The NFL season is just days away, and every team will have the luxury of starting anew in 2021 with a clean slate and nothing but hope ahead of them (or dread, for some unfortunate teams). I will be continuing my top to bottom rankings of the league as I did last season, updating my order after every three weeks of the season as some teams perform above or below expectations as the season progresses.
The first ranking list is always the hardest, as you don't really know exactly how most of the teams are going to fare when the season finally kicks off. It is pretty much just a reliance on assumptions for how you think a team should perform on paper based on their coaches or depth charts. Even so, I will attempt to provide the most accurate reflection of how the season will play out here in my preseason rankings, with the goal being, theoretically, to correctly predict which teams will succeed or fail over the course of the season. That is somewhat of a subjective opinion - the difference between success and failure - and everyone will have a different interpretation of which teams they think are better based on what qualities they value of a "good" team.
But enough with the philosophical tangent. Let's go ahead and get to the rankings.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (14-2 last season)
There really isn't much to say about the Chiefs. They have Patrick Mahomes. Next.
Just kidding (kind of). Really the biggest factor for Kansas City going into 2021 is they seem to actually have a solid offensive line this year. As long as they can pass block effectively, Mahomes will be able to sling the ball around to his assortment of targets and get his team back to the Super Bowl, where they will aim for a different result compared to last season.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)
The Bucs are just so good across the board. Even though they came alive in the 2020 postseason and waxed the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, I just can't bring myself to put them ahead of Kansas City. This Buccaneer team is probably the best all around team Tom Brady has ever had, or at least as far as the offense is concerned. They have five or so skill players on offense who would all probably go in the top three or four rounds in fantasy drafts if they didn't all have to compete with each other for touches. I won't be surprised if Tampa manages to repeat in 2021.
3. Buffalo Bills (13-3)
Josh Allen is legit, and after securing a gigantic contract extension, he looks poised to be one of the two or three best quarterbacks in the whole league this season. With a talented set of receivers, good running game, and solid defense, I think Buffalo will be able to challenge Kansas City for the conference championship this season and potentially make their first Super Bowl appearance in almost 30 years.
4. Green Bay Packers (13-3)
The offseason was tumultuous for the Packers organization, as it was unclear for a long time if Aaron Rodgers would be returning, relocating, or retiring. But upon his decision to rejoin the team, Green Bay instantly returned to championship contenders. Not only does Rodgers have unbelievable arm talent and playmaking ability, but he seems to be the glue that holds the entire organization together right now. He and the Packers will have something to prove and redemption on their minds this time around.
5. Los Angeles Rams (10-6)
In what was essentially the move that kicked off the offseason quarterback carousel, the Rams acquired Matthew Stafford from the Lions in exchange for Jared Goff. And I think Stafford is going to shine in his new L.A. home. After being doomed to Detroit for over a decade to begin his career, he now has a chance to actually compete and win for his first time since college. Combine that with a stout defense with a few superstars, and I think the Rams are going to be extremely good in the upcoming season.
6. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
The Ravens have now lost their two starting running backs in 2020 after J.K. Dobbins went down with a leg injury a few days ago, but I don't think they'll have too much of an issue filling that hole. That's because Lamar Jackson is essentially a running back himself, who can also throw the ball pretty dang well. Baltimore's defense should be good as always, and I look for Jackson's arm and passing capabilities to improve each season. I don't know if they'll be able to beat the Chiefs or Bills in the postseason, but that is a feat only a select few teams could manage.
7. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
Last season was very interesting to me as a Russell Wilson fantasy owner. For the first few weeks, I thought Wilson was going to be the league MVP and the Seahawks were Super Bowl bound. However, Pete Carroll suddenly pulled the reins on his offense and they started playing much slower and more run focused. I would say they will continue that to a degree in 2021, but when they do choose to pass, they have D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett on the outsides and one of the best playmaking quarterbacks in the league. Their defense should be quite stout as well.
8. Tennessee Titans (11-5)
Tennessee's offense is phenomenal; one of the best in the league for sure. But I have them ranked a little lower here due to uncertainty with their defense. Last season, the Titans couldn't stop a runny nose, and while they did make significant improvements in some areas, I still can't fully trust them just yet. Still, they should be able to outscore many of their opponents regardless and win a lot of games. I'd consider them a dark horse candidate to win the AFC and potentially make a Super Bowl if everything goes perfectly for them.
9. Cleveland Browns (11-5)
Cleveland is returning their entire offense, including O'Dell Beckham, Jr., who missed most of last season with a torn ACL. That offense was one of the most efficient in the league, and assuming Baker Mayfield continues his upward trajectory, will likely be near the top again in 2021. Their most notable defensive move was the signing of Jadeveon Clowney, who makes a fierce pair opposite of Myles Garrett. I think the AFC North champion will be a toss-up between Cleveland and Baltimore, but as I'm writing this, I almost think I like the Browns more at this point. But I'm going to go with my initial gut instinct, because after all, the Browns are still the Browns.
10. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)
I might have ranked the Colts a little higher here if seemingly every player on their team hadn't already been injured or returning from injury. I mean, Carson Wentz, Quenton Nelson, T.Y. Hilton, Darius Leonard... Those are arguably the four most important guys on Indy's team. The good news is that Leonard should definitely be good to go for week 1, and Wentz and Nelson could both be ready as well. Hilton's injury seems more significant, but he could only miss a few weeks. If the Colts can stay healthy and Carson Wentz can return to his former MVP self, Indianapolis has the potential to be very strong this season.
11. Arizona Cardinals (8-8)
It must have been an exciting offseason for Cardinals fans as Arizona signed two likely future hall of famers to fill some of the voids on offense and defense. A.J. Green will fit in nicely at receiver alongside DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk, and J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones will be menaces to opposing quarterbacks. Unfortunately for Arizona, despite the high expectations I have for them, they'll probably need to win 12 or more games to even have a chance of winning the contested NFC West.
12. Washington Football Team (7-9)
The Washington Football Team was one of the biggest surprises last season, although they didn't have to put together an extraordinary season by any means to win the putrid NFC East. Now, with an elite defense and a capable veteran at quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick, Washington is primed to repeat as division champs and potentially make a deeper run in the playoffs. Maybe they'll even win the division with a winning record this year.
13. New Orleans Saints (12-4)
The Saints lost longtime QB Drew Brees to retirement, but Jameis Winston has actually looked really good in the preseason as his replacement. We know Winston can put up yards and points; unfortunately, he also puts up turnovers at roughly the same rate as touchdowns historically. However, I think he takes better care of the ball and will be able to rely on the run a little more than in Bruce Arians' offense in Tampa. The Saints may have also found a stud receiver in Marquez Callaway to help him out. While my ranking here doesn't show it too much, I actually like the Saints to be contenders when the postseason arrives.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Which Steelers team will we get in 2021? The team that started 11-0 or the one that finished 1-4 in their last five games? I'm not exactly sure, but for whatever reason, I just don't have a ton of confidence in Pittsburgh. Maybe it's their lack of production last season despite having a good, young corps of offensive weapons. Defensively, they're usually about as solid as it gets, but I just don't know if Big Ben will be able to lead the offense effectively enough to be legit contenders for the AFC, or even AFC North, crown.
15. San Francisco 49ers (6-10)
San Francisco was decimated by injuries in 2020, which I think has them flying under the radar a bit in 2021. With a fully healthy roster, they have the run game and defense that a team would need to make a deep run in the postseason, which they did, in fact, just two years ago now. However, I'm not sure what to expect at the quarterback position. It could be Jimmy Garoppolo for the whole season, or it could transition to Trey Lance at some point. That uncertainty has me cautious about placing them too high in this list, though there is certainly potential that they exceed my expectations and even end up winning the division. (It's pretty amazing that I have all four teams in the NFC West ranked in the top 15 of the entire league.)
16. New England Patriots (7-9)
Well, well, well. It looks like Bill Belichick has found his quarterback. The Patriots shockingly, to me at least, cut Cam Newton on Tuesday and will be riding with rookie Mac Jones to open the season. Jones has looked really good in preseason play and has obviously shown New England's coaching staff that he has what it takes to potentially win at a high level in their offense. I won't make any Tom Brady comparisons yet... well, maybe I will. I think they are actually pretty similar, but Mac may have a more impressive arm at this point in his career. Either way, I like the confidence Belichick has in his guy that he was willing to cut the other potential starter before the season even begins. With what should be a really good defense with a few key pieces returning from their 2020 opt-outs, it's certainly possible that I'll be ranking the Pats higher as the season goes on.
17. Los Angeles Chargers (7-9)
I absolutely loved the Chargers last season even though they didn't win that many games. But Justin Herbert looked like a star as a rookie, and that offense should be even better this season. The Chargers seemingly led late in every game they played, and almost upset some of the league's best teams. They had the Chiefs, Bucs, and Saints all on the ropes late in those games but couldn't manage to pull out the win. I think with a new head coach and culture, the sky could be the limit for Los Angeles. I don't expect them to win the division or anything this season, but I do expect a push for the playoffs as a wildcard team for sure.
18. Miami Dolphins (10-6)
The Dolphins are a slight mystery to me because I just don't know how Tua Tagovailoa is going to play in his second season. He certainly has some room for improvement from his rookie year, and the additions of Will Fuller and college teammate Jaylen Waddle will definitely help, but I don't love Tua's prospects at the moment. That said, even with shaky quarterback performances last season, Miami nearly found their way into the postseason. Their receiving corps, and skill player group in general, is impressive, so Miami's ceiling will be determined by how big of a step Tua takes in year two and if the Dolphins have learned how to win more so than a year ago.
19. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
The Vikings were a team last season that I thought should have been a lot better than their record showed. I mean, Kirk Cousins under center, Dalvin Cook in the backfield, Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson out wide, and a host of young talent on defense seems like a pretty effective combination. But like the Chargers, they just couldn't seem to win games. Minnesota revamped their secondary in the offseason and improved the defense at all levels while keeping the core of their offense together. The funny thing is I could see the Vikings finishing 12-4 or 4-12 depending on how the chips ultimately fall. But I think it'll be somewhere in the middle and the Vikes will win around 10 games and finish above .500 this time around.
20. Chicago Bears (8-8)
I've said this for a while: if the Bears had a quarterback, they'd be really, really good. While they might have improved from the Mitchell Trubisky fiasco they found themselves in for a few years, I still am not very impressed at the moment with Chicago's QB room. It's possible Andy Dalton is serviceable and leads the team for the entirety of the season. And it's also possible that Dalton gets replaced by a surging Justin Fields a few weeks into the season. There's too much uncertainty for me to rank the Bears very high, but their defense will allow them to win some games that they maybe shouldn't.
21. Las Vegas Raiders (8-8)
I feel like the Raiders will be a solid team in 2021, but it's hard for me to put them above any of the teams I've ranked ahead of them. Maybe they've just flown under the radar the past couple years and are about to break out, but it's kind of hard to have those expectations for this team. They did add a few weapons on offense, bolstered their O-line, and made a couple improvements to the defense, but I'm not utterly impressed with Las Vegas's roster. I could see them being in the playoff hunt late in the season, but I wouldn't think this team would deliver a performance much better than that.
22. Carolina Panthers (5-11)
I honestly wanted to put the Panthers higher than #22, but I couldn't bring myself to do that with a team coming off a 5-win season. Christian McCaffrey is back and ready to go and newly acquired Sam Darnold has made the offense look pretty good in the preseason. Their defense is also filled with young talent with an extra year of experience under their belts from a season ago. I'd take the Panthers as an outside contender in the NFC wildcard race, with potential to be quite a good team as the season progresses.
23. Denver Broncos (5-11)
The Broncos are the last team on this list that I really have any optimism for in the upcoming season. They've named Teddy Bridgewater as their starter, but Drew Lock will be waiting in the wings and putting pressure on Bridgewater to produce. A very unlucky team injury wise last season, Denver fans will be anxiously awaiting the return of Courtland Sutton and Von Miller, to name a couple guys who missed significant time last year. The defense has an almost entirely new secondary and should return to strong form with a fully healthy roster. The Broncos will definitely perform better in 2021, assuming they don't suffer some significant losses to injuries like in 2020.
24. Dallas Cowboys (6-10)
Here's where my rankings will turn more pessimistic, for the most part. And it's quite easy to be pessimistic about teams from the NFC East. We'll start with the Cowboys. On paper, their offense looks stellar and they will be recycling their offensive roster from the beginning of last season, which includes Dak Prescott. Prescott was a very efficient passer while he was healthy and had the Cowboys racking up yards and points early in the season. Unfortunately, his defense was allowing their opponents to rack up even more yards and points, thus leading to an unimpressive 1-3 start. It does look like Jerry Jones has added a few guys on defense and maybe they'll start playing a little better in Mike McCarthy's second season, but I'm never expecting Dallas to perform well until they prove that they can do it.
25. New York Giants (6-10)
While I don't expect much from the Cowboys, I do think they'll be just a little bit better than the Giants. New York will have Saquon Barkley back at some point this season (potentially for week 1), but I just can't see their offense really taking off in 2021. The addition of Kenny Golladay will help Daniel Jones out too, but I think there's still too much room for improvement for the Giants. I was honestly surprised when I saw that they won six games in 2020, and they did start trending in the positive direction toward the end of the season, so maybe they'll continue some of that momentum in 2021. I am, however, confident in my assessment that they aren't a better team than any of the 24 teams I have listed ahead of them.
26. Atlanta Falcons (4-12)
The Falcons will be rolling with a new head coach in Arthur Smith for 2021, which isn't typically a recipe for immediate success. That is especially true when you've just traded away your best player and co-face of the franchise. Atlanta did go out and sign some talent to fill the void of Julio Jones, and Calvin Ridley has already flashed superstar potential himself, so I think the offense will be pretty good again under Matt Ryan. However, I haven't even heard of a lot guys on the Falcons' defense. Maybe I'm just clueless, but I don't expect Atlanta to fly too much higher than their 4-win season a year ago.
27. Cincinnati Bengals (4-11-1)
Joey Burrow is going to return in 2021 to give the Bengals a chance to win several games, though I don't think they'll actually win all that many. I do think that Cincinnati is trending in the right direction, however, and they have a ton of young talent on both sides of the ball. If the pieces they added to the offensive line can click and provide Burrow with some much needed protection, I really like that Bengal offense. I expect Cincy to be somewhat similar to last year's Chargers team, who were competitive in just about every game but couldn't close it out on numerous occasions. This won't be their year, but Bengals fans may finally start to see a glimmer of hope in the distance.
28. Philadelphia Eagles (4-11-1)
It's Jalen Hurts time in Philadelphia, but I can't say whether that's a positive or a negative. I've never been impressed with Hurts' passing ability, even since college, and it's tough for me to believe he will find much long-term success at quarterback in the NFL. But the Eagles clearly have more faith in him than they did in Carson Wentz, who they shipped to Indianapolis. Philadelphia was so bad last season that they almost don't even deserve to be ranked this highly, and I don't think a coaching change will make that significant of a difference. I'd bet on the Eagles to finish last in the NFC East and ahead of only a select number of awful teams around the rest of the league.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-15)
Will Urban Meyer and Trevor Lawrence really take the 1-15, last place finishing Jaguars up to a top 30 ranking by the 2021 season end? I'm not sure, but it feels like Lawrence is in a perfect position to shine down in Jacksonville. Not only will the Jags potentially have a competent coach, but their receiving corps and running back group (even without Travis Etienne, who suffered a likely season-ending injury in the preseason) are actually really impressive. I'm not sure how good they'll be on defense, but an improved offense will definitely help keep pressure off the defense and allow them to rest more often than they did in 2020. I can't set expectations too high for the Jags, but I think they could at least be fun to watch.
30. Detroit Lions (5-11)
The Lions made a bunch of moves in the offseason, most notably the hiring of head coach Dan Campbell and the trade of Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff. For the record, I think Stafford is a better QB than Goff, which plays into my decision for ranking Detroit so low. The Lions lost receivers Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay and replaced them with lesser caliber guys, and really, their only bright spot on offense is D'Andre Swift, who might not be fully healthy by the time week 1 rolls around. At this point, Detroit fans can't have very high expectations no matter who takes the field for their team. Unfortunately, I think they've had better teams in recent years and couldn't win then either.
31. New York Jets (2-14)
The Jets find themselves where they ended the 2020 season: next to last. New York hired a new head coach and brought in some additional talent, including their 2nd overall pick, Zach Wilson, who will be expected to run the show straight out of the gates. Sadly, it seems like New York is where quarterbacks go to die. I'm not superstitious (only a little stitious), but it does like that could be a tough mental barrier to break through. The Jets have a few weapons for Wilson but their defense ranked toward the bottom of the league in most categories last season and probably won't be too much better this time around. I just hope Zach Wilson doesn't start "seeing ghosts" like Sam Darnold did a couple years ago in New York.
32. Houston Texans (4-12)
The Texans are just bad. There's not really any part of the roster that I'm impressed with. Especially if Deshaun Watson isn't available, which looks like it will be the case. It may be a bit of a surprise pick for some, but as of now, I'm predicting Houston as the league's worst team and 2022 first overall draft pick owner.
Let me know if you think I was right or wrong about your favorite team in the comments below. Stay tuned for my updated rankings after Week 3 of the 2021 NFL season.
Written by Nick Swatson
Expert Nick Swatson discusses all the news, predictions, and outcomes surrounding the NFL.