NFL Power Rankings: Talented teams battle for ground in the middle tiers

When the PFN staff joined forces to decipher the 2021 preseason NFL power rankings, boxing gloves were donned, and wrists were wrapped. The top teams are obvious in their place amongst the rest of the league. The worst teams are just as easily found. However, ranking the teams that create such parity in the sport is a test of knowledge, patience, and argumentative ability.

As always, we do not hate your favorite football team.

2021 NFL Power Rankings, Tier 4 | Flawed or rebuilding rosters

This is the largest tier. Being in this tier isn’t a death sentence, but a lot must go right for these teams to make the 2021 playoffs.

32) Houston Texans

The Deshaun Watson case makes things tricky for the Texans. He was already looking for a trade before the allegations of sexual misconduct began. The Texans’ roster is a shell of its former self. Even with Watson playing at a ridiculous level in 2020, they were no match for the rest of the league. If he doesn’t play for whatever reason in 2021, this team might be the first team to go 0-17. It was an easy call to place them at the bottom of the 2021 NFL power rankings.

31) Detroit Lions

The lack of receiving corps talent on the Detroit Lions in an age where receivers grow on trees is frightening. Jared Goff’s off-script ability teeters around the Mendoza line. That’s an uninspiring pairing, no matter how good the offensive line is. In this instance, that line is average. However, the approach they took in the 2021 NFL Draft was impressive. They decided building in the trenches was the way to go. They took Penei Sewell with their first pick and then ran back-to-back defensive tackles. It looks like they’re building up to take a quarterback in 2022.

30) Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars might be the most fascinating team in the league. They have some impressive offensive weapons and one of the most coveted quarterback prospects of the generation. They also have a young, high-upside pass-rushing duo in Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson. Still, their offensive line is suspect, and the transition from retired college coach to NFL head coach has been a bit rocky for Urban Meyer. If Trevor Lawrence plays to his potential, this team might compete for a winning record, but there is a lot to prove going forward.

29) Philadelphia Eagles

There are so many unknowns on the Philadelphia Eagles’ roster that it was impossible to place them higher on the NFL power rankings. The right side of their offensive line is fantastic but often injured. The left side is bad, so they drafted Landon Dickerson in Round 2. He’s a phenomenal prospect worthy of a first-round selection based on his talent.

Unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending injury in all four of his collegiate seasons. They tried revamping their receiving corps, but they’re young and unproven. Jalen Hurts is still an unknown as well. The defense is aging, and they have as uninspiring a linebacking corps as I have seen recently.

28) New York Jets

The Jets have a lot to look forward to. They have a new, well-respected head coach after firing Adam Gase. Joe Douglas had himself what looks like a fantastic draft class in 2021. They secured their franchise quarterback in Round 1 and got value elsewhere. But this team is still very much in the rebuilding process, and there will be growing pains. The offense looks close. Their secondary does not. Marcus Maye is a stud, but the rest of the group is a jumbled mess. They still lack a high-end pass rusher as well, which is something they’ve searched for many years now.

27) Carolina Panthers

Matt Rhule took a leap of faith when he decided to invest in Sam Darnold, who was objectively bad in his time with the Jets. The thinking must be that he could have a Ryan Tannehill-type ascension, given he’s coming from the fiery gates of hell of a Gase-ran team. His results weren’t up to Tannehill’s in Miami, so it’s probably best to temper expectations to a level below.

The Panthers’ defensive line is young and has a ton of upside. Brian Burns could round into one of the best pass rushers in the NFL. The Panthers could surprise people and climb the 2021 NFL power rankings when the season starts, but we think it’ll take at least one more season.

26) Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons are in complete rebuild mode, but their quarterback is still good enough to keep them in and win games. Their front office is entirely new, they traded away a generational wide receiver, and their defensive talent still lacks. However, they drafted a ridiculous talent in Florida’s Kyle Pitts. If Arthur Smith’s time in Tennessee is any indication, this offense will be a well-oiled machine. They have many holes to fill over the next few seasons if they want to compete going forward.

25) Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers are projected to win nine games in 2021, but we at PFN can’t seem to figure out why. Their offensive line has disintegrated. They lost Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson in the secondary and just decided that replacing them was overrated. Their defensive line is still outstanding. But at some point, the heavy workload for Ben Roethlisberger will take its toll. Even with a solid offensive line, he got the ball out of his hands faster than anybody in the league. With no long-term answer at quarterback in-house, it might be time to do what it takes to secure one in 2022.

24) Las Vegas Raiders

When everybody zigs, Jon Gruden and the Raiders inevitably zag. Las Vegas chose to vaporize the right side of their offensive line this past offseason. Then, they drafted Alex Leatherwood in the first round. He could turn out to be an instant contributor on the right side, but most thought he was a reach.

Their defensive line last season was abhorrent, so they combatted that by doing absolutely nothing to fix it. Instead, they drafted three safeties. Maybe the Raiders can surprise us by winning a boatload of games in 2021, but with the way Gruden and company have manipulated the roster, they deserve a low spot in the NFL power rankings.

23) Chicago Bears

The Bears had an outstanding 2021 NFL Draft. They traded up to 11 to secure franchise quarterback Justin Fields and then moved again to get him some much-needed protection. The Bears’ offense just has not been up to snuff since Matt Nagy’s first season with the team. Whether it be personnel, quarterback play, or scheme, it’s been mediocre at best. The defense should keep things close most of the time, but they might not have the firepower to keep up.

22) Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals could very well shock us all and secure a Wild Card spot. Counting out Joe Burrow seems like a poor life choice, even if we don’t really have a ton of faith in Zac Taylor. The addition of Ja’Marr Chase could be cataclysmic for opposing secondaries.

Yet, the offensive line still needs work. The defense lacks both a lockdown cornerback and a legitimate pass rusher (unless Trey Hendrickson replicates his 2020 production in a full-time role). This smells like a lower-win team that competes in a majority of the games they play. But if they can get some luck in one-score games, who knows what they could accomplish.

21) New York Giants

It all comes down to the quarterback. The Giants are low on the totem pole of the NFL power rankings for that reason. The turnovers are a massive issue, and the offensive line still appears to be a struggle for the Giants in 2021. The G-men certainly aren’t short on offensive skill position talent. The addition of Kenny Golladay gives them a WR1, and they have talent and depth with the rest of the group. It made the Kadarius Toney selection a curious one. The defense looks good on paper, and in Year 2, Patrick Graham should get the intended results. It all comes down to Daniel Jones and Jason Garrett.

20) Denver Broncos

The Broncos are in a similar predicament as the Giants. Their roster is outstanding, and their quarterback is underwhelming at best. Meanwhile, Denver’s secondary is probably the best in the league. They have one of the better receiving corps in the NFL, and the addition of Javonte Williams is an outstanding prospect for their rushing attack. Bradley Chubb and Von Miller should also be one of the better rushing duos in the league. They’re in a weird spot where they might need a quarterback moving forward but probably won’t be bad enough to get the one they want in the 2022 NFL Draft.

2021 NFL Power Rankings, Tier 3 | Possible division winners/playoff contenders

There are many hotly contested divisions in the NFL, making these rankings more difficult. This tier is the most competitive of the four, with talent all over the place. The range of outcomes for these 11 franchises is wide-ranging.

19) Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers seem like the darlings every offseason, and this year is no different. Second-year quarterback Justin Herbert seems like everyone’s favorite MVP candidate, and the defense has some ridiculous talent. They also drafted Rashawn Slater, who looks to step in and protect Herbert’s blindside. The Chargers project as the second-best team in the AFC West for the PFN staff and 19th overall in our NFL power rankings.

18) Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins have one of the most exciting secondary groups in the NFL, and they also possess a receiving corps with ridiculous upside. No team has more draft capital wrapped into their quarterback and receiver groups. In fact, Miami’s top three receivers and QB are all first-round picks. It would take a big leap from Tua Tagovailoa in Year 2 to supplant the Buffalo Bills as the AFC East winner, but they should be competitive in the division.

17) New England Patriots

There may not be a bigger unknown in the league than the 2021 New England Patriots. They lost a ton of defensive talent to opt-outs in 2020, and Cam Newton played poorly in a COVID-shortened offseason. The receiving corps is bare, but there is talent on the offensive line, and they’ve spent enormous resources on tight ends. With Bill Belichick at the helm, it’d be foolish to count them out, even if the Dolphins’ roster appears better on paper. Their secondary still looks to be formidable.

16) Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings allowed their defensive personnel to dissipate over time but took the effort to repair wounds in the offseason. Kirk Cousins is still a solid quarterback, they have a stellar duo of receivers and one of the best backs in the game. They sit here in the NFL power rankings because they have the talent but also must deal with the Packers in the NFC North. Additionally, with as many resources as they’ve put into repairing the defense, cornerback is still an unknown for them.

15) Indianapolis Colts

The Colts have the best overall roster in the AFC South, but they have a massive question mark at quarterback that has the PFN staff wary of their floor. That’s why they sit in the middle of the NFL power rankings heading into 2021. If Carson Wentz plays average, this team most likely wins 11 games and makes the playoffs. If he plays as he did in 2020, this team will struggle to win eight games. His issues are fixable, but it will take some mechanical tweaks and a cleansing of the mind.

14) New Orleans Saints

The Saints, like the Colts, are a quarterback wild card. The Saints have the best offensive line in the NFL. They also have one of the best defenses in the league. All they did in the offseason was add to that talent on defense in their top three draft picks. It all comes down to how efficient this offense can be. They lack a complementary receiver besides Michael Thomas. Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill battle it out for the starting spot, but it’s not clear either can be the player the Saints need them to be.

13) Arizona Cardinals

In a tough NFC West, the thirteenth spot in the NFL power rankings is a mighty high endorsement. They are still the low squad from the West, proving just how good that division is. They’ve worked to improve their offensive line and continue to add weapons for Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury. However, they don’t have any cornerback talent outside of Byron Murphy. Therefore, J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones must both play otherworldly football to keep the pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

12) Washington Football Team

The Football Team has one of the most well-rounded rosters in the league. They have arguably the most talented defense in the league and have worked extensively to add weapons offensively around their journeyman quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Curtis Samuel gives Washington a legitimate secondary weapon opposite of Terry McLaurin. Moreover, they drafted Dyami Brown in the third round, which many believed was excellent value. The addition of Charles Leno Jr. also means that Samuel Cosmi gets to develop at his own pace instead of being thrust to the wolves at left tackle.

11) San Francisco 49ers

The one season the 49ers had Jimmy Garoppolo for a full year, they went to the Super Bowl. San Francisco has had ridiculous injury troubles over the past few seasons. With the addition of Trey Lance, it’s possible that even if they lose one quarterback, the season won’t tank. The defense is a little shallow at cornerback, but they have the pass rush to help smooth things over on the back end. Jimmie Ward also helps on the back end as one of the most underrated players in the NFL.

10) Dallas Cowboys

Just like every other year, the Cowboys have lofty expectations. Dak Prescott returns from a gruesome injury. They have one of the best offensive lines in the league when healthy, with one of the top receiving trios in the league. Overall, they probably have the most well-rounded offensive talent in the league.

Then, there’s the defense. They went high risk in the draft with Micah Parsons and Kelvin Joseph, but both could reward the team for their bravery. The safety spot isn’t sorted out, and Trevon Diggs still has a ways to go before he can be considered a CB1. But as long as the defense can be around average, they should win the NFC East.

9) Tennessee Titans

The addition of Julio Jones is massive for the Titans from a personnel perspective, but it didn’t propel them into the second tier of teams. The biggest question surrounding the Titans is their secondary, and in particular, their cornerbacks. However, if Caleb Farley and Elijah Molden can play to their potential, the secondary should be serviceable.

Offensively, the biggest question they have to answer is how they replicate their fantastic efficiency with the loss of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. Ryan Tannehill has been a top-10 quarterback with the Titans. If he continues that pace, this team will win the division.

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