NFL Power Rankings: Kickoff 2021

Welcome to the first installment of The Sports Wave’s NFL Power Rankings, where we’ll give you the league low-down at the end of each weekend’s slate of games. After one hell of an offseason, we’re all set to start the season off on the right foot. Post-preseason and pre-regular season, let’s take a look at all the teams in the NFL, and one big question mark for each of them in 2021.

(1) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The team that won the Super Bowl retained all of its talent and then drafted wisely, aiming to combat future needs, rather than present ones. They’re deeper than the 2020 champs but no less deadly, and they could continue to succeed with their rookies red-shirting to take over more important roles in 2022. The biggest issue with this team is their lack of consistency, as they were hard to root for a significant chunk of last season, before settling into their late-season playoff groove. If they can find that point again, the timeless Tom Brady tour makes its second round, and they’re not slowing down until someone stops them.

(2) Kansas City Chiefs

If you based Kansas City purely off of their performance in their Super Bowl loss, you would have them ranked far lower on this list. However, it’s not easy to forget that they dominated a vast majority of the NFL over the past 3 seasons; with little roster turnover and plenty of success to show for it, the Chiefs are a force to be reckoned with. They’re scarier than the Buccaneers but, after rebuilding the offensive line following one of the worst blocking displays of all time, can they keep Mahomes upright long enough to win their 2nd chip in 3 seasons?

(3) Buffalo Bills

Josh Allen was the story last season, blowing the doors off the NFL en route to an AFC Championship appearance and ranking second in MVP voting. After finally finding their franchise QB and forming a powerhouse passing offense, Buffalo’s defense responded by putting up their weakest season in a long time. This offseason, the team focused on repairing their defunct defensive line (an area where they had spent more of their cap space than any other team during 2020 with no success), and both Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham played well in preseason, but it remains to be seen if their pass-rush and run-stopping can finally catch up to what is one of the best secondaries in the league.

(4) Green Bay Packers

The Aaron Rodgers drama has finally been put to bed, at least until post-February, with the future Hall of Famer agreeing to at least one more season in green and gold. Having solved one of the Packers’ big problems before kickoff, we now move on to another. With quality starters across the board, Green Bay’s draft picks may have a hard time carving out roles for themselves in a championship-contending roster. Who steps up and makes an impact? When?

(5) Los Angeles Rams

If any team in the NFL can go from ‘Good’ to ‘Unstoppable’ in 2021, it’s Los Angeles. Losing Cam Akers was a significant blow to a team that needed quality play from their running backs, but trading a 6th-round pick for Patriots RB Sony Michel was an excellent band-aid solution. Combining one of the splashiest defenses in the NFL with a QB who can put all the pieces together on offense and take this team from pretender to contender. But will Stafford mesh with this offense and return the Rams to their 2018-19 form? Let’s ask the Lucky 8 Ball: All signs point to yes.

(6) Cleveland Browns

With the NFL’s best run game not named Derrick Henry, and good QB play amongst a host of talented wideouts and tight ends, Cleveland finally poses a threat to the AFC North alongside the Ravens and Steelers. In today’s NFL however, your teams’ weakness simply cannot be the secondary, or you’ll consistently fall short of the big time against notable passing offenses in the playoffs. Have they done enough to upgrade their back four in order to topple the other AFC giants when the postseason comes knocking?

(7) Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore stalled out heavily to close the season last year and entered the spring with a to-do list. They improved in some position groups, but lost a lot of talent in important areas like the pass-rush and offensive line, then lost J.K. Dobbins to an ACL tear before the season. The 2019 MVP, Lamar Jackson, seemed to regress as a passer in 2020 as defenses began to understand what they had to do to contain him. Still inarguably one of the most versatile and talented athletes in the league, can he elevate his play for the second time and refine his skills as a pure passer on what is starting to look like an unforgiving roster?

(8) San Francisco 49ers

After being bitten by the injury bug in 2020, the 49ers are back, and they could look like a real threat, barring a few concerns. Their defense was the pride of the NFL, but with the loss of its coordinator, can it maintain that success? They’ve claimed repeatedly to have faith in starting QB Jimmy G, but then why draft Trey Lance in the first round? If it comes down to it, whether it be Garoppolo’s play or his health that benches him, is Trey Lance ready to take the field?

(9) Los Angeles Chargers

For the first time since moving to Los Angeles, the Chargers are on the map. They’re talented, patching holes in free agency and drafting potential long-term starters, but they have one concern left before crowning this a playoff-ready team. Coming off the best rookie season by a QB of all time, can Herbert maintain his level of success? Fans may expect growth, but Baker Mayfield did the same thing as a rookie, before regressing as a sophomore. Whether he follows that same pattern or not, we’re forced to ask: What does a second-year Justin Herbert look like?

(10) Dallas Cowboys

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

With the way things are looking, there are a few leading candidates for the Comeback Player of the Year Award, but Dak Prescott should be by far the leading favourite. We may have learned more about this team from his absence than from his play in 2020. Dallas has an absolute monster of an offense, but only if the ball is in the right hands- Or on the right legs. Barring any issues with Dak’s health, the last big question for this team is: Can a defense that was bad on a good day and downright detrimental to the team on a bad day actually keep up?

(11) Arizona Cardinals

We all remember the ‘Hail Murray’ last season, but does anyone remember anything else about Arizona? No? Well then. As it happens, splashy plays alone are no basis to build a team off of. Arizona knows this, and they threw a stack of veteran free agent signings at their issue, but will they/can they actually live up to the hype? Or will it just be money down a well? We saw how the Malcolm Butler signing turned out for them already.

(12) Seattle Seahawks

Wilson reportedly was open to a trade out of Seattle, before reconciling with HC Pete Caroll and re-committing to the Seahawks. They did some work to fix things for their franchise QB, but almost none of it actually benefits him. The offensive line is still in shambles, and his support is minimal. Seattle will need to do more to get back to the Super Bowl because the half-season MVP doesn’t have what it takes to do it all on his own. We’ll see how they manage.

(13) Pittsburgh Steelers

Now introducing your 11-0 perfect season Pittsburgh Steelers! In reality, Pittsburgh limped its way to that record and was promptly put down by the end of the season, both because of their own problems and the fact that they played a whole host of talented teams which could exploit them. It’s been a long offseason since then, and Big Ben looks good coming out of camp, but with a below-average OL, limited supporting cast, and holes on defense outside of their big names, does he have enough left in the tank to put this team over? Time will tell.

(14) Tennessee Titans

We all know what to be scared of in Tennessee, and it isn’t Ryan Tannehill and the passing game, no matter what Titans fans of Twitter tell you. The addition of Julio Jones is a big plus, especially at the price they paid for him, but unless he can return to form, and Tannehill can distribute the ball effectively, they’ll continue to stall out against high-calibre offenses. After a whole offseason, they remain unable to come from behind, especially in late-game situations.

(15) Indianapolis Colts

It’s been tough to be a Colts fan, as of late. Since the sudden and shocking retirement of Andrew Luck, this team has tried to patch up what was already a championship-contending roster year after year, with limited success. Their latest attempts seem to have been hampered as the injury bug bit just about everyone but, as many key players near a return, can Carson Wentz and company lift this offense, or does the answer lie elsewhere?

(16) New Orleans Saints

This one feels a little bit jarring. The legendary Drew Brees Jameis Winston leads this offense into the unknown as the week one starting QB. The man of many extremes has spent a year working on his game behind one of the greatest to ever do it, and we can’t forget that laser eye surgery he’d been putting off for his entire tenure as the starter in Tampa Bay, but what dividends does it pay? He’ll be without Michael Thomas for at least the first 6 weeks, barring a dramatic change, but what can he do for this franchise? Let’s not forget that he threw for 33 TDs and 5109 yards (319.3 ypg) in 2019, his last season as a starter. Let’s not forget he threw 30 interceptions either.

(17) Miami Dolphins

Miami’s offseason was expected to be an exciting one until it wasn’t. Their draft picks are solid, but without a significant impact from free-agent additions, they might not have done enough to create a contending team. Continuity can often breed growth and success but without making major upgrades to this roster they’re relying on the development of Tua Tagovailoa to take this team to the next level. Is it enough to lift them, or will they remain a fringe playoff team with no clear answer at QB?

(18) Washington Football Team

Despite their record last season, The Washington Redacted Football Team is chock full of talent. They’re ferocious, deep, and if they had a top-15 QB they could be dangerous. Tragically, the epic tale of Ryan Fitzpatrick may be coming to a close, as retirement was on the table this offseason for the journeyman. Fitzmagic is inarguably an upgrade on the debacle that was the WFT QB room a year ago, but they should be taking advantage of a good team by trading for a better arm under centre. He’s consistently ‘good enough, but is he the weak link in an otherwise talented roster?

(19) New England Patriots

Recently, a few pundits had New England ranked as high as fifth in the NFL, but we’re not here to throw hot takes at you for clicks. The Patriots finally conceded that maybe, just maybe, they weren’t Super Bowl ready just yet, drafting a QB in the 1st round and letting Cam Newton walk. Amongst their million shiny new (overpriced) free agent pickups, they paid top dollar for a pair of tier-2 tight ends and shelled out a whopping $24M for two years of WR Nelson Agholor. The Patriots are no longer the ‘it’ destination for free agents, and it shows, putting themselves in salary cap danger amid what appears to be a subtle attempt at a rebuild. All of this is unfamiliar territory for Bill Belichick, and it raises a big question; Can he actually make something of this roster?

(20) Minnesota Vikings

Last year wasn’t what the Vikings had hoped for, shedding a lot of their long-time vets in favour of young talent, who then (with the exception of Justin Jefferson) failed to hold up their end of the bargain. The Vikings’ formerly formidable defense collapsed in short order. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Minnesota signed a whole lot of veterans this offseason, but does it fix the problem? The issue may run deeper than a simple lack of experience, and it’s only a matter of time before these players either learn to swim or sink.

(21) Carolina Panthers

Carolina is probably a better team than most of the NFL will give them credit for, but the fact that they’re littered with question marks makes the evaluation a lot more difficult. As former third-overall pick Sam Darnold joins the best offense of his career, can we expect that resurgence New York failed to give him? Does rookie CB JayCee Horn bring enough to the table to fix the secondary? We’ll see soon enough.

(22) Cincinnati Bengals

No one was really sure if Joe Burrow would be able to start the season at QB, let alone play well, but preseason proved that he’s beginning to look more like the QB they drafted him to be every day. He enters the season with a great deal of confidence both in the pocket and on his surgically repaired leg. If he’s truly ready to go, Burrow could finally be the answer to a lifetime of QB woes in Cincinnati. When will we know for certain?

(23) Chicago Bears

The fact that Andy Dalton is set to take the field for the Bears in week one should be a point of concern for all Chicago fans. Justin Fields was promising in preseason, and the team might not be doing him any favours by sitting him for an extended period of time. Will they wait until the season is already lost before putting their potential future QB out there, or will we have to wait until 2022 to get a proper look at the young gun in regular-season action?

(24) Denver Broncos

There were mixed feelings in the Broncos community about the stepping-down of former Denver great John Elway as GM of the franchise. Some felt there was a need for change, and some thought that he still had some greatness left in him, but regardless of how you feel, the team is about to look very different. For starters, they’re leaning away from Elway’s archetypal QB with Teddy Bridgewater. Is he finally at home with a starting job, after all these years?

(25) Las Vegas Raiders

When evaluating the Raiders 2021 needs for free agency, even the most casual of observers wouldn’t have put RB as a high priority, yet here we are, staring at a 2-year, $11M deal for Kenyan Drake to be the backup. With holes across the roster and limited depth anywhere, they’ll need a lot of changes to the game plan to justify that cap spending. An even bigger question, however, is how they can go about spending six first-round picks in only three drafts and not have anything to show for it yet? They’ll need their in-house talent to start taking centre-stage or else they’ll be in another rebuild very soon.

(26) Philadelphia Eagles

We’re supposed to be raising one question for each team, but there’s a lot to be asked about this Eagles team. Only a few years away from their unforgettable SuperBowl run, Philly seems to have hit a brick wall. Insecurity in all position groups, a massively dysfunctional offensive line, and a huge question mark for a QB, the Eagles are in for a world of hurt is Hurts doesn’t shock the world.

(27) New York Giants

The Giants made a mistake drafting Saquon Barkley. Was he a generational talent? Probably. Does that justify taking a RB at second-overall when you’re in dire need of a QB and a great deal of other positions? Absolutely not. They got the best they could with Daniel Jones a year later, but they missed their chance at any number of franchise QBs, putting themselves in quite the hole. Having had a decent offseason, it’s make or break time for this Giants team, especially the offense. Can Jones and company rise above the fire?

(28) Atlanta Falcons

This team doesn’t look like the same old Falcons anymore. They’re not the husk of that team that lost Super Bowl LI, they’re the husk of a team that hasn’t done anything since. It’s not an upgrade. The Falcons shed one of the best WRs to ever do it, and drafted the most incredible TE we’ve seen come out of college in a long time, but how does that affect this unit? Will they be pass-heavy, or work on interior blocking to diversify the run game and take pressure off their veteran QB?

(29) New York Jets

The Jets worked hard through the spring and summer, bringing in former 49ers DC Robert Saleh as HC to right the ship and drafting a young QB with plenty of potential in Zach Wilson, but they’re not out of the woods yet. Losing promising FA signing DE Carl Lawson to an ACL tear was a huge blow for this rebuilding roster, and it just makes things difficult for what was an encouraging offseason. Before they can dream of taking the division, first they’ll need to make a great deal of decisions, and the question becomes: Can Saleh build a competitive roster, or is this going to be yet another short stint with wasted potential for New York?

(30) Jacksonville Jaguars

(AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

It’s not about winning a championship this season, but if they want to do that then they need to start laying the foundations now. Trevor Lawrence showed promise in preseason, but the roster has more holes than swiss cheese and stinks like a blue. As with most teams that earn a #1 overall pick they had a lot more problems than just the QB but, even after losing Travis Etienne to a season-ending ACL tear, does Lawrence translate to the pros well enough to spark a fire in this team or will we be entering next season with similar prospects?

(31) Detroit Lions

The only thing this team really seems to have over the 32nd ranked unit is that they have a QB who can manage the offense well, even if he is vastly overpaid. In a division featuring a championship contender, as well as one or two potential wild-card teams, Detroit’s season feels like it may already be over. A team as distinctly bad as this one doesn’t seem concerned about putting their best team forward in 2021. Can they do what it takes and win the tank-a-thon?

(32) Houston Texans

I’m not going to comment on ongoing legal issues regarding players on this roster, but I will say that this team is starting to remind me of the 1990’s Houston Oilers, and none of it because of their play on the actual field. This organization is sitting in holes that almost seem too deep to get out of. The real goal for this year in Houston shouldn’t be to actually win games but to just keep their heads low, let everything blow over, and hopefully start next season with a cleaner slate and some nice high draft picks to start fresh with.

We’ll see you all next week, with some actual football under our belt and a rookie to watch for every roster.