1. Kansas City (14-2, lost Super Bowl to Tampa Bay)
This is such a well-coached, well-run team. I remember doing this list last year and trying to force myself to find any reason to pick another team number one after the Super Bowl win, and I couldn’t. Same after the Super Bowl loss now. KC lost to Tampa because the Bucs got on one of those can’t-stop-‘em rolls, but also because Andy Reid’s offensive line was tattered due to injury and opt-outs; Patrick Mahomes got sacked or pressured 29 times that day. So GM Brett Veach maneuvered the cap and signed/drafted/traded for a new offensive line (with the exception of returning tackle Mike Remmers). In Week 1, Orlando Brown/Joe Thuney/Austin Blythe/Kyle Long/Remmers should be a top 10 NFL offensive line—a vast improvement from number 32 at season’s end. Veach helped in another way: making Mahomes’ contract palatable. His cap number this year is only $7.4 million and I would expect the Chiefs to convert compensation in 2022 and maybe 2023 into a signing bonus so it can be prorated and keep cap numbers in those years low as well. By the time the huge Mahomes chunks start coming two or three years from now, Veach is gambling that the cap will be back to its pre-pandemic annual increases. And Kansas City (31-7 over the last two years) should keep rolling.
2. Tampa Bay (11-5, won Super Bowl over Kansas City)
Last year in these rankings, the Bucs were coming off 7-9 but had Tom Brady in the fold, and readers howled when I rated the Bucs fifth. Turns out that was too low. And you may think two is too low this year. Could be. No Super Bowl winner has ever been back in such full force; as I wrote this spring, you could argue (and I would) that the 35 most significant pieces to the Bucs’ puzzle—22 starters, two specialists, the coach and GM and all three coordinators, six top subs—and even a 36th, Antonio Brown, are back intact. This team could get back on the kind of run it was on last winter, even with a 44-year-old quarterback. As for betting it all on Tom Brady: Of course it is insane to think a 44-year-old man can continue to excel as a young man’s game. But I am not betting against a man who has started all 75 of his teams’ games in his forties, is 56-19 in those games, who has won Super Bowls at ages 41 and 43 and who, at 40, threw for 505 yards in a Super Bowl loss. If Phil Mickelson can win the PGA at 50, why can’t Brady win another Super Bowl at 44? Picking the Chiefs higher than Tampa is based on two things: the magic of Mahomes and a vastly improve KC offensive front.
3. Buffalo (13-3, lost AFC championship to Kansas City)
In rankings like these, I like to favor teams with the arrow pointing up. The Bills went to Kansas City for the AFC Championship Game on an eight-game winning streak. We know how explosive they were all season, but how about the defense Buffalo was playing when it counted? In that eight-game run, the Bills allowed 17.1 points per game. Now they have to find a way to beat Kansas City—they’ll match up for the third time in 51 weeks Oct. 10—after losing by nine and 14 last season. GM Brandon Beane is gambling that his polarizing first-round edge-rusher, Gregory Rousseau, will fortify the biggest need area of the team. Rousseau has had one year of his life rushing the passer at the University of Miami, but the GM believes that 15.5-sack season in 2019 is not an outlier. It’ll be up to Sean McDermott to coach Rousseau into a consistent force alongside vets Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison. This team fascinates me. I could see them getting on one of those steamrolling runs the Jim Kelly Bills did a generation ago.
4. Cleveland (11-5, lost divisional game to Kansas City)
First time in forever I look at the Browns and say, “Where are the holes?” Corner depth, maybe; first-round pick Greg Newsome was dogged by injuries at Northwestern, and he’s needed to play a lot. Receiver depth, maybe, particularly with Odell Beckham coming off a torn ACL. Cody Parkey’s a meh kicker. But this is a team of strengths now. The front seven, particularly, could be Steeler-like if rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah hits the ground running as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker, which he was at Notre Dame. Baker Mayfield was significantly more efficient down the stretch (last eight games including playoffs: 15 TDs, two interceptions), which is encouraging. Now he’s got to ratchet up his 62.8-percent accuracy from last year. The arrow’s legitimately up in Cleveland for the first time in a very long time—but the division’s tough as always and the AFC is loaded.
5. San Francisco (6-10)
The Niners made the huge tradeup and Trey Lance draft pick because they couldn’t trust Jimmy Garoppolo (last three years: 23 missed starts) to stay healthy. But there’s something else, another reason for the urgency. The Lynch/Shanahan regime, highly respected around the league and by owner Jed York, has to be feeling some heat because of three losing seasons out of their first four on the job. I think they’re fortunate no one offered a first-round pick to take Garoppolo off their hands, because that would have left them reliant on a top prospect albeit from an FCS school without much experience—and with no insurance policy worthy of a playoff run behind Lance. The 49ers will be good enough on offense. Will they miss departed defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, replaced by DeMeco Ryans? At first glance, the Ryans defense should look very much like Saleh’s, with maybe more physicality in the five-yard bump zone by the corners, and the same playmaking greatness from emerging star Fred Warner at middle linebacker. The Niners need a healthy season from Nick Bosa to be a great defense. And a great defense would allow them to threaten the Bucs for NFL supremacy.
6. L.A. Rams (10-6, lost divisional game to Green Bay)
Troy Aikman told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times the other day that Matthew Stafford could be the NFL MVP this year on a Rams team with a very good defense and a smart play-designer and play-caller like Sean McVay. Aikman’s right. Someone could waste a lot of time on a doctoral thesis apportioning blame for the Lions’ postseason futility in Stafford’s 12 Detroit seasons, but the fact is, he was the most important player for the Lions for 12 years and the team never won a division title or a postseason game in his era. At 33, Stafford now has the offensive backing and a stout-enough defense to be great in January. Sean McVay wants to go back to the 2017-18 version of his offense, with the deep passing game opening everything up. In 2018, the Rams’ top three wideouts averaged 14.2, 15.1 and 14.2 yards per catch. When Jared Goff lost his fastball and McVay lost faith in him in 2020, the wideout leaders averaged 10.4, 10.6 and 11.9 per catch. Stafford’s going to have every chance to prove Aikman right.
7. Baltimore (11-5, lost divisional game to Buffalo)
John Harbaugh might long for the early days of his tenure, when a quarter of his schedule was played in Palookaville; in his first five seasons, the Ravens went 16-4 against Cleveland and Cincinnati. But the Browns have arrived, and the Bengals might be the modern-day Dan Fouts Chargers, with Joe Burrow throwing to three premier wideouts. So Baltimore could be an excellent team and still go 3-3 in the souped-up AFC North. Add to that this factoid: Seven of the Ravens’ last eight games this year are against 2020 playoff teams. Baltimore will have its customary strong running game, but GM Eric DeCosta’s focus in the offseason was to get more explosive on offense, adding oft-injured speed threat Sammy Watkins and first-round (Rashod Bateman) and fourth-round (Tylan Wallace) to producers Devin Duvernay and Hollywood Brown. Baltimore’s season could well rest on Lamar Jackson’s ability to make sweet music with three or four of those wideouts.
8. Green Bay (13-3, lost NFC championship to Tampa Bay)
Ultimate hedging-my-bet on Aaron Rodgers. I don’t know if he and the Packers will make peace. He seems dug in to not play in Green Bay, but today is May 24. A lot can change in 111 days. That’s how far away the season-opener at New Orleans is. With most players, I’d think, They’ll get over it. It’ll get fixed. Not so sure with Rodgers. He’s strong-willed, to put it mildly, and when he decides to do something, that’s usually it. But there are a few tributaries here. Like: What if the Packers withhold the remaining $23 million of his 2018 signing bonus, and come after the $6.8-million roster bonus he was paid in the spring, and what would Rodgers do about the $2-million collective fine for missing all of training camp that cannot be waived? What if he gets the opportunity to host his beloved “Jeopardy!”? Would he just skip the year and come back—somewhere—in 2022? Impossible to know now. If Rodgers was happy and in the fold, I’d rate Green Bay between 4 and 8 here. If I knew this would be Blake Bortles’ team, they’d be around 20. Pretty big swing.
9. Indianapolis (11-5, lost wild-card game to Buffalo)
Five newcomers with the most pressure on them this year:
Matthew Stafford, L.A. Rams
Carson Wentz, Indianapolis
Urban Meyer, Jacksonville
Zach Wilson, N.Y. Jets
Orlando Brown, Kansas City
Wentz might be one, actually. The Colts paid what likely will be third-round and first-round picks for a franchise quarterback—if Wentz still is one. We’ll find out. In rejoining his former offensive coordinator from the Eagles, Frank Reich, Wentz has the fate of a franchise in his hands after a very shaky 2020 season that ended with an ugly benching in Philadelphia. “I love sticking my neck out for people I believe in,” Reich said last week. “I’m willing to put it on the line for players I believe in. I believe in Carson.” It’s clear that a lot of people lost faith in Wentz and his ability to play full seasons in Philadelphia. What will be different here—not saying it means Wentz will succeed—is the quality of the offensive line, including newcomer left tackle Eric Fisher, coming off an Achilles injury, and the quality of the skill players surrounding him. I think Wentz is a good bet for the Colts. He’s just not a sure bet.
10. L.A. Chargers (7-9)
It’s hard to not be swooning over 2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert, who threw for more than 300 yards in eight of 15 starts while he was still learning the offense. Now, he’s learning his third offense in three years (counting 2019 at Oregon), with new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi coming from the Saints with the full Sean Payton package. I trust Herbert will get it, because he’s a brainiac, and because four-year Drew Brees backup Chase Daniel is now Herbert’s backup. But the complexity of the offense means his adjustment will be a work in progress. Herbert’s a big reason why I have the Chargers rising in the West. Two other things: Imports Rashawn Slater, Corey Linsley and Matt Feiler will turn around a leaky offensive line, and the energy of rookie coach Brandon Staley should help invigorate a defense that—the Chargers hope—will include safety Derwin James. The rookie star of 2018 has missed all but five games over the past two years with injuries. James and Joey Bosa are the best two players on the defense, and the Chargers could win 11 or 12 games if they can stay on the field. I’m betting they play most of the year and earn a wild-card spot.
11. Miami (10-6)
The Dolphins have done virtually everything they can to build a team ready to win now. I didn’t put the Justin Herbert team one spot ahead of the Tua Tagovailoa team to rub the Dolphins’ noses in the fact that they chose Tua one spot ahead of Herbert in the 2020 draft, but it is a reminder of how big a lift an excellent rookie quarterback can provide a team. Tagovailoa had a C-plus rookie year, benched twice late in the season for performance, and it’s no secret that the team’s fate is tied to him. He should be helped by a significant upgrade at receiver, with Will Fuller IV arriving in free agency and ex-Tide mate Jaylen Waddle in the draft. The way football works these days is a quarterback’s window to prove himself is short. Tagovailoa certainly has this season, but how much after that depends on how he functions in a talented offense . . . and, for instance, whether Houston moves Deshaun Watson. It’s crazy all the factors that could come into play, but Tagovailoa can make them all disappear by completing 66 percent of his throws, making magic with his receivers, and throwing for 4,200 yards.
12. Seattle (12-4, lost wild-card game to Rams)
Big difference between the two men quarterbacking the big football teams in Wisconsin one decade ago: Russell Wilson (Badgers) has some discontent but will be in Seahawks camp doing regular Russell Wilson things in late July; Aaron Rodgers (Packers) has major discontent and may not be in camp. Pete Carroll told Rich Eisen last week the Wilson folderol is much ado about not much. Not so sure about that, and who knows about the future, but Wilson gives the Seahawks a chance—as he does every year—to make a deep playoff run in what is very likely to be the toughest division in football. I’m fascinated to see the impact of Seattle’s lone choice in the top 130 picks of April’s draft, Western Michigan wideout D’Wayne Eskridge. Seattle has a deadly 1-2 wideout combo in Tyler Lockett and D.K. Metcalf; add the 4.39-speed of Eskridge in an offense never afraid to feature rookies, and an offense that faltered down the stretch last year should be invigorated. The smart re-signing of Chris Carson, the league most under-appreciated rusher, should continue the most balanced offense west of Green Bay. In Wilson’s 10th season, a Super Bowl run is still very possible. It just might come, as with Tampa in 2020, from a wild-card slot.
13. New Orleans (12-4, lost divisional game to Tampa Bay)
Sean Payton is one of the best head coaches in football by any measure. Fourteen seasons coaching the Saints, nine times winning in double-digits, 10.2 wins per year on average. This will be the first year he’s been a head coach without Drew Brees. So as much pressure as there is on whoever succeeds Brees—Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill or both—there’s going to be a bright spotlight on Payton. Has he coached the turnover out of Winston? Has he coached Hill into being a complete player? For the Saints to surpass Tampa Bay for NFC South supremacy, Payton’s fingerprints must be all over his new quarterback. In 2018, I saw a Saints Saturday night team meeting, which ended with Brees and Payton reviewing the game plan for the next day, and Brees telling the coach the 40 or so plays he wanted to run. What was most notable was each man, six or 10 times in 45 minutes, finishing the other’s sentences or thoughts. That’s the kind of telepathy Payton has to instill in his new quarterback for the Saints to win 11 or 12 and be a playoff force.
14. Arizona (8-8)
No team added more famous puzzle-pieces—J.J. Watt, A.J. Green, Rodney Hudson, Malcolm Butler—in this offseason than the Cardinals. Makes for good headlines, but when you sign four players with an average age 32 years, 1 month, I‘m not expecting a lot in terms of 2021 production. Hudson, a good NFL center, will likely be the best of the bunch. The Cards will go as far as Kyler Murray will take them. He’s got the tools (DeAndre Hopkins, Rondale Moore and a good-enough job-share in the backfield with Chase Edmonds and James Conner). And Murray is progressing well as an NFL quarterback. But the end to the Cards’ season, a 2-5 disaster blowing a playoff spot, was concerning. The Cards averaged just 17 points a game in those five losses. Kliff Kingsbury needs more consistency out of his offense. On defense, GM Steve Keim is putting his money on Chandler Jones and Watt to form the kind of rush team they would have been four or five years ago. The Arizona season might depend on those two guys not named Murray.
15. Washington (7-9, lost wild-card game to Tampa Bay)
I think everyone looks at WFT and figures, Nothing to see here. They’ll fall to earth with a thud this year. Not me. Washington went 5-2 down the stretch last year to steal the all-time-lousy NFC East, then gave the Bucs a game in the wild-card round. In that 5-2 run, Washington allowed 15.9 points per game. Four of the wins came on the road (Dallas, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Philly), and each of those foes scored in the teens. Edge twins Chase Young (22) and Montez Sweat (24) might be the best young rush combination in the game. I’m bullish on this team—if Ryan Fitzpatrick is efficient leading the offense. No guarantee there, because, well, there’s never a guarantee with Fitzmagic. This is a 9-8 or 10-7 team, if it can survive Chargers-Bills-Saints-KC-Packers in the first seven weeks.
16. Chicago (8-8, lost wild-card game to New Orleans)
Part of me says, Throw Justin Fields in there right away—he’s a mature kid who’s played great in some very big college games, and he’s obviously the future. The other part of me thinks Andy Dalton is more equipped, much more, to take the heat of Aaron Donald and the Rams on opening night, and then trips to Tampa and Pittsburgh just before the Week-10 bye. The other factor, obviously, is whether Aaron Rodgers plays for the Packers; if he doesn’t, no question Matt Nagy will look at the season more as a win-now than even remotely a developmental one, because Chicago will have a good chance to win the division without Rodgers in it. Nagy said we’ll all know when it’s time for Fields, and I agree; either Dalton stinking it up (which I doubt he’ll do), or Fields starring in the classroom and practice will tell Nagy when it’s time. There’s enough talent on offense for either quarterback to win. Defensively, the loss of Kyle Fuller to Denver is a huge blow. But the Bears have been held back for the last two seasons by quarterback play, so I can’t get too fired up about one missing corner. The Bears will win 10 games with C-plus quarterbacking. I just don’t know if they’ll get that.
17. New England (7-9)
Except for Green Bay, no team this morning is as full of questions as the Patriots. That’s mostly a good thing. Is Cam Newton somewhere north of the awful he was last year? How long can Cam hold off Mac Jones? Will Bill Belichick try to go 2007 redux (Randy Moss) by trading for Julio Jones? Will Dont’a Hightower resume his strong career in the middle of the Pats’ D, or will Belichick permanently opt him out? Will Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry make New England the center of the tight end universe? Will Kyle Van Noy be the force he was before his gap year in Miami? What will the twin departures of Ernie Adams and Nick Caserio mean to Belichick, and can Matt Patricia become some sort of jack-of-all-trades John Nash for Belichick? You answer those questions, even a few, and you’ll have some idea whether the Patriots will be in the middle of the NFL’s morass of mediocrity or contenders to play an 18th game.
18. Tennessee (11-5, lost wild-card game to Baltimore)
A little leery about losing two very strong coordinators in consecutive offseasons. After Dean Pees retired in early 2020 (then un-retired to be Falcons’ DC this year), the Titans allowed a touchdown more per game in 2020 and had a hasty wild-card exit from the playoffs. Now, with star offensive coordinator Arthur Smith off to Atlanta, and Jonnu Smith and Corey Davis departed in free agency, I’m skeptical that Ryan Tannehill can continue his career resurgence. Skeptical, but not sure he won’t continue to play very well. But A.J. Brown, Josh Reynolds and Anthony Firkser doesn’t have the same ring to it as Brown-Davis-Jonnu. The saving grace, of course, is that the Titans can score and score enough with the most dominating running back in football, Derrick Henry, in his prime. Tennessee and the next team on this list have this in common: They could win 11 games or settle into the pack. Lucky for the Titans that five of their 17 games come against the Texans, Jags and Jets.
19. Pittsburgh (12-4, lost wild-card game to Cleveland)
I can’t unsee the 1-4 Steeler finish to the regular season, with Ben Roethlisberger presiding over a crumbling offense, and then the most embarrassing home playoff loss in Steeler history. (Not the fact that they lost, but just the spectacle of Roethlisberger turning it over four times in the first 20 minutes to Cleveland and falling behind 28-0 to Cleveland and giving up 48 to Cleveland, with the Cleveland coach 130 miles away watching from his basement.) Now a remade offensive line and top pick Najee Harris will try to build a running game—the lack of which ruined 2020 for Pittsburgh—with new coordinator Matt Canada. The Steelers benefited from the league’s second-easiest schedule in 2020 to get off to the 11-0 start, but with Buffalo, Cleveland, Green Bay and Seattle on the schedule by Halloween, no such luck this year. In what could be Big Ben’s last stand, he’s going to need help from his line and backfield to get Pittsburgh to double-digit wins. Oh, and Diontae Johnson catching the ball this season would help too.
20. N.Y. Giants (6-10)
GM Dave Gettleman’s free-agency spree reminds me of Jerry Reese’s last-gasp spree in 2016, when the Giants spent huge to buy a defense—Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon, Snacks Harrison—and rode that to 11 wins and a wild-card berth. But it was unsustainable, and Reese paid with his job, and the Giants are 18-46 since. So now, with a win-now edict in effect from co-owner John Mara, the Giants spent $111 million in tight cap times for a gamebreaking wideout, Kenny Golladay, and a good corner, Adoree’ Jackson, to pair with James Bradberry. This can’t be a one-year fix, but rather the start of a good run for young quarterback Daniel Jones (the jury’s still semi-out on him) and a big piece for a defense that showed signs of being a playoff unit last year. For Jones, Gettleman could haven’t done more for him. Adding ultra-solid Kyle Rudolph for a year or two alongside Evan Engram gives the Giants tight end depth. Drafting Kadarius Toney in the first round give the Giants a corps of wideouts that could be a top-10 group if they perform to their résumés. Very interesting, and important, year for a team that’s been too disappointing for too long. Did you know this season’s the 10-year anniversary of New York’s last playoff win? That win, of course, was over the Patriots in the Super Bowl. But that deodorant has worn off. Jones will feel the heat, as will Gettleman, if the Giants stumble out of the gate.
21. Dallas (6-10)
The best player in the NFC East is back, and if Dak Prescott is what he was when we last saw him for a season (2019: 4,902 passing yards, 30 TDs), with a receiving corps bettered by CeeDee Lamb, Dallas will be in the NFC East mix in late December. The bigger question is the defense, obviously. Imagine giving up, in eight of 16 games, 33 or more points . . . and then imagine being alive on the last weekend of the season with Andy Dalton at the helm. So much of this season depends on new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s ability to do what Mike Nolan couldn’t last year—install a complex system, much of that in Zoom meetings, and get players ready to react by opening day. Quinn is Dallas’ third defensive coordinator in the last 18 months. In an ideal world, Quinn, Seattle’s coordinator in 2013 and ’14, hopes he’s found his Bobby Wagner as the nerve center of his defense with first-round rookie Micah Parsons. But Quinn will need to hide a lot of warts in a porous secondary.
22. Atlanta (4-12)
This is no reflection on Julio Jones, who likely will walk into Canton one day. But he’s not a make-or-break player for this franchise anymore. The Falcons averaged 24.8 games with Jones in and out of the lineup last year, and with him rarely practicing, and they’ve got a wideout duo (Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage) who aggregated 162 catches for 2,160 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, and they just drafted the best tight end Mel Kiper’s ranked in 43 years of rating college players, Kyle Pitts. The Falcons should make their cap healthier for 2022 and beyond by dealing Jones for either a second-round pick (not sure they can get that for the 32-year-old Jones) or a third-that-could-become-a-second or, quite frankly, the best deal they can make. I think Arthur Smith makes Matt Ryan better and a more efficient quarterback, like he was under Kyle Shanahan in the Super Bowl season. Plus, I think Smith makes Pitts the kind of puzzle piece (running back, tight end, slot receiver, wide receiver) he liked to do with Jonnu Smith in Tennessee. I don’t know how many games Atlanta will win, but I do know this: The Falcons will be a fun watch.
23. Las Vegas (8-8)
I hate dogging Jon Gruden, because he’s really good for football. But it’s time for him to produce. Jack Del Rio coached the Raiders to 25 wins in his three seasons as coach; Gruden’s coached the team to 19 in his three years. He’s not in danger because of his 10-year contract. The Raiders are still on their Vegas honeymoon, with multiple Elvi in the building this season for the first time the franchise can host fans in the new Allegiant Stadium. So I don’t see the Raiders being given the back of the hand by the locals this year. But the schedule for Vegas is not friendly. The first five: Ravens, at Steelers, Dolphins, at Chargers, Bears. The Raiders will be good enough on offense. Question is, with the collective underwhelming performance of their high draft picks by the Gruden/Mike Mayock team on defense (Clelin Ferrell, Trayvon Mullen, Damon Arnette, Johnathan Abram), can Gus Bradley turn the switch to get good players to play better?
24. Minnesota (7-9)
The annual Kirk Cousins referendum is getting so tired. Cousins has played small in some big games, to be sure. And for the Vikings to draft Kellen Mond because they’re tired of being tethered to a gigantic quarterback cap number every year is okay. But my focus here is not on the quarterback. It’s on the part that I am sure made Mike Zimmer lose hundreds of hours of sleep last fall. The Vikings had won five of six entering the last quarter of their season and were 6-6, with their playoff fate in their hands. They proceeded to allow 37 points a game in those last four, spiraling out of the playoffs, fittingly, with a 52-33 holiday loss in New Orleans. Merry Christmas, coach Zimmer. I don’t think they did enough to turn the defense around in the offseason—though they got one of my favorite players on the free market, Giants defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. Great signing; Tomlinson is an effort player who can move big bodies and skate around them in the middle. The Vikings are gambling on Patrick Peterson, 31 in July, being a solid corner after slipping to 61st among cornerbacks (minimum 350 coverage snaps) by PFF last year. Big gamble. To have a good chance in the NFC North, with or without Aaron Rodgers playing, that defense has to be 100 points stingier.
25. Denver (5-11)
I can tell you the Broncos felt knocked in the kisser to be without a Sunday or Monday night game on the schedule this year, the first time since 1991 they’ve been snubbed in those major windows. But when you win 5, 6, 7 and 5 games in the previous four seasons, and you enter (most likely) your sixth straight season without a long-term heir to Peyton Manning, why would NBC or ESPN be excited for you to take a coveted Sunday or Monday night slot? The Broncos would certainly be eager to trade for Aaron Rodgers if he becomes available—and right now, he is not. Ditto Deshaun Watson, and right now he is radioactive. So it’s likely Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater taking the first snap at the Giants on Sept. 12. The good news for Denver? The defense should work, after adding two solid corners in Kyle Fuller and rookie Patrick Surtain II, and with the prospect of Bradley Chubb and the almost-forgotten Von Miller finally playing a full season together. Also: The Broncos could get out of the gates hot, with a Giants-Jags-Jets September, and they don’t see Kansas City till December. That falls under the category of, So you’re saying there’s a chance.
26. Carolina (5-11)
Everything was a honeymoon for Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady as the Panthers got off to a 3-2 start, even after losing Christian McCaffrey after two weeks to injury. (He returned for one game before shutting it down.) But Carolina stumbled to a 2-9 finish, Teddy Bridgewater was jettisoned at a major cap cost and sideswiped Brady’s coaching after leaving, and the Panthers failed to acquire a major QB upgrade (Matthew Stafford, Deshaun Watson) after the season. So they settled for Sam Darnold, and hope he can be the same Darnold scouts loved in the 2018 draft, before he went to the land of misfit toys, the Jets. Carolina should have a better pass rush with a bookend duo of Brian Burns and Haason Redick (if Redick’s impressive 2020 season in Arizona wasn’t an outlier), and cornerback Jaycee Horn was a bold move with the eighth pick in the draft. The Panthers will be better if Darnold can throw deep efficiently to D.J. Moore, Robbie Anderson and rookie Terrace Marshall. But they’re down in this bottom quartile of teams because, though there is hope for Darnold, there is also mystery. Bill Parcells is the coach Rhule looks up to more than any other. When Parcells would get asked about things like whether some prospect could really play, he’d say: “They don’t sell insurance for that kind of stuff.”
27. Cincinnati (4-11-1)
I look at the Cincinnati future and I see the old Chargers, quarterbacked by Dan Fouts with that explosive receiving corps, John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow. Not saying Joe Burrow will be Fouts, and Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins have a ways to go to be in the Charger stratosphere. But Burrow is fearless like Fouts, and he’s beginning to look like the kind of leader Fouts was, and Burrow throws downfield with the same boldness and fearlessness. Of course, the Chargers were a better total team than Cincinnati is, and Zac Taylor needs to start winning or he’ll be someone’s coordinator in a couple of years. It’s strange to rate a team 27th and be optimistic about its future. I‘m dubious about the Bengals’ long-term management, but that hasn’t changed since I covered the team in 1984. What I like about the state of the Bengals is there’s a quarterback who won’t stand for the same old Bengals, who will shake them out of the lethargy of five straight losing seasons. And if you’re not on board, get out of the way. What that means for this year, particularly with Burrow coming off major knee surgery, is probably 5-12 or something in that neighborhood. But mark my words: The Bengals will upset a couple of teams—Pittsburgh, Baltimore or maybe the Raiders—and look impressive doing it.
28. Philadelphia (4-11-1)
This season falls under the category of a classic rebuilding year. The coach and quarterback who were the foundational long-term pieces of the team just nine months ago are gone, and Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts are in their places—for now. Come to think of it, that’s the most shocking thing that’s happened in the NFL in the last year. Sirianni and Hurts in, Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz out is, well, it’s more shocking than Tom Brady leading the Bucs to a world championship. The Eagles should have three first-round picks to replace Hurts if need be next April. But for the time being, Hurts will have his chance to be the Dak Prescott of the Eagles, the guy drafted as insurance but who took the job for himself and wouldn’t let it go. GM Howie Roseman did Hurts a favor by drafting his old friend from Alabama, Devonta Smith. I think Smith will be good in the NFL—he’s a competitive player who wins more 50-50 balls than a 6-0, 170-pound sprightly receiver should—and, as importantly, he won’t be cowed by the toughest fan base in the league. I think he’ll play to it and love it. But the Eagles have some long-term problems, like the state of an aging offensive line, and some significant age on the defensive front. I do like the Ryan Kerrigan addition, at least for one bridge year. A bridge year, the Eagles hope, to a brighter future after an offseason of mayhem.
29. Jacksonville (1-15)
The blank slate team of 2020. New coach with lots of new ideas, like maybe this running back we drafted, Travis Etienne, could play 50-50 RB-WR. New franchise quarterback. New facilities being drawn up. It’s a fun time to be a Jags fan, and there could be dancing all over Duval if the softest September schedule in the league—at Texans, Broncos, Cardinals, at Bengals—plays out to the Jags’ advantage. But this is a long-haul deal for Urban Meyer, who is facing the first losing season of his 18-year coaching life. This season is as much about teaching Lawrence and having him deal with the first hard knocks he’s ever faced as a quarterback. (Career record at Clemson: 34-2.) Lawrence has been advised by the quarterback he idolized as a kid, Peyton Manning, and part of that advice was your first year or two will be painful, but they’ll be great learning years. I think one of the best things Meyer did was learn at the feet of Jimmy Johnson, who had a 1-15 first season in Dallas but kept his eye on the prize and eventually, of course, won two Super Bowls. Johnson has counseled Meyer to not let losses eat him up—and Meyer’s too smart, I think, to let that happen. He told me this spring there’s “zero chance” of him being an NFL short-termer like Nick Saban (two years, 15-17) was in Miami 15 years ago. For his sake and for Jacksonville’s, I hope the health issues (stress, a brain cyst) that detoured previous coaching tenures don’t surface again. Meyer’s a breath of fresh air, and Jacksonville needs him.
30. Detroit (5-11)
The new kneecap-biting attitude of coach Dan Campbell is great, and the Lions need it desperately after the roster tuned out Matt Patricia. These players won’t tune out Campbell. He’s a fire-and-brimstone preacher who will not stand for losing. He is to coaching what Chris Spielman was to playing, and isn’t it fitting that Spielman was part of the Lions management team that hired Campbell? (I say “part,” because I am not positive it was “most,” but that would not surprise me.) Early reviews on Campbell have been sensational, but the NFL offseason is a time of raging hope for even a team like Detroit, which hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991. The reality of games will likely bring some pain, particularly when the quarterback has been downgraded from Matthew Stafford to Jared Goff and the receiving corps is minus Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones. Add the fact that there isn’t a defensive presence that will scare any offensive coordinator, and you understand that this could be a lean year in Detroit. I do like the fact that Aaron Glenn, the new defensive coordinator, is a fiery and smart tactician whose players will love playing for him. It’s going to be a lean year, but at least the Lions have a coach the team and the city can rally around, for what that’s worth.
31. N.Y. Jets (2-14)
The Jets need to get Nick Foles on the team. He’d be the perfect welcome-to-the-NFL-backup for Zach Wilson. I understand why the Jets jettisoned Sam Darnold; it’d have been Zoo York with him in camp this summer, as nice a guy as he is. But if I’m GM Joe Douglas, I’m figuring a way to pry Foles from the Bears after June 1. Per Jason Fitzgerald of Over The Cap, the Bears could dump their third quarterback and take hits of $2.667 million in 2021 and ’22, and the Jets could have Foles for $4 million this year and in the area of $5 million next year. Makes sense for both teams. And isn’t it a coincidence that New York hasn’t signed a vet backup/hand-holder for Wilson yet? I like Wilson and thought he was a good pick for the Jets, but throwing a rookie in front of Bill Belichick, Sean McDermott and Brian Flores six times this year is fraught with problems anyway. Aside from that, the Jets are getting better, and Robert Saleh is a good, smart, spirited coach for a young and rising team. It’ll be interesting to see how much C.J. Mosley brings to the defense after essentially not playing for two years, and costing the Jets $29 million in the process. They need him to be the sideline-to-sideline playmaker he was for a time in Baltimore.
32. Houston (4-12)
Could this change if Deshaun Watson plays, say, eight games for the Texans? Slightly. But Houston won four games with Watson last year, and the team is significantly worse than a year ago. The franchise has the feel of an expansion team, with Tyrod Taylor scrambling for his life behind a shaky line while keeping the seat warm for Davis Mills, who may or may not be the quarterback of the future, handing to 30-year-old Mark Ingram, throwing to 31-year-old Randall Cobb . .. and somehow trying to score occasionally in the thirties. Because that’s what it’s going to take to win this year, with a defense that allowed 29 points per game last year and got worse in the offseason. You say they got Shaq Lawson, and he’ll be an improvement to the Watt-less pass-rush? Well, Buffalo needed pass-rush a year ago and let him walk to Miami. Miami needed pass-rush this year and dumped him in a trade to Houston. So a front seven led by Whitney Mercilus and Lawson (neither of whom has had an eight-sack season in the last five years) won’t keep the heat off perhaps the league’s most suspect secondary. Houston in 2020 allowed 70 percent completions, a 109.3 opponent passer rating, and had three picks while giving up 30 TD passes. Yikes. I didn’t even use the Houston, we’ve got a problem line, because that would be understating how bad the prospects for 2021 are.