Ranking the NFL's 7 Most Talented Rosters Entering 2021 Season

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistAugust 29, 2021

Ranking the NFL's 7 Most Talented Rosters Entering 2021 Season

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Talent doesn't equal everything in the NFL—but it is the most important building block for a franchise to contend.

    The Houston Texans, for example, could have amazing coaching in 2021 but don't project to contend because of the dire state of their roster. It's why onlookers rightfully were so impressed about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers keeping their Super Bowl squad together.

    Only a handful of teams stick out as the most talented. They have the most important piece locked down: a great quarterback. That position is more important than any other—which is why the stacked Washington Football Team missed the cut. Otherwise, these rosters were ranked by all-around talent with an emphasis on offensive players given the makeup of today's game.

    Note that these aren't power rankings. If all coaches were equal, these would be the best teams in the league.

7. Tennessee Titans

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    Jason Behnken/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Titans sprinted to the playoffs last year for a reason: Their roster is stacked.

    Quarterback Ryan Tannehill doesn't get nearly enough credit. Over 16 games, he completed 65.5 percent of his passes with 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions. His 11 wins and approximate value of 17 were the highest marks of his career by long shots.

    Derrick Henry, owner of 2,027 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns last year, returns behind a line led by left tackle Taylor Lewan. And while Corey Davis departed in free agency, A.J. Brown had outplayed him anyway. Oh, and the front office added Julio Jones.

    On the defensive side, big-name free agent Bud Dupree joined up-and-comer Jeffery Simmons, owner of an 83.6 Pro Football Focus grade (just shy of the Pro Bowler designation) last year. First-round pick Caleb Farley boosted the talent of a secondary that should have even better pass-rushing production in front of it thanks to the addition of Dupree.

    Tennessee might have a hard time without offensive coordinator Arthur Smith at the controls, but on talent alone? There aren't many better rosters.

6. Cleveland Browns

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    David Dermer/Associated Press

    Baker Mayfield remains a polarizing quarterback, sure, but it's hard to deny the 3,563 passing yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions last year.

    Even if onlookers have questions about Mayfield, which is fair enough, the roster around him is stacked. Nick Chubb rushed for 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns last year over just 12 appearances, and when he's not available, Kareem Hunt is there to pick up the slack.

    One of the league's best offensive lines is highlighted by Jack Conklin at right tackle and 2020 No. 10 pick Jedrick Wills Jr. on the left edge. Mayfield has Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. at wideout plus one of the best tight end depth charts in the league thanks to David Njoku and Austin Hooper.

    And the defense might be equally as talented. Jadeveon Clowney will rush the passer opposite Myles Garrett, arguably the league's best defender and owner of 12 sacks last year. Cleveland also signed superb coverage safety John Johnson III in free agency to pair with 2018 third-rounder Ronnie Harrison Jr. and corners Denzel Ward (2018 No. 4 pick) and Greg Newsome II (2021 No. 26 pick).

    It's not hard to see why the Browns made the playoffs last year—and won a game.

5. Buffalo Bills

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Through smart roster-building and player development, the Buffalo Bills have the most difficult thing nailed down: Josh Allen has morphed into a franchise passer and MVP contender.

    During last year's sprint to the AFC title game, Allen completed 69.2 percent of his passes with 37 touchdowns to 10 interceptions plus another eight touchdowns as a rusher.

    While the Bills don't have the most star-studded offensive line, Allen and his surrounding talent are just that good. Devin Singletary and Zack Moss make for a nice one-two tandem in the backfield, and Stefon Diggs is arguably a top-10 wideout after posting 1,535 yards and eight touchdowns last year with 20 catches of 20-plus yards. Emmanuel Sanders, Cole Beasley and others round out a robust depth chart at the position.

    Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds return in the heart of a defense that upgraded its pass rush with first-round pick Greg Rousseau and second-rounder Boogie Basham. Tre'Davious White remains one of the game's best corners.

    Still, it's all about the offense, as evidenced by the team's nearly reaching its first Super Bowl since 1993 while leaning on the unit. With Allen's development and surrounding pieces, Buffalo should be right back in the hunt.

4. Baltimore Ravens

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Rostering the 2019 MVP who is just 24 years old has a way of placing a team on this short list.

    The Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson reasonably regressed last season, but it's hard to complain about 2,757 passing yards, 26 touchdowns against nine interceptions, a team-high 1,005 rushing yards, seven scores on the ground and 6.3 yards per carry.

    Like Buffalo's, the Baltimore offensive line doesn't feature massive names, especially after the trade of Orlando Brown, but the skill positions make up for it. J.K. Dobbins averaged six yards per carry last season and although he suffered a knee injury in the final week of the preseason that could hold him out for the year, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Gus Edwards has been effective since coming into the league in 2018 averaging over five yards-per-carry in each of his three seasons. The receiver group got upgrades this year with Sammy Watkins, Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallce joining a group that already featured 2019 first-round pick Marquise Brown. 

    Baltimore's ability to churn out elite defenses regardless of losses should continue, too. Calais Campbell and a host of others make for a formidable pass rush, while 2020 first-round pick Patrick Queen figures to step into a bigger role for a loaded linebacker unit. Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey and Jimmy Smith still headline at premium corner spots, too.

3. Dallas Cowboys

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    It's easy to overlook the Dallas Cowboys after their down season last year.

    But that would be a mistake in part because of Dak Prescott. Prior to playing just five games last year, he threw for 4,902 yards and 30 touchdowns against 11 interceptions in 2019. One of the league's premier passers operates behind one of the best offensive lines, which features left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin—and the stability and borderline guaranteed production is what helps the Cowboys rank higher than the Ravens. 

    Prescott also gets to work with one of the best surrounding casts. Ezekiel Elliott is a star running back, Amari Cooper is the No. 1 wideout, 2020 No. 17 pick CeeDee Lamb has huge upside, and Michael Gallup might be one of the most underrated wideouts out there (843 yards, five touchdowns, 14.3 yards per catch last season).

    Don't sleep on the defense, either, after last year's near-historical ineptitude. Better coaching and schemes under new coordinator Dan Quinn should get more from mainstays such as Jaylon Smith. Either way, Smith resides with a stacked linebacker core alongside Leighton Vander Esch and 2021 No. 12 pick Micah Parsons.

    While the rebuilt defense still has to prove it on the field, the DeMarcus Lawrence-led pass rush and an infusion of defensive talent (eight of the team's 11 draft picks, including the first six, were defenders) point the arrow up alongside an offense with best-in-the-league potential.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Given the collapse of the offensive line in Super Bowl LV, the Kansas City Chiefs could have lost standing on this list.

    But the front office had other plans.

    Not content to wait on development, the Chiefs splurged on free-agent left guard Joe Thuney and traded for left tackle Orlando Brown before using a second-round pick on center Creed Humphrey.

    All this in front of Patrick Mahomes, who lit it up again last year with 4,740 passing yards and 38 touchdowns against six interceptions over 15 games. Mahomes is the best non-Brady passer in the league right now, so he and the tandem of skill players on offense slip the Chiefs past Dallas in the rankings. 

    That offense also returns breakout candidate Clyde Edwards-Helaire at running back, arguably the best tight end in the league in Travis Kelce (he led the team in receiving and scored 11 times in 2020) and nigh-unstoppable speedster wideouts Tyreek Hill (15 touchdowns in 2020) and Mecole Hardman.

    Based on that talent alone, the defense could go unmentioned. But that'd be unfair to Chris Jones, one of the best defenders in the league and owner of a 90.3 PFF grade last year. Stellar pass-rusher Frank Clark makes a relentless push, and the secondary features an established star (Tyrann Mathieu) and major riser (L'Jarius Sneed).

    In most years, the Chiefs would comfortably sit at No. 1. But thanks to some great moves in Tampa Bay, that's not the case.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

    In the modern NFL, the salary cap and free agency aim to force a competitive balance.

    But the Buccaneers laughed in the face of such a notion. Tom Brady returns after his seventh Super Bowl and 4,633 passing yards with 40 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette form for an elite backfield behind a likewise elite line that features left tackle Donovan Smith, center Ryan Jensen and right tackle Tristan Wirfs.

    Tired of the word "elite" yet? Try the surrounding cast. Rob Gronkowski also returns after catching seven touchdown passes last year. So do Chris Godwin (840 yards and seven scores over 12 games) and Mike Evans (1,006 yards, 13 scores). The Buccaneers are so stacked that Antonio Brown is the fourth option.

    And don't forget the defense. A unit that generated 48 sacks and 15 interceptions in the regular season last year before countering Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in the Super Bowl returns pass-rushers Shaquil Barrett (eight sacks) and Devin White (nine sacks) and elite linebacker Lavonte David. The line boasts Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is a breakout candidate, and first-round linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka could be a difference-maker.

    With Brady taking the head-to-head with Mahomes recently and the fact that this is simply a more robust roster than the one in Kansas City, Tampa Bay squeaks into the top spot. The Buccaneers are so talented one could think their roster is only obtainable in Madden. Yet Brady and Co. have raised the bar, and the rest of the league is tasked with keeping up.