Xavien Howard on a reworked contract commensurate with this recent level of performance. 

    "Good on them for finding a way to keep Howard around because his playmaking ability gives them a real shot in the AFC East this year, especially if quarterback Tua Tagovailoa can put it together as a sophomore," Gagnon wrote. "I like the trajectory in Miami, and am giving the Dolphins more love than my colleagues are. The bad news is those guys are smarter than me." 

    With the Howard dispute settled, the Dolphins' future lies on Tagovailoa's talented left arm. As Gagnon noted, the quarterback's development will define Miami's upside. The AFC East could be extremely difficult with the Buffalo Bills counted among the league's best, plus the New England Patriots and New York Jets expected to improve upon last season's performances. 

    Until Tagovailoa shows he's ready to elevate his play, the Dolphins will be stuck in a holding pattern as a fringe playoff contender, hence their current ranking. 

11. Arizona Cardinals

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    High: 6

    Low: 18

    Kliff Kingsbury's offense is synonymous with the Air Raid and its spread passing principles. Yet the Arizona Cardinals finished seventh in rushing offense last season. The ranking is a result of spreading the field horizontally, thus creating easier running lanes, and a mobile quarterback in Kyler Murray, who finished second on the team with 819 rushing yards. 

    The Cardinals can throw the ball all over the field. The unit definitely features enough talent at wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins, Christian Kirk, rookie Rondale Moore and the free-agent acquisition of A.J. Green. But the ground attack could be a focal point with Chase Edmonds and James Connor together in the backfield. 

    "We expect both guys to share the load for the most part," Kingsbury told reporters. "Chase can be an everyday guy and so can James, and so we want to make sure when they do get their touches, we're getting them in situations they can be successful and be fresh and healthy."

    Arizona must become more well-rounded as a whole. A more consistent running game coupled with Murray's development has the potential to bring the first playoff appearance since Kingsbury's hire. 

10. Seattle Seahawks

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    High: 9

    Low: 10

    A little bit of business needs to take place before the Seattle Seahawks can be counted among the league's elite. The team still has Russell Wilson, DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Bobby Wagner. But two-time Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams, who the team previously traded a pair of first-round selections to acquire, and stalwart left tackle Duane Brown aren't practicing. 

    Both want new deals. 

    "It's unique in the dynamic of it—it's a big deal. We have been through a lot," head coach Pete Carroll said. "We've had a lot of really high-quality individuals in the program. Guys that we've loved, we've worked with for a long time. ... We have a little more background than the players do so we just have to go through it—we've worked very hard to make this work out, and we'll see what happens." 

    In order for something to get done, Wilson appears willing to restructure his contract, according to the Seattle Times' Bob Condotta

    The Seahawks need both Adams and Brown on the field, practicing and preparing for the season. The longer these discussions remain ongoing, the more it will affect Seattle's plans. 

9. San Francisco 49ers

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    High: 5

    Low: 12

    The Trey Lance hype train has already pulled out of the station, and it's only a matter of time before it builds up enough to steam to become a runaway locomotive. 

    "Trey is an outstanding talent. It’s hard to deny that," left tackle Trent Williams told reporters. "When you see him throw the ball, when you see him run the ball, you know that’s a generational talent." 

    Overuse of "generational" descriptor aside, Lance is the future of the 49ers franchise. Is he also the present? 

    Williams added there's no competition because veteran Jimmy Garoppolo performed so well in training camp to date. But the 49ers aren't really having a quarterback competition. While head coach Kyle Shanahan insists Garoppolo is the guy, everyone in camp can see what Williams is seeing. The rookie brings a different level of ability to the position. 

    "Why delay the inevitable?" Sobleski questioned. "The 49ers didn't trade up to the third overall pick with the intent of drafting Lance and letting him sit. By making the move, San Francisco can take its lumps early in the season as the rookie grows and improves. Let him get all of the first-team snaps now so the 49ers can become the best version of themselves." 

8. Tennessee Titans

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    High: 5

    Low: 12

    There's always a catch with the Tennessee Titans. 

    Last year, arguments centered on the inability of quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry to repeat their 2019 efforts. Both did. 

    A year later, question marks still hound the team starting with Tannehill again. Henry is a proven commodity as the league's two-time rushing leader. But Tannehill has been an excellent orchestrator the past two seasons. He's one of the league's best signal-callers, even if he's not treated as such.

    "He's not in the top-10 talk, or whatever talk; to me, it’s nonsense," wide receiver A.J. Brown told reporters. "... Derrick (Henry) doesn’t get the ball every play. Somebody has to throw us the ball, and he's very accurate. Anybody who's sleeping on him, it's nonsense. He doesn't really care about that stuff, and neither do we, so I think his head is in a good place."

    Tannehill is key, especially after the Julio Jones trade. The Titans can continue to open up the offense and rely less on Henry. In doing so, the defense must hold up its end of the bargain. The group is getting strong with Bud Dupree off the physically unable to perform list and first-round cornerback Caleb Farley in the mix after concerns about previous injuries. 

7. Los Angeles Rams

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    High: 5

    Low: 13

    Cam Akers' season-ending Achilles tendon rupture put a slight damper on the rather large expectations placed on this year's Los Angeles Rams. 

    Even without Akers, the Rams are still considered one of the NFC's best squads with new quarterback Matthew Stafford creating a lot of excitement in Sean McVay's offensive scheme. 

    "We're looking at that right now and continuing to get familiar and comfortable with what does he feels best with, what does he execute the best on the grass in some of these practice settings, but I think in a lot of instances when you go back and you watch him, this guy is the real deal," McVay said during an interview on The Doub Gottlieb Show (h/t FOX Sports Radio's Ed Black). "And he's playing the quarterback position at the highest levels in the most difficult spots. That's what really stood out to me."

    Stafford still has Darrell Henderson Jr. in the backfield with a strong offensive front, an outstanding wide receiver trio and Tyler Higbee at tight end. Akers would have been fun to watch this season, but the Rams should still be quite potent without their RB1. 

6. Baltimore Ravens

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    Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

    High: 6

    Low: 8

    COVID realities hit the Baltimore Ravens during training camp when quarterback Lamar Jackson tested positive for a second time. 

    Typically, the status of an individual wouldn't define an entire team or even be discussed. But the former MVP is one of the league's most dynamic players, and he's instrumental to the Baltimore Ravens' pathway toward success. 

    As such, the Ravens should be concerned about the dual-threat quarterback's availability and effectiveness through another season. 

    "Jackson is a true franchise quarterback. Eventually, he will sign a deal rivaling or surpassing Josh Allen's recent contract extension," Sobleski said. "But he needs to be accountable to his entire team and the Ravens organization as a whole. Yes, everyone has a choice in the matter. Those choices come with repercussions. If Jackson isn't on the field, the Ravens aren't a playoff contender since the offense feeds through him." 

    Hopefully, Jackson gets up to speed during the preseason and remains fully healthy throughout the entire 2021 campaign. The alternative will completely change how everyone views the Ravens. 

5. Green Bay Packers

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    High: 3

    Low: 7

    Life is back to normal in Green Bay. Or, at least, the closest it can be as Aaron Rodgers enters a lame-duck season with the inevitability of another drama-filled offseason next year. 

    The Packers remain a Super Bowl contender even if the team's franchise player and front office don't see eye to eye. 

    "Rodgers is back for (at least) one more run with the Packers, and that makes Green Bay a prohibitive favorite to repeat (again) as champions of the NFC North," Davenport wrote. "The Packers aren't without their issues, but this is a team that has peeled off 26-regular-season wins over the past two seasons and made the NFC Championship game two years running. Rodgers' return vaults Green Bay past the Rams and into my No. 2 slot in the NFC behind Tampa Bay."

    At this juncture, the Packers are relatively set with slight concerns at left tackle and cornerback.

    The squad awaits David Bakhtiari's return from last season's torn ACL. Meanwhile, Elgton Jenkins continues to protect Rodgers' blind side. As for the defensive back, first-round rookie Eric Stokes should be up to speed soon enough so that the Packers aren't forced to play Kevin King in an extensive role. 

4. Cleveland Browns

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    High: 3

    Low: 7

    The Cleveland Browns helped secure the franchise's present and future before the start of the preseason. The team signed running back Nick Chubb to a three-year, $36.6 million contract extension last week, per ESPN's Adam Schefter

    "Nick's on-field contributions stand for themselves," general manager Andrew Berry said in a statement after the Browns announced Chubb's new deal. "... But it's his work ethic, intelligence, toughness and selflessness that make us proud that he represents our city. Quite plainly, Nick embodies the soul of our team and we are thrilled that he will be a Cleveland Brown for years to come."

    Cornerback Denzel Ward appears to be next in line. The Browns began discussions about a potential extension, according to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. Quarterback Baker Mayfield will almost certainly receive a second contract later this year or next offseason. 

    The fact the Browns are now re-signing or attempting to re-sign previous high draft picks, as opposed to years of abysmal draft-day choices, shows where they're trending as an organization. No roster is better from top to bottom with Cleveland now squarely in the Super Bowl conversation. 

3. Buffalo Bills

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    High: 4

    Low: 4

    The Buffalo Bills don't have any distractions as they head into the preseason after quarterback Josh Allen signed a six-year, $258 million contract extension last week. 

    "To be here for eight more years and allow us to kind of move some things around to keep some pieces hereI'm not egotistical in how the money is put out or where it needs to be or how much it is," Allen told reporters. "I want to win. Whatever it takes for us to win is what I'm willing to do."

    A team tying up its franchise quarterback after an MVP-caliber season is a great start toward achieving a consistent level of success. 

    Allen can't do it alone, though. His on-field growth is due, in part, to his supporting cast. The Bills have done an excellent job continually building up the roster around the 2018 No. 7 pick. This offseason, Buffalo re-signed right tackle Daryl Williams and brought in veteran wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to replace John Brown. 

    More importantly, the Bills addressed their two biggest offseason needs by bringing back corner Levi Wallace to play opposite Tre'Davious White and drafting defensive ends Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr. 

    Buffalo is easily one of the league's most complete teams being led by a gifted quarterback. 

2. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    High: 1

    Low: 2

    The Kansas City Chiefs could have allowed their Super Bowl LV loss to fester and chip away at what the team achieved over the past few seasons. Instead, the organization did everything in its power to improve upon what was already one of the league's best squads. 

    Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill will make plays. Everyone understands this. But the Tampa Bay Buccaneers exposed a flaw in the roster. The Chiefs lacked quality depth along their offensive line, which cost them a chance at back-to-back Super Bowl victories. 

    Even with injuries to Kyle Long and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Kansas City's front five is still miles ahead of the group that couldn't block anyone in the Super Bowl. 

    As such, the projection for this fall seems rather obvious, at least to one analyst. 

    "I don't remember the last time a Super Bowl rematch felt this likely," Gagnon said. "Even with Rodgers officially returning to the Packers, the Bucs look like a well-oiled machine, while Kansas City looks as strong as it has since Mahomes emerged in 2019. A lot can (and often does) change over the course of the season, but at this point, the Chiefs and Buccaneers are head and shoulders above the rest of the league."

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    High: 1

    Low: 2

    Maybe the Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a tossup. Maybe not. 

    The Chiefs may have improved, particularly along their offensive line, but the Bucs have as well. The reigning Super Bowl champions could be a better team this year than the one that rocketed through the postseason and trounced its AFC counterpart. 

    This year, the Buccaneers had a full offseason together. The team didn't add significant pieces all over the roster. Instead, the organization kept its entire starting lineup intact. In doing so, improvement should occur through familiarity. Tom Brady is now in Year 2 of the system, and the future first-ballot Hall of Famer has arguably the league's best supporting cast. With that in mind, Brady's options could be better this fall, too. 

    Wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin are back, of course. Whereas, Antonio Brown should be significantly better after getting knee surgery this offseason to rectify a previous issue. 

    "This is the healthiest he's been in a few years," head coach Bruce Arians said of Brown. "It's been bothering him for a couple of years. Now it's all clean, so it's good."

    Normally, a Super Bowl team declines due to attrition or contentment. Neither applies for Tampa Bay, as the Buccaneers enter the preseason as NFC favorites to possibly capture a second successive title. 


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