The 2021 NFL Draft begins exactly four weeks from tonight, and free agency has stalled a bit, so now is the perfect time for free agency NFL power rankings. We have a long way to go before September, but as of now I see three or four surefire contenders and a lot of parity after them.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are the first team in the salary cap era to bring back all of their Super Bowl starters, so it’s very real what the franchise is building—a potential dynasty—after they were able to retain their several big free agents (Antonio Brown pending but fully expected to re-sign). Having Tom Brady helps to keep guys around, sometimes for less money, and there’s already talk about how the offense can take a step forward in 2021. Tampa Bay is going to be the clear Super Bowl favorite heading into next season in my opinion.
2. Buffalo Bills
We still have the draft to come and a full training camp, but this is an early indication that my Super Bowl LVI pick is likely to be Bucs-Bills. Just listen to players both inside and outside the organization—including the recently acquired veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders—talk about what Buffalo is building, and you can expect the team will continue to progress under Sean McDermott.
3. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are almost certainly going to be among the final contenders again next season, but they’ll be relying on a reshuffled offensive line in front of Patrick Mahomes. Also, the team lost Sammy Watkins—who, while he has struggled with health—has been a key factor when on the field, especially during the title run a couple of years ago. Defensively, the addition of former Seahawks defensive tackle Jarran Reed can make for a dangerous combination along with Chris Jones on the interior.
4. Green Bay Packers
The Packers were business as usual during free agency, retaining homegrown star running back Aaron Jones before other teams could make a run at him. There’s been talk of a contract extension with reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers. However, Rodgers is set to host jeopardy for a couple of months this week, and if it goes well and he likes it, I would not be shocked at all if he retires and takes a gig that’ll last for decades. I’m not saying it’s likely to happen, but Rodgers doesn’t seem like a conventional type of person, so don’t be surprised by anything.
5. New England Patriots
This might feel like a high ranking for the Patriots, but I think you can make a case for several teams to be ranked No. 5 in the power rankings. I’ll bet on Bill Belichick and the Pats organization. I normally don’t like the idea of going heavy on free agency, but New England knew they had to put together a stronger roster and aggressively targeted guys that fit what they want to do and should transition seamlessly into the locker room. Cam Newton and the quarterback position is the big question for me, but the pieces are there for the Pats to be dangerous.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers were hit pretty hard with losses this offseason, but wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was a key guy they were able to bring back for less than he was offered by other contenders. Pittsburgh is one of the more intriguing teams I’m looking at during the draft, as I think the offensive philosophy will shift toward an attack that will put a bigger emphasis on running the ball than it did last season.
7. Los Angeles Rams
I thought it would be difficult for the Rams to keep pass rusher Leonard Floyd (a very underrated player considering many people apparently didn’t consider him a top free agent) during free agency, but they were able to again work some cap magic to keep him. Los Angeles did trade away defensive lineman Michael Brockers and lost safety John Johnson III, though, and they need complementary pieces to play well around Floyd, Aaron Donald, and Jalen Ramsey this year. The Rams are again without much early draft capital thanks to the Matthew Stafford trade.
8. Baltimore Ravens
It appeared the Ravens were striking out on free-agent receivers, but they were able to get Sammy Watkins to sign on a one-year deal after the first wave of free agency. Watkins can be a very strong fit with Lamar Jackson, so it was an under-the-radar high-upside signing for a team looking to get more production from the passing game, particularly in January. Baltimore has a strong roster and will look to put together another solid draft in a few weeks.
9. Miami Dolphins
There might not be a team better set up for the draft than the Dolphins, who are wheeling and dealing and were essentially able to trade back from No. 3 to No. 6 while picking up extra picks including another first-rounder for 2023. With at least three and potentially four quarterbacks going in the top five, Miami remains in a spot to draft a blue-chip prospect despite moving back. The Dolphins already added receiver Will Fuller, and Tua Tagovailoa could have a ton of weapons to work with this season.
10. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks would probably be higher in the power rankings, but the Russell Wilson situation is concerning. Clearly, unless something changes drastically, Seattle has little interest in trading away their franchise quarterback. But the two sides cannot let their unhappiness toward each other impact things on the field—frankly, in the toughest situations (i.e., when things go south, as they do for every team in the NFL at some point during a season), I think that might be difficult to do.
11. San Francisco 49ers
The Niners’ trade up to the No. 3 pick in the draft was pretty stunning, but Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch feel good enough about their roster—which will be healthier in 2021 and was able to re-sign star left tackle Trent Williams to a record-breaking deal—to part with the immense draft capital to move up and get a quarterback of the future. I like Jimmy Garoppolo, but the durability is the issue that probably sparked this move. My guess is the pick comes down to Mac Jones or Trey Lance. Lance makes sense as someone to sit for a year behind Jimmy G, but Shanahan might like Jones to make the throws in his offense. As for Garoppolo, I believe he might have a 2017 Alex Smith type of campaign this year; he’s 24-8 in his career as a starter and was just in the Super Bowl a couple of years ago, so he probably feels disrespected and motivated to some extent.
12. New Orleans Saints
Quarterback is the question for the Saints, with future Hall of Famer Drew Brees retiring from the NFL after 20 seasons. Brees is a legend that’s done so much for the city of New Orleans, and he deserves some type of big sendoff when this COVID situation is done with. I liked what Taysom Hill did last year while starting for an injured Brees, but it was good to hear Jameis Winston say he wants to be a CEO-type quarterback and not try to do too much.
13. Tennessee Titans
Both Corey Davis and Adam Humphries left as free agent receivers, but the Titans have the star power to lean on offensively in stud third-year weapon A.J. Brown and 2,000-yard rusher Derrick Henry—still, the draft will be a spot where Tennessee can add more on offense. The defense had to part with some pieces including a few defensive backs, but they were able to add Bud Dupree to help solidify the edge and get after the passer.
14. Cleveland Browns
The Browns are in really good shape because they have a top offensive line and rushing attack led by Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Remember, this team nearly knocked off Kansas City in the AFC Divisional Round. Thus far, there have been no notable Odell Beckham Jr. trade rumors as there have been in past years (both in New York and Cleveland), and keeping distractions at a minimum will be huge for the Browns as they look to continue building a winner.
15. Indianapolis Colts
As someone that 100% thought the Eagles should have kept Nick Foles and traded Carson Wentz years ago, I’m not sure about Wentz getting close to his 2017 form again. However, if there’s a spot Wentz can have major success, it’s with the Colts. Indianapolis, which was able to re-sign T.Y. Hilton, is powered by a rushing attack led by exceptional second-year runner Jonathan Taylor and a solid defense, so there won’t be a ton of pressure on Wentz to do too much for his new team—and the fresh start will likely be a good thing for the former No. 2 pick.
16. New York Giants
There was some thought to putting the Giants a handful of spots higher than even this. General manager Dave Gettleman has done an outstanding job of putting one of the NFLs’ top rosters together. Kenny Golladay gives them exactly the type of target they’ve been missing on the outside, and the offense can be excellent if the offensive line is able to protect Daniel Jones (and if Jones is able to take care of the football). And Adoree’ Jackson as a No. 2 cornerback rounds out a secondary that’s going to challenge opposing receiving corps. For a team that’s had draft success under Gettleman, I’m excited to see what they do this year.
17. Washington Football Team
Ryan Fitzpatrick is a major boom-bust signing at quarterback, and it was not the move I expected at all from Washington (I was thinking they might go after Marcus Mariota). There’s no doubt Fitzpatrick will provide a spark and energy on the offensive side of the ball, helping complement a defense that should be one of the top units in the league. Curtis Samuel is a perfect fit opposite former college teammate Terry McLaurin, bringing more juice to the Football Team’s offense.
18. Los Angeles Chargers
All-Pro center Corey Linsley was one of the biggest additions this offseason, as he’ll help solidify the offensive line to protect Justin Herbert. Los Angeles lost Hunter Henry to the Patriots, but Jared Cook was signed to help make up for the loss and be a field-stretcher down the seam for Herbert. I think LA needs more depth on defense, and hitting on picks throughout this year’s draft would help in that regard.
19. Dallas Cowboys
Negotiations appeared uneasy at times, but the Cowboys were finally able to lock up Dak Prescott to a big contract extension, avoiding any issues into the summer with Prescott coming off a serious leg injury. The Dallas offense should be fine, but they need the defense to step up under new coordinator Dan Quinn. I like the signings of Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee, both of whom are familiar with Quinn from their time together in Atlanta. Best player available is the way to go, which the Cowboys have seemingly gone with over the years, but pairing one of the draft’s top corners with second-year cover man Trevon Diggs is an exciting possibility.
20. Arizona Cardinals
The next several teams could all be a bit higher into the teens, and it starts with the Cardinals. Arizona will be relying on veteran talent like J.J. Watt and A.J. Green this season, which can lead to big-time upside if they are close to their top star-level form. The concerns with the Cardinals are that the book might be out on Kyler Murray and that Kliff Kingsbury has had a winning record in just two of his eight seasons as a head coach at Texas Tech and in the NFL.
21. Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders have had one of the more peculiar offseasons of any team. They gave pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue nearly the same exact contract that could have gone to Nelson Agholor (and basically the entire team including quarterback Derek Carr said they wanted Agholor back), and the offensive line is being totally revamped. Then, they waited to tell Marcus Mariota he had to take a pay cut to remain with the team. I have been very high on Las Vegas and liked that Jon Gruden has been given ten years to build a winner, but I have to admit the past couple of years have me concerned.
22. Chicago Bears
But the strangest move of the offseason is the Bears’ signing of Andy Dalton. Not that bringing in Dalton, who has strong starting experience and has been to the postseason, is a bad move; but Chicago asserting Dalton as “QB1” is weird to me—especially with Nick Foles still on the roster. Perhaps this is just total posturing by the Bears as they look to trade up for a quarterback in the draft, but we’ll see. Credit to the Bears for going hard after Russell Wilson, though.
23. Minnesota Vikings
Mike Zimmer was undoubtedly disgusted by what he saw from his defense in some stretches last season, and this offseason he’s probably not thought of much else but getting things corrected on that side of the ball. Adding former All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson should help, and the signing might boost the play of the young cornerback group around him—there’s plenty of competition at that position so that the best players will play and should play well.
24. Carolina Panthers
One of the worst kept secrets around the league is that the Panthers want to find a bonafide franchise quarterback and are open to moving on from Teddy Bridgewater after one season. Three quarterbacks are going in the top three picks, so Carolina might have to hope a prospect they love is still available after that—and they’ll probably be exploring a trade-up of their own to get him. I just hope Matt Rhule gets final say over the franchise quarterback they eventually target—not team owner David Tepper forcing a move the coach isn’t totally on board with.
25. Atlanta Falcons
While we aren’t sure who the Niners are going to pick at No. 3, some might say the draft really starts with Atlanta. The Falcons are in an incredibly potent position, with the ability to either trade the No. 4 pick for a godfather package; or to simply take the player they feel is the best prospect in the draft (aside from Trevor Lawrence). Florida tight end Kyle Pitts being added to an offense with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley has frightening upside, but we’ll see what direction they go.
26. Denver Broncos
The Broncos are one of the biggest wild cards of 2021. The team is keeping Von Miller, and the secondary should be one of the best in football after adding Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby. But the offense is the big question—the offensive line is good, and the skill position players can be explosive, but Drew Lock must stay healthy and play well. Denver might be another team in the mix for a quarterback in the top ten of the draft.
27. Philadelphia Eagles
Overall, I would like the Eagles’ move back from No. 6 to No. 12 to pick up an extra first-round pick next season. However, because Howie Roseman has been so poor at drafting, I don’t like the move for the Eagles in particular when the No. 6 pick would have been tough for him to mess up. Philadelphia apparently wanted to trade up for BYU’s Zach Wilson, but I don’t think that’ll do anything but motivate Jalen Hurts, who I think will play well this season if the offensive line can get back to form.
28. Detroit Lions
The Lions are another intriguing team with the draft approaching, and it’s easy to see them being a hot spot for another squad looking to trade up, as Detroit would take the extra draft picks as they look to build a foundation moving forward. Based on the new regime’s mindset, you can bet the player drafted by the Lions is a guy that absolutely loves football.
29. Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals are certainly a team that can be higher in the power rankings. They’re an athletic roster that’ll have a chance to add an elite talent with the No. 5 pick in the draft (former LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase has been widely speculated as the likely selection), but two huge concerns are 1) protecting Joe Burrow, and 2) Burrow’s recovery from his season-ending knee injury.
30. New York Jets
The Jets were aggressive during free agency, with Carl Lawson, Corey Davis, and Sheldon Rankins among the acquisitions, and they might be able to add another contributor (or a potential Day 2 draft pick) in a Sam Darnold trade. New York is fully expected to reset at quarterback and take Zach Wilson No. 2 overall four weeks from tonight.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
Trevor Lawrence will be the top pick in the draft, and the Jaguars aren’t really hiding it aside from not coming out with an actual announcement. Lawrence is a generational type of quarterback prospect and should have a ton of success at the next level, but it’s troubling for me that Urban Meyer is already voicing displeasure with the way the free agency process works in the NFL, calling it “awful.” Meyer might need quick success in Jacksonville to avoid serious frustration.
32. Houston Texans
The Deshaun Watson situation is very troubling. The United States offers due process, but over 20 accusers and a Sports Illustrated story that gave SI access to texts from an accuser means this does not look good at all for Watson. Again, the process must play out, but suddenly it feels like we might not see Watson on the field for a while—not because of a hold out, but because this is an extremely serious off-the-field situation. As for the Texans overall, new general manager Nick Caserio wasted no time adding a bunch of players during free agency.