NFL Offseason, NFL Power Rankings, Power Rankings

NFL teams most likely to go from worst to first in 2021:

We have spent a lot of time on analyzing what NFL teams have done this offseason to improve their roster, detailing every single draft pick, discussing the most improved position groups and pointing out the biggest remaining needs for every single squad. Now it’s time to project how these moves will impact the outcome of the 2021 season, in regards to how much the bottom teams have improved and their chances to turn things around.

So here I listed the teams, that just finished fourth in their respective division, and ranked them based on the likelihood of winning it this year. I will describe the team itself, including some of the changes on the roster and coaching staff, talk about the challenges they will face inside their division and take a look at the schedule a little bit, in order to determine their chances of hosting a playoff game come next January. I also added a percentage at the very end, that I would give them of doing so.

Let’s get into it:


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49ers

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1. San Francisco 49ers

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The NFC West to me is the toughest division in the NFL and no other team may be in more fights to the end with their foes, but the 49ers did win it just two years ago and went all the way to the Super Bowl. That roster from 2019 is still basically intact, outside of their one big loss in DeForest Buckner, but they have brought in some young guys to replace the few guys that aren’t there anymore and they actually made improvements at a few spots even. Whether that’s a more dynamic X receiver in Brandon Aiyuk, Trent Williams as one of the top-three left tackles in the league or an even deeper group of running backs. They might also see an improvement at quarterback, with number three overall pick Trey Lance, depending on their plans with Jimmy Garoppolo, who is at least healthy himself and should be motivated to fend off his job. The defense needs a couple of young guys like 2020 first-round pick Javon Kinlaw and the guys competing for that CB2 spot to step up, but I’m very interested to see what new DC DeMeco Ryans will do with this group, as we already saw them move away more from this classic cover-three based system.

Health will be huge for this group, after they suffered a boatload of injuries early on this past season, but Kyle Shanahan’s offense should be a nightmare to deal with, as they go four guys deep in that backfield and only improved up front, to execute all his different run schemes, plus then they have the weapons, with George Kittle and Deebo Samuel back at 100 percent hopefully, to go along with Aiyuk, who can rip off big plays after the catch consistently. Just watch the first Rams game last season, when Jimmy G I believe threw two passes of over ten yards and ended up with 268 total and three touchdowns. The D-line may not be quite as deep, but Nick Bosa will basically be one full year away from his torn ACL and looking to have a Defensive Player of the Year-type season, if his team is ahead in more games. With Fred Warner on the second level, they have a seeking missile and somebody who can erase some of the biggest problems for modern defenses, with his ability to take away guys down the seams on passing downs, and Jason Verrett was a Pro Bowl-level corner for this group last year.

Looking at the rest of this division, Seattle won it last year and could see that offense make more of a fundamental shift, just like we already saw from the defense over the course of this past season, in terms of more off-coverage combined with zero- or one-blitzes, but if Pete Carrol is stuck in his ways, the Niners could have schematic advantages against them and they lost main-stays at all three levels defensively, with Jarran Reed, K.J. Wright and Shaq Griffin, The Rams are the favorites right now, with the QB swap from Jared Goff to Matt Stafford, but I didn’t love anything else they did this offseason, losing a couple of key pieces in the secondary and having one of the most questionable drafts. And finally, the Cardinals brought in a lot of big-name free agents this offseason, who could help this group get to the next level, but most of those guys are in the twilight of their careers and I still don’t fully know what to make of Kliff Kingsbury, whose offensive play-design has been underwhelming in my opinion. Last year, the Niners swept the Rams, they split with the Cardinals and they were up by double-digits against the Seahawks heading into the fourth quarter of their week 17 matchup. Now they face a last-place schedule, with the Eagles and Falcons? I could easily see it.

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Chance: 30-35 percent

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Broncos

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2. Denver Broncos

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If you take quarterback out of the equation, this is inarguably a top-ten roster league-wide in my opinion. The defense is getting Von Miller back and has two new starting outside corners, with former Bears Pro Bowler Kyle Fuller and the most pro-ready guy in the draft in Alabama’s Patrick Surtain, to go along with being able to move Bryce Callahan into the slot again, as everything seems to fit together perfectly now. Offensively, they get back their number one receiver Courtland Sutton, improved at right tackle with veteran Bobby Massie from Chicago and added North Carolina’s Javonte Williams in the second round, who is kind of a younger, even more violent version of Melvin Gordon. Head coach Vic Fangio should finally have all the pieces to successfully run his defense, which already created some issues for the Chiefs and Chargers in their second meetings each, holding them to 22 and 19 points respectively. I’d be shocked if they were in the bottom-five in takeaways once again in 2021, with Fangio’s track record of creating those opportunities in the past.

The Denver offense certainly had its ups and downs this past season, but I like the style of attack Pat Shurmur wants to use, with a lot of inside zone and power, to get those bruisers going downhill, plus they have Sutton back now, who they can throw the ball up to when left one-on-one on the backside, the speed of K.J. Hamler to make safeties pay for having their eyes in the backfield and the route-running savvy of Jerry Jeudy to move the chains on third downs. Plus, they have two legitimate seam-stretching threats at the tight-end position in Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam. Now it really all comes down to the quarterback position, where I think Teddy Bridgewater might give them more consistency and avoid back-breaking, but caps their ceiling. If they want to make a run at this division, I believe they have to give Drew Lock another shot, because he has the arm talent to fling it around with Mahomes and Herbert, even though he will have to do a better job of avoiding unnecessary risks of course. With steady investments into the offensive line, they can play the type of ball-control game to set the pace, but then also have the firepower to match the other teams in that division. And if they get ahead in games, they have the pass-rush and coverage to close out games.

The Chargers should certainly make a jump, with a capable coaching staff, that won’t make as many errors at managing games, a much-improved offensive line and they should get back safety Derwin James, who was a first- and second-team All-Pro as a rookie and has looked like a Hall of Famer when healthy. The Chiefs put their main focus on protecting their quarterback, spending big in free agency, trades and the draft to accomplish that, and should be the favorites to make it out of the conference again. And finally the Raiders, I don’t really get what they are doing. I do like the direction they are headed towards defensively, with new DC Gus Bradley and really attacking the safety position, which was their biggest weakness last year, but they lost three former Pro Bowlers up front on offense, as well as their leading receiver from a year ago. So while it would take a big jump from Lock to put these guys in the running, the talent is certainly there and the Chiefs face a very tough opening stretch of the season, while the Chargers have some demons they still need to overcome before becoming a winning team. If the Broncos were to actually still trade for Aaron Rodgers, I would put them atop this list.

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Chance: 20 percent

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Falcons

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3. Atlanta Falcons

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With how much the Falcons have been discussed as a dark-horse team pretty much ever since the 28-3 fiasco in the Super Bowl, people don’t realize that this team has finished with a negative record each of the last three years. They gave up their best player maybe in franchise history, when they traded away Julio Jones, and let basically their entire group of safeties walk this offseason. However, they do still have a quarterback that ranks at least in the middle of the pack and the defense showed some signs over the second half of last season, while the play-calling should see a big bump, with Arthur Smith coming over from Tennessee and bringing Dean Pees along as defensive coordinator. So while it would certainly be a monstrous jump from picking number four overall just in late April to winning this division, people who really study the game rather than just look at the names they can identify with, can identify things to get excited about.

As much as I can question the vision of this franchise, trading away Julio Jones, when all the other moves they made this offseason indicate that they believe they’re looking at themselves as playoff contenders, I do believe the offense should be tougher to deal with, as Arthur Smith brings a commitment to the run game and has somebody in Mike Davis there, who can reliably produce and give this team an attitude, unlike the group that was in Atlanta this past season. And then that group of pass-catchers can be a nightmare to deal with off play-action, as you get Calvin Ridley streaking open down the post or break back to the corner off that, number four overall pick Kyle Pitts running away from players in the box on drag or seam routes and a couple of young speed guys to at least bind deep coverage. Defensively, I have always been a big fan of Dean Pees and we can expect this to be a much more diverse unit, going away from Dan Quinn’s cover-three based, Seattle-style principles, to being more complex with pressure packages and pairing it up with what they do on the back-end. This could end up being the youngest secondary in the league, but Pees is a great teacher, especially when it comes to identifying keys and understanding how to work in concert with the rush.

Let’s not get this wrong here – the reigning Super Bowl champs are in that division, and they are still clearly the favorites, having retained all 24 starters, if you include kicker and punter. I also like what the Panthers have done since this past offseason, in terms of rebuilding the offensive line and now bringing Sam Darnold for a second-round pick, who still has a ton of talent, if he can just get that tendency of always having to force the issue with the Jets out of his system, while the D-line goes about eight guys deep. And then the Saints quietly didn’t lose too many pieces, outside of the quarterback position, where Drew Brees was hanging on by a thread anyway, and might have a new starter at all three levels from their draft class. That’s why Atlanta isn’t even higher, but they have a good enough roster, improved coaching and some young players coming in, who will add some new energy, to shock some people and turn several of the tight losses from a year ago into wins. Of their 12 defeats in 2020, eight of them came by one possession and in five of those, the opposing team only took the lead on their final offensive drive. So the Falcons certainly have a chance to turn around their fortunes fairly quickly, especially if the Bucs were to suffer a couple of key injuries.

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Chance: 10-15 percent

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Jaguars

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4. Jacksonville Jaguars

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It may seem crazy to have a team that just picked number one overall in the draft this high already, but I said all along last season, that this roster was further along than people gave it credit for. You look at it, they have brought in a lot of young, talented players these last few years, new head coach Urban Meyer is taking over control of the organization, changing some of the things they do, in terms of the way they work and how they try to gain advantages schematically on a weekly basis, and they now have one of the best quarterback prospects we’ve ever seen come out of college. If the Titans didn’t just trade for Julio Jones, I would feel much better about this ranking, because with how Derrick Henry has humiliated this team in the past, having two legitimate guys on the outside now to take advantage of their one-one-ones against these young corners will be an issue and it won’t be easy to take a game off those guys. However, we did see them give the Colts a tough time in (and winning one of) their two matchups this past season, and Carson Wentz has plenty of things to clean up still from what we saw during the end of his time in Philly, and with the Deshaun Watson-less Texans inside that division, the Jags should at least already double their win total from a year ago (which stood at one of course).

In terms of what we’ll see from this Jaguars squad, I expect them to have a new wave of energy, with all the things we hear coming out of Jacksonville, and coaching should see major improvement. Meyer always likes to work closely with his quarterbacks, where it should be a very smooth transition for Lawrence to run the Darrell Bevell offense, which will look more like what it was intended to be, until Matt Patricia and his group in Detroit kind of forced more heavy personnel and focus on the run game on his OC. Under Meyer, we should see a very spread-oriented offense, although I’d expect to see the quarterback primarily keep the ball on simple zone-read plays, and have the complimentary group of receivers in D.J. Chark and Marvin Jones allowing Lawrence to shine with those deep balls along the sideline and then Laviska Shenault as the YAC monster in-between the numbers, to go with a dynamic one-two punch out of the backfield. The defense may still have plenty of growing to do, but it’s now loaded, signing Shaq Griffin from Seattle and using pick number 33 of the draft on Georgia’s Tyson Campbell, to go with another top-ten pick in C.J. Henderson from a year ago, and they added quality depth up front. Myles Jack is coming back from injury, as one of the most dynamic linebackers in the league, and second-round safety Andre Cisco from Syracuse is the exact type of play-maker to move them out of the bottom-five in takeaways.

Week one at Houston could already be a major confidence-booster for this group, as they might immediately end that 15-game losing streak they are currently on, and then they get to stay home for four out of the five following games, until the bye week, with a trip to Cincinnati being the only exception – which should at least be a winnable game. The Titans are the only team of that group that was in the playoffs last year and while they do face a good Dolphins squad at the end of it, the Jags get to host them in London, which might actually give them more of a home-field advantage than playing in Jacksonville, as they’ve had some of their most brilliant performances in recent years overseas. It certainly gets tougher from that point on, but outside of 4:30 kickoffs at Seattle and L.A. (Rams), they always play at 1 pm, where some of those playoff-contending teams may be overlooking them to some degree, and after that trip to the Northeast right after their bye, they have just one West Coast trip remaining.

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Chance: 10-15 percent

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Bengals

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5. Cincinnati Bengals

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So a second-year quarterback ready to explode – have you ever heard this in the past? Aaron Rodgers just put together another MVP season, but before that it was Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson taking home the honors in year two each. Mostly this has to do with teams that bring in a lot of weapons to surround their young signal-caller or support him with the right play-caller. Joe Burrow looked like a pro right away when he get to the league and as long as that knee is back to 100 percent, I expect him to put the league on notice. We have already seen him and fifth overall draft pick Ja’Marr Chase connect for 1800 yards and 20 TDs when they were last together, and they should play some sweet music together once again in the pros. And while I don’t love the guys they brought in this offseason, they still should be improved on the offensive line, with new starters at left guard in Clemson’s Jackson Carman and right tackle in Riley Reiff from the Vikings. With a focus on spreading the field and getting the ball out quickly, to go along with having Joe Mixon back as a reliable option out of the backfield, Cincinnati wants to make their young promising QB feel comfortable.

The defense already showed some signs late last season, holding four of their final seven opponents to 20 points or less, including that 20-point upset over the Steelers on Monday night. In terms of what will change for them this year, they coaching staff is still the same, but they are getting nose-tackle D.J. Reader back from injury, to boost a run defense whose 5.1 yards allowed per carry ranked better than only the Texans, who were 0.3 yards better themselves the year prior, with Reader in the lineup. To go along with that, they signed for Browns D-tackle Larry Ogunjobi and drafted three more guys to rotate through up front. So with that defensive interior, they should be able to slow down the rushing attacks of Baltimore and Cleveland, plus they stole one of the premiere nickelbacks in Mike Hilton from Pittsburgh inside the division. While there are question masks at corner, they do have one of the rather unknown superstar players in safety Jessie Bates, who can offset some of the issues that can be done on the outside with his range. This is a big year for head coach Zach Taylor, who’ll have to convince the organization to bring him back for a fourth season and beyond, having his best team yet.

The AFC North should be highly competitive and we could see the top three teams from last season easily be flipped, while splitting their season series respectively. If the Bengals can catch them on a couple of trap weeks, they could take a couple of games of the front-runners, which to me the Steelers aren’t really part of anymore. And looking at the schedule, at least getting to host the top two teams from a year ago in the Packers or Chiefs is good, and then facing the Jaguars and Jets rather than facing the other teams in those divisions is certainly a plus. So if they are able to just split those season series with the rest of that division and defeating these other two bottom teams would give them a baseline of five wins already. They face the whole NFC North over the first six weeks, which doesn’t scare me too much, and all but one of their first ten games, until the bye, start at 1 pm – meaning they could catch a couple of teams by surprise, as they build up confidence and try to make a name for themselves. The AFC is as loaded as it has been in quite a few years, so getting those couple of easier outs, while the other teams from the North cannibalize themselves and have to battle other playoff contenders, can make quite a difference.

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Chance: 10 percent

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Eagles

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6. Philadelphia Eagles

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There’s a clear drop-off from number five to the final three teams, where I’d be absolutely shocked to see any of them challenge for the division. However, for the Eagles here I can at least see a path. Not saying that I expect this team to finish above .500 in any way, but let’s not forget that this division was won by the 7-9 Washington Football Team last season and if Doug Pederson didn’t pull a couple of starters for Philly in the final regular season contest, it could have been the 6-10 Giants. To me, Washington should be favorites once again, with the addition of Ryan Fitzpatrick, new weapons around him and a couple of key additions to an already close-to-elite defense, and while I think people are overhyping the Cowboys once again, with Dak Prescott coming back and overhauling the defense, they should still be better by quite a bit. Even the Giants have things to get excited about, where it will be up to the development of Daniel Jones, since the rest of the roster is more complete than people give it credit for. Therefore, this could be one of the more balanced divisions across the league and shouldn’t be made like we did a year ago.

So it certainly won’t be easy for Philadelphia to make some noise, but I’d say the roster is better than it was last year, when they lost just one game to a non-playoff team by more than one score. That 2020 schedule was much tougher than these simplistic strength-of-schedule rankings would have suggested, with eight of their losses coming at the hands of playoff teams, while the offensive line took hits all year long, as Brandon Brooks was lost in the offseason already and Jason Kelce was the only intended starter to play more than 52 percent of the snaps. Jalen Hurst definitely had some special moments of being a play-maker, even though he has to become a more consistent thrower and reader of the field. They re-united him with former Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith, who will move everybody else down one spot in the pecking order for that receiving corp, they made a couple of additions to the offensive backfield and they brought in even more bodies on the D-line to stay fresh. That week 16 loss at Dallas was pretty bad, but they did shock the Saints at their place, Jalen battled with Kyler Murray until the end and if they don’t bench him in the fourth quarter of game 256, I believe they win that game.

To me, the Eagles had one of the best drafts league-wide, they get several guys on the O-line back healthy and this weird tension between Doug Pederson, Carson Wentz and the front-office is now out of the way. Looking at the rest of the NFC East, as I’ve already mentioned, there’s more things to get excited about for the other three teams, but Philly seems to have gotten some scheduling breaks. First, the two Super Bowl participants are the only playoff teams from a year ago that they’ll face through the first ten weeks, they get to play both New York teams in consecutive weeks, so they can stay out there, before heading into their week 14 bye. That may be late, but that gives them the opportunity to regenerate, before closing out with four straight divisional games, all but one of those at home. I seem to be much higher on Washington than the books and a lot of casual fans are, but I would not be shocked if 8-9 or 9-8 was enough for the NFC East crown – which there’s a route to get to for Philly, if Jalen Hurts takes a big step forward.

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Chance: 5-10 percent

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Lions

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7. Detroit Lions

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I mean, Detroit fans have to be happy they aren’t at the very bottom of this list. They just traded their best player in each of the last five years and completely overhauled the coaching staff and front office. This is certainly the least excited I’ve been about a Lions team in the last few years, when I personally overrated them mostly. Matt Stafford was my biggest reason for belief over that stretch, but he’s gone now. They lost one of the sneaky-great receiving duos between Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, and the defense is in a little bit of flux, with so many pieces from the Matt Patricia era still there, who all disappointed pretty much and now aren’t the scheme fits they were supposed to be. The reason they were able to avoid that number eight spot is that all other teams in that division pose questions. The Vikings defense is looking to rebound in a major way, with Danielle Hunter’s return supposedly fixing bottom-five rankings in sacks and pressure percentage, as well as 31-year old Patrick Peterson as their new number one corner. The Bears desperately need a quarterback to step up, with Andy Dalton being named the starter for now, but the future of the decision-makers in Chicago relying on their ability to make rookie Justin Fields work. And then the Packers just haven’t really improved much this offseason, losing All-Pro center Corey Linsley and not addressing an atrocious linebacker group, to go with the whole Aaron Rodgers situation.

Not saying I expect these guys to be able to match Green Bay, but the path for them to at least be competitive is relatively simple in theory. New OC Anthony Lynn will let that offensive line go to work, which I believe has a chance to be top five-ish maybe a year from now, with a heavy dose of inside and outside zone, and having D’Andre Swift take advantage of it, who put some special stuff on tape as a rookie and now has a great mentor. Even though they do lack consistent play-makers in the pass-game for the most part, T.J. Hockenson has turned himself into a top-five tight-end in the league and should be heavily utilized, and while their group of receivers may be the weakest one in the league, for Lynn’s 11 personnel (which the Chargers were tied for third-highest percentage-wise in 2020), he has the guys to fit those classic West Coast tags, with Tyrell Williams as a big-bodied possession X, Breshad Perriman as more of your field-stretching Z and rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown from USC as a savvy slot, who specializes at finding space and working himself free on third downs. There’s still major question marks about this defense, but once again, the D-line will control the game to some degree, with three new starters in even fronts, including their second- and third-round picks. Now it will be up to this young secondary to step up, as teams have to throw the ball more, and they certainly have the talent to, with the growth of last year’s number three overall pick Jeffrey Okudah as the key to it all.

This team is still pretty far from making any noise I believe, but the whole organization seems to share a clear vision – get tough, physical football players and build from the inside out. They may not walk off the field victorious on too many occasions, but at the very least, they should leave some bruises on the teams that they face. The sample sizes for the guys assuming the coordinator roles in Detroit is fairly small, with neither even having a full season of play-calling duties. So we’ll have to see what they can make of sub-par personnel I would say at this point. I’m curious to see if Jared Goff can somewhat re-surrect his career as a former first overall draft pick in Detroit, because for the first time in his football career he wasn’t “wanted” and iss about to face a lot of adversity, going from an NFC contender to a franchise that finished with a negative record in all but four of the last 20 years, but he did show a lot of toughness when turning Cal around to some degree. I don’t think the Lions have the firepower on offense or impact-players on defense to really make any noise, but they will scrap.

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Chance: 5 percent

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Jets

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8. New York Jets

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So this is not great for the Jets obviously. I thought hard about switching them with the Lions and I really like some of the stuff that’s going on in New York, with how Joe Douglas is putting this roster together, going from a coaching staff that lacked the ability to motivate players and gain schematic advantage, to a very capable group that will have their guys ready, while second overall pick Zach Wilson has the skills to be the franchise quarterback Jets fans have been craving since Joe Namath. This really isn’t as much about this group than the other teams in that division – the Bills are coming off an AFC Championship game appearance and should be front-runners for the conference again, with an MVP candidate under center and close-to-elite pass-catchers and protection, while their head coach has a history of getting the defense to continually improve as the season progressions. The Dolphins just won ten games, with their top-five QB Tua Tagovailoa looking to make a big jump and having added two of my top ten players in the draft. And the Patriots have spent as much money this offseason to improve the roster as we have ever seen under Bill Belichick, to go with getting a couple of players back from opt-outs and having a first-round quarterback ready to take over if Cam can’t bounce back.

So there’s three teams that could easily all win double-digit games and the Bills might be the conference’s number one seed when all is said and done. So the bar for Gang Green is so much higher than it is for the two teams ahead of them, even though I could easily see them winning the most games among the three. They do have a clear plan offensively, building around the offensive line, with top-15 picks in each of the last two years, and the run game under new OC Mike LaFleur, bringing along those Kyle Shanahan philosophies from San Francisco, adding more pieces to the backfield (which I discussed in my last article – LINK !!!), while having the weapons now to punish defenses off play-action, with (basically) 1000-yard receiver Corey Davis from Tennessee and 34th overall pick Elijah Moore out of Ole Miss, who has been the star of OTAs in New York reportedly. The defense still has some issues, with as unproven a cornerback room as we have in the league, but they could easily have a top-ten player at all three levels, in Quinnen Williams, C.J. Mosley and Marcus Maye, to go with much better game-planning I would think. Robert Saleh brought excellent motivational skills and teaching to the 49ers defense these last few years, and while he may not be able to be as diverse as he showed in 2020 coverage-wise, there won’t be any zero blitzes on third & long, with almost no time and the game on the line.

Once again, the Jets’ chances are this low because I just can’t see all three other teams get bitten so badly by injury, bad luck or whatever, that none of them wins double-digit games, and the Jets should be ecstatic about approaching .500 territory, with a 28-54 record since that magical Ryan Fitzpatrick year. They improved every single unit on offense in significant fashion, with quarterback being the only unproven commodity – and I personally had Zach Wilson as a top-five overall prospect – the defense is getting back C.J. Mosley in the middle, who has the skill-set to take on a Fred Warner role, to go with signing a legitimate threat rushing off the edge finally in Carl Lawson, and then of course I believe the coaching staff could give them a major boost, when it just comes to the vibe around the organization, their ability to teach and gain schematic advantages on a weekly basis. There is certain upswing that we haven’t seen or felt coming from the Jets in a while and though it may not put them in position to challenge the rest of the division this year, I expect continuous improvement on an annual basis.

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Chance: 4-5 percent

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