05/12/2021 By RuneLite
The 2021 NFL season is upon us, and a lot has changed since the 2020 NFL season, which was nearly the Season That Never Was. Vaccinations have made things a lot easier for those coaches and players smart enough to partake. Fans should be back at full capacity in the stands at every stadium. And hopefully, no team will have to forfeit a game because its backward thinking on vaccinations renders its roster unable to take the field.
(Spoiler: We’re talking about YOU, Vikings).
There are differences on the field, as well. Free agency and the draft have added the usual number of new stories, and we tried to cover as many of those as possible in our pre-season power rankings. But as you’ll see from the teams up top, very little has changed, as well. The best are still the best, and as the Buccaneers are the first Super Bowl champion to return all 22 of its starters since the 1979 Steelers (who repeated as Super Bowl champs), we could be in for “same as it ever was.”
Then again, there are those teams in prime position to knock the crown off Tom Brady’s head, and as we go through our preseason preview of all 32 teams, that’s where it always gets interesting.
Here are Touchdown Wire’s preseason power rankings for 2021.
32. Houston Texans
(AP Photo/Justin Rex)
Let’s assume that Deshaun Watson has played his last down with the Texans — which, given Watson’s off-field issues, is a fairly safe assumption. How many above-average players are on this roster? Quarterback Tyrod Taylor can get things done in the right system, though we don’t really know what Houston’s system will be. Running back David Johnson? Perhaps. Receiver Brandin Cooks? Probably. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil? Sure. End Whitney Mercilus and defensive tackle Maliek Collins gives this defense a bit of pass-rush in the post-J.J. Watt phase, and Zach Cunningham is an underrated linebacker, but this roster is the NFL’s worst with Watson, and it obviously craters without him. General manager Nick Caserio is at the start of a very long rebuild that will not be helped in the least by Jack Easterby’s motivational tweets, and unless miracles happen, it’s hard to imagine the Texans winning more than a game or two.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
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There’s a lot of new blood in Jacksonville, but we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out. Urban Meyer is greatly respected in the NFL, but there are all kinds of pro-respected college coaches who couldn’t handle the rigors of the league when they became a part of it. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence looks like a sure thing, but we’ve seen sure things go south before. The first-round selection of running back Travis Etienne was pretty weird, especially when it seemed as if Etienne’s new coaching staff didn’t seem to have an absolute plan for him. A defense that ranked 31st in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics was buttressed to a point with the free-agency additions of former Seahawks cornerback Shaquil Griffin and ex-Chargers safety Rayshawn Jenkins (a sneaky-good signing, if you ask us), but if we’re assuming an immediate massive upgrade over last year’s 1-15 mark, we may be left wanting at first.
30. Carolina Panthers
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The Panthers’ quarterback transition from Cam Newton to Teddy Bridgewater to Sam Darnold kinda makes you wonder if head coach Matt Rhule has an overarching plan for the game’s most important position. The switch from Bridgewater to Darnold is a lateral move, unless you’re of the belief that we don’t know what Darnold can actually do, based on the idea that his talent was obscured by Adam Gase’s horrible coaching with the Jets.
Even if Darnold is able to hit the proverbial next level, the Panthers have some defensive issues that will curtail their competitive aspirations. Last season, Carolina allowed 28 passing touchdowns and had just seven interceptions, giving up an opponent QBR of 99.3, good for ninth-worst in the league. First-round cornerback Jaycee Horn has the skills to turn that around, but Horn has more man than zone traits, and defensive coordinator Phil Snow dialed up far more zone coverages last season. Perhaps that was a personnel-based move that will change with Horn on board. If not, that transition could take time, and the offense doesn’t look as if it could pick up the slack — even with a healthy Christian McCaffrey.
29. Detroit Lions
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So. The Lions were able to survive the Matt Patricia era (such as it was), only to lose Matthew Stafford after the team’s franchise quarterback since 2009 made it abundantly clear that, no matter the rebuilding plan, he wanted out. A blockbuster trade with the Rams was the result, with Jared Goff headed to the Motor City in return. This is a problem in that Goff is nowhere near Stafford from an arm talent perspective, and though Goff was hoisted up schematically in Sean McVay’s offense as Stafford never was, his regression over the last three seasons was rather glaring. Now, he’s got to learn a new offense under Anthony Lynn, and his best receiver might be fourth-round rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown. Not exactly a recipe for long-term success, and no matter how the Lions put this together over time, there’s no guarantee that Goff will be the guy to lead the team to it.
28. Cincinnati Bengals
(AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
Though the first 11 weeks of the 2020 season, per Sports Info Solutions, no quarterback had more zero- to three-step drops than Bengals rookie Joe Burrow, and even with all that quick game, Burrow suffered 26 sacks and 108 pressures. Only Carson Wentz had more sacks on short drops, and only Josh Allen was pressured more often. Then, a knee injury ended Burrow’s inaugural campaign, and that was that. Protection should have been Cincinnati’s primary focus this offseason, but the current front five doesn’t really inspire. There are oft-injured players with potential (Jonah Williams), decent blockers with low ceilings (Riley Reiff), and a whole lot of unanswered questions. Taking receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Burrow’s old LSU teammate, certainly makes sense from an explosiveness perspective, but the Bengals might regret letting Penei Sewell and Rashawn Slater go to the Lions and Chargers, respectively.
And then, there’s Lou Anarumo’s defense. Woof. Don’t even get us started on that, except to say that this defense lost two of its best players (edge-rusher Carl Lawson and cornerback William Jackson III) in free agency, and replaced them with guys who are unlikely to measure up (Trey Hendrickson, Chidobe Awuzie). We all want to see a healthy Burrow do his thing, but the Bengals have other issues even if that happens in 2021.
27. New York Jets
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There’s one thing you know for sure when you replace Adam Gase as a head coach — you are hitting the ground running when it comes to being better at establishing a positive culture in a building than your predecessor was. Brian Flores has already proven that in Miami, and now it’s Robert Saleh — another highly-regarded defensive coach — to do the same for the Jets. There’s certainly talent on the roster. Edge-rusher Carl Lawson, signed to a three-year, $45 million contract in the offseason, has the perfect skill set for Saleh’s aggressive disruption concepts. Marcus Maye is one of the NFL’s most underrated safeties. On offense, second-overall pick Zach Wilson and second-round rookie Elijah Moore are already making electric connections in training camp...
...and the Jets’ offensive line appears ready to push people around. There’s still work to be done on the overall roster, but Saleh looks like a good hire, and the Jets should at least be competitive in 2021.
26. Chicago Bears
(Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports)
For the first time since dinosaurs roamed the earth, the Bears have a legitimate quarterback prospect with no real dings, and the skill set to eventually place himself atop the league (or near enough to it) in Justin Fields. Andy Dalton and Nick Foles are mere placeholders here, as they should be, and as soon as Fields gets the hang of things, he should be the starter. We would suggest Week 1 against the Rams, as difficult as facing that defense would be for any quarterback.
Of course, receiver Allen Robinson, whose quarterback curse that goes back to college has finally, mercifully ended, there are complications... or maybe not. Moving Robinson to the slot for a higher percentage of plays, as head coach Matt Nagy appears to want, could limit Robinson’s downfield explosiveness, and the combination of Damiere Byrd, Darnell Mooney, and Whoever Else outside is certainly an interesting construct when Robinson is by far the team’s best receiver. Our Mark Schofield details how it could all work out...
...but can we just please not overcomplicate this? Get your best receiver in positions to succeed with your awesome new quarterback. It’s a big adjustment for this franchise, but that’s a good first step on this thousand-mile journey.
25. New York Giants
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Giants general manager Dave Gettleman’s capricious decision to take Duke quarterback Daniel Jones with the sixth overall pick in the 2019 draft is still very much under review, especially since the multiple instances in which Jones showed third-round tape in college have unfortunately transferred to the NFL more often than not. The Giants have a moatly risk-averse offense with Jones under center, and that was not at all helped by the fact that running back Saquon Barkley missed 14 games last season due to injury.
To his credit, Gettleman has done everything possible to shore up his QB1. The Giants selected Florida joystick receiver Kadarius Toney with the 20th overall pick in the 2021 draft, and signed former Lions start Kenny Golladay to a four-year, $72 million contract. Add that to Darius Slayton, Sterling Shepard, and Evan Engram, and Jones will certainly not be lacking for targets. Perhaps offensive coordinator Jason Garrett should open the deep passing game more — last season on throws of 20 or more air yards, Jones completed 18 of 39 passes for 617 yards, 506 air yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions — so that the Giants’ offense can try to match its underrated defense, led by Patrick Graham, before Graham gets a head coaching gig somewhere.
24. Arizona Cardinals
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In 2019, Kliff Kingsbury’s first season as the Cardinals’ head coach, Kingsbury started off as you’d expect from someone who ran the passing game at Texas Tech — air-raid all the way, limited personnel packages, and strained production at the NFL level. Then, halfway through the season, Kingsbury expanded his personnel packages and helped rookie first overall pick Kyler Murray look like a future MVP candidate.
For whatever reason, this diversity did not transfer to the 2020 season. The Cardinals led the NFL in the use of 20 (four receivers and no running back) personnel with 20% of their overall snaps — only the Bills came close to that mark at 15%. Kingsbury used DeAndre Hopkins as the backside iso receiver without movement to a distressing degree, and the whole thing regressed — the Cardinals dropped from 13th to 19th in Offensive DVOA, the route combinations were limited (to put it kindly), and they don’t have the kind of defense that will make up for that. Either Kingsbury moves back to an NFL-sized passing game, or the league will continue to inform him that it has very much figured him out.
23. Philadelphia Eagles
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Rebuild or re-tool? The Eagles have that question to ask themselves after a 4-11-1 season in which the Carson Wentz situation proved untenable, and injuries and general positional attrition brought this franchise further down than anyone expected in the Doug Pederson era. That era is now over, as former Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni replaced the only coach to bring the franchise a Super Bowl win. Sirianni’s got a lot on his plate, starting with the development of second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts, whose progress was interesting at times.
Hurts has shown enough for the organization to at least give him the opportunity to be The Guy before trading for a Deshaun Watson or selecting someone in the 2022 draft, but what’s around Hurts? Outside of tight end Dallas Goedert and (the Eagles hope) first-round pick DeVonta Smith, there aren’t any obvious rock stars for Hurts to target, the run game is okay, the offensive line is good if everyone stays healthy (a MAJOR “if” of late for the Eagles), and the defense wasn’t exactly world-beating — particularly the secondary.
Of the top five salary cap rainmakers on the Eagles’ current roster, you’ve got guys on the wrong side of their careers (Zach Ertz, Fletcher Cox), guys who have had issues staying healthy (Brandon Brooks, Lane Johnson), and Brandon Graham, who has somehow managed to side-step both designations. Sirianni has to navigate that on the field, and general manager Howie Roseman has to deal with a re-shuffling that needs to happen sooner than later. Right now, the Eagles have the look of a team betwixt and between. If Hurts isn’t the long-term answer, that’s yet another issue for Roseman to address with time running short.
22. Las Vegas Raiders
(AP Photo/David Becker)
Jon Gruden’s 19-29 record since returning to the Raiders in 2018 wouldn’t be such a concern if Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock had proven more adept at player development than they have been — at some point, you want to see some growth there. The Raiders have had seven first-round picks since Gruden took over the franchise in 2018. Of those — left tackle Kolton Miller, defensive end Clelin Farrell, running back Josh Jacobs, safety Johnathan Abram, receiver Henry Ruggs III, cornerback Damon Arnette, and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood — only Jacobs has proven to be a first-round talent from the start, and only Miller has shown the progress over time you’d want from a first-round guy. Leatherwood, selected out of Alabama with the 17th overall pick this year, was seen by most as a fairly spectacular reach — he was our 10th-ranked offensive tackle in this draft class. Overall, those draft hauls have provided very little of long-term value, and that’s no way to win in the NFL. It’s time for Gruden and his staff to get the most out of their players and get over the .500 hump.
21. Atlanta Falcons
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The Falcons went 4-12 in 2020 and lost Julio Jones in the offseason to a trade to the Titans, so it’s easy to write them off and move on to the rest of the NFC South. But they ranked 17th in Total DVOA, 21st in Offensive DVOA, and 14th in Defensive DVOA. They hired former Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to be their new head coach, and it was Smith who was able to turn Ryan Tannehill into a top-10 quarterback. Losing Jones does sting, but the Falcons drafted Florida tight end/matchup nightmare Kyle Pitts, who demolished NCAA defenses despite the fact that Kyle Trask was throwing him helium balls half the time. Jones missed seven games due to injury last season, which allowed Calvin Ridley to become the NFL’s most productive deep receiver. Matt Ryan isn’t what he used to be, but the Smith/Pitts/Ridley combination could be lit, as the kids say, and Hayden Hurst will allow Smith to work his preferred magic with two-tight end sets. On defense, there’s the addition of legendary coordinator Dean Pees, who will make the most of his personnel as he always does. We’re not saying that the Falcons are going to win the NFC South, but it’s easy to see why a considerable rise from last year’s doldrums could be in play here.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers
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We know that Ben Roethlisberger is coming back for one more shot at the brass ring; the question is, what will the Steelers’ offense look like? We expect new offensive coordinator Matt Canada to implement more pre-snap motion and various other ways to get Big Ben’s receivers in favorable matchups. We also expect that most of Pittsburgh’s passing game will be based on shorter stuff. Last season, per Sports Info Solutions, no quarterback had more throws off zero- to three-step drops than Roethlisberger (525 attempts; Tom Brady had 517, and Josh Allen had 487), and while Roethlisberger did attempt 71 passes of 20 or more air yards last season, he completed just 21 of those passes for 693 yards, 574 air yards, 10 touchdowns, and three interceptions. Rookie Najeh Harris might give the team’s rushing attack a much-needed kick in the pants, but with reasons to be worried about regression for the NFL’s best defense in 2020, the Steelers will have to do more than sustain drives if they want to repeat as AFC North champions.
19. Indianapolis Colts
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Losing Carson Wentz anywhere from 5-11 weeks due to a foot injury? Not ideal, but we still don’t know which Carson Wentz will show up on the field when he’s able to show up on the field. Losing left guard Quenton Nelson for the same amount of time, as was announced Tuesday? Really not good. Nelson is the best guard in football, perhaps the best offensive lineman, he’s the Colts’ best player, and if Indianapolis’ run game and deep passing concepts are going to work in 2021, they’re going to work at a much lower level than they would with Nelson on the field. The Colts currently have no healthy quarterbacks on their roster with a single NFL snap, Jacob Eason is The Guy right now, and even if Frank Reich goes out and gets old buddy Nick Foles (who’s currently so far down the Bears’ quarterback rotation, he’s hard to locate), it’s the same thing with Foles as it is with Wentz — which version are you getting?
Oh, and here’s Indy’s first five games: Seahawks, Rams, at Titans, at Dolphins, at Ravens. That’s four playoff teams, and a team in Miami many expect to make the postseason in 2021. An 0-5 or 1-4 start to the season could have this team circling the drain with a quickness.
18. Tennessee Titans
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Ryan Tannehill is one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. The combination of receivers Julio Jones and A.J. Brown (pictured above) is a Megatron-level nightmare for opposing cornerbacks. Derrick Henry has more yards after contact over the last two seasons than any other running back has total rushing yards. The Colts, Jaguars, and Texans are all going through their own levels of attrition, and none of those teams look like serious divisional contenders. It’s justifiably easy to pencil the Titans in as the AFC South champs for the second straight season.
But what happens after that?
Tennessee lost to the Ravens in the wild-card round last season, and the defense absolutely fell apart without super-coordinator Dean Pees. Last season, Tennessee’s defense fell from 18th to 29th in Defensive DVOA, and only the Lions allowed more passing touchdowns than the Titans’ 36. The free-agency additions of defensive linemen Denico Autry and Bud Dupree should help, as should a re-tooled secondary featuring safety stars Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker. But if Tennessee isn’t able to get back to at least the middle of the pack defensively, they will waste all that offensive talent — and there’s no guarantee that with new offensive coordinator Todd Downing, those stars will perform as they did last season. Julio Jones is a splashy addition, but can he stay healthy? Head coach Mike Vrabel has never had a losing season, but questions abound here.
17. Denver Broncos
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We are now entering the “Great defense, shame about your quarterback situation” portion of our power rankings, and why not start with the Broncos? Head coach Vic Fangio and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur are hoping that third-year quarterback Drew Lock’s 2021 season looks more like his December/January splits (nine touchdowns, four interceptions) than his October split (no touchdowns, four picks), but the overall tape on Lock through two NFL seasons shows a player with outstanding athletic attributes, and very little idea how to maximize them on a down-to-down basis. This is why Denver signed veteran Teddy Bridgewater, and it’s why Fangio has said the competition is “even Steven” at this point.
Neither quarterback may have the stuff to elevate Denver’s passing game, and that would be a shame. Not only did general manager George Paton get an absolute steal in the second round in North Carolina’s Javonte Williams (the best running back in this class), but the offensive line has improved exponentially under Mike Munchak, and Fangio is fielding a defense that should be among the league’s best. We all talk a lot about Brandon Staley as the face of the NFL’s defensive future, but it’s important to remember that Staley got a lot of his “revolutionary” concepts working under Fangio in Chicago.
Will the Broncos end the 2021 season regretting the selection of Patrick Surtain II instead of Justin Fields, who was still on the boards when Paton took the Alabama cornerback ninth overall? Surtain is a great player, but when you’re out of luck at the most important position, that other stuff tends to fade away in the game’s most important moments.
16. New Orleans Saints
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From 2014 through 2016, Drew Brees had more passing attempts (1,959), completions (1,355), and passing yards (15.030) than any other NFL quarterback, and only Aaron Rodgers (109) had more passing touchdowns than Brees’ 102. The Saints wasted all that productivity with horrible defenses, and finished 7-9 in all three seasons.
Now, for Sean Payton, the shoe is decidedly on the other foot.
Last season, the Saints finished second in Defensive DVOA, behind only the Steelers, and that defense could be just as good in 2021. But Brees is retired, and Payton’s options at quarterback are Jameis Winston, the only quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in the same season, and Taysom Hill, the erstwhile Swiss Army Knife who is the darling of every NFL gameday commentator despite proving very little from a starting perspective in his four-year career.
Ideally, Winston shows enough improvement to run this offense (maybe the LASIK surgery pays off?), and Hill can be utilized in specific packages — hopefully without Payton tanking drives by insisting on throwing Hill out there on third down with less than optimal results. If neither option works? Well, there are quarterbacks in next year’s draft, and until then, Payton will just have to live with his defense being several steps ahead of his offense.
15. Minnesota Vikings
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Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is one of the more obvious “no-bull[bleep]” guys in the NFL, so imagine how he feels now that his team seems to be embroiled in nothing but bull[bleep]. The team released 2020 first-round pick Jeff Gladney after Gladney’s felony assault indictment, and though the football part isn’t the most important thing here, that leaves a thin cornerback group even thinner.
Then, there’s the whole COVID thing. The Vikings have by far the lowest percentage of vaccinated players of any team, and that’s already led to all kinds of availability drama with the quarterback group. Kirk Cousins, Kellen Mond, and Nate Stanley have already been restricted either because they tested positive, or were deemed close contacts. Probably not a surprise given Cousins’ “If I die, I die” thing from last year, but this is where we are. Zimmer is frustrated. Team owner Mark Wilf is concerned. And it doesn’t matter how much talent is on this roster if this foolishness continues.
Who’s running this thing? I guess we’ll find out over time...
14. Washington Football Team
(AP Photo/Dean Hoffmeyer)
So, this is relevant.
Last season, Washington had the third-best defense by Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics, and with the addition of cornerback William Jackson III, don’t be surprised if they’re able to push that all the way to the top in 2021.
First-round pick Jamin Davis should take care of the linebacker issues that showed up at times in 2020, and this defense is stacked everywhere else. Washington finished 7-9 last season because the quarterback situation was a disaster, but the hope is that with a defense that should keep things on lock, Ryan Fitzpatrick will curb his YOLO tendencies. A league-average offense should be all this team needs to become a real problem in the NFC.
13. San Francisco 49ers
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There are two obvious things to watch with Kyle Shanahan’s team in 2021. First, there’s the matter of San Francisco’s abysmal injury luck in 2020 — the 49ers fell from Super Bowl LIV to 6-10 because they couldn’t keep anybody on the field. They led Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost metric by an absolutely crushing margin, and it wasn’t just that guys kept getting hurt. It was the guys getting hurt. Pass-rusher Nick Bosa, pretty much everyone in the secondary not named Jason Verrett, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo were among the most prominent missing persons.
Speaking of Jimmy G, there’s the matter of the 49ers trading up to the third overall pick to select North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. Garoppolo has alternated between injured and iffy when healthy throughout his time with the 49ers, Lance’s college offense had all kinds of similarities with Shanahan’s preferred methods, and from a simple athletic upside perspective, Garoppolo isn’t in Lance’s zip code.
It’s early yet, but change is coming — and it may be coming sooner than expected.
With a bump in injury luck and a better (if developmental) quarterback, the 49ers should be back in the hunt.
12. Miami Dolphins
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We have yet to determine whether the Dolphins are one of those “Great defense, shame about your quarterback” teams. In nine starts last season, rookie Tuanigamanuolepola Tagovailoa was just as capable of looking good against the Chargers and Cardinals as he was looking confused against Vic Fangio’s Broncos defense, and getting benched mid-game in the process — a move by head coach Brian Flores that I had no issue with.
Tagovailoa has the tools to be an above-average timing and rhythm passer. He’s not going to blow your doors off with the deep ball, and with this defense and run game, the Dolphins don’t need him to. This offense is built for a point guard/distributor, and at his best, that’s exactly what Tagovailoa is. Tua’s second-year development will go a long way to determining whether the Dolphins are able to outpace their rebuild and make the playoffs at the end of the 2021 season. If Tagovailoa stands pat? It’s an unfortunate complication for a team that finished 10-6 after a 3-3 start, and seems to have everything else dialed in. Unless the organization can’t make All-World cornerback Xavien Howard happy (and the organization is a very long way away from doing so), in which case things could start to implode.
11. New England Patriots
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Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Last season, with all the opt-outs, the Patriots lost all kinds of talent on defense, and that showed up in the increased amount of zone coverage this formerly man-heavy team played, and in the extent to which that didn’t work — New England dropped from first in Defensive DVOA in 2019 to 26th in 2020. Having your best defensive player (cornerback Stephon Gilmore) struggling with injuries didn’t help, either. But the band is back together, with the notable additions of edge-rusher Matthew Judon (who should perfectly fit Bill Belichick’s multi-gap pressure concepts) and defensive back Jalen Mills (who should perfectly fit Bill Belichick’s multi-position coverage concepts).
Belichick wasn’t fooling around on offense when free agency came around. Last season, per Sports Info Solutions, the Patriots lined up with two tight ends just eight times on passing plays — by far the lowest rate in the league. The Bills finished second-lowest with 36. With the additions of Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, the Pats might outpace that number in the first drive of the first game in 2021. Nelson Agholor is a sneaky underrated deep threat, and Kendrick Bourne gives the quarterback some possession traits.
That, of course, is the other question. Who’s the quarterback? Is it Cam Newton, who found his first season in Foxboro scuttled by COVID, or is it Mac Jones, the first-round Alabama alum who has every trait you want in a modern signal-caller... except for his complete lack of second-reaction ability, which is kind of important these days.
Regardless, the Patriots are clearly angling to be all the way back after a bit of a waste year in which they missed the postseason for the first time since 2008. Just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in...
10. Los Angeles Rams
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As Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz and Mike Tanier pointed out on the most recent version of the Touchdown Wire NFL Podcast, the metric differences between Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford aren’t as clear as you may think. It’s when you go to the tape that Stafford presents himself clearly as a thermonuclear improvement over Goff.
Everyone’s excited about that — including Aaron Donald, who, per NBC Sports’ Peter King, recently hugged Stafford mid-practice. Not something you generally see from the NFL’s best defensive player, but it says as much about Goff as it does about Stafford that we all can’t wait to see what Stafford is able to execute in Sean McVay’s offense.
On defense, there’s Donald, Jalen Ramsey, and underrated cornerback Darious Williams, working with new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. Morris may keep some of the Cover-4 and Cover-6 concepts the Rams used so successfully under Brandon Staley last season, but he’ll certainly have his own ideas, and you can expect to see more aggressive man coverage overall. But the big deal is Stafford, and if he’s all he can be in this offense, the Rams are going to be a very, very tough out.
9. Dallas Cowboys
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Before he suffered the Week 5 ankle injury that cost him the rest of the 2020 season, Dak Prescott led the NFL in passing attempts (222), completions (151), and passing yards (1,859). With perhaps the NFL’s best receiver corps, you can expect similar results in 2021 if Prescott is fully healthy — especially since Ezekiel Elliott is not quite what he used to be.
The question, and the thing that might have kept the Cowboys from the playoffs last season even if Prescott was healthy, was about a defense led by Mike Nolan that was an absolute disaster from start to finish. New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will likely implement a more aggressive, less reactive defense with multiple fronts and single-high stuff that fits Dallas’ secondary pretty well. Watch out for second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs this season, as he’s just the kind of big, physical pass defender Quinn has learned to maximize. Will that be enough to get Dallas in the postseason for the first time since 2018? Perhaps. From there, it’ll be on head coach Mike McCarthy to keep everything together from a schematic and strategic perspective, which... well... we’ll see how that goes.
In any event, better days in Big D.
8. Seattle Seahawks
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
All it took for Russell Wilson to go from “Get me the HECK out of here” to “All-In” was the hire of new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, Sean McVay’s former passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach. A guy who helped McVay extract the most from Jared Goff should be absolutely ecstatic to work with a quarterback of Wilson’s ability, and after a 2020 season in which his entire offense fell apart down the stretch, Wilson seems quite happy to have a coach on his side of the ball doing more than throwing iso routes out there and ignoring his quarterback.
What will be different? Everything from increased tempo to pre-snap motion has been mentioned, and though Pete Carroll will never stand for a pass-happy offense on a week-to-week basis, Carroll also needs to realize that the Legion of Boom is a thing of the past. Over the last five seasons, Seattle’s defense has gone from fifth to 13th to 17th to 21st to 16th in DVOA, and the conservative, smashmouth approach the head man prefers on offense only really works when you have a defense that can erase every opponent. This defense is going to be league-average at best. We’re at the point where Letting Russ Cook isn’t just what the fans want — it’s the best thing for Seattle’s professional survival.
7. Los Angeles Chargers
(AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
Perhaps it’s the Football Gods trying to make up for the Ryan Leaf thing, but do you know how long it’s been since the Chargers didn’t have a Hall of Fame-level quarterback? Going straight from Drew Brees (2001-2005) to Philip Rivers (2004-2019) to Justin Herbert, the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year? Not bad if you can pull it off. Herbert isn’t yet Hall of Fame-level, of course, but he did everything possible to get his NFL career off on the right foot, and to sustain the franchise’s impressive stretch of no-doubt quarterbacks.
Things are pretty strong on that side of the ball, especially since the team was able to steal Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater to protect Herbert’s blind side. On defense, you can expect a ton of two-high/light box stuff from new head coach Brandon Staley, and while there are questions about how a team can go from a ton of single-high to a ton of two-high in one season, Staley is already filling the roster with his types of guys. Second-round cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. has rare zone awareness for a rookie, and he was specifically great at Florida State in the types of coverages Staley prefers.
Will that be enough to have the Chargers challenging the Chiefs for control of the AFC West? We might be a year or two away from that, but it’d be a considerable surprise if Staley isn’t captaining a playoff team this season.
6. Cleveland Browns
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Last season, the Browns posted an 11-5 mark, and made the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Were it not for a few unlucky breaks in the divisional round against the Chiefs, it might have been Cleveland facing the Bills in the AFC Championship game.
The Browns did all this with a safety group filled with box guys and no deep erasers. General manager Andrew Berry endeavored to flip that script in 2021, signing former Rams safety John Johnson and anticipating the return of 2020 first-round pick Grant Delpit, who missed his entire rookie campaign to a torn Achilles tendon. Denzel Ward is a top-level cornerback, Johnson’s old Rams teammate Troy Hill should excel in the slot, and since Cleveland seems to have everything else in place (seriously — try to find a real weakness anywhere on the roster), we might be looking at the first Browns teams capable of competing for multiple championships since Whitesnake was relevant.
5. Green Bay Packers
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So, how was YOUR offseason? We never like to assume, but it was probably better in a football sense than the offseasons of Packers head coach Matt LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst — especially Gutekunst, who has paid the dearest price for not telling Aaron Rodgers that the team was going to select Utah State quarterback Jordan Love in the first round of the 2020 draft, and trade up to do so, and whatever other perceived slights Rodgers has suffered. Rodgers comparing Gutekunst to Jerry Krause was particularly OUCH in context.
But the Packers knew that they needed the MVP version of Rodgers if there was any hope of continuing LaFleur’s string of 13-win seasons, so they made a deal that gives Rodgers an earlier and easier escape clause, and gives Love more time to get the hang of the NFL. (Sidebar: My belief is that upon further review, the Packers may not feel that Love is all he was cracked up to be. The tape would confirm this if so).
It also helps that Rodgers still has this guy, though Adams’ impending contract situation is another headache for Gutekunst.
So... offense, check and check. What about the defense, which seems to be the only barrier to a Super Bowl appearance? Ex-DC Mike Pettine featured a ton of dime looks to exploit the talent of his secondary and to hide the liabilities present in his linebacker group. New DC Joe Barry may have the same set of issues. The linebackers are still meh, though the addition of De’Vondre Campbell might help a bit. The pass rush should be just fine as long as Za’Darius Smith rebounds from an injury-plagued season, and the secondary features a top-five safety (Darnell Savage) and a top-three cornerback (Jaire Alexander). It is very much Super Bowl or bust for this team, because anything but the ultimate prize will assuredly lead to more drama with Rodgers, and we’re all pretty tired of that.
4. Baltimore Ravens
(Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports)
For a team that has hasn’t had a losing season since 2015, the Ravens sure have a lot of people talking about their one glaring issue. Of course, when your one glaring issue resides at the quarterback position, that’s going to happen. In 2019, Lamar Jackson became the second unanimous NFL MVP in NFL history, joining Tom Brady in 2010. One year later, we’re all wondering about the regression in the passing game, and Whose Fault It Is. Does Lamar need to grow as a full-field reader and processor? Does offensive coordinator Greg Roman need to give Jackson a less-predictable passing game, as Jackson has intimated? Or, does any of this matter if Baltimore’s receivers can’t bust a grape?
Tape shows that Jackson has some work to do at the highest levels of the position as a pure passer, and that may factor into Roman’s relatively rudimentary concepts.
The receivers? Yeah, that’s been a problem for a while. First-round rookie Rashod Bateman gives the Ravens their best contested-catch receiver since Anquan Boldin — who, by the way, was a key cog in Baltimore’s last Super Bowl season. Free agent Sammy Watkins should add something to the picture, as well. And of course, the two- and three-tight end packages with Mark Andrews leading the way will continue to be a big part of the offense. But if we’re stuck at a stalling point again after this season, the discussion will continue, and remember — this all circulates around the fact that Jackson’s due a major second contract.
3. Buffalo Bills
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Outside of Cole Beasley’s anti-vax rants, the Bills are kind of boring these days. They have an absolute franchise quarterback in Josh Allen, who made one of the biggest third-year leaps in NFL history. They have the receiver group to take advantage of OC Brian Daboll’s stretch and spread concepts, and Daboll — who was a HUGE part of Allen’s ascent — is back for another season. The run game was a bit of a disappointment last season, but one hopes that second-year man Zach Moss can turn that around.
On defense, Buffalo sought to address its one glaring weakness — the lack of a consistent edge presence — with their first two draft picks. Gregory Rousseau projects well as a multi-gap disruptor especially good at crashing in from between the guards, and Carlos “Boogie” Basham can bring it from the edge.
Linebackers? Check. Secondary? All good. This Bills team has as complete a roster as you’ll find in franchise history since the Marv Levy teams that went to four straight Super Bowls from 1990 through 1993. And there’s no reason to exclude this version from doing the one thing those Bills teams couldn’t do.
In the immortal words of Jake Taylor, “Win the whole [expletive] thing.”
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
(Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
Tom Brady turned 44 on Tuesday, and in celebration, let’s go over some of the numbers that showed up as Brady, head coach Bruce Arians, and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich got on the same page in the second half of the 2020 season.
From Weeks 1-12, per Football Outsiders, the Bucs used play-action on just 18.5% of their plays, 31st in the league, despite the fact that their yards per play with play-action was 9.3 with play-action, and 6.3 without. They used motion in Weeks 1-12 on 46.4% of their plays, 13th in the league, though their yards per play with it was 6.5, and 4.9 without.
From Weeks 14-17. the Bucs upped their play-action rate to 25.5%, 21st in the league, and averaged 11.4 yards per play with it, and 8.9 without. They also used more motion — like, a LOT more motion. From Weeks 14-17, Tampa Bay went with motion on 56.6% of their plays, good for sixth in the league, and averaged 8.0 yards per play with it, and 6.1 without. Two primary reasons the Bucs stood at a stagnant 7-5 before their Week 13 bye, and came back to win their last four regular-season games.
Arians and Leftwich got even trickier in the postseason, as the Bucs used play-action on 28.5% of their plays, averaging 9.7 yards per play with it, and 6.1 without. Motion was more of a factor as well — 60.8% of their postseason plays featured motion, and though they had the same yards per play with and without it (5.7), it certainly seemed that everyone was finally reading the same playbook.
The difference was particularly obvious in the passing game: With play-action, the Bucs averaged 9.3 yards per pass, second in the NFL. Without it, they averaged 7.3 yards, which was 17th. With motion, Tampa Bay averaged 6.5 yards per pass (third in the league); without it, 4.9 (30th).
So, a better Tom Brady, a killer defense, and a Super Bowl champ that somehow returned all 22 of its starters? Unless something goes horribly wrong from an injury perspective (and the Bucs did have incredible injury luck last season), who’s doubting their ability to run it back? Not me.
There may be just one thing in their way... the team they beat in Super Bowl LV.
1. Kansas City Chiefs
(Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)
The Chiefs were without their starting left tackles (Eric Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz) in that game, and the results were predictable — Patrick Mahomes was pressured on 31 of his 56 dropbacks (per Pro Football Focus), and Mahomes was seriously cramped when pressured — 9 of 26 for 78 yards, no touchdowns and one interception in Tampa Bay’s 31-9 win. So, the Chiefs scuttled Fisher and Schwartz, traded for ex-Ravens tackle Orlando Brown Jr. signed former Patriots guard Joe Thuney, and selected Oklahoma center Creed Humphrey in the second round. Add in veteran guard Kyle Long, second-year tackle Lucas Niang, and six-round lineman Trey Smith, and what do all of these guys have in common?
Demonstrated and practiced ability to kick ass in the run game, and in pass protection, in power/trap/counter gap schemes. This would allow the Chiefs to present defenses with all kinds of new things above the zone concepts they went with predominantly in 2020, and how do you think defenses are going to feel when this offense with this quarterback gives them that many more things to think about?
It is a big overnight schematic shift, and such things don’t always work out, but if it does, and Kansas City’s defense holds up to the standard it has established under Steve Spagnuolo, the Chiefs will have a combination of explosive plays, a sustaining ground game, and an opportunistic defense that could be the envy of the NFL.