The arrival of training camp around the NFL comes with great hope. Every team has a blank slate going into the preseason in a league known for big turnarounds.
For some teams, the hype is real this year. They should feel confident about their playoff chances with wider eyes looking toward contending for Super Bowl 56. Other teams need to accept they will go through a transition or rebuild that won’t manifest into enough win-loss success in 2021.
When Sporting News last released its NFL power rankings right after the draft, there was strong consideration given to how teams followed up their finishes to last season with their offseason work. That carries over into the start of camp, with a few more moves and a little more information changing up the league’s late July pecking order.
NFL power rankings 2021
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (previous rank: 1)
The Buccaneers have become heavy favorites to win the NFC again. Unlike every other champion in the modern Super Bowl era, they were able to keep all key components of their team together and further stack the roster to support Tom Brady. Forget just making the playoffs with ease. This time, as strong NFC South champions, Brady’s presence has created another powerhouse where preseason talk of that elusive perfect season is warranted.
2. Kansas City Chiefs (2)
Flip a coin to determine whether the Bucs or Chiefs are the better strong bet for a Super Bowl return. Kansas City has lost little of note around Patrick Mahomes and has tweaked where needed defensively to remain a solid AFC front-runner, despite challenges being mounted by its closest conference competition. Mahomes gives the Chiefs a floor that matches the ceiling, too. They are the new Patriots as the consistent intimidating threat to win it all.
3. Cleveland Browns (4)
The Browns’ offense will find another gear with Baker Mayfield being a more reliable complement to the strong running game of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt behind an elite front. Cleveland is no slouch in the defensive front seven with Jadeveon Clowney joining the fun, while the secondary also got key upgrades. The Browns are right there will the Bills as a more complete team that can challenge the Chiefs well.
4. Buffalo Bills (3)
The Bills are locked into more explosive offense with MVP candidate Josh Allen pulling the strings. They are trying to find more in the running game for the sake of balance and putting the defense in more favorable positions. Buffalo will score a ton again with the question being whether it is position to slow down Kansas City as well as Cleveland can.
5. Green Bay Packers (6)
There is no clarity on whether Aaron Rodgers will report to the Packers as a happy camper, but for now, for the sake of his teammates, he likely will try to work it out with the team for one more season, before there’s a more favorable environment for a mutual breakup in 2022. Given Rodgers’ on-field response to Jordan Love’s drafting last year, that should inspire confidence Green Bay can be right behind Tampa Bay in the NFC again.
6. Baltimore Ravens (7)
The Ravens, armed with more weapons for Lamar Jackson. can’t be forgotten behind the more-hyped Browns and Bills as an all-around dangerous team that can dethrone the Chiefs. Jackson should stay on track as a dual threat with more dynamic players built for Greg Roman’s scheme there to support him. Much like the Steelers, the beat goes on for the Ravens’ 3-4 defense in different ways. Baltimore should be somewhere between its 2019 and 2020 editions.
7. San Francisco 49ers (5)
The 49ers didn’t have the traditional Super Bowl hangover last season, dropping down seven games after losing to the Chiefs. Everything was tied to devastating injuries, none bigger than Nick Bosa defensively and Jimmy Garoppolo offensively. There are few holes with everyone back, making them the team to beat in the NFC West again. San Francisco is already a double digit-win team with decent health and it can find another offensive gear with first-round QB Trey Lance looming.
8. Los Angeles Chargers (9)
Justin Herbert gets into a new offense that might be better suited to him after a stellar rookie season. Brandon Staley, as the new bright coach from across town, will have a major influence getting the 3-4 defense to play at a high level, centered around Joey Bosa and a healthy Derwin James. The Chargers should make the Chiefs sweat a lot more as a potential strong wild card, much like three seasons ago.
9. Los Angeles Rams (8)
The Matthew Stafford hype train hasn’t derailed, but it’s more of a local with delays than an express back to a Super Bowl. The enthusiasm of Stafford’s big arm in Sean McVay’s offense has been curbed by losing a key part of the offense, running back Cam Akers. The defense, without Staley, also will lose some punch in between Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Don’t be surprised if the Rams circle back to the solid results of last season vs. a revved-up repeat of 2019.
10. Dallas Cowboys (11)
How much does Dak Prescott mean to the Cowboys? They found out when he went down with an ankle injury following an MVP-level start. They quickly learned they were lost without him in many ways, and paid him as such. They are fully loaded offensively for Kellen Moore and made the right call to change up the defensive direction, setting up a stronger complementary unit under Dan Quinn. Yes, the Cowboys are still an easy team to overrate, but this group feels too talented to underachieve going into camp.
11. Seattle Seahawks (14)
The Seahawks were smart to appease Russell Wilson with a much-needed offensive coordinator change to Shane Waldron, a McVay passing game protege plucked from the rival Rams. Look for less predictability and more dynamic concepts with a third wide receiver and tight end diversifying from the dependence on DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. The running game also will find a new gear in a zone-blocking scheme.
12. Indianapolis Colts (13)
What will the Colts get from Carson Wentz replacing Philip Rivers? There should be a lot of optimism. Wentz should have a great first camp back together with Frank Reich, knowing he will get more systemic support than he did at the end of his Reich-less time in Philadelphia. His inherited blocking and running prowess help a ton. The defense also will keep Wentz from trying to do too much and focus on getting his big plays from the natural flow of the offense.
13. Tennessee Titans (15)
The Titans go into camp knowing they will have the same offensive identity as last year. This time it’s with Julio Jones joining A.J. Brown as a downfield threat for Ryan Tannehill in the elite play-action passing game propelled by Derrick Henry’s power running. The Titans can move the ball and score with anyone in the AFC, but their defense, with more key changes, is a notch below other stronger AFC contenders above.
14. Pittsburgh Steelers (16)
The Steelers don’t need to worry about their defense being a reliable strength. They go into camp with new offensive coordinator Matt Canada trying to restore their power running with rookie first-rounder Najee Harris. Ben Roethlisberger is trying to hold back Father Time with better health, but after a bad playoff end with a weaker arm, the 39-year-old needs a standout camp leaning on play-action to inspire again. Whispering Big Ben still will give the Steelers the fourth-best all-around QB in the division.
15. Miami Dolphins (10)
The Dolphins overachieved in 2020 and even though Tua Tagovailoa did play a lot, he’s still more of a rookie in Year 2. The offense is changing with Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle bringing in more big-play punch, but it still will be at its best running and intermediate passing. Defensive-minded Brian Flores would be fine with that if there’s some dominance from the other side.
16. Arizona Cardinals (20)
The Cardinals are looking for bigger things from Kyler Murray in the third year under Kliff Kingsbury, especially wtih A.J. Green and Rondale Moore adding more punch to the passing game. They should also be playing more inspired defense with J.J. Watt fronting and Chandler Jones returning. Arizona is a threat to win the brutal NFC West, but it is still the division’s fourth-best overall team going into camp.
17. Washington Football Team (23)
There’s no question WFT is loaded around the quarterback with playmakers such as Antonio Gibson, Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel and Logan Thomas. There’s no doubt Ryan Fitzpatrick will work to get them the ball as much as possible. Chase Young and the defense isn’t going anywhere for Ron Rivera, either. But Fitzpatrick is a streaky sort with a limited ceiling, giving Big D a big advantage at QB with Dak Prescott.
18. Minnesota Vikings (12)
The Vikings’ value will continue to fluctuate as a middle-of-pack team. The offensive and defensive identities remain the same. there’s no secret formula with which they want to win under Mike Zimmer. Although the run-first philosophy lifts the team, Zimmer’s defense, fading in some areas, may be more limited in its execution.
18. New England Patriots (19)
The Patriots will find a way to manufacture offense with their running game and new tight end-boosted passing game, especially if Cam Newton continues to provide a rushing element as the starter. Bill Belichick will get the most of his defense, but it will fall short of being an elite, team-carrying group. New England should hover around 10 wins and be in the AFC wild-card hunt.
20. New Orleans Saints (17)
The Saints have encountered another snag in their passing game post Drew Brees with Michael Thomas still hurting from his ankle injury. That might make them lean even more toward a hybrid offense with Jameis Winston starting but Taysom Hill also seeing a key role in a run-heavy attack to support Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray. There’s a bigger concern with the developing defensive deficiencies.
21. Chicago Bears (18)
The Bears would likely be up a few notches without their unwavering commitment to bridge-at-best QB Andy Dalton starting over high-upside rookie Justin Fields. That situation can change in a hurry, as Fields’ running ability provides another dimension, the ideal complement to featuring David Montgomery. While the offense figures out it latest transition under Matt Nagy, the defense provides a floor around .500.
22. New York Giants (21)
The Giants should know this is a make-or-break season for third-year QB Daniel Jones. Along with Saquon Barkley coming back soon to flank him in the backfield, they have invested plenty in the line and receiving corps. If Jones can put it all together, the Giants can win the NFC East, given the defense, with all its mixed parts, has a chance to be a strong foundation.
23. Philadelphia Eagles (22)
Jalen Hurts is one of league’s most buzzworthy players going into camp, armed with new go-to guy DeVonta Smith and a QB-friendly run-balanced scheme under new coach Nick Sirianni. Will Hurts build on the small sample size, or will be a full-on sophomore slump? Bet more on the former. The defense has familiar older playmakers, but more issues are set to develop there in a new scheme.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (26)
The Bengals may be underrated because of the second-year breakout potential of Joe Burrow, but they also can’t be pushed up too far because of still playing in a loaded AFC North. Burrow, now healthy and riding with Ja’Marr Chase, should lead a nice offensive spike for Zac Taylor. Cincinnati is well behind that defensively, however, giving it a hard ceiling short of the playoffs.
25. Atlanta Falcons (24)
The Falcons are bringing in their latest new offense around Matt Ryan, with coach Arthur Smith about to call the shots in a run-heavier scheme built to take pressure off their aging, arm-declining quarterback. With no Julio Jones, Ryan resets with Calvin Ridley and awesome rookie tight end Kyle Pitts as his go-to guys. The defense needs a lot more work, however, and will continue to be the source of the biggest Atlanta letdown.
26. Las Vegas Raiders (27)
The Raiders are a tough team to read because so far with Jon Gruden back, they have danced between average and below average. Derek Carr’s performance looks good numbers-wise, but there always seems to be some untapped potential in an offense that needs more from both the running game and pass-catchers not named Darren Waller. Mike Mayock continues to hack away with the defense, but it still looks like weak in new areas. One shouldn’t be surprised if the wheels fall off.
27. Denver Broncos (28)
The Broncos get a lot of unofficial offseason awards for talent level going into camp, but on field is very different from on paper. Vic Fangio does have what he needs on every level to better operate the kind of 3-4 defense he likes. The offense has amassed several individual standouts, with rookie running back Javonte Williams being the latest. But there’s a major lingering issue at quarterback, where neither Drew Lock nor Teddy Bridgewater will get the job done to satisfaction.
28. Carolina Panthers (25)
There’s been much worthy talk about the Panthers’ defense, with exciting young playmakers assembled for every level. Offensively, there’s also much to like with Christian McCaffrey returning for the second year of Joe Brady’s system. The big concern, however, that drops them this far is having zero trust they have solved quarterback with shaky reclamation project Sam Darnold.
29. New York Jets (29)
On paper, the wholesale-changing Jets with rookie QB Zach Wilson and rookie coach Robert Saleh, seem like they won’t improve too much from the 2-14 disaster under Adam Gase and Gregg Williams. But all the recent past turbulence has been replaced with near future friendlier skies. as Wilson pilots an excellent new Mike LaFleur-coordinated offense suddenly loaded with skiill and a better line. There was some good attention put on Saleh’s defense, too, but that’s what will keep the Jets from true transcendence at first.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (30)
Thanks to the marquee college combination of Trevor Lawrence and Urban Meyer, the Jaguars have more buzz going into camp now than they did with their loaded defensive team that got them to the AFC championship four seasons ago. Although Lawrence comes in with a lot of upside, there’s an offensive overhaul around him in a new questionable scheme. The mashup defense also is limited on reliable pieces.
31. Detroit Lions (31)
The Lions don’t seem too concerned about winning big this year, settling for Jared Goff as more of a bridge quarterback for a new-look offense. Defensively, they have a few building blocks but are feeling out the rest with the new regime of Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell. Detroit needed this version of slash and burn to get out of its cycle of subpar results.
32. Houston Texans (32)
The Texans would still be down near here if it was certain Deshaun Watson was their quarterback for the entire season. They have some offensive skill talent around the quarterback, but it’s more of a reset there and the defense should endure major lumps. David Culley has a rough rookie job ahead.