1. Tampa Bay. A glittering cast of mercenaries was recruited a year ago to win a Super Bowl for the Buccaneers – Tom Brady, Leonard Fournette, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown...They did – and now the gang is back with an eye on repeating as champion. In fact, all 22 starters return from a team that mowed down Washington, New Orleans, Green Bay and Kansas City in the post-season en route to the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy. Brady is the edge the Bucs have over everyone else. No quarterback in NFL history has won more championships and only one (Otto Graham) won a greater percentage of his games than Brady’s 76.9. Brady has thrown a record 581 TD passes and has the NFL’s best collection of receivers at his disposal in Tampa in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Brown and Gronkowski. Coach Bruce Arians has given him yet another quality weapon coming out of the backfield, signing RB Gio Bernard away from the Bengals in free agency. This team is stacked.
2. Kansas City. If Kansas City could have blocked the Buccaneers, the Chiefs might have won another Super Bowl last February. But they couldn’t … so they didn’t. Kansas City played that game with three starters missing from their offensive line of choice – both tackles and a guard. Andy Reid addressed that deficiency this offseason by acquiring two veteran Pro Bowlers, trading for left tackle Orlando Brown and signing guard Kyle Long in free agency. The Chiefs also signed guard Joe Thuney, who started on two Super Bowl champions at New England. Patrick Mahomes is the most dangerous quarterback in football. He’s even more dangerous when he has blocking. The Chiefs have star power on both sides of the ball with Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Chris Jones and Tyrann Mathieu.
3. Buffalo. The Bills fell one game short of a return to the Super Bowl last season. Josh Allen will be a year better at quarterback in 2021 and the Bills have given him another weapon, free-agent WR Emmanuel Sanders. He joins a talented flank that also includes Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in both catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535 yards) last season, and Cole Beasley, who caught 82 passes in the slot. Sanders caught 61 passes with the Saints last season. If there is a next step for the Bills it must come from the defense. Buffalo finished in the middle of the pack (14th) a year ago and only managed 38 sacks. Super Bowl champions historically have averaged 42 sacks. So the Bill used their first-round draft pick on Miami edge rusher Gregory Rousseau, who collected an NCAA-runnerup 15 ½ sacks in 2019.
4. Baltimore. The Ravens led the NFL in rushing, thanks in large part to the legs of Lamar Jackson, who became the first quarterback in NFL history to post back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. But Baltimore finished last in the league in passing, so the Ravens brought in two speedy new pass catchers, drafting Rashod Bateman in the first round and signing Sammy Watkins in free agency away from the AFC champion Chiefs. The Ravens also signed a couple new pass protectors for Jackson in free agency, tackle Alejandro Villanueva and guard Kevin Zeitler. Baltimore has a Top 10 defense but the pass rush suffered a huge blow with the departure of edge rushers Yannick Ngakoue and Matthew Judon in free agency.
5. Arizona. The Cardinals have seen an opening in the NFC West and were aggressive this offseason in pursuing it, adding several veteran Pro Bowlers – pass rusher J.J. Watt, WR A.J. Green, center Rodney Hudson, cornerback Malcolm Butler and kicker Matt Prater. For the second consecutive draft, Arizona selected a linebacker in the first round – Isaiah Simmons in 2020 and Zaven Collins in 2021. They join a talented cast that already features QB Kyler Murray, WR DeAndre Hopkins, edge rusher Chandler Jones and safety Budda Baker. The key to an Arizona return to the playoffs is Murray, who passed for 26 touchdowns and rushed for 11 more in 2020 in his second NFL season. The Cardinals finished fourth in the NFL in sacks last season with 48 and the addition of Watt should push that count into the 50s.
6. Cleveland. The Browns reached the AFC semis playing old-school football – pound the ball on offense and punish on defense. In Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Cleveland will again be a run-dominant team. But the passing game gets an upgrade with the return of Odell Beckham Jr., who missed the second half of the 2020 season with a knee injury. The defense will get three major upgrades, signing edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney in free agency and drafting CB Greg Newsome in the first round. Safety Grant Delpit, who missed his rookie season with an Achilles injury, will make his NFL debut in 2021.
7. Pittsburgh. The Steelers may have landed the most impactful rookie in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, selecting Alabama RB Najee Harris with the 24th overall selection. Harris was the best runner in the draft and, as Ben Roethlisberger ages, the Steelers need to reclaim their identity as a team that runs the ball and plays defense. Pittsburgh already owns the NFL’s top-ranked defense and the arrival of the 6-2, 230-pound Harris gives the Steelers the legs to return to their Jerome Bettis-driven offense days. He rushed for 1,400 yards and 26 touchdowns for the Crimson Tide last season.
8. Tennessee. The Titans are a pass rush away from Super Bowl contention. Tennessee won the AFC South with an 11-5 record a year ago despite collecting just 19 sacks. Only hapless Jacksonville had fewer. Coach Mike Vrabel is hoping free-agent outside backer Bud Dupree can be the answer. He was plucked in free agency from the NFL’s best pass rush (Pittsburgh) at a cost of $82.5 million over the next five years. At that price, he’d better be the answer. Dupree has had 19 ½ sacks over his last two seasons and 39 ½ in his five-year career.
9. Indianapolis. The Colts will open the season with a fourth different starting quarterback in four years – Andrew Luck (2018), Jacoby Brissett (2019), Philip Rivers (2020) and now Carson Wentz, who reunites with Indy head coach Frank Reich. Wentz will have a blocking front, rushing attack and set of receivers in Indianapolis he no longer had in Philadelphia -- plus a Top 10 defense. If Wentz can regain the form that made him an NFL MVP candidate under Reich in 2017, the Colts could be the sleeper team in the AFC. Reich was a betting on himself when he signed off on the trade for Wentz.
10. Green Bay. The Packers could be much higher in these rankings – or more lower – based on management’s ability to convince Aaron Rodgers he needs to continue his career in Green Bay. With Rodgers, the Packers are a Super Bowl contender. Without him, there’s no guarantee Green Bay can continue as NFC North champion. Rodgers has said he wants out but there’s no way the Packers can get fair compensation for the reigning NFL MVP. Green Bay would need more than when the Cowboys commanded for Herschel Walker – three first round draft picks, three seconds, a third and five players.
11. LA Chargers. Despite a 7-9 record, the Chargers were one of only three teams that finished in the Top 10 in both offense and defense last season. They have a new head coach now in Brandon Staley and a couple offensive upgrades. Los Angeles used a first-round draft pick on OT Rayshawn Slater and signed TE Jared Cook away from the Saints. And NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year QB Justin Herbert will be a year better. He was spectacular in 2020 with 4,331 yards, 31 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.
12. Seattle. The burden to carry the Seahawks gets heavier by the year for QB Russell Wilson. Seattle is now a shadow of the team that went to back-to-back Super Bowls in 2013-14. The Legion of Boom has gone bust, finishing 22nd in the NFL in defense last season. Only Pro Bowl LB Bobby Wagner remains. The Seahawks will again be entertaining with the ball in the air with D.K. Metcalfe and Tyler Lockett running under Wilson’s passes. But Seattle still can’t protect Wilson, who was sacked 47 times in 2020.
13. Las Vegas. The Raiders return a Top 10 offense but needs galore on defense. The Raiders managed only 21 sacks and 15 takeaways last season, which placed them in the league’s bottom four in both categories. So Las Vegas signed edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue in free agency. He has 45 ½ sacks in his five NFL seasons. The Raiders also used a second-round draft pick on TCU’s Trevon Moehrig, the 2020 Jim Thorpe Award winner as college football’s top defensive back.
14. Dallas. The offense is Super Bowl-ready with the return of Dak Prescott, who missed the final 11 games of 2020 with a fractured ankle. The Cowboys have made him the fourth-highest paid athlete in the world this offseason with that Super-Bowl expectation. But Dallas will go only as far as its defense can take the Cowboys. They have a new coordinator (Dan Quinn) and could have as many as eight new starters on a defense that was historically bad in 2020, allowing a franchise-record 473 points.
15. LA Rams. The Rams also are a shadow of their recent Super Bowl selves. Elite talents – HB Todd Gurley, WR Brandin Cooks, DE Michael Brockers, DT Ndamukong Suh, CBs Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib – have departed from the 2018 NFC champions. But the Rams still have the game’s best defensive player in DT Aaron Donald and Coach Sean McVay hopes to reignite the franchise’s Super Bowl aspirations with the acquisition of QB Matthew Stafford from the Detroit Lions.
16. Washington. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio fielded the NFL’s No. 2 ranked unit in 2020 and Washington has improved that group by signing CB William Jackson in free agency and spending a first-round draft pick on Kentucky LB Jamin Davis. Journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick will quarterback Washington and free agent WR Curtis Samuel will give him a deep threat to pair with 1,000-yard receiver Terry McLaurin. Samuel caught 77 passes for Carolina last season.
17. Miami. There were three quarterbacks selected in the Top 6 of the 2020 draft and two of them had promising rookie seasons – Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert. The Dolphins need the other, Tua Tagovailoa, to catch up to their promise. The Dolphins won 10 games in 2020 with Tagovailoa splitting the work with journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick…but now Fitzpatrick is gone. Jacoby Brissett is the new safety net. Miami used a first-round pick on Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle to accelerate Tagovailoa’s development.
18. Minnesota. The collapse of the defense did not sit well with Minnesota’s defensive-minded head coach Mike Zimmer. The Vikings tumbled to 27th in the league and allowed a staggering 475 points. So Minnesota signed free-agent DT Dalvin Tomlinson at address the NFL’s 27th ranked run defense and eight-time Pro Bowl CB Patrick Peterson to address the 25th ranked pass defense. QB Kirk Cousins and RB Dalvin Cook are both coming off career years on offense.
19. New Orleans. For the first time since 2006 Drew Brees will not be quarterbacking the Saints. That could close the door on short-term Super Bowl contention. Taysom Hill takes over and Brees left behind Pro Bowl weapons in WR Michael Thomas and HB Alvin Kamara plus one of the best blocking fronts in the NFL. The Saints fielded a Top 5 defense last season and return playmakers at all three levels in DE Cameron Jordan, B Demario Davis and CB Marshon Lattimore.
20. Carolina. The Jets wanted to dump QB Sam Darnold so the Panthers jumped in to resuscitate his career. He’ll be reunited with WR Robbie Anderson, who caught 11 TD passes from Darnold when the two played together in New York. Darnold also will have Pro Bowl RB Christian McCaffrey at his disposal. Carolina only intercepted seven passes a year ago, third fewest in the league, so the Panthers spent a first-round draft pick on cornerback Jaycee Horn.
21. New England. Former NFL MVP Cam Newton is back at quarterback for the Patriots but the clock is ticking. New England drafted Alabama’s Mac Jones in the first round and he does what Bill Belichick likes best in a quarterback – avoids mistakes. New England doled out almost $160 million in guaranteed money in free agency this offseason in a bid to kick-start the rebuild of the post-Brady Patriots.
22. NY Giants. The Giants stacked their offensive shelves by drafting WR Kadarius Toney in the first round and signing WRs Kenny Golladay and John Ross in free agency. Saquon Barkley also returns after sitting the bulk of 2020 with a knee injury. The cast is there for QB Daniel Jones to succeed. There are no excuses now. This will be a make-or-break season for Jones.
23. San Francisco. The future is now QB Trey Lance, who the 49ers claimed with the third overall pick of the 2021 draft. But he only threw 318 career passes at a small-college level. So the present remains Jimmy Garoppolo, who has a 24-8 career starting record and an NFC title to his name – but little love these days from 49ers management.
24. Atlanta. Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones are back so the Falcons will again be entertaining offensively with the football in the air. But can they score enough points to offset a defense that finished 29th overall and dead last against the pass? The Falcons brought in a new coach this season in Arthur Smith. It’s too bad they couldn’t bring in a new defense.
25. Jacksonville. New QB Trevor Lawrence has won 86 of his 90 starts over the last seven years as a starting quarterback in high school and college. New coach Urban Meyer has won 85.3 percent of his games (187-72) in a 17-year career as a college coach. They arrive at a franchise that has suffered double-digit losses in nine of the last 10 seasons. How quickly does the culture change?
26. Chicago. The Mitch Trubisky era is over with the Justin Fields era on the horizon. But Andy Dalton may serve as the bridge quarterback between the two. But whether it’s Dalton or Fields, the Bears need to run the ball better to slow down the pass rush. Finishing 25th in the NFL again won’t cut it in 2021. Not from a franchise that gave the NFL Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, Gale Sayers and Walter Payton.
27. Philadelphia. Do you believe in Jalen Hurts? The Eagles made a commitment to their young QB when they shipped Carson Wentz and his huge contract to the Indianapolis Colts this offseason. But Philly hedged its bet on Hurts by signing former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco as a backup. Can the Eagles stay healthy up front to protect him? That’s been an issue. They couldn’t protect Wentz.
28. Cincinnati. The Bengals have a future with Joe Burrow at quarterback. Now they need to put better weapons around him to accelerate his development. Spending a first-round pick on LSU WR Jamarr Chase was a start. Burrow was sacked 48 times a year ago, fifth most in the league. So the Bengals signed right tackle Riley Reiff in free agency to upgrade the protection.
29. Denver. The Broncos finished 25th in the NFL in pass defense competing in a division that asks them to play Patrick Mahomes, Justin Herbert and Derek Carr twice per season. So Denver brought in three new cornerbacks, drafting Patrick Surtain in the first round and signing Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller in free agency. Offensively, the Broncos are waiting on Drew Lock to take the next step.
30. NY Jets. Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Sam Darnold…now Zach Wilson. The Jets keep investing high draft picks at the quarterback position with the hope of finding their next Joe Namath. Maybe New Yorkers should lower their sights and try finding the next Richard Todd.
31. Houston. With Deshaun Watson wanting out and in legal limbo, Tyrod Taylor pencils in as the starting quarterback. Pro Bowl WR Andre Hopkins departed in 2020 and Pro Bowl pass rusher J.J. Watt departed this offseason. The stars no longer shine in south Texas.
32. Detroit. The Lions were a dismal 5-11 last season and their best offensive weapons are all gone. The Lions traded QB Matthew Stafford, released RB Adrian Peterson and allowed WRs Kenny Golladay and WR Marvin Jones to depart in free agency, leaving new coach Dan Campbell with a massive rebuild.