Who did ESNY place atop the league in its first NFL power rankings of the 2021 season?
It’s football season!
The first week of preseason games is a wrap and we can finally start to decipher how teams may perform in 2021.
Look, we know Tampa Bay will be great and the same goes for teams like Kansas City and Buffalo and Baltimore.
But do I think Miami will fare well in 2021? What about the Raiders? What about the pair of hometown teams?
To begin answering the above questions, let’s dive into ESNY’s first NFL power rankings of the 2021 season.
32. Detroit Lions
I think it’s safe to say there’s not a great deal of confidence in this Lions team.
The defense, in terms of yards allowed and points allowed, was the worst unit in the league last year and Jared Goff is a downgrade at quarterback from Matthew Stafford.
31. Philadelphia Eagles
Like the Lions, the Eagles are a team many believe will end up in last place in its own division. It’s very unclear if Nick Sirianni is the man for the head coaching job or if Jalen Hurts is a legitimate starting quarterback in this league.
30. Houston Texans
A trade request and 22 sexual misconduct accusers are the headlines that have surrounded quarterback Deshaun Watson.
It’s unclear if he’ll ever play another down for the Texans. On top of that, it doesn’t seem David Culley is fit to be the team’s head coach. The Houston offensive line is also filled with issues and the defense is coming off a horrendous 2020 campaign.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
Trevor Lawrence is in town. So is Urban Meyer. So is Travis Etienne.
But the Jaguars still have a lot to prove and were the worst team in the league last year — No. 29 seems reasonable.
28. Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Burrow is returning, but is he going to consistently produce coming off a significant knee injury? Will it take him some time to get accustomed to NFL defenses again?
Those question marks combined with a defensive unit that was 26th and 22nd in yards allowed and points allowed last year, respectively, lead to the Bengals sitting at No. 28 on our first power rankings.
27. Denver Broncos
The Broncos sport a good roster and improved the secondary (at least on paper) with the drafting of cornerback Patrick Surtain II at No. 9 overall. However, there is a significant conundrum at the most important position on the field.
Will Drew Lock develop? Can Teddy Bridgewater be trusted to lead an NFL franchise?
Until I see consistently productive quarterback play, I will have the feeling Denver is a last-place team in the AFC West.
26. New York Jets
This Jets team is seemingly on the right path with a new quarterback in Zach Wilson and a new head coach in Robert Saleh. Not to mention, the unit of offensive weapons and the defense are improved following productive offseason acquisitions.
But don’t expect it all to come to fruition right away. On paper, the Jets look better — they still need to actually prove it on the gridiron though.
25. Atlanta Falcons
A struggle-filled defense; a below-average offensive line; no more Julio Jones.
But I still don’t believe the Falcons will be quite as bad as they were last year (or else I would’ve put them at No. 29 or 30 to start).
Matt Ryan can still produce and Atlanta still employs numerous reliable offensive weapons, such as wideout Calvin Ridley and now tight end Kyle Pitts (No. 4 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft).
24. Indianapolis Colts
A good roster and great coaching reside in Indianapolis.
But the Carson Wentz injury is why the Colts find themselves this far down the list.
If they can temporarily overcome this setback and have great quarterback play when Wentz returns, this ranking will change.
23. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers could be in good shape this year, but there are currently a ton of uncertainties.
Will Sam Darnold finally produce at a consistently high level? Will Christian McCaffrey remain healthy? Will the offense thrive in its second season under head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady? Will the defense improve after a middle-of-the-road 2020 season?
It’s tough to decipher how the Panthers will fare in 2021 — the first few regular-season performances should give us more of an idea of what to expect.
22. Chicago Bears
Justin Fields looked good in the Bears’ preseason opener (14-for-20, 142 yards, one touchdown; 33 rushing yards, one rushing touchdown), but who knows when he’ll start in the regular season?
Chicago could be a defensive team with a questionable offense.
21. Minnesota Vikings
I’m higher on Kirk Cousins than a lot of other people — I think his numbers are tough to overlook.
But Minnesota has a lot to prove, especially following a seven-win 2020 season.
Will the defense improve? Is Mike Zimmer the right head coach?
20. New England Patriots
It’s tough to go against the greatest football coach that’s ever lived. And I applaud him for winning seven games last year with numerous opt-outs, a below-average slate of offensive weapons, and an inconsistent plan at quarterback.
But that quarterback-related issue is why the Patriots sit where they currently are.
Can Cam Newton still produce at a high level? Is first-rounder Mac Jones even going to play much this year?
19. New York Giants
The Giants, like the Jets, are improved on paper. The defense is expected to pick up where it left off and Daniel Jones has an enhanced receiving corps with Kenny Golladay and first-rounder Kadarius Toney now in the mix.
The team still needs to prove it on the field though, which is why Big Blue sits in the bottom half of the league here.
18. New Orleans Saints
The Saints sport a great roster, but the question marks at the quarterback position concern me.
Is Jameis Winston really ready to take over for the recently retired Drew Brees? Is Taysom Hill a legitimate starting quarterback in this league?
The uncertainties at the most important position are why the Saints find themselves at No. 18.
17. Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders are another team that doesn’t possess much of an identity.
The offense is good and Derek Carr can be relied on (at times).
But is Jon Gruden the right man for the head coaching job? Will the issues on the defensive end be fixed? Can this team be consistently competitive in a tough division?
Right now, Vegas is a middle-of-the-road squad for me.
16. Miami Dolphins
People may be a bit surprised where I rank the Dolphins especially given the fact they’re expected to build on their 10-win 2020 season.
However, I’m not too high on Tua Tagovailoa.
I believe Brian Flores is the right choice for the head coaching job and I like the weapons (DeVante Parker, Will Fuller, Jaylen Waddle).
I’m just not so sure about the quarterback position.
15. Dallas Cowboys
I’m big on Dak Prescott — I think some people truly underestimate the number of teams in this league that would love to employ him. He’s now the long-term face of the Cowboys franchise following a four-year contract signing this offseason and I think that’s great for the organization given his on-field capabilities.
The Dallas defense, however, is horrendous. The offensive line additionally struggled last year and allowed 44 sacks.
I believe Ezekiel Elliott (entering his sixth season) will improve from last year’s struggles, but running backs still don’t have a long lifespan in this league, so who really knows?
There are some unsolved riddles with this squad right now — the first few regular-season games should tell a lot about what to expect from America’s Team.
14. Washington Football Team
A phenomenal defense and a great head coach in Ron Rivera are why the Washington Football Team find themselves in the top 15.
But a questionable offense and uncertainty at the quarterback position keep them out of the top 10.
Can Ryan Fitzpatrick be consistently reliable at 38 years old? Does Taylor Heinicke have any sort of future as a legitimate starting signal-caller in this league?
13. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers will return to their winning ways this year.
Kyle Shanahan is a smart enough coach and play-caller and now has two quarterbacks to work with — Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Trey Lance — who are more reliable than Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard.
The defense, however, concerns me — both Robert Saleh (former defensive coordinator, now head coaching the Jets) and Richard Sherman (former cornerback, now a free agent) are gone.
Will the unit overcome the key departures?
12. Arizona Cardinals
I’m higher on the Cardinals than most.
They’re set at the quarterback position with Pro Bowler Kyler Murray and I believe the slate of offensive weapons is impressive with superstar wideout DeAndre Hopkins and rookie receiver Rondale Moore now in the mix (this is a speedy offense, indeed).
The defense is also solid.
But 2021 is when Kliff Kingsbury must prove he’s the right man for the head coaching job.
It’s playoffs or bust in Arizona this season.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers defense is outstanding and is expected to be even without Bud Dupree (who joined the Titans via free agency this year).
The offensive weapons — wideouts JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and first-round running back Najee Harris — can be reliable.
The offensive line is fantastic and allowed just 14 sacks last year (first in the NFL).
I just don’t know what to make of the quarterback position.
Will Ben Roethlisberger still be serviceable in 2021? Will he remain healthy? Is Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins capable of assuming a starting role if things go haywire?
10. Los Angeles Chargers
Do not sleep on the Chargers whatsoever.
An up-and-coming star quarterback in Justin Herbert, a top-tier wide receiver in Keenan Allen, an improved offensive line with rookie first-round tackle Rashawn Slater, and a new head coach in Brandon Staley reside in Los Angeles.
The Chargers have a great chance at being the second-best team in the AFC West this year (of course, behind the Chiefs).
9. Cleveland Browns
The Browns just have too good of a roster not to be in the top 10 of our first 2021 power rankings.
Last season’s finish additionally helps them out here — Cleveland came close to defeating the Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round.
8. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks must let Russell Wilson cook.
They need to run the offense through him.
If that can happen, Seattle should be in a good spot.
The reason I put the Seahawks below teams like the Titans and Ravens, however, is because the struggling offensive line and below-average defense still need to step up.
7. Tennessee Titans
This Titans team — a playoff squad each of the last two seasons — sports a great coaching staff and now a top-tier offensive roster encompassing Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, and Julio Jones, all of whom will assist quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
The defense (28th in yards allowed last year) must improve though in order for Tennessee to make it deeper in the postseason than it has.
6. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens will certainly be competing for the AFC North title and possess a great chance at earning that achievement.
My lone concern is Lamar Jackson’s ability to throw the ball (or lack thereof) — Baltimore was the worst passing team in the league last year and must greatly improve in that area.
5. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams roster was already loaded, and this offseason, the team upgraded at the quarterback position by trading for Matthew Stafford.
Los Angeles made its way to the NFC Divisional Round last postseason with an inconsistent Jared Goff. Now, it should be one of the top teams in the NFC.
4. Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers is remaining with the team, Davante Adams is still around, and Randall Cobb has returned to Green Bay to, once again, portray his talents at Lambeau Field.
The Packers certainly could’ve reached Super Bowl 55 (we all know what happened towards the end of the NFC Championship).
A trip to the Big Game could’ve led to the Packers’ ranking on this list being higher than it currently is. Regardless, No. 4 seems appropriate for this team.
3. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo is, to many, the second-best team in the AFC behind Kansas City.
And why shouldn’t it be? Josh Allen is only going to develop and the team employs one of the league’s top receivers in Stefon Diggs. If the defense improves, expect the Bills to potentially take that next step towards a Super Bowl victory.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are coming off a weak Super Bowl appearance in which they lost 31-9 at the hands of the Bucs.
The roster, however, is still one of the most talented in the NFL and is led by Patrick Mahomes, arguably the top quarterback on the planet.
A highly intelligent coaching staff headed by the legendary Andy Reid is still in place, too.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Don’t have to do too much explaining here.
The Bucs carry superb momentum following their February title victory and are returning all 22 Super Bowl starters.
No reason to think this isn’t the top team in the NFL right now.