We’ve made it.
After an offseason of talk (and talk … and talk … and talk), it’s time for some action. The 2021 NFL season kicks off on Thursday night when the defending champion Bucs meet the Cowboys (8:20 p.m. ET on NBC), so this feels like an ideal time to roll out the first regular-season edition of the Power Rankings.
Hit me up on Twitter if you’re Mad Online about your team’s placement, and make sure to watch the Power Rankings show on NFL Network with me and Matt “Money” Smith, every Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET.
Are you excited? I’m excited. Let’s be excited together. I think you know where this list starts …
NOTE: Up/down arrows reflect movement from the preseason edition of Power Rankings.
- 2021 AFC win-total projections: Browns win North; Steelers miss playoffs altogether
- 2021 NFC win-total projections: 49ers, Rams, Cards make playoffs; Seahawks odd team out in West
- 2021 NFL triplets rankings: Packers, Bills climb; Falcons plummet
- Super Bowl LVI predictions: Chiefs vs. 49ers in L.A.?
- Ezekiel Elliott: Cowboys offense will be without its 'best player' after Zack Martin's positive COVID test
Previous rank: No. 1
We got out of the business of predicting a #GradualDecline for Tom Brady years ago, and since standard logic doesn’t hold with the man, the only worthwhile thing to do at this point is sit back and see how far the G.O.A.T. can take this thing. He enters his 22nd season at the age of 44, and from a support standpoint, you might have to go back to the 18-1 Patriots of 2007 to find a similarly impressive support system around him. If you put another NFC team ahead of the defending champs at this moment, you’re simply trying too hard.
Previous rank: No. 2
Andy Reid is old school, and so it was that Patrick Mahomes was one of the few established starting quarterbacks in the league to see extended preseason action. Mahomes came out of the games healthy (phew), and the re-made offensive line passed its initial test. Mahomes wasn’t sacked once in three games, and the new group — made up of left tackle Orlando Brown Jr., left guard Joe Thuney, rookie center Creed Humphrey, rookie right guard Trey Smith and first-year right tackle Lucas Niang — delivered their best performance in the final tune-up against the Vikings. Said Mahomes: “I think they’ve had an amazing preseason.”
Previous rank: No. 3
Next offseason might represent something of a passing of the torch along the defensive line, when several veteran stalwarts could move on to make room for the young guys. But in the here and now, the Bills have a varied and talented group of defensive linemen that coordinator Leslie Frazier can mix and match to maximize havoc in the trenches. Buffalo is hoping for an instant impact from rookies Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham, but keep an eye on A.J. Epenesa, a second-year pass rusher who received plenty of buzz this summer.
Previous rank: No. 4
Star left tackle David Bakhtiari will miss at least the first six weeks of the season as he continues his recovery from an ACL tear, so it will fall on Elgton Jenkins to protect Aaron Rodgers’ blindside for the start of a Super Bowl-or-bust season in Green Bay. Jenkins earned Pro Bowl honors at left guard in 2020; if he thrives in Bakhtiari’s place, Jenkins will set himself up for a huge contract down the line. Last November, Bakhtiari signed an extension that made him the league’s highest-paid offensive lineman.
Previous rank: No. 5
J.K. Dobbins became the latest cautionary tale about playing starters in the preseason when he tore the ACL in his left knee in the finale against Washington. The second-year running back was primed to have a central role in Baltimore’s attack, and now the team will turn to Gus Edwards as its primary, non-Lamar Jackson, ball-carrier. The Gus Bus quietly put together an extremely efficient 2020 season, averaging 5.0 yards per rush on 144 carries. “He’s our kind of guy,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman told reporters last week. “He’s built for what we do.”
Previous rank: No. 6
The Rams didn’t have a dependable deep threat to help stretch the field last season, and color us skeptical that DeSean Jackson is the solution in 2021. “It’s amazing the way he’s able to still run,” Sean McVay raved about the 34-year-old during a press conference last month. “He knows his body really well.” The problem is we know about Jackson’s body, too: The veteran has appeared in just eight games in the past two years as he’s dealt with core, ankle and hamstring ailments. That unfortunate aspect of the DJax experience is unlikely to dissipate as he gets older.
Previous rank: No. 7
Which version of the Seahawks’ offense will show up on Sunday against the Colts? The Let Russ Cook edition, which averaged 34 points per game in the first eight games of 2020? Or the Russ Looks Cooked attack that closed out the season averaging just 22.3 points over the final nine weeks (including the postseason)? We’re betting on the former, as Seattle enters the season with better health, an improved offensive line and a freshened offensive philosophy. An overlooked X-factor is the state of the backfield: When running back Chris Carson is doing his thing, Seattle becomes extremely difficult to game plan against. New offensive coordinator Shane Waldron enters the year with a lot of toys at his disposal.
Previous rank: No. 8
The Browns had one of the league’s best offenses in the red zone last season, a major factor in finishing with 11 regular-season wins despite posting a negative point differential (-11). Per ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, Cleveland averaged 5.6 points per trip inside the 20, a tribute to a healthy and effective offensive line, the paired greatness of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, and considerable gains by Baker Mayfield. There is some post-hype talk of regression for the Browns, but all the things that made them a winning team last season are still there — with a healthy Odell Beckham Jr. back in action as well. The AFC North is going to be a street fight, but Cleveland is well-fortified for the battle to come.
Previous rank: No. 9
The training camp QB competition played out like a soapy FOX prime-time show of the ’90s, but credit Kyle Shanahan for keeping things from becoming a capital-D Distraction in Santa Clara. Everyone knows Trey Lance will have a role on this team — Shanahan has said as much — but the question that remains unanswered is when does Lance’s role exceed Jimmy Garoppolo’s? Shanahan will likely begin the season implementing both QBs in game action (and have some nerdy offensive genius fun while he does it). Lance’s role will blossom in accordance with how many splash plays he can deliver when given the opportunity.
Previous rank: No. 10
Ben Roethlisberger carved up the Lions’ secondary in his final appearance of the preseason, delivering the type of downfield throws that had become all but extinct for the Pittsburgh attack during the team’s infamous late-season fade in 2020. Roethlisberger regularly threw beyond the sticks against Detroit, showing hopeful Steelers fans he still possesses some zip in his arm and the gunslinger mentality that made him such a fun watch in his heyday. The Steelers won’t compete in the rugged AFC North unless the 39-year-old Roethlisberger can crank back the clock. It’s a major AFC subplot to watch as a new season dawns.
Previous rank: No. 11
A subpar defense has kept the Titans from a Super Bowl run in the past two seasons, but there’s reason to believe the team finally improved in that area. Tennessee signed Bud Dupree and Janoris Jenkins in free agency and used the draft to add cornerbacks Caleb Farley and Elijah Molden. The offense lost coordinator Arthur Smith, tight end Jonnu Smith and wide receiver Corey Davis, but gained a future Hall of Famer in Julio Jones. Will Ryan Tannehill be the same with Todd Downing calling plays? Can Derrick Henry produce another monster season? Is Jones still a superstar? There are questions in Nashville, but the Titans’ continued residence in the AFC South gives them a long rope to figure out the answers.
Previous rank: No. 12
On a recent Around The NFL Podcast, I listed the Chargers as a winner of the training camp/preseason portion of the calendar for the simple fact that they got out of the summer without losing any of their stars to a major injury. Real Bolts fans know roster health should never be assumed, but first-year coach Brandon Staley managed to break camp with a talented roster locked and loaded for Week 1 against Washington. The team also made an attempt to address its epic special teams woes by parting ways with kicker Michael Badgley in favor of Tristan Vizcaino, who has one game of NFL regular season experience. Sometimes you have to cash out on the Money Badger.
Previous rank: No. 14
Mac Jones delivered a fine training camp and preseason, and he was rewarded with the No. 1 job in a quarterbacks room that became less crowded with the stunning release of erstwhile starter Cam Newton. It’s a showing of supreme confidence by Bill Belichick, who has a win-now roster he feels can be led by a 23-year-old passer straight out of college. It’s not unfair to question why Belichick chose to leave himself so vulnerable in the event Jones underperforms or gets injured, but the answer might be more about the big picture for the Patriots. Belichick seems to see Jones as New England’s true successor to Tom Brady: Give the kid a clear runway and let him develop without any unnecessary distractions.
Previous rank: No. 15
Brian Flores reportedly used a team meeting last week to tell Dolphins players that Tua Tagovailoa is unquestionably “our quarterback”. The support comes as rumors continue to swirl around a possible Miami pursuit of Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson. It’s a thorny issue on multiple levels for the Dolphins, but ultimately it’s up to Tagovailoa to make this story disappear. If the second-year passer thrives in the season’s opening weeks, any hypothetical pursuit of Watson should end. But if Tua’s play resembles what he put on tape in 2020? The outside noise will only grow louder.
Previous rank: No. 13
The damage caused by Hurricane Ida has forced the Saints to open their season in Jacksonville instead of New Orleans, an undeniable competitive setback for a team that has historically enjoyed one of the better home-field advantages in football playing under the roof at the raucous Caesars Superdome. Consider it just one more layer of uncertainty for a Saints team that has more question marks than perhaps ever before during Sean Payton’s long and successful tenure with the team. One of those question marks surrounds Jameis Winston, whose golden opportunity for a career rebirth begins in earnest against the Packers.
Previous rank: No. 16
The Colts should have both Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson on the field for Week 1 against the Seahawks, but it’s fair to wonder if this Indy team will be ready to roll when the games count. Injuries have kept Frank Reich’s offense from getting valuable and necessary reps ahead of the opener, making it possible — probable, even — that the Colts’ offense will have a work-in-progress feel in the initial weeks of the season. Compounding matters is a very difficult first half to their schedule that could put the team in a hole … perhaps a deep one. The good news? The Colts play in the AFC South, which should give them the opportunity to survive a possible stumble out of the gates.
Previous rank: No. 17
The Vikings are confident their defense will vastly improve with better health and upgraded personnel under Mike Zimmer, but is it too much to expect the Vikings’ offense to repeat its top-10 finish of a year ago? The loss of tight end Irv Smith Jr. is significant, the offensive line is inexperienced in key spots and first-year offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak will face a challenge filling his dad’s shoes. Minnesota needs its core four on offense — Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen — to stay healthy and produce at a Pro Bowl level. The Vikings are built like a Jenga tower on offense.
Previous rank: No. 18
Malcolm Butler was placed on the reserve/retired list last week, a surprise move that leaves a worrisome void in the secondary. The Cardinals thought they had found their replacement for Patrick Peterson when they signed Butler to a one-year deal, but the team now might have to throw rookie Marco Wilson directly into the fire against the Titans in Week 1. The Cardinals have promise on defense — especially in the middle with linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins — but you get the feeling Kyler Murray might have to carry this team in some shootouts to make Arizona a playoff team.
Previous rank: No. 20
Slowing down the Tom Brady-led Bucs attack will be a huge challenge, but Cowboys fans should be excited to see first-round pick Micah Parsons in a showcase game in front of Al, Cris, Michele and the world. Summer reports on Parsons have been positively glowing, and a big performance in the opener will get his Defensive Rookie of the Year candidacy off to a blazing start. Dallas desperately needs to develop a new star on that side of the ball. Parsons has all the tools to make it happen.
Previous rank: No. 22
Washington gave Curtis Samuel the bag in free agency to be a do-everything menace on offense. Unfortunately for the Football Team, Samuel’s been a consistent force on the DNP list in 2021. A groin injury kept the dynamic wide receiver out of preseason action and team drills throughout training camp, and coach Ron Rivera has been cryptic about Samuel’s status for Week 1 against the Chargers, although the WR’s participation in Monday’s practice was an encouraging sign. “It’ll be all or nothing,” Rivera said last week. “He’ll either be ready, which is great, or if he’s not ready, great.” This is an annoying answer, Riverboat.
Previous rank: No. 19
I guess you can give the Bears some credit for being true to their word: All offseason, we were told that Andy Dalton would be the team’s starting quarterback in Week 1, and that’s exactly where we’re headed for the Sunday Night Football showcase against the Rams. Dalton enters the season on top of the depth chart, but the veteran might be in the least enviable position of any starter in the league. The entire fan base wants Justin Fields to play, and those fans will let Matt Nagy and the Bears know it by the season’s first three-and-out. Dalton might be the only QB1 in the league who doesn’t have the support of his own fan base.
Previous rank: No. 24
Teddy Bridgewater won his training camp battle against Drew Lock, and now he gets the opportunity to lead a Broncos offense with top-10 potential if it can get plus play from its quarterback. Even seven years into his career, Bridgewater remains a bankable quarterback mostly in theory. He couldn’t make a believer out of Matt Rhule in Carolina, and triumph in a camp showdown against a future journeyman like Lock doesn’t prove much. Skepticism around Bridgewater is warranted, but he has the chance to shut a lot of people up (like me!) over the next few months.
Previous rank: No. 21
Which way are the Raiders headed as a franchise? It’s one of the more intriguing Big Questions in the AFC as the Jon Gruden Experience enters Year 4. General manager Mike Mayock said last week that the Raiders need to be a playoff team this year — which, if that goal is achieved, would make this Raiders team different than 17 of the last 18 before it. The mystery here is the defense: Can free-agent addition Yannick Ngakoue add necessary juice to the pass rush? Can first-rounders Damon Arnette, Clelin Ferrell and Johnathan Abram live up to their draft pedigree? Mayock’s job might depend on it.
Previous rank: No. 23
Will the Giants have Saquon Barkley on the field when they open their 2021 season against the Broncos? Big Blue has brought its star running back along slowly following last year’s surgery to repair a torn ACL, and there’s a sense that the Giants will ease Barkley back into the mix in the initial weeks of the new season. The former No. 2 overall pick played a whopping 83 percent of New York’s offensive snaps in his first two seasons — it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever see usage like that again. Devontae Booker — signed on the opening day of free agency — will be a key figure early on.
Previous rank: No. 26
Jalen Hurts will open the season as the starter in a favorable matchup against a suspect Falcons defense, but it remains to be seen how long a leash Nick Sirianni will give the second-year quarterback. Hurts beat out Joe Flacco for the first-string job, then learned the Eagles acquired Gardner Minshew in a trade with the Jaguars as training camp came to a close. You can look at this as a smart move to improve depth in the quarterbacks room — Minshew is better than modern-day Flacco — but it’s also another hint the Eagles might not be ready to commit to Hurts as their guy going forward.
Previous rank: No. 25
Have you held your fantasy draft yet? No? Then get yourself as many Falcons players as possible. Matt Ryan, Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts are no-brainers in a year where the same old questions persist around the Atlanta defense. Dean Pees came out of his second retirement to lead Arthur Smith’s defense, but the 72-year-old coach doesn’t inherit a well-stocked cupboard. One player who needs to step up: Linebacker Dante Fowler Jr., who took a $7 million pay cut(!) after managing just three sacks in 14 games a year ago. The Falcons desperately need Fowler to play like the feared pass rusher he was with the Rams.
Previous rank: No. 27
Sam Darnold Revenge Day is almost upon us. The new Panthers signal-caller gets his chance to send a message to a Jets team that unintentionally sabotaged the start of his career, even if the absence of Adam Gase (where is Adam Gase anyway?) takes some of the helium out of the narrative. Darnold had an up-and-down preseason, and his future as a viable NFL starter will hinge on whether he can cut down on the turnovers that undermined his first three seasons in the pros. Carolina picked up the fifth-year option on Darnold’s rookie contract, but it won’t guarantee him job security beyond this season. It’s put up or shut up time for the former USC star.
Previous rank: No. 28
Patience will be key for Jets fans suffering through the longest active postseason drought in the league. The Jets are set up to make progress as an organization, but it’s premature to expect a return to relevant January football. The loss of Carl Lawson to a season-ending Achilles tear was a crusher that will haunt the team all season, but there is reason for legitimate optimism on the other side of the ball. Zach Wilson thrived in his final preseason tune-up, and New York has an intriguing mix of skill players. One thing to watch on Sunday: How will the rebuilt offensive line fare against the Panthers? The unit had a shaky summer.
Previous rank: No. 29
Jaguars fans are right to be amped for the beginning of the Trevor Lawrence Era in Jacksonville. The No. 1 overall pick has been hyped as a generational prospect, and he flashed some of his immense potential in the preseason finale against the Cowboys, completing 11 of 12 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns in three drives with the first-team offense. The biggest concern centers on the offensive line, and whether the group can do what the Bengals could not last year: Protect the No. 1 overall pick at all costs. It is the responsibility of Urban Meyer and the entire Jags organization.
Previous rank: No. 30
Per The Athletic: Projected offensive line starters played only 64 percent of Bengals’ snaps in 2020. In 2019, the number was 59 percent. Attrition is part of life in the NFL, but Cincinnati hasn’t done enough to build out depth at the position. This season features a line made up of veterans — all but third-year pro Jonah Williams has at least 58 starts — but the reserves have little to no pro experience. History tells us several of these backups will get the call in 2021: Will they be able to protect Joe Burrow in the way the 2020 unit could not?
Previous rank: No. 31
The Lions gave Breshad Perriman $2 million guaranteed this offseason, then cut the former first-round pick before Week 1. It profiles as organizational folly, sure, but it also shows the new braintrust isn’t too proud to admit a mistake and move on. Jared Goff will open the season with Tyrell Williams, Quintez Cephus, Kalif Raymond and Amon-Ra St. Brown as his top wide receivers. It’s an unproven group to say the least, and lends more credence to third-year tight end T.J. Hockenson seeing Darren Waller-level targets in 2021.
Previous rank: No. 32
The Deshaun Watson situation will continue to hang over the Texans, perhaps for the entirety of the season. It will be David Culley’s job to shut out this booming outside noise and try to field a competitive team in 2021. Most peg the Texans as the heavy favorite to land the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft, but let me leave you with a dollop of optimism via an anonymous quote from one NFL coach (per The Athletic): “I think people are going to play (the Texans) and think they are sh****, and they’ll surprise some people.” Slap that on a billboard!
Follow Dan Hanzus on Twitter.
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