4:55 PM ET.
Now that the initial rush of Free Agency is over, it’s the perfect time to review our NFL Power Rankings for the 2021 season. This season was unique in that the lowering of the salary cap changed the game for players and front office personnel.
When we ranked the teams, we decided that looking at Free Agency wasn’t enough to determine how the 2021 offseason would go. While there were significant acquisitions from other teams (we’re looking at you, Giants) and new hires (49ers, Broncos, etc.), we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention trades (especially for quarterbacks who were highly picked in the 2016 draft) and the hiring of the head coach and front office leadership. It is an all-encompassing factor.
So here’s how we see next season – from 1 to 32 – with our NFL writers determining the best season moves for the teams they cover, from trades to recruiting to, yes, free contracts.
How are we doing? Our panel of more than 80 writers, editors and broadcasters evaluated the teams’ performance throughout the season.
ARI: ATL: BAL: BUF: CAR: CHI: CIN:
CLE: DAL: DEN: DET: GB: HOU: IND:
JAX: KC: LV: LAC: LAR: MIA: MIN:
NE: NO: NYG: NYJ: PHI: PIT: SF:
SEA: TB: TEN: WSH
The road to the rankings: 1
Best off-season measure: Edited by Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fischer
The Chiefs’ longtime starting offensive linemen were good players, but there were too many unknowns for the team to rely on after the two surgeries in 2021 or beyond. The Chiefs cleared $18 million of the cap, which allowed them to acquire resources (like Joe Tooney) to fix their failing offensive line. These moves would have been even better if the Chiefs had found a left tackle like Trent Williams in free agency. — Adam Thacher.
Marcus Spears is not convinced the Buccaneers will win the Super Bowl, despite the return of Ndamukong Suh.
The road to the rankings: 4
Best off-season measure: Extension of Tom Brady
The Bucs get Brady for one more year, through the 2022 season, and by structuring the contract over three years, they could take $19 million off the salary cap for 2021. This allowed them to re-contract star pitcher Shaquille Barrett, future tight end Rob Gronkowski, and kicker Ryan Succop – all key pieces they would not have been able to afford otherwise after Chris Godwin signed with the franchise. Inside linebacker Lavonte David also has an extra year on his contract. While his new contract will see him earn an average of $12.5 million per season, he will only have to put up $3.36 million against the cap for 2021. — Jenna Lane.
The road to the rankings: 3
Best off-season measure: Change of defence coordinators
Whether he hired the right person (Joe Barry) remains to be seen, but after what happened in the NFC Championship Game, coach Matt LaFleur had no choice but to say goodbye to Mike Pettine. The fact that Pettine decided to let his contract expire instead of signing an extension through last season was a clean break. The defense can’t allow a deep touchdown at the last second at the end of the first half with a Super Bowl berth on the line – and then wonder if the play call was misunderstood – and not make a change. It had to be done, and LaFleur did it. — Rob Demovsky
The road to the rankings: 2
Best off-season measure: Reintroduce LB Matt Milano
Buffalo’s defense simply didn’t have a replacement when Milan left in free agency. The converted safety, one of the first picks in Sean McDermott’s draft, is a fixture on the Bills’ roster and their best defensive linebacker. He and centre-back Tremaine Edmunds play well together, and general manager Brandon Beane finding the money to contract not only Milan but also John Feliciano and Daryl Williams is a form of gymnastics reserved for the Olympics. — Marcel Louis-Jacques
Jamison Hensley derails the Ravens’ contract of offensive lineman Kevin Zeitler.
The road to the rankings: 6
Best off-season measure: Signature of security guard Kevin Zeitler
The Ravens signed Zeitler as their first free agent because they couldn’t replace Pro Bowl guard Marshall Janda, who retired last season. Zeitler is a strong, solid presence inside the offensive line, where Baltimore has used four players for over 200 snaps on defense (equal for most in the NFL). There were too many times when Lamar Jackson couldn’t get into the pocket because he was under pressure over the middle. Zeitler fits perfectly into Baltimore’s strong offensive line and is offered at a bargain price (three years, $22.5 million) compared to free agent Joe Tooney (five years, $80 million). — Jamison Hensley
The road to the rankings: 5
Best off-season measure: Trade for QB Matthew Stafford
Stafford was acquired in a trade that yielded quarterback Jared Goff, a third-round pick for 2021 and a first-round pick for 2022 and 2023. He is expected to revitalize coach Sean McVay as a player, provide an offense boost that has languished the past two seasons and help the Rams return to the Super Bowl. He has great vision, he sees the field, McVay said. He can speed up the process if he has a problem. You’re watching a guy for whom the game makes sense when you watch a movie, and I really respect the lens through which he sees it. — Lindsay Tyree
The road to the rankings: 7
Best off-season measure: Fill the hole at a safe time
Safety was a problem area for the Browns last season. They noticed that by bringing in the best safety on the market, John Johnson III, for a three-year contract worth $33.75 million, $24 million of which is guaranteed. The former Rams star brings versatility and instincts that are essential to defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ scheme. Johnson is also the type of leader who believes in stabilizing a second team that may be on its way to becoming a force for Cleveland. — Jake Trotter
The road to the rankings: 10
Best off-season measure: Association of Denico Autry and Bud Dupree via Free Agency
The Titans needed to strengthen their pass defense and they did so by adding Autry and Dupree. There were 15.5 sacks between the two players in 2020. Both players have outperformed their previous teams by leaps and bounds and have also shown great defensive efficiency. Autry and Dupree should be able to have a lot of success on turnovers and plays. Both are also tough, physical players who will set the tone for Tennessee early on. — Turron Davenport
The road to the rankings: 8
Best off-season measure: Managing their flow
In fact, it’s a series of interconnected steps, starting with the firing of Carlos Dunlap. Some observers thought that was unwise, given Dunlap’s influence in firing Seattle last year. But the Seahawks correctly predicted he would not get the $14.1 million he was owed in the final year of his contract. After waiting out the pass-rusher market, general manager John Schneider recalled Dunlap ($8.5 million guaranteed) and Benson Mayowa ($4.1 million guaranteed) and added Kerry Hyder Jr. ($3.65 million guaranteed), all for a team-friendly price. The combined amount of guaranteed money in their two-year contracts is just $2.15 million more than Seattle would have owed Dunlap in 2021, giving him the final contract. — Brady Henderson.
The road to the rankings: 15
Best off-season measure: Trade for quarterback Carson Wentz
This could be risky for the Colts, as Wentz comes after a 2020 season in which he was picked off 50 times, threw 15 interceptions and was benched after 12 games. But the Colts see the move as a risk because Wentz had his best season with 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 2017 with the Eagles when Colts coach Frank Reich was his offensive coordinator. If the deal works out, the Colts will have their franchise quarterback for the next few years, as Wentz is only 28 years old. — Mike Wells
The road to the rankings: 11
Best off-season measure: Move it along, Randy Fichtner.
Offensively, nothing was happening – the Steelers were good for last in rushing and in the bottom half of the league in passing, and Fichtner often lacked the creativity to make a leap. It’s clear the Steelers need another voice to run the show, but it remains to be seen if Matt Canada will be the right leader for the offensive turnaround. Still, the Steelers have had to make some drastic changes in the offense. Although they kept the same quarterback and got weapons, adjusting the schedule and introducing new ideas is a step in the right direction. — Brooke Pryor.
The road to the rankings: 14
Best off-season measure: Signed C. Matt Prather.
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The Cardinals were nowhere near ready for the playoffs last season, losing two games due to missed field goals. Only one of them would bring Arizona into the postseason. The Cardinals did not re-sign Zan Gonzalez and chose Prater, 36, who is one of the best kickers in NFL history. That kind of talent at the kicking position could ultimately make the difference between a playoff appearance and a sixth consecutive failed season. — Josh Weinfuss
The road to the rankings: 9
Best off-season measure: LT re-signing Trent Williams
The 49ers accomplished most of what they set out to do in free agency, but keeping Williams was the one thing they absolutely had to do, and they did. By retaining Williams, the Niners not only retain one of the best tackles in the game, but also some flexibility in the draft, which probably wouldn’t happen if the starting tackle suddenly became a pressing need. — Nick Wagoner
The road to the rankings: 12
Best off-season measure: Signing of WR Will Fuller
Miami desperately needed more fast, playmaking weapons for Tua Tagovailoa. Fuller adds both. The Dolphins’ top three receivers (DeVante Parker, Mike Gesicki, Preston Williams) were in the bottom three for yards separated in each route last season. Fuller averaged 5.9 yards after the catch and 3 yards after the split in 2020, which would put him first and second at Miami, respectively. Getting Fuller for one year and $10.625 million is a good deal that protects the team from injury problems. — Cameron Wolfe
The road to the rankings: 16
Best off-season measure: Start with protection in a free agency
The key to getting out of here is the Vikings’ defense. Mike Zimmer wanted LB Anthony Barr to stay here, so the team found a way to restructure his contract. Minnesota has created some much-needed space to acquire free agents like Dalvin Tomlinson and Patrick Peterson. These moves don’t answer all the questions about the defense (whether Daniel Hunter can return, whether Tomlinson can improve his pass rush and whether Peterson can still be a shutdown cornerback), but the Vikings addressed their biggest problem by finding ready-made pieces instead of relying on rookies drafted in April. — Courtney Cronin
The road to the rankings: 13
Best measure in the off-season: limit losses
The Saints took away more than they added: they fired Drew Brees and lost a handful of other starters because they were about $100 million over the salary cap. But they’ve made it a priority to retain as much elite talent as possible, including free agents Ryan Ramczyk and Marshawn Lattimore through 2022. And they retained critical 2021 free agents Jameis Winston and Marcus Williams. Sure, the QB is the biggest asset, but this team is strong enough to compete for a fifth consecutive title in the NFC South. — Mike Triplett
The road to the rankings: 18
Best off-season measure: Take on Brandon Staley of the Rams.
Staley brings a much-needed dose of enthusiasm, and after coordinating the league’s No. 1 defense last year with the Rams, he brings coordinators who will do the same. He has already invested in offensive linemen like All-Pro center Corey Linsley to protect quarterback Justin Herbert, who should be even better after setting an NFL record with 31 touchdown passes last season. – Shelley Smith
Mike Tannenbaum and Dan Graziano discuss Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy and his job security.
The road to the rankings: 19
Best off-season measure: Add Dan Quinn
It’s actually Dak Prescott signing a four-year, $160 million contract, but we knew Prescott would be back in some form in 2021. Given the way the Cowboys have performed so far in Free Agency, especially on the defensive side of the ball, it’s clear they’re putting their biggest reason for improvement on Quinn. He’ll establish a defense similar to the Cowboys’ from 2014-19, hoping that key players like DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch can return and that rookies from free agency (Keanu Neal, Brent Urban, Damontae Kazee) and the draft can play quickly without being overused. — Todd Archer
The road to the rankings: 20
Best off-season measure: A double dip at TE with Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry.
The Patriots have the lowest percentage of snaps in the NFL with two TEs on the field at the same time (just 3%). Playing with two or more TEs has long been a staple of Bill Belichick’s Patriots, as they’ve scored 271 touchdowns with two tight ends on the field since 2010, by far the most in the NFL (the Vikings are second with 217). Smith and Henry are going in a potentially great direction right now. — Mike Reiss.
The road to the rankings: 17
Best off-season measure: Yannick Ngakoue signs with a relatively friendly team.
The Raiders, 29th in the NFL with 21 sacks last season, not only filled a specific need by adding Ngakoue, who has 45 sacks in five seasons, but got him for a respectable two-year $26 million contract. That could mean Ngakoue is motivated not only by the change of scenery – Las Vegas is his fourth team since last August – but also by the possibility of an early contract extension. This could be a win for anyone in a city known for putting players down. — Paul Gutierrez
Jeremy Fowler analyzes Kenny Golladay’s deal with the Giants and the reactions in the NFL.
The road to the rankings: 25
Best off-season measure: Paying for WR Kenny Galladay.
It was a decision the Giants had to make. They have a young quarterback who needs a #1 receiver and Golladay was the only option on the market. So while the Giants may have overpaid by giving Golladay (a player who comes with questions) a solid contract that pays him $18 million a season, it’s a matter of making sure they give Daniel Jones a legitimate chance to succeed. It wouldn’t have been possible without the arrival of a former Lions receiver who has a knack for making questionable catches. — Jordan Ranan
The road to the rankings: 21
Best off-season measure: Hiring GM Martin Mayhew/VP of Marty Hurney’s staff.
Washington let talented young manager Kyle Smith go this season – he worked well with Ron Rivera – but added two experienced front office members, plus a third in former GM Chris Polian, to back up Rivera. The short-term benefits of new acquisitions like WR Curtis Samuel will be a big boost. But to get this team on a sustainable winning streak, they needed more help from the front office. Mayhew knows how to deal with cops, and Hurney knows Rivera well. Washington’s front office and coaches have not been on the same page for years. If this group performs well in the long run, Washington has a chance. — John Keim.
The road to the rankings: 23
Best off-season measure: Signature of DE/OLB Haason Reddick
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Quarterback pressure was a problem for the Panthers last season, and adding a player who can play in multiple formations like Reddick (12.5 sacks in 2020) opens up new opportunities for DC Phil Snow. The fact that Snow coached Reddick at Temple and got him to the first round makes this decision even better in terms of understanding his strengths. This, along with other additions, allows 2020 rookie candidate Jeremy Chinn to play safety with the possibility of going to OLB. This makes the opponent’s game plan more difficult. — David Newton
The road to the rankings: 22
Best off-season measure: The hiring of Terry Fonteneau and Arthur Smith…
The Falcons couldn’t do much in free agency due to salary cap restrictions and didn’t make any other eye-catching acquisitions. But they were still happy with their new regime, with a clear offensive plan from Smith and an experienced professional in Fontenot heading the front office. Atlanta has had a quiet offseason, but the draft will likely change that. — Michael Rothstein
The road to the rankings: 24
Best off-season measure: Franchise tag WR Allen Robinson II
Damn it to the bears. The decision to tag Robinson stands out because it allows the Bears to keep their best offensive player, at least for another year. Robinson still wants a long-term contract, and this story is far from over, but the Bears couldn’t afford to lose Robinson to anything in free agency. At 27 years old, Robinson is one of the most reliable receivers in the league and has put up impressive numbers the past three seasons, despite the Bears’ failing offense. — Jeff Dickerson
The road to the rankings: 26
Best off-season measure: Signature of Anthony Harris
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The Eagles needed to strengthen their secondary – especially after Jaylen Mills left for the Patriots – and they did so with the arrival of Harris. The Eagles get a proven playmaker for a reasonable price (one year, $5 million), and Harris gets a chance to re-establish himself as one of the best safeties in the game after a lesser season. Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon coached Harris when he was an assistant rearguard coach with the Vikings. That familiarity should make for a smooth transition to the Philadelphia defense. — Tim McManus.
The road to the rankings: 28
Best off-season measure: New signing with Justin Simmons
The Broncos conducted a cleanup of their defense in the first days of free agency, picking up linebacker Von Miller, re-contracting defensive end Shelby Harris and contracting cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller. Simmons’ contract – just over $15 million a year – makes him the highest paid player in the league. The Broncos left one of their key players on defense and in the locker room. But the Broncos also showed their returning players that they will reward one of their own for good play on the field and work in the community. -Jeff Legwold
The road to the rankings: 27
Best off-season measure: Hiring Frank Pollack
Pollack has been reinstated as Cincinnati’s offensive line coach, a position he previously held in 2018. Pollux could be the spark to bolster an offensive line that ranks 29th in winning punt-pass blocks. Cincinnati has added offensive tackle Riley Reiff in free agency to give the Bengals a viable starting tackle combination of Reiff and John Williams. And if Pollack can regain the confidence of his players, give the line a more stable rotation with solid roles and get the defense in shape before the season starts, that could be enough to improve quarterback Joe Barrow’s defense. — Ben Baby
The road to the rankings: 29
Best off-season measure: Recruitment of Coach Robert Saleh
The Jets have added some good free agents, but it starts at the top. Saleh has an upbeat personality and natural leadership qualities, qualities that will help eradicate the lost culture that has prevailed in the organization for years. Some free agents have cited Saleh as one of the main reasons they chose the Jets. Ultimately, Saleh won’t be successful if he doesn’t win games, but he’s already helping the Jets overcome the Adam Gase hangover. — Rich Cimini.
The road to the rankings: 31
Best off-season measure: Take Urban Meyer on
Meyer was not only one of the best college football coaches in history, but perhaps the only person whose name the fan base could bear. It is also re-evaluating the deductible. He made a big mistake hiring Chris Doyle, who was fired by the University of Iowa after several players accused him of using racial slurs and intimidating players, but that mistake was corrected the next day when Doyle resigned. Meyer is an excellent talent evaluator and has surrounded himself with experienced NFL assistants and others he has worked with and trusts. -Michael DiRocco
Mina Kimes explained why Sean McVay and Jared Goff ultimately didn’t work out with the Rams.
The road to the rankings: 30
Best off-season measure: The Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff trade…
That’s a big step the Lions took in the offseason. They got two first round picks (2022, 2023), a third round pick (2021) and Goff back in exchange for Stafford. The choice alone makes it a good move for a rebuilding team. If Goff proves to be a bigger player in 2017 and 2018 than he has been the past two years, that would be a big win for Detroit. He is just one of the new faces in the Lions organization. — Michael Rothstein
The road to the rankings: 32
Best off-season measure: Hire Nick Caserio
The Texans’ new general manager inherited a team with many question marks and seemingly few resources to address them. Since he was hired in January, Caserio has taken more than 30 steps to rebuild the team. Of course, time will tell if Caserio has put together a good team that will lead to victory (especially since he doesn’t know the status of quarterback Deshaun Watson), but so far he seems to have made better decisions than former general manager Bill O’Brien. -Sarah Bar Shop
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