The Tampa Bay Buccaneers tore through the playoffs last year and took home the Super Bowl title. Tom Brady is looking like a timeless classic, and this is quite a disciplined team as a whole. With an explosive offense and an athletic defense, this Bucs team is looking like they could run it back in 2021. So who can take down the reigning Super Bowl champs?
Los Angeles Rams- NFC West
The Rams made a statement when they beat the Seahawks last year in the wild card round and what really surprised me was that they beat them with Jared Goff and John Wolford under center. After making a big-time trade with the Lions for Matthew Stafford, the Rams could arguably be the team to beat in the NFC. At running back is 2020 second-rounder and rising star Cam Akers. Akers had a 190+ yard showing against the Patriots and posted 270+ yards in just two playoff games. The Rams have some great talent in their receiving room. Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and DeSean Jackson headline the unit while Van Jefferson and Tutu Atwell are going to be key contributors for Stafford. After the departure of Gerald Everett to the Seahawks in free agency, Tyler Higbee is ready to take on the starting role at tight end. Higbee is a great blocker with high upside in the receiving game.
This offensive line is a little bit above average and will be serviceable for this year. They aren’t a show-stopping unit but they aren’t pushovers either.
On defense is one of the most dominant players of all time in Aaron Donald. Donald will play next to nose tackle A’Shawn Robinson and opposite of left defensive end Sebastian Joseph-Day. This threesome is very skilled at stopping the run, but Donald is the only pass rushing threat of the three. At outside linebacker is Leonard Floyd who burst onto the scene with a 10+ sack season in 2020 and Terrell Lewis, the 2020 third-rounder from Alabama, is finally healthy and showed flashes of greatness last year. The inside linebacker duo is a bit of a sad situation with Micah Kiser and Kenny Young. They aren’t exactly a liability but rarely do either of the two make eye-popping plays. They are just above average at best. At cornerback is the league’s best cover man in Jalen Ramsey. One of the most improved players league-wide in 2020 is Darious Williams who is playing CB2 opposite of Ramsey. In the slot is David Long Jr. who isn’t terrible and has shown he can play well in the slot. Long Jr. just needs to work on consistency. The safety spot took a bit of a hit with the departure of John Johnson III but the backup option at strong safety isn’t a bad one. 2019 second-round pick and former Washington Husky Taylor Rapp is going to be great at strong safety. After developing he has shown he can be a big hitter and a smart player in zone coverage. At free safety is sophomore surprise Jordan Fuller from Ohio State. Fuller shared snaps last year and still showed great ball-hawking abilities and great range. This is a sound defense as a whole.
Sean McVay is one of the league’s great offensive minds at head coach and with this explosive offense, the Rams can go into every game and win any shoot-out they get into.
X-Factor: Offensive line consistency
Dallas Cowboys- NFC East
As reluctant as any non-Cowboys fan is to put them on this list, they have too much firepower and talent to turn the other way. A healthy Dak Prescott is one of the league’s best quarterbacks and his contract reflects that. At running back is Ezekiel Elliott who regressed last year but is still one of the most explosive players in the league when he hits the open field. Elliott should be better with a healthy offensive line this year. I would say the Cowboys have the best starting wide receiver room in the league. At WR1 is Amari Cooper who is the model of consistency and is one of the best route runners in the NFL. The Cowboy’s WR2 is one of my favorite receiver prospects in recent memory: former Oklahoma Sooner CeeDee Lamb. Lamb was the Boys’ 2020 first-rounder and is one of those guys who has a knack for making show-stopping catches. His ceiling is sky high and he is one of my favorite players in the league to watch. In the slot at WR3 is former Colorado State Ram Michael Gallup. Gallup is an electric big play threat who is known for his tough catches down the field. Despite coming off of an injury, I think Blake Jarwin can be the above-average tight end we expected to see in 2020. Jarwin is a great pass catcher and a better blocker.
This offensive line was problematic last year but is finally put together and healthy. At blind side blocker is one of the all-time best left tackles in Tyron Smith. When healthy, Tyron Smith is a wildly successful blocker in both facets of the game. The interior of this line is one of the best in the league with rock-solid, former Texas Longhorn Connor Williams at left guard, the developing center from Wisconsin Tyler Biadsz, and one of the best guards in league history with Notre Dame alum Zack Martin. To cap things off on the right side is former LSU tiger La’el Collins who is a top right tackle in the league when healthy.
The defense was the biggest concern last year and they made big moves to improve this group of men. Off the edges of Dan Quinn’s 4-3 scheme is one of the league’s best run stoppers in DeMarcus Lawrence and the uber-talented Randy Gregory who is looking like he is finally going to get a chance to play a full season. Randy and DeMarcus bring a reliable run-stopping brand to the defense and high pass-rushing prowess. The interior has been the biggest weakness on this Cowboys front four. 2020 third-rounder Neville Gallimore from Oklahoma is an uber-athletic nose tackle who actually has high pass rush upside from the one technique spot. 2021 third-rounder from UCLA, Osa Odighizuwa, is one of my favorite hidden gems and I think he could be a great three technique and pass rush threat on this line. The real bright spot for this Dallas defense is the linebacker core. At the WILL spot is one of CFB’s legends in Jaylon Smith. He had a rocky time last year in the passing game and he made some mental errors, but he was making plays in the run game nonetheless. At MIKE is the injury-prone Leighton Vander-Esch. When healthy, LVE is one of the smartest players in the NFL, and he plays with great sideline-to-sideline range while packing a punch at the point of attack. Finally, at SAM is 2021 12th overall pick from Penn State: Micah Parsons. I think Parsons has the potential to be a Devin White type player and could be one the best linebackers of the three if utilized correctly. Cornerback was the big concern coming into the offseason, but I think they are looking pretty good after the draft. At CB1 is former Crimson Tide star Trevon Diggs. Trevon had a great rookie season and is only getting better. He shows great ball skills and size which makes me feel comfortable with him at CB1. In the second round of the 2021 NFL draft, the Boys took Kelvin Joseph out of Kentucky. Joseph is one of the most talented cornerbacks of all the rookie cover men and if he was a little more passionate about football and was a little bit more consistent, he could’ve been a first-round pick. Former Falcon strong safety Keanu Neal was brought over in free agency and he projects to play a hybrid role between strong safety and WILL linebacker. Damontae Kazee, another former Falcon safety, reunites with Dan Quinn to be his ball-hawking single high free safety.
The concern going into the 2021 season is the coaching. These coaches might not have had Dak in 2020 but they really didn’t do anything to instill confidence either. If these coaching moves don’t pan out, this will just be a bunch of wasted talent.
New Orleans Saints- NFC South
“What!? The Saints without Drew Brees?” Yes, the Saints without Drew Brees. Hear me out. The Saints have an elite front office with multiple members being in the running for coordinator, head coaching, and general manager positions year in and year out. Additionally, Sean Payton is one of the all-time great offensive minds and a fierce competitor.
The only big difference between this season and last is the switch at quarterback. On paper, going from Drew Brees, a future hall of famer and one of the best quarterbacks of all time, to Jameis Winston, a backup from the 2020 season, looks like a bad trade-off. There is however reason for hope. Jameis Winston has a massive arm and is one of seven quarterbacks, along with Drew, to pass for 5,000+ yards in a season. The Saints gained a big arm in the trade-off from Drew to Jameis. The biggest concern is Jameis’ 2019 turnover troubles. Winston turned over the ball all of the time and it was a big-time problem. Jameis has now worked with Sean Payton for a full season and got to sit and watch Drew Brees for a year, who is one of the most accurate and best turnover differential passers in league history. At running back is one of the league’s best players regardless of position: Alvin Kamara. Alvin can run with the best of them and is a better receiver than some wideouts in the league. Michael Thomas, the 2019 OPOY, is finally healthy and will look to be the go-to guy for Jameis. There isn’t much established talent outside of CantGuardMike, but Tre’Quan Smith, Deonte Harris, and Marquez Callaway are all high ceiling players who are expected to take big leaps this season. At tight end is their 2020 third-round pick, Adam Trautman. The former Dayton Flyer is already one of the best blocking tight ends in the league and showed flashes of receiving and route running greatness last season.
The black and gold sport one of the best offensive lines in the league and even the weakest link is above average.
The Saints defense has become one of the best under Dennis Allen and got arguably better with the addition of DB coach Kris Richard, who is credited with developing The Legion of Boom. Up front is one of the best pass rushers in the league in former Cal Bear Cameron Jordan. On the right end is the raw and talented fourth-year veteran Marcus Davenport. If healthy, Davenport could finally burst onto the scene and get after the passer. 2021 first-round pick Payton Turner will play on NASCAR packages and will rotate in with Jordan and Davenport. On the interior is rising stud David Onyemata who posted an impressive 6.5 sacks in 2020 while splitting snaps with Sheldon Rankins. At the one technique is Shy Tuttle who is one of Sean Payton’s fan favorites and is a man-eater in the middle. At linebacker, the Saints have a lot of talent at all three points. Over at WILL is 2021 second-round pick from Ohio State Pete Werner. Werner is a very solid player who has a lot of experience and proved he can show up in big games. At MIKE is one of the best in the league in Demario Davis. Demario is still in his prime and can do anything asked of him. Finally, at SAM is the high ceiling project player from Wisconsin, Zack Baun. Baun should step into a much bigger role this season and will play in a downhill penetration style role.
The secondary and the cornerback room specifically was the biggest offseason concern. At CB1 is 2017 DROY and three-time Pro Bowl cover man Marshon Lattimore. Lattimore is a bonafide lockdown corner and has been since his first snap in the league. Across from Lattimore is the veteran from Florida State Patrick Robinson. Robinson played in the slot for the Eagles during their recent Super Bowl run. However, he showed incredible ball skills and man cover skills in a rotational outside role last year and can start at CB2. In the slot is one of the league’s best trash talkers in Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. CGJ is an absolute dog who is not afraid to lower his shoulder and lay the boom in the run game, and he is an Uber-aggressive cover man. He is only getting better in this defense. At strong safety is the established veteran and two-time Super Bowl Champion Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins showed last year that he still has it and can come down and assert dominance in the box while winning the occasional coverage assignment. In the deep middle is the franchise-tagged former Utah Ute Marcus Williams. Williams is the definition of a deep middle ball hawk and is becoming a much more consistent tackler as the years go on.
When it all boils down, the thing keeping people from thinking higher of the Saints is Jameis Winston’s 2019 turnover problem, which is a valid concern. But fans and analysts are forgetting the power of sitting behind Drew Brees and working under Sean Payton. This is a real boom or bust team, but there is absolutely no reason to be writing off a team this talented and well-coached because of one position switch.
X-Factor: Jameis Winston’s ball security
Dark Horse: Arizona Cardinals-NFC West