Mar. 28—SANTA CLARA — What’s the landscape of the NFL look like after the first two weeks of the new league year? Let’s dive in with our first power rankings of 2021.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
Maybe presumptive No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence turns into a star, and maybe new general manager Trent Baalke can turn around a bad roster in a way he couldn’t with the 49ers before he was fired after going 4-12 in 2016. Maybe coach Urban Meyer will transition smoothly to the pros after much of his success in college came from his ability to recruit the best players in the country. That’s a lot of maybes for a team that just finished 1-15 with its only win in 2020 coming in the season opener. Maybe this is a team that will have another top-three draft pick this time next spring. The good news? The Jags have four selections in the first two rounds to start changing the course of the franchise.
31. Houston Texans
The Deshaun Watson situation was a football tragedy long before the growing list of sexual misconduct allegations arose in recent weeks. It’s likely that Watson is untradeable for the foreseeable future after leading the NFL in passing during the team’s miserable 4-12 campaign in 2020. Making things worse, after losing stars like J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins the last two offseasons, the Texans won’t be picking until early in the third round thanks to some remarkably bad roster management under former coach Bill O’Brien. The Texans are bad, don’t have the resources to get better and will have to navigate an incredibly tough situation with Watson. Owner Cal McNair and vice president Jack Easterby are driving this clown car with blindfolds on and the pedal to the metal.
30. Detroit Lions
New coach Dan Campbell couldn’t be much worse than Matt Patricia, who turned out to be another Bill Belichick disciple who struggled to implement the “Patriot Way” elsewhere. The Lions made a big deal to trade Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff and a pair of first-round draft picks. That seems like a smart move for first-year general manager Brad Homes, who brings with him a strong reputation. But Homes will have to turn around the NFL’s worst defense from last season with a roster that’s been stripped for parts. Perhaps the Lions, who have just six picks in the draft, would be in a prime spot to move back from No. 7 overall if all the top quarterbacks are off the board and they don’t love the idea of taking a receiver that high.
29. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals haven’t been above .500 since 2015, which was the last of their five straight losses in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Worse yet, last year’s No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow tore his ACL 10 games into his rookie season, which won’t help his development in one of the toughest divisions in football. The Bengals should expect Sacramento native Jonah Williams back after missing his rookie season in 2019 with a shoulder injury. Their offensive line seems to perpetually need reinforcements which makes them a prime candidate for Oregon’s stud tackle Penei Sewell with the fifth overall pick. Otherwise, with the team’s top pass rusher Carl Lawson headed to New York and cornerback Williams Jackson now with Washington, the Bengals will be hard-pressed to make significant improvements from their 4-11-1 record in 2020.
28. Philadelphia Eagles
Who is Nick Sirianni? No, seriously, who is he? The Eagles went from a Super Bowl-winning coach in Doug Pederson to Sirianni, who was an off-the-radar hire this coaching cycle after Pederson and Carson Wentz bombed the team’s post-championship efforts after 2017. Now Wentz is gone to Indianapolis, leaving Jalen Hurts as the presumptive starter, though the Eagles could be in the market for one of the promising quarterbacks in this draft with the sixth-overall pick headlining their 10 picks total. The Eagles could also be in the mix for a wideout after early in the draft after last year’s first-round pick Jalen Reagor had just 396 yards in 11 games. The roster needs serious help no matter which direction they go. Luckily they play in the NFC East, which was laughably bad in 2020.
27. New York Jets
The Jets made some interesting moves in free agency by bringing in Lawson and receiver Corey Davis for new head coach Robert Saleh and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur. But these are still the Jets we’re talking about and there’s a long way to go to turn things around in a division that should be awfully competitive. The Bills are looking to make a Super Bowl run, Belichick is reloading the Patriots and the Dolphins are coming off an impressive 10-6 season as they expedited their rebuilding effort. Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas appear to be headed in the right direction, but don’t expect winning football for Gang Green any time soon. Oh yeah, they also have to figure out their quarterback situation with Sam Darnold and his presumptive replacement coming with the No. 2 pick in the draft.
26. Las Vegas Raiders
Jon Gruden in 2017 inherited a team that went 25-23 in three seasons under Jack Del Rio. Gruden’s record in three seasons since: 19-29. And more good players have left than joined, including Khalil Mack, Amari Cooper and a slew of talented offensive linemen. The Raiders went a weird direction during free agency this year, giving backup running back Kenyan Drake $11 million in guarantees behind promising youngster Josh Jacobs. Is Derek Carr good? Maybe, but Vegas seems to be in quarterback purgatory at the moment, especially without any real weapons at receiver since Cooper was traded to the Cowboys in 2018. Darren Waller is an elite tight end and Jacobs might be a star, but it’s hard to look at the Raiders since Gruden took over and have confidence in his ability to turn things around. Fortunately for owner Mark Davis there are only seven short years remaining on Gruden’s contract.
25. Chicago Bears
Like the Raiders, it’s fair to ask exactly what the Bears’ plans are this offseason. They decided to not bring back Mitchell Trubisky, which seems like a fine decision, but they countered by signing Andy Dalton to be their starting quarterback for $10 million. Dalton would be a fine bridge option, but a bridge to what? The Bears don’t pick until No. 20, which is expected to be far too late for an elite prospect. They weren’t able to land Russell Wilson in a trade, though they didn’t have any problem crowing about offering starters and a slew of draft picks to get him. And Watson doesn’t seem like a possibility. Don’t be surprise if Ryan Pace is the first general manager to get a pink slip in 2021.
24. Denver Broncos
The sky-high expectations surrounding Drew Lock coming into 2020 turned out to be a touch misguided after impressing as a rookie in 2019. Lock last season was the league’s 32nd-rated quarterback with a 75.4 passer rating, while his 15 interceptions tied Wentz for the most in the NFL. The Broncos are picking ninth next month, putting them in an interesting spot. It might be outside the range for a top quarterback prospect to push Lock for his job, though the team did well to add veteran corners Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby to Vic Fangio’s secondary. Von Miller’s best days seem to be behind him, though Bradley Chubb remains in tow and eager to get a big contract entering his fourth season. The Broncos could make a big jump if things break right offensively, but they don’t appear close to being able to run with the Chiefs, which has to be the goal in the AFC West.
23. New York Giants
The Giants seem to think Daniel Jones is going to develop into a winning quarterback despite his touchdown passes dropping from 24 as a rookie to 11 last season. To be sure, losing star running back Saquon Barkley to injury just two games into the year didn’t help, nor did the team’s disastrous offensive line. But the Giants made some intriguing moves in free agency bringing in receiver Kenny Galladay, albeit on a massive four-year, $72 million contract, while the rest of the league is avoiding giving top dollar to free agents with the draft constantly churning out good pass catchers. Adding cornerback Adoree Jackson could also be a good move for a defense that ranked ninth in scoring last season.
22. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons, owners of the No. 4 pick in the draft, could take a quarterback, but it would be a curious decision after deciding to restructure Matt Ryan’s contract by spreading out $21 million of his base salary into a signing bonus stretching into 2023. It would leave Atlanta with some $40 million in dead money should the Falcons try to move on in 2022. New coach Arthur Smith did well with Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee and could replicate that success with the Falcons. And Atlanta went just 2-8 in games decided by one score or less last season, making them a possible bounce back candidate in the NFC South that no longer features Drew Brees.
21. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers seem to be linked to every quarterback on the move, from Stafford to Watson to moving up from pick No. 8 in the draft to land their guy. They could make a significant jump soon if they improve over Teddy Bridgewater thanks to some intriguing talent on the roster under young coach Matt Rhule. A defensive line with Brian Burns, free agent addition Haason Reddick, Derek Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos could be problematic for opposing offenses. Meanwhile, running back Christian McCaffrey is coming back from missing 13 games last season due to a high ankle sprain, shoulder and quad injuries.
20. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings were forced to remake their defense this offseason thanks to serious struggles on that side in 2020. They finished 29th in scoring after ranking fifth in 2019 before losing to the 49ers in the Divisional Round. Kirk Cousins remains the team’s starter and that doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. Luckily for Minnesota, first-round pick Justin Jefferson is already a star after the team traded away Stefon Diggs, and Dalvin Cook has a case to be considered one of the game’s elite running backs. It remains to be seen if veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson has much left in the tank heading into Year 11. Expect Minnesota to be active during the draft with seven picks during the first four rounds, including four in the fourth.
19. Dallas Cowboys
Bringing back Dak Prescott on a four-year, $160 million contract is a big win for the Jerry Jones and the artist formally known as America’s Team. But the defense remains a big question mark, as does Jones’ knack for spending on the wrong players. Declining running back Ezekiel Elliott has dead cap hits of $36.9 and $23.2 million the next two seasons before the team can get out after 2022. Plus, it’s far from clear if Mike McCarthy is the right coach to steer Dallas back to contention after his uninspiring start last fall (which included losing Prescott five games into the season). Dallas replaced defensive coordinator Mike Nolan with former Falcons coach Dan Quinn whose defense ranked no better than 20th in yardage during his final three seasons in Atlanta.
18. Arizona Cardinals
Cue the jokes about Arizona being the place people go to retire. Adding J.J. Watt, A.J. Green and Malcolm Butler seems like an awesome idea in 2015, but obviously they aren’t in the prime of their careers in 2021. Still, Watt and Chandler Jones should make their defensive front difficult to block. And Kyler Murray has star potential heading into his third season. The biggest questions revolve around the viability of Kliff Kingsbury as a winning coach and the team’s ability to hang with the big boys in the NFC West.
17. Tennessee Titans
Can quarterback Ryan Tannehill continue his strong play with his former coordinator, Smith, coaching the Falcons? Is the defense going to improve in a significant way after ranking 28th overall last season? Is Derrick Henry ever going to slow down? It seems as long as Henry is steamrolling defenders and A.J. Brown is running through secondaries, the Titans are going to be a tough out. That said, Bud Dupree’s five-year, $82.5 million contract seems like a lot for a middling pass rusher.
The WFT defensive line might be the best in the NFL in 2021 which means they could make jump in the win column after winning the crummy division with a 7-9 record. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was brought in as a placeholder until the long-term plan at quarterback solidifies itself. Ron Rivera is one of the more respected coaches in the league and it appears he’s changing the culture from tire fire to something players want to be a part of. Adding Jackson at corner, Curtis Samuel at receiver and retaining All-Pro guard Brandon Scherff on the franchise tag all look like solid moves.
15. New England Patriots
The Patriots went on a controversial spending spree in free agency, handing out big contracts to tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, pass rusher Matt Judon, receivers Nelson Agular and former 49er Kendrick Bourne while bringing back linebacker Kyle Van Noy and getting a handful of contributors back after opting out in 2020. Belichick doesn’t seem happy about the team’s 7-9 finish last season and seems intent on rectifying that. With Cam Newton back for a second season and his weapons improving, don’t be surprised to see New England back in the playoff mix.
14. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins still have a top-10 pick in the draft after dealing the No. 3 slot to the 49ers, then moved back into the top 10 via a trade with the Eagles for the No. 6 pick. The Dolphins have an intriguing roster, young quarterback and all the options in the world. They could potentially add a franchise quarterback with that third pick, move back for even more picks (they already have four in the first two rounds) or could trade a bounty for a star like Watson or Wilson. Head coach Brian Flores put together the league’s sixth-ranked defense in 2020, though it could be due for turnover regression after leading the league with 29 takeaways.
13. Los Angeles Chargers
Justin Herbert made a lot of draft prognosticators look bad in 2020 by becoming one of the more promising young quarterbacks we’ve seen in recent years. He’s back along with new head coach Brandon Staley, who makes the jump from being the Rams defensive coordinator last year. The Chargers can pair Herbert with a talented roster that includes topflight center Corey Linsley, pass rusher Joey Bosa, premier safety Derwin James, 100-catch receiver Keenan Allen and others. The Chargers are going to be a trendy Wild Card pick in 2021 with a chance at long-term sustainability should Herbert build on his rookie campaign.
12. New Orleans Saints
The perennially disappointing Saints are coming off a 12-4 season that ended with a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers in the divisional round. Drew Brees retired, setting up a weird quarterback competition between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston. The Saints still have a top-flight roster though it’s hard to imagine the team being better without a Hall of Fame quarterback. They could be a regression candidate unless they can replicate Brees’ production under center, which seems like a big ask from Hill and/or Winston.
11. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers could make the case they have one of the better rosters in the NFC, with elite players at left tackle, pass rusher, tight end and middle linebacker. But they are coming off one of the worst injury seasons in recent memory in 2020 when Jimmy Garoppolo, Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford and a slew of others missed significant time with injuries. On paper, San Francisco’s offense could be the best its been under Kyle Shanahan. The question, aside from the consistent chatter about Garoppolo and now what the team will do with the No. 3 pick in the draft, is the viability of the defense under new coordinator DeMeco Ryans. The 49ers had arguably the best defense in the NFL when it went to the Super Bowl in 2019, but that was with key stars like Sherman and DeForest Buckner, who are no longer around. Can the offense improve to offset the likely decline on defense? That falls largely on Garoppolo and his health. If he stays available, San Francisco is a bounce back candidate for 2021.
10. Seattle Seahawks
It appears things are souring between Russell Wilson and the organization. The not-quite-trade request Wilson made, saying he would go to the Bears, Jets, Raiders or Saints, was one of the more strange developments of the offseason, indicating things could be going the wrong direction. Still, Seattle has D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and new tight end Gerald Everett to make things tough on opposing defenses. If Pete Carroll could bolster his own defense, the Seahawks will be a favorite to get back to the postseason for the ninth time in 10 years.
9. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are coming off an 11-5 season and remain one of the most balanced teams in the NFL. They’re anchored by a good offensive line and a strong defense featuring Buckner and star linebacker Darius Leonard. But the team is taking a big swing on resuscitating Wentz, whom they acquired in the trade with the Eagles for a conditional second-round pick that could turn into a first depending on Wentz’ playing time. The deal will look like a home run should Wentz come in and play anywhere near the level of his MVP candidate season in 2017. If not, the Colts still have a roster that could lift up a struggling quarterback. But clearly that will be the difference between contending with the elite teams of the conference versus just sneaking into the playoffs.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers don’t seem to mind Dupree leaving for that massive contract with the Titans, which freed up some money to bring back JuJu Smith-Schuster on a modest one-year contract. This will likely be Ben Roethlisberger’s last ride, leaving Pittsburgh a fascinating question for the draft: be aggressive in finding the quarterback or add an offensive lineman or pass rusher to help the team compete for a Super Bowl now? The Steelers defense remains elite even with Dupree gone and Roethlisberger’s likely retirement after the season could be a rallying cry.
7. Cleveland Browns
Yes, they are a top-10 NFL team (I had to look really hard at this before finalizing this decision). Myles Garrett is a monster, Odell Beckham is still good and the offensive line might be one of the league’s best in front of a talented group of running backs. This question facing the Browns from a roster standpoint involves Baker Mayfield and his future. He’s entering his fourth season and is due for a new contract. But is he worth the $30 to $40 million per year other quarterbacks are getting? His numbers indicate he’s in the middle of the pack, so general manager Andrew Berry has an interesting dilemma on his hands. Either way, the Browns are built to compete in 2021. And now that I’ve come to that conclusion, they’re going to finish 6-10.
6. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams went 10-6 last season and beat Russell Wilson in a road playoff game and upgraded their quarterback situation with Stafford over Goff. The defense was first in 2020 in both yardage and scoring though it has work to do in the secondary with some key departures in free agency like safety John Johnson (who signed with the Browns) and Troy Hill. The team made a head scratching decision to give big money to Leonard Floyd but that’s what the Rams do. Sure, they might not build a roster with the long-term in mind. But this is a talented, well coached team that can win right now and worry about the other stuff later.
5. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have been at least .500 in each of the last five seasons and they don’t appear to be slowing down, though they would certainly prefer to get beyond the divisional round of the playoffs one of these years. Yes, they could use more play-makers to complement Lamar Jackson, and like Mayfield, there are big questions about what his next contract is going to look like. But if any team in the AFC has built an infrastructure you can trust, it’s Baltimore. Jackson’s passing numbers regressed slightly in 2020, so that might be concerning heading into this season. Regardless, Jackson might end up being the best rushing quarterback in NFL history after recording 2,211 yards over the last two seasons. Michael Vick rushed for 1,000 yards just once in his 13-year career.
4. Green Bay Packers
Back-to-back seasons of 13-3 isn’t bad. But surely the Packers would have preferred better outcomes in the last two NFC Championship games. Aaron Rodgers is coming off another MVP season while there’s a good chance the Packers front office does more to surround him with weapons than last offseason, when they used a first-round draft choice on his potential replacement, Jordan Love. The Packers offensive line should continue to be a strength but it will take some work to replace Linsley. The defense, meanwhile, ranked in the top 10 in third-down conversion rate and red-zone scoring. The NFC seems like it could be more open this year with Brees retired, but expect the Packers to remain near the top.
3. Buffalo Bills
Josh Allen might be the next big superstar quarterback if he isn’t already. His enormous arm and athleticism are remarkable, especially considering the accuracy issues he had entering the league. Very few quarterbacks improve their accuracy the way Allen has, improving his completion rate from a meh 59% to respectable 69% between years 2 and 3. The Bills had a “happy to be here” vibe when they reached the conference championship last year. That should change in 2021 because they are clearly the biggest threat to the Chiefs reaching a third straight Super Bowl.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
Sure, there are questions about the offensive line after cutting both starting tackles and getting beat along the line of scrimmage in the Super Bowl. They might have jumped into the No. 1 spot had they secured Trent Williams, who returned to San Francisco. But the Chiefs are still elite as long as No. 15 is hurling passes from every angle and platform to Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Last season proved that repeating is hard, but the Chiefs should get their edge back after getting handled in the Super Bowl.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
They kept the band together and still have Tom Brady, who is probably going to win six more Super Bowls and play until he’s 64. Okay, probably not. But the point stands. The Buccaneers have one of the best rosters in the NFL, which includes an elite group of skill players, a good offensive line, strong pass rush and talented secondary. There just aren’t any holes to poke at, which was apparent when Tampa went through Brees, Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes to win the Super Bowl. Retaining Shaq Barrett, Lavonte David and Chris Godwin was a collective master stroke. It would be impossible to go another direction at No. 1 based on what happened against the Chiefs in February. Does that mean they will repeat? Perhaps not. Repeating is hard. But for now, they are the NFL’s top team.
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