The 2021 NFL season kicks off this week, and from the development of this year’s talented rookie quarterback class to 44-year-old Tom Brady’s continued dominance, there’s no shortage of intriguing story lines. Football is back, friends, and that means a great many things for fans around the world. But above all else, it’s the signal to everyone that my Power Rankings have returned.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers accomplished the seemingly impossible in free agency, retaining or re-signing every major contributor from last season’s Super Bowl squad. With incredible depth and talent on both sides of the ball and that ever-critical continuity to go with it, Tampa Bay looks well positioned to defend its title. In fact, this team might be more dangerous than the one we saw last year: Given a full offseason to master this playbook and develop rapport with his skill players, Tom Brady could have this offense reaching new heights.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
A wholesale offensive line remodel is the biggest question mark surrounding the Chiefs heading into the season, and the changes the team made to that group―which is now projected as LT Orlando Brown Jr., LG Joe Thuney, and a trio of rookies in OC Creed Humphrey, RG Trey Smith, and RT Lucas Niang―could either pay huge dividends and help make the Kansas City offense unstoppable once again … or just backfire completely. I’m betting on the former, and even if there are growing pains, Patrick Mahomes covers up plenty of blemishes.
3. Buffalo Bills
If there’s any team that could usurp the Chiefs as the NFL’s gold standard for high-octane offenses, it’s this Josh Allen–led unit. The newly minted $258 million quarterback looked like a man possessed in training camp and preseason―and if we can take anything away from the Bills’ final preseason tilt, it’s that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is not planning on holding anything back in 2021. Daboll called passes on 28 out of 33 first-half plays against the Packers last week, and Allen went 20-of-26 for 194 yards and two touchdowns as Buffalo’s offense cut through the Green Bay defense like a hot knife through butter. I’d expect much of the same come Week 1. The Bills defense can carry its own weight, too, possessing the right mix of veteran savvy and promising youth. If the team’s up-and-coming pass rushers like A.J. Epenesa, Gregory Rousseau, and Carlos Basham can provide a boost, this Buffalo squad could emerge as the best team in the AFC.
4. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens will have to weather a spate of preseason injuries on offense (J.K. Dobbins tore his ACL and is out for the year, and rookie Rashod Bateman will start the season on the injured reserve with a groin injury), and the defense will be relying on an aging pass rush group, but Baltimore is still among the league’s best-coached and most-balanced teams. They’ve also got a pretty good cheat code in quarterback Lamar Jackson, whose unique dual-threat skill set makes the team’s offense go. The Ravens offense could start slow, but I think Jackson will bounce back to his MVP-level performance from 2019.
5. Green Bay Packers
Continuity is a common theme among my top five teams, and Green Bay should enjoy it in 2021. The Packers return most of their key players on both sides of the ball, including, crucially, defending MVP Aaron Rodgers. The 37-year-old quarterback will have to make do without blind-side protector David Bakhtiari for at least the first six weeks (Bakhtiari is on the PUP list while recovering from an ACL injury), but Rodgers should get some support from a potentially upgraded surrounding cast in 2021. Davante Adams will do his normal, dominant thing, and we could see a big jump from both no. 2 receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (who has drawn rave reviews in camp) and 2019 second-rounder AJ Dillon. Add in a pair of versatile playmakers in Randall Cobb and Amari Rodgers, and the team’s passing game looks poised to continue its efficient, explosive ways.
6. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have some big questions to answer on defense after losing wunderkind coordinator Brandon Staley to the Chargers and key pieces like John Johnson, Troy Hill, and Michael Brockers in free agency. But after the team’s blockbuster trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford, I’m convinced that Sean McVay’s offense can pick up the slack. Stafford should unlock the parts of McVay’s playbook that a slumping Jared Goff limited in 2020, and I won’t be surprised if this group can go punch for punch with anyone in 2021.
7. Cleveland Browns
The Browns just might be at the precipice of greatness. This team has difference-makers on both sides of the ball. Defensively, Cleveland has a fearsome pass rush and there are playmakers at every level. On offense, the Browns can run the ball with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and can create explosive plays with the trio of Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry. Cleveland just needs to prove it can put those pieces together to form a championship-caliber group. After being bitten by Browns disappointment in the past, I’m cautiously optimistic this is the season that Cleveland will ascend into the NFL’s top tier.
8. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks’ defensive line is more talented than people think, featuring a handful of wily veterans in Carlos Dunlap, Kerry Hyder, and Benson Mayowa along with a few up-and-comers in Darrell Taylor, Alton Robinson, Rasheem Green, and Poona Ford. That group could help Seattle’s defense make a big jump. The offense behind Russell Wilson is the real foundation of the team’s success, though, and I’m intrigued by what former Rams passing game coordinator Shane Waldron brings to the table. It wouldn’t be surprising if Wilson has one of his best all-around seasons in 2021.
9. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers were the league’s most injury-riddled team in 2020, according to Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost metric, and struggled to compete without key pieces like Nick Bosa, George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Dee Ford, Richard Sherman, and a gaggle of others for long stretches of the season. With better injury luck, San Francisco looks ready to bounce back to its 2019 Super Bowl form. The big wild card, of course, is whether we’ll see Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance (or maybe both?) at quarterback. But in either case, head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan is going to make this offense a huge pain in the ass to defend, and that group could carry this team to great heights.
10. New England Patriots
Even without Tom Brady, the Patriots feel inevitable. After an injury-devastated down year in 2020, New England looks ready to compete again in the AFC East. Bill Belichick has built a formidable defense and has the makings of one of the most intriguing offensive groups in the league: Rookie quarterback Mac Jones and the team’s talented free agent skill players (like Hunter Henry, Jonnu Smith, and Nelson Agholor) grab the most headlines, but the team has an elite offensive line and one of the best running back rooms (with Damien Harris, Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor, and James White) in the league.
11. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins return most of the major components to a defense that ranked ninth in weighted DVOA last year, and that group could make a jump in 2021 with the additions of rookie pass rusher Jaelan Phillips and defensive backs Jason McCourty and Justin Coleman. The offense is what I’m most intrigued by, though: A much-needed infusion of speed via free agent Will Fuller and first-round pick Jaylen Waddle could be exactly what Tua Tagovailoa needs to make a second-year leap as a passer. Miami looks like an ascending franchise.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers
Following their ugly second-half collapse in 2020, there are some who doubt the Steelers have what it takes to compete in a tough AFC North this year, especially with the now 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger at the helm. I tend to think rumors of this team’s demise are a bit premature. Yes, there are concerns over a cobbled-together offensive line, but Pittsbugh still boasts an elite group of skill players in Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and rookie Najee Harris, and that group could help cover up for issues up front. And the Steelers still have a star-studded defense, which returns rangy linebacker Devin Bush. Pittsburgh’s not going anywhere.
13. Dallas Cowboys
It’d be tough for this Dallas defense to play much worse than it did for much of last season, and I’m bullish on the idea that new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can breathe some energy into a formerly languid group. Explosive rookie linebacker Micah Parsons should help in that area, too. Mostly, though, I’m excited to watch what the Cowboys offense can do with Dak Prescott back behind center. CeeDee Lamb is primed for a huge second-year breakout, Amari Cooper remains one of the most skilled receivers in the game, and Michael Gallup is probably the league’s best no. 3 receiver. Oh, and Ezekiel Elliott looked awfully svelte in training camp. Put it all together and you’re going to have to score a lot of points to get past the Cowboys.
14. New Orleans Saints
The Saints are a balanced and well-coached squad. New Orleans has playmaking stars like Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport, Marshon Lattimore, and the feisty Chauncey Gardner-Johnson on defense. On offense, Alvin Kamara anchors a skill group that could have a couple of breakouts in receiver Marquez Callaway and tight end Juwan Johnson. The big question for this team is, of course: What version of Jameis Winston will show up in 2021? After backing up Drew Brees for a season, the veteran quarterback looked poised and confident in preseason action. Now he needs to prove he’s no longer the erratic turnover machine that he was earlier in his career. If Winston can rein in those ill-advised YOLO balls, the Saints should be contenders in the NFC.
15. Tennessee Titans
The Titans have plenty of question marks on defense, where they’ll be leaning on unproven pass rush and cornerback groups. But the biggest variable for whether this team will sink or swim is what the offense will look like in the post–Arthur Smith era. Ryan Tannehill has turned into a top-five NFL quarterback since taking over the starting job in Tennessee, at least statistically, but now heads into uncharted waters with new offensive coordinator Todd Downing at the helm. The Julio Jones trade will certainly help an offense already anchored by A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry, but Tannehill must prove that he can still post elite passing numbers with someone other than Smith calling the shots.
16. Washington Football Team
An already fearsome defense (which ranked third in DVOA last year) got even better over the offseason with the additions of cornerback William Jackson and first-round linebacker Jamin Davis. The offseason move that could really put this team over the top, though, is the Ryan Fitzpatrick signing. The wiley veteran will be helming a talented offense featuring Terry McLaurin, Antonio Gibson, Logan Thomas, and Curtis Samuel―and if this group can manage even league-average efficiency after finishing dead last in DVOA in 2020, it should make Washington the clear favorites in the NFC East.
17. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts should have a strong defense again, but the offense is basically one giant shrug emoji: Will Carson Wentz bounce back from an atrocious 2020 campaign? Will he be able to play the entire season without getting injured or going on the COVID list? Will Julie’n Davenport hold up at left tackle until Eric Fisher is ready to play? Can Michael Pittman Jr. break out as the go-to guy in this passing game? Can Parris Campbell stay healthy? There’s an awful lot of uncertainty, and I’m not as optimistic as some that things will come together on that side of the ball.
18. Los Angeles Chargers
I wanted to put the Chargers higher on this list but the team’s coaching turnover creates plenty of unanswered questions. With Brandon Staley at the helm and Joe Lombardi now calling plays, Justin Herbert is now learning his fifth playbook since he started college; he played in three different schemes at Oregon and is already on to his second coordinator in the pros. How quickly the sophomore passer adapts will shape the Chargers’ season.
19. Denver Broncos
The Broncos’ decision to take cornerback Pat Surtain II with the ninth pick in the draft over quarterbacks like Justin Fields and Mac Jones will likely hang over the franchise all year (if not much longer), and that scrutiny will be magnified if Teddy Bridgewater struggles to move the ball. Still, Denver could make a run for the postseason if things fall right. This team has a potentially elite pass rush group headlined by Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, and its up-and-coming skill-player corps―which features Jerry Jeudy, Courtland Sutton, K.J. Hamler, Noah Fant, Javonte Williams, and Melvin Gordon III―could take a lot of the pressure off of Bridgewater.
20. Minnesota Vikings
Getting Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr back from injuries should give the Vikings a nice boost on defense, as will the bevy of free agent additions and a recent reunion with pass-rusher Everson Griffen. But that group still needs to make a massive jump after finishing last year ranked 26th in weighted DVOA. Offensively, Minnesota boasts a trio of star skill players in Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, and Dalvin Cook, but it’s hard to trust Kirk Cousins to take that group over the top this year.
21. Arizona Cardinals
I’m still waiting for the Kliff Kingsbury offense, at least the version I had imagined when he was hired, to show up. The additions of A.J. Green and rookie Rondale Moore should help to supercharge the team’s passing game, but this could be a make-or-break season for Kingsbury and Kyler Murray.
22. Chicago Bears
The long-term future looks bright for the Bears with Justin Fields behind center, but in the short term, things could get ugly. Thanks in part to the team’s sieve-like offensive line, it’s looking like we’re going to get the Andy Dalton experience to start the season. An under-siege Dalton doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for success, even with the team’s defense providing a solid foundation.
23. Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders should be led by another underrated and efficient offense behind Derek Carr this year, but the team’s defense, which ranked 28th in DVOA last year, is an obvious anchor that’s keeping this franchise from taking a big jump. We’re heading into year four of the Jon Gruden regime, and it still feels like the Raiders are a year or two away.
24. Philadelphia Eagles
I’m bullish on what second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts could do this year, provided Nick Sirianni embraces the former Oklahoma and Alabama star’s dual-threat skill set. With a big arm and running-back-like talent on the ground, Hurts can, in theory, make it tough for opponents to prepare for the Philly offense. I’m just not convinced that Sirianni wants to fully commit to building his scheme around Hurts, and following months of rumors that Philly was in on Deshaun Watson trade talks, it’s unclear the team is sold on Hurts as the long-term answer at quarterback.
25. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers bet big on Sam Darnold over the offseason, passing up the chance to draft Fields or Jones to take cornerback Jaycee Horn instead. I’m no longer capable of mustering excitement for the thought of what Darnold could do in a well-schemed, talent-packed offense like the Panthers have―but I am cautiously optimistic that he can keep the chains moving. With a young and ascending defense, the Panthers are likely still a year away from really contending, but they could surprise some teams in 2021.
26. Atlanta Falcons
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees will have to get extra creative this year to generate a pass rush with the Falcons’ shallow front line group, and the secondary has much to prove. In a talented NFC South, it’s difficult to see a path to the playoffs for Atlanta. That said, I’m excited to watch what new head coach Arthur Smith can do with Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley, and rookie Kyle Pitts on offense. That unit will be fun to watch, if nothing else.
27. New York Jets
It would appear so far that the Jets picked the right quarterback in Zach Wilson, who looked poised, accurate, and dynamic in training camp and preseason. He got plenty of support from newcomer Corey Davis and rookie Elijah Moore, too, and that trio looks destined to create some big plays this year. But New York will have a tough time competing with the Bills, Patriots, and Dolphins in an ultra-tough AFC East―and the loss of free agent pass rusher Carl Lawson to a ruptured Achilles was a gut punch for the team’s hopes of taking a jump on defense.
28. New York Giants
The Giants took steps toward boosting their offense in the offseason, signing free agent receiver Kenny Golladay and drafting former Florida star Kadarius Toney in the first round. But even the best-laid plans sometimes falter: Golladay has been nursing a hamstring injury for the past month, and even when he was healthy he had struggled to get on the same page with Daniel Jones. Toney, meanwhile, missed most of training camp due to a litany of issues, and it doesn’t seem like he’s on track to be a big contributor early on. It helps Jones that Saquon Barkley should be ready to go early in the season, but there aren’t many good vibes around this New York offense.
29. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have the makings of a high-octane passing game with Joe Burrow behind center throwing passes to Tee Higgins, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tyler Boyd. But as Burrow works to get comfortable and all the way back from last season’s ACL tear, and as Chase works to shake off the rust after opting out in 2020 … I think this team could start off slowly. The team’s 27th-ranked defense from last year doesn’t look ready to carry them to wins, either.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
I have zero doubt that Trevor Lawrence is going to be an excellent NFL quarterback, and he’ll no doubt make some big plays early in the year. But there haven’t been many signs thus far that Urban Meyer is the right choice for ushering the Jaguars back into relevance. From the Tim Tebow sideshow to the quarterback-competition charade between Lawrence and Gardner Minshew, Meyer has mostly looked out of his depth as an NFL coach thus far. I’ve got to wait until the real games start before I’m willing to push this squad up the ranks.
31. Detroit Lions
The Lions are clearly in a rebuilding phase. I expect we’ll see signs of the team’s hard-nosed, smash-mouth identity show up week in and week out, but there just doesn’t appear to be enough talent on either side of the ball for Detroit to turn into contenders in the NFC North. I’m intrigued to see where Dan Campbell takes this team long term, but they’re going to be a tough watch in 2021.
32. Houston Texans
The Texans’ roster is made up almost completely of veteran journeymen … or that’s how it feels, anyway. Deshaun Watson is facing 22 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints of sexual assault. The team’s front office remains in turmoil. Houston looks like the favorites for the top overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft.