Teams listed by reverse draft order, minus trades.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
The project reached its completion. After winning six-or-fewer games eight of the past nine years, the Jaguars finally came away with the No. 1 overall pick. The Jets forgetting how to tank and beating the playoff-bound Rams and Browns sealed “The Destiny For Duval,” but the Jags worked hard in their own right. This is a team that gave 31-year-old Mike Glennon five starts 2,020 years after the birth of Jesus Christ. Nothing was left to chance. Trevor Lawrence will be a Jag, and he will be coached by NFL first-timer Urban Meyer. If the six-win cycle repeats, it won’t be by choice this time.
31. New York Jets
The Jets lost all the games they wanted to win and won some they would have been better off losing. Could Adam Gase’s send-off have gone any other way? Bright spots were almost nonexistent, though No. 11 overall pick Mekhi Becton was one of them. The mountainous left tackle had the looks of a decade-plus answer on the blindside. Although he only played nine games, second-rounder Denzel Mims also confirmed his big-play upside. Beyond that, it was near comical despair for a franchise all too used to dark days. None were darker than a Week 13 loss to the Raiders, where DC Gregg Williams dialed up an “angel” blitz against a Hail Mary like he was playing his 11-year-old brother in Madden instead of coaching an NFL team. Williams was instantly fired and the Jets went on to beat the Rams and Browns. Going forward, new coach Robert Saleh and the No. 2 overall pick — which could be turned into Deshaun Watson — offer rays of hope, but this is a team with few impact players on defense and even fewer on offense. Unless Watson is brought aboard, the road ahead is long.
30. Houston Texans
Bill O’Brien built the house of cards and Jack Easterby blew it over. That was the only team effort for an organization in chaos, one whose players no longer trust the front office. The disastrous on-field results will not be solved via the draft, where the Texans’ hard-earned No. 3 pick is in the Dolphins’ hands. Deshaun Watson played at an MVP level but wants out. Free agent Will Fuller finally stayed healthy before earning a steroid suspension. J.J. Watt returned to 16-game health before forcing his release. No one else did much of anything. The man hired to fix it, David Culley, is the oldest first-time head coach in NFL history. O’Brien kicked the can so far down the road it would be hard for even a professional front office to find it. This is not a professional front office. Things are going to get worse before they get better.
29. Atlanta Falcons
This is what it looks like when the bottom falls out. On his third second chance, head coach Dan Quinn ran out of people to fire, so it was he who got the sack in Week 5. Although overdue, the move did nothing to fix also-fired GM Thomas Dimitroff’s fatally-flawed roster. A talent-deficient defense allowed the most passing yards in the league while logging the eighth fewest sacks (29). On the other side of the ball, Matt Ryan was taken down 41 times, making it the third consecutive year that number was north of 40. Since 2018, only dual-threats Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson have been sacked more. Letting a pocket passer get hit that many times is a road to ruin. When he wasn’t on his back, Ryan received zero help from his bottom-six rushing attack. Only the Steelers averaged fewer yards per carry. It’s no surprise Arthur Smith has been hired to replace Quinn after overseeing one of the NFL’s most balanced offenses in Tennessee.
28. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals started their rebuild by making Joe Burrow one of the oldest No. 1 overall picks since the last time they selected No. 1 in 2003. Unlike Carson Palmer, Burrow immediately joined the starting lineup, indeed appearing wise beyond his years. Burrow was second in attempts (404) but just 23rd in interceptions (five) at the time of his season-ending knee injury in Week 11. There is the buried lead of the Bengals’ 2020. It was a matter of when, not if, Burrow was going to go down behind the league’s most injured group of blockers. As astonishing 10 offensive linemen played at least 200 snaps. Unless you have Patrick Mahomes, there is almost zero path to success behind that kind of injury carnage up front. The lost season made for another free pass for second-year coach Zac Taylor, who is no closer to establishing an identity than he was the day the Bengals announced his hiring. Burrow seems to be a legit building block. Everything else remains up in the air.
27. Philadelphia Eagles
573 days after the Eagles signed Carson Wentz to a four-year, $128 million extension, Nate Sudfeld just needed some reps. Sudfeld’s farcical “lose to win” Week 17 cameo enhanced the Eagles’ draft position, but it was most successful in highlighting just how quickly championship windows slam shut. A core that was the envy of the league just three years prior crumbled under the weight of injuries and intrigue, with the disconnect between Doug Pederson and the front office growing to the degree that Pederson was pink slipped less than 36 months after claiming the first Lombardi in franchise history. Second-rounder Jalen Hurts’ five-game stint under center was the only bright spot, apparently bright enough to earn Wentz his trade papers. The man making these decisions, GM Howie Roseman, maintained his job even as Pederson lost his. If Hurts can’t paper over Roseman’s roster deficiencies, this year’s No. 6 overall pick will be 4-5 spots higher in 2022.
26. Detroit Lions
What Matt Patricia thought was a rebuild was actually a teardown. By November 28, none of the house was left. Patricia and GM Bob Quinn were summarily dismissed for taking what was a .563 squad in four years under Jim Caldwell and turning it into … the Lions. Talentless on defense, the Lions were short-handed on offense as Kenny Golladay A.J. Greened his way through a mysterious hip injury. Formerly an iron man, Matthew Stafford didn’t miss a start, but he failed to finish a handful, ending the year listed with thumb, rib and ankle issues. Whereas Patricia was ridden out of town on a rail, Stafford was allowed to pick his spot after Patricia was replaced with a bodybuilder. Dan Campbell inherits a Jared Goff-led offense whose top two receivers are free agents. The defense ended the year by allowing 30-plus points in six straight games. Good luck, coach.
25. Carolina Panthers
Adjusting to life without Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly, the Panthers followed up a 3-2 start with a 2-9 finish. It was the first time in franchise history the team won five-or-fewer games in back-to-back seasons. It was standard rebuilding fare from first-year head coach Matt Rhule, though Rhule’s phenom play-caller Joe Brady was as advertised. Despite dealing with Teddy Bridgewater’s game regional supervising, Brady oversaw a unit that produced new career yardage highs for D.J. Moore, Robby Anderson and Curtis Samuel. That might not have been the case had Christian McCaffrey made more than three appearances, but Brady schemed and adjusted like a seasoned veteran. The overall project did not appear anywhere close to completion, but it did not veer off track. Even that is a difficult bar to clear in the NFL.
24. Denver Broncos
The defining image of the Broncos’ 2020? A practice squad wide receiver under center. The coronavirus left the Broncos down three quarterbacks for Week 12. In their absence, former Wake Forest starter Kendall Hinton completed one pass and threw two interceptions. If COVID was the NFL’s dominant 2020 theme, Hinton was its most memorable moment. That, of course, is not a good sign if you’re the Broncos. When they weren’t busy being a freak show because their quarterbacks neglected to wear masks, the Broncos weren’t much of a show at all. Five wins, zero of which came against playoff teams. Another year of awful returns from John Elway’s 19th failed post-Peyton Manning quarterback. Vic Fangio kept a talent-deficient defense glued together, but there was nothing about this team that was fun to watch. The hope for 2021 is that a new GM and signal caller take advantage of a loaded young skill corps that includes Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy, KJ Hamler and Noah Fant.
23. Dallas Cowboys
On offense, the Cowboys lost Dak Prescott to a compound fracture after five games. On defense, they allowed the most points in franchise history. Someone named Ben DiNucci started a game at quarterback, and Ezekiel Elliott was one of the most sluggish running backs in the NFL. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln? The Cowboys tried to protect themselves against a Prescott injury by making Andy Dalton one of the highest-paid backups in the league, but even that plan went up in smoke after Dalton suffered a concussion and came down with coronavirus. Dalton led the team to a 4-3 finish after their Week 10 bye, but it was too little, too late for a team that thought it was in the “finishing touches” phase. Now they have to try to rebuild their defense and offensive line as another potential franchise tag has Prescott poised to gobble up one of the highest cap numbers in NFL history. If there’s good news, it’s that the receiver corps was big enough for the three of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and CeeDee Lamb. Even modest improvements could be enough to retake this terrible division in 2021. Modesty has never been Jerry Jones’ thing.
22. New York Giants
A team that went 6-10 was one Nate Sudfeld sabotage away from going to the playoffs. So was life in the 2020 NFC East, a desolate wasteland the Giants did not brighten. In a year where the NFL total scoring record was shattered by 707, the G-Men did manage to surrender 94 fewer points than 2019. The problem? They scored 61 fewer, making them outliers both good and bad. With Saquon Barkley limited to two games by a torn ACL, Daniel Jones did not pick up the slack. A less explosive passer than he was as a rookie, Jones also took more sacks and failed to curb his turnovers. Jones did get his Josh Allen on as a rusher, providing 65/423/1 on the ground. That was second on the team behind Wayne Gallman. FootballGuy™ coach Joe Judge instilled a tougher mindset on defense, but there isn’t close to enough talent on offense. The 2021 path to improvement begins and ends with Jones making an Allen-ian third-year leap.
21. San Francisco 49ers
Losing Super Bowl squads often endure a hangover the following season. The 49ers’ head was pounding all year thanks to injury. Jimmy Garoppolo, George Kittle, Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, Raheem Mostert, Trent Williams, Richard Sherman, Dee Ford and Tevin Coleman were amongst the players to miss at least two games. Most were sidelined for more. The Niners were a triumph of scheme in 2019, but no amount of coaching could overcome that many missed games. Most concerning of all was Garoppolo’s play when healthy. Suspicions that he’s a league-average quarterback who can only thrive in the most favorable of conditions were confirmed. Coach Kyle Shanahan freely admitted this by dialing up the NFL’s second lowest average depth of target (6.5 yards) when Jimmy G was under center. Improved health will get this team back to .500 in 2021, but only improved quarterback play could get them back to the promised land.
20. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers’ team trainer punctured starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s lung in Week 2. Situation normal for the Chargers. You’ll never guess what happened next. No. 6 overall pick Justin Herbert, a selection mocked by many — myself included — started the game on zero seconds notice and went toe to toe with the defending champion Chiefs, throwing for 311 yards before succumbing in overtime. That revelatory performance lasted nearly the entire season, cruising Herbert to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors even as the Bolts got up to much of their usual hijinks. They were destroyed 45-0 by the offenseless Patriots in Week 13 and called the two worst run plays in NFL history in Weeks 12 and 14, respectively. The latter was so egregious even coach Anthony Lynn was caught on camera admonishing OC Shane Steichen. That sort of inept game management cost Lynn his job, but nothing can take the shine off Herbert’s rookie campaign. He announced himself as one of the best young players in the NFL, the kind of building block who could finish what Philip Rivers started.
19. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings’ nonsensical trend of “playoffs one season, lottery the next” continued as Mike Zimmer’s squad fell from the Divisional Round to 7-9. The problems were both familiar and new. Familiar was the awful pass blocking. New was Zimmer struggling on his side of the ball as he dealt with aging and exodus. Shockingly, Stefon Diggs’ departure was not an issue. First-round rookie Justin Jefferson proved to be an immediate All-Pro replacement. Between their weapons on offense and Zimmer’s acumen on defense, this should be an easy fix, though Zimmer will be on his fourth offensive coordinator in as many years following Gary Kubiak’s retirement. Kubiak’s son Klint is getting the call. Zimmer has required special play-calling talents to thread his run-heavy needle with modern football. Gary and Kevin Stefanski were up to the task. Hopefully Klint is more than just a son. That transition and finding the right bodies on defense will tell the tale of 2021.
18. New England Patriots
At least for one year, Bill Belichick lost the argument. While Tampa snowbird Tom Brady went on to hoist his seventh Lombardi, Belichick posted his first losing record since 2000, his first year on the job in New England. Although the old saying goes “victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan,” the reasons for the Patriots’ regression were clear and manifold. Beyond the biggest and most obvious of Brady’s departure, there were multiple unexpected opt-outs, including defensive stalwarts Dont’a Hightower and Patrick Chung. Stopgap quarterback Cam Newton inherited Brady’s problems — a complete lack of weapons chief amongst them — and brought along some new ones, most notably his surgically-repaired throwing shoulder seeming to die midway through the season. Despite Brady easily proving he was more than just Belichick’s brilliance, we know the head coach has the wherewithal to solve his problems. Whether it's a quick fix will depend on his second post-Brady solution under center.
17. Arizona Cardinals
It was two steps forward, one timeout wasted as the Cardinals snatched defeat from the jaws of victory down the stretch. 3-5 following their Week 8 bye, the Kliff Kingsbury’s squad still entered Week 17 needing only to beat Rams backup quarterback John Wolford to punch their first playoff ticket since 2015. What followed was not that. Already banged up, Kyler Murray departed with an early ankle injury, turning the game over to AAF castoff Chris Streveler. You can guess what happened next. Of the Cardinals’ eight wins, four came against the NFC East, with a fifth coming against the Jets. Kingsbury had the good sense to pursue DeAndre Hopkins but little clue how to optimize his usage in an increasingly “multiple” NFL, keeping him glued to one side of the formation. Kingsbury displayed a remarkable ability to kick when he should go for it and go for it when he should kick. The results were rarely positive. The Cardinals’ 8-8 record could have been far worse if not for Murray’s continued bailing out of the offense with his sheer athleticism. There is the kernel of something great here. There is little indication Kingsbury knows how to cook it.
16. Las Vegas Raiders
Does it still count as progress if it’s measured in inches? 4-12 and 7-9 their first two years under Jon Gruden, the Raiders “improved” to 8-8 in 2020, though their -44 point differential was the league’s 12th worst. It was a big step up on 2019’s -106 mark. Like 2019, Gruden’s squad collapsed down the stretch, finishing 2-5 with such uplifting outcomes as a 43-6 loss to the Falcons and a last-second setback against the Dolphins that Gruden deemed the “most horrific play I’ve ever been associated with.” The Raiders beat one team with a winning record following their Week 6 bye. Gruden has succeeded in perfecting Derek Carr. That doesn’t get you very far in a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert. It gets you nowhere when you keep bungling the draft. Top-20 picks Henry Ruggs and Damon Arnette were both rookie busts, while third-rounder Lynn Bowden was traded to the Dolphins before playing a snap. This situation will not improve absent a perfect offseason.
15. Miami Dolphins
With their rebuild remaining ahead of schedule, the Dolphins finished above .500 for only the second time since 2008. Their 10-6 record came despite a 1-3 start. They still failed to make the playoffs after a humiliating 56-26, Week 17 loss to a Bills team that had only seeding to play for. Tua Tagovailoa, who had been benched the week before, was hung out to dry after closer Ryan Fitzpatrick tested positive for coronavirus and missed the finale. The quarterback dynamic was the story of the second half of the season. Insisting on holding Tua’s hand, the Dolphins arguably held him back. Fitz provided a desperately needed relief spark more than once. His brand of YOLO ball created instant offense in a skill group that ran perilously low on healthy bodies. Injuries prevented the Dolphins from ever fully settling into a lead back, while Preston Williams did not play after Week 9. DeVante Parker was constantly at less than 100 percent. Head coach Brian Flores has defense and leadership down. The offense, which will have its third play-caller in as many years in 2021, is the final piece of the puzzle.
14. Washington Football Team
The Football Team finished 7-9 for the third time in four years. Instead of being condemned as more of the mediocre same, it was a division-winning triumph in the shambolic NFC East. New coach Ron Rivera and No. 2 overall pick Chase Young turned a middle-of-the-road defense into a feared unit, one that finished third in DVOA after being 27th in 2019. What got the most casual fan attention — Alex Smith’s miraculous comeback from a spiral fracture and 17 surgeries — was also the biggest liability. This team had no answers at quarterback, something most starkly illustrated by preseason No. 4 Taylor Heinicke starting the Wild Card Round. With the pieces in place on defense, Washington needs someone who can unlock Terry McLaurin, Antonio Gibson and Logan Thomas. The latter two were amongst 2020’s biggest surprises on offense. For the first time in seemingly decades, a core is being assembled in the nation’s capital. If meddlesome owner Daniel Snyder stays out of the way, Rivera and his handpicked front office are well positioned to apply the finishing touches.
13. Chicago Bears
Exhibit A against expanding the postseason, the Bears snuck into the playoffs with an 8-8 record that probably would have gotten head coach Matt Nagy fired under the old format. As it was, it gave the nation one more Bears island game, and they did not disappoint with their disappointment. Wholly unwatchable on offense, the Bears watched their one big play get dropped in the end zone as they muddled through yet another “why is this happening” Mitchell Trubisky start. It was happening because ill-advised trade acquisition Nick Foles proved to be even worse than Mitch, leaving Nagy no choice but to turn back to his failed franchise quarterback. 8-8 was attained on the back of a ludicrously soft stretch run schedule that Trubisky and David Montgomery turned into the best football of their underwhelming careers. The defense is regressing slower than expected, but it is still steadily fading from its dominant 2018 form. The status quo will result in a 2021 losing record. Only an upgrade under center — and retaining Allen Robinson — will get this car out of reverse.
12. Indianapolis Colts
Finally steadied following Andrew Luck’s stunning retirement — save for a Week 1 loss that would prove to be the Jaguars’ only win — the regrouped Colts rode stopgap quarterback Philip Rivers to an 11-5 record, tying for their best mark since the days of Peyton Manning. As so often happens with Rivers, it ended with a first-round playoff exit, but most everything else went to plan. Second-rounder Jonathan Taylor emerged as one of the league’s best young running backs after a slow start. Fellow second-rounder Michael Pittman displayed alpha traits at receiver. The offensive line remained one of the league’s best, and the defense rebounded from an injury-ruined 2019. T.Y. Hilton did slow down a step or three. Rivers has since retired, leaving the Colts back where they started last offseason. With the No. 21 overall pick, they will once again have to get creative at quarterback. As long as he gets more than three weeks to implement it, coach Frank Reich should have a plan to make it work.
11. Tennessee Titans
Doubling down on their run-heavy, play-action offense didn’t lead to another AFC Championship Game appearance, but it did produce back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since 2007-08 (shouts to Jeff Fisher). It’s even more of an accomplishment than it appears at first blush, as the Titans were amongst the league’s least-talented teams on defense and got only 239 snaps from left tackle Taylor Lewan. Ryan Tannehill predictably came back down to earth after posting a 9.6 YPA in 2019, but he didn’t revert to his sack-happy, turnover-prone Miami ways. With Tannehill re-established as a legitimate starting quarterback, the Titans were able to get down to brass tacks in the running game, where humanoid Derrick Henry rushed for the seventh most yards of all time with 2,027. Henry breached 2K with a 250-yard Week 17, just the 13th such effort in NFL history. Finally, there was A.J. Brown, who became the league’s pre-eminent human-highlight reel as a sophomore. The pieces are there on offense. Coach Mike Vrabel produces “whole greater than the sum of its parts” defenses. There is still juice to be squeezed from this orange.
10. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks failed to win a playoff game for only the third time in nine years with Russell Wilson under center. It would have been a stunning outcome had you watched just the first five games. Less so if you stuck around for the final 11. Wilson cooked, collapsed and never really recovered as the Seahawks finally tried to shed their run-first identity. They lost their nerve during a mid-season Wilson interceptions binge and a back-up plan never materialized. 28 of Wilson’s 40 passing scores came during games 1-8, as did 60 percent of his yardage. The Seahawks still managed to secure the NFC’s No. 3 seed with a 12-4 record, but they limped into the Wild Card Round with a series of unconvincing victories. That’s where a thumb-hobbled Jared Goff put the final nail in their coffin as Wilson was held to fewer than 250 yards passing for the eighth time in nine starts. In the fallout, OC Brian Schottenheimer was fired and Sean McVay disciple Shane Waldron was hired. Coach Pete Carroll is trying to evolve. Hopefully there’s still enough of Wilson’s prime left to take advantage of it.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers
If there is such a thing as the worst 11-0 team of all time, the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers were it. It was confirmed by their 1-4 finish and subsequent blowout loss to the Browns in the Wild Card Round, a team that was missing its head coach and hadn’t won a playoff game since 1994. The Steelers’ dink-and-dunk offense simply became too predictable. Ben Roethlisberger’s average intended air yards completed their collapse from 9.2 in 2017 to 7.1 in 2020. Roethlisberger’s QB rating on passes 20-plus yards down the field was 78.3, parking him behind such deep ball luminaries as Teddy Bridgewater and Gardner Minshew. As was the case in 2019, quarterback was the weak link for a team with an elite defense and overabundance of weapons on offense. It didn’t help that coach Mike Tomlin predictably turtled up with the season on the line in the playoffs, dialing up one of the most egregious punts in NFL history. An impressive talent base remains for 2021, but a drafty championship window is looking all but closed.
8. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams lost to the 0-13 Jets in Week 15. They made the playoffs with their backup quarterback two weeks later. It was a season of contrasts for a team whose offense fell further from its 2017-18 peak while riding its defense to the Divisional Round. As Jared Goff was punching his ticket out of Los Angeles, Aaron Donald was winning Defensive Player of the Year for the third time in four seasons. Donald and Jalen Ramsey were a match made in heaven with wunderkid DC Brandon Staley, who, like Goff, has since left the building. Unlike Goff, Staley’s departure wasn’t part of the plan. Although the passing attack sputtered and was inconsistent, the backfield revved back up down the stretch thanks to some Peterson-ian running from rookie Cam Akers. With Matthew Stafford now in tow, coach Sean McVay will aim for a more full-bodied approach on offense. Whether it’s successful will depend on if new DC Raheem Morris can replicate Staley’s success.
7. Cleveland Browns
Kevin Stefanski led the Browns to their first playoff victory since 1994 — except he didn’t coach it. Felled by the coronavirus, Stefanski was confined to his basement as the Browns stunned the Steelers in the Wild Card Round. That was 2020’s weirdness in a nutshell. When Stefanski returned for the Divisional Round, he was granted a mid-game opportunity in Patrick Mahomes’ head injury. That’s where he froze up. A bad challenge was followed by a worse punt and that was that. The man who returned the Browns to respectability with a perfect welding of good old fashioned hard ball and modern coaching philosophy went out like a rookie. Stefanski is the kind of coach who will take the right lessons to heart. There’s probably not much further he can take Baker Mayfield, but like Sean McVay in Los Angeles, Stefanski’s scheme should extract maximum returns from its players. He’s in the right place at the right time for the Browns.
6. Baltimore Ravens
It came one year later than expected, but the Ravens beat the Titans in the playoffs. It was their first postseason victory since 2014. That was the high point of an up-and-down campaign. The low came one week later when they got smothered by the Bills in the Divisional Round. Lamar Jackson threw a game-changing pick six before departing with a concussion. As was the case in 2019, it was a disappointing end to a largely scintillating season for the young quarterback, one who will continue to have inconsistencies with his arm as he lights the world ablaze with his feet. One way to change that would be upgrades to the skill corps. Like the Packers, the Ravens declined to address a glaring weakness at receiver. Unlike the Packers, it came back to bite them, with overmatched No. 1 Marquise Brown operating as a drop machine. There was no No. 2. Save for maybe wideout, the Ravens have building blocks in every position group. This team remains on the precipice of something great.
5. New Orleans Saints
For the second straight year, the Saints planned for every contingency. For the third straight year, it ended in bitter home playoff defeat. How good has this roster been? It’s 8-1 in games started by backup quarterbacks over the past two seasons. The achievement was even more pronounced in 2020 as the Saints got only seven games out of Michael Thomas one year after he set the single-season receptions record. But all the depth in the world could not save Sean Payton’s squad when Drew Brees returned from his “ribs” injury in Week 15 and could no longer throw farther than 15 yards. “Ribs” because — although he did break 11 of them — Brees’ wife let slip after the season what the real issue was: A torn rotator cuff. If you’re a 41-year-old quarterback with a torn rotator cuff, you should be getting surgery, not “gutting it out” and throwing three interceptions as your team loses at home in the playoffs. Now with Brees seemingly headed to retirement, the bill comes due. The team is nearly $75 million over the projected salary cap, a number that could fall further still. Payton is also suffering through an identity crisis, seeming unsure if he should pursue Taysom Hill’s dual-threat or try to tame Jameis Winston’s wild horse. That’s if they can even afford Winston once the cap wreckage is through. Payton and Mickey Loomis did all they could to keep their championship window open. That it closed without a title is an injustice for a roster that spent multiple years as the league’s best.
4. Green Bay Packers
When the Packers used their first three draft picks on a Derrick Henry clone, H-back and first-round quarterback, they seemed to be saying to Aaron Rodgers, “if you want to play out of your mind, that’s your prerogative, but we’re not giving you any help in the passing game.” Challenge accepted. Rodgers rebounded from his sleepy 2019 to win his third career MVP award, laying waste to everyone but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who supplied his worst regular season start before sacking him five times in the NFC Championship Game. It was in that title tilt that coach of the year candidate Matt LaFleur shrunk from the moment. After seamlessly combining his and Rodgers’ visions during the regular season, LaFleur dialed up the worst field goal attempt in NFL history. In the aftermath, Rodgers questioned whether he would be back before walking his comments back 99 percent of the way if not 100. Mike Pettine’s firing instantly made the defense better, but the Pack can’t count on another season of career years from role players and unusually good offensive health. Rodgers needs help. Just like the quarterback was humbled last offseason, now it is the front office’s turn.
3. Buffalo Bills
Josh Allen made one of the biggest third-year leaps in NFL history and the Bills made their first AFC Championship Game in 27 seasons. Both events were fueled in part by Stefon Diggs’ offseason acquisition. The ex-Viking led the league in receiving, with his 1,535 yards quietly checking in as 36th most all time. Like many outside observers, Diggs credited OC Brian Daboll with taking his game and the Bills’ offense to the next level. A play action devotee — no quarterback smuggled more attempts through play fakes than Allen — Daboll was also willing to either abandon or straight up not feature the Bills’ running game when it wasn’t the right course of attack, which was often. Besides Patrick Mahomes, the only thing standing between the Bills and the Super Bowl was regression on the defensive side of the ball. The pass rush was too middle of the road. Coach Sean McDermott is the exact right man to fix that for 2021. With Allen arriving and Daboll remaining, Buffalo will be back in the thick of it.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
14-1 in regular season games starting by Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs seemed to go on autopilot following their Week 12 shellacking of the Bucs in Tampa. Two of their final five contests were narrow victories over the Broncos and Falcons. If they turned something off, they had it back on by the conference title game, where they hammered an ascendant Bills squad. They lost LT Eric Fisher in the process, however. That gave the Bucs their opening for their Super Bowl LV rematch. Missing both Fisher and RT Mitchell Schwartz, the Chiefs were overawed by the Bucs’ front seven, and the rest of the team quickly crumbled. The secondary couldn’t stop committing penalties. Andy Reid badly bungled game management. The pass rush scarcely laid a finger on Tom Brady. None of Mahomes’ ancillary weapons could catch the ball when he escaped pressure to make otherworldly throws. It was only one game, but the thumping loss confirmed their biggest needs. Upgrade the front seven. Find a better third option than Sammy Watkins. Re-evaluate Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s role following a disappointing rookie year between the tackles. Mahomes provides an enormous margin for error. Big problems could remain for 2021, but even a few small tweaks should be enough for at least another AFC Championship Game appearance.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa’s Tom Brady acquisition had a whiff of desperation about it. Along with the Chargers, the Bucs were one of only two teams to seriously pursue the best player of the 21st century. After years of false prophecies of his decline, Brady’s 2019 seemed to finally usher in the beginning of the end. Slumped to 10-year statistical lows nearly across the board, Brady’s final pass as a Patriot was a pick six. It just seemed like time for a player turning 43 in August. It was, of course, but for a Super Bowl and not a send-off. Brady identified a readymade championship roster, and the Bucs found their final piece. After years of sub-par supporting casts in New England, Brady aggressively stumped for upgrades — Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Brown — to an already loaded skill group and didn’t waste what was given to him. As he did his job, the defense did theirs, harassing Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes en route to a Super Bowl title. With young talent — Tristan Wirfs, Antoine Winfield Jr., Devin White, Vita Vea, Carlton Davis — perfectly complementing the Bucs’ veteran core, this is a team well suited to run it back even if its quarterback is about to turn 44.