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The Ringer’s Way-Too-Early 2021 NFL Power Rankings

The Buccaneers and Chiefs could both be primed to run it back. What about the rest of the league?

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The Super Bowl is in the books, the Buccaneers are champions, and the offseason has now officially begun. That means it’s time to start looking to the 2021 season. Free agency and the NFL draft are both just over the horizon, bringing the potential to change the complexion of rosters and throw divisional hierarchies for a loop―but that’s not going to keep us from putting together a way-too-early set of Power Rankings for next year. Here’s a look at where teams stand as we turn the page on 2020 and ask the biggest questions facing each squad before the 2021 season kicks off.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers had their ups and downs in 2020 but everything came together down the stretch, with the offense coalescing into a fearsome unit under Tom Brady and the defense hitting its stride at the perfect time. And this team’s future for 2021 remains incredibly strong. Brady will have something resembling a full offseason (including whatever training camp and the preseason look like next season), giving the future Hall of Famer the chance to get even more integrated into the team’s playbook and fully in sync with his receivers. Retaining defensive coordinator Todd Bowles should have this defense on track to repeat as one of the league’s best. Tampa Bay heads into free agency this offseason with a few question marks, though: On offense, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, and Antonio Brown are all free agents; defensively, the team has big decisions to make with unrestricted free agents in pass rusher Shaquil Barrett, linebacker Lavonte David, and defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, among others.

2. Kansas City Chiefs

Despite the disappointing end to their season, the Chiefs are set up to make a run at a third straight Super Bowl appearance. Health will be a big factor, obviously, and with guards Mike Remmers and Andrew Wylie both headed into free agency, offensive line depth should be a top priority (as the loss to Tampa Bay showed). But with Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce all under contract, the offense has a good shot to hit the ground running next season, and defensively, the team should return the bulk of its core nucleus, including safety Tyrann Mathieu, defensive end Chris Jones, and pass rusher Frank Clark. Kansas City ain’t going anywhere.

3. Buffalo Bills

The Bills are well situated to remain one of the top teams in the AFC in 2021, with their dynamic duo of Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs both under contract. Add in the potential for second-year jumps from guys like receiver Gabriel Davis and running back Zack Moss, and this offense under Brian Daboll (whom they somehow retained) could be even better than the one we saw in 2020. Buffalo will have to make some decisions on the offensive line, with guard Jon Feliciano and tackle Daryl Williams heading toward free agency, but it’s in good shape to storm back in 2021.

4. Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers managed to raise a few eyebrows after the team’s NFC championship game defeat a few weeks back when he implied he was uncertain he’d return to Green Bay in 2021. But I chalk all that talk up to post-loss emotions, and think it’s safe to assume that the league’s MVP will be back with the team―and that he’ll continue to light up opposing defenses in 2021. The odds are longer, however, that Rodgers will be doing that with the help of superstar running back Aaron Jones, who’s about to hit free agency looking for a big-money deal. Add in free agent question marks in center Corey Linsley and running back Jamaal Williams, and the Packers may have a few holes to fill.

5. Los Angeles Rams

There’s plenty of reason to question the Rams’ near future after the team traded away 2022 and 2023 first-round picks (and change) for quarterback Matthew Stafford, but I do think he makes them a legit contender in the short term. Stafford gives Sean McVay’s offense a big boost thanks to his superior arm talent, aggressive mindset, and ability to function outside of structure. Combined with the team’s talent-packed defense, he should make L.A. one of the favorites in the NFC next year. I am a bit worried about how this team will handle an exodus of coaches to other teams, including defensive coordinator Brandon Staley (to the Chargers), assistant head coach/LBs coach Joe Barry (Packers), passing game coordinator Shane Waldron (Seahawks), and cornerbacks coach Aubrey Pleasant (Lions).

6. Baltimore Ravens

Despite some stretches of dysfunction this season, I’m bullish on the Ravens’ offense, which can always rely on its dynamic and explosive run game as a foundation. I’ll be doubly optimistic for this group next year, though, if the team can go out and add a few pass-catching weapons for quarterback Lamar Jackson. Defensively, I’d expect more of the same quality play from Baltimore next season, but the team has some big decisions to make with its pass-rushing group, with Matt Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, Tyus Bowser, Derek Wolfe, and Jihad Ward all slated for free agency.

7. Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks defense rebounded from an atrocious start to the 2020 season and finished the year as a respectable, possibly even better-than-average group, which makes me optimistic for their direction in 2021. The offense, by contrast, had an inverse performance, starting hot before fading badly down the stretch. New offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, who replaces Brian Schottenheimer via the Rams, will be judged by his ability to jump-start Russell Wilson and figure out a way to rediscover Seattle’s deep passing attack. Wilson’s stellar track record makes it easier to bet on a nice rebound for this group next year.

8. New Orleans Saints

With Drew Brees almost certainly heading off into retirement, the most obvious question for the Saints is who the future Hall of Famer’s successor will be (Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston are the two favorites, at least for now). Past that, New Orleans is going to have to get a little creative to get in under the cap in 2021―right now it’s projected to be about $74 million over―so we could see some major changes come down the pipe. But there are ways to manipulate the salary cap, and the team is still deep and talented. With Sean Payton at the helm, the Saints, who finished the 2020 regular season first in DVOA, should remain a force to contend with in the NFC.


9. Cleveland Browns

The Browns offense started to find its groove over the second half of the season, in large part thanks to quarterback Baker Mayfield’s much-improved play, particularly from Week 12 on (a stretch in which he threw 11 touchdowns and just one pick). Difference-making running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt and all five members of the team’s top-tier offensive line are set to return; if Odell Beckham Jr. is back from injury, Cleveland’s offense under Kevin Stefanski should be able to hit the ground running in 2021. Defensively, the Browns may have some roles to fill: Pass rusher Olivier Vernon, defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi, cornerbacks Terrance Mitchell and Kevin Johnson, and safeties Karl Joseph and Tedric Thompson are all headed to free agency.

10. San Francisco 49ers

It’s easy to forget about San Francisco after watching that team finish 6-10 in 2020, but the 49ers’ struggles are easily explained by the team’s absurd series of debilitating injuries. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, star tight end George Kittle, and key pass rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford all missed significant time, as did receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, offensive linemen Weston Richburg and Ben Garland, running backs Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, defensive back Richard Sherman, and safety Jaquiski Tartt, among many others. San Francisco must make some decisions in the secondary this offseason (Sherman, Tartt, K’Waun Williams, Jason Verrett, and Ahkello Witherspoon are all free agents), but if they just get healthy again in 2021, they should more closely resemble the team that went to the Super Bowl in 2019.

11. Indianapolis Colts

The Colts have a top-tier defense, an elite offensive line, and some up-and-coming skill-position talent (particularly running back Jonathan Taylor and receivers Michael Pittman Jr. and Parris Campbell). But this team faces plenty of uncertainty in 2021 with the retirement of quarterback Philip Rivers. Indy has plenty of cap space if it wants to go the free-agent route to find Rivers’s replacement (currently projected with the second-most room under the cap), or it could try to negotiate a trade. A lot depends on how things shake out at that spot, but it’s hard to deny that this roster is built to compete again next year with the right quarterback under center.


12. Tennessee Titans

The good news for the Titans is that all three members of their offensive triumvirate—quarterback Ryan Tannehill, running back Derrick Henry, and receiver A.J. Brown—are under contract in 2021. Past that, the team has plenty of big question marks heading into next year, including how well the team’s two new coordinators (offensive coordinator Todd Downing and defensive coordinator Shane Bowen) will perform and whether or not the team will bring back key free agents in pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, linebacker Jayon Brown, defensive lineman DaQuan Jones, tight end Jonnu Smith, and wide receiver Corey Davis.

13. Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins are an ascending franchise under head coach Brian Flores and have the ammo to take a big jump in 2021. Miami boasts two first-round picks and plenty of cap space (projected to be the eighth most, per Over the Cap). This team is currently built upon a talented and dynamic defense, but the biggest question is whether the offense can carry more of its own weight next year. Much depends on a second-year jump from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, so it’d behoove the team to add some playmakers over the offseason. There’s always the chance, too, that the Dolphins make an aggressive trade for Deshaun Watson―a move that’d send them rising on this list, and make them instant Super Bowl contenders.

14. Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers slumped badly toward the end of the season, and after starting out 11-0, they limped into the playoffs before suffering a loss to the Browns in the wild-card round. That finish raises plenty of questions for 2021, and while Pittsburgh is still a well-coached squad with a talented defense, there’s uncertainty around the quarterback position (Ben Roethlisberger has indicated that he’d like to keep playing, but at what cost to the team?), the team’s salary cap (they’re currently projected to be $31 million over the cap), and how the team will manage free agency (pass rusher Bud Dupree, corner Mike Hilton, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, and running back James Conner are all set to hit the open market).

15. Dallas Cowboys

I’m assuming that Dak Prescott will be back with the Cowboys and healthy enough to play, and that should provide this team a reliable foundation to be one of the more explosive offenses in the NFL. The defense is another story, though, and with pass rusher Aldon Smith, linebacker Sean Lee, defensive end Tyrone Crawford, and cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis all set to hit free agency, Dallas has work to do to get that group ready to compete in 2021.


16. Arizona Cardinals

The Kyler Murray–to–DeAndre Hopkins connection is an exciting one, but head coach and play-caller Kliff Kingsbury needs to figure out some ways to get this team to be more consistently explosive on offense. Defensively, Arizona had a promising year and finished 10th in DVOA, but with cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, and pass rushers Haason Reddick and Markus Golden all slated for free agency, this unit has some major question marks for 2021.

17. Minnesota Vikings

I’m bullish on this team’s offense in 2021 under new offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak, who inherits an offense helmed by Kirk Cousins and headlined by playmaking stars in Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, and Dalvin Cook. The defense, on the other hand, needs work: After finishing 18th in DVOA last year, the Vikings need to address their wafer-thin pass-rushing group if they have any hope of competing in the NFC North.

18. Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers certainly don’t lack talent. On offense, Rookie of the Year quarterback Justin Herbert captains a group that features top-tier playmakers in receiver Keenan Allen and running back Austin Ekeler. And defensively, the team can lean on superstars in pass rusher Joey Bosa, cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Chris Harris Jr., and safety Derwin James to carry the day. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the team will function under new head coach Brandon Staley, but I won’t be surprised if L.A. is a fast riser early next season.

19. New England Patriots

Here’s what we know about the Patriots in 2021: They’ll be well coached under Bill Belichick. Past that, it’s tough to know what this roster will look like come Week 1. The Pats have plenty of room to get creative this offseason with what’s projected to be the fourth-most salary cap space in the league. With Cam Newton almost surely headed elsewhere in free agency, New England will need to address its quarterback spot, get better at receiver, get deeper on both lines, and get younger in the secondary.

20. Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders failed to make a big leap forward in 2020 in Jon Gruden’s third season with the team, and it’s tough to forecast whether a big jump will come in his fourth year at the helm, either. That’s especially true if Las Vegas can’t improve dramatically on defense after that unit finished 28th in DVOA last year. Currently projected to be $6 million over the cap in 2021, the Raiders may have to get creative to bring that underperforming group up to par.

21. Washington Football Team

Washington is headed in the right direction, and the team’s dominant defensive line is an excellent foundation upon which to build. But on offense, the team’s high-caliber skill players, like receiver Terry McLaurin and running back Antonio Gibson, have been weighed down by underwhelming quarterback play. Dwayne Haskins is gone, Alex Smith is not the long-term answer, and Taylor Heinicke may be nothing more than just a postseason flash in the pan. Until the quarterback position is settled in Washington, this team’s ceiling looks capped.

22. New York Giants

The Giants’ defense was slightly better than expected in 2020, but this team still has a long way to go on both sides of the ball. The jury’s still out on head coach Joe Judge, and Jason Garrett’s first season as the team’s offensive coordinator was a forgettable one. While it should help to get Saquon Barkley back next year, New York’s playoff hopes sit squarely on Daniel Jones’s shoulders―and I’m not sure Garrett is going to be the guy to help Jones make a big leap. With just $1 million and change in effective cap space heading into next season, GM Dave Gettleman is going to have to do some roster shuffling if he hopes to add any big names to help his young quarterback.

23. Chicago Bears

The Bears remain stout on the defensive side of the ball, but a lot hinges on the looming decision of whether or not to bring back quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. After watching Chicago toggle between Trubisky and Nick Foles in 2020, I’m not super confident that GM Ryan Pace or head coach Matt Nagy is going to make the right call. Chicago is likely to lose superstar receiver Allen Robinson II in free agency, and it doesn’t help matters that it’s currently projected to be $6 million over the cap.

24. Carolina Panthers

I’m bullish on the long-term prospects for the Panthers under Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady, but like many of the teams in this part of the rankings, the quarterback situation creates uncertainty for this squad in 2021. Teddy Bridgewater doesn’t look like the answer, so I’d expect the Panthers to get aggressive at that position, either by signing another QB in free agency or grabbing one in the draft.


25. Philadelphia Eagles

I’m just going to assume that the Eagles trade Carson Wentz at some point in the next few weeks or months, and that Jalen Hurts takes over as the presumptive starter. That should help the team’s offense become a little more dynamic, but Philly’s got plenty of other issues to fix. The Eagles are currently projected to come in $49 million over the cap next year (second worst) and may be headed toward some big roster purges and a rebuilding season under new head coach Nick Sirianni.

26. Atlanta Falcons

This team has some major decisions to make regarding its long-term commitments to quarterback Matt Ryan and receiver Julio Jones (both under contract through 2023), and needs to keep getting better and deeper on defense to compete in the NFC South. Currently projected to come in $32 million over the cap in 2021 (third worst), the Falcons could struggle to make any big-ticket moves in free agency. Atlanta seems to be heading into a transitional year under new head coach Arthur Smith.

27. Denver Broncos

The Broncos have done a great job of stockpiling young offensive talent, but their future hinges so much on what happens at the quarterback spot. Right now, it’s looking like Denver may just give Drew Lock another season to prove he’s the long-term answer, which is why I’ve got the team so low here. But if the Broncos can figure out how to make an upgrade at that position (go get Deshaun Watson!), all bets would be off and they’d likely go shooting up these ranks. Hell, even signing a guy like Ryan Fitzpatrick would probably boost this team a few spots.

28. Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars are still likely a year or two away from contending, but the arrow will be pointing up for this group when they get Trevor Lawrence under center (I’m just going to assume he’s going to be their pick at no. 1). The Clemson star will be throwing to D.J. Chark and Laviska Shenault and should have a relatively soft landing spot in Urban Meyer’s new scheme in Jacksonville.

29. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals desperately need to address their sieve-like offensive line to have any hope of keeping Joe Burrow upright in 2021. The good news is they can pick one of the top tackles in this draft—maybe Oregon’s Penei Sewell or Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater—with the fifth pick. Past that, Cincy is in good shape cap-wise ($37.8 million and change under the cap), and could spend some of that change to upgrade its 27th-ranked defense from 2020, per DVOA.

30. Detroit Lions

After trading away longtime starter Matthew Stafford, the Lions are in the early stages of what could be a multiyear rebuild. The defense, which finished dead last in DVOA in 2020, needs a lot of work. And the offense should look a whole lot different (read: worse) than the one we saw last year now that Stafford is gone and Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. are both headed to free agency. The Lions have the draft capital to get a nice foundation started in 2021, but it’s tough to imagine a competitive squad right away under new head coach Dan Campbell.

31. New York Jets

The Jets made the right decision to move on from Adam Gase, but new head coach Robert Saleh has his work cut out for him. Saleh’s squad holds the second pick in the draft and is at a crossroads: Will they draft a quarterback like Justin Fields or Zach Wilson and move on from Sam Darnold, or roll with the incumbent and trade that pick for a gold mine of building blocks for the future? In either case, the Jets are a ways away from competing.

32. Houston Texans

The Texans are an absolute mess. Superstar quarterback Deshaun Watson wants out. Jack Easterby, a former Patriots team chaplain, has somehow finessed his way into a powerful role in the front office. Houston is slated to be over the cap in 2021, and doesn’t have a first-round pick.