Let’s get one thing straight: The New England Patriots aren’t tanking for Trevor Lawrence and they’re not going to get the first overall pick of the 2021 NFL draft.
We’re going to hear this nonsense way too much. The Patriots were 12-4 with the top-ranked defense in the NFL last season. They won’t fall to 1-15 because they lost a 42-year-old quarterback who was solid but not great last season. And if you think Bill Belichick wants to post a one- or two-win season in his first year without Tom Brady, you have been paying zero attention or given this any real thought. But hey, there are retweets to be collected.
While thinking the Patriots could be the NFL’s worst team is ridiculous, it is fair to ask how far they could fall after a significant talent drain.
It’s also worth wondering how high the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should rise.
The Buccaneers had one of the best offseasons in the NFL (one team clearly won the offseason, and that will be noted in the rankings below), and certainly the most interesting. Brady was signed. Rob Gronkowski was coaxed out of retirement. The Buccaneers drafted offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn to help out Brady. Minnesota safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was a fun second-round pick, too.
We’re running a risk of overrating the Buccaneers because they’re fun. Brady will turn 43 in August and was declining last season. Gronkowski hasn’t really looked like Gronk since the 2017 season, aside from a few clutch playoff catches in his final season. Brady and Gronkowski could defy the odds because they’ve done that before. It’s not guaranteed. This is still a Buccaneers franchise that hasn’t been in the playoffs since the end of the 2007 season and hasn’t won a postseason game since Super Bowl XXXVII.
Meanwhile, maybe everyone is too excited to bury the Patriots. That’s one way to explain the Lawrence hot-takery.
We’re talking about a team with the greatest NFL coach ever and a defense that ranked first in points and yards allowed last season. The Patriots probably won’t be No. 1 again after losing key pieces, but they won’t fall off a cliff either. Belichick is too good. They still have plenty of quality players. They have won the AFC East 11 straight seasons. And what if Belichick is right on the Jarrett Stidham-Brian Hoyer quarterback combination, if that’s what the Patriots end up doing? That would make all Patriots haters miserable.
Tracking Brady with the Bucs and the Patriots without him will be among the most interesting storylines of the NFL season. Just don’t get too caught up in offseason overreactions.
With the draft done (head over and read Eric Edholm’s grades) and most of free agency settled, it’s time to take a look at power rankings for the first time since right after the Super Bowl. We’ll still be counting down teams with our annual team previews starting in June, and there could be some movement in the rankings with some extra time for deep dives into each team. Consider this a first draft at how teams stack up with almost all of the offseason acquisitions in the books:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars are a mess. Yannick Ngakoue and Leonard Fournette were on the trading block and it seems they could still be moved. They won’t have any easy wins in the AFC South. The Jaguars have to be the early favorite for the first pick in next year’s draft.
31. Washington Redskins
It would be great if Chase Young took off as a player because Washington needs something to hang its hat on as a franchise. The possibility of Washington being the worst team in the league again is on the table, and wouldn’t it be something to pair Young and Trevor Lawrence?
30. Cincinnati Bengals
Joe Burrow is a rookie, but a rare one. And with A.J. Green, Tyler Boyd and rookie Tee Higgins, Burrow has a lot to work with. The offensive skill positions are set if Joe Mixon doesn’t hold out. In other words, the offense better be productive or second-year coach Zac Taylor will be in trouble.
29. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have some blue-chip players, but there are holes. And we don’t know how Matt Rhule will make the transition from Baylor to the NFL. This doesn’t seem like a team with much upside, but plenty of that will depend on Teddy Bridgewater’s ability to be a top-end quarterback and not a game manager.
28. Detroit Lions
Sometimes it’s too easy to get caught up taking the side of former employees ripping their former boss or team. But all the voices leaving Detroit and sounding off on Matt Patricia indicate there’s still a lot more culture building to do. The only way to turn things around is with a winning season. It better happen now.
27. New York Jets
Here’s what Adam Gase said about star safety Jamal Adams staying away from the virtual offseason program (via SNY): “With Jamal, this is voluntary. That’s just what it is. It’s one of those things where guys have a choice. If they want to be here, they can. If they don’t, it’s just what it is. That’s the CBA rules and there’s nothing that we can really do about that.” The Jets won’t rule out trading Adams. Needless power struggles with star players is how bad franchises stay bad.
26. New York Giants
On April 23, Joe Judge said the first-round pick of Andrew Thomas could “help Daniel,” referring to quarterback Daniel Jones. That was the first time Judge had spoken the name of any Giants player since he got the head-coaching job, which is ridiculous. The only way this approach works is if you win. Ask Matt Patricia.
25. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins have added a lot, in free agency, trades and the draft, but that doesn’t mean a huge jump up. They will be better though. Of course, if Tua Tagovailoa hits big as a rookie they could be much better than this ranking.
24. Las Vegas Raiders
Derek Carr has never been a deep thrower, so the match with first-round pick Henry Ruggs III might not be great. Who knows how much longer Carr has as Raiders quarterback? At least he survived another season of “Who will the Raiders get to replace Carr?” speculation.
23. Los Angeles Chargers
In a normal year, I’d assume Justin Herbert would start in Week 1. An abbreviated offseason could change that. Tyrod Taylor is a good backup, but not sure he’s the type of quarterback to lift the Chargers to a big season. And it’s a roster that is as talented as any outside of the QB spot.
22. Cleveland Browns
It’s hard to get too excited about Cleveland because the Browns have won offseasons before. Yes, they did well to sign offensive tackle Jack Conklin and tight end Austin Hooper. They made a nice first-round pick in Alabama offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. Maybe the hype was a year early on the Browns and with a better coach, they’ll break out. We have to see it first.
21. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, a great 1-2 punch at receiver. What would have been wrong with picking CeeDee Lamb to go with them? Instead of reaching on cornerback A.J. Terrell in the first round, the Falcons could have picked Lamb and had a practically unstoppable passing game. This is why you don’t draft for need.
20. Minnesota Vikings
It’s just hard to see the Vikings being better after a lot of salary-cap moves in the offseason. They had a solid draft and it’s not like their free-agent losses will cause a freefall. It’s just hard to project them to repeat 10 wins.
19. Houston Texans
We all know the story here. The Texans made an irreversible error in giving Bill O’Brien too much power. It will take a long time to fix the damage. This also needs to be said: O’Brien’s teams have overachieved before. Now O’Brien the coach will be asked to do so with a roster that has been downgraded by O’Brien, the general manager.
18. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers are hard to slot because of Ben Roethlisberger. There has been universal optimism that a 38-year-old quarterback who had surgery to reattach three elbow tendons will be as good as ever in 2020. Call me skeptical on that.
17. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals had the best offseason in the NFL. DeAndre Hopkins was the best player to switch teams this offseason (yes, Tom Brady switched teams, but he’s 42 and Hopkins is 27) and they famously got him for pennies on the dollar. Then they followed that up with a good 1-2 punch in the draft. Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons was a steal at No. 8 and it was a shock that Houston offensive tackle Josh Jones was available in the third round to fill a big need. It doesn’t mean Arizona will win a tough NFC West, but they have to be happy with the offseason haul. The arrow is pointing up.
16. Chicago Bears
The Bears are careening through a weird offseason, collecting tight ends and trying to keep up the facade that Mitchell Trubisky is their starter even though they traded for Nick Foles. Chicago could bounce back because most of the core from 2018 is still there, but it’s not like they’re earning a lot of optimism.
15. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams were the best team in the NFL last season that didn’t make the playoffs. But that Rams roster was picked apart this offseason. Los Angeles took its shot at a Super Bowl, and the bill is coming due. We’re going to find out a lot about Sean McVay this season.
14. Philadelphia Eagles
Maybe the Jalen Hurts pick will make sense. I can’t say I understand it. It seemed like the selection of a team that is trying to outsmart itself.
13. Tennessee Titans
It’s hard to blame the Titans for running it back after getting so close to a Super Bowl last season. We can argue if Ryan Tannehill is overpaid, but he was fantastic last season and the Titans had to gamble on him maintaining that level. It’s not like they had a choice. We’ll see if it pays off.
12. Indianapolis Colts
The offense added Philip Rivers and rookie playmakers Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman Jr. DeForest Buckner is another star to add to the defense. I am not convinced Rivers still has it, but if he’s close to his 2018 form, the Colts could be really good this season.
11. Green Bay Packers
I will never understand the Packers almost making a Super Bowl, looking at a roster that had one obvious need at receiver, and not doing anything substantial to fix that need.
10. Denver Broncos
I wish the Broncos hadn’t had such a good draft. Why? I already figured to be higher on them than most. Now the buzz will start and I won’t be alone on the bandwagon. This is a team that lost a lot of close games last season, has had a very smart offseason and could be very good. They’re definitely on the radar after a strong draft.
9. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys are going to have a heck of a fun offense. Their nearly impeccable draft helps make up for an offseason that wasn’t going too well during free agency. Getting Dak Prescott the extension he wants might be smart because if he plays for the franchise tag, he has a shot to win MVP on that one-year deal.
8. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks are a team that will always win more games than it seems they should, which is a testament to Pete Carroll. And Russell Wilson, too. The draft was off the wall and free agency didn’t net many wins, but the Seahawks will still be good. They always are.
7. New England Patriots
The floor for a Bill Belichick-coached team seems like eight wins no matter who the quarterback is (and I’m not going to listen to examples that cite Belichick seasons a generation ago). He’s going to find a way to win more games than we think the Patriots will this season. While this ranking seems high on first glance, I’m going to have a hard time putting the greatest coach in NFL history much lower.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It’s hard for me to look at the Buccaneers and Saints rosters from and pick the Bucs as the best team in the NFC South. I won’t dismiss the possibility but I’ll still stick with the Saints.
5. Buffalo Bills
The Bills had the right mix of aggression, seeing their chance to pounce in a Tom Brady-less AFC East, without squeezing their window with multiple win-now moves. Stefon Diggs was the big move and if that fills their No. 1 need, the Bills could take a nice jump.
4. New Orleans Saints
I would assume the Saints like all the attention being given to the Buccaneers. This is still a team that went 13-3 last season, with Drew Brees winning NFC offensive player of the month in December. He should have one more quality year left. This is still a loaded roster, without a lot of hype that will go to another team in the division.
3. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are shaking up the roster but not in a bad way. I’m not sure what good undermining Jimmy Garoppolo is doing, but the important part is he has the players around him to succeed. The Super Bowl hangover hits everyone, but the 49ers are trying to hold it off.
2. Kansas City Chiefs
There are reasons teams that play in the Super Bowl don’t make it back: They come off a long season, there can be regression, complacency or it’s as simple as the NFL being supremely competitive — that makes it hard to repeat a special season. It’s tough to give a good, tangible reason why the Chiefs won’t be right back in a Super Bowl, though the same thing was said about the 2016 Falcons, 2017 Eagles, 2018 Rams and many other teams. The Chiefs are practically 1B to the Ravens’ 1A, but I’m going to wager on the Super Bowl hangover winning again, to some degree.
1. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens weren’t just good last season. They were on pace to be one of the greatest teams in NFL history. And then the playoffs happened. One bad game doesn’t undo all the good the Ravens did last season. And they’ve attacked the offseason like a team that was unsatisfied with how last season ended. You can see the 2020 Ravens following the 2019 Chiefs’ playbook: Playoff heartbreak, some regression by their young MVP quarterback, but a great postseason run and a title.
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