This week in NFLTR Review, we take a look at which teams have the most reason for optimism ahead of the 2021 NFL season.
2021 Hope Index
Summer is a time of hope across the NFL. The draft is finished and most teams are largely done signing free agents. On paper, nearly every team has put together a roster they can talk themselves into, if not as contenders, then perhaps as a surprise playoff team. And that’s just coaches and executives, the optimism among fans is often even more unbridled.
Of course, the fall will reveal which hopes were real and which were illusions. Injuries will also derail things for a few unlucky organizations. Still, if we look at every team through the same rose-colored glasses, we can get a sense of which teams have the most reason to be hopeful:
32: Houston Texans
No illusions here. It’s going to be a rough 2021 in Houston unless expansions are calibrated very very low. Like first-ever team to go 0-17 low. The Texans should be the prohibitive favorites for the No. 1 pick in 2022 and should cross their fingers a viable quarterback emerges for the pick.
31: Detroit Lions
I actually am higher than the consensus on the Lions, which has become a running joke in the NFLTR offices. They need a lot to go right just to hit seven wins, though, especially on defense. No one’s going to want to play Dan Campbell’s group this season but it could be a year or more until that translates into consistent wins.
30: New York Jets
Young players like Zach Wilson and Elijah Moore are creating a lot of buzz around the Jets in minicamp and New York is one of the youngest teams in the league. The arrow is pointing up but they’ll have to take their lumps as they grow, especially in the secondary.
29: Carolina Panthers
Carolina continued to make additions to its defense this offseason and that side of the ball is improving. The offense remains the strength of the team but it’s not clear if the unit is going to be much better than last season with the change from Teddy Bridgewater to Sam Darnold.
28: Philadelphia Eagles
It’ll be the Jalen Hurts show at quarterback for the Eagles in 2021. He showed exciting mobility when given the job last year but his completion percentage needs to improve. The new coaching staff is also a wildcard. On defense, the Eagles should have a solid defensive line with a shaky secondary. The former will need to cover for the latter.
27: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers return many of the key parts of last year’s team that started 11-0 but the margin for error is dramatically smaller. The offensive line and secondary are going through a significant transition and the depth in those areas, as well as at outside linebacker, is dangerously thin. There are questions about how much QB Ben Roethlisberger has left in the tank, too. The ceiling for this team is still a playoff berth if it all holds together.
26: Las Vegas Raiders
Pressing the reset button on the offensive line when it was the biggest strength of the team remains a curious move. It’s hard to give this team the benefit of the doubt on risky moves when the plethora of other ones it’s made haven’t worked out so far.
25: Atlanta Falcons
The biggest problem for the Falcons the past few years has been underperforming their talent level, and at times it seemed psychological. A new regime could provide a spark for the talent that’s still remaining and a playoff berth isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
24: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Chosen One ended up in Jacksonville, so no matter what trepidation you may have about the start of the Urban Meyer era, landing Trevor Lawrence should make up for some of that.
23: New York Giants
The Giants added a wave of reinforcements this offseason and from a personnel standpoint should be improved. The biggest question is whether the duo of QB Daniel Jones and OC Jason Garrett is a viable combination. Defensively, the arrow seems to be pointing up.
22: Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Burrow has optimism high in Cincinnati, especially because he seems to be on track for a Week 1 return from his awful knee injury last season. It’s good timing because the Bengals really need to make some strides toward being competitive this season. It’ll still take time for Burrow to really be all the way back, so that puts even more pressure on the defense to step up.
21: Minnesota Vikings
Offensively, the Vikings weren’t without warts but were generally good on that side of the ball. Defense was another story and that’s where the team poured a lot of resources. The question with the Vikings will again be how high their ceiling can be.
20: New Orleans Saints
Life without Drew Brees won’t be completely new and scary. The Saints are 8-1 without Brees the past two seasons. New Orleans has had one of the league’s most talented rosters the past few seasons but it’s reaching the point where it’s going to be challenging to keep everything together. It’s also going to be different for Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill coming in as the Week 1 starter and not just having to hold the fort down for a few games.
19: Chicago Bears
The defense has been responsible for much of the success the team has had over the past few seasons, but the selection of Justin Fields in the first round is fueling a lot of optimism about the offense. That’s good because the defense has declined each year since being the No. 1 unit in 2018, so Chicago will need to lean on Fields whenever he enters the lineup.
18: Los Angeles Chargers
Having Justin Herbert in the fold does a lot for the long-term outlook of a team that has to play Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs twice a year for the foreseeable future. New HC Brandon Staley is also one of the game’s brightest young defensive minds. He’s got some work to do on that side of the ball, though.
17: New England Patriots
There is a cluster of teams with strong defenses, strong offensive lines and questionable, to put it charitably, quarterback situations. New England falls in that bucket. Their offensive line could be one of the best in the league, the defense should be good as well. The question is if they have enough at the quarterback and skill positions to get it done.
16: Dallas Cowboys
Dak Prescott was sensational to start out the 2020 season, but he had to be to make up for a tissue-paper defense. That’s supposed to improve with the addition of DC Dan Quinn. There’s no reason to think Prescott and the offense won’t be great again, so the hope is a better defense translates to better than the 1-3 start Dallas had with a healthy Prescott in 2020.
15: Denver Broncos
Nearly all the pieces seem to be in place in Denver. The offensive line is solid and there’s exciting young skill position talent. The additions in the secondary and return of a healthy Von Miller have the defense positioned to be among the best in the league. All the Broncos need is a quarterback — and who knows, even if they don’t land a Hail Mary trade for Aaron Rodgers this season, maybe Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater tap into a level we haven’t seen before.
14: Washington Football Team
Rounding out the just-need-a-QB group is the Football Team. Even though Washington was only the least-bad team in the awful NFC East last season, the pieces are there for a jump with Chase Young leading possibly the NFL’s best defensive line. There’s talent at just about every other position group as well. It’ll all come down to if the team can get more Good Ryan FitzMagic than Bad Ryan Fitzpatrick.
13: Arizona Cardinals
2021 is a huge year for the Cardinals and they’ve gone all-in, adding proven veteran help in an effort to build around QB Kyler Murray while he’s on his rookie deal. On paper, Watt and Chandler Jones is a potent combination that could mask some issues in the back seven. How much Watt and A.J. Green have left in the tank will go a long way toward determining if Arizona can break through after being a trendy sleeper team last season. Murray too has growing to do, especially as a passer, after a scintillating start to the season.
12: Tennessee Titans
The Titans are coming off their fifth-straight winning season, the past three of which have been under Mike Vrabel. Good coaching goes a long way but Tennessee will have to fight off some attrition both to the staff and to the roster. The good news is that Vrabel’s expertise on defense should help that unit rebound and adding Julio Jones to an offense that already includes Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Ryan Tannehill should keep things humming there.
11: Miami Dolphins
Behind a ferocious defense, Miami looked like a team on the rise last season. Their ceiling will be determined by what kind of growth Tua Tagovailoa can make in his second season. Considering his weapons are upgraded, his line should be improved and he’s coming off a full offseason where he doesn’t have to focus on rehabbing a potentially career-threatening injury, it’s fair to think Tagovailoa can make some strides.
10: Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis has steadily built a solid roster that’s strong along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The biggest variable will be what they can get out of the quarterback position, with Frank Reich reuniting with Carson Wentz. The last time we saw those two together, Wentz was on pace for the MVP award. The last time we saw Wentz, he looked like a broken quarterback before he was benched. Indianapolis needs Wentz to be closer to the former than the latter.
9: Green Bay Packers
If things are patched up between the Packers and Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay should be one of the best teams in the conference again. If they’re not, the Packers become a complete wildcard.
8: San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers believe they have a team that can be as good as the one in 2019 that went to a Super Bowl. But that will depend on if Jimmy Garoppolo can stay healthy and play to the level he did that year. If not, Trey Lance is waiting in the wings, and while his inexperience probably caps San Francisco’s upside in 2021 if he’s the starter, it does open up what they can do on offense.
7: Seattle Seahawks
Russell Wilson is tremendous and any team with him at quarterback will be in contention any year. The Seahawks have some questions to answer, though, including what the offense will look like under new OC Shane Waldron and how heavily will it feature Wilson? On defense, Seattle’s front seven has some intriguing pieces but the cornerback group is unheralded, to put it tactfully. Playing in the meat grinder that is the NFC West won’t make things easy for Seattle, either.
6: Cleveland Browns
We’ve seen Cleveland teams garner hype before but after legitimately challenging the Chiefs in the divisional round last year, the Browns are ready to take the next step as contenders in 2021. If they can stay healthy, they have the personnel on defense to be tough, especially rushing the passer. On offense, the formula is running the ball and taking shots, which minimizes pressure on Baker Mayfield. To get where they really want to go, though, Mayfield will have to take the next step at some point.
5: Baltimore Ravens
There was enough other stuff going on between a Covid outbreak and the regression talk around Lamar Jackson that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact the Ravens still went 11-5 and made it to the second round of the playoffs. The defense is still strong and perhaps with the receiving weapons the Ravens brought in, they can figure out how to make their offense versatile enough to get over the last hump.
4: Los Angeles Rams
The arrival of Matthew Stafford has put a sense of renewed optimism and expectations on the franchise, as he’s as talented a quarterback as the franchise has ever had. After annually struggling to lift the moribund Lions out of their dysfunction, Stafford now finds himself locked into a smoothly-running organization with a star coach and elite talent on both sides of the ball, like the final Infinity Stone snapping into place on the gauntlet. Now we wait to see if the effect is as devastating.
3: Buffalo Bills
With Josh Allen, the Bills now appear to have a quarterback who can keep up with the Chiefs and the other major powers in the NFL. The key for 2021 will be if they’ve patched up their defense enough to be able to pull ahead.
2: Kansas City Chiefs
This seems about as low as any team quarterbacked by Patrick Mahomes should fall.
1: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last season was Tom Brady’s first outside of the same system he’d been in for two decades and it showed. There were some bumps in the road during the season but Tampa Bay hit a groove in the playoffs and won a Super Bowl. Talent was already a strength and now continuity will be too. Expect the Buccaneers to be one of the NFL’s best teams in 2021.
This Week In Football
- Extensions for the members of the 2018 quarterback class are one of the big stories to monitor this summer. Last week the Ravens said a new deal for Lamar Jackson was their No. 1 priority. This week we learned Bills QB Josh Allen is willing to work with the team on the structure of the deal to help push it across the finish line. After his breakout season, Allen should exceed Dak Prescott’s $40 million a year contract, which could be tough for the Bills given they have just $10 million in space this year and already have $207 million of a maximum $208 million cap tied up in 2022. Mahomes’ unique 10-year structure has been brought up and while Allen probably won’t sign for 10 years, something like six or seven would be longer than the norm and allow Buffalo a little more flexibility potentially.
- Browns QB Baker Mayfield is the other eligible extension candidate this summer and his representation is optimistic something will get done. Mayfield is under contract through 2022 under the fifth-year option if the Browns want to continue to gauge his development but the general sense from the team is that they view him as their franchise quarterback still. Mayfield will fall somewhere beneath the top tier in terms of compensation for quarterbacks as well, so unless he decides to bet on himself raising his value — which his agents didn’t seem to indicate was in the plans — there shouldn’t be many obstacles to a new deal.
- Rodgers isn’t the only star with a potentially uncertain future in Green Bay. Packers WR Davante Adams is entering the final year of his deal and the situation with Rodgers has had a ripple effect on his star receiver. The two sides have had preliminary discussions on a new contract but Rodgers’ discontent has had a ripple effect on Adams. It’s another layer to the situation for Green Bay to navigate.
- Initially, I was going to point out how Steelers beat reporters were indicating some possible smoke related to G David DeCastro‘s minicamp absence and the hosting of veteran G Trai Turner for a visit. Pittsburgh cleared everything up Thursday though with the shocking announcement it was releasing the veteran and the lone remaining stalwart on their offensive line. Turner isn’t a bad replacement if he signs as a five-time Pro Bowler who’s still just 28 but this is a massive amount of turnover for a position that was a strength for the Steelers just a short time ago.
- A sometimes unfortunate feature of the summer in the NFL is without the ability to make any news on the field, there are a lot of players who make the news for the wrong reasons off the field. Chiefs DE Frank Clark is facing a felony charge for illegal possession of a gun in Los Angeles, plus another weapons charge from March. It’s not Clark’s first run-in with legal issues, as he settled a domestic violence case in college.
- Former Washington RB Derrius Guice had the four remaining domestic violence charges against him dropped this week after he and his accuser reached a settlement, which was enough to satisfy a Virginia judge that justice had been served. This in theory clears a path for Guice to return to the NFL with a few important caveats: 1) He still faces potential NFL discipline independent of the judiciary process. 2) There’s a clear pattern of behavior with Guice. Two women said he raped them at LSU and told their story to USA Today, and a former reporter was threatened by Guice while doing an innocuous profile on him at LSU.
- Off-field news isn’t always bad this time of year. Raiders DE Carl Nassib came out as gay this week. He’s far from the first NFL player to be gay but he is the first to come out of the closet as an active player. That’s unquestionably a milestone. Why? Studies show that for LBGTQ youth, having just one accepting adult can decrease the risk of suicide by 40 percent, and LBGTQ youth are 40 percent more likely than their peers to attempt suicide. Representation really does matter.