The 2021 NFL season is almost here, and it’s time for the Week 1 power rankings. My full season predictions (which involve more projecting) will be out tomorrow, but this is where I see teams ranking ahead of the season opener.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The defending champs stayed healthy throughout the summer and were able to get in some preseason work. The Bucs return all their starters from the Super Bowl squad, added more firing power (Giovani Bernard at running back and tight end O.J. Howard returning from injury), and Antonio Brown apparently looked to be in prime form this summer. Expect Tom Brady and company to be firing on all cylinders when they kick things off tomorrow night.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
In a time when sitting the starters is the trendy thing to do, Patrick Mahomes (as well as Tom Brady and Josh Allen) saw preseason action. The early returns from the summer regarding the offensive line were extremely positive, and the Chiefs will obviously be difficult to stop if Mahomes is protected and comfortable. After two consecutive AFC titles, the Chiefs are again the team to beat in the conference.
3. Buffalo Bills
The Bills continue their rise under Josh Allen, Sean McDermott, and Brandon Beane. It’s a very strong roster and organization that’s been built up over the past few years and should continue to get better. Allen signed a contract extension for nearly $300 million, and it’s pretty funny to look back at all the haters dating back to the predraft process in 2018 (many of the haters that probably didn’t even actually watch Allen play at Wyoming). While the Chiefs are the team to beat and deserve to be higher in the power rankings, the Bills are my pick to win the AFC.
4. Green Bay Packers
I was legitimately concerned that Aaron Rodgers was going to go host Jeopardy! instead of playing for the Packers, but, thankfully for Green Bay, everything worked out for this season at least. Rodgers will now basically control his fate this offseason, after what he and superstar receiver Davante Adams have been hinting at as a “Last Dance” in 2021. I believe Rodgers might have just wanted more respect from the front office, so tunes might change several months from now. For the immediate future, the Packers bring back an exciting group that was again a game away from the Super Bowl. Look for Marquez Valdes-Scantling to be a guy that could become more consistent and take a big step forward this season.
5. New England Patriots
Aside from the Buccaneers retaining just about everyone from a championship squad, the Patriots had the best offseason of any team in the league in my opinion. Based on the preseason, Mac Jones looks like an absolute steal at No. 15 overall—he simply played too well and operated the offense too efficiently not to be the Week 1 starter. And I thought Cam Newton played well and looked more decisive throwing the ball this summer, but Jones does exactly what Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and the staff is looking for. With a strong run game, a top defense, and an accurate distributor throwing to a much-improved skill group (and not to mention Belichick as the head coach), New England should not be counted out from contending for another championship.
6. San Francisco 49ers
It appears the Niners will be going with a two-quarterback system to a greater extent than we’ve seen in a while in the NFL, which should be very interesting. Jimmy Garoppolo is the clear starter, but Kyle Shanahan intends to utilize the skillset of rookie third overall pick Trey Lance, who can come in and devastate opposing defenses on zone-reads and designed quarterback runs. San Francisco appeared to be having fun with good vibes during the preseason, and the defense will look a lot different with a healthy Nick Bosa coming off the edge.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers
First-round rookie running back Najee Harris looks like a guy that might help transform the entire mindset of the Steelers after they were unable to do much on the ground last season. With a revamped offensive line and the do-it-all back Harris behind it, look for the Steelers to be more balanced in 2021. They can play to the strength of the top defense while also possessing the capability to air it out with Ben Roethlisberger and his stacked group of weapons. Keep an eye on rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth, who can help Pittsburgh finish drives with six points.
8. Cleveland Browns
The Browns were in the top five in the previous power rankings after the draft, but they settle in at No. 8 entering the season. For one, they won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year, and both the Steelers and the Ravens will be hunting them within the division following a postseason run in which they went from wild-card team to nearly knocking off the Chiefs in Arrowhead and now to one of the darling teams ahead of 2021. Still, you have to like Cleveland’s run game led by Nick Chubb, and Baker Mayfield should be more comfortable in Year 2 of Kevin Stefanski’s system.
9. Tennessee Titans
I considered putting the Titans as high as No. 6 in the power rankings after their acquisition of All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones. The NFL’s all-time leader in receiving yards per game has plenty left in the tank, and it sounds like he’s ready to show it for his new squad. I don’t know how you stop an offense with Jones, A.J. Brown, and Derrick Henry (who I think might run for 2,000 yards for a second consecutive year), especially if Ryan Tannehill continues to play as well as he has the past two seasons.
10. Los Angeles Rams
If the Rams defense plays at the level it did last season, and the hype—which might have gotten a little out of control this offseason—surrounding Matthew Stafford as the quarterback in Sean McVay’s offense translates to the field, this might be far too low for LA’s preseason rank. Personally, as someone that drafted Sony Michel for my fantasy football team, I hope he eventually works his way into a lead back role with a heavy workload; the Rams did give up two picks for the former first-rounder, so his role is something to watch this fall.
11. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens defense remains among the most talented in football at all three levels, and linebacker Patrick Queen is an impact player to watch in his second season. There’s been some talk about this being the year that defenses “figure out” former NFL MVP Lamar Jackson. But keep in mind that the Ravens offense might look a little different after adding Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman at receiver—and Baltimore has been completely decimated at running back, losing J.K. Dobbins and then Justice Hill to season-ending injuries. Le’Veon Bell was an intriguing add to the practice squad, and he’s another veteran looking to show he has a lot of good football left.
12. Seattle Seahawks
This feels too low for the Seahawks, but I am a bit concerned about their coverage on the backend. Now, the front seven is a plus group for sure, but the secondary must find a way to make plays and help the defense get off the field when they’re in shootouts and facing some of the NFL’s top offenses. For Seattle’s own offensive attack, Russell Wilson throwing to D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett is exceptional, but Pete Carroll wants to run the ball more with Chris Carson—that’ll help set up play-action shots to Wilson’s weapons.
13. Miami Dolphins
There’s been a ton of smoke connecting the Dolphins to Deshaun Watson, but second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa could be poised to make a leap this season after Miami added Jaylen Waddle and Will Fuller this offseason. Tua looked poised and in control during the preseason, and the Dolphins could catapult closer to the league’s elite if the offense can become a top-ten group to complement a stingy defense commanded by Brian Flores.
14. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have been killed by injury issues this summer, including quarterback Carson Wentz and All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson both suffering a broken foot. Wentz didn’t get any preseason reps, and he’ll be without T.Y. Hilton (neck) for an indefinite period, so don’t be surprised if Indy looks a little rusty out of the gate on offense. Just based off of the mindset, that shouldn’t be an issue with the defense given the way Darius Leonard leads that side of the ball.
15. New Orleans Saints
I was never high on Jameis Winston from his time coming out of Florida State to his time in Tampa Bay (because of the turnovers and potential immaturity concerns, which I’d argue are connected), but I must admit Winston is an intriguing figure after getting Lasik eye surgery to correct his vision. The former No. 1 overall pick is in a good spot leading Sean Payton’s offense, and Marquez Callaway looks like one of the potential breakout stars for 2021. New Orleans’ veteran defense should remain stout up front, but the cornerback position is a spot to watch.
16. Los Angeles Chargers
The upside of the Chargers is immense, and they could easily be in the top ten. However, we did not see them during the preseason, and Justin Herbert is adjusting to a new offensive system after lighting it up as a rookie in 2020. Defensively, a healthy Derwin James should do wonders for first-year head coach Brandon Staley, who could quickly help LA become an elite defense.
17. Washington Football Team
Chase Young and the Washington defense is going to wreak havoc on the opposition this season. That front four can win you games and put games away when the offense builds a lead. My concern with the Football Team—and hence their No. 17 ranking—is the volatility of Ryan Fitzpatrick. The ceiling is high with Fitzmagic, but we’ve seen the downside, too. Taylor Heinicke was highly impressive in the playoff loss to the Bucs last January, and he should stay ready. Personally, I would have targeted Marcus Mariota via a trade if I was Washington this offseason.
18. Philadelphia Eagles
There are plenty of young, emerging players I’m high on, but Jalen Hurts might be the biggest breakout star of 2021. I just think he has the “it” factor and will seize this opportunity to become the long-term answer at quarterback for Philadelphia. We’ll see. The NFC East is my most difficult decision to pick because I think all four teams can win it, but I might go with the Eagles because of the strength on the offensive line (if healthy). Check back in tomorrow for my final season predictions.
19. Dallas Cowboys
We got a deep inside look at the Cowboys on HBO’s Hard Knocks this summer, and you can’t help but come away impressed with the leadership abilities of Dak Prescott. The offense should be more than fine with a healthy Prescott. The defense will obviously be key if Dallas is going to take a step up into championship contention, but first-round rookie Micah Parson brings a ton of energy and should help on that side of the ball. I think Dallas is headed in the right direction with Mike McCarthy.
20. Denver Broncos
Teddy Bridgewater getting the nod over Drew Lock as the Broncos’ starting quarterback was an upset to me. Lock played well during the preseason and was the incumbent, but Vic Fangio clearly trusts Bridgewater to just not mess up so that his team can play to a defense that has a chance to be a top-five unit. Circle the two matchups with the Chiefs on the calendar.
21. Carolina Panthers
I peeked at the Panthers schedule yesterday and came away thinking this is a team that could make a move in the NFC this season. Looking at paper schedules can be a shaky approach when we haven’t even seen these teams play a real game yet, but it’s probably a matter of when not if Matt Rhule builds this team into a force to be reckoned with—and I won’t be shocked if they’re in the playoffs this season. Sam Darnold has plenty of weapons to throw to in his first year with Carolina, including a rookie I’m very excited about: former LSU receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. The defense should be a smart group.
22. New York Giants
The Giants would be a bit higher in the power rankings, but the offensive line is a serious concern ahead of Week 1. The hope and the expectation is that they’ll eventually figure it out, but this season could get ugly if New York is unable to protect Daniel Jones and open lanes for Saquon Barkley. Also, high-priced free-agent acquisition Kenny Golladay and first-round pick Kadarius Toney weren’t on the field much during training camp. For all the question marks on offense, I expect the defense to be excellent.
23. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are yet another team that could be higher in the power rankings. Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland were fantastic adds at cornerback, and getting monstrous defensive end Danielle Hunter back is a big boost for Mike Zimmer’s defense. Keep in mind that Kirk Cousins is unvaccinated (not that I am criticizing his decision, but the NFL has made things very tough on those not vaccinated for COVID-19), and a quarterback missing time could deliver a huge blow to the Vikings’ playoff chances in a tight conference.
24. Arizona Cardinals
The upside is huge in Year 3 for Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury, but as this ranking indicates, there are concerns. The Cardinals’ third-down offensive struggles continued during their limited preseason action, and we’ll see how much of Murray’s second-half struggles had to do with his shoulder injury versus defenses figuring something out. Looking at the cornerback group after Malcolm Butler stepped away, Arizona might have serious problems containing high-octane passing attacks.
25. Las Vegas Raiders
Bryan Edwards—with comparisons to Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and Davante Adams from various sources this summer—is obviously someone to watch during the season. The emergence of Edwards and Henry Ruggs III as second-year players—complementing stud tight end Darren Waller—could help Derek Carr lead one of the NFL’s best attacks. Perhaps most importantly, Vegas needs new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to help keep this team out of the basement in terms of defensive rankings.
26. Atlanta Falcons
The Julio Jones trade has me less optimistic about the Falcons pushing for a playoff spot in Year 1 under Arthur Smith, but I expect Calvin Ridley to emerge as a bonafide superstar player (if he isn’t already considered that) as the No. 1 in Atlanta. And rookie tight end Kyle Pitts out of Florida will be a mismatch nightmare that could quickly become one of the NFL’s top red-zone threats. The run game and defense almost have to be improved from where it was last season, so the Falcons might surprise people in 2021.
27. Detroit Lions
The Lions are being counted out already, with many crowning them as a team that’ll be terrible this season. Not so fast. Jared Goff has won a lot of big games, and Detroit might hang around and surprise some teams if they can run the ball and if the defense can play tougher than expected. The primary concern is the lack of weapons for Goff on the outside—the Lions might be relying on fourth-round rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown to immediately step into a sizable role.
28. Chicago Bears
It felt very strange from the moment they did it, but the Bears kind of put themselves into a corner by declaring Andy Dalton “QB1” when they signed him during free agency. I understand what they’re doing—they want to develop Justin Fields and not throw him out there behind an offensive line that might struggle. Overall, head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace probably played this in a way that gets them 2022 to see this through. Because of the fans calling for Fields, there’ll be a lot of pressure on Dalton immediately this Sunday night versus the Rams.
29. Cincinnati Bengals
It was good to see Joe Burrow out there for limited preseason action in the final game, and he should be comfortable for Week 1 as he comes off last year’s awful season-ending knee injury. Burrow has plenty of weapons to work with on what could be one of the league’s top passing attacks. But Ja’Marr Chase needs to play freely and avoid thinking about the drop issues he had during the summer for Cincinnati to really take off. The Bengals defense has some veteran pieces and could be sneaky good this season after showing glimpses in 2020.
30. New York Jets
Second overall pick Zach Wilson really couldn’t be getting better reviews than he’s gotten, as head coach Robert Saleh and the Jets sound head over heels for him. The BYU product looked great during the preseason, and the New York offense appears to fit his skillset to a tee. Wilson will be looking up at the Bills, Patriots, and Dolphins within the division to kick off his career, but hopefully the titanic left side of the offensive line can keep him upright during what should be a season in which Wilson learns, grows, and develops at a rapid pace.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
You don’t want to overreact too much to the preseason, and you don’t want to question a coach that’s had the success Urban Meyer did in college, but it’s fair to be concerned about the Jaguars after the preseason. Jacksonville basically wasted first-team reps on Gardner Minshew, trading him away for a late-round pick shortly after saying Trevor Lawrence won the quarterback “competition”. Believe me, I’m all for earning your role, but it’s clear that Lawrence was going to be the Day 1 starter, and he could have used those reps. Lawrence is special and might have to carry the Jags this season, but he does have a promising group of weapons to work with.
32. Houston Texans
First-year general manager Nick Caserio overhauled the Texans in a big way, and the addition of all the veteran pieces might lead to Houston surprising people this season. But the Deshaun Watson situation still looms, and the Texans will probably be better off when he’s traded away.