Stars returning from injuries, new coaches and smart draft picks have a half dozen teams ready to turn things around in 2021.
Acquiring the greatest player in NFL history has its benefits, as the Buccaneers found out in 2020. They went from a middling 7–9 team with a good coaching staff and solid defensive core to 11–5, playoff darling and eventual Super Bowl champion. It’s impossible to discount teams with a losing record from one year to the next, although we often fall into the trap of recency bias. That’s why we’re here, to take a look at the bottom rung of the NFL in 2020 and decide whether any teams are good enough to climb off the scrap heap.
When projecting the “worst to first” kind of candidates this year, there are some more obvious than others. Quarterbacks are returning from injuries. New coaches with sensible business plans are getting installed on rosters already primed for success. This, in addition to a second year of extended playoffs and a (hopefully) more representative NFC East, should give us parity this year, as well as a more diverse field of playoff newcomers.
1. San Francisco 49ers
2020 record: 6–10
Major offseason changes: drafted Trey Lance No. 3; signed wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.
Why they’ll make the playoffs: The 49ers are a good team that, even in their worst moments, are still capable of dissecting a sloppily game-planned opponent. We’ve seen that throughout Kyle Shanahan’s tenure, even if it has been a career thus far that has resulted in one playoff (and Super Bowl) appearance. Still, it’s hard to imagine a roster this deep, one that tore through the NFC with an upper-middle-tier quarterback just two years ago, will spiral. The loss of Robert Saleh and a platoon of Shanahan’s key assistants shouldn’t be overlooked. Offensive line coach John Benton joined the Jets with Saleh and former passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur. However, Shanahan was able to retain some talent, including former quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello and offensive line coach Chris Foerster. With Lance presumably grabbing the baton at some point this season, we’ll get an early glimpse at how the scheme can diversify itself with mobility under center. Because Shanahan is already a step ahead of the rest of the NFL, he’ll now be even further along.
2. New England Patriots
2020 record: 7–9
Major offseason changes: drafted Mac Jones No. 15; signed tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, wide receivers Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, and outside linebacker Matt Judon.
Why they’ll make the playoffs: The Patriots won seven games last year, despite some of their most significant players opting out due to COVID-19 and having Tom Brady depart in free agency. They cobbled together an offense with a still-limited Cam Newton and managed to beat some teams they shouldn’t have. Now, Bill Belichick, amid premature whisperings of his demise, has a promising young quarterback, plus a healthier Newton in the fold, along with the most aggressive free-agent class in his tenure. Some have signaled this a sign of his desperation. Others might venture that Belichick simply has a keen understanding of football economics. This was a depressed market, and while he still spent lavishly (and possibly irresponsibly) at the wide receiver position, he achieved good value elsewhere.
3. Los Angeles Chargers
2020 record: 7–9
Major offseason changes: hired head coach Brandon Staley; signed center Corey Linsley, tackle Matt Feiler and tight end Jared Cook; drafted tackle Rashawn Slater No. 13.
Why they’ll make the playoffs: When the story of this Chargers team gets written, Anthony Lynn and Pep Hamilton will largely be edited out. It’s important to point out that Justin Herbert made this job desirable because of the work Lynn was able to do with him, which included having him ready enough on seconds notice to hop into an NFL game when the presumed starter’s lung was punctured by a team medical professional. And play well at that! In a perfect world, Lynn would be running an offense with Staley running a defense, but unfortunately that’s not the way a coaching carousel works.
That said, Staley comes with an impeccable reputation on the defensive side and a history as a quarterback, making him attractive on both sides of the ball. For a time last year, Staley’s Rams were giving up the fewest second-half points in NFL history, cementing his ability to make in-game adjustments—a critical component of the head coaching gig. Staley walks into a roster stocked well by general manager Tom Telesco, with Pro Bowl–caliber talent at nearly every position. This will not be heavy lifting.
4. Dallas Cowboys
2020 record: 6–10
Major offseason changes: extended Dak Prescott, who returns from a broken ankle; hired Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator; drafted linebacker Micah Parsons No. 12; signed safeties Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee, and outside linebacker Tarell Basham.
Why they’ll make the playoffs: Prescott was on pace to be the most efficient quarterback in the NFL last year before a devastating ankle injury sapped him of almost an entire season. It was obvious that the Mike McCarthy–Kellen Moore hybrid scheme was not enough to lift an Andy Dalton–led club into the playoffs, which only stood to magnify Prescott’s value. It was also obvious that the Cowboys were on a tear offensively before Prescott got hurt, scoring 40, 31 and 38 in their first three games before the injury occurred. This, in addition to a second year of experience (and a full offseason) for CeeDee Lamb, should ensure a competitive roster that can make up for its porous defense. The defense, simply by virtue of adding Quinn, should also be better, even if it is not dominant enough to take Dallas on a lengthy ride through the postseason.
5. Denver Broncos
2020 record: 5–11
Major offseason changes: signed cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Kyle Fuller; traded for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater; drafted cornerback Patrick Surtain II No. 9.
Why they’ll make the playoffs: I would put a Vic Fangio defense this loaded against any offense in the NFL, even if the Broncos are middling at best on offense. Stylistically, they’ll be a classic defensive-minded coach’s team, which requires ball control on offense and a stout offensive line. The Broncos added Javonte Williams in the second round, pairing him with Melvin Gordon at running back. They also drafted D-III star and wilderness afficionado Quinn Meinerz in the third round. Often we’ll credit teams with a stellar draft based on how well they’ve filled perceived needs, and, while it’s a simplistic grading rubric, the Broncos have managed to ace it thus far. It would not be surprising to see Bridgewater move to the front of the pack quickly, as he carries the most promise for offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur in fulfilling something similar to what he had with Case Keenum in Minnesota, for a coach with similar expectations.
6. New York Giants
2020 record: 6–10
Major offseason changes: signed wide receivers Kenny Golladay, John Ross and Dante Pettis; signed cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and defensive tackle Danny Shelton; drafted wide receiver Kadarius Toney No. 19.
Why they’ll make the playoffs: The Giants are well coached and have a rising star defensive coordinator in Patrick Graham who, while he’s there, could potentially have a top-seven or -eight defense this year if his best players stay healthy. Saquon Barkley is back, yes, though our bullishness on the Giants stems mostly from a surge in general optimism around Daniel Jones. While it is difficult to predict a star rise based on his film in particular, some around the league are seeing Jones as a diamond in the rough who will benefit from stability at the coordinator position and a bolstered weapon set. Will Jones be Offensive Player of the Year good? Probably not. Could he be Garoppolo-plus in 2021? Absolutely.